Julia Guez's "This, Winter"

Thoughts on inner weather.

This, Winter

Busy the hands with backgammon,
tell me about the year.

The wifely chamomile and Klonopin
no help, have a saltine.

This is to say, I understand.
Once submersible, I am now a buoy.

Fatigue is the new normal.

from In an Invisible Glass Case Which Is Also a Frame (Four Way Books, 2019)


I know that it is very much summer at the moment. As I sit here writing this, it is pushing 90 degrees in New York City, and the sky is the kind of heat-scarred blue that is more of a sullen grey. But winter, too, is a state, not just a season. I think of Denis Johnson’s collection Inner Weather, which has a poem titled “Winter,” in which Johnson writes of people who:

laugh horribly

at the life standing up inside them

with such pain as

loneliness permits

Johnson’s poem is less about winter itself — there’s one reference to breath “excluded in great / clouds,” but other than that, the poem’s temperature is not necessarily cold — and more about being burdened by the very “baggage…of humanness,” as he puts it. We carry winter around inside of us at all times. It is there in our loneliness, our exclusion, the way — as Johnson writes in another poem from Inner Weather — we are “waiting patiently for the next moment…we will be lifted away by our lives.”

In an interview, Julia Guez speaks about how today’s poem is touching on the “basic truth” that “Making our way through all this weather isn’t easy.” And I think of winter in that way, too: the mood of it, the way there is a word — wintercearig — that means, literally, “winter sadness,” alluding not necessarily to a sadness that comes as a direct result of the season of winter, but rather a sadness that is so like winter itself, a sadness that can be felt at any time, in any season. An inner weather that, even in summer, can feel like winter.

I love the way today’s poem moves. Read that first couplet aloud to yourself:

Busy the hands with backgammon,
tell me about the year.

Busy the hands with backgammon is such a lovely, mouth-moving thing to say. When you say it aloud, it feels busy, not the busyness of capital or consumption, but the busyness of ordinary talk. It feels playful, inviting, like distant chatter. And it is an invitation. As a poet, Guez is inviting us to sit down across from her. To pick up the checkers, to play with the hands while we speak with our mouths.

That phrase — busy the hands. It makes me think of all the cigarettes I smoked only because I needed something for my hands to do. All the times I’ve clicked and unclicked a pen as I’ve written, graded, taught, and read. All the tables I’ve measured out a wonky beat upon. All the labels I’ve pulled off beer bottles. All the tabs I’ve twisted off cans. Sometimes, it feels you have to busy the hands in order to open the heart. It’s as if — in this world of endless distraction — you have to trick your body into distraction, just a little bit, so that you can be present in the moment of conversation.

What I love, too, about today’s poem is the way the first two couplets are these enactments of a kind of gentle disarming. If we, this poem’s readers, are also the people invited into the conversation this poem offers, then we should consider the experience of it. In the moment before this poem begins, we are probably asked to sit. And then we are offered to play a game. And then, finally, we are asked: tell me about the year. Later, we are offered sympathy, even empathy. Our listener understands that the “wifely chamomile and Klonopin” are “no help.” Our listener offers us a saltine.

I’m struck by the ordinariness that these two couplets enact. I’m struck by how you don’t have to reinvent the world to make someone feel at home enough to be vulnerable. You only have to ask, to offer. The first couplet ends with an invitation to speak. The second ends with an invitation to eat. Such simple acts, but aren’t such things really all one needs, so often, to feel at home? The knowledge that someone cares enough about you to not just ask how are you doing, but instead, to give you space to speak about whatever you wish and say whatever you need to say. And then the saltine. Such an ordinary gesture. I love the specificity of the saltine. A thing so essential and bare. And how you can see in that line — have a saltine — the cracker stretched out to us, offered. We must be tired, you and I. We must be hungry.

After those first two couplets, Guez introduces the first person:

This is to say, I understand.
Once submersible, I am now a buoy.

Here, then, is that turn towards empathy. We are being asked to speak about our year, are being offered food, because the speaker knows what it’s like — knows that it’s like to be burdened by an inner weather, to have routines that fail them, to medicate, to feel helpless.

