The Other World
Lovely moth you kissed me then kissed the other world in kissing me to keep you loving me helping me go to the place where you are now yes yes — love that you loved me me me yes yes — loving me is the loving portal into the other world kissing the poets who make their music there yes yes — love that you help me kiss the moths that kiss the light yes yes — love that you kiss the loving loving loving that is making us nothing nothing nothing yes yes — please try to kiss yourself kissing your light that gives poets the light to go to the place to dive into the nothing nothing moth yes yes — please try to help me go to the place that you now become yes yes — please try to help me become you yes yes from The Kissing of Kissing (Milkweed Editions, 2022)
The book this poem is from, The Kissing of Kissing, is the first book published in Milkweed Editions’s Multiverse series — a series, as Milkweed’s website attests, “written and curated by the neurodivergent.” Emerson identifies as a nonspeaking autistic poet, and Chris Martin, the Multiverse series curator, is a passionate, ongoing advocate for centering the work of neurodivergent writers. I interviewed him a long time ago, and, in that interview, when I asked about his work with autistic writers, he said he has learned “[a]n immense amount, mostly in terms of how one might care for language on a deeper level.”
In an essay Martin wrote awhile back, he writes:
Let’s give people with autism more opportunities to demonstrate what they feel, what they imagine, what comes naturally to them through humor and the language of sensory experience. As we learn more about autism, let’s not forget to learn from those with autism. There are poets walking among you and they have much to teach.
It’s a beautiful thing, then, that years later — long overdue — this series was born, introduced by Emerson’s The Kissing of Kissing. I was recommended this book last year by Tyler Barton, a wonderful writer whose full-length book came out a few years ago, and I made the mistake of delaying to buy it until the other week, when, walking around The Strand with my wife, the title came to me as if out of nowhere — The Kissing of Kissing! — and I immediately found it on the shelf. Riding the subway home, I found myself dog-earing nearly every page. Emerson’s work is viscerally musical and rhythmic; it is filled with choruses. Almost every poem contains some repeating phrase, many of which punctuate and pepper so many of the poems within the book’s pages. It is a book filled with the song of yes, the plea to please try, the constant urging to love. What more could there be? And what could be more welcome?
In a 2020 reading for the RCAH Center for Poetry at MSU, Emerson wrote a statement that explains the “yes yes” of her work, so evident in today’s poem. In that statement, read by Chris Martin, she writes:
My yes gives me my signature yes. My yes gives me my grounding yes yes. My yes gives me the energy to be me yes yes. Please get that the yes yes is me going for it. Please get that I have been waiting my whole life for this life to become freedom through my words.
Reading today’s poem with that context is a beautiful thing. I am particularly struck by the final sentence above, the idea of “waiting my whole life for this life to become freedom.” Such an idea makes the poem feel celebratory, incantatory, joyous. It makes the words — the yes, the loving, the kissing — abound with life. The poem becomes this unpunctuated, bursting thing, ecstatic and so deeply, deeply alive.
What I love, too, about today’s poem is how it begins with gentlest, most specific act:
Lovely moth you kissed me
Immediately after this moment, Emerson inserts the word then, and the poem takes off from there. From this simple act of natural tenderness — a faint kiss from a small animal — comes the praise song of yes yes, the “loving portal into the other / world,” the “loving loving // loving.” So much love. So much praise. So much yes.
Emerson’s poem “Cicadas” — also from this book — reads in full:
Before you grow up shake grow up and shout. Grow up and free yourself to get noticed. Please go to the tree heave yourself. Place yourself in the roots. You will come out. Eventually.
It’s a beautiful plea of a poem, a kind of blueprint for how to live an ecstatic life — a life of noticing and shaking and shouting and loving and living. That sense of fullness is at the heart of all of Emerson’s poetry that I’ve read. The poems do what it seems they urge bodies to do: they connect and then they expand. They feel something, and then allow that feeling to blossom — like letting a bottle of wine breathe or feeding a jar of sourdough starter and watching as it grows. These poems like today’s are breathless because they seem so concerned with living. And they also live with such gentleness. I am reminded of Ross Gay’s “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude,” which feels such a cousin of today’s poem in its music and repetition, and how Gay writes:
And thank you the tiny bee’s shadow perusing these words as I write them.
The tiny bee. The lovely moth. The cicada. At the heart of these poems of gentle generosity is a deep, constant noticing from which such generosity springs forth.
Yes, in another poem, Emerson writes “I open / our poetry” (that poem was immediately dog-eared the moment I read those lines). What a jarring, refreshing image of an action. I open our poetry. The same way one might open their eyes. Open their mouth. Open a gift. Open a door. Such a phrase reminds me of the experiential quality of any work of art. That art is made in the world, and of the world. That it comes from the stuff of world and out of the people in this world. We open a book in order to read the way in which the book has opened the world for us.
I think I have been thinking of the ecstatic and the experiential not just since reading Emerson’s work, but also since reading Brian Dillon’s Affinities — a book that cements Dillon’s status as a critic, essayist, and thinker who I will turn to again and again for a reminder of the way in which criticism can be generous, effectual, tangential, and just, well, lovely. In a short, utterly gorgeous essay from that book, Dillon writes about his late ailing mother’s transition — in the aftermath of diagnosis — toward a way of praying inspired by the Charismatic renewal of the Catholic Church, which offered a language of prayer that was filled with touching and voices and the togetherness of performance and more. Such a thing contrasted so deeply with a more typical kind of Catholicism, of which Dillon writes:
If your knowledge or experience of Catholic worship—private prayers being something else—is drawn from centuries of religious art or from the demonstrativeness of the Mediterranean churches, it may be hard to credit just how furtive and full of shame public prayer can be for an Irish Catholic. This is what I remember best: bent or buckled figures kneeling before shrines and altars, silently, almost silently, keening their pain into the solid air between them and the statue, relic or tabernacle. An ancient voice muttering its penance—for what unthinkable sins?—outside the confessional. And even at Mass, hundreds of voices raised to nothing more than a diffident hum, embarrassed before their god and each other.
