Jo Shapcott's "Stargazer"

Thoughts on trying to keep this simple.


If I’m not looking at you,
forgive; if I appear
to be scanning the sky,
head thrown back, curious,
ecstatic, shy, strolling
unevenly across the floor
in front of you, my audience,
forgive, and forget what’s
happening in my cells.
It’s you I’m thinking of
and, voice thrown upwards,
to you I’m speaking, you.

I’m trying to keep this simple
in the time left to me:
luckily, it’s a slow
and selective degeneration.
I’m hoping, mainly, to stay present
and straight up despite
the wrong urge that’s taken hold,
to say everything, all
at once, to everyone, which
is what I’d like if only
I could stay beyond this moment.

from Of Mutability (Faber & Faber, 2010)

I think I ended last week’s newsletter with a little quip about poets and stars, so it’s probably fitting that today’s poem is what it is. And I realize, too, that a lot of the poems I have been drawn to in these past weeks have been poems that reflect similar themes: unknowing, smallness in the scope of things. Or maybe those are just the themes I am obsessed with, as well. Who knows. Well, I guess I do.

I don’t know how well Jo Shapcott is known among poets and readers in the United States, but she’s a wonderful poet, truly. I bought the book that today’s poem is from many years ago, at a small bookstore in Dublin. It was the first time I had seen that classic Faber & Faber cover — just the text of the book’s title and the author overlaid atop a solid background. It was on sale, I think. And tiny. I didn’t know Shapcott’s work. And the book fit in my pocket. A win-win.

I’d recommend Of Mutability to anyone, truly. It’s a stunning book, and the context feels important as well. The book was Shapcott’s first in twelve years, and she was diagnosed with cancer in the in-between, so that experience factors into the work. You’d know that just from the title. Mutability is a funny word. It’s not inherently bad. It simply signals the possibility that something may change. But what is changing, and how — well, that matters. Percy Shelley’s poem on the subject — which Mary Shelley put into Frankenstein’s mouth as part of her classic novel ends:

Man's yesterday may ne'er be like his morrow;

Nought may endure but Mutability.

There’s a sense of hope there, in some ways. Or, I think many people might insert hope into such a statement. That the mutability inherent in humankind might allow our tomorrows to be better than our yesterdays. That we live with infinite possibility. That kind of hope feels, to me, so part of the nature of a particularly Western idealism. That no matter the pain of today, tomorrow will be better, because it will involve some measure of progress. To that, I ask: whose progress, and how? What about accountability? Or compassion? What about slowness? Re-imagination rather than invention?

I don’t find that same kind of hope in today’s poem by Shapcott, which, though it doesn’t mention it by name, has mutability at its core:

forgive, and forget what’s
happening in my cells

What I love about today’s poem is how, with great clarity and compassion, it subverts an almost stereotypical relationship between the mutability of our bodies (what we don’t understand about ourselves) and the desire of our souls (what we long to do or say within the world). I think of the discourse around limitlessness, that we are capable of more than we think. But Shapcott’s speaker knows her own fragility, the “selective degeneration” within her body. And in the face of so much complexity and change, the speaker turns to simplicity. Shapcott writes:

I’m trying to keep this simple
in the time left to me

The first time I read this poem, those lines struck me immediately. Keep it simple, I asked myself. In the time left to you? Why not live? How can simplicity make a life?

Part of the power of these lines is their placement immediately at the start of the second stanza, after an opening stanza that asks for forgiveness. For what? For this:

if I appear
to be scanning the sky,
head thrown back, curious,
ecstatic, shy, strolling
unevenly across the floor
in front of you, my audience

In other words, forgiveness for considering one’s smallness in the face of so much else. Forgiveness for being awestruck, confused, overcome with grief, pain, ecstasy. Forgiveness for being human. In the title poem of the book, Shapcott writes:

It’s two thousand and four

and I don’t know a soul who doesn’t feel small

among the numbers

Those three lines, replaced with 2020 or 2021 or any year, really, since the dawn of accelerated-information-overload, would resonate in the same way. I feel small, today, among the numbers. Do you? I feel tremendously small. Most days I want to crawl up and hide, only to realize that I am, in some ways, already hiding.

But it’s Shapcott’s reaction to such a feeling that I find so enthralling, and even perhaps lovely. In the face of such smallness, and in the wake of such awe, Shapcott’s reaction is a commitment to simplicity. It’s not — to be mistaken — a kind of stoicism. It’s not a surrendering to what cannot be changed, or a commitment to one’s own stubbornness and individuality. Rather, it’s an understanding of something inherent about our relationship to the world, something communal. Remember the audience of this poem. There is, throughout the entirety of the poem, a dialogue. We are one of the you’s. We are part of Shapcott’s dialogue with herself and the world at large. In other words, Shapcott insists on our involvement with one another.

