Monday, January 2, 2023

"The Poem of Next Year"

This is the new year / and I don't feel any different, Benjamin Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie sings in their 2003 song "The New Year" on their (as of this year) two-decades old album Transatlanticism. Gibbard often sings this on my turntable, or my iPod, or in the headphones connected to my phone while coaxing the dogs to do their business among the chaos of fireworks around town on New Years Eve. Some years I'm entranced by the melancholy of Gibbard's lyrics, Death Cab's lingering emo affectations as they lean into more pop rock sensibilities; other times it is more of a perfunctory gesture. 

2022 was a Very Big Year, so I'm inclined to feel quite different as we move into 2023. I'm thinking about the lines that follow Gibbard's classic December 31st opening: I have no resolutions / or self-assigned penance / for problems with easy solutions. This gives me pause. I recently read Billy Collins' newest collection of poems, Musical Chairs, and at the risk of sounding like I have the attention span of my dogs when the baby is throwing food from his high chair, was once again struck, this time by the poem "New Calendar"

 The poem of next year --

every week a line,
every month a stanza,

and a tiny sun
rising and settling
in every numbered square.
I'm thinking more in terms of units on the calendar recently: as I plan my syllabus, as I plan work travel, travel for pleasure; for me the New Year isn't so much an abstract occasion for the "new year new me" ethos as it is a fresh start at the halfway point of yet another fresh start. I live on the academic calendar, not the 12 months yearly calendar.

If I am being honest, part of this is because of how much of a routine I've had to jettison. In 2020, I had almost zero responsibilities: having finished coursework, working remotely was well-suited for dissertation writing; my teaching load was the smallest it had ever been and, advantaged with previous experience teaching online, had no trouble with teaching writing virtually. With my spare time, and literally nothing else to do, I ran, and ran, and ran. I listened to more music and podcasts than ever (though this year I might have challenged that enjoying an archive of Jack White's live shows from his 2022 world tour) while running. In fact, I ran four half marathons and a total of 52.4 race miles that year, 20 of those were a single run (which I completed in just over three hours, not to boast!). I bring all this up to say I was in far and away the best shape of my entire life.

Now, I'm not blaming anybody but myself, but in 2021, I had a lot more than nothing to do. Having landed a one-year visiting instructor position at University of Detroit Mercy, that meant my funding clock at Wayne State was due to expire, so I had to sprint to finish. We'd gotten a dog, and she's (bless her heart) needy like me. Our lease was set to expire and we had to move not really knowing how long we'd tough it out in Michigan. Maybe all that work I'd done in 2020 did some damage to my legs and papier-mâché ankles, who knows, but in 2021 I just could not run like I'd used to. Plus I was starting a new job but would have to continue looking for another new job. Oh, and Rachel was pregnant. To me, all legitimate excuses to not spend hundreds of hours running laps around various square miles of Southfield, or later, Livonia, Michigan.

I'll skip this past year, you know how it went: we had moved, we had Ben, I fought against the job market (and won!), we got Poppy, we moved to Ohio, Rachel started a new job, we all had COVID, I started a new job, and that brings us up to January 1st, 2023. Out of laziness (sometimes) and necessity (other times) I ate like shit this year. I did not exercise. Not a lot, anyway. I maybe tried to run three times this summer, but I was either being a dad or it was one thousand degrees outside.

So when I think of the tortured but good natured ritual of New Years and New Years Resolutions, I look down at my bulging gut and fat cheeks in the mirror and wonder if trying to ease off the gas station snacks and fast food between classes is, as Gibbard says, a "problem with an easy solution" or not. If I wanted to be really bleak, I might wonder if the image Collins evokes in "New Calendar" of a "tiny sun / rising and settling" isn't running out of steam for my heart if I don't snap out of it, but I won't go there, not yet.

I look to the dictionary instead. A resolution is "the act of determining" but I'm more of a verb guy, so, to resolve is "to settle or find a solution" or "to decide firmly on a course of action." Now we're talking, baby! No mention as to whether or not those are easy solutions.

It would be trite for me to say I'll go to the gym three times a week or not drink pop/soda/whatever they call it where you're reading this because those are promises I don't know I can keep. But they are goals. I can try to walk on an elliptical and take the dogs more interesting places for walks and not get caught up in a rage over silliness on the internet and can listen more and write more and be more intentional about savoring my teaching and doing research and reading to Benjamin and celebrating Rachel. Those are all goals I can very easily set.

And I decide firmly on a course of action to meet those goals. As a poet, I resolve to write the best possible poem of next year. Every week a line. Every month a stanza. Waiting at dawn for a tiny sun rising and settling in every numbered square.

I know for sure I can do that. Time to get writing, 2023.

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