Noah Eli Gordon's "What Do I Know"

Thoughts on senselessness.

What Do I Know

for Michael Burkard

I was going to read your new book tonight going to start
on the balcony where I go to smoke standing next
to a square of light let out by the little window there
which gives enough to see if all the apartment lights are on
since I still haven't changed the bulb above the porch a waste
I know I was going to read but the snow was too strong
it blew right into the first few pages so I closed the book
and smoked with my back to the wind which felt
deliberate and defiant at the same time I mean the act
not the weather although I know either way works really
ten years ago I wrote "gushing self-pity" next to a poem
in one of your books I'm sorry ten years ago I thought I knew
everything about what poems should do now I know I know
very little and that it's better this way standing here in the dark

from The Word Kingdom in the Word Kingdom (Brooklyn Arts Press, 2015)


This is one of the first poems I ever fell in love with. I fell in love with it so much that I kept a copy above my desk for years. Pinned it to the wall. The whole nine yards. I lost the printed-out-and-torn-along-the-edges-and-thumbtacked copy of this poem in a move, I think. Which feels like a distinctly New York City loss to me, even though I know losing something in a move is entirely universal. But it feels distinct to me, this packing up every two years in search of a little more room, or a window with some light, and then losing something of yourself each time in the process.

But I think of this poem every so often. And by every so often, I just mean that I’ll be walking, or sitting, and an image or a line will come to my head, and I fucking know it’s from this poem. I’ll think square of light. I’ll think your new book. I’ll think back to the wind. I’ll think gushing self pity. I’ll think now I know I know very little. I guess that’s what happens when you keep something above your desk for years. You think through the world that way.

Anyways, this poem. Breathless is the first thing I am inclined to say. I love a breathless poem. There’s nothing quite like a breathless poem, where, if you are caught up in the poem’s voice, the punctuation is supplied for you invisibly, and you feel yourself brought along, like a kayak in a river, until you are either thrown off or brought to a tremendous halt. And that’s how the ending of this poem feels. Like a tremendous halt. All that breath you’ve been breathing just taken from your lungs.

I’m also taken by the way this poem feels like an apology. It doesn’t just feel like one. It is one. The first three lines offer the possibility of what would have happened:

I was going to read your new book tonight going to start
on the balcony where I go to smoke standing next
to a square of light let out by the little window there

A beautiful image that never happened. The book was never read. Obviously, the your of this poem is the poet Michael Burkard, to whom this poem is dedicated, whose poems I don’t know that well, but who did write this one poem, “Amends,” which I find staggering when I stumble upon it from time to time. An absolute conjuring of a mood. A road which / immediately kisses country is such a gorgeous line. The immediately matters.

Today’s poem begins as an apology but then careens into discursion after discursion. And that’s part of the beautiful craft of it, which the breathlessness lends itself to. There was something — a new book to be read — that didn’t happen, but then so much else was noticed and done and not done and divulged in the process. The snow was too strong. The speaker smoked with my back to the wind. The bulb still hasn’t been changed. And isn’t this how apologies happen? They have their own gravity. They pull everything into their orbit. The speaker can’t stop speaking. Everything begins to matter.

But then the poem returns to a real apology — to something perhaps more important than the unread book — in its final lines:

ten years ago I wrote "gushing self-pity" next to a poem
in one of your books I'm sorry ten years ago I thought I knew
everything about what poems should do now I know I know
very little and that it's better this way standing here in the dark

I would argue that this poem is a sonnet. Not as much because of the 14 line structure, but rather because of the jarring and heartbreaking turn that comes at the onset of these final four lines, a volta of sorts. In other words, this is the real apology. Not that the new book is still unread, but that “ten years ago I wrote ‘gushing self-pity’” in one of Burkard’s books, that “ten years ago I thought I knew / everything about what poems should do.” And as with any good apology, this is accompanied by the kind of self-realization that feels like real truth. It was these final lines that made me pin this poem up above my desk. The acknowledgement of how little we know. I know I know very little.

There’s an echo of Denis Johnson in these lines. I think of how Johnson writes:

i thought

that i would make a fine football-playing   

poet, but now i know

it is better to be an old, breathing

man wrapped in a great coat in the stands…

I love when a poem does this, when it resists the easier work of answering or accomplishing, and instead turns toward an acknowledgement of knowing — in Gordon’s words — how little we know. This is harder work. It resists a kind of ego, a centering of the self as the center of all possible knowledge. It defers. It takes, sometimes, hard work to be humble.

