Norman Dubie: That fraught moment where the old Zen master talks while washing his ass in a bowl of morning tea…

Norman Dubie: That fraught moment where the old Zen master talks while washing his ass in a bowl of morning tea…
March 23, 2018 Plume

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NM: Hi Norman. Thank you for talking with us at Plume and sharing your lovely, mysterious, and deeply interesting poems; it’s an honor. You’re one of the most revered and beloved elders of the poetry tribe who blazed a trail and held the light for so many early in their writing careers, including my friend and Plume Review Editor, the fine poet Adam Tavel, who joins us here. In fact, in editor Danny Lawless’ newsletter, which introduces this issue, the “Secret Poem” is Adam’s tribute to you.


In your interview in The Rusty Torque you credit your enduring practice of meditation for your “ready gift for bi-location.” Bi, or even tri-locations (chronological, geographical, biographical) are fully observable in these poems. You also mention your experience with the “…secret female tradition of CHOD” where “one becomes actually ubiquitous within all possible histories, all possible futures—personal, mythologized, and other.”

Although through this practice you may have access to “all possible histories, all possible futures,” it’s finally your formidable facility of “formal obligations, say, such as rhyme, meter, and stanza construction” and your almost uncanny ear, which make these transpositions, juxtapositions utterly believable, palpable.

Have you ever felt your poems are ultimately a collaboration, or co-creation with the “infinite mind?” I guess I’m asking if, say, historical knowledge, is a part of your own database, so to speak, or is from the collective unconscious?


ND: The truth is, most early Buddhist practice involving meditative states is exactly divided, distracted, and tormented. But the two conscious modes for that discovery involve, on the one hand, highly technical experiences, or practices, and, on the other hand, an opposed tradition in psyche. These two forces or disciples (the techne and the psyche), when they combine, just barely allow you to slip out of the simple bondage of the body. But it’s accomplished through the magical, energetic, chemical attributes of the human body, and that body’s chakra stations that are easily described as electromagnetic, and are inseparable from an almost scary brain chemistry. So there is this personal vision, and yet, in odd ways, you’re protected from it through all the traditional skills that are present there in the 11,000 years of yoga science. It’s fortunate that when, in midlife, I turned to this intense experience of Tibetan Buddhism, I had already lived through this conflict in my writing––between things technical and things oddly blithe, or psychic. The acquired skills, of course, protect us from the vision. In the 60s, there was a chant––“arm yourself, brother, before you harm yourself, brother”. I’ve said this, I hope, with the softest perspective. They were thinking of burning black gunpowder, I’m thinking of iambic pentameter! (laughter)


To answer the second part of your question: does my persona work depend on this vast function of memory that we all sort of have, that is a database; or, is it more like me stuck in a creation, where total immersion in infinite mind is the first game in town and also the last—you know, those lost, shale beds of the Mayan ball-court!


NM: All of this is fascinating , as are the far reaching implications for the “practice” of writing itself—a conversation to be continued, I hope, in/at some future bi-location.


AT: Irredeemable violence has long haunted your work, as evident in some of your most iconic poems such as “Pastoral,” “Confession,” and “Looking up from Two Renaissance Paintings to the Massacre at Tiananmen Square.” In these new poems, “Mad Cow” juxtaposes a luxurious meal with the destruction of Baghdad, while “The Inaugural Ball” anticipates the exotic nightmarishness of Trumpism. Do you view this violence as an act of witness, an act of warning, or something else entirely?


ND: Frankly, Adam, there are stranger poems that you could pose this question about­­­––for example, “The Scrivener’s Roses”, where the nuns’ graves are disturbed by Union soldiers. In fact, something almost identical to that horror literally occurred at the hands of Franco’s army, near the conclusion of the Spanish civil war. But to directly answer your question, I view the violence in poetry as a long evolving act of witness; it is, I suppose, an act of warning (though I am not writing the lamentations of a Jeremiah). Or, to fill in the blank for you, this is really an act of exorcism. In our almost unlimited electronic culture, I don’t know how we cleanse our minds of a dark, mindless violence and continue as well as we do. For me, material I would be nightmaring over, I can literally discharge through my poetry. I’m insisting that here there is witness, warning and exorcism—perhaps an exorcism of both self and culture. As in the way we encounter the work of consummate poets such as Homer or Dante or Emily Dickinson.


