Here’s an essential epiphany from Elizabeth Jacobson’s new collection, Not Into the Blossoms and Not Into the Air: “It takes courage to be still, / to wait in the dark for nothing.” As someone who struggles with stillness, of body and mind—as someone who has trouble surrendering to darkness even when it’s time to sleep—I recognize the hard truth of these lines the way the pond’s soft belly must recognize the dropped stone.
Here’s an essential question from the same source: “How long does it take to wreck the good things we are given?” I confess that I’m frightened to know the answer but more afraid of this question not being asked at all—of failing to face our inevitable human failings, of missing my own mistakes as I make them.
Here’s an essential resolution, ibid, a gesture toward self-sustaining peace or perhaps simply survival of the will-not-quittest: “So I open my mouth for timber and steel, / and those jagged pieces of mountain that tumble down onto the road // and mark the way.” It doesn’t sound easy, though it does sound necessary. It doesn’t sound beautiful, and yet it does.
These three oracular moments (and many more) appear in Jacobson’s astonishing long and penultimate poem, “Here is a Pilgrim on a Waterless Shore.” For those who have endured hurricanes in coastal regions, the phenomenon of the “waterless shore” is haunting and unforgettable. For all of us, human pilgrims wandering in perpetual paradox, the “waterless shore” strikes a deep and existential chord. If the shore is defined by water, then what is the shore without it? And who are we when our most trusted givens begin to unravel right before our eyes—through physical age, through climate change, and through the failure of self-delusion to keep us fully shrouded from ourselves.
Even the title of Jacobson’s book, which appears in the penultimate poem as well, attends to the interstice between two negations—not into the blossoms and not into the air. So where, then, precisely? The stem, the trunk, the root structure? What tethers us to this earth and to our own lives when we are neither flowering anew nor floating away?
I would say this is a book for everyone engaged, or willing to be engaged, by such questions, but perhaps it is a book specially made for those living anxious, furious, and heartbroken in the post-November 2016 Trumpocalypse. You’ll be relieved to learn his name never appears in the collection, yet the sway he holds over our present zeitgeist seems foreshadowed on every page. He is part of what so many of us, including the poet-speaker, seek to define ourselves against/distinguish ourselves from. But how? More than what or even why, I think how is the essential poet-question, and Jacobson is an essential poet’s poet.
I would also say this book feels eerily instructive for me at this particular moment in my life. As I read, I half-expected to turn the page and find one of Jacobson’s luminous epistolary poems addressed directly to me. When the book arrived, I was feeling especially fragile, helpless in the face of so much devastating world news. I have been trying to figure out how to live more kindly and wisely on behalf of my fellow humans and the planet we share, struggling to determine what this would look like on the smallest daily scale. I’ve been slowly converting to vegetarianism over the last year, for instance, and spending more time in the natural world—listening and appreciating, trying to step lightly on the face of the world, trying to replace guilt with gratitude, trying to replace helplessness with helpfulness—trying, of course, which also means failing. At the same time, I have been reading Basho and Sei Shonagon for a seminar in hybrid forms I’m planning to teach in the fall. And I’m also seeking to celebrate a long marriage (seventeen years in June—five of them legal, all of them sacred) and sing my own body electric into its fortieth year.
In Not Into the Blossoms and Not Into the Air, what do I find? A poet-speaker struggling with helplessness, with witnessing pain, with inflicting pain, too, with losing beloveds, with confronting death in all its forms. This poet-speaker is writing to Basho and Sei Shonagon, is celebrating long marriage and the new invitations and permissions that come with age. This poet-speaker is, above all else, reckoning with the world as we knew it, becoming the world as we know it now. Here, let me show you:
In the first poem of the collection, “Birds Eating Cherries from the Very Old Tree,” we are immediately invited into the speaker’s inner life as she witnesses the larger world:
I thought I would make a short list of what is not a feeling.
Birds are not feelings.
Birds eating cheers from the tree are not feelings.
This is the best entertainment, I say to myself, watching birds eating cherries,
and now I have made a feeling.
The late and infinitely inspiring Mary Oliver once wrote that a poet’s job is “to pay attention,” that this is “our endless and proper work.” Jacobson is a poet writing into Oliver’s legacy of attention, bearing witness to the beauty of the natural world—but not only to beauty and not only to the natural world.
Later in the same poem, she writes with her signature literary equanimity:
A young sparrow flies from the cherry tree, giddy perhaps from all the sweetness,
And crashes into my window, breaking its neck.
The bird is warm in my hand.
And I have made another feeling.
If we are committed to paying attention, Jacobson reminds us, we can’t look away from what is painful to watch, or pretend what makes us feel helpless and sad hasn’t happened. Looking can be a way to honor, a way to pay our respects.
Then come the poems of culpability, of paying attention to ways we fall short of what we promise ourselves to be. Jacobson writes:
They were killing flies at the Zen center.
yellow strips of flypaper
hung like lanterns in various places around the zendo
until one of the visiting teachers complained,
and the residents took them down.
in honor of the fact this teacher was a Tibetan Buddhist,
the sticky mess was carried out back by the compost heap,
and chopped to pieces with a wood axe.
