Blooming Like a Clod
Curtis Fox: This is Poetry Off The Shelf from The Poetry Foundation, March 6th 2013. I’m Curtis Fox. This week, the problem with god. They say you shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover, but a good title will get you to open a book and at least look inside. Paisley Rekdal is a poet with five intriguingly titled books, which also give us glimpses into her preoccupations and her humor. One of them is called Six Girls Without Pants. Then there’s a book of essays called The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee: Observations on Not Fitting In. Her latest book of poem is called Animal Eye. Paisley Rekdal joins me from the University of Utah where she teaches. Paisley, we’re going to hear you read your poem Dear Lacuna, Dear Lard, but first we’re going to take a little detour through a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins who your poem is in many ways responding to. Specifically, we’re going to hear Hopkins’ poem “Carrion Comfort”. Can you tell us a little bit about this poem before you read it?
Paisley Rekdal: Yes, this is one of his terrible sonnets in which he’s asking himself and also God essentially some of the hardest questions that anyone can ask, which is how do we live with despair? How do we continue on, how do we not end it for ourselves when we reach the darkest moments of our lives? “Carrion Comfort” is exactly as the title suggests. It’s obsessed and terrified by the carrion of his own flesh, the mortality he’s wrestling to understand. And also, how does God help us potentially even in our darkest moments?
Curtis Fox: Now, the poem seems to reference Carrion Crow which is a famous folk song in Ireland and England and this country as well. But a Carrion Crow is an English crow, which is seen as a menacing animal. Go ahead and read the poem for us, if you would.
Paisley Rekdal: Carrion Comfort
Not, I'll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist — slack they may be — these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?
Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.
Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, chéer.
Cheer whom though? the hero whose heaven-handling flung me, fóot tród
Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that year
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.
Curtis Fox: That was “Carrion Comforts” by Gerard Manley Hopkins. In that last line, it suggests that he’s chronicling an experience from the past. “Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God”. So it’s an episode he’s recovered from enough at least to write this poem.
Paisley Rekdal: Right. And I think that last line is so interesting because it references two other moments in the Bible. Obviously there’s the Jacob wrestling with the angel moment there. But also, I think that that cry, “my God, my God”, is also Jesus’ cry from the cross. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Even though there’s a sense of resolution in the poem in the sense that it’s in the past tense, that sense of spiritual ongoing crisis, why have you forsaken me, is still echoed in those last two moments, “my God, my God”.
Curtis Fox: That’s cramming quite a lot in a line.
Paisley Rekdal: That’s the beauty of Hopkins for me. The complexity works on every single level. Every line could have two or three sort of different allusions to different moments in the Bible. It can have a tremendous amount of syntactical complexity as you hear very clearly; the rhymes, the assonance, the consonance and of course the alliteration. All of these things work together to create a poem that, even as it tries to come to a conclusion, will often back track syntactically, argue against itself in it’s imagery, or just drown you in a kind of music.
Curtis Fox: I love how in this poem he can change his mind right in the middle of a sentence. This is a sonnet, there’s not much room to move. He can do something like, “I can no more” and then the next sentence he says “I can”. Then he says, “Can something hope” — it gives the impression of somebody figuring it out as he’s moving through this crisis.
Paisley Rekdal: And that tortured syntax, those two lines. “I can no more. I can; Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.” You have to really parse out those double “nots” to sort of figure out, I’m going to say alive is what he’s saying.
Curtis Fox: Yeah, he’s saying I can’t kill myself right there. And then to refer to god as “O thou terrible”. I understand the fear of god, but this is taking it to another degree to call God the terrible one.
Paisley Rekdal: Of course, it’s easier for somebody who is not like Hopkins, not somebody who devoted their life to worshipping god, to see when you read the Bible the terribleness that God can represent. I think that’s one of Hopkin’s amazing moments here too, is he acknowledges that this divine beauty often does come off as terrible and potentially malicious and cruel if you read all of the Biblical stories. “Terrible” is a word that carries so many connotations. We think of terrible as just terrible, just bad. But it is also awesome force, the sublime where you run up against something so awe inspiring, so terrifying, that it is simultaneously obliterating for all those who come in contact with it, but it’s at the same time awe inspiring. I think that word “terrible” actually encapsulates that aspect of God.
