Sarah Gridley: I am currently reading a book by woodcarver David Esterly, The Lost Carving: A Journey to the Heart of Making. Esterly apprenticed himself to a Dutch-born 17th-century master limewood carver, Grinling Gibbons, after coming upon Gibbons’ carvings in a London church. “I wanted to do something physical,” he writes, referencing Yeats’s “A Prayer for Old Age”: “God guard me from those thoughts men think / In the mind alone; / He that sings a lasting song / Thinks in a marrow-bone.” Do you ever desire to make something by hand? Is poetry a physical enough occupation for you?
Michelle Taransky: While writing Sorry, I thought a lot about different kinds of woodworkers: bodgers, fellers, wood carvers, carpenters, cabinet makers—about the tools that may be in their hands, the machines they may need to use to get the job done. I rarely pictured or wrote out a woods without a human who had acted on, or would act on, the landscape. I researched wood working and wood crafts, woods in the home, what each tree’s wood is best used for. My father gave me my great-grandfather’s wood-burning tool. The poet Emily Pettit gave me a tin box that had housed a child’s wood-burning kit. I didn’t visit the Redwood forest.
In college, I remember learning that poets call these sets of objective correlatives “technical vocabularies.” I observed how poets had used, and how my classmates and I could now use, these vocabularies (and their particular occupations) to think through our work, or to move away from our inclinations towards knowledge- or image-making, towards registers and lines unknown and strange. A poet’s work can be performing occupations you do not know how to do, or what to call.
While reading Loom, I felt beneath (or alongside) actions or occupations other than poetry. Or maybe it’s the ghost of those verbs we do engage with while we are “writing.” That work is made urgent and a necessity in Loom: “Inside there is still some work to be done.” Weaving, sewing, mending are verbs I feel happening while I read; work both parallel and not parallel to poetry, projects that have different procedures and goals but are not completely unlike poetry (“the careful working in our hands”). Many of the wood-works I researched for Sorry had processes or features that reminded me of poetry: repetition of steps, set patterns or forms, an obsessive returning to a knot or a beautiful piece of the whole.
What were the occupations you identified with (or participated in) while working on Loom? Did you find your work influenced in form or content by the particular technical vocabularies you encountered? How did you use these crafts to mark or make time in the poems?
SG: Weaving and early Victorian photography were occupations I researched in order to reckon with Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott.” Loom is shaped both in form and content by the technical vocabularies of these occupations. To give an example, I wanted the prose poems at the center of the book to make plain the etymological emergence of text from textile. I see them as small weavings. They are negotiations with warp (vertical axis) and weft (horizontal axis) whose selvages (a weaving term for finished edges, from Dutch zelfkant, or self-border) carry both tactile immediacy and ephemerality. Tennyson’s line “out flew the web and floated wide” exercises a lot of force on my imagination. A web is a technical term for a piece of woven fabric. It is a secreted form of dwelling, and in today’s world, it is the figure for connectivity.
Tennyson’s poem is feverishly absorbed in charting space: from the opening prepositional phrase, “On either side,” to the “up and down” and “side to side” motions later on. Fields “clothe the wold” and “meet the sky” in the opening stanza. We are in a zone where the profane abuts the sacred. Weaving is a material part of material culture, obviously, but it is also an important trope in diverse mythological narratives. Not surprisingly, it is a trope ecofeminists have claimed for their work: Diamond and Orenstein’s Reweaving the World: the Emergence of Ecofeminism and Plaskow and Christ’s Weaving the Visions, for instance. The occupation of weaving led me to investigate mythological and political/ecological preoccupations with its tropic value.
Photography found its way into the book by way of the mysterious aperture Tennyson places in the poem: the mirror through which the Lady accesses “shadows of the world.” Her occupation is to reproduce these images—develop them—in her weaving. It was not only the Lady’s occupation that interested me; it was also the space she occupies. The tower she inhabits reminds me of a pinhole camera. Well after the first or second draft of the poem, Tennyson would befriend pioneer Victorian photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron, on the Isle of Wight, where they were close neighbors. Is it fanciful of me to think that there is something clairvoyant in the mechanics of the poem, that Tennyson was seeing ahead into the photographic tableaus Cameron would create to illustrate his Idylls of the King?
One of my favorite discoveries from this area of my research was the term, sol fecit, literally the sun made it. Early photographers weren’t sure how concepts of artistry and authorship fit with their own medium. Do you sign your name to a photograph? Or do you simply acknowledge the sun as its maker?
