When Alice Te Punga Somerville walked out of Lee Chapel a week ago Sunday, she looked around for water and ended up rinsing her fingers in a puddle, flicking the water back over her head. “Don’t want to take anybody with me,” she remarked. I had forgotten that traditional gesture upon leaving a burial place. Robert E. Lee is below the chapel in his family crypt, his horse interred just outside; their graves are just a few steps from my office, and my office is above the room where the former confederate general was inaugurated president of Washington and Lee. It didn’t seem worth rinsing my own hands. I live with these ghosts. Each night Alice was here, in fact, I dreamed of the afterlife—in one case an eternal poetry conference on the beach near Nelson, New Zealand, run by Bill Manhire.
A couple of hours later, I returned to the chapel on my own for a memorial service for Severn Parker Costin Duvall III, a W&L professor of modern poetry who retired in the mid-nineties, when I was hired. Learned, eloquent, and sharp-witted, not to mention tall and good-looking, Severn could be intimidating in the classroom. To me, he was utterly charming, always greeting me with a cry of enthusiasm, inquiring about my well-being in a wonderful Tidewater accent, and reflecting on what a brilliant hire I had been. When I was researching the history of literary readings in the U.S. for Voicing American Poetry, I interviewed Severn, who had been hired to start the Glasgow series, bringing Muriel Rukeyser, Ishmael Reed, Allen Ginsberg, Czeslaw Milosz, and many others. Severn spoke of standing-room-only crowds in that same chapel for James Dickey, and how the all-male student body was riveted in 1973 by a symposium of women writers: Mary McCarthy, Denise Levertov, Carolyn Kips, Barbara Deming, and Penelope Gilliat. He sipped coffee in Elrod Commons while I scribbled furiously, feeling star-struck, for a couple of hours. I would have loved to listen longer.
And a few days later, news of Adrienne Rich. The space in which I’ve been mourning her couldn’t be more different than Lee Chapel. I’m hearing testimonies through Wom-po, a virtual space full of women from different generations, backgrounds, life paths. It’s impressive how many of these poets felt authorized and inspired by Rich’s work. Many of them are already writing essays. I’ll leave them to it. My own experience of Rich isn’t unique or interesting. As a university student in the late eighties, I found her work, fell in love with it, and wrote an honors thesis partly based on “Twenty-One Love Poems.” I heard her read once at a Whitman centennial in Paterson, New Jersey. I teach her work in a range of classes and it always fully engages me—heart, brain, conscience.
What compelled me as an undergraduate reading “Twenty-One Love Poems” were her thoughts on the ethics of telling, of making one’s interior life exterior through words. There’s one scene of two women touching one another as they vomit over the rail of a ferry; diction linking love to pregnancy; and of course that sexy female volcano (which I finally climbed myself this past summer, thinking of Rich). Lots of pain and destruction in those metaphors, but in the end telling is better than keeping secrets.
I’m sorry Severn is gone. It was good, though, to hear one of Severn’s grown-up students talk to us about what he learned from his tough, generous teacher; he vividly conjured up one particular seminar in a room where I’ll teach this spring term. I’m one of Rich’s students, although I never met her, and I can still inhabit the space of thinking she made through poetry. Sometimes the virtual rooms are as vivid, as important, as the real ones.
To my surprise, I’ve been asked to lead a critical seminar on sound in T. S. Eliot’s poetry at the next meeting of the Eliot Society, this September in St. Louis. Don’t tell, but coincidentally, I just published a poetic response to “The Waste Land” in Fringe Magazine. “Zombie Thanksgiving” brings together modernist poetry, George Romero, and family dysfunction with what I fear might be Frankensteinian hubris, but the union felt not monstrous but natural. Withered Sybil, ghosts flowing over London Bridge, buried life painfully reviving, “bats with baby faces” crawling head-first down the walls of Dracula’s castle (well, maybe)—“The Waste Land” has always been a horror story told by one of those erudite Poe characters as his sanity crumbles, right? Eliot’s allusion-gathering is a sort of grave-robbing in order to build a new creature from mismatched parts, stitches showing. (Does that make Ezra Igor?)
