“Attention” by Kate Cayley

Internal Light by Robert T. Sweeney
Internal Light by Robert T. Sweeney

This article is the seventh entry in a series on individual poems. Read the rest of the reviews, essays, or poem-talks here.

“Attention” by Kate Cayley

Best Canadian Poetry 2021

The poem, “Attention,” by Kate Cayley, was included in Best Canadian Poetry 2021 (Biblioasis, 2021), guest edited by Souvankham Thammavongsa. The poem originally appeared in Grain magazine. I have included a screen shot of the poem below:

“Attention” by Kate Cayley


Aside from a few fragments, run-ons and dash-strewn clauses, the poems discussed in this series have largely been composed of short sentences. Some examples: “I’m not quite right” (de Meijer). “Bare trees cast grim reflections” (Hamilton). “And the monks ring the bells” (Coupal). “You’re stunned to find yourself/ alone” (Wang).

Here, in Kate Cayley’s “Attention,” we have one sentence rivering across 22 lines. So to start our talk, I’d like to look at how a single-sentence poem can both entangle and propel. On my first reading, I felt driven by the text — or maybe even hooked, then dragged. And coming back, it still feels propulsive: each time the rhythm ebbs, we’re again shot forward (this may be generational, but it makes me think of the irresistible boost pads in Super Mario Kart). Do you feel this? If the short sentences of the poems mentioned above tend to slow readers down, make them pause, drop things to a hush, then the single sentence of “Attention” feels like someone speaking hurriedly, with fervour; by the end, it has a jubilant or ecstatic quality. Preachers might orate like this to whip congregations into froths. It’s fitting, then, that we end on the idea of “praise.”

If we were students of form, or we desired to make our own work sing as such, we might pay attention (pun intended) to how Cayley creates this effect. Obviously, a single sentence means no full stops! But if we look, there’s also no dashes, parentheses or semicolons, either: the sentence gets extended by commas and coordinating conjunctions. The first 13 or 14 lines are made to feel in continual movement, in waterfall-like progress, by present participles: “folding, making, studying, thinning, telling, outstripping, stripping, carrying, repeating, rising” — in fact, continuation is a theme: the poem’s final line focuses on a world that “each day, continued.” There are several repeating sets of words or phrases, too, which aid recitation: “the crease … the crease” (1–2); “the same … the same” (4); “their fury … their/ fraught … their lives” (5–7); “outstripping you/ and stripping you” (9–10); “as in … as in … as in … as the” (3–13) and so forth.

Significantly, “Attention” also begins by setting up a conditional statement — something we talked about in greater detail in our look at “The past sometimes appears conditional” by Ian Williams. This means we get a setup phrased as a dependent clause — the “if” condition, “And if attention is repetition” — that begs for an independent clause resolution, or the “then” completion. The poem bakes-in tension right from the beginning, and even if we lose the thread, we’re still angling for a pay-off, or punchline. It means we might be extra generous with whatever digressions — side-treks, gullies — we encounter on the way.

Earlier, I said that a poem arranged as an unusually long sentence can also entangle. No different here in “Attention”: in my first scan, I found the ‘argument’ of the poem kind of slippery. Another aspect of the propulsive quality of this work means that the speaker’s focus jumps (and jumps, and jumps…), which can mean we’re lighting to new analogies before we can digest the connection. There’s a precise moment for me, too, that does most of this exposition-tripping. It resolves in the end — and I don’t mean to say this is a convoluted poem. But I found a slower, more careful tracing of these leaps rewarding, so maybe you will too.

Part One of “Attention”

To me, reading ‘feels’ irresistible immediately: the clause “Attention is repetition” sounds good by way of alliteration and rhyme. There’s balance, or parallelism, in “folding along the crease/ until the crease finds itself”; and we get two early ‘flowing’ ing-verbs (“folding” and “making”) to lubricate passage.

