I have done physical labor in my life, and never found it harsh or unrewarding except when it was under the scrutiny of a manager (foremen, overseer, take your pick). They’re job was to make sure I was “doing it the right way,” or that I was doing it quickly, or that I was doing it both the right way and quickly (a contradiction in terms that causes almost all the heartbreak of blue collar life). It was never right enough or quick enough for my boss, even when it was right and quick. I am strong, but not well coordinated, and I am also slow to catch on to things. When it comes to anything in the physical world, I need to be stupid before I am smart. When it comes to piece work, this does not bode well.
I am verbally intelligent, and that helped me get by on being “comic relief” and charming until I learned to be competent. I relived the life of the most ancient bards as a result. My theory is that the original story tellers were often maimed, or clumsy, or old, and to earn their place at the fire, they needed to be ingratiatng, funny, wise,able to act as emotional buffers and consolers in times of stress..I dont trust when writers make themselves the heros of working life stories. I’ve known very few verbal folks who were the best machinists or tool makers, or riggers or fishermen. Some were middle of the pack,, and some held their own, but that’s about it. On the other hand, Musicians were often top notch at the more skilled forms of labor (eye/hand dexterity) and I knew several great tool makers who could play piano, guitar, banjo, and any combination thereof with great skill. So now I’m going to theorize further and submit that the original bards fell into two camps: those who were verbal in the communicative, prosaic way, and those were not verbal except where verbal was a conduit to pure sound–to rhythmic, musical grunts, to cadenced words, to the mimicry of animals (vital to a hunter): to pattern, and spatial/kinetic awareness. Let’s say both theories were right: if so,then, you have two trends in poetry from the very beginning: that which is social- manners, narrative, and communicative, and that which is ritualized, lyrical, and not based on the cognition of social order but on what Whitman called the Barbaric yawp–he tribe in its state of trance, its impersonal possession by a God. One is fully conscious, the other recieved as if via the intuition. If you’re not good at physical labor, at hunting, at weapon making, you better know how to compensate and have value in some other way. Ineptitude and adjustment to ineptitude thereby constitute the beginning of subjective consciousness. The other type of non-verbal yet vocal expression is not conscious, but a sort of received acumen for pattern–a sort of intuitive knowledge of pattern and rhythm, and the ceremony of verbal being within space.. Such poets are not facile with words. They experience words the way a toolmaker experiences raw material–as something to intuit. I would not privilege the conscious or the unconscious–divine aflatus, or native stealth and conscious shrewdness, but I would say one developed from the compensatory need to be a character, a personality, and the other from the impersonality of divine aflatus and what Plato called possession by a “demon.” Being physically inept, I compensated in two ways: I was very strong (could out wrestle most people), and so I was good at brute force (a bull in a china shop), and I was very verbal and this made me a force for comic relief by being able to “talk shit.” I couldn’t put these two together since, their togetherness is contingent upon grace and I was an oaf.
Brute force is hardly ever needed in its pure forms. All labor I know is skilled labor. A good ditch digger does not just have a strong back; he has a singular fineness and grace of motion so as to conserve energy and avoid being injured. To be strong in the way I was strong was to accentuate the clumsiness and create an incongruity between force and grace. When I learned to hide, compensate, or make light of this, I developed my verbal intelligence beyond normal, but living there was always a sort of ongoing sadness: I was strong, and loved the physical, but did not flourish in the skilled trades. I was verbal, and could get away with a lot of things because of it, but I felt cut off by my jester’s personality from the part of me that was physical. Jesters are often lame, or blind, or somehow malformed, as are clumsy but strong giants. The jester retreats into logos–the conscious verbal universe of the mind: sarcasm, invective, travesty, melancholy, whimsy. The giant hurls rocks, has his one good eye put out, and cries “no man” to the sea. Caliban is oafish and not adept at skilled work. For this reason he is called lazy, and beastial, and uncouth, yet Shakespeare shows Caliban has an advanced hunger for beauty (both in wanting Miranda and by his reaction to music). He has no ability to express this hunger except in forms that make others feel contempt. To be in a factory where even the graceful are often told they are not right or quick enough is to exist under the yoke of third rate Prospero–to be always compelled to do what one would do without being asked if the world were not glutted with managers and something needed doing.
As for those who “receive” words, far from being inept or maimed, they were often the ones in the group with the greatest fine-motor skills, hunting abilities, and intuitive sense of pattern. This creates a different kind of poesis: a poesis of intuitive ceremony, of hyperbolic praise, and the free play of word-puns, repetition, and call and response. Poetry did not privilege the lyrical or the narrative for thousands of years, but rather emphasized the lyrical in the mysteries of religious ceremony, sympathetic magic, and group lamentation, and emphasized the narrative in terms of reenacting the story and news of the people. One played out the rhythms of the hunt or the planting, the sacrifice, the pattern of emotions, while the conscious form of verbal ability (what we associate most with prose) played out the mythos and history of the people. One was far more mimetic and invocatory, and the other was far more based on an evolving cult of personality, individualism, and on cognitive, sequences of meaning. One was intuitive and sensing, the other thoughtful and feeling–one received from the gods, from an unconscious, the other worked out by the machinations of those who needed to be ingratiating in order to have value..
The trend in modernism and post modern poetry has been to return to a privileging of the received, the unconscious, the automatic, the ritualized, the irrational, the “primitive” forms of the lyrical voice–to put intuition and the “derangement” of the senses in prime place over the rational functions of feeling and thought. The phrase: No ideas but in things, could be rephrased as: All ideas from totems–from fetish, from the intuitive reception via physical stimuli of the objects and patterns. I think modernism’s largest error is this hangover from the romantics: that they see one system as superior to the other. Both systems have flourished from the beginning. One (the intuitive and sensing) based on physical/pattern genius, and the other on the genius of compensating for a lack of physical/pattern acumen. The two are blended now for the most part–a remnant polarity that has lost any truly clear lines of demarcation.
In the factory, after I became competent at what I did, I no longer needed to play the joker, but people preferred the joker to the merely competent tool maker. My rep as a really smart and funny fuck up never went away. When men needed tools they came to me last. When they needed advice on a fight with their wives, or in how to handle the death of a mother or father, they came to me first. I don’t know if I was ever as incompetent as I felt. After all, I play a decent piano and I play by ear. I can fake guitar fairly well, and harmonica, and have a good singing voice–so my sense of pattern must be better than I think, at least for sequences of sound. Sound is vital to a toolmaker because you can “hear” when a piece is wrong. It just has a different way of sounding. My visual intelligence and my ability to learn by watching always sucked. I need to fuck up in order to learn. Error is my friend. Left alone, with no one to watch my sorry ass, I figure things out or find a new way to do them. The modern world rewards quickness rather than depth and slow knowledge. This I know. What does it reward in terms of poetry? Nothing truly new looks like anything to most people except for error. Error must find a way to charm bias. I have lived my life through adjustments as per error. Do workshops allow error? I’m afraid they work too often like motion study experts. It not the quality of the work, but its facility and quickness that gets confused with quality. I don’t know. I started this essay wanting to meditate on how joyous physical labor can be when there is no overseer to threaten you with being fired or calling you a lame ass. perhaps the same holds true of poetry.
I have done physical labor in my life, and never found it harsh or unrewarding except when it was under the scrutiny of a manager (foremen, overseer, take your pick). They’re job was to make sure I was “doing it the right way,” or that I was doing it quickly, or that I was doing it both the right way and quickly (a contradiction in terms that causes almost all the heartbreak of blue collar life). It was never right enough or quick enough for my boss, even when it was right and quick. I am strong, but not well coordinated, and I am also slow to catch on to things. When it comes to anything in the physical world, I need to be stupid before I am smart. When it comes to piece work, this does not bode well.
In Caroline Knox’s nimble new collection Flemish, a poem entitled simply “They” begins: “They live in a mobile home/made of Adobe Caslon.” The elided antecedent here could very well be Knox’s poems; while maintaining a healthy awareness of themselves as constructed objects (“black and white graphic art,” Knox has called them), they simultaneously feel in constant, and deliriously unpredictable, motion. Vehicles, metaphoric, historical, or embroidered on pillows, abound in these poems. In “Harley Lyric”, Knox has somehow managed, with her characteristic wit, to conflate a medieval manuscript of miscellanea and the eponymous “chopper”—and with a tonal palette at once brassy and arcane. There is something playful, almost giddy, in these poems—they create the sense of setting out on a road trip, purposeless and hopeful.
Flemish is Caroline Knox’s 8th poetry collection, her third from the excellent Wave Books. This year, six of her poems were included in the second edition of the Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Poetry edited by Paul Hoover, the occasion of whose publication was recently celebrated by an epic reading by Knox and twenty three other of the most exciting poets in American letters at the New School in New York City. Although a span of continent kept me from being able to attend, the wonders of electronic mail and Caroline Knox’s generosity of spirit allowed me the privilege of a vivacious dialogue with the poet, the transcript of which follows.
SE: I want to mention first of all that Flemish is a physically beautiful object. I am fairly sure you didn’t design it, but whoever did seems to have gotten something of the spirit of the poems into the physicality of the book itself. The idea of the book, or the text, as an object, does this make sense to you in the way you think about and make poems?
CK: Wave Books is adamant that their books be beautiful, and I’m so glad they are. Wave’s are all done by Quemadura, who is one poet named Jeff Clark, from Ypsilanti. The speckled white cover is recycled material, and the focus is modernistic typography. I was invited to choose end papers for Flemish (strawberry). (But I do like very much Wave’s emphasis on doing a great deal of its work online, on its website and in social media, even though it publishes hold-in-your-hand books, not ebooks. This is in tune with the excellent goal of parity between print and online works.)
My great aunt was a college librarian, and I spent a lot of time with her when I was in school. She was connected with the Arts and Crafts movement, with book designers and typographers, so I got a good look at all that thinking and making. And a respect for it.
SE: I was excited to come upon Francis Ponge’s cameo in “Stove Seasoning”–you call him, aptly, “an advocate for things”. He is one of my favorite poets, and rarely does he get much mention. I would guess that you are also an “advocate for things”, but the relationship you engender to the “objectified” is much more complex, I think, more nuanced. I think of Ponge as something like a lepidopterist, pinning the objects down with words.; whereas, in your poems, the words seems to hover about the objects, or the other way around. It’s like a dance. So can you talk a little about how objects make their way into your poems, and what you do with them there?
CK: Ponge’s thing poems seem like short art history essays defining the thing. He is like a lepidopterist. Maybe I’d try to approach the thing from a lot of angles, trying to obey Stevens: Constantly see the world in a new way, and It Must Change. (So style is what changes it, if you can get the right style.) I’d like not to be bound by any diction level or syntax while I wrote about the object, so that my poems about objects or about anything else, could try to have a changing and changeable kind of beauty, changeant.
