Sally Wen Mao's "Ode to Emptiness"
Thoughts on what sweetness touches us now.
Ode to Emptiness
There comes a time when you stop hoping for love. What then to live for? There are substitutes: the lunch on your lap, the power lines overhead, the heritage buildings lining your neighborhood— razed yesterday, absent today, raised tomorrow from the dead. These black-bean noodles never nourished you, only gave you that impression, but perhaps their imprint was enough. What sweetness touches you now, you must thank if you notice. Trash can be delicious, tart as limes. There is mercy in the way milk sours. Convenience in the way we throw our spoils away. Because some emotions are made of plastic, junking up inside. Your debris becomes your whole composition— your oeuvre of sorrow, it kills entire whales, it litters your whole ocean—a super-isle of flotsam, never to decompose. Every night you beg it to die, and every morning your wish is granted.
from The Kenyon Review (Mar/Apr 2020)
What an honest, brutal question to open a poem with. When I first read this poem, and came to the end of that opening couplet, I groaned a bit. I sighed. I opened my mouth and then closed it. I didn’t want to believe that there might come a time when I would stop hoping for love. I didn’t want to believe that there might come a time when I didn’t experience the love that I am lucky to receive. And so, when I read those lines — so declarative, so real, and then curious — I felt the tinge of pain.
But then, as Mao writes:
There are substitutes: the lunch on your lap, the power lines overhead, the heritage buildings lining your neighborhood— razed yesterday, absent today, raised tomorrow from the dead.
I love that notion of turning one’s gaze back toward the world — even in the midst of lack-of-love — to look for substitutes. There’s hope there, yes. But then, as Mao attests, there’s also disappointment. The lunch in the lap becomes “these black bean noodles” that “never nourished you.” The “heritage buildings” are torn down, and, in their absence, take on the form of empty space before being built back up again.
In this way, today’s poem serves as a challenge to me — maybe it does the same for you, too. As someone who believes in what can happen when one looks again, or reminds oneself of the ordinary, this poem — and the lines above and throughout — makes it clear that sometimes the ordinary can just feel ordinary in the face of overwhelming sorrow. That the world can disappoint us with its mundanity, especially when we are looking to be rescued from something as real and visceral as emptiness. If there is no light at the bottom of a well, then — quite simply, and sadly — there is no light at the bottom of a well.
In another poem, “Nucleation,” Mao asks:
What if we fail? What if we are failures at love?
This powerful potential for loss and sadness is at the heart of that poem, just as it is at the heart of today’s. But embedded in today’s poem is some kind of answer to these two questions, and to the question that opens Mao’s work above:
What then to live for?
If, counting the lines of today’s poem, you count eleven lines down from the top, or eleven lines up from the bottom, you might find two lines that serve as a tender, almost kind, declarative statement. They are sandwiched between equal weights of today’s work — weights that remind us of disappointment and triviality, weights that remind us of the accumulation of our feelings, how they become our “whole composition,” our “oeuvre of sorrow.” These are those lines:
What sweetness touches you now, you must thank if you notice.
I find it so remarkable — so beautiful, even — that these lines appear exactly in the middle of today’s poem. That they are placed, literally, at the heart of Mao’s work. And I find it beautiful, too, that they are simple. That they exist even after an acknowledgement of the way in which what we notice can be disappointing, the way in which what we hope will nourish us can sometimes fail to nourish us. That they exist before Mao writes that our emotions, sometimes, can feel like “debris,” that all we want is to be free from them. And so, embedded in equal distances from both the onset and end of this poem is this tender reminder to notice and to thank. To acknowledge sweetness — just sweetness — when it touches you.
As I was reading and thinking about this poem, I was also prepping a few lessons about one of the next books for one of my classes — Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which I have not read in a long time. As a side note, it is one of the great joys of teaching to re-read something you are planning to teach and think to yourself: oh, yeah, this book fucking rules. That’s how I feel about Frankenstein — it’s gothic and romantic, yes, but also just so sensitive and moody and front-and-back-lit by beauty.
At one point in the novel, when Frankenstein finally meets his creation bounding across the Alps and attempts to confront and even kill him, the creature — who is this overwhelmingly tender force of sorrow and sensitivity — says:
Life, although it may only be an accumulation of anguish, is dear to me, and I will defend it.
This moment comes just after Frankenstein bemoans to himself — while surrounded by majestic alpine mountains — the following:
Alas! Why does man boast of sensibilities superior to those apparent in the brute; it only renders them more necessary beings. If our impulses were confined to hunger, thirst, and desire, we might be nearly free; but now we are moved by every wind that blows and a change word or scene that that word may convey to us.
This is no trick, I believe, on Mary Shelley’s part — that two such opposing notions are placed almost next to one another. And though I sympathize with Frankenstein’s beleaguered longing for freedom from emotion and even, sometimes, memory, I find myself in love with the creature’s definition of life — an accumulation of anguish, yes, but also wholly and wildly dear. I see, in the creature’s definition, a desire for sweetness — almost something as tender as Raymond Carver’s “Late Fragment”:
And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so? I did. And what did you want? To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.
