Nicole Sealey's "Even the Gods"

Thoughts on power.

Even the Gods

Even the gods misuse the unfolding blue. Even the gods misread the windflower’s nod toward sunlight as consent to consume. Still, you envy the horse that draws their chariot. Bone of their bone. The wilting mash of air alone keeps you from scaling Olympus with gifts of dead or dying things dangling from your mouth—your breath, like the sea, inching away. It is rumored gods grow where the blood of a hanged man drips. You insist on being this man. The gods abuse your grace. Still, you’d rather live among the clear, cloudless white, enjoying what is left of their ambrosia. Who should be happy this time? Who brings cake to whom? Pray the gods do not misquote your covetous pulse for chaos, the black from which they were conceived. Even the eyes of gods must adjust to light. Even gods have gods.

from The Animal After Whom Other Animals Are Named (Northwestern Univ. Press, 2016)

The first sentence of this poem is truly something special. I remember the first time I read it — in Sealey’s small chapbook — because, right from the outset, this poem sings in that fever pitch of truth.

I love the word even. Not necessarily because of what it means, but because of how it can mean. It has the wild versatility of being a word that communicates intent. Think of someone saying Did you even hear me, and how the even, thrown into that sentence, communicates frustration, angst, a kind of disregard for the person who is doing the disregarding.

Now think of someone saying Even the stars are dying. Oh, I know it’s a cliché. But think of what that even means, how it offers some sort of extension to an idea that is being thought of, considered, refuted, wanted, desired, anything, anything, anything. That even is a hand reaching back or out. It’s hopeful or hopeless, but either way, there’s hope in the word, and that hope means that there’s love there. Love wanted, love lost, love full of longing, love all the same.

And so, when I read the first word of this poem, I wonder about that even. I wonder what came before this poem, what “misuse” of blue, what “abuse” of grace. And I think of the you of this poem. Who is the speaker speaking to? Is the speaker trying to comfort or teach a lesson or reprimand or a little bit of each at once?

But I think, more than anything, what I am drawn to in this poem is what it illustrates about both futility and power. It reminds me of a short poem by Denise Levertov, “Action,” where Levertov writes:

I can lay down the imaginary lists
of what to forget and what must be
done. I can shake the sun
out of my eyes and lay everything down
on the hot sand…

The poem ends with a terse, almost-warning:

Little by little one comes to know
the limits and depths of power.

In Levertov’s poem, the speaker wants to relinquish their own power, wants to exist in relief, eventually, to the power of the water, the power of what exists and keeps on existing. I can’t say the same about the gods in Sealey’s poem today. But I feel that same warning that Levertov offers. I feel it in the first three sentences:

Even the gods misuse the unfolding blue. Even the gods misread the windflower’s nod toward sunlight as consent to consume. Still, you envy the horse that draws their chariot.

In other words: even the gods behave unenviably, and yet still you envy them. Substitute gods for anything capable of being worshipped in society today, and Sealey’s poem begins to take shape as a pointed critique not just of power, but of the effects of power: gatekeeping, consumption, pedestal-worship, more, more, more. In other words: it’s not enough. It’s never enough. It’s never enough to know that even the gods are human. You still want to be pulled across the sky in a golden chariot.

There’s a short poem by Grace Paley, titled “Drowning (II).” It reads:

This is how come I am drowned:

      First the sun shone on me

      Then the wind blew over me

      Then the sand polished me

      Then the sea touched me

      Then the tide came

I love this poem, and I love placing this in conversation with Sealey’s (and Levertov’s) poem today, because they essentially ask the same question from different ends: Why isn’t grace enough?

Sealey writes: The gods abuse your grace.

And Paley reframes this violent thing — drowning — as an act of consistent, never-ending grace. Her speaker is shone on, polished, touched. Her speaker is, essentially, loved. There is gentleness there. There is grace in giving up, grace in giving in.

Why isn’t grace enough? Why is grace abused when it is offered?

