Michael Kleber-Diggs's "Embouchure"
Thoughts on wonder.
I don't know how trumpets work. This wondering woke me into a Saturday with my beloved beside me as she has been for more than a third of my days, a being, asleep so only her head and hair are visible, a wonder I might understand, if understanding was possible. I know there are three buttons, I know you can push one of them or any two or none or all. I know when you breathe into it, the horn can make a lot of different notes, so everything else must happen through the lips, the tongue, the lungs, the diaphragm, the body.
from Worldly Things (Milkweed Editions, 2021)
I love when a poem — or anything — begins (and continues) from a place of not knowing. It is one way a poem can be different from the world. When I say the world, I mean the world as we have come to experience it, a world that often demands that we know what we can, and find such knowledge quickly. A world that tasks us with creating lists to organize our future, which is inherently a thing of uncertainty, in that it never really happens. It’s always just ahead.
I’ve been thinking about wondering and uncertainty recently, not just after reading this poem, but also because, nearing the beginning of the school year, I just recently read Herbert Kohl’s seminal essay “I Won’t Learn from You,” a kind of longform definition of the idea of “not-learning” — a practice, Kohl argues, developed by students who do not want to engage in learning when it feels threatening to them, or their culture, or their idea of how to simply be in the world. He writes:
It was through insight into my own not-learning that I began to understand the inner world of students who chose to not-learn what I wanted to teach. Over the years I’ve come to side with them in their refusal to be molded by a hostile society and have come to look upon not-learning as positive and healthy in many situations.
I wouldn’t equate “wondering” and “not-learning” as the same practice, but I find myself struck by that phrase: refusal to be molded by a hostile society. And I think I see both actions — the act of wondering and the act of not-learning — as ways to push against and lean away from a society that feels at odds with one’s own values. Which is funny, right? Because wondering seems to me, in many ways, to form that initial entryway into learning. It’s the first thought that opens the doorway into obsession. But it is also, in its own right, a beautiful place to dwell. I think society often asks: what will you do with your wonder? This seems, perhaps, like an insidious question, one that immediately tries to take someone away from a vantage point that is gorgeously studded with light for its own sake. Perhaps it is better to ask why we cannot wonder for just a little bit longer.
Wondering forms the first nearly-exact-half of this poem. It does so in two sentences. One quite short and declarative:
I don't know how trumpets work.
And the other longer, flowing from one line to the next:
This wondering woke me into a Saturday with my beloved beside me as she has been for more than a third of my days, a being, asleep so only her head and hair are visible, a wonder I might understand, if understanding was possible.
This feels intentional on Kleber-Diggs’s part. And wonderful in its intentionality. That first sentence, which begins with a declaration of not knowing, seems purposefully short, as if to enact the way it often feels to not know something. In a school setting, not knowing something — an answer, a process, a direction — can feel shameful, especially when such not knowing is the result of some failure of compliance. Do you know what I mean? You missed a direction because you were looking out the window. You missed the answer because you were finishing doodling a face on the sun that peeked behind the clouds of the massive landscape you doodled in your notebook. You failed some sort of compliance test because the world called, or creativity came knocking. And then you felt shame. Maybe you felt, as not knowing can still feel for me now — a dreary and lowly adult — like a door had been locked, no key. When this happens, it is not an enactment of the unknowing that can lead to joy. It’s stunted, terse. Its boundaries are defined.
And yet, Kleber-Diggs continues the poem. And he continues the poem with wonder. And notice, then, how wonder fills the page. How it fills each line and then fills each line that follows. How it almost never ends. And, too, how it connects. By allowing the not-knowing that begins the poem to blossom into wonder, Kleber-Diggs broadens the poem’s breadth of attention. It can become something, in other words, about more than just what that short opening sentence makes the poem seem to be about. It can also become something about more than just the anatomy and utility of a trumpet. It can — and does — become something about ordinary love, and the way love’s dailiness — a body beside someone for more than a third of my days — is still a space for wonder to grow.
I love that image, that idea of wondering about someone who you’ve known for a third of your life. I love that wonder can exist there, that it can live there unencumbered, without a need to be explained or known. That it exists, in fact, because it cannot be known. In this way, Kleber-Diggs is associating the act of love with the act of wonder. And what better way is there than this to show the value of wonder? If the ordinary dailiness of love, the small, seemingly inconsequential actions and expressions of someone you’ve known for decades, and known so dearly, can be a place for wonder to reside rather than knowledge, then why don’t we center the practice of wonder in every instance of our daily lives, in those places where love might not exist, and where it might instead be replaced by urgency or relentlessness or forward motion? I think of my friend George Kovalenko’s poem — as I have many times before — where he writes:
Remember how we used to wonder rather than know?
Knowing sometimes pushes us toward places of strange danger, even violence, places where action feels like the most necessary next step, rather than dwelling. I think this is because we often associate knowledge with an active sort of acquisition. We gain knowledge. We acquire it. There’s a violence almost embedded in the active description of it. No wonder the world has become such a hostile place, not just in terms of physical safety, but in terms of our attention and our time.
Wonder is not — as some people might think — the opposite of knowledge. Wonder is not the same as ignorance. Instead, it feels akin to a kind of gathering, something far less violent than gaining, or acquiring — the way wealth is gained or the way sports players are acquired from the free agent pool (which is its own language very much worth unpacking). Wonder is a way to gather the complex gorgeousness and mystery of the world into a constellation of images and ephemera and marginalia inside our minds, and then a way to sit with all of that, not out of the desire to translate it into something that must be known or dealt with or addressed or acted upon, but rather out of the desire to experience whatever this is — life — just a little bit more fully.
