I’m Major Jackson and this is The Slowdown.
Once, I attended an awards ceremony televised live from the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. My second book of poems, Hoops, was up for an award for Outstanding Work of Literature. Earlier in the day, the accolade deservedly went to Maya Angelou. I didn’t care; I was happy to shop for a fly new suit, wave at the flashing cameras on the red carpet, and sit among the stars—a fact I made evident to those seated around me, including what I believed to be the most unmoving person, ever.
For each celebrity that walked across the stage, I loudly shouted and clapped: Mavis Staples, India Arie, Prince. The woman next to me barely put her hands together. Showed no emotion. I tried to measure the angle of her lifted nose, believing she was a bit snobbish for this night of glitz and glamor.
Then, Bono walked across the stage. We all cheered, and as he preached his way into his speech about serving the poor, the crowd stood. She remained seated. The show went to a commercial break. I turned to her and said that was amazing. She gave no answer. I said, “What do you think of the performances?” Through pursed lips, she said, “I am a professional seat filler. I cannot talk to you.” I apologized.
Despite our shared experience that night, the seat filler could only look ahead, could not turn in either direction to engage those next to her. What a fitting metaphor, I thought, for humanity’s lack of connection.
We’ve so much between us: awards shows, music, art, weather, and a final breath we do not know when will befall us. And yet, some remain alien and indifferent to others, incurious—sometimes for money, but sometimes, by choice. How we cherish our isolation.
Today’s poem roots in curiosity and a recognition of a constant waiting — a state that accents the elusiveness of our end, and maybe too, as the title suggests, our ultimate purpose.
by Willie Lin
You want to know everything lately. The dreamy lumber of the neighbor early mornings in the backyard, under his burden, sometimes dirt, sometimes tarp, fencing. His design toward something, you know. Snow falls like a secret between you. The swollen door. The red ring of sirens. The cardinals’ return to the cherry tree, not mindless but without sentimentality. What happens despite the snow, like Nebraska. The difficult path. The dead squirrel. You’ve seen dead rats, cats, deer, people, dutifully dressed and painted to show pain no longer touches them, and it’s never not terrifying. Snow falls like lost missives. Wet rings, fading. Swinging doors, many Nebraskas, promising infinite solitude. You will not see them but know no bridges will lift this spring for the sailboats’ passage to the lake. Another ritual delayed. The waiting keeps arriving like driving snow. The ringing cold. The world that is not ideas but objects. Felled branch, closed door. And Nebraska is a little funeral for you. In a dream, the knowledge flashes neon in landscape as in a Jung Lee photograph. You fold your arms across your chest to keep yourself warm for a moment longer. The weight is all you have.
“Teleology” by Willie Lin from CONVERSATION AMONG STONES © 2023 Willie Lin. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, LLC on behalf of BOA Editions.