Open or closed

My favorite word is “or,” a hinge on which possibilities can open and close securely, which is an obvious necessity when using prose. But it’s more than that to me.

Ask a question using “or,” and you will understand. It requires you to imagine what might be. If you really wish to complete the thought of the question, there’s no escaping it. Use it in an imperative, and you must give the choice to the one spoken to. “Or” demands that you relinquish control. Use subjunctive or conditional moods, and the “or” is delightfully implicit.

Of course, in poetry, we don’t have to make so much sense. Non-rational techniques may be the quickest way to access that gate to possibility.

In his lecture “A Poem Is a Walk,” A.R. Ammons talks about the way that description and hypothesizing about the world must eventually reach an “antithesis logic can’t bridge” in any way other than in poetry. So it’s not exactly the opposite of making sense by using “and’s” and “or’s.” And, fittingly, he says, “Unlike the logical structure, the poem is an existence which can incorporate contradictions, inconsistencies, explanations and counter-explanations and still remain whole, unexhausted and inexhaustible; an existence that comes about by means other than those of description and exposition and, therefore, to be met by means other than or in addition to those of description and exposition.” For him, a poem is a kind of relaxed and common experience of strolling around one’s neighborhood, not a getting lost in a dark forest.

On the opposite riverbank, Rae Armantrout expresses her belief that poets are heroes defending the right of the individual — the dream that is so utterly individual — by “deflating cliches.” Enacting non-sense is the act of pointing out “fissures in identity and ideology,” those inflexible constructs that keep us bound. There’s also the way her poems “parody and undermine some voice of social control.”

Various voices speak in my poems. I code-shift. I am many things: a white person, a working-class person with roots in the South, a woman, an academic of sorts, a ’60’s person who still likes rock and roll, someone who was raised on the Bible, a skeptic, etc. My voices manifest their own social unrest.

Rae Armantrout, “Cheshire Poetics” in American Women Poets in the 21st Century, eds. Claudia Rankin & Juliana Spahr

She is interested in what happens when she says “or,” but often she leaps without such prefacing. The four poems in this short film explain and demonstrate this action of poetry.

I recommend leaving the gate of surprise propped open indefinitely.

Which brings me to the poetry collection I’m reading right now: [G A T E S] by Sahar Muradi, from Black Lawrence Press. She opens with a list poem, to invite us in.

[ ]

The one that belonged to her
The one where the light hit for the first time
The one between our houses
The one I crawled through to sleep on his chest
The one the dog squeezed through
The one at three over the candle and cake
The one at three at the checkpoint...

The poem makes me question everything: who, where, what, why or how. But I know that “when” is always right now in the emotion-moment.

Another poem, at the midpoint of the collection, explains things, but in the way of Armantrout’s layered approach. Each couplet seems to hinge on “or” implicitly.

[ ]

It's a matter of pulling my hat over my yes.
Not unlike shearing a wooden animal.

I have a balloon I am unwilling to let go.
I've been known to hurt adults out of the past.

If I don't say yellow, they'll think blue.
Therapy advised moving the corners of the box. 

Refuge in nature that has different eyes.
Refuge in the green climb of houseplants.

In the sugar face of the moon. 
In a power greater than a ten-tongued lily.

No one admits there are no saving words...

Or maybe the only saving word is “or.”

This poem read by Sahar (wearing ampersands for earrings, no less) will bless you and give you the golden core of “or.”

Hope you use today’s extra hour to write a poem stuffed with possibility, hope, and/or moonlight.

watercolor painting of tree with golden leaves

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