The Cruelty-Free Ivory Tower: a recovering grad student presents tongue-in-cheek semi-academic poetry reviews
There is perhaps no better time than a global pandemic to think about what it means to be inside, to be outside, to be somehow caught between the two. This is precisely what Razielle Aigen’s poem “From the Outside” (from her chapbook light waves the leaves, above/ground press, February 2020) struggles with, struggles against, struggles into: a poem which is “creating / a loophole, a visual / palindrome in which / rain rains on either side / of a windowpane.”
We’re all acquainted with windows: one side is out and the other is in, and we sit in and look out. In this poem, however, Aigen begins to think of what it looks like when the outside, somehow, appears on both sides of the glass. The barrier hasn’t been broken down, but it has been circumvented, somehow. Is in still in? Is out still out? What happens if—or when—one becomes the other? Can in and out remain distinct from one another if they cohabitate or fall in love? What happens when these seeming immutable barriers suddenly become mutable?
These are perhaps familiar questions, posed not only by this poem, but by constraints on current living. I hardly need to tell you that the majority of us are stuck in our homes, leaving only for vital work or necessary errands before quickly returning inside. All of our narratives, understandably, have become inside-centric, and there is danger in something being purely internal—a one-sidedness that becomes an overgrown tangle with nowhere to go. I think most of us would recognize this as a self-evident truth of these times, pointing to our own restlessness, anxiety, fear, and loneliness as the proof of forced inside-ness gone awry, gone too far.
How, then, might we imagine “a process of / overriding the insiding”, as Aigen puts it? The truth of the matter is that no one wants to be stuck inside, whether “inside” is a one-bedroom apartment or the walls of a single mind, unable or unwilling to emerge or communicate with whatever’s on the other side of the glass. It poses questions we might all be obsessed with: how can something that belongs outside be forced inside and still survive? How can we once again bring what is inside into a sphere where it can be shared, understood, or even loved?
Fittingly, then, the joy and excitement and driving force of this poem come from an instant in which these barriers seemingly disappear; even hidden within, the poet can be seen: as the poet’s lover repeats throughout the poem, “this is really you.”
The poet brushes this off, mostly, but still feels compelled to “open all the windows and doors”—in other words, to dispel the barriers as much as possible, and continue growing closer to her lover. Together, the two of them begin to call out the things they see through these newly-opened portals—the birds, the plants—and begin naming them anew, as though they are Adam in the garden of Eden on the first day of the first spring. This naming feels monumental, captivating, somehow mythical in the way that reminds us: names have power.
Stuck inside my one-bedroom apartment, it’s easy to see how this is a power we all have and yet all too easily forget. Aigen seeks to remind us of this power: the power not just to look but to see, and to understand and to know through our conscious, purposeful seeing. Put another way: how often have I stared out my balcony windows but not seen anything I’m looking at?
Perhaps we can rediscover this blessing, then, even stuck inside our lonely boxes for the foreseeable future. What are the names for the birds and trees outside the windows we stare at, day after day? What will it take to throw those windows open and to recognize what we see?
starling. holy oak!
their shapes are pleasing.
we are at ease. […]
we can’t explain what’s
But her lover can, and does:
“I’m getting to know you,” she says “from the inside.”
There’s such joy in these sparse lines, and of course there is—because Aigen is not just looking out of her window, but out of herself. The poet becomes one with the world outside her window, but also begins to dissolve the barrier between her thoughts and her lover’s thoughts — and between her self and her lover’s self. The poet, too, is seen, and named, and understood.
The end of the poem tangles all the threads of this discourse up beautifully: Aigen and her lover grow closer and closer in their separate understandings until it becomes a single understanding, falling into bed or into love, the clear boundaries between their bodies and words becoming blurred, forgotten, mutable. Love erases the barrier between inside and outside, blending both together into something that simply is.
So too is naming—or even just seeing—an action which transcends the boundary between the inner and the outer; a name, after all, is the shortest possible shorthand to signal knowledge of something or someone. By vocalizing our internal understandings, we make those understandings external, public—shared. Nested in her lover’s arms, this becomes clear even to Aigen, who tells us, at the end, that “by way of naming, we are / creating, we put it / outside.”
She describes, then, the translation we all seek: from unspoken to spoken, from inside to outside. Even in the times we feel most stuck, Aigen seems to say, we can create connections out of seemingly nothing — building a vivid, shared reality out of the knowledge “nestled / on the inside, a hologram / of what we know is / happening.”
And so this poem has a message for this time of self-isolation: throw open the doors and windows. We can’t leave the inside, whether we take that to mean our homes or our heads. But we can open our eyes to see and our mouths to speak, and listen to our names for things twining together outside like garden snakes in the grass — verdant, gentle, flexible, and so very, beautifully, inarguably together.
Dessa Bayrock lives in Ottawa with two cats and a variety of succulents, one of which occasionally blooms. She used to fold and unfold paper for a living at Library and Archives Canada, and is currently a PhD student in English, where she continues to fold and unfold paper. Her work has appeared in Funicular, PRISM, and Poetry Is Dead, among others, and her work was recently shortlisted for the Metatron Prize for Rising Authors. She is the editor of post ghost press. You can find her, or at least more about her, at dessabayrock.com, or on Twitter at @yodessa.