Slant

Our Crown

A coronal mass ejection from 2012. Source: Wikipedia.

“ALL OF HUMANITY’S PROBLEMS stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone,” wrote Blaise Pascal, but it is the peculiar trick of his—will it do anymore to call it “Occidental”?—culture, whose principles and values have crept in everywhere, to make it seem as though it invented the idea that any of us belong in a room alone ever, for any reason. 

Yet here we are, living out the apotheosis of that. And whether we’re in the room alone or not, the psychological task, the spiritual task has been universalized. In order to handle it, the luckiest among us—those of us who are staring down the barrel of nothing worse than boredom and loneliness—are going to need skills and commitment on the level of the great yogis and saints, of deeply committed artists—simply to remain sane, or rather to attain sanity. 

What we are facing right now is death.

And somehow I wish neither to give comfort about this fact nor do I wish to scold you about those people and causes to whom and to which you should be devoting your copious spare time and, very likely, dwindling material resources.

There are things I could say about what artists know about being alone, about the transubstantiation of loneliness into solitude that has guided us spiritually since the Buddha first left his wife and kids to wander and sit under that tree . . . and long before that . . . I could preach to you about the touchless touch of the unified field, the negative space that unites us all, about the substance of our love and longing dilating like the auras all about us, about the immanence of God and the reality of angels, about how lucky we are to have the internet and how lucky we are to finally have a chance to learn how to use it for good instead of evil . . .

But I need to remind myself and you that what we are facing is death. It’s not just that people we love will die, but that every time we wash our hands and every day we don’t go outside, mathematically, fewer people will die. We have been drawn into a new calculus. But it isn’t just this either. I suspect we’re also moving into the death of the era in which any of us belongs sitting quietly alone in a room. Whatever America has been, and whatever we have been, we are facing its death.

And in another sense we are all pregnant and this is our lying-in.

When all this was first hitting and the moon was coming full, I was just beginning to recognize the tender buds & shoots of new friendship, of relationships growing, of a sense of place beginning to take root in me for the first time in a very, very long time. And the fuller the moon got the closer I got to bleeding, and the closer I got to bleeding the more I dilated with love and affection, and the more I dilated with love and affection the more I yearned for the one lesson I’ve only barely begun to learn—the lesson of not running away—not to punish me with the sudden withdrawal of new friends and lovers. I went down by the river one night, on the phone with my ex, the first warm night of the year, and the riverbanks should have been dotted with lovers, and the streets should have been loud with revelers, and all was as quiet, as though the frolicsome spirits of Massachusetts, weak and peevish as we may be, had been whipped into submission by the stern square-buckled shoe of Jonathan Edwards and his hellfire, Cotton and Increase Mather foaming at the mouth, Paul Revere hollering “The British are Coming” against an eternally future bourgeois hellhole of a silent night, nooses groaning from the weight of hanging witches, the whole grotesque history of this place and of our nation seeming to rise up against me in that silence.

All I could do for two days was listen to Donny Hathaway sing “For All We Know” and write love letters and ship adult undergarments and alcohol swabs to my hopeless, raving mother.

But that was just the beginning. Like so many of us I grieved to distraction not only for my family but for imprisoned people and people detained at the border and especially for the children separated from their parents, for kids in abusive households whose only refuge is school, for people like myself in complicated love arrangements that are likely to leave us in a state of untouched yearning for some time, for people with chronic health conditions that will be exacerbated by all this, for the elderly in cities, for people who cannot hug and kiss their parents one last time, for the death of our elders, for the wretchedness of our soul, that it has come to this. And yes, I wept too for the cancelation of my fun, my career, for all of it. But that was so long ago. I hesitated even to recount it here, because the grief dropped away in about two and a half days, to be replaced by something drier and almost elated, something simple and spare, like a headstone in the shape of a cross, made of two sticks tied together and poked in the ground, something lean and hard, like a pioneerwoman’s hymnal. Something like the pitiless old God who filled the breasts of old-time people and helped them do difficult, sometimes very wrong things.


