579: My Empire

579: My Empire

579: My Empire


I’m Ada Limón and this is The Slowdown.

I have a friend who, after she had just gone through her divorce, asked “When do we ever get to stop learning?” She was exhausted, freshly baptized with new truth. And we laughed then, but we were also surrounded by a silence that was heavier than our laughter. The lessons were all around us, and instead of getting smaller, more manageable, they seemed to be getting larger by the minute. What was once a sweet lesson about sharing became a big lesson about survival. I told my mother this once and she said, “I think when we stop learning, we stop living.”

That’s stuck with me because it’s true, but also because it means that learning is endless. It seems that every few years or so, I go through some experience that knocks me off kilter. There was that one time I realized ⏤ no matter how many meditations or self-help books or podcasts had said it ⏤ that *I* was actually the only person responsible for my own wellbeing. That was...monumental. Weren’t other people supposed to take care of me? Supposed to know what I needed, when I needed it? And that’s just a small example. I can list the life lessons I’ve learned in the last year alone and it would surprise you and embarrass me.

With the new year, we are all ready for change, expecting something to change. I don’t know how much changes when the clock strikes midnight, but I do know one thing: our little kingdoms in our minds get shattered from time to time, and sometimes that’s actually a good thing.

In today’s poem, we see the speaker begin to unravel what it was that was safe and almost enviable about living in the earlier bliss of unknowing. I love this poem because it shows us that we can have our illusions of self shattered and live to tell about it.

My Empire
by Kaveh Akbar

My empire made me
happy because it was an empire
and mine.

I was too stupid to rage at anything.

Babies cried at birth, it was said,
because the devil pricked them as introduction
to knowledge.

I sat fingering my gilded frame, counting
grievances like toes:

here my mother, here my ring,
here my sex, and here my king.

All still there. Wrath is the desire
to repay what you’ve suffered.

Kneeling on coins
before the minor deity in the mirror.
Clueless as a pearl.

That the prophets arrived not to ease our suffering
but to experience it seems—can I say this?—
a waste?

My empire made me happy
so I loved, easily, its citizens—such loving
a kind of birth, an introduction to pain.

Whatever I learn makes me angry to have learned it.

The new missiles can detect a fly’s heartbeat
atop a pile of rubble from 6,000 miles away.
That flies have hearts, 104 cells big, that beat.

And because of this knowing:
a pile of rubble.

The prophets came to participate in suffering
as if to an amusement park, which makes
our suffering the main attraction.

In our brochure:
a father’s grief over his dead father,
the thorn broken off in a hand.

My empire made me happy
because it was an empire, cruel,

and the suffering wasn’t my own.

"My Empire" by Kaveh Akbar, from PILGRIM BELL by Kaveh Akbar, copyright © 2021. Used by permission of Graywolf Press.