Songs for the Present Future: Joey Yearous-Algozin’s A Feeling Called Heaven

Joey Yearous-Algozin. A Feeling Called Heaven. Brooklyn: Nightboat Books, 2021. 88 pages.  

“Yes, I was thinking: we live without a future: that’s what’s queer…” —Virginia Woolf, ℅ Lee Edelman, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive

Joey Yearous-Algozin’s A Feeling Called Heaven is a new-age meditation for the inhabitants of a planet on the brink of collapse. Yearous-Algozin's voice breaks down the boundaries of the self, pushing back against popular theories of the limits of poetry, offering a vision for the possibilities of poetry at the end of the world. And while this book is strikingly cynical about the state of the earth, it is, I believe, ultimately hopeful—even utopian.

Allen Grossman’s reading of the story of Caedmon, repopularized by Ben Lerner’s The Hatred of Poetry, elucidates the inherent struggle between the poetic impulse and the limits of symbolic representation (language) and, well, being a human. Caedmon was the first English-language poet that we really know anything about. According to the eighteenth-century monk, Bede, Caedmon was an animal caretaker at a monastery, and he couldn’t sing. One night, while sleeping in the stables, he was visited in a dream by a voice: “Caedmon, sing me something.” And Caedmon did. Upon waking, Caedmon remembered the songs, and “remade, again on demand, his poetic text.” [1] As Lerner reminds us, the story of Caedmon might initially appear to illuminate the possibility of divine poetry, but in reality, it calls to attention the distance between the songs Caedmon sang in his dreams and the “poetic texts” he produced after the fact. For Grossman, and for Lerner, the poetry of every poet’s wildest dreams is “precisely impossible,” squandered by reduction into a mere poem. Lerner describes what might be called the Caedmon affect: “I live in the space between what I am moved to do and what I can do, and confront in that disconnect not only my individual limitations (although I feel those, too) but also the structure of art as I conceive it.” [2]

Assuming Yearous-Algozin is indeed human, A Feeling Called Heaven strikes me as abnormally free of stricture—free of Caedmon’s quandary altogether. The distance between Yearous-Algozin’s song and poetic text is negligible, at times seemingly nonexistent. Yearous-Algozin’s lines, unfettered by punctuation and capitalization, unroll down the page. I don’t think I have ever encountered poetry that’s so easy to read, or poetry that seems so effortlessly composed. Even more striking is the singularity of the textual voice that weasels its way inside my head. When I read these poems, it feels like they are being read to me, inside me—almost as if I am Caedmon, fast asleep, coaxed into song by a mysterious voice.

Challenging then, that Yearous-Algozin’s speaker is a huge downer: “a better world isn’t possible;” “there’s nothing to be done now / but to await our own destruction.” [3] Lucky for us, they are also incredibly generous and caring; Yearous-Algozin’s voice relaxes, soothes:

I want you to allow this feeling called heaven
which is little more than a recognition of our presence
an acknowledgement that we’re not outside the world
and yet
nothing’s demanded of us
to create a modicum
of calm and stability
sitting here
in the company of each other  (5)

Though there’s a possible, more cynical reading here: Yearous-Algozin’s voice is like something beaming down from a tech start-up break room speaker. Calming? Yes. Disturbing? Even more so. This voice could bury itself deep in your brain and stay in your head all day, from the time you sit next to the water purifier/kombucha tap eating your microwaved rice bowl, to the time that you drive home through 95-degree heat and wildfire smoke.

Whether read as a loving shaman or a late capitalist tranquilizer, there’s no denying that the umbilical relationship that Yearous-Algozin’s voice fosters with the reader is a triumph. Like Caedmon, Yearous-Algozin bypasses the limits of self-expression and transference, and a song emerges. The intimacy of Yearous-Algozin’s address breaks down the speaker/listener dichotomy; between the covers of A Feeling Called Heaven, the boundaries of the self erode into a collective with a common fate.

And Caedmon’s quandary is not the only one that Yearous-Algozin seems to defy. A Feeling Called Heaven presents a blueprint for living in unlivable conditions. For Yearous-Algozin, “[r]adical acceptance of our own impoverishment” allows us to “welcome passivity.” (5) Our impending destruction creates new opportunities for communion and collectivity in the present. On a planet where we are all subject to climate crisis, the myth of the individual is the first of many deaths:

I want you to remember
That this is only the beginning of the end
And so we’re embarking on this journey together
Or more accurately
We’re engaged in a process of reduction
That erases the distinction
between you and anyone else (6)

Despite its stark view on the future of the human species, nowhere in the pages of A Feeling Called Heaven do I find apathy. Instead, I find poetry that somehow holds the seemingly contradictory truths of the death drive and utopian futurity. Yearous-Algozin masterfully reconciles one of queer theory's most troubling tensions—the surface-level incongruity between José Esteban Muñoz’s demands for queerness which is “not yet here” [4] and Lee Edelman’s searing critique of the future itself as a weapon against queerness. [5] A Feeling Called Heaven introduces the possibility of a queer future now, through the death of the self by way of poetry, which is inherently communal. Through expert attention to the present, Yearous-Algozin’s poetics push us forward, towards the end of the world, towards a feeling called heaven. For Yearous-Algozin,

the very fact of our existence extends out
towards our own extinction
as a pod of dolphins
arching their backs
and moving their flukes
up and down
to generate momentum in the neon blue water
propel themselves forward (63)

So, what can poetry do for us at the end of the world? Poetry can do nothing (humanity is dying); poetry can do everything (here we are, moving into the future together). Perhaps it is Yearous-Algozin’s radical acceptance that allows him to—as Caedmon did—sing. Reading A Feeling Called Heaven, I’m reminded of the final lines of Rilke’s first elegy:

And what about the legend
of the mourning for Linos: how it was music
that first dared him to break that rigid silence,
how only then—in the startled space from which death
had snatched the godlike youth forever—
could the emptiness begin to vibrate with that sound
which even now delights us, comforts us, helps? [6]


[1] Allen Grossman, The Long Schoolroom: Lessons in the Bitter Logic of the Poetic Principle (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997), 5.
[2] Ben Lerner. The Hatred of Poetry (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2016), 9.
[3] I strongly recommend checking out Yearous-Algozin’s Mixtape for A Feeling Called Heaven, available on Soundcloud and accompanied by a blog post. What is striking to me about Yearous-Algozin’s mixtape is that it is not a supplement to the text. Rather, A Feeling Called Heaven is part of the mixtape. Yearous-Algozin’s voice belongs among the new-age/ambient masters he curates.
[4] José Esteban Muñoz. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009), 1.
[5] Lee Edelman, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004.
[6] Rainer Maria Rilke trans. Gary Miranda, Duino Elegies (Portland: Tavern Books, 2013).


Adie B. Steckel (they/she) is a writer living in Portland, Oregon. They work for an HIV/AIDS & LGBTQ+ health and social services organization, write indexes for academic texts, and co-edit the nonprofit press and literary record label Fonograf Editions.