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Ron Charles, "Life of a Poet: Alice Fulton," The Washington Post / The Library of Congress, The Hill Center, Washington, DC, November 4, 2015.
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Works discussed: "'Make It New,'" "Your Card Read 'Poet Mechanic,'" "Fables From The Random," "Palladium Process," "Some Cool," "Drills," "Maidenhead," About Music For Bone And Membrane Instrument = =," "Fix," "All Night Shivering," "Nugget And Dust," "About Face," "To Each According To His Need," "Claustrophilia," "Works On Paper," "Give: Reimagining Daphne And Apollo," "Supernal," "603 West Liberty Street," "Echo Location," "Cascade Experiment," "Shy One," "Point Of Purchase," "Sister Madeleine Please For Our Mary," "Doha Melt-Down Elegy," "Warmth Sculpture," "Sequel."
Topics discussed: becoming a poet, Emily Dickinson, inner life, love of language, similie, metaphor, Ezra Pound, the importance of surprise in poetry, wit, the past, A.R. Ammons, physicality of language, materiality, texture, synesthesia, control vs. surprise, attention, pig slaughter, "cultural incorrectness," Christmas, Jesus, Elvis, polyphonic voices, gaps, connections, lyric, guilt, theology, Dickinson's syntax, love poems, friendship, climate change, environment, embarrassment, estrangement, romance, claustrophilia, claustrophobia, myth, Daphne, Apollo, hunting, Sherry Ortner, Catholic upbringing, agnosticism, atheism, faith, religion, belief, theosophy, prayer, accident, chance, science, scientific language, theological language, Christianity, heaven, hell, family, mother, doha form, Buddhism, grief, mourning, consolation, happiness.
From the Library of Congress in Washington DC.
Diana Ingram: Welcome. I'm Diana Ingram. I'm the executive director here at Hill Center, at the Old Naval Hospital and I see many, many familiar faces, but I must ask; is there anyone who has never been in our beautiful building before? Oh wonderful. Welcome. Come back. Please look all of the fabulous offerings that we have. The artwork is gorgeous. On your way out please walk through the building, down our historic stairs and take a look at it. This is up through January and it is available for sale. It's a gift that gives forever; a thing of beauty. So other upcoming events.
I think that's it. one major announcement; this is a Civil War era building, 150 years old and the toll of 50,000 people coming through our doors each year. And the wonderful programs we do is beginning to have an impact on the fabric of the building. So you'll see a card on your seat. It looks like this and if it isn't, please take a moment to look at it. We want to be good stewards of this building. We have a 65-year lease and we're looking 40 years ahead when the roof needs to be replaced and we'd like to be here to have the kinds of wonderful programs that we can offer. I probably will not be there. [ Laughter ] You will be.
Diana Ingram: The gift that keeps on giving. [ Laughter ] Anyway, please take a moment to turn off your mobile devices. It is such a pleasure to welcome you to, I can't believe it, the tenth edition of Life of a Poet with Ron Charles. This is made possible through a very unique sponsorship with the Washington Post and the Library of Congress and also the very generous support of National Capitol Bank. The tenth edition, we have many of these conversations up on our YouTube channel. So I invite you to check out Ron's conversation with Mary Szybist and Brian Turner and Elizabeth Alexander, Carl Phillips. I mean, really a who's who of literary achievement, but none more so then our very enigmatic and dynamic guest this evening, Alice Fulton.
I'm going to let her bask in that for a moment as I do a quick bit of housekeeping. Following the conversation, everyone is invited to go over to Bayou's Bakery and Café, which is on the property, and you can collect a 15% coupon from the table outside. If you have not already purchased your books, you may purchase them over at Bayou Bakery where Ms. Fulton has very graciously agreed to talk with you, answer any questions that Ron hasn't covered during the evening, and she'll sign her books. So I'm sure Rob Casper will remind you of that at the end. So let me turn you over to Rob Casper, the head of the Library of Congress' Poetry and Literature Center. He's also the programs director for the Poetry Society of America. He created Jubilat, which I guess is a very important magazine we should all subscribe to support the poetry movement in the United States. If it's still being published. [ Laughter ] What a wonderful legacy. [ Laughter ] Please join me in welcoming Rob Casper. [ Applause ]
Rob Casper: Yeah, it still is being published [ Laughter ] and —
RC: So is the Post.
Rob Casper: Yeah, as far as we know. I'll get that in there. Today, both are associated publications, are still in business. Thanks all of you for coming out for our tenth, our tenth Life of a Poet series event. It's been an exciting 10 events. Three years and counting. So I wanted to just echo what Diana said about supporting the Hill Center. It's a great space. We're really excited to work with them and we are not the first Library of Congress division to be involved with the, with the Hill Center, but we feel like it's a real home for us and we want to keep on making it a home with you. So you're in for a real treat with Ron. I'm imagining many of you haven't been here before and seen what he can do in 75 minutes. The magic powers he wields on behalf of poetry. You'll probably be exhausted afterwards — I always am — and you'll just have to go over to Bayou Bakery and get some food and get some coffee and chat a little bit and buy a book and reconstitute your psyche and you know go out into the night and try to figure out what the world means. [ Laughter ]
Let me tell you a little bit about the Poetry and Literature Center at the Library of Congress. We are home to the Poet Laureate Consult in Poetry and we host programs like this throughout the year. Usually up at the Jefferson Building, our home just a few blocks west of here. You can find out more about our programs if you go online. Our website is www.loc.gov/poetry. I've also included something new for tonight and I'll show you what it looks like. You all sat down to this, hopefully. This is our event survey. It's a new survey we're doing to get a sense of how you heard about our programs, what you think about our programs, what you'd like us to do. So please fill it out. You can hand it to me or to Anya Creightney, who is our program specialist right here, after the event. It's really useful to know how you feel about this and to better understand how we can promote our programs going forward. Now, it's my exciting pleasure to introduce Alice Fulton to conclude our 2015 season. Before the event, I had that moment that I sometimes get to have still after a number of years doing this kind of work, in which I get to say to a writer after everything is set up and we know it's all going to be good. I get to say you know, you were huge for me once upon a time and changed my life and now here we are and isn't that great and wow. And you know, my inside voice is remembering that moment of reading, in my case, Palladium way back when I was an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin and just being mesmerized and shocked and excited and kind of a kilter, in the best possible way. So it's great to be up here and do this sort of formally and to remember that excitement that I had once upon a time and to know that I will continue to have it for the next hour.
