Chessy Normile's "Feeling It"

Thoughts on happiness.

Feeling It

Crowded rock mountains/
clear wet rivers going white.

Lemuel points to beaver dams I can’t see.
But I trust him.
He is trying to help a small bug
fly out of our moving Saturn.

When I was born well who knows.

My favorite song plays.
It makes me cry.
May that it play forever.

I’m feeling the kind of happiness
you try to hold onto—
so lit and soft
it’s almost sadness.

Put Lonesome Crowded West on again.

from Great Exodus, Great Wall, Great Party (American Poetry Review, 2020)


I love this poem, perhaps obviously, because of the way those four lines near the end capture perfectly a kind of feeling that I sometimes feel I wish I felt more:

I’m feeling the kind of happiness
you try to hold onto—
so lit and soft
it’s almost sadness.

That feeling: a happiness so soft it’s almost sadness. I feel it around this time, when the morning air is crisp enough for a jacket, and I want my coffee hot. I feel it when I get off the train at Elder Avenue in the Bronx, and pay an exact dollar for my coffee from a place called Burger Hut, and I wait to drink it until I turn the corner and I’m a block from the high school where I teach, and the block is a little bit uphill, and it faces the west, so the sun is behind me, and I feel something approaching a shadow emerging from my body, and I allow myself that first sip, which is hot enough to recall the memory of scalding my throat but not hot enough to scald, and the sky is becoming bluer by the second, the day becoming day, and the idea of work is just an idea, and something is possible that might be joy but also might be whatever is not joy. There, that feeling: a happiness so soft it’s almost sadness.

In her review of this collection, Elisa Gabbert writes that Chessy Normile’s poems “trick you into feeling more than you were quite prepared to feel.” And it’s true. There are moments throughout this collection — which I love — that move you, in particular, by their placement right alongside moments of humor or violence or absurdity or mundanity or more. Normile’s six-line poem, “My Hobbies,” reads like this:

To meet you underwater.
To faint inside a lake.
To spit into a bowl.
To cry into your spit.
To piss upon the dirt.
To love you like this.

That final line is jarring and moving and beautiful, and the poem itself — taken as a whole — is an apt portrayal of the kind of seeming-absurd devotion that comes with love. And it’s this wonderful act of craft, because, though the last line is so succinct and forthright and moving on its own, it’s also bound to the lines that come before. Not just because it exists in the same poem as them, but also because of sound. The this at the end of the final line echoes the piss and spit of the lines before, these lines that are wild and absurd and funny and weird. Just like love, right? You can’t separate the beautiful from the absurd most days. In fact, most days, they are the same thing.

That same all-ness permeates today’s poem, as well. I say all-ness because that’s what so many of Chessy Normile’s poems feel like. They feel like all. They capture the fragmented fleetingness of our ongoingness. I mean, notice how this poem today progresses. It begins with a sense of that fragmentation:

Crowded rock mountains/
clear wet rivers going white.

The language here elides basic sentence mechanics. It replaces punctuation with a slash. It just simply describes, which is how it feels sometimes to be an observer in the world, to be in the passenger seat of a car (which is how it feels, sometimes, to be alive). Things go past and they can’t be formed into a sentence. They’re just a rush of adjectives and nouns. And then there is the breath, the grounding moment:

Lemuel points to beaver dams I can’t see.
But I trust him.
He is trying to help a small bug
fly out of our moving Saturn.

As readers, we find ourselves placed here. Placed in a car. Placed, too, as passive witnesses. Someone is pointing. We can’t see. That’s okay. We have trust. We’re alright. And then our attention is made more immediate. We’re in a car. There’s a bug caught in the same place as us. It deserves to be free. Our car is named after a planet. Isn’t that weird? It’s life now. It just is what it is.

And that’s another reason I love this poem. These four lines. Not the four lines I mentioned before. But these lines where our attention is brought to some ordinary thing caught within the context of the absurd. These lines do the simultaneous work of capturing an instance of our collective mundanity while also framing it within a larger idea of the strangeness of our very existence. It’s like: who hasn’t rolled down the windows of a car in order to try to shoo a bug away? But also: why is Saturn the name of a car? Why does that feel so odd, that we drive around in little planets? And why does that feel at once so terrible and yet so spot on? So often, our lives are like this. We are caught in the middle of an ordinary moment that exists within a contextual absurdity. It’s at once beautiful and strange. Like love, yes. A lot like love.

