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In this installment of “Between the Lines,” Dustin Pearson talks with Benjamin Miller about journeys through the desert, words as objects, and poetic self-interrogation.
DP: A lot of the poems in your collection share the same titles. The title in common I found most central was “Desert.” Between the appearance of the first “Desert” and the last, the speaker seems occupied with the idea of having done or doing nothing. My mind immediately associates those poems with Moses’ liberation of the Israelites from Egypt, but I struggle to draw an explicit connection considering the different circumstances by which the two journeys are provoked. How do you imagine the connection, if any?
BM: I did put that title there with a biblical text in mind, but it was Abraham I was thinking of, not Moses. Or, at least, Abraham most of all. He’s told by God, not once but twice (Genesis 12:1, 22:2) to get up, go, find himself, don’t worry about where, God will show you. And that idea of journeying without knowing where you’re going is what appealed to me, the being drawn forward, but where are you the whole time? You’re in this desert, this vast and isolated space. And you don’t know if you’re close or far, or if in fact you’ve traveled any great distance at all, because the light plays tricks.
Now, I know the poems themselves don’t enact that exactly: there are trees and windows and clocks and doorlocks and couches and things.
Part of it, I confess, is that this title came late to this series of poems. Originally these were days of the week, starting I think with a Wednesday, which generated the wolves who chase the sun. But another part is just a function of how I compose, which often involves taking words or objects (or words as objects) and playing with them — subsetting them, rearranging letters, thinking of their opposites and apposites — and trying to get them to yield up some insight or emotional understanding I hadn’t had before. So the couches and the bathroom door cracks and the days started out as real, but they took me to that lonely place where I could see the lines being part of this series of poems, even if the narrative of the text itself isn’t set in the desert.
DP: Your collection seems to be sensitive to the coming of night and morning, the idea of home, and especially return and arrival. I most readily think of your poem “Field Glass (Manifest)” as a good example of all these themes working simultaneously. Can you comment on what inspired this? How conscious or unconscious are their recurrence? Did that element of consciousness change over time?
BM: It did become more conscious over time. The poem you mention was written in more or less one quick outpouring, though it did get a lot cut out of it afterward, and some minor revisions made. (Other poems have had a much more belabored history.) So that wasn’t a deliberate attempt to include these themes; it just was the headspace or wordspace I was in at the time. But in my MFA thesis workshop, we were put on “word watches” by Lucie Brock-Broido; I think I also had wings and lightning and dark, which I was happy to cut back on because I didn’t want the whole book to be too, too, well, for lack of a better word, emo. But I think it was around then, seeing the consistent presence of departure, travel, sand, light, that I began to think of the book as cohering around the Abrahamic journeys I mentioned earlier, and to look for more ways to build those up: more deserts, more field glasses, more sand.
DP: The interviews in your collection are among the most fascinating and difficult poems. Can you comment on how you imagine your readers accessing these poems?
BM: Though you might not know it to look at the pages, much of the book was written under the star of W.S. Merwin’s The Lice and The Moving Target; his “Noah’s Raven” was one of the first poems I remember learning by heart, and its spirit floats over the waters of my deserts. These interviews bear clear traces of Merwin’s “Some Last Questions,” which I’ll quote a little of if I’m allowed:
What is the head A. Ash What are the eyes A. The wells have fallen in and have Inhabitants What are the feet A. Thumbs left after the auction No what are the feet A. Under them the impossible road is moving Down which the broken necked mice push Balls of blood with their noses
and so on. As in other cases, what I think we’re both doing is trying to re-see the significance of something right in front of us, whether it’s parts of the body or parts of words. It’s a self-interrogation, a self-spurring onward beyond the first impression. When I write,
What is the sun?
A single star does not define an evening.
I really am trying to answer the question, but to use the search for an answer as invitation to aphorism, so the answer can also stand apart from the question — and, of course, to generate new questions in turn.
… Does that answer the question?
DP: Yes, that’s a fantastic answer, thank you.
DP: Your poem, “Checklist for a Savior” seems as much a critique of saviors in general as a critique of saviors in a Christian or other religious context. Many of your poems juxtapose spiritual musings with common daily happenings. There are multiple individuals that are likened to Biblical saviors. Regardless of the miraculous tasks included, do you imagine your speaker’s checklist as an appeal to any one savior or is the checklist more symbolic?
BM: Thanks for this question: I do think the intimation of the spiritual within the everyday is part of what I wanted here, throughout the book, not least because I felt a debt to some of the people who recommended me for graduate school: I applied at the same time to MFA programs and to rabbinical school, and had the same recommenders for both, which led to some interesting conversations, to be sure, but also a conviction that to walk through the world in search of a poem is in some ways to search for the numinous. That was one idea, anyway, and somehow I ended up with swans, so go figure.
This poem is not addressed to Jesus, if that’s what you mean, and in my own Jewish context the coming of the Messiah ushers in “ha’olam haba,” which I take to mean “the eternally approaching” (rather than the usual translation, “the world to come”). So in my head, the savior isn’t someone who actually does arrive. To use the terms of your question, then, this isn’t addressed to anyone in particular.
At the same time, I don’t think symbolic is quite right, either, at least in the sense of signs referring to some clearly marked referent. What’s important for me is the stance — the waiting — the speaker, more than the spoken-to. If the poem had only the last two lines, maybe it would work just as well. Or maybe then I wouldn’t be able to say them.
Benjamin Miller has studied at Harvard, Columbia, and the CUNY Graduate Center, and has taught writing at Columbia and Hunter College. His poems have appeared in RHINO, Pleiades, The Greensboro Review, and elsewhere; Without Compass is his first book. For more about Ben, visit majoringinmeta.net.
Dustin Pearson is an MFA candidate at Arizona State University. He received his BA and MA in English Literature from Clemson University. He would eat white rice and soysauce regardless of living on a graduate student budget. He is from Summerville, South Carolina, and would love to direct your literary festival. He can be reached at Dustin.Pearson@asu.edu.
|More InterviewsJoseph D. HaskePaul LisickyMegan StaffelCraig Morgan Teicher|
it is winter again as we feel our way through a bed of glass in the river we’ve been here before everything’s the same still the morning still the pieces of glass we pile in the image of a child and praise in truth we can’t make anything happen between us winter began inside you no one knew but I knew * I want to believe this will end with the child coiled around your finger with thousands watching and throwing roses at us with lights and glitter in our hair but we both know how it ends we practice until we don’t need to tell our bodies how to do it the child with her glass head— her lips curled in my palm trying to say her name for her will you hold her to the light will you breathe a little pink into her your hands on her throat looking for the song at the other end not everything is a bright flute made of bone * we tried shaking her out of us like a bee down our shirts but what if the bee had been a wasp what if it died not because it stung but because it grew tired of stinging milk eyed small lunged prophet in the mud you wash the sand out of your hair where the mushrooms outnumber the stars we sit on the bank in the sun and quietly roll clay between our legs and its hardening is a form of meditation winter begins with her hands detached from the branches you knew you always knew
The potholes in the road were filled with muddy water because it had rained the night before. Some of the holes, jagged around the edges, were the size of miniature craters and every time we reached one, we stomped our feet in it and sloshed the brown water on each other. We roared in excitement, our voices pummeling the cool and heavy morning air, as the water splashed on our clothes and skins. It was as if the dirty liquid were seeping into our bodies and energizing us for the task at hand. We were on our way to burn a thief.
We were partly shoving and partly dragging him along with us, hands under each armpit to keep his shaved head and muscled torso upright. At first, when we’d caught him hiding under the carpenter’s workbench with Auntie Naa’s smartphone stashed precariously in his boxers, he’d played stubborn, locking his arms around a leg of the bench when we’d tried to pull him out by his waistband. But a head-twisting slap had left him dazed and pliant. We’d hoisted him to his feet and stripped him of his tools, a screwdriver and a knife with a curved, glinting blade, similar to the ones the butchers used to slice through singed goat hides in the market. After that we’d yanked off his jean trousers, causing him to trip over his callused feet, and fall, and ripped off his t-shirt to reveal the crisscross of smooth, raised scars that decorated the entirety of his back; the man was obviously a career criminal. A bottle of kerosene and a box of matches were not hard to find.
