Practicing Hope

I’ve never had much talent for hope, and what hope I’ve managed to summon tends to get squashed. It’s a feeling I’ve learned to distrust. Yet widespread public outrage at police assaults to Black lives and dignity: it springs from that four-letter-word. Protests and anger, imply at least some tiny spark of faith that the world can change.

I’ve been trying to write more poetry from and about hope during the past couple of years, and one of those pieces, “We Could Be,” appeared recently in About Place: Practices of Hope. I’ll be reading it–and listening to some of the other fabulous contributors–in a group reading today, Friday 6/12, at 7pm EST on YouTube Live (details above). I find poems of joy, hope, gratitude, and love hard to generate. For me, poems grow more readily from complex, often negative, emotions and situations: conflict often powers the turn or volta that makes a poem surprising; ambivalence and ambiguity somehow sharpen the language (I’m not sure how that last process works, but I certainly feel it). “Unsonnet,” a poem of mine recently published by Ecotone and reprinted by Verse Daily, operates in the latter mode of darkness and uncertainty. It comes from grief about my son growing up and getting ready to leave for college, and it ends not with optimism but denial and a wish to turn back the clock. I like the vivid language of “Unsonnet,” a poem that came relatively easily last spring; I started “We Could Be” four years ago and revising it was monstrously difficult. I don’t know if one is aesthetically better than the other. But the way the latter poem puts hope out there does seem ethically better. (Those are fighting words, I know, that poetry can have an ethics, but I think it can. It’s just slippery, as language itself is.)

Both the above poems will be candidates for a next collection, one day. Sweet published two more poems of mine recently, again about desperation struggling towards something better–there are links in this mini-interview. Honestly, being able to write more poems, and think concretely about a next book, seems far off, right now. Most of the drafts I’ve accumulated in 2020 strike trivial and less-than-half-baked. But poetry has always come back to me. Fingers crossed it will again.

I’m ending this ambivalent post with one last piece of writing: a statement my English Department just published. I’ve often described how alienating it can be to work or study at a place named partly after Robert E. Lee, where the general lived after the Civil War and is buried. I vacillate on whether to use the college name in my professional bios anymore (they do support their professors pretty well financially, and heading into a sabbatical, I feel grateful for that). My mixed feelings are common here. Many former students have put away their diplomas and tee-shirts, having learned that the name of their alma mater makes people assume they’re racist. I’ve stuck my neck out in campus protests many times, and I’ve often been punished for it while making little headway, so I didn’t make the slightest move, during this crisis, toward proposing an English Department statement that Black Lives Matter. But then a small group of younger colleagues did so, and they made it more meaningful than the rote statements most institutions are issuing so toothlessly: building in a fundraising campaign for two regional groups, a fund for Black educators set up by the local NAACP and the Richmond Community Bail Fund. From a group of under 20 people, they raised more than $1000 for each cause in under 12 hours. I’m amazed and nourished by the hope their work represents.

3 responses to “Practicing Hope”

  1. I’m glad to see the work that your campus administration is doing. It’s a step in the right direction. I can only imagine what a complicated thing it would be to change the name of a university, but I hope that the higher-ups are giving some thought to what the name of their school represents in this world.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Lesley. Here’s what sprung a while back, before Lockdown.


    When Pandora opened the lid of the box, hope alone
    in quiet defiance hid beneath the rim. And then grown bolder
    she tucked in her shabby lot with the dust and destruction
    and blew out into the world.

    I met her in a strip-lit corridor. She looked pale –
    more patient than doctor. Strange that here between
    the hand-wash stations and the drug cupboards
    hope should look so hollow-eyed.
    The lights too harsh? Or the expectations too high?

    Hope was one before me in the supermarket queue.
    So sad her choices, scattered like bewildered strangers
    finding themselves unaccountably in the same place.
    Quick-fix items for a moment’s solace, sugar-heavy,
    full of shallow promises. And that newspaper,
    the pauper’s almanac, with what and who
    and where and why folded like open secrets
    into its temporary sheets.

    Sometimes it seems that hope is a vapour
    caught inside my clothes. I catch its tang as old-time
    barroom fag smoke, a miasma I trail in spite of myself.
    So I stand upwind of stiff breezes, or where
    the pavement airshaft lifts it inside cleansing steam
    past the balconies, past the windows, past the rooftops.

    But for others it’s like some weird cologne;
    they turn as I pass and follow in my slipstream.
    We fashion, at such times, a chain of dreamtime links,
    rattling our reckless certainty through the halls and corridors,
    the bedrooms and the cloisters, the wards and cells,
    the arrival and departure lounges.

    Hope as phantom, hope as hive-mind drone, hope as marsh-gas…
    Hope is, in truth, a tumour close to the heart, inaccessible
    to the stoical surgeons with their probes and spatulas.
    It feeds at the fuse-point of the white and red, the coming in
    and the passing out. And even when it seems as though
    for you a night sky like no other shuts down your light into itself
    as if the stars themselves are going out, hope will metastasise.
    It animates electrolytes; it floods your wilderness of roots and shoots:
    it melts the filaments of heartbreak and despair.
    Hope has you at your open window, watching the black smoke rising
    in spite of the rain. Hope has you at the garden gate
    whilst beyond they’re beating down the bracken.

    Hope has you, wedged between your shrinking bones,
    wrapped inside the shabby folded leaves that are now your skin,
    and you still vigilant for the flapping door, the ticket-of-leave
    and the steady light beyond.

    Liked by 1 person

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