Then, to impart what’s meant by “attention is repetition,” the speaker gives us 21 lines. To start, we get a three-line definition of repetition, specifically, by way of a tactile image: it’s “folding along the crease/ until the crease finds itself, the act of making/ hollowing out the same groove”. To perhaps over-explain this: when you first fold a sheet of paper, even along a crease, there’s resistance. Then the crease “finds itself” and the process settles into a flow, or “groove”. The act of creating such a groove is a “hollowing out” of the fibre. This image makes me think of the difficulties of beginning a habit (lifting weights, learning a language, quitting Faberge Eggs, etc.) and the relative ease that unfolds with practice.

So right away the poem’s got a convincing take on “attention”: it’s easy to notice, or ‘attend to,’ that which is conventional for us. Paying attention to new stuff (or ignoring the old) means diligent work before we find our groove — or our brains are grooved by the habit. It’s also an “act of making”. In other words, our world, the entirety of it, physically and emotionally, is what we creatively attend to. Look at the same blue sky or Twitter feed and you and I will see remarkably different things, and not because we have different eyeballs.

Rather than completing the conditional, the speaker continues defining ‘repetition’ by way of an analogy: “as in marriage/ studying, over years, the same face, the same/ permeable body”. This can be read as an analogy of ‘repetition’ and an analogy of “the act of making/ hollowing out the same groove.” How so? As with the sheet of paper, we are “hollowing out the same groove” in our spouse’s likeness and form, the needs and emotions they elicit in us. We see “the same face” in a “permeable body” — quite literally, we pay attention to an idea of the person rather than the bare fact; we create a conceptual elaboration of another changing face and body built upon years of habitual perceiving rather than the blunt ‘suchness,’ or inherent fluidity and mercuriality, of their being. This feels neutral to me: it’s neither an indictment nor celebration of partnership per se but a depiction of the shortcomings of how we perceive, generally. But more on this later.

By line five, we get yet another analogy:

as in children, their fury, their
fraught going-forward, thinning out your life
like a membrane that will not break, their lives
a repetition that alters in the telling,

Now, by invoking children, we can read this as an analogy of repetition, of “hollowing out the same groove,” and of studying “the same permeable body.” In “their fury,” I hear a bit of Macbeth’s assessment of life as a tale “Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury” — this is a delicious injection of pathos in a line that could have read “their tantrums” instead. In “fraught going-forward,” we don’t read ‘crawl’ or ‘walk’ or ‘stumble’: it’s an awkward phrase that mixes up the tender ways babies find their feet. I love what “thinning out your life/ like a membrane that will not break” does. I feel a physical pain here — I imagine being stretched, diluted, slowly bled — that zeros-in on the ache of parental worry, of the grief inside of love.

Note, too, that the speaker hits the second person address with the first signs of emotional appeal. “Your life” (italics mine) is stretched “like a membrane that will not break,” and in the simile (yay for similes!) we see the extended sphere of identity or ‘possession’ get pulled far beyond the small self and into a new empathetic persona — pulled perhaps to the point of tearing, of the unbearable, but not beyond it. The “membrane” recalls the concept of permeability mentioned above: it probably makes you think of cell membranes, at least subtly. And I suppose “their lives/ a repetition that alters in the telling” is an elegant way of saying that our children’s lives duplicate ours — but it also means that the stories we tell to constitute ourselves, those “act[s] of making,” keep getting re-written, by ourselves and our kids, adapting to suit the news of the present.

Okay, the analogies are stacking up; we’re balancing them like plates as we’re still waiting for the completion of the conditional. And it seems like we get it, with rhetorical relief, at the end of line eight: “your attention is for them”. In other words, it’s as if the speaker were saying, “And if attention is repetition, your attention is for them”. But no — actually, that’s not what’s being said! Rather, this line continues the analogy of children (“your attention/ is for them, and theirs outstripping you”) — so this is a comma splice! This was the exact moment of my initial confusion: my first sense of where the sentence becomes ‘entangling’ and not merely propulsive. If I had the privilege of editing this poem, in some bizarre universe, I’d probably suggest adding the word ‘and’ before “your” to avoid this miniature stumbling block, but this is super personal — and perhaps, to you, the grammatical blur adds a breathlessness, a positive form of messiness, to the piece.

