Featured Selection: Terese Svoboda

NM: I’m intrigued with these innovative new poems. It’s remarkable how each use unique and singular stylistic inventions to track a consciousness as it struggles to orient itself in rapidly shifting physical, psychological and cultural landscapes as a result of loss, the aging process and as technological virtual reality seems to supplant our actual, tangible one.

Although it appears to be the most conventional poem of the group, “Hip Break” is subtly inventive. The “break” implies an equally abrupt break with the “hip” self, which moved, if not sashayed, through life with a something of a Duke Ellington swing. “The orthopedists, notoriously handsome,” who might have, in the not so distant past, harmlessly flirted with or at least acknowledged the speaker now “stare over me into their x-rays, //their handiwork so titanium, so screws and plates/ and pretty that they smile…” The fact that the speaker is ignored is underscored by the inventive adjective-i-zing of the industrial nouns “titanium, screws and plates” which, linked with the adjective “pretty” reveal what these doctors—in an oddly Frankensteinian twist, most value. Imagery in lines such as “Finding cracks or the cracks finding us, / the seams of living widening” tricks the mind to make the aural leap from “seams” and read “living” as “leaving.” The unexpectedly surreal “scent of those dead flowers/down the hallway” saying Walk faster, urges the speaker to push on through the rigors of rehabilitation, and back out into life.

Unlike the other physical shifts that steadily creep up on us from early adult years to middle age, this kind of abrupt “break” with our past selves is undeniable. In your rich and varied life, you’ve found yourself in new terrain many times—how does this new territory of impending older age compare, to say, your first encounter with Sudan?

TS: Ha! The equivalence of Sudan and old age–that’s an interesting juxtaposition. Age appears to be a territory that we should know something about but it’s such a surprise. Sudan, like Tbilisi where I’m going to teach for three weeks in a few days, is little known but has the ring of fable, where magic carpets are manufactured. The magic in old age is not readily apparent, not even in dream. The fantasy of amusing oneself on a rocking chair falls apart if you still have your marbles—what are you going to do with them? My father is 94 and he ran for Congress this spring and didn’t do too badly.

NM: Well, although I suspect that the time you spend in a rocking chair approaches zero, and you’re not even close to “old” old age, these poems are evidence that you’re are using all your marbles for wildly original innovations in language and form. For example, in “Tech-Only Challenge” you use the distinctly unpoetic language of technology. Can you talk about this?

TS: I have a little suite of poems like “Tech-Only Challenge” using latinates and simple syntax that comprise our everyday user manual diction, a language I seldom see in poetry, and to me that’s intriguing. Too long poetry has kept its sticky fingers out of nonfiction’s pot, considering it only fit for erasure poems, a kind of extraction process. Sometimes I come upon academic language that is only half translated that has strength, and I want to unearth it too. I’m intrigued as well by the sound/code-switching play in Latasha Nevada Digg’s Twerk, which seems to be unmaking/making poetry at its root.

NM: This use of technical language is unexpected, as are the results. For example, the aural and rhythmic repetition of “tion” in “medicalization” “miniaturization” “optimization,” “prolongation,” has a numbing, hypnotic effect— perhaps to try and covert us to the illusion of “the singularity,” the human-technological hybrid of one freakish entity? “Calibrated on the basis of /constantly updating data flows, //we become-older-together…” Hmm…your thoughts?

TS: The ending of “Tech-Only Challenge” “I think, therefore” suggests brain matter will soon control the world from some deep cauldron hooked up to a Vandergraph machine. While the world of coders is not acres of women harnessed to sewing machines, there are similarities that to me evoke the “tion” of mechanization rather than the twinkle of a fairy wand, the accepted version of the tech miracle. The impetus behind most tech discoveries is to release us from mundane activities like calculating and indexing and now communicating, and that really gestures toward the prolongation of life, not only to stop or slow aging but also to have more of it in the quotidian. The Faustian part of that exchange is what I try to “tion” out with my series of questions.

NM: Fascinating. I see these organic inventions of form/function fully operative in all of this featured work. In the beautiful poem “Let’s Not End It,” a dimming memory struggles as “The known world turns/in the dark away from you,” to retrieve the specifics of the past, “Tall stories” which “stalk the night.” Her reassemblages of these partial memories result in the enchanting surrealism of childhood and dreams where inanimate objects are activated: “a spoon opens the air” and “The kitchen folded and stacked, listens.” What’s remarkable is that this reconstruction is far from the stereotypically vague and murky recollections of a dimming mind, but is brilliantly vivid. In fact, it’s a regenerative reconstruction, the most vital, salvaged parts now vibrant with new and enduring life. “Others wrap the dark/around you, all wordless but baby, /who mouths the moon.” So gorgeous and moving—thank you. In an interview in The Common you say, “Living in such a foreign culture causes a kind of rebirth.” I wonder if you have you found the foreign culture of older age (and of living in a technological age) similarly invigorating?

