Her Victorian Roots are Showing

December 1, 2008

Christian Wiman: This is The Poetry Magazine Podcast for December, 2008. I’m Christian Wiman, editor of Poetry Magazine.


Don Share: And I’m Don Share, senior editor of the magazine. Each month on The Poetry Magazine Podcast, we highlight a few poems in the upcoming issue. This month we’re going to hear from Fred D’Aguiar

Fred D’Aguiar: Our trick was to mouth words, sound as if we knew what we would one day come to know.


Christian Wiman: Joan Houlihan


Joan Houlihan: Then mask me the g’wen, hers skin being mine, and body that pools in the brine of her.


Don Share: And Roddy Lumsden.


Roddy Lumsden: You bastards, it’s all sorbet. And folly makes you laugh like mules.


Christian Wiman: We’re keeping the focus on poems this issue, but we also have our usually prose in the back, right Don? Several interesting things this time.

Don Share: For one thing, we’ve got a print interview with Seamus Heaney done by Dennis O’Driscoll, more like a conversation between them in print. It’s excerpted from a rather large book that was conducted over a period of time in which Dennis O’Driscoll asked Seamus Heaney everything he could think of about his entire career.


Christian Wiman: They were public, weren’t they? Public interviews.


Don Share: Yeah, it’s sort of a conversation but it’s good to have it in front of our eyes so you can really see and think about what these guys are saying.

Christian Wiman: Anyone who’s read a lot of poetry comes across Seamus Heaney all the time. I think he accounts for 90% of the sales of contemporary poetry in England. That’s a real number, I saw that in some survey. But he’s still got new things to say. I was interested that we talk so much in this country about the dichotomy of avant-garde and mainstream poetry. It exists in England too, though in a more muted form. He says the term avant-garde is an old fashioned term by now. He uses John Ashbery as an example, he was once avant-garde but he’s now as mainstream as anybody. This is the grand old man of poetry. He goes on and says “There’s a phrase I heard as a criticism of W.H. Auden and I like the sound of it. Somebody said he didn’t have the rooted normality of the major talent.” He’s drawing a distinction between the specialist poets and the major talents. He says “I’m not sure the criticism applies to Auden but the gist of it is worth considering. Even in Eliot, the big normal world comes flowing around you. Robert Lowell went head on at the times, there was no more literary poet around, but at the same time he was like a great cement mixer, he just shovelled the world in and delivered. That’s what I yearn for, the cement mixer rather than the chopstick”. That great Heaney language there.


Don Share: It is really, I know people think of Heaney as oracular because he is oracular, but actually there are some fine distinctions in there that are very generous. It’s the kind of generosity of spirit you want in a poet and in a reader of poetry. He’s read everything, he’s taking certain sides for his own purposes, he’s not telling people what to do and he’s not standing for any particular school of poetry or being for or against the canon. He’s stepping outside of all these things and it’s still very lively. He’s not looking back over a long career, though he does remember starting out. One of the things I like in this interview is when he talks about starting out as a young poet, he says one of the difficulties a poet has is to know “whether a little quick flash of lyric is sufficient. You have the invitation and the inspiration for want of a better word, but the question that I can never answer is this: to what extend the will should do the work of the imagination. As Yeats said, how far you should push a thing. When you’re starting out as a young poet, you love the high of finishing. You do the lyric quickly and that’s a joy. As you go on, the joy of actually doing it, of beating the gold out further, of making more of it, wondering can I take it out further, is what you ideally want. But then the doubt comes in. Am I killing it? Am I deadening it?


Christian Wiman: That’s a great description. It’s like Eliot getting inside the process, he’s so good at that.

Don Share: Maybe in an age where wisdom is only seen to be received, in Heaney’s case wisdom has been earned. I think readers will benefit from seeing this questioning of him and by him as he looks over this own process of working.


Christian Wiman: Speaking of wisdom, there’s another prose piece, an autobiographical essay by the experimental poet Fanny Howe, she’s usually linked with experimental poets, and this piece is fascinating in a lot of ways. It came to you originally, right?


