I came into the Arts Research Center fellowship imagining that I would push forward projects that I’d begun early in the pandemic—projects haunted by the uncertainty and fear of those first months, which felt like keys into the greater uncertainty and fear that had been there all along. In those first months, I would walk ill at ease through silent, sun-soaked streets that came alive with banging pots at 7 each night. Twitter gnawed at my consciousness, growing darker and weirder. When I wrote, which was infrequently and imperfectly, I made poems like environments, with jagged lines crossing and interrupting each other, to try and get at the mingled sense of structurelessness and paranoia that defined my daily existence.
One of the traits I value most in poems, as a reader and writer, is surprise. A poem establishes a contract in the first two or three lines — everything from form to tone to intensity of soundwork — which, if the poem merely fulfilled, would represent a failure. I think most very successful poems keep their promises in mind as they gently evade them; the slow accumulation of drift results in an ending strange enough to permit either surprise or the uncanniness of return. —This is, I suppose, an ars poetica.
Which is to say that what I ended up writing when this fellowship asked me to think deeply, lengthily about emergency, surprised me. The poems that felt most honest in this context, amid conversations that were rich and rewarding, even if they floated on a scrim of virtuality, all somehow kept calling themselves Talk. Instead of my earlier goal, to have the poem stage, and replicate, the physical and cognitive conditions which it saw in its world, the poems became smaller, knottier remainders of what that world had done to me and how I thought, how I talked to people. In a time when those vivid conversations I missed most remained impossible, even while it felt like the world was sifting up with what we’ve learned to call discourse, the poems were attempts to isolate the strange beauty of real conversations. How, with people one trusts, they leap and skip; how, when the only real content is I love you, language isn’t always for communicating, and instead folds playfully into itself. Or maybe the poems are examples of communication failing in the abeyance of love; I still can’t tell. I know only that they keep talking to me with ideas I can almost parse.
An example. These lines are from the middle of one Talk poem:
A year passes, badly. Then another.
While the moon moves through my head like a desert.
I asked a friend for a painting. She painted me a black square
with dark gray branches and seven starlike blotches
which I understand are flowers.
People try to get a hold of you,
and it goes on; but the point, beyond the light dislocation of the sentence-to-sentence gaps, is the way the outside world is absorbed, how mastery is attempted (the gesture of the painting, its mixed effect) and how it crumbles into sadly ironic self awareness. As with the rest of this series, the back-and-forth sociality of this poem, even at its most forlorn, permits the constant introduction of new material. Even when gestures fail it’s possible to preserve the moment of their intent, the hopes coded into the moment of their emergence.
Noah Warren is an ARC Spring 2021 Poetry and the Senses fellow. This poem was written while on fellowship.