TS: It is a new but forced perspective. I fell to the ground and I rose into the world of the challenged. After months of physical therapy, which reminded me again and again that vigor now has to be earned, I returned to the other world, the one I was born with, changed. I notice the caned, how hard it is for them to see what they’re passing when they have to watch their feet. Today I’m thinking that the reason the country of Georgia has little visual art is because of the steepness of the mountains—they can’t look up. Any new culture questions the assumptions of the old. Those old people drive so slowly, they must be stupid becomes How cautious they are, with the dimming of their eyesight, the slowing of their reflexes, thank you! With regard to the world of tech, I remain kneeling at the altar of new gizmos, their user manuals creased open, hoping for revelation.

NM: Another example of your gift for form/function fusion is the prose poem “The Comedienne” in which each section mimics a joke in a comedy routine, “An existential joke, tailless, they call it in the business.” Yet, behind the “perfectly useable patter” is the poignant figure of well-seasoned old comedienne pushing through the years and out into each day with the tenacity of habit and her unfailing wit. “She’s slinking in a doorway when the joke comes to her, she’s ready to deliver, she looks into the street and waves.” The wonderful, double entendre-d pun in the last stanza …”he thinks of chickens, not having laid her” rings bitter-sweetly against the steely last line “She, in the existential tailless way of daily life, works out another joke, this one about time, the least funny subject.” Again, wonderfully, wonderfully inventive. I’m wondering if this talent for finding the perfect embodiment of form is a gift that comes naturally to you, or…?

TS: Not a lot comes naturally. One sits before the machine and revises until something is made or discarded. Scraps are useful, persistence essential. I once worked an image into a poem, then a short story, then a novella, which in turn became an evening of dance. I did not set out to make that journey but the image kept returning, each time showing a different facet. More often, the image is consumed, single-use only. Even more often, it lies around for years, waiting. I’ve had luck.

NM: I should say so! Although I’m sure our readers are eager to get to these poems, I just wanted to comment on the brilliant disjuncture in form and logic of the poem “Calenture” which replicates the deliciously surreal perceptions of a mind swirled in a feverish delirium. I’m delighted with how the poem makes use of white space to imply the wide lapses of a mind’s feeble attempts to parse what it perceives.

TM: “Calenture” is a fever sailors caught that caused them to imagine that the sea was actually a green field that they could leap into. You can imagine, after weeks being becalmed in the Doldrums, staring into its seeming endlessness, how tempted you might be to leap, especially if it shimmered like dry land. Here’s a quote from Jonathan Swift’s “The Bubble”:

 

So, by a calenture misled,

The mariner with rapture sees,

On the smooth ocean’s azure bed,

Enamelled fields and verdant trees:

With eager haste he longs to rove

In that fantastic scene, and thinks

It must be some enchanted grove;

And in he leaps, and down he sinks.

The romantic tones of calenture, the suggestion of overwhelming passion, that delirium, I also hoped to invoke. It’s from a series collected in a new manuscript about a female Noah. These poems range in time from the ancient past to the forbidding future and overall try to address the ravages of climate change (which is more accurately climate catastrophe) and who and what might be “saved.” The adage is that one should always write not to the water but to the thirst.

NM: Ah! Terese, you’ve given us lots to think about. Thanks for taking time from your busy teaching schedule in Tblisi for this most engaging conversation, and for your intriguing poems.

 

Tech-Only Challenge

Under the influence of medicalisation,
miniaturisation and algorithmic

optimization, the prolongation of life
seems to be a tech-only challenge

without limits. Calibrated on the basis of
constantly updating data flows,

we become-older-together regardless
of who or what has access. Meanwhile,

we generate dumping sites full of leaking bits
and bytes, excess chargers and broken components.

The associated ageing of bodies and devices takes place
simultaneously in microseconds and in geological time,

both on the nano- and global scale. While tools
innovate and flesh declines, faltering devices

keep promising eternal youth.
So how do ageing bodies keep each other

and their technological partners company?
How do they give an account of their generational

specificities? Can we develop ecosystems
to transcend time and scale in solidarity?

Are body parts and extensions imaginable beyond
the expiration date of concepts like The Internet

of Things and The Quantified Self? How does ageism
affect the “new” in so-called new technologies?

With wearables (who wears what?), sensors
(who feels who?), micro-controllers (who controls what?)

we tell ourselves: I think, therefore

 

Let’s Not End It

Tall stories stalk the dark night:
Igloo Pete, The Claw and the Plunger,
Forty Lies for Forty Thighs.

No fireflies of I, no information
but words beside a pot set out
to try the stars in the fat of night.

But where are you – back
at the ladle? The hammock’s
still swinging, the baby’s left behind.

You firefly the lawn in pick-up,
but it’s the you in your youth, the baby still
baby, Igloo Pete’s visiting

in his pjs. The known world turns
in the dark away from you,
a spoon opens the air,

a pot gets banged by a shin where?
You stare into the storied dark.
The kitchen, folded and stacked, listens.

