(Spokane, Washington: Lynx House Press, 2019)
Already it is mid-July, four months into a global pandemic with no end in sight. From my fifth-floor balcony, I can see Freedom Tower. The infection rate in Hoboken remains uncharacteristically low for the NY/NJ metropolitan area. From here, on this July afternoon, I watch a woman unpack the passenger side door of her silver car — looks like a large sandwich bag — her face and her husband’s obscured by blue surgical masks. They pop the trunk to unload a purple yoga mat, a desk chair on rollers, athletic gear. Their tans are healthy.
On an afternoon like this, it’s easy to forget that I’m not on the balcony purely by choice. In another version of the summer of 2020 — one where a global pandemic plays no role — I would be walking the Highline with my husband eyeballing a small space to park ourselves to read cover to cover our books. I would read Christopher Buckley’s Agnostic in the sun and feel my feet burn in flip flops. I’d feel occasionally nostalgic for my life and my unexpected nearness to age forty, but perhaps not feel as discombobulated as I do reading today, from my quarantine balcony.
Over thirty thousand dead in New York City. One hundred thousand more and counting across the country. Agnostic would linger on a normal day. But on this abnormal day, it hangs about me like a heavy cloud. Buckley in Agnostic searches for the story of his life and turns up… What? His cat. Some clouds. California surf. Not a whole lot to explain the capital-M Mystery of our lives. His poetry offers little explanation; rather it poses the question, struggles against the futility of the ask, and occasionally settles into the discomfort of the non-answer.
I like Buckley best when he daydreams, as in “Last Sabbatical” which opens:
Windstrewn, thin afternoon clouds
string together a rib cage, the white and
almost transparent vertebrae of the blue…
I have no idea what the wind wants now,
running its fingers through leaves
of pomegranate and podocarpus, buddleia
and rock rose in my green and overgrown
What did it ever want…?
The poem moves into daydream and, as the speaker stares off into nothing beneath his patio umbrella, watching the clouds move above the acacias, his mind connects the clouds to his favorite fountain pen, the debts owed or not by his soul (if one exists). Existential questions — What is life for? Is there a soul? What is belief? — are thankfully absent. Instead, the speaker moves his attention back to the present moment, to his cat dozing on his chest and “calms his heart.” The poem closes:
nothing for us to do but look around and exhale
evenly through the apparently empty sky —
my blood downloading its irascible freight,
making a slower, indifferent sense of things,
doing no more finally, it seems now,
then I ever should have in the first place.
It’s a simple sentiment, sure, but it’s one that I need on this July afternoon. As the smoker in the apartment above chokes me out with his umpteenth cigarette and I head indoors for a non-carcinogenic inhalation, I worry for a moment that I am not making the most of my time on this earth. How will I ever have enough? Partially this is a fear that I won’t have time allotted to accomplish all the things I thought would gently drift down onto me in childhood: the books I’ve not read, the books I’ve not written, the job I’ll never have nor be successful at, so on. More it’s fear that I am too distracted by my self-perpetuating to-do list that I can’t do less. I can’t stare, like Buckley’s speaker, at the clouds and settle into now.
On first read, “Last Sabbatical” was a comfort, something I could aspire to. Today, it makes me panic. Oh, poetry in the time of pandemic: how it makes my stomach hurt! True, there is a certain rhythm to the poem (and book) that draws you in like a lullaby — the clouds, the color grey, the cat, the beach — are conjured again and again. The pattern lends the book a predictability that someone might find calming even in abnormal circumstances. But I don’t want to mischaracterize Buckley’s book as gentle or relaxing to read. Buckley makes big asks that push the reader outside the comfort-zone of denial (of our shortcomings, our mortality, and more).
In “At Arroyo Burro Beach,” Buckley returns to the beach where the speaker is “shuffling back/ and forth before the waves” and follows his aimless thoughts until dinner:
It’s quiet now
at the tables, and I can sit
with a glass of something before
the regulars arrive from work.
I no longer have to think
about work, and so focus
on the essential question
of my breath, the most likely
answer to What’s Left?
It matters not to dodge
the truth, like the plovers
flitting and side-stepping
the tide, edging in an[d] out.