All of which has me wondering: where is Eliot’s influence in contemporary U.S. poetry? Ezra Pound, Langston Hughes, William Carlos Williams, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Robert Frost, H.D., Wallace Stevens and others have all had a pretty imposing afterlife haunting the House of Verse. I still hear them cited by young and mid-career writers, read new poems in magazines that echo theirs. He was enormously important to his contemporaries and to twentieth-century-poetry’s middle generation, but after that something knocked him out of the club of Literary Influences Cheerfully Acknowledged by Other Poets. His appalling politics or his expatriatism or his personal creepiness as portrayed by Willem Dafoe, perhaps.
I have the impression Eliot cast a longer shadow in Great Britain than in the U.S. My undergraduates still love/hate his otherworldly powers. I remember liking a poem Kim Addonizio had in Poetry a few years back; I haven’t found it yet but I’m pretty sure she shored some fragments of “The Waste Land” against her ruins. Who else is channeling Eliot, though, among contemporary writers? What proudly Eliotic cohort am I not thinking of?
Are half-rotted Prufrocks shambling through poems beyond my peripheral vision?
So if poems are time-travel devices, they ought to travel sideways and forward as well as backwards. I recently hosted a reading by Natasha Trethewey, who definitely points her universal remote towards the past in Bellocq’s Ophelia, Native Guard, and Beyond Katrina. I’m teaching the latter two books in various courses and our conversations focus on memory and monuments. Her poems about Louisiana’s Native Guard, Gulfport, and her mother offer various ways of honoring history. Sometimes she reinhabits, recreates lost moments; sometimes she considers how impossible it is to do so.
Beyond Katrina also demonstrates concern and commitment to the present and future, especially to survivors of Katrina’s devastation and to the damaged, disrespected natural environment of the Gulf Coast. Trethewey does not, however, project herself into the future as constantly and vividly as she does into the past. I’ve been rereading Native Guard looking for tomorrowland and even instances of future tense are entangled with history as fate (“my native land, this place they’ll bury me”). Dreaming conjures alternate timelines in a few poems, but generally Trethewey is concerned with how the past inhabits the present. She voyages constantly between the two like the obsessed historians in Connie Willis’ time-travel novels.
I’m trying to read poetry as speculative fiction, a genre closely associated with the future. If poetry looks mainly backward, where does that put my argument? There is a fair amount of poetry addressed to the future through children. Some poets prophesy revolution (Langston Hughes), their own deaths (Emily Dickinson), or environmental apocalypse (W.S. Merwin just for starters). And the sort of remembering Trethewey does is very much about the future, though indirectly.
The most uncanny, haunting lyric projection I can think of is in Walt Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”: “And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence are more to me, and more in my meditations, than you might suppose…Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt.” Here’s the spaceship/ TARDIS (n.b. Eric)/ multidirectional time travel device I’m looking for, and it’s an incredibly powerful one. Whitman’s ferry as De Lorean.
How else do lyric poets speculate? What am I not thinking of?
My mother divested herself of all kinds of things last year—furniture, dishes, adulterous husband. On one of my visits she loaded me up with a bin of old papers and photos. I quickly divided them into four piles: one each for me, my sister, and my brother, and one for disposal. Then I left my pile in a corner of my bedroom for two months, not knowing what to do with it.
I looked through it recently before putting the stack in the ultimate Place of Repression—our chaotic attic—but plucked out one item for my office. It’s an old black-and-white postcard of Calder High School in Liverpool. My mother attended it as a scholarship girl in the fifties. A few years ago, I wrote a book of poems about Liverpool in that era, published as Heterotopia (“other place”) in 2010. Because I grew up on family stories of Vronhill Street and the Calderstones, that place and time still feels vivid to me: not vanished, just not easily accessible, an otherworld you can sometimes enter through the back of the wardrobe. See? I brought home a postcard.
