Looking Animals in the Eye

April 2, 2012

Christian Wiman: This is the Poetry Magazine Podcast for April 2012. I'm Christian Wiman, editor of Poetry Magazine.


Don Share: And I'm Don Share, senior editor of the magazine. On the Poetry Magazine Podcast, we feature readings, commentary, and an interview.


Christian Wiman: This month we're going to hear poetry from Kathy Nilsson.


Kathy Nilsson: I'm having trying trouble looking animals in the eye.


Christian Wiman: Anthony Madrid.


Anthony Madrid: Maybe I'm just like my father, always a bridesmaid, never a bride.


Christian Wiman: Then we're going to speak to Patricia Smith about Gwendolyn Brooks.


Patricia Smith: Once you go in a conversation with her, you were conversing with another little sister girl, and you talked about what was up.


Christian Wiman: Also in the April issue, we have a piece by Sven Birkerts about Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay, “The Poet”. We have notebook entries from Vera Pavlova and poems from Yusef Komunyakaa, Amit Majmudar, Karen An-hwei Lee, and many others.


Don Share: And as part of the ongoing 100th anniversary of Poetry Magazine, we're reprinting poems by Geoffrey Hill, Muriel Rukeyser, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Howard Nemerov, as well as a testy exchange from 1937 between Geoffrey Grigson and Willliam Empson.


Christian Wiman: That's a lot to choose from. I wonder, is there a poem in the issue that you want to single out, Don, something you particularly liked?


Don Share: I really got a lot out of this Yusef Komunyakaa poem called “Snow Tiger”. This is a poem from the issue that set up an amazing landscape, an amazing kind of vision for me.


Snow Tiger


Ghost sun half

hidden, where did you go?


There’s always a mother

of some other creature

born to fight for her young.


But crawl out of your hide,

walk upright like a man,

& you may ask if hunger is the only passion

as you again lose yourself

in a white field’s point of view.


In this glacial quiet

nothing moves except—

then a flash of eyes & nerves.


If cornered in your head by cries from a cave

in another season, you can’t forget

in this landscape a pretty horse

translates into a man holding a gun.


Don Share: I guess what's very striking to me about this, is that landscape, you know, with the sun half hidden and the mother of a creature born to fight for her young. There's something about standing up in this landscape and being lost in a white field's point of view, and the glacial quiet where nothing moves. And then something happens, there's a flash of eyes and nerves, a kind of disruption, a kind of violence that intrudes upon the landscape. And then, what you see in the end of this imagery is that a pretty horse, the poem says, translates into a man holding a gun.


Don Share: It's a kind of landscape that I can visualize for myself in many parts of the world. Sometimes I think it might be Afghanistan, or something, somewhere where a war is about to erupt. Or maybe it's just an imagined landscape where we lose Eden and the violence among men disrupts that natural process where mothers come to care for their young, but have the instinct to fight to protect that precious life.


Christian Wiman: Well, Peter Matthiessen wrote a famous book called The Snow Leopard. It was about a trip he took into Asia to find the snow leopard. And the whole book became about not ever seeing the snow leopard, because it's such an elusive creature. And that is ostensively what this book is about, is how do you see this elusive thing? But you also can't not read race in this poem.


Don Share: Yeah.


Christian Wiman: I mean, Yusef Komunyakaa is a black man, and when you read these lines, "As you again lose yourself in a white field's point of view, in this glacial quiet, nothing moves except in a flash of eyes and nerves." There's some kind of danger in accommodating yourself to a white field's point of view, the poem suggests. And if you see a pretty horse, then you always have to be aware it's a man holding a gun. I mean he wrote this poem long before everything's going on now down in Florida with the shooting—


Don Share: Yeah, I was thinking of that, too.


Christian Wiman: ... of that guy. Yeah, and of course, we don't know all the details of that. But one thing that has been so sobering and disturbing in the conversations about that shooting is that so many African-American families have this conversation where they warn their kids about having to be vigilant in apparently normal circumstances, which is exactly what this poem alludes to.


Don Share: Yeah, yeah.


Christian Wiman: And that what looks like a pretty situation has this element of danger in it if you are a creature that's hunted or if you're different.


