"The astrology was super gnarly," Ariana Reines told me over the phone, referencing the two-month-long period since we'd first spoken about her latest poetry collection, A Sand Book. In those intervening months, a low-key state of chaos reigned; days seemed endless, but the weeks flashed by, until, finally, things had settled down a bit. Settled enough that we could speak one more time, specifically to dive deeper into "Mosaic," the book's final poem, one that evokes surrender and suffering, a sense of the sublime structure of the universe. Of course, the book in its entirety also evokes the dizzying scope of the universe, while also allowing readers to understand how infinity can be understood by looking at the mundane, the minuscule—a grain of sand. With poems that address everything from "the small cellulite of the upper arms" to those that confront climate change and state-sanctioned murder, Reines confronts the discomforting with an aggressive honesty and viscerality that's transporting, beyond the constraints of things like time and space.
And so, it felt right to be talking again, though, to bookend the astrologically gnarly summer, when little seemed to go right, with another conversation about A Sand Book, and about the importance of paying attention to the world around you; letting it breathe, letting yourself breathe, feeling it all in your body, so you can feel it in your mind, so you can know when to re-enter the chaos, and live life anew.
Reines is an artist; she's a writer, astrologist, performance artist, dancer, and translator. Her poems have a specific muscularity, serving as a reminder of that most central of muscles, the heart. They throb. They breathe. They're not meant to live just in the head, or even just in the body—they're very much a part of this world, this universe, the collective experience.
A Sand Book is divided into 12 sections (one of which is a poem titled "Twelfth Night"); this number feels important, it offers a clear sense of distinction—a framework—and numbers are also important because of their inherent connection to one another: Numbers are made up of other numbers, they are foundational and structural, they can be used to take each other apart. A similar interplay is reflected in Reines' work, there's an implicit understanding that the individual parts can stand alone, but that they have a strength together that is more than their sum; Reines told me, "There's a lot of ways that each section of the book is like a book."
photo courtesy of Ariana Reines
Reines said that, prior to composing A Sand Book, she had begun to feel like she was in "that weird state of, Oh shit, I need artwork so I can live." She was busy, and maybe it was because there was so much that was happening that Reines became preoccupied with, she said, "how fast shifts seem to happen to mass consciousness." Because, the more things that are happening around us and to us—the more we feel that they are, anyway—the more we are then propelled forward by something other than the rhythm of our own bodies, and the less in tune we are with what's in our heads.
And that's where poetry comes in: Art becomes necessary if we ever hope to understand, or at least be able to prod, the limits of our experience. As Reines told me, "I consider poetry the bleeding edge of consciousness."
"In my opinion," Reines said, "in order to really do your job as a lyric poet, you have to have some skills in your toolkit for living on the edge of yourself, for living on the edge of your life. That doesn't mean you literally have to be howling at the moon in the wilderness or something, although it may be like that for some people. But it's important to be acquainted with the outer limits—of yourself, of your culture, of the known, of what can be accepted or experienced as real. Somebody has to work there, somebody other than the R&D departments of multinational corporations. The study and practice of poetry can equip you to 'boldly go where no man has gone before,' but it's not enough to go there—you have to be able to bear witness. Without witnessing, experience dissolves into nothing."
She added: "What is happening to the way we experience our own lives and our own minds with social media—which is very, very new, so new we can barely recognize it—we need a way to see. In a lot of ways we have become extremely submissive, letting other people make our myths for us, and very hospitable to others telling us how we should think or feel—whether it's astrologers, advertisers, politicians, or influencers. It is not enough just to try and think about all this with our little brain boxes. This is something that has to be felt with the heart and sensed with the intuition if there's going to be any perspective at all. Poetry is shockingly amazing at providing perspective. It is so small. It is almost nothing. And yet it can swell to unbelievable immensity, and drill down deep into the most hidden and buried realms. And everybody can do it."
This is what great art offers: a new way to see. Or, rather, that is part of what great art offers, because the other thing it gives us is a reminder that, even once we have a new way to see, we are still existing—and seeing—within a framework that has always been there. It's that interplay between the ancient and the novel that Reines so beautifully captures in her work, as she nimbly moves between writing about such modern concerns as environmental collapse, gun control, and police brutality ( A Sand Book references Hurricane Sandy, Sandy Hook, and Sandra Bland), while also invoking the ecstatic reveries of prophets past—notably in "Mosaic."
In a note explaining its origins, Reines writes that "Mosaic" is "the transcript of the verbal portion of an encounter" that she had on a warm, sun-filled day in early October 2014. She recounts leaving a performance, walking through the streets, and being filled with a heat so strong that she entered a state of "bliss" or "rapture"; she writes: "I felt it filling me, and changing me, changing my cells, reorganizing me."
