If you thought last year was a shitty way to start the decade, I have some good news. Back in the early Middle Ages, when mathematics’ most important issue was calculating the precise date on which to celebrate Easter, a monk named Dionysius Exiguus of Scythia Minor introduced the A.D. system (after “Anno Domini” — the year of our lord) to count the number of years since the birth of Jesus Christ.
But at the time he was writing, they had no concept of zero, which would not be “discovered” until centuries later by Indian scholars, who would not reach Europe until centuries after their discovery. So while we tend to think that you are zero years old (or x months old) during your first year and are one-year-old only after your first birthday, the first year of the A.D. system (or the modernized C.E. — Common Era) is 1 A.D.
This means that last year, 2020, ended the decade instead of starting it. It means we get a whole new chance for a whole new beginning. And it means that I have another excuse to, once again, start us off with a handful of poems.
“Passengers” by Billy Collins
Last January, when I wrote 8 poems to start the decade with, I never imagined it would start (or end) the way it did. But that’s the thing, isn’t it? Before every cataclysm or natural disaster, there was always a civilization saying, “That won’t happen to us because X.” So now I’m thinking — like Billy Collins before his flight takes off — that maybe it wouldn’t hurt to start the decade by saying a few words.
“Relax” by Ellen Bass
At the time of writing this, the Capitol Building has been stormed by people who could easily be called domestic terrorists, a president is refusing to step down from office and New York is accused of throwing away COVID-19 vaccines. I took a break to watch a friend’s Zoom wedding. He wore a pink necktie, and she wore a white charmeuse dress. His thumb stroked her hand as he held it. One day we’ll all be dead and the universe will be entropied into homogeneous hydrogen mush. Until then, Bass reminds us to savor the juice of every strawberry.
“In The Desert” by Stephen Crane
A concise variation of what it means to truly love oneself.
“Dinosaurs in the Hood” by Danez Smith
I love this must-read poem for the images it conjures — a boy on a bus playing with a toy triceratops, grannies fighting raptors with mattress-hidden shotguns, the last dinosaur getting neck-punched with an afro pick. What haunts me, though, in this socially conscious movie that Smith encourages us to imagine, is the repetition of the line “& no one kills the black boy, & no one kills the black boy.”
“Thermopylae” by Constanin Cavafy
The Spartans were a Greek tribe whose citizens were raised never to surrender or show weakness. At Thermopylae, a narrow passage between mountain and sea, 300 Spartans and about 7,000 other Greeks faced off 200,000 (depending on your sources) of Xerxes’ invading forces. They were betrayed by the Greek Ephialtes (the Greek word for nightmare). But their sacrifice allowed the remaining troops to regroup and thwart the Persian invasion in later battles.
“Sci-Fi” by Tracy K. Smith
On Feb. 18, NASA’s Perseverance rover will touch down in the Jezero Crater on Mars. Its mission includes preparing samples to be returned by a future mission, as well as exploring a dry river delta where scientists believe organic molecules and microbes might have been preserved. I repeat. Organic molecules and microbes. On another planet. Here is your ode to the future.
“What You Should Know to Be a Poet” by Gary Snyder
“The main work a writer must do for himself,” writes John Gardner in “The Art of Fiction,” “is bring about change to the writer’s basic character, helping to make him that ‘true poet,’ as Milton said, without whom there can be no true Poem.” Here are some tips on how to do just that.
“The World Has Need of You” by Ellen Bass
“Nothing matters,” Liana Key is quoted as saying, “But what if it did?” Sure, the cosmos doesn’t care. Sure, every meteor that hits Earth is one indifferent rock striking another. But that’s no reason to give up. I used this poem last year, and I’ll use it again, because I believe it rings more true now than ever.
Happy (for real) new decade, everyone.
Bonus: “How Would You Live Then?” by Mary Oliver
Contact Nestor Walters at waltersx ‘at’ stanford.edu.