Don Share: Yeah, and things change in a flash, as the poem says.


Christian Wiman: Yeah. There are several poems in this issue that address contemporary subjects. Eduardo Corral has one that's about his father being an illegal migrant worker, and there are several that do it in very subtle ways. I'm interested in the ways that ... I know Don and I are both interested in the ways that poetry manages to address these sort of ongoing political issues in ways that often aren't direct. I think the Komunyakaa poem is a very interesting example and powerful example of a poem that has political content, but it's muted and it doesn't scream at you. In fact, it's almost about a metaphysical dilemma. Then it has this other meaning. One of the poems in the issue that I liked, was not ... it's actually not one of the ones that has some kind of apparent political content. But it's a subject that I think we can all relate to, it's growing older. And it's by the poet V. Penelope Pelizzon, and it's called “Nulla Dies Sine Linea”, which means “No Day Without a Line”. And that's a quote by Pliny the Elder, he was speaking of the painter Apelles, and Apelles was a 4th century B.C. painter. He said he would never go without painting. And they once asked him why he worked so hard. And he said, "Well, I paint for eternity." And the irony is, that we have no paintings of Apelles. They're all gone.


Don Share: That's eternity for you.


Christian Wiman:

That's right. They're all gone.


A crow guffaws, dirty man throwing the punch of his

one joke. And now, nearer, a murder


answers, chortling from the pale hill’s brow.

From under my lashes’ wings they stretch


clawed feet. There the unflappable years

perch and stare. When I squint, when I


grin, my new old face nearly hops

off my old new face. Considering what’s flown,


what might yet fly, I lean my chin

on the palm where my half-cashed fortune lies.


Now this poem is very clever. Not only does it use words like "murder" that describes what she's talking about, a murder of crows. But then it also describes what's happening to her face. It's being murdered.


Don Share: And it's important to mention that the poem is written for her-


Christian Wiman: On her-


Don Share: ... on her birthday,-


Christian Wiman: On her birthday, exactly


Don Share: Which it says at the top there.


Christian Wiman: Yeah. Now that "A crow guffaws," at the begin, I take to be a ... it's laughing actually at the title, you know, No Day Without a Line. And then, Apelles meant that as painting, but of course, she means it as these lines that are being inscribed in her face. This is a poet talking about, not necessarily the discipline of art, but having time inscribed on you. You are the work of art that's being made. I find it actually ... I find it at once very clever, but also moving.


Don Share: Well, she turns the lines in her face into lines of poetry, and so maybe it's also never a day without a line of poetry.


Christian Wiman: Yeah.


Don Share: I mean, some of these images are kind of amazing, "From under my lashes, wings they stretch clawed feet." So those sort of crow's feet around your eyes.


Christian Wiman: Yeah.


Don Share: You know, come from those, they're right near her lashes. And the idea of lashes as wings.


Christian Wiman: I mean, she takes that cliché, the crow's feet around your eyes, and then actually digs into it and says, what would it be if these were actual ... you know, you had crows on your face.


Don Share: Right, and so that's where the years perch and stare. So yeah, these crows are transmogrified into the aging process, and there's something ... these birds are laughing at her from the mirror in which she's looking.


Christian Wiman: This is the first time we've had Kathy Nilsson in the magazine. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. And her first book, which is called The Infant Scholar is coming out soon from Tupelo Press.


Don Share: We have two of her poems in the April issue, and animals figure prominently in both of them.


Kathy Nilsson: All my poems are filling up with animals these days. I guess I can't get them out of my mind.


Christian Wiman: The first one we're going to hear mentions a horse, some seals, and bees. But it actually came out of an astronomical experience that Nilsson had in the 1950s in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts.


Kathy Nilsson: It came from watching a real eclipse of the sun when I was about seven. I was stunned, of course, to see the sun disappear in the middle of a summer afternoon.


Don Share: The poem is called “Little Ice Age”.