In “He Paves the Road with Iron Bars,” (Verse Press) I was trying to do something like this. We think of Emerson as singlehandedly inventing a new philosophy rising above the material. But he loved stuff, and was enchanted by the railroad. (It has such great shop talk.) I love Emerson, who changed the language with the marmoreal paragraphs, but also, oh, the material world! And I think the language of jobs is so interesting as a lexical source for poems. Maybe especially if you don’t know the mysteries of other people’s jobs.
SE: Something that struck me in many of the poems in Flemish was the juxtaposition of the long-lived, if not to say eternal, and the ephemeral–a Carrara marble font full of construction paper fish, a mobile home made of Adobe Caslon. Your poems often have this quality of being at once solid, etched, and as slippery as one of the sloe-eyed dolphins in “Subjects”. How does time figure into your poems, and into your use of language?
CK: I thought in my youth that I would become a medievalist (which didn’t happen), so I was drawn early to languages then taught – French, Latin, Old English – so I keep (fragments of) these in my head. I don’t see why they shouldn’t show up in poems occasionally to give some sense and some beautiful or at least interesting sound.
I feel drawn to switches in diction levels and in syntax, no matter what the poem subject. It feels inclusive. I think I learned this from Auden, and from the New York Poets John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, and Kenneth Koch. Stevens and Ashbery often appear to qualify or as some say “cancel” their statements. I think that’s hugely interesting, and the switches can make it happen. Valley Girl talk might be another good lexical source. My son-in-law’s aviation magazines are, too – “docile stall characteristics/ and retrofit fuselage utilizing/ a semi-monocoque construction” (“Who’ll Buy,” Quaker Guns).
SE: Speaking of Auden, in an essay you wrote about how he has influenced your work, you describe his syntax as sounding almost as if it were English in translation. Even better, you described it as “slightly cracked”. This phrase works perfectly with the poems in Flemish, and in your other books as well. The language is recognizable, but, yes, slightly cracked. Is this something that you are consciously pursuing in the act of writing, this feeling of translation?
CK: First, I want to point out that in the section of the essay “2. Syntax” that I’m talking here just about the poem “1929.” I don’t think that Auden did this kind of “crackedness” or distortion often. I think he was experimenting with it, enjoying it probably, in this investigative poem. The crackedness suits the theme of exploration and discovery. The crackedness or translatedness helps deliver the anxiety!
And I definitely feel influenced by Auden’s experiment – to distort the language slightly, making it as you say recognizable but slightly cracked. (No one would want to do this ALL the time – it would be mannered and boring.) Yes, as you say, I do want to make my poems in Flemish as elsewhere sound slightly translated from Eng to Eng – a lot of the time but not all the time.
SE: In “He Lives in Bayonne”, “he” emails a blank screen; in response, “she” emails him her trash icon. These lines are very funny, and that is at least partly because they communicate something that we somehow understand, and yet it is in a language in which we are not quite fluent yet. Can you talk about how things like the Internet and texting, which are certainly altering not just our language but even, so they say, our brains, have changed your writing?
CK: I admire so much a book by Janet Holmes called f2f –it is ALL in texting, how charming, what a tour-de-force. Language certainly will gradually absorb the new technology, won’t it? It certainly has begun to.
I guess that collecting fragments – words and phrases – has a whole lot to do with method (I suppose all writers do this). It’s inductive.
One more point about the New York Poets – I think their interaction with abstract painters and painting made me want to situate on the page a lot of elements that don’t necessarily belong together, but might complement or clash with one another – this goes along with picking words and phrases that don’t belong together. The surface of the poem should offer a lot of interesting elements. It has to be done without sounding showoffy or bathetic.
SE: In the Auden essay you liken the speaker in one of your poems to a pilgrim. I loved this idea–because often the poems seem like pilgrimages through the landscape of our shared language. Does the speaker come out of the language for you, or does the language arise out of a certain stance that the speaker has adopted towards the material? Or some of both?
CK: I was talking about a sort of pilgrim narrator in “Souvenir de Roc-Amadour” because pilgrims do go there, and because I was writing a poem – since poets are always pilgrims during the writing process of the poem, wondering whether it’s going to pan out into anything, or into something you can put your name to.
The speaker in any poem has to come out of the language, and also the language comes out of the speaker – both of these, just as you say. Isn’t it a balancing act; you have to do both at once, and remember what you’re doing. It’s dangerous and exciting and you don’t want to wreck something good that’s half done. The speaker has to change all the time! In “Boiled Snow,” the person who says, “A distinctive new gelato” is not the same kid who says “Flavor of the Month for March!”
SE: Something I have noted before about all of your poems, and these new ones perhaps even more, is that they are completely unpredictable–there is simply no telling where a poem will end up from first line to last, and every move in between surprises. You have a startling array of nouns at your disposal, and do wonderfully unexpected things with prepositions, not to mention pronouns. But there are, it turns out, far fewer verbs than one would expect in such dynamic poems. I have often felt that English was a language somewhat deficient in the verb department…can you shed some light on how you create movement in your poems, what propels them forward?
CK: I don’t know where the poems are going myself.
As well as the New York Poets, Marianne Moore often does not come back to her beginnings, to a subject or a statement. I always liked that; it’s daring.
Examples from two poems from Flemish: in a poem called “Key,” I wrote, “You can knit direct from a photograph, it’s like an atlas.” The directions are supposed to help, but they didn’t – and then the photo made everything instantly clear! Who could have predicted this?
Comedy rests on unpredictability; we expect x, but we get y. Our expectations are upset, and we burst out laughing; that’s the recipe for comedy, isn’t it? So if you can choose the right x and y, you give delight, or puzzlement, or slight awe. In “Harley Lyric,” I was so stunned by these two facts: 1. BL Harley MS 2253 = a collection of top-drawer love lyrics, 14th-15thc. 2. Harley motorcycle. The ms. ref. sounds like a motorcycle model! The first lines of the poems sound like biker songs! Koch said of his and Ashbery’s and O’Hara’s work, “We didn’t see any reason to avoid humor.”
Another example: it may be funny to put your dogs’ names, “Wuffy” and “Chips,” in double quotes – are the dogs really named Rex and Fido? But sometimes the unpredictable isn’t funny or important – it’s just believable. It doesn’t prove anything or lead to anything, so it must be there for its own sake, and the moment fulfills itself. In my book Nine Worthies, somebody’s little brother tells at some length to a room full of grownups all about shad and shad roe and shadbush. The people sit and listen. That’s all there is to it.
You can also plan the appearance of unpredictability. Right now I’m writing a sestina which tries to obscure the fact that it is one, though a lot of internal rhyme and other distractions.
SE: It seems that form allows you to make poetry out of the material of the everyday—not “poeticized” but direct—the language simply lifted directly from the vernacular but “lifted into art” through the form in which it might be re-experienced. Can you say a bit about your use of forms, especially traditional ones, in Flemish?
CK: The traditional forms I use in Flemish are (upon reflection) these: tercets, libretto (including a sonnet of sorts), (short) prose poems, song. I don’t obey the forms very strictly. To use a form, with all its expectations, creates a place to upset those expectations, usually only slightly.
Tercets seem comfortable for the writer to ease into; they have a leisurely and even meditative feel and look, I think. In Flemish there turned out to be four poems in tercets: “He Was a Chartist.” “Stove Seasoning,” “They,” and “The Font.” (I’d like to be able to do such a poem that went on for pages.) The small and regular-looking stanzas allow you to put in some surprise material for contrast. The stanzas look like strung beads, and maybe act like them.
Cantata libretto: I adapted the libretto (by Picander) of Bach’s Coffee Cantata very, very loosely. It was a game and a dream at the same time. I wanted it to be too short, and it was. I wanted it to be full of notes of today – the wedding nonsense, the Starbucks nonsense, the poetry reading of opaque work.
Short prose poem: “Key” and “The Scottish Play” seem to be nuggets of wisdom, definitive blocks on their subjects – but they really don’t do the reader any good! They’re probably just an excuse for playing with language, a valuable activity in itself. “The Scottish play” is a nickname for Macbeth, but using it as a title turns out to be thoroughly pretentious, and nothing to do with the poem, really, just a way into it.
About “Key” – The bold face section of “Key” is one of Poor Richard’s sayings, one of Franklin’s “scriptures,” made into the shape of a key. Quemadura graciously spent a lot of time on typesetting this! The proverb is hidden in plain sight. But there’s no key to “Key.”
Song – “Aragon” seems to be an elegiac piece (a “fragment”?); when I wrote it I remember being very interested in sound, and in putting the French refrain in as a piece of folk poetry that someone else learned from someone else. (You can’t do this too much – it gets too adorably precious.) Maybe the speaker is a pilgrim – to Santiago da Campostela?
So, to sum up, I think one of the reasons to use any traditional form is to introduce surprise material into the form, surprise material that sits comfortably with the form’s other aspects.
To drink boiled snow
To drink boiled snow is good science.
It may affect the water table
to manufacture boiled snow on the rocks
218º Fahrenheit for however many minutes.
To skate on black ice is hard science
looking down through it to a broken and frozen rowboat
six feet under in Davy Jones’s Locker
in black tie in the middle of the night,
walking on thin ice, to skate on the
leading edge of thin ice, as abraded maple
leaves’ patterns trip you up. To drink
unboiled sap as the deer do, clandestinely
out of sap buckets, starting on Birthington’s Washday;
to discover in frozen sap
a distinctive new gelato! Flavor
of the Month for March! To write
most of a poem out of
infinitive clauses, to discover
in brackish tidepools much too early
harbor seals in camouflage on the rocks,
and to marvel at these seals’ poise and grace
as they blunder diffidently into and under the ocean.
I’d love to teach a course centered on The Death of Ivan Ilyich.
Tolstoy’s great novella cannot be studied in isolation from certain foundational texts standing at it were behind Ivan, and pushing him into the literary foreground. These are, but are by no means limited to, The Confessions of St Augustine and Rousseau, Tolstoy’s own tortured diaries, Paul’s Romans, Christ’s teachings on the world as opposed to the kingdom of God in the New Testament, and sundry Russian books and essays on the nature of the peasants, their aristocratic “fathers,” and this new dominant professional class to which Ivan belongs and which has neither loyalty to the land nor the simple faith of the peasant, and which has neither the refinement nor complicated decadence and aesthetic taste of the nobility. This “functionary class” is co-optive, incapable of originality, grafting onto its evil and mundane tree the native “shrewdness” and greed common to the worst peasants, and the pretentiousness and faux complexity/ haughtiness of the worst nobility. They are a class in love with Poshlost–forerunners of smart sets and hipsters. They are not merely middle class, but the Professional class. This is important to remember: They are the executors of the state and civil society–functionaries, masters of the machine of civil process. Tolstoy as a Christian anarchist can think of no more distasteful creatures. Their life is a form of death for him, and Nabokov is right to submit that, to Tolstoy’s mind, the characters who survive Ivan are the truly dead.