Don Share: She’s a terrific prose writer. We ran a little prose piece by her in our summer issue this past summer where she remembers Edward Dauber chasing her around the desk with his pants down. She is really capable of great and serious reflections, spiritual reflections, meditative things. This is a nice notebook piece by her, one of two we’ll be running.

Christian Wiman: There’s another one in March, right?

Don Share: Another coming in March which really gets at the spiritual stuff. This one’s more autobiography.


Christian Wiman: I love the way she can move so seamlessly between the autobiography and criticism. It’s the kind of prose you expect from a poet, but you don’t find as often as maybe you would wish.


Don Share: The nice thing about this prose is although she’s a kind of moralist and stands for things, it’s deeply meditative. That allows us to be able to make our own connections as we read it ourselves. She’s not telling us what to think, even though she stands for certain kinds of things.


Christian Wiman: There’s a lynch pin to this, the piece sort of hinges on one entry in this notebook. She talks about the French philosopher Simon Wiel, who says “one must believe in the reality of time, otherwise one is just dreaming. For years I have recognized this flaw in myself, the importance that it represents, and yet i have done nothing to get rid of it.” Fanny Howe contradicts this. She says “to resist the reality of time is to resist leaving childhood behind. They call this resistance a flaw in herself, but is it? The self is not the soul, and it is the soul, or coherence, that lives for nine years on earth in a potential state of liberty and harmony. It’s openness to metamorphoses is usually sealed up during those early years until the self replaces the soul as the fist of survival.

Don Share: That’s really terrific.


Christian Wiman: It’s terrific, yeah. We have such an engrained notion in this country of developing the self, and the self is the thing that you value. She’s sort of undercutting that absolutely and saying that we’ve lost the notion of a soul, that the self in fact is actually secondary to that.


Don Share: She’s talking about the formation of our relationship to the world. Tracing that back in her own life. She’s thought of as an experimental poet, but there’s an interesting connection you can make here when she remembers her grandfather’s library. Her grandfather was a widower in Portly. She calls him “very white, mild of manner”, but he had a lot of books lying around. Fanny says “a bakery smell of books lingered around his bookshelves”. She describes what was there, she’s a little kid and she sees these books that are for children in his library. She says they were not ordinary American fair. She says “these were Victorian storybooks including pictures of curly haired children in pinafores, stone walls, galley-wags, leaping figures with scissors following them to cut off their thumbs, and gardens containing pale but specific flowers.” Then she says, “the reality is they were turn of the century, and the aura of this time was so strong, it effected everything I did and thought about later”. In a funny way, here’s an experimental poet that’s saying she has roots in the Victorian era.


Christian Wiman: It makes you jealous of a childhood like that. She has another piece where she talks about going to Paris for a week to meet a family friend and being shown around, and the family friend was Samuel Beckett. That’s not the kind of childhood I had.


Don Share: No, and she had a nice love affair with Liam Clancy from the Clancy brothers that she talks about at the end of this piece too. Just an amazing life, and it continues. She’s a terrific prose writer. I think people really like this piece.


Christian Wiman: Fred D’Augiar appears for the first time in this piece with two poems about his childhood in Guyana.


Don Share: Guyana’s been in the news again a little bit recently as people remember what happened with Jim Jones. Interestingly, it’s the only country in South America that’s part of the commonwealth of nations. so culturally it’s closer to English speaking Caribbean cultures like Trinidad and Tobago than it is to neighbouring Venezuela and Suriname.


Fred D’Aguiar: My parents are Guyanese and they went to the UK and I was born in London, and then they went back to Guyana where I had ten years as a child, and then back to London again.


Christian Wiman: Fred D’Aguiar now teaches in the US at Virginia tech. The poem we’re about to hear is called “ROYGBIV” which is an acronym for the colours of the rainbow. You remember that, it’s red, orange, yellow, green — I should have looked this up — Whats the I?

Don Share: Indigo.

Christian Wiman: Indigo and violet, right.

Don Share: Yes, ROYGBIV as we remember from our school days.


Fred D’Aguiar: But in Guyana we had a British colonial pneumonic which said “Richard of York, Gain Battles in Vain”.


Christian Wiman: The poem we’re about to hear by Fred D’Aguiar is set in a rural Guyanese school.


