For the sword outwears its sheath,
Daniel Nester Interviews Me
You write sestinas.
Why the sestina?
What attracts you to the sestina?
How many sestinas
have you written? Are you a sestina
nut? Do you remember the first sestina
you ever read? What’s your favorite sestina?
You’ve written how many sestinas
in how many years? Undergraduate sestinas?
Graduate school sestinas?
Thesis composed entirely of sestinas?
How many sestinas
do you write a year? Do you do a sestina
a month? A sestina
a week? A sestina
a day? The sestina
is a strenuous form. Do your sestinas
succeed? Do your sestinas
surprise? Are your sestinas
quick and lean? How many sestinas
do you toss? How many sestinas
do you abandon? How many sestinas
fail? You exploit the sestina.
Would you recommend the sestina?
Do you teach the sestina?
Are your sestinas
online? Have you read your sestinas
at KGB? Do your daughters read your sestinas?
Does your husband love your sestinas?
Are you addicted to the sestina?
Does everything you write come out sestina?
Can you tell us what it is about the sestina?
Have you advice for the beginning sestina
writer? How’s it feel to author a famous sestina,
as widely anthologized as “All-American Sestina”?
Is this a sestina, a particular kind of sestina?
Is there a name for this sestina, this variant sestina?
Maybe it’s not a sestina? Is it a sestina?
be 39 lines long,
are OK, but the words
whether short or long.
hard on every word,
to this mustang
as you can, the endeavor
on muscular, lean
concise or elongated
as possible. Incendiary,
volatile or musty,
fat or lean,
the exceptional word
If you long
to race the fastest
horse use brilliant words:
lavender, calendula, rhododendron,
Twirl your mustache:
erelong an ending
Worthy words are a must.
these. Take a chance:
up, see the show.
give them a chance,
redress your hatreds:
no more sestinas
if these sestinas
fail to show
how rewarding a read
they are. Reluctant reader,
although you hate
them, is there a slim chance,
a fat chance,
are not hateful?
May we show
you, skeptical reader,
lines worth reading
Not a chance?
disparage the sestina,
delight to show
through whenever we read
irritate the mediocre reader.
Whatever. You’ve chanced
to read this entire sestina!
Good show, judicious reader.
I really fucked up
Have I ever done
anything so incredibly
five? What’ll I write?
Am I up
to this incredible
Will they be done
How find time
But it’s a done
deal. I’m in up
to my ears, OMG.
honor, what incredible
luck to be chosen this time
Daniel Nester, to write
what you’ve done.
Dan, you’ve done
it! What an incredible
anthology. Stand up,
take a big time
bow. Did I write
how fab your intro? OMG
All done. Time
to write, incredible
as it seems, is up. OMG
How gracious you
are to ask me to write
about the sestinas
in Dan’s book
his incredible book.
are what I write.
I’ve never written a blog.
I’m filled with terror: five!
do justice to his book?
What would I say in a blog?
honor me, but I’d rather write
I’ve practiced sestinas
two score years and five.
I’d gladly write
but a blog?
are not my thing. Sestinas
are. I could send you
from my unpublished book
or happily write
new ones, but must I write
celebrates the sestina.
Let’s give him a high five.
If it’s OK with you
I’ll write five sestinas
not five blogs
to praise his book. What say you?
‘Is not the death of youth the Iliad’s
Overarching theme?’ Vachel Lindsay
Once inquired -- and the answer is
Yes, of course, as when the arrow
Aimed at Hector instead pierced
Young Gorgythion’s unarmored
Neck and his head slowly bent
As a poppy weighed down by rain
Might so incline, or when aged Nestor
Talked too much with his advice
To Patroclus of dubious efficacy.
Alas, the young warrior, the old king,
Body, or mind -- the death of youth:
But Vachel Lindsay? His death?
You may hear it said as I once heard
That he drank a bottle of Drano but
Lysol it was -- death by Lysol, age 52,
Springfield, Illinois, 12-5-1931.
Poem in the Manner
of Dorothy Parker
who wrote witty stories,
did not foresee
that spectacles would be-
come fashion accessories.
"Men seldom make passes
At girls who wear glasses."
in Washington Square Park
I thought of her, Miss Parker,
and what she might say
assessing the spectacles of our day:
"Even the nicest lasses
Have tattoos on their asses."
from the Village Voice poetry issue. Click here to see and hear this as well as poems by Billy Collins, Jonathan Galassi, Edward Hirsch, Marie Howe, Donna Masini, Joshua Mehigan, Victoria Redel and other poets of note.
(Ed note: This week Edward Hirsch is presenting terms from his new book, A Poet’s Glossary, a compendium of forms, devices, groups, movements, isms, aesthetics, folklore, rhetorical terms. Find his previous post here. sdh)
Here are two forms from the poetry of everyday life: the humble proverb and the overlooked riddle.
proverb A terse didactic statement that embodies a general truth, the proverb is short and pithy, akin to the aphorism and the maxim, and draws attention to itself as a formal artistic entity. Folk and traditional proverbs are well-known expressions, usually the length of a simple sentence, that function in conversation. They are part of daily discourse. They also operate in educational situations and judicial proceedings. Proverbs take personal circumstances and embody them in impersonal form. Their meanings seem fixed, but depend on context, since texts are adapted to different situations. Proverbs are normative, consensual. The proverb simplifies a problem by naming and solving it with a traditional solution.
The linguist Roman Jakobson called the proverb “the largest coded unit occurring in our speech and at the same time the shortest poetic composition.” Proverbs frequently employ traditional devices of poetry, such as balanced phrasing (“Out of sight, out of mind”) and binary construction (“A stitch in time / saves nine”), rhyme (“Haste makes waste”), alliteration (“Live and learn”) and repetition (“Live and let live”). They often apply a metaphor to a situation (“Don’t change horses in midstream”). By definition, proverbs must be memorable. Expressions become proverbial through quotation. In “Literature as Equipment for Living” (1938), Kenneth Burke pointed out that “social structures give rise to ‘type’ situations…many proverbs seek to chart, in more or less homey and picturesque ways, these ‘type’ situations.” Proverbs are a fundamental way that literature provides “equipment for living.” He then extended the analysis of proverbs to the whole field of literature in Philosophy of Literary Forms: Studies in Symbolic Action (1941). Could the most complex and sophisticated works of art legitimately be considered somewhat as ‘proverbs writ large’?”
The humble proverb has an ancient and generally overlooked literary provenance. Proverbs are amongst the oldest works in Sanskrit. Daniel Ingalls writes: “a collection of Sanskrit proverbs would soon attain a size that no book could hold, for it is consonant with the Sanskrit preference for the general over the particular, for the type over the individual, that it should use proverbs very widely.” Proverbs also animated early Germanic, Scandinavian, and especially Hebrew literature, as in the Book of Proverbs, a form of Wisdom literature whose principle is encapsulated in the following example:
Treasures of wickedness profit nothing:
but righteousness deliverith from death. (10:2)
The binary proverb is the literary foundation of wisdom poetry. It consists of two units brought together in a type of parallelism:
Pride goeth before destruction,
and an haughty spirit before a fall. (16:18)
A soft answer turneth away wrath:
but grievous words stir up anger. (15:1)
Proverbs entered European literature through the Bible, the Church fathers, and classical Greek writers, such as Aristophanes (ca. 450—ca. 388), Plautus (ca. 254—ca. 184 B. C. E.), and Lucian (ca. 125—after 180). Erasmus’s enormously popular Adagia (1500) was crucial in spreading classical proverbs into vernacular European languages. John Heywood’s A Dialogue contening….all the proverbs in the English tongue (1546) was the first English collection. There is an intermittent tradition of creating poems and songs from proverbs that extends from François Villon’s virtuoso display “Ballade des proverbes” (1458) to works by Gilbert and Sullivan, such as the Pinafore duet (1878), which has sixteen identifiable proverbs. The proverb contributed to the development of the epigram, an occasional short verse with a moral point. Proverbs are employed in face-to-face situations, and the literary epigram compensates by pointing to the situation, either as a title or within the poem itself. The proverb also had a direct influence on the heroic couplet, which in turn provided proverbs that became part of conventional wisdom, such as Alexander Pope’s “To err is human, to forgive divine.” Proverbs are embedded in poems from Geoffrey Chaucer, especially in Troilus and Criseyde (ca. 1380s) to Carl Sandburg (“Good Morning, America”) and Robert Frost (“Good fences make good neighbors”). William Blake’s provocative “Proverbs of Hell” teach us that “Exuberance is Beauty.”
riddle “A mystifying, misleading, or puzzling question posed as a problem to be solved or guessed often as a game” (Webster’s 3rd New International Dictionary). Though the dictionary definition focuses on the riddle as a question and describes it as a game, the riddle is more than a puzzle. It is both an interrogative and an expressive form, possibly the earliest form of oral literature—a formulation of thought, a mode of association, a metaphor.
The comparative work of folklorists suggests that riddle-making is virtually a universal activity, a lyric root, a contest of wit, a process of naming. The earliest riddles on record are preserved on a clay tablet from ancient Babylon. They are inscribed in Sumerian along with Assyrian translations. Here is one that Archer Taylor, the premier scholar of riddles, presents in The Literary Riddle before 1600 (1948):
Who becomes pregnant without conceiving,
who becomes fat without eating?
The answer: a raincloud.
The riddle, a short form with a long history, uses the sentence as its frame. It is often employed for educational purposes, but there are cases—whole cultures—where the riddle is more than child’s play. The oldest Sanskrit riddles (c. 1000 B.C.E.) appear in the riddle hymn of Dirhatamas (Hymn 164) in Book I of the Rig-Veda. The Hebrew Bible refers to riddling and riddling contests. Thus the prophet Daniel was “known to have a notable spirit, with knowledge and understanding, and the gift of interpreting dreams, explaining riddles and unbinding spells” (Daniel 5:12). In the first book of Kings (I.10), Queen Sheba travels to the court of King Solomon to test his prodigious wisdom with “hard questions” or riddles. The judge Samson is known for the riddle he proposes to the Philistines at his wedding reception (Judges 14:14):
Out of the eater came something to eat,
Out of the strong came something sweet?
In the desert, Samson had chanced upon a lion’s carcass in which bees had made a hive. With the help of his bride who tells the riddle to her countrymen, the Philistines answer the riddle with another riddle: “What is sweeter than honey? What is stronger than a lion?” Samson replies to them with a startling metaphor: “If you had not ploughed my heifer, / you would not have solved my riddle.”
