FWR: In my first read of “In Sound Mind”, I was struck by how you play with sound throughout the poem (such as the lines “Up there, sky-high,/ do you, as you go, know the feeling/ you slough?”). Can you speak about the growth of this poem? How does consonance (and dissonance!) influence your process– if at all?
Rosalie Moffett: I think I’ve been gravitating towards letting sound lead the way during this particular political period, and this pandemic—I’ve been angry, sad and with something overly simple to say stuck in my craw. Which makes a boring poem. A hallway you can see the end of from the beginning. But to let sound in as a guide gives that hallway some doors, some new avenues. There are then things behind doors that I have to shift in order to see. It opens rooms in my thoughts I didn’t know were there. Which certainly happened in this poem.
And (if you forgive me my wandering into some more conjectural territory) back in high school when I was obsessed with the weird experiments conducted in service of psychology and sociology, I remember learning about cognitive dissonance. In one study, participants were asked to either hold a pencil by pursing their lips, or in their teeth, like a rose. Rough approximations of a frown and a grin. They were then told jokes. Those with the pencil in their teeth found the jokes funnier. In short, the brain said “I must think these are funny, I’m smiling.” The brain likes to follow the body’s lead. Out loud, the mouth makes a rough smile in weeviling, feeling, bedeviled. Makes a rough frown when saying I don’t know, No one knows. I say all this not to claim my poems are smart enough to play these sounds like an emotional piano, but to offer that the sound of a poem might be working on our cognition in ways that are deeply layered and complex. I trust it to lead me through a poem.
FWR: There’s sly humor in these poems, particularly in “Nest Egg” with its addresses to Scrooge McDuck, that carves a new path to the emotional heart of each poem. It serves to buttress the associative leaps you make through the poems and expand on the emotional surprise. How do you see humor in your work?
Moffett: Humor is the PPE gear my mind wears, the way I can make something dark harmless enough to look at. There’s that old chestnut: tragedy + time = comedy. Often, when you’re too close to something, you can’t see the humor in it. If you train yourself to see the comedy, it’s like instant distance. (Instadistance™) You can see how humor could serve as a survival tactic, a jetpack out of actually facing something–and I think there’s a danger of that to be aware of in writing poems. But it’s also, I think, a useful way to gain perspective. Make something funny, and you can look down at it as if from a great height. What is also true is that this training (if you’ll let me call it that) makes a 2-way street. You can zoom in and see the tragic in something that, at first, seems funny. Scrooge McDuck? A duck obsessed with something he can’t eat? Swimming in coins? Oh, honey. What have we made.
Some of my zooming-in involves digging into granular and aspects of things populating my poems. Little of my “research” ends up in the poem (and I defy any algorithm to make sense of my internet searches). For this poem, I did a lot of reading about the character of Scrooge McDuck (yes, his was the first depiction of a swimming pool of money) and got to feel kind of close to him, a kinship. At some point in his history, he changed–someone took pity and shifted him from a miser (clinging to what he couldn’t even make use of) into a philanthropist. I wish that same hand would take pity on me.
FWR: I love your last images, whether Jessica kneeling with “anyone’s son” or the plant that neither “blooms nor fruits”. How do you know when you’ve ‘stuck the landing’ in a poem? Are there poems that you admire for their endings?
Moffett: If only, like in gymnastics, one could look up and see the score from judges!
I think what I look for is that feeling that my mind is standing, so to speak, on a new patch of land. A new vantage point. A poem, uniquely, is a negotiation with white space, with absence. Each line and stanza break are little perches from which to consider that absence. And that last line is where the reader stops, as if at the edge of a cliff, to look out. If there’s something still ringing, something hovering in the mind’s eye, demanding attention, OK. Good.
The cliff came up suddenly in Carrie Fountain’s poem “The Jungle” and then there I was, looking over the edge, ringing.
