When tension overwhelms my muscles, I get a massage. I love massages, especially when the masseuse gets in there really deep. It doesn’t always relieve the aches and pains of a tight neck (too much stooping over editorials), but it’s an indulgence I return to frequently.
When I think of grammatical tense, I think back to Latin classes in high school. Imperfect, perfect, pluperfect… And here’s where poetry draws a connection. For, one day, I came to school with a crook neck—had slept on it funny, could barely turn my head, it was agony. During Latin class, my teacher took me into the vacant classroom next door, sat me in a chair, and massaged my neck in an attempt to revive its mobility.
Am I making you tense? Don’t worry, this story has a happy ending: when that teacher retired, he trained to become a professional massage therapist.
Sometimes I think we are drawn to things that make us tense our muscles, our throats, our insides. A thriller or horror film, a football game, a rousing opera. Watching live ballet, I grip the seat because I know how difficult it is to turn and balance as those dancers do, and I don’t want to see any of them fall off pointe.
Some poetry has the ability to enter our bodies and hold them captive from within. For me, Emily Dickinson’s poems can do this, tense wires in her reprimands, her dashed intelligence. Plath, too, can furrow my brow. For those of you who haven’t watched Daniel Beaty delivering his poem ‘Knock Knock’ on stage (available on YouTube), do so now—you can hear the tension in the air, a captivated audience holding its collective breath for his resounding, final declaration. This reminds me somewhat of being in the audience at the Queensland Poetry Festival when Alison Whittaker read her poem ‘a love like Dorothea’s’—a response to Dorothea Mackellar’s ‘I love a sunburnt country’. Whittaker’s delivery is quietly commanding in her powerful takedown of racism and colonial violence against First Nations people, against the environment.
What I love about poetry is its potential for aftershocks—lines return and circulate as I step out into the world, so that bites of poems become thrilling flashes of accompaniment to the frustrations of the world, making those frustrations bearable, amusing, wondrous:
I’d shoot the man who pulled up slowly in his hot car this morning (Gig Ryan, ‘If I Had A Gun’)
her wounds came from the same source as her power (Adrienne Rich, ‘Power’)
Half thought thought otherwise/ loveless and sleepless the sea (Susan Howe, ‘Silence Wager Stories’)
rip through traffic lights in Brunswick/ to the sound of night lions (Melody Paloma, ‘Hyper-reactive’)
Huge thanks to the wonderful guest poetry editors for this issue, David Stavanger and Pascalle Burton, whose joint idea for a ‘Tense’ issue was met with an exciting, diverse local and international response to the submissions call.
I hope these poems make you tense…in all the best ways.