Kevin Latimer's "Vertigo"

Thoughts on what a poem can do.

from ZOETROPE (grieveland, 2020) — preorder here

I hope if you did not know Kevin Latimer’s work prior to reading this poem…well, I hope you know and love it now. And go ahead and just click on that preorder link to his first book up there. Or, you can also go ahead and click this one here. It will take you to the same place. Unbelievable, this internet thing.

Kevin had a poem in Protean recently that I loved. There, he wrote: “this poem is political because i let it.” And from there, the poem broke and expanded and reimagined and renewed itself.

In another poem, he begins with the lines:

i am jotting down my sins on pink paper cranes.
i write them in pen. shameful things: i loved a man

I say all this as a sort of precursor to talking about Kevin’s poem, “Vertigo,” because, when I read Kevin’s work, I’m reminded of that feeling that, I think transcends any other feeling while reading poetry — I’m reminded of what a poem can do. To be reminded of that is such a beautiful thing. It’s that feeling when you read a poet break a line mid-word, or deliver in 5 lines what you’ve tried to do in 100, or deliver in 100 lines what you thought could only be 5, or refuse punctuation, or re-use punctuation, or shift perspective, tone, dialogue, anything, I don’t care — to read poetry is to have the potential to be reminded of what a poem can do. And to read Kevin Latimer’s poetry is to always be reminded of what a poem can do.

What I love most about this poem is how it begins, and where it ends, and how it doesn’t really end, and how, actually, it doesn’t really even begin at all — it just continues. And I love continuation. And tangents. And the way a poem like this one is a blueprint of a life, and the blueprint of a mind inside that life, and the blueprint of a heart inside that life. And I love, too, the ways in which this poem plays with knowing and not-knowing, with noticing and trying.

I love that the poem admits:

i don’t understand why & i don’t understand a lot of things

And I love that, when the speaker of this poem finally knows something, it begins with this:

i know this: joy & grief are dancing on every sidewalk

I’ll stop saying love and be more specific. What’s so fascinating about this poem is how the things the speaker does not understand are concrete things: the funeral, and how “everyone outside is clapping.” And yet, when the poem turns toward knowing, the knowledge is in metaphor, in figured reality, in the imagined. The knowledge is of joy and grief literally dancing, which is an impossible thing, right? So says the therapist who is “looking at me like I’m crazy.” Sure, I guess, but not really.

In that push-pull, in that tension, in that leaning toward the making-sense-of-what-makes-no-sense, there exists a kind of purpose of poetry, or beauty, if purpose is too prescriptive a word. By putting the concrete world — the world of sidewalks and people and actions and buildings — into the realm of what-we-don’t-understand, and by putting the metaphorical world — the world of personified emotion, heightened language, attempts at connection — into the realm of what-we-know, Kevin shows what a poem can do. Some things in the concrete world are impossible to understand unless made into metaphor, which is the act of connecting two unlike things, which is the act of taking what you don’t understand and placing it alongside what you might understand, which is the act of saying this world makes no sense, but with this poem, I can make it beautiful. Kevin’s poem both expresses that action and enacts it at the same time. Wild. Beautiful. Sorrow-filled. Remarkable.

And then I am also struck by how the poem chooses to live itself outward. The first thing I noticed about this poem is perhaps the first thing you noticed: the preponderance of ampersands. And then, when I look harder, I see the absence of a period. The poem is not even a sentence. And I think of all that dreaded word means: finality, even judgment. These things made real by society after the world, perhaps, had once asked them not to exist. By resisting the idea of the sentence, the poem resists conclusion. There could be sentences. There could be so many sentences. But there is not even one.

This poem makes me consider another poem, by Steve Scafidi, titled “Ode to And.” In that poem, Scafidi writes:

and it is a rare thing to say but everyone

I love still lives and soon the one by one of going away

grief is comes and I want whoever you are to somehow

enter my day with all the mysterious privacies and tender

joints and ankle bones and the lovely grace of that place

behind your knees

The and in Scafidi’s poem accumulates and accumulates and accumulates and contains everything of life I sometimes call so much: love and grief and death and love again. It allows the poem to be like an embrace in the process of becoming an embrace. Never fully embracing, just trying. In the same way, Kevin’s poem exists as an enactment of the things that capture the human experience before something like a sentence and its subsequent judgement comes. Things like trying. Or wishing. Or wanting. These things exist as ampersands before any period is placed after them. We try this & this & this. We wish for this & this & this. We want this & this & this. It goes on, this life.

(A tiny hello to friend Stephen Furlong for this recent poem “Most Days I Long to Be an Ampersand” that I can’t help but think of in writing this now)

In this sense, the speaker of Kevin’s poem enacts a mind “in constant vertigo.” And there’s the poem’s title, leaning toward us. And though vertigo is a concrete thing, it is also a sensation — less concrete but still real (there’s that metaphor again) — of spinning, of nearly falling, of the subsequent anxiety of such a thing. I think there are poems that resist this sensation, that attempt to be upright in their delivery, but Kevin’s poem leans into leaning every which way and that. It doesn’t resist truth. It, just like Scafidi’s lines above, allows for so much truth. And in that sense, it is real, however real a poem can be. By doing this, the poem offers itself up to crying, laughing, singing, and to the “queer thing” of that vulnerability. And, I can’t help but think, one thing in literal opposition to queerness is straightness. And when I think of straightness, I do think of a sentence, or a singular truth, or, put simply, definition. The more I sit with this poem, the more I am astounded by it.

And to think, then, of where this poem chooses to end itself — but not actually end, as it goes on, period-less, into life. In its final moment, the poem — and its speaker — nearly falls. But it is caught. And the speaker is caught. And held there. And whispered to. And we are left with that vision of tenderness, that reminder that it is okay to spin and okay to fall and okay to be found in the arms of another. Just as, earlier, it was okay to doubt and okay to not understand and okay to find in your understanding both joy and grief.

Kevin’s poem shows us what a poem can do. To enact and remind us of a life that resists the finality of a period. To open itself up to the so-much of truth. It’s hard to forget, after reading it, that this poem is still continuing. But it’s there, right there, in those final words: & everything is. That blank space after the is tells me that everything is alright, yes, and also everything is ______, and also that everything is is happening, that it’s happening right here, and there, wherever you are.