Mark Wunderlich’s most recent volume of poems, The Earth Avails, was published in 2014 by Graywolf Press, was a finalist for the Kingsley Tufts Award, and received the Rilke Prize from the University of North Texas. His other books include Voluntary Servitude also published by Graywolf, and The Anchorage, which received the Lambda Literary Award. He has received fellowships from the NEA, the Massachusetts Cultural Council, Stanford University, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown and the Civitella Ranieri Foundation. His work has appeared in numerous periodical, including the New York Times Magazine, Slate, The New Republic, Paris Review, Poetry, and The American Poetry Review and has been widely anthologized. He is the director of the Bennington Writing Seminars graduate writing program, and lives in New York’s Hudson Valley near the village of Catskill.
Amy Beeder‘s third book, And So Wax Was Made & Also Honey, is forthcoming from Tupelo Press. A recipient of an NEA Fellowship, a “Discovery”/The Nation Award and a James Merrill Fellowship, she has worked as a creative writing instructor, freelance writer, political asylum specialist, high-school teacher in West Africa, and a human rights observer in Haiti and Suriname. Her work has appeared in Poetry, The Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, AGNI, The Southern Review and other journals. She lives in Albuquerque.
AB: Your poems about animals often describe acts of husbandry, or at least animal/human interaction, sometimes risky or morally fraught. In one of the “Jukkasjaärvi, Sweden” poems, the reindeer “shakes his antlers to chase me off, but I persist and buckle the colorful girth around his ribs,” and in “Opening the Hive, ” from The Earth Avails
A visitor was recently stung.
She stood too close, blocked a worker’s path
and a bee collided with her head.
Or in the poem “Raccoon in a Trap:”
The sun returns for another run
pulled by the beasts of myth
before I put the muzzle of a gun through the wires
and fill his head with lead.
Can you speak a little to this tension (between animal and human, wild and domesticated) in your work?
MW: I grew up on a farm in a deeply rural setting in Wisconsin. The local economy was largely agricultural, and that meant being in the proximity of animals, both domestic and wild. On our farm, we had sheep, dairy goats, horses, hogs, poultry of all kinds, rabbits, dogs, cats and any number of small pets. My father raised and trained horses and hunting dogs, and I grew up handling and showing animals, riding, hunting and trapping. We slaughtered animals on the farm and we ate animals we raised. I love animals, and I have been deeply involved in their care, breeding and husbandry. I am very suspicious of all forms of sentimentality when it comes to animal life which I think stems from my respect for these creatures who are so bound up with our own existence. You ask about the tension between humans and animals—there is indeed tension, as there is in any intimate relationship, and what could be more intimate that eating something? I have come to see both the factory farming of animals and intense veganism that stems from a commitment to animal rights as manifestations of the same desire, which is a desire to separate oneself from death. You can buy denatured chicken in the store and barely have to think about it having once been a living bird and therefore not have to contemplate how one’s own appetite caused the death of another creature. Veganism attempts the same thing—to remove the self from the process of animal death. There is a truth we can’t escape, however, which is that in order for us to live, other living things must die. The more we learn about plants, the more our own ideas of sentience are challenged. Plants possess a kind of evolutionary intelligence, but they may have other kinds of more direct intelligences, in that they communicate with each other, create strategies for survival, etc. We—like all entities on this earth—we are all permeable. Bacteria and fungi and parasites live in and on us, and they die and live accordingly. There are particles of what were once living creatures in our soil and water, on the air we breathe. If you think being a vegan means no animals died to bring the food to your table, just watch a combine move through a field of grain and see what happens. We kill things and we eat them. We can’t separate ourselves from this deep truth, and I don’t want to. I also don’t want to take lightly these many deaths we experience, or really to dramatize them. I think my poems have been ways for me to explore an experience and acknowledge a truth about our own permeability, our own brutality without disengaging from those facts.
