excerpts from “Will There Be Singing”

Juliana Spahr 


By the end of the year, I was used to 
things I hadn’t seen before,  
like a series of street brawls between fa and antifa  
that often absurdly tumbled  
into the Berkeley all organic full-of-strollers farmer’s market. 
Used to hearing about friends’ emails caught up in various FOIAs. 
Used to the social media posts about how someone somewhere  
was getting a gun and planned to show up where we worked.  
I should add that the DMs and the @s were rarely realized.  
The gun never arrived. 
And if the threat was made good on it was just that moment when  
someone called up my boss and she hung up on them, confused. 
If there was anything new about this moment 
it was that there was no making sense of what was left and  
right in the way I had previously understood it, 
which was as a convention. 
The DMs came in from all different directions.  
One day an anonymous white nationalist,  
the next a well-known comrade angry in love  
and wanting to take it out on someone proximate,  
and then perhaps a blog post from someone  
who had been perfectly nice when last seen at a poetry reading 
but now was very upset about something I had implied. 
It was hard to decipher who was hating what on what day. 
By the time the state was burning from both ends 
and one end was called Paradise,  
we didn’t bother with the metaphor.  
Instead we just looked out the window, noticed the smoke,  
shut the window, stayed indoors, and kept on typing. 
Later we joked, 
now we know what we will be doing when the world burns. 
We will be shutting the windows and catching up on email 
finally. 


I’m concerned about these other things.  
Or that is what I thought when they said  
they were worried I was losing my relationship to poetry. 
It was still summer. 
Still mid-afternoon. 
There was a nice breeze. 
We had half a day of this beauty before us and we knew it.  
Unhurried. Pleasure.  
We drank a beer that was fresh on the tongue  
in a new way. Light. Almost carbonated. 
They said they were concerned 
about me and my relationship to poetry. 
In the afternoon sun, as the breeze blew softly, 
I first protested to them not about poetry,  
but about poets. Their nationalism, their acquiescence  
but also their facebook and twitter accounts. 
Their brags and their minor attacks, their politics. 
Their prizes and their publications. 
Their democratic party affiliations. 
So I said to them I’m not concerned  
about my relationship to poetry 
which regularly felt to me like that moment  
when you open your app and there are a bunch 
of mentions and you haven’t posted anything a while 
and all you can do is say today is so FML and start to work through them. 
This is not the same as the oh no way of the Berkeley farmer’s market brawl, 
not the state burning and burning again, 
but still, how to write an epiphanic possibility in this sociality? 
I had written for so long about being together,  
about how we were together like it or not. 
I had used a metaphor of breath and of space. 
I had embraced the epiphanic  
not just at the end of the poem, as was the lyric convention, 
but sometimes I even made the whole poem epiphanic. 
And that I couldn’t do anymore. 
Lately there wasn’t any singing that I could hear.  
Just attempts. Dark times.  
Nothing about this terrible moment was new though. 
It has always been a terrible moment. 
And there have always been poets too. 
And always poets writing the terrible nation into existence. 
This is one reason I will never get a tramp stamp that says 
poetry is my boyfriend. 


I thought for a while there were two sorts of poets. 
Poets who write the terrible nation into existence 
and poets screwing around doing something else. 
For years I was on team poets screwing around doing something else. 
For years I had used poetry to slip away,  
elude the hold of the family, the coupleform, the policing of tradition,  
to pry open time into an endless stretch of possibility. 
In that room where we try to pry open possibility. 
When I first heard the avant garde  
I heard it as an opening. A door. A window, 
Maybe a garage door. 
A hole in the wall I could shimmy through. 
I heard it as an opening. All sorts of openings. 
I could make the hole.  
Or my pink crowbar could. 
I would be writing and I would fall into the singing, 
That whoosh. The singing whoosh. 
And because at first I saw myself as someone who wanted 
an opening in the tradition, 
I split this whoosh up all the time.  
I fragmented it into words or took away its deictics. 
Another friend, a poet, who no longer talks to me  
once gave me the image of the pink crowbar  
as a way of thinking about writing.  
Losing her was a loss all around.  
But to compensate for that loss  
I think often about pulling something open. 
Although I’m fairly convinced she would grab  
the pink crowbar out of my hand if she saw me wielding it. 
For years, there was that perfect moment after the reading 
where we had to leave the bar because  
the couples were coming to buy their cocktails  
and we couldn’t figure out where to go. 
Maybe it was Friday or Saturday night and all the bars 
were full of people who were not talking about poetry 
so we kept walking, looking in each bar and each one wrong. 
Eventually the streets opened up and we were at the bridge 
and there was a river and we walked across the open space to it 
and climbed down its sides and sat there.  
We had bought some beers and a small glass flask of whiskey from a bodega. 
We carried the cans and the flask in brown bags as a convention. 
But we did not need this convention.  
If there was law, the law drove by, didn’t stop.  
Other things were. Night. Maybe moon. Water. Rats. 
Sometimes drugs were involved. 
We walked through Wall Street at 3 am and  
we rattled the locked doors of all the buildings, laughing 
at their absurdity because we knew where it was at 
and at was rattling the doors.  


