Q & A: David Roderick
The poem discusses religious belief from the perspective of one for whom “doubt is a clutched root.” Is there a risk in writing from this perspective?
I hope I’ve addressed any risk by respecting the poem’s “believers.” If the poem is lucky enough to find an audience, it’s likely due to the speaker’s imaginative wonder as a corrective to his own religious doubt. And I think he tries hard to be earnest in making sense of what he experiences in this moment. I’m hoping his doubt seems utterly human to most readers.
In this regard, the metaphor you’ve cited possibly gives him (and, by proxy, me) some wiggle room. Can a clutched root be pulled free? Is the root doing the clutching, or does some human (or non-human) hand clutch it? I hadn’t realized, until you drew my attention to it, how puzzling that particular metaphor actually is.
This poem’s ending is reminiscent of Bishop’s “Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance,” in which the speaker sees details of an “old Nativity” and “looked and looked [her] infant sight away.” Was that poem in your mind at all?
I confess I don’t know the Bishop poem very well, though you’ve prompted me to read it and see the connection. Months after writing my poem I saw a few parallels with Philip Larkin’s work, especially poems like “High Windows” and “Church Going.” I happened to be reading a lot of Larkin while working through my drafts, and he seems to have slipped inside my poem’s mindset. My speaker would especially understand the “awkward reverence” expressed in “Church Going” and also this confession near the end: “It pleases me to stand in silence here.”
I can’t remember what was in my mind while I was writing. I’d spent some time in Florence gazing at beautiful Renaissance paintings of the Madonna. Soon enough, I grew tired of all those pudgy cherubs and gilt haloes. I began wondering about Mary in human terms, carrying God’s son inside her, and the events in the manger and their aftermath. I think it’s sad she nearly vanishes from the biblical stories that follow. We rarely see her after Christ’s birth.
There’s an ancient tradition of the poeta vates, or poet as visionary. Is this a visionary poem—or maybe an “anti-visionary” poem?
I’ve had to do some research on this, but it sounds like the poeta vates was akin to a shaman or performer given duende-like powers. The goal was to create a collective fervor. I certainly wouldn’t call the poem’s speaker (or myself) visionary in that sense, but I hope the imagery and rhythms exhibit an ordinary man’s extraordinary moment of vision, something similar to one of Wordsworth’s “spots of time.” It seemed important, at the end of the poem, to counteract the strong feeling of transcendence with a simple, visceral image.