Octavio Paz thought poetry was about bringing the world back to its pure innocence, to recreate it by naming it. According to the Mexican poet, once the world is brought back to its new form, it can show endless possibilities.
Reading and listening to Tonya Ingram’s poetry made me remember that definition of poetry.
Coming close to her poetry, it seemed to me she had used it to treat wounds (hers, ours) in two different ways: by showing the burnt, nude flesh, and just letting it be; and by stopping to observe the wound, treating it tenderly and whispering, “It is okay, this too shall pass.”
I remember when I wrote my first poetry book. I felt the need to hide my pain and get it out through words. The least people could understand, the better.
Still, after I published it — and had a small panic attack thinking, “what have I done?!” — some people reached out to tell me they had found solace in it. That made me feel that overcoming my fear and pain, and sharing it, had been worth it.
For their part, Tonya’s poems made me drop my jaw in awe of all the courage needed to be so honest and straightforward in a poem.
But poetry is a ground where you are allowed to come face to face with your deepest wounds and name them. Sometimes that process of finding your wound’s name has to be ruthless, as it is the only thing that will get the poison out of yourself.
Once the poison is out, it is possible looking at the world with new eyes –at least for a while–, breathing and carrying on.
The hope is someone else will remember the bitter drinks they have had and see they are not so lonely. Sharing your pain with someone, even if you haven’t found a cure, is a source of relief in itself.
Tonya’s latest book, How to Survive Today, is the other side of the coin. Consider, for example, the first poem of the book.
i want to be more than a good fuck. more than a body laid out for the picking. for the feast. i want someone to take me out of my clothes and my depression. i want to sleep alongside them knowing i am not their morning shame. not a woman who is usable but recyclable. good for now but not good for the next day. i want more than what you can put inside of me. for what can enter and leave so quickly. so fast out the door, it calls me an Uber before i put my shirt back on.
These lines are pain; real, profound pain. Yet, it feels — at least to me — less visceral than the poems she declaimed in the videos.
It’s like the difference between trying to fix a broken bone by pulling it out of your body and by caressing the fractured limb. In the second option, the pain is still there, but it is a more compassionate approach.
Compassion, however, does not mean less courage. It takes bravery to look at an open cut with such calm and observe it. It takes nerve to name it with such nudeness: “i want to be more than a good fuck. more than a body laid out for the picking. for the feast.” I don’t think there is a person who cannot relate to those sentences, and yet, how many of us say it out loud for others to hear?
I don’t think either of the two options is better than the other. We know shadows because light exists, and we can understand what light is showing us because of shadows. As literature, I prefer the first ones, the ruthless, open flesh. But as a woman, I can see myself on the other side of her poetry, trying to bring comfort to a heartbroken friend or myself.