Fred D’Aguiar: ROYGBIV


The shoemaker’s wife ran preschool

With a fist made not so much of iron

But wire bristles on a wooden brush.


She made us recite and learn by rote.

Our trick was to mouth words, sound

As if we knew what we would one day


Come to know, what would dawn

On us as sure as a centipede knows

What to do with its myriad legs.


She made us settle our feet on the mud

Floor of her daub and wattle hut and she

Wielded a cane cut from wood that bit


Into the palm of the hand and left a burn

That resonated up the arm for an age

After its smart swing and crisp contact.


Worst of all was the shoe cupboard

Where the old man stored his wire

Brushes: a cold, dark, narrow place,


Replete with brushes hung on nails

Covering every square inch and said

To come alive when a child was locked


In with them so that they scrubbed

Flesh off that child’s bones. She said

We would end up there if we did not


Concentrate, so we stilled our feet

And spoke the words in the right order

For colors in a rainbow until the very


Thing took her place in front of us

Arranged in cuneiform, polished,

Brandishing a window to climb out.


Don Share: Well, where I came from they had corporal punishment. We were paddled by our teachers. I remember I got paddled quite a bit by my spelling teacher who was also a baseball coach.


Christian Wiman: I remember getting hit on the palms with the cane thing.


Don Share: Yes, he talks about that in the poem.


Fred D’Aguiar:

a cane cut from wood that bit


Into the palm of the hand and left a burn

That resonated up the arm for an age


Don Share: It’s a real age contained in this poem, that era where you were actually beat into your cultural heritage.


Christian Wiman: I wonder if that actually .. I don’t remember that punishment doing me any good in terms of learning, he seems to suggest that it does here, right?


Don Share: I guess if they threaten to lock you up in a cupboard with those wire brushes in there, that’s kind of a classroom too. Shut you in there, a cold dark and narrow place.


Christian Wiman: There is an escape in this poem. He’s being forced to memorize the colours of the rainbow, and in doing that he actually has this apparition where it becomes a rainbow and releases him from the room, but you can argue that he wouldn’t have memorized the colours of the rainbow without that punishment.


Don Share: It’s a complicated thing too, because part of the punishment is this colonial legacy. So what they’r being tough tis how to speak the words in the right order. You can hear that kind of tension in this poem and the poem that accompanies it in the issue where he’s got the heritage of English words in the right order that he’s learned, but also it’s inflected by the local tradition that he imbibes. Born in London, grew up in Guyana and that is a direct experience of how one is taught to say words in the right order but has to work in-between the lines as it were one’s own identity.


Fred D’Aguiar:

so we stilled our feet

And spoke the words in the right order

For colors in a rainbow until the very


Thing took her place in front of us

Arranged in cuneiform, polished,

Brandishing a window to climb out.


Don Share: It really takes flight in an unexpected way right at the end with that word “brandishing”. You realize how much you can get done with one verb, first of all.


Christian Wiman: Yeah, here’s a guy and the cane has been brandished against him, and now there’s a different kind of brandishing at the end. An escape, a window to get out. Here’s what Fred D’Aguiar had to say about the end of the poem.


Fred D’Aguiar: The idea is that was that chant was enough to help us out in our fare of the cupboard and a way out of the room. Literacy as a kind of escape from tyranny.


Christian Wiman: Joan Houlihan is also new to the pages of poetry. She’s the founding director of the Concord Poetry Center in Massachusetts and a teacher at Lesley University. In this issue we’re publishing three poems from a book she’ll published next year called The Us.


Don Share: The Us is a sequence of poems that tells a story of a primitive group of chronically nomadic people. This group of nomads called The Us is not something out of history or anthropology, but something that just comes out of Joan Houlihan’s imagination. She does say, though, that there are Celtic echoes in this narrative.


Christian Wiman: One of the main characters is Ay, spelled “Ay”, obviously a pun on the pronoun “I”. We’re going to hear a poem spoken by this Ay.

Joan Houlihan: And he’s remembering the death of his mother which took place earlier in the manuscript. This is his monologue around that death, re-experiencing it.


Don Share: These poems occasionally use words from the nomad’s language, neologisms. In this word there’s the word “g’wen” which means wife. Here’s Joan Houlihan reading “She had a death in me”.