Through most of the text, Ivan fits the Biblical category of the lukewarm: “I would that thou were hot or cold, but being lukewarm I shall spit you forth from my mouth.” Being lukewarm, moderate, steady on the wheel is considered necessary to professional success. The motto might be mediocrity of the very best sort. He also enacts a narrative arc of two sayings attributed to Christ: First, the parable of the rich farmer who plots to build an extra barn for his abundant harvest and is told by God “thou fool! Does thou not know that your life is required of you this very night? Store up riches in heaven, and not on earth.” The second is more attributable to both Ivan and his so called “friends”: “And they were buying and selling, and giving and taking in marriage unto the last hour, and were caught unaware.” As for the surface of Ivan’s friends and family and world, we are reminded of the ruling citizens of Christ’s Israel (Pharisees and Sadducees) who were, according to, Jesus, like tombs: “all white on the outside, but on the inside, filled with all matter of decay and filth.” Finally, the question that goads Augustine into ontic crisis also lurks behind Ivan Illyich: “what does it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his only begotten soul?”
In addition, we must understand that Tolstoy himself was terrified of death–especially after his own brother’s horrible illness–and, at the same time, obsessed with death in its most clinical details, not only in its spiritual mysteries, but in terms of its pathology and sheer progression. Ivan’s death is very much a clinical as well as spiritual process and it is this long, drawn out, agony–in some ways as mundane as the false world it unravels, that is one of the marvels of the novel: the boredom of the dying, the tedium, the way it reduces a person to a corpse pending, the dying man’s exclusion from the living, his interminable otherness–this is all beautifully imagined in this masterpiece.
In the course, we would read subsidiary texts that go with some Tolstoy. Here are some possible examples that share common ground with the quotes from the text:
“He in his madness prays for storms, and dreams that storms will bring him peace”
“Blow, blow thou winter wind. Thou art not so unkind as man’s ingratitude.” Also, Elijah in the cave.
“Ivan Ilych’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible.”
Hannah Arendt’s Banality of Evil.
“Morning or night, Friday or Sunday, made no difference, everything was the same: the gnawing, excruciating, incessant pain; that awareness of life irrevocably passing but not yet gone; that dreadful, loathsome death, the only reality, relentlessly closing in on him; and that same endless lie. What did days, weeks, or hours matter?”
Ecclesiastes, the Book of Job.
”The very fact of the death of someone close to them aroused in all who heard about it, as always, a feeling of delight that he had died and they hadn’t.”
“But it seems to me that a man cannot and ought not to say that he loves, he said. Why not? I asked. Because it will always be a lie. As though it were a strange sort of discovery that someone is in love! Just as if, as soon as he said that, something went snap-bang – he loves. Just as if, when he utters that word, something extraordinary is bound to happen, with signs and portents, and all the cannons firing at once. It seems to me, he went on, that people who solemnly utter those words, ‘I love you,’ either deceive themselves, or what’s still worse, deceive others.”
“Can it be that I have not lived as one ought?” suddenly came into his head. “But how not so, when I’ve done everything as it should be done?”
“He sought his former accustomed fear of death and did not find it. “Where is it? What death?” There was no fear because there was no death.
Paul: death, where is my death, where is it’s victory?”
“In place of death there was light.”
“All who attempt to save their lives will lose them, but those who lose their lives for my sake shall have eternal life.” and “All that is brought to light shall be made into light– John’s Gospel
“At school he had done things which had formerly seemed to him very horrid and made him feel disgusted with himself when he did them; but when later on he saw that such actions were done by people of good position and that they did not regard them as wrong, he was able not exactly to regard them as right, but to forget about them entirely or not be at all troubled at remembering them.
Augustine Confessions, where the boys steal the fruit.
“But that what was for him the greatest and most cruel injustice appeared to others a quite ordinary occurrence.”
Auden’s “Beaux Arts”
“The example of a syllogism that he had studied in Kieswetter’s logic: Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal, had throughout his whole life seemed to him right only in relation to Caius, but not to him at all.”
“Death is finished, he said to himself. It is no more!”
Paul: “Death is swallowed up in victory.”
“Come, what did I say, repeat it? he would ask. But I could never repeat anything, so ludicrous it seemed that he should talk to me, not of himself or me, but of something else, as though it mattered what happened outside us. Only much later I began to have some slight understanding of his cares and to be interested in them.”
“He was much changed and grown even thinner since Pyotr Ivanovich had last seen him, but, as is always the case with the dead, his face was handsomer and above all more dignified than than when he was alive.” (zen saying: nothing is more valuable or dignified than a dead cat. Or the Native American tradition of praying over the killed game, or the religious injunction to witness to the dead, even in so far as witnessing to road kill.
Almost any Buddhist teaching.
“So that’s what it is!” he suddenly exclaimed aloud. “What joy!”
“When the examination was over, the doctor looked at his watch, and then Praskovya Fyodorovna informed Ivan Ilyich that it must of course be as he liked, but she had sent today for a celebrated doctor, and that he would examine him, and have a consultation with Mihail Danilovich (that was the name of his regular doctor). ‘Don’t oppose it now, please. This I’m doing entirely for my own sake,’ she said ironically, meaning it to be understood that she was doing it all for his sake, and was only saying this to give him no right to refuse her request. He lay silent, knitting his brows. He felt that he was hemmed in by such a tangle of falsity that it was hard to disentangle anything from it. Everything she did for him was entirely for her own sake, and she told him she was doing for her own sake what she actually was doing for her own sake as something so incredible that he would take it as meaning the opposite.”
“That is not what I mean/that is not it at all”–Prufrock.
Hopkins: Spring and Fall.
Also husband and wife relations in the Bible (Sara and Abraham, Job and his wife) as well as wives and husbands in Russian folk tales.
There are a couple subsidiary texts we would have to read in addition to Ivan, all having to do with the dying or the spiritually dead: King Lear, Issa’s memoir of his father’s death, and Chekhov’s “In the Ravine.” We would also look at Augustine’s Confessions and relate Tolstoy’s exaltation of the peasant to variations on the myth of the “Magic negro.” How does Tolstoy’s sometimes sentimental fondness and adoration for the peasant differ from Gunga Din? How does it differ from takes on the noble savage, or for that matter, from often sentimental tropes on the poor? How does his disdain for the middle class differ from Marxist views? How does it resemble the Marxist view? Why does Tolstoy attack simple and ordinary here, when in most works, and even in this text, he lauds the simplicity of the peasant. What sort of simplicity and ordinariness is he calling most terrible?
We would consider Kierkegaard’s teachings on despair: despair of not being oneself, despair of being one’s self, and the sickness unto death: a despair so deep and total, that one is not even aware of being in despair. And so in addition to King Lear, Issa memoir on his father’s death, and Chekov’s The Ravine, we will be reading The Sickness Unto Death.
For historical background, read up on Christian anarchy, the post-liberation/pre-revolution civil life of Russia, and various works on chronic illness and its pathology.
Is this the kind of class you’d take?
from Diary of Return
August 8, 2002
I arrived below the 38th parallel. Everyone and every place I know are below the waist
of a nation. Before I arrived, empire arrived, that is to say empire is great. I follow its geography. From a distance the waist below looks like any other small rural village of winding alleys and traditional tile-roofed houses surrounded by rice paddies, vegetable fields, and mountains. It reminded me of home, that is to say this is my home.
Close up: clubs, restaurants, souvenir and clothing stores with signs in English, that is
to say English has arrived before me and was here even before I had left. PAPA SAN, LOVE SHOP, POP’S, GOLDEN TAILOR, PAWN. I followed the signs and they led to one of the gates to Camp Stanley, a heliport, that is to say language is not be to believed but to be obeyed, and to compel obedience. A woman in her seventies lived next to LOVE SHOP. She was taking an afternoon nap. She has never left below the waist and eventually came to be regarded as a great patriot by her government, that is to say she followed the signs and suffered from lice infestation during the war and passed the lice on to the GIs. I followed the houses that reminded me of home. They led me to another metal gate and barbed wire. Another woman was having lunch at My Sister’s Place.
She did not remember which year she had returned except that she remembered hearing about the assassination of our Father, that is to say she was here and I was still elsewhere and the unity of language is fundamentally political. She told me a story with her right index finger. Her finger fiercely pointed to her mouth, then between her spread legs, and then her behind. She had no choice under the GI’s gun, that is to say she had no choice about absolute choice, that is to say her poverty was without choice and when absolute choice was forced upon her she chose a GI, that is to say she chose empire because empire is greater than our Father, that is to say she followed and left her daughter to its geography and her index finger had no choice but be fierce under absolute choice, that is to say she had arrived home.
Italics: Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press, 1987).
Don Mee Choi is the author of The Morning News Is Exciting (Action Books, 2010) and the recipient of a 2011 Whiting Writers’ Award. She has received the 2012 Lucien Stryk Asian Translation Prize for All the Garbage of the World, Unite! by Kim Hyesoon. Her translations also include Anxiety of Words published by Zephyr, When the Plug Gets Unplugged & Princess Abandoned by Tinfish, and Mommy Must Be a Fountain of Feathers by Action Books.
Delhi is hell. It is hot. It hits one in the face like the exhaust pipe of a long-haul trailer spewing thick blackness into a pristine sky. It smells like ruin.
The impression is delayed, of course, as the city puts one its best feet forward at first. The sparkling, new T3 at Indira Gandhi International—the second largest air terminal in the world, they point out with great pride—greets arrivals with four giant gold hands in lotus positions, and a shining, gleaming, blazing white expanse of an epic duty free. It all feels very proper and clean. But as one exits through the swish of sliding glass to a throbbing mass of hired drivers and calls for taxi, taxi, taxi, one first smells the flaming soot. The sweet burn of wood and diesel. The Delhi bonfire. And yet, the pulse races because this is it, the most foreign of foreign places. It is the rush of unknown possibilities.
Misters! Misters! Here please, yes! and suddenly we are in a car. We are being bounced from one side of the road to the other. Horns blare. Lights flash. The roads grow narrower and more crowded and the whole mass of traffic moves faster. Buildings zip past, haphazardly stacked on top of one another so that one concrete block looks as though it has tripped over another.
There is Red Fort! Purana Qila, Sir!
