Mikko Harvey's "For M"
Thoughts on tenderness and surprise and lightness.
amazing — like,
I’m greedy —
from Let the World Have You (House of Anansi, 2022)
The first time I read this poem, I felt it in my chest as I was moving toward the end. I felt, like, — I can’t say — the weight of it? The reach? I felt the way it welled up in me, tight and constricted by its lines, and yet made so heavy by the fullness of it. I don’t know. I’m just trying to say I felt it. I felt this poem.
And to think about why I felt this poem, and felt it so viscerally? That’s a question. Part of it has to do, I think, on a craft level, with its shape. These intentionally short lines that offer the poem the look of something bare — a tree shorn of limbs. Such a choice allows each thought unfold the way thoughts sometimes do: jaggedly, staccato-like in their rhythm. You notice it right from the outset:
In this way, the poem unfolds without expectation — like life often does. Second by second. Minute by minute. Year by year. Reading the poem downward, rather than laterally, I found my breath catching. I paused, sometimes without knowing, at the end of each line, with halted breath, even if I barely needed a breath to get through the word or two of that line.
I’m a fan of long-lined poets. Larry Levis’s work comes to mind. His lines — tangential, meandering, and always wondering themselves toward the next story or moment or realization — carry a sort of weight to them, so that when you finish one of his poems (I’m thinking of “God Is Always Seventeen” — which still makes me cry with its tangentiality and the moment when he writes “I have a child who isn’t doing well in school”…I don’t know, it just moves me so deeply) it feels almost novelistic in scope. But there’s something, too, about the short line that communicates a sense of anxiety, the rapid day-to-dayness of our current societal moment, where nearly everything is conveyed through some sort of infinite scroll.
Harvey’s work is a testament to this shattered nature of our lives, how we find ourselves broken by the world, parceled into all these various parts, trying to fit ourselves back together. I notice that here:
I’m greedy —
Each line offers a complication of the thought of the line before. Harvey’s speaker is not just greedy. They want. They don’t just want. They want to hold. They don’t just want to hold. They want to hold onto everything. Like the shortened line, our lives are often reduced by the mechanisms of society into these algorithmically-beneficial chunks. Our complexities are sorted out by division and sold in their simplest fashion. But Harvey’s poem today takes that framework, deconstructing then reconstructing then lengthening it, as if to say: look how complex we are.
And that’s another reason why I felt this poem. The short, staccato anxiety of the lines is paired with an unrelenting complexity. A complexity that moves from the humor of a video to the beauty of surprise to the pain of unexpectedness to the fear of loss to the salvation of love. It’s a reason why this poem says something along the lines of what the fuck multiple times as it moves downward. There is so much to question about the world. There is so much surprise, all the time — some of it welcome and some of it so difficult to bear. All of these ideas are present within a structure that seems so simple an unassuming: a tree without branches, a telephone pole standing alone in a field.
Mikko Harvey’s work is full of these moments of striking complexity and surprise. It’s there in his poem “Let the World Have You”:
all the bear trap wanted
was to be the leg around which
It’s there in his poem “Wind-Related Ripple in the Wheatfield”:
I don’t get to be a human being
for very long, as if this were the punchline to a joke
whose first half I missed.
It’s there in his poem “An Ordinary Weakness”:
we were free now
to destroy ourselves in peace.
Each of these moments are moments of complex, at times paradoxical surprise. They throw the world as it seems into the messy soup of what it is, where tenderness and violence can exist so close to one another, and where life can be absurd, and where freedom can be its own destruction. It’s the same world where a penguin can step on a walrus, thinking that it’s “a rock.” And it’s also the same world where, as Harvey writes:
And I think such a moment is when the poem today became almost transcendent for me, when it spilled and spun downward into an idea of infinite feeling. Because, though the poem begins out of reassurance, it moves into surprise, and then fear, and then a real desire to hold whatever you can find to love as close as you can to yourself before time — and whatever time makes of this world — pulls it away. Like, read these lines, and try not to feel:
It’s true. What the fuck. And what’s beautiful about this poem is that it bears such a realization as simply as it bears the anxiety and humor and fear and everything of what comes before. In such a way, this poem enacts so much of how it feels to live a modern life that is steeped in awareness — and, because of that awareness, a sense of impending loss at all times.
I feel that almost always. No, not almost always. Just, well, always. I feel the possibility of loss always. And I feel it all the more viscerally because of the way our lives are structured much like this poem — an infinite scroll of so much: joy, humor, terror, surprise, more humor, more joy, more terror. more surprise. Living a life that is somewhat calibrated to a sense of being online, I am struck almost daily by how frequently — and how quickly — I toggle between so many competing emotions. I am struck, in other words, by how much I feel, and all at once.
