After the plague took my sister, I punched the stone wall of her room so hard it shattered all the bones in my right hand. This is how the men in my family tell sad stories: we always add a little violence.
The first poem from the new book is here! NOT A LOT OF REASONS TO SING, BUT ENOUGH itself officially launches on March 29 (though if you order it from Button Poetry, you can get it early), and this poem is a good taste of things to come. Before I share some notes on the poem, I want to spotlight Casper Pham‘s incredible piece that accompanies this poem (Casper also has illustrations throughout the book):
1. If you haven’t already heard, the new book is a “concept album,” so to speak, and all the poems are written in-character. It isn’t always clear which character is the voice of each poem, though; there’s a kind of focal-point character, Nary, but Nary and his mentor Gyre travel from village to village across this prison colony moon, and they share their poems while also listening to the poems of the people in those villages. The book is made up of a sampling of all those poems, as well as the conversations around them. The big takeaway, I guess, is that even though I wrote this, I am not the speaker.
2. This poem is a play off of my most well-known poem, “Ten Responses to the Phrase ‘Man Up’.” I just thought it’d be funny to be on stage and say “ten responses to…” and then something completely different from what the audience expects. It kind of sets up what the book is all about, in terms of… probably not being what people expect. That being said, this poem also demonstrates that the new, weird book is still covering a lot of the same ground as my older work: this is a poem creating space to think critically about masculinity, authority, and power.
Here’s the full text; thank you for reading, listening, and/or picking up the new book. Please feel free to share!
TEN RESPONSES TO THE PROPOSAL TO OVERCOME THE CURRENT PLAGUE BY CHALLENGING IT TO A DUEL
Sometimes you just have to say a thing out loud, and everyone immediately hears how ridiculous it is. If that doesn’t work,
Were it truly possible to challenge this sickness to a duel (it is not), know that I would volunteer—pistols or knives or bare-knuckle with the Plague God: crown of mossy bone, black talons still stained with my siblings. Rage would propel me to victory, were victory possible (it is not). I say this only to validate your rage—I want this plan to work (it will not).
We make gods of what matters. Harvest is important, so a god is born. The sun, this moon, its many oceans: many gods, warring and whorling on. How sickness ascends from nightmare, to spirit, to deity: a laughing, deep green, antlered owl sitting atop the World as it sinks below the horizon. What is made can be unmade. But can you unmake fire with your fists? Can you unmake sickness with only strength?
You have strength, as a hero must. But remember: the same hammer that builds a house can be thrown at a stray cat. What if your hands became hammers? How would you change a bandage? How would you hold your children?
You have courage, as a hero must. But is it courage to saunter, smirking, into a pit of snakes? Is it boldness to dance atop a tall tower during a lightning storm? Is it leadership to say if, in my fearlessness I die, then I die, when during a plague, the more accurate statement is if, in my fearlessness I kill, then I kill?
You question authority, as a hero must. So when the village healer says the plague is serious, you say, Of course she wants us to be afraid; that’s how she makes her money. But when your boss, who makes his money off of your labor, says the plague is not serious, that we should all just get back to work like normal… your dueling pistol is suddenly empty. You muzzle the barking dogs inside you, stack their skulls in a shrine to the god of obedience.
After the plague took my sister, I punched the stone wall of her room so hard it shattered all the bones in my right hand. This is how the men in my family tell sad stories: we always add a little violence. I can be vulnerable, as long as I look cool: hat low at the funeral, back row of mourners, leaving early to… smoke, to sharpen a knife. This is how the men in my family mourn: like heroes.
I am not here to tell you that no one should ever duel anyone, or that there are no problems that violence can solve. If a murderer threatens your family, take his head.
Just note how quick we are to kill for our families, when so many of us won’t make the smallest sacrifice to protect them: won’t cover our faces during a plague, won’t ask for help when we so clearly need it. Note how quick we are to die for some abstract notion of freedom, when…
You know, it occurs to me: I don’t know all the gods, but I’ve never heard of a god of freedom.
We have a god of war, but not for the thing we’re told everyone is fighting for.
Like we have a god of death, but not of mourning, of sadness, of letting go. A god of thunder, but not of rain. A god of courage, but not of care. A god of vengeance, but not of prevention. A god of plague, but not of dancing. A god of wrath, but not of reflection.
We have patron deities for duelists, soldiers, hunters, thieves, assassins—all those professions for which chaos requires control, even if (especially if) that control is an illusion. A thought. A prayer.
I am not here to tell you that the plague is not our enemy; just that there are things we can learn from our enemies.
We understand power as dominance, but when a plague is too dominant, too unstoppably bloodthirsty, it kills too quickly, cannot spread, and burns itself out.
We understand power as purity, but the most effective medicines often contain small traces of sickness in them.
We understand power as individual, but plague is not a god; it is an unfathomably large number of unfathomably small creatures, working together. We are as gods to them, and they annihilate us regularly.
We understand power as control, but every plague is a harbinger of the next plague, a pattern we can’t kill, can’t control, but can use as a reason to adapt. To change. To grow.
Brittle victory, soft survival. This is not a fight we can win with brute force. This is not a fight we can win. This is not a fight. This is a dance. And yes, a dance can be a battle—but never a duel. Never to the death, instead: To life. To the circle. To everyone we have lost. To everyone else, still here. To all the gods and spirits we don’t have names for.