I shouldn’t confess this. I should just abandon this question at this point. But, in the psychoanalysis of fire, I must acknowledge that everywhere in the arts in this country, violence is hidden as a pastime that is most nearly masturbatory or pornographic. I’m way too easily satisfied with this work.


Because, in some ways, I’m speaking here, with young writers, I should probably put more emphasis on feelings. But because you introduced Dharma, we’re getting more ideas than I’m really comfortable with. It can be that fraught moment where the old Zen master talks while washing his ass in a bowl of morning tea.


NM: What I find so refreshing and nourishing about your poems here is that they don’t insist on establishing the self, say, as Norman Dubie. Even the gorgeous, heartbreaking, personal “Elegy” recognizes, imagines and gives voice to other sentience’s: I thought the tryptic of woods, houses/and more woods was longing/for a swift cabal of night”  It’s a generous, inclusive and expansive gesture…generative—I can’t help but think of the last two lines in Louise Bogan’s “Night” That more things move/Than blood in the heart.

These poems aren’t “meta” as so much of contemporary poetry seems to be.  In this “selfie” era of relentless self-promotion via social media, images are carefully crafted and curated as a brand. There seems to be an unprecedented shift underway in how poetry is made and received. Do you have any thoughts on this?


ND: Oh god, I love Louise Bogan—her poetry, and the red pencil she employed with Theodore Roethke’s wild and musical poems. When I was a kid, I read her and Rukeyser and Levertov with a passion. There’s so much of her writing that I loved back then and still love now. And Rukeyser. Didn’t Rukeyser and Bogan bump into each other some special summer in Portland, Maine?  Now, you ask me of the whole issue of the “selfie” and a whole generation of poets. When I was a kid, I was accused of being in rebellion over the attitudes and naughty ventriloquisms that was the Lowell gang. It’s really the same thing. And, of course, it isn’t. I’ve spent my whole life in the company of young poets, who are insanely gifted and, of course, filtered out for their talent. Here we’re talking about one generation after another, over fifty years. I’ve always had this big heartfelt compact with them, and I still do. They’re young and they can be very foolish. I’m very old and very foolish. I refuse to cast stones here.  I’m afraid, Nancy, in a way, you’re trespassing on my experience, not as a writer, but as a teacher. And, I’m afraid, I am clamming up over this!

NM: Of course—my apologies for trespassing on that sacred trust which I know well. A very wise answer, which this foolish old lady has duly noted; thank you, Norman.


AT: “Elegy” and “The Aegean Stone” both embody the intimacy, compression, and insight of lyric poetry while still relaying intricate, if partial, tales to the reader. Indeed, much of your writing from the last three decades seems to conjoin the lyric and narrative impulses. Is this a reflection of a conscious aesthetic choice or an organic dimension of your work since, say, 1991’s Radio Sky?


ND: “Elegy,” I’m very happy with, because of the way it found the mother and daughter sharing the same unheated room, with the girl’s trophies and the mother’s butter carvings in balsa. I never would’ve guessed I could’ve incidentally dealt with this loss, yet I did. “The Aegean Stone,” I feel, is a complete failure of communication as a poem. I’m not sure that it’s clear that these men, these warriors, have moved, in their boats, just far enough over the Mediterranean from their village, so that they can no longer save their wives and children from attacking barbarians. Though, they can still hear the screams out over the water, and the screams join their paralysis. Chelsea, my assistant, just read this poem over the phone to me, and guess what? This poem is a complete failure, as far as its intended storytelling is concerned. I can see why this would be emotional for me, with my certain knowledge of the voice in the poem, but, for anyone else, I have to surrender to the idea that it’s just a mysterious lullaby. It focuses on a violence that cannot be altered. It sounds like something we’re living in the current moment everywhere on this planet.

NM: Oh Norman!—your responses generate even more questions—how I wish we all had time. However, I do think this short prelude has oriented our readers to the myriad bi-locations of these intriguing, beautiful poems. Adam and I thank you for this pleasure; you are a clear, bright spring in the desert.




