Peace, Bells, Cuttings
Bravery, Energy, and Emotion in Poetry
With thanks to the MFA program at California State University, Fresno and the San Joaquin Literary Association for hosting 2015’s Word Fest, where this talk was first delivered.
Today, I’m thinking about the energy of a poem, the energy of a moment, the nerve it takes to write into a moment, and revising for courage. I’m thinking about bravery and risk in craft and content: What does it mean to be brave enough to bring your most powerful self/selves to the page when writing anything? Can you live all the way into the energies of your art — its desires, its emotions; can you be brave enough to let silence do its work? And, what does it mean — what can it mean — to revise for courage?
As a starting place, here’s the poem “To Peace” by Suzanne Gardinier from her book, The New World:
Peace I have feared you hated you scuffed dirt
on what little of you I could bear near me
scorned you called you vicious names Every time
you have settled over an afternoon
a friendship a night walk my brow my sleep
I have lashed free of your desolate island
back to the familiar continent
Coward I have watched you buckle under
nightsticks and fire hoses You have
disgusted me slipping flowers into guns
holding hands with yourself singing to bullets
and dogs Who can speak your language
but animals and saints What history records
your triumphs Over what centuries
have you reigned Miasma Where are the stone
lists of those who have died in your name
In the land where you are loved what becomes
of the veterans of all against all How
will I clothe myself How will I eat How
will I teach my children whom to respect
how to find themselves on a map of the world
when I have so seldom seen your face
Tell me Bloodless Outlaw Phantom what is
the work of the belligerent in
your anarchic kingdom Where is my place
I love this poem for the way it writes all the way into a feeling of frustration, for the way it says to peace — that elusive abstraction, that hollowed-out word: I hate you, where are you, I can’t see you anymore, I can’t believe in you. The poem embodies a kind of bravery — it takes a risk in both form (lines suspended without the signals of punctuation) and content: it calls out from the vibrant, urgent energy of a moment, it dares to embody the voice of violence with directness and without sentimentality in order to make a larger point about the limits of violence and the complexity of peace.
Gardinier’s lyric, questioning “I” brings Rilke to mind: “Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angel’s hierarchies?” begins the First Duino Elegy. And, later: “Beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we are still just able to endure, / and we are so awed because it serenely disdains to annihilate us. / Every angel is terrifying. / And so I hold myself back and swallow the call-note of my dark sobbing.” Surely, Rilke didn’t swallow the call note of his dark sobbing. His elegies enact the crying out and the calling out that is the beginning of the birth of the self into the world, the initiation, through pain, of new thought — the crossing into the threshold of life in the face of death.
I came to poetry to call out, though not necessarily to confess something. I came to poetry to inquire into the world, using all of my capacities: emotion, sense, embodiment, mind, memory, music. Poetry, in that sense, had for me a certain utility; here’s the poet and essayist, Muriel Rukeyser, writing in 1949 in The Life of Poetry: poetry is “an art that lives in time, expressing and evoking the moving relation between the individual consciousness and the world. The work that a poem does is a transfer of human energy.” I love how “work” and “energy” are the foundations on which Rukeyser builds her analysis. How, according to Rukeyser, is this “transfer of human energy” accomplished? “The universe of poetry,” she writes, “is the universe of emotional truth. Our material is the way we feel and the way we remember.” So, connecting these concepts, I’ll propose that a transfer of human energy occurs when the poet is attending to, or calling out from, a momentary — or not-so-momentary — emotional truth. And it takes a kind of bravery to approach, to circle, to consider, or to speak from the complex landscape of human feeling.
Consider this poem by Tarfia Faizullah, recently published in Poetry magazine. I had the opportunity to hear Faizullah read “100 Bells” and hear her speak of its connection to Vievee Francis’ incredible poem, “Say It, Say It Any Way You Can.”
With thanks to Vievee Francis
My sister died. He raped me. They beat me. I fell
to the floor. I didn’t. I knew children,
their smallness. Her corpse. My fingernails.
The softness of my belly, how it could
double over. It was puckered, like children,
ugly when they cry. My sister died
and was revived. Her brain burst
into blood. Father was driving. He fell
asleep. They beat me. I didn’t flinch. I did.
It was the only dance I knew.
It was the kathak. My ankles sang
with 100 bells. The stranger
raped me on the fitted sheet.
