Nicodemus Nicoludis's "Once in a While"
Thoughts on care.
Once in a While
I walk around without headphones making sure that bees still to drift between small white flowers forgive me I don’t know their names and that the air with all its particulates from construction or traffic leaving and entering the city still knows to flay petals to the pavement By the end of this poem I will have quit smoking And I will have learned the name of this tree How to reclassify the different chambers of the heart as seasons How desertification is not only about leaving but staying gone I say hi to my neighbor and he tells me again about the old factories and jobs he was offered first arriving from a country erased only on maps It’s nice to imagine work as that simple the ground that open and new
from Small Orange Journal (2021)
There’s a paragraph in the midst of Nanni Balestrini’s We Want Everything — a novel Nick recommended to me — that reads:
It was as if, with this perspective on work and on his life, my father had said: See this family, see me, see yourself? Is this a happy family, your mother and I and your sisters? Poor, deprived, wretched, that’s what we are. And then I understood that work is a fraud and nothing more, because in my family I didn’t see any jeans, I didn’t see any pullovers, I didn’t see any record players. My father said; Here’s a family, and here there’s also work. Don’t you think I work? And you can see what the result is.
It’s such a fiery, intense, and honest paragraph — full of the clarity that comes when the world is seen for what it is: a failed promise, a place that is the opposite of the imagined world in the heart of today’s poem’s final image:
It’s nice to imagine work as that simple the ground that open and new
And I love Balestrini’s novel for the same reason I love this poem today. There is a sharpness that comes when one — as Natalia Ginzburg says in her almost-novel-almost-memoir Family Lexicon — writes into their “true calling that had been forgotten in the general intoxication.” I love that way of framing an experience of the world that today’s poem offers — a resistance of general intoxication. Such a resistance is present right at the onset of Nicoludis’s poem:
I walk around without headphones
Even this acknowledgment presents a kind of openness. It is, in fact, this openness — this willingness to extend attention — that allows for the rest of the poem to occur. It allows for the bees to be noticed. It allows for the flowers to be noticed, too. And it allows, perhaps more importantly, for this act of humility:
forgive me I don’t know their names
These lines, indented and framed amidst white space on either side, are some of my favorite lines in the entire poem. They admit ignorance, but not only that — they also beg forgiveness. These lines don’t conjure up the names of the flowers the bees are flying among. They could have! They surely could have. But no. They model an almost radical humility, a way of honoring a desire to learn more about the world one pays attention to. It’s this short, seemingly small aside that makes the poem a poem that is about tenderness and vulnerability as much as anything else. A poem that acknowledges one’s smallness in the face of things and yet also acknowledges one’s agency in being part of radical change.
That acknowledgment of humanness is present in the following lines:
and that the air with all its particulates from construction or traffic leaving and entering the city still knows to flay petals to the pavement
The repetition of the word still ties these lines to the poem’s opening stanza. And the echoing of such a word — though small — demonstrates that the poem’s speaker knows about the consequences of human activity. The word still reminds us as readers that the world continues. It goes on. Despite particulates from construction. Despite traffic. Despite so much. The world as it is continues even in the midst of general intoxication.
Nicoludis begins another poem by writing:
An apology first I was only taught how to hit moose in driver’s ed not how to care for them
Such an acknowledgement operates on the same level as the word still does in today’s poem. It pays attention enough to recognize that the way in which we have come to know the world collectively is part of a flawed system, one that teaches us — as this aforementioned poem attests — how to avoid what is part of this earth for the sake of our own safety, rather than how to cultivate a politics of care and compassion. And I think one thing — among many — that I love about such a recognition of care is the way in which it moves toward the self:
By the end of this poem I will have quit smoking
Such a moment — presented as an aside to a larger conversation about caring for the entirety of the world — is almost tender. It is tender, actually. It shows that care is an act of widespread consequence, one that can be presented toward the self at the same time as it can be presented toward the world.
This aside makes me remember an interview I conducted with Lynn Melnick after her book Landscape with Sex and Violence was published. We talked about a line from one of her poems that mentions people smoking outside of an AA meeting. I remember going to Alateen meetings as a kid, trying to process the addiction in my family, and stepping out of those meetings to see AA members congregating outside to light cigarettes and talk under the night sky. I don’t think I thought much of them, then, but the image stuck with me. I think of them now. I’ve thought of them often. As someone who has smoked and tried to quit and has smoked again and has moved through that process of smoking and quitting, I view those characters from my past with a real sympathy. I see them moving from a room where they were trying to address and find solidarity in dealing with one addiction, and then moving out of that room to allow for another addiction. I see them trying to do what they can, not trying to handle more than they are able. I see them trying, most of all. And I see them in deep solidarity in their trying, bent over each other’s hands, offering a lighter to another. I feel how hard their trying is. And how beautiful.