Kathy Nilsson:

I have one good memory—a total


Eclipse of the sun—when out of brilliance


Dusk came swiftly and on the whole


At seven years it felt good on a summer afternoon


To be outrun by a horse from another century—


The next morning I washed up


On land like a pod of seals


Struck with a longing for dark at noon—


If the cessation of feeling is temporary


It resembles sleep—if permanent, it resembles


A little ice age—and the end of some


Crewelwork by a mother who put honey


Into my hands so the bees would love me.


Christian Wiman: Well, this is a devastating little poem. I think it's devastating. I'd be interested in getting your take, Don. I mean, it starts out, "I have one good memory." Now, that's pretty bleak, right?


Don Share: Yeah.


Christian Wiman: If you only have one good memory.


Don Share: Well, and not only that-


Christian Wiman: It's the eclipse.


Don Share: It's a memory of the eclipse. It's not like, "Oh, I remember the day that my mom and dad took me out to lunch."


Christian Wiman: Right, right. But, of course, it could be one precise memory or one ... It may mean good like that. But it's a sober poem, and then we get to this end.


Kathy Nilsson: If the cessation of feeling is temporary


It resembles sleep—if permanent, it resembles


A little ice age—and the end of some


Crewelwork by a mother


Christian Wiman: That word crewelwork is devastating, right? Because it's-


Don Share: Juxtaposed with the good memory, yeah.


Christian Wiman: Yeah.


Don Share: I have one good memory, and it isn't about her family. And here, crewelwork or crewel work, that craft.


Christian Wiman: Right, right.


Don Share: You're sort of on the precipice there.


Christian Wiman: And so, there's a suggestion of an emotional, stunned sense that has taken hold in this life, and this poem encapsulates it. It gives you that eclipse, and then a staggered sense of a long, quiet, numb aftermath.


Don Share: And yet, the poem is enlivened by animals and insects, which is very strange. It's very eerie so that if you were to imagine just about any poem that addresses a total eclipse of the sun, I doubt many people would populate a poem like that with these creatures. So, she says, "At seven years, it felt good on a summer afternoon," and you would think, "Oh, because it was cool." Or the sun was eclipsed, so it got dark and cool. But, no, "It felt good to be outrun by a horse from another century."


Christian Wiman: Yeah. We asked her about that, actually.


Kathy Nilsson: When I read a poem, someone else's poem, I don't really want to know what something refers to, but there really was a horse from I think the 18th century named Eclipse. He was a thoroughbred racehorse, and I guess they bred lots of other racehorses from that horse.


Don Share: That's a pretty wild act of association there.


Christian Wiman: Yeah. It is. I don't think you would ever find that if you were reading at this poem.


Don Share: You wouldn't. Maybe if you had googled Eclipse and see. But so, there's the horse, and then not only that, but the next morning, she washes up on land like a pod of seals struck with longing for dark at noon. Very eerie stuff, and of course that amazing last couple of lines.


Kathy Nilsson: 

and the end of some


Crewelwork by a mother who put honey


Into my hands so the bees would love me.


Christian Wiman: It's very haunting. Let's hear the second poem from Kathy Nilsson. This is also haunting in a different way. It's called “Still Life”.


Kathy Nilsson:

I’m having trouble looking animals in the eye.


Their empty suits in outer space!


Monkeys injected with a virus to show off


Our eminent domain, the nervous system.


Teacup pigs we breed and obsessive mice  


Worrying themselves bald in a miniature opera.


For pleasures of the tongue we are


Winking cattle out of meadows


Slashing their throats and swiftly quartering them.


In riding habits with gold flame pins we ride horses


To hounds, chase a fennec fox until his red


Coat flares up against the extinction


Of light. Once in a circus we made


An elephant disappear and he did not mind.


Don Share: That's kind of a wild poem. That first line, "I'm having trouble looking animals in the eye." For some reason, it sticks with me that people always tell you like, "Don't look a dog in the eye if you don't know him." It's the thing you're not supposed to do is look animals in the eye, so having trouble doing it is asking for trouble right off the bat.