Alice Fulton is the author of nine books of poetry as well as a book of essays on poetry. She has been the George Elliston Poet at the University of Cincinnati, Holloway Lecturer at the University of California, Berkley, and a long time faculty member at the University of Michigan, and she's currently the Ann S. Bowers Professor of English at Cornell University. Her honors include a 2011 American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in literature as well as fellowships from the MacArthur, Guggenheim, and Ingram Merrill Foundations and the National Endowment for the Arts. Her poetry collection Felt, received the library's Rebecca Johnson Bobbitt National prize for poetry in 2002 for the best book of poetry published in the preceding two years. That year's committee — it was a great committee — said the prize winning collection was "Full of animated, charged poems and blessed with the kind of direct writing between sensation and language, feeling and form that strikes first with physical and then with intellectual and emotional wallup." That's the kind of thing that if you're a poet, you're thrilled to hear someone say about your work. [ Laughter ]
The Washington Post has only added to the praise for tonight's poet in its review of her recent collection; Barely Composed — and I should say both Barely Composed and Felt are for sale outside and will be for sale at Bayou Bakery. Critic Elizabeth Lund —who has done a great job of writing monthly reviews in the Post and to resuscitating that tradition — said the book "Addresses trauma and loss through the literary equivalent of broken glass. Some poems feel jagged and sharp as if multiple shards have landed together. Other poems are more expansive and full like a pain that's almost intact. All of this blossoms into a dark beauty that makes these poems glisten." And I told you a little bit about my story of discovering Palladium as an undergraduate. I was thrilled to discover today a review by poet Lisa Russ Spaar, who reminded me of the power of that book in the great trajectory of Fulton's writing. She wrote a piece in Los Angeles Review of Books that says "Reading Alice Fulton's second book, Palladium, alongside her newest, Barely Composed, I am grateful for the beauty of her substantial, important, and abiding body of work." And elsewhere she states in the review "Fulton’s inimitable image-making intelligence, her peerless music, her wit and intelligence, her fearless depictions of suffering and creation of dystopian scenarios, her sidereal jones, her formal innovations, the admixture of the discourses of poetry, science, and slang: these are, as they have always been, her elements, her pretty words dealt, as Dickinson would say, ‘like blades.’” I can't wait to see how Ron charts that trajectory and what both will teach us all in the next hour. So please join me in welcoming Alice Fulton and Ron Charles.
[ Applause ]
Ron Charles: Thank you very much Rob. Alice, it's so wonderful to have you here tonight.
Alice Fulton: It's a great honor to be here. Thank you so much for the invitation.
RC: I'm delighted. I want to talk about how you became a poet because in one of your poem you write:
I can hear him [ my father ] say “Don't worry,
Al, if the poetry don't go
I'll buy you your own beauty shop.”
Was that true?
AF: Well actually what happened was a little bit changed when I put it in the poem, but he did say something very similar. I had a terrible time in high school. I was an awful student and I didn't quite graduate with my class. I flunked. I was a failure, total failure and my father then said well don't worry Al. If you don't graduate from high school, I'll buy you your own beauty shop and —
RC: Like a very different trajectory than the one you've taken.
AF: Absolutely, but he scared me so much because I didn't want my own beauty shop. [ Laughter ]
He scared me. He meant to reassure me [ Laughter ]. He meant to make me feel better.
RC: [ Speaking over one another ] And how did it make you feel?
AF: You’ve got a safety net, but instead it made me so scared. I just thought I've got to get out of high school somehow and I went to summer school and I took that course again. Whatever it was, French I think. I had forgotten to go to the final exam. That's what I was like. I was in the library, you know reading that poetry [ Laughter ], the poetry in the library and I forgot to go and I needed it to graduate. And I went to summer school and I got out, but I never, I had the white dress, my un-graduation dress but it didn't bother me a whole lot, you know that I missed out on that experience. My parents, I think, were worried and they were worried that I'd be devastated, but I wasn't and I kept that white dress and wrote a poem about it many, many years later. It was kind of in a body bag. I kept it. [ Laughter ] I kept it the whole time and I finally threw it out, which I shouldn't have done. It was iconic.
RC: Well if they're thinking you might want a beauty parlor, they probably didn't even conceive of the profession of poet, did they?
RC: Did you?
AF: A little. I didn't know it was a profession. I mean, we don't think of “poet” as profession, but in high school I truly was reading these wonderful poets that I discovered on my own; Emily Dickinson, I was reading Sara Teasdale, you know I was reading people that, people that I just loved. And so, for me, being a poet would've been something like, we would think of being a rock star, I suppose. Poets were my rock stars and I didn't think you could ever make your living at such a thing — and we don't! [ Laughter ] I was right about that.
RC: Well there's always that, you know, that beauty parlor to go back to. [ Laughter ]
RC: And, but that switch from reading poetry and loving poetry to writing poetry, that's whole different thing. When did that take place?
AF: I was making my own little attempts at writing poetry when I was reading it and —
RC: What did that do for you? What did writing poetry do for you?
AF: It's always the inner life, I think, especially when you're very young because I was 15-16 years old and it was just though love affairs, people you had a crush on or, but language too. I just always loved language and it was my material and even then I was making similes and metaphors and — not saying it was good, I have students now and I think they start out better than I ever started out — but I did love it and I loved working with it and I loved trying to say something in a way that was so concise. So, for me, reading poetry and writing it were very conjoined.
RC: I’d like you to read this poem “‘Make It New’”. It might be your first book.
AF: Oh no, this is the red book is like, because I know it's got no title, so how can you tell?
RC: I know.
AF: So you can't really tell, but okay. This is called “‘Make It New’” and that's one of the precepts from Ezra Pound of Modernism — that he said you should “make it new” — and this poem actually calls that into question, a little bit. You'll hear what it does —
Jump to 00:14:55
"Make It New"
I find it helpful to imagine writing in a blizzard
with every inscription
designed to prevent snow
crystals from drifting in.
It's the opposite of making love to drudgery,
what I do for a dying.
Remove the bitter sediment
trapped in the brewer. Avoid the hive mind.
Go fly a kite, raise a stained glass
window in the sky. It will be new
whether you make it new
or not. It will be full of neo-
shadows. Of then — both past and next,
iridescent with suspense. Remember
time is not the treasure revealer.
More a midge larva creeping
through a waterfall releasing
suction feet. The curiosity rover
lands on Mars! New
breaks the reckoning frame and rests
in pieces. Let me collect its DNA
from the tears on your desk.
You do several surprising things in that poem. You move, of course you move to another planet, that's one surprise.
[ Laughter ]
AF: I haven’t been there yet.
RC: The images pop around in very surprising ways. Make it new becomes more of a challenge the more you know. Don’t you think? The more you read?
AF: Yes, I mean you have to realize at some point nobody ever really makes anything new. We're all so indebted to the past and you can only take something and almost accidently wring a change on it because you are new. You know, I thought about that a couple, in several ways teaching my students and my teacher, one of my teachers, A.R. Ammons, said to me you can't really make it new. You know, just he wrote that to me. No one can really make it new, so just write what you can write and it will be, it will be you. It'll be new because it came through you. He put it much better and I wish I could read it exactly, say it the way he did.
RC: This is a funny poem. “Your Card Read Poet Mechanic.”
AF: Oh that was very early poem, yeah. That's very, very — this is from my first book — which oh I was so young when I wrote this. Okay. [ Laughter ] It's got the parts of speech in it — and it's just for fun.
Jump to 00:17:11
Your Card Read "Poet-Mechanic"
the day you came carrying a two-cylinder
slice of winter sun on your back,
toolcase with a greasy lock in
your spoon-shaped fingers
said you could do anything
with your hands &
went right to work, using
nouns as furniture, assembling
verbs into go-carts & motorcycles
till they roared off, followed by
a gang of sycophant adverbs.
The few transitives that remained
you turned into trampolines &
the expletives jumped on them all day.
When I watched you build "vituperate"
into a Harley-Davidson, I knew
it was goodbye.
