Stanley Plumly's "White Rhino"

Thoughts on the collective value of love.

White Rhino

The last of my kind, one of the last lovers of flowers
and the lawns of the northern grasses, and certainly
one of the few able to rub backsides with the baobab
and the century-nearing oak still surviving in the yard.

The trick is stone, to look like something broken
from a mountain, something so leftover so as not
to be alive, yet resemble in demeanor dream anger,
the kind that wakes you out of breath talking to yourself

in that language that starts in the belly and the bowel.
Old age is a disguise, the hard outside, the soft inside.
Even the plated armor is turning dust, then one foot
after the other, neuropathy my gravity, the footprint

larger, deeper. I hardly recognize myself except in
memory, except when the mind overwhelms the lonely
body. So I lumber on, part of me empty, part of me
filled with longing—I’m half-blind but see what I see,

the half sun on the hill. How long a life is too long,
as I take my time from here to there, the one world
dried-out distances, nose, horn, my great head lifted down,
the tonnage of my heart almost more than I can carry.

from Middle Distance (Norton, 2020)

It’s hard to write about this poem and not mention one of my favorite essays ever published: Sam Anderson’s “The Last Two Northern White Rhinos on Earth.” It’s a beautiful essay, meditative and compassionate and absolutely wondrous in its enactment of humility and imagination and description and love. If you haven’t read it, read it. Truly. Like stop reading this little newsletter and read that essay. Early on, Anderson describes them, the last two northern white rhinos:

Suddenly, there were only two northern whites left. They were still out there in the field, doing the things their ancestors had always done: eating grass, wallowing in mud holes, taking naps in the shade of trees. But now everything was different. They lumbered around in a world between life and death, both here and not-here. Every mouthful of grass they ate was one mouthful closer to the last that would ever be eaten.

They lumbered around in a world between life and death, both here and not-here. There is Plumly’s poem today — lumbering on, part empty and part “filled with longing.”

It’s hard, too, to write about this poem — as the title of the book is Middle Distance — and not think also of Faulkner’s Light in August, and the scene, quite early on, of a road, and Lena staring down it, watching a wagon come her way from a long ways off, and the way Faulkner described such a thing as “suspended in the middle distance.” The whole passage is beautiful:

Though the mules plod in a steady and unflagging hypnosis, the vehicle does not seem to progress. It seems to hang suspended in the middle distance forever and forever, so infinitesimal is its progress, like a shabby bead upon the mild red string of road. So much is this so that in the watching of it the eye loses it as sight and sense drowsily merge and blend, like the road itself, with all the peaceful and monotonous changes between darkness and day, like already measured thread being rewound onto a spool.

I think about that phrase more often than I probably would say I do. I think about it when I feel myself caught in a moment — my mind somewhere else, the present tense frozen like water lingered in its free-fall from a roof. I think about it, too, when I feel myself caught in the extended moment of life, when I can name my place within the context of something — an age, history — while still living in it. Life during COVID, for example, feels like something suspended in the middle distance — these “changes between darkness and day.” It feels like a fate already fated, this distance I have surrendered myself to without permission.

And it’s hard, finally, to write about this poem because Stanley Plumly passed away two years ago, and I put off reading this book — his last, published posthumously — for a long time, seeing as it was written in the aftermath of a cancer diagnosis that put Plumly’s life into the kind of place that is recognized, as he writes in today’s poem, only in memory. As such, I knew this book would be a heavy thing. And I wasn’t ready for it. Plumly’s work has always meant the world to me — his poem “Sonnet” voiced something about son-hood and tenderness and will remain one I hold close forever. But today’s poem is also — as so many heavy things so often are — filled with grace. Today’s poem is the first poem in the book, and it serves, I think, as an introduction to the labor of grace, and how it feels to live within a body that is bound to decay while carrying a heart that tilts at all times — at least slightly — toward compassion.

