Emily Warn: “The Water-brooks,” in your new book California Sorrow, carries on the Romantic practice of a poet looking outward at a landscape so as to look inward. Yet what you observe in Southern California “near the airport off route 10” is the toxic environment created by “executive engineers,” a far cry from Wordsworth’s haunts, where, as you write, “a slow man went / bent / barefoot through the marshpools / of the rural nineteenth century.” And yet in calling out the dangers of the ruinous toxins and the delusions of those who invented them, the poem finds a stubborn subterranean brook, going where there is “nowhere now to go.”
Mary Kinzie: That last phrase refers to the nature of the terrestrial orb: pollution can’t go anywhere that is not still dispersed within the same atmosphere we all breathe. In our thirst for an elsewhere, the pure water of the brook is a disappearing hope. I think of the poem as belonging to an apocalyptic or prophetic tradition. The self has no place here except in aberrant postures (one can’t be a proper hermit in a paved, polluted world). Going inward remains an incomplete motion of the spirit tainted by racket and poverty. These drive one toward prophetic extremes.
What drew me to consider the Miles Coverdale translation of Psalm 42 about the pure water brooks is the unnaturalness of the Mediterranean landscape of Los Angeles, with its “torrential landforms,” as Mike Davis calls them in City of Quartz. I find I don’t have a tropical or desert imagination. I have no resources against heat, no psychological flexibility to enter and leave its zone of power. Further, heat and poverty, discomfort and injustice seem to me linked. (Davis brilliantly explores the social consequences of building on the rifts.)
By contrast, the English landscape in Romantic poetry begets a “natural supernaturalism” of moisture–streams, brooks, rivers, mists. Rain, uncanny greenness. Within this world of beneficent signs of a divine plan—and a divine footprint—Wordsworth inserted the characters of the displaced and itinerant poor whom suffering has made peculiarly gentle. Because they have been drained of ambition, they inhabit a transitional zone between life and death. He called them “border creatures”: partially seen, partially breathing, like stones or cloudy animals. Such a world has its pathos, appealing as it does to a desire for a temperate nature and a contemplative communion with attitudes of goodness. I think the Coverdale translation of the Psalms sees the streams in the Hebrew bible as naively English, making way for Wordsworthian rather than torrential encounters. By contrast, in the poetry of Seamus Heaney we find the green climates of the U.K. bone-chilling, self-alienating, maddening, violent. Before Heaney, though, the northern landscapes had already become antagonistic to the human solitary. Consider Hardy.
When I first approached you about an interview, you were hesitant, noting that you had little time to focus on your work, a condition that reminded you of a man in “The Secret Miracle,” one of Borges’ stories that you love. You wrote, “God permits a man to finish his book in the microseconds before the bullets released by the firing squad are traveling towards his heart.”
Not only does the man in the story finish his book, he perfects it, he relishes it. And yet I also feel that this is a metaphor for the periods of blessed concentration we all experience at some points—when we are aware of moving slowly and productively within a doom that continues to come at us very fast. And I can even bend the metaphor upon myself in slack periods, where nothing like creativity emerges, only the premonition of or nostalgia for the possibility of real work just over the horizon, or around the corner, or set to begin tomorrow morning or having already ended some while before. Meanwhile, one moves under this terrible sky where event has been frozen, in order to spare us facing the impossibility.
Which other stories by Borges do you admire?
“Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”—the idea that one might want not to emulate another person but to become capable of creating that other person’s art while remaining oneself (as the fictitious Pierre Menard wanted to remain the 20th-century experimental poet that Borges makes him out to be, while creating, out of that identity, several pages verbatim from Don Quixote). I first heard about this character when I was around 15, but didn’t encounter the story until a number of years later.
Did this story influence you as a writer?