A mass of red, Agra sandstone lurks in the distance. We careen and weave until we slam to a dead stop. This is it, sirs, Hotel Tara Palace. There is a bonfire—an actual bonfire—of trash and books its appears. Emaciated children scamper off into the tight, unlit alleys, beyond this main road. Goats chew through knee-high rubbish heaps. Swarms of flies tick the skin—flies at night, I think. The smell of propane and burnt milk; the blaring horns; ringing bicycle bells; white eyes in brown faces glued to the to white bodies of the men who’ve just stepped out of a cab and into the crumbling, choked bazaar known as Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi.
We will be shoved and beckoned, Sir, please, you come look, you like, as we are pushed from behind for the sin of stopping, or run off of the crumbling sidewalk porticoes to hop like froggert across the choked boulevard through a broken iron fence to the other side in search of the liquor stand. We will be surrounded by a pack of screaming children putting stickers on us, clasping and unclasping their hands for money. We will be scolded in Urdu or Hindi or Punjabi for letting them do this.
On the Rajpath a parade-route boulevard connecting the houses of Lok Sabha, or Parliament, with the massive triumphal arch of India Gate, a man with a wicker basket will stop us—Sir! Sir! Please, you have look. Look! Look!—as he dashes the basket to the ground so that a hooded cobra springs up hissing and bobbing in the dusty, gold afternoon. Three transsexuals might walk by, giggling in their saris and heavy makeup. They are considered mystics here, or something like mild witches. They are hired for weddings to say prayers and tell fortunes and are known to aggressively solicit money for services, wanted or not. They might bee-line for us.
Sir, sir, where are you going? Says the rickshaw driver
Sir, that is such and such road. You are looking for such and such other road, says the nice, paunchy, balding man in a crisp oxford shirt. I am just helping you with your going. You go this way for nice pashminas, saris, ali baba pants. The ticket off is this way. I can take you. He follows and follows and finally gives up.
Packed like sardines against the window of the metro. The shoving in and out at the same time. Elbows. Forearms.
The way it costs different for Indians and for us—for soda, for sites of archeological significance, for rickshaws, and water and anything.
The way it made him never want to come back.
The way I swore I never would either.
Backpacker ghetto. Paharganj. Just west of the train station which is really an open-air sleeping facility for anyone in transit or not. Whole families pile on top of themselves and on top of their belongings. Everything seems held together by tarp and string. It is six months later and I’ve returned, telling myself that I have unfinished business with India. It harbors secrets. It made me run to quickly. I must know why.
This way, sir.
I will take you to your platform, sir.
That office is closed, sir, I will show you new office.
You need to come this way for that train, sir.
Backpacker ghetto, because this time I’m not staying in Old Delhi and I promise myself that I will only stay in this city as little as possible, and if a night can be avoided I will avoid it, but that can never be the case because everything in India runs through Delhi. So I stay on the cheap in an airless, windowless room in Hotel Cottage Yes Please, a name I love. At least it is clean. At least the air conditioning works. At least is feels separate from the chaos of the bazaar outside where anything bootleg a mind could conjure is for sale.
But they have no rooms on my next pass through Delhi I must find somewhere else, somewhere recommended by a hostel booking website, a website with real and honest reviews according to their banner. Another windowless room, barely fitting a bed. A room up steep, dark, wet stairs with holes in the wall opening onto the stench of the alley and open sewer below. I spend as little time there as possible, afraid to touch anything. I wake in the morning to find a bedbug, dead, surrounded in my blood, having been crushed by my head in the course of the night. I am sure I will have to put everything into plastic bags when I get home. I’ve lived in New York City for nine years. I’ve never seen one and according to the billboard and subway signs there, those fuckers are an epidemic.
Delhi. Damn it.
I haven’t stopped talking about India, so I am back. I’ve collected a holy trinity of visits by now. Ask me why I keep coming back and I have ten thousand answers because I love this place and I hate this place. I think this country has some secret teaching, some small pebble that is the key to setting things straight—me and the thousands of backpackers that stream through T3 every month.
Being back means Delhi. And As I’ve seen enough red sandstone mausoleums and forts and shrines, as I’ve been hassled in the outdoor mall of Connaught Place, as I’ve been jostled amongst every living beast in the world in the strangled, collapsing alleys of Old Delhi, as I’ve tried slumming it with the dreadlocked hippies in Paharganj, I’ve decided to see some new aspect of the city. It’s a neighborhood I’ve heard about and read about, but never seen as it lays way out in the never ending sprawl. Hauz Khas Village—south of the madness, surrounded by trees. Artsy, say the blogs. Hip, writes the Lonely Planet. And what that means is that while it is still India—still a dusty mess of a crumbling road, still concrete blocks stacked too high on one another, still a bit fly-riddled and sometimes the air is punctured by the scent of rotting vegetal matter—it is westernized. It’s the Williamsburg of Delhi. It has cafes and art galleries and bars and swank restaurants and intentionally grungy ones and little shops packed tight with bright, kitschy wallets and shoulder bags trimmed with leather, and smart t-shirts emblazoned with the wry winks a New Yorker would appreciate. Half of it looks out onto crumbling Mughal ruins and tombs and beyond that a lake—a clean lake with swans and ducks—and manicured paths and shrubbery and peacocks and monkeys and owls and flowering vines and roses. It is gated off from the rest of the world—rickshaws can’t get in; honking, hulking Ambassador cabs are forbidden. In fact, no cars may enter unless with the permission of the village.
So just like that, Delhi becomes immediately easier and more palatable. My hotel serves fish and washes their vegetables with filtered water and has local artists hammered up all over the walls and oversized pillows are dashed on wide benches and the wireless internet works and the air conditioner, too. So I have come all this way, come to this place I swear I need because it is exactly the opposite of my ordered life—this place where gods jump off of every surface or can be in any stone or tree, where one can always smell incense and sandalwood on the air, where the smell of burnt milk means wafts down wide alleys as a temple bell clangs into the heavy air, where the world is a magical realist bonanza—I’ve come all this way to finally say I love Delhi because of its proximity to my own life: its New York comforts and American happinesses.
And, like that, I hate it all over again.
I am not a secular poet, have never been a secular poet, and my work is a journey through both the imagery of my working class Irish Catholic background and my sense of the the incarnate word as Shema Mitzvah–the oneness of God within the act of love toward neighbor. First Shema:
Hear O Israel, the lord, the lord is one.
And you shall love the lord
with all your mind and with all your heart
and with all your strength
and the Mitzvah is
And the second commandment is like unto it: love your neighbor as yourself.
All other commandments are contained within these two, the whole of the law, the spirit of the law. They are the ontology of my poems, and to truly enter my work, you must understand it in the context of Shema Mitzvah. I do not believe in the separation of faith and works, but, like James, believe faith without works is dead, and works without faith is merely materialism as a form of the dole. Given a choice of which I’d prefer, I’d take works without faith which makes me a radical, but I would not take it happily since I think bread without spirit, and material comfort without conscience is barely worth the bother.
Jesus Christ incarnates into the broken life and impurity of the world. God descends downward, infusing all people, landscapes, and things with the presence of divinity. At the same time, God, having taken on the manner and appearance, and real flesh and needs of the world, is infused with the world which is broken, impure, profane, often ugly, and far from pious. It is also in this world of the broken that Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, waits to be recognized. Christ is not to be found so readily in the “purified” realms, but in the midst of the broken, those who are fucked up, strange, unable to live either fully in the world (highest level of Arete–prowess) or fully in God (highest level of Xenia–care for the other)–my poems seek to witness to those who are imperfect and less than fully human but given full humanity by the incarnate word, also to those who are imperfect and less than fully divine, given divine resonance by God come to dwell amongst us: the motley, the dark, sometimes grotesque comic force of the demi-god, the half-God, Half Monster, neither fully man nor fully divine–us, the half assed. The moment in which Christ (fully man and fully God ) is seen in the “least”, is the moment that the unity of Shema Mitzvah is fully realized–the ground zero of being, which, for me, is Eucharistic reality. To put it simply: I seek in my poetics the moment when the divine is seen in the other, and the divine is not Jerusalem, the expected place, but Bethlehem, the lowly place, the place unsought, but stumbled upon, the “slip of the pen”–that is a moment of Eucharistic reality–grace. Grace appears under the following signs in my poems:
1. The Visible Signs beneath which the Shema Mitzvah lies concealed and revealed: failure, imperfection, exile, ostracism, the ugly, the lost, the comic and inept, the unrequited, the kindly, the motley and in the Falstaff-like bluster of certain of my poetic voices. There are also choices of lineation, and language by which I seek this out: mixed registers of speech, hyperbolic utterances punctured by deadpan understatements, comic or ferocious rants, ungainly one word lines, lines that wobble between long and short– all of this is towards my thematic core:the presence of the divine afflatus where it seems least likely to belong.
I use characters, dialogue, and narrative in an almost novelistic way. I believe poetry has abdicated its perfection as a vehicle for getting straight to the heart of a story to prose which, by its very nature as a conveyor of information, must be far more expository. Prose informs and expounds. Poetry incites and enacts a more immediate ceremony. Most poems, especially free verse poems, are a combination of poetic and prosaic elements, on a spectrum between poetry and prose–demi- gods. I will use an undulating line, an ungainly line because I am not after symmetry. I am after some order within sprawl–the great sprawl of the living and the dead.
2. Personified I, Vatic I, Personal I, and the mutt of all three: Many of the I-voices in my poetry are personifications. In a few poems (“Morning at the Elizabeth Arch”, for example) the I voice is Vatic– the sound of one speaking with authority and almost impersonal gravitas, the I invoking (look! Shemah–listen up!). Sometimes I will employ the personal I as in a memoir (Fists (for my father), or “Elegy of Sue Rapeezi”), but this personal I is likely to blur with the personified I. The mutt I make of all three may confuse a reader who wants the voice to be a genuine contemporary personal voice, or the voice of a character, or that sort of “Wise white man” voice you get with Stephen Dunn. There is also the intentionally stupid, or know-nothing voice of the speculative post-modernist, influenced both by the surreal, comic shtick, and dadaism. I am prone to using all these I’s and mixing them up. It’s important to know that in order to understand my emphasis on the motley. I am doing my own: I contain multitudes. My version also entertains the the darker possibility of “I am legion” (possessed by many demons and conflicted).
I write this not as an apologetic for my poetry, but as an aid to entering it with a greater awareness of its intentions. Of course, each reader misreads differently, and each brings to a body of work his or her own sense of the author’s intentions,successes and failures. To a more secular mind, all I might be doing is writing about losers. To a more sociological type, I may be showing my preference for the underdog. To those who like their lines symmetrical, and their words in a consistent register, many of my tunes may seem full of wrong notes. To those who judge the lyrical merely by the absence of the narrative, I may fail to be lyrical enough. So be it. This is my essay on my intentions. Poem by poem, those intentions wait to be realized or unrealized. On that I rest my case.
