- heaven towards what by Darlene Silva Soberano
heaven towards what by Darlene Silva Soberano
Commissioned as part of FCAC Writes: a collection of new work by writers from Melbourne’s West and beyond, published online. Curated by Bigoa Chuol.
‘An orientation towards wonder, as a poet, is absolutely necessary. I really do sincerely feel that bewilderment is at the core of every great poem, and in order to be bewildered, you have to be able to wonder. You absolutely have to be permeable to wonder.’ —Kaveh Akbar
In an interview with Thora Siemsen, Kaveh Akbar says: ‘What a poem does is makes what is familiar to us new again.’ For this reason, I frequently cite ‘Object Permanence’ by Nicole Sealey as my favourite love poem. It is a poem that makes love strange—and therefore new. The beloved, for example, is ‘the animal after whom other animals are named’; the human is returned to primacy.
By Nicole Sealey
We wake as if surprised the other is still there,
each petting the sheet to be sure.
How have we managed our way
to this bed—beholden to heat like dawn
indebted to light. Though we’re not so self-
important as to think everything
has led to this, everything has led to this.
There’s a name for the animal
love makes of us—named, I think,
like rain, for the sound it makes.
You are the animal after whom other animals
are named. Until there’s none left to laugh,
days will start with the same startle
and end with caterpillars gorged on milkweed.
O, how we entertain the angels
with our brief animation. O,
how I’ll miss you when we’re dead.
It is a poem that is all highlights. I find myself delighted at every couplet. From Sealey’s opening call to bewilderment: ‘We wake as if surprised…’ Then, the rhythm and simile of ‘beholden to heat like dawn / indebted to light’; ‘beholden’ and ‘indebted’ are charming twin markers of love’s attachments—the little heat generated in a bed between lovers is grandly compared to the breaking of the sun at dawn. I want to draw attention to the last three lines of the poem:
O, how we entertain the angels
with our brief animation. O,
how I’ll miss you when we’re dead.
These lines kept rattling around in my head. The image of angels being ‘entertained’ in heaven—the sequence of ‘entertained’ followed by ‘brief animation’ creates a theatre in a divine space; when the concept of theatre and entertainment is unique to the realm of Earth. Sealey finishes with an ultimate exultation of earthliness above the divine when she writes, ‘O, how I’ll miss you when we’re dead.’ I am drawn to these last three lines because they skip past my cynicism and reach into
Even in paradise, I will still miss our earthly selves. Or, I’ll miss you even when I don’t exist anymore, and even when you don’t exist anymore. I’ll miss you wherever we go, even if where we go is nowhere. But how? How could I miss you even if I was dead? How could one dare to love even in death while there are some who don’t dare to love fiercely while they are living? The strangeness of these three lines is the point. Strangeness springs questions for the answering. A bewildering single line ends a poem of bewildered couplets. In essence, Sealey’s poem dares me to love wildly. How shall I respond to the challenge that Sealey raises?
Once lockdown began, it was difficult to look at any art. I could not even look at shower fog, for the shapes it made in the air. I listened to Frank Ocean’s ‘Cayendo (Side A – Acoustic)’ on repeat every night until I had no choice but to sleep. As for sleep, my chronic insomnia—which I’d never regulated consistently in my life until this year—resurfaced.
I became prone to lurches of despair within the first week, Before lockdown, I’d been seeing my friends daily—at university, at work. Dinners and bubble tea runs. Every Saturday, a group of friends would come over for D&D, though I never participated. It all disappeared immediately.
I also spent a lot of time in those early weeks trying very desperately not to drink, which left me with little energy to focus on anything else. I dropped out of school. Everything I was managing in February, I was still trying to finish in mid-July.
The space I kept for poetry in my life shrunk. What was the point of reading poetry now that I was heaving from one crisis to the next, amid a global crisis? What was the point of writing poetry?
In Omar Sakr’s talk for the National Writers’ Conference, In Poetic Times, he says, ‘I think of poetry not only as an action, but as a vital one. And I’m characterising poetry here as a way of looking at the world, a way of seeing, and a set of tools we use in the act of writing or reading it. It’s easy to dismiss poetry as pointless if you’re comparing it to an armed insurrection, for example, or if you’re expecting it to change the world in the same drastic and immediately obvious way as a war.’
When I first got into poetry, it was 2011. I was 13 years old and had a crush on a girl with beautiful blue eyes. We had played basketball in school together, and every morning I would conspire for excuses to talk to her. I was 13 and could not imagine a world in which my crush on her could be possible, or safely spoken out loud. I came across a quote one day as I scrolled on Tumblr: ‘You are a fever I am learning to live with, and everything is happening / at the wrong end of a very long tunnel.’ Like ‘Object Permanence,’ this poem dug through my repression to return what I thought could be shaven away. That, I thought, that is exactly how I feel.
I searched up the quote and found the poem ‘Straw House, Straw Dog’ by Richard Siken. At the time, I’d never really read a poem, and I was completely unequipped to comprehend ‘Straw House, Straw Dog.’ It was a strange poem, too. For instance, what did ‘Straw House, Straw Dog’ mean? The opening section of the poem goes: ‘I watched TV. / I had a Coke at the bar. / I had four dreams in a row // where you were burned, about to burn, or still on fire.’ Why did these details matter? What was the writer trying to tell me? Even now, as my knowledge of poetry and poetic devices have grown, I still don’t really ‘get’ the poem. But I am still captivated by it because it eludes me. The day I start fully understanding my favourite poems is the day I stop being devoted to poetry.
