Q&A: From the First, the Body Was Dirt

An erotic elegy is uncommon. Would you be willing to tell us the story behind this one? How have you combined elements from each poetic genre?
These are, in many ways, elegiac times. Like Tennyson’s times were elegiac times, like 1914–1918 was an elegiac period. In those times people died every day, right in front of people’s noses and far away at war. Lots of people are dying all around us today too, and we hear about it all the time. But I don’t think many of us incorporate those deaths into our lives as straightforwardly as people incorporated death in the past. Perhaps that’s part of why my elegies stray from tradition.

I think that if death were my neighbor, my husband, two of my daughters, and my Dad, as it has been in past elegiac periods, and as it still is in other parts of the planet, then it would be harder to write an elegy that was as irreverent as this one. There is something very theatrical, and therefore distanced, about death right now. We watch it on tv. And because we are so busy doing so many things, we can get distracted from death and/or blend it into the fabric of other thoughts in a way that seems unique to our time.
I am thinking about the man in this poem both as the real friend he was in our college days, and as someone who is now as distant to me as the bloodied bodies we see on television in Norway or Baghdad. I can and must think about other aspects of what made him human, which is part of what allows for the less traditionally elegiac, the sexual aspects of the poem. 

Can you tell us more about the relationship between soft and hard, rock and clay? How does rock relate to shale, in the poem’s imaginings?
When I wrote the poem I was most certainly not thinking, “I’m gonna write an erotic poem.” I was just thinking about this young man I knew, and in my memory every conversation we had was sexually charged. We were that age, we had time on our hands, we read Cosmo during the down times at work, he was what you might call “slutting around the city” three to five nights a week, we were young and highly sexualized. So there was this opportunity to bring some of that energy into the poem right at the beginning. In the lines you’re referring to, I played on the idea of soft or hard in terms of rock but also in terms of a flaccid or erect penis. This friend of mine was so smart, so witty, no words could escape their double entendre potential when we were chatting together, and so it seemed that such should be the case in the poem as well.
Rock seems stable to me. Shale suggests something that will flake, that will start to crumble. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. That’s what I presume happened to this particular young man, and what will happen to all of us sooner or later. We’re going to go the way of the crumbling elements more rapidly than Michelangelo’s David will.

How do the breathing, passion, and sexuality described in the poem relate to the shape and form of the poem’s lines?
I think the desperate and highly-charged nature of the subject (both the human subject and the meditative subject) lend themselves to this frenetic pace. The breath is not regular. The line is not regular. Things run out at erratic rates. Perhaps there is a more passionate quality in something a bit more frenetic. It is certainly more “dirty,” more messy, and more liable to burn out quickly.

Tell us more about the line: “In my mind everything’s become enormous.” How does a poem take on enormity?
Well, here I was thinking about one guy, and then I’m thinking about the whole creation story. That’s a pretty enormous leap. And I was thinking about one guy as a little boy, down to the beetle scale of things, but then he’s this grown man, assuming David-sized proportions in my mind. And the import of it all, the question, as I moved through the creation of the poem, became more important. The implications were more troubling. I mean, by the end I’ve got a pretty awful view on God, don’t I? That’s a pretty enormous leap for a girl with a religious background like mine to make. 

The poem appears to meditate on the evolution of “small boys” into men who use cock rings, yet it proposes no narrative of this process. Do you consider this to be knowable?
I suppose there are a million individual narratives of how a person would move from a small boy to a man who uses cock rings. I don’t even know the narrative for this person, but I think the narrative of how such a proclivity comes about is less interesting than that it frequently does come about. That there are these movements from perceived innocence to some other state of being. And then in the process of writing the poem I came to understand that perhaps there really isn’t a progression at all. Perhaps we’ve got these sorts of drives in us all along. 

The erotic movements of the male lover’s hands are transmogrified into the funereal preparations of the “you” who “must be dead by now.” When you ask “Whose fingers/fingered, for the final time,/all that dark and kinky hair,” and “whose thumb,/first lodged inside the hinge/of that first mouth to force it open,” do you feel that you know the answers? Are they different people?
The first section of the poem you’ve quoted is meant to blur between a funeral preparation and a sexual encounter. Is that dark and kinky hair the hair on his head or his pubic hair (the hair on his other head)? There is something very tender about how an undertaker has to treat a body, perhaps often more gentle than a lover. The second quote is meant to blur between a/the creator and another figure in a sexual encounter. Here I am thinking of yet another connotation of the word “head.” In the beginning, in the middle, and in the end of our lives we are touched very intimately, though those intimate touches are often, technically, quite disturbing. Yes, these are different people being suggested in these instances. In our normal ways of viewing the world they would remain distinct. But in the blur that this poem performs, I want to demonstrate the commonalities.

It’s a stretch, but we thought of Dylan Thomas’s “Do not go gentle into that good night”; the lines: “Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight/Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,/Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” come to mind. Yet in your poem the mouth of the dead man is unable to blaze. Did you have the Thomas poem, or indeed, any other, in mind as you composed yours?
I think I pretty much always have that Thomas poem in my head. I love that poem. But the Thomas poem that was probably more on my mind was “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London.” I am deeply intrigued by the “synagogue of the ear of corn” in that poem and the play that Thomas makes with the Biblical story that line alludes to, and the ways in which we can move well beyond that Biblical reference into a contemporary elegiac statement.
There are some very unnatural things about what we do to a human mouth when the person has died. We seal it shut, among other things. But then as I was thinking about the making of a person in the manner of the making of a sculpture, I realized a/the creator would have to do the opposite thing. You’d have to open the mouth, create a passage. You’d have to line the interior of the oral cavity with clay and work that clay as well as you’d worked the exterior surfaces.Dirt is mostly compost, and that’s where those worms and their refuse get into the poem, get shoved down that newly opened throat. You’d have to shove some sort of plumbing device down a throat to make that passage from the mouth all the way out the ass. You see how quickly I could go from thinking about the making of a person with a mouth that could speak and talk and eat to thinking about what happens at the other end of all that? Perhaps not every person would think such things. That’s why you pay poets the big bucks, so we can make those imaginative leaps for you. 


This poem originally appeared in the December 2011 issue of Poetry magazine

December 2011

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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