Q&A: Eliza Griswold
Could you talk a little about the Ovid myth to which “Ovid on Climate Change” is alluding?
In his Metamorphoses, Ovid tells the story of a boy named Phaeton who is teased by other boys for being fatherless, a bastard. His mother, Clymene, tells Phaeton that his father is Apollo, the sun god. To be certain that his mother isn’t lying, Phaeton travels to visit Apollo’s palace, where the sun god swears by the river Styx that he will grant his son any wish in order to prove his love for him. Phaeton asks to drive his father’s chariot of the sun, which is driven by fiery horses so dangerous that Zeus himself won’t drive it. Fearing for his son’s life and the fate of the world, Apollo tries to convince Phaeton to ask for anything else, but Phaeton refuses.
So off goes Phaeton, who is quickly overpowered by the horses’ galloping force. He loses control of the chariot, which veers too far from the earth, causing a freeze; then it veers too close, drying up rivers, scorching the earth, burning cities, and causing the Ethiopians’ blood to boil through their skin, turning it black. In Greek, Ethiopia means “land of the burnt faces.” This myth is the source of the name. Eventually, in order to save the earth, Zeus had to knock Phaeton off the chariot and to his death. For days, Apollo, in mourning, left the world in darkness.
Some people consider climate change to be a liberal politician’s myth. By referencing classical mythology, does the poem support that perspective?
No. It certainly doesn’t intend to. Honestly, I think climate change deniers are very rare these days; even the world’s largest oil company, ExxonMobil, has grudgingly admitted that climate change is real.
The last sentence, “In a boy’s rage/for a name, the myth of race begins,” packs a lot of interesting but also potentially volatile suggestions. What is the poem claiming about race right here?
The poem turns to race because Ovid’s telling of the myth turns to race. Because I frequently work as a journalist in Africa, I am curious about the roots of the continent’s country names. Often they are left over from days before independence and reveal quite a lot about the power dynamics of imperialism. Like Ethiopia, Sudan means “land of the Blacks” in Arabic.
Imaginative metaphor seems crucial to “Ruins.” Yet in the case of the dead man in the Congo, the poem states, “The dead man looked like this. No, that.” Why the refusal of metaphoric description right here?
Because the dead man was real and so was the fact that he was missing an ear, which had been removed, probably by whoever killed him — either to be worn as a totem or to be eaten. With images like that, I’ve found metaphor to be unhelpful on the page, and also in my head, where images recur over which I have little control.
This practice was fairly common in the war in Eastern Congo some years ago. Consuming human flesh became a means to consume an enemy’s power. When I was reporting on this, I became concerned that by writing about contemporary cannibalism, I would be contributing to stupid old stereotypes about Africa as some kind of cannibal land. In researching the history, I found a couple of interesting facts. First, Christopher Columbus coined the term “cannibal” when he was writing about a certain ethnic group, probably the Caribes, who, a rival group told him, ate their enemies. Columbus used this tale as an argument for converting the rest of the world to Christianity. Also, during the colonial period, many Africans believed that the white colonists were cannibals because so many Africans never returned from working for them in the copper and gold mines. Because the colonists ate canned food, the one common African understanding was that the whites were chopping up the Africans into little pieces and sending them home in cans.
This is, in part, a poem about travel. Do you find a poet like Elizabeth Bishop to be helpful when you’re thinking through issues around travel in poetry? Or perhaps some other poet?
I love Elizabeth Bishop, but she’s too good a poet to be very helpful to me. I have been looking at her books lately, though, in terms of structure, to see how she moves from place to place to construct a book that is more than the sum of its individual poems. The other day, while looking at Geography III, I was wondering, why III? I tried to find I and II, but then a friend said that they are implied poems. Her books North & South and Questions of Travel embody those poems. I loved learning that, and it made perfect sense to the way I hope that I approach things with a wry twist. I find both James Fenton and Ryszard Kapuściński helpful in writing poems about observed horror. Both contain a kind of fury that I recognize, but that fury is useless if it comes off as scolding or moralistic. “Ruins” surprised me because I didn’t know how full of rage I was from some of the things that I’d seen until I wrote it. That’s why I kept the line, “Waking means being angry.”
The speaker does seem angry—and wounded, too. Anything you’d like to add about that?
Ha! Life is wounding. For all of us in different ways, I’d imagine. This speaker is trying to come to terms with how not to carry displaced rage into situations where it doesn’t belong; how to take that rage and integrate it into life so that it becomes generosity, wisdom, even love, rather than rage that helps no one. If you want the context of the poem, here it is: I’d just finished some rough work in the field and found myself at the American Academy in Rome for a year, which is one of the most remarkably beautiful places I’ve ever seen. It was a wonderful place to heal, but it was also at sharp odds with where I’d just been and what I’d seen. The incongruity was a bit tough at times to handle.
The nun in turquoise sneakers is an irresistible image. Where did it come from?
It came from a nun in turquoise sneakers who was facing a very long climb up a flight of stairs in the Roman neighborhood of Trastevere.
Are these actual Libyan proverbs in “Libyan Proverbs”?
Yes, they are actual Libyan proverbs, and they come from a little book I bought in a hotel gift shop in Tripoli, which was next to a book about Muammar Qaddafi called Is Qaddafi a Feminist? On the cover was a picture of Qaddafi flanked by his famous female bodyguards. These were the days before Qaddafi fell, and so books in Tripoli were propaganda. There was no free press.
These are mostly presented as a series of proverbs, or aphorisms, without commentary. Is there any implied critique of them—or, conversely, approval?
Do you mean of the things they say? Like do I endorse the fact that men who wear trousers made of dried grass shouldn’t sit by open flames? No, I don’t mean to critique or endorse them on an individual level like that.
“My belly before my children” is a surprising notion, especially for American readers in this day and age. It’s also highlighted since it appears last in the poem. Could you say more about this line and its placement?
I found this proverb to be very powerful, and to be a reflection on the nature of power under Qaddafi in Libya and tyrants elsewhere. The idea is that I feed myself before I feed my child. Or I take my country’s oil, get rich and fat, and leave my citizens to starve.
The poem almost moves into narrative in the four lines beginning “He howled before going mad,” before again reverting to proverb. What is go- ing on right here in the poem?
“He howled before going mad” is a proverb. I take it to mean, Pay Attention. That before something goes wrong, there is an indication that it’s going to do so. The poem is a narrative, I hope, but not nec- essarily one driven by an individual tale: this is the story of the nature of abusive power.
“Where the turban moves, there moves/the territory”: these lines are very evocative in both sound and sense. Could you say more about them?
The turban is a symbol of the leader’s strength. In this poem, these lines reflect Qaddafi’s brittle omnipotence and the eventual collapse of his regime.
Eliza Griswold is a poet and reporter whose work has appeared in the New Yorker, the Atlantic, the New York Times Magazine, Harper's, and the New Republic. Her books include the poetry collection Wideawake Field (2007) and the non-fiction title The Tenth Parallel (2010), which examines Christianity and Islam in...