Which leads me to a question for you: Shadows move evocatively through Sorry Was in the Woods. I have always been intrigued by Yeats’s finicky lines, “Before me floats an image, man or shade, / Shade more than man, more image than a shade.” Do shades / shadows have an aesthetic appeal for you, a psychological one, a metaphysical one—or some—or none—of the above? What kind of poetic energy do shadows offer you?
MT: Like Yeats in the lines you quote above, in my work as reader and writer of poetry, I am constantly considering how to categorize what is before me: image, man or shade? In other terms: the thing, the see-er of the thing and the particular way the thing is being seen? Often imagining my position or perspective in the various ways Foucault’s reading of Velázquez’s Las Meninas suggests: shifting between painter, subject-model and viewer. While I heed Zukofsky’s warning about turning mantis into metaphor, I cannot deny my inner urge to do so. I acknowledge the pleasures I experience through mimesis: mimesis as I notice or mark it, and my own mimetic work. As Benjamin writes of these artist gazes in “On the Mimetic Faculty”:
Nature creates similarities. One need only think of mimicry. The highest capacity for producing similarities, however, is man’s. His gift of seeing resemblances is nothing other than a rudiment of the powerful compulsion in former times to become and behave like something else. Perhaps there is none of his higher functions in which his mimetic faculty does not play a decisive role.
Writing that out makes me realize that my ideas about mimesis and imitation are very tied up in trees. Is it because in critical theory courses we used the word and symbol of the tree as anchors to discuss art and reproduction?
For photographers, sol fecit might be the place where they think about the range of meanings and manifestations of mimesis.
For Sorry, the sol fecit is the poem’s potential to reflect or distort the shadow. The shadow that is a shadow, a mirror or a ghost. The shadow that is my father’s drawing of a shadow, his drawing of a mirror or his drawing of a ghost. In Sorry, being under the shadow of inheritance (or tradition) was generative. During walks, I’d think about the tree as that material which can make any other thing I could imagine.
Your poem “Mirror and Labor” makes visible these concerns of poet and visual artist alike: between appearance and reflection, representation and revision. The poem ends with the question of the face being accurately “doubled” by looking in a river. It asks if the river (like the sun in sol fecit) could be the author of the you one sees reflected in the ever-moving water. In “She Who Invites” the face finds itself before other reflectors and asks what keeps and what lasts. I make a list of reflective objects in Loom (mirrors, lakes, rivers, photographs, paintings, glass, patterns, processionals, memories) and note how some mirrors are foils, other reflectors are cracked or broken and the records are scratched.
In an interview with our publisher, Rusty Morrison, you describe how memorizing (and reciting, while walking) Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shallot” was crucial for Loom’s constructions. As I encounter the many mirrors of Loom, I wonder about the ways memorization for you is like or unlike mirroring.
SG: Ah! Mirror, mother, murmur, memory. Memorization is interesting, because it’s a copy of a copy—that is, a neural reproduction of a poem, which is itself a reproduction of some thing (most of the time). I say neural, but we say we have a poem “by heart,” not “by brain.” When a chain of copies or reproductions line up like that, we’re in the realm of mis-en-abîme, tilting into the abyss. If you like Plato’s business about the bed, then you probably won’t like that feeling of infinite regression. You’ll feel yourself drifting further and further from the original, the ideal, whatever you’d like to call it. But memorization and recitation doesn’t feel like a falling off to me. It is not the experience of remove, but rather, of moving closer, moving in, inhabitation. I have always loved Charles Simic’s idea that the image reenacts the act of attention. In memorization, you are not only traveling through imagery and reenacting that act of attention; you are also traveling over line measure, sonic textures, tonal turns, etcetera. It’s like taking in a topography. When you memorize another’s poem, you are mirroring the many acts of attention of its maker. You are learning the poem inside out. You are taking it into your life. There is mirroring there, but there is more. There is meeting. There is what I call a “seam” where creation meets creation. A poem is not a discrete or discreet object. If it is a well made poem, its memorization will be a flowering, a spiraling, a reverberation. It will trespass the apparent boundaries of mirror. It will make a mirror inside a mirror. I have my teacher, Joanna Klink, to thank for initiating me into the magic of memorization and recitation. I carry that custom forward with my own students. Memorization takes us backwards and forwards. It feels tidal to me. It is what machines can’t do for us, if by memorization we mean having something by heart. There’s a fun book by Richard Powers called Galatea 2.2 that asks whether computer-based neural-like networks might pass a master’s level exam in English literature. I won’t give out Powers’ answer, but I will say that the book emphasizes the role interpretation and nuance play in attention and retention. Is it enough to have a poem “by brain”? I think the murky heart, which will always alter (and be altered in) the act of mirroring, is a critical agent in memorization.