AB: I find your descriptions of animals satisfying in their precision: the ram with “his single row/of teeth like keys of a harpsichord—long,/ivory yellow, pegged in a black gum..” (“Ram”). But for all the physical detail, animals’ lives are often presented as a kind of elusive text. An albino deer in “Waumandee” is “white dash/on a page of green,” and “a white tooth/in the closing mouth of the woods.”. In “Coyote, with Mange,” the denuded animal becomes “Unreadable,” like the deity appealed to in the first line. And the aforementioned ram with his chillingly enigmatic gaze
with golden ovine eyes
rich with a pastoral flame
I’d love to hear your thoughts on the “readability” of animals.
MW: I think there is a reason that the very first examples of art that we have are the magnificent cave paintings of animals. Humans have needed to “read” animals ever since we stood up on our hind legs and walked out of the forest and onto the savannah. We can certainly identify with much of what animals experience of the world, particularly those creatures with faces and eyes, a central spine and limbs. Their bodies are like our bodies, and though they move differently and— we assume— perceive differently, they are more like us than, say, a jellyfish. And yet we can’t know what they feel or experience, or how they perceive. When I describe animals, I have wanted to describe what I think of as their nature, but also their otherness. I want to reproduce the sensation we get of seeing something in them we recognize, while also seeing how they differ from us in very important ways.
AB: Another of the “Jukkasjärvi, Sweden” poems in this featured selection has a wonderful structure: the compelling inside/outside narrative framed by Jonas’ mysterious accounts of a ghost-like figure, or perhaps a parallel dimension. I feel like this is best accomplished by a prose structure. Was that form a deliberate choice for these poems—or did they just come that way?
MW: Those prose pieces are my versions of travelogue, and in them I wanted to reproduce some of the cadences of speech and recreate the way in which I heard a story as it was told to me. There is an elasticity to prose which I find more flexible than language organized into lines and stanzas–different tools for different purposes. I also thought of these as letters to some imagined reader back home to whom I was writing about my experiences in these far northern places. For a couple years, whenever I could pull together some money and find a block of time, I would travel to places near the Arctic Circle. I went to Iceland a few times, and to northern Sweden and Finland, mostly during the winter. I wanted to experience the extremity of those places, and I have always loved winter. My family has roots in Russia and in Lapland, and I grew up in Minnesota and Wisconsin, and I guess I wanted to know something more about the coldest places on earth. These prose poems are like paintings or maybe even small pieces of music about my experiences there. As for wanting to make a parallel structure of the physical world versus the world of the spirit—I’m glad you see that, though I don’t think I was conscious of that at the moment of composition, or even revision. I guess I’m the bug, and not the entomologist.
AB: Your use of the word “travelogue” reminds me of an instructor who believed travelogue poems can often be too pre-determined and lean heavily on subject matter, and I must agree that’s sometimes true. (It occurs to me now that you avoid those traps partly with what you call the elasticity of prose).
As an instructor, is are there ever things you encourage students to avoid?
MW: I think one of the pitfalls of poems of travel is that they can simply be about presenting something exotic to the folks back home. When we travel, we are displaced and our senses are often heightened by the exhilaration of encountering something new and unfamiliar. That can feel a lot like a good occasion for a poem, but poems are made of language, and that needs to be the most interesting thing, I think, in any poem. In writing about something like time in the Peace Corps, the potential problem there is, of course, the aestheticizing of suffering—describing picturesque poverty and coming to the conclusion that, despite not having all that we have, the simpler life these people lead makes them more spiritual, or something like that. We have all read versions of that failed poem. On the other hand, I have noticed that students tend to like rules: don’t ever do X, always do Y, etc., and I would say, of course, there are no rules like that. Anything is possible given adequate skill, sensitivity and luck. When I do steer a student toward one thing or away from another, it’s usually about that individual student—what she is writing, and what she wants to achieve, and then, sure—there are lots of things I encourage or ward off, though mostly I want my students to liberate their imaginations through their own poems. In general, I would tell my students to avoid letting the imagination be cowed and gentrified by the fashions—both political and stylistic—or our current moment. If you can’t be free in your life, at least be free in your poems.