The Greeks were great riddlers. Pindar was first to use the term riddle in a way that we still recognize. Everyone remembers the riddle at the heart of the narrative in Sophocles’s Oedipus Tyrannus, which has also been found in various parts of the world: “What has four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon, and three legs in the evening?” This is the riddle of the Sphinx, a monster with the head of a woman and the winged body of a lion, who threatened anyone who wanted to enter Thebes. Oedipus solved the riddle with the word “man” and thus proved his cleverness, a quality that would lead to his destruction. Plato refers to riddling in The Republic and quotes a variant of Panarces’s riddle: a man who is not a man [a eunuch] threw a stone that was not a stone [a pumice stone] at a bird that was not a bird [a bat] sitting on a twig that was not a twig [a reed]. Heraclitus’s remarks about the universe were so cryptic that Cicero and Diogenes Laertius referred to him as “the Riddler” and “the Obscure.” It was Heraclitus who reported:
All men are deceived by the appearances of things, even Homer himself, who
was the wisest man in Greece; for he was deceived by boys catching lice; they
said to him, “What we have caught and what we have killed we have left behind,
but what has escaped us we bring with us.”
A riddle is first of all a way of describing one thing in terms of another, as in “Humpty Dumpty,” which describes an egg in terms of a man. In English Riddles from Oral Tradition (1951), Archer Taylor classifies descriptive riddles according to whether the object—“the answer”—is compared to a person, to several persons, to animals, to several animals, to plants, to things, or to a generalized living creature. Aristotle first pointed out in the Rhetoric, “Good riddles do, in general, provide us with satisfactory metaphors: for metaphors imply riddles, and therefore a good riddle can furnish a good metaphor.” He also stated in the Poetics that “the essence of a riddle is to express true facts under impossible combinations.”
True riddles, as they are sometimes called, are enigmatic questions in descriptive form. They are meant to confuse or test the wits of those who don’t know the answer. The riddle arrests our attention by establishing some paradox or internal contradiction, an opposition or blocking element, which makes it hard to solve. The folk riddle is staged, fundamentally aggressive, anti-social. It is vexing and socially disruptive unlike, say, the proverb, which is reassuring and meant to reinforce social wisdom.
The folklorist Roger Abrahams demonstrates that opposition is the most salient of four
techniques by which the image (or Gestalt) of the riddle-question is impaired, making it
indecipherable. These techniques consist of:
1. opposition—Gestalt is impaired because the opponent parts of the presented image do not harmonize.
2. incomplete detail—not enough information is given for proper Gestalt to be made (i.e., for the parts to fit together).
3. too much detail—the important traits are buried in the midst of inconsequential detail, thus “scrambling” Gestalt.
4. false Gestalt—details are provided that lead to an ability to discern a referent, and thus call for an answer,but the answer is wrong. The answer is often an embarrassing, obscene reference. This technique is most common in catch riddles.
The techniques of impairment establish the conventions by which riddles are recognized and remembered. Modes of impairment also provide literary strategies. The medieval Hebrew and Arabic poets of Spain, for example, wrote deliberately misleading riddles in verse. There are forty-nine such riddles in the work of the master of Hebrew poetry, Yehuda Halevi (c. 1075-1141). So, too, the Arabic poet Al-Harari (1054-1122) filled his masterpiece known as the Maqamat (“Assemblies”) with a wealth of classical lore, including riddles. In Western Europe, the literary riddle begins with the 100 Latin riddles of Symposius (fifth century). The oldest European vernacular riddles are the poetic riddles of the Old English Exeter Book (eighth century). In Enigmas and Riddles in Literature, Eleanor Cook suggests that “riddling illuminates the greatest mysteries through the smallest things.”
Here is a Persian riddle that gives a feeling of sudden liberation, like a Japanese haiku:
A blue napkin full of pears—
“Excerpted from A POET’S GLOSSARY by Edward Hirsch. Copyright © 2014 by Edward Hirsch. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.”
(Ed note: This week Edward Hirsch is presenting terms from his new book, A Poet’s Glossary, a compendium of forms, devices, groups, movements, isms, aesthetics, folklore, rhetorical terms. Find his previous post here. sdh)
Today I’d like to juxtapose the ideas of pure and impure poetry. In 1925, the Abbé Henri Bremond delivered a lecture entitled “Pure Poetry” (or in French Poésie Pure), which he followed up the next year with Prayer and Poetry. Two years later, Paul Valéry clarified the idea that poetry aims “to give the impression of a complete system of reciprocal relations between our ideas and images on the one hand and our means of expression on the other—a system which would correspond particularly to the creation of an emotive state in the mind” (“Pure Poetry”). It was crucial, he argued, that the poetic system should be “unconnected with the practical order.” Valéry was particularly influenced by Edgar Allan Poe, who had argued that the sole purpose of poetry is the creation of beauty and that poems should be free of didactic content (“The Poetic Principle,” 1850).
Robert Penn Warren took up the argument in his 1942 essay “Pure and Impure Poetry,” where he argues, “Poetry wants to be pure, but poems do not.” Poetry creates its own systematic structures, but poems must be open to impurities and contradictions, to ideas, “to the fires of irony.” He said: “nothing that is available in human experience should be legislated out of poetry.” He also noted that “a good poem involves the participation of the reader.”
Pure poetry and impure poetry represent two sides of a spectrum. One emphasizes poetry’s difference from the actual world; the other emphasizes poetry’s immersion in that world. One denies the importance of subject matter, the other insists on it. On one side, pure poetry is represented by the nineteenth-century French Symbolist Stéphane Mallarmé, who characterized the poet’s role as “to purify the language of the tribe.” Mallarmé wanted to compose a poem of complete connotation without any denotative reference, “le poème tu, aux blancs” (“Crise de vers,” 1895). On the other side, impure poetry is represented by the twentieth-century Chilean Pablo Neruda, who sought “A poetry impure as the clothing we wear, or our bodies, soup-stained, soiled with our shameful behavior, our wrinkles and vigils and dreams, observations and prophecies, declarations of loathing and love, idylls and beasts, the shocks of encounter, political
loyalties, denials and doubts, affirmations and taxes (“Toward an Impure Poetry,” 1974).
“Excerpted from A POET’S GLOSSARY by Edward Hirsch. Copyright © 2014 by Edward Hirsch. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.”
I was compelled last week to reach out to Sydney Lea––Vermont’s current Poet Laureate––as three short essays of his, “Surviving Romance,” appeared in the spring issue of Traveltainted (Turtle Point Press) and were so beautifully rendered, I was moved to get his contact information and lavish praise. Upon receiving my short note, Mr. Lea’s gracious reply was almost as memorable as the essays themselves, and I made a mental note that the next time a piece of literature, or any art for that matter, is similarly affecting and access to its creator within bounds, I should not hesitate: if you feel something, say something.
Wanting to give back something to Mr. Lea, I forwarded Wilfred Owen’s, “The Last Laugh,” the Poetry Foundation’s ‘Poem of the Day’ from a few weeks ago, saying how utterly swept I was and remain by the poem. Mr. Lea was quick to respond, saying how brilliant a poet Wilfred Owen was, and just as quick to suggest that I “look up ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ by Owen to have your heart broken.” “Dulce et Decorum Est is considered to be the best known poem among World War I poetry; a poem I should have known and read, but didn’t and hadn’t (‘Embarrassment of the Day’).
And the question immediately surfaced: could my heart break more than it was broken by the reading of “The Last Laugh?” Here are the two poems:
The Last Laugh
BY WILFRED OWEN
'O Jesus Christ! I'm hit,' he said; and died.
Whether he vainly cursed, or prayed indeed,
The Bullets chirped—In vain! vain! vain!
Machine-guns chuckled,—Tut-tut! Tut-tut!
And the Big Gun guffawed.
Another sighed,—'O Mother, mother! Dad!'
Then smiled, at nothing, childlike, being dead.
And the lofty Shrapnel-cloud
And the falling splinters tittered.
'My Love!' one moaned. Love-languid seemed his mood,
Till, slowly lowered, his whole face kissed the mud.
And the Bayonets' long teeth grinned;
Rabbles of Shells hooted and groaned;
And the Gas hissed.
Dulce Et Decorum Est
BY WILFRED OWEN
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.
GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!-- An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.--
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
Indeed, both poems are devastating. Now, if I may, I'd like to dredge up the old Anne Sexton vs. Sylvia Plath debate (which for some, yes, is not a debate). In this debate, let me say that I am firmly in the Plath camp. But if “The Last Laugh” is Owen as Sexton and “Dulce…” is Owen as Plath, as stretched and forced this comparison may be, “The Last Laugh” has my vote.
We recently announced that David Lehman's translation of Apollinaire's "Zone" won the Virginia Quarterly Review Emily Clark Balch Prize for Poetry. You can now read this wonderful poem over at VQR Online.
Apollinaire experimented with audacious techniques for generating verse. On occasion he would sit in a café and weave overheard phrases into the composition. Read David Lehman's translation of "Zone," the central poem in Apollinaire's career.
Continue reading here.
All poetry is experimental poetry. All experiments are failed experiments. All poetry is personal. You can argue about it all you like, but usually we go on one assumption, not being too worried if the answer we come up with will matter to anyone but ourselves. We get to make sentences. The missing ingredient in each sentence is time. Time surrounds the sentence. For example, the experiment was a success but the chemist died. The quip depended on who was saying it. All confessional poetry is admissible, the lawyer said. The doctor said she was losing her patience. The defense maintained that it is admissible as evidence but not as sex. The jury debated the meaning of it. Philosophers, both amateur and academic, debated the meaning of “it.” The amateur wondered at the vastness of the three questions: where did we come from, what are we doing here, and where is there left to go? The professional philosopher, a serious and taciturn person with an excellent head for logic, defined the terms and arrived at the humbling knowledge that out of the four words that make up the phrase “the meaning of it,” only two made any real sense, and they are “the” and “of,” the uses of which in language as a system can hardly be overlooked. A last-minute confession broke the deadlock and lessened the convicted man’s sentence. The judge threw out the confession, saying confessions are invariably exaggerated. Yet the jury’s foreman held the attention of all when he smiled in the benevolent, avuncular way promoted by Hollywood producers in the hey-day of the studio system. “All exaggerations are true,” he said in the sensible manner that older people had back then even when they spoke arrant nonsense. “On the other hand, the systems are never the same.” This time the speaker was a woman, as intelligent as she was beautiful, intensely aware of her sexual attractiveness to men, unafraid to exploit it even if it led to bourgeois conventions she suspected she was supposed to shun but also, on the whole, loyal to solid feminist practice. She said one sentence only -- "I don't exist" -- and disappeared from my life. “The systems are never the same,” a second woman echoed, this time a cheerful and adventurous person who ran her share of risks but had a fund of good luck to keep her from getting into trouble. “Language as a system is a closed circle," she said. "The ‘studio system’ is a convenient marker for the period in history when the making of Hollywood movies was dominated by such studios as Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, RKO, Columbia, Twentieth-Century Fox, Warner Brothers."
