Q&A: The Cenotaph

The opening two lines of “The Cenotaph” formulate a near-pun on the meaning of “cenotaph”—is it the speaker who wants to leave unremembered, or is it that the speaker wishes not to remember the place? Yet what directly follows evokes an old kitchen, dirty walls, an unmade bed, a sloping stairwell. Moreover, the first stanza ends with a startling and arresting couplet: “The stairwell sloped/to a dragger’s pace.” Can you tell us more about the progression taking place not only here, but in this suite of three poems? How, for example, do crows, crickets, architects, handsaws, and democrats end “in the banister” in “Everything”?
 
The opening two lines mean two different things at once; to be forgotten as a sentient being, to leave no trace is one wish; and to forget the place altogether is another. But they are in some way eternally fused. The wish is strange. 
 
I had just moved to Washington DC and was living in the Lenthall House in Foggy Bottom. It was historically interesting in that Mr. Lenthall, an architect who designed and lived in the house, had died in rubble and a rage. The beam he insisted on removing from an arch in the north wing of the Capitol building brought down the roof. He had made a mistake. It cost him his life, and he died cursing the Capitol. 
His house had a ghost in the stairwell who flushed the toilet on the third floor suddenly when no one was up there. It was a tall narrow eighteenth-century townhouse with bad vibes. The wood was rotting, carpets were moldy, and the lamps never seemed to shed light. It was a lonely place, rather than an evil one. 
Because I was uprooted at the time, I felt every second passing with acute sensitivity. I know that psychotic people will see eyes in walls and breathing in bedclothes. So I was a functional member of that tribe, riding the bus and going to work normally, but ascending into a ring of atmospheres when I entered the house. I kept asking myself: Where does life begin?
 
Saint Francis noticed that everything was alive, too, and so he addressed the fire as “you” and found relief from dazzling creation by looking at the sky. 
 
The truth is, the doors of perception, when opened wide, erase the powers of speech and hand you a magnifying glass instead. There is really no way to express what you experience at such proximity. But in the sanity of poetry, you can try to capture it, like a slice of space in which another day flashes, then is gone. Some paintings catch it with painstaking genius. The three poems are slices. They are half metaphysical and half objective. The pillow and the banister are produced from a number of forces: lamb, cotton, handsaw, a tree, and a bird, and each one is alive in it, as in impressed, all the way down to nullity, nothing, which is still something because it turns around.

Who are the “freedmen”?
 
Outside the windows onto the street were the voices of people released from slavery only three generations past, so-called freedmen, who went to a “kitchen” to pick up food, and who laughed a great deal and came and went by buses heading to Fort Totten, a transfer station. When they were gone, the streets and walls became lugubrious again.
 
The stairwell is warped and twisted by the generations whose feet climbed it slowly, heavily. 

The poem asks: “Where does life begin and end?/In the lamb or the cotton?” Without answering, the poem ends: “My pillow is my friend.” Is the pillow a kind of cenotaph? Does something in a poem stand in for answers that aren’t quite available to questions we may have about our lives?
 
The lamb carries the cotton in its wool. The wool is still waltzing with energy after it is torn from the bloodstream of the animal. But I think poems do twist themselves around in order to provide the dimensions that spoken speech often can’t project—the dimensions as you say of hard questions like: Where does life end? I was looking (am looking) for the meeting place between the material and the gone. A cotton pillow is a nest for dreams and a testing place for such questions. 

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

December 2011

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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