Terese Svoboda on”Wrapped in Paper and String”
I was thinking of how immigrants appear to so many brains as frightening – alien – and how the self is an immigrant to the self, and how you’re always in a foreign land. At the time I was experimenting with VR, feeling very astronaut with the helmet on and experiencing new totally disorienting worlds, really like an immigrant to VR. I was also working on a novel set in the Civil War and the distance between the real world and VR seemed to parallel the distance between the past and the present. That reminded me of the Civil War picnics that were held in sight of the fighting, the ladies fanning themselves, having the slaves dish out the potato salad while guns echoed in the distance, the paper and string from the salad tossed into the coffee fire, its little smoke connecting to the cannon smoke: the alienating distance from the death that is happening so close by. Poised in the unconscious are those alien beings of self, always trying to take over and create distance (the great fear of the Irish of the freed blacks) but the self stands ready to defend rational thought. Boom, I took off that helmet.
Bridget Lowe on “Outhouse with Maggots”:
This poem is about a sexual trauma at a young age in which my life was threatened. Within the same week this occurred I encountered a portable toilet at summer camp that was filled with maggots. The two experiences have always been weirdly conflated for me. The book this poem will appear in, My Second Work, is very much intended to be a grotesque—in Mikhail Bakhtin’s fundamental work on the subject, Rabelais and His World, he writes “One of the fundamental tendencies of the grotesque image of the body is to show two bodies in one: the one giving birth and dying, the other conceived, generated, and born…” This poem is spoken by the maggots to the young girl they see before them, who has interrupted their highly productive work. As she stands transfixed, they try to reassure her that although she now inhabits their world—one of death, filth, and degradation—transformation is still possible.
Joan Houlihan on “Blind Trust”:
As a girl, I was entranced by the magic and majesty of horses—read about them, thought about them, spent hours poring over pictures of them, drew them, looked forward to family drives in the country to see them—while cows were just disappointments. They never seemed like much to me. Seeing a chance YouTube video changed my attitude: it showed cows being let out to pasture on a spring day after wintering inside a barn. They frolicked! They leapt in the air, rolled on the grass, nudged one another and just seemed gloriously happy. This video, combined with a memory flash of Temple Grandin’s work to improve slaughter conditions for cows (by having them wear blinders as they are led to their execution) inspired this poem.
Karl Kirchwey on “Edinburgh University Anatomical Collection.” :
Edinburgh is one of the most beautiful small cities in Europe, but that beauty belies a colorful and violent history. In the 19th century, it was an important center for the study of human anatomy; the problem was that there were not enough cadavers legally available to feed the demand. Grave robbing became a regular practice, leading graveyards to use watchtowers and bereaved families to lock an iron grille called a mortsafe over the graves of their departed. Perhaps it was inevitable that an unscrupulous pair named William Burke and William Hare would decide to eliminate the trouble of grave-robbing altogether: they ran a lodging house and simply smothered 16 of their guests until they were caught, selling the bodies to a grandstanding anatomist named Robert Knox at the Royal College of Surgeons. Hare turned King’s Evidence against Burke to save his own life; in 1829, Burke was hanged in front of a large crowd, and no sooner was he cut down than his body was carried off to be dissected in its turn– but not before he gave his name to an English verb. “To burke” means “to suppress or extinguish quietly; to stifle.” With our daughter attending the University of Edinburgh and our son preparing for medical school, the University of Edinburgh Anatomical Collection was a natural destination for our family. And the first thing one sees there, among other ingeniously-preserved human remains, is Burke’s skeleton.
Carol Moldaw on “On Being Mused Upon”:
In this poem, I wanted to express the aspect of recognizing oneself in another’s poem that can be somewhat dislocating. How does one reconcile another’s vision—account—of oneself with one’s own? This poem raises the question of how another’s reflection of oneself squares with that self but doesn’t thoroughly explore it. While I have been writing poems and made many cameos in others’ poems for years, this is the first time I’ve broached the topic in a poem.