“I beg you in Jesus’ name,” he’d started to cry when we began shoving and dragging him, head lowered, in our midst as we jogged down the main road. We’d ignored his pleas. Jesus himself, in all of his white glory, would have had to come down to rescue this guy. We’d caught others like him before but had let them go after a simple beating with our shoes and belts. Big mistake. They had returned with reinforcements while we slept, broken into our homes, tied us up and struck us with the blades of their machetes and the butts of their locally-manufactured pistols, and taken all that we’d toiled for and cherished the most. At least once a month, we woke up to find that a family in our neighborhood had been beaten and robbed. Two weeks before, armed robbers had shot Mr. Francis, who worked at the passport office, in both hands because he’d refused to tell them where he’d hidden his laptop. They preyed on our mothers who traded in the market and had to wake up while the sky was still gray to meet with the middlemen who supplied them with yams and tomatoes from the north and cassava and okro from the south. These criminals grabbed them while they waited for the buses, which ran infrequently during the early hours, slapped them until their faces ballooned, and stole the monies that they hid in the shorts they wore underneath their cloths. Lately, these animals had begun tearing off these shorts and raping our poor mothers! Right there in the open! Why couldn’t they just take the money and leave?
And we weren’t even rich people. Small Frankfurt, our neighborhood on the outskirts of Accra, consisted of two and three-bedroom bungalows haphazardly thrown together so that street names and house numbers would not make sense if they were ever introduced. Ours was one of those communities where most homeowners had not painted their houses and were comfortable with the grayness of the cement blocks. Cement blocks on which city workers frequently scrawled in red paint: REMOVE BY ORDER OF THE ACCRA METROPOLITAN ASSEMBLY. If only the Assembly cared as much about the state of our roads. All but the main road were un-tarred and the red dust that was whipped up by cars coated us and everything we owned. When we washed ourselves in the evenings, the water that spiraled down our drains was red. Not that we could afford to bathe every time we scratched our skins and saw the grime that accumulated underneath our fingernails. The water pipes had not yet reached us–and seemed like they never would–so most of us were buying water by the barrel from the dented water tankers that lined up on the side of the main road like the UN convoys that we watched on TV, driving into warzones. We were, therefore, stingy with the water in our drums and buckets. Not like those people who lived in neighborhoods like Kponano and Alistair. Those people who watered their expansive green lawns at noon when the sun was highest and had large flat screen TVs in their pristine villas and small flat screen TVs in their gleaming cars. People whose homes were littered with the things that robbers sought; the kinds of things that we barely had.
We neared the open field where we planned to burn him. There was a large mound of trash at the east end of that dusty tract of land, a putrid collection of the degradable and the non-degradable. We picked up speed, our feet rhythmically pounding the pavement like a police battalion marching against protestors. In fact, we were speeding up because of the police. We were sure that someone would have called them by now; they would fire bullets into the sky to disperse us if they showed up. The thief would be rescued, held for a few weeks, and released back onto the streets to terrorize us. We weren’t going to let that happen.
There were many others who wanted to stop us. Word of the thief’s capture and of our plan to necklace him had spread quickly. People, mainly women, had lined the road while others ran behind us. They still had on their sleeping clothes; the women with their cloths tied around their chests and their hair gathered in hairnets. Toothbrushes and chewing sticks poked out of many mouths.
“This man has a mother somewhere o, you cannot do this,” Auntie Naa was screaming from somewhere behind us. You would think that she would have been grateful that we’d retrieved her phone and were about to punish the thief who had stolen it. That we were about to send a strong warning to others who refused to work and, instead, chose to use our community as an ATM. Another woman began to ululate. In between the piercing cries she shouted, “Come and see o, our youths are about to kill somebody’s son.” Annoyed, we began a protest chant that immediately drowned her out.
Weee no go gree
We no go gree
We no go gree
Weee no go gree
“We will not agree!” we sang. We clapped our hands and stomped our feet harder. The surface of the un-tarred road onto which we’d branched was too damp to produce dust. Instead clods off dirt flew into the air around our feet and stung those whose legs were uncovered. Not like we felt the pain. The chant had thrown us into a frenzy. We’d become encased in a bubble, generated by our lungs, that blocked out any sound that wasn’t produced by us. We were one clapping, singing, stomping body, pulsing with our determination to avenge what those criminals had done to us. This one, who was stupid enough to strike at dawn when some of us were awake and alert enough to begin the chase as soon as Auntie Naa raised the alarm, would pay the debt that his brothers owed. It seemed like he’d resigned himself to his fate and had stopped crying out the name of his Jesus. Or maybe he hadn’t stopped, but how were we supposed to know that, enclosed in our bubble like we were?
As we stepped onto the field, we were approached by about twelve of the older men who were not with us. They’d come to rescue the thief. We immediately formed a circle around him. They might have invaded our ring of sound but we dared them to break through our solid wall of flesh. They threw their bodies at our barricade but we held strong and surged forward. They stumbled and fell at our feet. We would have trampled them if they weren’t our fathers, uncles, and older brothers. We marked time until they got to their feet and began to stagger away, defeated.
We threw the thief onto the edge of the trash heap so that his head was cushioned by rotten bananas and cow entrails while his legs lay on the red dirt. We pulled a frayed tire from a ledge of waste above his head and formed a semicircle around him. It was time. He was now frantically searching our faces and boring through our eyes with his. His eyes were watery. We became still. Our throats closed up and our sound bubble began to rise and float away without us.
“God will not forgive you, don’t do this,” we heard one of the women shout.
“Why won’t the men stop them?” someone else cried.
Their voices were intruding on us, breaking our concentration. We had to act quickly. We lifted his shoulder and put the tire around his neck. He was whimpering. He cupped both hands and began slapping them together. The fool thought he could beg his way out of this. As if he and his friends listened when our mothers pleaded with them at the bus stop in the dark. We poured the kerosene over the length of his body. Some of it splashed on our legs and we drew back, our chests heaving. We were struggling to breathe; there was no air, only the stench of kerosene and garbage. The thief, on the other hand, was breathing just fine. He began struggling to stand up, as if the kerosene had ignited his desire to live. The tire around his neck made his efforts clumsy, almost comical. We jabbed our feet into his legs and thrust him back down onto the trash. He started doing the thing with his eyes again, looking at me as if he was trying to escape from his body into mine, through my eye sockets. My palms became slick with sweat. My hands stiffened and I felt that if I wriggled my fingers, they would break with a loud clack. This had never happened to me before. Even when I dissected a frog in the lab for the first time, when I made a vertical incision down its abdomen with my scalpel and pulled apart both glossy flabs to reveal the dark brown of its large intestine and the pale pink of its small intestine. My hands had been steady, flexible. But now, my wet and stiff fingers caused the matchbox to slip and fall.
“Pick it up,” Henry said to me. The matchbox had landed near my right foot. It was touching my big toe.
Why should I be the one to pick it up, weren’t we all standing there? And who was he to tell me what to do?
“Priscilla, stop wasting time and pick the thing up,” Kweku said. We were standing pressed so close together that I could feel his sweat on my arm. I turned my head and glared at him.
“Don’t you have hands?” I snapped. I was used to fighting with Kweku. He’d sat behind me in school since kindergarten and we both planned to study biology in the university next year. I stepped back so that the matchbox was no longer touching my toe.
“My sandals!” Susan yelped. She’d been standing behind me, mashed up against my back. I ignored her. Hadn’t she known she was wearing sandals when she was jumping into puddles of dirty water a few minutes ago? Besides, she was the one who’d brought up this idea about burning the next thief we caught. She’d been furious because robbers had broken into her house, stripped her father naked, slapped him around, and made him do jumping jacks in front of his family. He’d had a heart attack the next day. She’d said that necklacing was how people dealt with robbers in other places, maybe in other countries. When she brought up the idea I should have told her that that is not what is done here.
“I beg you, sister,” the thief sobbed. Now he was focused only on me. No one had made a move to pick up the matchbox.
I retreated further into the wall of people behind me. A chorus of “agyeis,” “ouches,” “ahs,” and “ohs” followed my move. I imagined us falling down on each other like dominoes, falling so low that we were face to face with the thieves, rapists, and murderers who dwelled at that level. When I turned, each person was still erect but shuffling backward. Sensing his moment, the thief struggled to his feet, lifted the tire from around his neck, and dropped it on the ground in front of him. I stepped back even farther; I didn’t want kerosene on my uniform. The man began to walk sideways in the gap between the pile of rubbish and the now-cracking wall that we’d formed. I didn’t try to stop him. No one else did. He glanced at me and then at his escape route, once. Three seconds later, his legs were scissoring the air as he ran toward the opposite end of the field. A voice in the back–it sounded like my mother’s–said, “Won’t you people hold him until the police come?” I didn’t answer, no one did. We began to disperse. I had to go back home; I hadn’t even had breakfast yet and my shoes were wet.
