The theme for our 50th issue is both a question and a statement. Asking what sustains is what sustains us. To sustain is to suspend, to hold a note in the throat. It is also to support or encourage—the poems, people, and structures that make living possible. Whether or not something is sustainable has become the determining factor in judging whether a resource or practice is healthy. Is working 80 hours a week sustainable? (Probably not). Is publishing an independent literary magazine? (So far!). Is our carbon-intensive economy? (Definitely not). These poems probe the limits of sustainability in all its ecological, musical, labor-intensive, and emotional forms. The hope for this issue, then, is that it might sustain you too.
The issue’s opening poem, C.T. Salazar’s “Love, Circular Saw Blade,” figures desire as a kind of violence—the edge that we push and push against until it cuts us clean in two. Desire is sustained, held in the mouth like an animal holds its still-living prey: “The bird in the dog’s mouth safe / against a tongue with no vocabulary for want.” Once the throat is cut, desire becomes a thing consumed. Salazar’s second poem, “Noah’s Nameless Wife Takes Inventory,” resists the unsustainable narrative practice in which women are always accessories—minor characters in a history shaped by men. The list form of this poem sustains each word midair: the gap between each column becomes the space for new relations to emerge. Arah Ko’s “Eve Begun” also reconceives of a traditionally masculine story—the one in which the woman is the cause of humanity’s downfall. She infuses this narrative with desire, with a powerful feminine energy that digs deep into the present moment of want rather than abstracting to morality. This poem does not ask what will sustain but what is sustenance: “Tangle fists / in dark hair, and pull. Take / the fruit from her wet fingers, / swallow it whole.”
Cameron Lawrence’s poem takes us from Genesis to “Re-Genesis,” a paradoxical temporality in so far as “genesis” is the original origin and so to attempt to repeat it is always already to fail. This contradiction characterizes this poem’s longing, which meditates on the difficulty of choosing to begin again, and again, each day: “What it takes to keep / a home / after the making— // the patience to remake.” This poem shows us how nothing is static—that every home, every relationship must be continually tended in order to survive. It wagers that to do so one must resist the “myth of continuance,” in which our lives simply unfurl before us rather than being actively created by us each day. There is both a melancholy and hopefulness in this poem, which ends by transforming the weariness of repetition into the act of emergence: two bodies “walking / out of the sea // toward a burning / campfire…dripping salt.”
Rounding out our section of biblical re-imaginings—a practice that in itself works to make such stories sustainable—Michael Angel Martín’s poem “Psalm 23 (II)” literalizes the metaphor of Lord-as-shepherd. The conceit of this metaphor is that the Lord will sustain you if you go where he leads. The Lord in this poem, however, “prods / me further into blackening / greens until we collapse” and “prods me / to a bloody feast.” The poem ends with the sheep becoming the food that sustains the shepherd. Its final desire is to be wholly useful: “Please, Lord, / make use of all my parts, then mount my head above / the hearth.”
Emily Stoddard’s “Descendants” and Bess Cooley’s “Dear Love Poem, Dear Memory,” consider what is necessary to sustain a kinship that is colored by trauma and erasure. What sustains one generation may come at the cost of another. In Stoddard’s poem, the speaker searches the earth for what remains of a history that is no longer legible: “we sift remnants / of tongues, / break the / breath // we count / in generations / and this is / false math.” The speaker must reconcile the fact that her own life is built on top of the deaths of many others and wonders how to address that violence: “the ladder / of my spine / is lined by shores / that were not ours / to fish.” Cooley’s “Dear Love Poem, Dear Memory,” also addresses the past by directing its inquiry to a grandfather whose experience of time has collapsed future and past into one unending present: “I’ve been writing love poems to my grandfather who has started / to call me the poet, the stranger poet.” Litany becomes the method of survival here, of sustaining a connection between two people who are both at once estranged and strangely familiar: “For my grandfather I write the family names / over and over as they dive // into the shallow sea.” The connection is tenuous at best and the poem itself does the work of preserving what is soon to be lost.
The next three poems in this issue engage the ecological valences of sustainability, both in terms of the environment and in terms of maintaining relations between places, people, and things. Monika Zobel’s “But We Were Seawater” meditates on how the joint between bodies is necessarily vulnerable and prone to decay: “Like hinges bodies rust in motion.” Even movement cannot keep decay at bay, the elemental decomposition of the living. “Sometimes the world is // like a hinge,” writes Zobel. The world is not simply a space to be inhabited, but the ability to open and close, to join ourselves with others. L.A. Johnson’s “Safeway” brings us into the brightly lit, tightly packed aisles of a grocery store—perhaps the ultimate symbol of unsustainable relations. Here excess provokes rather than satisfies. The speaker describes how “the boxes / of rainbow cereals” that “reflect fluorescent / light” “make me never want to eat again, / meals a guilty burden.” This unsustainable abundance represents a system that produces want and waste in the same gesture. Produce becomes the index of this damaged ecosystem: “I would grieve over a tomato, its waterless future.”
Mark Wagenaar’s “Small Time Paradiso” offers us a glimpse into a community and what it takes to sustain it. Everywhere are the signs of decay and struggle: “There’s a Go Fund Me page / for a woman in town with cancer” that’s been “unchanged for months.” And yet despite being the “poorest town in the state,” haunted by specters of past prosperity, there is some hope in simply abiding in this place together: “the four of us drifting in a lifeboat / on the waters of wakefulness.”
Amalie Kwassman’s poem, “The Next Day There Were Birds,” expresses the labor of sustaining a loved one through the violence imposed upon them from within and without. “Brother” and “Sister” become enduring positions here, even as the distance between them grows: “Brother rewound the sound of blood over and over again,” while “Sister is writing for his ghost.” This poem probes the limits of preservation—that one’s love cannot alone sustain another. Sophia Stid’s poem, “The Body’s Next Room” sets the self against the body, trying to discover from what part the desire to destroy arises: “I had to live in- / side my body and // sometimes I did not / want to.” The oscillation between tenderness and violence characterizes the stakes of what it means to sustain a body in this world.
Amy Pence explores the form of what sustains in her poem “The Dash” by meditating on the typographical mark that suspends, separates, and connects all at once. Through etymological associations, Pence considers the hidden valences of the dash—its violence, its speed, its brokenness. A poem interrupted by asides and punctuation, “The Dash” considers “what binds us” alongside that which is “splintered & splintering.”
Finally, Anya Krugovoy Silver’s poem is about rupturing that which is not sustainable—about the poem as a space that declares a position even when it pretends otherwise. Her poem, “Ending with a Line by Wisława Szymborksa” reconsiders the relationship between the political and the poetic: “It is time for political poetry,” the poem begins. This is a poem that finds a way of bringing together two often opposed spheres by revealing how everything is always already political, quoting Szymborksa in closing: “Apolitical poems are also political.” Whether a garden or street, a riot or a song, the very language we use to construct even the most Romantic poem is imbued with the injustices such poems might try to ignore. This poem itself is now a way of sustaining Anya, who died last year from breast cancer. Her presence continues to abide with this fractured world, sustained by our bodies as we give voice to her words.
I hope these poems sustain you, as poems like these are what have sustained Ruminate through these 50 issues. Leave a comment below to keep the conversation is going—our poets would love to hear from you.
Read these poems for yourself in Issue No. 50: What Sustains
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