D. Nurkse on “Game With A Mad Bounce”:
Sophocles says humans are improvisors. We track wild animals through the forest, catch fish and snare birds, but we don’t quite belong in the wilderness, the sky, or the ocean.. Maybe we’re more wolf than the wolf, more shark than the shark, because we’re performing what they just do.
I watch a child pretending to be a bounding puma. She trips (because she’s not really a puma?) and almost scrapes her elbow. For a moment (in which she’s most herself? least herself?) she visibly ponders what role to commit to in this new dramatic situation. Wounded gazelle? Martyr? Or stick with the fierce puma?
We invented the altar, the selfie, the stage, Fenway Park-–privileged spaces where we’re almost at home because all we do there is perform. Also the stanza and line break. In my poem, an older dude and a little kid shapeshift in a game, as they never could in the real world. As I can only on the page.
Bruce Bond on “Skin” and “Arioso”:
The poem “Skin” was inspired in part by a case study by the neurologists Deny and Camus who wrote of a woman with a compulsion to touch herself. I explored this case many years ago in an essay “The Double Fall of Madame I” that appeared in Ohio Review and later on in my book Immanent Distance, since, for me, the study articulates something profoundly tragic about the wounds that continue to wound and an all too human failure to understand their summons, meaning, and opportunity to transform and thereby heal. It was Heinz Kohut who gave me a better and more empathetic understanding of chronic self-regard as symptomatic, less a sin than a protective reflex born of trauma, and my own experience with erasure, when my identity as a musician felt wiped out by physical circumstance, gave me a means of imaginative connectivity with those of kindred challenges. The desire to become a distinct self begins early and, for victims of erasure, it can quite naturally find itself struggling to transform, to engender clarity and so to love.
If we fail to “become human,” which is to say considerate of others and capable of community across difference, we might begin to explore with greater sensitivity (without rush to judgment) just how the ego-drive works, where it creates illusions, how it self-inflicts, where it works in conflict of others and ourselves. I am interested in how strategies of staving off dread and a loss of boundaries might become forms of both mercy and exclusion. The idea of transcendence calls to those in pain, but in these poems, it is the frightened angel who appears merciful, the angel of this world who makes progress. It is music that reminds us of its own erasure while nonetheless giving comfort, connecting us without preempting what it is that makes us different. And so the note of lamentation, if not anger, as the priest in “Arioso” silences the true character of the deceased. I have been to this funeral more than once, where the mouths of the dead are “stuffed with flowers.”
Hoyt Rogers on “Heard in Claesz”:
After eighty years of war with Spain, ending in 1648, the Dutch gratefully embraced their newfound prosperity. Wealth was conceived by many Protestant theologians as a sign of God’s grace, as opposed to the benediction of poverty prized by Catholics. In part, this may account for the keen satisfaction with “the things of this world,” the everyday life of the here and now, which characterizes art in the Netherlands during the Golden Age. When as a very young man, Vermeer takes up a mythological theme, striving to paint a “Diana at her bath,” the goddess and her attendants seem like robust peasants. Quickly enough, he found his stride, and painted the intimate domestic scenes for which we know him today.
However, generalizations like the above need a large dose of nuancing. Even in Italy, where lofty religious motifs (both Christian and pagan) had long predominated, an undercurrent of realism had come strongly to the fore in certain works by Carracci—and of course, in the entire oeuvre of Caravaggio, whether sacred or profane. Artists in Utrecht absorbed the latter’s influence so thoroughly they could be said to form a “school,” now known as the Utrecht Caravaggists. In Spain itself, the gods appeared among rough-hewn country folk, as in the Bacchic revel by Velásquez at the Prado. With the end of Spanish domination, hand in hand with the establishment of the Lutheran church, the lesser saints were gradually banned from Dutch painting; and yet the purely Biblical themes remained in force. It would be wrong to assert that in the late seventeenth century, art in the Netherlands becomes wholly secular.
