Falling in Love with Poetry: It’s Complicated!
I have loved you all my life
she told him and it was true
in the same way that all her life
she drank, dedicated to the act itself,
(Lynn Emanuel, “Frying Trout While Drunk,” Hotel Fiesta, University of Illinois Press)
I heard my first blues song in one of the Victorian behemoths I squatted in off and on as a runaway teen. A Preppy sociopath had taken over the attic of a building condemned a decade previously and rented out rooms bearing vestiges of the house’s Gothic Revival splendor to addicts and de-institutionalized psychiatric patients and a Colombian marathon runner so new to Canada that he couldn’t have suspected what disreputable company he had fallen into. I was slouching with some of the other occupants around the ghetto blaster in what had once been, judging by the heft of its pocked mantelpiece, a formal living room when Muddy Waters’ Folk Singer fused unforgettably with the reek of stale incense and blocked drains. Pretty soon I was hooked, not so much on the big Chicago blues sound, but on the folksier, more ethereal music of solo blues artists. Lightning Hopkins and Danny Barker and Leadbelly filled the empty bachelor apartment I acquired some months later with their own plangent emptiness, for the voices invariably mourned a lost love or long-distant happiness:
I’m goin down to St. James Infirmary,
See my baby there,
She’s stretched out on a long, white table,
So sweet, so cold, so fair.
Under its spell, my shitty jobs as an underage cocktail waitress, chambermaid at a biker motel, dogs-body at a mice-ridden bakery, acquired a sultry glamour. More than this, the music gave me the sense of a vivid realm beyond the everyday. This was the post-Crossroads era, where the Hollywood likeness of Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil to play divine guitar:
You may bury my body
Down by the highway side
So my old evil spirit
Can catch a Greyhound bus and ride.
With its roots in the underworld and its high notes in the transcendent realm of the spiritual, the unearthliness of blues music endowed my own lack— of money, an identity, power—with pathos and a borrowed fervor. The lyrics and the music seemed contradictory and oddly complementary: a melancholy voice chronicling the solitudes and transience of human life with a subversive, life-affirming brilliance. I was falling in love with poetry, although I didn’t know it at the time.
Co-opted to the point of near non-recognition, the achievements of blues artists have fallen somewhat to the wayside in the public imagination. What’s been emphasized instead is the emotional vulnerability, endlessly lampooned in hokey songs involving wives running away and dogs getting run over. Caught somewhere between icon and cliché, cut off from the nuances and the socio-economic circumstances in which he or she was born, the blues musician bears a striking resemblance to the poet in the pantheon of Western bourgeois archetypes. Tell a stranger you write poetry and you’ll often as not get a pitying, halfanxious look, as if you’re about to cadge some loose change or launch into a tale of woe.
When I finally made it to university, one of the first things we were taught was that poetry was about anything but love. We deconstructed poems with the callow fervidness of those for whom any hint of sentimentality is a terrifying prospect. Alone in my room and away from the critical stance of my professors, I crushed furtively on John Donne, clipping his portrait from the back of his collected works and tacking it to the wall above my desk. I became enthralled with the same blend of wayfaring spirituality and otherworldliness in medieval poetry that I had heard in the voices of Robert Johnson and in the gospel music of Rosetta Thorpe. I was drawn most of all to what is loosely termed ‘lyric poetry,’ work written in the first person or that seemed to speak of an individual’s experiences of the world, like these first few lines of the Anglo-Saxon poem “The Seafarer”:
I will sing the story of my self
and of my spirit’s journey,
how I suffered hardships,
kept bitter griefs in my heart
I say ‘seemed’ because this poem, written over many years, is the product of many authors, each one honing and adding nuances over time. It’s fashionable to bash poststructuralist academics these days, but I’m grateful to have seen beyond my own infatuation with that deceptively intimate “I” to the social and political contexts in which the lyric voice speaks, and to understand the ways in which language, and culture, speak through us. Not that this mattered in terms of my own predilections. I wanted the illusion of intimacy:
Licence my roving hands, and let them go
Before, behind, between, above, below.