Mad Cow

The river lights align he thinks
like the intestine of the lobster,
a french roll burned, the coleslaw
soggy with mayonnaise. He thinks,
at least, he resisted the beef.
The night air is cold blue.
The newspaper folded near the coffee urn
has a fragment of headline:
Baghdad Tattered in Veils of…

There is fog over the potatoes.
The barge on the river burns a torch,
tugs twice at its horn. He smiles
into his napkin where gulls
scream and he nods to the waiter:
the Indian Pudding most definitely—with the whole
cream and berries.



Birnam Wood

The cook to Lady Macbeth had to be the smartest
servant in the Keep, because
she suffered from suspicions in the universal kitchen.
This cook who taught Latin to dull children
was up in the parapet smoking fragrant moss
in his clay pipe. Without alarm or any recognition
he thought it is a good thing
the wood is a scraggly wood
because the archer is
an unlikely corset for a still standing grown tree.

The whole wood’s position is moving to scrimmage
in the cook’s mind
and his hatred for his Lady
leaves him silent up in the oak arches of a perch—
he’s thinking that all firewood
is just so much smoke. He empties his pipe
gently on the stone curb. He smiles, all the while
descending a narrow scaffolding of stairs.

The Birnam Wood is being stacked with tar
at the castle’s gate, all of it now bursting into flame.
A new perspective on reality gone angular, insane.
The cook now shortcutting through manure
in the milking parlour saying, in a hush to the cows:
it really is the sweetest fiction that now brings
hell’s fire to our oblivion.





—for W.D.

When a wall of dust is entering the city
the old copper hood over the stove gets nervous, the damper
increasingly nervous,
flopping about,
while the sand moves nearer to the house.

The death of friends approaches,
paced but nearly relentless, again like that tin damper
seizing in its narrow brick exhaust. Another lover

has died, once she edged across the room
saying she wanted
the heat off the acid I’d taken
inside her as well.

Our friend
Ellen had committed suicide six months before.
She said eventually
she believed the dying of old friends
would become serial, frantic. She thought that,

while wiping up between her legs. Then she said
no, not like that…    forget please
I ever said it.



Ford Madox Ford

Down from the fog, the old ewe
struggled around William’s neck, a
descent through agate slough
and clay exhausts
off the yellow cliff…

Stupid sheep, three still to come, stranded
in cloud that was colored
just like them, save

the adder rose
of a bleating mouth
stuck metaphysical
there in sky.

The landlord was speaking
julius caesar while
cleaning his boot of manure
with a very green stick.

It was nothing.

Early spring. I made
my judgment
to live a year longer
maybe just to vex the taxman
and his lazy daughter.



The Inaugural Ball

—November 18, 2016

Perfect skeletons spinning on marble.
Two dressed Marines with white gloves
putting a blue wrist corsage on their little sister
who has just recovered from influenza.
Later, the same white gloves signaling, desperate
in a small darkened window.

The skeletons turning to Schubert—
bone needles dipped in whale fat
making little seizing arcs in the coarse netting—and someone wakes
like a minor bureaucrat
screaming—now breathing—
she reaches for the tall glass of water.
It’s poised
like the time-travelers’ column
in the Bosch hell-site where a large stork
is opening an umbrella of nostalgia
concerned like the suburban mother
shaking water from her hand
or driving the mercury back down the thermometer.

It’s only November.
This is just verse.
No turkey anywhere in the universe will be pardoned.
The blind poet translates his torment
at the very moment he smells
on the air, equally, the approach
of the bourgeois and the barbarian.
It’s a circular, cruel, eight-bladed
underneath caked with the manure
of oxen, their hooves wrapped in rags, all night
silently entering the cities.


Turn, Counter-Turn & Stand


Heisenberg on the night train eating his dry cake
with the nervous Albert Speer.
Their gloves beside the warm beer.
The tea is cold in a wilder remittance. In whitewash
on the brick wall: death is dead.


