In her poem “I reason, Earth is short—“ 18th century poet Emily Dickinson questions the prevailing social theory that a sweet afterlife is sufficient recompense for the anguish of life—critique that is built on the assumption of a god and a meaningful existence. Dickinson isn’t questioning the calculation of a meaningful existence rather the balance of that existential equation.
In her poem, ‘Cave,’ Katie Berta jumps from Dickinson, diving into an even deeper existential notion: our existence is irrelevant. Our search for meaning is a small, insignificant endeavor—a miasma of cogitation that floats around our simian form but makes no difference to the yawning expanse of and indifferent, dark cosmos. There is no cosmic rebalancing of sums in Berta’s take on the universe—there is no one, nothing that cares for how we feel about any of it. It’s not meant to be social critique, or a comfort.
Don’t be afraid of any bleakness in Berta’s poem. There is comfort in Berta’s thought exercise—her ontological theory uncouples our morality from absolutes and frees us from ecclesiastical parameters that hemmed Dickinson in. We are meaningless and we are free.