Matthew is plain on the tongue and fleeting.
Lourdes sits, instead of sex, on two blue crates,
feeds herself blue lemons. Lips sodden,
she bathes. She tastes the burn
in the lantern of her chest.
Lourdes snakes straight through the garden into her own bed
opens her dignities and pleasures
white cotton underwear
___to the side
open with pulque
wet of cachaca
without the sugarcane,
& boys with biblical names
make no appearance,
a worn worm soldier jamming its way
into the core of a ripe melon.
Lisa Marie Basile comes from the bloodline of Giambattista Basile, the fairy-tale writer. She is a graduate of The New School’s MFA program. She is the author of Andalucia (Brothel Books) and Triste (Dancing Girl Press). Her chapbook, war/lock, is forthcoming from Hyacinth Girl Press in 2014. She is the founding editor of Patasola Press, an assistant editor for Fifth Wednesday Journal and a managing member of the Poetry Society of New York. She contributes to a few secret projects and wears Joseph Quintela’s #bookdress.
It’s hard to justify a $50 book nowadays. Unless you’re a scholar looking to pore over every character in an author’s archive, a volume of collected work can easily overwhelm. Is there a non-academic audience for a tome like The Collected Early Poems and Plays by Robert Duncan (University of California Press)? I can’t speak for the market, but as a young poet scrambling through the poems of the past, as well as the growing morass of contemporary offerings, I finished this beast of a volume feeling refreshed.
It’s clear that UC Press has a plan for Duncan’s collected works, which are stylistically in tune with The H.D. Book. While poems often share pages, pages rarely feel overwhelmed. Economy of space is understood. This book feels like a chronological collection of published and uncollected works, so we are given a particularly instructive timeline of Duncan’s growth as a poet.
The breadth of that poetic growth is in itself a fantastic teacher. Duncan burst out of the gates hungry, publishing as an undergrad beginning to engage with the politics and metaphysics he would engage with throughout his career. But his line is inquisitive rather than didactic; he chose not to build a pulpit, but to immerse the reader in his investigations. The Years as Catches then shows, if anything, that all poets must start somewhere, and it’s comforting to see the seeds from which Duncan’s poetic dexterity would grow, while at the same time appreciating that this is the work of a young man with much to learn. In every stanza, his potential glimmers: an inexperienced poet, winding his way through language until his own voice emerges.
It does so quickly, as Heavenly City, Earthly City slips into the picture and Duncan more fully embraces his political opinions. His voice takes shape, as does the melody within his lines, and, along with the poet, we learn the strength of verse as a spoken activity. Melodious, rhythmic, and willing to take risks linguistically and stylistically, the book moves into Medieval Scenes with the assuredness of a man who more fully finds his footing after every line.
Duncan—and by extension this volume—really begins to shine with A Book of Resemblances. The strength of this book, and the argument for the price tag, is not only the accessibility of all of Duncan’s work between two covers, but the process of working along with the poet as he searches for his ultimate expression. He earns the poems in Resemblances, which sing and swell and traverse emotional and metaphysical landscapes. But these poems were not born out of a black hole. Duncan climbs to this height, and ever higher, throughout these pages and those in the next volume. The true joy in reading a poet like this is the journey. Duncan walks with Pound, Williams, and Stein as influences, wearing them proudly on his poetic and fanciful flights through drama and poetry. If ever there was an argument for an oeuvre, this is it.
–after Julio Cortazar
What a conscientious protest: marketing One A Day vitamins to death-row inmates,
performing a little Crip Walk when security wands the standing body like a barcode,
listening to the bald deputy bad-mouth his own root canal that hasn’t happened yet.
What a conscientious protest: naming each bandoleer bullet after the cast of Soap:
Jimmy Baio lodged in a Basra watermelon, Diana Canova blew off a man’s wrist in
Mosul, Billy Crystal jammed in the barrel and fell out of the muzzle looking like a nickel
run over by a combine harvester, Robert Guillaume killed two relatives hugging in
Karbala (through his back and out of hers), Richard Mulligan and Katherine Helmond
fired into the air together as a warning to nobody.
What a conscientious protest: making The Today Show explain itself as a concept,
justify its existence as a time passage in the Milky Way galaxy, codify its moment
in culture and divulge its intentions for providing baking tips, 5 easy steps to person-
alize refrigerator magnets, polarizing soccer moms with a well-placed kidnapping
statistic conducted specifically for one county in Kentucky, then cut to commercial
on an awkward boy holding a sign: “I came all the way from Nag Hammadi Library’s
heresiology section to meet Willard Scott since I’m Mithra and I do whatever I want.”
What a conscientious protest: Occupy Ebenezer Place in Wick, Caithness, Scotland,
credited as the shortest street in the world at 6 ft., 9 in. In boots and hoodie, my 6 ft.,
4 in. frame disrupts miserliness, auto and pedestrian traffic, Tuesday trash collection.
Jeffrey Hecker was born in 1977 in Norfolk, Virginia. A graduate of Old Dominion University, he’s the author of Rumble Seat (San Francisco Bay Press, 2011) & the chapbook Hornbook (Horse Less Press, 2012). Recent work has appeared or forthcoming in La Reata Review, Mascara Literary Review, Atticus Review, La Fovea, The Waterhouse Review, Zocalo Public Square, The Burning Bush 2, Turtleneck Press, and LEVELER. He resides in Olde Towne Portsmouth, Virginia
Plato wanted poets expelled from his ideal republic because they did not arrive at truth by methodology, but, according to him and the ancient Greeks, poets came to truth by way of being possessed by a divine afflatus: a god, a demon, the muses. Of course, this truth the poets came by wasn’t always verifiable or reliable, and Plato’s Republic is all about reliability. It’s about truth verified by method and maintained by law and system. Utopias do not change insofar as they are predicated on an ideal, a measure of perfection: measure. We should consider this word before we proceed further. Measure is not only at the center of Plato’s Republic (he allowed music as long as it was march music and kept people in step) but it is also at the center of this wild unpredictable thing known as poetry. So if we were going to see Plato’s methodological truth as one side of a dialectic (thesis) and poetry’s non-systematic, irrational truth as on the other (anti-thesis), we could then consider measure to be the synthesis of philosophy and poetry. If we call the former precision, and the latter ecstasy, one might see Plato as privileging precision over ecstasy—a state in which the trains arrive on time as opposed to poetry where the trains might turn into Swans. But, still, Plato’s world of system is related to poetry in terms of rhythm, cadence, measure.
Here is the nice little irony: the more methodological the thinking, the more it is about ideas, and concepts, and information, the more it tends to be irregular in terms of the measure of its language. In a culture that keeps books, thinking, concepts, information soon loses the measure, the method of cadence, and becomes what we now know as prose. Poetry, especially insofar as it is–until fairly recently–always yoked to music, remains far more regular and measured. So Plato was not knocking the cadence of poetry except for one of its powers which he feared: it’s power to conjure, to con the listener by an appeal to the heartbeat and the senses, which exploits both the quality of measured music and flights of fancy, of hypnotized and altered states of being and uttering. The ecstatic, that which is in rapture, possessed, out of its usual senses, deeply immersed in the unconscious, the irrational is contingent far more on qualities of measure than is the methodological and logical arguments of prose.
And yet poets, in order to escape the tyranny of too regular a beat, have also embraced a far more irregular pulse and cadence over the last hundred or so years. Free verse is the most pronounced of these, but there is also syllabic verse, and prose poetry. What remains is what Plato feared: unsystematic thinking and a sense of momentum, of measure that appeals to the human mind not as information or data alone, but as an experience beyond paraphrase: that which cannot be summed up or reduced to a nutshell without losing much of its value. If measure is the common link then between precision and ecstasy, if it is that quality of verbal action that cannot be reduced to full precision or to pure ecstasy, then poetry, like music, like dance, might be defined as the precision of ecstasy, and the ecstasy of precision, an ecstatic precision, and measured ecstasy.
When both terms lose their separate properties and become one, poesis occurs, but we have a problem: since free verse has no discernible measure, is irregular in rhythm, what sort of poetry do we now have that Plato did not intuit? Free verse can be distinguished from prose in what way? We know how it can be distinguished from metered and rhymed verse: no regular pattern of beats, of feet, exist (and if they do, they are soon vanquished before they can set up a rhythmic anticipation on the part of the reader). Free verse usually does not rhyme. It tends to emphasize the line in terms of enjambments rather than full stops. It can be broken into lines in any number of ways, by any number of rules, none of which have absolute pride of place.
That’s how it differs from traditional metered and rhymed poetry. How does it differ from prose? In rhythm, in cadence? In meaning? In terms of intention? What makes it far more effective as a series of lines and line breaks rather than as loosely measured language written straight across the page? There is no real answer to this question. I have my own idea that free verse is that written language which may be either more heightened or flatter than prose. In terms of being more heightened, it often employs the ancient devises of spoken oratory: anaphora, anadiplosis, antithesis, alliteration, metonymy, enumeration, and listing—a sort of speechifying, an utterance conscious of itself at all times as an utterance—speech, but speech raised to the level of speechifying, the rhetorical devices of speech employed to create a sense of voice and speaker on the page (Whitman is a good example of this, but so is Allen Ginsberg. Often, this is used for comic mock epic effect. Ginsberg’s rapsodes often have a high degree of wise ass and silliness.).
In terms of being flatter than regular prose, free verse may emphasize blunt statement, parataxis, a complete deadpan presenting of disparate facts either aided and abetted by, or resisted by line and line breaks (think James Tate’s prose poems). Suppose I write: “Pass the soup please Veronica. All over the earth toads are gathering in the gardens of reasonably well fed men and woman.” I could line this any number of ways to emphasize different words, to isolate them in strange patterns. First, these two sentences are paratactic (one statement after another with no conjunctions or connective phrases). We can call this style of paratxis a sort of rhythmic non-sequitur (something Getrude Stein employs to perfection), but there is also actual ongoing non-sequitur, things jumping about, or said in a non-sequential, illogical manner that creates a sort of strangeness. In such a case, uber-flatness of utterance heightens the sense of strangeness, creating a language that may be both comical, and frightening in its emotional affect. In this case, no one would possibly speak this way (though we often do without being aware of it). This is the free verse of much New York school and language poetry, and all the variants in between. It comes from the conversational lyric (a type of poetic thinking on the page first developed by Coleridge and used most extensively by Wordsworth). The conversational lyric is the most common form of free verse.