Oh my America, my Newfoundland,
My kingdom, safest when with one man mann’d,
(John Donne, “To his Mistress Going to Bed,” Elegies)
I still look for the same qualities now in a poem: an intensity of expression, the sense of a singular voice breaching the silence of the white page with music and bravura. Looking back, I can see that mooning over Donne and other poetry crushes wasn’t entirely at odds with the historicist emphasis of my professors: the history of lyric poetry is the history of modern subjectivity, our desires and fealties, allegiances and obsessions. I sensed a commonality in the courtly tropes of the troubadour poets, the sense of longing for what was lost or inaccessible in the Romantic poets, and the blues records that still take a spin on my turntable.
Poetry taught me how to be human. For me, as a person raised by a mentally ill parent, reading a poem was like peering inside a clock. Each word was mysterious and necessary, offering, in unison, an insight into the workings of the human heart. Grief and loss, the beauty and fleetingness of life: poetry memorializes the finite, gives a voice and shape to what might otherwise be a hollowness, a lump in the throat, an unbearable sadness. And time is what a poem works with and against. Not just formally in enjambments and meter, but also emotionally, as an act of bravado in the face of oblivion.
But no matter how grand or tragic the vision of humanity, I’ve come to feel that what’s most interesting of all about poetry is what isn’t human. Or isn’t quite. As an art form, poetry, at least partially, inhabits an elusive space that is neither temporal nor universal. Call it a Noumenal realm. Call it sweet Fancy or Lacan’s “real” world. What stops a great poem from
being a purely reflective meditation is that there’s always more beneath the mirrory surface than meets the eye:
So we moved, and they, in a formal pattern,
Along the empty alley, into the box circle,
To look down into the drained pool.
Dry the pool, dry concrete, brown edged,
And the pool was filled with water out of sunlight,
And the lotos rose, quietly, quietly,
The surface glittered out of heart of light,
And they were behind us, reflected in the pool.
(T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets, Faber and Faber)
Eliot’s fracturing of the lyric voice is often seen as an emotional and cultural response to the trauma of world war. But Eliot was a student of philosophy as well as a poet, whose doctoral thesis explored the psychology of consciousness and in particular, the ideas of the Cambridge philosopher F.H. Bradley. Modernist poetry owes as much to revolutionary nineteenth century and early twentieth century models of consciousness as it does to the disturbing effects of war. Where, for example, is the narrator’s reflection in theexcerpted passage above? Eliot’s poetry, among others, offers a reappraisal of the human psyche, a shift in our vision of self.
But poetry has always known that despite our humanities and humanisms, interests in neuroscience and consciousness, there’s a great deal we don’t know about ourselves. In his essay “The Wonders of Daylight,” the poet John Burnside compares Borges’s hide-behind, a forest creature who creates a sense of unease by never allowing itself to be fully seen, with the ancient Greek god Pan. For Burnside, Apollo’s symbolic victory over Pan in a music contest constitutes not a triumph of reason over the unknown, but a transmutation of the unknown as a primary source of creativity. It is only in the imaginative space between the two gods, ‘haunted by nothingness and blessed with reason,’ that the self can find its own makeshift likeness in the fictional life of another. By the same token, psychoanalytic theory says that as the ‘real’ is inaccessible, we can only construct a false self through meconnaissances, or mistakes. Because we never fully know ourselves, we are always on a quest of self-discovery. In literature, in love, we are always looking for our lost other, are always on our sad way to St. James Infirmary, are always Orpheus descending into Hades to retrieve a Eurydice who can never be made flesh and blood.