"And then," she continues, "it began to speak."
What happened next for Reines was a channeling of words, of meaning; what happened was a kind of surrender. Reines told me, "I think, in some ways, surrender has a negative connotation, but sometimes surrender comes with intuition." We had been talking about how, at that point in her life, she'd been working at an elite university where a tenured creep preyed wantonly on students and colleagues, and was in rehearsal for "Mortal Kombat," a performance at the Whitney Museum that involved practicing real violence–hitting, kicking, punching, face slapping, wrestling, etc.—somehow she was in a process of trying to formalize and deconstruct some of the animosity between men and women, between masculinity and femininity. Somehow the internal and external conflicts in her life at that time produced both hilariously absurd—and rapturous symptoms. For example, something Reines called "a beard of zits," which "Mosaic" goes on to connect to the beards of male prophets in the Old Testament.
photo courtesy of Ariana Reines
When Reines and I talked about that beard, it was impossible not to laugh—at the absurdity of it, at the pain of it, at the universality of that kind of suffering. This is part of the generosity of Reines' work: It's often really fucking funny even, and especially, in its darkest moments. And "Mosaic" is a dark poem, even as it sheds light on the contracting, expanding framework of our existence. "The suffering of woman is the/ true story of the universe," writes Reines. "We have to understand ourselves at all costs/ nature extends from us/ nature mirrors us."
"There's a rhythm to our menstrual cycle," Reines said to me, reflecting on the link between women and nature. "And that rhythm is structural, and connected to the structure of our world—day and night, light and dark, the seasons. We continue to ignore rhythm and pattern, and artists often neglect the fact that time itself is a medium." But perhaps because we've become so disconnected from our environment, even as we destroy it with the thoroughness that feels like it can only come with true intimacy, we've lost a sense of oneness, of the kind of unity that allows us to understand infinity.
I asked Reines how much order she thought was in the universe, and she said: "I'm going to give you a kind of Judaic answer. I feel and I sense that part of what we do, as people, is to make order. I'm really interested not in the kind of order that I grew up under, and that we're still living out the dregs of. I think the idea of us all having to deal with and organize all of the things we are feeling is overwhelming; it's extremely difficult to put all of this into any kind of order. But there's something heroic about the task. It can be very beautiful.
But, she continued, "It's not good to be tyrannical about it. There's a reason why there's such a lust for such a regressive fascistic structure right now, because people really want order and they're really stressed out. That would be the bad side of this moment. People will tire of repression, though. They always do."
Even in the midst of all that is bad, though, there is the possibility of seeing something different, some kind of escape. Reines said, "Jewish mysticism kind of believes that, yes, everything was supposed to be perfect, but something happened and things cracked at the time of creation. There's a wobble in things. There are cockroaches. There is rot, and death. There is awful stuff—the ravages of disease, murder, atrocity. That stuff is real, and that's in creation. What we do when we accomplish creative acts—an act of compassion, an act of goodness—we're somehow restoring the perfection of the universe. That puts us in a co-creative position with the principle of creation itself. I believe in that. I think that's what gives human life its beauty, taking up the heroic mantle of that. You don't have to believe in some inexorable order to believe in that amount of order."
There is, too, a vulnerability in accepting that you are part of something so much greater than yourself; there is a rawness, a willingness to reveal yourself as being tender. And this kind of unintuitive bravery, this willingness to surrender, runs through so many of Reines' visceral, touching poems. It feels different because of how rare it is to encounter true openness in art, an essential unhinged quality that allows you to walk right into its meaning. The infrequency of work like this surely has to do with the perception of exposure as being the equivalent of weakness. But, as Reines told me, "Not all surrender is bad. There's also surrender to love, there's surrender to ecstasy, and there's that in the book too. But I think there's power in surrendering to your own demise as well, and in some ways, in order to surrender to love, we have to face that."
That this is all heady stuff is a reminder of the way that art can intoxicate, and take over the body and mind at once. It's a reminder to me of how I spent much of this gnarly summer questioning my place in all aspects of my life, of the universe. It's a reminder of how simultaneously unknowable and innate everything is. It's a reminder of the importance of immersing yourself in what Reines recognizes as being the "beautiful oscillation" of our world, as well as in art like hers, which seems to breathe with a life of its own, a mini-phenomenon. Or maybe not so mini after all.
As Reines said to me about her work, "You don't really write a book about sand. It's about when the invisible suddenly becomes visible; what seems like empty air becomes alive. That stuff is hard to fathom."
A Sand Book is available for purchase, here.
photo courtesy of Ariana Reines
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