It’s appropriate that Buckley’s approach in this poem is linear. Some of the other pieces in this book are slightly more elliptical or at least are spread across the page in irregular line breaks. This piece is strongest because the form does not side-step the question: What’s Left? “Nostalgia for the infinite is all we’ll leave behind” he writes. But who cares about form or function in the middle of a pandemic? I don’t want to talk about why the poem works.
I want to tell you that I’m having difficulty not flitting and side-stepping and, in the few brief seconds when I can acknowledge how little time may be left for any of us, my hands sweat and I must give up what I’m writing. I suppose it’s a little OCD tic of magical thinking: If I tell you that any one of us is lucky to have made it through the past four months and that that luck is essentially the same luck that allows us to live past any ordinary moment, the magic will run out.
My friend had a brain aneurism mid-pandemic and survived. Another friend went in for a routine surgery and died on the table. What does that say about What’s Left? Nothing I want to admit to.
At least Buckley had a sense of humor about it. In “I’m nothing” he writes:
I’ve read the Cliff Notes
on parallel universes
and Super Strings
they only explain
why things are always
in a knot, why everything
has to be done at least twice,
conclusions already reached
from a life in academia.
Today I don’t have much use for humor but good for Buckley. I noticed that here, too, I am drawn to a linear poem. Though it poses big questions, the work is accessible. I hate to say “accessible” because that makes it sound easy or simple — and that’s not true either. I mean to say that Buckley stands out of the way of the work. He lets the content complicate, not the form.
There are a few poems that, as I mentioned earlier, spread out across the page. I didn’t connect as much to these, though I suspect the form mimics the process of sketching the poems out on the yellow pad Buckley refers to throughout the collection. Or, even, the clouds that drift across his skyline as he meditates on his life and the nearness of the end of it. My favorites of these is the long poem “Entropy by the Sea” which opens with a beautiful quote by Su Tung-Po: “I know that a great man is indifferent to life and earth, / his body changing form, gone with the floating clouds.” Here, it seems to me, the speaker tries to reconcile himself with this notion of a great man, as in the poem’s opening lines:
When you look
out into the night, it’s clear that
in every direction
with silence — a deep nothing
that awaits us
An indifferent man would not feel threatened by that deep nothing, according to Tung-Po at least.
As the poem progresses, the speaker tries to make sense of the first law of thermodynamics (that matter cannot be created or destroyed) and the second law that says, less comfortingly, that systems degenerate over time until they fall apart. The speaker wishes for a sign “even an afterthought/of a cloud/with some mist/ of perpetuity we could put our finger on.” As the poem reaches its final, poignant section, the speaker comes around (somewhat) and strolls the breakwater “as if half my grey cells/had not already drifted back out to sea.” It’s a momentary acceptance, given that the book pushes and pulls against these metaphysical questions in dozens more poems. The speaker/poet never does settle into a comfortable space, at least not permanently. The need for a sign from the universe, or God, or science, whatever, resurfaces.
Reading Agnostic during the pandemic was accidental but fitting. Self-preservation requires some ability to ignore the irrefutability of one’s mortality. It’s difficult to allow for that ignorance as our world is decimated daily by a virus, but most days many of us do it more or less successfully. Agnostic troubled me deeply this weekend; I notice how sterile I must be even to explain how I am feeling without spiraling out. It did more than trouble me. It scared me. I am not ready to think closely about what it means to be extinguished.
It hurts my heart and my guts too much already just to consider the social and political mechanisms that decide for us who should be extinguished more quickly. But this is not really a socially or politically driven work, so I will restrain myself and, instead, circle back to a couple of lines in Buckley’s “I’m nothing”: “At least the clouds/are not dead yet and so/there’s still something/to work with despite no evidence/of metaphysical support.”
Here on my balcony, the clouds are pure white. Very different from Friday’s dark gray that dumped raindrops with such force that the neighborhood flooded in minutes. I see Freedom Tower with its blue light blinking. My husband has climbed finally onto the lounge chair beside me with Toni Morrison’s Beloved which, he says, is a difficult read. He hasn’t opened the book; rather he stares into the courtyard below where I cannot see whatever it is that has captured his attention. Not dead yet, I take what’s offered by this single moment. I watch him watching.
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Lisa Grgas is the Supervising Editor at The Literary Review. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Tin House Magazine, Adroit Journal, Ki’n, Common Ground, Luna Luna, Black Telephone, and elsewhere. She lives in Hoboken.