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

Is spilling the glass of water, even if it’s spilled with knowledge and intent, enough “to atone for the evening’s serenity?” We are left pondering not just that question, but also a host of others. Is it better to know about that other room, or to live in ignorance of it? And, knowing of its existence, what is our obligation? Must we atone for our good fortune in the face of global suffering? Is it even possible to do this? And if so, how much atonement is “enough?” These are the questions that occupy the luckiest people of the contemporary world. The rest must occupy themselves with more basic questions of survival.

And yet the poem does not, to me, feel dark or bitter. Those things depicted with such love and appreciation in the first stanza—the intact family, the happy baby, the hummingbird in the red flowers—are still there when we go back to reread it and are still there, implicitly, at the poem’s end. But we see them differently, not with what you could call “bovine bliss” but instead with some degree of appreciation and gratitude. The poem stops short of asking us to take responsibility for what is happening in Fallujah and the other darkness it represents. All it wants is for us to acknowledge that Fallujah exists, to see other realities different and less fortunate than ours, and then it wants us to start asking the questions. That it does not lay them all out, much less attempt to answer them, is part of “Quotidian’s” power as a political poem. As I’ve noted in previous columns, the most successful poetry leads or goads us into asking the hard questions without providing neat or easy answers.

The poem is unmetered and unrhymed, free verse that uses regular syntax and punctuation and simple diction. It’s accessible, wanting to invite us into the experience. I like the way its message is expressed through action: the mother wiping milk from the folds in her newborn’s neck, the father climbing down a ladder, the car that stops to protect an animal mother and her child, the dusk that settles “like dust after rain.” Instead of telling us Fallujah has suffered from the war, the poem shows us those ravages in sparely-drawn images of terror, suffering, and loss. The way the poem passes so quickly and easily from one room (stanza) to the next is a reminder that what is happening in Fallujah is happening in the same world we inhabit, and at the same time. It feels like a jump scene, the way a film cuts directly from one scene to another, but it’s worth noting that the transition from everyday domestic tranquility to war-torn Fallujah is actually prepared for before the stanza change; clues come in the form of the words “dusk” and “dust,” emphasized by their near rhyme and by their occurrence in the same line. Another clue is the speaker’s anxiety expressed in the last line of stanza 1: “My son is quiet, but I am restless.” “Quotidian” makes us think about why we get to be in one room and not another, and how thin are the curtains that enclose our own spaces, and the way it divides its action into stanzas is the device that effects these easy transitions.

I don’t think “Quotidian” means to denigrate our everyday lives, not even to denigrate Eden or those who are still blissfully asleep there. But it does acknowledge that Eden tells only half the story, something we should view in a larger context, one that perhaps engenders gratitude and the willingness to protect what we hold dear. The simple everyday things—having a house to repair, a child who is alive and cooing, a glass of water to drink—here become paramount so we see them afresh for the gifts they are. The most important things are the simple, small facts of our intact world, the things we often most take for granted. It’s another version of Warren Zevon’s “enjoy every sandwich” and the adage that enjoins us to stop and smell the roses. But by introducing the concepts of libation and atonement, the poem goes a bit further and asks us also to at least consider whether we might have any responsibility to the unfortunates living outside the garden.

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