On Reading Poems These Days

What a strange time it is to be relaunching Tongue, which with Issue One back in 2011 promised to “embrace polyphonic exchanges across all conceivable borders—those of imagination, of language, and our inherited and enacted worlds of joy, repression, solitude, and violence”.

Responding to and reeling from the awful and immoral events in the United States, the United Kingdom, Yemen, Myanmar, the Philippines and elsewhere that have thrown tens of thousands of lives into disarray, many writers are no doubt wondering if their preoccupations and their chosen styles make any sense anymore. Readers, too, may doubt if reading the three poems that comprise this Dispatch, or lingering over Susan Makov’s art, is the best use of their time right now, when they could be protesting, volunteering, writing in to their representatives, punching Nazis in the face.

I don’t have answers. But it deserves reminding that running underneath and alongside the strange world events is the abundance of strange language. Gasp-eliciting headlines, the bullet-point, future tense disaster scenarios of conspiracy theorists, the humorous and horrifying signs at protests, the legalese of executive orders, George Orwell, memes, the carefully considered and immediately eviscerated Facebook statuses, the voicemail scripts for your representative’s office: all urgent, declarative.

What throws the strangeness of our language today into relief, for me, is the counterpoint of poetry. The three poems in this Dispatch remind me to think of the streamlining and elliptical effects of language, the ways in which it can clarify and beguile, reconcile and disrupt. How we need it, how we can’t trust it. How the dimensions of our truths are undergirded by it, and how those truths can collapse when language is brittle. How it can—as in the poems we’re sharing with you here—bring to your device’s screen god, polyphony, history, the Roman Empire, sex, treason and music and ask them to speak to each other.

To be clear, I don’t think you should stop calling your rep, giving your money where you think it might serve best and doggedly interrogating the news. But in the minutes before bed or before starting the day, I find it useful to think about and turn in my hands the moving map to the present moment that is language, our old friend and foe.