Faith Shearin's "What I Like"

Thoughts on both loud and empty rooms.

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)

It’s funny, because over a year ago, I wrote about a poem by Carl Adamshick that seems, essentially, like the exact opposite of today’s. In it, he writes:

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.

And in that post, I wrote, too, about Faith Shearin’s poem today. I wrote about the way in which today’s poem, in some ways, relies first on Adamshick’s. It can only occur in the aftermath of the party. In other words, for the speaker of today’s poem to get what they like, the party still has to exist. There has to be something to have happened, some room — now empty — that once was full.

I wrote about that Carl Adamshick poem a few months into the pandemic, and certainly was drawn to it because of the universal feeling of each of our specific isolations. I remember that one of the last memories of any sort of gathering I had taken part in before the pandemic was a poetry reading, one featuring so many of my friends in the city. We gathered in the back room of a bar in upper Manhattan. We read poems and listened quietly and intently, and then the poems ended, and we joked and gossiped and traded cigarettes and spilled out into the street, together and alone, alone and together, not knowing that it would be a veritable forever until we could do that kind of thing again.

And it ended up being a whole forever, didn’t it? And maybe that’s why I’m thinking of this poem by Faith Shearin today. I’ve been inside my fair share of crowded rooms lately. I’ve resumed teaching classes full of thirty-plus students. As we have returned to the odd, shaky normalcy of once-and-now-again familiar structures and situations, I’ve found myself longing again for emptiness, relishing the dark solitude of my morning walk to the park — the whole world about to burst open and come forth, but not yet. Not yet. It’s funny, isn’t it? Maybe, perhaps, I will never be wholly happy. Maybe it’s in our nature to long, perpetually, for the loud room when it’s quiet, and the quiet room when it’s loud.

Shearin’s book, The Owl Question, is so lovely and under-read and full of moments that recognize the way in which we inhabit some sort of liminal space in life, caught up in the messy fragility of our individual and collective complexity. In her poem, “Ashes, Ashes,” she writes:

Even at parties where the new year is praised
branches are breaking beneath the weight of snow.
We know this season like we will know the end
of our lives when the living is halfway through.

There is a sense, in Shearin’s poems, of the way in which part of being alive means recognizing the ephemeral nature of it all. Even joy occurs with full knowledge of the way in which any joy might end. And not just any joy, but any thing at all. Perhaps that is why the speaker in today’s poem dwells in the aftermath of the party, rather than “the party itself.” There’s a truth there, in all that quiet loneliness. There is the truth of what happened and the truth of what small purpose is there to do. And perhaps that quiet focus is why it’s a poem. I’m thinking of Anne Gisleson’s book The Futilitarians, a memoir about grief and community, and how she writes:

A poem focuses and quiets the room like no other reading.

Even in a crowded room, a poem can provide a kind of stilling. I’ve witnessed it before — a restless bar, a big crowd, and then a voice on the microphone. The voice doesn’t have to be about anything at first. It just simply has to be a poem. And a poem can be so many things. But there is something about a poem’s delivery that has the capability of descending a hush over a room, even a restless room, so that it becomes not something crowded by the bodies of so many others, but rather a stilled thing — a gathering of individuals each quietly bothered by their own headspace, sent somewhere into wondering.

And maybe that is what Shearin means when she writes:

I like
remembering that the room was full without standing in a full room.

Maybe, too, that is what she means when she writes:

the signs
of guests mostly erased, balloons tied to the pantry but flying
a little lower.

There is something about being around people that offers both the loudness of joy and its silence. Sometimes, in a room full of so many others, the nerve-endings get frayed. They attempt to connect to too many other feelings at once. And then everything suffers. It’s all noise, and no feeling. Sometimes, when you are particularly observant, the result of your observation is something so overwhelming it can only be contemplated in its aftermath.

In another poem, “Piano Lesson,” Shearin writes:

But these days
I wake up wondering: how will I fit all this life in one life?

So much of being alive is the recognition that life is not just life, but all this life. And all this life means not just silence, but also loudness, not just joy, but also sorrow, not just simplicity, but also complexity, not just relief, but also pain, not just cleanliness, but also messiness, not just solitude, but also crowded rooms. So many crowded rooms. To be alive means to encounter so much. Not necessarily at once, but certainly at some point. It means that for every party, there will be a morning after the party. And for every moment of shared laughter, there will almost certainly be a moment where you feel something that is not shared.

Today’s poem prioritizes the latent-underneath-it-all. You notice that in the poem’s craft. Though two stanzas, the poem devotes an entire extra line length to the second stanza — which is not about the party itself, but about the day after, when everyone is gone and all that is left is what must be cleaned up. In doing so, Shearin prioritizes the “day after the party,” not the party itself. One gets four lines, the other, five. She seems to be saying that though there is more to say, often, about crowded rooms and fervent joy, there is potentially something worthwhile to say about what happens after everyone has left.

I know this last line by heart:

Silence pours in like water and I swim alone: a fish in an empty aquarium.

