Singing Through the Night With Devorah Major's 'And Then We Became'

Devorah Major. (Photo: Andrea Pecchioli)

I don't read poetry as often as I probably should, and so it feels like a gift to have received Devorah Major's latest poetry collection And Then We Became (City Lights Books; 2016) in the final days of a hand-wringing, nightmare-drenched election cycle.

Why, just today, my husband kicked me in the shin in the early morning hours as he dreamed of chasing down a giant rat: Jung might have said that the rat symbolized he of the very good brain that's said a lot of things, but I digress. Dipping into And Then We Became -- a slim volume with a beautiful cover, with the geometric look of galaxies flying across a sky between sunset and twilight -- offers a quietly righteous respite from the muck of election-related opinion, emotional triggers, and binary arguments on a constant social media loop.

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Even the title of the book is a relief. And Then We Became is a reminder, a mantra to repeat daily; we are all in the process of becoming. Look around. How many people do you know that have arrived? What does it mean to arrive, to have somehow become what you were always meant to be, when even the universe, as Major points out in the book's final poem "Cosmology Meditation #2," is "omnicentric infinitely / expanding in all directions"? Nothing is set in stone, as much as Americans might like to believe (myself included) in the certainty of faith, rationality, to-do lists, and retail therapy.

our universe

the cosmologist said

is creating itself

Other poems in the collection travel between celebration and mourning, on a range of subjects: family, culture, social justice, ambiguity. The effect is equal measures celebratory and sorrowful. You aren't going to find answers in these poems. Only reminders that we are all searching, living, breathing, struggling, dying. Some are born into legacies of racial and gender oppression. Others survive physical ailments: strokes, cancer, mass shootings. You know, the stuff of modern life in America.

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Take the poem "Year of the Dragon," in which Major manages to capture all of life and death in two short stanzas.

it's an abstract constellation we live in

knowing the clock will turn

at any moment

and it will suddenly become the year of passing on

the year of roads that end

 

but this year

this year is the year

we survived

the year of not dying

Major lives in the Bay Area and has long been a central force in the local poetry community. Born in California and raised in San Francisco, she served as the city's poet laureate from 2002 to 2006. Over the course of her impressive career, she's authored multiple novels, poetry books and chapbooks, short stories, young adult titles, and essays. In 2015, her poetry play Classic Black: Voices of 19th-Century African-Americans in San Francisco premiered at the San Francisco International Arts Festival. It's heartening to see a local poetry icon such as she published on City Lights -- another enduring local force.

One of my favorite poems in the collection is "Human." In a few concise lines, Major captures the utter futility of being human while finding grace and joy in the face of an unfathomably vast universe. I particularly love the last line, another mantra for those of us trying to maintain any kind of creative, empathetic, political consciousness in this topsy-turvy world.

under the brightest full moon

I am less than a microscopic speck / on the edge of the universe's lens

how can a grain of sand be sentient / how can a drop of rain dream

but here i am, singing through the night

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Devorah Major appears at City Lights Books on Wednesday, Nov. 16, at 7pm. Details here.

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