Traci Brimhall Reads “Resistance”
Don Share: This is the Poetry magazine podcast for the week of February 18th, 2019. I’m Don Share, editor of Poetry magazine.
Christina Pugh: I’m Christina Pugh, consulting editor for the magazine. On the Poetry magazine podcast, we listen to a poem or two in the current issue.
Don Share: Traci Brimhall lives in Manhattan, Kansas. She’s the author of four collections of poetry, most recently Saudade. Her next book is Come the Slumberless to the Land of Nod, forthcoming in 2020. Brimhall refers to herself as a maximalist poet.
Traci Brimhall: Editors and even reviews of my work have complained about how “too much” I am, basically. I do want adjectives on every noun. If I dressed up I would have probably eighteen bracelets on; I like putting everything I’ve ever felt into a poem.
Christina Pugh: The poem “Resistance” is unusually short for Brimhall.
Traci Brimhall: So a friend said I had to write a ten-line poem. And this poem is nineteen—it used to be ten, but she’s like, no, no, no, you just have long lines, you’re trying to get away with a shorter poem by elongating the line. And so I decided to go for shorter lines rather than shorter number of lines.
Don Share: Brimhall describes her maximalist attitude as a kind of resistance.
Traci Brimhall: I like being a maximalist poet, even though I think a lot of female poets, especially, are rewarded for being minimalist, more traditionally than perhaps now. I think about Elizabeth Bishop being praised so much for how little she wrote, just like, oh, she was so restrained. Or even Plath being compared to Sexton. I hear a lot of what’s loved about Plath is her control, versus Sexton who certainly drafted more work, created more, has a different kind of wildness—a thing that happens on the page much in the way it happens in life, traditionally, seeing a lot of women being praised for not taking up too much space. (LAUGHING) So this poem is trying to have this form of control. A form of resistance is for me, sometimes, just being a bit too much, or not taking that next round of edits that might winnow something wild out of the poem. I’ve never aspired for a perfect poem. I’ve always wanted a human poem.
Christina Pugh: Brimhall doesn’t know if the poem will end up in her forthcoming book or not, but she says including it could be a way to claim a Whitmanian multitudinousness and contradiction. Here is Traci Brimhall reading “Resistance.”
I must be the heavy globe
of hydrangea, always bowing
by summer’s end. Must be salt,
like sadness at a burning city,
an ethical disobedience. I must be
a violet thorn of fire. These days
I don’t taste good, but I must
be singing and boneless, a lily.
I must beg for it, eyes flashing
silver as a fish. Must be a rosary
of listening. This is how I know
to love. I must hide under desks
when the forecast reads: leaves red
as meat, sleeping lions, chandelier
of bone, moon smooth as a worry
stone. I must want my life and fear
the thin justice of grass. Clouds
hunt, wound the rising tide. I must
be paradised. On my knees again.
Christina Pugh: This is really a wonderful litany of instructions to the self, and it’s really pretty stunning how this poem moves amongst its metaphors in fantastic ways; “the heavy globe / of hydrangea” really just captures me, at least at the opening, because the first line is “I must be the heavy globe.” She talked about maximalism. You think about the globe of the earth, but it’s the “heavy globe / of hydrangea,” it’s revealed to us in the second line syntactically, so it’s quite wonderful. And that sense of resistance, disobedience, Lot’s wife turning to salt, looking back at the burning of Sodom and Gomorrah, you know, not a direct allusion, but certainly an implicit one. And just moving the self through these instructions, through all kinds of permutations, transformations—the “violet thorn of fire” with that hint of violent inside “violet,” the “boneless”-ness of the “lily” ... Really beautiful juxtapositions, transformations through metaphor. And it really feels as if this resistance is something serious, though, at the same time, it’s not just a litany of beautiful language, it’s a serious resistance on the level of gender and poetry writing.