Curtis Fox: Then he brings in this crow metaphor. He says, “why wouldst thou rude on me / Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me?” Here comes the crow — “scan / With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones?” In nature, and the force of nature, he’s seeing God and his own destruction.
Paisley Rekdal: God is this force that will pick the flesh right off your bones in order for you to feel his full grace. Something that becomes another obliterating moment.
Curtis Fox: “me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?”
Paisley Rekdal: And the sense of the self actually trying to escape the awesome power. “Wring-world right foot rock” — you hear the strong stresses, this very oppressive physical force that keeps him down.
Curtis Fox: Then he begins the final six lines with, “Why?”. In other words, why all this suffering. And then the answer is: “That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.” In other words, to be purified by suffering. But then he says no, “Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod, / Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, chéer.” What do you make of those lines?
Paisley Rekdal: It’s a classic thing when people ask why do we suffer. We’re often told it’s either God’s will or suffering somehow brings us a purity, a clarity. I think he points out that’s not what it is. No, you have to pay fealty even though it’s not fair. This is not giving me clarity. Here I am kissing the rod, subjugating myself to you Lord, but my heart still laps strength, steals joy, would laugh cheer. The sense again of even in this kind of despair that gives no clarity, it seems also mysterious why we have joy. Why would we have joy in this moment? Why would we feel like we can have joy? Then he asks, Cheer whom though? the hero whose heaven-handling flung me, fóot tród / Me? or me that fought him?” Do I celebrate God, do I celebrate these things or do I celebrate myself?
Curtis Fox: And his Carrion body.
Paisley Rekdal: Yeah, which one. Is it each one? He doesn’t actually come up to any kind of conclusion. I think that’s why it’s such a powerful poem. There’s all this ambivalence.
Curtis Fox: Let’s get to your poem.
Paisley Rekdal: Which will suffer by comparison unfortunately. My crisis of faith is so much less than Gerard Manley Hopkins because I was raised by atheists and sent to Catholic school, because they have a very good sense of humor. My crisis of faith is really a strange one because I grew up around religious imagery, very attracted to the religious symbolism; the ceremonies, the language, the beauties of the chapels, the churches. But at the same time, intellectually trained never to believe what it was that I was reading and seeing and looking at each day in Catholic school. I would go to school and come back and my dad would say, “What did you learn today?” And I would say, “The Virgin Birth”. And he would say “Lies! Filthy lies!”. So I spent a lot of time reading Gerard Manley Hopkins. I’ve always been very struck by his use of syntax, his sprung rhythms and his definitive language play. I wanted to create a poem that was about why do I want to believe in something I’m unable to believe in? And to call very distantly to that Hopkinsian kind of language.
Curtis Fox: So it’s not responding directly to this poem, but to Hopkin’s terrible sonnets and his religion dilemma more generally, and his language.
Paisley Rekdal: In a very general way. What I wanted to do is also fill this poem with malapropisms. Instead of creating all sorts of combined nouns in ways Hopkins certainly would’ve done, I play with these internal sonic jokes, puns, things like that and malaprop.
Curtis Fox: Yes, the title is “Dear Lacuna, Dear Lard”. Lacuna suggests a missing piece of something, a missing space of text or a silence in music. And dear lard is self explanatory I think. You want to give it a read?
Paisley Rekdal: Yes.
Dear Lacuna, Dear Lard
I’m here, one fat cherry
blossom blooming like a clod,
one sad groat glazing, a needle puling thread,
so what, so sue me. These days what else to do but leer
at any boy with just the right hairline. Hey! I say,
That’s one tasty piece of nature. Tart Darkling,
if I could I’d gin, I’d bargain, I’d take a little troll
this moolit night, let you radish me awhile,
let you gag and confound me. How much I’ve struggled
with despicing you, always; your false poppets, relentless
distances. Yet plea-bargaining and lack of conversation
continue to make me
your faithful indefile. I’m lonely. I’ve turned
all rage to rag, all pratfalls fast to fatfalls for you,
My Farmer in the Dwell. So struggle, strife,
so strew me, to bell with these clucking mediocrities,
these anxieties over such beings thirty, still smitten
with this heaven never meant for, never heard from.