Now there're just the adjectives
all day primping singing choruses of popsongs.
I want to shake them & say
"Have you no respect
for the magnificent
lexicon you represent?" But "magnificent"
is in the bathroom
[ Laughter ]
RC: So you're writing there about the mechanic in a very physical way using language like you do with wood or pieces of metal or something like that. Does it feel that way when you write? When you create a poem? Is it that physical of a feeling for you?
AF: In a way, in a way it is because there's such a materiality of language for me. That language is very substantial and I'm very interested in the materiality of words. How they can, on the page, sometimes look transparent. We don't even see them. When you read a newspaper for information, you know you're not aware oh that's a beautiful sentence usually or you're not, you're just getting it and it's completely dissolving. So it's transparent, but when you're reading something that's a little more difficult, you can say Ulysses, you know, James Joyce or something with a lot of texture. Then it has this sense of real physicality and materiality. And for me words do have that, almost synesthesia, the sense of synesthesia when I'm working with them.
RC: I see. In one of the poems [ "Fables From The Random" ] you refer to
chemistry, a science
that locates elements in order
to control them.
Is that, does that relate? Is that a metaphor of what poetry does? Does it identify things in order to control them?
RC: To shape them?
AF: No. No the opposite I would say. No. I think poetry has to be out of control.
AF: I'm not about control at all. I like things more when they're surprising and when they emerge, when they emerge and you don't know quite how it's going to turn out. I mean if I knew how things were going to turn out, I wouldn't really want to do it.
RC: So much of your poetry suggests an incredible sensitivity to the world, to what you're experiencing. You notice things we don't notice. I think if you read your poems, you would become a more sensitive person. That would be the ultimate goal, I think, of reading poetry. In one of your poems you refer to the twin enchantments; rhyme and precision. How do those things, what's the magic of those things? How do they exercise that magic? The twin enchantments.
AF: Rhyme and precision. Rhyme is so wonderful because it helps us remember things, of course and it's musical and music is one of the great powers of poetry. I love poetry when it is sounding beautiful and it's a way to get close to music without being good at music, in my case. I'm not a musician, but one thing I loved about poetry was that in some sense you could build music into the language and so rhyme is just a way of saying, that's one way to do it. There's assonance and consonants and all kinds of ways to do it. And precision is what poetry is about, in a way, because it's such a short art form. It has to be so small. So you don't' have time to say anything that isn't relevant. You really don't have time to make it baggy or, I mean you can do that, but that becomes a form of precision because you're doing it very consciously to make it a structure, part of your structure. So the preciseness of poetry is part of its power. Emily Dickinson when she says something so precisely, it's enviable to see how she can put it in one line and you can meditate on that and think so much about it that it could be an essay.
RC: Good poetry doesn't give us any space to wander away the way prose, even good prose. In one of your poems [ "Palladium Process" ] you write,
I became a student
of surplus, moved by the ubiquitous, sometimes
broken roses, or the serious
hilarity of the stars. I started
at ordinary things
the way a 19th-century gentleman might
at a glimpse of undraped
[ Laughter ]
I love that description of hyper attention. You have a very unsettling poem called “Some Cool.” The poem — it’s about pig farming and Christmas — and poetry. Another one of those. [ Laughter ]
AF: Just another in that vein — we all know that genre.
RC: Well it includes these lines:
Now when people ask what kind of poetry I write
I say the poetry of cultural incorrectness —
out of step and — does that help?
Would you read that poem for us?
AF: Oh sure. I have not read this poem in 20 years, but I'll give it a try.
RC: It's long and disturbing.
AF: It's rather, I think I've written ones that are even more disturbing and ones that are much more soothing. I want you to know that. [ Laughter ] Can't always be disturbing. You know this came out of — I really do love animals — and I was thinking about the pigs and how they're slaughtered and that's what I was thinking about behind this poem as I was — I suppose I do have these lights to put on the Christmas tree that are the shape of pigs, and it mentions that. It's called “Some Cool.”
Jump to 00:22:49
Animals are the latest decorating craze.
This little piggie went to market.
This little piggie stayed home.
It's a matter of taste.
I have this string of pig lights for the tree.
Each hog is rendered into darlingness,
rendered in the nerve-dense rose
of lips, tongue, palm, sole. Of the inside
of the eyes and nose.
They wear green bows.
Driving home these bitterly Michigan nights
I often pass the silver bins of pigs
en route to the packing house. Four tiers to a trailer.
A massive physical wish to live
blasts out the slits
as the intimate winter streams in.
A dumb mammal groan pours out and December pours in
freezing the vestments of their skin
to the metal sides, riddling me
with bleakness as I see it. As I see it,
it is culturally incorrect to think
of this when stringing pig lights on the tree.
It's chronic me.
Our neighbor, who once upon a life
hauled pigs to slaughter,
said they are confined in little iron cribs
from farrowing to finishing.
Said steel yourself
this might be unpoetical and spoke
about electric prods and hooks
pushed into every hole.
About: they cried so much he wore earplugs.
While trimming the tree, I stop to give thanks
for the gifts we've received,
beginning with Elvis's Favorite Recipes.
I'd like to try the red-eye gravy —
bacon drippings simmered with black coffee …
"Some had heart attacks. Some suffocated
from others stacked on top.
They were pressed in so tight —
hey, what kind of poetry you write? Well.
They suffered rectal prolapse, you could say."
Why not spend Christmas with Elvis?
Invite your friends
to bring their special memories of the King.
Put a country ham in the oven and some of his songs —
White Christmas to Blue —
About: somehow a pig got loose. A sow
fuzzed with white like a soybean's husk.
It was August and she found some cool
under the truck. When he gave her a Fig Newton
her nose was delicacy itself,
ticklish as a lettuce pushed whole into his hand.
Are You Hungry Tonight?
I speak from the country of abundance
curdled brightly in the dark,
where my ethics are squishy as anyone's, I bet.
I'd like to buy the enchanted eggnog fantasies.
Instead I'm rigging the tree with grim epiphanies
and thinking myself sad.
For a gut level of comfort,
close your eyes, smell the pork chops frying,
put on "Big Boss Man" and imagine
the King will be coming any minute.
"At the packing house, some bucked like ponies
when they saw the sun. Some fainted
and lay there grunting to breathe.
Drivers hooked the downers to the winch
and tried to pull them through a squeeze.
Their legs and shoulders tore right off.
You'd see them lying around.
After the showers, they turned a hysterical
raw rose. They shone. The place seemed lit
by two natural lights, coming from the sky and hogs.
Pigs are so emotional. They look at the man
who'll stun them, the man
who'll hang them upside down in chains.
They smell extinction and try to climb
the chute's sides as it moves.
At the top, the captive bolt guy
puts electrodes on their heads
and sends a current through.
I've heard the shock could paralyze
but leave them conscious, hanging
by their hocks from the conveyor
until their throats are slit.
Pigs have an exquisite will to live."
After eight months he quit
and got a job screwing tops on bottles
of Absorbine, Jr.
Now when people ask what kind of poetry I write
I say the poetry of cultural incorrectness —
out of step and — does that help?
I use my head
voice and my chest voice.
I forget voice
and think syntax, trying to add
so many tones to words that words
become a world all by themselves.
