Last summer, Andy Fitch interviewed 60 poets about their latest books. Ugly Duckling Presse will publish these collected interviews in 2013. This interview focuses on Sikelianos’ book The Loving Detail of the Living & the Dead (Coffee House). Recorded August 5th. Transcribed by Maia Spotts.
Andy Fitch: I’ve enjoyed reading this collection in manuscript form, with the relative lack of paratextual information, like a table of contents or section breaks. Yet given your history of producing book-length poems and expansive projects, I’ve projected a good deal of continuity here. Could you talk a bit about the book’s experiential contours—its spatial and temporal shapes, as you envision those coming together? For example, one-line pages will repeat or anticipate phrases found elsewhere. Do these serve to establish a multi-directional, refractive text, one that incorporates Aymara conceptions of time, situating both past and future before/behind us?
Eleni Sikelianos: I first tried to resist developing a project here, feeling somewhat exhausted from. . .almost every book of poetry now, by myself or others, seems some sort of project. For a while I’ve wondered what has happened to the discrete poem, especially in experimental poetics. I keep gesturing toward that though then can’t help stitching together some fabric, thinking of the book as a fabric, I guess. I’d also thought of this as an installation with those one-line pieces both puncturing the density of individual poems, and weaving a thread through so that all becomes connected at the same time. I pictured the one-line passages as breathing holes, where a seal might poke through ice, gasping for air, and so yes, in that sense, occurring more spatially then temporally. My last three books contained visual elements, whereas this one barely does, with those occasional moments that seem not non-languaged but less-languaged—like little pooling places, little eddies.
AF: That model of installation art seems to hold for your previous books as well.
ES: Right, I feel it strongly in The California Poem, where different parts function almost as different rooms you wander through—with visual data set alongside language data, echoing Olson’s conception of the page as a field but incorporating images as much as text. Robert Smithson’s ideas about sites and non-sites also play out here.
AF: Then in this new book, figures passing between life and death become points of reference. The assertion that “peas in the garden show time’s shadow” recalls Persephone. Orpheus appears. Charon, the ferryman. . .is it pure coincidence that Charon shares his name with your serialized Charlene?
ES: That is an awesome pure coincidence. I love that.
AF: Could you characterize Charlene’s function throughout the book?
ES: I’ve wondered about this myself. Charlene provides one of these threads, or waves that wash through the book, creating the sense of a dissolute whole. She first appeared in a dream, which happens fairly frequently for my poems. She had been my best friend in fifth grade. We felt like outsiders in this wealthy, conformist small California town and both came from poor, single-parent families, living in apartments rather than suburban homes. Her first appearance in the book coincided with my first dream about her. Curiously, about 10 days later, the real Charlene contacted me for the first time since we were 12 or something. But in the poem, Charlene seems kind of my double. I think she represents the past, this bifurcated past. The real Charlene now lives on a small farm in Oregon, working some kind of manual job, while I do this other thing. In the poem she becomes this goddess figure or savant or oracle. I found in my journal from a year ago a note about Charlene: “A body that appeared in a dream with hair like a Hollywood moon, a living ghost (as in memory), connecting my words to the dead and the living.”
AF: Again the name Charlene, with its “Ch,” made me sense she was a child.
ES: How interesting. I don’t think I give her that characteristic, but something both quite childlike and quite evolved stands out. I describe her with a childlike language, presenting simple statements: “Of course she is a goddess. / She has some chickens. / She’s my friend.”
AF: Other motifs cycle through this manuscript that I’ve seen before in your work. Atoms, shadows and worlds circulate. At the same time, the book’s title and dedication page do suggest a distinctly elegiac text. But could we start with the versatile conception of “world” that gets deployed here, along with its homophonic associates “word” and “whirled”? Your opening page announces that “a bit of fire from the world pools in the ear / & burns there.” Then the book’s second poem places a variety of worlds side-by-side: “world the black—world the blank / —margin.” Later this concept of world gets externalized through scientific, political, philosophical discourse. Yet it also gets internalized amid intimate, idiosyncratic processes of language. I mean in lines such as: “Each human carries her own in- / side feeling of of.” And I’m curious, amid this mathematical expansiveness of potential worlds, how your meditations on death have been informed by Roubaud’s Plurality of Worlds, which also appears.