I didn’t scream. I did not know
better. I knew better. I did not
live. My father said, I will go to jail
tonight because I will kill you. I said,
She died. It was the kathakali. Only men
were allowed to dance it. I threw
a chair at my mother. I ran from her.
The kitchen. The flyswatter was
a whip. The flyswatter was a flyswatter.
I was thrown into a fire ant bed. I wanted to be
a man. It was summer in Texas and dry.
I burned. It was a snake dance.
He said, Now I’ve seen a Muslim girl
naked. I held him to my chest. I held her
because I didn’t know it would be
the last time. I threw no
punches. I threw a glass box into a wall.
Somebody is always singing. Songs
were not allowed. Mother said,
Dance and the bells will sing with you.
I slithered. Glass beneath my feet. I
locked the door. I did not
die. I shaved my head. Until the horns
I knew were there were visible.
Until the doorknob went silent.
The speaker here is putting it all on the line and in the line — using the lyric to, as Gregory Orr puts it, “absorb powerful losses while still affirming the value of living.” The speaker is (or, the speakers are) unafraid to reside squarely in the world of contradiction: “I did not know better. I knew better.” The speaker is unafraid to bring all of her capacities to the page in the crafting of this piece: sound, sense, repetition, and image work together to make a claim to life in the face of trauma and confusion. “Our material is the way we feel and the way we remember,” as Rukeyser put it. In “100 Bells,” we witness how a poet can feel — she can feel without using one descriptor of an actual emotion — and how a poet can remember: directly — through image, fragmented memory, and contradiction. As Vievee Francis’ poem says: Say It, Say It Any Way You Can, even if — especially if — the saying goes against narrative clarity.
There is another kind of bravery in poetic form and intent: a bravery that highlights silence and absence. Do you write political poetry? a student asked me once. Yes, I said. No, I said. Yes, I said. Then, eventually: Every piece of writing, every text, is bound up in relations of power — embedded within webs of position, perspective, privilege, and oppression. I believe this is true. I’ve only recently begun to understand how my life has been shaped my by father’s life, and how his life has been shaped by the incarceration of his mother and father during WWII, in the west coast evacuation and internment of the entire Japanese American population. Years ago, my poem-making became an attempt to tap into the silences of the nisei (2nd generation Japanese Americans), understand the silences, make the silences speak. It wasn’t until very recently that I started to understand that silence is a kind of speaking. Absence is a palpable, powerful sound — absence is saying something. Sometimes, one must respect the silences, as the yonsei poet Brian Komei Dempster recently reminded me.
After reading contemporary erasure poetry by poets such as Solmaz Sharif and Nick Flynn, I began to understand how poetry could shape and work with silence, and how the energies of emotional truth are enacted in language by intentional, artful redaction. In “Reaching Guantánamo,” Sharif has composed a letter to Salim Hamdan — a prisoner in Guantánamo — from the imagined voice of his wife, then erased parts of the letter, mirroring the format of actual state-redacted documents. Flynn’s “seven testimonies (redacted)” are lifted, erased, and recomposed from the testimonies of Abu Ghraib detainees. There isn’t anything easy or ethically simple about the use of this technique by these two poets. In an essay on erasure in The Volta, Sharif notes that when she first heard about this poetic strategy, she was horrified. And, yet, the poems by Flynn and Sharif collaborate with silence and erasure in order to convey a larger point about the fragmented, oppressive, and grief-filled landscapes of war.
“Do I move towards form?” asked Rukeyser. “Do I use all my fears?” The lyric, erasure, and persona poems discussed here show how poets manifest a moment’s urgencies — how they move towards forms and feared worlds and test the edges of narrative knowing. There’s one more form I want to name in this exploration — one more way of using poetry as a tool of inquiry — and that’s the zuihitsu. Originating in the 8th century Japan and flourishing during the Edo period (around the 17th century) the zuihitsu is hybrid prose-poem form that collects, in a list-like way, the personal musings and observations of the poet as she brings her attention to her inner and outer landscapes. It splices these subjective offerings together in a fragmented way, leaping from one association to the next. The word zuihitsu in Japanese means something close to “following the brush.” Collage, randomness, contradiction, “pointed subjectivity,” and inventory are some of the words the poet, Kimiko Hahn, has used to describe the zuihitsu, a form which she’s helped to reintroduce within the contemporary poetic landscape.
