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Something For Nothing

“The painter, Cezanne, would leave blank spaces on his canvas when he couldn’t account for the brush strokes, or the color”— “How much of your life can you account for? My life is a collage of unaccounted for brush strokes; I am all random”.” ― John Guare, Six Degrees of Separation

An unoccupied bench in an art gallery before a blank wall canvas

Is there really ever Nothing?

Science and math with their exactitude will insist that two entities meeting under particular equations and circumstances will produce Zero.

But even if the answer is zero, isn’t zero something? A something vs. nothing?

I was once touched by a ghost. I’d been dreaming of my grandmother and was awakened by a warm hand on my cheek. Once I shuddered myself awake, I sat up terrified. Holding my face, I looked around, but in my room there was nothing.

Year ago, when the National Poetry Slam came to Oakland, at the finals I remember this youngster from back east. I won’t ever remember his name, or even the subject he wrote on, but I’ll never forget him. He recited his poem with his whole body. He was ferocious and physical. But he’d get to a particular word or phrase in his poem, he wouldn’t say it. He’d stop, fall silent, and move on. We the audience knew where he was leading, but he himself wouldn’t go. He wouldn’t say what, for him, remained unsayable. That poem was revelatory. I hadn’t encountered a poet who yielded space, rested in their own silence within a poem. So many of us are narcissists, attention hounds. To encounter someone bold enough to stand on this huge stage in front of a packed room and rest in the quality of silence, of blank space and unspoken words, stunned me. I encountered a lot of great poems and poets that week, but he’s the only one I still clearly remember and think about. It was like watching someone run full speed to a cliff’s edge and stop.

I don’t know why the empty spaces he left in his poem excited me so much. You can say I got excited over nothing.

Because something is left unsaid, does that mean its incomplete? Will you always need to be paid with a word or sound? Does one always need to pay you with: Thank You, Excuse Me. Hello. You’re welcome. Under what circumstances will you need to be paid with Something over Nothing?

In my first book, there’s a poem: Empty of Apologies. The poem turns on the word: Sorry. I wrote it after processing a conversation with my birth mother, her apologizing for given birth to me, in case I was angry over how my life turned out. I wasn’t. I didn’t need or ask for a sorry. But there it was. And in writing the poem, I thought of all the times people said to or around me: Don’t be sorry, Don’t say sorry, I hate that word. While writing, I thought of that kid in the slam and decided to leave blank spaces in my poem. By then, the reader knows what the word is. They could claim it or not.

I’m quiet. Being an only child is no excuse. There are work days where I don’t speak at all. I rarely use the phone and can do my chores without ever needing to say anything, past a general pleasantry. The IT dude who works in our office, however… He is like a golden retriever as a human being. Overfriendly, wagging and loud. He will approach already talking, mid sentence. He insulted me once without realizing it, years ago after I started work here. He was dismissive about poetry and said something offhand and snarky after my first book was published. What he said, he doesn’t remember. But I remembered. And I’ve kept a lot of space between him and me, until the morning I decided to face him with kindness and explain what happened and why I’d been so cool to him. He didn’t remember the insult, so full of noise and words, but was apologetic. I accepted his apology. So here’s why I’m sharing this story. Recently, I get to office. I’m anxious to sit at my desk and write before officially clocking in for work. But on this rare morning, he’s already in office! Sees me washing my hands in the kitchen and strolls up, talking. I turn to him, with full eye contact. I breathe. I don’t offer a response. I give no conversational tags: Oh, I see, hmmm, that’s interesting, what else happened. I just listen. Stand there and let him talk. And when he got to the end of a story, he looked at me. This is the part where I’m supposed to join in, encourage our chat to go on. Instead, I lifted my cup to my lips and sipped.

“Guess I’ll let you go,” he said.

Blank spaces have continued to appear in my work. “Blank” is now a word I commonly use in my poems.

Back when I was in high school, I sat with a small group of dudes in the bleachers. The tallest one announced: When you die, I think you’re just dead. That’s it. No credits, no deleted scenes, no angels. He didn’t believe in the heaven my grandfather preached or even the hell threatened to open for hateful, angry people. He saw only life and dismissed anything afterwards. And what could we living kids say back to him? It sounded sad to me. Laying in a coffin, drying out. How can one live an entire life and upon death be offered nothing? Somewhere between my grandfather’s sermons and my classmates shrugged shoulders, lies the truth. Is our life something in order to make our death nothing.

Another slam, years earlier: I knew the man climbing the stage to perform. He was a good story writer, funny. A musician who’d sometimes incorporate a mini-keyboard. I liked him. On this night as part of the slam, he was introduced and maybe said into the mic: This is a wiggle poem, or I call this Wiggle poetry or something like that. And he lay down on his back on the stage and… wiggled. It was a poem with several stanzas, and he’d wiggle different intensity for each stanza. He never used any words, if he spoke it was from his loose mouth and tongue while gesticulating on his back. He did this for about three minutes, got up and the room applauded. And I don’t think I ever laughed so hard. And despite having no words, I’ve never forgotten that poem. I’ve lost every other poet or event from that night, even my own poem, but he stands eternal. It was monstrously daring, the most courageous thing I may’ve ever witnessed from a performer. It was a poem because he was a poet and that’s what he told us.

I discovered 1950’s vocalist Jimmy Scott while educating myself on jazz at the library. Scott was vocalist supreme, a stylist. Suffering a life long syndrome that kept him small in stature with a feminine, high soprano voice. He’s your favorite singers favorite singer. And when I realized he was going to play live in San Francisco, I became obsessed with getting a ticket to see him. I would have strangled a grandmother to get in that room. It was a smallish cabaret space, the jazz slow to mid tempo and gorgeous. During a song, when one in his band would solo, he would gesture to them and somehow vanish in midair. He never left the stage, really. Didn’t duck behind an amp or curtain, but he, magically and generously, just disappeared. Only to reassemble voice first on stage in front of us. I can’t fully explain it beyond how I just explained it. He was there, then not there, then he’d reappear voice first. It wasn’t as simple as stepping out of his spotlight, since the stage and room was so small. Yet his act of bowing out during his musicians solos was beautiful and mystifying. He left a blank space on stage that was never completely empty.

For more than 10 years, I spent Christmas and Thanksgiving at my friend’s house. We met and bonded at work. We spent a lot of hours and days together. Talking. Drinking. Chess. I always wanted a brother and here he was, finally. One holiday he picked me up from BART — me and the hot pot of mustard greens I’d brought– and as he’s driving back home, a lull in our chat. He says: “I’m okay with the silence.” He too was an only child. We bonded through our common silences. It was okay just being together, even if what was happening or what we needed to say to one another was nothing.

What if I added, that was the last real conversation we had. After 10-Plus years. He got engaged, finally, to his long term girlfriend. I called to congratulate him months before the ceremony, but there was no joy in his voice. Neither for me, nor for the nuptial. His Asian wife chose Juneteenth for their ceremony. “The national day of freedom and I’m going into slavery,” he said without laughing. And that was the last thing he said to me. His mom and I seemed to’ve bonded over his forgetting our previous decade and putting on blinders for his new life. COVID having killed many people, relationships, friendships, jobs and assumptions. It tried to kill us as well. After two years of silence and canceled holidays, his mother and I met and had lunch and we seemed to mourn his loss, even as he was still quite alive. We were together and alone. We sat in the park in the middle of a gorgeous afternoon, eating rice and orange chicken and crisp green beans. We both seemed to expect receipts for time spent with someone so important to both of us. But he didn’t feel the same way. Once there was something. When there was three of us, we seemed to add up to something. But now what did we have?

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