AB: I’m fascinated by the poem “Fire-Letter.” In some ways it’s much like other prayers and heaven-letters in The Earth Avails, especially in its instruction to “Keep this letter and you will be untouched…” But the subject is contemporary, and in a way more particular. Do you mind talking about where this idea came from?
MW: Many of the poems in that book have sources in historical religious and folk-religious documents. I have thought a great deal about what we inherit from our families and the culture around us, and how much we are capable of inventing and creating ourselves. I became fascinated with the religious beliefs that were held by my family maybe a hundred or two hundred years ago, and while rummaging around the family home in Wisconsin, I kept coming across old documents and prayer books, hymnals and family bibles that suggested direct and mystical experiences with a deity. My forebears experienced God as a living presence, one to whom they directed a great deal of attention, time, language and thought. They also believed that God spoke back, that He could choose to speak through a person, as vessel for the Holy Spirit. These beliefs have their roots in German Pietism, which also contained a fair amount of esoteric notions about the ways God made himself manifest in the world. I remember, for instance, that my Grandmother planted her garden according to the zodiac. She had a firm belief that God’s signs and symbols on this plane were legible to those who cared to understand them, and that it was our job to do what we could to reproduce God’s Kingdom on earth, first by reading and understand scripture, but also by opening ourselves to the mystery of the Holy Spirit as it moved though the world. Those are some pretty wild beliefs, and I guess I found myself wondering why I didn’t share them. The poem you cite is an approximation of a document I found—a “Heaven-Letter,” which were printed and sold by peddlers throughout the German speaking communities of the Americas throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. (Some were still being passed around in the 20th century). They were a kind of spiritual chain letter—keep this with you, and you will be safe. Among German Protestants, these letters were a throwback to medieval Catholicism; they were a combination of spell and charm and prayer. That poem is my attempt to re-write one of those letters and to give it relevance in a contemporary world, and so my version looks at the Holy Land as place of continued violence and dispute, which it really has been for centuries.
AB: A poem in this selection, “Haukijarvi, Finland,” contains a moment of intimacy that I find astonishing in its power and simplicity. The erotic is not a common theme in “The Earth Avails” or the selection we’re discussing here, but when it does appear, it seems particularly authentic. Can you speak a little to your inclusion of such moments?
MW: I wonder if readers will see the poem you cite as one describing “a moment of intimacy!”
My first two books had a lot of sex in them, and as a queer poet coming of age in the 1980’s and 1990’s, gay sex was also linked—metaphorically and actually—with a disease that was killing people. That potency cast a shadow over every sex act. I am part of a generation of queer men who remember what it was like when people just like me were dying from AIDS, and somehow, through my own good luck and instincts for self-preservation, I managed to avoid that fate. And while the disease is still very real, and people still die from AIDS every day, new medications make the disease—for many—a manageable chronic condition and not a death sentence. For others, medications make it possible to avoid infection. This is an enormous stride, though it’s not a cure. In the 1990’s, when I was living in the East Village, it felt like—and was—a war zone. I remember, for instance, when David Wojnarowicz died, and his body was carried through the streets. That’s what it was like to live during that awful time, and I am not the least bit nostalgic for it.
I suppose there are not as many moments of erotic intimacy in The Earth Avails because I was just interested in writing about other things. I grew up, got a real job, moved to the country and bought a house with a man who was then my husband. I survived. I began doing middle-aged gay things, like gardening!
Queerness as an identity is complex and variant, but it is by definition something that touches on the sex act and same sex attraction. Queers write about sex because it’s partly the thing that the dominant culture expects us to do, but that it’s also repelled by. I think the literature of AIDS was palatable to hetero readers in part because it was all about decadence leading to disease and death. When I see Tom Hanks with fake Sarcoma lesions he gets to wipe off in the makeup trailer, I want to burn down the world.
As a queer man, I write about sex because it’s part of my life, but also because I understand it’s a political act to do so, and to be perfectly honest, it still makes me uneasy. Poems can be places where we attempt to unbuckle the hasp that binds shame to our deepest wants and needs, and so I still try to do that when an experience seems particularly potent.
