In order for me to write poetry that isn’t political
I must listen to the birds
and in order to hear the birds
the warplanes must be silent.
I think a lot of us are truly thankful. I also think a lot of us are having a tough time with endless war, children dying by the thousands, and societies having nothing to show for it but arms sales. We'd like, at some point, to know we are on a genuine road to peace. Jonathan Katz's "Israel's counter-terror" is a difficult read but one with a lot of hard to accept truths. I'm trying to think through it all before I say anything more.
I looked through a collection of poems I had spent time with and found, once again, Katia Kapovich's "Apartment 75." It's a poem about suicide which refuses to stop wailing. I felt it was apt to talk about during these times.
Katia Kapovich, "Apartment 75"
I want to talk about light in Katia Kapovich's "Apartment 75" (CW: suicide). "Apartment 75" is a poem of immense grief, a dirge which refuses its readers any comfort. It begins with lines which evoke dark comedy and then collapse into total darkness: "The obese woman who used to wake up / our whole house by starting her Subaru at 6 a.m. / has committed suicide." An insult, an annoyance, and a tragedy of the worst sort follow in quick succession. The poem captures, in its own way, how quickly our lives invert in the face of death, especially a death so unnecessary.
In that spirit, I want to talk about light. Not because I have anything to add to the poem--I can't add anything when I'm desperately hoping I'm not neglecting anyone--but because Kapovich's words have to be lingered over and not talked over. Strangely enough, simple literary analysis reveals itself adequate for this purpose. It does not try to talk past the central event as it tries to address what we're seeing.
Apartment 75 (from Poetry International) Katia Kapovich The obese woman who used to wake up our whole house by starting her Subaru at 6 a.m. has committed suicide. Snow hangs like a set of unlaundered sheets in the windows. When I walked into her seventh floor studio, the standard lamp was still on, but could only light itself, refusing to interfere with the dull dusk of the interior the police had already searched. For the first time, I felt an urge to look at her face and perhaps to see something more distinctly than the triviality of neighborhood permits and the mystery of suicide allows, but her features were shut down without offense. I only remember a chair missing its rear legs, shoved up against the wall for balance.
After the word "suicide," the poem presents the first of a series of images featuring light. "Snow / hangs like a set of unlaundered sheets / in the windows." Snow like "unlaundered sheets" creates an immediate distaste in the mouth. It also affronts through the opacity of the sheets and a sense of disorganization. None of this reflects on the victim herself. A sudden death and an urge to quit this life both put laundry in its place. Why should we bother--why should we see things, clean, or make time for anything--for a world that never relents?
I believe that's what's hitting me most from the first few lines. This woman starting her Subaru regularly every morning, doing her laundry, doing everything else--it's all for the world. And there are plenty of times no one explains anything and this world feels especially meaningless. I know some who've been put down by others for decades. At a point, you just break, as it becomes crystal clear there's nothing for you, least of all from those screaming at you to be grateful.
You can imagine the window, touched with snow, glowing with an insufferable light. I'm used to light being the climactic image of any number of works through the centuries. Light as innovation, liberation, knowledge, and so much more. It's jarring to see it as part of a prison in Kapovich's poem. But that's what light constitutes in "Apartment 75." Look at how Kapovich describes a lamp in the dead woman's home: "the standard lamp / was still on, but could only light itself, / refusing to interfere with the dull dusk / of the interior the police had already searched."
I don't need to tell you those lines are heartbreaking. The only serious attention this woman seems to get is from the police after she's gone. The proposition "you are the light of the world" sounds like absolute mockery in this situation. However, the image of light has a spatial component we should discuss: "the standard lamp / was still on, but could only light itself." You could wonder about an omnipotent God responsible for all creation. You might think such a God takes up too much space: if there is a divine being responsible for everything, where could I even reside? The positivity many experience through religion can come into direct conflict with this lack of space. The tragedy at hand illustrates this in an inverted way. If life is absolutely miserable, with rules that only reach beyond your existence to bury you, then it follows you had your space and nothing else. The lamp's light failing to light anything else underscores how the systems we live under fail to cater to more basic needs.
A third light is strongly implied in Kapovich's second stanza: "I felt an urge to look at her face / and perhaps to see something more distinctly / than the triviality of neighborhood permits / and the mystery of suicide allows." The dead woman's face is not only treated as a source of knowledge but a source of light itself. In this, Kapovich returns to what we're accustomed to with light imagery. Of course, this yields nothing directly, as "her features were shut down without offense." But a refusal to let go of pain or accept easy conclusions does not constitute failure. To know in a way you did not before the limits of "the triviality of neighborhood" and "the mystery of suicide" – this isn't going to bring anyone back. However, it can lead to further discoveries and a proper memorial. And the embrace of pain builds to a love which carries the dead with us to the living. Not one person's story or another's, but a space for all of us. Still, Kapovich ends her lyric with nothing hopeful. There must be mourning and amends--there must be recognition--before anything else.