Look for more work by Peace Adzo Medie in Issue 6, due out this November.
IN THE PLACE OF BEST INTENTIONS
As this is not the land of ice packs
and regenerations, of spent glue guns
or antiseptic counters—since shy
reminders filter through the streets all night
(mountain streams that city fountains sip)
absconding with old disappointments—
because the powerlines are wet with flames
that spill their music into shallow halls
devoid of short-term motives, I am lost
and cannot say what may have led me here
to watch the girls unwrapping fiberboard
from miles of burlap while the waitresses
tattoo their angry daisies on my arms.
What is this place that leaves me so unmoved?
A hat I’d never worn or wanted worn
is now my prized possession; tissues packed
into abandoned zipper pockets breed—
I had forgotten that the small glass cups
were hidden in my socks and that my hands
were laced with fine red scratches
long before the advent of arrival. Now I feel
the heat of my illusion dim to tremble,
a dull intrusion into some romantic
basement of unknowable books. And so
forgive me if the water left for tea
is steeped in silt and valentines; forgive
the unexpected token undisclosed.
Last night I thought I wanted tragedy,
a chance to wick away the morning’s
donut, bagel, muffin, scorn. But to span
the gap from night to night, from night
to some hello, is more than I can yet
achieve: a phone that rings without response
and without end or empathy.
Belief is a raft tossed out on a thirsty plain.
Were I that lonesome, I’d never have left.
ON THE MARGINS OF THE PORTABLE COUNTRY
The making of ideology, of how stories learn,
ends in bone. Thus, facts without lives are trouble.
Even squall, the art of, must learn to scramble hours
as the scribblers do; and so some argument electric
in its innocence arrives to silver fictions
out of mauve and maudlin discipline.
All worthy hearts embark. But who returns
from such a journey—who could tent beneath
that zoo and cairn with time’s fool law
and still press on unscathed? (The lathe, the nick,
the cutting tree remembering the cutting.)
On the margins of the portable country,
a stranger compendium lands its craft
of pleasure and scorn, a balloon
in love with a wood, a turtle fallen
from the subjunctive into the academy.
I’ve started marking up a manual of dangers.
You have not all been selected.
IN THE WAKE OF AVOIDABLE TRAGEDY
What little remains is clear: it is over.
The first and the last having gone
and returned, come and returned,
we have learned to welcome those
who make the place feel welcoming.
A guitar in the corner hoards the light,
says: you, in a collapsing world,
your eyes such sharp, undarkened things.
From Without Compass (c) 2014 by Benjamin Miller.
Reprinted with permission of Four Way Books. All rights reserved.
“In the Wake of Avoidable Tragedy” was first published in The Greensboro Review.
No turning back. Deep in the Utah desert now, having left one home
to return to the temple of my grandfather. I press the pedal
hard. Long behind me, civilization’s last sign—a bent post
and a wooden board: No food or gas for 200 miles. The tank
needling below half-full, I smoke Camels to soothe
my worry. Is this where it happened? What’s left out there of Topaz
in the simmering heat? On quartzed asphalt I rush
past salt beds, squint at the horizon for the desert’s edge: a lone
tower, a flattened barrack, some sign of Topaz—the camp
where my mother, her family, were imprisoned. As I speed
by shrub cactus, the thought of it feels too near,
too close. The engine steams. The radiator
hisses. Gusts gather, wind pushes my Civic side
to side, and I grip the steering wheel, strain to see
through a windshield smeared with yellow jacket wings, blood
of mosquitoes. If I can find it, how much can
I really know? Were sandstorms soft as dreams or stinging
like nettles? Who held my mother when the wind whipped
beige handfuls at her baby cheeks? Was the sand tinged
with beige or orange from oxidized mesas? I don’t remember
my mother’s answer to everything. High on coffee
and nicotine, I half-dream in waves of heat: summon ghosts
from the canyon beyond thin lines of barbed wire. Our name
Ishida. Ishi means stone, da the field. We were gemstones
strewn in the wasteland. Only three days
and one thousand miles to go before I reach
San Francisco, the church where my mother was born
and torn away. Maybe Topaz in the desert was long
gone, but it lingered in letters, photos, fragments
of stories. My mother’s room now mine, the bed pulled blank
with ironed sheets, a desk set with pen and paper. Here
I would come to understand.
TEMPLE BELL LESSON
Son, I am weighted.
You are light.
Our ancestors imprisoned,
in sand, swinging
between scorching air
and the insult
Their skin bronzed
to their sorrow
Any noise alerts me. My wife Grace shifts beneath our comforter.
Respecting my uncles long dead, I climb from bed, grab
the bat, climb stairs, walk halls with a thousand sutras shelved
high, my grandparents’ moonlit ink floating on pages sheer
as veils, the word Love rescued from censors. In the nursery
I check window-locks, sense my son Brendan falling in and out
of seizures and sleep. Backed by the altar, its purple chrysanthemum
curtains, gold-leafed lily pads, corroded rice paper, I crouch
then stand at the window to watch silhouettes fleeing
past streetlamps, the gate unmoored from its deadbolt, unhinged
from ill-fitted screws and rusted nails. The front door cottoned
with fog shakes in night wind. Backyard bushes rustle. For now
I let the mendicants crack open our prickly crowns of aloe, soothe
their faces with gel, drop bottle-shards and cigarette butts that slash
and burn our stairs. Inside, we fit apart and together.
Grace and Brendan sleeping, me standing guard.
From my grandfather’s scrolls moths fly out, and I grab at air
to repel the strangeness of other lives circling toward us.
From Topaz (c) 2013 by Brian Komei Dempster.
Reprinted with permission of Four Way Books. All rights reserved.
An earlier version of “Gatekeeper” was first published in Parthenon West Review.
Topaz, Brian Komei Dempster’s debut poetry collection, examines the experiences of a Japanese American family separated and incarcerated in American World War II prison camps. This volume delves into the lasting intergenerational impact of imprisonment and breaks a cultural legacy of silence. Through the fractured lenses of past and present, personal and collective, the speaker seeks to piece together the facets of his own identity and to shed light on a buried history.
In honor of poet, teacher, editor, and Four Way Books author Stephen Berg, who passed away last week, we’re proud to re-print one of his prose poems, which first appeared in his collection, Shaving.
When I think of it now I still see just how ugly and dirty the place was, what a bare unprotected monk-like life it was that year, living first in the old tire warehouse on the outskirts of town, no toilet or sink, no furniture, nothing except two ratty mattresses, fruit crates, blankets from home, unfinished splintery lath walls, gobs of hard gray mortar squeezed between bricks, and everywhere the acrid stink of tire rubber, dirt and dust, everywhere in high black stacks truck tires, car tires, hundreds, except for one small room, probably an office once, where we slept and read. The teeth–like treads gleamed in the dark. Some nights I’d choke with asthma from the filth, from rage, from how far away home was. Some nights we’d lie in our room reading by the sallow light of the small bulbs of the bed lamps we got at a junk shop and nailed up on our walls. Outside the fields of Iowa went on forever, a ditch of yellow mud bordered the north wall. Some nights Bob and I would bundle up in everything we owned and go out and stare at the shoals of stars, pale surfy swarms pulsing slightly, stand half-drunk in the lampless cityless darkness rambling about poetry, family, sex, loneliness. Once, I remember, I took out an old silver Bach cornet I picked up in a pawnshop for 15 bucks and tried to play the thing, stood on the edge of the ditch leaning back, pointing the horn straight at the sky, but all that came were squawking mewing fartlike tuneless wails, jagged held notes. At one point—the horn against my lips—I took a wrong step into the ice-crusted watery slough and stumbled and fell and almost broke off my front teeth. For months I carried the mouthpiece in my pocket, fondling it, taking it out to heft, practicing on it to build my lip, fweeting a few raw notes whenever I felt like it—walking across campus, on the street. I kept myself company like that, I became somebody else, mostly Bix because I envied his sweet pure tone, the steadiness and range, his strict, condensed phrasing, the direct brevity of his style, a miraculously articulated, triumphant sadness. Before long we took an apartment in the heart of town—bought new mattresses, desks, two chairs, built bookcases with cinderblocks and boards—two rooms, high doors between, where we’d write, often at the same time early in the morning or late at night. It was wonderful being serious about writing, believing oneself able to hear someone hearing your voice, to hold a human gaze, wonderful feeling haunted, if you were lucky, by lines, impulses, hot formless combinations of phrases that led your hands over the keys at a speed beyond understanding, beyond experience. Then out would come the paper with words on it and you’d begin again—chop, change, shift, hack, put something back or stick it somewhere else, anything seemed possible in that mood—to hear the necessary mind of the poem. Otherwise it was classes and the usual college shit: football games, parties, gossip, worry about grades. Then the snow came and everything was lost under it, everything slowed. Sometimes it fell neck-deep. People wallowing through would shovel paths on the sidewalks. You’d see heads floating along the top of the snow walls. The quads and fields were cratered and scarred with ruts like a moon map glowing blue-white. Hard to describe the mood of Iowa City after one of those big snows, but I was happier than I knew then, trapped there, purified of choice by isolation, schedules breaking down, the roads out of town impassable. We’d stay up till three or four in the morning, playing pinball machines in an all-night diner a few blocks away, or reading, trying to write. The vividness of words on a page in a book, the sound of the human on a printed page, was never more compelling and intense than on those long nights of immense calm while the snow under the street lamps lay there, consolingly white and quiet, going on for miles. The Workshop quonsets looked like sleeping animals, down by the Iowa River. You could walk across it and not break through; you could see the wide brown road of water underneath roiling past. The uncountable rows of footprints crossing and recrossing, the snowy lid of ice, made my scalp prickle. It looked eerie, too meaningful—why, I still can’t figure out—that bright, pocked, luminous crust scored by those shadowy holes. And nothing came there, not at night in the bleak Midwestern cold, unless an animal happened by. At night if you drove out of town (after the roads were plowed, snow mounded ten feet high on either side), where it seems nothing exists but fields, endless open fields, if you looked across the glowing sugary land, you might say that the silence and peace you were at one with had always been and always would be.