I forget syntax
and put some street in it. I write
for the born-again infidels
whose skepticism begins at the soles
of the feet and climbs the body,
nerve by nerve. Sometimes I quote
"At mealtime, come thou hither,
and eat of the bread,
and dip thy morsel in the vinegar."
Sometimes I compose a moaning section,
if only for the pigs.
Like surgeons entering the thoracic cavity — right,
the heart's hot den —
I've heard we could slip
our hands into the sun's corona
and never feel a thing.
Incredible poem. The way it compresses together things that we spend our whole lives keeping apart. Profane and sacred things. The slaughter of pigs and Christmas. Elvis the King, Jesus the King. It does a lot of very surprising things in that poem that make us uncomfortable and make the poem so lively.
AF: Well, thank you. [ Inaudible ] [ Laughter ]
RC: Yeah, of course that's the theme of the poem too, but — It expresses something that I think prose would not be able to express in the same way, don't you agree?
AF: Yes. I think so. Yeah because there's so much more for the reader to do. I think I left so many gaps and the reader has to become a little more engaged with what's on the page because it isn't all there. And there — it's polyphonic — there's about three different voices in that poem: there's the man who works, used to work at slaughtering at the packing house, and then there's the poet voice, and then there's the Elvis cookbook, the Elvis-cookbook voice comes in. So there's all those weaving things and there's nothing connecting them and the reader has to kind of make the connections. So I think if you're writing an essay for prose you would do a lot more of that exposition, the work for the reader would be in the language.
RC: How about that when you use the word “rendered.” You talk about the little pigs are rendered cute and then almost instantly the word rendered becomes just so bloody and awful. You do that kind of magic throughout the whole poem, expressing what shouldn't be expressible. You have another poem called “Drills.” You talk about French class and the war, and then I think it reflects your nieces' death. It was both your nieces?
RC: Very close together?
AF: Yeah. [ Audio fades out ]
RC: So sorry.
AF: Very, very sad. The pig poem, I have to add too, is for my own guilt. You know, guilt is not one of the great lyric subjects — but — I don't think anyway — although I'm always surprised by what lyric can accommodate, but guilt was in there and I think there's some guilt in the “Drills” poem as well — The segue that you just, you just made.
RC: Would you read that poem?
AF: Oh yeah, I can try. Again, I have not read that — honestly for a long — 25 years. Okay. This is poem that didn't do justice to what I was trying to write about, but I did give it a try.
Jump to 00:32:32
It was one of those summer immersion courses,
where students must speak the language they're learning
in brittle, artificial dialogues,
injecting textbook empathy into the tone:
"Vous etes souffrant?" "Non, ce n'est pas grave.
C'est le foie, comme toujours."
A summer so loud with roses
climbing on their little cleats
and sculpting blossoms as they climbed
I couldn't hear myself speak.
Until the teacher plucked me from the chorus
with a question out of sync with all our drills:
"Does suffering help one understand
the suffering of others? What do you think, Alice?"
I wanted to describe an essay I'd received —
I also was a teacher —
from a former Marine
who wrote of the wounds, humiliation,
he'd endured in war
and how he'd held up well
until a medic touched him gently.
I wanted to build complex sentences,
quivering with clauses that reveal
the meaning sheath by sheath
and lead to, or perhaps enact, the fact
that understanding is itself unbearable.
Sentences beyond the depth
of my thin French. So I just said yes.
I thought of this
when my sister lost her daughters,
and no one could fathom how it felt
to build two children from the blossom and pollen
of your body, to breathe
on every detail of their being, and —
no one could imagine.
But I suspected she, their mother, could
understand the stone mason, coaxing so much soul
into a carving that was going
to be an unseen feature
near the spire of a cathedral,
cuddled in the gray immersion
that looks like overness or the smoke
of frankincense, a summary
higher than the eye can see. She might know why
the tightrope artist vibrates between skyscrapers
to link what is forever
and how mountain climbers name the hardest routes
since no two calvaries
are quite the same.
In the first twist of grief,
I saw she could bear anything
better than a sweetness.
Certain kindly phrases or embraces
had the power to dissolve her.
"Don't be nice to me. I can't stand it
when you're nice to me," she'd say
as understanding drilled into the cell's marrow —
where nothing had the right
to ever dwell again.
There’ll be some lighter poems coming up. [ Laughter ] I think the poem is a triumph because of that opening metaphor, which is at first witty and then becomes horrible, when you're asked in a French class, where you can barely speak French, some complicated theological question.
RC: That's the way we all feel when someone we love dies. We're all being asked some theological question way beyond somebody — you know you just — we, you don't have the language to say it.
RC: To even conceive it.
RC: It's a really beautiful poem about grief.
AF: Thank you. [ Audio fades out ]
RC: This is a poem about language falling short though. So it's a total success.
AF: Absolutely, yeah. [ Laughter ]
RC: You mentioned Emily Dickinson, I know you're a great fan of hers, which is one of the many reason I love you. In a poem called "Maidenhead" you write about yourself as a girl.
On the bus home
from school, I'm reading Dickinson, living on her
aptitude for inwardness and godlessness, thinking
of the terror she could tell to none
that almost split her mind.
She made solitude honorable. But how hard
it would be to keep ink off a white dress …
[ Laughter ]
So great. At that young age — I mean I find Dickinson's poems very difficult now — at that young age what were you getting from Dickinson, do you think?
AF: Well, I actually started with one of those little gift shop books that, you know the scholars would think were terrible, but for me it was just this little volume and it didn't even probably do it right. It had names on the poems and her poems meant —
RC: What, like “Snake?” Or “Garden?”
AF: Yeah. Exactly. “Locomotive” [ Laughter ] or Grief, Love, Time, but for me it was a good introduction to her and it was — I understood them. I understood them. They weren't that hard. And then I could go on and read some of the harder ones, and she's so enormous that if you start with the easy ones you can always go on and find something that's more challenging to read. So —
RC: What fascinates you about her now?
AF: Oh you know, she — it's her syntax, I guess. Everything she leaves to the reader to do. She'll put a dash in and then you have to reconstruct everything she's left out. You actually have to reconstruct so much syntax to put it together and — no one else — I don't think any other poet has ever written syntax the way that she did. So, for me, now — technically that is such a beautiful thing, and that she was so compressed and did it so beautifully. And that she never had a formal education in the sense that we do now. You know, and that she did it on her own — and that she was alone doing this. All of that resonates with me. Up in her room — “A Spider sewed at Night” [ F1163 ] — she was up there writing in her little desk and all of her story resonates very deeply with me.
RC: Another one of your poems [ "About Music For Bone And Membrane Instrument ==" ] , Dickinson's
"… mind was a wire too fine to see
by ordinary means."
That's a perfect description. It's perfect. You remember the Dickinson poem [ F706 ] ,
I cannot live with You —
It would be Life —
And Life is over there —
Behind the Shelf
Wonderful love poem.
RC: I want you to read one of your wonderful, I think, love poems. Maybe you don't. [ Audio fades out ] This is called “Fix.”
AF: Oh gosh yes. [ Laughter ] Okay. [ Inaudible ] you know, I wrote this thinking about my husband. [ Audio fades out ]
Jump to 00:39:26
There is no caring less
for you. I fix on music in the weeds,
count cricket beats to tell the temp, count
my breaths from here to Zen.
