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'What Is Otherwise Infinite' asks for granular honesty in our search for meaning

Tin House Books

Isolated and fatigued by the pandemic over the last two years, existential questions have consumed many of our minds. What is the meaning of our lives? How should we be spending our time?

Poets are great at ruminating on these questions, and Bianca Stone is one of them.

"I think it's a human condition to search," the poet says. "With so much happening in the world right now that is unfamiliar and confusing, I think we're trying to figure out, 'what next?'"

Stone's fourth poetry collection, What Is Otherwise Infinite, delves deep into this internal search for meaning. And to know what we want from our lives, Stone says we need to get really, really honest with ourselves.

"There's nothing wrong with wanting to move towards a better version of yourself," she says. "But I think that it can become very insidious and destructive if we don't look around at what's going on in our life and who we are."

Here's an excerpt from her poem "Routine" —

Some days I get up to go for a run 

but instead just sit in spandex 

and write poems about the fog.

Is the fog lifting or the trees rising? 

Who cares. Nature transfers her blood 

into the air. We are her lung cancer. 

Her trans fat. Her addiction.

Some days I get up to write 

but instead clean —the great lie 

that I am doing something.

Daniel Schechner / Courtesy of Tin House Books
Courtesy of Tin House Books

The poet calls this poem a direct response to the "obsessive hole" that one can get into when thinking about routines, habits and, as she says, "reaching your full potential."

"It can be kind of a form of masochism, trying so hard to fix yourself and to be this great ideal self," she says.

Stone's poems reframe the search for meaning by addressing the self-care and self-perfection complex. Because even though it's natural to want to "fix" our lives — sometimes obsessing over our lives can work against us.

"One thing I've learned [in writing this book] is that there's often several different selves in us, and they're incongruous and at odds," she says. "And accepting the different parts of ourselves is an incredible gift."

So — we may not know "what's next" but perhaps we know that we want to work as well as rest, or run as well as eat "dirty, dirty chocolate layer cake" (which is an image from one of her poems).

Of course, Stone acknowledges that reconciling these contradictions and being honest with ourselves can be really frightening.

"But the good thing is that once you are, you're free, and there is a kind of infinitude to that freedom," she says. "Where you're not beholden to societal expectations about how you should be spending your day."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jeevika Verma joined NPR's Morning Edition and Up First as a producer in February 2020. During her time there, she's produced a variety of stories ranging from Afghanistan peace talks, COVID surges in India and local & state elections. Verma also contributes to arts and poetry coverage for NPR's culture desk, and is always trying to get more poets on air. She leads the Morning Edition diversity council and works on DEI efforts across the network to help NPR live up to its mission.