Joan Houlihan:

She had a death in me, knees drawn up   

and my bowl and cloth rinsed through with her.   

As morning takes night, field closes the hare,   

and ay would burrow into her.   


Over the altar, catalpas rattle,   

shadow and bother the branch.   

Is this her white? Dress me.   

Her rain? Wash me with that.   

Her bowl? Feed me empty.   

Her colding? Ay am forgot.   


Then mask me the g’wen, hers skin   

being mine, and body that pools   

in the brine of her, rivers the silt and stone of her   

wrapt in the warm of hers fell.   

She were the watcher and tender of pyres   

when the wet grass shined with quiet   

and ay lean to the mouth hole: ay, mother.


Christian Wiman: This makes me think of a comment from Seamus Heaney in that interview that if he listens to a difficult poem he tries to perceive what the score of it so he can try to pick up on that first. This is a difficult poem not by virtue of what it’s saying exactly, but because the language is new and the syntax is confused, so it leaves you sort of at sea at certain moments.


Don Share: I think it invites you to fight back against it a little bit. I think for many of us reading the poems on the page, when you see this “ay” at first at least I thought of that kind of sighing sound you come across in Spanish language poetry. Then of course it’s some kind of pun or play with the “I” that is the subjective self. The poem seems to be very hard on all these notions, the sort of sighing self is something these poems really don’t want to deal with. They deposit something completely different, literally alien against that notion. So every time in the poem you see or hear the “ay” it’s not the one you’re used to. Most of the poems we get, every two lines there’s the letter “I”. That doesn’t occur in this poem at all, you don’t see that. So who is the self being born? Who's’ the she that had the death in her?  You have to really concentrate on this and figure out where this imaginary tribe is going to, and where it came from.


Christian Wiman: Yeah, which is why I think the physical world is interpenetrated with this beginning consciousness, and the consciousness of the mother’s death. “Is this her white? Dress me. / Her rain? Wash me with that. / Her bowl? Feed me empty.” The actual physical presence of the mother adheres in physical things.


Don Share: I hadn’t thought of it before, but in a way these poems do connect with Fred D’Aguiar’s poems because they’re conscious at all turns of the conventional standard English language in which our literature is supposed to have been written and ought to continue if you believe in that line of transmission. But these are poets who are fighting against that a little bit, saying part of my own inflection doesn’t sound like that, so here: “She were the watcher and tender of pyres / when the wet grass shined with quiet”. Sort of a mixture of something we experience all the time as regular English poetic diction with a slight change imposed upon it so that it’s not what we’re used to.


Christian Wiman: That seems to me as a good example of a poet who knows the score. “She were the watcher and tender of pyres / when the wet grass shined with quiet”. That’s beautiful, even if you don’t quite pick up on what it means at first it’s very beautiful.


Don Share: And there is real emotion. At the end of the poem when, you know there’s “ay leaned to the mouth hole”, and the poem ends in italics “ay mother”. It makes you wonder what the relationship is, but on just a plain old ordinary day to day level that “ay mother” is sort of an exhalation at the end of the poem that’s reassuring. You feel like there is a human connection being made here, that it’s about these ancient strivings of birth and dying and living and feeding and being washed, so we know all that stuff is there. But it’s ingenious in the way it circumvents all the predictable ways of confronting these things.


Christian Wiman: And it puts them right together at the end “ay” and “mother”; they’re separated by that comma, and yet they’re together. They’re sort of indistinguishable.


Don Share: It’s a pregnant comma.


Christian Wiman: Right. The December issue opens with three poems by the Scottish poet Roddy Lumsden who lives in London. They’re called “The Young”, “The Beautiful” and “The Damned”. We asked Roddy if they were part of a series.


Roddy Lumsden: Fitzgerald wrote a novel called The Beautiful and Damned. That phrase, “The beautiful and the damned” as it’s become has kind of become a cultural phrase. I was remembering the the phrase was “The young the beautiful and the damned” and that’s where the trio poems came from. So I decided to write these three poems on youth, beauty and fame.


Don Share: His poem “The Young” seems to be in rigorous agreement with George Bernard’s quip that youth is wasted on the young.


