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Landscape #107 by Robert Roth

I’m still trying to understand why this poem moves me so much, and thought maybe you can help.

And What Good Will Your Vanity Be When The Rapture Comes

says the man with a cart of empty bottles at the corner of church
and lincoln while I stare into my phone and I say
I know oh I know while trying to find the specific
filter that will make the sun’s near-flawless descent look

the way I might describe it in a poem and the man
says the moment is already right in front of you and I
say I know but everyone I love is not here and I mean
here like on this street corner with me while I turn

the sky a darker shade of red on my phone and I mean
here like everyone I love who I can still touch and not
pass my fingers through like the wind in a dream
but I look up at the man and he is a kaleidoscope

of shadows I mean his shadows have shadows
and they are small and trailing behind him and I know
then that everyone he loves is also not here and the man doesn’t ask
but I still say hey man I’ve got nothing I’ve got nothing even though I have plenty

to go home to and the sun is still hot even in its
endless flirt with submission and the man’s palm has a small
river inside I mean he has taken my hand now and here we are
tethered and unmoving and the man says what color are you making

the sky and I say what I might say in a poem I say all surrender
ends in blood and he says what color are you making the sky and
I say something bright enough to make people wish they were here
and he squints towards the dancing shrapnel of dying

light along a rooftop and he says I love things only as they are
and I’m sure I did once too but I can’t prove it to anyone these days
and he says the end isn’t always about what dies and I know I know
or I knew once and now I write about beautiful things

like I will never touch a beautiful thing again and the man
looks me in the eyes and he points to the blue-orange vault
over heaven’s gates and he says the face of everyone you miss
is up there and I know I know I can’t see them but I know

and he turns my face to the horizon and he says
we don’t have much time left and I get that he means the time
before the sun is finally through with its daily work or I
think I get that but I still can’t stop trembling and I close

my eyes and I am sobbing on the corner of church and
lincoln and when I open my eyes the sun is plucking everyone
who has chosen to love me from the clouds and carrying them
into the light-drunk horizon and I am seeing this and I know

I am seeing this the girl who kissed me as a boy in the dairy aisle
of meijer while our parents shopped and the older boy on the
basketball team who taught me how to make a good fist and swing
it into the jaw of a bully and the friends who crawled to my porch

in the summer of any year I have been alive they were all there
I saw their faces and it was like I was given the eyes of a newborn
again and once you know what it is to be lonely it is hard to
unsee that which serves as a reminder that you were not always

empty and I am gasping into the now-dark air and I pull my shirt
up to wipe whatever tears are left and I see the man walking in the
other direction and I chase him down and tap his arm and I say did
you see it did you see it like I did and he turns and leans into the

glow of a streetlamp and he is anchored by a single shadow now
and he sneers and he says have we met and he scoffs and pushes
his cart off into the night and I can hear the glass rattling even
as I watch him become small and vanish and I look down at my

phone and the sky on the screen is still blood red.

Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib, Brooklyn Magazine, November 14, 2016.

It starts out as just an ordinary encounter on a street corner and kaleidoscopes into something quite different. The narrator is preoccupied with his phone, with enhancing an image of a sunset to show off to others. When approached by a homeless man preoccupied with the coming rapture, he fakes empathy, saying “I know I know”, but not really knowing, not really caring. He continues to humor the man by saying, in essence, yes, I know, the rapture is coming, but since all my people aren’t here, I’m not really ready for it right now.

And it’s at this point the poem shifts from the real to the surreal, the homeless guy before him kaleidoscopes into something else, and takes hold of the narrator’s hand. Now they are “tethered and unmoving.”

From here until the end is a dreamlike episode, where poignant moments and phrases seem to flow, one after the other, like that river flowing from the man’s palm: the sun’s “endless flirt with submission,” “I love things only as they are,” “the end isn’t always about what dies,” “now I write about beautiful things like I will never touch a beautiful thing again,” and “the face of everyone you miss is up there.”

By now the narrator is trembling and sobbing. He keeps saying “I know, I know, or I knew once,” as if he’s forgotten the things he should know. And then comes this vision: “when I open my eyes the sun is plucking everyone
who has chosen to love me from the clouds and carrying them into the light-drunk horizon and I am seeing this and I know”. He sees all these faces and precious moments from his past and says: ” it was like I was given the eyes of a newborn again.” Then he adds “once you know what it is to be lonely it is hard to unsee that which serves as a reminder that you were not always empty.”

After this vision and revelation, the scene devolves back into an ordinary street scene. The homeless man, when asked, apparently has not seen what he saw. He scornfully pushes the narrator away, and continues his journey into the night with his cart full of empty bottles.

I’m still struggling to put into words what moves me, but it’s in the images I’ve highlighted above, and the refrain “I know I know or I knew once.” It’s in that feeling that things aren’t really as they seem to be, they are so much more; and also in the fact that all we really want or need is already right here before us, if only we had eyes to see.

It’s in that coalescing of the real and surreal, the now and forever, the ordinary and extraordinary, and how they morph back and forth, dreamlike and elusive. It’s in that eternal yearning for “something more,” and, at the same time, the need to surrender to what is. To let that “dancing shrapnel” of light break us apart so we are open to this moment, right here, before us.

There’s so much more to say about this poem, and I’d be really interested in knowing what you think.

The constant reference to a poem is interesting too, making this a kind of meta-poem. The narrator himself is a poet it seems. And I wonder, does the act of writing (my writing this post, his writing that poem) does it take us out of the moment or deeper into it? And when I say “moment” do I mean what is happening right now in this room and outside my window as I write, or what is going on in my head and heart as I write quite unaware of my surroundings? Are they the same moment? Or are each part of a kaleidoscopic now, moments within moments?

The word “rapture” is mentioned only once, but referred to again and again, and perhaps the title of this post, “the rapture is already right in front of us,” comes closest to capturing what I take away from reading this poem. The rapture not referring to the Biblical sense of people being plucked off the streets into heaven, but to the ecstatic joy that lies just out of sight within the present moment, if only we have eyes to see.

Many thanks to The Vale of Soul-Making for introducing me to this poem and poet. And many thanks for the painting by Robert Roth that captures without words what I really wanted to say here.