Don Share: Well, the way that resistance really works does go back to the repetition of the word “must.” Because that sort of continual “I must be” formula has two aspects to it. You have to figure out which way you’re gonna go. One is that it’s imperative, you go like “I must be.” And you think of resistance as requiring that: I have an obligation, I must be something, I must do something. At the same time, there is a bit of supposition in it.
Christina Pugh: Yeah.
Don Share: You know, like, “I must be” this, because I’m not something else. And “I must be” this, and “I must be” this. And there is a sort of continual reinvention …
Christina Pugh: Hmm.
Don Share: ... in the poem. As there is in life, but that culminates in “I must / be paradised,” which... That word “paradised” really stands out because it’s an unusual thing to do, it’s not something usual to the poem, where a noun becomes verbal in that way—“I must / be paradised.” And then, again, that sort of combination of the imperative and, sort of, the tentative is when the poem actually ends with the sentence: “on my knees again.”
Christina Pugh: Hmm.
Don Share: It’s a sentence fragment, because it’s sort of being caught in the middle of what’s transpiring. Because if you’re on your knees again, that could be supplication or prayer …
Christina Pugh: Mmhmm.
Don Share: … it could be despair, it could be brought very low or aspiring to be brought high.
Christina Pugh: And there is a kind of interesting sexual undertone to it as well, in thinking about some of the more sensual aspects of prayer and all of that. Yeah, I was really interested, as you were talking about just now, in the ... almost the evolution of the “must” as the poem goes on. And it changes in a sense when the “be” disappears—for a while, at least—into “I must hide under desks,” “I must want my life.” But I also do that oscillation between the “I must be” (STERN) and “I must be” (HOPEFUL), you know, this sort of tonal oscillation between those two. And it really invited multiple readings of the poem to see how that could function as a kind of refrain, a kind of anaphora going forward in the poem, to really enable you as a listener or a reader to get a more precise sense of how the tone is really working, just encapsulated in that verb. I loved that.
Don Share: This is a poem written by a woman, and you can tell that from the language. Because most men, most, sort of, straight males, would probably not say “I must be,” they would say “I am.” (LAUGHING) Declaratively, authoritatively, powerfully stated. “I am this. I am that.” Even Whitman does that, over and over again ...
Christina Pugh: Even Whitman! (LAUGHING)
Don Share: And I think part of the ingeniousness of this poem is to set that aside and do it differently, so that even the poem—I mean, the title is “Resistance” and, you know, what you’re expecting is something like out of today’s headlines. A poem of resistance, you know, like a political poem.
Christina Pugh: Hmm.
Don Share: It is, of course, a political poem. But more important than the politics is the possession and repossession of one’s body and everything that comes with it, including the obligations we have to ourselves and to one another ...
Christina Pugh: Hmm.
Don Share: ... so that you get thrown a little bit, nicely so, when the poem is called “Resistance” and it is really talking about something far more serious than a slogan or something that gets reduced to social media. (LAUGHING) To meet, let’s say, what’s happening in the world.
Christina Pugh: Yeah. And it’s interesting how it does that movement between the self-instruction and the sense of being seen as, which might be another aspect of the “I must be [something].” There is also kind of an implicit notion that somebody is seeing oneself as that thing. The kind of movement of working through the metaphors, the incredible images and figuring out how really to bring that to a close, and there really is that climax of “I must / be paradised.” I mean, that really feels like the culmination of what’s happening there.
Traci Brimhall: I must want my life and fear / the thin justice of grass. Clouds / hunt, wound the rising tide. I must / be paradised. On my knees again.
Don Share: You can read “Resistance” by Traci Brimhall in the February 2019 issue of Poetry magazine, or online at poetrymagazine.org.
Christina Pugh: We’ll have another episode for you next week, or you can get all February episodes all at once in the full-length podcast on Soundcloud. 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 this episode was produced by Rachel James.
Christina Pugh: The theme music for this program comes from the Claudia Quintet. I’m Christina Pugh.
Don Share: And I’m Don Share. Thanks for listening.