This is why care is ordinary work, and why I love the ordinariness at the heart of today’s poem. Images of care are images of daily life. They are hands on shoulders, hot breath steaming the cold night, things passed and shared from person to person. Water for the plants.
Care, too, is difficult work. It shouldn’t have to be. Care should be like the final lines of this poem. It should be simple work, work that opens new ground, allows for verdant growth. Kindness, even. But such work is hard in today’s moment. It is hard to care in a world that does not often recognize even the act of caretaking as actual labor. And it is hard to care in a world where what we come to think of as labor — work, namely — takes up so much of our time and energy that we lose the patience and energy for intrinsic, honest care. I’ve thought recently of the word resilience, and how it is so often lauded these days as a value for the wrong reasons. We praise people for being resilient when really we are praising them for living in a way that is not sustainable. For coming into their workplace when they are sick. For balancing care for their family with performance at their jobs. For doing what they should not — not ever — have to do. And yet still do.
I found myself so struck by the following lines from today’s poem:
How desertification is not only about leaving but staying gone
For all the talk of resilience in today’s world, there is hardly talk about limits — how they exist, and how an acknowledgement of them might lead to a better way of relating to the world. This turn of phrase on the part of Nicoludis makes the consequences of not acknowledging one’s limits abundantly clear. At first, reading this, I thought that desertification was a reference to humans — to some sort of act on the part of humans. The act of leaving a place. The act of staying gone. But really it is a reference to what land does in the aftermath of unlimited human activity. It leaves. And it — contrary to what many people believe or might hope — stays gone. It cannot return. Such urgency, placed within the heart of the poem, centers the speaker as someone who — like Rilke attests in one of his seminal poems — must change their life. Must recenter themselves towards a politics of care. Must continue to walk without headphones. Must continue to learn the names of flowers. Must continue to know, more and more, what is lost when care is not centered. Must continue to pay attention.
After reading Nanni Balestrini’s We Want Everything about a month or so ago, I found myself reading almost the entirety of Natalia Ginzburg’s — a fellow Italian — oeuvre. Ginzburg’s work, like Balestrini’s, is concerned with the ordinary, and concerned, too, with the mechanisms of daily life in the face of overwhelming social movements, such as the rise of fascism. In Family Lexicon, translated by Jenny McPhee, Ginzburg writes of her mother:
A lot of her memories were like this: simple phrases that she overheard.
Later, Ginzburg writes of her family:
My parents had five children. We now live in different cities, some of us in foreign countries, and we don’t write to each other often. When we do meet up we can be indifferent or distracted. But for us it takes just one word. It takes one word, one sentence, one of the old ones from our childhood, heard and repeated countless times. All it takes is for one of us to say “We haven’t come to Bergamo on a military campaign,” or “Sulfuric acid stinks of fart,” and we immediately fall back into our old relationships, our childhood, our youth, all inextricably linked to those words and phrases.
Though it might not seem the case, I see such a paragraph linked at its heart to today’s poem, which is not about words and phrases so much as it is about cultivating a willingness to recognize in the ordinariness of life on this earth a thing that might link one to a worldview far more centered on care than the dominant worldview of our time, a worldview that is — as it was for Ginzburg — so often indifferent, and so often distracted.
Perhaps one way of thinking about care and attention is to reimagine the possibilities of conversation we might be having with each other and the world. There is a gentleness in Nicoludis’s speaker saying hi to a neighbor, listening to their story. Who or what we choose to acknowledge, to invite into conversation — that’s a kind of attention, isn’t it? And it shows who or what we care about.
There is a pastoral quality to today’s poem, but it is not a pastoral poem that romanticizes the world and tints it in the unexamined hue of nostalgia. Instead, it is a poem that seeks to find the ordinary underneath our current grand distraction, a poem that reminds us that there is something valuable there. Something valuable in knowing the names of flowers. Something valuable in saying hi to a neighbor. Something valuable in centering care — for self, for others, for the world — in one’s life.
I’m struck by how simple such a thing sounds, and I’m struck by how hard it is. I think of those smokers outside of the AA meeting, moving away from one addiction as they move into another. And I think of how that’s okay. I think of how some less generous people might call them fools, might even laugh or scoff at them without understanding how hard it is to give up anything at all, whether it is something damaging or something so full of seeming-joy. It’s hard, in other words, to care. It takes a constant moving-toward. It sometimes takes small steps. It is often something the larger world won’t see. No one applauds when you take the headphones off. Not even the bees. But you can hear them when you do. They buzz and then they buzz some more. They hover above the flowers, whether you know the names of them or not.
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