Christian Wiman: Yeah. Hers is because of some sense of collective guilt, right? All of these things that we're doing to animals. "Their empty suits in outer space." I guess that refers to the monkeys we send up into outer space. They eventually die and rot right out of their suits, I guess. "Injected with a virus to show off our eminent domain," and, teacup, these pigs that we breed. These mice that you see, which we are testing drugs on, and they worry themselves bald. All these things that we do to these animals, and it's less an indictment than a lament. There's a deep feeling of complicity in it. It's not as if she's outside of it indicting us all. The pronoun is crucial, we throughout. These things that we do.


Don Share: And it's a poet's lament.


Kathy Nilsson:

we ride horses


To hounds, chase a fennec fox until his red


Coat flares up against the extinction


Of light.


Don Share: I mean that is what a poet can really grieve for. It's not the extinction just of a species or a way of life or a planet but the light. The light that makes the world.


Kathy Nilsson: Once in a circus we made


An elephant disappear and he did not mind.


Don Share: The way the poem ends, that's some real ecological despair. I mean because we often worry about the elephants and find them so intelligent and mournful themselves. And one worries about them being hunted, or that the lands in which they roam are being constricted. Here, things are, I guess, so bad that in our circus, we made an elephant disappear, and he didn't mind.


Christian Wiman: Yeah. But how do you read that last line. Do you say, "He did not mind," meaning it didn't bother him? Or do you say, "He refused to disappear"? He did not mind us.


Don Share: Yeah. I don't know. I was thinking about that old saw about how elephants never forget, so for me, this was a real extremity. That it was so bad, that the elephant was going to put it out of his mind, just put us all out of his mind.


Christian Wiman: I really respond to that last line, actually, because I think it manages to create several different meanings that don't contradict each other, and it sets them all at play at the same time. And it goes perfectly with the title, Still Life. You can read it as life persists. This is still life and not necessarily the representation of a dead object.


Don Share: Yeah. The death of nature.


Christian Wiman: Yeah.


Don Share: Yeah.


Christian Wiman: When I set out to write a poem, most poets that I know will sit down with pen and paper or a computer, and they work it out, but that's not so with Anthony Madrid at least not with the poem that we're about to hear.


Anthony Madrid: This was composed in the front seat of my car. Little by little, it accrued over the course of, I don't know, say a month going to work and going back home from work.


Don Share: Anthony Madrid lives and works here in Chicago, and his first book, I Am Your Slave Now Do What I Say, is coming out this spring from Canarium Books. This poem is not in that book.


Anthony Madrid: I didn't think when I was making it up that it was ever going to be published. I thought that it would just be for my ... I didn't even think I was ever going to recite to anyone else, maybe like one or two other people. It was just being done for my own satisfaction.


Don Share: Which makes this the literary equivalent of singing in the shower, I guess.


Anthony Madrid: I got two other ones like it, too. I got two really long rhyming nonsense poems, and I can easily recite any of them from memory in my sleep.


Christian Wiman: Here's Anthony Madrid reciting, not reading, “Once Upon a Time”.


Once upon a time,

There was a beautiful shark.

She combed her long, blonde hair,

And it made the halibut bark.


It made the chicken oink,

And the whale to run for Congress.

A man should never obstruct

The course of material progress.


Yet a lamb cannot but weep

When the kiddies come home from college.

For they have forgotten to keep

The agreement they made to acknowledge


The woodpecker’s right to peck,

And the maple’s to be pecked at.

Let’s have a little respect

For Rubber Duck with a doctorate.  


That provocative way of standing!

All elbows and bangles

And hips just like a coat hanger

And ankles at right angles! I like


The shape of the pouring soy milk,

The sound of the splitting log.

But Egret finds it regrettable that her

Sister is dating a dog.


Don’t listen to ’em, kid!

And don’t listen to their questions.

This corporation’s been ruined by

Well-meaning false confessions.


And the world is fast a-melting,

Though I would have it slow.

And I don’t think it’s helping:

The way these animals go


Straight from hatchery to quackery,

And, if only to amuse,

I’ll throw my hat in with Mike Thataway in

Black patent leather shoes.


Maybe I’m just like my mother.

She’s never satisfied.

Maybe I’m just like my father:

Always a bridesmaid, never a bride.


Maybe I’m just like my cat:

Licking invisible balls.

Perhaps you’ll reflect upon that,

Next time you’re screening your calls.