When I think of wonder-as-gathering, I think of this correspondence-via-poems between Aimee Nezhukumatathil and Ross Gay. In the final poem, Ross Gay writes:
Maybe you’re right: let us stop explaining.
I know those ants too — soon
they’ll slurp caves into the handful of apples
that come on the pipsqueak tree out back,
or scurry dizzy on the sugar
glazing the sweetest bean I’ve ever tasted,
the beans themselves tonguing
through the spent cherry bush.
Let us stop explaining. At a certain point — perhaps now, perhaps always — there is too much to know, so the active choice to sit with the little you know and wonder about everything else you observe feels like an act of refusal, resistance, revolution — call it what you will. It feels different than how it sometimes feels to be in this world.
It’s funny. I love the cover of Kleber-Diggs’s collection, with its photograph by Wing Young Huie, who also took the photo — “Frogtown” — below.
This is a photo I could linger with for hours. It is also a worldly thing. Also so ordinary. Also so full of life. I think again of that phrase — let us stop explaining. There is nothing to be explained here. There can only be observation, and whatever comes from it. I love that only one person — on the left hand side of the frame — is looking at the camera. The rest are engaged. Engaged in so much. Conversation, caretaking, playing, lap-sitting, joy. There’s a spectrum of emotion, from a child’s seeming frustration to an adult’s almost carefree smile. And there’s a spectrum of age, from the smallest of small bodies to the oldest of old bodies. And a dog. There’s a dog. And everyone is frozen in the act of being alive. And everyone’s hair is perfect. And this is life, nothing more, nothing less. And I can already imagine the ebb and flow of conversation. The laughter between one person and the next, the angry cries, the lonely silences of lonely people, and the lonely frustration of not-wanting-to-be-lonely people, and the tired exhaustion of anyone who wants to be alone, and the ongoing mess of it all — what it means to live among other people, and to feel fulfilled in the proximity of that life and unfulfilled, too. There is so much here. It makes me wonder.
Kleber-Diggs ends his poem with the following lines:
I know there are three buttons, I know you can push one of them or any two or none or all. I know when you breathe into it, the horn can make a lot of different notes, so everything else must happen through the lips, the tongue, the lungs, the diaphragm, the body.
Here, Kleber-Diggs brings back the language of knowing. It is repetitive, blunt, a litany of declared things. And it seems to me that such knowledge is actually in service of wonder. Notice how the language is simplified. There is nothing that one “might understand.” Instead, there are just a few facts — the three buttons, and how they can be pushed — before the poem expands into the realm of what “must happen.” Which is a place of not knowing, a place of assumptive wonder. With what little he knows, the poem’s speaker wonders beyond the small reach of the instrument at hand. He wonders into the mouth, and fills the lungs, and gives life to the body.
In another poem, “After You Left,” Kleber-Diggs writes:
Father, the loss of you is a planet orbiting what might have been. I cannot say if the emptiness is a grant celestial body or a vacuum so complete nothing can escape.
And in another poem, “The Grove,” he writes:
If only we could know how twisted up our roots are, we might make vast shelter together—
I love both of these constructions. I cannot say. If only / we could know. They allude to the fact that we often can’t say. That we often can’t know. What to do then? In one of the earlier poems from the correspondence between Aimee Nezhukumatathil and Ross Gay, Ross Gay writes:
Good Lord the strawberry flowers
are the pursed lips of ghosts
I want to know.
I don’t want to be misconstrued. I think that knowing can be the most beautiful thing in the whole world. Knowing a hand after you’ve missed it for so long. Knowing the morning after a long night of anxiety. Knowing a dream wasn’t real. Knowing a dream could be. Knowing that, when you play an F# on a piano, the key strikes what is known as a wippen, which is another word for seesaw, and the wippen transfers that force to the hammer, which strikes a long string strung tight. Knowing that there is almost certainly an old man in New York City who can tune a piano by ear. And knowing that his ear cannot be replicated by some machine, that it’s an ear, and that it belongs to someone, and that when that person is gone, they take a little music with them when they go. And knowing that’s okay. Knowing can be the most beautiful thing in the world when we wonder in our knowledge.
I think we can still wonder our way toward vast shelter together. I think we can still wonder amidst the grand uncertainty of emptiness, and loneliness, and love, and sorrow, and pain. I think we must. And I think the beauty of such a thing is that we can’t know what such wondering will certainly look like. We can only wonder. It’s funny that way, isn’t it? Not ha-ha funny, no. Just enough to make one corner of your mouth turn toward the sun or moon or stars.
Some other things:
Thank you to those of you who asked for a copy of my now-out-of-print collection, In This Quiet Church of Night, I Say Amen. I’m all out! Well, I have a couple copies, but since they are the last copies on earth, I figure I should hold onto them in case…I don’t know. But thank you to those of you who reached out! I appreciate it.
I’ve been reading Natalia Ginzburg lately. First, Happiness, As Such, and then Voices in the Evening. I absolutely love her work. Dry, funny, tender, perceptive, and such a gorgeous rendering of attention paid to disparate voices.
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My partner just took out his trumpet on Saturday for the first time in fifteen years. I was so much like the speaker in this poem and loved your meditation on the wonder in love and everyday life. Thank you for sharing this!
Wonder vs. knowing, yes. How appropos in our instant click information age. And it brings me back to my childhood and the vast amount of time I spent meandering and dreaming without cellphones and computers. There was an acceptance of not knowing, and there was less worry about that, less need to manage things. And I love your comments about students who refuse learning and why. Thank you, again.