Catherine Barnett's "Chorus"

Thoughts on who knows what.


Everyone asks what we’re afraid of
but we aren’t supposed to say.
We could put loneliness on the list.
We could put this list on the list,
its infinity. We could put infinity down.
Who knows why we’re here, it’s a “mystery.”
We’re getting older,
and when no one’s watching
we climb right into it.

from The Game of Boxes (Graywolf, 2012)

There are poems titled “Chorus” throughout Catherine Barnett’s book The Game of Boxes, and one gets the sense that the we of each of them is this band of children commenting on the visceral and surreal aspects of existence that surround them. In one “Chorus,” Barnett begins:

We want to know the reasons for everything

but the mothers tell us be patient.

Another opens with the tongue-in-cheek question:

Should we take notes,

before it’s over?

And still another begins:

The mothers keep promising clear skies

but when we look up

it’s all clouded over

I love these bits of voice throughout Barnett’s book, and I love the way that context — to think of today’s poem coming from the voice of this renegade wandering band of children — can inform a reading of today’s poem, especially since it feels so universal. And maybe that’s the first, most enduring thing I love about today’s poem — the way the voice of a child can feel so universal. I don’t find that such context detracts in any way from the poem’s attempt at getting at truth. In fact, I think it enhances the poem, makes it feel more luminous, more pointed. Sometimes the voices of children do that — they point surprised at something adults have for a long time taken for granted, or assumed to be worthless, or assumed to be worthy, and they make us adults look again. And in that looking again, maybe, something wonderful happens. Or illuminating. Or disappointing, which is a kind of illuminating — the light just shines on a different thing.

In this context, the opening lines hit a little different:

Everyone asks what we’re afraid of

but we aren’t supposed to say.

If the we of this poem is from the perspective of children, then that what we’re afraid of takes on a different, almost mundane meaning. Without that context, if I assume the we to be a voice of adulthood, I think well, fuck, I’m afraid of so much I cannot name. But if the we is the we of childhood, then I think of all the times someone asked me: well, what are you so afraid of? I was scared to jump in a pool. Scared to ride a bike. Scared to eat a cooked onion. I don’t know. Scared of so much that had its origins in the very tangible, tasteable, experiential quality of the world. 

But Barnett then immediately offers a poetic touch. She throws a volta in the third line:

We could put loneliness on the list.

We could put this list on the list,

its infinity.

Imagine if you asked a child who was too scared to jump in a swimming pool what are you so afraid of? And then, without missing a beat, they said: loneliness. And then, without missing another beat, they said: infinity.

It’s this turn, this subversion of expectations, that offers the poem its exquisite energy. At this moment, the poem becomes universal. It takes all the expectations the reader might have about a childhood narrator and throws them on their head. Of course a child might be scared of loneliness. Of infinity. Of course an adult would, too. Who wouldn’t? But sometimes it takes the surprise offered by an unexpected narrator for the truth to really, well, feel like truth. In this way, the poem is not just a poem about fear. It’s a poem about the ungenerosity that comes with judgement, with expectation. It’s about what happens when — living in a world that consistently offers the opportunity to surprise us — we resist nearly every opportunity to be surprised.

And so, that context about the we coming from the voice of a group of children both matters and doesn’t matter. It matters because it allows critique to enter into the poem — critique of judgement, critique of expectation, critique of the closed-off-ness of adulthood. It also allows for moments of sheer delight, such as the way mystery is in quotes — which I read as this poke at the way in which adults (myself included!) often utilize the absolute wideness of mystery as a catch all for what we don’t want to explain, don’t want to encounter, and don’t want to touch. We call it mystery, and we leave it be. 

But the perspective of this poem doesn’t matter, in some ways, because fear is still fear. Even if the we is from the perspective of children, everyone eventually becomes included in such a we. Who, reading this, is not scared of loneliness? Of infinity?

I’ve been thinking about loneliness for awhile. What a sentence I just wrote. Of course I’ve been thinking about loneliness for awhile. In her novel Jack, Marilynne Robinson writes:

I think most people feel a difference between their real lives and the lives they have in the world.

And in Yu Miri’s novel Tokyo Ueno Station, she writes:

I could adapt to any kind of work; it was life itself that I could not adapt to.

I think Robinson’s “difference” is where loneliness lives. And, in the same way as Robinson’s assertion, Miri’s sentence gets at the difficulty of narrowing the distance of that difference where loneliness lives, of adapting to the disparity that feels so often like life itself. When that difference is slight, barely there (and I think, perhaps, that it is always there), there is a kind of oneness I feel with the world, a sense that the life I am living is actually my own life, that the world I am touching is the world as it is, as are the people I am experiencing such a world with. But when that difference is expanded, I often find myself in a physical moment of solitude, wondering why. Why what? Why the world. And why it feels as it does — distant, contradictory, apart, away. In such a moment, my inner life has to cross an seemingly insurmountable gap to reach my outer life. Loneliness lives there. And it feels infinite.

And so, when I think of today’s poem, I think of all the ways in which the things that Barnett names — loneliness, infinity, mystery, the very idea of creating a list of specificity, as if a list might cure you of whatever feeling you are feeling — exist in conversation with one another. I’ve been drafting an essay in conversation with two seminal essays on loneliness (among other things) — Olivia Laing’s “The Future of Loneliness” and Elisa Gabbert’s “A Complicating Energy”. In Gabbert’s essay, she writes about how isolation leads to a reduction of empathy. She writes:

We get worse at imagining others’ emotions and motivations. It becomes harder to focus, harder to make good use of our alone time. Tragically, it also becomes more difficult to make friends.

It was hard to read that and not think of the images that populate Laing’s essay, from Gail Albert Halapan’s photo series, Out My Window. Here’s two favorites:

There’s a beautiful ache to these photos. Beautiful not just because of the framing and the layering, but because of the way voyeuristic intimacy can be beautiful. But there’s an ache too, an ache of solitude, isolation. It’s hard not to imagine longing, sadness, and despair. It’s hard not to imagine the subjects of these photos caught in that lonely distance of difference that Marilynne Robinson describes.

Today’s poem gets at all the things we don’t admit to ourselves. And it takes a child to name them. To name these great, difficult fears: loneliness, the forever-unknown, and more. I’m drawn to the last word of the poem, that tricky it. It’s not made clear what the it refers to, in that there’s no specifically named antecedent. But it’s hard not to think that the it refers to life itself. And when considered in such a way, the poem becomes a little heartbreaking. Playful, yes. But heartbreaking. In other, simpler words, the poem seems to say: adults always ask us kids what we’re afraid of, and we are afraid of the same things they are afraid of, but they never admit such things, and then, ignorant, busy, preoccupied, they never see how quickly we grow up and become just like them, never having that conversation with ourselves.

There are so many things we feel, but cannot seem to name. They often tear us to pieces, and we find ourselves alone in a room, staring at a window, wondering why there’s a big hole inside us, and why it both has and doesn’t have a name. It’s scary to feel this. I feel it all of the time. The infinity, perhaps, of loneliness. The infinity, perhaps, of ourselves. One great pain of cultivating some sort of inner life is that you can crawl into the never ending depth of it. And that depth can be a lonely place.

Thankfully, though, there are poems. And instead of my words, I’ll leave you with a poem of Barnett’s from later in her book:

Apophasis at the All-Night Rite Aid

Not wanting to be alone
in the messy cosmology
over which I at this late hour
have too much dominion,
I wander the all-night uptown Rite Aid
where the handsome new pharmacist,
come midnight, shows me to the door
and prescribes the moon,
which has often helped before.