I often wonder what people do on rainy days. Ones where the sky is so gray that you can hardly look ahead, where the damp pavement makes your bike wheels skid a bit as you try to swerve past people on the Diag, where your wet clothes stick to your skin like sweat on a summer day. Personally, I stay inside, unapologetically, wherever inside may be. This time I escaped the rain in the Stern Auditorium at the University of Michigan Museum of Art, listening to the rhythmic words and syncopated breaths of poet Brian Teare, the most recent guest of the Zell Visiting Writers Series.
It felt good to be back in the auditorium, “gathered in poetry,” as Teare says, listening from up close and not through my laptop’s microphone — which was refreshing. So there I was: third row, ears, eyes and heart open to discovering the beauty of yet another wonderful author.
At the event, Teare, who grew up in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, was presenting his sixth book, “Doomstead Days,” a collection of eight poems within 150 pages. From the Bay Area to Vermont to Philadelphia, the poems illustrate a landscape of things he saw and felt, and that we, the listeners, could fully embody in our minds, thanks to his lyrical depictions and vivid descriptions.
The first piece he read wasn’t a part of this book, instead, it was an essay called “Tell me about your weather.” It had come about as a response to a friend’s inquiry to do just what the title indicates. Set in Virginia in 2019, where he was teaching poetry at that time, this poem deals with climate as “a fiction, an abstraction.”
He talks about the wind in a personified manner: “I feel its touch but can’t feel I’ve touched him back.” He looks around and realizes things aren’t permanent as they slip from his grasp and control — the clouds, the sun and the way climate change is making the bird population decline. It’s the ugly truth, exposed with pretty locutions.
The second poem, titled “Olivine, Quartz, Granite, Carnelian” was long. Fast. Intense. It mimicked a walking meditation, and we were walking alongside him. A melodic internal monologue that activated all five senses, I could smell the pines, see the colors of the land ahead, hear the sounds of nature and “sing song sing song” of birds. I could feel the wetness of rain on my skin and taste the bitterness of belonging to a race that is “making all natural things human.” Teare exposed our environmental guilt while simultaneously deadening it; a “sort of ruin that seems livable until it isn’t.”
Teare slightly swayed from side to side as the words left his mouth, increasing in pace as the poem went on. Soon, we were met with a long grocery list of ways in which we are doomed. Among descriptions of fungi in bats, of microbes, nukes and tubes, Teare inserts scientific facts of climate change and global warming. These were hidden among held-back sighs and measured notes, yet clear enough to leave the auditorium thinking of the rain outside differently.
After he was done with reading, Teare sat down with English MFA Matt Del Busto for a Q&A. When asked for his formula for writing long poems, he said the secret was syllabics — composing by ear and always looking to “make facts sing.”
Throughout his reading, I had noticed the musicality of his words, the rhythm in the way he structured lines and the dance that he ignited in my feet — moving in a similar manner to when I listen to jazz manouche. Teare had been a musician before he was a poet. But he was also a walker, making the length of poems coordinated with the time he spent on his stroll. The walk was “the skeletal map, a semantic map” that was finished sitting on his desk at home.
When the Q&A opened to the public, I asked a question myself. I had been curious to know if, as a teacher, he ever felt that he had to write as a means of educating others. To this, he answered that the poems were a means of educating himself first and that teaching the reader was the collateral result. “I go on walks just to go on walks,” he said.
I left yet another Zell Visiting Writers Series wanting to tell everyone I encountered about it. I went home and took my bike — it was still raining, but I didn’t care. I rode my bike and began noticing how the world around me reacted to rain. Those who run and those who hide, those whose ponchos cascade water in a halo around their shoes and those who use an umbrella too small to keep them dry.
Teare left me with a sudden urge to write about every living thing around me. He made me realize that we are vulnerable at all times and are conditioned to catastrophic change. So until the time comes, I will walk, observe, meditate and write. I’ll make a habit of it, especially when it rains.
Daily Arts Writer Cecilia Duran can be reached at email@example.com.