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Not sailing to Byzantium: on poetry in a time of crisis

No one sleeps the night through anymore. The wings of endings beat near our faces, drop bones into our dreams.

Ordered to stay at home, even, in some places, to stay indoors, unable to disport ourselves as usual or to flee, we turn into dark corners where we trip over long abandoned piles of psychic debris, the closed stacked boxes of long past and as yet unconsidered events. This week, for example, I drifted into a memory the horror of which, tug as I might in any direction, has hardly been diminished by time. On the contrary, from a distance of what must now be 30 years, each aspect of what happened seems weirder and more awful than it did then, when I was a graduate student, living in Baltimore, and enrolled in a PhD program in Comparative Literature.

Motivated perhaps by the resonances between the present warnings about navigating public spaces and that other fearful moment, I found myself thinking about the time when another graduate student, a historian, a friend of a friend who was going to move into the apartment above mine, was killed. She was beaten to death just inside her door when she arrived home one evening, the week before she was to move into the upper floor of the triplex where I lived. After her death, everyone in our close-knit graduate community walked about anxiously, twitching and turning like dogs scenting the wind, tasting traces of threat and phantoms. For a week, five friends huddled at my apartment, sleeping on the floor. I finally had to send them home; they were making each other ever more afraid. Thereafter, clothed in a bravado I didn’t always feel, I was forever walking them to and from their houses and to various appointments. At least one of them is dead now too–from cancer, not murder; I do not know what has happened to the others.

I remember that at the murdered student’s funeral, B. let us call her, the old men who were her teachers (there were very few tenured women in those days) spoke of her beauty, as if that were all her brains. They read Yeats’ poem Sailing to Byzantium and did not think it strange, but it made me furious. She–of a character sparkling, vivacious and enthusiastic–had been murdered by someone in vicious hatred; she had been beaten until her life was snuffed out; hers was not an heroic, elegiac death, a death in which we could rejoice because she would never age. On the contrary, by declaiming Yeats’ lines–

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees,

those old men turned her death, or rather her funeral, into a country for old men. Wistful for the young in one another’s arms (or perhaps the fantasy of the young in their own arms–not so unusual in those days), they imagined that with Yeats’ lines, the nostalgia of an old man wishing to be young forever, they might do her honour, they might, with these lines be Caught in…sensual music again. But all of it was creepy; perverse even. Transported by their musings about their own loss of B.’s youth and energetic beauty, they meant Sailing to Byzantium to stand as a monument, thanks to the fragility of her life and the unexpected awfulness of her death, to fantasies of the glories of her unageing intellect. But these lines about the memory of a golden time when the clutch of pain or body did not matter were never for her really, they were always for them, her teachers–whatever had happened to her, she likely knew more about such pain than they or many of us would care to imagine.

A week or two after the funeral her estranged boyfriend was accused of the murder, but there was no clear evidence that he’d done it. The murderer was never found, but the boyfriend was soon ostracized and hounded out of town, more or less as a consequence of rogue group loss and mourning sessions led by a university psychologist that had become a ritual of hysteria and accusation, as if participants were reading from the script of The Crucible, rather than confronting and addressing their own guilt, loss and sorrow. (Another aspect of that time that was not unlike our own, rife as it is with suspicion and neighbour denouncing neighbour.)

Not long after that, every time I walked in the door of my own apartment the telephone would ring. And how are you now? a voice, always the same even voice, would ask. The police were utterly unconcerned, even in the wake of B.’s murder, that I was harried by a stalker who knew the instant I entered my dwelling. They recommended that I change my number and pay for it to be unlisted. And so I did (protesting at the injustice of the extra fee). For the next two years or so, until I moved, I knew the watcher was there somewhere. In self-defense, each time I came home I would race up the stairs and fling open the door with force enough to strike anyone standing behind it, every muscle tensed against the possibility that I too might meet B’s fate. That’s how it was in those days.

It still is. To be young and feminized is to be some kind of prey. That’s one of the consolations of aging: you become almost invisible. It may look as if I am distracted, but I still know the odour of danger, the hurtle of the world into cross-winds, the futility of any claim to preservation in the sailing to Byzantium.

Literature matters. Yeats’ poem was the wrong literature for B.’s funeral, and it is the wrong literature for this moment, for COVID-19, despite the fact that many more of the dead, at the moment, are in fact aged and men. Perhaps Sailing to Byzantium is no poem for anyone.