September does its best.
The Alaskan pipeline lacks integrity,
mineral fibers are making people dizzy,
we're waiting for a major quake. Ultra-
violet intensity is gaining,
the ozone's full of holes and
I can find no shade.
There is no caring less.
Without the moon the earth
would whirl us three times faster, gale-force
winds would push us down. Say
earth lost mass, a neighbor
star exploded — it's if
and and and
but. The cosmos owns our luck.
Say under right and rare conditions,
space and time could oscillate.
I know what conditions
those would be for me.
I'd like to keep my distance,
my others, keep my rights reserved.
Yet look at you, intreasured,
where resolutions end.
No matter how we breathe
or count our breaths,
there is no caring less
for you for me. I have to stop myself
from writing "sovereign," praising
with the glory words I know.
Glaciologists say changes
in the mantle, the planet's vast
cold sheets could melt. Catastrophe
is everywhere, my presence
here is extra — yet —
there is no caring less.
How must it have felt to receive that?
[ Inaudible response off mic ]
[ Laughter ]
It's so lovely. The whole world could fall away. You could not care less for him.
AF: Yeah, there's all this big stuff; big picture change that we care about — of course we do — climate change and so on. But so often we are focused very narrowly on one person who means the world to us and there's no caring less despite the distractions of all the big stuff. There's no caring less for that one person, whether it's a baby or, you know, it's your husband.
RC: [ Audio fades out ] weird double entendre there with I couldn't care less. [ Laughter ] It creates a lot of tension in the poem, I think.
AF: Yeah, line breaks.
RC: Yeah, that's something we can't — it's just kind of — we've got to figure out a way to do that. Maybe we just hand out one poem or something, because we aren't able to talk about that issue in these talks; the way the poem will sit on the page and the line breaks and — sometimes — in your case it's a fascinating part of your work. You write about romance in so many interesting ways. I love these lines [ from "All Night Shivering" ]:
his lilt ransacked my heart
like a pandemonious hormone
you can't say no to.
[ Laughter ]
I’ve got to hear that guy. [ Audio fades out ] [from "Nugget And Dust"]:
Love, if true, is tacit.
That's just a great line — just five words. [ from "About Face" ]:
At least embarrassment is not an imitation.
It's intimacy for beginners,
the orgasm no one cares to fake.
[ Laughter ] [ from "To Each According To His Need" ]
Junk bonds: If that isn’t love it’ll have to do.
Great, great lines. In another poem [ "Claustrophilia" ] you write:
Love is just the retaliation of light.
It is so profligate, you know,
so rich with rush.
Great, epigraphic lines — Of course, they sit in poems that are very complex, but they work so much on their own too. Here's a poem about what keeps us apart. It's called “Works On Paper.”
AF: [ Audio fades out ] It's from my second book, going way back. Gosh, I hadn't read that in a long time. It's amazing. They're new to me tonight, a lot of these old poems. [ Audio fades out ]
Jump to 00:43:46
Works On Paper
A thrilling wilderness of biomorphic script, you said
my letters scared you. And it's even worse
in person: pink oil of lipprints, unnervingly organic
Hi's, those kisses like collusions. For a moment
we vibrate like underwater
stones. What is this
windfall? We are not
easily becalmed. How you pull back
as if to deflect affection. How I pull
to clothe myself
in jokes. Graft the properties of blandness
to the social handshake
and we'll have it: how to get through
this world intact. Placebos do
nicely — expressions never point
blank but fixed
like bets between grin and grimace.
What I work to know is whether passion,
its head, can be prelude
to entertainment, harmless as MGM's
old lion. And is seduction a science
or a pattern of cheap frills; can you make it
from a kit? What suave
impoverishments we chose.
And I can do it: fake
with the best, lady it
over lessers: Pick me!
Pick me! Of course not
to care, to keep
the heart complacent as a dumpling,
that's hard. What of emotions
that grow so steep they can't hold
shape and the pinnacle
leaps forward, breaking as it does
in waves. I'm afraid
those emotions keep us lonely.
I'm afraid there are no bribes
equal to the body-
guards. We love surface
articulation. And when we say
Abandon abandon we mean it
as a command. Here's an illustrative touch:
Delacroix, old realist, got so excited
entering a harem's room
he had to be calmed
down with sherbets. Passion! Maybe
it only works on paper. But once
in a well-lit room
I buried my face in the material,
shirting, that opened to darker emulsions, rich
scents unlike others as burnt umber's
unlike other colors. It was about expansion.
There were brief constellations
down the willing
nerves, an effulgence: worth it, worth it.
You write about love and romance and the loss of love a lot. [ Laughter ] No, no. What are the challenges of doing that?
AF: Well actually that's one of the least challenging subjects. I guess that's why I've written about it a lot because for me it was always something I wrote about from the beginning and I did very naturally, truthfully. It was a feeling, it came from feeling — which love of course is — and so for me one of the more easy poems to write would be the love poem. Whether they came from disappointment or fulfillment, it was something that wasn't that challenging and I had to push myself not to do it, actually. And I still come back to it, I still will write poems that are about engagement and you know, friendship, a form of love.
RC: You make it very fresh.
AF: Well thank you.
RC: I'm sure it's the most written about subject in all of poetry, but your poems are consistently surprising about this. — I don't know this word: “claustrophilia?”
AF: Claustrophilia. Yes, claustrophilia.
RC: Is that a real word? [ Laughter ]
AF: You know I was so proud of myself because I thought I’d made it up. [ Laughter ] It's the opposite of claustrophobia. We all know claustrophobia. So I thought well what if you really like those enclosed spaces? And what if you like closeness because claustrophobia is kind of — stay away, give me my space. I thought what if you really want intimacy? What if you want closeness? Well a word for that would be claustrophilia, and I was very proud and then I found a book, a man had written a book — and I honestly didn't know about it — called Claustrophilia. And then I had to get the book and it sounded so interesting and it was about spaces in medieval literature and cloisters and confessionals and library carrels.
RC: Was this a whole tradition?
AF: A whole tradition and the closet — the notion of the closet being a claustrophobic space — as long as there is no lock on your closet and as long as you can go out of your closet, it's a perfect intimate space and it's one that some people wish to dwell in and it has to do with privacy. Claustrophilia: the notion that you might want to be in the closet and stay in your own closet. The head is the ultimate closet to me.
RC: I wonder why we lost the word and even the concept, in a way.
AF: Well, I think I don't know if he made it up, the man who wrote that book made it up. If it existed before then, but yes, we did seem to lose the concept of loving that tight enclosure. — Thank you. — Oh, “Claustrophilia,” okay. [ Laughter ]
Jump to 00:49:27
It's just me throwing myself at you,
romance as usual, us times us,
not lust but moxibustion,
a substance burning close
to the body as possible
without risk of immolation.
Nearness without contact
causes numbness. Analgesia.
Pins and needles. As the snugness
of the surgeon's glove causes hand fatigue.
At least this procedure
requires no swag or goody bags,
stuff bestowed upon the stars
at their luxe functions.
There's no dress code,
though leg irons
are always appropriate. [ Laughter ]
And if anyone says what the hell
are you wearing in Esperanto
—Kion diable vi portas?— [ Laughter ]
tell them anguish
is the universal language.