Poised between two worlds, the successful poem resists closure and rationalization. No poet has been more of a victim of our tendency to see irrational or disturbing work as the product of a disturbed mind than Sylvia Plath, whose biography has overshadowed her poetry to the extent that it is largely read within a framework of mental illness. To my mind, Plath’swork is important because it explicitly explores the limits of selfhood, as she does in her poem “Letter in November”:
I think I may be enormous,
I am so stupidly happy,
Squelching and squelching through the
It’s irrelevant to conjecture if the letter was meant for Ted Hughes or she was referring somehow to her botched ECT. What’s more interesting, at least to me, is where the letter was written from. What starts as a naturalistic description of laburnums, streetlights, and Wellingtons is subsumed into a stark almost apocalyptic abstraction: the red she describes as beautiful. With its echoes of “Gerontion” and the “Four Quartets”, Plath is more Eliot’s daughter here than Otto’s:
O love, O celibate.
Nobody but me
Walks the waist-high wet.
golds bleed and deepen, the mouths
(Sylvia Plath, “Letter in November,” Ariel, Harper and Row)
This is a voice that defines itself by lack, beating the bounds with a dramatic utterance that wouldn’t be out of place a century earlier. But the “I” in this poem unmoors itself from even the kingdom of high modernism that it has so carefully delineated, walking, albeit in Wellingtons, into a dimension that is frighteningly abstract. Knowing of Plath’s suicide, readers ascribe this move, which occurs frequently in her poetry, as evidence of a death wish, but the shift is equally a courageous exploration of boundaries, a foray into that unknowable space governed by Pan.
If Plath’s terrifying glimpses into the void remind us that our experience of reality is a construct, Lyn Emanuel’s poem “The Planet Krypton,” opens the floodgates of sensory data to present a view of the atom bomb unimpeded by moral imperatives. A child’s viewpoint and emotional directness save the poem from B-movie horror:
Bathed in the light of KDWN, Las Vegas,
my crouched mother looked radioactive, swampy
glaucous, like something from the Planet Krypton.
In the suave brilliant wattage of the bomb, we were
not poor. In the atom’s fizz and pop we heard possibility
uncorked. Taffeta wraps whispered on davenports.
A new planet bloomed above us: in its light
the stumps of cut pine gleamed like dinner plates.
(Lynn Emanuel, “The Planet Krypton,” The Dig, University of Illinois Press)
Emanuel’s poem but sheds a murky light on much that we might prefer to disavow, but must acknowledge if we are to understand more about the ambivalences and appetites that persuade us, consciously or unconsciously, to rationalize annihilation.
As I’m writing this, the British Chair of the Forward prize has admonished poets for being overly complicated and failing to engage with a wider audience. It’s a familiar complaint. Popular opinion concerning poetry swings between two extremes: that it’s too emotional and self-involved, or that it’s unintelligible. Such an attitude speaks of a society unwilling to see nuance or otherness, like the God figure who uses:
the Black Sea as a mirror when everyone
knows the Black Sea is a terrible mirror,
like God is a terrible simile for me but like
God with his mirror, I use it.
(Diane Seuss, “Wolf Lake,” White Gown Blown Open, University of Massachusetts Press)
The degree to which poetry is relevant depends on how we read. Our reductively biographical reading of Plath’s poetry, no matter how sympathetic or sorrowing, says more about us as a society than it does about Plath. The same can be said about the generalizations we make about twentieth century blues artists. It’s for this reason that I’m wary of current arguments that literature’s relevance to society lies in its ability to engender empathy. When we seek to identify with others without acknowledging what’s different or impossible to know, past, present, and future becomes a hall of mirrors in which we see only our own selves reflected back. Poetry confronts the blank spaces on the page by leaving them mostly bare.
Even in the midst of its flowering, Renaissance artists were concerned that one effect of humanism was an individualism that privileged both romantic love and personal gain over community. Privatization in the socio-economic sphere is mirrored in contemporary culture, where the primacy of subjective experience is such that we ceaselessly, willingly generate and broadcast stories about ourselves. Our inner lives are the subject of a great deal of scrutiny and observation. If we live now in the era of the ‘selfie,’ it’s because selfhood, with its supposed freedoms and agency, is an illusion that can only be upheld with great effort, like those suburban enclaves in the desert whose lawns are unsustainably green.
