Carl Adamshick's "Everything That Happens Can Be Called Aging"
Thoughts on everything, but mostly gratitude.
Everything That Happens Can Be Called Aging
I have more love than ever.
Our kids have kids soon to have kids.
I need them. I need everyone
to come over to the house,
sleep on the floor, on the couches
in the front room. I need noise,
too many people in too small a space,
I need dancing, the spilling of drinks,
the loud pronouncements
over music, the verbal sparring,
the broken dishes, the wealth.
I need it all flying apart.
My friends to slam against me,
to hold me, to say they love me.
I need mornings to ask for favors
and forgiveness. I need to give,
have all my emotions rattled,
my family to be greedy,
to keep coming, to keep asking
and taking. I need no resolution,
just the constant turmoil of living.
Give me the bottom of the river,
all the unadorned, unfinished,
unpraised moments, one good turn
on the luxuriant wheel.
from Saint Friend (McSweeney’s, 2014)
This is one of those secret poems for me, ones I think we all have — ones that we keep a little close to ourselves, not knowing if anyone else knows of them. If this kind of poem — poem of life-breath, poem of love-of-world, poem of unadornment — were a genre of poetry, it would be my favorite genre. It sits in conversation with poems of wonder, poems of gratitude, poems of excess, poems of joy, poems of desire.
In reading it I’m reminded of lines like these, from Ross Gay (from “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude”):
I want so badly to rub the sponge of gratitude / over every last thing, including you, which, yes, awkward, / the suds in your ear and armpit, the little sparkling gems / slipping into your eye. Soon it will be over…
Or these, from Aracelis Girmay (from “Litany”):
when we have braided the heads / & set the peppers out to dry, & laughed / & laughed & laughed & laughed, let us go back…
Or these, from Thomas Lux (from “Ode Elaborating on the Obvious”):
I loved to touch my child’s forehead / for fever and the feeling of finding none.
I used to think of gratitude as a simple thing — just love the fucking world, why don’t you! — but I’ve come to understand it as far more complex. Just like kindness, to demand gratitude from others is to refuse to acknowledge the ways in which life, institutions, and systems disenfranchise, weaponize, hurt, and injure some people more than others, and still others more than others, and, through all of this, spare those white or privileged enough so that they can come to think of gratitude as something required in this life. How can you expect gratitude in a world that distributes its injustices in disparate ways?
I hesitate to use the word mess, because the word mess implies that there is a cleanliness somewhere that is better — Whose mess is better? Who gets to decide what clean looks like? — but if I could use the word mess objectively, then gratitude is a messy thing, and the messy thing of gratitude is beautiful.
Adamshick’s poem is less overtly grateful than, say, Ross Gay’s. Rather, Adamshick’s poem is a poem of accumulation rubbed up against the shoulder of desire. You notice it from the first line — “I have more love than ever” — which opens the door for a kind of acknowledgment of this love. Where did it come from? How are you grateful for it? Instead, the poem proceeds to use the word “need” eight different times, in contrast to his use of the word “have” just twice. Despite the love, despite the family, despite the children, the life, the wonder, the said and unsaid, there — on the surface of this poem — is still need.
So where is the gratitude???????????????????????
Let meeeeee fuckingggggg talkkkk aboutttt ittttttt, okayyyy!
The gratitude is in the unsaid, and it’s in the choice of what is said. It’s not *between the lines* or whatever dumb bullshit we learn early in our lives to talk about the unsaid. It’s just literally in the unsaid, and it’s in the life lived by the speaker — and the values gleaned from that life, too — that we, as readers, can glean from the words on the page.
The speaker’s acknowledgement of the specifics of what he wants — the “broken dishes,” the “spilling of drinks,” the friends slamming against him — show that he has had these things before. That they have happened, time and time again. By asking for them to happen again, by begging for them, the speaker is admitting his gratitude through his desire for repetition. But even more complex than that is the deep objective non-goodness of what the speaker “needs.” When you look again, notice that what the speaker asks for is not the beautiful, rinsed, cut-and-dry fabric of life. He doesn’t want the painless or the anesthetized. He doesn’t want easiness. He wants life, life itself. He wants the broken things, the spilled things. He wants arguments. He wants some degree of friendly violence. He wants “rattled” emotions and “greedy” family. He wants both “favors / and forgiveness.”