COMMENCEMENT SPEECH, DELIVERED TO A HERD OF WALRUS CALVES by Matthew Olzmann
TWO POEMS by Melissa Crowe
TWO POEMS by Ariel Francisco
BALIKBAYAN FILLED WITH THEORY by Dujie Tahat
TWO POEMS by Keetje Kuipers
IF YOU ARE READING THIS by James Hoch
SIX ECCLESIASTICAL LOVE SONGS by C.T. Salazar
A POEM WHERE GOD IS A PARABLE by Jay Kophy
VENUS DE MILO WITH DRAWERS: SELF-PORTRAIT MADE OF MINK & PLASTER by Caroline Parkman Barr
MEMORIAL DAY by Chelsea Dingman
I USED TO PRAY by Yuxi Lin
TWO POEMS by Jessica Johnson
EXCERPT FROM THE HISTORY OF LITERACY by K-Ming Chang
MONSIEUR REYNARD by Holly M. Wendt
ALL WE HAD TO DO WAS SWIM by Jon Bohr Heinen
FOUR WORKS by Suzanne Koett
heaven is a compound
the sun sunders
so you don’t have to
wonder what wound
a cello’s hello—
like an animal fond of its own
A cello’s hollow
that’s what it felt like
breathing with you
in the dark
heaven is a compound
but not the one we’re in
we were called heathens in another myth
hello whatever wound we answer to now
the language of electricity was
the language of prophets
a conduit for the power to pass through
I’m all steeple at your lightning
let us tremble cellos
at your touch
the river knowing which way to go
without any godspeed to spill
heaven: clouds marigolding softly
birds drones butterflies a jug
of water anything
could get over that fence
IN THE OUTDOOR SHOWER WITH MY PREGNANT WIFE
The old frisbee from Burger Chef, once red
but faded now the pale pink of my wife’s
widening aureoles, lies upturned
beneath the saltwater drip of our sagging
beach towels. This world is full of objects
succumbing to the gentle ebb of decay. But her body—
loosening breasts and blue-veined thighs caught
in a cascade of wet light as she turns
beneath the showerhead’s senseless spray—
is not one of them. That low-blooming
shudder and heft at her hips can’t compare
to her belly button’s skin stretched taut
and thin, become the pale sail of a boat
screaming into harbor. I am here
to praise the way in which everything
I have ever loved about her body
is about to be ruined forever in the breaking
open. Tonight the wind will come up,
turn the towels on the line into fat bells,
churn the waves into a froth, drag the sand
out and leave it where our toes can’t touch.
In the morning, the ocean will return
to its languid sheet, but the beach will be strewn
with the wreckage. I want already
the body scarred by stretch marks, the extra flap
of skin to hang soft at her waist, the feet
that will never again be quite so small.
I want to worship the body after the storm,
the one I’m imagining already
as she unfolds the straps from her shoulders
and peels the suit off, her skin covered in
those minute and glittering fragments of shell
some people insist on calling sand.
WITH GARBO IN PALM SPRINGS
We’re at the resort, the one with the forty-one
pools, and it’s night so if we were up in the swaying
fronds of a palm tree the ground would stretch before us
a green freckled thigh against a dark sheet. But Greta
and I are inside, perched on the edge of the bed
watching my wife sleep. She’s beautiful, we agree,
and my daughter, too, their blond hair spread against
the pillow like a silk scarf in a silent movie.
Though now Greta’s impatient with all the watching,
the kid especially, so we go outside to smoke
her cigarettes, to lean our backs against the white
adobe walls and kiss for as long as it takes.
The electronic lock clicks behind us, a set
of perfect teeth, and I’m chasing Greta across
the lawn with its lemon trees I can smell in the dark,
past the lounge chair where someone’s abandoned
the sort of wide brimmed hat meant to keep us young,
over the patio still warm as skin from the sun’s
relentless shining, toward the place where she’s already
slipped off her dress and climbed into the water,
side-stroking with one arm and holding her smoke
aloft with the other. And if I say it’s a dream,
it will have no power. And if I say it’s real,
no one will ever believe me. But can’t it
be both? I want to rub my body against her
perfect one. So I do. All my nubbly parts sanded
down against the smooth monument of her form,
ageless as the desert once was before we came here
and turned it into a golf course. Now only
my hunger—its vast, unquenchable fury—
interrupts the glow of each long leg as she traces
eggbeater circles in the blue depths beneath her.
The boy builds a four-throated fish
out of cardboard. The fish lips
flap, blue-taped, from a body that
carried bottles. See! He says
a large-mouth bass. I’d have smiled once
(inwardly of course) at his fine
imaginary, thought him unspoiled, amusing himself
with the trash.
Wasn’t I doing a good
job? The boy, a living sign that I could refuse
the invisible purveyors who would sell him
dopamine hits & strangling masculinity with a side
of fried sugar? The things we buy
without knowing. But this is a cool
summer, air and skin the same, enough water
the rose taller, the jasmine tendrils
longer. The soft white sky.
I ought to love it. There’s no war now
except the usual one
& death like age is just a number
that rises. I walk every morning
& the number rises. We finish our assignments
& the number rises. We reply to your message
& the number rises. We build a fire no one
may gather around. What can you swallow
with four throats
that you couldn’t swallow with one?