“. . .Stephen Berg’s Shaving is the first book of prose poems I have read that has made me re-examine the function and power of that branch of our poetry. It is a book of strenuous and often dangerous self-witness; an astounding overview of American urban life at the apex and turning point of a major civilization. . .most importantly, it is brilliantly written. . .In reading Berg you will be reading the master of the prose poem. – Jorie Graham
i watch him touch him self over a screen
and pretend it is with my hands
how you pull a quiver from an arrow.
he moans and i grow jealous of the satellites.
their capacity for translation, to code his sound
in numbers unbraiding in my speakers
lucky metal audience of cables.
i know the wireless signal is all around me,
that i’m drowning in his unrendered noise.
how from a thousand miles away i can dam
myself with the light spilling from his hands.
what magic is this? distance collapsed
into the length of a human breath. what witchcraft?
six years ago a bridge between us collapsed
the interstate ate thirteen people alive
asphalt spilling like amputated hands
into the dark below. what is love but a river
that exists to eat all your excess concrete
appendages? what is a voice but how it lands
wet in the body? what is distance
but a place that can be reshaped through language?
how i emulate and pull a keyboard from the ashes.
how i gave him a river and he became it’s king.
how any thing collapsed can be rebuilt.
take our two heaving torsos take them
how they fall like a bridge into the water
how they rise up alone from the sweat.
BILDUNGSROMAN (SAY: PYOO-BUR-TEE).
i never wanted to grow up to be anything horrible
as a man. my biggest fear was the hair they said
would burst from my chest, swamp trees
breathing as i ran. i prayed for a different kind
of puberty: skin transforming into floor boards,
muscle into cobwebs, growing pains sounding
like an attic groaning under the weight of old
photo albums. as a kid i knew that there was
a car burning above water before this life,
that i woke here to find fire scorched my
hair clean off until i shined like glass – my eyes,
two acetylene headlamps. in my family we have
a story for this. my brother holding me
in his hairless arms. says, dad it will be a monster
we should bury it.
god bless all policemen & their splintering night sticks splintering & lord
have mercy on their souls. god bless judges in their empty robes who send
young men off to prisons with a stain from their antiquated pens. god bless
all the king’s monsters & all the kings men. god bless the sentence
& its inevitable conclusion. god bless the predators, curators of small
sufferings. god bless the carpet that ate one hundred dollars of chris’s
cocaine. god bless cocaine & the colophon of severed hands it takes
to get to your nostrils. god bless petroleum & coffee beans & sugar cane
& rare earth minerals used to manufacture music boxes. god bless the gas
chamber & the gas that makes the shower head sing. god bless the closet
i trapped a terrified girl in with my two good hands. god bless the night
those good boys held my face to a brick wall & god bless those boys
& good god bless the strange heat that pressed back.
you cannot beg
with a mouth
A Guide to Undressing Your Monsters
Coming soon from
“Sam Sax’s poems are ravenous, intimate, and brutal. God is ‘a man with a dozen bleeding mouths’ and ‘a boy drags his dead dog across the night sky’ and ‘shadows sing.’ Tongued and loved, a butthole becomes a trumpet, a second mouth. His poems reject the given. His poems seek out new encounters between flesh and world, between language and memory. Bristling with stunning images and formally astute, his poems nurture and bruise.” ~ Eduardo Corral
“Who was it who decided on where Tallahassee should be?” Toby asks questions, and we laugh a lot. Stupid things really. But it makes you think, and it helps to pass the time. He takes the money when people pump their gas, and I do most of the other things, like brake jobs, tires, and shocks. Mostly minor repairs, quick jobs that get a good price for the boss. Mr. Cutter keeps things under control and drives the tow truck when somebody breaks down on the highway. That’s how he makes his big money. He says when you break down on the interstate, you become desperate. “The main thing we give them is a sense of security,” says Mr. Cutter. I call him Mr. Cutter, but everybody else calls him Harry because the name of the business is Harry’s Gas Station. “If we didn’t charge ’em a lot, they’d think we did a half-assed job,” he tells me and Toby. And later Toby says to me, “Using that logic, we should charge Harry a whole lot more for what we do.” Toby mostly takes care of the cash register and points out the restrooms and gives people change for the cigarette machine. And he sells candy and soda to the sweaty little kids and tells the traveling salesmen where the phone is. And he hands out maps when the customers want them.
You can’t say anything to Toby. He’s always changing it around and making it funny. Mr. Cutter’s always saying Toby’s nothing but a smart-ass college kid. But I don’t find anything wrong with having a little fun. Toby graduated from a community college and is going to a four-year. Though he’s smarter in a lot of ways, I’ve been here sixteen years, and I know a lot more about cars. But, boy, Toby knows more about everything else. I could tell Betty kind of liked Toby, but I didn’t pay much attention to it.
Like I said, Mr. Cutter owns the station, but he isn’t around much because of driving the tow truck, and he owns another station, where the town people go for gas. I’ve worked for him for sixteen years. I know he doesn’t like Betty coming around because he thinks she distracts me. We get a lot of business in the summer. There are always cars boiling over and people always need gas. Most of our customers come off the interstate. Toby started working after college let out for the summer. Mr. Cutter told him right away to call him Harry, but he never said that to me. We don’t get many locals because we’re a little overpriced. Toby lives up north, but he has an uncle who lives here so he asked Mr. Cutter for a job. And he started calling him Harry right away.
Just to make things more interesting, Toby decided that we should do something with the maps, so we uncreased them and laid them out on the desk in the office. People are always asking for maps because people are always going places. Toby told them not to trust those GPS things, and he told the customers, “There’s nothing like a map to get you to where you’re going.” Toby took some scissors and began snapping them. When he was finished, there were a whole bunch of cities lying on top of the desk. Peoria, Orlando, Savannah, Nashville, Columbus. He told me to refold the maps and put them back in the racks. Toby said, “Think about it. A couple driving along, looking for Tallahassee. The husband turns to his wife and asks her to check the map. She pulls it out and says Tallahassee’s not there. And he says, ‘What do you mean, it’s not there?’ And she says, ‘Look, there’s a hole where Tallahassee should be.’” Toby has a real imagination. When we were finished, the desk looked like a battlefield with all these fallen cities. Every state had at least one city gone. So no matter where anybody was going there’d be something missing. At least, that’s the way Toby saw it.
Betty and I have always known for the last three years we are going to be married. She works in the local diner as a waitress. We’ve been saving our money because we think by the beginning of next year we can afford a trailer. I’m ten years older than she is, but her parents like that. Mr. Dodd says that I’m a “maturing influence.” I knew she kind of liked Toby because she’d laugh at things he’d say even if they weren’t funny. That’s one thing you learn about women. Most of the time Toby is funny, so I didn’t much notice. Betty is twenty-two, which I think is a perfect age.