What first swept me away was the idea of wanting to write another person’s words. It was the admiration that struck me, in the version of the Menard story I first took in—an attitude so extreme as to constitute a willingness to extinguish one’s own personality. Up until that point I had formed no idea of what happened to artists or how they made art. I wanted to get out of myself, but not by a true replacement of self. I had never wanted to model myself on another writer, nor had I ever wanted to be another writer. (The only time I recognized the desire to become somebody else—around the age of 30, I think—the realization came in the form of an announcement I made to myself when I was listening to the few recordings of her jazz singing: “This is it. I want to BE Mabel Mercer.” That is to say, I wanted to live AS her, to be—to have been—the woman for whom were written songs like “Did You Ever Cross Over to Sneden’s,” to have that voice, that perfect timing, that diction, that expressive reserve.)
When did you first begin writing?
I was on the brink in high school, but the only writerly thing I did was to root around in language, poking at the etymologies of words, the secret traces of their origins. I wasn’t especially conscious of syntax or argument, although I remember feeling pleasure whenever I witnessed the complexity of verbs, especially the capacity of slight changes to shift the grammatical mood from statement to hypothesis. With very few means, English had to share out its machinery of conjugation, so that a sentence such as “He had lain with her” could mean an act already completed (in the pluperfect tense), or it could mean that he wished to lay (or wished that he might have lain) with her or that he might well have done so if something hadn’t prevented it “But for X, he would have done it”). Verbs could also create a collision of future with past (“She will have lived with a phantom”) or, even wilder, of future with past progressive (“She will have been living a lie”). Add to these the subtlety of narrative intrusion in the voice known as “indirect discourse” and it seemed that the morphology of the verb was the beginning of power in language. It was only a very few writers, encountered in college, who seemed to lean gracefully, ingeniously, electrically, on the clarity of the verb—Henry James, Louise Bogan, Virgil, Novalis. For Hemingway I developed an irritable loathing because his verbs were so flat; a monotonous sort of sentence seemed to stutter through the war stories: “And then they were in it, and it was snow. . . .” I hadn’t yet understood how deeply such prose reverberates with indirect discourse.
When I became aware, at around 15, that literature was something large, something to aspire to, I could get it wrong. I memorized chunks of Thomas Wolfe (“O lost and by the wind grieved ghost come back again”) but I thought that Chekhov’s “The Darling” was a small cramped thing. I now understand this story to be a fine invention, but I don’t much like it—it is rather automatic, or locked-down, in its view of personality. I am drawn to the character sketches by Chekhov that open out into a metaphysics, such as “Vanka” and “Gusev.” Also to his aimless brooding novella-length pieces—“My Life,” “The Duel,” “In the Ravine,” “Three Years,” and “Ward 6,” his great exploration of fate. Even terrific stories such as “The Lady with the Lapdog” and “The Kiss” hit those patches in the pavement over which experience slides and forgets itself. Time is lost, that is, it ceases to be personal.
Borges wrote that “the immanence of a revelation which does not occur is, perhaps, the aesthetic phenomenon.” California Sorrow includes a sequence of poems about Emily Hale, who spent futile decades waiting for T.S. Eliot to devote himself to her as he kept promising to do. In one of them (“Claremont Raga”) you write, “the note that is never heard / called anahad nad / the one un- / manifested and / unstruck / comes closer / and more clear.” Here, as in other poems throughout this book, are you exploring how the unrealized is realized?
Or is already part of the realization?—yes. With regard to Borges it strikes me that the idea of an immanent aesthetic phenomenon is a bizarre inkling for him to air, especially when one considers how exuberantly pedantic he can be in his fiction—think of Pierre Menard, Averröes, Tlön, “The Immortal,” one of my favorite of his shorter pieces “The Mirror of Enigmas,” and essays like “A New Refutation of Time.” In these works he claims he’s discussing threshold intuitions, but educes dozens of authorities as his version of dramatizing the moment. His way of putting us inside another’s frame of mind is to cite arcane texts that move in the same un-selving direction. I think he is entranced with certainties that become illusory—consider the book with the unimaginable center page in the library of Babel, which has no reverse side. Or the clear stripes of the jaguar in which the Aztec magician reads all the other words in the cosmos: “I considered that there is no proposition that does not imply the entire universe; to say the tiger is to say the tigers that begot it, the deer and turtles devoured by it, the grass on which the deer fed, the earth that was mother to the grass, the heaven that gave birth to the earth. I considered that in the language of a god each word would enunciate that infinite concatenation of facts” (“The God’s Script”). Because ideas can be transferred, the people who hold them are ephemeral (“The Circular Ruins,” “Averroes,” even “Funes”). Once one is possessed by the truth, eating, drinking, striving lose meaning. So does identity.
