Jeff Oaks

The Writing Life, Writing Prompts, Essays on the Ordinary

Resolutions: 2016

How to resolve this past year? It has become a bitter, too-large pill stuck in the throats of many many people.  There was the Trump upset, in which all the power of government has fallen into the hands of Republicans. There was the Brexit upset. There was the standoff between the Water Protectors and the Pipeline corporations with their rented “security” and police forces from all over the Midwest. There was the continuing deaths of black men by policemen. Power everywhere grew very touchy about any call to examine itself, its actions, the facts. It quickly felt victimized. Any call to self-examination became an existential threat. The television news media continued its new job to make us feel good, to help us understand events by simplifying them. Most of them are mere corporate pawns anyway. 

There were the many, many deaths of important role models and personalities–Bowie, Prince, Cohen, John Glenn, Muhammad Ali, to name just a few. Touchstones, they were called. Out of their lives and bodies they made art, broke barriers and changed the world. They did things beyond the possible. They appeared among the stars. They sang out of darkness, with difficulty sometimes, to the difficult, against the difficult. Some had long lives of fame and glory. Some had shorter ones. They bore the limelight for better or worse, and gave us all something to see or hear and talk about. Sometimes they kept us going in difficult times.  
So there’s grief at those changes, those losses. And lots of fear and uncertainty about the direction of world and national politics. I feel personally as if I’ve been standing in a line of mourners for the entire year, unable to sit down or laugh without wincing. The Obama years have made standing up for things like art and social justice and environmental protection easier; there was always, at least, the president to veto ridiculous ideas, which seemed to be all the Republican parts of Congress had. They weren’t even pretending anymore that those ideas were about cutting the budget.

I still can’t believe that when Mitch McConell said the Republicans in the Senate would shun President Obama’s moderate choice to replace Scalia for the Supreme Court, the American People did not all travel to D.C. in protest. But we didn’t. We let gerrymandering happen in a number of Republican states. We stood there in shock, emailed our petitions, and lost an election.

With the Trump administration, we got a cabinet of million-and billionaires who all seem to want to subvert or convert their respective departments away from protecting people and toward relieving corporations of responsibility. 

Marches are planned. Protests are being mounted. Donations have been flowing to those institutions whose work is with groups likely to be vulnerable now–women’s reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights, immigrants’ rights, protectors of water and air and common lands. There are signs of resistance everywhere, and every sign that no one in power needs to listen to that resistance. 

The imagination is of course made up of crisis and drama and conflict. Many would like it to be made up of love, peace and joy, wth no rupturing of the status quo, of the way it used to be. Many would like it to disappear altogether, that its absence–its chatter of possibilities and revisions, its perverse reversals of roles, its negative capabilities–would be a relief. A world of black and whites promises to make acting simpler–you just say no, you just do it, you make America Great again. You only need to have one book around and someone else to interpret for you.

The imagination wants more books, more art, more music. It can get caught up in the imagining of nightmarish scenarios, which bring with them a spike in flight or fight chemicals our bodies can get addicted to. But to work in opposite ways–to introduce calm and withdraw ourselves from the future, to return to the present breath, the present half-cup of tea sitting on the table here in the cafe–feels like a form of collaboration with the enemy. How many people, finding themselves suddenly citizens in a frightening country, thought to themselves: if only I slow down and rationally wait for things to cool down, things will grow bearable again? We don’t know. 

We don’t know so much. My personal hope is that certain senators who are Republican will resist the temper tantrums of the new president. My deep hope is that the president and the senate and the house will engage in such in-fighting that they’ll forget or be unable to hurt the most vulnerable citizens. So many of the worst characteristics of the Republican Party are now on view–Ryan’s uber-passionate no-nothings; McConnell’s boring agents of no-change; and Trump’s Robber-Baron Bacchae ready to behead anyone who interrupts their frenzies. It seems impossible to me they won’t come to blows quickly. (This is, I see now, the default hope of a child who grew up with battling parents.)

It would be good for me to actually read The Bacchae before I write things like that, for instance. Discovering that Euripides’ version of The Bacchae is a political play is exciting to me. I hope to find or be reunited with a whole new set of poems and plays and art in the new year, work that helps me to see how the current-fractured consciousness I’m lugging around might be made productive. Maybe it will be a year for theater. 

Getting Used to Hearing Sound: an Exercise

One of the immense benefits of being a teacher is that I’m constantly making exercises to engage young people’s imaginations. Sometimes the goal of an exercise is the focus the senses, sometimes it’s to challenge the perception, sometimes it’s to distract their anxious minds long enough that the unconscious can speak suddenly.

Sometimes, when I’m looking at an old syllabus, I find these and think–“I need to do this.” My throat is thick with anxiety and fear, right now. Every day I wake up thinking–What can I say that will make a difference? Power isn’t interested in truth, so what’s an artist to do?

So, this is the kind of exercise I developed a few years ago because I realized students couldn’t hear sound effects in poems except rhyme. I wanted to give them a way into listening to and making subtler sounds as well.

