We usually don’t like poems that name the dark, fearful parts of life…We strive daily to antidote our own, to find our way into a hopeful, still cleared-eyed, one. But we could not stop reading Spoiler by Hala Alyan, in the New Yorker that described very specific darknesses that modern life — all life — is full of. Then in the last line came a flash of illumination that lifted it all and has stayed with us, resonating. It seemed to get to the heart of things…

Leaning into the Wind / Magnolia Pictures

Listen to Alyan read her poem here. And if it is just too much to read, begin at “I imagine it like a beach…“, or even just the last two lines…

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
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.

I’m here to tell you whatever you build will be ruined, so make it beautiful.

Andy Goldsworthy Hedge crawl, dawn, frost, cold hands Sinderby, England Galerie Lelong & Co.

We ripped out the poem and left it on the table, to reread and contemplate its fearsome message that seemed at once angry and hopeful.

Then, two very short trailers about sculpture Andy Goldsworthy, rich with powerful images and words, seem to provide a kind of resolution and affirmation of Alyan’s poem and its remarkable last line.

All week long, it was as though artworks and poem were in conversation, offering different facets of illumination. Goldsworthy’s repeated struggle to make beauty out of ephemeral things, that lose their balance and fall, or get blown or washed away, is a celebration of Alyan’s message…

I think a good work IS a moment of understanding and clarity in a very chaotic situation. Like a shaft of light that just penetrates and for a moment is very clear. And then it all becomes unclear again.

Kelp thrown into a grey, overcast sky Drakes Beach, California 14 July 2013, Galerie Lelong & Co.

That moment when you are held there suspended is a very beautiful moment. Those are the moments I strive for, struggle for in everything I do in one way or another.

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2 replies on “How to Redeem Life’s Spoilers (Andy Goldsworthy and Hala Alyan)

  1. During these past four weeks I have found an immense amount of solace in Improvised Life as I have lost both of my parents, one to cancer, one to COVID. The readings, poetry and images helped me to write two eulogies and comforted me through dark times. It is my go to place for inspiration, peace and an understanding I sometimes get only from the thoughfulness of this site. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

  2. Dear Janet, I am so very sorry to hear of your terrible losses. I am very touched that Improvised Life has been a place of solace and light for you and thank you deeply for sharing a moment of this very hard time. With each post I feel my way, not knowing how it will resonate. So thank YOU for letting me know. I am very glad to know that you are there, reading.

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