Twenty years since James Thomas Stevens wrote Tokinsh. Eleven years since I read the long poem. The effect: I switched majors, stopped taking literature classes that didn’t slow down to listen to texts, and learned how to read a poem.
Tokinish might the first poem I read. I wonder about it as a contribution to how we “make” sense with words: Stevens uses language, translation, and questions about directions and transgressions to re-see language. This is essential for what I expect poetry to do—to keep language alive, to teach us how to survive with language. Even, to ethically regard the contours of words, our use and misuse of them.
Is there a bridge to that part of you, besides the one I call my own? If in
definition, a bridge connects two isolated points, then we must decide when
I reach to you, which body is isolated. Or is isolation a mutual thing. If in
its isolation, there is no recognition of its being “alone,” no desire to
become part to another, who rightfully calls it “island”?
How badly I wanted to be a bridge, to make a bridge, to poem a bridge. How much I want to learn how words can get us closer to each other.
I hate to narrow down the poem, the work of the poem, but I want to also give a sense of how much this poem contains about contact, relationships, culture, colonialism, sexuality, wanting and taking. I remember sitting in Stevens’ classroom, hearing him reflect about calling someone “mine,” our small acts of daily colonialism. Stevens asked us, as he asks his readers, to see how language acts, how intention can slip in and out.
The borders we cross. The borders we make. The way words draw lines in the sand, touch other meanings and associations. It’s a mess. It’s a real moment when you realize you’ve used words to put up boundaries: The memories of saying “no, this is mine” and “that’s not yours” as a kid, how the adult versions of that are less direct and equally terrifying. This is important for a sophomore, which I was at that point: to become aware of something so strange and to feel tangled. To become aware and sensitive to words, meaning, arrangement, intention, connotation, reception, and all the other consequences of “saying.”
I read the title incorrectly for two years: To kin-ish. I thought it was about kinships, the difficulty of belonging. I read it like that because that’s how I needed the text. Like a good writer, Stevens composed a text that opened up in several ways and has let me enter it differently at each reading. The book lets me find what I need.
Now, eleven years later, I read the book differently. I come with a new need and it offers me a new gift: I need to understand that things and feelings without names or clarity still exist. As a mother, I have a sense of strangeness. I find myself at the park trying to explain the feeling of being pinned down, thinning, fading and – at the same time – radiating and growing. The moms look at Avery as if he isn’t loved. It isn’t that, it’s a missing word for being my most complete-incomplete version of myself. I turn to Tokinish:
A bow exists for the English as the shape of the bow itself.
The Narragansett know the bow as Onu–ttug. A halfe Moone in war.
Yes, many ways to say something and many meanings. Many meanings without words at all.