Sound Exercise

Part 1)

Write five 10 syllable lines for each of these five long vowel sounds:

ay, ee, i, oh, oo

Write five 10 syllable lines for each of these five short vowel sounds:

ah, eh, ih, on, uh

There should be at least three instances of each particular vowel sound per line.
Avoid direct rhyming.

So, for a line of “ay”, you might have this:

The pain of hating is halfway to ache.

For “eh”:

The wet bed stands silent, a memory.

The lines don’t have to make sense exactly, but it’s not a bad thing if they do.

Part 2)
When you’re done with the fifty “sound” lines, take some of the lines and use them to write a poem in which one of the vowel sounds plays a noticeable role.

Begin (Root Song)

The dirt is good enough     a kiss       a hair

of earth, flecked with minerals        whose thoughts bite

with what’s almost light         hissing where each

chemical edge unlocks another door to

the long stairways to the dead          where you’ve had

your ear pressed so long waiting for a word

When You Think About It

Most of marriage is managing comfort and discomfort in such a way you can live with a person who steals half of everything you buy. You have agreed to steal half back of whatever he or she buys of course. You make each other cry occasionally, and if that’s all you’ve got, you’ve got a problem. Most of crying is embarrassment, as most of the river is other people’s dirt. Most of work is waiting. Almost nothing sold can stay. Staying around is after all mostly not having anywhere else to go. There are two minutes of terrible pain before loading or emptying the dishwasher or the washing machine, and then the rest is mostly reassembling an old kitchen you remember. Before the in-laws for the children for the strangers throwing rice into your freshly cut hair.

The God Abandons Donald Trump : a dream

Say goodbye to her, the America you thought you could take
as, suddenly, all that silence you bought long ago begins to leak.
You were never worthy, only wealthy. It’s an easy mistake,
in America, to assume all a god needs to do is to speak
and make his enemies disappear. Your own sons
hunted leopards without fear, casting off their bodies.
Your daughters fit themselves to your small hands.
Around you men calculated disasters into profits, bought
judges like baklava, turned the poor into things to bear your name.
Your gardeners’ bushhogs went silent as you stepped out
of your enormous black limousines onto your enormous lawns,
or into your enormous gardens full of things you couldn’t smell.
Now the smoke of sharpening scythes clings to your ties;
the voices of the women you thought you’d smothered in gold
are rematerializing. There never was a god after all.
Watch the processions of smiling politicians sneaking away,
their hands in their pockets at last, their tails tucked under,
their horns under their hats. Let them go. Don’t whine.
They move in a world of such belief it makes them mean.
So what if your sponsors are already forgetting your name,
if it’s all you ever had? Say goodbye to it. Like a cloud.

after Cavafy’s The God Abandons Antony

Lines for the Left Hand

Doing what, the right hand 

doesn’t always seem to know.

Having given up the work

of subtle textures, the snug

handshake, the little ways 

dominance betrays its teeth. 

Why do we put a ring on it? 

For its commitment? Its ability

to stay quiet, to maintain balance? 

Its occasional silliness? 

It remembers the name before 

your name; every so often

you need to see again what a wreck

it was before the right took over. 

It watches the margins for crumbs. 

It loves the universe you made 

on the napkin unconsciously 

dabbing the water or the too thick

colors from your delicate brush 

while you were trying to get right

some flowers, a thistle, 

what a beautiful wreck. 


I ate the coffee cake because I wanted 
to eat a sunflower. I drank the coffee

because I wanted to be a sunflower.

I chose my loose clothes, I chose these dark shoes

so I might keep my sunflower secret

from the small birds who steal things for a living. 

I choose my word carefully, tilt my face

into the solar locutions, make of myself

a field of rustling so rich a man might

never tire of saying sunflower, sunflower. 


Of the two pods left after the rain–

one empty, one still packed with feathers–

I cannot choose between. I take them both.

The one’s stalled seed silks are so delicate

I can’t feel anything when I touch them,

a series of desires, phantoms, angels,

beginning to yellow. All the dry rattle of September

lost, twisted free or matted now, 

it had its chance. It still has its chances,

I have trained myself to say over the years,

the stem stripped of everything green and beaten down. 

The open pod might after all be laughing, surprised.


Once, what I didn’t want I didn’t see. 

I might have killed myself for history.

Now there’s hardly anything I don’t want

and want can mean any touch at all,

any shift of the light toward my shadow-

making self, any little a lot of such

beauty, and all suffering, temporary.

To touch any part of the dance, until 

that wince and crack of the sudden handshake

out wandering with my quiet dog between dark 

and constellations opening overhead. 

October Letter

What’s it like to have no more

things now           no anxiety to dust

no furniture to rearrange a mood 

no doors to worry         no carpets to make

straight       vacuum again     no sleepless window

to look at the dark through        no remote

to find        no glasses        no more tv

or jigsaw puzzles or sudoku or chocolate muffins
where is memory then and how       now

we who watched you carried out and signed 

the contract to turn you into grit        we who sold

the place and killed the cat      who boxed up

what we wanted to keep         where are we among   

no bright leaves to kick        no empty thistles pick 

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