Sean Shearer's "Sober House"

Thoughts on withinness.

Sober House

The house is like any other:
the floor, the ceiling, the walls
hold us like broken eggs

inside a carton. We uncoil
through plumes of cigarette
smoke on the porch to a sidewalk

then bus stop, get hauled to jobs,
AA or NA meetings, and repeat.
The house has its exhaustions—

severed angel heads inside dreams
whenever a needle empties.
Falls silent, until the silence

brings the siren. I am here
to keep chemicals from my blood,
to breathe air and make my bed,

to be simple like copper pipes
hissing as they carry hot water.
I am trying to be normal—

spend most days in a bookstore
beneath a coffee shop. I am reading
about beehives and black holes,

Francis Bacon and addiction.
My sponsor relapsed,
and I am pretending to be

big about it. I bathe in debts
I owe a thousand miles away.
Time is one day, then one day.

from Red Lemons (U. of Akron Press, 2021)

Sean Shearer’s Red Lemons is one of the more beautiful books I’ve read in a long time, and today’s poem was the poem that first stunned me while reading it. I think it’s a good exemplar of Shearer’s work — this strikingly ordinary testament to the extraordinary lengths and feats we go in order to simply live from each day into the next.

The first line is a classic example of the way some of the most remarkable poems can begin from moments of deep ordinariness:

The house is like any other

In many ways the poem begins from this sense of exterior collectiveness before becoming singular in its focus. There is a sense of unity in this ordinariness. The speaker and the other members of the sober house are “like broken eggs / inside a carton.” They are together in their brokenness. And the house is too. The house is exhausted, just as its inhabitants are “hauled to jobs” only to “repeat” them each day, over and over again.

The poem begins like this — a repetition of dailiness. Smoking, working, repeating. When the “I” becomes the main pronoun of the poem, we learn, as readers, the why of this daily repetition:

I am here
to keep chemicals from my blood,
to breathe air and make my bed

It’s a why of addiction. But it’s the way Shearer describes this why that is at once beautiful and heartbreaking:

to be simple like copper pipes
hissing as they carry hot water.

I wrote last week about way we live in a world that prioritizes use and usefulness above all else, and the pain of living in a world that makes us feel worse when we are not of use. And yet, one consequence of living in such a world is that, when we feel useful — like “copper pipes / hissing as they carry hot water” — there is a kind of beauty in such a feeling. The world is rife with contradiction. It makes us feel around for the feeling of worth when we shouldn’t have to. Shearer’s work exposes and exemplifies that. Later, he writes:

I am trying to be normal—

The way this line hangs on the end of a stanza — with an em-dash extended above the white space below — is an absolutely breathtaking thing. The em-dash tells us, as readers, that this thought is going to continue, that it is hanging on something, that it is, at the very least, not ending. But it also enacts the precarity of normality, the fragility of it. Consider the difference between these two potential lines:

I am trying to be normal.

I am trying to be normal—

The first line blunts the meaning of normality. It feels almost ironic, even humorous, like something a comedian would say as a punchline for a joke about absurdity. But the second line, Shearer’s line, has no bluntness. It hangs there uncertainly. I imagine that em-dash quivering, like the needle of a skyscraper turned horizontally. I don’t know what normalcy is, the line seems to say, but I want it because life is too hard to want anything else. Trying anything — at its heart — is an act of uncertainty. To try is to know that such trying might fail, even if what you are trying seems so simple.

I think that’s why I’m drawn to Shearer’s poetry. It focuses on the ordinary feats of perseverance we engage in each day as humans. Because of our limitations. Because of our flaws. Because of what we try to do and because of what we fail at and because of what we want and because of how we hide and because of what we expect and because of the so-much-ness that is the everydayness of the world.

It makes me think of this short, breathtaking poem by Linda Gregg, “Highway 90,” which ends with the lines:

I’m trying to decide

if this is what I want.

And isn’t that maybe all of being alive summed up in two lines? The trying, the wanting, the unknowing. That unknowing seems implied in Shearer’s em-dash after “normal.” So much of life as it is billed to us is made to be about wanting and then deciding, purchasing and then consuming. But what happens if what you want doesn’t feel extraordinary? And what happens if even that kind of wanting feels hard?

Linda Gregg has an essay titled “The Art of Finding.” In it, she writes:

There are two elements in "finding" a poem: discovering the subject matter and locating the concrete details and images out of which the poems are built. In this instance, I do not mean the subject matter to be the ideas or subjects for poems. Instead, I am referring to finding the resonant sources deep inside you that empower those subjects and ideas when they are put in poems.