Toby decided that we weren’t finished with the maps, so on another day he pulls out this little white bottle from the desk drawer. In the office we have an old Royal typewriter that keeps breaking down. Mr. Cutter says we got to get a computer, but he says that every time the typewriter’s not working, and what he says doesn’t amount to much when it comes to spending money. The typewriter has so much grease on the keys, you can’t really make out any of the letters. And that’s why I didn’t know we had any Wite-Out and didn’t know what it was. Toby found it. He likes to rummage through Mr. Cutter’s stuff. I tell him he better be careful, but guys like Toby don’t have to be as careful as guys like me. I found that out most of my life. So Toby takes the Wite-Out and asks me to get the maps off the rack. Then he begins dabbing the little white brush like he’s painting with shoe polish. When he’s finished, he takes a black pen from his shirt pocket and very carefully writes something. He has real small handwriting anyway—but this was ridiculously small and perfect. He dabbed away the word Tuscaloosa and wrote in Vacancy. “How do you like that?” he said, and he held up the map for me to see. “Vacancy, Alabama.” He dabbed out Pearl, Mississippi, and wrote in Ruby. He replaced Hopkins Hollow, Connecticut, with Hopkins Hole. Sometimes he’d write in something that was a little off-color, like Beaver Shot, Oklahoma, or Pussy, Oregon, or Cock, Wisconsin. “Some old maid,” he said, “will be asking directions for Cock. Or some minister will be seeking Pussy.” I have to admit it was pretty funny.
We get all the license plates through here. At one time or another, I’ve seen the license plates of every single state, and that includes Hawaii and Alaska. I may not have been many places, I tell people, but a lot of places have been to see me. You got to see something after sixteen years. After I’d seen the license plates of all fifty states, I got to admit the job became kind of routine. I know Toby is young, even insensitive at times, but he makes the job enjoyable. He’s always got something going on. And sometimes he gets me thinking, like when he asks me if I believe in something and I say yes, and he shows me I didn’t really mean to say yes. That kind of thing. Then Toby has these crazy questions, like puzzles, that can keep you going crazy for days.
I have to tell you something else he thought of that was pretty good—though some might not understand. We had this little hole we drilled in the side of the ladies’ restroom. We hid it behind boxes and oil cans. After we drilled, he had me chisel out some so we could see at a better angle. It made me feel a little uncomfortable, but Toby said, “Hey, there’s no harm in just looking.” I felt bad in a way and only pretended to look. Toby said that the New York State license had the best pair of legs he’d ever seen, and I agreed though I had no reason to.
Toby wasn’t finished with the maps either. He got real tricky. Sometimes with green, red, and blue Magic Markers we’d put in other highways. Where we thought it might be nice to have a highway, we put it in. Without any inconvenience, without any cost, without any dusty detours, wham, we made you a highway. Just like that. We had an interstate going from Charlotte to Fayetteville to Lynchburg to Charleston to Knoxville. Some of our state highways climbed out of lakes and other times they’d drift off to nowhere. Sometimes we’d put roads where they seemed to be needed, and at times they were just useless and pretty. Some states seemed to have so many roads they didn’t know what to do with them, but we’d add more until the whole map was choked with them.
We got so good at altering the maps that we moved some cities from one state to another. We’d put Spokane where New Bedford should be, and Little Rock where Spokane should be, and Topeka where Little Rock should be. I tell you we got good at it. Toby’d say, “We’re doing the country a favor.”
About two weeks ago, Toby came into work real upset, like I’d never seen him before. I don’t know if he had an argument with Mr. Cutter or his uncle. But something was wrong, so I told him I’d take care of the pump if he’d work at fixing the air hose that seemed to be clogged. Betty came over during her break. She bought me some metric wrenches from the Ace Hardware. I told her she shouldn’t have done it because we’re trying to save money to buy a trailer and we’re going to get married, probably in February. It was a sunny day and that made the oil stains next to the gas pumps sparkle in a greasy sort of way. Nothing’s prettier than a gas station on a sunny day. It was a real scorcher. There was a haze around the car hoods. Betty said she had to get back to the restaurant, but she had to use the ladies’ room first. I got her the keys which were attached to a flat piece of wood that said “restroom.” I was about to take the lug nuts off a Ford truck when I thought about the peephole. I was hoping no cars would pull up because Toby was fixing the air hose and I was going to the back room. I pushed aside a couple of smudgy oil cans and pressed my eye to the hole. There was Betty with her back leaning on the wall over the sink, her dress up around her waist and Toby there. The weather and the cramped dark room made me feel real uncomfortable. I thought about the box of metric wrenches. Then a horn started to blow. Later, when I saw Betty, she handed me the key. Her eyes looked crushed. They had the color of one of those oil stains. Her body seemed to hum. Before she left, I thanked her for the wrenches.
Toby’s going back north in a couple of days. I found out that Betty put a picture of herself in his glove compartment. I can’t be mad at Betty. Toby is sure better looking, and he certainly is smarter and funnier. I say I saw the license plates of all fifty states, but that’s not the truth. I don’t think of buying the trailer anymore, but that will probably change. I decided not to say anything to her or Toby. Toby would only turn it around and get me laughing. And if I said anything to Betty, I’d feel really hollow inside. I went to Toby’s car and opened up the glove compartment.
I don’t laugh as much at Toby’s jokes. He’s always thinking up something new, but I don’t pay as much attention. He asks me what is wrong, but I don’t say much. “Nothing,” I say and that’s usually the end of it. In a way, I’m not looking forward to the day when Toby’s gone. But I know one thing. I’ll keep handing out our maps to the customers. I’ll give them maps with a couple of things missing, a border here and there, a capital or two, a city or a town, some river misplaced. But they’ll also contain some amazing new things. Highways that never before existed. New cities or old cities in new places. And wherever these people are going, they’ll always be surprised at how we got them there, even if it’s not where they want to be. Still, they’ll always be surprised, and that’s not so bad. They could wind up anywhere and that would be worth it, I suppose.
I’d kind of like to be there when Toby opens up the glove compartment. I know he’ll see Betty’s picture, and that will probably make him feel good. And then he’ll see the road map, and I know he’ll open it because he’ll guess something is up. It took me a long time to do it, and he’ll appreciate that. I’d like to see his face when he sees every town and highway and everything with its new name. “Betty” written everywhere. Betty mountains. Cities named Betty. Betty rivers. Betty highways. Who knows? Maybe his car will break down. And he won’t know where to tell anybody where he is if something bad happens. It will make him feel kind of weird. Being so smart and all. Except about cars and things that can happen. He’ll think somebody knows something. It won’t really matter, but it will give him something to think about.
“You just have to admire all the possibilities,” says one character in Patrick Lawler’s short story collection, The Meaning of If—a sentence that encapsulates the myriad of “if’s” explored in these pages. At times surreal and yet so realistic, we hear each “muffled whisper,” we see each “muddy photograph,” we know each “secret life,” as if it were our own. These are familial stories of transition and transformation—both mental and physical—that consider the question “What if?”
I know forgetting myself is a good thing, the best loss.
The trees look soft in the fog’s distance, egg-colored light
all over them. Even the sheep,
The earth dries in ribs the rain has drawn on it.
Trees here grow up out of the water. Too little light
to tell what color but the ground that isn’t shining is made of leaves.
So these pools are mirrors:
were it on earth as it is in heaven,
blue land of we-will-all-meet-at-the-table,
I could be for other than myself successfully
without first having to lose someone I love.
THE FIRST YEAR IN THE WILDERNESS
My friend’s little daughter was pulled
What began as a single
instance of labor became
the child’s mother on her hands
and knees, pushing
floor wax into tile grout
across the emptied house.
hung with stained glass crosses
the throw rug and the wall.
great crashes of noise at long intervals.
The cat sacked out on the floor.
My preparations have outlasted
so I have not only
the afterglow of you but also
little signs still
that you are bound for me.
The only place open after midnight:
tall-stalked bar stools,
the valley laid into the wood
of the wall.
We stayed up
with the lottery sign’s crossed fingers,
while the animals
lay down in the field.
The beginning is spring.
The lanes are lined with poplars who lose their leaves to winter
but to whom nothing further wintry happens.
I design it so the marriage lasts as long as the lives,
and the children outlive their parents.
They are all startlingly easy to make happy. They recover
from unease like lightning.
When it falls apart my frustration is like a child’s,
unable to say, unable to make something
happen by saying.
To speak in someone else’s voice is a pleasure, but not a relief.
My tongue burns in its cavity.
My recreation of us is unforgivable
in the sense that I am the only one here to forgive it.
