I have been looking into schedules. Even when we read physics, we inquire of each least particle, What then shall I do this morning? How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time.
~Annie Dillard, The Writing Life
On the first of each month,
a guest writer
how he or she spends the day.
August 1, 2020: Sean Hill
I discovered Sean Hill’s writing on Facebook of all places. A friend shared his poem Governor’s Mansion Hands, and I clicked over and read the twenty-seven line poem, ignoring the footnotes as I often do. I loved it. And then I listened to Sean read the poem, and in addition to the poem itself, he read the thirty-eight lines of footnotes (that printed out as forty-five) and of course I should have too. I don’t remember reading a poem where the footnotes were as important as the text. And I keep thinking about that.
Footnotes are often in a smaller font, but in this case, they’re the same size as the main text and while they’re attached to specific words in the text, they magnify the whole. I would love for you to click over and listen to Sean read the poem. You’ll see what I mean.
I have so little experience with poetry that I crave reading what poets say about their own poems. Here are Sean’s words about Governor’s Mansion Hands (with thanks to Poets.org).
I’ve been thinking about narrative lately. With the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and others, I’ve been thinking about the stories we tell and the purposes those stories serve. Every night either my wife or I read stories to our four-and-a-half-year-old son. I’ve wondered how to talk with him about race, when to talk with him about race, and what that narrative will be. His mother is white. I am Black. I’ve been wondering where to start. In many ways, this poem is part of that thinking. I’m a fan of footnotes, both academic and literary. The footnotes here, which are part of the poem, are the speaker’s necessary digressions and elaborations that enable me, the poet, to begin to tell the story of the economically-driven narrative that constructed race in this country and the grip it has had and continues to have on society, our cultures, our communities, our families, and our lives.
Sean’s second collection, Dangerous Goods, won the the Minnesota Book Award in Poetry. The book itself is beautiful, a boat on a beach, a flock of what I imagine to be starlings overhead (which inside the book fly in different formations on each of the section markers). Unlike other books of poetry, with my second read, I did not circle back to individual poems, but started again from the beginning. Only one poem in the collection uses footnotes, one to a page, “Schieffelin Bros. Exports & Imports.” Like the starlings, Sean’s footnotes seem alive on the page.
The collection begins with his postcard poems. The first line of the first poem is: “Yesterday I was, one place to begin”. In the second to last line, “an engineer keels / over.” The speaker of the poem has seen birds that day, and in the next poem, the speaker is in a car and sees barn swallows. In the third, we are with a “keel bone.” From the postcard poems, we continue to “Bahamas Voyage: Meditations on Blacks on Boats,” where at one point we’re on a slave ship. From there to “Voices in St. Paul’s Cathedral,” where “you can smell death left over from the days of the trade.” In “Fortnight,” and “Postcard to Anna,” there are pigeons and a green “hard to place like the tune the guy on the Tube whistled.” Can you feel the forward movement, the journey we’re on, that the poet is leading us somewhere or building something? The repetitions are like threads in a garment or rungs on a ladder or bricks in a wall or like all three.
In “Postcard to My Third Crush Today,” Sean works his magic on a common image.
Either way my heart
skips like those flat stones that kiss the skin
of the pond and fly off again before sinking.
The word desire picks up the baton or is the baton in “Distance Between Desires,” and the journey continues. In “Postcard to Listlessness,” I love the following line because wind always makes me feel as if things are happening, and when there’s no wind, it’s always a little sad.
Know winds as want or wont
xxxxxxand the doldrums as where winds go to die.
I’m not yet able to articulate what it felt like to read the last poem and specifically, the last two lines of the last poem and thus the collection. I can only encourage you to get your hands on Dangerous Goods. This collection does exactly what poetry is supposed to do–it unsettles and busts the world wide open. I can see more than I could before I read it.
Sean was born and raised in Milledgeville, Georgia, which is about a hundred and thirty miles northeast from where I sit writing this introduction and which is where Flannery O’Connor lived from age fifteen on. Now Sean lives in Montana with his family. For the 2020-2021 school year, he’ll be the Visiting Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Montana. In addition to Dangerous Goods, he’s the author of Blood Ties & Brown Liquor, named one of the Ten Books All Georgians Should Read in 2015 by the Georgia Center for the Book, and which I’m about to order. But I’m particularly looking forward to Sean’s next book, The Negroes Send Love to Their Friends.
Stay well and…
Come back on AUGUST 1st to read how SEAN HILL spends his days.