For two years I’ve had a poem by Seth Landman taped to my refrigerator. When I asked him about it recently, he didn’t know what I was talking about and told me it wasn’t published anywhere. The poem begins:
What was there
I figured I might as well
take comfort in and what
wasn’t I figured
I might as well not
I’ve given this stanza a lot of thought over the last few years—trying to understand why I’m so captivated by it.
One summer I was spending a month on a mountain in Northern California. I woke up one morning at 4am and couldn’t stop thinking about this poem—this stanza, so I got out of bed and went to the porch, where the fog and dark were impenetrable. I wrote about it for two hours. What I wrote had a lot to do with belief, resignation, George Harrison, and egg flower soup. I was pregnant, and at the time was writing my daughter letters about what it’s like to exist here. This stanza feels inextricably linked to that experience.
The uncertainty that has come to define the last century is present here, as is an exhausted resignation. This stanza gives us both the moment we agree to what’s there and the entire lifetime we’ve spent arriving at that moment. It has the possibility of a conditional experience, as well as the possibility of a philosophical devotion. The construction hesitates: nothing is definitive except comfort. The repetition of “I figured” and “I might as well” indicate a tonal mysticism, one that is conclusive in its Melvillean muscularity.
There isn’t a search for belief here, but instead the residue of what that search has produced. The stanza makes us question what has transpired in order to arrive at this moment—what human events have taken place. It seems both cynical and calm, sad and compliant, permissive mostly—how we grant allowances for ourselves in spite of the terror of existence.
I think that a lot of that terror in the contemporary context has to do with the unfortunate reality that signs don’t amount to understanding, and as much as we try, we can’t arrive at a place where they do. This stanza (and Seth’s work in general) pushes at the boundaries of a knowable world, and puts things against that world that dissolve; however, this doesn’t produce the anticipated anxiety that it could/should, but rather results in a quiet acceptance, which is something I want to happen in poetry—I want there to be a pilgrimage, or at least I want poetry to hint at an excursion toward belief. I also want to be able to locate a moment of acceptance about the process of coming to belief. It seems important for the poem to agonize in some way, whether it be muted or turbulent.
When I read these lines, I recognize my own human form. They make me think about what it means to be alive in a place and have a body, and what it means to have processes and thought—to have an internal structure that compulsively searches and to have the capacity to quiet it.