“Collier Nogues is a rare poet in the contemporary landscape. Her work is rife with the quick jump-cuts and fragments many young poets favor, but there’s no cynical irony for irony’s sake in her poems. This is poetry that earnestly engages with life’s big questions….A poet is, among other things, a protector of thoughts, a kind of police officer of the inner world. Nogues… makes it a little safer to think, a little less frightening and lonely.” — Craig Morgan Teicher from “Introducing Collier Nogues” in Pleiades, Volume 30 Number 1, 2010
In this installment of “Between the Lines” we talk with Issue 5 contributor Wesley Rothman about poetic process, the creative relationships between different art forms, and the cultural state of contemporary poetry.
FWR: Your poetry likes to locate itself at the intersection of different artforms: blues music and lyrics, for example, or the relationship between text and visual art. Is this just a part of your aesthetic or the result of a conscious poetic project on your part?
WR: I think it’s a little bit of both. I’ve always been addicted to music and visual art, and maybe more importantly, the artists that create these mediums. Clearly I’m in love with Frida Kahlo, and I don’t think you can talk about Frida without at least thinking of Diego Rivera. I’m also obsessed with Nina Simone and David Bowie (who were dear friends), as well as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Billie Holiday, Van Gogh, ’90s hip-hop artists, and Salvador Dalí (who was an intimate friend of Federico García Lorca’s). So I’m obsessed with these people, the art they made, what they did to society and history, and in terms of a conscious poetic project, I’m interested in how they are remembered, what their legacies look like and become over time. I want to make poems that serve as snapshots of these legacies, or make us wonder about legacies and how they morph. Art to honor art and artists. It’s interesting that we make poems about figures and by doing so we may be affecting, in some small way, how future generations remember these figures.
FWR: That’s interesting, especially since it’s still fashionable to talk about poetry being this opaque, elitist, stodgy art form that’s fading out of relevance. How do you respond to claims like that?
WR: It is fashionable, isn’t it? This has been on my mind for quite some time, and I’ll try to compress my thoughts about these sorts of claims, but it will be a bit oversimplified, I know. It seems to me that most people making claims that poetry is opaque, elitist, and stodgy say this because they don’t understand the craft decisions of the poets they read (if they do read any). I think “they” also say this because they have been miseducated about what poetry is, how it happens. People who tear poetry, as an art form, down do so because they don’t understand and are frustrated by this lack of understanding, like not understanding a Jackson Pollack painting. People who aren’t interested in investing time and energy to understand artistic/historical/theoretical context typically dismiss the work at hand in favor of something easier. I frequently teach a Susan Sontag essay/excerpt about boredom (or frustration) to my students to wrestle this disposition. This brings me to a cultural and historical consideration. When Eliot wrote “The Waste Land,” people thought it was crazy, “opaque, elitist, stodgy, and fading from relevance,” yet it’s absolutely canonical for us. I think younger generations love Langston Hughes and Robert Frost because they rhyme, and that’s what they expect of poetry. Younger generations also love Bukowski and Ginsberg, because they’re rough and bombastic and bold, things that younger people seem drawn to like honey or bright light. In short, I think poetry was better, or more commonly, taught to generations 50+ years ago. And if it wasn’t that much more prominent in education, it was more prominent at home; parents read poetry for leisure. As education and home exposure of poetry has declined, as public recognition of poets has declined (or turned attention toward media figures), new generations are less prepared to tackle the challenge and rigor of poetry, as they are with other difficult or abstract artforms or topics. This is obviously a generalization, but I think it’s demonstrated by widespread practices like No Child Left Behind which prefer mastery and memorization of concrete facts, typically hard sciences and “hard-ish” social sciences, rather than strengthening of critical and independent thinking skills. All of this to say that I think our society has in many ways conditioned new generations to feel this way about poetry. ON THE OTHER HAND, I also think those who have been encouraged to read and internalize and wonder about poetry or other challenging art forms are coming into the arena more than ever. Even though many people feel poetry is becoming obsolete, there has been an incredible surge in recent decades of new, young poets, journals, online forums, reading series, MFA programs, high school poetry programming, higher educational development with creative writing as a valuable and valued process. Poetry is thriving in many ways in spite of a cultural preference for simplicity/entertainment/empty wittiness.
FWR: It’s frustrating, how otherwise complex and fascinating poets end up anthologized and then taught at the secondary level in the most insipid ways. Gwendolyn Brooks comes to mind. Are there any writers whose work you wish was taught differently?
WR: I wish people would teach more than “We Real Cool.” I wish anthologies would include more of her poems. Sadly, I think most poetry and literature is simplified and bastardized at the secondary level. Contemporary education standards require hard answers, meaning, and measurability. Poetry and literature actively defy these things, I think. I can’t think of any writers or poets I wish were taught differently, per se, mostly because I can’t say they’re taught in universally similar ways, but I wish writing and reading were taught differently, and I wish poets other than Whitman, Dickinson, Eliot, WCW, and Frost were taught in high schools. It’s important to become familiar with the canon, but teach high school students poetry that speaks about their world, not the world of their great-[great-]grandparents. Teach them Natalie Diaz, Marcus Wicker, Amiri Baraka, Wallace Stevens, Roger Reeves, Matthew Zapruder, Natasha Trethewey. Something that I can’t put my finger on at the moment is making history and historical context difficult to process for younger generations. We have to find a way to help young people find poignance in what happened 200 years ago before we can help them find poignance in Coleridge, Wheatley, Blake, Austen, and Wordsworth.
FWR: A lot of us have extremely complicated relationships with the canon. You wrote a great essay about Terrance Hayes responding to Wallace Stevens and that mixture of resistance and devotion, a kind of helplessness in the face of an otherwise problematic writer’s tremendous talent. Has that been something you’ve had to personally navigate?
WR: That’s a great way to describe it! I think everyone’s relationship with the canon is indeed extremely complicated, based on breadth of exposure, taste, historical and social perspective, and the list, I’m sure, goes on. Thanks for the kind words about that piece. As I become more and more familiar with Stevens, I feel a little bit of what Hayes is talking about in his poem—primarily on an ideological level. I don’t know that I’ve navigated this elsewhere. Every now and then I come across a canonical or contemporary poem that is problematic in its content or perspective, but well-crafted. I think this is less expansive than what Hayes is wrestling. In other words, Stevens was generally and consistently bigoted, but I think when I experience this conflict of resistance with admiration of craft, it’s more often a single poem (rather than a body of work or a person’s problematic social beliefs) demonstrating an uninformed perspective. I think this comes down to a person’s understanding of themselves and their beliefs. I don’t know that Stevens was problematic in many ways, but his work does demonstrate on occasion a very problematic social belief system concerning culture. Not all of his poems present this bigotry, but it’s there enough. I can’t think of another poet with whose work I’ve encountered this in the same way, but there may be other poets whose personal views I find problematic, shown in their work or not. (tough question).
FWR: It’s a really tough question. You mentioned before that you include social justice as a major priority in your writing and your teaching. How do arguments about “art for art’s sake”, or “divorcing the art from the artist” strike you, then? There have been some pretty high profile versions of this debate in the news recently.
WR: I have fishy feelings about “art for art’s sake.” I don’t think we just make it to have it in the world, that it comes from some impulse simply to create. Something drives us to make art. The specifics of that something are important and are motivated by vibrance and burning and terror within us. Art’s about passion or curiosity, and I think my passions and curiosity are served by poem-making. I kind of like the idea of divorcing art from the artist…once it’s been made. I don’t think an artist should blankly make art, but I think readers or viewers should absolutely divorce the art from the artist. That is, the art can’t help but be divorced from its maker. This happens when a poem is published or a sculpture sits in a gallery or museum. The artist isn’t alone with it anymore, the relationship is publicized and a wedge comes between the piece and the artist’s intentions or context. In many ways, I think, the artist abandons the piece when this happens, and vice versa, I suppose.
On a similar but different note, when making a poem, I think losing some control is usually, if not always, a good idea. Improvising with language, sound, syntax, and form leads to some of the most brilliant mistakes, phrases and verbs and metaphors that never could have come through a controlled hand or mind. It’s also important to not know everything that’s going into a poem, to search for something yet unknown, to be dumbfounded sometimes by the language that comes into a line, to discover something. All of this comes from a very personal drive to make a kind of art, and I think the art is populated by passions, obsessions, questions, and a kind of alchemy.
