Like a horse that balks
at the jump
I am flawed
I look out the window
and tell myself that
I will be alternately
elated and inconsolable,
that this is the way of things,
and that sometimes, like a
tick — thickened to a
black pearl’s sheen — I won’t be able
to tell the difference.
I pace a mile and then a marathon.
I ask you to tell me one true thing.
It’s not the true thing I wanted to hear.
I want to burn the peaches
from the tree,
but if I burn it is that I burn with
the disdain of the fire
for the smoke.
from Coolth (Big Lucks, 2019)
I really love Hajara Quinn’s book Coolth. I love it, in part, for its affect and style. You hear it in the title — Coolth — that sense of almost-detachment coupled with an absolutely critical understanding of some of the contradictions that come with being alive today. But it’s not really detachment, is it? Notice the activeness of so much of this poem — I am, I look, I will, I pace, I want, I burn. There’s an emotional surety that I think captures a real contemporary mood. People know exactly how they feel, what they want, where they are, and certainly what they need. And yet, and yet, and yet. So much pushes against that.
The first time I read this poem, I thought it so perfectly and essentially captured a particular feeling of being alive in this moment. And by this moment, I mean one dogged by the whims of late capital, where so many people have come to a deeper understanding of the oppressive machinations of the world at large. A better way of saying this is in the voice of Keith Gessen’s narrator in his novel A Terrible Country:
What a fucking scam. The world, I mean. The world was a fucking scam.
That sentiment is echoed throughout today’s poem. There is an implicit acknowledgement of the scam. It’s there when Quinn writes:
I am flawed
Immediately this captures a contradiction inherent in our lives. That we repeat not the leap, but the "leaplessness.” That we enact the daily repetition of showing up, again and again, at the same bar we cannot jump over. It’s a cutting image, and a reminder of how poetry is capable of endless subversion. Normally, I think, we associate repetition with progress. We repeat an act until we get it right, and then we repeat the act of getting it right until we get, well, what? Something better.
I think of Eadweard Muybridge’s canonical photographs of horse locomotion:
There’s something inherently fascinating about these photos that in many ways signal the advent of the fast-paced world we live in today. These photos that spliced and split time, that froze time and yet, as a result of such an act, turned motion into stillness and back again. Yes, it’s beautiful to see such an act of repetition in nature — a horse running — slowed down and parceled into various moments, each freeze frame worthy of study and appreciation. And yet, if we live in a society hell-bent on progress, such a photo only serves to highlight the various moments that could be tinkered with, altered, made more efficient. What once was pure sublimity — a horse running through a field — beckons the potential for commodity.
In her book about Muybridge, River of Shadows, Rebecca Solnit writes:
What distinguishes a technological world is that the terms of nature are obscured; one need not live quite in the present or the local.
When I think of today’s poem, I think of the consequence of a world that no longer lives in the present or the local. Though I agree with Solnit’s assertion, I’d counter by saying that the one who does not need to live in the present is probably the one doing the commodifying of the present, the one with power, the one who has enough capital to live in the future. The speaker of today’s poem almost certainly lives in the very intimate, very local present. And it’s not a great present, is it? It’s a present wrestling with the consequences of a world built towards a future that only accommodates a select few. It’s a present of inherent contradiction. A present of anxiety. A present where the “way of things” is to be “alternately / elated and inconsolable.” To be forever in between. And forever present in such clear ambiguity.
And the dangers of such a present are clear. Quinn’s speaker sometimes “won’t be able / to tell the difference” between their feelings. Whether they are joyous or in despair. Whether they are grieving or celebrating. Imagine if that sometimes becomes always? Imagine that world. In Women, Race, and Class, Angela Davis writes:
Bourgeois ideology…must really possess the power of dissolving real images of terror into obscurity and insignificance.
It’s an essential point, one that makes clear the fact that the longer we live within an oppressive bourgeois structure, the less we will be able to discern the difference between not just images of terror and images of obscurity, but our feelings, too. And not just our most heightened feelings. But our everyday feelings. The longer we live here, the more we become “flawed / with repetition / and leaplessness.” What is in-between becomes the way of things.
In another poem from Coolth, “Wildorado,” Hajara Quinn writes:
I can’t capture anything
of the essence of a hill
except to say that
when I walk up it I carry it on my back.
Again, this is a remarkable image that shows the way a poem can subvert typical expectations. These lines push you to imagine the speaker walking uphill, body bent forward into the hill, the weight of the hill being carried on their back. It’s hard not to consider that image when thinking of today’s poem, where a “mile” becomes a “marathon.”
I keep thinking of that Muybridge photo, of the ways in which the act of splicing has overcome the dailiness of our lives. In Women, Race, and Class, Davis writes that “the capitalist production process presupposes the existence of a body of exploitable workers.” I’d argue further that Muybridge’s splicing of the image helped lead to this current situation, where our society presupposes that every person and every moment has an infinite body of smaller, exploitable moments. We live in this long present, this way of things where we are at once so much: smiling, crying, enduring, grieving, repeating, failing, trying, loving. And yet, we are parceled out and cut up. Whether by hourly wages or tight schedules, two hour blowout sales or traffic delays, all the game-times and end zones of life. We are algorithmically defined, our attention on sale for cheaper prices every day. What once was beautiful — a horse running through a field — has become a series of motions, each one worth something as a parcel. The whole means nothing now.
It reminds me of a haunting line from Annie Proulx’s short story “The Mud Below:”
The course of life’s events seemed slower than the knife but not less thorough.
Though there is speed at the heart of so much of life today, the ongoingness of our “repetition / and leaplessness” makes us feel slower, less adequate for a life that every day feels like it is rocketing toward the future while leaving us behind in the present, where the knife cuts into our dailiness.
I ask you to tell me one true thing.
It’s not the true thing I wanted to hear.
It’s hard to think of anything more desolate and harder to bear than this. That desire for “one true thing” feels so raw and present today. I long for it too. I long for the day to make sense in one way, for the truth of it to be some streak of light high-beaming its way toward me from beyond the horizon. And honestly, I long for the day to make sense in any way, not just one.
We walk up the hill of life holding the hill of life on our backs. We move toward a world that asks us to repeat our own leaplessness, that makes us feel joyous and terrible so often and so close together that soon we might not be able to discern the difference. Today’s poem reminds me that it is important to name how we feel, even when our feelings contradict one another. Even when our feelings are hard to hold. To name such things is to acknowledge that there is a difference. And to acknowledge that there is a difference is to recognize that there is a whole.
I think of how my recent surgery was cut up into a host of smaller and billable moments. What was one momentous experience came back to me as a dozen different requests for money. A company in Ohio sent me a letter asking for me to pay for the crutches someone gave me in a room in New York. In order to pay, I had to log onto a website and enter a special six-digit code. This isn’t news to anyone. But when we begin to live in such a reality, we begin to lose the wholeness of our lives. And it is an understanding of the whole, I think, that allows one to accept and discern and critique and rebel against what feels like it does or doesn’t or should or shouldn’t belong. It’s why history is so brutal. It leaves out whole narratives, not just parts. And it’s why capitalism feels so oppressive. It separates and weaponizes the parts of our labor against the wholeness of one another. I recognize that it’s okay to feel inconsolable at times, but I want to be able to tell the difference between when I am elated and when I am inconsolable. I want to know my unhappiness for what it is, rather than a synonym for life itself. I long for a world where the mile is not the marathon. Lately, such things feel the same.