AB: It seems that being a poet now is as much about visibility (where one teaches, what contests one’s won, etcetera) as craft. What’s your conception of the ideal life of a poet?
MW:I quite like this question and I’m very glad you ask it. When we talk about the visibility of poets, I think we are talking about the way in which poets engage with media, yes? We may or may not be talking about reading poetry—who does it, when and why. I see a lot of young poets engaging with social media to create a public persona and claim a certain corner of public space and discourse. I watch much of this with interest; some use it to promote their own work, and work they like. Others are politically engaged, some funny, some bullying and self-preening. Some use social media in really interesting, subversive and engaging ways while others present their successes in a manner that seems designed to inspire envy and resentment. If these ways of being in the world actually work to connect poets to readers, then that’s just great. But I have always found that poems require thoughtful concentration and careful reading, and that’s typically not something I do on my phone.
Poetry is not about fame. It’s not about prizes, or presses, and it’s not about reaching a mass audience. I think a successful poem is one that traffics in intimacy, that finds a way to establish a felt connection to a reader. That requires not just a poet capable of creating those conditions, but readers who have retained and cultivated their own ability to concentrate and understand complexity and nuance. Your phone is trying to sell you garbage and train your animal brain to keep tapping at it until you get a treat. So let’s not conflate “fame” with the really hard work of writing poems over a lifetime, or the equally heavy lifting of educating readers and building audiences for contemporary poetry.
An ideal life for a poet is one in which the poet has the opportunity to make their work, in a society that values what they do. That ideal life might also provide a literary community that supports and fosters friendships among artists, rather than creating an atmosphere of competition or resentment. It also includes an audience of smart readers, organizations that support literary production, the means of publication and distribution, libraries, archives and good teachers who teach poetry because they love it. An ideal life for a poet is one in which they can make a living in a fashion that shields them from degradation or drudgery or humiliation, that doesn’t take all their time and creative energy. I wish there were more obvious options for poets to make a living other than having to cluster around academia, but here in the early 21st century United States, that is often our best hope. I’d like to see poets be a bit wilder, freer, less careerist, but this is the world we have made. Our world of American poetry is a delicate bird’s nest, and to be honest, it’s a pretty remarkable world we have made.
AB: What are you reading now? What have you read recently that has impressed you? Do you read/are you reading several books at once? Details, please. Do you keep them stacked on your bedside table?
MW: On my bedside? Yes, there, and next to chairs, on tables, on my desk. They ride around with me in my car and hang off my shoulder in a bag. They ride airplanes, and some live on my phone in case I get caught someplace boring. At present I am on a central-European reading kick. I just finished Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann (hilarious, and highly recommended. More Americans should read this book), and also Walter Kempowski’s All For Nothing, which is one of the best novels I’ve read about the collapse of Germany at the end of World War II. I just finished Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy about life in Rumania during the war. This summer I finished Gregor Von Rezzori’s Memoirs of an Antisemite and The Snows of Yesteryear, which have done more to increase my understanding of life in the former Austria-Hungary in the years between the wars than any other books I’ve read. This summer I read and reread Rilke’s letters, poems and prose for a project I’m working on, and I suppose this other reading has been informing that as well. I tend to throw myself into reading projects, be those single authors, eras, particular subjects—and then I want to read everything I can get my hands on that pertains to that subject. I read in both German and English and I like to move back and forth between languages, though I’m a faster reader in English. Being able to live and work and think in two languages is one of the best gifts I’ve given myself.
“the boat’s on a pike’s shoulders
on a water-dog’s haunches!”
The Kalevala—Elias Lönnrot
Miners, understanding the cold, reached the bottom of the lake by removing one centimeter of ice a day. Each night the lake would freeze below it and another inch was chipped away. After a time, the ice stairs could be used and precious metals drawn from the sandy floor. At night, the lake would glow from lanterns burning under ice.In Helsinki, a man fed me a piece of pike from the silver tines of a fork. He held it forward and I had to reach out my tongue to keep it from falling. The morsel was fine and (nourished) the senses. We spoke the common tongue, which was my own, and that night he clucked his tongue in a sound of pleasure as I pushed inside him—no language, muscle sucked with its secrets and accents, which is the sound of the land held in the mouth.