Donny Hathaway, “For All We Know.”

We are facing death, but we are also pregnant, and this is a kind of lying-in. Some of what will come after all this is within our control and much of it isn’t. I find myself thinking of Sarah Schulman’s essential The Gentrification of the Mind (2012), which connects the devastation AIDS wrought in New York to predatory real estate and then to a more generalized and mass-produced enfeeblement of the human imagination. After (mass) death, we have seen in America, not only does a lot of mumbo jumbo come, but a lot of shitty high-rises, chain stores, gig work, and such dizzying and intricate varieties of loneliness only an American Satan could possibly contrive them . . .

And what happens if it simply proves too boring, too enervating, for you to perceive the miracle, and the drama, of its velocity, of the gift being made by you to you yourself?

Proust found a way to be in a room alone, Woolf likewise. The Zen masters, yogis standing on one foot for thirty years, Anchorites in their cells, young Lamas-in-training in their meditation boxes, Leonard Cohen on Mt. Baldy, even mean old J. D. Salinger in his cabin with his health food and poor Joyce Maynard . . . My examples go from majestic to miserable. A catalogue of exemplary solitude quickly gives way to the depredations and pestilences bred by the allure of a certain bad asceticism, whether it’s Ted Kaczynski, incel shooters, or the no-wanks and milk-chugging rituals of the Proud Boys. The Puritan shadow is long. Our decadence may well be disgusting, but our rites of purity, our feeble lunges at extremity, tend to be perverse and ugly too. Who will show the way to the good renunciation, the genial sainthood, the friendly and untormented view of the world, where is Rainer Maria Rilke, where is Mary Oliver, where is Etel Adnan, where is Alice Coltrane, where is Eileen Myles?

But maybe I am not making sense? I have to go gently with myself here, and write you as though I were writing a letter, because it is too soon to say what I think or to tell you what I think. . .

I find my mind revolving like one of the ancient women gathering fuel at the end of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” around modernists alone in rooms (and yes, Pascal preceded them) because they had something like the consciousness we have—a beginning of awareness of one another and of our difference and the beauty of our difference and also presentiments of the ravishing unity behind all this—and whether it’s Jean Rhys’s dancing girls in shared bedsits or Bertha Rochester raving under the eaves—or the convulsive and shimmering interiorities of a Lispector or even the early Nabokov of patrician consciousness confined to Berlin rooming houses, or the vast and essential corpus of prison literature, from the Marquis de Sade to Artaud to Eldridge Cleaver and Antonio Gramsci and Malcolm X . . . To the ecstasies of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and Julian of Norwich—but I mistrust the ecstasies of extreme deprivation as I mistrust the allure of ascetic purifications in the face of pestilence.


Terry Riley and Don Cherry ‎perform “Köln,” February 23, 1975.

And what about solitude’s products? What about great works of art? These lonesome productions of genius seem to me now like melancholy miracles of an epoch that has devoured without pity the real genius of this place, by which I mean Earth—the cultures, animals, plants, and spirits—hundreds and thousands of spirits, of every description and disposition—that have lived and even thrived here. It has occurred to me that art simply returns to the world some of the abundance it has given us, in the same way that in elder cultures song and ritual would do, and it has occurred to me that art restores balance to the world, which is tilted on purpose, and that there is something about this gift—compelled as it is from us—that is especially hard to accomplish with things set up the way we’ve organized them since the Industrial Revolution.

We cannot live without art, but the Promethean force required to bring it forth is immense, is even sick, an index of our greater sickness. It takes a quantity of human grit to accomplish anything great that I don’t see how any school could teach. And now everyone gets to have a taste of it: what it means, and what it takes to be thrown back on yourself, and to summon out of absolutely nothing, less than nothing, some kind of treasure, some kind of nectar on which not only you but others might feed, something deeper than food and older than even ideas and without which your soul would die. 

And everyone knows what it feels like when the soul—even if only for a moment—dies. We all know it.