Again, the retina…
The clockwork mechanical distress in the eyeball
of a crucified porcelain Jesus
there in the blue chapel
at Strasbourg depot—the black market exchanges of bot
from artful dwellers in flooded cellars in Moldova. Soon
to be dystopic, tropic postage, faded
like the white barn in a snowstorm, then an icehouse
followed by the fish market…


The medieval glistening fox living
strung upside-down in the large glass front of the tavern.
It chews through its tail before morning, running
in an interpreted scamper down to the river ice
where it falls through. It was found in a wicker sluice
with the largest of the drowned dogs who followed the fox
into the dark turning waters…


(Boys, you are the lame one who came before
in the colored glass
of a long codex—the events
of a single rainy morning stops the heart. Starts all
the suffering automata in Philadelphia
and Strasbourg: the alley cat in broad daylight loves us,
its quick bath, doubled over, bright claw and anus.)


Mr. Wallace Ordinarily Sleeps in New Haven


The simple genius of an old woman
that contains this old man—
the storm battering the heavy

windchime on the balcony,
the wind lifting prayer flags.

A simple lamp of fish fat
burning clean in…


He looks through the kitchen window
and a leaf on fire is lifting
up from the rusted burn-barrel.
The tea bag in water with eggshells
has a nursery of blue mosquitoes
on the surface on its moon.
He still
must feed some broken glass
to the garbage disposal. Then, it will also
feel salvational.


It is the night of solstice.

An old man looks up
from the almost rouged page
and sees his dead cat
and says with oblivious happiness,

I am beside myself, dear friend—let us
eat that supper while
there’s still light on the sofa?

And the sofa grins broadly,
it goes on burning.


The Aegean Stone

We have
jumped into the boats, my men rowing—

each Spring, we believe that we love distance
more than anything. Now even my geese are screaming
like aster flowers
in flames just above
the water. Now, we believe we smell them
being singed for the victory feast
with most of our now dead friends
resting their elbows on the long tables.

The water in the bottom of our boats
makes a sound like children sobbing
at a distance.


A Day Lyric for St. Cecilia

It was light spilling from physical music, blood
spilling back into time,
her headless body and those
of two others on the dry Sicilian hillside.
A black donkey walks down to the river to drink.
Only the body of Maximus still seizing
beside a dusty spike of white milestone. What do violins
say to that wonderful man Auden
who thought she had gone abstract with weight
now walking through a night’s narrow space.

Before she was the bride
Urbanus dripped water on the groom’s sunstruck hair,
an open air baptist among olive trees; the hair,
in fact, tied back behind the neck
as if insinuating the grim
future blades of the two large executioners
sent from France.

The sun was spanking the open eye
that’s peering into the morning glade, portal
to the cooling green catacombs of Callistus, to the original
strangeness of Marcus Aurelius: children playing
on the Roman wharves, just more sticks
at the dying rats of the cholera ships
back from Egypt. Auden singing to us

of the white attenuated children who are understood
like saints, like birdsongs in soft rain,
heard all the same
stalking still the very breath of men
ruined in a very first language
that wants even some difference in our silences…



The sunken garden behind the parsonage
and the fallen snow just surviving in the shadow
of the old sycamore. Snow now in a refuge
of shadows. I thought the tryptic of woods, houses
and more woods was longing
for a swift cabal of night
to cancel the last lights in kitchens, cellars
and a young bowler’s trophy room which
she shares with her mother’s carved ducks, blades
in the large metal vise with teeth
and a cloth of lamb’s skin to keep
the teeth from the soft lifting wing.
Then just street lamps protesting
the one surviving bare bulb
at the mortuary on the hill, the small sink
filling with water.



Norman Dubie’s most recent collection of poems is The Quotations of Bone (Copper Canyon Press, 2015), winner of the International Griffin Poetry Prize. He has recently completed two manuscripts, The Egg Clock and Robert Schumann is Mad Again. He teaches at Arizona State University in Tempe, AZ.


Nancy Mitchell is a 2012 Pushcart Prize winner and the author of two volumes of poetry, The Near Surround (Four Way Books, 2002) and Grief Hut (Cervena Barva Press, 2009) Her third book; The Out-of-Body Shop is forthcoming with Plume Editions in 2018. She teaches at Salisbury University in Maryland and serves as Associate Editor of Special Features for Plume.


Adam Tavel won the Richard Wilbur Book Award for Catafalque, his third poetry collection, which is forthcoming with the University of Evansville Press. He served as the reviews editor for Plume from 2016-2017.