Ladder, Facts and Rungs—Dancing on the Train Tracks with Fleda Brown
Interview by Nancy Mitchell
NM: These eight prose poems in “Treatises” speak with the authority of well-documented research and claim the same authority of the self, of the “facts” therein. Is it this authority that allows for shifts from exterior to interior, the acknowledgment of the interconnectedness of each to each?
FB: I guess age confers some authority, but honestly, when I wrote these I was feeling utterly hopeless as a writer, which is why I plunged into a project that was day-by-day making myself get something, anything, down. The thing is, I’ve been writing long enough to trust that something will emerge. As I started into each one, I felt no control at all, but then some image got hold of me and I would look up more about it, and that would lead me into something else. It got to feel like a dance between the researched facts and my interior state which I didn’t realize was so intense, but was coming through the words like a freight train.
Switching from train tracks to a similar image, I’m more inclined to think of the facts as furnishing a ladder. It’s my mind I’m really climbing around in, but I need rungs, you know, to hold on. Some contemporary writers like Laura Kasischke, Rae Armantrout, Jorie Graham or John Ashbury, for a few examples, seem to have an amazing ability to trust the mind’s irrational movements as they are, almost without the rungs.
The day I wrote “On Fog” (or drafted it, rather), my mind felt foggy. I didn’t think I could write. I was so surprised by the depth of my grief after my father died! I should have expected it, since he’s been either subject or reference point in nearly everything I’ve ever written. But he was functional autistic, and that meant that there was this unusual space between us that could never be filled. He made my childhood difficult in so many ways. I was furious at him and simultaneously loved and admired him tremendously. After he died, all those feelings coalesced into just plain sadness. I didn’t realize until some time along in this series that it was my grief informing the whole thing. Then I went back to make that more obvious.
NM: I love how you “met” yourself where you were at that moment-foggy-and followed it, rather than fight it—as I so often do, and exhaust myself—you wrote through it!
FB: So I sat there thinking fog. Then I looked up fog and found there were five kinds. As I was imagining the soft layer in a valley, somehow the soft beginning of Mozart’s Requiem came into my mind. I’m a researcher. I believe in getting the facts right. So I listened to what I thought I remembered before I went on with that. While I was listening, I was thinking that music is made of resistance, like the pressure of one set of lips on another, and all the back-and-fourths, the opposite forces that create things.
NM: Yes, I listened to Requiem right away; I can hear it.
FB: What I started doing in each “Treatise” is pulling in images from previous sections, which helped me a lot to open to different possibilities. The risk in this kind of writing is that it can get self-conscious, or past that, cute. Look at me, how I can dance with things. I tried to control that by always pulling back into the factual. You might say, to remember my roots, where I came from. No ideas but in things.
NM: Yes! I can see this in each of these an acknowledgment that we’re always tethered to our “roots” by physical laws, your floating held to the earth while your head dreams into the dark energy. (“On Kayaks”.) Does writing in this form give you a freedom that writing in verse does not?
FB: It might appear so, but I’m not so sure. I do think cadence is easier for me in this form, meaning that maybe I can more easily hear my voice moving if I keep it moving sideways. But the mind isn’t linear. Thoughts roil and pitch and overlap and soften almost to disappearance, then reemerge. Is the poet tracking that or inventing that? Good question. I’m glad I asked it, even though I can’t answer it.
The prose poem pretends to be narrative by nature of its shape. In that sense, for me it feels easier to begin a prose poem. I’m just writing this stuff down, one thing after another, I think to myself. However, if I start out aware that the material is leaning toward being a lineated poem, my mind begins feeling toward a shape right away. I may change the shape a dozen times, I may turn it into a prose poem or vice-versa, but there has been from the beginning the thought of linear expression. Line breaks. Space breaks.
NM: This is so interesting-do you ever make a conscious effort to resist that “shape”?
FB: To my mind, every poem has to show signs of resistance if it’s to keep some sort of music. And I want to feel that it had to be written in the first place. A tense necessity. A resistance to what is the case. As the wonderful poet Rick Barot writes, “imagination rousing / out of idleness into urgency, reaching now toward you.” Where will urgency come from? Well, one thing, you can consciously resist the first shape that comes to mind. I do that sometimes—turn what first showed up as prose into a poem by whatever means. Recently I took a prose poem and lineated it and found that then it needed some internal changes, with the now-visible exposure of its internal workings. I like it better now. So my answer to your question is yes, I do.
