Nikki Wallschlaeger reads "When the Devil Leads Us Home and Yells Surprise"
Don Share: This is the Poetry magazine podcast for the week of December 17th, 2018. I’m Don Share, editor of Poetry 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: Two years ago, Nikki Wallschlaeger moved to a region in rural Wisconsin called “Driftless.” She wanted to complete her third book, Waterbaby, which deals with spiritual and psychological growth, depression, cycles of emotion, and grief.
Nikki Wallschlaeger: Grief is ... very complicated. Way more complicated than I ever thought it would be. Like the stages of grief are not … it’s not like you go through step number one, and then you go to step number two, like, they are all all over the places, all the time. (LAUGHING) I have learned to be very patient with myself and just letting myself feel all these difficult and complex emotions, and then writing poems about them to really figure out what it all means.
Lindsay Garbutt: In the December issue, we have a poem from Waterbaby called “When the Devil Leads Us Home and Yells Surprise.” Wallschlaeger told us it’s about displacement. The speaker returns to the house they grew up in, a place filled with past traumas, after the death of someone who raised them.
Nikki Wallschlaeger: A lot of the trauma and the pain from their upbringing is kind of been pushed aside, like, by a catastrophic event like a death.
Lindsay Garbutt: The speaker in the poem has a conversation with the devil, a character Wallschlaeger treats with great intimacy.
Nikki Wallschlaeger: The devil is symbolic of these parts of ourselves that we don’t want to face and sometimes you have to face them before you can move on. And so the devil operates as this character to show you things about yourself that you need to see. (LAUGHING) Complete understanding, you know, I’m not just focusing on all the positive qualities but on the negative qualities too, like the whole spectrum of what a human being is.
Don Share: Here is Nikki Wallschlaeger reading “When the Devil Leads Us Home and Yells Surprise.”
Is that your house he asked
This used to be my house I said
But those are not your people
So that can’t be your house
But it is my house I said
I had some people maybe a few
Even though those are not your people
Even though they don’t look like you
I had to live somewhere I said
This is the house where I lived
But where are your people he said
My people live in a different house
They don’t care to know about me
If you’re the devil
Why are you asking me questions
The devil said since the house
You had to live in is gone
I thought you’d be happy
It sure is a hot day I said
Of course it is said the devil
Why do you think I work in town
Don Share: This is one of the most ingenious and memorable poems I think I’ve ever read. It’s just remarkable. And it is very moving, I think you can hear that in the poet’s voice and in the introduction. I find it sort of … I find myself overcome when I read it. And then I start over and read it again. That dialogue with the devil is a very, very tricky, kind of ... it’s almost like a wrestling with the devil.
Lindsay Garbutt: Mmhmm.
Don Share: It’s very primordial, too. And it’s so deep-rooted, this idea of wrestling with the devil. That encounter has been rendered before, in many ways and different art forms, but I like how this reduces it to a back-and-forth, where the outcome isn’t exactly predictable either. I mean, you might have your ideas about who gets defeated a kind of duel with the devil, but I think there is such a feeling of being on edge, here, that you are at the brink of something in every aspect of the poem. To me that’s a remarkable achievement. But also, there is just … there is something fun about it, too. Just like, what’s gonna happen, what’s gonna happen. I feel like the devil has close to met his match here.
Lindsay Garbutt: Mmhmm.
Don Share: Even if the devil gets the last word, you can’t forget what led up to it.
Nikki Wallschlaeger: I had to live somewhere I said / This is the house where I lived ...
Don Share: This, like, sums up so many lifetimes in just a few words, and thoughts.
Lindsay Garbutt: Yeah, absolutely. I think, you know, there is this sort of equivalence that the devil tries to draw between, oh, this was your house so it must be your people, if it’s not your people then it’s not your house. And the speaker, very insistently says, no, I can explain this very complicated situation, I’m not gonna let you draw this equivalence. But there is some relationship there between a house and a group of people, and how that may be a beginning of your life or part of your life. But what I like, too, is that the title of the poem is “When the Devil Leads Us Home and Yells Surprise,” but the poem nowhere uses the word home. It’s always house.
Don Share: Mmhmm.
Lindsay Garbutt: And it’s sort of investigating that difference between: is a house a home and what makes it a home. The speaker almost seems more interested in the relationship with the building than with the people: “I still have this feeling towards this house, even though my people aren’t there and they weren’t even, maybe, my people in the first place.” And so it reminds me of that Frost poem, where he says “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, / They have to take you in.” And what does it feel like to go to what you think of as your home and to have no one there to take you in. That’s a really moving aspect of this poem for me.
Don Share: The thing that you’ve pointed out there, too, is that the devil is invidious. The devil is very clever at finding out ways of dividing people, or even finding things that are divisive in ourselves. So forcing the speaker in the poem to have to explain things is a way of tearing them to pieces and making them less whole. And it’s a way of taking away their home, even without reference to the actual structure of the house or home. And I love how there is a pushback there, that once that is revealed, and it says “If you’re the devil / Why are you asking me questions.”
Lindsay Garbutt: Mmhmm.
Don Share: I mean, that’s devastating because, like, the devil is a lawyer, almost.
Lindsay Garbutt: (LAUGHING)
Don Share: And I think, there is a joke, like, lawyers don’t ask questions they don’t already know the answers to, and that’s what’s happening here. I mean, why is the devil asking these questions. The devil knows the answer. The devil is trying to help destroy somebody who won’t buy it, and who is not going on with that, at least, not willingly. There is a struggle. The struggle is more compelling, in a way, than whatever the outcome is. (LAUGHING) Cause how ingenious is it to say to the devil, “It sure is a hot day.”
Lindsay Garbutt: Right, right! Yeah, I love that moment when the speaker turns the tables on the devil and asks a question. And the devil is, like, well, you know, “I thought you’d be happy.” And the speaker is, like, well, I refuse to respond to that statement, I’m just gonna make, you know, a sort of general comment about the weather, and to me that indicates the sort of intimacy that Wallschlaeger was talking about in the introduction. That, you know, you start talking like that because you are like, well, I’ve accepted this relationship or that we’ve had this conversation, but I’m taking it into my own hands. And the devil suddenly becomes a little less personal at the end. “Of course it is” … “why do you think I work in town.” So maybe he is not just there for her after all, you know?
Don Share: Well, the implication there is there is a whole people who can be torn apart, which is what we know to be true in our society, in our world. But yes, the devil’s work is cut out for him and he is gonna do it. That’s why he works in town. That’s like the thing about, like, why rob banks, cause that’s where the money is. It’s like, the devil works in town cause that’s where the people are, and ...
Lindsay Garbutt: Hmm.
Don Share: There is a lot of this, sort of, tormenting to be done. But it’s just chilling on both sides, because I keep wanting and needing to replay this, you know, as soon as I get to the end of the poem, I start reading it again.
Nikki Wallschlaeger: Is that your house he asked ...
Don Share: You can read “When the Devil Leads Us Home and Yells Surprise” by Nikki Wallschlaeger in the December 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 December episodes all at once in the full-length podcast on Soundcloud.
Don Share: Let us know what you thought of this program. Email us at email@example.com, and please link to the podcast on social media.
Lindsay Garbutt: The Poetry magazine podcast is recorded by Ed Herrmann and this episode was produced by Curtis Fox and Rachel James.
Don Share: The theme music for this program comes from the Claudia Quintet. I’m Don Share.
Lindsay Garbutt: And I’m Lindsay Garbutt. Thanks for listening.