Just months before his death late in 2009, this video of Dennis Brutus reading "Longing" was posted to YouTube. Seated before brilliant orange flowers , Brutus opens his book, A Simple Lust—first published in 1963—to “Longing,” and reads the poem built of four tercets. He is reading on a patio, and midway through his reading, rain falls briefly, eerily rhyming with the closing phrase of the poem, “rains of poison.”
“Longing” is not a new poem. Rather, he explains in the video, he was recasting a poem from 1960. Had he not framed it otherwise, I might have read “Longing” as addressing anti-apartheid struggles, as some of Brutus’s other poems did during that period. But in this video, Brutus describes how the initial subject of the poem was lost love, and now, he wishes us to read it through the context of unmitigated climate disruption.
In my commentary “Recasting Poetry” I wondered how a poet might take an active role in recasting work, so that a poem might bend, alter, accrue in new contexts. Brutus’s decision to recast “Longing” is a fine example of a poet doing just that.
"I wrote it at the end of a sad love affair, a long time ago," he said, explaining that like this experience of lost love, climate change "seems simple but is actually very complex."
One evening with Jules and our daughter, Jessi, I wandered a warehouse of open studios near the Willamette River in northeast Portland. We came upon organic chemist David Cordes painting a narrative of organic chemistry and nationalism; a couple operating as florists who sold nothing and displayed no floral arrangements, but urged people to try their homemade sweetbread; and a woman who urged visitors to arrange glass designs from bowls of crushed glass, which she offered to fire in the kiln, with no mention of charge. A startling-lack-of-explicit commerce continued from studio space to studio space. Our last stop of the evening was a space where a tightrope was bolted a foot off the floor.
Inexpert investigation in poetry opens a space: what is left open is left open. “The highly rewarded entrepreneurial strategy of forging ahead with an air of mastery no-matter-what spawns impatience for the point or gist,” Joan Retallack writes in The Poethical Wager. What get lost are “values that encourage the necessarily inefficient, methodically haphazard inquiry characteristic of actually living with ideas” (51).
Enter inexpert investigation. A poet can bring fanciful fortitude to her investigation without commandeering it. After all, the poem need not serve as the final word, but rather, as an opening up for others to engage. A poet might be attuned to unlikely connections. Situational rhymes. An alchemy of juxtapositions.
This inexpertise involves responsibility—via responding. Listening.
In Distant Reading, Peter Middleton describes reading a poem as though it has a “long biography.” This approach involves “mining what is available of the aggregative textual archive that composes the textual memory of the poem, its showing in magazines, performance, anthologies, its construal in reviews and commentaries and other treatments” (23).