666: Against Mastery

666: Against Mastery

666: Against Mastery


I’m Ada Limón and this is The Slowdown.

In poetry we often talk about mastery, we have master classes, and master courses, and we talk about our mentors and heroes as being masters of the craft. But the word master is loaded, isn’t it? It comes with the idea that if we become masters, we must then be in charge, be in power, have dominion over others.

And also, doesn’t it imply that if we master something, we are no longer learning, no longer curious as to what comes next, no longer a student of this great and pulsating life?

When I first received my graduate degree, I didn’t feel ready to teach, and it wasn’t just because I didn’t feel like I was prepared to sit at the head of a classroom, it was because I was suspicious of losing my place as a learner, as a receiver. Even now, the only way I can enter a classroom with any sort of confidence is to maintain that we are learning together, studying together.

But the word master is loaded in another way too. Historically, a master is the master of the house, the owner of enslaved people, the one who is in charge of everyone else. The word is loaded indeed.

One larger conversation that the last few years has opened up is a dialog about power. We are examining power dynamics in new ways, interrogating what it means to be in power, to have power. I love this conversation not just because it’s endless and important, but because it makes me also evaluate the ways I try to grab power or hold on to it, or the way I let it go, relinquish it when I should be standing my ground. It is tricky to find that balance between living in your full power and using power to control others.

Today’s poem is an interrogation of those questions of power, and the idea of mastery. It asks us to see what it might be like to surrender to a different model, to a different way of valuing one another.

Against Mastery
by Brionne Janae

give me no seat at the table
let no trembling hands lay food on my plate
let me lord over no one and nothing
not the dog curled up in my bed

not the land nor children who wander
through my care	     let me learn from the babies

and be always laughing at my ignorance
only humble discovery          give me

and keep my eyes on the pattern of birds’ wings
breaking the blue overhead	            let me face

the ones I harm with open palms and let love
be the method and measure of my worth

keep my heart with my people
and the coal glowing beneath my feet

let me run and run and run and run
and let the flame of my torch never go out

I am here with you
to burn the house down

keep me to this	     cut me down
before you let me lose my way

"Against Mastery" by Brionne Janae. Used by permission of the poet.