by Tommy Orange

A poet is a poet before she is a writer. But a poet can almost never not be a writer. I don’t know if there ever was a natural-poet, who simply spoke her lines or thought them all the time. Or if that is truly what a natural-poet might be. A natural-poet could also be someone who thinks in a certain way but never speaks or writes their poetry. One who understands poetically. But the word nature or natural at this point in time means about as much as the All-Natural tagline on the cheap wheat bread at the liquor store I buy for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches—the staple of my diet. And though I mostly subsist on a diet of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and almond milk, I would never want to say that I am a struggling poet.

I do most of my writing walking, which is to say I don’t write very much down, which is to say I’m not much of a poet anymore, and I’m not actually walking in order to write or think poems in my head but because it always feels as if someone—a man—is watching me, or following me, only I can never find them, so I walk and watch my back and sneak around corners quickly then peak my head back around to try to catch them, or I pretend I’m not thinking about them, or like I don’t care they’re following me, and I’ll think about the sounds of words and how they might go together with other unlikely words, or I’ll think of phrases, or lines will occur to me as something that maybe belongs in a future poem.

Last night I looked up at the quarter-moon and thought: satellite-slice, and then: sunlit-plate, and then: orbit-bot, and finally that old Native trope: many-moons, and hated that I was thinking about or even looking at the moon. And then as I approached my bed, the moonlight shone on it a lavender-red blend of streetlight through curtain, a diffused light I should have been used to but was not. Noticing something that was always right there in front of you for the first time should have a name for it but maybe it shouldn’t. Not one part of me wanted to write down anything that night with the moon and my unfamiliar room tone. That the moon had been made so Native, and Natives so predictable, made me want to write anything but the expected.

Poems can ruin the meaning of the feeling of words that might naturally occur to me. Poem and ruin even feel like they belong together as words. Nothing sticks anymore. More and more it comes as it goes, or goes as it comes. Nothing sticks that doesn’t belong. It’s a mystery to me that I ever wrote anything down at all.

A poem exists within a head or a heart or a mouth or on a page. But head or heart or mouth, even truth is just a word. And a page is not even a page but the dying process of trees gone to wood, gone to paper, pulped, inked, glued and bound, sold, stored and kept on shelves for consumption—the fate of most known poems anyway.

My name is Shenandoah. The sound of it to me is an abomination. My mom told me it means daughter of the stars. One thing is for sure: Shenandoah is no name for a poet. Or it’s just the right name for the wrong kind of poet for anyone who thinks poetry should be written by almost anyone other than a Native American woman named Shenandoah meaning daughter of the stars. But daughter of the stars is a poetic sounding phrase for something as incomprehensible as son of the moon, or planet’s dad. And didn’t stars mean so much more before they were conquered by the American flag and the star of David, also maybe Texas, and the Hollywood strip. Would that we could see what they saw at night, all that shined when nothing else did but for the moon, what might we imagine something to be so unknown and bright? Maybe it’s the screens in front of us, how little we understand of what’s happening to us, the shine of the screen alluring enough to not wonder what it means—so much screenlight amidst a seen darkness descending over everything?

A poet is most of all one who writes poetry. And I haven’t been doing it. I’ll do anything instead. Right now I’m walking. I’m halfway around Lake Merritt, over by those white columns and archways, where someone is always selling a crazy assortment of items neatly spread out on a blanket. I want to stop and see the items, see what books he has this time, and to try to figure out the story of how one man could end up with so many hairclips, old shoes and new shoelaces, batteries, wallets, esoteric paperbacks, and CDs from the 1990s. If I stop, he’ll push me into a sale. Anything you see’s a dollar, is a line he’s used on me before. I keep walking. I stay close to the water, almost on the ledge. I think better near water, when I can look into its dark green, murky reflection of the light in the sky. A blue green mess—this world.