Stories, poems, photographs can be time-travel devices when they absorb you sufficiently, though like doors to Narnia, the mechanisms aren’t entirely dependable. I’m always hoping to enable that step-into-the-fairy-ring effect, but other contemporary poets can be ambivalent about soliciting reader immersion. I’m currently teaching a seminar on poetry and place and we began with books about the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina. All of them conjure up the pre-storm world, the terrible nightmare universe of flooded New Orleans, and the damage remaining. At the moment we’re reading Nicole Cooley’s Breach, in which narrative (a strategy of absorption) oscillates with fragmentation (anti-absorptive, insisting on our awareness of the poems as self-conscious assemblages). There’s a lot to say about Cooley’s compelling collection but for now, a glimpse:
Old Gulf Coast Postcards
Between the already-over and the now-gone, on a corner of the wrecked
downtown, in the Gulfport Pharmacy, my daughter and I spin the black rack—
Broadwater Beach. Biloxi Harbor. Pass Christian where two girls
splash in a Technicolor ocean so blue it burns your eyes.
Last year turned historical: Welcome to Dauphin Island! Greetings
from Waveland! Climb aboard the red and white ship
SS Hurricane Camille, docked at a wooden pier no longer outside.
At The Real Southern Ante-Bellum House, the azaleas
gleam play-doh pink, bunched and bursting off the columned porch.
We spin the rack, and I remember driving to Gulfport with my mother,
beaches my daughter will never see. Harbor, coast, skyline all relic.
Between the gone and the not-recovered, no one
steps out of their house to wave. No porch lights gleam.
Cadaver dogs sniff the dirt. At the edge of downtown, an ancient, twisted oak
lies uprooted, on its side, a sign labeling it Alive.
(online at the Poets for Living Waters site)
“Old Gulf Coast Postcards” works hard to situate us, from title through subtitle to the pharmacy’s location to captioned postcards depicting sites that no longer exist. It also works hard to disorient us through paradox: “between the already-over and the now-gone…between the gone and the not-recovered.” Nobody inhabits this unlocatable heterocosmica (“other world”), she tells us (although heterocosmica is my favorite new word, not one that Cooley uses!). The postcards offer a “Technicolor” vision where flowers bloom in unnatural Play-doh hues. Though these details suggest a childish or idealized perspective, Cooley emphasizes the continuing validity of memory when she ends the poem with an uprooted old tree labeled “Alive.”
I have no idea whether uprooted old oaks—live oaks?—can survive and be replanted, but in any case, I don’t think the poem’s final gesture is quixotic. Cooley doesn’t finish this poem’s final couplet because all fictional or poetic worlds, no matter how vivid, are incomplete. Actual people can’t live there anymore. Its poetic invocation is not mere fantasy, though, because fantasy is never mere. Somebody has to imagine persistence or that tree will certainly die. There’s a reason Cooley alludes to so many fairy tales and fantasy universes in this book. They retain crucial resources when so much else seems to be lost.
I’m about to become an author of speculative fiction. The Receptionist and Other Tales has just been accepted for publication by Aqueduct, a feminist science fiction press in Seattle. I’m both thrilled and nervous.