The same things, but smaller.
One trimmed off his own name
to hide his Irishness.
One wrote white
instead of mother’s mother was
instead of no
right designation. One dressed
like a shark, smooth suited, pressed
& pale to compensate
for parents who grew
in foreign soil
on preserved fish & sometimes stank of it.
My people were damned
successful at leaving themselves behind
rushing toward a shrinking
field of safety just inside the blade
of cooling sunlight even
as night came on.
And me, years ago when I had bad
insurance, I saw a doctor for a raft
of pains, a strange doctor
but official. She said the way I move’s all
wrong: from the edge not the center
as if I could just decide a thing & make it so
without getting too close without risking parts (belly, heart)
I couldn’t lose.
She said my problems come
from a thumb too quick
to pin something under it.
to any God that made me
Girls are takers,
Mama used to say.
I took every lesson
she gave me, learned
to swim out of my body
& abandon it.
With incense I burned pages
until a perfect eye stared back.
God drilled a hole to make us see.
See? Mine is filthy.
He, too, eyed me
each day afterschool,
clutching the line to the lure.
When I walked by
he’d catch me & groan
Oh you’ve grown so heavy.
Like his breath, his fingers
were meaty & thick.
For years I weighed myself
then I weighed myself down.
In the water, my scaled body
lay bent & murky.
Listen — Don’t believe in God
unless he admits
he was always watching.
Look back at him.
If he had my courage
he’d choose to be born
What am I begging for?
I have two mouths.
Not the storm, but the calm.
Not the flurry of attention
called to the sky.
Not the rumour of a hurricane on the horizon.
Not humidity, the mosquitoes rising
like smoke from the fields.
Not a history of revisions we call
love, or survival.
Not the children lost and discarded.
Not the borders that hostage them.
Not how we were once possible
under this tyrant
sky, the familiar sorrow of the fields.
Describe our self-importance.
This awareness that travels us like a siren.
Why the live oaks drown in brown pollen
gripping the streets.
Who else will wash this mess clean?
Laundry-damp, our houses.
Thick with spoiled food and loneliness.
In times of love and crisis, we’ve been
the most alone.
Planes take off without us.
Children flit between namesakes like wasps.
We miss what is ours while it is within reach,
along with the dim sound of thunder
in the distance, storm drains already chuffing.
Let any absence mean we are loved.
Let the rain come soon, and be done with us.
Each morning is the same
but I can’t help but look again and again:
skin smooth peony petal, vanilla-ice-
cream-cool; hair a ripple of milk pulled back
too tight (though sometimes I forget the aching);
even my eyes are eggshells. Only air where arms
should be, dimpled seams of unfinished
making I’ll never forgive, but the sling
of this sheet hugs my hips in the perfect
place that says, Hey, I can still be sexy.
Then, there are the drawers: forehead,
breasts, ribcage, stomach, my left knee—
the edges to my curves only someone else
can open—nipples, belly button, each knob
a puff of fur to touch and pull. I’m told
they’re so, so soft. Everyone wants to look
inside, and sometimes I let them
just to feel the rub and jolt, just to see
their faces when they find my secrets,
find their own. My favorite part is when
they shut me, shaking my spine so hard
I almost crack—and for a moment it feels
some part of me could change.
The absence of faith is the beginning of death.
What I call flesh is prayer bound to my bones.
All my prayers begin as songs from my bones
and end with blood instead of amen.
How I wish I began every request with amen,
like when I ask God to let doubt pass from me.
Amen. Oh God. let this sea of doubt pass from me,
for I’ve tried walking on water & almost drowned.
In Noah’s ark, a lost name is replaced with drowned.
In Ghana, anyone who drowns is without a name.
What is the value of a life without a name
to those who believe in what they can only see?
To those who believe in what they can only see,
the absence of faith is the beginning of death.
We are building a house
small in the woods,
refuge from disquiet
or vague boredom.
It must weather distance,
the hurt of proximity.
We do not mean to,
though we are so good
at breaking, scavenging
old bone and feather, stalks of
the hour of their heads.
You are boss, and look boss,
hammer and spackle knife
and blue hair, plastering.
At a window you like the way
open sounds, so you mouth it
until the word too becomes
some thing to occupy.
You can’t take it with you,
and the house won’t stay
when you’re gone.
Wind is saying this,
the way wind likes to say things,
likes the door swinging,
petals over the floor,
then floor, then house,
then whatever was before.