Q & A: Paula Bohince
Virginia Woolf famously committed suicide by drowning herself in the River Ouse. But there seems to be another figure hovering around this poem as well: Plath, and her suicide or “death wish” poems in Ariel. Do you see a connection there?
Plath’s Ariel poems are certainly in my poem. I’m thinking of the solemnity and ritual of “Edge,” for example. And the straightforwardness of “We have come so far, it is over,” against the beauty of those closing rose petals, which is so affecting to me: a poetic move that seems optimistic in the sense that any metaphor-making feels like an act of optimism—the rescuing power of the image. I also make a body/flower metaphor with the lines “the bloom/blown off the stricken/self.” In “The Moon and the Yew Tree,” Plath’s devastating line, “I simply cannot see where there is to get to,” is another crisis moment that was influential for me.
“Formal water” is a fascinating phrase, particularly in this context. Could you say more about how it functions here?
It’s definitely a pivot. Coming so late in the poem, it seems both submissive and ecstatic to me: about giving over, not only to the river but to truth. Until then, the poem seemed to resist saying the essential thing, which is “I chose this.” The water and the body have entered a pact; the river is both murdering bridegroom and savior. I’d been thinking so much about ideas of “brideliness,” and this phrase is a continuation of that fascination. I hope it evokes ceremony, commitment, and sobriety—as well as a slow and deliberate bride-like walking toward, and into.
The first stanza provides a very physical description of the body’s dissolution; the second contains the word “metaphysical.” How do you see the physical and the metaphysical interacting in this poem?
The body is acted upon immediately in the poem, part by part, but the “I” doesn’t enter until the second stanza—a speaking voice that takes us from dying through death and beyond. As the speaker becomes disembodied, so does the river. The physical body and physical river are done interacting, but the speaking “I” needs its counterpart, which is how the metaphysical river functions in the poem. That metaphysical river, to me, has something to do with art, whatever we stare into and hope stares back: a river that is continuous, longer than our individual lives. The speaker believed in it and tried to live by it at enormous personal cost. But the stanza trails off; whatever salvation or transformation the speaker thought might occur has failed.
The ending’s “only child” couldn’t be Woolf’s, since she didn’t have children. Could you say a little more about this ending and, by extension, about the poem’s speaker?
Writing this poem, I saw the speaker and Woolf as a kind of fused figure. I had imagined the final address to “my only child” as an address finally to the physical body. Childlessness seems an essential aspect of the poem. I think when people live so much in the mind, the body can be an afterthought. We attend, however basically, to its infant needs—to feed, bathe, and clothe it, walk it around, lay it down for sleep—but the body can come to be a kind of burden. The responsibility was this: I was charged with keeping you, my body, alive, and I forsook it. And so the poem ends with that apology.