People stream to the tram, babies in down sacks in their prams and white fur, pushed through the cold like Romanovs. They smile at their keepers with faces from ikons.
J, I lit a candle for your ailing spine, one for your lungs, one for your serrated tongue. The Patriarchs stared as I touched the wick to the oil aflame in its central ring. I bought the beeswax candles from a young man wearing an old man’s suit, which was tan and showed its age at the elbows. He made change on a little tray so as not to touch my hand.
Each day, the sun grows a little stronger, but I relish the bitter bite in my nostrils, my eyelashes crisped white beneath a ruff of fox.
“‘You are so clever,’ said the reindeer. ‘I know you can bind all the winds of the world with a bit of sewing cotton.’”
The Snow Queen—Hans Christian Andersen
Nasti, Gargolas, Liidneoaivii, Skaolbmenjunni tied to birch saplings, digging in the snow. With hooves wide as salad plates, they paw to form a basin into which they fold themselves and lie down in their bowl of ice. They are not kind. They are not our friends. They are not unkind. They would not exist without us. By day Skaolbmenjunni pulls my sled. I harness him in the morning and he shakes his antlers to chase me off, but I persist and buckle the colorful girth around his ribs. His hair is hollow and cold to the touch and smells of animal secrets. In my pocket I carry the meal of the day which is smoked reindeer wrapped in bread. I pull my sled and place it behind him, his head bound, pull the birch rods to either side and clip them in the hooks, my hands freezing to the metal before I can shove them into the fur mittens. Jonas will lead us with Nasti, and let his reindeer loose, holding the long rein and jumping onto his sled with a small hop. My deer will tear after him, anxious and strong, bounding through snow to follow. On the trail there is no speaking, only the clacking of the sled poles and the clicking of the hooves as the rear hits the dewclaw of the front, the runners creaking in their tracks, and the bellows of reindeer lungs pumping into the air with a woof.At night we sleep on boughs of spruce, our breath crusting the canvas of the tent. I bury my hands in the fur of the hide where I will lie, my breath steaming, the wolverine lake indifferent to the wan somnolent sun. Outside the reindeer grunt and sigh, listen to our quiet talking rising up the flue with the smoke. We boil coffee and make confessions under the Aurora, the sky a-swirl with the icy chips of stars. Star Face, Escape Artist, White Head Roman Nose tied to birch saplings, digging in the snow.
“It flew like a little bird
its bright border gleaming”
From “Mourning Cloak”—Göran Sonnevi
In Jonas’s story, the old woman comes out the door of the abandoned house to throw her pail of water onto the snow. No one lived in the village, and so the sight startled him. He told his father, and his father told him no one has lived in the village for twenty years.A year later he met a woman—a tourist—who had somehow found her way to the same village, and had seen the same woman throw her water on the snow. She told this story unbidden, to Jonas’s surprise.
Jonas pronounces the letter “j” as though it were a “y.” Lingonberry Yam. Long Yahns. At night Jonas and I share a cabin where we lie facing each other in opposite bunks. I try not to stare as he undresses, opting instead for discrete glances as he strips off his final layer of wool and sits cross-legged in his shorts as the stove beats heat into the room, and his hairless skin warms pink in the flush of heat. “If you need, it is only to ask.” “According to me, he is a struggly boy.” “This latch it is a little bit special.” “It is an awkward smell.” He describes the chopping blade, the ear-marking blade and the blade for everything else. “It is three kilometers the bird way.”
During the day, Jonas sits atop his sled and uses a pole to guide his deer, leaning from side to side, waving his arms to direct the beast forward. Snow sags from the pines, pulls the heads of birches to the ground in arcs throughout the forest. We watch for dogs which the deer despise, and we watch for other reindeer which move though the forests digging for moss, and appearing and disappearing at will. No other creatures are out in the frightful March cold, though the sun has begun its return.
