and if you relax
for a moment
and other parts
and you can be
a little happiness.
from Big Cabin (Coffee House Press, 2019)
You know, I bought this book the other day. I was in a used bookstore with my friends Bud and Michael, both of whom are writers, wonderful ones. At the bar later, I pulled out the book, and Bud took it, and flipped to another Ron Padgett poem, this one about a sandwich. Bud read it and said “this guy needs to read that poem about the guy in the hammock on the farm.” And Bud was right. Everyone needs to read that poem about the guy in the hammock on the farm. It’s a poem by James Wright. It’s titled: “Lying in a Hammock on William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota.” It’s a poem of relaxation, of a kind of sublime laziness. It ends with the following three lines:
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.
And so we talked about that poem, and about the ways in which it echoes that Rilke poem about the torso of Apollo, and how that one ends with the final declaration:
You must change your life.
Waste your life. Change your life. Who knows? Who knows whether or not the life you are living is one that is being wasted or one that must be changed?
Such a question, I feel, is almost impossible to answer, which is why it is something, perhaps, that is always on our minds. We are so often obsessed by the impossible, which makes sense, given that the origins of the word obsession have a lot to do with the word haunt, and that the things we are haunted by are intangible, unable to be touched, and, as such, they border on the edges of impossibility that life holds out for us. Just out of reach, and yet still so close.
This is why I’m drawn to today’s poem. It, too, similar to Wright’s poem, is a poem of calm relaxation and mindfulness. But instead of a final line that reads I have wasted my life, you have a final line that offers a little happiness. I’m struck by that, particularly because of the ways in which so many poems offer a final moment that turns away from joy and into one of the many sorrowful mysteries that have to do with being alive. I’m thinking of Wright and Rilke, yes, but also Linda Gregg’s “Highway 90,” a poem I’ve mentioned before, and how it ends:
I’m trying to decide
if this is what I want.
I love that poem, just as I love Wright’s. And I love so many poems that turn towards uncertainty and allow themselves to dwell there, despite the pain that confusion so often brings. But I have been writing a lot lately in these recent posts about exhaustion and stress and fatigue, and maybe that, too, is why I’m drawn to today’s poem, which is a poem about the ways in which being — simply being — can lead to a little happiness. Isn’t it wild, that happiness can be its own surprise? That happiness can sometimes come the same way pain does: blistering, shattering, full of sudden light? I’ve been reading Ross Gay’s beautiful The Book of Delights, and in it, he writes:
So today I’m recalling the utility, the need, of my own essayettes to emerge from such dailiness, and in that way to be a practice of witnessing one’s delight, of being in and with one’s delight, daily, which actually requires vigilance. It also requires faith that delight will be with you daily, that you needn’t hoard it. No scarcity of delight.
There’s so much in that passage that I hope to come back to, but what I love, at first, is that notion of witness and vigilance, both of which I see echoed in today’s poem. I see it in those first four lines:
and if you relax
for a moment
That fourth line — your back — is so important. Without it, the poem is simply asking you to relax, which is an absolutely asinine thing to ask. When has anyone’s plea for you to relax actually been met with your relaxation? But instead, the poem turns — not toward your whole body, or your mind, or to whatever fucking anxiety you have — to your back. Don’t relax all of your shit. Don’t try to move a mountain. Just begin with your your back. That’s what the poem is saying. And then, after that, the poem says:
and other parts
and you can be
Sure, it is unclear whether the phrase your back blends into and other parts as if they are one. But, what I glean from this poetic moment has a lot to do with those ideas of witness and vigilance. If you, the poem seems to say, are aware of the ways in which your body is a thing comprised of its own various and unique relations to itself, then maybe you can relax those parts into one another until you find a little happiness.
Where does that happiness come from? I think it comes, to some degree, from knowing there are more things you can be in control of than you think. When I first read this poem, I thought of the first time I ever took a yoga class. I thought of the cues the instructor used in order to let people know they were holding a pose in the right way, or breathing with the correct intention. I remember the first time I listened to an instructor tell me to send my breath to my toes. I thought it was insane. What the fuck? Send my breath to my toes? My lungs are in my chest! But then I thought about it. I breathed. I thought about having control of my own body’s oxygenation. And then I fucking did it. I sent my breath to my toes. And I fucking felt it. My toes did a little dance. They were happy, and I was happy too.