He was sure of one thing. A glass of club soda with a lime wedge or even better a tall glass of homemade lemonade dominated by ice cubes was all that it would take for the experience that would quench his curiosity once and for all. He had a hunch he would recognize it when it came. And as he walked he thought, and as he thought he talked, and the hours went by like miles in an air-conditioned town-car you rented for the black-tie occasion. All exaggerations are true or have their source in truth.The desire to escape this truth cannot be overstated. Poetry is escapism therefore. But poetry is also evidence of sex. Sex is exaggeration. Confession is to sex as belching is to a fine meal in a friendly home when you are two middle-aged couples who have forgotten their lines but had a fine old time with the guys talking about basketball and lfe and the women doing what two women put in that situation invariably do. It doesn't take a genius to figure it out. You just need to listen, to think, and to be quiet once in a while. No evidence is required.The impulse of the moment was proof enough that their love was real. Sex is not evidence. All evidence is personal. All politics is impersonal. There is something to be said in favor of impersonal sex, where it is rendered as a straightforward cash transaction, but we left that stage on another continent. The brush with the unknown changed us in some way not visible to others and not well understood by ourselves. And so I offer you this y-shaped glass chilled to perfection with only the twist of a lemon peel as adornment and the aroma of juniper in the air. These sentences have I written in lieu of the message you expected you would find. I'm confessin' that I love you. Do you [word or words missing here] love me too?
-- David Lehman (rev. 3 / 20/ 14)
Words become words because we need them. I don’t know what they are before that—impulses, energy, trilobites, Hydrogen—who knows. But once they become words, I believe in them, the power and the glory of them. Even the ugly ones—those terrible angels of our mouths—beating like dark wings from our throats—savage, nigger, half-breed, chink, faggot, indian, redskin. We built them—like bombs—with our need to break each other.
I am drawn to the words that hurt me most—No.—I mean to say: I am not afraid to put into my mouth the words that hurt me again and again. The people who first gave them to me didn’t always tell the truth, so I take them in and spit them back out—the bones of them, the parts nobody wants to talk about now—and I tell them my way because I got tired of choking on them.
History is the name of the greatest American lullaby. When we know the words to it, we feel like better people, church-going people. We feel like we have learned something. Worst of all, we feel like it is over. This is what history really means to most white people: It is over.
It might as well be the title of all the history books in high schools across the nation—
Teacher: Class open up your It Is Over text to “Chapter 2: We Fucked The Indians Again But Jim Thorpe, So It Is Over.”
Tommy: Didn’t we read that last week.
Teacher: No, Tommy, last week we read “Chapter 1: We Fucked The Indians But That Was A Long Time Ago Which Means It Is Over.” This new chapter has blankets in it, and Hotchkiss.
No, the worst part is that when we memorize the words to History, we get sleepy. Our eyes are lulled close. Just like at the end of “Rock-a-bye-baby” nobody asks what happened to the baby because they’re already asleep.
What is my point? Words carry within them the dark things we have done and the dark things those dark things continue to do. It is important that we know our words better than anybody else.
This is what I tell my students: Every word. And not just that word, also the word it was before. And the word that word was before it became the word you are using. Know those words the way they were when they first meant themselves. The beginning of language must have been something else—each sound like an entire song—a want we wanted so badly that it began like a lightning spark in our minds and rushed downhill to the lamp wicks of our tongues where it lit into a word. Fire, someone said for the first time in the universe, and for the first time in the existence of the ear, someone heard, Fire—how it must have burned.
So if every word is Promethean, why shouldn’t I rivet them all to the rock and tear them open?
What a gift: to know every word a word has ever meant.
What a wound: to know every word a word has ever meant—
Our word for policeman translates to the people who rope you, and our word for jail is the place you are roped. It’s the same word we use to describe roping cattle.
The US government used to rope Mojave children, sat on horseback and lassoed them like animals. They put them in the back of wagons or made them walk behind their horse all the way to the boarding school, leaving their mothers wringing the hems of their dresses in grief. My Elder teacher told me this: Grandma used to say that after they rounded up Momma and the other kids and took them away, all the dogs ran in circles in front of the houses and ran up and down the river banks crying and crying because they wanted their kids back. Those poor dogs cried and cried and cried. They went mad with crying. Today, when we talk about the law, the police, the justice system, we are talking about those men on horses who roped our children and took them away. We hear the crying. It is not over. It is happening again and again in those words.
School, or huchqol hapoove, means the place they put and keep children. And they did—they took Mojave children, their best shot at crushing us. And once there—nyayuu hapoove is our word for closet—my great grandmother was given a switching and locked in a closet for the day when she was caught speaking Mojave.
Language is nothing if not violent—No.—Language is silent when it is not violent.
Our word for metal is ‘anya kwa’oor, which means it has a golden light. Metal came to us first in a prophecy, which translated roughly goes something like this: It will come across the ocean and land here. It has no head, no arms, no legs. It is oval-shaped. It will move through us up our shorelines. The metal that was prophesied was not the metal of pots or pans or rakes—it was a bullet. Anytime we speak of metal, we are speaking of the way it first came to us—sometimes by going through us the way bullets have always done.
So when I say know your words, I mean the ones that have shaped your mouth and your page. Look at them, listen to the things they have endured, the things they have done. Even if they are one part memory, they are also another part living. Maybe what I have been trying to say is that when you walk into the room of your poem and hear History playing in the background, you find that poem, you look that poem in the eye and say, Wake your ass up.
In Mojave, the words we use to describe our emotions are literally dragged through our hearts before we speak them—they begin with the prefix wa-, a shortened form of iiwa, our word for heart and chest. So we will never lightly ask, How are you? Instead, we ask very directly about your heart. We have one way to say that our hearts are good, and as you might imagine if you’ve ever read a history book or lived in this world, we have many ways to say our hearts are hurting.
The government came to us first in the form of the Cavalry, then the military fort (which is why we are called Fort Mojave), and finally the boarding school. The government didn’t simply “teach” us English in those boarding schools—they systematically and methodically took our Mojave language. They took all the words we had. They even took our names. Especially, they took our words for the ways we love—in silencing us, they silenced the ways we told each other about our hearts.
One result of this: generations of English-speaking natives have never heard I love you from their parents, which in their eyes, meant their parents didn’t love them. However, those parents never said, I love you, because it didn’t mean anything to them—it was an English word for English people. There is no equivalent to it in the Mojave language—the words we have to express our feelings, to show the things berserking in our chests for one another are much too strong to be contained by the English word love.
But after boarding schools and work programs sent them to the cities for work, our children stopped speaking Mojave—they were beaten if they were caught talking or singing in their language. Maybe when they came home their parents spoke to them all about their hearts, but if they did, the children didn’t understand anymore.
It is true, the Mojave language does not say, I love you—and it is equally true that the government was hoping we would quit expressing this toward one another, that we would never again give each other tenderness. While we don’t say, I love you, we say so much more. We have ways to say that our heart is blooming, bursting, exploding, flashing, words to say that we will hold a person and never let them go, that we will be stingy with them, that we will never share them, that they are our actual heart. And even these are mere translations, as close as I can get in English.
Despite Cavalries and boarding schools, our language is still beautiful and passionate—it carries in it the ways we love and touch each other. In Mojave, to say, Kiss me, is to say fall into my mouth. If I say, They are kissing, I am also saying, They have fallen into each other’s mouths.
The word for hummingbird is nyen nyen, and it doesn’t mean bird—it is a description of what a hummingbird does, moving into and out of and into the flower. This is also our word for sex. Mat ‘anyenm translated to English means the body as a hummingbird, or to make a hummingbird of the body. On a very basic level we have a word that means body sex hummingbird all at once.
I think of the many lame things people say when they want to have sex with someone--imagine how much more luck they would have if they came to you with that lightning look in their eyes and that glisten in their mouths and said just one word: hummingbird. And you would think: bloom, sweet, wings that rotate, heart beating at 1,260 beats per minute, flower, largest proportioned brain in the bird kingdom, syrup,iridescent, nectar, tongue shaped like a “w”—which means something close to yes.
Recently, an adult learner who is teaching her children the language in her home asked our Elders if they could teach her to tell her son that she loves him. They told her that we have no word for that. But, the learner insisted, I need to know because I never heard my parents say that to me, and I will not let my son grow up without hearing me tell him that I love him. The Elders asked her, What is it you really want to tell him? The learner was emotional at this point, her words had caught in her throat. Instead of speaking, she made a gesture with her arms of pulling someone closer to her, and then she closed her eyes and hugged her arms against her chest. Ohhh, one of the Elders exclaimed, Now, we have a word for that—wakavar.
Maybe there is no great lesson to be learned here, but when I sit down to write a poem, I carry all of this language with me onto the page--I try to figure out what I really mean, what the words really mean to me. I don’t ever want to say, love, if what I mean is wakavar, if what I mean is hummingbird, if what I mean is fall into my mouth.
At Fort Mojave, the reservation where I grew up and recently moved back to, I am not a poet—my work is in language revitalization. There are only three living Elder speakers of our Mojave language. My Elders and I work together—against history, against memory, and especially against silence—to document and record our language, to teach it to others, to make it live again.
Where does Elizabeth Bishop fit into this picture? Well, I carry her with me. She and I share at least one thing in common, our loss. And as she has said and re-said: The art of losing isn’t hard to master. This line is a small prayer that I push through my mouth’s machinery daily.
I come from a life shaped by winning—in my first season as a Lady Monarch basketball player at Old Dominion University, I won 34 games and only lost 2. When I played overseas, I received bonuses for winning games. But in this new chapter of my life, the work I do with my Elders to save our Mojave language has tested the values that made me one of the best athletes in the nation. Language revitalization is, in a sense, the art of losing. The fate of our language exists in the tongues of the three Elders who still speak it and in the hands of those of us working to preserve it. It was a hard lesson for me to learn and one that kept me from sleeping for almost two years: no matter how many hours I worked, no matter how hard I tried, I would not be able to save all of my language. I would lose some of it, a lot of it. There are words that once existed that I will never hear, that my Elders have forgotten. One of the saddest moments is when my Elder teacher cannot answer a question, when he looks at me and says, You are asking me because you don’t know the answer, but I also don’t know the answer, and there is nobody left for me to ask. When I began this work, I did not know that I had taken on a job of loss. In order not to be crushed by it, I have had to embrace it, to learn to exist within it and be successful at it, as successful as anyone can be at losing.