But incarceration is not a mere metaphor, as I know you don’t need me to tell you. And yes, it has struck me that the mass confinement of a culture guilty of mass incarceration, whose wealth was built by enslaved people to whose descendants we owe reparations and to which legacy we are barely at the beginning of copping to . . . it has struck me that there is some poetic justice at work here. And all kinds of other fancies struck me. That this would lead to universal healthcare, the abolition of all prisons, the end of migrant detention. But we could very well also be in the last twilight of democracy, an end to which we have been being adjusted by our machinery and our leaders as long as I have been of age and certainly longer though I have no basis to comment upon what all that felt like before I could feel it for myself. 

And I have to go gently with myself as I write this. Because the conditions that make it possible for me to risk what I risk when I write—and if you don’t know it, I risk a lot, every time—are no longer here. Sequestering myself for hours and days and heaving up my soul and to hurl it back against the living world only works when there is physical love and crowds and surprises and voices and faces and touch on the other side. You’ll have to forgive me, or don’t if you can’t, if that sounds dramatic, if I seem to take seriously what I do to myself. But.

This is something I do to myself. Writing is something I do to myself. Art is. Nobody asked for it, not as I started, and even now when people do ask for it, they can’t understand and I wouldn’t dare make them responsible for the insane scarification, the pyres, the ascetic ecstasies and honestly the pornographies it yields. I don’t mean to make it your problem, what it takes from me, because I cannot do without what it brings. There is an insanity at the heart of it. It has not been my custom to complain about the precarity, the complicated love life, the way it can sensitize you to things so much you really do become flayed, skineless, walking through the world—I try not to make a thing of all this, the side issues, because this is my work and if I did not have it I shudder to think what I’d be making of my passions. 

There are times writing really feels like dying. Those of you who do it will know what I mean. And I do not mean to distress you, or to be the idiot poet flinging around unearned metaphors that I can sometimes be. There is an element of sacrifice at the root of a certain form of giving and what’s complicated is it answers a very deep need—not in others but in ourselves—and it sometimes feels like a form of self-harm, but the kind from which all kinds of cultures have always drawn succor.

I have been doing it long enough to learn some of the logistics and terms of blood sacrifice. I do it so it feels like hell. I do it so it feels real. But then I resurrect into a kind of normalcy. I am not one who would remake the world, even though I fantasize that I am. When I die to it I am a seed, buried in the world, buried in everything that is wrong with the world—but never against it. I will never ever be merely against. I turn into an animal to do what I do, and some shame remains in me about this fact, but dying like this is the only way I’ve managed to become a woman and enjoy all the things a woman enjoys.

I have no desire to remain a werewolf every day and I do not intend to destroy myself opening veins to write you now. I intend to ease off from making new writing for the public right now. I may have to become some other kind of animal for a while. I’m charmed that so many people are turning to art—and to prayer and introspection—during this time. I’m touched that people feel inspired. I too feel inspired. But I am going to see how far I can get away with deprofessionalizing now.

I wonder what would happen if I became a full woman, or if I remained possessed by and never came back to this emulsifying world of sense, in which those among us who are virtuous and candid are every bit as devoured as the tyrants and wastrels who brought us here. I don’t want simply to cling to the old modes of gathering, to the former economics, or to the approximation of werewolfhood and womanhood to which my adulthood amounted. The things I had to do to myself in order to make what I have made cannot be undone. Neither can I simply rehearse or redo them just because billions of people are now indoors, and maybe growing curious about some of the tools a few of us have used not only to refuse to be destroyed, but to give something back even though we had absolutely nothing to give . . . I am wary now of giving comfort. I want to, but more, I want to light up a little bit just how wild what we’re in really is. For something in us that could not trust ourselves lusted after this catastrophe . . .

Ariana Reines is a poet based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her newest book, A Sand Book, won the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award and is now in paperback.


Terry Riley’s “Shri Camel: Morning Corona,” part one.

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