Moving on,

… your attention
is for them, and theirs outstripping you
and stripping you of anything they find useful, yet
carrying you with them, a husk pinned to the inside
pocket of their lives,

You’re stretched to the point of tearing, and now these attention-hounding brats are “outstripping you/ and stripping you of anything they find useful”. What parasites! The kids’ attention goes far beyond yours, of course, literally by way of age and possibility, but it’s also described as instrumental. They don’t ‘see’ you, just as you weren’t able to ‘see’ your spouse as your spouse ‘really’ is: an impossible task, based on your limited viewpoint, your spouse’s unfixed and changing nature, their lack of essence. And they (your kids) see only what they need, which is a sure-fire way to be miserable but might keep you alive in a utilitarian sense. If it’s any consolation, as their percept, or their object of attention, you’re stripped right down to a “husk” (the logical, apt description of the ‘stripped’) who gets “pinned to the inside/ pocket of their lives”: you’re a dry shell (frozen, “pinned” as in perhaps a moth or butterfly carcass is pinned) in some interior gallery of their memory, their potential for future acts of attention.

All this repetition is rough: I get a sense of being worn down. The proposed argument — that “attention is repetition” — is starting to feel like a burden, a slog. Figurative words like “hollowing”, “fury”, “fraught”, “thinning”, “stripping” and “husk” summon an emotional landscape of fatigue, emptiness, anger and dryness — of being used, tired and spent. Notably, our analogic supports for this thesis are domestic: our spouses, our children. If you’re like me, the past two years of pandemic safety measures might remind you of (or accentuate) this sense of homey repetition: our worlds contracted into domicile and family; into cabin fever, the itch of wanderlust, an intolerance bred of “studying, over years, the same face” that amounts to resentment rather than deepening appreciation. I get a feeling of being swept away by all this; that even though my “attention” is an “act of making” (I’m culpable!), it isn’t actually serving my best or noblest interests; instead, through “repetition,” it's becoming a cell (as in prison) and a cell (as in a “membrane”) stretched to the point of snapping, a place of delusive worry and tedium.

Okay, to review, and I suppose, to digress: the speaker’s arguing that the repetition of perceiving something seems to freeze it into a familiar shape — all that stuff about folding along creases, hollowing out grooves, studying the same faces and bodies, getting thinned and husked, etc. Let’s look at this more closely, based on our shared experience. When we’re feeling any kind of negative emotion — envy, anger, shame, hatred, depression, terror, all felt in the body as discomfort — our attention contracts. Right? The world becomes very small: it’s us, the wounded subject, and the ‘bad thing,’ the object that brings about our suffering. That ‘bad thing’ is harming us. Fundamentally, and to the point: when it’s very bad, it seems difficult to see it any other way. The ‘very bad person’ is a monster; the ‘very bad stomach pain’ is a sign you are dying; the ‘very bad mistake you made’ means you are a piece of shit.

When the negative emotional state passes — and it invariably passes, or at least changes — our attention is freed up again; those percepts aren’t so fixed. We can appreciate or enjoy things or at least perceive some other dimension of them. People are no longer monsters only; bodily aches don’t mean immediate caskets; deeds don’t define you completely. While this is happening, the world seems to return to us in its openness, its possibility. We can see, smell, hear, taste, touch, and think new things. And even if the haunt of pain remains, and it usually does, the flowering quince tree seems to re-appear in vivid detail; the toad in the pond makes a charming, ludicrous chirrup again; the sonnet you were writing appears once again exciting, or possible, and not another premise working toward the ineluctable conclusion that you should kill yourself. If this sounds a bit tumultuous, a bit extreme, this swing between feeling awful and feeling okay again, it’s because it is. It is the substance of our day-to-day. Pleasure and pain see-saw back and forth constantly. And not seeing this lurch is a profound delusion that keeps you married to “the terrifying lows, the dizzying highs, [and] the creamy middles”, to quote Homer Simpson (my second Simpsons reference).