Roddy Lumsden: All these poems are kind of vacillations on what I really think on these issues. They’re kind of devil’s advocate poems. I do sometimes look at young people now middle aged and feel jealous. On the other hand, there’s a level of irony in this first poem. I’m not quite sure I really envy them quite as much as I’m saying.


Don Share: Here’s Roddy Lumsden reading “The Young”.


Roddy Lumsden:

You bastards! It’s all sherbet, and folly   

makes you laugh like mules. Chances   

dance off your wrists, each day ready,   


sprites in your bones and spite not yet   

swollen, not yet set. You gather handful   

after miracle handful, seeing straight,   


reaching the lighthouse in record time,   

pockets brim with scimitar things. Now   

is not a pinpoint but a sprawling realm.   


Bewilderment and thrill are whip-quick   

twins, carried on your backs, each vow   

new to touch and each mistake a broken   


biscuit. I was you. Sea robber boarding   

the won galleon. Roaring trees. Machines   

without levers, easy in bowel and lung.   


One cartwheel over the quicksand curve   

of Tuesday to Tuesday and you’re gone,   

summering, a ship on the farthest wave.


Don Share: Well you’ve got to like a poem that gets your attention by starting out “You bastards!” Certainly if anybody ever needs to know what assonance is, this is a great example of assonance through this poem, the seething ’s’ sounds all the way through from beginning to end.


Christian Wiman: Chances dance off your wrists


Roddy Lumsden: sprites in your bones and spite not yet   

swollen, not yet set.


Christian Wiman: The whole thing is just this crackle with language, there’s so many different things.  “Bewilderment and thrill are whip-quick / twins, carried on your backs,” You can just hear it popping all the way through.


Don Share: It really does, it cartwheels from one stanza to the next. And then where it ends:


Roddy Lumsden: One cartwheel over the quicksand curve   

of Tuesday to Tuesday and you’re gone,   

summering, a ship on the farthest wave.


Christian Wiman: It’s funny, it sort of exhibits the energy that it attributes to them. It’s lamenting not having, and yet it claims it with it’s own linguistic energy.


Don Share: One of the funny things is you sort of ask yourself after a while, who is the speaker as they say in this poem? It’s “You bastards", the young; is it some old guy? Is it somebody stepping back? Is it some strange impersonal part of the language that’s doing the interrogation here? Hard to say.


Christian Wiman: Let’s hear one more by Roddy Lumsden. This one is called “The Beautiful” and we asked him to set it up for us.


Roddy Lumsden: This poem, “The Beautiful”, I had in mind that situation whereby when we think about people who are exceptionally beautiful, men or women, you sometimes feel sorry for them because people never really treat them as their true selves. On the other hand, beautiful people do have an easy right in life a lot of the time. I was thinking about that awkwardness between the two feelings we have.

Christian Wiman: Here’s Roddy Lumsden reading “The Beautiful”.


Roddy Lumsden:

Into perplexity: as an itch chased round   

an oxter or early man in the cave mouth   

watching rain-drifts pour from beyond   


his understanding. Whether to admire   

the mere sensation, enough, or hold out   

for sweeter ornament, vessels of wonder   


born with that ur-charm of symmetry;   

lovely ones we ache to prize and praise,   

climb into and become because they try   


our day-by-day significance: some of us   

ugly and most of us plain, walked past   

in the drowned streets: pearls of paste,   


salted butter, secondary colors. They   

drift unapproached, gazed never-selves,   

blunt paragons of genetic industry. We   


desire them but cannot want such order.   

We stand, mouths open, and cannot help   

stammering our secrets, nailed to water.


Christian Wiman: You can read Roddy Lumsden’s poems and everything you heard in this program in the December magazine and online at


Don Share: Let us know what you think of this program. Email us at [email protected].


Christian Wiman: The Poetry Magazine Podcast is recorded and edited by Ed Herman and produced by Curtis Fox.


Don Share: The music used in this program comes from the Claudia Quintet. I’m Don Share.

Christian Wiman: And I’m Christian Wiman. Thanks for listening.


The editors pick highlights from an interview with Seamus Heaney and Fanny Howe's notebooks; and listen and comment on poems by Joan Houlihan, Roddy Lumsden, and Fred D'Aguiar.

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