A cozy fit: Jared Stanley’s new poetry book started in the stillness and sweetness of quarantining with his family

Jared Stanley’s latest book of poetry, So Tough, is really into shirts.  

“I don’t know; I love shirts,” he said. “Shirts are poems, you know? It’s about how it feels inside and how it looks outside.” 

Actually, what So Tough (Saturnalia Books, $18) is really interested in is detail. Shirts are just one way Stanley uses the specificity of something concrete and easy to grasp on to, like a shirt, to describe much larger things that are difficult to perceive or conceptualize, like climate change: “Is there a deliberate way to wear an earthbound look, warm / but not too warm, to put on this woozy disaster like a shirt?” 

Stanley and I met in fall of 2018 at the University of Nevada, Reno—his first semester at UNR as a professor, and my second as an undergraduate transfer student. We worked together every semester I was at UNR after that, and he was my thesis adviser for my master’s degree in poetry. Now that I’ve graduated, we’re friends and colleagues rather than professor and student. 

So Tough was born beneath the lingering haze of wildfire smoke and ash, in the confines of his house in 2021. With the “dear voices” of his partner and daughter filling the rooms beyond the wall, Stanley started writing eight lines of poetry on his typewriter each day. This practice was his way of returning to and re-learning poetry after what he said was a failed attempt at writing a novel. 

Once Stanley had accumulated a considerable stack of pages, he began to shape the series of eight-line stanzas into the book-length poem that would eventually become So Tough

The title, So Tough, “is like a fake way of talking about being tough,” Stanley said. “The way that we use that phrase idiomatically like, ‘Oh, you think you’re so tough?’ or, ‘Wow, that must be so tough,’ has this sort of artificiality to it that covers a bit of fragility, which seemed to speak to the book.” 

Stanley said “time didn’t seem to be moving” when he was composing the book. “At least not in the same way that we structure our lives under the conditions that capitalism demands, so I had to find a way to describe that temporality.” 

So Tough articulates the profound strangeness of that time during the COVID-19 lockdowns, when the individuality of our days fell away—each the same as the last, yet time kept passing. 

Time is marked throughout the book by days of the week. “It’s Sunday: time to feel free in a house,” and, “Thursday, heh, it’s very Thursday / Everyone’s drunk and nobody’s thirsty.” But these Sundays and Thursdays could be any Sunday or Thursday. Stanley didn’t want to mark specific dates to capture the looseness of that time. Except one date is called out specifically—Jan. 6. “To me, there was enough specificity about that,” he said. 

The various catastrophes of 2021—Jan. 6, and also the wildfires that left Reno choking in smoke during much of the summer and early fall—prompted a lot of anxiety in Stanley over his child’s future in such a world. “The poems kind of vacillate between thinking about the future and staying really close to the present moment,” he said. 

In airy, mellifluous lines, Stanley captures the pendulum of daily experience: how we swing between personal joy and collective grief, between horror induced by the swirling threats of global catastrophes and moments of breathtaking beauty in the tiny details of our home sphere and the landscape around us. The poems’ decadence and poignancy are tempered by bits of self-deprecation and dashes of what-can-we-do-but-laugh humor that characterizes the tragic comedy of our time: “What happened here? The trees laugh. Nothing! they say, we’re just screaming!” 

The experience of reading one of Stanley’s eight-line stanzas is a bit like looking at a canyon wall: You can see each layer of sediment, each layer of time. “Black widow time,” or private time, “I find another hour, swab and tweez with classical patience,” and unimaginable future time, “Tuesdays in 2061.” You can trace each layer of experience from an “undersea, aboveground feeling,” to microscopic detail, “fool’s gold and pollen shimmer in the wave,” to the cosmic and metaphysical: “Let’s split the roof of heaven to the very star,” and sensory details like “a bit of lipstick on your tooth,” “a whiff of body spray” and “rose in a burn scar.” 

“I want to lead with my senses all of the time,” Stanley said. “Specific things that one observes are related to the sense of the collective and the planet. Some of the circumstances we are dealing with right now, like climate change, seem so far outside of our purview and ability to do anything about it, but what we often forget is the intimacy of the largeness of these scales. Things like wildfire and microplastics come to us in really small scales that we can perceive; they happen to us in particles.” 

This book is interested in the future, but it’s not utopian, nor does it fall into hopeless despair over impending apocalypse. It is actually quite tender. It marks a more personal—and pivotal—turn in Stanley’s work. My favorite line in the book is: “I wanna be your shirt, I wanna fit you,” because it’s just so sweet and romantic in such a Stanley-esque way. 

“The status of love and care in the book is more embodied,” he said. “I mean, it was daily and constant. During that period of 2021, my family gained a way more intense intimacy.” 

That intimacy made Stanley want to write something less intellectual than his previous work, because he realized, “You can just be in love with people. So, it was kind of a breakthrough book in that way.” 

So Tough, then, is Stanley’s “attempt to reconcile the sense that everything’s going to be OK—and everything’s going to be a mess.”