FWR: Speaking of passions and obsessions, your poem in Issue 5 was entirely about Frida Kahlo and, to a lesser extent, Diego Rivera. Why Frida? Are you more interested in her artwork, her status as a cultural icon, or something else entirely?
WR: She’s stunning. The image of herself that she painted over and over in various scenes and circumstances is stunning. Her metaphors are stunning. Her paintings’ color is stunning. The only other visual artists that have struck me the way she has are Basquiat and Van Gogh, and maybe Gerhard Richter. She’s a wonderful bundle of complexity, both artistically and personally. Her personal life is tragic and richly beautiful. Her work is like nothing else before or since. For me, she has a voice that is like a really well-done love poem, full of visual rhythms, a voice loaded with feminism and honesty and force.
FWR: So you respond to feminist voices (which is awesome). Do you view yourself as a feminist writer?
WR: I appreciate feminism as a concept and practice. I’ve learned a great deal, and I hope adopted a feminist lifestyle, from reading, thinking about, internalizing, and trying to practice feminist ideals. But I don’t know that I’d call myself a feminist writer. I’m not necessarily trying to convey feminist ideas with my poems, but I hope they are there. I think I respond to voices of witness in general. A pillar of my teaching and writing philosophies is “diversity and inclusion,” or striving for better social equity. I’m particularly interested in examining and undoing white male privilege. James Baldwin is one of my greatest influences/guides/sparring partners. He has challenged me and taught me more than anyone. Kiese Laymon, bell hooks, Jake Adam York, Danez Smith, Jericho Brown, Lucille Clifton, Natasha Trethewey, Yusef Komunyakaa, Terrance Hayes, Carl Van Vechten: these writers tug and mold what I’m most interested in, and I think, I hope, some of my writing adds to this wide conversational awareness and art of social engagement.
FWR: You mentioned early experiences with Whitman and Dickinson in another interview, with The Missouri Review. You could almost call them diametrically opposing forces in American poetry. Do you feel that your own writing has developed a position between these two influences?
WR: The things that Dickinson does with language—the sounds and semantics—are bewitching, not all that different than what Frida accomplishes with meaning/message/metaphor and color. Whitman messes with syntax and line, but his poems have always been, for me, about washing this thick layer of water over whatever subject he happens to be exploring. His poems feel like heavy blankets that cover everything and cozy me into a way of thinking or feeling. If his poems were paintings they would be gobbed with oil, lunging off the canvas like a Van Gogh. I don’t know that my own writing has developed between these two poets. Whitman has been more present than Dickinson. But I think I’m balancing the scales, discovering and revisiting more and more of Dickinson as time passes. Everyone who hasn’t read some of Leaves of Grass lately, or has forgotten the sting of Dickinson’s metaphor, should pick up or buy a book soon, now.
FWR: Have you found that working in an editorial capacity, especially for a respected publication like Ploughshares, has influenced your own development as a writer?
WR: I think editorial work has done a lot for my own writing, but most notably it has helped me gain a sense of distance or objectivity with my own work—somewhat. It’s incredibly challenging to forget “what you meant” or avoid defending writerly decisions during the revision process. I think editorial work has served as a reminder to treat my own writing as I do that of submitters. Expect the work to be well-rounded, polished, poignant, well-crafted, and meaningful. I don’t know if all my writing accomplishes this, but editorial work has helped me reach for this.
FWR: What poetry are you reading currently?
WR: Currently and very recently: Jake Adam York’s Abide, Tarfia Faizullah’s Seam, David Tomas Martinez’s Hustle, rereading Leaves of Grass, Lisa Olstein’s Little Stranger, Roger Reeves’s King Me, Ruth Ellen Kocher’s domina Un/blued, rereading Terrance Hayes’s Lighthead (always rereading it), Shane McCrae’s BLOOD, Victoria Chang’s The Boss, Harryette Mullen’s Urban Tumbleweed, rereading Natalie Diaz’s When My Brother Was an Aztec.
FWR: What poetry do you really dislike?
WR: I’m actively trying to expand my taste, but the kinds of poetry I’ve disliked are overly casual in tone, gimmicky, weak prose in a really bad poetry mask (i.e. because a thing has line breaks doesn’t make it a poem), precious in the worst ways, lackluster without a purpose, and/or archaic-sounding for supposed fancy’s sake.
FWR: You already mentioned the difficulty of distancing yourself from your own work. Could you talk a little more about your writing process?
WR: My process isn’t very interesting, I don’t think. It’s very difficult to force myself to write. So instead, I read and search for things that get me thinking, then poems need to come out, and I’m often excited or hopeful for what I’ve first written down. After a week or so, I usually start to notice what needs to be tweaked, but more often, I leave the poem alone for awhile (a month, six months) or I submit it, and when I come back, sit down with it, I realize what’s terrible and am more comfortable slicing and adding and moving and changing. And I’ve recently noticed something about my own process that I never hear poets talking about: sometimes poems just don’t work out, no matter the tweaking or full-scale bombardment I give them. Sometimes poems need to be abandoned. This sounds an awful lot like giving up, but I think it’s more about learning from unsoundly built poems. It might seem daring or revolutionary or intriguing to build a house out of shoes, but no matter how you arrange that structure, that shit’s gonna fall apart.
FWR: Maybe no one talks about that because they don’t like to acknowledge that they do it all the time. There’s a kind of folk wisdom in poetry circles that everything is useful, that you can mine even your worst failures for the seeds of new, great poems. It’s almost more revolutionary to admit, “Yes, I tried to build a house out of shoes. That was idiotic. Moving on!” Why do you think poets are so uncomfortable doing this?r
I think there’s something to mining the worst failures for seeds of new, great poems, but it can sometimes torture you in unproductive ways. I’ve tried to make new poems from failed bits, but the phantom of what I wanted the original poem to be and do was always hanging over the new work. Maybe that’s a failure on my part as poem-maker, but I couldn’t shake it. I think it’s sometimes useful to hang onto those remnants, but other times cracking on is refreshing. I don’t know if poets are uncomfortable doing this, but maybe it’s just a matter of being uncomfortable admitting they do this. If they are uncomfortable abandoning a poem, maybe it’s a matter of proving their resourcefulness, maybe it’s a matter of intimacy. I often hear poets refer to their poems as children, and I hope everyone is uncomfortable abandoning their children, barring extreme or peculiar circumstances. I guess this means I don’t think of my poems as children.
Read “Bathing with Frida” in Issue 5
Milena always reminded me of a backdrop to a bleak landscape, a woman unlikely to arouse much conscious consideration, though she hovered around like an uncertain but inescapable future punishment. She popped in and out of our lives at random, insignificant moments. There was, for instance, that typically drab October afternoon in Frankfurt. I was strolling along the river with my mother and her friend Sandra. The harsh wind was blowing dead leaves around our feet, and we were getting our first bitter taste of German fall. I was only half-attending to the adults’ conversation, as I recalled that morning’s history class. The teacher had called on me to summarize the assigned reading. I’d pretended I hadn’t read it, embarrassed by the thought of speaking in front of everyone in my broken German. “I don’t know,” I’d quietly murmured and shaken my head. My classmates bore silent witness to my humiliation, as my heart crawled under my desk in shame.
I caught fragments of Sandra’s story about a recent date with a German banker. “Nothing special,” she snorted, and pulled her mink coat more tightly around her. “He’s insignificant. I’m a bombshell compared to him.”
“You didn’t have fun?” my mother asked.
“How could I? I could smell his bad breath from across the table. At least I got a free dinner out of it. I should focus on Bosnian men again. They understand me so much better.”
Someone suddenly called out my mother’s name.
“Lili, is that you?”
We turned around, and there she was, Milena. Like some preordained misfortune that had finally caught up with me.
She lived in our dilapidated apartment complex on the outskirts of Frankfurt. The place was a hub for Bosnian refugees. Our families gravitated towards each other, grasping for any sense of familiarity in their new world, for people they could talk to easily, without having to string together awkward words in a harsh, foreign tongue. Milena came from our hometown of Jajce. Her husband Dalibor and my father had been high school classmates, bonded by shared memories of long bygone days, when their pranks had been the talk of the town and a promising future awaited – steady government jobs and apartments in one of Jajce’s new building complexes, vacations on the Adriatic and cars on credit, all the comforts of small-town Bosnian adulthood they could rightly expect to be theirs. And yet it had all turned out otherwise.