While Bishop and I have loss in common—don’t we all?—her loss and my loss are different—aren’t everyones’? For example, in the poem, Bishop loses a watch: I lost my mother’s watch. If I translated Bishop’s line into Mojave, I would say: Intay nyanya ‘achinaalym.
But our word ’anya means more than one thing—and since Mojaves never had watches, it only recently means “watch.” So while Bishop can be overcome by the singular loss of her mother’s watch, an object that means and means to her, that carried away memory and emotion and love with it—the loss for my language and people is even more devastating and vast than hers. What I mean is, in the Mojave language, the line Intay nyanya ‘achinaalym can also mean each of these things:
I lost my mother’s hour.
I lost my mother’s sun.
I lost my mother's light.
I lost my mother’s day.
I lost my mother’s time.
Or maybe Bishop and I have lost exactly the same thing—equally vast—we have lost our mothers, we have lost our pasts, the part of our lives when suns and days and time were not measurements of pains or failures. But whereas Bishop might have been stopped by her loss, I must keep going.
Loss doesn’t mean to me what it once did. What I cannot do doesn’t stop me anymore—it now shapes what I can do and helps me to appreciate what I do have. I choose not to stare into the void of loss, but instead I step inside it, stick my fingers into it, put my ear to it, try to find as many words for it as I can. This is no different from the way I build my poems. I don’t run from the disaster of what history has done to my people and our language, I chase it down. Sure, I will lose some things, I lose something—a thousand things—every day, but I know that I can be both farther and faster, and what I will gather and succeed at in my losing is ultimately what I can save of my language.
“Vanishing Languages,” a National Geographic article, opens with this fact: One language dies every 14 days. So, two weeks from now, there will be one less language spoken and heard on this planet. At Fort Mojave, we have decided that it will not be our Mojave language.
Soon after earning my MFA, I was lucky enough to meet the poet Ted Kooser at a writing festival in Idyllwild, California, and we began exchanging small notes and postcards in the mail. Most often, we talked about my desert and his barn, the slow back roads we both drove, maybe about the owl that hooted through his night, and if so, then surely about what owls mean to my people. Most of his post cards were his own illustrations. On the back of one that hangs in my office, he wrote: It might be that the work you are doing for your tribe will be far more important that any poem you will write. Of course, he is right.
Learn more about our Mojave language revitalization--click here to watch this PBS special on Fort Mojave language recovery efforts.
The writer, Claire Hero, and I are neighbors here in the Mid-Hudson River Valley. I live in Poughkeepsie and she, across the river, in Esopus. We are also both transplants to the area. We thought it would be interesting to begin a conversation about our sense of the river valley and see where it took us. We were curious to find out how or if it had influence in our current writings. You’ll find New York’s Hudson here, but our talk moves out to New Zealand, Northwest Arkansas, Minnesota, Chicago and Worcester, Massachusetts. We hope you’ll enjoy the ranging and exploratory nature of our talk as much as we did.
Claire Hero is the author of the chapbook, Dollyland (Tarpaulin Sky); Sing, Mongrel (Noemi Press) and two other chapbooks: afterpastures (Caketrain) and Cabinet (dancing girl press). Her poems have appeared in Black Warrior Review, Columbia Poetry Review, Denver Quarterly, Handsome and elsewhere.
LG: I have been thinking a lot about how much I love the Hudson—and the trains that come with it and how it ties me to my home geography on the Arkansas, but how so often I feel daunted by all that the Hudson River brings--the historical significance of it (the Half Moon, the Hudson River School of Painters, etc.) and the enormity of its geographical properties (the estuary itself and the canyons that exist within it). Sometimes the information bundles that come with the river and this valley sort of stun me in my writing.
Btw, I like the notion of the frozen river between us! We are neighbors, for sure, but the river as some kind of division or organizing line is interesting. I always love how people say to me: "Oh...you really need to move to this side of the river." What they mean is the political left-ness of the communities to the west of the river, but they use "this side of the river" as a metaphor to talk about it.
How does this particular geography affect you?
CH: Stuns, yes. The Hudson River Valley reminds me so much of New Zealand. In part this is due to the silencing factor of the landscape. What is there to say about the sublime?
But I also like the Hudson Valley, I think, because it has always been a shipping lane. A thoroughfare. The means of exploration. It's like a poetic line.
LG: Yes, the sublime.... I think in some ways for me, the Hudson River Valley reminds me of a grander version of the Arkansas River Valley, partly where I grew up and where my paternal side of the family is from (originally, store owners and cotton farmers in the bottoms). We just didn't have that sense of grandeur. I mean Arkansas is, after all, considered--or at least for me in my childhood—part of the raffish edges of America! So in so many ways, it is easier to see it without the grandeur of early U.S. history and the connection to the ocean (hence, Europe) getting in the way. One of the things that I learned years after I had left home which helped me to reverse this notion of my home place as "backwards" was to read that there were so many accessible rivers that crossed and connected in the state of Arkansas that there wasn't an immediate need for roads. You could get anywhere more or less in the state on the waterways. Roads have always been a sign of progress, a measure of how successful or progressive a community is and its desire to connect with the outside and exceed the parochial. It was a kind of relief and delight to read that the delay in road building was at least in part because of the river roadways that naturally existed.
CH: Rivers as roads. The Hudson River has frozen this year, two feet thick in some places, but the shipping lanes continue. Things - information - passes through the Hudson Valley. We are a thoroughfare. We are a destination and a means through. We can stand on the Walkway and watch the river move through and some of us cross over and some of us jump.
In New Zealand I was intimidated by the landscape. It was too sublime. Either you call out your name and hear only echoes of your own mutilated voice, or you pass through areas so empty, so unfinished, that you realize your car could tip over the edge and no one would find you. In New Zealand I had to focus on the animals, which were entirely prosaic: sheep, millions of them, bleating each spring into silence.
But in New York, everything is wild. It bears the oldest marks of white colonization of any place I have ever lived; stone walls, like rivers, like arteries, pass information through the broken forests. Yet it doesn't feel entirely settled yet. Coyotes howl through the nights. There are whispers of bears. New York doesn't have billboards, not really, no signs to clutter up the view. The landscape feels almost languageless, in a way, as though anything could be scrawled across it, yet it is so wild, so lush, that you know that any mark you made would be, within the month, eaten by weed or water.
LG: Languageless. I completely agree. But here's the dissonance for me: It looks wild, lush and all, but the knowledge of how long people have been here--and particularly, the Europeans--makes me feel like anything I think about this river, this valley has already been thought, already been written about, discovered, or rendered into art. I especially think about the painters—Thomas Cole and the other Hudson River School. Cole was thinking seriously about this place, its water and sky, or as he referred to it, “the soul of all scenery,” about 200 years ago. While his concerns were mostly different than mine, I still find it daunting to think about the length of time people have been here and thinking hard on this place.
CH: "Already been written about, discovered." - To say that is to say we live in a fixed place, but the thing about places is that they are never fixed. They bleed through boundaries. Seeds, animals, humans: everything moves through, leaves traces, makes changes. I'm thinking about the problem of this dissonance in two ways: palimpsest and translation.
Place names, stone walls, brass plaques: these are palimpsests. I can see traces of the world that was here before, but somehow, I can't really touch it. A mile and a half from my house is the church where Sojourner Truth's owners went each Sunday. It's a museum now. Inside, an older woman in a floral hooded sweatshirt will show you cases with wampum and bone fish hooks, moonshine bottles and an egg beater, the remnants of a sleigh factory destroyed in 1901. None of these things help me understand where I have landed, yet somehow they congregate into an image. A sentence. A vocabulary for Esopus. And there are other palimpsests: the bones of animals on the shoulders of the road, the wasp globes in the trees that winter reveals, the remains of someone's picnic washed up on the river bank. In a poem like "reviving Coyote" I was trying to address such palimpsests: the coyote roadkilled at the end of my street growing through elements taken from women's Indian Captivity narratives.
Coyote slinks out of the road & into my hands. Out of my hands & into my mouth. With my teeth she bites the bark in two that binds her. With my tongue she licks the placenta off the words. Coyote steals out of my mouth & into my hair. Out of my hair & into my skin. In my skin she drags the forest floor, looking for the bodies. In my skin she hacks back the dark. (& who are those masked that ring round the wood?—) Coyote sneaks out of my skin & into my lungs. Into my nose. With my nose the earth is clean as paper. Coyote scrawls herself across it, crawls into my hands. With my hands she rends the voles in two. With my hands she opens a door. Inside I am waiting. Inside I offer her a kind of apple, some Indian cake, a bed of hides, & didn't we bed down, Coyote & I, in this shabby cave while the hunters searched for us in the vast boscage of the body? Didn't we couple in our fear? Coyote runs over my snowy terrain, marking my skin with her claws. How do I tell you that my body is the road upon which Coyote dies? How do I rear what births from my mouth?
CH: Then there's translation. Recently I've been interested in bacteria, specifically in invasion and translation. Bacteria exchange DNA with members of their own and other species in three ways, but the most interesting to me is translation, whereby a bacteria cell can absorb naked DNA left by a dead cell and add it directly to its own. This leads to change, to adaptation. The “evolutionary butterfly effect,” as explained by the Italian biologist Telmo Pievani, is “the uncontrollable propagations of nonadaptive effects beginning from a functional modification.” Or, as Emily Dickinson would put it, “Infection in the sentence breeds.”
I am an invasive species. Anything I wish to say about the Hudson Valley has to pass through a mouth that has opened in many places. These places change my language, my hearing, my sense of how to name the world and what the world includes. I carry place in my accent, my mouth which refuses to give up the Minnesota O even after years away, and in my vocabulary, which swaps and absorbs new names for old things. To be transient is to be always translating, it seems, so there are gaps, but there is also that possibility of infection, of a new organ arising from a new combination. This is what I was getting at in a poem like “[Dredge up].”
onto your tongue –
& the slow
joint to joint
with various organs &.
