By way of introduction to this month’s “Featured Selection,” first a brief introductory essay – or rather a self-interview by the poet – followed by the work itself, and concluding with some biographical material.
Interview: Bruce Smith by Bruce Smith
Interviewer: Why do you resist the interview?
Author: I don’t like the interview as it has displaced criticism, enthusiasm, and silence. Did Dickinson do interviews? Also it brings out the urge in me to be affable, familiar, and obliging when I feel in the poems testy, strange. It feels, too, like a lot of “I” in the interview when the poem for me is a way to shake, dissolve and reconfigure the “I”. But enough about me, what about my last book? as the joke goes.
Interviewer: The last book, Devotions, let a lot in. A lot of stuff: Dizzy Gillespie, Paris, high school, James Brown, Dickinson. The poems are big mouthfuls.
Author: I’m sorry? Thanks for reading my book, and I agree. I was distressed by the prolix nature of it.
Interviewer: So the new poems?
Author: Are a reaction to long and wordy. Long lines for some twang, but not more than 5 lines.
Interviewer: But these are wordy too. A lot of verbs.
Interviewer: Verby. You know, whips, demons, wants, flees.
Interviewer: No flees, like runs away, escapes.
Author: Yes, I think the fugitive and the fugue, in music and in psychology [see dissociative disorders in the DSM-IV] operate here. It cultivates wrongness or at least having an extravagant departure from the right course. Yes it breaks, glints, clouds, sings. Refuses, blankets, falls on its knees. It frays, picks crumbs to survive.
Interviewer: And dances on the head of a pin. Transfers.
Author: I was thinking that the work of poet and reader as the same as patient to shrink transference, the erotic transference that can also be rage, mistrust, the creation of mother and fathers to love or to kill. Transference, isn’t that the poet’s job in a way? But on the other hand the work is of “injury and repair” [No.7]: work of the underground economy that finds its emblem for me in the Bronx car repair shops where Chino and Heavy hustle to perform a brake job, body work, or fix your alternator. And these street repairs are illegal. Like Adorno said, “Every work of art is an uncommitted crime.”
Interviewer: Are you a Freudian or Jungian?
Author: Not much.
Interviewer: Are you talking about poetry here? What is “it”?
Author: I’ll answer that later, but I wanted to say about picking crumbs that poetry is poor in the sense that Wallace Stevens in his “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour” says “since we are poor.” We are poor, I think because poetry and the imagination can’t be converted easily into value, material value. It’s superfluous; it weighs nothing. It’s essentially angelic: can’t quite be embodied. Can’t quite be ignored. “it is in danger of being vanished” [No. 8]. But it dances on the head of a pin. It survives somehow on crumbs and persists. 80% of Americans, [according to CBS poll in 2011], women more than men, believe in angels.
Interviewer: Are you a Stevensian?
Author: Not much, although I continue to read him, keep looking for transference.
Interviewer: Who presides over these poems?
Author: Several avatars appear: Christopher Smart [No. 2], Rimbaud, Virginia Woolf [No.4], Antigone, a hero of mine [No.5], the artist formerly known as Prince whose song “Nothing Compares 2 U,” haunts me [Really, what compares to you is nothing?], and ends [No. 9] with the women of the women’s shelter, “aristocrats of pain.”
Interviewer: Do you really believe that if we get the syllables in the right order a god appears?
Author: That’s an idea from the Southern Indian, Telugu culture, and I like it. Why the persistence of poetry? And why the love song? You think we might have gotten it right by now. Or given up. But it seems each generation writes its poems and sings its songs, making a kind of construction [mercy seat] or mantra and god has yet to appear and the Other seems as difficult to woo as ever.
Interviewer: But what is “it”?
August 4, 2013
It does not fix. It wanders [eyes, rivers]. It diffuses [perfumes, blues]. It clouds.