I keep dodging the important thing I am trying to say, which is this: I love this poem because it acknowledges how fucking hard it is to be alive. It’s such a sad poem. It is an apology, yes, but it is also a reckoning with all we don’t have control over. Even the simple cigarette is ruined by the weather. And the loneliness. The fucking loneliness. The way the speaker stands there, back to the wind, snow everywhere, and comes to the realization that what he thought he knew was wrong, what he thought his convictions were — as in, what he thought a poem was supposed to do — those too, those convictions were also wrong. And then the poem resigns itself to the darkness, where it is better to know how much we do not know.

I am thinking of this poem lately because I am thinking of uncertainty. I am thinking of how little I know, and how that fact — how little I know — is one of the few truths I can hold onto. I am now almost four weeks removed from a surgery to transplant cartilage into a defect in my knee. I walk around with a cane and a brace, and pretzel myself into a cab to go to the hospital for physical therapy twice a week, where they wrap a cuff that restricts blood flow to my injured leg and make me lift it until I can’t, where I get on a special post-operation stationary bike and ride it for two minutes, until it feels like too much. Running is my favorite thing to do in the world, and I won’t know if I can return to it for another 5 months, when I get an MRI to see how that transplant’s doing, and even then, the answer might be more complicated than go ahead or stop. It’s an uncertain future, like so many futures, right?

In all my experience of injury, I have never experienced something like this, have never experienced an injury that would heal outside of the realm of common understanding, that wouldn’t heal like a broken bone does: over time, coming back stronger. Somewhere in my knee, a dead person’s cartilage is either being accepted by my body or rejected or, perhaps, doing something in between such things. And it’s taking its time. And there’s so little I know. I can only control the few things I can control.

There’s a senselessness to life that is so much a part of life. It’s why I feel the final turn of today’s poem so viscerally. In her poem, “Defenestration,” Eloisa Amezcua writes:

I don’t know

the difference between what will happen

and why it happens.

It’s that kind of senselessness that makes life so hard. That attempt to try to make sense both of what is happening and why it is happening. An impossible task. In the face of so much, an acceptance of unknowing seems like the best possible answer. How silly our convictions seem in the face of so much else. As Heather Christle writes:

I have to weep every day I don’t know
why it doesn’t help the flowers grow any faster

That not-knowing-why is so central to our experience of being alive, and, I’d argue, our experience of meaning. It sounds silly, I guess, to say that what we don’t know is central to what means the most to us. But it is, right? Every experience of meaning in my life has been, in part, an experience of wonder. Even if that wonder is a kind of sorrow. Even if that wonder is a kind of surprise at the generosity of love, or the absolutely heartbreaking turn of loss. I wonder at my life every day, even if — or perhaps, especially because — it makes no sense. I know I know very little.

And so, when I think of Noah Eli Gordon’s poem today, I think of all the convictions I’ve held onto at some point in my life, and all the convictions I’m holding onto now. I’m thinking of a moment, not long ago, when I thought I could run forever. I’m thinking of moments over a decade ago, young and not even twenty and afraid, when I thought I was in some kind of love that would last forever. I’m thinking of arguments I’ve had, fights. I’m thinking of all the various times I’ve done the same thing as write gushing self-pity in the margins of a book I’ve read. I’m thinking of my worst self. I’m thinking of what I’ve grown apart from, what I’ve grown towards. I’m thinking of how often it has changed, how little I’ve held onto anything at all.

My experience of that senselessness renders itself as a kind of isolation, much like the speaker in today’s poem. When I feel those staggering realizations of unknowing, I feel so utterly alone. I’ve felt that way many times. I’ve smoked many a self-pitying cigarette in the dark outside a bar, wanting nothing to do with the people inside, which made me want nothing to do myself. And yet, even in those moments, we are still left with ourselves.

I wish our encounters with unknowing brought us together, the way, I imagine, today’s poem does — between the poet and who the poem is for. A kind of solidarity by way of loneliness. By way of our common failures. Each of our backs turned toward the cold wind. The thing is, so much of our world makes us feel lonely. And yet, loneliness is a gut-wrenchingly isolating phenomenon. It’s hard to build solidarity from isolation. But I think we must. It’s why, thinking of those aforementioned moments, few conversations in my life were as easy to start as being the lone smoker outside a bar, venturing to talk with the other lone smoker outside the bar. You almost always knew you were outside for the same reason: whatever was inside felt like too much, and you wanted to be alone, and then, seeing someone else, you usually became grateful for the company that began from a place of solitude.

Perhaps one day I’ll look back on these posts and say I’m sorry, I thought I knew everything. I think I most certainly will. I guess I just wish we led from that, that rare knowledge we each share in, the one that says fuck, you’re right, I know and have known so little. I wish we abandoned so many of our ideologies that are self-serving in favor of the more communal acknowledgement of all we don’t know. I wish we all shared a cigarette in the dark. It’s a lonely feeling, yeah. But when it happens, you almost always look up at the stars and feel grateful for the company. And what do the poets say of stars? Something, I imagine, about us being made of them.