My mother always begged me to befriend their daughter Sanja. “Sanja’s your age. Be nice to her. She doesn’t have a lot of friends,” she pleaded. I sometimes halfheartedly tried to draw her out. But attaining popularity among my German classmates was no easy feat for an awkward Bosnian refugee girl, and the last thing I needed was a strange friend like her to set me back. Sanja, with her translucent cheeks and the prominent dark blue vein on her forehead, didn’t seem to care that much for my friendship anyway. Though every once in a while, she did look away from the TV screen and open up to me. Once she fleetingly whispered into my ear, “I hate growing up. It’s so stupid. My period won’t stop. I’ve been bleeding all month.” She’d seen a doctor, she told me. He had advised her to relax. But that must have been difficult in a household like hers.
As Milena hurried towards us, her long, brown scarf blowing wildly around her, I realized we had not seen their family in a while.
“Are you on some crazy new diet? Have you stopped eating?” my mother asked as she embraced her.
“It just peels off. I don’t know why,” Milena said, and nervously waved her hand into the air. As she did so, the scarf slid to the side and revealed a set of brown bruises along her neck.
“I called you a few times. Nobody ever answers the phone.”
“I haven’t been home,” she said and moved closer to us. Then, with her eyes darting around, as if she were on the lookout for some looming danger, she volunteered in a confiding voice, “I don’t live there anymore.”
“What do you mean? Where did you go?”
“Not too far away,” she whispered. She straightened her back, looked at us and continued. “It’s a shelter for women. Visit me sometime. Sanja’s with me.”
“We’ll come soon,” my mother said and nudged me, a quiet admonishment to stay silent, just as I was about to open my mouth to ask questions.
Milena’s hushed allusions to marital strife were not surprising. All the Bosnian couples around us fought. Alcohol, religion and our many bitter losses were their arguments’ steady themes. The walls in our apartment complex were thin, and gossip about the latest screaming match spread with unbounded fury. Except for a couple of childless newlyweds, who’d married ecstatically in the midst of the worst fighting, as if the unraveling of everything around them had been a dream and not their reality, I could not think of a single family that was unaffected by the complex mess our transient lives had become.
But Dalibor and Milena’s fights seemed more ominous. Like so many Bosnian couples, they had different religious backgrounds. Dalibor was a Catholic Croat and Milena, an Orthodox Serb. Dalibor sometimes complained bitterly to my father, a bottle of beer attached to his hand. “She should convert to my faith. Shouldn’t she?” What am I supposed to do with that woman? If she won’t, she can go to the river and live under the bridge. Or float away with all those ugly container ships. Someplace far away.”
We didn’t talk to Milena much longer that November afternoon by the river. “Don’t tell Daco where I am. He doesn’t know,” she said and walked away from us towards the bridge underpass. As her bony back faded into the distance, blending with the flock of gray ducks that were resting peacefully under the bridge, I wondered about Sanja. Was she still bleeding every day? Or were things better for her in the shelter?
After our encounter by the river, I did not give Milena or her altered circumstances much further thought. Perhaps it was more pleasant not to think of women like her. Or perhaps my own, well-worn worries preoccupied me too much to leave any emotional space for the sorrows of casual acquaintances.
A few months later, Sandra mentioned she’d seen Milena shopping with her husband at Aldo’s. “They seemed happy,” Sandra said, puffing on a cigarette.
“I guess this means they’re back together,” my mom replied slowly, in a flat voice.
Soon afterwards, we received an invitation to Milena’s baptism. She was to convert to Catholicism in Paulskirche on a Sunday afternoon. We did not attend, and we never went to Dalibor and Milena’s house again. We moved to a different neighborhood where there were no Bosnian families, cutting us off from that epicenter of gossip that was our old apartment complex.
Still, news of Milena and Dalibor trickled in now and then. They were part of the initial wave of refugees that returned to Bosnia when the war ended. I wasn’t surprised. Dalibor had always said he’d be the first in line to go back. To him everything was better in Bosnia, the tomatoes and the cheese, and the air he breathed and the water he drank. But there were food and fuel shortages when they returned, and Dalibor could not get back his old job at the Elektrobosna factory, which he’d been counting on all along. At first he did some construction work for the United Nations peacekeeping force. In later years, he opened a shop in the town’s center, near the waterfall.
My grandmother still lived in Jajce, and she mentioned Milena to me over the phone. “She looks like an old woman,” she said. “I didn’t recognize her at first. I almost walked right past her.”
Milena wasn’t seen out and about much. Dalibor took over the grocery shopping and other household chores, full of some newfound, seemingly inexhaustible energy. Local women made fun of him when he cheerfully bargained with the peasants over cheese prices at the marketplace. The only time Milena left her house was when she visited abandoned Orthodox monuments near Jajce, or the ruins of the Orthodox Church of the Most Holy Mother of God, near the catacombs. The church was bombed during the war. Nobody had bothered to clean up the ruins, though some stone slabs and fragments of icons still littered the church grounds. She did not seem to mind. She sat among the wreckage, her eyes fixed for hours at some vague spot in the distance.
People also sometimes saw her walking along the Pliva river near the waterfall. She’d stand at the shore and stare at the currents, a brooding, solitary woman who’d aged abruptly and unkindly. Nobody bothered to talk to her or tried to penetrate behind the half-veiled sadness that encompassed her. That is, until the day her body washed up on the Pliva shore at Jajce’s exit, swollen and with some dead leaves and branches tangled in her hair. Then she was suddenly the only thing on everyone’s minds.
Dalibor buried her in the town’s Catholic graveyard. It was a miracle he found an open spot of land amidst the many overgrown, forgotten graves of Jajce’s dead, whose families had emigrated too far away to tend to them.
My grandmother, who was always up to date on the latest local tragedy, was well informed about Milena’s case. “Of course she died of guilt. She never wanted to be a Catholic. Her conscience wouldn’t give her any peace. Why did he bury her in the Catholic graveyard, people ask. It was the final straw. That rogue should have known better.” I wondered what else there was to the story, and what had really been going on behind Milena’s house curtains while we’d treated her as a mere shadow.
For a while, Milena was all that people talked about. But they tired of the topic eventually. The gossip slowed to a trickle and Milena’s story was supplanted by some other, more current tragedy. For some reason, I kept my silent tabs on the remnants of her world. Though I’d never thought much of Milena when she was alive, in death my preoccupation with her grew. I periodically inquired about her daughter and husband. Somebody told me he still had his small store. Sanja worked there, too. After closing the shop at twilight, they usually strolled together across the bridge towards their house, their steps aligned in silent harmony.
After Milena’s death, Dalibor took up gardening. “When it’s nice out I bet you anything he’s out there weeding the flower beds in his dirty blue overalls,” my grandma said. “He’s obsessed. As if nothing else exists. It’s the most beautiful garden in town, though. That much I’ll admit.” I asked her to send me a photograph of the garden, which I now keep in a drawer with some old letters and other sentimental trinkets. Every once in a while, I pull it out and study the image, searching for who knows what, as I behold the neat rows of red and white roses in their springtime bloom, the potted yellow geraniums by the entrance gate and the lilac jasmine trees lining the garden’s edges.
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Not being stupid
I took what was offered: the job
was waiting and I did it
with sand and mirrors, in glitter
while I paced. I waited, I fell
in love with waiting
covered in jewels washed
in from the sea. Summer
kept me in sugared fruits,
shiny shells, mother-of-pearl.
My job was undressing
the sea, what it wanted, shovel
and droplet turned sun to roving dots.
Waiting threw its necklace back,
was work, was softened glass.
I dug a shallow wide hole in the yard
for a tree that might grow or an animal’s grave.
Dog in the hole, white fur and fill dirt.
Better to bury it. It was my birthday.
A dogwood in winter has berries the birds like.
A winter rose in the window. A sugar
rose. We will take it in the snow. We’ll fill
a hollow log with heated rocks.
It is my birthday. It keeps on, it occurs.
For my birthday I am given a window.
By you I am given. A view, a gift, a tree, a dog,
a stone. Everything I have I give to winter.
Flood deeps the shallows.
The rivers get covered.
We difficult our dinners.
In times of hunger, if only
a rock on which to perch.
In sleep we choose a dream:
lure a gull and water lock it,
meet a boy and get feet.
“Like syntactical pinwheels, Ginsburg’s word choice disorients then reorients the reader in a new, slightly off-kilter universe. Like a perennial Alice through the looking glass, for the speaker, seeing the world, let alone being in the world is not a habit. The speaker sees the world in its particularity: birds animate cables; light, dust and shadow are caught in the dearth of a moment. Ginsburg’s vision—embracing everything and refusing nothing—gives the collection its spine.” ~ Review by Amy Pence, online at The Rumpus