Q & A
POETRY: The title of your first poem here is “Lemnos,” given in the Greek. It reminds us a little of the title of Larkin's poem, “MCMXIV,” which might give the reader pause as he or she ponders how to pronounce it. Are you aiming for a similar effect?
KARL KIRCHWEY: The reason the title of “Lemnos” is in Greek characters is that I liked the way the Greek name of the island looked when I saw it in the Blue Guide not long ago. As Wes Davis has pointed out in a retrospective essay in the forthcoming issue of Parnassus, Greece (antiquity) has been important in my work pretty much all the way through; and specifically the myth of Philoctetes has been important, because of the coincidence of my father having taken us to that island when we were living in Europe in the early seventies while I was a teenager. I suppose the attempt is to render some of the strangeness of that island. (Larkin's poem likewise forces the reader to “translate” the title, emphasizing the distance from a lost age: “Never such innocence again.”) We were always there in July or August, when it was hot and dry; but because of its volcanic origins, it was associated with Hephaestus the forge god. And then there was poor Philoctetes. A strange, desert island, and certainly not a fashionable vacation island in the seventies. Philoctetes is on the cover of my first book, A Wandering Island, and is the subject of the poem “Medon on Lemnos” in that book.
P: Lemnos was sacred to Hephaestus, god of technology; can you say something about your simile, “Like Hephaestus falling / daylong out of heaven in the old story”?
KK: I believe Satan's fall is likened to Hephaestus's, in Paradise Lost (Book i, lines 5):
Sheer o'er the crystal battlements; from morn
To noon he fell, from noon to dewy eve,
A summer's day; and with the setting sun
Dropt from the zenith like a falling star.
It was the dizziness of that fall, as applied to an unanchored adolescent self, that I was getting at.
P: The Philoctetes epigraph continues, “where many a time in answer to my crying / in the storm of my sorrow the Hermes mountain sent its echo!” Can you tell us more about your echoing of Sophocles here?
KK: Echoing Sophocles! I wish I could, even in a howl. I've taught Philoctetes and Heaney's The Cure at Troy (and Edmund Wilson's “Philoctetes: The Wound and the Bow”) in a course I do on contemporary poets' responses to Greek and Roman myth. But again, my poem concerns the evolution of a self, partly in response to a landscape. The self as glowing bead, the self as “a bone wave-whitened and dried in the wind,” etc.
P: “The Red Portrait” mirrors, to some extent, Milton's sonnet, “Methought I saw my late espouséd saint . . . ”—but rather than a fleeting embrace, what you seek here (among other things) is your mother's comprehension of your life and work. Milton thought he would see his wife again in heaven; does the poem believe anything similar?
KK: “The Red Portrait” is a dream poem, based on a snapshot of my mother from long ago and, yes, modeled on Milton's sonnet. It is actually paired with a second sonnet, “Another Dream of the Master.” Maybe Milton thought he was going to see Mary Powell (or Katherine Woodcock) again in heaven, or maybe he isn't even writing about a real person, as some critics believe, but about a Petrarchan or Dantesque angelic lady, but we live in a confessional age, and as far as I am concerned, “I wak'd, she fled, and day brought back my night” is one of the most tragic lines I know. My mother died when I was fifteen, and by now I have a lot to say to her, is all. By the way, Milton's sonnet invokes the myth of Alcestis, and like that of Philoctetes, this has been an important one for me. My verse play Airdales & Cipher is based on the Alcestis of Euripides.