LG: The palimpsest and translation, yes. As you talked about the church turned museum and all of the traces (moonshine bottles, egg beater, etc.) that are left from the turn of the century, I began to think of the various ways I’ve experienced that in all of the places I’ve lived. Growing up for a time with my maternal grandparents on a large and working farm outside of Fayetteville, Arkansas, there were all kinds of traces of what had been there before. One of the enduring images in my work is a toolbox stowed in the bathroom that was full of arrowheads, fishhooks, grinding stones, and Civil War cannon balls. Each morning I would go into the bathroom and consider the mystery of that box containing the objects discovered from plowing. These physical objects in this particular place connected with my learning Arkansas history: my grandparents’ farm wasn’t so far off The Trail of Tears. A few years ago, while visiting my father, who lives in the Arkansas River Valley area, I went to look at the gallows where Judge Parker, the “hanging judge,” presided. I discovered not only that the names of those killed at the gallows were largely indigenous names, but that nearby was a bend in the river where you could have seen the tribes floating by on their forced relocation to Oklahoma. The Trail of Tears happened in more ways than one.
When I moved to urban places, I found these remnants in different ways. In Chicago, there are the storefronts and cornices that are left over from businesses long gone that you notice for their elegance and/or out of place-ness within the surroundings. For about a year or so I worked at the Jane Addams Hull House Museum as a docent. The house is located on the University of Illinois-Chicago campus and was a pretty stark difference against the surrounding architecture. To be sitting in this house that helped birth the Settlement House movement and early social work, but that was adjacent to the 1970s architecture of the campus, felt like a secret, in some ways. I had a sense of that neighborhood before the university had arrived. There was a quiet and solemnity among the 19th century furniture and art that created an energy against Halsted’s traffic bustle, co-eds and Greektown up the street. Teaching at the university when I was a grad student was a similar experience (though different sense of time) since we were teaching in classrooms with bolted down desks and these long, thin bullet-proof windows. The university had been built around the time of the Chicago Riots and that history was built into its very rooms. One of my early teaching tactics around analysis was to ask students why they thought their seats were bolted to the floor.
When I moved to Worcester, Massachusetts, where I lived for eight years, I noticed the palimpsestic nature in the names of places. When you talked to a Worcester native about Rizutti’s Goodnight Café burning down, he or she might say, “Oh, you mean what used to be Old Billy’s Lounge.” There was even a certain pride among people who could name what the place had been called several businesses earlier. And as you said, I wasn’t quite sure that it helped me understand where I was, but it did accumulate as image and tone of the place.
I think you’re exactly right about translating. The mouth that has opened in other places. While the Mid-Hudson River Valley may seem overwhelming at times, I, too, think that I translate the place out of my various accumulations and sensibilities that come from elsewhere. You with your Minnesota O, me with my love of double modals and slower, circuitous talking and walking.
CH: I envy you your toolbox of mystery! My grandmother’s house was similar. She was a hoarder, part of the generation that went through the Depression. Everything, from button to jar, had value and a multiplicity of possibilities. Like words, they accrued and offered. They were for picking over and dreaming through.
You know, Lea, it’s funny that we’re both from river towns. I grew up in a river town in southern Minnesota, and I have been wondering lately if living beside the river made me restless. Is this why we are both so transient? Oceans are grand but annihilating, and lakes are stable but stagnant, but a river is somehow always new. It is passage and possibility. It endures and erases and alters. Often as a prelude to writing I go for a walk, and here in Esopus it means down the hill, past the overgrown orchard where the deer linger, to watch the Hudson. And even better, the Hudson is tidal! It moves both ways. Like a poem,
I first met John Glenday in person while walking a portion of the Great Glen Way from Invermoriston to Drumnadrochit, Scotland in 2012. We had only a single mutual friend and poetry in common as way of introduction. After walking the fourteen miles along the gorse-studded trail, above the Loch Ness, I arrived to the Glenday household where John and his wife, Erika, had already prepared a sign that captured their lovely and playful hospitality: Quiet--American Poet Sleeping. What followed were several days of lively and thoughtful conversation about poetry, place and our political landscapes. One of the many things that intrigued me in our conversation was the different sense of inhabiting land. I have long thought about the way in which particular geography and language intersect. John Glenday, as you will see, thinks seriously about this intersection without allowing it to limit his poetic range.
John Glenday was born in Dundee, Scotland in 1952. He is the author of three books of poems, the most recent, Grain (Picador, 2009) which was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation and shortlisted for both the Ted Hughes Award and Griffin International Poetry Prize. His second collection, Undark, was also a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. His first book, The Apple Ghost, won a Scottish Arts Council Book Award in 1989. He was appointed Scottish/Canadian Exchange Fellow for 1990-91, based at the University of Alberta, Edmonton. He lives with his lovely wife, Erika, and their children in Drumnadrochit in the Scottish Highlands.
LG: To begin with a rather wide-ranging question: What kind of connection do you see between place and poetry? Could you talk a bit about the link between your home geography and language? Has the knowledge of your family residing in the same area for over 800 years had any impact on your writing?
JG: Poetry holds on to a place in the same way a plant does – it takes nourishment from the land it was rooted in – what else can keep a poem alive? But when I talk about place, it is irrespective of time. So for me the poem is also an archaeological examination – it digs down among the post-holes and potsherds and grave goods for evidence of how life was once lived. What else is poetry about? The fact that my name has been associated with the Scottish county of Angus for generations and generations accentuates this for me. It tells me that whatever I write casts a long shadow. But I am not territorial in my writing, so I’ve happily adopted Scottish Islands, mythology, non-existent places. They’re all grist to the mill. One of my earliest poems ‘The Apple Ghost’ is a simple description of a house in Nairn, Scotland, as I saw it at the time. The narrative of the poem was inherent in that house. All I needed to do was write it down.
The Apple Ghost
A musty smell of dampness filled the room
Where wrinkled green and yellow apples lay
On folded pages from an August newspaper.
‘My husband brought them in, you understand,
Only a week or two before he died.
He never had much truck with waste, and
I can’t bring myself to throw them out.
He passed away so soon…’
I understood then how the wonky kitchen door,
And the old Austin, settling upon its
Softened tyres in the wooden shed,
Were paying homage to the absence of his quiet hands.
In the late afternoon, I opened
Shallow cupboards where the sunlight leaned on
Shelf over shelf of apples, weightless with decay.
Beneath them, sheets of faded wallpaper
Showed ponies, prancing through a summer field.
This must have been the only daughter’s room
Before she left for good.
I did not sleep well.
The old woman told me over breakfast
How the boards were sprung in that upper hall;
But I knew I had heard his footsteps in the night,
As he dragged his wasted body to the attic room
Where the angles of the roof slide through the walls,
And the fruit lay blighted by his helpless gaze.
I knew besides, that, had I crossed to the window
On the rug of moonlight,
I would have seen him down in the frosted garden,
Trying to hang the fruit back on the tree.
From The Apple Ghost (Peterloo Poets, 1989)
LG: You’ve talked to me about place as being connected to person and certainly, many of your poems seem to address a person or sentient being even as the poems are rooted largely in some kind of place. Give us a sense of your own—and maybe the European—nexus of place and person. Perhaps, you could also talk about names? Given that Scotland is a country associated with clan names and places like Loch Ness (which you live near), do you think there is a special sheen in names and naming in your own work or that of other Scottish poets?
JG: I’m not sure, Lea. Names are such slippery things – remember what Paul Valery said: ‘to see is to forget the name of the thing one sees.’ Names can come between us and the world, they can delude us into categorizing instead of appreciating. But they also change me, I believe, from an innocent bystander into a material witness. They do this by forcing me to look in an analytical way rather than simply to see. It is essential, as an artist of any kind, to look in a penetrating manner at the world; to question it by observing it. Most names cast long shadows too – Mine comes from a small glen in Angus which in Gaelic means ‘the Glen of the fast flowing water’. So I can trek up into the hills and look down on my surname. I do this in the poem ‘Glendye’ of course. There’s not much there now – sheep fanks, heather and gorse, a thread of water. I like to imagine they are in me too. I also have the same name as my father, which I viewed as a blessing, and then a curse, and then a blessing.
by that flinch in the Water of Dye
where its wersh soul swithers
through the Bog of Luchray
and on towards the Dee,
there runs a certain gentleness
of ragged stonework in an old sheep fank,
where a flush of broom pushes out;
and if you happened to lie in its doubtful lee,
come early spring, you might just hear
the wind clambering through, fluting
a note or two from a threadbare melody,
for nothing but its own sake.
--From Grain (Picador, 2009)
LG: In your book, Undark, you have a series of poems about the U.S. Civil War. Could you talk about the genesis of these poems. I believe they come out of photographs? Talk about the process of writing about place and subjects that aren’t “your own” and yet, are so much your own. “Artillery Horses Under Fire” seems a poem that you are intimately connected with or at least, you’ve rendered it as such.
JG: All the Civil War poems are shamelessly appropriated from Shelby Foote’s brilliant book, or form Whitman’s ‘Specimen Days’. I’m not worried by this. After all, you can usually tell from the title what a poem is not about. All the detail of the world – the terrible events, the pointless waste of lives, the bravery and self-sacrifice are all just ways in which the world is telling us how we work. The world is always doing that. The poet’s duty is to appropriate fact and fiction for the benefit of poetry. So in the poem you mention, it was the way the artillery horses would stand firm in harness while they were being shot that troubled me; and then I remembered how Union soldiers, advancing into gunfire over open ground, would turn up their collars and hunch their shoulders, as if they were advancing through rain, rather than lead. It is this tiny detail of the world that tells us a little of the big workings of things. If we can focus on detail and describe that, we can say more about the horror than any mere accumulation of statistics can do. So, in summary, these are not poems that try to be ‘American’, they are poems trying to talk about people, and how they live. The world will carry on giving us the clues – remember what happened to the glass negatives taken by Brady and others during the Civil War? Remember this, along with the Crimea, was the first war documented in photography. Those glass plates were sold to nurserymen after the war – the people were sick of images of the killing, they had no stomach for them. Can you imagine greenhouses glazed with the inverted images of the dead? What is that saying to us about us?
4. Artillery Horses Under Fire
That slap the minie balls make when they strike
sickens the heart. Sounds just like pebbles
smacking into mud.
Mostly they fall straight off, then struggle
up again, shivering and stiff, but strangely
quiet till the next round comes.
Some simply twitch their flanks or slash
their tails across the wound , staring ahead.
You’d think it was a blowfly at them,
nothing more. I remember at Cold Harbor we watched
as the last from a team of six stood firm
in harness with five bullets in her side.
She toppled only when the sixth ball sheared
through bone. Not one was spooked, nor ran;
but then, the living were left limbered
to the dead. We could hear the rebels cheer
as horse after horse dropped through its traces,
kicking the caisson sides.
They hardly make no sound—that’s what I hate.
Die as they must, God damn them.
