by Emma Bolden
God if any part of you is like us
you must be wondering—you must be,
mustn’t you?—if beauty was a bad idea.
Down here we poets watch our bruises
then praise them as blooms. Down here it isn’t
just the poets who are problems
but all of us in your burning cities, looking up
to admire the smoke. God, down here
so many of us believe in you as busy
because we believe in ourselves as your image.
And we ourselves are so busy believing
your business has anything to do with us.
If I’ve learned anything from a sky, it’s silence.
And a crocus will punch its purple fists
through the snow whether we are there to see it
or not. Whether you are there to see it or not,
sometimes in a night I wake to all that is absence
and ask for any inkling of you as a presence—
a streetlight leaking its orange through the blinds,
four ones in their red row on my clock, the smug
security every door feels when I finger its lock—
and the one thing I will not allow myself
to wonder is if this is the business of belief,
a desperation so acute I’m willing to forge
your signature under any scrap of light and then
deny it unto death as the work of my own hand.
During the early days of the pandemic, I found it impossible to write poetry. I’d always used poetry as a way to understand my experience—to explain my world and myself to myself, if you will—but suddenly I was a self I didn’t recognize living in a world I didn’t recognize. I wondered: was it even possible to explain something so inexplicable, even if only to myself? And how was anyone to find beauty in the midst of a world gone so terribly silent? I realized, eventually, that I couldn’t write poetry because I was trying to write the same poems I’d written before, poems that now seemed to belong in a different world, simply because that comforted me. I wasn’t—and perhaps never had been—facing the world as it was.
One Sunday morning, a local television channel switched from the news program I’d been watching to an evangelical church service. I stayed for the first parts of a hymn of praise, shocked by the sudden transition but also by the sheer incongruity—if not absurdity—of a hymn about beauty and blessings in the face of the dire news I’d just heard. I wondered what it meant to insist on the world as one of grace and beauty and ignore its suffering—especially when so many seemed to ignore any responsibility to act in a way that might stop others from suffering. I wondered if I had been doing the same.
I found myself ready to write again when I found myself ready to write from a place of discomfort and disquiet. This was the moment I returned to, and this is the poem that appeared as a result.
Emma Bolden is the author of three full-length collections of poetry—House Is An Enigma, medi(t)ations, and Maleficae—and four chapbooks. The recipient of a creative writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, her work has appeared in The Norton Introduction to Literature, The Best American Poetry, The Best Small Fictions, and such journals as Mississippi Review, The Rumpus, StoryQuarterly, Prairie Schooner, TriQuarterly, Indiana Review, Shenandoah, and Greensboro Review. She currently serves as associate editor-in-chief for Tupelo Quarterly and an editor of Screen Door Review. Bolden's memoir, The Tiger and the Cage, is forthcoming from Soft Skull Press in 2022.