Here are a couple of lines from the zuihitsu “Cuttings” from Hahn’s first book The Unbearable Heart:
Why is pain deeper than pleasure, though it is a pleasure to cry so loud the arthritic dog hobbles off the sunny carpet, so loud I do not hear the phone ring, so loud I feel a passion for mother I thought I reserved for lovers. I insert a CD and sing about a love abandoned, because there are no other lyrics for this.
Pulling off a crewneck sweater I bend my glasses and for the next few days wear the frames off-center not realizing the dizzy view is in fact physical.
Theresa, David, Liz, Mark, Sharon, Denise, Carmen, Sonia, Susan, Lee, Cheryl, Susan, Jo, John, Jerry, Doug, Earlene, Marie, Robbin, Jessica, Kiana, Patricia, Bob, Donna, Orinne, Shigemi-
Suddenly the tasks we put off need to get done: defrost the freezer, pay the preschool bill, order more checks.
For 49 days after her own mother’s death she did not eat meat. I didn’t know, mother. I’m sorry, I didn’t know.
The sudden scent of her spills from her handbag — leather, lotion, mints, coins. I cannot stand.
Hahn’s zuihitsu poem trusts that the reader will follow along with the flow and leaps of the brush-mind — though there’s a risk in that kind of leaping and letting go. The zuihitsu makes a space for all of the senses to enter: the myriad subjective scent and feeling-states arrive and set themselves down in no evident order. “Poetry depends upon the moving relations within itself,” writes Rukeyser. It’s “a way to allow people to feel the meeting of their consciousness and the world, to feel the full value of the meanings of emotions and ideas in their relations with each other, and to understand in the glimpse of a moment, the freshness of things and their possibilities.” The zuihitsu embodies Rukeyser’s description beautifully — it’s a form that enacts the flow of consciousness and trusts that, within this lyric unfolding — within the act of painting a picture of the heart-mind as it moves in through world — relationships and patterns and surprises will be revealed.
Art “makes forms the imagination can inhabit,” wrote Robert Hass. So, let’s find and create the forms that best hold the full capacity and the full power of our imaginations — and everything that goes into making our imaginings: body, heart, mind, fears, dreams, contradictions, silences. Make a large home for your mind, and step fully into the field. This is what the moment calls for, again and again; this is how the poem that is alive to itself and its circumstances comes into being, again and again.
How does one write and revise for courage? I posed this question to Fresno State’s MFA students when visiting during the annual Word Fest program. Here’s what we collectively devised:
(1) Dance between the personal, the inter-personal, the structural. Bring all you are to the page.
(2) Move towards new forms — try the erasure, try the zuihitsu. Move towards that which feels difficult, risky, and entirely unknown.
(3) Use all of your fears: Are you afraid of silence in poetry? Then try more silence. Are you afraid of verbosity and confession? Then try that. Are you afraid of the unsayable? “Say it any way you can.”
(4) Splice in the unexpected image or feeling-state. Let what you think doesn’t fit enter. Trust that your reader will follow you.
(5) Don’t be afraid of contradiction and tension. That’s where the energy is. That’s how the mind moves in the world — it thrives off of confusion, contradiction, and paradox. Let the mind be itself.
(6) Reach beyond the self, as the examples do. The lyric poet, according to Chard deNiord, “stretches her strings between knowing and unknowing.” Write at the edge of your questions, use poetry as a tool of inquiry.
(7) What else?
deNiord, Chard.“For Each Ecstatic Moment: Impossibility, Unknowing, and the Lyric.” Poetry International, Vol. 13–14, 2009.
Faizullah, Tarfia. “100 Bells.” Poetry Magazine. January, 2015.
Flynn, Nick. The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands. Graywolf Press, 2013.
Francis, Vievee. “Say It, Say It Any Way You Can.” Rattle Magazine, Vol. 31, Summer 2009.
Gardinier, Suzanne. The New World. University of Pittsburgh Press, 1993.
Hahn, Kimiko. The Unbearable Heart. Kaya Press, 2005.
Hass, Robert. Twentieth Century Pleasures: Prose on Poetry. Ecco, 2000.
Orr, Gregory. “Foundational Documents and the Nature of the Lyric.” The Writer’s Chronicle, Oct/Nov 2014, pp. 69–75.
Rilke, Rainer Maria. Duino Elegies & The Sonnets to Orpheus. Vintage, 2009.
Rukeyser, Muriel. The Life of Poetry. Paris Press, 1996.
Sharif, Solmaz. Look. Graywolf Press, 2016.