And all the solvent and the solute,

They were walking hand in hand.

This the Indian poets were the

First to understand.


The ancient Indian poets

Had their heads screwed on straight.

Fixed on the body’s affluence

And the effluents that escape.


And the influence they enjoyed?

Close-focus hocus-pocus.

And every gezunte moyd

In a juvenile honey locust


Will prefer their Hindi distichs

To the Indiana Hoosiers.

We’re gonna be there from Spit Christmas

All the way to Mucus New Year’s.


But for now I draw the curtain

And settle into Lent.

Last person to go to Harvard

Without knowing what that meant.


Don Share: Yeah, the poem to end all poems. You heard it here first.


Christian Wiman: It's good to have a little contrast to our more sober poems. Auden used to do this thing all the time too. He used to write these kinds of nonsense poems, but nonsense with a ... They had their little stabs in there, don't they?


Don Share: Really, yeah. One after the other.


Christian Wiman: I mean, parts of this are just hilarious. I remember when we read this in manuscript just laughing at it. “Maybe I'm just like my cat licking invisible balls, perhaps you reflect upon that next time you're screening your calls”.


Don Share: This is the voice of a guy, here he is in his car, I don't like to think about this. Instead of like driving and paying attention, he's doing this kind of stuff. I imagine he's got his phone in his hand, God knows what else.


Christian Wiman: And he sort of makes fun of the way it was composed, but you know, actually there are a lot of poets who compose like that, words whilst walking. Right?


Don Share: Yeah right.


Christian Wiman: We used to do it on those long walks, those that Mandelstam wrote all of his in his head and I do think it's odd and instead of the world that we live in now where people don't memorize poems very much and you have so much sensation around you to be able to retain this much. It has a deliberately sing songy rhythm, but it manages to insinuate itself pretty complexly to the standards. He makes these syntactical moves with great deftness I think. Like the agreement they made to acknowledge the woodpeckers right to peck and the maples to be pecked at. It's very deftly done. Right?


Don Share: It is. It's really a tour de force and I bet Anthony Madrid is really a very serious guy.


Christian Wiman: He must be. He must be.


Don Share: We mentioned earlier that in the April issue we're reprinting poems by a few celebrated poets. These are poems that were published in poetry within the past 100 years. We also have a section of personal essays by contemporary poets about each of these poets. So we have William Logan writing about Jeffrey Hill, Gerald Stern about Muriel Rukeyser, Maxine Kumin about Howard Nemerov, Clive James about William Empson.


Christian Wiman: And we also have Patricia Smith writing about her encounters with Gwendolyn Brooks. Patricia Smith is a well known poet who used to be also a well known spoken word artist. Her latest of eight books is a verse memoir called, Should've Been Jimmy Savannah. She joined us by phone from CUNY College of Staten Island where she teaches. Hi Patricia?


Patricia Smith: Hi.


Christian Wiman: Now Patricia, you grew up in Chicago where Don and I are now. And you write in your piece that every Chicago colored girl's hardwired to recognize Gwendolyn Brooks on site. Then did you and every African American Chicago girl grow up reading her, or how else was Brooks' presence felt around here?


Patricia Smith: I just started talking to my students about this actually. They were asking me about what sort of poetry I was subjected to when I was in school. And there was always the poetry unit in the book and the poetry unit in the book usually had one poem in it, and a discussion of the poem, and then the unit was over and it was Robert Frost in the woods again, so we all knew Robert, it's like, wow, that's what poetry is like here. For those of us who asked beyond that, who said what else is going on? I think I was lucky enough to have a teacher that said, “Well, there's a poet who looks just like you and she's from Chicago and here's these wonderful things that she did.” And I remember the first time that I read something by it, I felt like it was so beyond me, some of the tricks and some of the things that she did with language. It was language like I wasn't used to hearing or seeing it. There was a lot of kind of wordplay, and of course that's the perfect way to say that. And it felt like something that I could never really aspire to. It read like I was reading some sort of alien or something, because it was so far from my experience in school and anything that I thought that I could attain. I think too that once you did read even a little bit of Gwen, I think what happened was you realized that there were a lot of parallel experiences. That was the first time that I read someone who wrote about the place where I was, the kind of neighborhoods and the kind of people that I encountered. And at the very least it let me know that everything didn't have to be about large universal themes. It could be me looking around me and saying, “Well, here's where I'm rooted in the world and here's what I want to say about it."


