Yes, I lost the lottery. I can never write about the moon again, only the neon ball locked between the dog's fangs, only what it's like to see without glasses. I buy expensive oils which come in dark bottles labeled Sleep. I buy expensive oils which come doorstep so I need not leave. The eggplant talks to me. The dog talks to me but I don't know Basque. The weeks wind so tight. Drowning was long ago but it's come up again, vomiting lake onto the butcher block in the kitchen. Depression commercial crudités. Alexa, play the nurse who does drugs in the bathroom. This lottery is not a game. One cannot describe the taste of fennel as it is unlike anything else. Hold, I have just been informed of black licorice. Outside the poem the phone is ringing. Alexa pick up.
In the Free World, I'm allowed pens
but it's lonely among the living—
cetacean strandings galore
so many stenographers
choking to death on date-pits
So many beached bodies
This morning I sliced my index
cutting quince with a dull knife
and bled nasturtium all over
In the Free World: back
to silk scarves. Back
to knives. Back to cable.
Back to bathtub. Back
to you, with the weather.
Back to world. Back
to free. Back to shoes.
Back to Jewel-Osco.
Back to orange
pith in nail bed.
Back to ledges everywhere
ripe for the leaping.
A few good words with Kameryn
PDS: One thing that I loved about “Outside” is the heaviness of daily ephemera (which may seem oxymoronic but is not)—I know that this poem was written before the onset of our current global pandemic climate, but it in many ways feels like a foreshadow, a poem from the future, a poem that knows more than we do (or did). Do you think poems can be prophets?
As the pandemic began to spread full force and I revisited “Outside”, I felt the same sense of prescience that you reference in your question. It was so eerie. I do think poems can be prophets, especially because I try to come to writing hoping something unknown will be revealed to me during the process, rather than with any clear sense of what will happen. I really try to be wary of having anything to say, of sitting down with the desire to write about any particular subject. Instead I try to tune in to an image or sound or word that gives me pause or delight or which puzzles me, and trust it and follow it. I certainly think there’s a mystical element to writing, that the poet is in some way divining as the poem takes shape, that part of being a poet is engaging with a gift of sight. So even though I felt this creepy chill down my spine after having written a trapped-inside poem just before we are globally trapped inside, I wasn’t all that surprised, because poems are so often prophetic.
PDS: “Discharge” had me ruminating on Blackness and freedom: being ill and hospitalization/institutionalization—how and where are with whom are we sick and not free. Incarceration and it’s binary relationship to the “Free World.” The way our freedom is challenged even sitting at a table with a pen that we are “allowed” (given by some invisible paternalistic hand). What does the “Free World” mean to you in the real world of this poem?
Though “Discharge” primarily engages with mental illness and the carceral nature of hospitalization, I think the fact that the carceral state and its potential for reform or abolition has become significantly more centered in conversation in the past few months has expanded the poem’s context. Of course, there are abolitionists who have been doing this work for years (many thanks to Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Angela Davis and Mariame Kaba just to name a few) but it seems that more people worldwide are considering just how destructive the carceral system is, just how pervasive and far-reaching.
As a Black woman who is mentally ill, and for countless people in the so-called “Free World” of the United States, my relationship to freedom is necessarily fraught, and the “Free World” doesn’t truly exist. Even as the speaker is discharged from the hospital, they enter a world that is just as carceral, just as dangerous as the ledges at the end of the poem. I recognize that I hold significant freedoms, that I am allowed some level of autonomy. At once, the world of the poem (and our world) is in perpetual collapse. There’s that standard intake question, “Do you feel you want to hurt yourself or others?” And I find myself thinking: Who is more dangerous to me as a Black woman, myself or this country?
PDS: What work is making you feel strong right now? What work is making you smile?
I love this question, because it prompted me to really pause and think about strength and joy, both of which have felt a little fleeting and rare these days. I’ve been thinking so much about “Paul Robeson” by Gwendolyn Brooks lately, and this charge that Black people are each other’s harvest, business, magnitude and bond. It has made me think about care, about love and tenderness, about collectivity. It has made me remember to tell people I love that I miss them, that if they need me, to call. That we can water and grow each other, and that there’s power in coming together even if virtually. Lucille Clifton’s poem “Turning.” Henry Dumas’s “Kef 21.” D’Angelo’s album Black Messiah, especially “Really Love.” Dorothy Ashby’s Afro-Harping at sunset. Chapter 22 of Beloved! I’ve also been holding “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude” by Ross Gay really close to me. It encourages me to ask myself: what made you feel awe today? When was the last time you celebrated, exalted something? What made you grateful today?
Kameryn Carter is a poet, essayist and occasional collage artist from the Chicagoland area. She is currently pursuing her undergraduate degree in literary studies at DePaul University.