Your ideas about mimicry and mimesis are very tied up in trees. I love that. One of my colleagues asked me earlier this summer if I was attending some kind of Druid conference when I told him I was traveling to a place called Woods Hole! Though I am not a latter day druid, I would agree that trees are a key to something—a way of feeling the subterranean and the celestial, the big and the little, the fixed and the emergent, all at once. Is that a projection, an invention, a poetic distortion or is that attending to what is actually there?
Your use of table and altar in “The Plans Caution” puts me in mind of George Herbert’s poem, “The Altar,” which begins with a seemingly botched work: “A broken ALTAR, Lord, thy servant rears . . . ” In the context of God’s request to Moses in Exodus—that his altar be of rough, as opposed to hewn stone—”broken” could be read as a virtue here. The shaped or emblem aspect of Herbert’s poem invites us to think of a poem itself as altar, a place / structure for formalized offering. Following Olson, you seem to seek poems that are both “clean as wood is as it issues from the hand of nature” AND “shaped as wood can be when man has had his hand to it.” Can you talk a bit more about the relationship you see between nature and artifice, and how this book helped you explore it?
MT: Sorry contains a particular worry about making altars or metaphors. In some ways, the title expresses an urgent apology for turning the already existent wood (the words) into things “I” made. For turning the woods into “the woods.” These anxieties are not separate from my anxieties about being understood, my anxieties about making an altar readers do not recognize as an altar, an altar that is seen as botched. My choosing the woods as a place to explore my practice’s relationship to the found / existing and the made / invented might not have even been a choice.
kevin mcpherson eckhoff, in an interview about writing his biography at Jacket2, says of his process: “I’ve tried found poetry, now I want lost poetry.”
I came upon eckhoff’s interview while pausing in my reply to you, Sarah, and now I can’t think about defining artifice and nature without wanting to compartmentalize: Which is the stuff of found poetry and which of lost poetry?
And now I turn to Loom, and the lines: “The legend says: // You cannot keep count of the steps / as you climb back up from the chapel”
I wonder how Loom would classify itself between these kinds of poetry: the lost and the found that eckhoff suggests. How does Loom follow the pattern (of the weaving and its rows) and also “pull out the row[s],” where it is recognized “the pattern was wronged”?
What about the inherited? The sublime? Those rituals that happen around chapels? The moments in Loom where it is impossible to be “aware there is / a double there. // How close / the world comes”?
SG: I’ve tried found poetry, now I want lost poetry. I love that. Found poetry and other modes of chance operations open up the field of serendipity. But still, we do do some of the choosing, the selecting, however much we tell ourselves we are opening creation to chance and contingency. In lost poetry, we ourselves must be contingent, which is to say lost, disoriented, vulnerable, bewildered, receptive to intercessions on our behalf. William James has a great way of thinking about this: “To be as nothing in the floods and waterspouts of God.” My equivalent for lost poetry is weird poetry—those places gotten to only by loss and being lost, by feeling the acute grace of being anything at all. Weird prayers and resolutions and questions come up out of those states of recognized contingency. Weird voices. These for me are the most memorable lines in poetry, the ones I want to have by heart. Lost poetry maybe is what we reach when (as Oppen puts it) “the word in one’s own mouth becomes as strange as infinity.” I think we are in the neighborhood of lost poetry when we are traveling as intensely outward as we are intensely inward. Williams writes in an ars poetica poem titled “Poem,” “It should / be a song—made of / particulars, wasps, / a gentian—something / immediate, open // scissors, a lady’s / eyes—waking / centrifugal, centripetal.” I think we are in the neighborhood of lost poetry when we are giving ourselves away not in the sense of confession, but in the sense of conferral. “If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles” says Whitman.
The stone hermit chapel I reference in Loom sits on the craggy coast of Pembrokeshire.
I took a solo trip around Wales in 2009 to learn more about the country where my father grew up. The legend of the chapel (or you might say the superstition)—that you cannot keep count of the steps as you climb back up from the chapel—suggested a kind of fable to me: You can take part in enchantment, but you can’t then take its measure. Those steps mediate between an ancient world and a modern one, and to try to enumerate that distance (or proximity) is not permitted. Memory balks. Saint Govan allegedly escaped pirate pursuers by hiding himself in the cliffs there, which opened for him, then closed protectively around him. Some say Govan is a corruption of Gawain, which puts us in the realm of Arthurian romance. In “The Passing of Arthur,” Tennyson writes (in the voice of Arthur) “The old order changeth, yielding place to the new, / And God fulfills himself in many ways, / Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.”