Another very subtle thing going on with this dizzying contracting and dilating attention is our sense of separateness from everything else. When we’re in pain, our existence feels most fiercely dualistic: there’s that sense of I, me, and mine sharply contrasted with you and yours, or ‘it,’ the (apparently) objective percept. But as the bad thing lifts, and we become more receptive once again to what feels like the entire universe, dualism ceases to be so cherished; we aren’t contracted into our antagonistic interpretation of a thing. We can even lose ourselves (to use a convenient phrase), become absorbed, in a situation or event; our sense of separate selfhood diminishes ever so slightly. You can read a book, say, or watch a bee dancing on a petal, or listen to a pop song, and it seems like the book, bee or song is what’s being experienced  — not just you, or your experience of the experience — just ‘it.’ Even if this is momentary. Even if you don’t press any further, or question whether dualism is ‘real,’ things become more unified, more nondual; subject and object become one thing.

The speaker here is doing an excellent job of describing tedium, routine, boredom. As above, for a deeply bored person — and maybe that’s you, if you’ve reached this far in this talk! — your attention has contracted unbearably; you’re a suffering subject and you’re trapped ‘attending to’ the causal object of your pain. You’ve got so much certainty about the object; it doesn’t permit other possible interpretations. It’s boring, and you’re bored, and you’re not feeling good, and you want to get away from the thing that’s boring. It can become interesting or at least ‘non-boring’ only if you can see something new, something different in it — if you aren’t so frozen in your interpretation.

If we take a brief foray into Buddhism, we learn how the regular process of empirical, phenomenal awareness means superimposing or entangling our own mental realms upon it. We become aware of the phenomenal world through 18 dhatus, or sensory instruments, that combine inside and out along channels that combine sense objects, faculties and consciousness of such. In this way we respond to physical “form,” the first of five skandhas, or aggregates: momentary events, or steps, along the path to feeling like we’re a person, or individual, or an ‘ego.’ Form is first. What we see continues to evolve as a mental event through the second to fifth skandhas: feeling, apperception, volitions, and consciousness. To quote the Madhupindika Sutta, or the ‘Honey ball Sutra’:

when there is the eye, when there are forms; when there is eye-consciousness, it is possible that one will delineate a delineation of contact. When there is a delineation of contact, it is possible that one will delineate a delineation of feeling. When there is a delineation of feeling, it is possible that one will delineate a delineation of perception. When there is a delineation of perception, it is possible that one will delineate a delineation of thinking. When there is a delineation of thinking, it is possible that one will delineate a delineation of being assailed by the perceptions and categories of complication.

Ordinary thought-processes all happen this way. They are defined as the somewhat weird, Matrix-like existence of prapañca, which has a literal translation from Sanskrit of “fabrication” or “conceptual proliferation.” So, to quote from the poem, what we ‘attend to’ really is “an act of making,” a runaway torrent of feeling and thought that’s got little to do with the thing itself.

Some further proof from scholar Christian Coseru:

These proliferating tendencies, which are sustained by a constant flow of sense impressions, give rise to the common-sense conceptual schema that informs our ordinary, habitual coping practices … We don’t simply apprehend an object. Rather, we apprehend it as the locus of a multiplicity of associations: in seeing a tree we perceive an entity made of trunk, branches, and foliage but also something that can provide shade and lumber. In perception we are ordinarily assailed by a stream of conceptualizing tendencies, which have their ultimate source in linguistic conventions and categorizing practices. These conceptualizing tendencies overwhelm and distort the perceptual experience.

