- October 29, 2020
To a friend,
“I do not believe
our wants have made all our lies
Do you remember sending me those words in late August, after a summer of correspondence on the nature of art and grace? You took a photo of the poem “Between Ourselves” by Audre Lorde and cropped it so only three lines were visible. I copied down the words and taped them to the wall above my desk. When I first learned to read poetry, I read for beauty, or more exactly, to feel beauty resonate in the everyday. The measure of a good poem, I felt, was just that: a beauty that makes itself known in an economy of words. This letter is to thank you for helping me know that poems are more than beauty - that poems can be care work, resistance work.
The proud reader in me wants to insist that I’ve seen this all along; that Lorde and Rich and Anzaldúa have always moved me, that the idea of poetry has always been inscribed in the idea of struggle. But seeing and knowing are not the same, and I know this thanks to your generosity with words. Balwin: “Writing is a political instrument.” Of course it is. We tell each other this in shared verses, sometimes (shyly) sharing our own. You sent me your poem about un-living beginnings, and I think of your words often when I think about pride, about learning to read with intention. More often than not, to grow into new ways of reading and knowing demands un-living our past.
We know, too, how the violence of aestheticizing struggle is always present. We study “the arts” (I use scare quotes less because I am being facetious, and more because who knows what that means, least of all you and me) and we, as students and kinda-maybe scholars, pride ourselves on our awareness of that violence. We live in the world of images first, words second, actions and emotions farther down the list. You have helped me learn that to see is not enough, to name is not enough, to document and demonstrate an alternative hardly matters: if we are to read poems today, to send each other photos of these words and debate meter and syntax, we have to learn to live through what we see. Naming the violence of the spectator (we met, after all, reading Azoulay) in this public letter to you is not enough.
Diane di Prima: “A lack of faith is simply a lack of courage.” You have helped me find the courage to do whatever the opposite of suspending disbelief is, to read for more than beauty: read for potency, read for viscerality, read for truth to power, read to fight. Read to see, read to know, read to recognize where the lies are hidden by the wants.