Object Lessons

What Sparks Poetry is a serialized feature in which we invite poets to explore experiences and ideas that spark new poems. 

In our current series, Object Lessons, we’re thinking about the relationship between the experienced and imagined world. We have asked our editors and invited poets to present one of their own poems in combination with the object that inspired it, and to meditate on the magical journey from object to poem. 
Each essay is accompanied by a writing prompt which we hope you will find useful in your own writing practice or in the classroom.

Brian Teare on “Star Thistle”

When writing many of the poems in my fourth book, Companion Grasses, I was falling in love: with the bioregions and literary culture of Northern California, with one man and then a second, with Transcendentalist poets and thinkers, and with grasses. I didn’t particularly care whether the grasses I loved were properly called objects or subjects because what critic Jane Bennett calls their “vibrant matter” exerted a forceful claim on me. I often found myself writing love triangles between myself, a lover, and a grass species whose presence seemed a companion on the adventure. Like “Star Thistle,” those poems assemble a network of coming to know the world differently: I fell in love with Matt and the Quakinggrass at Big Sur, then with Robert and the Tall Flatsedge in Point Reyes. But by the time I fell in love with a field and wrote “Star Thistle,” I had also suffered new losses: in 2007, my father died suddenly, and then in 2008, my friend the poet Reginald Shepherd did too. After which I found myself with a new companion. And though it’s pretty much against my ethics to hate a plant, I really went for it: Yellow Star Thistle, Centaurea solstitialis, not so much companion as complaint.

Many botanical and agricultural authorities consider Star Thistle to be a weed, and after reading an earlier version of this poem in which I did too, the wonderful poet Melissa Kwasny gently suggested I re-assess my relationship to that word. What is a weed in one cultural context is medicine or food in another; what is invasive in one ecosystem is native to another; and plants, like matter, as William James would wisely say, have no ideals. What I brought to the Star Thistle was what Adam Phillips in his marvelous book Darwin’s Worms would call the problem of grieving in a secular age. After reading Phillips, I realized I was not only in the grip of a kind “bad mourning” that could not admit to the implicit transience of all Being, but I’d also fixated on the Star Thistle as a metaphor for nature’s paradoxical destructive fecundity, its endless capacity for mortality. To mourn properly, I suspected, I’d have to rid myself and my poem of the thistle’s metaphoricity, and just let it be ingenious, prodigious, destructive: a process as difficult as uprooting the thistle itself!

I first read Reginald’s poems when I was an undergraduate, a baby poet and a baby gay. His work had always been part of how I understood both contemporary poetry and a lyric postmodern queer poetics, and he was prolific—I couldn’t imagine a world in which I would not open a literary journal and see new poems. Though I knew his health was compromised by living with HIV and the medications to treat it, it never really occurred to me that he would pass so young. He was a friend and informal mentor, a pugilist for poetics, and a survivor of poverty, neglect, racism, homophobia, and HIV. I admired and loved him. Like Whitman, he was a lover of men and a celebrator of the erotic; unlike Whitman, he was not particularly given to metaphysics. His ecstatic materiality was mostly linguistic, and his lived experience as a black gay man had given him serious qualms about the democratic project. But even Whitman had his doubts, infrequent though they were. So my bad mourning called out across the centuries to Whitman’s meditation on the fecundity of death in his remarkable and unsettling poem, “This Compost.”

One last thing: this poem was drafted on Atlas Peak, above Napa Valley. I was staying in a cabin owned by my friend, the poet Jane Mead, a gift of time and space she had often given me in the years between 2007 and 2009, precarious years during which I lost my father, my full-time job, and my health. I wrote the final section of Companion Grasses under the auspices of her generosity, and the book is dedicated in part to her. The field I had fallen in love with—another love affair !—lay just outside her family property, just off a trail leading toward a ridge above Napa Valley. It’s important to mark here that the Atlas Fire in 2017 burned through both Mead Ranch and this mountain landscape, and that Jane herself has since died. She died on September 8, 2019, almost eleven years to the day that Reginald did: September 10, 2008. Both deaths seem oddly historical now, distant from this time of accelerated mass deaths from COVID-19, strategic government inaction, federal corruption, and flagrantly racist policies. During this time when wildfires have returned to the mountains above Napa Valley, the western US has burned, and hurricane after hurricane has battered the Gulf Coast, I return to this poem, and to mourning, with a new kind of clarity. Today I mourn and resist the continued, deliberate injustices of human society against humans and nonhumans. And though I continue to miss my friends, today I mourn them differently, “as if the human were over/& the wild deer in us were released at last/at dusk to disappear into the stand of manzanita far across the field I love.”