I love the correction she makes halfway through the above passage. This notion that subject matter is not what you are writing about, but rather, for lack of a better phrase, what is within what you are writing about. The withinness of a poem is what makes it beautiful, breathtaking, sorrowful, magical, moving, generous, and more. With today’s poem, there is a what that is striking. The sober house, the walls, the smokers gathered outside, the emptied needles, the imagined cigarette butts, the relapses and ghosts of those who have come and gone. But the within is even more striking. The withinness of this poem is the daily feat of trying. The difficulty of the ordinary. The way Shearer writes:

My sponsor relapsed,
and I am pretending to be

big about it.

That pretending is part of the withinness of today’s poem. It’s at the heart of it all. Not just the pretending. But the honesty of the pretending. The way, sometimes, all of life feels that way — like one big act of trying-to-make-it-all-work. Like imposter syndrome. Like looking around and saying is this it? Like looking around and saying fuck, I wish this was more. Like looking around and saying fuck, this is all too much. The withinness of today’s poem is the way all of these complications of the ordinary can be what make up a life, a body, a day. It’s there from the first line:

The house is like any other

A body is like any other, too. A soul. Not in the sense that it is uncomplicated. Not in the sense that each body responds the same way to the same stimuli, the same feelings, the same scenarios. No. A body is like any other because of the uniqueness of our reactions, because of the difference in the way we each enact our innerness, because of the utter complexity of what we each want and what we each miss and what we each love. And how such feelings have names: want, miss, love. We have the simplest names for the most terrifying and beautiful things.

Later in the book, in his poem “Deadlift,” Shearer writes:

I am not ashamed

to be simple.

These lines — as a form of poetics, as a form of politics, as a form of daily life — are beautiful. Repetition, exhaustion, addiction, relapse. In the face of such efforts, why be ashamed to be simple? The world tells us we should be ashamed to strive for simplicity each day. But the world also drives us toward extraordinary exhaustion for extraneous reward.

As a kid, when I was towed along to my mother’s AA meetings and made to sit in the smaller room below or beside it — the meeting for children of alcoholics — I was so often struck by the brittle simplicity of both coping with recovery and recovery itself. If you were just passing through and bearing witness to the simple existence of those meetings, they could have been anything. There were smokers outside, sure. But there are smokers everywhere. (When I first started smoking, I noticed this. All you needed was a door to stand outside in order to justify your existence.)

Otherwise, there were people in these rooms. And there were the usual spreads: coffee and styrofoam cups and plates of cookies I would smuggle into my pockets to eat while other children talked. If you were just passing through, you could have mistaken these meetings for anything: union meetings, little league baseball commissioner’s meetings, parent association meetings, anything that involved the mundanity of ordinary life. And yet, it was the withinness that you didn’t see. That you couldn’t have. Unless you sat there and really witnessed. It was the extraordinary labor of ordinary life: the exhaustion, the repetition, the love, the kindness, the failures, the trying — “one day, then one day,” as Shearer writes — and the stories of such trying, told again and again.

This is why I always wonder about grace. It’s a cliche to say that there is a lot of life we do not see. But it is still true. It is not the what of life that often unites us. It is the withinness of life. The bottomlessness of what we are exhausted by. We are united by our common exhaustion. Debts and forgiveness have their limits. They are bound by the surface of the world. Grace, though, is limitless. If we lived in a world that prioritized grace, we would not have to work so hard to understand our common labor, to forgive what seemed outside of our understanding. But we do not live in a world that prioritizes grace, so we must always be exhausted by our labor, trying so hard to forgive what we do not understand and pay back what we wish we did not have to owe. Because of this, this common yet extraordinary condition we call life: have grace.

A note:

I hate to engage in any form of self-promotion, but here is some. This summer, if you are interested, I am teaching two virtual workshops for The Stables — a creative collective based in Philadelphia.

The first is a 3 hour poetry workshop on Sunday, June 27th. In it, we will use the phrase “Let me begin again,” borrowed from Terrance Hayes’ poem “The Same City,” as a way to explore reimagination and permission. It will be a fun one (I hope!). Cost is $35. You can sign up here.

The second is a 4-week workshop that meets for a couple hours each Tuesday in July. This one — titled “Permission to Be Generous” — will use generosity, allowance, and a love of the word “and” as a way to give ourselves permission to write into the so-much-ness of ourselves, and refuse endings (at times). This will be a more typical poetry/multi-genre workshop in the sense that we will be generative and generous, and will hopefully emerge from the four weeks with some work we are proud of, some new understandings of permission and allowance, and some good company. Cost is $75. You can sign up here.