Don Share: I ride the L a lot here, coming and going to work and back home. And I still see people reading Gwendolyn Brooks. But one thing that I think we wanted to hear from you about was that, in the piece you lovingly described the kind of Chicago woman, Gwendolyn Brooks was. Can you describe this type for our listeners?


Patricia Smith: Well, you would think that a woman who is receiving all these national accolades would begin to take on a more national, sophisticated air and what I really loved about her is that if you didn't know that she was Gwendolyn Brooks, I mean my, my picture of her all the time is she's sitting and she's got a multicolored head wrap on, and she's got those coke bottle glasses, and her stockings are kind of rolled down and they're a little bit two shades too light for her, and she's got sensible shoes on. I see thousands of women like her. Carrying their shopping bags and riding the L, and sitting up in the front two rows in church with their head tilted up to hear the preacher. And that's what made her more accessible, I thought, she's both of these things. I mean, she is my aunt, and she's my mother, and she's my grandmother, and she can write and be my sister.


Christian Wiman: Tell us about that first time that you met her.


Patricia Smith: Well, I used to volunteer at ... You guys remember Gill Books?


Christian Wiman: Oh yeah.


Patricia Smith: Yeah. I used to volunteer at Gill Bookstore and this is after I had gone to this benefit for Gill and it was twofold. It was to raise money for Gill Books, but it was also designed to bring together what at the time was kind of a fractured poetry community. It was at the very beginning of the burgeoning performance scene and we were all glaring at each other across this imagined line, it's like academics on one side and performance people on the other. And I had gone there, I admit publicly now to laugh at poets because I didn't know anything about it except that it was in a blues club, and it was five hours, and it was a winter afternoon. So it was very, very cold because of course it was Chicago and I thought what a good thing to do. Go and sit in the neon splashed room and drink alcohol and laugh at people who are trying to make us understand stuff. So I went there and she was sitting right there in the front row and she was watching everyone and she was truly interested in what was going on and somebody would leave the stage and she would say, nice poem, or she would talk to them later, or she would wink or squeeze their hand or something. And I was really impressed by, A, the fact that she was there, but the level of support and how it seemed to me that she considered herself one of the crowd.


Don Share: But what did Gwendolyn Brooks say to you? Something went on between you two that really led directly to your first book. What was it?


Patricia Smith: Well Gwendolyn, I kind of connected with her at first because I didn't want to let her go or let the opportunity go that she and I were in the same room of the Gill Books event. And then later on I was at Gill Books, the actual Gill Books and I would volunteer in on Saturdays and I was shelving books and all these wonderful authors would come through and she had come through for a program and I was kind of following her around and seeing, what is she pulling off the shelves? What is she doing? And talking to her and babbling a little bit and trying to sound very much like a fellow writer as opposed to, somebody who's just starting out. I was trying to be on her level and I thought she would certainly commiserate when I said that I couldn't find enough time to write. And I just felt like I used to feel when I would say something to my mother and she was kind of going over it in her head and thinking, you know, this job is a little foolish, but let me say something that's going to last. And she said, “You shouldn't be able to find time for anything else. That should be your problem fitting everything else into your life, the writing is never a question.” And I still to this day, when my time is my own and I try to carve that time out as much as I can. I'm headed for pencil, paper, computer, writing, and I think that she's the beacon when it comes to that.


Christian Wiman: Thanks so much for being with us today, Patricia.


Patricia Smith: You are welcome.


Christian Wiman: You can read Patricia Smith’s essay and everything else you've heard on this program in the April issue of Poetry Magazine and online at


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


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


Don Share: The theme music for this program comes from the Claudia Quintet. I'm Don Share.


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

Poems from Yusef Komunyakaa, V. Penelope Pelizzon, Kathy Nilsson, and Anthony Madrid, plus Patricia Smith on Gwendolyn Brooks.

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