FB: Maybe the prose poem is easier for me to begin because I use that same deception on myself, that I’m just writing this stuff down. Like a free-write. But as soon as I have a few words down, I’ve already committed to creating a small world there. I can bring all sorts of animals and buildings and feelings into it, but it is going to need to present itself as a world. It is already imagining a reader. If it weren’t, I could keep it in my personal journal.
Also, as soon as I begin, I am beholden to the entire lineage: to the Symbolists, especially to Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Valery, Hölderlin, and to Rilke, Kafka, Stein, Joyce, Simic, Bly . . . . . The tradition of the prose poem doesn’t constrain me or anyone, of course, but it’s like a tuning fork. I need to hear it.
If free verse is a bit like playing tennis without a net, as Frost said, then you might say prose poems have gotten rid of the tennis court altogether. Which is nonsense. Carl Sandberg’s answer to Frost can also apply to the prose poem: “There have been poets who could and did play more than one game of tennis with unseen rackets, volleying airy and fantastic balls over an insubstantial net, on a frail moonlit fabric of a court.”
NM: In your more formal poems there are naturally constraints. Do you place constraints with prose poems?
FB: I did use those tricks on myself with these—to have the same image show up over and over in different treatises, in different ways. Then I decided to have each one come out at about sixteen lines. No reason, really, except to provide a constriction. Something to play with, to tighten things up or to make me reach further, as the case was. And then as I worked, I began to want the grief to rise to the surface more. Not that there’s exactly a resolution or a sense of having gotten somewhere, but, as I began the last of the sequence, “When I head for the heart of what I mean. . .” you know I’m trying to get closer and closer to how this feels, and this is going to be my last shot at it.
NM: I’m struck by how, in these pieces, you’re allowing—or maybe trusting—
one word to lead to another, sort of a hand over hand — Language is a rope meandering over the rocks, around curves, downhill (“On Creeks”)—with the “rope” of language leading.
FB: Well, again, language is like the creek, dancing with the impulse to get on with it, to say something. But suppose, for example, you have what feels like a revelation. You want to tell someone about it. In such cases, language seems to only get in the way, but it’s all you have. The two faces of language. I’ve noticed the closer I get to what feels really important, really powerful, the less adequate language is. I just have to keep talking around that indescribable importance. I think that’s what this series amounts to—a gathering up of words to surround an importance, so something of it might possibly be seen.
I’m reading Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light, the last in the trilogy about the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s minister. If you want an example of how language can both unfold and move a scene forward and deeply enrich it at the same time, this would be my prime example. I read her paragraphs more than once, just studying how she does it, how she gives a sense of movement inside stillness. I am in awe.
At the end of “On Kayaks,” I wrote, “What to do with the humans, who want to drag their fingertips through the water so touchingly, who want to hold something back, even while moving on?” That seems like the idea.
NM: Yet, even as I asked the question re: rope, I’m thinking, it’s writer who holds the other end of the rope, who has ultimate control in terms of how far or long the “meander” so the writing is never really “off leash.” How do you determine when to pull it back in?
FB: This is the big (and important) question! I think of Mozart, maybe. Theme and variation. How did he know when to return to the base melody? I think you (the writer) just have to have a sense of this. There’s no way to codify it. I don’t want to get lost and I don’t want a reader to get lost out there in the stratosphere of my mind. I want there to be a sense of control. It’s like when someone starts telling you a story—“Oh let me tell you what happened to me today!”—and at some point you sense that person has gotten lost in the story, is seeing it in her own mind and is gone inside that movie. You the listener lose interest and get a little irritated because it’s no longer a communication, it’s narcissism.
Also, I’m not sure I can say it’s the writer (or composer) who exercises the control so much as the music itself. The music of the poem, if we’re talking about poetry. A writer gets a feel for the music of it and becomes, after a while, at least as much a listener as a composer. Maybe more a listener. This would be an experienced writer, one who has trained her ear to the music of language.
NM: …And—if you’ll allow me—it’s almost a trinity of listener, music and composer. Fleda, thank you so much for this terrific conversation; it’s been a real pleasure. You given me and our readers a lot to think about and so much enjoy in these gorgeous prose poems.