The place I need to look for the pertinence of this story, my story, which appears from one angle as if it is about B.’s death and the feelings of horror and injustice that ensued from it, is, at once, inward and outward still further, towards the ineluctability of my own death. Sooner or later it will happen, as it must; the question is, what is the literature that will help me to walk towards it, eyes open, thoughtful, unfleeing? What is the literature that matches life with death, finding transcendence in neither? My partner, Marike, is fond these days of quoting a line from Brahms Requiem:

Herr, lehre doch mich, daß ein Ende mit mir haben muß

Lord, teach me that I too must come to an end.

Or as the line runs in Psalm 39, verse 4,

Lord, make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days, what it is: that I may know how frail I am.

Why did I rage at the “old men” at B.’s funeral? Because they abandoned this lesson about how frail we are, how frail life and our planet is, for a chimera, a fantasy of their own refracted glory and immortality, without offering even a thought for how vulnerable B. was and had been. Even worse, they used her death and her funeral as a springboard for their own refusals of death. Understandable perhaps, but not at all discerning or conducive to wisdom, which was in part what we had looked to them for.

And now here am I, one of another generation of greying professors, driving my plow over the bones of the dead.

Literature doesn’t have to be wise, but sometimes it is. And “to take time,” as well as to make and to do, is at the heart of the meanings of poiesis, the Greek word at the root of what we call poetry. I think about what one of my favourite contemporary poets, Solmaz Sharif says about why she writes poetry:

Poetry is not a form of writing but of reading. A way of thinking. Of being in the world….I am looking for something that collapses the distance between myself and what is being discussed. That collapses time. Something that is driven by a gaze of love and grief.

Bound in and by love and grief and the anticipation of grief these days, let us use poetry to help us figure out another way of being in the world. Not simply to hide in our houses, avoiding one another’s breath, frightful of looking outward. Let use this time we have stumbled into, albeit under lock-down, to think about and respond to, as poet Juliana Spahr puts it in her denunciation of post-9/11 American warmongering, this connection of everyone with lungs (2005): “how lovely and how doomed this connection of everyone with lungs…”

Let us understand that we too will die, each of us; and that in our time of living it matters to reach out and to speak up against the increasing number of state gestures that threaten to become excessive force, surveillance and foreclosures of civil liberties. It matters to ask questions, and to try to conduct serious civil debate about the best routes to sound judgment and care. It matters to take time to listen to what the non-human parts of the planet are saying, as dolphins roll through Venice, and the air clears over Delhi and other industrial centres. It matters to reimagine our entitlements and travel plans, our airplanes and global expansions. What does a sustainable economy look like? Whom should it serve? What would it take to build it, and to engage both human and non-human actors? Why shouldn’t artists and poets study such things?

Whence, if not from breath and imagination come the wellsprings of our rage and our our deepest compassion, our capacity to be other-directed, our ability to mobilize vast public projects in the service of sustainability, dignity, human and non-human justice, and not just #flatteningthecurve? How from isolation do we co-construct the necessary movements to envisage, think about and respond to the urgencies and emergences that confront us now? Literature is a way of speaking and listening across distances, of inventing and creating projects in common. But so too is song, theatre, performance, activism. When, if not now, do we shatter our isolation and embody values that that are aimed at something besides prolonging our own fragile lives? Whatever comes next, we must be prepared to speak to and of it with all of the love and grief we can muster; to imagine; to act; to make; to do and not simply to obey. Daring to speak up—to share breath—is just the beginning. We must, as well, take aim at all of the forces that keep us in a variety of species of solitary confinement, rather than moving towards active and critical collusion as this novel Coronavirus shines a spotlight on every one of our social ills from food insecurity, homelessness and the racialization of incarceration to the failures of global capitalism and the wages of poverty, environmental injustice, and climate catastrophe.


William Butler Yeats, “Sailing to Byzantium” (1933)

Brahms’ Ein deustches Requiem Op. 45 (1868). Version conducted by Jukka Pekka Saraste with WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln – Kölner Philharmonie (2015) can be heard at; Solo Herr, lehre doch mich may be heard at 22:34

Solmaz Sharif’s comments are taken from a video by the Asian American Writers Workshop: Solmaz Sharif on Political Poetry and Documents (November 2017):

Juliana Spahr this connection of everyone with lungs University of California Press, 2005.

ποίησις : poiesis : making : the activity of bringing something into being that didn’t exist before comes from the verb ποιέω : poieo : I make; I do; I create; I postulate; I invent; I write; I cause; I prepare; I play; I act; I put; I take time

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