Deborah A. Bennett, "beyond the fog..."; Ross Gay, "A Small Needful Fact"

Ross Gay’s artistry demands we understand media criticism to be on the same level as close-reading.

Deborah A. Bennett, "beyond the fog..."; Ross Gay, "A Small Needful Fact"

Welcome! Thank you so much for reading

I finished my grading. I can safely say I've improved as a teacher. It's not so much that my approach has changed, but I'm much more confident in what I do. Reading about current events with the class, getting conversation started. Moving on to material which presents a different challenge, like Plato or Descartes. Talking about things which stay with the students. On this last point, I'm still a bit stunned. I haven't really changed what I talk about the past few years. But the sense of urgency my classes have now matches more my own, if it doesn't exceed it.

There's a lot of amazing, thoughtful reads out there, but this evaluation of John Mulaney's latest stand-up show has me wondering about a lot. About addiction, humiliation, fame, comedy, creation, standards. The dangers success brings. Also, I'm always looking for things which can help teach me craft. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention what an incredible piece of writing Jesse David Fox produced.

Deborah A. Bennett, "beyond the fog..."; Ross Gay, "A Small Needful Fact"

“The long silences need to be loved,” says Franz Wright. Not the eleventh commandment; more like Love your neighbor as yourself.

Even then, the comparison doesn’t quite fit. “The long silences” command a vantage beyond the activity of charity or the influence of positive regard.

A younger, more religious me, reciting hymns to myself, praying in front of flickering candles, would see those hours as “long silences.” It’s easy to love the dark and quiet of a chapel, a space calling for reverence. One makes oneself ready to receive. The truth is that a lot of times, that’s the best we can do in this world.

Chapel of St. Ignatius 

Seattle University - Seattle, WA
Photo by Max Anderson / Unsplash

But now? My adult mind, cluttered with panic and a hoard of trivia, needs silence too. Not in the same way. It can’t afford the idealistic vision of the younger self, where perfection and beauty, wrapped simply and attractively, announce what’s good and bad. Where, beyond them, lies a relentlessly obscuring mysticism.

from "God's Silence"
Franz Wright

The long silences need to be loved, perhaps
more than the words
which arrive
to describe them
in time.

Adulthood is noisier than I would have expected. Lots of situations which can't be avoided. Where there’s shouting about what must be done or a point is demonstrated by getting louder. Where quiet only earns neglect.

And this is to say nothing of the shouting one’s own mind indulges.

“The long silences need to be loved,” but they also need to be found. Found in the noise, in the times I can barely concentrate. Found in unwanted quiet, in the silence of being passed over.


Words aren’t necessarily the enemy of “the long silences.” Concluding that “the words / which arrive / to describe them / in time” must break a spell misunderstands the value of what’s occurring.

Often, you need the words to preserve the moment which can present such a silence. But you would never want a moment one is simply being to be itself interrupted.

Still. “Simply being,” my own words, are a bit misleading. “Being,” I believe, is approached. Deborah Bennett wrote a haiku recently which I found myself reading over and over, each time I logged into Twitter. I knew it was good, I knew it was well-crafted. I itched to know what I could do with its meaning:

"beyond the fog..." (courtesy of the author's Twitter)
Deborah A. Bennett

beyond the fog 
lies clarity - 
plum blossoms 

For me, haiku often pictures a walk. I can’t really imagine myself taking a walk in fog so thick I can’t see a few steps ahead. I do know I’ve taken walks which have been less than productive. In which I got the exercise and not much else. Where I came back angrier or with confused motivation.

I’d say those walks were in a “fog.” That clarity would have been most useful. Clarity, though, is not seeing all objects at once. Or even the most pressing one.

Just “plum blossoms.” They’re beautiful, sure. They’re not an answer to everything on my mind—e.g. finding love, security, purpose, success. They’re simple, they grow, but they don’t conjure a “god of the nutritive soul” with infinite power to heal.

Clarity is simply seeing one object for what it is. And it’s not always an object which is unquestionably good. There have been plenty of times I didn’t want to be around flowers or any such thing, compelled to look at what everyone else pronounced good. What matters most is seeing for oneself. “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”


I realize these remarks, so far, might veer toward moodiness and solipsism. But talking about “being,” “silence,” and “seeing” is talking about how we build reverence. And there’s a poem I’m sure you have seen, a poem which we know will outlast us, a definitive statement about our age. Below, Ross Gay’s “A Small Needful Fact:”

A Small Needful Fact (from
Ross Gay

Is that Eric Garner worked
for some time for the Parks and Rec.
Horticultural Department, which means,
perhaps, that with his very large hands,
perhaps, in all likelihood,
he put gently into the earth
some plants which, most likely,
some of them, in all likelihood,
continue to grow, continue
to do what such plants do, like house
and feed small and necessary creatures,
like being pleasant to touch and smell,
like converting sunlight
into food, like making it easier
for us to breathe.

A major problem with a Great Books approach to education is that it will often promote names from centuries ago in order to avoid recognizing contemporary issues. When this happens in teaching poetry, the effect can be especially vicious. Allusions to poems by Shakespeare and Dickinson, virtuosity in meter and rhyme matter more than, say, knowing a living prize-winning poet lives down the street and has something urgent to say.

Ross Gay’s artistry demands we understand media criticism to be on the same level as close-reading. This is not an easy task for any scholar or student. All of us remember moments we went to class completely confused by an assignment, typically a reading. And then a teacher made what was previously incomprehensible clear as day. We do seem to believe this is a power of the past, that a richness in rhetorical modes has been lost. For the most part, this assumption can be fruitful.

Black Lives Matter Protest in DC, 6/1/2020. 
(Instagram: @koshuphotography)
Photo by Koshu Kunii / Unsplash

Except when it’s not. Here, what a reader from another century needs has been seared into our minds. The video of Eric Garner, a big but non-threatening man, having an officer behind him viciously apply a hold on his neck until he stops breathing. Saying “I can’t breathe” as he’s dying, with nothing in the video (or as a matter of fact) remotely explaining the atrocity we’re seeing. A video we’ll see over and over on the news and on social media, knowing no one will be truly held accountable for Garner’s killing.

Ross Gay turns that hopeless, cruel set of images on its head. He places Garner as a worker in the Horticultural Department. A city worker whom, in any sane world, law enforcement would recognize as an equal.

He focuses on Garner’s “large hands,” which didn’t hurt anyone in the video. Which were as shocked by the violence as we viewers are. Those hands planted “gently,” as they had to, so that way the city has an ecosystem beyond a concrete jungle. The pleasure of parks and public spaces, not just consumerism. And, of course, breathable air.

The poem breaks down “a small needful fact” into meaningful elements, each one taking a part of the video and imagining another scene entirely. In essence, it’s a “long silence”—not just a eulogy but a vision of another life, a vision we would not have otherwise. The words bring us there, they evoke crushing grief and anger, but the words themselves come to an end. It’s a poem of protest, a social comment, but is not itself the same (though continuous with) resistance in order to build unbearable tension which must provoke negotiation. The words bring us to an object of reverence and then leave us. What is mystical is that this could happen at all.