PHENOMENOLOGY OF SPIRIT
Without warning, the concept drifts seaward
like a plastic sailboat. We’d untethered it unwillingly.
Before long, the proper syntax sinks. The surface
is invisible, strewn with those silly ambitions:
my monthly ten-percent savings, your love
for shelter cats. Does “antisynthesis” exist?
My dialectic is crumbling before it got a chance
to breathe. My dialectic won’t pay the bills.
I’m out the door before sunrise. The sky
is so often cloudless. I could cut my emissions
by “living car free.” The bank closes before sunset.
Suddenly, my sustainability heaps me with fees.
Can I make a payment plan? My dialectic says,
enter your PIN. My dialectic says, thank you for your call.
THE GENERAL THEORY OF EMPLOYMENT, INTEREST AND MONEY
Everything is fluid if and only if
your tears stay hidden. I can’t
imagine ever owning more than
keeping quiet. Purchase my
little hopes and chart
them on a graph. Pinpoint
how your love could turn
me into noise. Present
your findings to the board
and duly profit. Wait.
Never mind. Grab some
groceries. Don’t forget
milk. Get what you need.
I don’t need anything.
ORGANIC CHEMISTRY FOR DUMMIES
Let’s skip to the most engrossing detail.
The string quartet warming up for their recital:
Variations on a Theme by Variations
a Theme by Variations on a Theme
by Variations… The contrapuntal attitude
of that composition is appalling (in the best way).
The odds of eruption are astronomical, but
when numbers fail us and magma begins
flowing through the theatre’s jeweled halls,
when the furious heat consumes all, you’ll say:
actually, you’ll keep quiet, for times of such rank
suffering are as good times as any for silent humility.
Now check out this wild trick from the violist: he snaps
his bow in half and scrapes the strings with his very teeth.
A FIELD GUIDE TO BIRDS
Overhearing the music.
“Blank stars are the most beautiful stars.”
“Renouncing love, I’m in love with everything.”
“We float above ourselves ecstatically.”
“No tense, no personhood, no viewpoint at all.”
“They are unafraid, just as we are unafraid.”
“Fear is our entire skin, but where is the fear?”
“No setting, no language, no winding thread.”
“The exquisite consciousness, the grotesquerie…”
“I cannot fathom the sheer capacity.”
“No angle, no contour, no shape.”
“Light makes no sense to us.”
“Why should anything make sense?”
“no fear no fear no fear”
DECLINE AND FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE
No fear floats
above us with the weight
of air. We fled
the artifice as air
had fled us.
Written on the surface,
on the monolith,
are the dreams we kept
in our ears, listening.
Wait: have we come
to our beginning?
Did we grow up
blinkingly? Are we taller
than the sky?
In late 2017, I started writing a loose sequence of free-verse sonnets, each titled after canonical works of philosophy, politics, or economics. These poems are not intended as interpretations or commentaries on the books with which they share titles. In fact, I’ve only read a few of the texts I chose. For example, I freely admit to never reading G.W.F. Hegel’s seminal and inscrutable Phenomenology of Spirit. (The act of reading should sometimes involve a level of discomfort, but maybe I’m not quite ready for that degree of pain.) Instead my question was: what if the titles of these influential academic books were divorced from their content entirely? How would a title like The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money function as an aesthetic object independent of any actual theories of employment, interest, or money?
This might sound like some cynical postmodern exercise (and maybe it is), but it was liberating and generative for me as a poet. Economic themes have always existed in my work; but titling a poem after an old economics book suddenly had me thinking more seriously about life within capitalism, and I channeled those reflections into my work. Other titles came out of a looser appreciation for the sound and rhythm of language. Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is an amazing title. The phrase “decline and fall” is beautiful and musical to me in a way I can’t quite explain. So, my poem “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” germinated from the sonic richness of the title’s language.
Still, titling a poem that has nothing to do with the Roman Empire “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” may seem cheeky and evasive to some. Most readers of contemporary poetry are used to this kind of thing, but literal-minded readers (alas, they do exist) may feel at removes, like they were promised something they didn’t get. But what if a reader is a Roman history buff, or an economist familiar with Keynes’s General Theory? Such people may find connections or associations that were unknown to me as the poet. That, I think, is exciting.
The poems themselves are deeply personal for me, although not obviously so. I wrote them during a time of uncertainty, just out of grad school and trying to secure a life for myself in precarious circumstances. Simultaneously, it was my first time trying to make a serious home with someone else. Yet, revisiting these poems, a deep sadness seems to prevail in them. Maybe readers will see their own anxieties in the poems. Hopefully, I’ve managed to synthesize those feelings with something else.
Anthony Hagen is a native of Northern Virginia and currently lives and works in Austin, Texas. Recent work can be found in American Poetry Journal and Willawaw Journal.