Adamshick’s speaker does not want to be the hero of a story. Just after he expresses his need for “wealth,” he devotes a whole line to stating: “I need it all flying apart.” Here, the need becomes less a need for something material, or capitalized, or monetary, or even objectively good. Rather, it is a need based in complication, which means, therefore, that it is a need for life.
(Side note: This is why the act of writing poetry is also the act of viewing the world, and that to fall in love with a poet is to fall in love with a way of seeing.)
And here, then, is where the poem begins to converse with a poem like Ross Gay’s “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude,” a poem that begins one of its many stanzas with this display of thanks:
and thank you
for not taking my pal when the engine
of his mind dragged him
to swig fistfuls of Xanax and a bottle or two of booze,
and thank you for taking my father
a few years after his own father went down thank you
mercy, mercy, thank you
Both poems acknowledge the complicated nature of life, the “bottom of the river,” as Adamshick writes — all that is “unadorned, unfinished, / unpraised.” That third word — unpraised — is where my joy comes from in reading work like Adamshick’s and Gay’s and so many other poets. I have many working definitions of grace, but one definition revolves around making space for light to shine where light has never shone.
Something I always have to remember is that gratitude requires work. It requires the work of looking through the thorny, sticky things of life to find where to place whatever small light you have. Ross Gay does this beautifully in his long poem. He understands that what we are grateful for often exists in relief of things, or because of them, or after them, or before them, or when we are old enough to know, or when we wish we were young enough to have known earlier, or in dreams, or in waking from dreams, or in finally going to sleep, and, yes, in death sometimes, and, yes, in life — which includes death. To realize this involves work, and cultivating a way of seeing. It is to rid oneself of the binary distinction alluded to before, between what is deemed messy and what is deemed clean.
So when Adamshick writes not just of the small violences, the things broken and spilled, but also of his speaker’s need “to give,” or his need to have people both “asking / and taking” — he is acknowledging a life that does not concede to him, or revolve around him, or, honestly, give a shit about him at all. This acknowledgment, too, is a kind of grace. In his need for things, there is also a giving up. Just give me anything, the speaker seems to say, as long as it is life. This acknowledgment also makes the poem a poem of deep sorrow alongside its gratitude. You can feel life spiraling away from the speaker, both in the title and throughout the poem’s lines. You can feel the desperation, the desire for “one good turn,” which feels, too, like one last turn. But sorrow can sit alongside gratitude in any equation. And the desire to relive a life well lived (or, at least, well-loved) is also a desire one should be grateful for (sorry, I know I shouldn’t tell anyone what they should be grateful for, but oh well).
Perhaps this poem conveys that deep sense of missing-ness better than anything else, that feeling of wanting something, anything, as long as it is with people, and full of life. I hold this poem close because I miss what it means to be around people now. Even if each individual person were capable of only 1,000 distinct actions at any given moment, to be around 5 people would mean to be around the very possibility of [insert answer to probability question here, definitely A LOT of possible actions]. I miss that. I miss the wild unpredictability of people, the “constant turmoil of living.”
And one of the unspoken things about this is that having, finally having, allows for missing, which provides its own kind of gratitude. There is a poem that happens as a result of Carl Adamishick’s poem. It is called “What I Like,” by Faith Shearin. The best part about this poem is that it can only happen after Adamshick’s speaker finally gets what he needs: a family in a house, dancing, loving, missing, messing up, resolving in the moment, resolving in the morning, loving still.
Here is the poem in full, as some last words. As always, the potential for gratitude — just like the potential for so much else — can exist everywhere. And what — or who — we are grateful for is a reflection of our myriad potentials as people, our individualities, our “constant turmoil.”
What I Like
Not the party itself — a flurry of uncomfortable moments — and laughter
that really means something else. Not the moment just after the party
is over when we fall onto the sofa, dishes scattered everywhere,
cigarette butts floating in soda, a single untouched piece of pie
on the coffee table. What I like is the day after the party: the signs
of guests mostly erased, balloons tied to the pantry but flying
a little lower. The leftover food mummified in the fridge. I like
remembering that the room was full without standing in a full room.
Silence pours in like water and I swim alone: a fish in an empty aquarium.
from The Owl Question (Utah State University Press, 2002)