Q & A: Emily Warn

Both of these poems are “religious”; that is, both of them use religious imagery and are about—and seek to realize—transcendence. Do you ever worry about alienating readers who are unsympathetic to this aim?

Another way to translate the Hebrew word for repentance, or “teshuva,” is “one who returns to questioning.” I like to think about these poems as being about questioning rather than about seeking transcendence. Transcendence implies a dualism between subject and object, whether that object is God, a lover, nature, or perfected poetic form. Asking erases these twosomes by alerting me to conditions and contradictions. Who is the God lodged in my imagination? What do I make of it? Why is the first question inseparable from the second? Why am I glued to rivers and mountains, pristine or not? I hope my answers are ephemeral forms, poems that paradoxically make spaces as filled with flux as the world, and as the mind in the world, continually coming into being through a set of relations and then disintegrating. As theologian Catherine Keller writes, “The iconoclasm of the infinite shatters any claim of the finite to fix, name, or enclose an ultimate meaning.”

If I alienate readers by using the language of Judaism, I can’t avoid that. It’s where I begin. Jewish mythology, for me, operates with such force that it, in Duncan’s words, has “a primary reality in itself, having volition.” As a poet, my soul life, or my psychosis—another Duncan term—is a story sense that I play out in poems. The ritual awe and strangeness of Orthodox Judaism, its rational nonsense, its obsessive focus on living an inscribed and prescribed holiness—based on words whose literal, metaphorical, magical, and philosophical meaning have not yet been exhausted by centuries of hermeneutical gymnastics—is my brain, or perhaps a general bookstore (my grandfather and uncles were shopkeepers), with sections for proverbs, stories, visions, practical culinary advice, lists, laws, parables, creation myths, psalms, songs. I want to add to it, reconstitute it, and open the doors for business. Instead of rejecting poems about religion for being a vestige of the nineteenth century, why not see what I or you can make out of that tradition? In “Psalm,” my relation to, and names for, God are slippery. I address and mirror the “Lord,” but a few lines later write, “No Lord I know what is within magnified,” which can be read in any number of ways. Later what is within becomes an “it.”


There are paradoxes throughout both of these poems. In “Psalm” the very act of hoping seems to erase, rather than to retain or to restore, its object. In “The Word,” the presence that the speaker clearly longs for is described first as a “chill,” and later there’s the desire to be known by “a crowd of solitaires.” What’s the point of these paradoxes?

Paradoxes help me reckon with, rather than be tricked by, beliefs and ambition, both of which life repeatedly confounds with reality. Instead of wealth and fame, the tedium of earning a living. Instead of triathlon fitness, rickety bones. Instead of lifelong friends, losses. Instead of a glimmer of the divine, hopelessness. Instead of a poetics ever unfolding its significance, a dated aesthetic. Yet I persist in chewing the same betel nut. I still hanker to be known and to know something that will put me at ease. One requires circulating, the other stillness. Instead of rejecting either, the speaker in the poem—me—must fess up to being both. The other paradoxes have this same effect; they create tension, a more taut, taunting knowledge.


The question midway through “The Word” goes to the heart of poetry itself: why try to capture reality if (a) to be means to be completely in a moment, and (b) our perception of reality has nothing to do with its ongoing existence (“Belief that when this now will shine / This now shines with or without us”)? In your mind, does the poem answer this question?

Yes. That is the main question the poem answers.


What’s the point of the line: “Soon Rick will arrive to help burn wood piles.” It’s oddly prosaic after what has preceded it, and the proper name leaps out at a reader. Was this your intention?


Yes, in part. I’m leery of the lyric for all the usual reasons—in this case to cut the lament (for Christ’s sake) and to resist turning the imagery, the natural world, into tropes. Using a proper but prosaic name for Rick means he’s familiar and local. This line startles, I think, because it interrupts my philosophical questioning with a narrative, introducing a different sense of space and time. Rick is about to appear. Sitting around thinking has to come to an end. A cataclysmic storm the previous winter has torn through the woods, dropping dozens of trees—fuel for any lightning-sparked fire that might happen in August. I’ve got to go run a saw and drag branches onto wood piles, to start fixing and ordering physical reality. Yet almost as immediately, chronological time slips; I’m pulled back (damn those chores!) to my beginnings.


“Barbells of silence” is a striking phrase. It gives the sense of an enormous effort being applied to something that is impervious to, or outside the realm of, that effort. What did you mean to suggest by this?

The silence of no God talking back to all those talking to It. The silence of the congregation. The silence of childhood awe for what seem like magical rituals. The silencing of women whose speaking threatens the system of Orthodox Judaism and those it puts in power. The effort it takes to speak given that conditioning. The silence if I don’t speak. The silence that precedes every poem. The silence of a dry spell. The silence of noon. The silence of forests and trees felled by drought. The silence I’ve created arranging nature so as to live in it. The silent weight of doing just about anything but writing. The silence out of which the “barbells of silence” spoke, completing a poem I’d worked on for months, and beginning again the next silence.

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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