The obverse of this lesson of negativity, this self-oblivion, may be the composer Robert Schumann, whom Charles Rosen describes (in The Romantic Generation) as writing around the note that never returns where it should; or that returns but in the wrong key and thus shrinks back from being contextually the same note; or isn’t emphasized in the right place in the measure and thus sounds expressively alien—and yet the entire piece worries at the unplayed note, reminding us of its possibility, so that, if anything, Schumann is self-referential, while Borges, although he is accomplished in his parodies of archival detective work, is self-eliding. He wants to prove that the idea that can be traced through books and sunsets and massacres is more vivid and timeless than the individual who first wrote it down.
In your two most recent books, California Sorrow and Drift, you shifted from predominantly writing in iambic-pentameter blank verse to inventing a hybrid form between prose and poetry, finding, as you note in a recent interview, the “points at which prose breaks open and becomes poetry.” You also wrote that prose “with its links, its clauses” is more authoritative and showy, leading to truths that “dispel the poem.” Poetry is more modest; “its perfected impermanence” is “invisible” and “belongs” to “something greater.” In your new hybrid poems, such as “The Poems I Am Not Writing,” have you discovered what causes prose to metamorphose into poems?
In “The Poems I Am Not Writing,” in which I take out my tiny whip against the vanities of prose while leaning on it heavily in order to build myself back up to the level of poetry, I explore the turn from one to the other on the hinge of a phrase that appears first in prose, “the windless, bony dusk.” This is language in excess of its occasion (some children are playing out-of-doors; it is perhaps 48 or 50 degrees; but no one is in pain). I wanted to exaggerate the mere prettiness it is possible to indulge in, in prose, as if to show how careless I could be with pretty patterns–how much of it I could throw down as a challenge to the discriminating reader. Can you like this? I seemed (to myself) to be saying.
But it’s a phrase that is too happy with itself in prose. It can grow into authenticity only when understood as requiring a poem for its frame. There, in a poem, it is neither ornamental nor tacitly condescending toward those who don’t ordinarily speak with high polish. In a poem the phrase can emerge in its essential bleakness; it takes into the lungs a breath of sudden pain. The lyric is always fired by pain.
Borges wrote that “every writer creates his own precursors.” He was referring to Kafka, and in his essay he detailed earlier authors in whose work he could sense Kafka’s idiosyncrasies—“if Kafka had never written a line, we would not perceive this quality; in other words, it would not exist.” To play at Borges’ game, how does his work, or the work of any other writer of importance to you, illuminate specific works that preceded it?
Everyone has an idiosyncratic set of precursors—all the people we once read, who formed our imaginations. Few of us, though, with our own curious cross-sections of influence, have caused the sense of a secret tradition to burgeon. There may not be much overlap between my list and yours. We probably have some greats jotted down, and some slackers or pop figures; any of these can be interpreted at whim, denigrated or amplified in brilliance in ways that are largely true, or pretty perverse. Who doesn’t find other people’s taste at times inscrutable?
Speaking of the names on my list, I have been thinking of late about an author you were kind enough to recommend to me, Valerie Trueblood, whose Seven Loves is outstanding, and the handful of other women prose writers I am devoted to: Shirley Hazzard; Penelope Fitzgerald; a writer I’m reading for the first time, Marilynne Robinson; Elizabeth Bowen; Isak Dinesen; Alice Munro. Not that I could write about all of them, only that I am educated by them—educated in feeling. Then there is Iris Murdoch—from a different planet, almost, who has a large, rough, funny, mystical imagination. Shakespeare’s plots and people surface often. Natural landscapes of uncanny and dangerous beauty are frequent. She weaves on a large loom, with characters who move in and out of view like crowds at the zoo or public park, and who have, taken together, probably read everything that was printed in London during the previous year, not to mention having mastery of certain outré skills and subjects. One man is an expert grower of old-fashioned English roses. One man directs plays; another sculpts; one couple spend their retirement riveting broken cups. There are painters, and devotees of the work of painters like Tintoretto and Titian. One woman can pick apart a dress to insert panels of a contrasting fabric into a bodice or skirt; another can wield a samurai sword. One man knows Chinese porcelain by dynasty; one is an expert on Roman coins; another is translating Propertius; one is a vintner specializing in claret; one has mastered the most difficult forms of levitation. Some characters cure other characters; some come back from the dead; some are writing books of philosophy or psychotherapy; some write damaged haiku. Murdoch is powerfully adept at confronting characters from different worlds, with discordant vocabularies.