For this reason, and to risk stating something humiliatingly obvious, the repetition in the poem “Attention” becomes boring not because of an objective quality the repetition has, as if it comes with the pre-written tag of ‘tediousness.’ It’s a subjective lack. To quote the poem, roughly: in your creative acts of making, your creative acts of attention, you’ve hollowed out the same groove in a percept over and over; you’ve stripped the object of what you find useful or titillating or pleasurable (or instrumental, or utilitarian, etc.) and all that remains is the boring husk — the same face in the same permeable body, the same carcass pinned to some interior pocket. All that remains of the object is your categorization of it, your judgment of it, your ridiculous feelings about it. These are phantoms, shadows of the object that reify what you usually think and feel, what you usually think of self and other. In other words, what you see is what you feel, not it.

Part Two of “Attention”

The next section, quoted below, begins on line 12: the exact middle (or crease?) of the piece — the pivot-point for the first movement to give way to the second.

… as in repeating
the action of rising at dawn, as the poet
who wrote on the back of recipe cards attended
sternly to the rising bread, attended each
repeated blade of grass on the same Amherst lawn
for as long as her days repeated themselves, each day
compressed itself into the other,

With the “action of rising at dawn,” we seem to take another breath; repetition that was configured as exhausting, instrumental or merely dull turns on its axis to reveal a new analogy: what might be rewarding, or triumphant, part of our shared inheritance as diurnal stewards or witnesses of the planet. And with such a thematic turn, we have yet another analogy: the repeated attention of “the poet/ who wrote on the back of recipe cards”.

This is literate folklore, of course: you either know Emily Dickinson sometimes wrote on recipe cards and lived in Amherst, Massachusetts or you don’t. Yes, fragments of her poems are sketched on wrapping paper, kitchen aids; Dickinson was an avid baker whose recipes for various breads and confections are still being made today. Dickinson was also, quite legendarily, a homebody, someone who was loathe to leave her home — and said so unequivocally — to the likely point of some form of mental illness. Thus the great body of her writing, if not every single poem, was produced in the same domestic sphere. Hearing this, our prejudices may lead us to believe Dickinson produced ‘merely domestic’ poems, or poems that present a limited, quaint, or naïve orientation to the world based on toxic notions of the ‘woman’s space.’ But this is anything but the case: her work is concerned with life and death, the relative and absolute, mortality and immortality, in shades of irony and wryness and sincerity that surpass most ‘cosmopolitan’ writers.

As the speaker suggests, Dickinson did indeed attend to “each/ repeated blade of grass on the same Amherst lawn”: my scan of her collected work reveals that she mentions “grass” approximately 40 times (and the word “bread,” only seven!) — a significant number for mostly short-lined, hyper-elliptical poems. In at least a couple of instances, the two concepts (grass and baking) are brought toward communion. In the first version of poem 824, she writes: “The Wind begun to knead the Grass —/ As Women do a Dough —” while 1097 gives us this quatrain:

Dew — is the Freshet in the Grass —
’Tis many a tiny Mill
Turns unperceived beneath our feet
And Artisan lies still —

I’m no expert in Dickinson, so I’ll stop possibly mangling her legacy and return to “Attention.” Let’s note now the connective analogy of “rising at dawn” (communal, inter-species, warm, revelatory, celebratory) with “rising bread” (shared, nourishing, warm, elementary). By baking, by combining base ingredients and applying heat, the poet (our unnamed but understood referent to Dickinson) fulfils the poem’s earlier claims of how repetition (and attention) is “an act of making”. Moreover, moving to the past tense, she “attended/ sternly to the rising bread” and “attended each/ repeated blade of grass” — so indeed, her attention to domestic repetition is a serious, sober matter — but in the glow of this new day we lose that sense of exhaustion that troubles the first 12 lines of the poem. By “attended/ sternly” I hear an echo of “studying” but also read an emerging sense of vocation rather than obligation; of intentionality and agency rather than being thinned or outstripped, helplessly. The same environment stretched “over years,” or “for as long as her days repeated themselves,” produces a fecund source of material; it is not ‘repetitive’ in a negative connotational sense of the word, but renewing, bountiful. There is no sense of a “husk”; the source does not run dry.