When I return to Sealey’s poem, I think again of power. And I think the answer to these questions above is, simply, power. It is power that allows for the “misuse” of so much, power that abuses grace, power that grows “where the blood of a hanged man drips,” which is to say violence, and it is power that “misquote(s).” The funny thing about grace, or maybe the special thing about grace, is that it cannot be confused, at its most honest rendition of itself, for anything other than grace. But power can be confused for so much. Power can be confused for mercy, can be confused for goodness, whatever goodness means. Power can be confused for love, can be confused for wholeness, whatever wholeness means.

In Gary Indiana’s 1989 fever dream of a novel, Horse Crazy, he writes:

That, I thought, is how people really are. Unless they see themselves as equal to each other, there is always some deranged form of accounting going on in one or the other’s head, and we live in a system where no one is equal to anyone, all are exploited by everyone, no one gives anybody anything and everyone owes everyone everything, the only equality available is equality in misery…

It’s true, I think. It’s hard to argue with. You see it everywhere. You see it in the barest of terms each day, at all times. And I think where Gary Indiana’s narrator in Horse Crazy gets it a little wrong is in all the agency he places on “people.” In this world, the gods are everywhere. And they are, as Sealey writes, consistently and constantly abusing our grace. And they are abusing our grace despite their humanity, despite the things about their humanity that make them like us. Despite the fact that their eyes must “adjust to light.” How can we live with that? How deep the suffering, in the face of such futility.

I think of how Rita Dove writes:

Who comforts you now that the wheel has broken

the bodies of its makers?

So much is broken. It’s why I’m having a hard time writing this piece, because it’s hard to find a better description of the current state of this world than Sealey’s lines: The gods abuse your grace. Still, you’d rather live among the clear, cloudless white, enjoying what is left of their ambrosia. What to do in a world such as this? How to live?

I think the answer is, as usual for me: grace. In Marilynne Robinson’s Lila, she writes:

All the tangles and knots of bitterness and desperation and fear had to be pitied. No, better, grace had to fall over them.

I think of Sealey’s word — even — again. I think of the hand extended backwards, forwards, wherever. But I think of that hand extended, trying to make a connection between one thing and the next, trying not to exist alone. And I think of how badly I want that hand extended, and linked to another hand, and extended again. Because I think of how deeply power corrupts, not just in the ways we know it does, the ways of deep systemic injustice. I think of the daily-ness of power. I think of the power that makes one feel like they can’t miss that train, that puts someone in a position where they can’t quit their job, that makes me look in the mirror some days and turn until I am just barely okay with the angle with which I’m looking at myself. Power introduced the word failure. Power introduced the word success. Power bound us to the consequences of the former and the riches of the latter.

I dream of a world of grace because I dream of a world where, to allude to Gary Indiana, things are no longer measured. Where there are no things accounted for or from or to. Where there are no debts. Power is in those measurements, in the voids that come between them, the voids that could be filled with grace but instead are filled with who owes who. It’s hard, though. I have to remind myself, most days, what matters and what does not. As Malena Mörling writes:

Walk slowly now.
It doesn’t matter if you miss
the train, it doesn’t matter
if you miss all the trains.

A world without power is not a world of absence, but rather a world of a kind of unimaginable slowness. What fills that space? That waiting for the next train that does not become a nervous fidget, a sweat darkening your shirt? What fills that new kind of waiting? That world where no grace is abused? I don’t know, but I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it in the small, ordinary things that make up the in-betweens of a day. I’ve seen it when I allow myself to look. Most days, a woman walks between the gap of two buildings outside my window. She is old, methodical. She feeds pigeons from a plastic bag. They flock to her in the hundreds. She walks so slow that what must be a hundred feet of sidewalk takes minutes to cross. When it happens, I watch eagerly. I wish it would last forever. The pigeons take up every inch of concrete, every blue of sky. It is like they are chattering, almost happy. There is a tenderness in the air. And then it’s over, and the birds linger for a second before going back to the sky. I wonder: Do you think the gods see this? Do you think they even care?