The Last Poem I Loved: “Made Flesh” by Craig Arnold
I met the poet Craig Arnold only once. It was late February or early March of this year. I was at a coffee shop in Salt Lake City, I was suffering from the hypersomonlence of Adderall withdrawal, and I had just taken a hit of acid. What the fuck was the point, not just of being alive, but of anything? I had been thinking just as much over the past year. Indeed, I did more than just think about it the year before, but that is another story and it is boring to talk about. ‘I don’t know what to do,’ I said to my friend Josh as we drove to the coffee shop. ‘I feel like I can’t relate to anyone. I feel like I’ve lost my ability to write. Basically, I feel like blowing my fucking head off.’ ‘Take this tab and think about things,’ Josh told me.
And there we were drinking our coffees and reading when I noticed my former poetry teacher Rebecca Lindenberg standing next to a slender man with a shaved head at the register. “Rebecca,” I said. She turned and smiled. We exchanged pleasantries, then she turned her face to the man next to her and introduced me. ‘This is my partner, Craig.’ I knew who he was. We shook hands. I read he had won the Yale prize, though I had not read any of his poems.
I knew hardly anything about the man, but from class those months ago I had learned that he spoke Spanish. I asked him if this was true. He said yes. ‘You have to read this, but you should read it in Spanish’ I said, raising the second paperback volume of 2666. ‘Where did you get that?’ he asked. I told him about the two versions of the book that had been published last November. ‘It’s so good—easily my favorite book at the moment. You have to read it,’ I said. He told me he was reading The Savage Detectives. ‘So good!’ I responded. I remembered almost nothing about that book, though I obviously didn’t say so.
While the three of us were talking—about the poetry classes I was currently taking, how Rebecca was one of the best teachers I had ever studied under, etc.—I realized I had completely forgotten about myself or the dumb shit I thought was ruining my life. What I was doing was talking to a great teacher who had influenced me greatly and a man who seemingly cared about books as much as I did. Before they left Rebecca suggested we get coffee sometime together, or a beer. It was the best compliment to my personality I could have received at the moment. After they left, Josh turned to me and asked ‘She was your teacher? How cool. That’s awesome she invited you to get a beer.’
Everything that had been bothering me was forgotten. I thought this great feeling, this erasure of the head-fogging stupidities of the last few weeks, was a product of the acid combined with being uplifted by those two poets. But I was wrong. The acid hit about twenty minutes later, and it was then that I googled Craig Arnold’s name. What I found was a poem entitled ‘Incubus.’ After reading this poem, I berated myself for not having sought out this man’s poetry before. I could have had more to say to him. But, of course, I never got that chance. I ordered the book ‘Incubus’ was in, then and there, a book called Made Flesh.
The book arrived the next week. I was feeling much better. No matter what people have said to me, acid can be a great therapy. Though, that isn’t the whole truth—acid plus books can be a great therapy.
I opened the cardboard package and immediately read the book. The last poem of the book, ‘Made Flesh,’ was exactly the kind of poem I find myself turning to again and again. It is a poem about love and sex and the impermanence of our bodies, our lives. The poem offers no consolation in this knowledge: ‘to know that this/ passing is all and here to find/ if not joy then a kind of peace.’ The poems that stay with me are those poems that ring true, not only in sound, but in the authenticity of its content:
like a warm breath over snowflakes
To know existence is just to come
and go to be a single moment
captured in crystal and released
the hold of a heart’s fist a jellyfish
fills and deliquesces a star
flares up fierce and yellow falls
into itself collapses oh
god the body is all a flower
we bud we put out petals swell
with the seed’s pulse loosen our pods
wistfully wilt on the stem and drop[…]
Commentary on such lines feels superfluous. In my despair, however momentarily or interminable it might have been, I have read this poem, not for solace, but a kind of understanding, a clarifying vision I sometimes forget is there, easily in grasp. The only other time I’ve felt this way about a poem was when I read Whitman’s ‘Song of Myself.’
And as anyone who cares about poetry, or who is reading this, knows, Craig Arnold disappeared on or near a volcano in Japan a few months later, in April. I didn’t know him. One of my friends asked me if he had been 2666-ed, a stupid phrase we use that implies horrible death. I smiled, but not because I was amused by what my dumb friend had said. I smiled because the only conversation I had with the man was about 2666. I responded: ‘No way. His death was the complete opposite of being 2666-ed. He was in a beautiful place, maybe one of the most beautiful places in the world, and he died doing what he loved. He obviously had deep feelings for volcanoes. He may have loved them. We are all going to die. His death was tragic. He was too young. That in itself is a kind of horror. But I can’t think of a better way to go out.’ My friend agreed.
In closing, I can only turn to the last lines of ‘Made Flesh.’ I read these recently in the back of the latest issue of Poetry. I remembered this ‘write about the last poem you loved’ business. I had write something. This is the last poem I loved:
FALL creeps like a slow flame
over a maple limb by limb
leaves that once fanned their hands
open wanting to put themselves
all over everything begin to glow
brave vermillion and lively yellow
let at last their fingers curl
into the palm and let go
The same fire is touching us
around the edges licking wrinkles
into the corners of our eyes
making the skin inside our elbows
silky as old coins
And when we lie
together and I feel your bones
blaze and the rose of your face unfolds
and the incandescence of your skin
crackles like the paper at the tip
of a drawn-on cigarette and dies
in a final fluttering of ash
Then then we feel death
as the deepest coming then we ease unhurried
into the bud of body then we learn
little by little to relinquish
gracefully and less afraid
each time to let each other slip
slowly out of our clasp made
fire made flower made flesh.