Fourteen people gathered to discuss poet and psychologist Hala Alyon’s “Spoiler,” a poem published in today’s issue of The New Yorker. Via our weekly survey, we ascertained that all of this evening’s respondents have participated in more than four of our close reading and reflective writing sessions via Zoom on Monday evenings.
After listening to an audio recording by the poet, we silently reviewed this twenty-eight line poem, noting what called to each of us before beginning to share comments with the group.
When we did speak, more than one person said that the poem took them to diagnoses of breast cancer, sharing pain, and listening to others’ processes of living with thoughts prompted about the meaning of their lives. More than one person connected the multiple metaphors appearing in the poem and the multiple metaphors that are used by women living with cancer. One participant heard the poem as “dream logic.”
Other ideas that spoke to us suggested the constancy of “the tides,” that arrive on our shores–forces over which we have no control but which, in the face of, we persist.
More than one person was attracted to the idea of banishing “nightmares” by naming our fears.
Enriching our conversation through intertextuality, people quoted from classical texts by Ray Bradbury, T.S. Eliot, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Rumi. Someone suggested that Alyon’s poem “Spoiler” is “a feminist answer” to T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.”
“Quite the poem,” said one woman, who represented what many felt: Spoiler opens us to a strange mixture of anxiety, beauty, grief, pessimism, and peace. In thinking about what the future may have in store for us, we were prompted to reflect on the way we perceive the passing of time, including the “arrival” of the future. It was interesting to compare our modern framework to the way in which the Romans envisioned our relationship with time. Unlike what we think of today (we “look back” to the past and “ahead” towards the future), the Romans thought of themselves as walking with their front to the past (the only thing they knew) and with their back to the future (an uncertain prospect they had no clear view of, being behind). Would this different perspective change the way we think of the past? Would we look at what we’ve built so far differently it is was vividly in front of our eyes as we walk with our back to the future?
Three people read their four- minutes of writing, in the shadow of this difficult text, to the prompt: Write about what you might build knowing that it will be ruined.
These works were filled with reflections on:
- what has been ruined and why and what can yet be
- how homo sapiens sapiens (man who knows he knows) could also be called
- “homofabulans” for our specie’s ability to imagine and archive stories
- the unasked for determinants of life and death and our need for meaning-making in “the gap,” the time and space between them
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Spoiler by Hala Alyan Can you diagnose fear? The red tree blooming from uterus to throat. It’s one long nerve, the doctor says. There’s a reason breathing helps, the muscles slackening like a dead marriage. Mine are simple things. Food poisoning in Paris. Hospital lobbies. My husband laughing in another room. (The door closed.) For days, I cradle my breast and worry the cyst like a bead. There’s nothing to pray away. The tree loves her cutter. The nightmares have stopped, I tell the doctor. I know why. They stopped because I baptized them. This is how my mother and I speak of dying—the thing you turn away by letting in. I’m tired of April. It’s killed our matriarchs and, in the back yard, I’ve planted an olive sapling in the wrong soil. There is a droopiness to the branches that reminds me of my friend, the one who calls to ask what’s the point, or the patients who come to me, swarmed with misery and astonishment, their hearts like newborns after the first needle. What now, they all want to know. What now. I imagine it like a beach. There is a magnificent sand castle that has taken years to build. A row of pink seashells for gables, rooms of pebble and driftwood. This is your life. Then comes the affair, nagging bloodwork, a freeway pileup. The tide moves in. The water eats your work like a drove of wild birds. There is debris. A tatter of sea grass and blood from where you scratched your own arm trying to fight the current. It might not happen for a long time, but one day you run your fingers through the sand again, scoop a fistful out, and pat it into a new floor. You can believe in anything, so why not believe this will last? The seashell rafter like eyes in the gloaming. I’m here to tell you the tide will never stop coming in. I’m here to tell you whatever you build will be ruined, so make it beautiful. Published in the print edition of the September 28, 2020, issue of The New Yorker