Contemporary poetry written in the first person is often difficult in that it rejects the simplistic falseness of that image by acknowledging and asserting that we are never fully ourselves. The autonomous “I” is often fractured or dissonant:
Water swallows the days.
I think maybe that’s all
I have to say
except that an irregular heart sometimes speaks to me.
It says, A candle is consuming a children’s alphabet.
It says, Attend to each detail of the future-past.
Last night the moon was divided precisely in half.
Today a terrifying wind.
(Michael Palmer, “Autobiography 3,” The Promises of Glass, New Directions)
One effect of our contemporary obsession with self is a vulnerability that allows our moods and humors to be endlessly invoked, commodified, and exploited by larger entities. Another is the sense of alienation that prevents us from fully engaging with the world. But this state of affairs isn’t necessarily permanent. The lyric poem offers a complicated freedom in the awareness of self as an evolving creation. It’s like a voice calling out from the gloom of a condemned house, reaching back into collective dreams and mythologies while simultaneously moving us onward into regions unknown. Because poetry loves us too much to leave us stranded there.
(Originally published in The New Quarterly, Issue 132)
Graffiti: meditations on the source of our creative urges
Spring can be a damp, drawn-out affair in Britain, but anyone who agrees with Eliot that April is the cruelest month has never spent March in New Brunswick, where winter often seems less a season than a full-blown existential crisis. I flew to London on writing business but the air was balmy and the trees in blossom, and I found myself ducking out on lunch dates and planned excursions to libraries and museums so that, dizzy with jetlag and general rapture, I could stumble around open-mouthed in the city’s green and flowering spaces.
There were plenty of these within ambling distance from the posh flat in Highgate where I stayed as the guest of generous friends. It’s an area beloved by rich Americans, I suspect because it offers glimpses of a bygone age, its leafy vistas largely uncluttered by futuristic architecture or industrial chic. What it lacks in culture clash it makes up for in manicured heathlands and daffodil-strewn copses and a famous gothic graveyard that has been the setting of a dozen horror movies. Having spent a chunk of my early adult life reading Victorian novels, I’m not immune to the pleasures of living with one foot in the past. Strolling down Highgate’s woodsy pathways, it was difficult to imagine notbumping into a gent in a stovepipe hat or a heroine in a bustled gown.
So it came as a minor jolt to see, through young leaves, the first angular streaks of neon pink and fluorescent yellow at the mouth of an old tunnel. The interior brickwork was inscribed with names and scuffed shapes difficult to make out in the murk. The sun came out from behind a cloud just as I stepped out into daylight, bathing the path ahead in an almost unnatural radiance. I had the sensation that I was less a tourist now than a visitant to an imaginary world. Nearly every surface within view was painted or scrawled upon in bright colors. I paused by a few illegible words on a tumbledown wall and snapped a photo. Next to the gnarly old tree roots, the spray-painted words seemed a little uncanny, as though they might be the work of ogres or forest trolls. A few steps on, I came upon a large mural of a phoenix-like bird. The brushstrokes were vibrant and made, like many of the murals on the pathway, with ordinary house paint. Some, like my bird, had a ragged intensity, were like windows into the mind’s raw interior. I’m not a stranger to the social impact of graffiti, but set here against a backdrop of trees and decaying brickwork, the images felt more like a protest against oblivion than a political gesture.
When I went back a few days later most of the paintings I’d seen were gone, many of them painted over in a black and white series that included a single, psychedelic eye set in the socket of an alcove. All that was left of my phoenix was a piece of wing, its body painted over with crude geometric shapes. So much of what I know about art is about permanence or its illusion, from the canonical works I studied in university, to the paintings and Grecian marbles in the museums I was playing hooky on. What doesn’t strive for immortality seems fashioned for commercial ends. But here was powerful work beyond those domains, a gallery seemingly dedicated to the act of creation itself, each work transient as a hallucination, exposed to the vagaries of any passerby with a paintbrush in her hand.