The confessional, or narrative poem also uses the conversational lyric in which the measured sound is neither the strangeness of the oracular or the dead pan of uber flatness (glibness), but that which approximates a sort of ordered consciousness, a speaking consciousness in the act of relating a meaning, an atmosphere, a poetry that attempts to move a reader to laughter, tears or deeper appreciation of a theme. This is the poetry closest to prose in terms of wishing to communicate a truth that is not, to a large sense, swallowed up by its own utterance. It is serving information, communication, and expression of emotion. Very often, in order to do this, such poetry will be middle of the road, seek a sort of measured prosaic voice that does not draw too much attention to itself as a voice at all, but is trying to convey something beyond itself. Examples of this type of free verse might be the poems of Philip Levine, Maria Mazziotti Gillan, Sharon Olds, Stephen Dunn. This poetry seeks to be clear—to be understandable. It does not seek to razzle dazzle as does speechifying, or to create a strangeness of deadpan as does that free verse which is flatter than most prose. Some poems contain what might be called hybrids of all these types. Very often, even poets such as Levine and Gillan use the list, or anaphora, or contrast and they tend to do it far more than writers of prose, but they do so sparingly. Very often young poets write poems that use all three of these types of free verse in a single poem, and not successfully. This is why it is important to know your method of intention, and the way to do that is to read and learn from all these practices of free verse.
Now take some time to read George Trakl, who wrote in German. These translations by James Wirght and Robert Bly rendered Trakl into a sort of poetry that mixes the paratctic, flat style of free verse cadence with the last type I mentioned: the sense of a poet merely report what is scene, what is there for the sake of some meaning beyond the poem. If we could read these poems in German, if we could hear them in the natural measure of their utterance, we might have a very different poet before us—a poet carrying Holderlin and Heine, and Goethe, and also his contemporaries such as Rilke and Stephan George on his back. In meter and rhyme, these poems might seem totally different in character. We must read them here as English poems which have, through parataxis, a ghost of what I call “Ugg” clinging to them. “Ugg” is that overly stilted, stiff, sometimes simplistic English we have so called “primal” peoples speak: noble Indians, Tarzan, etc. We also use sophisticated Ugg for most Chinese and Japanese poems. It has the following features:
1. Usually short, declarative sentences, or even fragments, which have the rhythmic non-sequitur feeling of paratactic speech.
2. Dependance on image more than on rhythm, and on general rather than idiomatic phrasing. 3. Tendency toward eloquence in its new language which is not necessarily the same species of eloquence it had in its original language (for example Chinese poetry in Chinese is full of puns and verbal slights of hand. It is not: “the cherry trees bloom. I think of mustard” we tend to in English translation).
Translation of Japanese and Chinese poetry and other forms of ancient poetry tended to influence the actual writing of poems in the native language—to such an extent that it is hard to tell whether the imagists were imitating the Ugg translations of Chinese and Japanese poems, or Chinese and Japanese poetry was being reiterated into the flat, clear, paratactic “Ugg” measures of imagist poetry. Both are probably true.
Try to look at these Georg Trakl poems as free verse translations. Try rhyming them, complicating the sentences, emphasizing rhythmic pattern rather than image and see what happens. If you can, look at the original German. The point of this labor is to learn what exactly we mean by free verse and how exactly we become conscious manipulators of this tradition.
Georg Trakl has influenced many poets writing in English, especially the deep imagists, and poets such as Bly and Wright. His tone is that of the dream, the deadpan, almost drugged voice of disconnection we have come to see as one of the basic touch points of modernist, and post-modernist poetics.
Prompts for further exploration:
1. Take one of the Trakl Poems and try to retranslate it as a metered rhymed poem, keeping all the images, but playing with word arrangement and word choice. What does it do to the mood or effect of the poem? Now take this rhymed poem and retranslate it into free verse, rearranging as above.
2. Read “Locust Tree in Flower” by Williams–both published versions if you can. Try to reduce a poem of your own in this manner.
3. Take a movie review from the newspaper and play with it as a free verse poem. See what you can get rid of, what you can keep. The review should be three hundred words or less.
E N T I T L E D:
LET’S DRINK AND FUCK
a walking bowel movement.
All the pretty girls and the Mardi Gras, too.
Bitches go hard. Bitches fat it out, too,
when push comes to love.
Never let the truth
get in the way of
Paris is burning, and we shan’t be home tonight.
You cut me I bleed perfumania.
I want a normal happy life,
I either wanna wife and children,
or I wanna rich and famous,
or I wanna be had.
To make some impression, some mark upon the world,
all you have.
You hit it big, you anal bleach.
Paris is burning, and we shan’t be home tonight.
Sometimes you prom yourself to sleep.
The girl with two heads has also two hearts.
And all that vajiggle jaggles most beautimously.
Gotta loosen up this making face for everything.
So if we’re all going to hell, well
We are perfectly troubled of contents,
Ever since I felt your lisp on my lisp
down the bury the hatch.
We wear a strawberry letter.
Poised and elegant are the jonquils
in yellow and green repose.
Poised and elegant are we, reposed,
Oh but yes, I do, and t’ruly bleed love,
still I cannot b’leed all,
so be still, my heart.
Stand by your,
If all the raindrops were lemon drops and cum shots,
oh, what a—
My spirit faggot is the world that ain’t all Ferris wheels or Bueller’s
When the things of our adore of nor concern
are all for goodness sake’s.
The hope that was the one bright awesomely,
Paris is burning, and we shan’t be home tonight.
And it ain’t rape
if you scream
HOLD UP, WAIT.
quoth the raven,
my dog ate my willpower.
I slut shame belief.
The fucks you give are costly.
The fucks you don’t don’t cost a thing.
Fuck don’t cost a thing,
except your life, maybe,
but it was worth it, maybe
you’re worth it.
Maybe she’s born with it.
Full blown roses and/or AIDS.
Maybe it’s Makebelieve.
Bitches go hard. Bitches fat it out, too.
The fat one,
the black one,
the hot one,
Bitches go hard. BITCHES FAT IT OUT, TOO.
And it won’t stop.
And it can’t stop.
So their bacchanal was a debacle,
there was nothing with which to peel the bananas,
no shadowplay from which to venture forth.
So if you don’t like what’s on the table,
you better find a McDonald’s
and a roll of paper towels.
Some redeeming social value.
Have your infinities mammogrammed yearly.
Kim Vodicka grew up in Lafayette, Louisiana and received her B.A. in English from UL Lafayette in 2010 and her M.F.A. in Poetry from LSU in 2013. During her time in Baton Rouge, she coordinated Delta Mouth Literary Festival, hosted a psychedelic rock show, “Shangri-La-La Land,” on KLSU, and interned for Dig magazine. Her artwork has been published in Tenderloin, and her poems have been published in Shampoo, Ekleksographia, Dig, Spork, Unlikely Stories, and RealPoetik. Her first book, Aesthesia Balderdash, was published in June 2012 by Trembling Pillow Press.
Elizabethton, Tennessee, 1929
When wages sank and conditions became intolerable, women led a strike of the Glanzstoff Textile Mill. While their menfolk’s anger often erupted in violence, women used laughter and bold defiance of conventional feminine behavior as weapons against a bewildered National Guard, which was made up of their neighbors until backup was called. Though prosecutors branded them “wild” and “disorderly,” the women earned support from their pastor, sheriff, fellow townspeople, and local merchants.
Those big companies sprang like arrows
into the heart pine of Appalachia,
shaking hands with homegrown ambition,
eyes popping for our breasted hills,
sinewy creeks, and I suppose for what they saw
as backward-walking mountain folk.
They knew we had few laws to cry
for what a man ought give,
and no union to guard
what no man should take. No woman here
lines her closet with pretty things bought in town
or strings the hollows with high hopes.
A straight wage and a level word
we earned wading the chemical baths
that pull plain cellulose to clean filaments of rayon,
to stockings and bolts of color cloth.
We pulled that stuff, and when words ran out,
we shut the mill down, lined up like vertebrae
across the road.
They came with tear gas, nearly putting out our eyes,
but we stood, by God, stood laughing
at the National Guard -
boys who’d sat next to us in school,
who’d pitched rocks into the Watauga River,
one of them father to my children ten years ago.
For my divorce,
and our backtalk,
for shoving away soldier’s guns stuck in our faces,
they called us “lewd,”
and, red-faced, ordered us to walk 12 miles to jail.
We said no.
Later, raises never showed.
Management one-by-one scattered our girls
to the fields and washtubs,
bending our backs, biting our tongues.
But I knew what I was doing and I don’t deny it:
the six weeks we worked for ourselves
and stood for each other,
echoes of our shouts disappearing
like the longleaf pine
while we laughed, boys,
we just laughed and laughed.
Cesca Janece Waterfield is a journalist, poet, and songwriter based in Virginia. She has been selected three times to receive songwriter grants from The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP). She is the author of Bartab: An Afterhours Ballad (Two-Handed Engine Press). Her poems and fiction have appeared in numerous literary journals. She can be reached at cescawaterfield.com
Poems are “instruments for thinking” (Allen Grossman). The object of a poet’s thought, however, is often unstated–especially in lyric poetry. Lyric poetry never speaks to an audience, and so–as it is when we are alone–the speaker does not feel compelled to explicitly state the object of thought but only the thoughts themselves. In this review, I want to try and discern these objects of thought in the works of two poets whose work seem directed at resolving particularly spiritual problems.
diatomhero: religious poems
The primary question about Lisa A Flowers’ work is this: What spiritual universe does her poetry inhabit? What are its rules and how do those govern the assumptions and hence possibilities/ambitions of her work?
It seems to be a world in which incarnation is the rule, and yet there is also a kind of Heaven and Hell–locations that suggest some kind of finality. The figure of Justice speaks in one poem:
“…the Lord just takes all those who have died that day and consumes them.
The good ones are absorbed into His system,
And the bad ones pass right through it
And drop out into Hell,
Which is situated conveniently beneath Him as a toilet.
Some think they’re getting away because they’ve existed
Inside the camera of the body for so long.”
Heaven, here, I can understand as the escape of Nirvana, but not Hell–unless Hell is the earth, which I suspect is the case. What is the nature of this incarnation then? The images of the poems are constantly morphing, yet the syntax suggests stasis: it’s possible to go many lines without encountering an independent clause. Even flesh itself undergoes a kind of reincarnation.
But more importantly, I suspect that reincarnation is itself a kind of metaphor for dualism: mind-body, but also the dualism of one’s inner spiritual conflict. Reincarnation seems to be an image of the trauma of thwarted spiritual aspirations. The most compelling image of this metaphor is the “Rorschach” (from a poem of that title):
I was two places at once:
One side of my body bleeding indistinguishably into
Oneness, like an inkblot,
The other sketching the actual picture,
Past and present lives
Back to back, in a Star Wars trash compactor.