I think, too, of the way a yoga teacher once told me to send my energy through my fingers while I was holding a pose that seemed to me to have nothing to do with my fingers. Send my energy through my fingers? What? Okay. But then I did it, and it worked. I felt my whole body pulsing with energy where I once only felt it in the places that hurt the most. I felt like this living and breathing enactment of solidarity, all these parts dependent on another, and the ways in which — in that moment alone — they were acting as one.
This is why I love this sequence of lines from Padgett’s poem:
you can be
To be together with oneself feels like such a strange concept today. But such a concept is echoed in Ross Gay’s assertion that there is no scarcity of delight. I think that we often think there is a scarcity of delight, and that it exists outside of our bodies. And, as such, we don’t pay attention to the potential togetherness that is ourselves. I know this to be true personally. For the past months, exhausted by the demands of teaching, I have had a hard time being patient with myself. I have wanted more labor from myself, and less stress. I have said why can’t you just work harder. I have been upset with the ways in which society reminds me that I am a machine, and the ways in which I feel, so often, like a broken one.
And yet, as Ron Padgett and Ross Gay remind us, delight and happiness can exist — despite the broken system that is our world, despite the structural inequity — within our own intimate relationship with ourselves. In The Book of Delights, Gay writes: “The point is that in almost every instance of our lives, our social lives, we are, if we pay attention, in the midst of an almost constant, if subtle, caretaking.” That caretaking exists in relationship to others, yes, but it also exists in relationship to ourselves. If we, as Gay insists, pay attention. If we, as Padgett insists, we find ways to be together with ourselves. To be reminded that we can be together with ourselves is a beautiful thing. Why do we not avail ourselves of this reminder every chance we get? I know I don’t. But why don’t we? Why don’t we carve out of every waking moment a chance to say: here I am, alone but together, aware of all the various parts of me that make me me?
In another poem in his book Big Cabin, Ron Padgett ends with these lines:
Sometimes the room got so hot
I’d open the door wide open
and outside snow was falling.
It was one of the happiest times of my life.
I love these lines for the same reason I love the sentiment of today’s poem: they have nothing to do with any seeming miraculousness. Rather, they are merely the result of a kind of openness. A kind of vigilance. Attention. In these lines, the poem’s happiness stems simply from the contrast of hot and cold. A contrast of needs. It’s hot inside and snowing outside. So just fucking open the door! And then the poem does that. It opens the fucking door.
And yet, I wonder: how often do we not open the door? How often do we not simply acknowledge that yes, we’re here, and then relax our back so the rest of our body follows? So much of life is about that initial action of openness. What do we open the door to? What potential do we allow in? The narrative of modern society associates potential to work. Society tells us that we labor so that we can find opportunity. Such a narrative has nothing to do with the present moment of ourselves, with our complex and beautiful ordinariness. Why do we have to labor to find ourselves? Why can’t we just listen? Bear witness?
We shouldn’t have to force ourselves to relax into happiness. And yet, and yet, and yet. It’s something worth learning. Not so that we can become more efficient, or more mercenary, or more of anything that is in service of some kind of marketed efficiency. But rather so that, in this world of fleeting joy, where so little asks of us to pay attention, we can learn to pay attention to the intimacy of our bodies in such a way that allows to begin to pay attention to the various intimacies of the world. Joy is there. It’s there in the smallest of things. When I was at the bar with Bud and Michael, I kept watching Michael try to catch a fly with his left hand. He never did. But he kept trying. The joy was not in the fact that he kept trying, nor in the fact that he succeeded. It was just that it was something he did. This little action. The way he was disturbed by his setting, and the way the setting kept finding ways to disturb him. I guess what I mean is that he was present. And bothered. Which is another way of saying that he didn’t want to be bothered. Which is another way of saying that he valued the time enough to want it to be sacred. Which is another way of saying that it was sacred, even if it didn’t always feel like it, because it was full. So full. Of us. And so much else. You see? There’s joy there. A little happiness.