[Tweet “If the pieces can be seen as an emblem of ephemerality, they are also one of imaginative vigor.”] As a writer, it’s difficult to get away from history. We learn our craft, and reading widely and deeply is both inspiring and illuminating. It can be difficult to be alive to the present in the face of that monumental and ongoing task. There’s a certain amount of undoing or forgetting that needs to take place in order to honor the raw green impulse to create, the source of which is both mysterious and fertile. It’s an impulse that can often be mistaken for emotion but never for sentimentalism. Imaginative work that I really love, no matter what the medium, shares the same urgency and dynamism as the rough paintings I saw in the woods, a vividness to which the niceties of style and contextualization should always be in service. I’m trying to keep that spark in mind as I pore over drafts of the novel I’m in the middle of writing. It’s a wintry March again, and it’s been almost a year since my trip to London. One look at these photographs though, and the past springs back to life.
(Originally published on the ArtsNB website)
Negotiating the Past in Poetry: My Father’s Suicide and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
I was on a cycling trip in Prince Edward County when I was told that we would shortly arrive in Ameliasburgh, the setting of many of Al Purdy’s finest poems and the place where, as everybody else knew except me, he is buried. I realized in a wry flash that the thoughts flying through my head were only partially my own—I had been unconsciously revisiting Purdy’s oeuvre, and this was what had contributed to both my burgeoning lyricism and sense of déjà vu. I began to wonder if the ruined farmhouses we coasted past were the same ones I had paused to admire in his poems years earlier, maintained in a miraculous state of disrepair by some canny historical society.
We swerved off a main road lined with sagging houses down a green tunnel, catching bright glimpses of the sun-dazzled headstones through the leaves. Standing before his grave beside a winding river recreated even more powerfully in me the dizzying sensation I have when lost in a poem I like: that of stepping outside the flow of time and into the curious spaces beyond linear narrative that poetry seems to occupy. It was then that I saw the square of fresh white paper. Someone had left Purdy a letter, as crisply folded as an origami flower. I still congratulate myself for walking away without opening it—to do so would have been the moral equivalent of picking a rare orchid. But I thought about the letter and wondered what was in it long after Purdy’s fields and toppling barns disappeared behind me in a blur of dusk.
There is a sense in which a poem is always partly a letter to a dead poet, written with varying degrees of rebellion or gratitude, as an acknowledgment of the ways in which those who have lived and created before us continue to shape our experiences of the world. This is one of the reasons why poems so often have a timeless quality: they are poised between worlds, and the result is a kind of creative dialogue between the conventions and formulae of different generations. Sometimes this temporal negotiation can itself become the subject of a poem, as in Matthew Zapruder’s “Come On All You Ghosts,” where poetry is described as a kind of time machine: an ‘ancient transmission device’ that zooms backwards into the past and then forward into the minds of future readers. In this poem, which brilliantly invokes and reworks many of the central images and themes in T.S. Eliot’s “Burnt Norton,” the dead are brought to life not in a macabre sense but in a way that re-affirms the value of their continued presence in the minds of the living. The narrator’s rallying cry to the ghosts who accompany him becomes an exhortation for more and greater meaning—enough to stop his descent into what he calls the ‘black crater,’ which, like Eliot’s ‘world of perpetual solitude’ is ambiguously depicted as death, and also as a place of non-meaning.
The Iraqi poet Fawzi Karim has written that a poet doesn’t need time. Set in a country ravaged by violence, his long poem “Plague Lands” weaves the lyrical, highly personal memories of a poet in exile with the brutal images of a dehumanizing regime. The poem creates a temporal haze in which figures step out of the poet’s past and out of Sumerian mythology to directly address the narrator, while political and religious ideologies sweep across the landscape, infecting people like the poem’s titular plague:
Sacrificed blood stains the tunnel of my boyhood:
the one that leads to the myth.