ES: Although I remain a huge Roubaud fan, and that’s probably my favorite of his books, I haven’t read it in 15 years. But raising a child has made me particularly sensitive to this shuttling between public and private worlds. I’ve perhaps become more aware of the private way we experience language (poets in particular, but probably everyone). I’ve wanted to reclaim this private language experience and not leave everything to the public sphere. So my last book shuttled between those two worlds. And here that opening line you quoted, about a bit of the world pooling in the ear, definitely refers to outside media, political or news information we absorb which burns inside the individual—needing to get reprocessed some way. That theme recurs throughout this book. And then the next line you quoted, “world the black—world the blank / —margin,” plays at providing an entire world history in a three-page poem. I’d even played with making this whole book just pieces of world history from time’s beginning until now, then into the future, with, as you’ve said, past and present overlapping. Of course we could call that an old poetic trope, given Pound’s notion that all of time is contemporaneous in the mind, or H.D.’s sensibility, especially in Trilogy, where you can feel all times present at once. Quite a few deaths of people close to me occurred during the period when I wrote this book. Bearing a child curiously puts a finite term on one’s own life as well as the child’s you’ve brought into the world. Then I sense that for so many of us the world seems to keep moving closer and closer to cataclysmic disaster. I’ve wondered, while editing, if this book feels extremely pessimistic. I don’t know if you thought that.
AF: Elegiac, yes. But pessimistic? I’d call it apprehensive in reasonable ways. I only feel truly pessimistic and freaked when a person can talk endlessly without worrying about the world. For me, frank acknowledgment doesn’t cause pessimism: It produces relief.
ES: I’m glad to hear that.
AF: In terms of reflections on mortality and of tropes that shuttle between worlds, shadows likewise take on significance. Shadows appear as relational rather than as substantial entities: “‘that’s when the child realized that the shadow is not a substance. . .driven away by light, / and learns where a shadow will fall.'” Shadows open us to broader perceptual cognitions. Shadows serve as hinges, doors down to the dead or enigmatic aerial shadows. There are shadows of smell and shadows of sound, and there are shedus. So we could discuss how shadows play out. Or, again, it interests me how elemental topics such as worlds, shadows, atoms, atomized language circulate through this book and your work more broadly.
ES: Experiencing those recent deaths made it hard not to engage the shadow world, which seems by nature (in all its forms) relational. And Charlene remains a kind of shadow figure—not quite present, not completely real, a partial projection of myself or my hopes and fears. But also the reading I did influenced these thoughts about shadows. That quote comes from Piaget, where he detects a cognitive shift when the child recognizes a shadow as not an object, but a phenomenon caused by the human body. Also some specific moments of watching my own shadow as I walk prompted this image of stepping down to the dead—seeing that spot where the living foot and shadow foot meet, the real and the projected body, projected either toward the future or past. I also read a fascinating book on when shadows first appear in painting. Egyptian reliefs, let’s say, depict no shadows. Even the early Greeks don’t.
AF: I think shadows don’t enter Japanese work until the late 1800s.
ES: Amazing. Or just think about shadows say in Renaissance paintings, where a shadow could depict the spirit of an angel or the spirit of God touching you, impregnating you, or hold quite negative connotations. This trope has haunted artists for a long time. And the other person I read concerning shadows of course was Plato, whom I’ve never studied formally, so I get to misinterpret to my heart’s content. Still one quite real experience of a substantive shadow came with the death of my uncle Poppy, to whom “Essay: The Living Leave the Dead” gets dedicated. It was as if I could feel my organs being replaced by this shadow version.
AF: Your own organs, you’re saying?
ES: You know it felt as if a familial, collective organ had been replaced with. . .it wasn’t a negative feeling, or negative shadow, but as if parts of this living person had gone, so your own organs had to get replaced with a shadow organ. I don’t know what else to say, but consider this a real, quite visceral experience beyond any intellectual process of thinking about shadows.
AF: When motifs cycle through your various books, a shaded or shadow text seems to appear. Do you envision the books being read intertextually?
ES: I just appreciate that somebody has read them. I don’t consciously think, oh, I wrote about shadows last time, so make sure they enter this book too. I sort of just can’t help it. And the atom as well goes back for me…I briefly studied biology and loved microbiology and the cell’s inner workings and the macroscape of how bodies or elements interact.
AF: Well I found especially compelling here the interstitial swim through nothing, as it gets described in your poem “On the Bus.” I wondered, if we consider this book as constructing a cosmology amid its ever-shifting worlds, where would this nothing “Right in the middle of the equipment” fit? I guess part of what intrigues me is the role that your elegant, hyper-compressed, yet never abrupt syntax plays throughout the manuscript. Does this conspicuous/inconspicuous foregrounding of elision, compression, point toward a generative potential in nothing? You’ll mention, for example, the darkest substance ever known, blackout fabric—which again, like shadows, provides a non-space where meanings proliferate.