It might be that you think you’re living your life and then find you’ve waked up like in the Matrix to a grittier one, that your actual body is a part of, and you will have to feel everything. The average person has four or five dreams a night. Anxiety dreams are the most common after sex dreams. In my dreams I am often trying to get somewhere. I am floating across the campus like a butterfly. I have forgotten my clothes, I am going to show up late and my class will have left. I am surprised in my dream that the students glance at me only as a curiosity. I have a certain translucency. The platypus dreams up to eight hours a day. That is, it has that much Rapid Eye Movement. Imagine what is trapped under there. Imagine the fragments like floaters. In daytime, the floaters are called memory. I am so clogged with memories it’s a wonder I can make my way from one side of the room to the other without stumbling. It is not what Shakespeare said about sleep knitting up the raveled sleeve of care. I have had a vitrectomy in one of my eyes that cleared out all the floaters. That eye is invisible to itself, while the other keeps waving itself in front of me saying here I am, see, which is like memory. In sleep, the memories get to run around loose on their own. I think they get tired of being understood.
I don’t know why people think it’s sexy to suck-kiss as if you want to hang on like a lamprey. Think of the lamprey, a sloppy grope that turns out to be a bad dream, a slimy underside, the wide-mouthed kiss of death. The lamprey wants you, it wants you with a vengeance. There is some attraction in that, I admit. A man on YouTube deliberately attached one to his neck and tried to pull it off. It slithered through his fingers, still holding on. When he finally broke the suction, the spot was growing bloody. You wake up with that feeling of something wrong. That back when your eyes were still stuck together in the womb, you were all lamprey-like, with your larval-like nerve cord, your gill slits. And here you are. You are still that greedy and that vulnerable. If you press the lamprey-mouth against glass, it looks like a grotesque rose window, its center a rasp that scrapes away flesh. It could have destroyed the Great Lakes, it could have sucked the blood from the trout, from all the bony fish. You have that in you. Yet when you hear that Notre Dame’s rose window still stands after the fire, tears come to your eyes. You are turned inside out, the sea inside you so full of joy it sloshes over the rim. Anyone would want to kiss you in your joyful sorrow. Your lips would touch softly as butterflies.
On House Cleaning
Today, Tina throws the oriental rugs in a pile, releasing them like weighty butterflies. Dust flies, her hands raven, sweep the land. She wears a bandana on her head, she plants her feet wide. She drinks from her Big Gulp. I put things in their place, she shifts them according to mysterious urgings. I want a canopy over me, light filtering in waves, clouds of cat fur upon the floor like breaths. I want dust to take to the air in minute gestures. On the exposed heating duct above my head when I am in bed is a small dried worm. It has been there as long as I remember. Even in death, it has clung to its home, precarious as it is. The two of us have conspired to keep the secret of its existence from Tina. In a single stroke, the world as we know it could be obliterated. This is not my house. I have hired the guerillas to conduct their warfare before I knew the whole cost. I have watched the native trees chopped down, grasses burned, village huts riddled with bullet holes. The guerillas no longer expect my guidance. They are like artificial intelligence: they have learned to speak among themselves, they give instructions I have no part in. The small worm and I have become great friends. We have spoken across the barrier called death, we have seen governments come and go, waving their banners, parading their silly guns.
I am inside a cloud this morning, all these water crystals turning the trees to pale shadows. There are five kinds of fog, for the five ways warm and cold try to sort out their differences without warfare. Sometimes fog turns to frost, other times it hovers over a valley in the most beautiful layer. You might think of the beginning of Mozart’s Requiem. You might not notice, but there is so much going on there, the suspension made of pushing and simultaneous resistance. Even a kiss is simultaneous resistance. Even breathing. Just to support the bureau in front of me, it requires the opposite forces of gravity and the wood of an old tree, its molecules still standing tree-like. Fog can be mental. Ever since my father’s death, I am in a fog. There are all these floaters of memory in my eyes, like tiny droplets of water that cause a slight obscuring of the landscape. A bit like in a dream, where nothing is quite fastened down. We think we are fastened, but that idea has always been precarious. Like the butterfly, we have been in a conversation all along with the forces of the universe. There are times of atmospheric convection, when the air is perfectly still. So we don’t reckon on the housecleaning, even if we say we do. The height of the inversion boundary may vary, but it is always there, ready to turn over, warm air over cool, causing all sorts of fierce thunderstorms.