You use the phrase, “the inherited,” which is coincidental: just yesterday my students and I were thinking about a poem by Thomas James called “Pears on the Windowsill,” and especially about its last two lines: “My inheritors move in me / Like darkening water.” At Arthur’s passing, Sir Bedivere is said to hear a “weird rhyme” emitted from “the stillness of the dead world’s winter dawn”: “From the great deep to the great deep he goes.” I think deep waters, likely chaogonic ones, move between every act of inheritance. As Tennyson recognizes, inheritance must be kept fluid to keep corruption from taking hold. We have seen how our customs, altars, metaphors, etc. can corrupt us. The question is how to make them inhabitable and charitable, lively and loving. Linda Hogan speaks of rounding the human corners. We are capable, I think, of rounding our corners. I think lost poetry is part of that shapeliness, that ongoing exchange, revival and revision of human orders, of what we are capable of being and knowing and doing. I like that you see weaving and unraveling as a metaphor within that metaphor. There’s a Penelope wisdom there. A patience, a focus and a fluidity. To be homebound in this sense is not to be locked in, but to be committed to dwelling well. Penelope is weaving a shroud, which were she ever to finish it, would be a composition given to the greater realm of decomposition. Look for me under your boot-soles. That humility is where lost poetry comes from and goes to, is my guess. It is the kind of humility I hear when you speak of worry and apology. You not only take care in your work, you take care around questions of work itself, of altering what exists.
Alan Dugan has an emotionally terrifying poem called “Love Song: I and Thou.” In it the speaker (a bodger) asks for a helpmeet to complete the dwelling space. This request comes in the form of a completed sacrifice: “I can nail my left palm / to the left-hand crosspiece but / I can’t do everything myself. / I need a hand to nail the right, / a help, a love, a you, a wife.” What are the things you cannot do—or complete—by yourself in poems, and to whom or to what do you turn for help?
MT: I’ve had strong feelings about this Dugan poem from the first read, but had never connected them to Sorry, my own work as a poet, or the imagery and metaphors I may have inherited from Dugan, until reading what you wrote above.
I first encountered “Love Song: I and Thou” in Robert Pinsky’s anthology, The Handbook of Heartbreak, when it was handed to me by a friend during a freshman year of college heartbreak. The hardcover falls open to the spread: Dorothy Parker’s “Unfortunate Coincidence” and Dugan.
I hadn’t read a “love poem” like it before. Dugan opened up, for me, the possibility for poetry to do more, and do other work than I had previously been aware of.
There is a negative capability, an unavoidable sincerity, in the poet’s confession of what has not been done or could not be done. Because poetry is a construction where one can, of course, write: I BUILT A HOUSE or I BUILT AN INTRICATE HOUSE even if it is not “true” and the reader will experience the building and see the house as if they are reflections, or photographs, or both.
I always have cried, and will probably always cry, when Srikanth Reddy reads a section from his long poem “Fundamentals of Esperanto,” from Facts for Visitors, beginning: “I’ve never built anything, / let alone a house.”
not to mention a home
for somebody else.
I’ve never unrolled a blueprint onto a workbench,
sunk a post,
or sent the neighbor’s kid pedaling off
to the store for a bag full of nails.
I’ve never waited ten years for a swallow.
Never put in aluminum floors to smooth over the waiting.
Never piped sugar water through colored tubes
to each empty nest lined with newspaper shredded
with strong, tired hands.
Never dismantled the entire affair
& put it back together again.
Still no swallows.
I never installed the big light that stays on through the night
to keep owls away. Never installed lesser lights,
never rested on Sunday
with a beer on the deck surveying
what I had done
& what yet remained to be done, listening to Styx
while the neighbor kids ran through my sprinklers.
I have never collapsed in abandon.
But enough about purple martins.
To read a confession about the difficulties of building and breaking, about building together and building a family—from the professor and poetry mentor who taught me how (and why) we build a poem—that teacher, his poems, his lessons, like reading Dugan alone in my dorm room, they helped me by changing me. I am lucky to have poets and their poems to turn to. To keep being transformed.
Kurt Vonnegut wrote, “We are what we pretend to be so we must be careful about who we pretend to be.”
Going back to how both of our books’ compositions involved investigations into other occupations (weaver, bodger, photographer, woodsman), I wonder what other turns, confessions, mistakes, experiences, or reflections these new jobs precipitated.
I go to the beautiful conceit of going back and un-doing what you weave in these lines of Loom: “You can pull out the row where the pattern was wronged. / You can go back over it.”
Michelle Taransky lives in Philadelphia, teaches writing at the University of Pennsylvania and works as reviews editor for Jacket2. She is the author of Sorry Was In The Woods and Barn Burned, Then, selected by Marjorie Welish for the Omnidawn Poetry Prize.