How hard it is to live with contradictions! But harder still to live without them.
Jacobson’s lens of attention soon zooms in even closer on the poet-speaker herself. It isn’t just others who contradict their good intentions with conflicted actions; the self is also implicated in these practices. In her epistolary poem to the Japanese poet and lay Buddhist priest Kobayashi Issa titled “All the time I pray to Buddha I keep on killing mosquitoes,” Jacobson begins by confiding:
Issa, I killed 8 gophers this fall, held
each cold body in my open palm,
stroking the river colored fur between their silent black eyes
before dropping them into a plastic bag.
their little hands were cupped
as if in death they cradled one last thing
because nothing does not continually hold
all of what remains.
I realize I’ve never seen a gopher before, and then, because of this poem, I realize in a way I have, and then I’m moved inexpressibly. I’m tearing up, for the gophers I’ve never seen but now also can’t forget. I’m emotional, but it’s never just about the gophers, is it?
What I love about this poem, painful though it is to read, is the way the speaker writes directly to Issa, as if his statement about killing mosquitoes had been written directly to her. The dialogue is so candid, uncoded, as if a conversation between old friends who just happen to be pen pals across two centuries. Notice, too, how Jacobson’s speaker responds to Issa not by judging his actions but by sharing her own. There is no But how could you do such a thing, Wise Teacher! Instead, there is the empathy of parallel experience, of sharing a similar story of human contradiction.
Both Issa and the poet-speaker want to live peacefully as spiritually awakened beings—both have also knowingly caused harm and will again. Other poems in the book, including “Bad, Bad Bodhissatva” and “Killing a Turkey at Belle’s,” echo this difficult sentiment. All poems in this book move with grace and humility in the face of our shared human failings.
But for all the sadness examined in this book, for all the reckoning with privilege and complicity and ways of falling short, there is also unabashed sweetness and authentic reveling in love. From time to time, the poet-speaker’s attention shifts to her own aging body:
Underneath you, I don’t move the way I once did.
It’s not that I’m so ancient,
wiser now in these ways of body parts
Now I’m smiling, blushing a little, because I like to be reminded that desire doesn’t disappear even as it transmogrifies. Neither, of course, do the desirers. In a different poem that harmonizes with this one, the poet-speaker steps outside her body, outside the body of her beloved, and writes them both ekstatically, in every sense of the word:
They are more sensitive now than when they were younger.
The membranes a little thinner,
their nerve endings more fine-tuned.
I feel happy. I feel relieved. There is always something to look forward to.
Near the fulcrum of the collection comes a poem called “Smash Shop.” This poem is so attuned to our present zeitgeist that my palms moistened as I read it, and I shivered at Jacobson’s articulation of what I have been too verklempt to say.
A female body is more regulated than weaponry;
white tigers swim like sharks onto flooded coast streets;
This world might not be a mess
if individuals weren’t imagining God.
The poet-speaker’s friend has a proposed solution to all the fraught feelings that arise throughout this book, all the mixed feelings amplified by a cultural moment like ours:
My friend wants to create a Smash Shop—
a space where people can break as much as they want,
for as long as they like.
She envisions a warehouse full of junked cars
and thrift shop pottery,
long lines to get in,
because one of the things people do best
is destroy things.
So destruction makes us feel hopeless, helpless, yet one of the ways we feel more empowered is by destroying something else? Oh, vicious cycle! Oh, snake devouring its own tail!
Jacobson pays deep attention to our shared humanity. She knows already what I am just discovering for myself—that I too want to go inside the Smash Shop, that I’m enticed by the prospect of “a space where people can break as much as they want, / for as long as they like.” I can see how it might make me feel better in the short term to embrace recklessness without consequence, even if it’s recklessness of the most curated kind.
And at the same time, because I’m just as human as every other reader, just as human as the poet-speaker herself, I also want the opposite of what I want: a quiet space with nothing broken and nothing left to break. I want the acute tenderness of poems like these, which encapsulate so much of what I—and perhaps you too, fellow human, fellow reader—long to be reminded of, or perhaps to have affirmed for the very first time.
The full moon
pulling everything through.
It is the way of things to empty what is too full.
To hear a voice that [i]s exactly mine
And everyone else’s
at the same time [saying]
If you don’t do another thing
You’ve done enough.
In her letter to “Basho,” the poet-speaker also engages this poet by using his own words:
When you say, Learn about pines from the pine,
And about bamboo from the bamboo, I can do this.
When you are in Kyoto, longing for Kyoto
I am on my mountain, longing for my mountain—
Walking among the things of this world that we call no world,
Yet are, all the same, the world.
In my letter to Elizabeth Jacobson, I write:
When you quote Basho as having said,
Learn about pines from the pine, and about
bamboo from the bamboo, I am thinking how
much of poetry I am learning from you, a true source,
a wellspring of poems. I am thinking also of what
is not into the blossoms and not into the air,
which of course is the poetry book you have written—
a bird’s nest on a branch, a little sanctuary
in a storm. Thank you, Elizabeth—if I may—
for leading me, in your own words, “clear-eyed,
into the snare.”