ES: I think I do experience syntax atomically. Linguistic compression allows for a breaking apart and reconfiguring, similar to a chemical process, to hydrogen splitting from oxygen then recombining. So I don’t know how that relates to nothing. But that line you quoted does conflate nothing and everything—each a part of experience, and of the world too. Blackout fabric, or dark matter, as I envision it, gets so tightly packed that it resembles nothing, yet in a lovely way. Poetry (life) plays in that juncture between the possibility and impossibility of speech (a kind of pregnant emptiness). Cage asks us how to make a representation of nothing, and I suppose language constantly does point at something and nothing simultaneously. Syntax allows us to break it all down and build it up again. Some poets’ primary genius lies in that process.
AF: You’ve mentioned biology, chemistry, physics. You’ll quote the Science Times. Could we discuss your reading, allusive and citational practices? Do the Simone Weil and Rachel Bespaloff Iliad essays, for example, appear as pure historical coincidence, since the New York Review of Books put out that title as the US engaged in a war of choice? Do you wish to trace a specific historical moment? Or does Weil’s broader argument about the need to be humbled by mortal limitations in order to become human—does that more generally shape your approach to death, loss, aging in this book? Also the endnotes pointing to Doctor Atomic, to knockout mice, to Goya’s black paintings. . .to what extent do these suggest an individual’s passive exposure to persistent media? To what extent do they suggest a more pointed, personalized, directed mode of inquiry?
ES: It’s probably a combination of those two. Certainly the atom picks up an ominous presence—in terms of the cracked atom and generalized sense of DNA being messed with and about to go haywire, like with genetically modified animals and plants. Then I happened to see the opera Doctor Atomic after having these thoughts. So you could call that whole sequence curated, even as it tracks what just happens to come into the curatorial sphere. I’d started these poems about three years ago, when I was 43 or 44. I thought a lot about Dante waking in the middle of a dark wood at exactly the midpoint of his life. Almost every morning death was my first thought.
AF: That was specific to this book?
ES: It was specific to my life I’d say, just waking and thinking, oh, I’m going to die who knows when. Then for the Simone Weil part: Out of complete madness I taught The Iliad to my graduate workshop. Along with the book we read those essays. And I just find Weil’s essay so moving—partly in its parallel to our own war of choice (which parallels the insane disregard for human life taking place when Weil wrote in 1939), but also in terms of the finite bodies we inhabit.
AF: When you refer to waking with thoughts of death, I’ll recall moments of conspicuous mortification that occur amid the graceful delivery of your work. Sometimes these get patiently recorded, through lines such as “my ankle is breaking but my thumb is not / breaking / around my thought,” then “my stomach is starting to break / around my mouth.” Some episodes seem potentially self-induced. Charlene contemplates ripping out the organs from her own body. But then sometimes these mortifications seem socialized. A man gets called “Dad” and turns with his face “a moving / wreck of skin. . .a fruit ripped in two.” And one other trope present throughout the book is meat: as an index of our carnivorous, cannibalistic means of preserving ourselves; or preserving our ancestors and descendants by internalizing them; or meat as threshold between death and life, as corporeal extension, excision, incorporation. Again, in terms of multi-directionality, of references to mortality, to family, organs, ghosts, a child’s “live animal ghost” soon to fade—does this state of being meat (a meat that contemplates, savors, sings to, loves meat) seem a gross but somehow accurate metaphor for your book’s poetics?
ES: Yes. Though it interests me that you used the word “mortification.” I’ve recently returned to this manuscript and felt a bit uncomfortable with certain quasi-religious implications. Of course some sense of mortification does take place. But this book also celebrates great joy in the meat body.
AF: Sorry we should have discussed that more.
ES: Oh no. That’s OK. The project totters between. . .two tropes always come back for me, the meat body’s joy and its predictable putrefaction. Or perhaps the facility with which the meat body could get torn apart, versus the beautiful shapes that the mind can create (which include the mathematic or scientific worlds, the types of mortifying and horrendous bodily shapes that these have made).
AF: So structures of historical consciousness remain part of this meat body?
ES: I think so.
Eleni Sikelianos is the author of a hybrid memoir The Book of Jon and seven books of poetry; just published is The Loving Detail of the Living & the Dead. Another hybrid memoir, about her burlesque-dancing grandmother, will come out in 2014.