I don’t know. Some beasts act more like men.
--From “Whitman's War" in Undark (Peterloo Poets, 1995)
The frog at the edge
of the pond sits poised to leap.
All's quiet. Then: splash!
The butterfly dips
its wings in aroma of
gorgeous wild orchid.
First you see the pond.
Then you hear the belching frog.
And then comes the splash.
No one on this road
but me: it must be autumn
in the dark country.
Frog at pond's edge sits,
waits, ready to make its leap.
Not a sound. Then: splash!
The spring night vanished
while we talked among cherry
blossoms and petals.
The pond is tranquil
but for the frond where the frog
leaps into its splash.
Winter blows its white
storms across the hills: even
monkeys need raincoats.
Even in Kyoto
How I long for Kyoto
When I hear that bird.
[versions by David Lehman]
Sam Taylor is the author of two books of poems, Body of the World (Ausable/Copper Canyon Press) and Nude Descending an Empire (Pitt Poetry Series, forthcoming), and the recipient of the 2014-2015 Amy Lowell Poetry Travelling Scholarship. He is an Assistant Professor in the MFA program at Wichita State University.
Q: Tell me about your forthcoming book, Nude Descending an Empire.
A: It develops the lyrical voice of a citizen-poet engaged with politics, history, and the urgency of our contemporary moment, especially its ecological urgency.
I wanted to find a poetic voice that could speak into history, speak publically, imaginatively, and nakedly into being alive right now. Living amid global information—and interconnection, and perpetual crisis—I felt it was important to allow “political” concerns into the work in a way that reflected the extent to which they seemed an integral, even an existential, part of one’s consciousness in being alive now.
Q: The title is fascinating, especially because it situates the poems in relation to the artistic revolutions associated with cubism and literary modernism. Do you see the book as an extension (or revision) of the work of modernist poets like Pound, Eliot, etc.?
A: No, that’s not really what the title is about for me, although I do love the modernists (and cubism, and surrealism). In some way, in fact, I find contemporary poetry deluded when it considers itself beyond the modernist age. Compared to the monumental originality of Eliot, Apollinaire, W.C. Williams, and Gertrude Stein, the inventions that have happened since seem paltry. The Apollinaire of Calligrammes or the Williams of Spring and All still read as more innovative and fresh today than most contemporary avant-garde work, and so much work seems to recycle what these and other modernists already did a hundred years ago.
But, the book is titled Nude Descending an Empire for other reasons, at least as much as “reasons” are what determine any title. Titles usually come to me out of the collective ether, and I say yay or nay, or maybe. My first book had no good title until I did a five-day hermitage in the mountains with that as the express purpose, and on the third day the title came to me (yes, on stone tablets), and I knew it was right—and then for the last two days I just ate almond butter and walked among the elk. Nude Descending an Empire came to me much the same way, although while shuffling through the rooms of my house in Wichita, and it felt right because it seemed to connect all the aspects of the book: the poems of political engagement and empire; the poems of hyper-modernity; the poems of wilderness and ecological crisis; the poems of sexuality and naked intimacy of self.
What the allusion does invoke for me, however, is the international character of the book’s sensibility. I have probably been influenced by international poetry as much as by U.S. poetry. Poets like Yehuda Amichai, Garcia Lorca, Yannis Ritsos, and Paul Celan have been quite important to me—or the Milosz of “Dedication”—but beyond the influence of individual poets, the character of international poetry—its more bodily-voiced, emotional temperament and its faith in the possibilities of the citizen-poet—were collectively inspiring to me. As you know, poetry is seen as having a greater relevance in many other societies. The poets of Mexico are respected figures whose opinions are consulted about public issues; the USSR viewed its poets as so dangerous that it killed or oppressed many of them; and, many countries have appointed poets to diplomatic posts. I like the idea of a poet as someone who might get up in the middle of a parliamentary meeting and talk about how sad his chair is. I like the idea of poetic discourse having a place in national, political discourse. Of course, perhaps that’s just an idea.
You probably didn’t think I could say so much about the title, but the title is also rather brash, which fits many of the poems. The book is dominated by a bold, direct, public voice speaking into history, speaking into a crowd. But, beneath that, there’s also a real diversity of style within the collection—perhaps seven or eight different kinds of poems—and, for me, the cubism of the title ultimately comes into play as a metaphorical figure for this diversity, for all the different angles of stylistic approach.
Lastly, the title takes a classic aesthetic artwork title and fucks with it in order to remind us that empire is the basic condition in which most art that we know (including ours) is produced. Some might see a critique of modernism and its apolitical temperament in that, but that would be simplistic to me, especially because the dadaists and surrealists, with whom Duchamp is most closely associated, were themselves committed to politically engaged art. But, regardless, I can sympathize with both the desire for artistic political engagement and the desire for pure aesthetics.
When I started the book, around 2005, I was very much reacting against the aesthetic isolationism that had reigned in U.S. poetry in the eighties and nineties. Of course, so were many other poets at the same time, though I would not see their work until much later. The character of U.S. poetry has swung back to political engagement, but at the time I thought I was going it alone. I’m not sure that I can imagine ever not writing in both modes at different times—the engaged and the purely aesthetic. I guess I have a problem with only practicing aesthetic isolationism, with not engaging at all with the real conditions in which one lives.
Q: As you mention, your book engages many pressing social issues, which range from the current environmental crisis to the global economy to the rise of social media and technology. To what extent does poetry constitute a form of activism, a resistance to mainstream culture?
A: This is a huge question, and one that I’ve thought about a lot, so I have a lot of thoughts but no simple answer. Poetry is poetry, and activism is activism would be one answer, and to continue with such half-syllogisms: Poets can be activists, and activists can be poets; perhaps, activists need poetry, and poetry can inspire activism. But, I am wary of looking to poetry to directly do the work of activism, and even more wary of it intending to do such work.
No doubt, a poem’s presence in the world can have effects that cannot be anticipated. Everything that is part of the world influences the world somewhat, and in this sense everything is “active”—a tree or a book or a song—one never knows who it will affect or how. A powerful poem will likely affect people, and people in turn will do what they do, participating in, or “changing” the world. If we consider everything—any created object or piece of language of any kind—as an active force creating the world (and perhaps we should), then perhaps poetry is directly a form of activism.
But, a poem cannot, in my opinion, set out to achieve a particular purpose and still be a poem. That’s part of what makes something a poem: Unlike everything else in the world, it is not trying to achieve any particular outcome—no outcome other than that mysterious outcome that is a poem. If it is trying to make something happen, then a poem will not happen. And, this is what is responsible for so much “bad” political poetry in the world, which usually is not poetry at all, but propaganda.
Yeats said we make rhetoric out of the quarrel with others, and poetry out of the quarrel with ourselves. I don’t entirely agree with that. One can easily make poetry out of an argument with the world, but one cannot make poetry at all if one believes one has the answer before one sets out into the poem. The difference between propaganda and poetry, as I see it, is that propaganda knows what it wants to say from the beginning and poetry does not. Poetry discovers it along the way and is surprised by it. It requires Keats’ negative capability. I also think Frost’s “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader” is an impeccable touchstone for political poetry.
Auden’s statement too that “poetry makes nothing happen” is hard to improve upon. This is what makes poetry different from almost every other activity in the world, which is trying to make something happen. But, poetry isn’t an absence of happening; it is a magnificent happening that is apart from all practical, utilitarian goals. The “nothing” poetry makes happen is not an absence, but the wonderment that brings the world into being, that makes everything happen. I think Lao Tzu says something about the center of a wheel being “useless” and yet being absolutely essential for the wheel. I’d say that’s analogous to the relationship between poetry and activism, between poetry and active efforts to preserve and foster the flowering and freedom and justice of life.
As for the question of whether poetry is “a resistance to mainstream culture,” I think it is part of the culture; and, while it’s often a fringe minority part, poetry is also often the vanguard of the culture (though it can also, ironically, be the rear guard). The age of the poetic image heralded the 20th century. Confessionalism in the sixties, seventies, and eighties was presciently ahead of the curve of reality TV and the memoir-craze of contemporary literature. Allen Ginsberg, whom I quote in the epigraph of this book, has amazingly become part of mainstream culture; he’s featured in Apple ads for god’s sake. He was a radical communist, investigated by the FBI, who wrote absolutely in resistance to mainstream culture, and yet amazingly he is now mainstream culture. Gay marriage is legal in many states, and marijuana isn’t far behind. We will see the ultimate triumph of his “pubic beards returning through Laredo with a belt of marijuana for New York.” And, Walt Whitman’s radical philosophy that was shocking even for Thoreau and Emerson, the most enlightened men of his day, is now a commonplace of new age spirituality. Great poetry is a vanguard of the culture.
Q: You spent some time as a caretaker at a wilderness refuge without phone, electricity, or internet. How does this inform the book?
Well, there are certain poems directly about it, but I think it’s everywhere in the book. I lived there the better part of three years, and during much of the winter, the refuge was snowed-in and deserted. It was not unusual to go a week or two or three without seeing or talking to another person. It was a profound experience of the world as it exists before the introduction of human meaning. Between having this direct experience and reading a lot of history at the same time, I came to feel that the basic assumptions of our civilization are basically insane. I came to see our ecological crisis as the fulfillment of a long history of violence, domination, lies, alienation, and insanity—in one word, empire—and I think the book suggests that a livable future requires that we wholly inhabit our body-heart-mind and charter a new paradigm. When I left the mountains, I was extraordinarily sensitive to all the noise and creations of the 21st century, so the experience was central to that aspect of the book as well. In other words, from this experience of transcending meaning and being immersed in the natural world, the collection looks out on the hyper-modernity of our age and engages with urgent social and ecological contexts.
Q: I've already seen an early draft of your third book, which is stylistically innovative in its use of erasure and footnotes. I know that you're also experimenting with other kinds of word art. What are the advantages of working across mediums?
Well, to some extent, I think all these projects use the same medium: words. But, I like different styles and approaches because that’s just what art is to me. I don’t relate to doing the same thing again and again, writing the same kind of poem for fifty years. I understand writing the same kind of poem three or four times, or maybe even twenty times, but once I have really got it, then I want to do something else. Different kinds of poems are like different kinds of creatures, or different kinds of experiences, and I like a world with a great diversity of creatures. Eliot says:
“Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
for the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate . . .”
(“East Coker,” V)
I want to find the words for the thing I don’t yet have the words for. I started writing this experimental third book because I was pursuing some truth, and that was the only way to pursue it. It began with a very simple lyric poem that seemed perfectly successful, but I was dissatisfied with its easy emotional statement and closure. I didn’t feel that it had reached the truth. So, it gave way to a sequence that kept getting more complicated because that was the creature I was pursuing.
