Poetry Sunday: “Quotidian,” by Bonnie Wai-Lee Kwong

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Today’s poem asks what it means to live an everyday (quotidian) life in a self-aware, information-deluged world where even the most banal of activities cannot be seen except in a larger, more global context. We get up in the morning, have breakfast, interact with our kids, do our jobs, meet our daily frustrations, and experience our daily small comforts and joys, but it is always in the light—or shadow—of the world intruding by means of our devices: TV, phones, computers. Technology has offered us the apple, and what has been eaten cannot be uneaten. We cannot return to a state of ignorance of what is happening all around us.

“Quotidian” is organized into 26 lines divided into three stanzas. Stanzas, from the Italian word for “room,” are discrete units within a poem, sometimes functioning the same way paragraphs function in prose. They can embody an idea separate from other ideas in other stanzas, and the white space before and after each one signals some kind of turn or change. In today’s poem, stanzas 1 and 3 take place in the everyday life of the speaker, a serene domestic existence where a mother and father fulfill expected gender roles (he hammers nails, she takes care of the baby) and where everyone seems content (the baby “coos”) and safe (cars stop to allow a doe and her fawn to cross the road). The second stanza takes us into an entirely different room and world. When it’s “dusk” in the speaker’s world, it’s “dawn” in “Fallujah,” a place that also has families and homes. In Fallujah, though, men carry machine guns instead of hammers, and they use them to nudge aside the blankets of babies. In one world, a hummingbird traces a flight path through bottlebrush, and in the other a line is painted by blood from the head of a man dragged by his feet along asphalt. Building, life, and the beauty of nature on the one hand, rubble, destruction, and death on the other.

Visiting that second room necessarily changes our experience of the first when we reenter it, so that when we return to stanza 3’s scene of domestic contentment, we find it altered. The snake has entered the garden, and instead of being grateful that cars stop to protect deer, it becomes possible to view that act with irony, viz., we take great pains to protect wildlife but do nothing to stop the killing of human beings elsewhere. My daughter might call stanza 3 a “woke” version of stanza 1. In light of what we saw in Fallujah, the act of spilling a glass of water in sunny California takes on a darker resonance. To begin with, it is not, as we suppose such acts to be, unconscious or without awareness of its consequences. Instead, spilling the water becomes a deliberate act the speaker intends as a libation or charm. In ancient times, wine or water was spilled to appease the Gods and to avert the evil eye. Here, it becomes a “libation,” something done with agency and intent to acknowledge and atone in some way for the tragic events happening in that other room.

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