Murdoch believes in irrevocable change, that it can come out of nowhere—out of the ordinary—to burn one in a firestorm of love. A moment almost invisibly caught in the quotidian (say, when a retired civil servant listens to the daughter of a friend recite a speech from Hamlet) becomes a fateful episode from which there is no turning back. Some characters carry injuries, diseases, stigmata, which those around them “sort of” know about but have trouble focusing on and remaining concerned about. So (because she is drawn to the unpleasant fate to which our middling natures confine us), Murdoch addresses the ghostly outsiders who haunt our selfishness.
I seem to crave Murdoch’s world, struck through with her ideas of good and evil, more than those of the others, who are in their way subtle and splendid, but who colonize a finely detailed corner or side vestibule of experience. Murdoch takes on the big subjects under a huge sky: one can fall in love with anyone, of whatever sex, age, and appearance, at any moment, and thereafter one is bound on the Great Wheel.
In our earlier correspondence, you wrote that the genius of poet and philosopher Vicki Hearne was that she viewed “understanding as a way of healing error through a philosophical accord, a meeting of properly prepared minds.” How does such “accord” heal error?
Hearne traces error to the demotion of interior states. In the training of animals (her principal subject), error reduces the animal’s thinking to behaviorism, which limits the possibility that understanding can be shared between pupil and instructor—and, more than shared, explosively enlarged for the instructor when she grasps not only that the animal comprehends, but how the animal comprehends the lessons referred to under what she calls “formal work.” Instead of thinking, as so many people Hearne encounters in her essays appear to do—perhaps owing to the strong postwar anti-German bias that elides obedience with enslavement—that schooling in obedience is oppressive to the horse or the dog, that it kills their spirits, she finds (although she admits that education can be second-rate) that the spirits of many animals are released when they master the coordinated calm and clear-edged attentiveness of “proper formal work.”
Why do you believe it is important for student poets to write poems in what can be termed traditional prosody?
My answer would be the same as Hearne’s for teaching animals the basic commands. Traditional prosody is the carrier of the language in which our poetry speaks. But more than this, tradition is the discipline through which knowledge of one’s own possibility as a tracker, a jumper, a seeing-eye dog, or a poet streams. For reasons linked to impatience, students and radical critics roughly abjure the disciplines of obedience training and exercise in accentual-syllabic meter. These are viewed as unnatural and coercive. Foucault hated dressage, the training of horses to perform various gaits and two-footed stands at “unnatural” and intricate tempos (the Lipizzaner stallions at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna are the best examples of this kind of training). Foucault found dressage an “uninterrupted, constant coercion that, by making the body docile, controls its forces, both to keep them from politically dangerous expression and to make them economically useful” (Hearne, Adam’s Task: Calling Animals by Name, p. 123). As if the uncoerced and self-taught inevitably discovered truer discipline when left to their own devices!
Good horse trainers would reject an argument such as Foucault’s, not only because it is wrong, says Hearne, but because “it is ugly.” Her authority is Colonel Podhajsky, who trained the Lipizzaners, and who insisted that “if the horse becomes more beautiful in the course of his work, it is a sign that the training principles are correct.” Hearne elsewhere quotes the colonel as saying that obedience and understanding are virtually synonymous, and they reinforce the possibility that the horse will learn “to perform the advanced movements with intelligence and joy.” What a satisfying statement of the ends of pedagogy: beauty, insight, and joy. The radiance of the student for whom the forms of effort have become second nature. The joy of self-collection. The repose of true action.