The Way We Get By: Josephine Decker Takes Us on a Poetry Walk

The director, whose new film Shirley is out this week, guides us through favorite works by Wallace Stevens, Rainer Maria Rilke and more.

Most of us are sequestered in our homes, doing our part to slow the spread of COVID-19. That includes some of our favorite artists, so we’re asking them to tell us about one thing — a book, a movie, a record, whatever — that’s helping them get through this difficult time.

I’m in Los Angeles at the moment and it’s been surprisingly nice to be here. It turns out that when you take a polluted city where you mostly feel isolated and have to sit in traffic for hours, remove the traffic and the pollution, and make isolation life-saving, you’ve turned L.A. into a great place to be.

My new film, Shirley, comes out next month and I was supposed to direct a new movie this summer, The Sky is Everywhere. We’ve been collectively trying to pretend like production is going to move forward on schedule, but I have no idea what’s going to happen.

I had a baby last year, she’s doing well and she’s super cool. Being a mom is miraculous and just the best thing ever. Being “stuck at home” has actually been such a blessing, because I’m getting to see my child so much more than I would have otherwise. I’m really grateful for that. With all that’s been going on, I’ve felt a calling to look at what is really important to me, and that’s led me to reconnect with so many people.

For my birthday in March, I asked my dad – who’s a poet and one of the most well-read people I’ve ever met – if he would share some of his favorite poems with us. He created a kind of phenomenological poetry walk, and here I’m going to revisit some of the stops on that walk, as some of them were so perfect for this moment, and also add some stops of my own.

The first poem is “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour” by Wallace Stevens:

Light the first light of evening, as in a room
In which we rest and, for small reason, think
The world imagined is the ultimate good.

This is, therefore, the intensest rendezvous.
It is in that thought that we collect ourselves,
Out of all the indifferences, into one thing:

Within a single thing, a single shawl
Wrapped tightly round us, since we are poor, a warmth,
A light, a power, the miraculous influence.

Here, now, we forget each other and ourselves.
We feel the obscurity of an order, a whole,
A knowledge, that which arranged the rendezvous.

Within its vital boundary, in the mind.
We say God and the imagination are one…
How high that highest candle lights the dark.

Out of this same light, out of the central mind,
We make a dwelling in the evening air,
In which being there together is enough.

“Being there together” is so much of what we’re doing right now, and it’s often hard to remember that it can be enough. This poem is very spiritual, and I think the poems I’m the most drawn to are those which capture a larger force. When I’m making films, I am often trying to think about how you convey the essence of something greater than ourselves. I feel like there’s something about being in the hand of God that allows you to surrender, and surrender fear, too.

The next poem on my dad’s poetry walk is “The City Limits” by A.R. Ammons:

When you consider the radiance, that it does not withhold
itself but pours its abundance without selection into every
nook and cranny not overhung or hidden; when you consider

that birds’ bones make no awful noise against the light but
lie low in the light as in a high testimony; when you consider
the radiance, that it will look into the guiltiest

swervings of the weaving heart and bear itself upon them,
not flinching into disguise or darkening; when you consider
the abundance of such resource as illuminates the glow-blue

bodies and gold-skeined wings of flies swarming the dumped
guts of a natural slaughter or the coil of shit and in no
way winces from its storms of generosity; when you consider

that air or vacuum, snow or shale, squid or wolf, rose or lichen,
each is accepted into as much light as it will take, then
the heart moves roomier, the man stands and looks about, the

leaf does not increase itself above the grass, and the dark
work of the deepest cells is of a tune with May bushes
and fear lit by the breadth of such calmly turns to praise.

That last line is incredible. The thing about great poems – and this is also true of watching a great movie, or being in a great space – is that you’re just in it and you’re swirling and you don’t know where you’re going, you just know you want to be there. It’s all about being present to the process. It’s not about arriving at a destination, it’s about being inside of a poetic experience that has a rhythm and a propulsion to it that you can’t stop. But when you do get there, the place you end up somehow feels both inevitable and impossible to predict. This poem is like that, and my dad loves it so much.

“The City Limits” makes me think of Rainer Maria Rilke, who is the master of writing poems that ground you and take you on a transcendent journey. So the next poem is number 13 from Rilke’s The Book of Hours, translated by Robert Bly (my own personal stop):

I can hardly believe that this tiny death,
over whose head we look every day we wake,
is still such a threat to us and so much trouble.

I really can’t take his growls seriously.
I am still in my body, I have time to build,
my blood will be red long after the rose is gone.

My grasp of things is deeper than the clever games
he finds it fun to play with our fears.
I am the solid world
from which he slipped and fell.

He is like
those monks in cloisters that walk around and around;
one feels a fear when they approach:
one doesn’t know—is it the same one every time,
are there two, are there ten, a thousand monks, more?
All one knows is the strange yellow hand,
which is reaching out so naked and so close …
there it is,
as if it came out of your own clothes.

I’ve been obsessed with that poem for a long time. I remember when I bought Bly’s translation of The Book of Hours, I was in college and on a religious life council. The dean of the council saw my book and told me, “Robert Bly is sexist.” I’m not sure if that’s true, but his translations of Rilke are really good!

Before I finish this journey, I also have to include one of my father’s poems. This is “The River” by Michael Decker:

People walk out of themselves into
the river. The surface
is a sound you can’t hear.

Fish pop up, weightless as thoughts,
then plop back as if
they forgot. Women walk out

of their lives into the river; some
hold clothes up like
empty husbands; one shirt

drowns and rises whole, all handless,
reaching, a dream lover
unbuttoned to the waist. Gray

rocks appear and disappear farther
offshore; they spume
in the dark current like

a lost school of huge illusions. Ah
people walk right out
of themselves into the wide

river to hold what cannot be held
for long; they kneel
down into reflected clouds

or splash luminance on their bodies
until they are new
and they turn and they shine.

Talking about poems is a delicate thing, because a poem is, as my dad always says, “The smallest amount of words, the greatest amount of insight.” One of the other stops on the tour my dad gave on my birthday was “At the Fishhouses” by Elizabeth Bishop, which he describes as a “silver symphony;” it’s a very iridescent poem, and you see the shimmer on everything. I feel the same way about his poem “The River.” I’m obsessed with rivers. I love freshwater, I love mountains and I love being next to running water. I have felt called to rivers, and this poem allows me to feel close to a place, a being – the river – that has brought me a lot of joy in my life. I feel like I get to be there when I read this poem – I am with the river and all of its magic. That’s what great poems do: they take you to the place, whether it’s a physical or a mental place. With this poem, it’s both: you’re in the water, with the dream hands and a higher, more attuned self. Thank you, Dad.

Josephine Decker’s latest feature Shirley, starring Elisabeth Moss, Michael Stuhlbarg, Odessa Young and Logan Lerman, premiered in competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and is released on Hulu, VOD and participating drive-ins June 5, 2020. Her previous feature, Madeline’s Madeline, world premiered at Sundance 2018; it was hailed as a “mind-scrambling masterpiece” and was nominated for Best Picture at IFP’s Gotham Awards and for two Independent Spirit Awards. Josephine premiered her first two narrative features, Thou Wast Mild and Lovely and Butter on the Latch, at the Berlinale Forum 2014 to critical acclaim. She also explores collaborative storytelling via TV directing, documentary making, performance art, accordion-playing, acting, teaching at CalArts and Princeton University, and leading artist residencies with the School of Making Thinking.