1121: The Empire of Light by Michael Dumanis

20240520 Slowdown

1121: The Empire of Light by Michael Dumanis


I’m Major Jackson and this is The Slowdown.

I typically ignore algorithmic suggestions. An app telling me: “If you like X, then you’ll like Y.” But, recently, I gave a Spotify-curated playlist a try. The music, put together just for me, was dead on, mostly a mix of spiritual jazz and future soul. I enjoyed everything I heard, but after a minute or so of each song, I went to the next tune. I did not let them play to their end. I wasn’t down with this personalized listening. It felt like…a predictable roadmap to my future. It felt like submitting to that algorithm. Yet, in my restlessness, something magical happened.

Fast forwarding through the playlist, I formed a mental stream of associations. The quick listening proved far more exciting than a pre-packaged music set. A sampled sound swiftly heard in a Roots hit took me to the theme song of the series American Horror Story. “Besame Mucho” triggered a memory of driving a coast in the south of Spain — winding curves and dramatic sunlight sparkling at a distance on water. Cesária Évora brought to mind an aunt who enjoyed cigars.

This noncommittal experience to the playlist led to a variety of thoughts including politics, the fabrics of my clothing, and Japanese calligraphy. In the half-seconds between songs, I relished the leaps. Often, music we choose can sound like we’ve heard it all before; but disrupting the sequence of songs, strangely and beautifully, renewed my ear.

Often, the world in a poem can strike us sometimes as too familiar. Writing a sonnet, for example, can also feel like submitting to an algorithm, which can flatten the writing of poetry. Occasionally we need to remix how we naturally think and spontaneously associate. And technology can set the stage for this. Yet, can we do that for ourselves?

Today’s poem reveals how poets distinctly process the world. A fragmented mix of images might reflect how we naturally think. Spontaneity defines our lyricism, and its pleasure is its speed.

The Empire of Light
by Michael Dumanis

The baby pulls my wrist into his mouth.
The baby wants to eat my face.
So does the dog, the one that I don’t have,
who lazes at the razor-edge
of vision, whose curved shadow, when I’m still
flat on my back, opening up  
like a gift the new morning, clouds over me. 
The sister asks me to apologize for 1985
to ’93. I screen all calls 
from the persistent bank. The baker calls.
The baker wants her pie back.
Even the fan, worrying 
the air from its perch on the ceiling,
sucks breath from my lung.
The future wants its diaper changed. I stroll it
past the drooping wisteria to the Family Dollar,
where I contemplate our next move.
In the suburban zoo, we gawk at cages.
We are surrounded 
by musical notes of bright weather.
The panda turns its back on us
like an unhappy god.
I take the baby home. He’ll live forever,
I’m almost sure. He laughs like fire laughs,
inexorable heat, blue flame unraveling. 
I have barely begun the day,
I think towards evening.
The baby presses at my collarbone.
You know what makes us happy?
The whole world.
We’re swaying to a prelude by Ravel.
We’re waving good-bye
to the empire of light. Our destiny
is red, purple, and black.

"The Empire of Light” by Michael Dumanis from CREATURE © 2023 Michael Dumanis. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, LLC on behalf of Four Way Books."