Thrilled: I love the mission of this small press. I’m joining a list that includes many wonderful writers—Ursula Le Guin, for example, of whom I am a swooning fan. And I have been reading fantasy and science fiction ever since I could lift The Lord of the Rings. I read everything else, too; as a ten-year-old I made little distinction between Jane Eyre and Madeleine L’Engle’s books, and they have a fair amount in common, really, even though they’re shelved in different parts of the library. Few things compare to falling in love with a new author and plunging into his or her weird world, knowing that there are hundreds of pages ahead of you, craving and dreading the plot’s resolution—as an adult I’ve felt that joy about Philip Pullman, Margaret Atwood, Octavia Butler, Michael Chabon, and many others who work in that area between literary and genre fiction sometimes called “slipstream.” Several years back my friend Suzanne introduced me to the Bold as Love series by Gwyneth Jones (another Aqueduct author), sticking each book into my office mailbox as she finished it. She teased me later about the time she bumped into me outside Payne Hall and said, “Oh, I just left the next one for you.” My back straightened, my eyes grew wide and wild, and I dashed ravenously back into the building.
The Receptionist is a tale in terza rima of a young administrative assistant in the English department of a small southern college. She reads fantasy novels aloud to her two sons each night, so as campus crisis deepens around her, she sees an abusive administrator as the Dark Lord, university counsel as his leathery-winged avian minions, a powerful but sleepy senior professor as The Dragon, a group of feisty women colleagues as Quest Companions. Writing it helped me survive my stint as Department Head. I mapped it out one Christmas break (thanks to Diana Wynne Jones’ The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, a hilarious book that crystallizes all those tropes), and each time I drafted a 30-line canto, I’d leave a thread for the next occasion I could carve out two hours for writing. I’d pick up that rhyme or plot point and jump back in to a world where rather than an administrative job title, I had real power.
And maybe you see now why I’m nervous? This isn’t a roman à clef but people from the campuses I’ve worked at will recognize little elements of character and situation I’ve added to the blender, and some might be offended. That’s one danger, but maybe the more familiar one.
The other risk has to do with genre. I’ve been making progress as a Serious Poet. Plenty of Serious Novelists and Critics look down their noses at genre fiction; they might admit to the guilty pleasure of mystery-reading but fantasy and science fiction are just too stinky. Serious Poets have even longer, more sensitive schnozzes. I am sure that this is a good book—I sat on it for a long time, revising and weighing and making sure my delight in writing it wasn’t impairing my judgment about the product—so if/when people murmur about this questionable career move, I’ll know they’re wrong. That doesn’t mean it won’t bug me.
I’m not the only contemporary poet doing this. In the long run, of course I’m not—I wouldn’t compare my book to Spenser, Milton, or Dante, but surely they’ve proven that poetry can be great speculative literature. Just as twenty-first-century high-brow novels, though, play around with popular genres to terrific effect, some critically successful poets are splashing around in the slipstream, and perhaps for similar reasons. More on this soon.
I have a guilty sense that I’ve deluded people, cast up a falsely shimmering mirage of the Productive Poet-Scholar-Teacher, when someone asks how I get so much done. I feel perpetually behind, anxious about what I should have finished but haven’t started yet, and believe that last year’s publishing rate is a fluke. Really, my bulb has burnt out, and next year they’ll see the illusion flicker off like broken film.
At the same time, like everyone who has the arrogance to try and make art, I think I am an underappreciated genius. When asked how I get so much done, I experience a static charge of irritation. The answer, of course, is that I work really hard even when I don’t want to. That’s the only answer, ever.
There’s another piece, though, and it’s not something a scholar should admit: I am not a perfectionist. I send poems out before they’re done and regret it later. I don’t proofread my emails, dammit. I fail to double-check the spelling of a name or the exact wording of a reference. To anyone not a scholar or researcher or journalist, this probably sounds like silly stuff to worry over, and sometimes it is. I had a reviewer lambaste me for a misspelled name once (in a quick aside, not a major point) and I still think he was unnecessarily snarky; he was looking for errors because he didn’t like my poetic politics.
Sometimes, though, even small errors have ethical weight. I wrote down just the first author of a co-authored source once, and never re-checked and caught my omission of the collaborators. Later, one of those collaborators wrote me in frustration—she had just done me a huge favor and noticed in the process that I had cheated her of credit for a lot of hard labor. You of all people should know better, she said, and I agreed.
