Cecil Hemley Memorial Award - 2021
A Brief Eschatological Investigation
How will you begin? Can you show us
your missing parts by gesturing?
Will you correctly name the flora
overtaking the fenced-in field?
Broadleaf dock? Marestail? Thistle?
That vine strangling the barbed wire
stretched in quatrains from post to
post? Does it matter, the naming,
if the plants aren’t cared for, just run
rampant until there are no furrows or
paths or ways through what used to be
open meadow? Can you simultaneously
believe we are fungible and doomed, but
also filled with impetus and light and heartbeat
like a cassette tape? How will you
caress the sounds from it and what rhymes
will you lay over its pulse before it unravels
or wears thin and jams its innards into
the meat of the machine? Helene Cixous
said to be human we need to experience the end
of the world and do you agree with her
right now in this particular moment?
What is the shape of your body and
how will it change with age and practice
and will you touch me again? What is
the history of the surface of your skin
and how might you use it to correctly
predict forthcoming circumstance and
events? Whom will you love and for
how long will it last? Our flesh is vast
and lovely and marked already or will be
a map, can you follow it?
Martha Collins on Erika Meitner
I doubt that those who established the Cecil Hemley award for a poem addressing “a philosophical or epistemological concern” would have envisioned a lyric concerned with eschatology—what the poem cites (in a non-theological sense) as “the end of the world.” But in a time of climate crisis, not to mention pandemic and violence, “A Brief Eschatological Investigation” radiates philosophical relevance—radiates because it’s also a lovely poem.
It’s also indeed an investigation, comprised almost entirely of questions: twenty of them, all addressed to a “you” who in the beginning seems to be an investigator, perhaps the speaker: “How will you begin?” But there’s a wonderful tension throughout as the poem alternates between questions that are as weighty as the title suggests and others that embed the more tangible stuff of our lives (including, in a remarkable simile, an unraveling and disappearing cassette tape). The body is present throughout, but the more personal focus on “your body” in the last five stanzas is still a surprise, and nothing has prepared us for the appearance of an “I”: “will you touch me again?” The moment passes, and the poem seems to end its investigation by declaring that “Our flesh is vast / and lovely and marked already or will be”—only to turn again to a question: “Can you follow it?” Not perhaps philosophically, but this is after all a poem, with metaphorical references to “quatrains” and “rhymes”—and we do indeed follow, with an inextricable blend of concern and pleasure.