As far as working with different materials, there are a few reasons for that. One is that—in the context of a visual culture in which language is mass-produced, commercially sponsored, and driven toward emptiness—I want to find new ways to resurrect the power of words, to confront viewers with text in new ways. I also simply identify as an artist first, an artist who happens to primarily use words. Another reason is that I am horrified by the overproduction of “poetry,” and the more people who do it, the less I want to do it, or to do it in that way. And, yet another reason is that I think we are moving beyond being a book-centered culture into a post-literate, or image-literate age. That’s not to say that I think books are going to die out or something. I think there will always be books, and I think I will always write books, but I am interested in using words in public, spatial, and visual ways as well. Really, I guess it all just comes down to seeking forms to express what you have to express, or to add to the world what you are hungry to read or see.
Q: What else should readers know about your forthcoming collection?
It was co-written with Bob Dylan. Also, it gives great foot massages, and it will keep all of your secrets to itself.
Either that, or, as Ben Lerner said, that: “The relation between the lyric I and the lyric poem / is like the relation between a star and starlight. . . Some lyric poems become visible long after their origins have ceased to exist.”
Read a poem from Nude Descending an Empire here.
Emma Bolden is the author of Maleficae, a book-length series of poems about the witch trials in early modern Europe (GenPop Books, 2013), and medi(t)ations, forthcoming from Noctuary Press. She’s also the author of four chapbooks of poetry -- How to Recognize a Lady (part of Edge by Edge, Toadlily Press); The Mariner’s Wife, (Finishing Line Press);The Sad Epistles (Dancing Girl Press);This Is Our Hollywood (in The Chapbook) – and one nonfiction chapbook – Georgraphy V, forthcoming from Winged City Press. Her poetry has appeared in such journals as The Rumpus, Prairie Schooner, Conduit, the Indiana Review, the Greensboro Review, Redivider, Verse, Feminist Studies, The Journal, Guernica, and Copper Nickel. Her work has been featured on Poetry Daily and Verse Daily’s Web Weekly feature. She is an assistant professor of creative writing at Georgia Southern University. You can find her online at A Century of Nerve. Earlier this week, I had a chance to ask Emma a few questions about her forthcoming book.
Q: Tell me about your new book, medi(t)ations, which is forthcoming from Noctuary Press. How is it different from your first book, Maleficae? How is it similar?
Formally, there are a lot of similarities between medi(t)ations and Maleficae. Both are book-length projects: in Maleficae, the poems link together to form a narrative about a woman was both worshipped and persecuted for being a witch; though not exactly narrative, the poems in medi(t)ations also build an arc that follows the out-of-body-like experience of severe illness. I see Maleficae more as a poetic sequence, while I see medi(t)ations more as a book-length poem composed of fragments that can also be read individually. The experience of writing both books felt very similar as well – in both cases, the process of writing felt, for lack of a better word, oracular. It felt as though the language just arrived, in these small little fragmented gifts, which was, I suppose, because the material had been living inside of me for so long. I crafted both books in pieces, allowing the fragments to live in draft formation until other fragments accreted around them. In both cases, it took me a long time to figure out how the poems should inhabit the printed page. I’ve always been a very couplets-and-structured-stanzas-with-no-funny-business-please kind of writer, so I felt very surprised when I found that in order for the poems to work, I had to allow more white space into the poems. I had to allow the white space around and inside the poem, as well as the non-couplets-and-structured-stanzas-funny-business-all-the-way placement of the words, to speak as loudly as the words themselves. At the center of both books lies the idea of silence: the silence of fear and the silencing of women in Maleficae, and the silence of illness, of an inability to articulate the ultimately inarticulable relationship between the bodies we inhabit and the selves that inhabit our bodies, in medi(t)ations.
Q: I find it fascinating that the title of the collection, medi(t)ations, lends itself to many possible readings. From the very beginning, the reader is asked to participate actively in the process of creating meaning from the text. Do you see the title as guiding the reader, establishing how he or she should engage with the collection? How do you envision a reader inhabiting medi(t)ations?
Though I’m not tech-savvy enough to create computer code myself, I’m absolutely and possibly obsessively fascinated by electronic literature. I first started reading Stephanie Strickland as a freshman at Sarah Lawrence College, and I’ve been awed by the stunning shifts in her work, both in terms of language and the use of technology to create multivalent, amorphous texts that themselves shift with each readings. In her essay “Born Digital,” Strickland states that “[t]oread e-works is to operate or play them (more like an instrument than a game, though some e-works have gamelike elements).” The reader’s active involvement in reading is necessary to the piece, and each encounter with the text yields a new text. When I read this article, I was excited but at the same time terribly disappointed because, I’ll be honest, sometimes Gmail is too complicated for me. I definitely can’t write code, so I began thinking of ways that I could replicate the effects of e-literature on the page.
Technology did give me a helping hand when I started the project. I often used my Kindle, and the predictive text feature soon moved from an annoyance to an inspiration. The suggestions would spark new connections and images in the text, and they helped me to make leaps from idea to idea, word to word, stanza to stanza. As I started assembling the fragments into a manuscript, I started to realize that if I arranged things on the page in a certain way, if I used punctuation and spacing and white space in a certain way, I could allow for multiplicities of meaning within and between each fragment. The title is definitely meant to serve as a hint about the formal structure of the poems, which contain multiple meanings in terms of the fragments themselves and the ways in which the fragments relate to each other. The fragments are both independent meditations and pieces that act out the process of mediation, of working together to develop a thematic resolution. The title also indicates the layers of thematic meaning I build through the poem: they are both meditations on what it means to live inside of a human body and a series of mediations between the self and the body itself.
Q: Your book resists genre in ways that are altogether new and exciting. The collection reads at times as lyric essay, poetry, and flash fiction. Along these lines, the work is at turns narrative and formally adventurous, using the page as a visual field. What are the advantages of moving through genres, rather than committing to only one of them?
Thank you for this very kind comment about my work! I think that it’s essential for a writer to practice their craft in multiple genres – and, perhaps even more essentially, to explore the spaces between genres. While studying for my comps in graduate school, I read Alicia Ostriker’s Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women’s Poetry in America. It is no exaggeration to say that Ostriker’s book changed my life. Every sentence felt miraculous, as if someone had finally articulated something I thought no one could articulate, especially myself, though I’d been trying all of my life as a writer to do just that. Early on, Ostriker writes that “women writers have been imprisoned in an ‘oppressor’s language’ which denies them access to authoritative expression.” I was particularly struck by Ostriker’s assertion that women writers are imprisoned not only by expectations of content but also of form – and, by extension, of genre. At the time, I admit that I felt too afraid to write creative nonfiction, so I practiced Ostriker’s theories in my poetry. As I grew less afraid as a writer, I found myself moving to other genres and, ultimately, into the liminal space between genres – and in that space, I found myself freed. There, I could create my own language, my own form, my own genre; by taking command of genre, I was able to take command of my words and come closer to the kind of authoritative expression Ostriker describes.
Q: When reading your collection, I was impressed by the way you so gracefully meld personal experience with literary theory. I was reminded of Freud's writings on the relationship between the mind and the body, as well as Kristeva's feminist epistemologies. I'm very interested in the way that medi(t)ations addresses these ambitious philosophical questions while remaining carefully grounded in the tangible details of lived experience. Would you describe medi(t)ations as an application of theory and philosophy to everyday life? Along these lines, what is possible for you in poetry that isn't possible in the realm of academic writing?
I was pleasantly surprised to hear this because this is very much what was happening in my head, but it’s often impossible to tell if one has transferred what happens in one’s head to one’s page. I spent much of my undergraduate career studying Freud and the relationship between the mind and the body. I first became fascinated with the idea of hysteria when I took a class on Ibsen at the University of East Anglia. I’d read The Doll’s House and Hedda Gabler time and time again, so much so that I’d memorized most of both plays, but once I’d heard my professor lecture on hysteria, the plays became completely new. It was a concept that fascinated me: the idea that social and psychological factors could manifest themselves in physical illness through a series of symptoms that expressed in a non-verbal way what women were unable to express verbally. I was also fascinated by what seemed to me a cruel corollary to this idea and a devastating counter-effect of Freud’s work as a whole: women were – and are -- so often maligned by the medical community, so often told that their physical symptoms were the manifestations of psychological or emotional issues, that physical illnesses were – and are – often untreated. I remember being especially struck by Elaine Showalter’s exploration of these parallel ideas in Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Media. While I understood and agreed, to some degree, with her analysis of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome as a nexus of physical symptoms with psychological and emotional roots, I couldn’t help but feel uneasy with this idea and with the fact that physical symptoms were denigrated as emotional issues. This perhaps came from personal experience: at the age of 12, I was diagnosed with a form of dysautonomia, a malfunction of the central nervous system that led to symptoms such as dizziness and fainting – symptoms also associated, in Freud’s time, with hysteria. It took over a year to receive this diagnosis, as doctors assumed these symptoms were psychological and not physical in cause. After I received this diagnosis, I learned very quickly to not tell doctors that I had dysautonomia, as they often waved it away as a psychological or emotional problem, much like Showalter described the symptoms of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Seven years later, my father was diagnosed with the same condition (though it took only a few days for doctors to diagnose him). Then, everything changed: I was finally able to tell doctors that I had dysautonomia – as long as I mentioned that my father had the condition, too. I never experienced the same kind of doubt from my doctors again. Since I had several female relatives with the condition, it was clear that this changed because I now could say that my father – a male relative – had dysautonomia.
I think that this propelled my interest in studying hysteria and Freud’s theories from a feminist lens: I saw that the ideas had very real and very long-range consequences. As a senior at Sarah Lawrence, I focused on these ideas in all of my classes: I took a class on talking cures, developed a visual arts project based on Muybridge’s photographs and Charcot’s often-exploitative work at the Salpêtrière, and explored these ideas in a chapbook of poems. Through these projects, I studied verbal and visual representations of the female body, tracing the history of the seemingly ubiquitous idea that illness in the female body is a symptom of weakness or psychological trauma. I noticed one pervasive theme: the idea of impersonalization. It felt very often as though these theories about women were about their bodies, and not their selves. I found that in case studies and in the theories they supported, women’s personal lives, experiences, thoughts, and physical symptoms were summarily ignored in privilege to the theory; the theory was primary, the person secondary at best. The poems in medi(t)ation are an extension of this study and an exploration of how those ideas have manifested themselves in my life. I chose to explore these ideas in creative writing as a way to resist the impersonalization of theory in academic writing. It felt vital to explore theory in this very intimate way, to see how theory plays out in real human experience, and poetry/hybridity gave me a way to replicate the experience, a structure that individualizes the experience.
