Two Contemporary Poets
An Interview by Erika Horn
In your poem "Now," the persona, even though part of the action, describes the events in an almost journalistic manner. In "Spirit Force," the persona describes an unorthodox character who emerges as a rescuer, apart from the fighting, who is nonetheless centered in his role of medivac.
How do you connect the persona in "Now" to the character created in "Spirit Force." Are the two visions connected in any way?
Let me start with the "Now" poem. What you refer to as the narrator's journalistic tone has to do, I think, with the narrator's psychological state. Emotionally and physically exhausted, he's incapable of over-describing or rationalizing what he sees. He can't bring himself to say more than, "I see this. Now I see that. Now I . . ."
Of course, such a listing of apparent facts can at first glance seem journalistic--as if the speaker's reporting on things as opposed to being involved in them. But if we stop thinking of writing styles for a minute--of poetry versus journalism or whatever--and just think of the different ways people confront what's in front of them, then it's fairly clear, I think, that the narrator's tone entails a resignation to, if not a total acceptance of, the specifics of what's right before him, the corpse. And so the poem begins with him talking about the details of the corpse's appearance. Rather than resisting this depressing sight by thinking of something else or turning away, the persona instead gives up any hope of escaping from it and therefore surrenders to it.
Implicit in this giving up, there is a lucidity, not a calm lucidity maybe, but still a lucidity. In other words, for this moment at least, the narrator's capacity to see clearly is directly related to his being defeated--defeated by what he sees, by his weariness, by everything going on. There is no escape for him. There is only this now. He lives in it. He itemizes it. He is wedded to it. He is it. There's nothing else, nothing more, only this.
Ultimately, though, there is more. This "more" has to do with the clarity of the narrator's seeing, a clarity which sets in motion a train of thought, a reverie. By not turning away, by risking the disorientation of looking straight at what's there and being open to the potential meaninglessness of it all--by doing this, the narrator's heart and mind say yes to what is and to the damage done to them by what is.
When this kind of thing happens to us, there is, from that point on, I think, a shift in the mind--its conditioning and predispositions are gone, at least for awhile. As a result the mind then follows its logics wherever they might lead, even into apparent illogic. No attempts at censoring or moralizing or fitting the experience into prefabricated boxes are made. It's almost as if the mind's in a state of meditation, all focus, no resistance.
What this means in terms of the poem is that the poem moves casually, with little harping on its destination, toward a feeling, either momentary or more deep-rooted than that, of suicide or total exhaustion or despair or something similar. Whatever happens at the end of the poem isn't exactly defined, but there's a mood there, a provocation to thought, that is, I hope, quite clear. The reader has to take it from there.
I hope this describes at least some of the psychology in "Now." But what you really want to know is how this relates to the medic in "Spirit Force."
In response to that, first let me say I think your question hints at the possibility that these two people represent different personality types or maybe different worldviews. That alleged difference can I guess be summed up in this way: the "Now" narrator's so-called journalistic way of expressing himself makes him seem, at least on the surface, more inclined to observe than to act, whereas the medic seems to possess a life-force quality that's rooted in an inclination to just dive into existence without restraint. Although there's some truth in viewing the characters this way, it's not how I view them. I see something else. This "something else" is where I have to begin.
I see commonality between the two men. The somewhat eccentric but nonetheless heroic medic is no more of a world-banger, no more "involved" in life, than the other poem's speaker, and the other poem's speaker is no more observant than the medic. Look at it this way. Picture the medic and then imagine what he has to observe, what he has to report to himself, in order to successfully navigate the fire zone and save the wounded man. He has to pay attention to the placement of friendlies in the area, he has to identify the locations from which the enemy's fire originates, he must determine the elephant grass's height and how much it might impede his movements, he has to choose the best angle from which to approach the wounded grunt, he has to dodge gunfire and hand grenades and maybe land mines, and on and on and on. This man is observing and filtering an abundance of data in a matter of seconds.
Now picture the speaker in "Now." He and his platoon come upon a dead fellow grunt. The speaker mentally enters into the fact of that corpse with the same intensity that the medic displays in entering the fire zone when rescuing the man whose leg was lost. The speaker's engagement with the corpse, his surrender to its thereness and to the hopelessness that the corpse's mutilation represents to him--this act entails as much involvement in life as anything the medic does. So, you see, I don't at all accept it as a given that "Now"'s narrator and the medic in "Spirit Force" are by definition opposites.