I’m perpetually floored by the line Once submersible, I am now a buoy. Guez’s line gets at what it feels like, so often, to be alive in the modern world. To be submerged is not the same as drowning. Rather, something or someone that is submersible is able to operate underwater. Is able to move within this endless ocean. And when things feel right in today’s world — when you get the job, when the bills are paid, when the plants don’t die, when you don’t have to self medicate, or when, if you do self medicate, it seems to work, it feels sustainable — then it feels less like you are flying, wholly unencumbered, and more like you are submerged in the submersible vessel that is your body, fully aware of the depth and pressure of the ocean that presses against your skin, but confident, for just a moment, that you can manage. Perhaps one of the great miracles and great pains of being alive is that we are submersible. We are capable of withstanding enormous pressure without drowning. This is also what makes us, I’d argue, so relentlessly exploitable.

To be a buoy is to be without agency. It’s to bob up and down atop the ocean, anchored, though, to the floor way beneath. It’s such an apt description of how it feels to have to rest despite the ongoing endless pursuit that forever seems to surround us. It reminds me of how Denis Johnson writes, in another poem:

Let

me rest, let me rest in the wake

of others’ steady progress

It reminds me, too, of a question Padgett Powell poses in his novel The Interrogative Mood, which is a novel composed entirely of questions:

Do you realize that people move on steadily, even arguably bravely, unto the end, stunned and more stunned, and numbed and more numbed, by what has happened to them and not happened to them?

In the same way, that image of a buoy bobbing and feigning motion despite being anchored to some floor many miles beneath it is an image of a kind of almost-lifeless-life, and the pain and shame that comes with such a feeling. Why do we so often shame ourselves for needing rest? Why do we so often talk ourselves out of rest because of the shame associated with the need for rest? Why do we so often celebrate limitlessness, but not limits? Why, when people cultivate a barometer and a thermometer and even a metaphorical doppler radar to measure their own inner weather, does our society shame such people for asserting the needs associated with such a weather? We rely on the small, ordinary kindness of others to give us permission to fulfill those needs. To speak about what hurts us. To eat when we are hungry. To be a buoy when we once thought we were submersible.

And from this image, the poem offers its final line:

Fatigue is the new normal.

This line sits alone, as if the poet is enacting the feeling of being too tired to write another couplet. I’m someone who often loves the sense of excess in poems, but I find the shortness of today’s poem so moving. When you read and reread this poem, you realize that so much is happening in the space between the couplets. It’s there, I imagine, that the person the speaker is sitting with — us, perhaps — is speaking about their year. It’s the blank space that is filled with the specific sorrows of living — the specific days, the specific stories, the specific wants and desires and needs and things met and unmet and lost and unlost. When viewed this way, today’s poem becomes an expansive thing. You can pause while you are reading it, and view the space after the first stanza as a literal invitation. And you — yes, you, reading the poem — can speak into that space. You can speak about this year. About your hurt, your exhaustion. You can speak about so much. And when the speaker offers you food, you can use the space that follows such an offering to get up — yes, actually rise — and eat. And when the speaker says Once submersibile, I am now a buoy, you can nod in agreement, you can murmur, wonder, sit in an understanding silence.

This poem might be short, but it allows itself to be as expansive as you allow it to be. And that’s part of its real beauty. It extends us a generous invitation to sit together in solidarity despite the way in which fatigue has become the new normal. Or perhaps because of this.

I think often about how the world does not acknowledge or reward or admire people who, as I said before, cultivate an inner weather. And it certainly does not acknowledge, reward, or admire people who act on and assert the needs of such an inner weather. I think of Naomi Osaka, the 23 year old tennis star, who recently asserted her needs as they related to her own mental health and anxiety, and yet was met with shame and aggression and dominance by so many people, many of whom seemed to think that one’s inner weather was something they should just get over rather than address. This is what happens in a world that perceives limitlessness as a norm — and all the ways in which the idea of limitlessness is informed by notions that are ableist, racist, patriarchal, capitalist, and more. Those ideas dominate the public sphere and make it seem like it is not okay to rest, to feel, to speak in service of your own needs.

So yes, tell me about the year. Because there are not enough words for it. Because it has been long. So long. But, as Guez’s poem enacts, there must be space for your story. There must be space for your inner weather, which is wholly your own. And there must be generosity that allows for such space, even if this generosity doesn’t feel like progress, even if this generosity gets in the way of progress as we have come to define it. So yes, tell me about the year. Because it’s okay to feel exhausted. It’s okay to feel as if winter is no longer a season, but a state of being, a way of waking up into this world. And it’s okay to rest. It’s okay to be a buoy. So yes, tell me about the year. Because it’s not okay that it is this way, but it is okay to feel this way. It’s always okay to feel. I sometimes wonder why that seems like such a loaded thing to say. But it is. It is always okay to feel.