When I get to a bridge I stand listening to the burble. Who thought up that word? More of a tinkle, maybe. It’s impossible for human vocal cords to get the right sound. Which is comforting in that way, something unattainable, hence magical. Language at the end of its rope frays out to babble, or burble, or tears. Language is a rope meandering over the rocks, around curves, downhill. Going uphill is unnatural, unless you are using what is called Uptalk? or “recurrent intonational rises”? There is always a period, real or implied, but sometimes you don’t want to get to it. Sometimes you want things to go on meandering. Kid’s Creek, between where my father used to live and here, has been “improved.” It has been made to meander more, Its sides have been widened to allow overflow to sink into the ground, and plants have been added along the sides, all to prevent erosion. He liked me to pause his wheelchair on the little bridges, to watch the water. I watch the water, as an exercise in attention. My dreaminess is partly fake. Really, I do not want to stop for anything. As long as I keep moving. Yet also it is hard to turn away from moving water. It may be because of the rocks on the bottom, the way they remain reflective as they are gradually kissed to a smoothness. Creek-time is thus multilayered so as to become meaningless. We are always looking to make time meaningless so we will relax. Yet the sentences—subject, verb, object—seem to have been scientifically designed to clean out everything but meaning.
The Oru kayak is made like origami, in that it can fold its wings to a suitcase-size. It is translucent, it can be assembled in ten minutes or less! It is barely there, kissing the water. You float in the middle of nothing, at night, under the vast, under starlight and dust, you are upside down, you are always inverted, your floating held to the earth while your head dreams into the dark energy. Dark energy can be thought of as the “quintessence,” or a fifth fundamental force, along with gravity, electromagnetism, and strong and weak nuclear forces. Supposedly. No one knows. You are absolutely stunned by this life in which no one knows much. It is all assemblage and floating. The universe slowed before it picked up speed again. It was stopping to check its equipment. It was going to be music. It had started out with a bang, but then thought of more subtle moves, a heart beating through the aorta, slowing as it enters the ventricles. It was too late for singularity. It had to figure how to go on like this, making butterflies, making fathers, watching the collapse of same, the bass note sadness of humans, their mezzo-soprano wail when their villages are cleaned out by guerillas. What to do with the humans, who want to drag their fingertips through the water so touchingly, who want to hold something back, even while moving on?
Trout lilies coming up in colonies all over the woods, their softly spotted green. They feed their lines out underground. They bloom their one nodding yellow. The colonies can live for hundreds of years, if anything can anymore. Next come Trilium, surging like whitecaps where the sun reaches under the trees. They can live for twenty-five years, their seeds scattered by ants and mice. They are also called Toadshade and Wakerobin. And Birthroot, for their medicinal use during childbirth. The sky and planets could be a dream. Here there are real toads and robins trying again, kissing in their way. The ground is sending up its flags. It says look at me. No, it says don’t look, this isn’t for you and your clever names. It has turned itself upside down, vulnerable again. You are too fast for it. You don’t understand. You and your imaginary gardens, your butterfly emojis. You think you have to do something. You have invented yourself as a person who cleans things up, all the while you are being turned over like loam. Look, if you stop to look, you will start to grieve. If you keep on going, all this will seem like a movie, with breathtaking fadeouts of pistol and stamen. It will all seem sexy without the danger, without the angst. It will be merely beautiful. But now it is purposeful enough to make you cry.
When I head for the heart of what I mean, I run into absence, which is softer than a wall, deceptive in that I think it is going to let me in, that I will at last find words, that I will own the space I can’t touch. “Nevermore” can I touch it, I want to say dramatically, like in “The Raven,” but I have to confess, he never was there. I couldn’t know him. I have known shards, glints, paragraphs, whole afternoons. Since I’ve been an adult, I have not cried in his presence, braced against his absence to me, and now he is everywhere. Species are dying out. If you want to get specific, the Roti Island snake-necked turtle is almost gone. The rhino. The zoo is like language, a place to keep for now what otherwise would disappear. Disappear rhymes with fear, tear, and dear. Oh my dear father, I was closer than I seemed. Now I am on the other side of the bars, and if you think animals don’t cry, you should read about the Rhesus monkey, dogs, even rat pups, when separated from their caretakers. It is not all as scientific as you thought. It is not even all tears. It is a weight like the earth on my chest. shh— I have unfolded the kayak, taken it out in the fog. Shh— It is the center of the universe out here. What pours in is forever pouring out.
Fleda Brown’s tenth collection of poems, Brief, won the Hollis Summers Prize and will be published by the Ohio University Press in 2021. Many of her earlier poems can be found in The Woods Are On Fire: New & Selected Poems, chosen by Ted Kooser for his University of Nebraska poetry series in 2017. Her memoirs include Driving With Dvorak, published in 2010 by the University of Nebraska Press. She is professor emerita at the University of Delaware, where she directed the Poets in the Schools program. She was poet laureate of Delaware from 2001-07. She now lives with her husband, Jerry Beasley, in Traverse City, Michigan.