I found myself thinking about this on Friday. I teach three classes in a row on Friday mornings and, this Friday, after those three classes ended, I sat alone in an empty classroom. For about twenty minutes, I felt like my body was still vibrating. Vibrating with the memory of the lesson I’d taught, and vibrating, too, with the energy of so many now-gone bodies in the now-empty room. And then everything emptied out of me. The vibrating stopped, and I was alone: a fish in an empty aquarium. That silence was terrifying at first. It was unknown. For hours, I had not known silence. I had known only my voice and the voice of my students. But then, all of that had left, and there was only the hush of the breeze coming through an open window. The undying clank of the old radiator in the corner. I didn’t like the silence at first. I wanted the rush of noise, a seemingly endless list of tasks to attend to. But then, sitting within it, I began to listen, finally, to what I had not heard before. And I began to recognize what I hadn’t seen before. I saw what I couldn’t see in a crowded room. I began to process. I had ignored some students. I had paid too much attention to some. I had done this. I had failed to do that. The party of my life paraded in front of my eyes, but this time in slow motion. I could stop and start at will.

In Sheila Heti’s novel How Should a Person Be, she writes:

Friends passed through our doors. We laid out food and drinks. I started going to bed at one in the morning, then eleven, then ten. When finally everyone left at two or three or four, I would rise from bed and go downstairs, clean up the food, and cap the drinks. I would straighten the pillows, fix the chairs, sweep away the remnants of bread and cheese, dump out the cigarette butts and plastic cups. This was now my favorite part of the party.

It goes without saying that is paragraph is almost an exact replica of the main point of today’s poem. But I find myself stuck on the why. Later in the novel, Heti writes about the idea that you’re progressing somewhere collectively, rather than competing.

In both today’s poem and the aforementioned excerpt, a party serves not as some sort of collective effort, but rather as a singular event, where one person — the speaker of each passage — is made, when it ends, to clean up the mess alone. And it is in that extended moment of cleaning that each person feels some sort of purpose. Maybe even joy. What does that say about us? What does that say about our loneliness? And what does that say about the way in which, so often, we find in our loneliness some sort of purpose?

I’m drawn again to these lines:

I like
remembering that the room was full without standing in a full room.

Shearin is not saying that she does not like life. Rather, she seems to be saying that the fullness of life offers complexities that are difficult to handle in the moment. These complexities are based off our mutual relationship to one another. They are extended and hyperbolized by our feelings, too. Our feelings, in rooms full of people, multiply and expand. They contradict and ricochet. They bounce and deflect. In other, more simpler words, they make us tired. People do. Life does.

To be alive now is to be tired. Perhaps you are tired. I am tired, too. It is hard, so often, to feel so many things at once and then to be considerate of the ways in which the people around you feel so many things at once, too. This is why, perhaps, loneliness is a condition we are drawn to. Isn’t that odd? That we are drawn collectively toward each of our own individual lonelinesses? I wish this were not the case. But I think it is. In our world, where so much seems to be fraying at the inner and outer seems, one place of safety is each person’s individual space of control. Each person’s space that they can clean and manage on their own. Widen the lens, and the lens itself starts to shake, like a party where the music is playing too loud. But keep it narrow, and all that can be controlled is controlled. This feels sad to me. I think it is a little sad. I think it points to how difficult any sort of collective-building is. People are people: messy, complex, joyous, mean, petty, idealistic, lovely, and more. To be around people is to give up a little of your own control. It is to surrender some of your own purpose in order to give in to the ever-growing and ever-contradicting purpose of so many others at once. This can wear at the soul just as much as it can build up the soul. It can stack up — dirty plates on the counter. It can make you tired, so tired.

It is fitting, perhaps, that I’m thinking of another poem by Carl Adamshick — the beautiful, meandering “Layover.” In it, he writes:

my body

keeps telling me it’s my friends

who have vanished, that they will no longer tip

a dollar for a few pints of porter

or stand in a kitchen full of words and laughter.

I tell my body I will keep their memories

and my body says: they will be anchors.

Later, he writes:

I don’t want to hold my body or listen to it.

The thing about being alive is that, when we each grow tired, our tiredness is our own. So is our sorrow. So is anything we feel. And the thing is, when we are rescued from such feelings, from those moments when we can’t stand our own bodies and minds, it is often because of the way in which other peoples are anchors, keeping us tethered to the memory of something beautiful. The hope, I think, is there. It is in the memory of people.

For Shearin, the memory that is beloved is not a solitary one. Though she loves the day after the party, she also holds the memory of a room full of people close. And the memory of people can so often be beautiful. It is what hope is borne from. It is why people wake up and continue on, into this weird and wild world. When I remember people, I so often remember them laughing. I remember them smiling. I remember them joyful. I walk into the day, hoping for a day that might be filled with the best memories of the day before. And maybe that is the hope latent within today’s poem. The cleaning is not about the aftermath of the party from the day before. Rather, it is in expectation of the next party. It is in the soft, gentle idea that all of this life — whatever this life is — might be worth it, and might be worth experiencing together. It is hoping for another memory of another full room. We wipe the slate clean, hoping that we might — tomorrow, or the next day, or the day after — make the slate joyful once more.