I’m reminded of another poet whose work I adore: E.C. Belli. In her book, Objects of Hunger — which is very much worth a read or two or twelve — she has a poem, “The Possibility of an Ending,” which begins:

On the borders of tender
How it all blurs—
Under bold towers of foliage
We are such wet and sad machines

I love that line — on the borders of tender. That, too, is where Chessy Normile’s poem seems to live. It’s also, I think, where we all live — at least sometimes, at least a little bit. It’s why these lines in today’s poem feel so apt and moving:

My favorite song plays.
It makes me cry.
May that it play forever.

I’m feeling the kind of happiness
you try to hold onto—
so lit and soft
it’s almost sadness.

When you live on the borders of tenderness, then you can find yourself moved by tenderness at any time. You can find yourself caught in the middle of a seemingly ordinary moment and then, just an instant later, crying at the sound of a chord, or at the sight of some kind of light. That’s how I feel almost every day. I feel myself always lingering in the doorway of being struck. Maybe you feel this way too, sometimes? You are made distraught by work, and then you look up and out your window, and somewhere out there, something beautiful is happening. You are nestled as small as you can make yourself on the subway, and then the train emerges from underground, and you are on the Manhattan Bridge at night, and there’s a world out there, and it’s shining. To live on the border of tenderness does not mean that you are always aware, but it does mean — perhaps — that some small part of you forever wants to be aware. And that small part of you wills you into seeing, or hearing, at just the right time. Even for the slightest interval. And it’s enough. This small moment of tenderness gives you passage into the next day, and the next. And you build a life that way. From one tenderness to another.

It reminds me of the end of Barry Lopez’s essay, “Children in the Woods,” where he writes:

The door that leads to the cathedral is marked by a hesitancy to speak at all, rather to encourage by example a sharpness of the senses. If one speaks it should only be to say, as well as one can, how wonderfully all this fits together, to indicate what a long, fierce peace can derive from this knowledge.

I love this passage because of how caught up it is in wonder, and I love it, too, because of how it feels — at least sometimes — so separate from my experience of the world, where so much does not seem to fit together, and so many things push against and rule out one another. In another essay, one of my favorites ever, Barry Lopez writes:

When something remarkable happens and bureaucrats take it for only a nuisance, it is often stripped of whatever mystery it may hold. The awesome becomes common.

That, more than anything, feels like an apt summation of today’s poem. Not because there is any obvious bureaucracy inherent within it, but because the feeling that arises from it is feeling that is some kind of awesomeness arising from the very common everydayness of the world. And, as a result, we owe the benefit of that awesomeness to the observance of the poet herself. We are indebted to someone being willing to say: there is beauty here. I feel it. There is sorrow here. I feel it. There is happiness here. I feel it, too.

When happiness becomes something commodified — buyable and sellable — then it also becomes a part of that very bureaucracy that Barry Lopez writes about. Which means that it inherently becomes stripped of the very thing that might make it a true kind of happiness — which is also a kind of mystery, which is also, as Chessy Normile writes, a kind of sadness. The very beauty of true happiness is, I think, that it is laced with sadness. It is a complex thing, as fleeting as it is everlasting, as on the verge of leaving as it is on the verge of arriving. Our world tells us that we can have happiness. That we can buy it, and place it in our rooms, and come in contact with it and feel it. That maybe we can even turn some sort of dial, and feel it in degrees. What is this, though, but bureaucracy? What is this, though, but a stripping away of mystery?

Maybe I’m thinking of this because I can’t stop listening to Phoebe Bridgers’ cover of Bo Burnham’s “That Funny Feeling,” this song that operates like a list poem: naming the very real and very often horrible things of our world — “the gift shop at the gun range / a mass shooting at the mall” — in such close proximity to one another that the inherent hypocrisy we live amongst and within is revealed, laid bare. Not just hypocrisy, though — also weird joy and devastating sorrow. And then the chorus arises: there it is again, that funny feeling. There’s a line tucked away toward the end when Bridgers sings about harboring “the quiet comprehension of the ending of it all,” which feels so apt a summary of what it feels like to live on the borders of tender, like Normile’s poem, where so much is right there and so charged with strangeness, immediacy, transience — the forever potential of our ruin.

The truth is, I am sad so often these days. My happiness comes sometimes in commodifiable ways — a new shirt I buy for 40% off. But it most often and most truly comes not when I demand it to exist, but rather when I allow myself to be open to the world. And then, when it comes, it comes in small moments. A rush of cool air. Hot coffee against my throat. It lingers for a bit, and it leaves, and in that lingering, even, I feel a little sadness, because I know I am in the midst of some sort of lingering, and know that what happiness I have, I won’t have for long. One problem with the world is that it takes more and more effort to simply be open to awareness. It takes energy I somedays do not have. It takes some faith, too, that there is a better amidst all of this, and that such better is worth paying attention to. Most days I find that such faith is rewarded. There is a better out there. And by out there, I mean right here. But most days, it takes work.