Poetry is Full of Uncertainty These Days and For Good Reason
Jazz pianist George Shearing was
waiting to cross a busy intersection when
a man with a white cane tapped him
on the shoulder and asked if Shearing
could help him get to the other side.
Shearing himself was blind from birth,
but as he tells it, he wondered, “What
could I do? I thought a moment, then
took him across. It was the biggest
thrill of my life!” Friend, we need
each other. Give me your arm.
Let’s take one step and then another.
Let us go line by line, stanza by stanza,
poem by poem—these poems of mine
or yours; it doesn’t matter. Something
better awaits us, something much better.
Arundhati Roy says, “Another world
is not only possible, she is on her way.
On a quiet day, I can hear her
breathing.” Friend, let’s go there.
The Night We Met, You Told Me About Marie Curie
The first thing you tell me is she wasn’t Jewish.
But stupid people will always look askance at anyone
who is female, foreign, and accomplished, you say—she’d
already won the Nobel Prize in Physics eight years
earlier, and in 1911, her affair with a fellow scientist
named Paul Langevin became public, so the right-wing
press vilified Curie as a foreigner and an atheist,
which is pretty hypocritical, you say, since the newspapers
portrayed her as a godless Jew whenever she won
a French prize, though somehow she was hailed as a true
daughter of France when another country recognized
her achievements and she received a foreign prize
such as the Nobel. Well, was she an atheist, I say?
No idea, you say, though certainly a foreigner, since
she came from Poland, where she studied
at an underground school called the Flying University that met
in private homes in Warsaw so that young Poles
could be free from the warped ideology of their
Russian occupiers. That must have been dangerous,
I say, and then I remember a story I’d read about
a mountaineer who’s walking across a Swiss glacier
when he hears a creak beneath his feet and then a crack,
like a trap door opening, and he drops,
jamming in the ice at belly level, the air punched from his lungs.
The lower half of his body is much colder than the top,
and of course he kicks in the emptiness until he realizes
that the movement might dislodge him, so he stops,
his toes dangling until his climbing partner hauls him
out the way you might pull a drowning man from a pool,
and you say a guy, right? A man? And I say right,
a guy, and you say you’d just read an article
about all the mammoth carcasses that have been found
lately, and the thing is, they’re all male. Swallowed
by a sinkhole, washed away by a mudflow, drowned
after falling through thin ice: the males of every species
tend to do stupid things that end up getting them
killed in silly ways, you say, and apparently
that’s true for mammoths as well. Yes, I say,
but no danger, no fun—what gives value
to travel is fear, according to Camus, and I’m paraphrasing him,
but you don’t seem to mind, so when we are far
from our own country, says Camus, we are seized by fear
and an instinctive desire to go back to our old habits,
and at that moment we are feverish but also porous,
so that the slightest touch makes us
quiver to the depths of our being. At least that’s what
I think he said. Feverish, porous,
slightest touch: I didn’t mean to, but I’m talking sexy now,
though we’ve only just met and I don’t want to
scare you off, so I say, okay, back to Marie Curie. Didn’t
she win a second Nobel Prize? And didn’t she die from
radiation poisoning? And you say yes, she won
another Nobel in 1911, this time in Chemistry,
and yes, she had the habit of carrying test tubes
of radium around in the pocket
of her lab coat, and she died of aplastic anemia, which they think
was caused by prolonged exposure to radiation.
She did her job too well, I say, and you nod
and say she did her job too well, and that’s it for me,
that’s when I tell myself that you’re the one,
that no matter what happens, I’m not letting let you go, ever,
so I say can you really do your job too well? and you say yes,
because in 1204, the Venetian navy couldn’t breach
the walls surrounding Constantinople, so their engineers built bridges
a hundred feet long and hauled them up the ships’ masts
and set their far ends down on the enemy’s battlements,
though when the knights in armor saw those bridges,
they said uh-uh, no, not us—they were used to terrestrial battle
and paled at the thought of fighting in midair above
a rolling sea. Those engineers were too good at their job,
you say, and if there’s one thing I don’t want to be right now
it’s too good at my job because I’m really really
really crazy about you and am trying to do everything
I can to woo you without letting you see how hard I’m trying.
So I say, what’s her legacy? and I guess later scientists built
on Marie Curie’s work, right? and you say that her notes
and research materials are so radioactive
that they’re too dangerous to examine, so they’re kept
in lead-lined boxes, which is when
I ask if I can kiss you and you say no, you can’t, then yes.
David Kirby teaches at Florida State University. His collection The House on Boulevard St.: New and Selected Poems was a finalist for both the National Book Award and Canada’s Griffin Poetry Prize. He is the author of Little Richard: The Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll, which the Times Literary Supplement of London called “a hymn of praise to the emancipatory power of nonsense” and was named one of Booklist’s Top 10 Black History Non-Fiction Books of 2010. His latest books are a poetry collection, Help Me, Information, and a textbook modestly entitled The Knowledge: Where Poems Come From and How to Write Them.