Writing Prompt

2020 is a year in which forces often thought of as objects or things in the background—viruses, fire, plastics, ice, trees, smoke, weather, water, air, chemicals—have sometimes violently moved into the foreground of our lives, acting upon us and our loved ones with a kind of force many of us have previously had the privilege to avoid. For some who have spent much of this year in lockdown, isolation, quarantine, and/or the hospital, these months have likewise been filled with an unusual awareness of what the political theorist and critic Jan Bennett defines as “vital materialism,” a world in which “all bodies becomes more than mere objects.”

For instance, the house I live in presses upon me differently now: while sweeping up the hair and dust my own body casts off, I’ve met a variety of spiders who’ve made homes here and found food in the form of insect refugees from the seasons. And the immediate environs press upon the house differently too: from my bedroom window, I can track the flights of neighboring birds, and feel their lives enveloping my own in patterns of scavenge, song, and sociality; in the yard I’ve encountered the rapacious invasive Bittersweet and have spent time researching various approaches to living alongside it, and, I admit, some time spent with a machete in a pandemic replay of my relationship with Star Thistle. When I go into the field on hikes, I’ve felt the record warmth and copious rainfall here in Virginia, and I’ve masked up when I pass fellow hikers, my own breath hot against my skin. The pulse of the more-than-human world feels loudest to me in these places where my Being touches the world’s vibrant materiality, whether I welcome or honor that touch or not.

Some of us have spent our time in protest against the violent touch of racist policies and white supremacy, in public space among other bodies, and some of us in solidarity with that protest have had to remain indoors because of chronic illness or because we care for those who would likely not survive contracting the virus. Some of us have worked on the front line without ceasing, providing health care and essential services to the public, while others of us have had the privilege to work from home or have been forced to stay home because of furloughs, pandemic-related unemployment, or COVID-related illness. Some of us have grieved the loss of loved ones. All of us have felt the force of the virus, whether directly or indirectly, and even those of us in the East have witnessed sunsets tinted by atmospheric changes brought on by fires in the West. “We are vibrant materiality and we are surrounded by it,” writes Bennett, “though we do not always see it that way.”

Perhaps you yourself have begun to notice one companion in particular during this time of crisis and change—one species, form of non-human matter, or aspect of weather—and perhaps this companion, whether good or bad or neutral, has come to define the feeling or shape of the recent months. It seems like a good idea to me to spend some time researching this companion, this representative of vibrant materiality, and to write into this relationship, offering an account both of what you understand and perceive about them, and how you yourself interact with and are changed by their presence. How has this relationship informed your own experience of the world, how does it shape, change, and perhaps even violate your own sense of the boundary between yourself and the world’s boundless materiality? What place inside your language have you made for it—what place inside your language has it taken?

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Brian Teare

Brian Teare

A 2020 Guggenheim Fellow, Brian Teare is the author of six critically acclaimed books, including Companion Grasses, a finalist for the Kingsley Tufts Award, and The Empty Form Goes All the Way to Heaven. His most recent book, Doomstead Days, was longlisted for the 2019 National Book Award and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle, Kingsley Tufts, and Lambda Literary Awards. His honors include the Four Quartets Prize, Lambda Literary and Publishing Triangle Awards, and fellowships from the NEA, the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage, the American Antiquarian Society, the Headlands Center for the Arts, the Vermont Studio Center, and the MacDowell Colony. After over a decade of teaching and writing in the San Francisco Bay Area, and eight years in Philadelphia, he’s now an Associate Professor at the University of Virginia, and lives in Charlottesville, where he makes books by hand for his micropress, Albion Books.