Stars turn to trainwrecks
and my heart goes out
admirers gush. Ground to a velvet!
But never mind the downside,
mon semblable, mon crush.
Love is just the retaliation of light.
It is so profligate, you know,
so rich with rush.
Great to hear those lines in the context of the poem. Yeah. You have a long sequence, not a long sequence. You have a sequence of poems about Daphne and Apollo.
AF: Yes I do.
RC: That is one of my favorite sculptures by Bernini [ Apollo and Daphne, Galleria Borghese, Rome ].
RC: Is that right? There's a rape, essentially, it's a pursuit she doesn't want and we have a statue that we all know. She's turned by her father at the crucial moment into a tree, an ash maybe?
RC: A laurel tree, yeah. As he reaches her. A different kind of love than you typically write about in your poetry, but this sequence of poems is — I wonder if you'd read one of those called “Supernal.”
AF: Oh gosh.
RC: That's the crucial moment, I think.
AF: Yes. Sure. What can I say about this, this is part of the long sequence called “Give” and it's about 40 pages long, which is what the sequence is. This is rather medium-size poem, but some of the language I actually got from hunting catalogs because Daphne was being pursued by Apollo through the forest, and I was trying to find language that would be the right thing for the God of technology, which Apollo was. And so I got these hunting catalogs and I was — it was an education — I was amazed at some of the advantages that hunters have these days over the game. You know, the little technical things that they can do to see them and the infrared and the sort of stuff they can do to see them at night and so on. So I used some of that in this poem called "Supernal," which is about Apollo chasing Daphne who doesn't want to be caught.
Jump to 00:52:51
Apollo pulls a cloud back like a foreskin
on the sky that is his body.
His laserscope will amplify
the available starlight,
zero in on the nymph
in her stealth boots
that leave no helpful scent.
Daphne — who is graphite,
darkling, carbon as the crow —
is out of breath.
If only the stars would tire,
she might find cover.
If only they would empathize.
But who will help a person
on the wrong side of a god?
All largo, she turns to face Apollo.
Though she expected him
to wear blaze orange, supernal
as the sun, he tracked her down in camo-
skin, which "disappears in a wide variety of terrains."
He owns every pattern in the catalogue.
After considering Hollywood Treestand
("all a nymph sees is limbs")
and Universal Bark,
("a look most guys relate to")
he chose a suit of Laurel Ghost,
printed with a 3-D photo of the forest,
which "makes you so invisible
only the oaks will know you're there."
Even his arrow's shaft is camo.
Only his ammo jackets gleam
like lipstick tubes.
Is it any wonder, when his wheel-bow
has been torture-tested
to a million flexes,
his capsicum fogger
fires clouds that can cause blindness,
his subminiature heat detector
finds the game by the game's own radiation,
and the tiny boom mike in his ear
lets him hear a nymph's grunt from 200 yards —
any wonder — when the ad said
"Put this baby to your eye
and see if she's worth harvesting" and
"See the hairs on a nymph's ass,
up close and personal" — [ Laughter ]
that he turns the housing, gets her
on the zeroing grid,
and now his snout at her fair loins doth snatch?
Who can she turn to, the monastic, almost
The stars are tireless. She decides —
no, winds up —
pleading, in extremis, with her father:
"… I am not like
them, indefatigable, but if you are a god you will
not discriminate against me. Yet — if you may fulfill
none but prayers dressed
as gifts in return for your gifts — disregard the request."
That's when her father makes her
into nature, the famous green novation.
And Daphne — who was hunter and electron —
is done with aspiration.
Did you see it coming? You're a better man than she.
With no one to turn to —
she turns to a tree.
Troubling story, of course, on several layers, but what's happening to her and then the solution to her problem is also troubling, don't you think?
AF: Oh extremely. You turn to a tree. Yeah, that's not happy.
RC: There were other ways she might've been saved, to be made nature.
AF: To be turned into nature. Yes. Yes. So —
RC: Why'd you make the last line rhyme like that?
AF: Why'd I make the last line rhyme? That was kind of a risk to rhyme on the last line.
AF: It's, I guess it was so final an ending for her. You know, that would be what I would think now, but it was a real closure. That was the end of her life as Daphne, the freedom of running through the forest. She became a part of nature and I was influenced — actually it's a very feminist long sequence, and — I was influenced by an essay by Sherry Ortner — Sherry Ortner, who is an anthropologist — "Is Man to Culture as Woman Is to Nature." And I was just thinking through the sequence — are women still turned into nature in any sense? Are women still configured, mostly confined within the construct of the natural? And so it seemed such a firm ending for her to be just put there. And so then I think the rhyme closed it that way. A very firm closure. And then I went on and I had the trees speak. I felt sorry for the tree. After, I thought, well God, what was it like for the tree? Nobody ever says — sure Daphne turned into a tree, that's sad — but what about the poor tree when the human messes it up? And we do this to trees. You know, the trees are dying, we're polluting the atmosphere. We all know about this stuff, uprooting the ecology and global warming and all. So I actually wanted the tree to have a voice, and I wanted the tree to say how it felt to have Daphne turned into it and to have nature itself be able to say, “look what you've done to me, you humans.” And so I followed that with the tree sort of saying, “this is what it's like to have Daphne inside me, and I'm not too thrilled — I'm not too thrilled either by this.”
RC: It's a great treatment of that bit, which has been treated so many times in poetry. Yours is totally fresh.
[ Question inaudible ]
AF: Well, yes I was born into a Catholic family, but it wasn't a very over-the-top religious family. My mother was Catholic and she did go to Mass and kept the rules and did everything you're supposed to do, but she had a great sense of humor and she always said she was the first in her family to go astray. [ Laughter ] I love that about her and the way she kind of strayed by marrying my father, who is not Catholic. He was Protestant, but in her Irish Catholic family that was a big deal and he was not only Protestant he was divorced, and that was a mortal sin and she was excommunicated or something. She couldn't take Communion for her — until he died and then I think they let you take Communion again, for some reason. So anyway, I was brought up in that and that was a little digression into my life —
RC: You got it all. That's what I wanted to hear.
AF: But I never, I never was a good Catholic. I never, somehow internalized it. I never was able to believe it. I never really believed it — and it's very comforting to people, I think. My sister, for example, is a good Catholic and — I believe she is — and it can be very comforting. And I wish that I had been able to — and once, my sister said she believed in God. I was about 12 years old. I was so grateful to her, I thought maybe you're right. You know, maybe you're right — I don't — but I was so consoled that she could and she was older, much older than I was.
RC: It's always interesting the way other people's faith makes us feel, you know?
AF: Maybe you're right.
RC: Or, "at best," you write [ from "603 West Liberty Street" ]:
At best I could believe
in the quantum world's array of random
without chaos, its multiplicity — a crown
of right responses! — alone seemed moral.
… it was faith, if not exactly
For a non-believer, you write about faith and religion and God all the time. You don't think that's odd?