And old woman busies herself in the winter quarters. Why are the dogs so quiet? She must heat up the fire, the grate is growing cold. Who is that who wanders in the road? Why the clatter, why the cold chime? With her burden she steps into welcoming air.
“At last they came to the Finmark, and knocked on the Finn woman’s chimney, for she had no door at all.”
The Snow Queen—Hans Christian Andersen
At the sauna, the women lean their heads together and murmur. They wear sturdy swimwear and plastic clogs and knit caps. On the benches we sweat in the low light, while a man dips water from the reservoir with a neat scoop on a pole, filling the air with steam. The heat is personal and draws you into yourself, hands over your face to keep from burning. On the benches we lean forward, the air filling with our inner water.In Finnish a woman directs us to follow her; she is bossy and has the authority of a captain. Through the chambers we exit into the night, the paths ice-covered and slick. We follow her sturdy body to the pier where we turn to face the others and, gripping the rails, lower ourselves through the hole in the ice into the black water. We leave our heat behind, sent to the bottom of the lake, the body filled and emptied, burnished pink and infantile.
An old man tells me he loves books and he reads a great deal while he takes off his clothes. He wears a string of wooden beads around his neck and puts a small wool cap upon his head. He is lean and robust, hairless, skin and flesh firm. I admire him. He carries a green bottle, corked and half full of a mysterious silted drink.
We duck into the smoke sauna, blackened cabin over baking stones. We darken and stoop under a roof of soot. The stove is our mother pushing her heat onto us, pouring it onto us, dizzying and irradiating the pink spiders of our lungs, sereing the bottoms of our feet, heat and ice, heat and ice, the lake keeps the eye of night at the bottom, the mouth of winter is the hole we climb into, jagged with teeth of ice. The mind blinds itself, scorched and frozen, dumb to thought. The body seeks the extreme. Cool me and heat me, cool and heat, Mother remake me, here in the snow.
Under a mantle of snow,
under moss, sand and gravel,
under roots and schist, five feet of thin soil,
under the sanded pine boards of an undersized coffin,
under lace, under linen, shift poked with eyelets,
under a curtain of hair tied up for the afterlife,
cap stitched by sore fingers of a sister
under powdery skin, bone softened by acid,
blood gone black as the water dried away,
lies the desiccated heart of Freelove Hancox
who perished some time two centuries ago.
Her remaining purchase on the world of the living
is this headstone, dateless, spackled with lichen,
wheeled over by gulls, those persistent omnivores,
prayed over by windblown in off the bay.
What lies beneath this minimal marker?
What lingers in the folds of her funerary dress?
No secret note folded in a reticule,
mourning ring lost under an auction house floor?
The truth of you is chiseled into stone—
not my fantasy of your costume, but a name
once spoken over your infant head
presiding now over six feet of ground, which I find one morning
pushing past the gate wrought by a blacksmith,
set with care into a wall of granite
here in a cemetery in Stonington, Connecticut.
Museum of Bees
At the museum of bees, there are no bees—
just the empty boxes of the hives
painted gaily, offered as folk art
and displayed here in this ancient farmhouse—
picturesque on the slope of an alpine meadow,
with its thatched roof, and its valuable view,
its fallow fields mowed periodically
to keep the best alpine flowers in bloom.
The bee boxes smell of warm wax, a whiff
of honey with its faint trace of chamomile,
and in the part of the museum that shows
how the farmers once lived, there is a glass case
containing a doll with a porcelain head,
its marble eyes black and unblinking, staring upward
at a heaven fixed in its unseeing gaze.
I assume this is the Christ child
reproduced for domestic veneration,
and I admire its human hair
which is tow-colored and curled in spiral
locks that fall around its matte china-gray face.
Someone sewed a swaddling gown
from strips of silk and lace. On a bed
of brocade, the little body lies
sealed in its coffin of glass. Outside
on the sun-cast meadow, hikers
traverse the trail on their way past
this forgotten house, hidden in a cluster of trees,
the bees too having been forgotten
or left to make their own way
wild in the domesticated woods, and far
from the diligent hands of men.