Sarah Gridley reads “Where are the Days of Tobias”
Don Share: This is the Poetry magazine podcast for the week of October 15th, 2018. I’m Don Share, editor of Poetry magazine.
Christina Pugh: I’m Christina Pugh, consulting editor for the magazine.
Lindsay Garbutt: And I’m Lindsay Garbutt, associate editor for the magazine. On the Poetry magazine podcast, we listen to a poem or two in the current issue.
Don Share: Sarah Gridley lives in Cleveland and teaches at Case Western Reserve University. Her poem in the October issue is called “Where Are the Days of Tobias.”
Lindsay Garbutt: Gridley told us that the poem was inspired in part by the Book of Tobit. In that canonical story, a young boy named Tobias sets off alone on a journey. But before he leaves, an angel promises to watch over him.
Don Share: Rilke was attracted to this story too, and Gridley quotes from the Duino Elegies in an epigraph. “Where are the days of Tobias, / when one of you, veiling his radiance, stood at the front door, / slightly disguised for the journey, no longer appalling.”
Lindsay Garbutt: All of this got Gridley thinking about safety, and what it means to send a boy out into the world.
Sarah Gridley: Living in Cleveland in the wake of Tamir Rice being killed, I think this is something that, I think, should be on all our minds, this question of safety and young men being unsafe when they go out of the house.
Lindsay Garbutt: Gridley’s poem starts with the image of an aging fresco.
Sarah Gridley: This sort of idea that we have these frescos that come down through time. And we see them and they’re sort of dried and cracking, but what it would be to be present at that moment of, you know, the application.
Don Share: Here is Sarah Gridley reading “Where Are the Days of Tobias.”
Sarah Gridley: Where Are the Days of Tobias
The fresco cracks cooperatively over time. Not to give a secret away
but gradually to break off keeping it. In the sky you make birds
like this, one wing longer than the other, an asymmetrical v
wedged against wind, one stroke longer than another,
never the bodies turned the same direction, each finding
its own angle, and one, in the distance,
a dot. These are the Deadly Birds of the Soul
Rilke was forced to call terrifying.
Migratory, weighing no more than a pencil.
Because every flying thing is passionate, and every flight
a posture torn from stone.
There was a time it was a theme
parents would pay an artist to realize — the face of a beloved son,
a Luca or Piero, painted onto the shoulders of Tobias,
painted into the company of Raphael. You tell yourselves
and your quiet house
no harm will come to the boy
as he goes out. A guardian, though, is not a guard. To keep safe
is subtly different from confining. Radiance can strategically
direct itself to seem like us, ready, as it were, to walk.
As a mirror goes through the appearance of requiring
subsistence, goes through the motions of a meal
whose food appears to be food.
Radiance, we know, is never quite as warm as light.
Who has not tasted the silver in sea mist?
Whosever they are, angels are the first to surface there.
You know a guardian by the silver of a river-crossing,
of a father’s filmy eyes, in gall, heart, fire,
and mostly smoke. In smoke and mostly mirror.
As, wedged between forward and backward being,
rehashing and planning ahead, presence will be specked again
with being erased, a reusable writing surface
calling down to the life without rest, the self-propelled
surveillances of sharks.
Don Share: In a way the poem is a kind of palimpsest. It moves forward and backward and … among its gestures are moving backward to Rilke and forward from Rilke and back to the biblical story that’s at the heart of the poem. So it’s very—it’s sort of writing and erasing and rewriting—which makes it very, I feel, a very unusual-sounding poem. And an engrossing poem. It’s got a kind of architecture that I think is really unusual because it has to take into account such vast spaces in time and place, and also to take in the kind of anxiety of our own time and place.
Christina Pugh: There are so many references and texts here and a real iconography. Even beginning with the incredible opening:
Sarah Gridley: The fresco cracks cooperatively over time.
Christina Pugh: That was the first line that really stayed with me. That “cracking cooperatively” is so unexpected, it’s got the c alliteration going on, but there is a way in which, as you were saying, Don, like all of the texts and the references are also doing this sort of cooperative erasure that she talks about a little bit later in the poem. But that’s also making a point about protection, protecting young boys in a climate such as the one we are living in now. And I think just the incredible kind of spiraling of this poem, the spiraling that’s very, very disciplined at the same time, is really beautifully opened from that opening line of “cracking cooperatively.”
Lindsay Garbutt: Yeah, I agree, that first line really stuck with me. And then that it’s followed up by:
Sarah Gridley: Not to give a secret away / but gradually to break off keeping it.
Lindsay Garbutt: Since it’s doing so cooperatively, it gives the idea that you have to break off keeping the secret. And is that secret that the child will always be safe, is it that the world is safe? Like, what is that sort of secret that, as a parent, you kind of … I mean, I’m just assuming parenthood here, but as anyone who cares about a child—how do you gradually become a little more vulnerable and a little more open about what the world creates and destructs? And I love, too, that moment in the poem where:
Sarah Gridley: There was a time it was a theme / parents would pay an artist to realize — the face of a beloved son / a Luca or Piero, painted onto the shoulders of Tobias ...
Lindsay Garbutt: The idea that art was supposed to be a sort of guardian, that they could keep the child safe by trying to portray him in this scene that is from the Bible and is a wish as old as we could want, that our child would be safe. I love that the poem tries to do that same kind of guarding while also being open to the difficulties of the world.
Don Share: The poem tries to do that and yet it also recognizes, and this comes right out of Rilke it seems to me, that what is terrifying is that in the end, you know—and this is part of a cooperation, because we’re all conspiring in the movement of time, because time doesn’t exist without us—you know, it is inconceivable except as experienced by us collectively and cooperatively. And having a child is part of that, it’s like an extension in time of everything that came before. And that really is terrifying, the flight of spirit from one, say, generation to another. It is actually, you know, the most terrifying facet of existence.
Sarah Gridley: No harm will come to the boy / as he goes out. A guardian, though, is not a guard. To keep safe / is subtly different from confining.
Don Share: You can read “Where Are the Days of Tobias” by Sarah Gridley in the October 2018 issue of Poetry magazine or online at poetrymagazine.org.
Lindsay Garbutt: We’ll have another episode for you next week, or you can get all October episodes all at once in the full-length podcast on Soundcloud.
Christina Pugh: Let us know what you thought of this program. Email us at [email protected], and please link to the podcast on social media.
Don Share: The Poetry magazine podcast is recorded by Ed Herrmann and produced by Curtis Fox and Catherine Fenollosa.
Lindsay Garbutt: The theme music for this program comes from the Claudia Quintet. I’m Lindsay Garbutt.
Christina Pugh: I’m Christina Pugh.
Don Share: And I’m Don Share. Thanks for listening.