Q: What else should readers know about your forthcoming book?
I’d like readers to know that their presence, their practice in reading and thinking and feeling, is, in a lot of ways, the most important component of this book. Their involvement – in terms of assembling and re-assembling stanzas, sections, and sequences -- is necessary to the work, so I thank them in advance for that.
An Excerpt from medi(t)ations:
the purpose of pain is
good record keeping
then pain is given
purpose a pulse
into mean -ing (&
when she is I
am lying I am my
own line & my
spine makes a
center of it
divides &) divides
a skyline stark & bloom
-ing & all
(through the summer I
felt her a buzz the blur of our voices winging through wires the blur of power skating/escaping (our language) (our lines) suffering
is pain inflicted until meaning for this body there is no give & receive there is no actor & action is a pulse translated to meaning a pulse is a wound transmogrified (see: we
are always defining) (see: away & / or decay)
there is no love in re- mains
pain isn't what's haloed
or hailed pain is an in-
stead a white locus of
light &/or of focus
she said that she was
resolute she took e-
very morning a blue
pill of sky & what was (it
was then that
the darkness re-
vealed itself as
sparkle a remark
-able pattern we
were both look
-ing &) longing
the key in my palm (I
was driving) this
all (& when I was an
other) who could
have another this (when
my eyes worked
because) pain is its own
wordless language there
are no words & pain
being its own vocabulary
she (lost her faith
in speech & tongue) to
she lacked was
a word for symptom so she
used symphony she lacked
a word for symphony so
she used certainly
here is a lacuna of light a stellar set-
up for a self- portrait here
is the spot of light I sit to paint myself
&/into portrait & pain is
the picture in which I am not I
(there is here) (light but no
light that is) I (there is
no eye &) there is no I there (is
no use nor) you see (here her
free- dom ringed
round with posies
see teeth & squirrel
as song) (see
the lacuna of lac-
king) the mathematics
of being tattooed to
each cell as/if proof
of her bones
the eye without seeing has its own me-
aning the eye without seeing trans-
formed to un-
meaning (I lacked the
bitter & -ness
so I used mean
) (she had a
arbitrary as any
number /or face
/or) in fact
did she give our truth to
that car & what did
its windows say un-
derwater what green
threaded hairs were hers
(/or mind /or
mine /or) dreamed
(subliminal as in behind the lid as if
any question isn’t its own asking
the spine is a straight line of forgiving
which is implied even in forget (usage:
here in the halo we breathe water here in this
halo we breathe water) as
belief is the work
the mind begins
because the body
began its workings
In Leah Umansky's beautifully written and poignant first book, Domestic Uncertainties, readers will find failed courtships, nineteenth century novels left in ruins, and the "nomenclature for what is left." Presented as an extended sequence of hybrid genre vignettes, which use elements of poetry, flash fiction, and lyric essay, Umansky's finely crafted collection presents a provocative matching of form and content. Frequently invoking Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and other nineteenth century fictions by women, Umansky gracefully situates these female writers within the context of twenty-first century post-genre writing, a thought-provoking gesture that proves at turns reverent and destructive.
I find it fascinating that these hybrid genre pieces simultaneously inhabit and revise literary tradition. The work of nineteenth century women writers is no longer forced into male forms of discourse, but rather, Umanksy forges new possibilities for representing and depicting women's lived experience. For instance, Emily Bronte's famed characters, Catherine and Heathcliff, appear in fragmented, elliptical, and thoroughly postmodern prose. These stylistic choices suggest that as Adrienne Rich once argued, women should not write in literary forms that are hostile to them, but rather, should seek out new possibilities for representing their experiences. Consider "What Literature Teaches Us About Love,"
And after death there is no heart. And after death there is no unknowing for what could've been there is only what is. And there is only what has. And Love. Always Love.
I'm intrigued by Umansky's treatment of the poem as a space in which intervention into literary tradition becomes possible. Just as she re-imagines Wuthering Heights from a fragmented, postmodern stylistic standpoint, Umansky presents each poem as a theoretical act, an active engagement with the work that came before her own. Domestic Uncertainties is filled with poems like this one, which read as both conversation with and revision of received wisdom.
Along these lines, Umansky's appropriation of received forms of discourse for novel purposes proves to be innovative and engaging as the book unfolds. By presenting the reader with mislaid dictionary definitions, multiple choice questions, and fill in the blanks, Umansky calls upon the reader to assume a more active role, allowing them to participate in the process of creating meaning alongside the poet. In many ways, this also constitutes a radical and thought-provoking revision of the nineteenth century tradition that she has inherited. Umansky writes,
Larger than life; epically grand. Just give me the extra mile! If you call it a _________________, it's a __________________. You define what is familiar. Don't the homophones all sound like "you?" Make me: everything.
Here Umansky's innovative use of form leaves space for the reader's imagination, allowing them to situate their own experience within the narrative that's being presented. I find it fascinating that Umansky has revised not only the nineteenth century novels she references, but the relationship between artist and audience that these texts embodied. Here the reader appears as collaborator, an idea that not only destabilizes meaning within the text, but affords a wide range of possible interpretations, each one as rich as the last.
Purchase Leah Umansky's Domestic Uncertainties here.
Richard Siken’s poetry collection Crush won the 2004 Yale Series of Younger Poets prize, a Lambda Literary Award, the Thom Gunn Award, and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. His poems have appeared in The Iowa Review, Conjunctions, Indiana Review and Forklift, Ohio, as well as in the anthologies The Best American Poetry 2000 and Legitimate Dangers. He is a recipient of a Pushcart Prize, two Arizona Commission on the Arts grants, a Lannan Foundation residency, and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. His second book, War of the Foxes, is forthcoming from Copper Canyon Press in 2015.
Q: Tell me about your forthcoming book, War of the Foxes.
RS: The poems in War of the Foxes address the problems of representation in three arenas: painting, fable, and math. All three attempt to make languages out of symbols, representations used to describe the world. And all three succeed and fail in different ways. I wanted to explore the Socratic Method of question and answer, the Scientific Method of hypothesis and measurement, and the Poetic Method of association and analogy.
Q: Your first book, Crush, was published in 2005, and readers have been eagerly awaiting your second collection. Why was it important to take a long breath between the two books? What does time make possible for the artistic process?
RS: For months after I finished Crush, I felt like I had nothing left to say. Or even a way of saying it. I had talked myself out completely. I began painting again, not vey well, but since my paintings were never very good, and there was no hope of making them good, I was liberated from the pressure of an audience. I became silent. I squeezed the tubes and pushed the colors around. I did have more to say, I just couldn’t -- at the time -- say it with words. This was a crystallizing moment, and led to the lines:
Blackbird, he says. So be it, indexed and normative. But it isn’t a bird, it’s a man in a bird suit, blue shoulders instead of feathers, because he isn’t looking at a bird, real bird, as he paints, he is looking at his heart, which is impossible.
Unless his heart is a metaphor for his heart, as everything is a metaphor for itself, so that looking at the paint is like looking at a bird that isn’t there, with a song in its throat that you don’t want to hear but you paint anyway.
The hand is a voice that can sing what the voice will not, and the hand wants to do something useful.
As for time making things possible, and the long breath between books, I can’t say anything useful. Writing and publishing are different. I write when I want to, I share when I want to. They rarely match up and they have -- for me -- very little relationship to calendar time. I wish I had a better answer. I thought these poems were worth reading and I was ready to share them.
Q: What drew you to the prose poem as a literary form when writing this collection? What’s possible for you in prose that’s not possible in lineated verse?
RS: In Crush, I used the second person extensively, in an attempt to make the reader complicit in the situations of the poems. I didn’t want to repeat that strategy, so I was left with first- and third-person: I and He. The fables are in the third-person. They have characters doing actions. They have multiple speakers. It was too confusing to break the lines as well.
There are many reasons to break a line. For me, a line break makes a friction between the unit of a line and the unit of the sentence. The fables had enough friction and complexity. When the earlier drafts were lineated, is was an layer of distraction that added nothing interesting. I think -- I hope -- that the fables use enough of the other strategies of poetry to satisfy.
There are lineated poems in the book as well. Since they move forward with a single lyric “I” instead of multiple voices, I found that the line breaks were useful to pace the thinking and the saying.
Q: How did your life as a reader inform this new collection? Would you situate War of the Foxes in the context of different literary influences than you would your first book?Why or why not?
RS: That question would take years to answer. I like theories and criticism and schools and influences -- and it’s important to know if you’re on a branch of art that bears fruit -- but really I don’t want to know the answer regarding my own work. I can talk seriously and with investment about anyone else’s work, but I’d rather someone else place mine in a larger context. The Pre-Raphaelite painters, god bless ‘em, didn’t know that Raphael would come along and they would be named and placed in history retroactively. There’s a charm to the injustice of it. How astouunding it would be, to be considered something that lead forward into innovation and greatness, rather than being a rung in a predictable ladder. It sounds grandiose, of course, but why not shoot the moon? Especially if the idea gets you out of bed when nothing else will.
Q: What else should readers know about your forthcoming book? What do they have to look forward to?
Oooof. Another impossible question. So, a story instead:
Several years ago my father’s health began to rapidly and then his wife died. We had been estranged for over 25 years, even though we live in the same town. I was faced with a problem: did I want the opportunity to punish him or did I want the opportunity to keep striving to be the man I want to be. I ended up moving in with him and giving him daily care. Was he my enemy? No. What was he? My opponent. We disagreed, we argued, we held our ground stubbornly. And so, another crystallizing moment:
You cannot have an opponent if you keep saying yes.
And yes, even years later and I was still really really deeply angry. He was an awful person and he taught me how to be awful person. But everyone has problematic relations with their parents. I couldn’t produce, or even imagine a first-person lyric “I” that would able to sing this or talk about it in any interesting way. So I turned to strategies of fable:
The hunter sinks his arrows into the trees and then paints the targets around them. The trees imagine they are deer. The deer imagine they are safe. The arrows: they have no imagination.
All night the wind blows through the trees. It makes a sound.
The hunter’s son watches the hunter. The hunter paints more rings on his glasses. Everything is a target, says the hunter. No matter where you look. The hunter’s son says nothing, and closes his eyes.
I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark
from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman
THE RULE OF THUMB
Ringfinger was nervous
when they learned
that Hand might succumb
to the rule of Thumb.