That even so does the same work in Carver’s poem as the lines that surround the sweetness at the heart of Mao’s, as the passage uttered by the sad, despondent, regretful Frankenstein in Mary Shelley’s novel, and as the accumulation of anguish described by Frankenstein’s creation. That even so is at the heart of life, just as the sweetness is. It’s a reminder that, whatever you choose to center — whether sweetness or the desire to call oneself beloved — there will always be something approaching disappointment or even sorrow or even anguish circling around the heart of who you are.
And so, to return to Mao’s poem, I want to say thank you, just as Ross Gay does in his poem of gratitude, which is also a poem of sweetness. Thank you to the little marble queen pothos plant that I have yet to re-pot from the tiny, barely there, inch-of-soil pot that I have sitting on a windowsill, and thank you to the way, despite its small container, it still has grown — pouring over the edge, leaping up and kneeling down.
Thank you to the bright, cloudless light that shown through our bedroom window this morning and made an entire window of light on the wall. Thank you to the ivy crawling through that same window, as it has been — slowly, quite slowly — for the better part of months, and thank you for the way it has reddened on the vine, little leaves of color.
Thank you to cool air of each early fall morning, the bright breeze that touches my cheek on the walk from the train to where I teach, and to the people I see each day on that walk — the teachers from other schools gathered outside their building, the mothers dropping their children off, the man who jogs in slow circles around the field, the coffee hot against the back of my mouth, almost burning but not quite. Thank you for that sweetness.
And thank you to each late evening dance in the living room, each early morning hug when we are too tired to wake all the way up, a hug that is not just a hug but is also a kind of scaffold for the day, a stepladder toward the first big breath we take together, each little reminder of what is worth holding onto.
Thank you to people breaking into song or dance, to the man who lugs a speaker outside the subway station and spins in circles as the music plays, sometimes Whitney Houston, sometimes Prince, his body a beautiful, aging movement of small twirls and little graces. Thank you to those who smile as they pass, those who decide to recognize and acknowledge such sweetness.
Thank you to Bill Frisell for this rendition of the old and gorgeous folk song, “Shenandoah,” which I am listening to now, as I write this, and which sounds, to use a line from Jack Gilbert, like some forgotten dialect of the heart, and thank you, too, for this little video of Frisell playing the same song, only by himself, with more space between the notes and the face of someone thinking, with all the time in the world, of how to play music while they are playing music, and thank you, too, for the gentle reminder of fingers and textures and sounds that aren’t music that still accompany music — the creak of an old guitar, the whine of skin sliding along a steel string — these sounds that are not music but still are. Yes, they must be.
And thank you to my friend who just sent me photos of his child holding a giant stuffed giraffe, and thank you for memory — yes, memory, which sometimes I am saddened by, but never ungrateful for — which reminds me of a time when we were both seventeen, walking from one classroom to another, completely unaware of whatever we might call this life. Call it a river. Call it a walk between the trees. Call it waking each day, wondering what might become of us. Call it whatever. Thank you for it.
And thank you to another friend’s father, who sometimes sends me photos of poems from a Mary Oliver book I once gifted him. And thank you to the orange heart emoji that I use often in reply, and to the poets I know who have sent me books, and who, in so doing, remind me often that I am still a poet, because — forgive me — I do forget.
Thank you for someone saying, as I just did, I’m sorry, or forgive me, I forgot. And thank you for each little pinch of sweetness. I forgive you or don’t worry about it or no, no sorries at all. Thank you for each moment I am allowed to remember how often we each wonder, as today’s poem asks, what to live for, and thank you for when the answer is as simple as a gentle touch on the shoulder, a voice in the ear: it’s okay, it’s alright, it’s fine.
Thank you for when the train runs on time, and thank you for the patience I recognize in myself when it is late. But thank you mostly for the former, and for how it ran on time once years ago, when the wife of that friend’s father was dying, and when I near-sprinted from the classroom where I taught to catch the train out of the city, and how I caught it, and how it got me there in time to see her. Thank you for that, for the conductor walking down the aisle, for whatever chain of sweetness conspired to allow me a moment of grief — thank you, unrecognized sweetness, gentle litany of unseen events.
And thank you, finally, for today’s poem, and how it reminds me of one of the first poems I loved, a love I think I perhaps attest too frequently but is still true — “Song,” by Brigit Pegeen Kelly, which ends with these lines (and thank you, too, for these lines):
This song Is sweet. It is sweet. The heart dies of this sweetness.
A small note (same as last week’s):
I am reading at an event in NYC on Thursday, November 3rd to celebrate Tree Abraham’s new book, Cyclettes. Details are here. You should come!
Tree is a wonderful book designer, as well, and you should read this absolutely cool essay (filled with sketches and early cover drafts) that she wrote about designing the cover for her own book.
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