A deer munches daylilies,
the unconscious ordering in.
No need to close your eyes.

Others wraps the dark
around you, all wordless but baby,
who mouths the moon.

 

The Comedienne

The old comedienne moves her mouth, she does her stretches, her deadpan-without-so-much-as-a-twitch, and she times it. It’s all about timing. Old means she’s timed a lot, she may have timed out. She always wakes early with perfectly useable patter that doesn’t have a story behind it. An existential joke, tailless they call it in the business.

The old comedienne doesn’t drink her coffee, her wiring goes straight to her mouth, but not aloud. She’s slinking in a doorway when the joke comes to her, she’s ready to deliver, she looks into the street and waves.

A man whose arm is in a cast, visible only at the cuff, holds his arm stiff, across his chest, and veers. A man walks into a bar, she calls out.

I’m an old comedienne, she says.

He pats her on the head, which she decides is not condescending, given that it’s the hand sticking out of the cast, and he’s very tall. I’m walking in here, he says.

She doesn’t even know how to make coffee, which he thinks is another joke until she offers him tea.

Offers him me? she’s thinking. The cast, after the coat is off, has no names written on it—maybe he has no friends? Maybe he’s fussy.

He sits on her pull-out bed. If she kept a doily to reinforce its couch-like appearance, no one would know it pulled out at all. She tells a tailless joke. There was a Jewish pope, she starts. You’re not Jewish? she says. That’s part of the patter. Nobody ever admits to it, they want to hear the joke.

The man is already smiling. He guesses the punch line: Isn’t the Pope catholic?

She laughs and he opens his palm in a ha-ha way, the palm that sticks out of the end of the cast. I’ll tell you a story, he says. My arm, he says, and shakes it while he describes flying through the air after being shot out of a cannon. You know the phrase cannon fodder?

She sighs. Always the competition. He forgets how it happened, paying somebody sixty dollars to stuff him into this cannon—him, the claustrophobic, the too-many-margaritas. He says he can show her the burns but he would have to take off his clothes.

Sex and death are the only subjects, she says. She tells him with death you can do it alone and nobody laughs at you.

He puts down his cup. He’s a man of the street, that’s what his hair color, choice of coat say. She begs to differ – she thinks he’s a chrysalis and inside the cast is a new man. Then he’s late.

As he makes his way down the street, he thinks of chickens, not having laid her. She, in the existential tailless way of daily life, works out another joke, this one about time, the least funny subject.

 

Calenture

…you almost swear that play-wearied children lie sleeping in these solitudes…

Melville, Moby Dick

 

Hip Break

A team of lifters cause me to scream
and a passer-by stops a sidewalk over.

Then orthopedists, notoriously handsome,
stare over me into their x-rays,

their handiwork so titanium, so screws and plates
and pretty that they smile, an unlikely

expression in such a facility. I’m ambulanced away
to fool with the physical, the newer rehab

patients far more damaged and aged,
weighing pain against the no-pain

of too much morphine, a wife
saying No to lifting her arm, her husband’s

Yes, and his weeping.
Mine eats my dinner, lunch, he’s

nervous. Why can’t I walk?
He talks to a Dr. No,

who hasn’t been outside for weeks,
who sleeps sorrowful in the corridors.

Yes, says my roommate, I am leaving.
Twenty-seven foot operations

and I must leave today. Insurance
won’t let her out, common sense.

But what is common about the senses,
each of us committed to our input,

finding cracks or the cracks finding us,
the seams of living widening,

while the scent of those dead flowers
down the hallway says Walk faster.

 

 

A Guggenheim fellow, Terese Svoboda is the author of 18 books, including seven books of poetry. Professor Harriman’s Steam Air-Ship (poetry) is her most recent. Anything That Burns You: A Portrait of Lola Ridge, Radical Poet (biography) appeared in paper in 2018, and Great American Desert (stories) will be published next year. She has won the Bobst Prize in fiction, the Iowa Prize for poetry, an NEH grant for translation, the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize, a Jerome Foundation prize for video, the O. Henry award for the short story, a Bobst prize for the novel, and a Pushcart Prize for the essay. She is a three time winner of the New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship, and has been awarded Headlands, James Merrill, Hawthornden, Yaddo, McDowell, and Bellagio residencies. Her opera WET premiered at L.A.’s Disney Hall in 2005. “Terese Svoboda is one of those writers you would be tempted to read regardless of the setting or the period or the plot or even the genre.”–Bloomsbury Review.

Nancy Mitchell is a 2012 Pushcart Prize winner and the author of three volumes of poetry, The Near Surround (Four Way Books, 2002,) Grief Hut (Cervena Barva Press, 2009) and The Out-of-Body Shop (Plume Editions, 2018.) She teaches at Salisbury University in Maryland and serves as Associate Editor of Special Features for Plume. She can be reached at nancymitchellpoet@gmail.com

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