That phrase — “embarrassed before their god.” Whew. I immediately underlined it and wrote it on top of the page I was reading, which is what I do whenever I encounter a line or phrase or sentence that moves me in some remarkable way. I wrote down that phrase and then I thought of my childhood. I thought of the low murmur with which I sang the hymns of worship at church, not daring to raise my voice loud enough to crack or to be heard. I thought of the muffled, rustling silence that I came to associate with winter masses near my grandmother’s home in Rochester, the bundled men in Bills jackets turning their bodies into whispers. At the time I thought it was formality, even respect, but maybe it is also true that it was shame that caused such silence.
I sang some songs as part of a band in college, and sang occasional backing vocals in a band for a couple of years after college, but I could almost never get myself to the place where I felt I was using my fullest voice, where I was singing from beneath my chest — where a soul might be, if a soul lives somewhere. I say almost because there were some times, when the music swelled and I could barely hear myself, that something approaching singing happened. Maybe this is why I found some home in poetry; I feel less embarrassed by the performance of it. There has always been something scary about breaking fully into song. Even now, when I find myself alone in my apartment, my voice hovers and wavers above the guitar I am playing at barely more than a whisper. Maybe I am still embarrassed before whoever or whatever I call my god.
I say all of this because there is something about today’s poem that feels so fully itself and so deeply un-embarrassed before its god, to use Dillon’s phrase. If all poetry could be considered a form of prayer — toward whatever it sees fit to pray towards, whether mystery or wonder or the vast unnameable — then Emerson’s prayer is the kind I aspire to enact. Unabashed and ecstatic. Indeed, ecstatic — a breaking of stasis, a reminder of the rigidity I sometimes find myself living within, and how it is possible to give myself permission to be more full-throated, more wonderstruck, more of everything I could be. These poem-prayers remind me of such things.
In the last poem of her book, Emerson offers one more reminder:
Say prayer for little things, things that live in deep hurt. Feelings language take to lair.
Beautiful, right? The little things return. The lovely moth that begins today’s poem. The cicadas. And, too, the tiny bee of Ross Gay’s poem, the dates and olives of a grove that also live and linger within his lines of thanks.
The little things, yes. Last week, I attended a reading featuring my good friend Carlie Hoffman, who was reading among such a wonderful lineup of poets: Ricardo Alberto Maldonado, Elizabeth Metzger, and Timothy Donnelly. It had been awhile since I attended a reading, and I went alone, sat in the back under Brooklyn’s pale, evening sky, and listened to each poet’s words as they floated out of their mouths and mingled with the sounds of distant shouting and loving and probably kissing — all of the things that make up the ordinary yet ecstatic soundtrack of living. It was a much needed evening.
Donnelly read from his latest book, Chariot, and I fell in love with one poem, “Bóín Dé,” which is the Irish word for ladybug, and which literally translates to “little cow of god.” Come on now! What joy. What absolute joy. The poem ends with these two gracious, curious stanzas:
Little cow of god, who had been sleeping on a pom-pom I sewed by hand onto a store-bought curtain till I jostled you awake, you who flew to my laptop’s light and landed on the staves of my worksurface, tell me — am I dying? Little cow, blood-drop omen, stopped in front of me like a whole note in a chorus that celebrates the invisible labor of useless thought — you who had grown tired, I have grown old, but is it over, our irrelevant haven, this thimble’s worth of song?
Sleeping on a pom-pom / I sewed by hand onto a store-bought curtain. Such noticing makes me feel blissful. I see it all in conversation: Emerson’s choral, kissing-filled poetry, Gay’s gratitude, Donnelly’s meditation on a ladybug. I see all things in conversation that do not take for granted the act of noticing the little things, that see in such small things the possibility for the ecstatic — the big questions posed, the big loving made, the big unknowable rendered still unknowable, but beautiful and wonderful in the rendering.
When I read today’s poem, I see the yes yes of it functioning as a kind of inventive punctuation. It replaces the period, the comma. It functions as a chorus and a pause. But it is a transcendent pause. A permissive pause. A pause that breathes out even as it takes a breath. Yes, when I read the yes yes of this poem, I feel Emerson reminding us, over and over again, to take in the world. To take in all of it. To say yes to it. To say yes again. There is real hope in this. It makes me smile.
At one point in today’s poem, Emerson writes:
moth yes yes — please try to help me go to the place that you now become yes yes
This, too, is a reminder. That we can turn toward the world for help. That we don’t always have to center ourselves. That what we say yes to can be as little as a moth. That the list of things capable of kissing us is long, and includes — but is certainly not limited to — the following:
A leaf caught haphazard, as if by accident, in the hand
A dog’s wet tongue
An old friend
A new friend
The breath of calm that calms the sometimes little, often big tension of waiting
Meadow grass that stains our bodies with its green lipstick
That leech that once kissed itself between my toes when I was little, and who I named Bernard
A baby’s finger on your nose
A lover’s hair that tickles your face in sleep
Even the breath before the kiss — that, too: a kiss
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I bought Hannah's book on a whim at an indie bookstore because we shared the same name... and was astounded by her voice dancing across the page. This analysis and celebration of her work was so lovely. Thank you for sharing!
Another prayer for my archive. I love this. Sending to my friend who works with autistic high schoolers...