AF: Well, I used to be what you might call agnostic, for a while. For a long time I would say I was agnostic. I didn't know. I didn't know [ Inaudible ] and I lost that and now I've become what you would call an atheist. So I went through all these stages of belief or disbelief, and I think it's possible to have a religious sense of the universe and it's possible to be spiritual without having theosophy or having a particular religion, orthodox religion. So it's very possible to be religious and be spiritual and to just think of the universe itself as being that place that, possibly in some small, tiny aspect of it might not mean us ill, might not mean us ill. You know that might actually in some very small part have a positive moment for us or have a positive energy for us. So I have that much faith, but it's not at all connected to religion in the usual sense.
RC: You write [ “Echo Location" ]:
I can testify
the tic of prayer persists in nonbelievers.
That is a great line.
AF: I still pray.
RC: You still pray?
AF: What am I praying to —
RC: To whom?
AF: Exactly. You know I say that to myself, what am I doing?
RC: Like the Lord’s prayer or — what do you call it?
AF: Those prayers that I learned as a child; "Hail Mary," "Our Father," you know? I do them all. I will pray and especially if I'm scared of something and then I think where's it going — but my answer I already gave, which is I think — it's going out to that part in the universe that means well for us. There's a part out that there that's benign and it does not mean harm and I pray to that energy, to that part of the universe that makes good things happen. That isn't — I believe in accident, very much, I believe in chance and accident — and there's a part of it possibly that we as whole — almost like a bee swarm — as a whole brain together, maybe we could push it. Maybe together we can push that part of the universe to be kinder, to be more compassionate. There's an iota of compassion out there that I pray toward.
RC: Would you read a poem about this? The thirteen. Anyone know where thirteen is? [ Inaudible ] The "Cascade Experiment."
AF: Oh yes. Okay. Yes, I changed the title of this to “Shy One,” but “Cascade Experiment” is a good title too.
Jump to 01:02:44
Because faith creates its verification,
and reaching you will be no harder than believing
in a planet's caul of plasma,
or interacting with a comet
in its perihelion passage, no harder
than considering what sparking of the vacuum, cosmological
impromptu flung me here, a periphrasis, perhaps,
for some denser, more difficult being,
a subsidiary instance, easier to grasp
than the span I foreshadow, of which I am a variable,
my stance is passional toward the universe and you.
Because faith in facts can help create those facts,
the way electrons exist only when they're measured,
or shy people stand alone at parties,
attract no one, then go home to feel more shy, [ Laughter ]
I begin by supposing our attrition's no quicker
than a star's, that like electrons
vanishing on one side
of a wall and reappearing on the other
without leaving any holes or being
somewhere in between, the soul's decoupling
is an oscillation so inward nothing outward
as the eye can see it.
The childhood catechisms all had heaven,
an excitation of mist.
Grown, I thought a vacancy awaited me.
Now I find myself discarding and enlarging
both those views, an infidel of amplitude.
Because truths we don't suspect have a hard time
making themselves felt, as when thirteen species
of whiptail lizards composed entirely of females
stay undiscovered due to bias
against such things existing,
we have to meet the universe halfway.
Nothing will unfold for us unless we move toward what
looks to us like nothing: faith is a cascade.
The sky's high solid is anything
but, the sun going under hasn't
budged, and if death divests the self
it's the sole event in nature
that's exactly what it seems.
Because believing a thing's true
can bring about that truth,
and you might be the shy one, lizard or electron,
known only through advances
presuming your existence, let my glance be passional
toward the universe and you.
That's one you want to read again. It's such a beautiful integration of scientific and theological language. It's so profound and so surprising almost in every line — and so respectful to faith and so respectful to science at the same moment. It's really remarkable. There are other poems though that are not very respectful at all. [ Laughter ]
AF: That's my wicked side.
RC[ quoting “Point Of Purchase” ]:
If you ask me, Christianity’s a form of greed.
How God and billiards originated
no one knows: [ Laughter ] cases of always
was and will be, I suppose. [ Laughter ]
[quoting from "Sister Madeleine Pleads For Our Mary"]
God, that Chiseler
of Souls for Paradise.
That's a hilarious monologue, by the way [ returning to “Point Of Purchase” ]:
They say His spectral beeper keeps Him
everywhere, improbably disguised, like a shyster
trading alligator shoes for a hunter's
This is very Emily Dickinson-like in her very ascerbic descriptions of God. "He fumbles at your Soul" [ F477 ] and stuff like that where she really lashes out at God for his carelessness.
When it comes to praise
He’s like a junkie with a hungry arm.
That's a persona poem. So that's my character who says that.
RC: That's what you say at the end, when you're in front of the gates. [ Laughter ] No, no Peter. You're misreading it. [ Laughter ]
AF: You don't want to read that Saint Peter, not that one. [ Laughter ]
RC [ quoting “Point Of Purchase” ]:
Heaven is like the little winnings hustlers return to crippled suckers, just enough to let them sputter from the dead.
[ Laughter ] That's a really wicked poem.
[ Laughter ]
And you better hope there's no such thing as hell.
AF: Another dramatic monologue.
AF: When I used to write them.
RC: And ends up saying so much about the way we conceive them; hell and heaven and religion. I know I'm prepared for several hours of interview. I'll skip to the end here. With all due respect — You write about your family. Some of them are quite funny, but I suppose these people are gone when you wrote these poems. Aunt Fran, Francis.
RC: That's a very funny poem [ Inaudible ] and Uncle Jim who was so tight fisted. Yeah, another funny poem. There's a devastating poem about your mother, “Doha Melt-Down Elegy:”
I will think of her
always and never defer my mourning.
I will sieve the ether for her she is so nearly here.
When did she die?
AF: She died in 2009, in April of 2009.
RC: And you were very close to her?
AF: Yes, yes, yeah I was. Now there are very few people in life that we get to really love that much that we have had a chance to love that much and I did. I adored her. Absolutely.
RC: Could you read that poem that you wrote? “Doha Melt-Down Elegy.”
AF: I've never read it ever, but I'll, I'd be happy to give it a try. The whole poem? —
RC: I know some of this is not fair to ask people to read such — you know profound and moving and upsetting poems — but if you don't mind?
AF: It'll be good. [ Audio fades out ]
RC: I don’t know this first word. What is that? A proper name or —?
AF: Okay, well — no — this is called “Doha Melt-Down Elegy.” Doha is a, it's a form of poetry. It's Indian — from India — form of poetry, and it often was used in religious poetry and it was a call and response form. And the whole poem is written in couplets and it is a kind of call and response. But there are religious figures that go through this. And after my mother died I — not being Catholic — I began to read a lot of Buddhist text, a lot of Buddhist books, and all my life I've been interested in Eastern religion. From high school, actually when I read Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda. I read that in high school and I always was interested in Buddhism. So after my mother died I began reading more and it's in here. I'm not Buddhist, but there is that thread going through here, and there's some Simone Weil, great religious thinker too. So I was reading that kind of thing and thinking, thinking about my mother's death. I was her caregiver. I was her caregiver and the night nurse, as I say sometimes. “Doha Melt-Down Elegy.”
Jump to 01:17:08
Doha Melt-Down Elegy
We will give the truth teller an anti-suicide smock.
A dusk tunic from some dark satanic mill?