Shapcott writes:

I’m hoping, mainly, to stay present
and straight up despite
the wrong urge that’s taken hold,
to say everything, all
at once, to everyone

Shapcott’s desire to maintain simplicity is framed against a desire to say everything at once. It’s also framed against that more commonplace notion that, in the “time left” to us, we should do everything. Check off the bucket list. Go the distance. Live large. And yet, I find Shapcott’s committment to simplicity to be more human than rugged individualism, more human than hubristic idealism. I find it to be beautiful. In other words, part of what this poem is saying is I want to say it all, but I can’t. I want to live it all, but I can’t. I want to love it all, but I can’t. The commitment to simplicity is an acknowledgment of finitude. It’s a way of saying: I am both my desire and its limits. The limit is made clear in the final lines:

if only
I could stay beyond this moment

It’s the present moment that resists the possibility of us saying or doing everything at once. It’s the present moment, and the fragility of our lives, that asks us to keep it simple in the time that we have. Why? Perhaps because the promise of everything has always been a failed promise. It’s the promise inherent in our economic system, the promise inherent in a society that caters to the possibility of a dream rather than the often harsh reality of the moment. I think of that line from a Steve Scafidi poem: And what good is a dream finally? It breaks your head open…

I recently watched Sound of Metal. There’s a scene where Paul Raci’s character, Joe, sits down with Riz Ahmed’s character, Ruben. They’re at a kitchen table, discussing how to make intentional time, how to carve out space, how to devote oneself to something, and Joe says to Ruben:

Those moments of stillness…that’s the kingdom of God.

That stillness is echoed in the final scene, as Ruben sits on the bench in Paris and the church bells toll, and then toll no more. If you define kingdom of God loosely, perhaps as: a place where each of us feels we have the capacity to be most fully ourselves, then maybe a moment of stillness or simplicity might not be your first inclined definition of such a kingdom. And yet — I think of such stillness today when Shapcott writes of herself:

scanning the sky,
head thrown back, curious,
ecstatic, shy, strolling
unevenly across the floor…

Stillness, and its inherent simplicity, offers us one window to contemplate ourselves relationally. Maybe that sounds simple, but I don’t think it is. I don’t think we often are given the space and time to consider ourselves in relationship to one another and the world. And that’s not for any fault of our own. It’s because of the so-much-ness of the world. The everything. The constant need for labor, the constant push for consumption, the constant reminders of rent payments, bills, debts. The everything that we are faced with, sadly, is entirely this culture’s making. It’s an everything that rarely inspires awe, or ecstacy. Maybe surprise, sometimes. Often sadness. Surely pain.

This is why I love Shapcott’s insistence on the you, how she writes “It’s you I’m thinking of,” as if to remind us that one can be committed to simplicity and committed to others. It reminds me of a Kimberly King Parsons story, “Guts,” where she writes:

It’s too much…Beautiful, shattered people everywhere.

It’s true. It is too much, so often. Too much to care. Too much to take in. Too much to witness. Too much to consider. I’m drawn to the desire in today’s poem to resist the urge to say everything in the face of that, to instead say it’s you I’m thinking of, to instead say I am simply trying to be here. And yet I understand the desire, in the face of the too-much-ness of the world, to want to hug everyone. To fix everything. To cradle every wounded creature. In other words: how do we live? An impossible question. Ada Limón writes:

When all the shock of white
and taffy, the world’s baubles and trinkets, leave
the pavement strewn with the confetti of aftermath,
the leaves come. Patient, plodding, a green skin
growing over whatever winter did to us, a return
to the strange idea of continuous living despite
the mess of us, the hurt, the empty.

We are messed up, hurt, empty. And yet so much carries on. I, as Shapcott writes, hardly know a soul today who doesn’t feel small. I go on the internet and I feel small. I see pictures of my friends and I feel small. I manage my way down the street and I feel small. I missed a subway train today — the cane I now temporarily walk with slowed me down — and I felt small, so small. And I felt small, especially, because I couldn’t share in that smallness with anyone. At least, I didn’t feel like I could. I felt too scared, too alone. Even though I know inherently that people on the train I missed — I know that they, too, felt small. And the people left in the station with me, those who saw me try to make the train, who maybe tried themselves — maybe they felt small, too.

Perhaps we might collectively consider and reimagine our mutability. Perhaps our current understanding of mutability is an idea of change that always bends toward an idealism that might not be achievable, an idealism that, if it is, might be lonely and isolating for many, or some, or all. Perhaps we might learn from those who collectively consider what it might look like to change towards, not away from, simplicity. Not minimalism or whatever new-age mentality sneaks its way into our wallets. But rather, to a simpler understanding of how to consider our relationship to the world — one of finitude, rather than infinitude. That is at the heart of today’s poem: an acceptance of fragility, and how such fragility ushers us toward awe, a place where we can sit and be one another in a fuller appreciation of how we inhabit the world, not how we try to conquer it. Sometimes, I look for what we each share in without realizing that the world tells us we shouldn’t share in anything at all. Not property, not death, not product. The world says these are our private things. I hope, one day, to refuse that. To share in what has no market value: awe, each other, our own surprise at being here, among one another, at this exact moment.