After awhile I opened my napkin and recognized myselves:
Two Versailles rivals turning fans to each other’s disdain,
A flattened hydra peeling itself off a window,
“Beast turning human,” like Nora Flood’s lover.
I think trauma is the right word. Reincarnation, though natural, seems to be a constant tearing, disorientation–a surprisingly appropriate metaphor for the self of modern poetics.
This raises some more questions for me about Lisa’s work: What is the relationship between trauma and time, between trauma and eternity? If trauma can stretch across eternity, then it is a fundamental aspect of the self. It seems to me that this is the question Flowers’ writing attempts to answer; it is this conflict that she aspires to resolve.
Digressions on God
The title of Emily’s chapbook is utterly perfect for these poems. “Digression” is almost a sustained method. One line in particular captures this movement:
Today I will have a conference with God,
And then I will boil a potato.
Many (not all) of the poems begin in an abstract thought on God or theology and eventually unwinds into an indiscernible particularity of Vogel’s everyday life. For instance, Vogel often addresses a “you” without any qualification–a figure made poetically inscrutable by the particularity of reference.
As readers, we are quite used to the opposite model–the upward aim–its firm entrenchment in Romantic poetry, especially. Vogel’s poetry is deliberately “downward aimed”; in this sense, the chapbook’s dedication–”In honor of the Holy Spirit”–is entirely appropriate as the Holy Spirit is God’s outpouring upon the world. This chapbook is not about man’s ascent to God, but God’s descent upon, His digression on man.
So what are the spiritual aspirations of Vogel’s poems? I think Vogel states it fairly directly in her poem “Exile” when she says
One must find the most reasonable solution
to the problem of despair.
One must come to some conclusion about God
the order of ordinary miracles.
What is the spiritual universe of Vogel? In her poems, this problem of despair is the abstract, where the idea of good can overwhelm the good, yet it is enmeshed and arises in daily-ness:
I am not, like a Poet, walking alone on the street,
reovering lost memories in the stench
of fih markets, finding hidden meaning
in a city train.
I am consoling your busted heart
in a desperate attempt to dispel the terrible Pride
which plagues my spirit. I am mad
with the desire to go mad with desire.
Yet final line contains a conundrum, and I believe it is aspiration of these poems to resolve this conundrum: “desire” is used in both its senses here–both abstract (“the desire to go mad”) and particular (“with desire” for the particular “you”). Vogel attempts to rectify both these senses of language by means of her digressions.
The Eggshell Parade brings you an interview with poet Joe Weil.
Desperately Seeking My Name is Not Susan
I’ve been meaning
to re-answer your ad
for love, Love.
Another way to look at it is to taste it.
Consume seven pineapples in a sitting
and wait for the acid to take your tongue.
Truth is, I’ve had too many
beers to care about meaning, too much
red wine to know the difference
between man and sliver. Hell, I’m no Madonna.
Look, all you really need
to know is if Mississippi is the opening
of a thousand drying river beds.
‘Cause the sun’s been promising
to return, and when it does
some woman in Michigan will shiver
and wait to feed you the blacks of her desperate eyes.
She is not me.
When you are gone, I will call out to a shadow
that is you. I will sing the lonesome girl’s prayer with new
lyrics. Say, I’ll be better off without you in the end.
Qiana Towns earned a MFA from Bowling Green State University, and a MA from Central Michigan University where she served as poetry editor for the online literary journal Temenos. Her work has appeared in Milk Money, and other literary journals. She is a Cave Canem fellow and Editor for Reverie: Midwest African American Literature.
JH: Congratulations on your first book diatomhero: religious poems. I treasure how this poetry holds every religion responsible for being authentic and explores exactly what kind of turmoil/freedom of movement (of creed, language, time, space) arises in such a busy atmosphere.
I’m thinking specifically of Christianity’s notion of finite resting places (blazing hot or room-temperature) teamed with Buddhist/Hindu reincarnation notions and Greek polytheistic elements. The book is a cream vichyssoise where these ingredients are available to be salted, peppered, and consumed. Could you talk a little about how the book is and is not a supplement to all religious texts?
LF: I love the word ‘vichyssoise’. It’s blonde as a Gibson girl in a mint satin evening gown, as per the synesthetic-green letter ‘V’. Definitely a word with the curls of the sun.
The title, diatomhero, is an anagram of the bible’s “I am the door”, a statement that comes full circle in the book’s final image, and applies just as much to Christ as it does to Janus. To open the doors of all myths and religions, to ‘let’ their darkness, (un)like bloodletting. At the end of the book, when Bluebeard’s chamber is opened, there’s not slaughtered women hanging on hooks, but far fields stretching out—a wide open country to fly out into ecstatically, like a heavy symphony unlocking its heavy doors and letting itself out of itself in its final movement. As opposed, for example, to a story like Poe’s Red Death, that ends walled inexorably up in its own terror. I’m not talking about imposing one’s own will against the will of the muse/work itself, or about ‘revisionism’ or ‘escapism’, but about a deliverance seductive enough to embed itself in the text without compromising it. Like Tangina in Poltergeist saying, “this house is clean”, only it’s “this myth is clean”… but with no tricks to follow.
A supplement is a continuation. The question is whether the myth is on a blind loop, or if it’s aware of intrusions. If we took the story of Princess Thermuthis finding the infant Moses among the reeds, but put the river hag Jenny Greenteeth in his place, what would that have done to the evolution of Christianity? If Hera had given birth to Christ; if Mary had found herself with Zeus’ child, because he came to her in one of his characteristic disguises, as he came to Danae as golden rain, etc. These combinations can be perverse and amusing or they can be profound: Ariarhod and Christ falling in love, and Christ finding, in love for her, a new world outside Christianity—like Cortez, or like the iconic awe of someone who’s never left the heartland seeing the sea for the first time. In Annie Hall, Woody Allen describes a relationship as being like a shark that has to keep moving forward or it will die—so we can apply that to myth, and of course to the myth of the dying god. If the inhabitants of a myth found themselves on a dying planet—a planet that was, of course, the myth itself—they would have to evacuate, to look for a new life in another legend. In somewhat of the same spirit, then, immigrants—drifters—from other afterlives appear as migrant workers in the Elysian Fields.
Theoretically, too, the book is written for synesthetes. And, as such, is ideally meant to be seen through synesthesia, like 3-D films are meant to be seen through 3-D glasses. And this is where the mythological blending/puree meets an ideal medium, because of course the synesthesete already has a sense of the dis/harmony of totally “unrelated” things—which are not really unrelated at all. So essentially the book is a preliminary study of synesthesia as myth and religion. I say “preliminary” because I’ve not gone near as far with this concept as I want to. diatomhero is an incomplete book, and it’s a work in progress, as all poems are. It plays with the “worlds colliding” theme, which a lot of people have of course played with, but I would like to think/hope (?) it does it in a unique way.
JH: The play turned-compact long poem makes for a jarring opening sequence which describes a manufacturing plant for souls and bodies. I love how this really kicks out the chairs from under the audience from the beginning. Readers must navigate the balance between the playful and the scarier. Everything familiar remains in the ball room but it’s simply misplaced, like hearing your favorite childhood song performed by a band of Gorgons on a harp strung with your mother’s funeral hair-do. The willingness to travel these fissures is crucial to enjoying the poems. Was there a purposeful attempt in these afterlife sequences to balance nostalgic memory with what are undeniably horrifying dream elements?
LF: I love that Gorgon/funeral hair juxtaposition, and I love this question. I think nostalgia, or merely fantasy, is a natural retreat in times of trauma. But—again with the deliverance premise— there’s the idea that a dream is an innocent desperately trying to communicate its plight through a nightmare, rather like what happens at the very moving end of the Spanish horror film The Orphanage. Variations of this concept have often been explored in Grimm and Perrault, et al. The innocent as needing help in being extracted from the context of a nightmare, but being unable to tell anyone how to do help them. The imprisoned who have to be saved by the freer being virtuous (Beauty and the Beast), or by sheer chance (The Frog Prince.) It’s up to the rescuer to figure out the riddle. And this is perfectly apropos because it is, of course, how the process of wisdom actually works. However, diatomhero is not about being rescued, but about being resourceful enough to rescue yourself. And about the arc as rescue, the underside of the arc that will return you to its exact opposite: a divine inevitability, a point beyond which the absence of good becomes so acute that the reality of its difference from evil is unmistakable, and no longer philosophically debatable. This, to put in the simplest terms, is salvation by default. And it takes us to a quote by Djuna Barnes, one of the most beautiful quotes of all, which I used as one of diatomhero’s epigraphs: ‘the unendurable is the beginning of the curve of joy’. I had a dream once that someone gave me that quote—the quote itself, in words—encased in an 80s style/Desperately Seeking Susanish jelly bracelet. That was the way that particular observation presented the true genius of itself to me—by literalizing itself.
JH: Emere’s Tobacconist is noted as having been originally constructed as a ten-act minimalist play, a whittling down that resulted in many sleepless nights. What sections did you extract and do you plan on producing it as theater in the future?
LF: I’m still negotiating the technicalities of the staging (and by “negotiating” I mean going over it in my own head, because nothing is on the table right now as far as production goes). Most of the acts are in fact truncated. The car accident victim who sees the bloody windshield of his car turned to a red stained glass window as he enters paradise reappears; in the extended scene Marc Chagall is there, having been commissioned to render the last earthly memory of the man into something sublime. So the rest of that scene is dialogue between those two men. There’s a monologue by Shura, the daughter of Ted Hughes and Assia Wevill, in which Shura enters—and goes wandering around—the childhood memories of the woman who found her dead and tried to revive her. There’s the blood of the slain turning white socks pink in heaven’s washing machine. There’s more Huck Finnish adventures down the river with John and Pearl in Night of the Hunter, in which they meet all kinds of water myths, and stories, like Ophelia and the singing head of Orpheus.
JH: Readers will invariably focus on myth and doctrine. I see those elements more like background music. They also aren’t meant to represent what they historically or even physically represent, as when somebody in your afternoon nap hands you a fork with no food on it and you thank him and simply eat the fork, which tastes like Special K (the cereal). I also noticed a kind of Confessional coming-of-age Bildungsroman fable (The subsequent 1000 odd color photos of the rest of your life) working in this collection. It may be beside the point, but could you address some of the “real-life” challenges you may have been facing that sub-atomically got engrained in the white spaces between the ink?
LF: Dadaberry Crunch! (Why didn’t Wonka invent the Dadaberry?).