‘Straw House, Straw Dog’ wasn’t an armed insurrection, but it comforted me, for the name it gave to my feelings. With the name came possibility. Of what? I didn’t yet know—but it was something more than nothing, even if that something was loneliness.
There was only one poem I could bear to read during the first few weeks of lockdown: ‘On Joy’ by Taije Silverman, about a mother’s terminal illness. In those weeks, ‘On Joy’ became a lodestar for my grief. I sought a recorded version of the poem and, when I couldn’t find one, I recorded myself reciting it so that I could play it in my car on repeat.
My grandmother fell into a coma at the beginning of March. After a breathless week, she passed right before lockdown in Victoria began. I could not fly to the Philippines to attend her funeral. And at the same time I was falling deeply in love again—with a friend I did not want to be in love with. Someone who had left before. Among everything I had lost, these forms of grief emerged as enormous twin losses for me.
I kept repeating:
Maybe we don’t bear the unbearable. Maybe
we die with it. And in our place some larger,
less impatient shape may then be granted space
but I don’t want it.
Sometimes, when I woke up to the darkness of my room, I also woke to fresh grief, with a line stuck in my head: We will lose what we love, and our suffering / is useless.
Whenever I read or recited ‘On Joy’, I did not know which I was grieving for, until the twin losses blended into one other, and then all the other pandemic-adjacent grief blended into that.
During the brief few weeks when restrictions in Victoria eased, I was sitting with her at San Churros. I had looped my arm through her arm because it was a cold night and she was wearing a coat. I wore a pink nothing that masqueraded as a windbreaker. I rested my head into her shoulder and looked out at the row of streetlights on Swanston Street, right between Melbourne Central and the State Library. Grief took root in my chest and I thought, I am going to miss all of this when I am gone.
I said to my beloved, Oh I get it.
She said, What?
I said, I get the poem.
She said, What poem?
I said, O, how we entertain the angels / with our brief animation. O, / how I’ll miss you when we’re dead.
She said, Are you thinking about me?
I was… not. But I was so startled that she had even dared to ask that.
I, bewildered, said, Yes.
After that, the lines of the poem kept echoing through my head. One Saturday night, I went out with Hannah. I arrived an hour late, after mistaking the time we set to meet up. We ate Hokkaido Cheese Tarts on the State Library lawn, with her Mecca Maxima apron laid out on the grass. We talked for hours about things that meant very much and things that meant very little. We got very cold and we both pretended to one another that we weren’t. We sat in my car and watched K-Pop videos before I drove her home. It was a perfect night. When I came home, I lay in my bed and cried a little, thinking, O, / how I’ll miss you when we’re dead.
O, / how I’ll miss you when we’re dead transformed into a lens through which I examined everything. I looked, awestruck, at the tops of trees, passing cars, my wallet, a plate of french fries. I sunk into a deep gratitude, and was cemented in this gratitude for days.
Often, crises are exacerbated because of supposedly infallible claims to a solution. Poetry, meanwhile, calls to its own insufficiency. Poetry lends itself well to crises because it does not pretend that it can fix the crisis alone—not materially, or even psychically. When Sealey writes, ‘How have we managed our way / to this bed—beholden to heat like dawn / indebted to light,’ she is signaling to the fact that love—especially one that endures—is not accidental; it is built out of responsibility. Beholden. Indebted. This responsibility can only appear in the poem because it is realised outside of the poem, in the real world, where difficult emotional work is undertaken.
In ‘On Joy’, Silverman signals to failure when she makes this generous offering: ‘Maybe we don’t bear the unbearable. Maybe / we die with it. And in our place some larger, / less impatient shape may then be granted space’, and rejects it: ‘but I don’t want it’.
Sometimes the best a poem can do is give a name to hold onto when you wake up in the dark and your grandmother is dead. Or when you are looking out at the city, resting into the shoulder of someone you love so much that you want to be buried by her, so you’d never have to learn that she’d died, and that even if you were dead while she was dead, you’d still miss her. And you are understanding, very coherently, that actually, yes, you will die, and there will come a day when you see all of this for the last time. Maybe this name makes the grief for your own mortality bearable. Or maybe it makes it less bearable—and then you loop back around to thinking, thank God I am afraid to die, because there was a time when I wasn’t, and now there is such preciousness in my life. Thank God there is so much to miss.
The title of this essay is borrowed from Bradley Trumpfheller’s poem, ‘DO YOU KISS YOUR BOYFRIEND WITH THOSE VERBS,’ published in The Shallow Ends. The line in context is: ‘never say heaven unless you mean the past // tense of to heave. as in i am heaven towards what, in our old tongues / bumbled with noise & stations of scam-crosses, we might have called // each other : ’
The epigraph is from Kaveh Akbar’s interview with Thora Siemsen, titled, ‘Kaveh Akbar: ‘Bewilderment is at the Core of Every Great Poem’,’ published in Literary Hub.
The version of ‘Object Permanence’ by Nicole Sealey discussed in this essay is as published in American Poetry Review.
About the Author
DARLENE SILVA SOBERANO
Darlene Silva Soberano is a poet. Their work has appeared in Australian Poetry, Cordite Poetry Review, Peril Magazine, and elsewhere. Darlene currently serves as a poetry editor for Voiceworks Magazine, and is a recipient of a Hot Desk Fellowship from The Wheeler Centre in 2020.
FCAC Writes is supported by Malcolm Roberson Foundation.
1- Contains image provided by Darlene Silva Soberano, and illustration by Nadia Lian.