During these days, 
I would wake up and my head would hurt  
and then I would realize that in my dream  
I had said to myself that I should write some poetry. 
But my dreams never explained to me why.  
Or how. 
How to sing in these dark times? 
It is true that I have been with poetry for a long time.  
Since I was a teenager. 
Those loves of many years and our bodies changing together. 
And yet also the deepening of this love. Despite. 
That day with the breeze in the bar 
And we said together, there needs to be some pleasure in the world.  
And next, poetry is the what is left of life. 
And we pledged, more singing. 
And we referenced by saying, 
In the dark times. Will there also be singing?  
Yes, there will also be singing. About the dark times. 


At night I thought if I just read all of Brecht,  
I would maybe find the singing. 
So I began to read Brecht that night,  
in bed with my son while he too read before he went to sleep. 
There was a new edition.  
It was hard to hold because it was so big. 
I rested it on a pillow and I rested my head on a pillow 
and I turned the pages looking for the singing. 
I couldn’t find the singing. 
After I started reading Brecht,  
I began sorting through my books. I had too many.  
As I pulled them off the shelves, blew off the dust, 
I asked myself would I need it if there was a revolution. 
It turned out that I thought I would for sure need 
five translations of the Odyssey 
and all the books of Susan Howe. 
I kept all the plant books too. 
The comfort of the Jespen Manual of Vascular Plants of California. 
It’s an open question if the revolution will still need poetry, 
its tradition and its resistance to that tradition. 
But it will for sure need the Vascular Plants of California. 


It’s always been a terrible moment. 
But now I understand it as even more terrible. 
The nation is for sure not my boyfriend. 
But the land it claims, 
though I don’t claim it, 
I hold my love for this land on my underside,  
in a small pocket that eventually bursts to release my love spores. 
I mean it is not a casual love.  
It is though a difficult one. Threatened. Invaded. 
A friend is dying 
as the scotch broom is putting out its nitrogen fixing roots 
but our friendship died years before  
the seed pods open explosively 
another friend has cancer 
and last for eighty years 
and yet another friend now in the world in some new way 
but they are hard and survive rough transport through water 
and mainly it was all the information  
fleshy and full of proteins in a way that interests ants  
we suddenly knew about everything 
as the ants carry the seeds back to their nests creating dense infestations.  
A mixture of hell. A metaphor of resilience. 
The scotch broom has so many tricks. 
Grows in patches and as scattered individuals 
with a total cover of about 15 percent and 35 percent, respectively. 
As does the Tree of Heaven. 
There is no space too polluted for it.  
It absorbs sulfur dioxide in its leaves. 
It can withstand cement dust and fumes from coal tar operations,  
as well as resist ozone exposure relatively well.  
Even mercury.  
It grows fast, and even faster in California. 
And once it starts, it shows up everywhere, 
impossible to destroy. 
Loves the fires. 
Everything. Never ending. 
Everything. Yet to come. 
And yet the world and the leaves continue to exist.  
Yellow veins. Flowers. 
Large, compound leaves.  
Arranged. Alternately on the stem. 
11-33 leaflets. Occasionally up to 41. 
One to three teeth on each side. Close to the base.  
Everything. Small. 
Yellow-green to reddish. Flowers. 
Everything. Panicles up to 30 cm long.
Everything.

Copyright © 2020 by Juliana Spahr. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on October 17, 2020, by the Academy of American Poets

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