- What You’re Missing
Oxford University Press
384 Pages; Cloth. $73.00
“The ordinary can be like medicine.” I did not first read those words in a novel by Sherman Alexie, but in my friend Jess’s Instant Messenger status update. As a freshman in college at the turn of the century, I communicated like most students in one of Boston’s many universities just across the river from where Mark Zuckerberg was busy creating Facebook, through AOL’s then popular IM. Yet I prided myself then on a disdain for the technology that was infringing on all of our lives. I was distinctly not my roommate Cheryl, who I watched leap out of bed every morning immediately and log onto her computer to see who had said what and how overnight. It was, I felt, better to stay in bed. I remember writing home with my condescension for her morning habit—asking, contemptuously and unaware, how the computer could be the first thing anyone would want to see in the morning. It felt so artificial, so neon, so removed from the soothing and sometimes awakening beauty of the ordinary world.
I look back now and blush. At first, I didn’t understand Jess’s status. I hadn’t understood Cheryl’s morning habit. And I thought it was merely a form of escapism. I once asked Jess about her use of the line from Alexien—“what do you mean by medicine?” To which she replied that ordinary things could get you through hard times—“you just do one thing after another and by the time you’re done doing it, the difficulty is over. You go to the store, you go to work, you go make dinner, and then you forget that your leg hurt, or you were heartbroken, or whatever.” She was, in a way, echoing Robert Creeley’s eight-word gut-punch:
One day after another —Perfect.They all fit.
Creeley’s “One Day” offers a kind of sense with which to understand the ordinary—what it does to us, what we do to it, and how it can embrace or embattle us, in a sort of tension between mindfulness and mindlessness. It is one of many poems quoted by Andrew Epstein in his Attention Equals Life, which starts with a lengthy, complex, and invaluable reflection on the contemporary situation of inattentiveness—essentially attributing it to a post-war technological influx—before drawing on a series of contemporary poems to make the case for an embrace of “life” via an absorption with moments of “experimental realism” such as those so deftly rendered in what may still be loosely called, “the New American Poetry.”
Epstein’s book is described by its publisher as a work of poetry criticism—from its subtitle, to its rhetorical structure, to its cover art. It is, however, actually focused on the very “life” mentioned in its title. It reads acts of attention through and as poetry because, as Epstein delicately and deliberately explains in the informative introduction, “over the past half-century both poetry and culture in general have become even more preoccupied with the everyday and the commandment to pay attention to it.” Epstein also carefully attends to the “radical artifice” that can be poetry, while offering his own meaningful phrases that negotiate the tension between the ordinariness, artificiality, constructedness, simplicity, complexity, banality and vitality that is poetry of the everyday—or as Epstein calls it, “everyday-life aesthetic tradition,” made manifest as a “skeptical,” “experimental,” or “avant-garde realism.” In his explorations of this aesthetic, Epstein makes the ordinary elastic, and asks for his reader, like the poets whose work he showcases, to linger on it awhile, as attention may be not only an aesthetic act, but one of survival.
Epstein’s book is indeed very strong when it reads contemporary American poems [End Page 9] as examples of how the act of attention is both aesthetic and essential. As Richard Deming writes in his Art of the Ordinary (published...