Although their commonality might not be clear at first glance, I hope that readers, after thinking about the poems, will sense the commonality and then appreciate it for what it is: two individuals' shared inclination to immerse themselves in the realities of which they are a part. As a writer, I can't stay away from this type of theme. It's like in one of William Carlos William' early poems--actually, a turning point poem for him--in which he enters into "the filthy Passaic river" and the river in turn, he says, "enters my heart," eddying dirtily and with its foul smell into him while strangely revealing to him "the beginning of days."
That's it, the only type of baptism I believe in. This is why I'm preoccupied and amazed by the ways in which people immerse themselves in what is and change themselves in the process. Of course, also amazing but in a different way, are the methods we adopt in our efforts to flee such immersion-- flee it because, in a doomed and fruitless craving to avoid pain, we delude ourselves into thinking we can hide from reality.
I'm glad that you explained the similarities between the two personae because I felt that there was a very germane connection between the two.
In your poem "Now," the characters burn huts in a small village. The end line of the poem is "Finally, only a sniper's bullet or a tripwire away, tranquility's within reach." What does the word "tranquility" mean to the persona in this poem?
Well, I've already said a lot about "Now," but this question about the end is a good one.
The calm or peacefulness hinted at in the poem's last lines, the ones you just quoted, is first and foremost a wished-for conclusion to pain. It's not just death itself that has gotten to the speaker but also what it has triggered: the mind's spasms as it sees things differently; for instance, the "paddies' senseless green" and a wound "as dark as a myna bird" whose language is like "the endless yakking of dumb or desperate men "
So, you see, the tranquility mentioned in the poem's last lines is ironic in that it's not the kind of tranquility we usually think of. Instead, it's the dreamt-of tranquility that the potential suicide fantasizes about as he or she watches meaning drain from the world.
But there's another, more subtle and tangential, aspect of tranquility in the poem too. This aspect has to do with the unique calm that comes from resigning oneself to an unromanticized reality. There may be a desolation in the midst of this calm, but it nonetheless has something going for it: it's a turning point. Only now can one begin the work of reassembling the shattered spirit and healing the mind and heart.
Would you talk a little about your poem, "Winter Note to Adriana," about its meaning to you?
Well, if I was successful, the poem's about a certain poise in seeing, a state of mind that's more interested in grasping things as they are than in imposing itself on them. In other words, it's about seeing clearly, specifically that aspect of seeing clearly that strives to overcome the tendency to simplify multiplicity in ways that obscure reality. "Winter Note" is pretty straightforward, I think, in the way it talks about how the search for an ordering principle in things is often an attempt to flee a "wildness" that "panics us."
But it is precisely this wildness, this unfetteredness, this apparently chaotic interconnectedness of things, that the speaker views as order. This is why he accepts the fact that "Completely beyond logic, / the tree exists" and why he describes the tree's pandemonium of branches as being "like thoughts in a mind that meditates / on everything at once." The narrator's vision implies an interrelatedness between all things, including himself and others. There's also an insinuation here that the very "disorder" in nature that can panic us can also, if we accept it, guide us to a higher level of seeing.
In "Excursion," as in many of your poems, the persona is alone. How do you relate this character to the personae in your poems dealing with your other themes, including the major theme of war?
Well, many speakers in my poems are motivated by types of uprootedness or dislocation. As such, they either try to overcome isolation or to describe powerful, and often psychologically contorting, connections to the world. "Excursion"'s speaker is an example. Aging, he recalls an ex-lover or wife. In the process he experiences loneliness but also a kind of at-oneness with the world when he sees "a clearing where what the grass has to say / is massaged by sunlight into silence." Of course, this can also be a death image, which complicates it a bit.
Anyway, you're right, the lone speaker plays a key role in my poetry. The reason for this is simple: no matter how much our voices may ultimately connect us to others, the act of speaking at its most basic level is about a reaching out from the point of our individuality, our aloneness, to the world beyond us. In this sense, remaining faithful to a particular voice's details or a particular mind's thoughts is an obsession with me because it's the only way I know of rooting a poem in reality. Thoughts and actions don't come out of nowhere, they arise from the combustibility of a particular personality in relation to a range of forces that are often beyond that personality's control. I try to get at this fact in my poetry.