The writing of diatomhero, in tandem with several events, was accompanied the realization that there’s no such thing as “odds”, because something is only randomly likely or unlikely to happen until it happens to someone you love or to you. The concept of likelihood or unlikelihood is a consolation device—and a privilege. This has probably been common knowledge to enlightened people for centuries, but I didn’t always know it. I used to feel that there was a difference between myself and someone who had died. I don’t anymore. That’s not a fatalistic statement, it’s a statement of gratitude, because gratitude is about recognizing randomness as much as it is about celebrating and honoring blessings—because life and existence are joys to be celebrated and honored, not because you’ve made it out of the hole thus far. One of the final images in Rorschach came from attending a dear friend of mine’s viewing. Some weeks later, I had a nightmare of her on the embalming table. But it ended with her zodiac sign (Cancer) leaving her body like a crab and scuttling off into the ocean. And then the crab ended up on the shore of the Riviera, in Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief, and climbed out onto the shore of that film, and her birthday (the 4th of July) fused with that film’s iconic fireworks scene. The nightmare had outsmarted itself and become an act of escape, of transfiguration.
JH: What classic cinema made this collection possible?
LF: I didn’t even come close to honoring the great religious films, like Larisa Shepitko’s The Ascent and Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, though their spirit was very much an inspiration. Jack Clayton’s The Innocents. Scads of films that weren’t mentioned in the appendix. Carnival of Souls. The Virgin Spring. There are so many it would take far too long to try to list them. David Lynch’s work is always in me, like a kind of libido. Inland Empire. Children’s films that deeply affected me as a child, and that I vividly remember seeing on the big screen, are certainly in there, at least in spirit. Watership Down. The Last Unicorn. Fantasia. A huge influence that wasn’t cited was Kubrick’s 2001…the line “his life wrenched out of him like a discus/that goes flailing off to the Lord” was more or less directly inspired by the iconic bone-toss scene in that film. And the monolith scene at the end, in the marble mansion, with the sound of ancient man echoing through the hallways…right outside, like the tinkling distant sound of an orchestra would be audible throughout the halls of Gatsby’s mansion. That is beyond genius. It has never been equaled in film. Echoing because time has collapsed, and the dawn of humankind is now in the next room on the other side of the wall. Then the water imagery in the last scene of Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible—one of the most horrific and unwatchable of films, with the most beautiful ending–appeared, with its flashing space-time continuum, and the sprinkler system in that last shot that the children are gallivanting around fused with the Greek myth of Arethusa and Alpheus, united forevermore in the fountain. And of course the sprinkler system is also the biblical fountain, the fountain of youth, the godhead.
JH: Much has transpired when we reach the opposing Pioneers, yet I consider each essential bridge poems. The first considers the 19th century practice of daguerreotyping a dead child. Following the action in the previous sections, this is the first moment in the book that considers death may be an insipid motionless activity after all. Everything moves in the room with the dead person except the dead person. The second poem, however, maintains hope the mind of a shooting victim post-mortem is still very busy. I like how you give a little credence of the dead body, but ultimately have to ignore it. Do you feel society is too transfixed of physical aspects of being dead (and alive) and probably misses the exciting stuff?
LF: I think I’m too transfixed with it. As, of course society is and has been, down through the ages. Memento Mori. “Everything moves with the dead person except the dead person”…this is a brilliant question and a brilliantly worded question. I kept studying these Victorian daguerreotypes of people who had been photographed—right after they had died—with their eyes open. They had what Dickinson called “the distance/on the look of death” but it’s a distance that has also evaporated in itself mid-flight because the soul has left faster than the eyes can process the recognition of its leaving. You can see the same thing in some of Andres Serrano’s corpse photographs… an almost polite suspension in the eyes. There’s that soon-to-diminish flashbulb-brightness that’s always there, of course, but what we’re looking at is actually a stunned rapidity of departure. It’s not death that’s an insipid motionless activity, but the ‘politeness’ of the corpse itself, in its waiting for others to try to process it. I saw it as a taut bladder, like someone wanting to piss into salvation but holding it out of consideration for their loved ones/mourners, but after awhile they can’t hold it anymore, and their soul is starting to trickle out and piss itself. But they’re trembling, and their muscles are beginning to shake, and all sorts of things are starting to ‘fall’ out of their eyes… like the spider that appears, falling, gaping out of the eyes of the deceased, and falling out into the mourners, like all sorts of abominations and precious things, because the mind of the deceased is emptying into the beyond. The soul is being as courteous as it can for as long as it can, despite the fact that it is becoming more and more dazzled and seduced by the journey that’s now before it. But there is something gigantic starting to whoosh through the eyes, something massive, like a tsunami, and eventually that tsunami will flow out into pure light, into pure white water rapids.
The second Pioneers was inspired by an image on the Inland Empire deleted scenes disc (in fact, it was originally titled Inland Empire Deleted Scenes Disc, 16:36-11:06). The scene was a sequence of dulled, exploding lights that looked exactly like what someone who’d been shot in the back of the head while watching fireworks would have seen in their final moments. (And, interestingly, Lynch and the singer Moby do have a collaboration out called Shot in the Back of the Head, but it was post IE). The light slowed and imprinted, and it was as if part of American history itself had been shot, and was having a “life review” right up to the coast of the Atlantic, beyond which was England. The covered wagons had cycled back as far as they could go, and the holiday was flashing backwards into extinction.
JH: Mt. Fuji, Eden, Long Beach, Catalina, Tropic of Cancer, Scotland, Los Angeles, the Chesapeake Bay, Egypt, Sodom, Texas) are more memories than locations. There are also many instances where the speaker is making the most of bilocation. I’ll never forget when my old science teacher Mr. Jackson asked the PTA meeting “What if the human eyeballs are facing inward and we’re all looking at the backs of our own skulls? Please feel free to grab a Little Debbie cake at the exit doors. Watching you all eat makes me hungry.” How might diatomhero comfort Mr. Jackson?
LF: Mr. Jackson was obviously a genius. He reminds me of Jake Tucker, that character on Family Guy with the upside-down face, saying to Meg: “maybe someday we can get married, and you can go up on me”. The bilocation is toss-up, actually. Obviously LA, the Rockies, the Chesapeake Bay—all places or features of places I’ve actually lived—are drawn from real life, though very little in the book can be said to be autobiographical, in the linear sense. Most of the places mentioned simply presented themselves.
JH: Robert Duncan occasionally included fun characters into his dramatic verse: First Beloved, Queen Under The Hill. You too bring stock characters to life in diatomhero. Could you provide some gossip on the following funky bunch: Peg Powler, Willa Harper’s children, Old Man Bickle, Madame DuBois, Mike Teavee? I’m especially fond of Old Man Bickle. His farm is mentioned during your rabbit reincarnation stage.
LF: I’ve discussed Peg, aka Jenny Greenteeth, and Willa Harper’s children (Night of the Hunter). Old Man Bickle just appeared, though I suppose I must have been thinking of Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle. I think Travis would have been quite at home in this book; he’s not as far from it as he might seem to be. Madame DuBois just appeared. I have no clue who she is. And Mike Teavee, of course is the prodigal son of Wonkavision. In another poem (in the new book) there are souls that get churned up the blades of the Fizzy Lifting room, because, unlike Grandpa Joe and Charlie, they’ve not learned how to belch, or are unable to—the afterlife is full of hazards, after all.
JH: As a poet who plays with myth also, I’m consistently impressed by this work’s ability to incorporate myth without the reader needing to arrive at your text versed in that myth necessarily. In other words, you achieve equilibrium between the secular and the psychopomp. How did you check that balance while writing this?
LF: Thank you—that’s one of the greatest compliments I’ve received about the book. I’m glad it comes across that way, because I of course have no way of knowing how it’s coming across to anybody. I personally think that my poetry is wide open. There may be some relatively obscure references here and there and stuff, but I don’t think they really interrupt anything (I hope). What I really want is to create an images playground. Anyone can get something out of an image. Like being a kid at Disneyland, and riding Small World and being transfixed with wonder (rather than being consumed with wondering how the ride is mechanically engineered, like all those colorless and usually talentless academic critics with their obsession with “structure” are—as if an artist is incapable of writing a poem outside the “rules”; eg, the rigor of an institutional body brace and the breadth of geisha steps. The first rule of Fight Club is “joyless”, they might say). However, this book is also a form of warfare, to me– against the time-space continuum trapping us, against mortality physically aging us against our own evolution and wisdom. diatomhero is critical thinking transmogrified into the imaginative. It is a book of strategy. Not, I repeat, escapism.
But back to the joy of images unto themselves. I loved what you said, awhile back, about Robert Desnos’s poetry feeling like the ball pit at Chuck-E-Cheese. That was such a marvelous observation, just beautiful, and a wonderful description of a triumphant legacy. We all know how terribly Desnos died. But he won, and his readers are still jumping into the ball pit.
JH: Will your second book of poems be similar or different from diatomhero? A bastard cousin perhaps? Where’s the next path of Pane di Altamura breadcrumbs for Lisa A. Flowers lead?
LF: I’m working on a surrealist study of early childhood now, and I’m loving it, and loving the process of trying to remember the way children (I) saw things before they were literalized or contrasted. I am also doing a series of reverse tone-poems, transcribing images from Schubert to Arvo Part to Krzysztof Penderecki. These range from the delightful “transcribing” Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite—I don’t mean its actual story, but the images it gave me—was wonderful, like revisiting my early childhood. By contrast, transcribing Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima was obviously very dark. This transcription method was interesting because I would program in symphonies and just shift from, say, Pachelbel’s Canon into Penderecki, and the poetry would change instantly, be violently ripped out of itself into another image, with no warning. The poem would plunge sickeningly, like a heart monitor reflecting someone who had just had a massive and unexpected adrenaline dump. It was as if images from the Canon had been catapulted through the ceiling in a violent earthquake, and were lying dazed on the floor of the Penderecki apartment below, completely unaware of what had just happened. It also went the other way: going from Penderecki into the second movement of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto was like the train murder scene in Fire Walk With Me, when the angel suddenly appears to Ronette Pulaski and the screaming and the horror simply disappears into the holy silence of light, out of time. There’s more synesthesia going on in this book, too. And, I suppose, more films throwing their images into other contexts, though I’m not going to keep repeating the same theme ad infinitum—my hope is simply to keep catching images worth keeping. And I remain enchanted with something Werner Herzog said about the highest, most exalted points of the creative process, and its results: “there’s very rare moments where I get the feeling sometimes I’m like the little girl in the fairy tale who steps out into the night, in the stars, and she holds her apron open, and the stars are raining into her apron. Those moments I have seen and I have had. But they are very rare.”
Lisa A. Flowers is a poet, critic, vocalist, cinephile, ailurophile, and the founding editor of Vulgar Marsala Press. Her poetry has appeared in The Cortland Review, elimae, and other magazines and online journals. She is the author of diatomhero: religious poems. Visit her personal website here.