Taken together, in “repeating/ the action of rising at dawn” and “attended/ sternly to the rising bread, attended each/ repeated blade of grass” we’re meant to see only a very subtle shift in modalities of attention, from prapañca described above to something else: something that feels more like meditative contemplation. Things aren’t merely set dressing, furniture, stuff in her way or stuff that helps satisfy her human desires. Our Emily Dickinson character is attending to the things (the bread, the blades of grass) instead of her mental, emotional proliferations about them — “sternly” because this requires watchfulness, care, diligence and dedication. Perhaps by doing so the grief and angst we felt in the earlier sections gives way to a greater sense of nondual unity between subject and object, perceiver and perceived, arising through their contact. If we want to go one step further, and maybe cobble together a greater meaning from all this, it might be in the phrase, “praise/ that could not be contained”. The awe or ‘religious’ feelings that forms arouse in Dickinson are not trapped, frozen, congealed, etc. by her conceptual formations; they are no longer contained by her dualistic, instrumental fabrications. Instead, they constantly elude definition. If we were still thinking along Buddhist lines, I would think that Dickinson was loosening her clench on herself through single-focused attention, allowing herself to enter a state of samadhi, or a state of meditative absorption that allowed her perception of ‘self’ and the percept to merge. But enough! The less said about the ineffable the better and we’re already half asleep ...

In this lighter mood, we come to the final movement of the poem, which, by completing the conditional statement, relieves us of the tension we were holding since the first line:

… then I will
believe that language was sung first, before speech,
that language was song, praise
that could not be contained, for the world
that repeated, that, each day, continued.

In other words, to sum up the speaker’s argument: “If attention is repetition, then language was first a form of song, a bubbling up of overflowing praise, for a world that repeated.” It’s a charming notion, as well as a convincing proposition: that our distant pre-literate ancestors were more rooted to wonder before we marched toward scientific and spiritual materialism. It seems to truck with how we view (and romanticize) the past, from our 21st century position, as a realm of enchantment.

Though I’ve attempted to paraphrase the core of this argument, I’m not sure I quite understand the leap, the ‘justification’ made here. Do you follow the logic? How is it that “if attention is repetition … then” (italics mine) language emerges first as a kind of spiritual hymn to the daily continuation of existence? I don’t quite perceive how the many analogies used to attempt a poetic definition of attention lead us here; Emily Dickinson especially seems a hyper-literate, alphabetic craftsperson, far from an exuberant ‘singer’ or ‘bardic’ poet, like Whitman, say (and far from a harbinger of orality, ‘oral culture’), but here I may have completely misinterpreted how her work reinforces this worldview.

Of course, my appreciation for this poem isn’t diminished by my not understanding. Perhaps the very act of spotty logic — the unproven leap — pushes the poem itself out of dependence upon alphabetic ratiocination: the connection here is supposed to be intuited, felt, rather than reasoned out. Poems aren’t essays; poems admit to dream, nightmare, or fantastical knowledge, or knowledge pushed beyond the limits of reason. There’s a gold-feeling hue here in the last lines of this work, a halo of joy, and I wouldn’t want that to change. The steady repetition of “that” and the braking build-up of commas in “that repeated, that, each day, continued” bring us to a sense of finality that feels earned, that slows down the rapid pace and pays off the tension and investment made in the reading. It gives me the sense that I’m missing something, just on the tip of my tongue or past the edge of my ability to sense it — that there’s a bit of magic just beyond what I can attend to.

Internal Light by Robert T. Sweeney
Internal Light by Robert T. Sweeney


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