After spending last month home in the States, I’m back in London now, fielding versions of "So, are things as bad as they seem over there?" bundled neatly into casual conversation. I tell myself this kind of check-in is only natural. It's a friendly attempt to compare feeds and timelines, walls and headlines against what should be my eyewitness account from inside the calamity.
But most of the time, I’m at a loss for how to respond. Whatever I murmur rarely satisfies; and my replies are inevitably marbled with civics lessons, talk of American myths and complicity, my confessing to relatives' voting histories. And truthfully, if it could somehow lift us past our wincing and shrugs and head-shaking, I’d humbly defer to Rebecca Solnit because this is how things are, everywhere:
There are no words in the native languages for the new birds arriving in the warming far North...Chunks of Antarctic ice shelf the size of small European nations are falling into the sea, which is rising enough to threaten the very existence of some of the small islands in the world and the cultures of those islands...There are nightmarish things at large, and it is not my purpose to deny them. What are the grounds of hope in this world of wrecks?
That I've come to know those last two sentences by heart isn’t a surprise. Even if we never say them aloud and even if you’ve never encountered Solnit’s “Doubt,” I’ve learned they are here, nested in our off-hand chatter.
More honesty: I'm listening to that ending couplet as critical conscience and guide when I read. Not sure if that makes sense, exactly, but I’m following her lead into writing that owns up to catastrophe and which refuses to forgo the miraculous.
When Collier Nogues confronts the aftermaths of war and colonialism, when she asks “who is still paying, for my sense of safety…and in what currency?” with her erasures, I trust that the work of navigating our world of wrecks goes on because it must. When Matthew Olzmann gives thanks for the “deep black / against the regular black / of the night,” when Valerie Duff divines a spectral, shared “nothing there,” when Rebecca Gayle Howell braves loss with the rumble of “A Love Supreme,” I hear grounds for hope. Which is to say, Solnit opens a way for me to see the poems of this Dispatch (and perhaps our impulse to continue with Tongue at all) as reminders of what sustains us, what can too-often be left invisible, and what we fight to keep alive.
Matthew Olzmann Prayer Near a Farm by Black Mountain, North Carolina:
11:36 P.M., Early May
Our Father, who art in
heaven and also
the centipede grass and the creek
and the engine that warbles
roadside: thank you
for the black
silhouette of mountains,
against the regular black
of the night. Thank you
for the field between me
even though I can’t see it.
And thanks for the ability to imagine
what can’t be seen.
I imagine you
just as these lowing cows
must have faith in the field
as they glide across it
seeing nothing out here
but the outlines of each other,
an obliterated barn in the distance.
Matthew Olzmann is the author of two collections of poems, Mezzanines, which was selected for the Kundiman Prize, and Contradictions in the Design (both from Alice James Books). He’s received fellowships from Kundiman, the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, and the Kresge Arts Foundation. His work has appeared in Kenyon Review, New England Review, Brevity, Southern Review,and elsewhere. He teaches in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.
Valerie Duff is the poetry editor of Salamander. A 2014 VCCA fellow in 2014, her work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in POETRY, The Common, and Cortland Review. Book reviews have appeared in The Wolf, PN Review, The Boston Globe, The Critical Flame, and elsewhere.
A native of Kentucky, Rebecca Gayle Howell is a senior editor for the Oxford American. Her debut poetry collection, Render / An Apocalypse, was a finalist for ForeWord's Book of the Year. Howell is also the translator of Amal al-Jubouri's verse memoir of the Iraq War, Hagar Before the Occupation/Hagar After the Occupation. A Library Journal Best Book of Poetry for 2011, Hagar Before the Occupation/Hagar After the Occupation received critical acclaim throughout the U.S., the Middle East, and India and was shortlisted for Three Percent's Best Translated Book Award. Among Howell's honors are fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown and the Carson McCullers Center, as well as a Pushcart Prize. Howell's latest book, American Purgatory, was selected by Don Share for The Sexton Prize; London's Eyewear Publishing released the book to both the United Kingdom and the United States in early 2017.
Collier Nogues is the author of The Ground I Stand on Is Not My Ground, selected by Forrest Gander as winner of the 2014 Drunken Boat Poetry Book Contest, and On the Other Side, Blue (Four Way, 2011). Her bilingual, digital collaboration with Hong Kong poets and programmers about the ongoing aftereffects of Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement launched in June 2016. Her work has been supported by fellowships and grants from the MacDowell Colony, the Ucross Foundation, Vermont Studio Center, and Lingnan University. She teaches creative writing in the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s MA Program in Literary Studies, and is a PhD Fellow at the University of Hong Kong, where she studies contemporary poetry’s response to US militarization. She also co-edits poetry for Juked and curates Hong Kong’s English-language poetry craft talk series.
To read more work from these writers, view hi-res versions of images, and see archived issues of Tongue: A Journal of Writing & Art, pleasevisit tonguejournal.org »