I recently made a couple of other mistakes in which I failed to give full credit to women. I just published an article about The Discussion of Women’s Poetry List called “A Salon with a Revolving Door: Virtual Community and the Space of Wom-Po.” One mistake was just a basic confusion rooted in the real difficulty of following tangled threads: I attributed the invention of “Foremother’s Friday” to Ellen Moody, who more or less runs that feature now, instead of to its real originator, Amanda Surkont. The other error is worse, in my opinion, because, again, I really should have known better. In one paragraph, I blithely recognize Charles Bernstein for founding the Buffalo Poetic List and John Kinsella for founding poetryetc. I describe Wom-po, however, not as Annie Finch’s creation but as the collective venture of a group of women.
Yes, it was a collective endeavor—all those email lists are—and my article emphasizes its communal aspect as a feminist achievement. However, all those lists also had leaders, people who steered the conversation through conflicts, navigated technical difficulties, and kept the group lively and growing. In short, I gave full acclaim to the men, but not to the woman. There are enough jerks out there doing things like that with an edge of malice; people who don’t want to be jerks have an obligation to be careful. Annie Finch (in a nice way) called me on it, and I apologized, but I wanted to say again here: I get it and I am sorry.
I never made the omitting-the-coauthors misstep a second time and I don’t expect to make the failure-to-credit-the-woman-same-as-the-men error again, either. I’m pretty sure I will find myself apologizing for other mistakes, though. It’s not that I’m cavalier about it or won’t try hard to get things right, or at least err on the side of generosity. It’s just hot hard work here in the projection booth, with that Productive Poet-Scholar-Teacher film on constant display. My Teacher-Scholar simulacrum likes to finish things, tick them off the list and keep moving. Only the poet really takes things slowly enough, at least some of the time. That’s one of the uses of poetry’s uselessness.
Maggots spill from one wrenched hand;
from the other, your tedious to-do lists.
Listen or regret: undead lips
upthrust from soil, grunting
out the songs you would forget.
If Schrödinger’s cat is both
dead and alive, don’t
open that box.
Mournful twanging from the pyre.
Decay perfumes the dark.
A toast, dear heart, to your desire:
one final autonomic spark.
I love you for your brains.
Best wishes for a zombitastic holiday from The Cave, the Hive.
All the synthesized sentiment at this time of year used to irritate me, but right now it’s too resonant, despite some intellectual resistance. That’s probably why I’m most struck, in the fall/winter issue of Hayden’s Ferry Review, by poems that riff on nostalgia. “I have this memory and it’s really poignant to me”: there’s a whole lyric subgenre that can be summed up this way. Elizabeth Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room,” for instance, or Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays,” and half the British Romantic canon.
For the rest, see my guest blog for Hayden’s Ferry Review. And more here soon, when the exams are graded!
In my first (pre-Google) years as a teacher I was in a perpetual state of fear and trauma: someone would ask me about the obscure name in a poem’s dedication, and I wouldn’t know the answer, and I would therefore be exposed as an ignorant imposter. I’ve relaxed since, having learned that everyone is an imposter. I can always answer a student’s question like a psychotherapist: “How does it make you feel not to know?”
My latest blog for Shenandoah discusses how the presence of a dedication–famous name, cryptic initial, or some other variation on that little tag under a poem’s title–alters how you engage with the verse. I react either smugly because I’m an insider, with the guilt of half-recognition, or with anxious cluelessness, but I’m assuming some readers have a wider emotional range. Would you weigh in either here or by following the link above? I’d really like to know.
I was just outed as a ghost-whisperer in Amy Balfour’s article about campus spirits. Balfour recounts several spooky stories about the building I teach in, Payne Hall, on the south end of Washington and Lee University’s historic colonnade, in a Civil-War-haunted town where garage doors are left open for spectral horses…
I’m blogging for Shenandoah this month and that passage above is the opening of my first entry. Read the rest here.
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