And wake him three times a night
to check that he’s alive. Because he did not cease
from mental fight nor did his sword sleep
in his hand? He will not be eased. He will be boiled
and handled with boiled gloves, flayed and stretched
flat on a hoop called a writhe? And if a drop of bile
falls on the why we will cover it with a needle-
work of starry stripes. And the Immortalization
Committee will embalm it? And God will toss the sky
like a drop cloth over heaven to protect it.
“This is my fault, isn’t it?” the night nurse said
my mother said as she was dying. Did you flip
her every three hours as directed? It doesn’t matter
how you are oriented when the future is a room
so small you can sit in the middle and touch
all the walls. When the mind keeps trauma in
an unchanging box. And if a periwinkle flame appears
above the lid the thing is melting down?
If stillness is an encrypted wind
that comes from the night
that never puts off its mourning.
It doesn’t matter how fast you are going,
after a thousand full-length prostrations
you will leave a sweat imprint on the ground.
It must be my embodiment fee. The firefly flashing by
the window must be a reflection of the nightlight,
the monk’s levitation enabled by an apparatus
underneath his robes. Transparency, a fantasy.
And like a bird that strikes a window and is
stunned by its element gone dense, I fell—
and was given a lesson in the ephemeral
by the cipher of the sky.
There is no distance between the necessary and the good,
the revelator said. Was she addressing the seismic
connectedness of things? It was so good—I mean so cold—
my exhalations crystallized and spasmed to arpeggios
when they struck ground. And the wild turkeys suffocated,
their nostrils iced by their own breath.
Truth awakener! Were you saying the necessary
and the good are like prisoners in punitive proximity,
held upright by each other’s suffering?
Or if the necessary isn’t good it isn’t
necessary? Would you just replace this
lavish gulag with a white conch shell?
I will now perform miracles to disturb you, time said
as it replaced my mother’s voice with an instrument
fashioned from an ascending aorta. Why am I still crying?
You’re standing in an elegy gust
that comes from the past. It is heavier, more militant
than innocent wind. Compassion infiltrated by iron
turns rancid. Sanctimonious. It says your sword slept
in your hand. It says you drank an anti-nectar.
I work this cud, too stupid
and struck numb to beg. This grief abscess
no degree of speech can drain, no
tongue, my cud of ugh.
It was a good book to be lost with. I began taking notes
and by the end I realized I’d transcribed every line.
It doesn’t matter where you are
when the magnetite in your nose provides data
for celestial navigation. It was written in the twilight
language, a script without a dictionary that is
another way of knowing. Another mind that is
a reverie of light? A provenance of. A super-
luminal == above == beside == vibration flashing
through the threshold magnitude.
Only saints who choose their own privations
are free to leave them. We will not be eased.
When her tongue dumbfoundered she stopped
calling for her mother and the night urka
said mouth care will be especially important now.
Night Terror, how will I know when death is near?
Buy q-tips topped with tiny clown-hair-
colored sponges. Stick the especial
nipple in her mouth. For a few seconds.
Whenever. You remember. At first
her lips clasped with especial thirst. You’ll know
by its Kremlin complexion, the truth teller said.
As the night nurse lullabies the night,
I might have soothed her.
Melt gummy bears in boiling water
and drink. Because they’re dense with glycerin,
a yummy vocal ease? Sew me into my head,
counterworldly wise. It doesn’t matter
when you are == when you are
encysted in that isolator
whipped by memory thorns. Mother,
you are dead! You turned into eternity
before my eyes. And I am still extant, living
in a stillness sent by overness.
I’ve heard that from darkness
the mind can gestate halos
made of interred glow. I’ve heard she dissolved
into those rays and those rays dissolved
into the body of my mind, my brain.
But you won’t find her anywhere
unless you put her there yourself, the revelator said.
Remembering is disheveling. God,
why do you need us to die? I asked,
quoting the floatery spasms
of the prayer flags, breeding novenas,
exhorting the afterhere.
As prayer flags give their prayers to wind,
let my constancy compound. As fire metastasizes.
Sew me into my dark
and if a spark falls on my collar, cover it
with a needlework of charnel flowers.
It doesn’t matter where I am == it doesn’t matter
when I am == it doesn’t matter
how fast I am going or how
I am oriented == I will think of her
always and never defer my mourning.
I will sieve the ether for her she is so nearly here.
Incredible [ Audio fades out ] process you take us through. About grief, of course, but it's also, it moves us beyond that in a way that the mourning does and if you don't [ Inaudible ]. Incredibly powerful poem.
AF: Oh well thank you. I have to say truthfully I didn't know if it was any good at all. When I finished it — that ending — and I'm really not sure about that last line. That's how it is when you write poetry [ Inaudible ]. You know that feeling you get to the end, it's the hard part. It's the part everyone waits for, I think, when you read poems. You hope at the end you're going to be given something and I didn't know that I had written something good, but it was all I could do and then I tried to revise it and fix it up and make it a little better and I could change a word here and a word there, but in the end I had to go with that — kind of flat ending — it was just what it was. What it was.
RC: Help? Did writing the poem help?
AF: No. Sorry. I know, it'd be great if poetry really did console us in that way, but you know there're certain things you go through, of course, that art does not console you for, I think. Art has its limitations. Poetry has its limitations, and I can't say it consoled me. I didn't even know if it was good. So maybe if I knew that, I would've felt, well okay it was worth, I did something. I made a piece of art, but no there was no consolation.
RC: Those aren’t questions, those aren't questions we're going to work out, right? Why did he make us to die? And that's not a question we're going to answer.
AF: Right. There's no answer to some of this stuff and sometimes you just have to live with the fact that you're not ever going to be consoled. It's something that you can't change, and things will be different and you'll go on and there'll be happy moments, of course, but being consoled or getting over something just sometimes doesn't ever happen.
RC: In one of your poems you say mockingly [ from "Warmth Sculpture" ]:
Most people want blurbish blobs of praise.
[ Laughter ]
but I can't help myself. I have lots of blurbish blobs of praise for you. Would you finish by reading a poem called “Sequel?”
AF: Oh that's a nice happy poem.
RC: That's what I thought. That's what I was hoping for.
Jump to 01:28:34
The universe’s ignorance of me is privacy.
I know the endangered meadow in a way
it will never know itself.
Must be the cosmos wanted something
to hear the splendornote
and find the fossil data,
to take an interest
in extinction events and ask
what pulsation is this
exserted from, what What.
I don’t know about purpose,
the why of why
we’re here, but we seem to witness
with a difference.
To think is to exercise
godheat. Haven’t I been given
everything, my life?
I might as well revise
the opening to read
the universe adores me.
It leans. It likes. It feels
no one could fail in quite
the same way as I’ve.
It gives burnish
when what is worthy of it.
The cosmos must have wanted something
to provide ovation
and disdain and inquire
under whose auspices
comes applause and hiss
and ask whose modulations unscroll
in flowers so immoderate that many
fewer would be none the less
a form of excess.
It's such an honor to talk to you tonight. I am so glad you came.
AF: Thank you, thank you so much. Thank you all.
[ Applause ]
This has been a presentation of the Library of Congress. Visit us at loc.gov.
Ron Charles, “Life of a Poet: Alice Fulton,” The Washington Post / The Library of Congress, The Hill Center, Washington, DC, November 4, 2015. Copyright © 2016 by Ron Charles and Alice Fulton. All rights reserved. View on YouTube.