It breaks. It does not balance, rectify, or improve. It glints. It sings the sing
[Wagner, gangsta]. It does not pardon. It does not justify. If you feel heat,
it’s coming from you. It blanks. It wrestles [loses]. It suffers but who doesn’t?
It produces want. It produces light. It breaks, but it does not set the bone.
It does not refuse. It will use anything: the melisma, the most shameless treacle,
the b-twang squeak, the car alarm. It does not vanish. It squats on your rib cage
when you sleep. It exists in your blankets [Cherokee], under your eyelids. It counteracts
the powers of darkness by its electrical skin like Smart’s cat, Jeoffrey. It falls on its knees
in the street in prayer. It does not ask for anything. Its limp is its dance. It can creep.
It does not put out the [tire, mine, trash] fire. It does not detect holes in the ozone layer.
It lives! It lives! It does not stay submerged [buried, intact, intestate]. It moans.
It does not grind off the burrs, although it sparks some. It does not care about you
[y’all], but cares about you. It redirects its feeling [shrink to x, ink to paper]. It does not
pay to increase your word power, make you college bound, or tie you to the mast, unsound.
It angels. It pin dances [There’s room for one more over here]. It makes more.
It does not overhaul [except to mourn]. After 18 it stops [Rimbaud] or starts [Buddha].
It gives away its earthly goods. It gasps. It looks for a pencil [Woolf]. It flays.
It makes an artificial skin, limb, ear, eye, tear. It does not always recognize your face,
Señor. It transfers. It discerns, but slowly, it’s old. It leaves [fingers] the wound.
It demons. It Antigones. It parades under a banner like a Suffragette. It doesn’t make
good citizens. It soldiers [irregulars, Germans who have read Günter Grass]. It scatters
its seed[Onan, canary]. It wants mother. It wants pussy. It wants to tuck up or unfurl
the genitals [queen, Creon]. It is sleepless. It’s delirious. It makes ache. It frays.
It does not muster. It whips [sweetly, unbearably]. It flees. It does not serve.
It is unseasonable [Where are the songs of spring?] mistaking blizzard for blossom drop.
It does not file [I would prefer not to]. It does not comply. It is not something else
[frozen, thawed, music]. It is not another. Nothing compares to it [Prince].
It is subjected. It wants to subject. It is entirely within this line, no this
line. Cross it, I dare you. The World picks a fight. It picks crumbs to survive.
It was for injury and repair that he had this voice, in sympathy
with those who didn’t make or do, but hustle the late model vehicles
with dents into the side streets where he grinds off the crimped flange
and drills out any spot welds, split the last vestiges of seam, persuade
them with a chisel, pressure wash and reskin, careful not the bend the frame.
It does not manage. It is devoted. It runs after the bus [the 42, the 521] and waves
and weeps. It can’t think for itself. It is devoted. It doesn’t try to be strong. It doesn’t
listen. It looks back. It’s a sucker for the face of the Other, so it is in danger of being
vanished [seized, vapor]. The World says lighten up or darken down. The World
says reduce the load. It doesn’t. It’s devoted. Didn’t I say it’s devoted? It’s devoted.
The syllables in the right order, right inflection, and a god appears, singing
them backwards delivers us here beside the women’s shelter, the women
in the street in the rain with a secret about a secret, these aristocrats of pain,
their feet wide apart because the ship pitches, someone they loved lurched into
happiness against their happiness and slapped and sang in no uncertain terms.
Bruce Smith is the author of six collections of poems, most recently, Devotions (University of Chicago, 2011), which was nominated for both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. His fourth book, The Other Lover (University of Chicago, 2000) was a finalist for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. His poems have appeared in Poetry, The New Yorker, The Best American Poetry Anthology, The Nation, The New Republic, The Paris Review, The Partisan Review, The American Poetry Review, and many other journals. Essays and reviews of his have appeared in Harvard Review, Boston Review and Newsday. He has been a recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship as well as twice receiving grants from the National Endowment of the Arts and the Massachusetts Foundation for the Arts.