A vulnerability index measures exposure. In climate science, it estimates the resiliency of communities that will bear the brunt of rising temperatures and seas. In social work, it identifies who should be prioritized for services according to their health and fragility. In the financial sector, it gauges a consumer’s level of economic insecurity and stress. In all cases, to be exposed is to be subject to harm.
It is often a zero-sum game—to shore up one’s defenses can mean making another person vulnerable to disaster. Every gated community is dependent on a sacrifice zone somewhere— low-income housing near the toxic waste dump keeps poverty and pollution miles downstream from wealth. Those living on islands in the Pacific, which are already scarred by nuclear testing, watch their shorelines disappear as countries around the world burn fossil fuels without ceasing. Even people can become sacrifice zones—those onto whom we heap our burdens, whose well-being comes last to ensure the happiness and health of a family or community. The list goes on and on, but the lesson remains: exposure is dangerous.
And yet, exposure is also the process that turns latent impressions into brilliant color on film. It is the condition of intimacy, of sharing one’s self with another. It is the mechanism of learning, as new ideas, sounds, and people stretch our imagination and capacity for empathy. It is also the means by which the things we call beautiful and true are manifested in our lives—the revelation that both destroys and creates.
The poems in this issue are in and of themselves exposures. They bring to light the unsaid, the repressed, the ignored and model how poetry itself is an act of exposure. The “I” unadorned and vulnerable exposes itself to damage, critique, and harm. It is the index of subjectivity—of being able to act in a world that very much needs action.
Chaun Ballard’s poem “Minya, Egypt: May 26, 2017” repeats and reframes itself, line by line, attempting to defer the harm it cannot prevent from happening. A response to a real-world event, the poem is an index of vulnerability, of the constant deluge of violence that colors each day. It is impossible to hold all of this pain in one’s mind, and yet the speaker forces himself to imagine what is happening elsewhere in the world at the very moment he is simply “sitting at a Starbucks.” This poem mourns for what it knows must come—progressing through the various stages of grief. It repeats itself to deny what’s to come; it bargains: “Give them what they want”; yet it stops short of acceptance, ending at the moment right before the violence occurs, stuck in a perpetual loop of grief.
Melody S. Gee’s poem, “The Convert’s Heart Is Good to Eat,” enters the dark recesses of the body, where spirit, heart, and flesh knit together, ever in a process of becoming exposed. “What happens inside a body happens / in darkness,” Gee writes. The strange conversion of sugar into flesh, of spirit into matter, guides this eerie meditation on consumption and sacrament. This constant oscillation between exposure and consumption takes the shape of a fruit ripe for plucking, as “The convert’s heart hangs low for gathering / and open to the animal bargain of sugar.” Take and eat.
Jess Turner’s “Vampire on Dance Floor” is also a poem that consumes, in both form and content. A “golden shovel” is a form that incorporates a line from another poem (“more hunger than my body can hold”), dissecting it into individual words that are then dispersed throughout the poem at the end of each line. In this way, the original line acts as host, as the new poem feeds upon it and grows a life of its own. The figure of the vampire enacts this very relationship, and the speaker welcomes it. The poem opens with an act of erotic exposure: “I’m offering my neck more / tender than ever. Here, where hunger / is blacklit & burning. Imagine the tear, easier than / tissue.” Vulnerability, here, is the condition of possibility for the poem itself.
“Lot’s Wife” by Danielle Weeks reconfigures the trope of the woman punished for longing. Here we have a present-day interpretation, as the nameless wife sits, smoking in a car with her friend, discussing death: “we talked about whether it was better / to be buried or cremated in the end, or if we could become / metal, eternal, the worn-out pieces removed as needed.” The body, exposed to the elements, whether the “unfiltered sight of God, or angelfire,” or just the daily decomposition of living, eventually becomes indistinguishable from anything else, reduced to “this small point of everything.”
Levi Andalou’s poem also considers the relationship between the body’s constituent parts—how they are reformed through the exposure to dimensions both real and imagined. Indeed, the line between those two realms is nearly indecipherable, as the poem becomes a thought experiment within a bodily one and the speaker tries to imagine space without mediation: “The / dimensions of the body when the eyes are closed. The / dimensions of the room when no one’s there.” The speaker deconstructs the architecture of the poem and body, one dimension at a time, exposure a method that might allow him to “[glimpse] what is truly to be had in this / world.”
Rebecca Doverspike measures loss by what’s been left behind. A record of vulnerability, of what has been clear cut or cleaned out. The poem opens with an image of this residue: two trees that memorialize the forest that once was there. The weight of this absence is palpable: “I tremble with what’s not there, full tenderness; / the heart holds more than its own lifetime.” Every life, every poem, every sound is filled with the “ghost of something else.” These past lives echo inside what remains: “When I hear traffic on a hike through the forest, / I think of how an ocean used to be there but now a road.”
“Silk Lessons” by Karen An-Hwei Lee unwinds the intricate materiality of silk. The poem traces the meticulous labor and history of what has becomes the representative commodity of luxury, exposing the life harbored inside this material. For example, we learn from “The Second Silk Lesson” that “Silkworms no longer exist in the wild due to / overharvesting. Use over a thousand cocoons / to reel one pound of silk.” That silk is not simply an inert fabric, but a web of life, is revealed when exposed to flame: “it emits an odor like burning hair” and “turn[s] to ash.”
The poems by James Crews and John Poch both collapse space and time as they try to account for change that is metaphysical and material. Crews’s “Time Capsule of the Early Twenty-First Century” tries to remember the stars, which are now hidden “behind the ever-brightening / skyglow of light pollution,” unable to preserve “the glittering plan and pattern / of things not made by humans.” Poch’s poems, from a larger project named “River,” recall the Heraclitan logic of change—that one can never step in the same river twice. Rather than the human as the subject trying to test the current, this poem tracks how the river itself changes, becoming the agent of a chain reaction: “A river changes course. / This boulder fallen from the cliff face makes / a stream, a bank collapses.” Time itself is an agent that exposes the instability and ephemerality of even the vehicles for our metaphors: no longer can one rely on the truism of stars as constant or rivers as flux. The vulnerability of the material world necessarily revises the metaphysical truths once thought unalterable.
John Blair and Kevin McLellan each approach exposure as a process of transformation, of coming to terms with what cannot be spoken outright but only written toward. Blair’s “Veil of Tears” converses with itself, adjusting and calibrating its images based on the sonic logic of the veil / vale as it leads from one image to the next: “It’s vale of course, some vined / valley sedge-ish and lush / and rambled by long-limbed // girls and wild boys with spears / or maybe just desert.” The poem winds toward the veil it must lift to address the grief it cannot: “and the grief you hide is / the grief God gave you when / he smote your turning cheek.” McLellan’s “Grotto” works through the rich veins of memory toward an “obscure opening,” trying to make sense of the past: “You / left 23 years ago // and I’ve been at least // 23 people.” Like Blair, McLellan is invested in how sound and sense guide and collide. The light seen through the poem’s “obscure opening” transforms by the poem’s end when the speaker himself becomes “alight.” The self becomes the thing that illuminates the dark corners of memory, exposing what it has become.
Thank you for reading these poems along with me. Reading, too, is an act of exposure, and the Ruminate community is eager to hear about what new ideas, images, or words this issue has revealed for you.
Get the full Issue 48: Exposure here.
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