At the entrance to an alley—out of which poured everything—
I imagined Gilgamesh.
It is an inner landscape that Karim is presenting, an imaginary space in which ‘wandering through us, the slain are on tour.’ The poem is an exploration of how and why our minds fall prey to ideas that cause us to act against our own interests, and the ways in which art and literature can be seen to propagate these ideas. Gilgamesh is anything but an iconic embellishment. Disguised in modern dress, the mythical warrior waits on the shores of the Tigris in a land strewn with bodies bearing the marks of recent torture to warn the narrator that what has happened before will happen again and again, going on to pronounce:
‘The present masks the past
In this long-extant polis where humanity
dies of a broken heart’
Both Zapruder and Karim depict in poetry the mind’s wavering negotiations between memory, our imagined futures, and lived experience. The past, present, and future are not distinct realms but continuously interwoven. As T.S. Eliot—influenced by the philosopher F.H. Bradley’s argument that time and space are mental constructs—states in “Burnt Norton”: ‘to be conscious is not to be in time.’
As a war veteran and a longtime sufferer of post-traumatic stress disorder, my father was a tragic example of how a past event can resurface to disturb, borrowing a phrase from Eugenio Montale, ‘the usual illusion’ of one’s immediate surroundings. Living between two worlds and belonging fully to neither, the resulting liminality left him in a state of almost constant unease. His struggle against disintegration impressed upon me how much of what we perceive as being real is mediated by the potent but often irrational collection of myths, beliefs and past experiences circulating in our minds. As is common in sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder, shame was a dominant note in our house, despite the fact that he was a decorated hero. Perhaps as a way of hiding this, and much to the horror of his friends and family, he came to admire the triumphalist rhetoric of political leaders like Reagan and Thatcher towards the end of his life. He loved to watch parades, the tears sliding down his cheeks as the drum corps marched across the screen.
Just as his experiences of the war left him with a profoundly altered vision of the world, his illness throughout my childhood and his eventual suicide has had an enormous impact on my life. A great deal of my writing has related to the legacy of trauma and abuse on both a personal level and in a broader cultural context. Like many others, I view with suspicion the idealized hero of classical myths, comic books, and movies and its privileging of value systems that are detrimental to both men and women. When I write about my father, I write not just about my own father, whose death was grievous to me, but also about Father, with all the patriarchal and symbolic connotations that the word carries. Thus he appears in my poems as an ambivalent presence, handing down to me a cultural legacy that is both beautiful and cruel. He is a haunting figure, who steps out of the past tense and into the present tense of a poem in the manner of a Shakespearean ghost. He is a quasi-mythical figure who descends like Orpheus into an underworld of dreams and nightmares, doomed to re-live his traumatic ordeals in a kind of ancient Greek punishment.
Although he rarely spoke of his own wartime experiences, our house was a repository of twentieth century atrocities. The walls were lined with books about Stalin and Mussolini, decisive battles and accounts of concentration camps. Frost-bitten Russian POWs crawled out of books and into our imaginations, their broken boots stuffed with straw. Like the heroine at the end of Dr. Zhivago who disappears in a crowd of anonymous women moving towards any number of grim fates, my father was carried off by a horror larger than his own private experiences. His efforts to contextualize and to understand what had happened to him within the larger picture of the war caused his already imperiled sense of self to disintegrate further. The spectacle of the mass grave—that led Joseph Brodsky to call Hitler a kind of Michelangelo in reverse—is the opposite of the humanist project, an annihilation of the integrity and sanctity of the individual. He was defeated finally, by the same set of circumstances that inspired the existential writings and philosophies of Sartre and Camus, and that reinforced the fractured, fragmentary modes of modernist poetry catalyzed by the horrors of the First World War.