I don’t really know how we do this. I don’t know how we pay attention to so much at the same time, how we witness — not even tangentially, but straightforwardly — a relentless and ceaseless amount of pain, and commentary about pain, and attempts to relieve such pain, and failures to relieve such pain. I don’t know how how we do it, and then process it or fail to process it, and then go about our days, which are also things that are filled with a wellspring of things that make us say what the fuck in both beautiful and harrowing ways. I can’t count the amount of times I have said to someone I care about the exact same words that Harvey uses at the beginning of this poem. I don’t want you to be nervous. I don’t want you to be sad. I don’t want you to be anxious. I can’t count the amount of times I, too, have been nervous, sad, or anxious. How much I have needed something as small as calm, as gentle as relief.
I keep thinking of this aside from today’s poem:
It makes me think of a line by E.C. Belli that I might’ve mentioned before, from her poem “The Possibility of an Ending”:
On the borders of tender
How it all blurs—
Belli has another line from a different poem, “Wonderment,” that reads:
Why must tenderness engender
Tenderness. Awareness. Sensitivity. Vulnerability. They all go together, don’t they? To be tender is to be aware of some painful paradox of this world, which is that what is beautiful can turn harmful so quickly. It is like living armor-less on some knife’s edge of the universe, trying to find the glint of light on the blade while knowing you might get hurt at any time. Tenderness engenders alarm because tenderness so often contains attention, and an honest attention reveals the latent vulnerability within all of us, and within the world. Our world, I think, exploits and abuses that vulnerability. It makes us feel less for it, or worse. It becomes — as Harvey writes — bad for our hearts to be tender. It becomes too hard. Which is so sad, because inherent in tenderness is a kind of softness, the body relaxing after a breath. How terrible, that the world hurts more for those who are the most aware of hurt.
I think, though, that I am drawn to this poem because there is a playfulness at its heart, too. There is a desire to want to find joy and laughter in this world from things that are of this world. The goofy waywardness of animals. The ordinariness of a scarf. And there is also, it seems, a real understanding of the way so much can be so much else at once. And the way that this is part of the nature of us — our complex entanglement. There is an echo here of Gwendolyn Brooks’s assertion: We are each other's magnitude and bond. We are caught up in one another, and in this world. It is a world at times of lightness and a world at times of heaviness, but it is always a world in which we are — each of us — together.
One reason I love teaching is that it reminds me that this notion — of seeing ourselves together, of finding joy in the messy and wonky shit of the world — is not something we learn, I think. It’s something — sadly — that we lose. What I see most of all in my students is a real sense of play. I see this in myself, too, but because I don’t see it valued or recognized or even often named by adults in this world, I have to work to remind myself that there is value in being soft enough to laugh. Most days, I wish we were softer, that we remembered what Harvey writes: the number of hours we have together is actually not so large.
Relatedly, here’s a Heather Christle poem that I love:
The whole thing is the hard part. Heather Christle is right. And what are we supposed to do, as Mikko Harvey asks? I don’t know. But I think a poem like today’s offers an avenue for how to move through the nervous so-much-ness of the world. It teaches me how to be gentle enough to find humor in what is light, and how to be moved enough to find sorrow, and — in feeling that sorrow — search for love. It teaches me that you can be casual and serious at the same time, that sometimes lightness — searching for ease, or joy — is serious work.
Can I tell you one last thing? I live on the fifth floor of a walkup building in New York City, and when I walk down the stairs, I can peek out of these windows that look upon this dark, shadowy space between my building and its neighbor. In that space, there are these little nooks cut into the brick. Pigeons sometimes hang out there, hiding from the rain, or nestling their beaks into their bodies as they fall asleep. Sometimes I say hi to them. Hey guys, I say, as I leave for work in the morning. The other day, ascending the stairs, I peeked out one window and saw — for the very first time in my life — a few baby pigeons. I almost missed them. They looked like grey balls of fluff, like tiny masses of lint that one might find bundled up inside a vacuum cleaner. But they were there: small and adorable and breathing and beautiful and growing. I was so excited to spend time with them, to see them each day, to watch them grow and go through whatever baby pigeons go through. But they grew up so fast, and within what felt like a couple days, they were gone. I must’ve caught them at the tail end of their nesting. I must’ve missed them for so long before I saw them. It’s true. The number of hours we have together is actually not so large. Play every minute you can. Say hello to every animal you see. Hold on to every object someone leaves behind, and hope that whoever left it comes back to get it. And then hold on to them, too.