You’ve said we’re each pockmarked like a golf course
with what can’t be said of us, bred in us,
isn’t our tasty piece of nature. But I tell you
I’ve stars, I’ve true blue depths, have learned to use
the loo, the crew, the whole slough of pill-popping
devices without you, your intelligent and pitiless graze.
Everyone knows love is just a euphemism
for you’ve failed me anyway. So screw me.
Bartering Yam, regardless of want I’m nothing
without scope, hope, nothing
without your possibility. So let’s laugh
like the thieves we are together, the sieves:
you, my janus gate, my Sigmund Fraud,
my crawling, crack-crazed street sprawled out,
Hello, joy. I’m thirsty. I’m Pasty Rectum.
In your absence I’ve learned to fill myself
with starts. Here’s my paters. Here’s my blue.
I just wanted to write again and say
how much I’ve failed you.
Curtis Fox:(LAUGHING) If Hopkins’ central tension is whether to believe or not or whether to come to despair, what do you think that central tension is here?
Paisley Rekdal: There’s a couple of things. There’s trying to find that piece of missing text that will slip in and complete the narrative. I do acknowledge this spiritual presence is absent in my life, and yet clearly is felt. If he was truly absent, why would I write a letter to this being? I end with, “In your absence, I’ve learned to fill myself with starts”. I think that’s another one of the central tensions in the poem, is without the divine ecstasy we might be able to engage in if we were true believers, we tend to fill it with all sorts of stuff. We fill it with games, we fill it with entertainment, we fill it with sex — that’s why there’s erotic language early one — we fill it with intellectual discourse, we fill it with everything but what will actually fill that hole. So when I say “I just want to write and tell you how much I’ve failed you”, there’s a play there because earlier I say “I love you is just a euphemism for I failed you”. You can switch that around and say I’ve failed you is also a euphemism for I love you. It is a love poem, ultimately. A love poem to one that if you can’t believe fully exists or can ever truly respond, is this longed for absence, this longed for piece of text that can slip into that absence.
Curtis Fox: It’s a love poem, but it’s a highly irreverent love poem and you’re having a lot of fun with it. It’s saucy throughout. It’s taking it’s struggling seriously, but it’s not beyond humor. Hopkins’ I’d say is largely beyond humor. I don’t think I ever read anything in Hopkins that made me laugh as I did in your poem.
Paisley Rekdal: I think that’s partly because the level of depth to our questions are completely different. Hopkins was a priest, he was devoted to the idea that God existed and existed for him. This is what his entire purpose of his being was, to worship God, to be thinking about those questions. That has not been the issue for me. Mine is, if anything, the post-modern condition which is how do we come up with any kind of unifying narrative? We don’t believe in a unifying narrative. We’re trained to be cynical, we’re trained to be ironic about these things. Yet that does’t entirely erase the desire for the cohesive narrative, the cohesive story that will give us some sense of purpose and meaning. I also think I’ve been trained since a very young child to not take the spiritual terribly seriously, because it’s always been seen through this jaundiced eye, this perspective of this is very unlikely to exist. I’m not able to engage in the ways Hopkins had to engage.
Curtis Fox: I want to get back to this line, “You failed me”. “love is just a euphemism / for you’ve failed me anyway.” I’ve thought about that since I read that quite a bit, it’s true though. We fail all the people we love in one way or another, don’t we? We can never be everything we need to be for the people we love.
Paisley Rekdal: I think that was one of the hearts of the poem for me. When I got that line, when it came to me as I was writing this poem. It remains true to me still, because we often say we love someone … Knowing all their faults and all the things they’ve done to fail us, we often say we love someone just when they’ve disappointed us most to make them feel better. This is done to us as well. When we’re told that we’re loved, it’s often after something terrible has happened to us or we’ve done something not good in the world. Love we think of as such a wonderful thing, but it’s often used to comfort people because they’ve not been good.
Curtis Fox: Then the next line is “So screw me”. (LAUGHING) That’s wonderful. Paisley Rekdal’s newest book of poems is called Animal Eye. You can read the poem you just heard and a few others by Paisley on our website, poetryfoundation.org. Let us know what you think of this program, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. The theme music for this program comes from the Claudia Quintet. For Poetry Off The Shelf, I’m Curtis Fox. Thanks for listening.