My father was a handsome man, the idol of his younger siblings. He was a man’s man, but also imaginative and well-read. When we were small, he used to tell us elaborate fairy tales and bedtime stories that he often made up as he went along. After he could no longer work as a teacher and high school principal, he decided to write a novel and set himself up with a red Olivetti typewriter at our kitchen table to write for a few hours each day. After he died, my brother and I experienced that moment of horror in Kubrik’s “Shining” when the typewritten pages on Jack Torrance’s desk are encountered. What my father had spent those long hours writing was a mass of nonsense, snatches of TV and radio ads mixed with doggerel, or the same words typed over and over again. It is a terrible irony that a man who tried to sustain his morale by reciting Rudyard Kipling and Tennyson had in his own daily life become a character in Beckett’s theatre of the absurd.
On my bicycle ride back from Ameliasburgh, the poem of Purdy’s that asserted itself most powerfully in my mind—and which asserts itself now as I sit here at my desk a couple of years later—was “Wilderness Gothic.” The central image of the poem is a workman replacing the roof of a church spire. The poem slides in and out of a naturalistic autumnal landscape to the absurd image of a man who is repeatedly taken through various subtle linguistic feats and enjambments out of his immediate context and left hovering, like a cartoon character whose clifftop has crumbled beneath him:
Across Roblin Lake, two shores away
they are sheathing the church spire
with new metal. Someone hangs in the sky
The poem veers between the present to an imagined apocalypse and backwards again to the prophetic moment ‘flashing beyond and past the long frozen Victorian day’ that occurs to the gothic ancestors that Purdy sketches into the backdrop of his Durer landscape. The worker is transformed into a kind of metaphysical Don Quixote in a world without a stable notion of time, wrestling heroically with various airy concepts: gravity, sky navigation and mythopoeia. He might be Purdy himself, a master craftsman who often adopts a gruff workmanlike voice to complicate the lyricism of his poems. For me, the man in the blue void is also my father. As the years pass, I continue to reconsider the eleven days he spent alone in a lifeboat on the North Sea after his ship was torpedoed, and what effect that might have had on his mind as it listed between absurd hope and existential despair on the vast blank of the sea. It was an odyssey he never fully returned from.
One of the most distinctive features of poetry is its ability to evoke the restless music of the human mind: enchanted by the sensory experiences of the present, retreating backward into the mists, imagining itself forward into visions of the future. I love the way poetry lays bare those invisible movements and temporal variations, so that we may consider at greater leisure their effect on each other. What is perhaps even more important is its capacity to demonstrate what John Burnside calls the essentially provisory nature of the seen world: a poem always moves beyond the immediate sense of the words on the page to wider vistas of potential meaning. This quality of intangibleness is elegantly captured in the first stanza of W.S. Merwin’s “On the Subject of Poetry”:
I do not understand the world, Father.
By the millpond at the end of the garden
There is a man who slouches listening
To the wheel revolving in the stream, only
There is no wheel there to revolve.
My attempts to understand the suffering that my father underwent have had a profound impact on my artistic practice. I have chosen to write about him because I believe we all suffer to some degree from the effects of violence and its trace in our collective human story. His manner of departure has been a troubling legacy, and has caused me to engage in a kind of ongoing dialectic. If suicide can be read as an assertion of the meaninglessness of existence, my response has been to assert the world of the imagination and the ways in which poetry in particular can expand consciousness and increase our understanding of ourselves and our minds. If ghosts and angels are emanations from the cerebral cortex, it doesn’t make them any less wondrous—and fully acknowledging as much may go some way towards finding explanations for the irrational and destructive behaviours that perpetuate trauma and lead us to dehumanize ourselves and others. It is a world in which a letter placed on the grave of a poet makes absolute sense, because you are sure to get a reply.
(Originally published in The New Quarterly, issue 123)