What I love about the hard reality of this poem is the way it begins with tenderness. It begins, in fact, with love:

one of the last lovers of flowers
and the lawns of the northern grasses

It also ends with love, with a final line I will find hard to forget:

the tonnage of my heart almost more than I can carry.

In between, the poem holds back nothing, and is quite relentless in its honesty. You see it here:

The trick is stone, to look like something broken
from a mountain, something so leftover so as not
to be alive

There are a few through-lines in this poem — and one of them has to do with love, which I want to speak to later. But the most devastating sustained description is the way in which Plumly gives voice not just to aging, but to the sheer pain of having a body. And the way in which mortality often renders us into “something broken / from a mountain.” Or later: “plated armor…turning dust.” In Anderson’s essay, he describes the final moments of Sudan, the last male northern white rhino:

Sudan was 45 years old, ancient for a rhino. His skin was creased all over. Wrinkles radiated out from his eyes. He was gray, the color of stone; he looked like a boulder that breathed. For months now, his body had been failing. When he walked, his toes scraped the ground. His legs were covered with sores; one deep gash had become badly infected. The previous day, shortly before sunset, he collapsed for the final time. He struggled, at first, to stand back up — his caretakers crouched and heaved, trying to help — but his legs were too weak. The men fed him bananas stuffed with pain pills, 24 pills at a time. Veterinarians packed his wounds with medical clay.

It’s a wonder, sometimes, that anything can fail, that anyone can die. It perhaps shouldn’t be a wonder — mortality is one of the few facts of our collective existence. Birth is the other. What is in between — life — is known, yes, but to call it fact is to say that we know most of it. I don’t think we do. And yet, it’s still a wonder that anyone ages. It’s a wonder that anyone dies. Lately, I’ve found myself looking at my father, who turns 77 this month, and seeing it: the boulder taking over the man, the radiation of wrinkles, the long and slow thinning of the hair and skin. I can’t help but see it. I don’t want to. But I think about death all the time. Which is to say: I think about loss. I want to reach out and pull him back from the mountain he is slowly becoming. But I can’t. No one can. So I try to love him instead.

I think of that line from today’s poem: “Old age is a disguise, the hard outside, the soft inside.” And I think, too, of how grateful I am for a poem like today’s — for Plumly’s willingness to write into the anxiety of mortality, and the rage and anger of it. It reminds me of Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journals, which is filled to the brim with criticism, humanity, anger, love, and tenderness. In it, she writes:

My work is to inhabit the silences with which I have lived and fill them with myself until they have the sounds of the brightest day and the loudest thunder. And then there will be no room left inside of me for what has been except as memory of sweetness enhancing what can and is to be.

I feel such words in conversation with Plumly’s — this idea that one can love oneself towards a kind of brightness until, when memory is all that is left, such memory is something sweet. Later, Lorde writes about feeling “too vulnerable to exist.” And there, too, is Plumly, lumbering on, “part of me empty, part of me / filled with longing.” Both writers, in their acts of writing such words, live within the middle distance — that liminal space between life and death, where everything, perhaps, could go at anytime, and memory takes up more space in the room than any idea of the future. The hope then, is that such memory is, as Lorde writes, a memory of sweetness. But it’s hard, isn’t it? Plumly attests to that when he writes:

How long a life is too long,
as I take my time from here to there, the one world
dried-out distances

These are not the words of someone given new life in the face of death, as the tropes of popular culture so often attest. No, these are the words of someone for whom life has been at once an ordinary and extraordinary feat of endurance. As life so often is for so many. As, I would argue, it is — in ways large and small — for each of us. Lorde writes that “pain does not mellow you, nor does it ennoble.” Rather, pain just is. It doesn’t make you worse or better. It doesn’t render you immediately into a tragic figure. It does what pain does: it hurts. And then hurt does what hurt does: it manifests as fear, anger, rage, hollowness. But what is more devastating, perhaps, than such a truth, is that love can do the same thing, particularly when it exists within a society that does not recognize or appreciate it. Earlier in his life, Plumly wrote the following lines:

Love will never let us alone, which is

exactly what it does.