Part of doing this, I believe, lies in not censoring myself in terms of subject matter. This is why as a writer I immerse myself as much in the physical and psychological violences of war as I do in the weird engineering of the horse nettle in the spring field, or why authoring a poem about someone in crisis means just as much to me as describing fox prints in the snow or a sax riff in a city park or the collision between races or how an IMF decision in America results in the mass planting of eucalyptus trees in India--trees that drain water from farmfields and as a result the farmers organize and rip up the trees. Conflict and unity of all types--between peoples, between humankind and nature, between different ways of seeing, and so on--are what I'm drawn to. The range, the possibilities, between those two poles obsesses me.
In your poems many of the personae are rooted in time and place, and also there is a quality in many of your other poems of a wandering through different times and places. How do you feel these different aspects are connected in your poetry?
I think I just gave part of the answer to this question a few minutes ago in the stuff I said about using voices and personalities other than my own in certain poems. Those voices and personalities are related to what you said about rooting poems in time and place.
But the other part of your question, the part where you talk about sensing in some of my work "a quality of wandering through different times and places," this aspect of what you've asked is something I haven't talked about yet and I'm glad you've given me a chance to say something about it since, at least to me, it's an important issue.
There's no writing about a thing or an event or a mood without saying something about it's texture. And texture isn't just about something's feel--it's about the combination of things that create that feel. Take textiles as an example. If we say about a certain material that its texture is coarse, we mean that the material's various threads or strands are interwoven in such a way as to produce that coarse feel.
It's the same way with a moment's or a personality's texture--various threads of experience, emotion, history, etc. contribute to the "feel." What this means to me as a writer is shown, at least a little bit, in "Reception."
At the poem's beginning the speaker enters a dusk village about which he says, "I lived here once. Now I don't." Then we find out that the previous day the narrator's niece was married somewhere nearby and that now, in a brief while, a reception is to be held for the newlyweds in an abandoned pump factory and that, because the narrator must attend the reception, he can't remain in the village he has just entered. As a result, the narrator prepares to go to the unused factory which is characterized, he says, by "the fertile presence / of the absence of drill presses and lathes."
In all these images--the village, the factory, etc.--the present is everywhere inhabited by, and given additional depth by, the past, which means that although a real landscape is being described, it isn't just depicted literally but is also shown psychologically and historically in terms of intersections between different time periods and so on. Later in the poem, even more strands are woven into this texture when hints of the war in Iraq become part of the weave, as does a sense of historical movement from generation to generation.
Additionally, in the course of the poem the very meaning of "reception" undergoes, I hope, an evolution. The title refers to the party being held for the newlyweds, but also to the speaker's reception into the village where he once lived but now doesn't. And another aspect of the reception idea is the speaker's movement through an environment that stimulates in him a need to be receptive or open to reality's fullness.
I think the types of goings-on, and the vision that underlies them, that I just described as occurring within "Reception" are reflective of why you sometimes sense in my work "a quality of wandering through different times and places." The way I look at things, moments and persons are never static; instead, they're sites of endless activity--they are crossroads where the mental and historical traffic is always hurtling this way and that between now and then or between one phenomenon and another. The only way to get at this reality, this teemingness, is to give voice to the different time frames, locations and so on that coexist within particular moments and psyches.
For me, such simultaneities lie at the very heart of meaning, are meaning. Of course it's sometimes equally important to boil things down to a split second of focus in which a fragment of reality, seen simply and clearly in itself without reference to other things, burns with such lucidity in our minds that nothing else is needed for us, at least briefly, to comprehend the world. That's another pole of meaning.
This range--from the thing in itself to the moment as the site of innumerable simultaneities and interactions--I guess this is ultimately what I'm after in my work--in addition, that is, to some of my more obvious goals like confronting in my poetry all subjects, including political ones, without fearing the disapproval of those who promote the bland, conformist writing that characterizes too much U.S. literature these days.
Thanks for taking my work seriously enough to talk with me about it.