The Golden Age is still an era of profound belief. Even without explicitly religious motifs, the sense of the sacred is simply displaced into the “things of this world” themselves. At first glance, the still-life painting of the period may seem like the most down-to-earth of genres. But the more we contemplate it, the more we realize that spirituality imbues every canvas. This applies particularly to the Vanitas topos of which Pieter Claesz was a leading proponent: its purpose is to remind us that human life is fleeting, and so we must turn our thoughts to God. If not, our souls will remain in danger of losing salvation. While a skull is often present, as in the medieval theme of Memento Mori, Dutch painters multiply the evidence of ruin in other forms: sputtering candles, food decaying on a table, ancient books falling to pieces on a shelf, overturned glasses with their precious liquids spilled, watches that tick away until the hour of death.
In Romance languages, a still life is called a “dead nature”: this is the essence of Pieter Claesz’s art. Sometimes, as in the painting evoked in the first of my poems, his intent is understated in the extreme. Light turns into reflections, reveals itself as illusion, shades off into pitch-black darkness. In other cases, as in the second painting, a table full of dishes shows how excess leads to eventual putrefaction. The warning inherent in the third painting is the most obvious and direct, with its timepiece, skull, and dying candle. But when it comes to nature, we have to ask whether any vision we have of it may be called “alive” as opposed to “dead.” Don’t we automatically edit what we see, so that “nature” is always a series of pictures within our minds? If that is so, then ekphrasistic poems like these on works on Claesz take the phenomenon one step further, so we witness existence from a third remove. The voice heard in his paintings becomes an echo within an echo.
Molly Peacock on “Clothes”:
Whenever I declare, I have to move! I don’t have room for anything! I remind myself, Oh, just throw something out. The minute I jettison an item from my closet, the freedom feels similar to ejecting extra language from a sonnet. The newly opened space at home makes me know I don’t have to move, and the sonnet without extra language allows fresh ideas to come in.
It struck me, writing about the favorite, but well-worn clothes waiting at the back of the closet, that there are aspects of our beings that wait whole years for our recognition.
That’s what made me understand why I was writing about clothes. (I didn’t really know why when I started the poem). I was in a conversation with those things worn next to my body—and with the years that I had lived.
Because all my clothes feel slightly alive to me, they speak in the poem. They demand to be listened to!
And my closet feels like a sonnet to me. (Or maybe, my sonnet can feel like a closet.)
Aaron Coleman on “We Lay Our Fear in a Wicker Basket”:
I’m interested in creating forms that convey the strangeness of memory. Memories, I’ve found, tend to be a lot more dynamic than they may seem. A memory can feel so real, so precise, and yet, in discussing a shared memory with someone else, we often are reminded that our memory is still very much a subjective fragment born of our own personal perspective. So how can a poetic form enact and convey that strangeness, that off-kilter, near-mythic dynamism of memory? Whether over-bright or blurry in our mind, a memory is always tonally inflected by how we see ourselves in the present moment, looking back on who we were or what we did with awe, shame, or other intricate and overwhelming emotions.
Considering the subjective tone and perspective of how we remember alongside the narrative ‘facts’ of what took place, I want to create poems that weave together lyric impulses and narrative intuition. How can a form enact memory’s mix of moments of rhythm and sense and nonsense and brokenness? Maybe a poem’s form transforms and reimagines as much as it tells or details—maybe that’s always happening, at some level, in our memories…The sestets and tercets, the connections and ruptures in the silences of its syncopated spacing, all the poem’s structuring elements attempt to render the peculiar flexibility of a memory recollected. I want the poem to speak in a way that expresses the powerful mesh of vision and myopia that takes place when we remember. I feel myself chasing a poetic form of recollection that is not only a story or testimony, but also its own experience, and maybe even a form of reckoning.