Good lord. And there then, is the final line of today’s poem: the tonnage of my heart almost more than I can carry. What a difficult and painful image — that the heart itself might be too much for someone to carry. And I think, too, of the word care, and how it sits alongside carry. And I think of a friend who once told me that he cared too much. And I think of what a travesty it is, that we live in a world that often cautions against caring too much, as if that’s a bad thing. And I think of how caring too much can only be considered a bad thing in a world that doesn’t support such care. In a country where the average maternity leave is a mere 10 weeks, and where even that is not a certainty, and where millions upon millions of people are caregivers in some way and receive little to no financial support or recognition. And I think of how we live in a world where care itself is considered by those in power as an afterthought. As in: you care too much. So the world tells us to stop caring, when really we should value care more.

David Graeber speaks to this in his book The Utopia of Rules:

That is, the powerless not only end up doing most of the actual, physical labor required to keep society running, they also do most of the interpretive labor as well.

In such a society, it is no wonder that the tonnage of a heart becomes more than we can carry. I turn again to Sam Anderson, meditating on love while amongst the rhinos:

We are built to love, and we can summon that love to do nearly impossible things — and yet that love has an outer range of maybe 30 yards. It’s like a wonderful lamp. It fills the inside of our houses. It washes over our families and our pets. It extends, as we walk, to the town around us.

But it cannot leap, with any of the necessary intensity, across city limits or state lines or oceans. It cannot leap, except abstractly, with great effort, to distant people in need, or to strange, threatened animals. We love, really love, what is near us. What we have touched. What loves us back.

Those limitations are a problem when it comes to a crisis like mass extinction. All 7.7 billion humans cannot possibly come and spend a week with the girls, which means that humanity at large will never give Najin her morning scratchdown and feel her warm, grunting breath. Humanity at large will never truly love them. And so we will never act, collectively, with the urgency that befits true love — the only kind of urgency that might work.

One wonder of love is the way it can exist among both the intimate and the collective. It can be felt in the most personal of ways — two people squeezing each other’s hands as the plane takes off, because they will never not be afraid of flying — and also the most sweeping — the swell and chorus of bodies singing together at the show. But after the collective experience of love, you still return to yourself. And you are alone, or with one or two or a few people you love, and you make your home together. And there is a world outside, and it feels at once scary and alienating and full. And so you keep the ones you love close. And hold them tight. What I mean is that, even though there are collective experiences of love, there is no collective value of love. And when there is no collective value of love, the tonnage of each of our individual hearts will always be more than we can each individually carry.

I think that’s where loneliness lives: not when the world feels like too much, but when the self does. When what is inside feels like something that must be carried, and there is no one to help carry it. Or held, and there is no one to help hold it. Or understood, and there is no one to help understand it. I wish the self never felt like too much. I wish the self was just enough.

I want to hold today’s poem close because it feels like tenderness and grace and loneliness and compassion and labor and love all at once. I want to hold, too, these lines from another poem toward the end of Plumly’s Middle Distance, where he writes:

Had I ever seen a bluebird, so bright a blue?—

a blue easily confused with happiness. I didn’t

even know a bluebird was a thrush. I knew

and loved you, that was enough.

I know life sometimes feels — to me and maybe to you — too long. Sometimes too lonely. Sometimes too hard. But sometimes, when I am open to it — like Plumly’s opening stanza, like all the “lovers of flowers” out there, like a birdwatcher filled with wonder — life feels lovely. And, as I write this today, I don’t ever want to say that anything that is borne of love is too much. I don’t ever want to say that I care too much, that you care too much. I don’t ever want to say that I love too much, that you love too much. That is the great tragedy at the end of today’s poem. The tonnage of my heart almost more than I can carry. What sorrow — to feel such a thing at any point in your life, whether at the begin or at the end. And yet: I hang on to that word almost. Which means that, in the end, the heart was not too much. It was enough. And I hope for that for us. That we never say we care too much. That we can find value in our love. That we don’t just have to remember sweetness. That it can be right here.