In part two of her interview with Boston Review Poetry Editor Timothy Donnelly, Maureen N. McLane asks about what makes poetry distinctive as an art, his interest in the ancients, and whether he’s America’s poet of terror.
[Read Part One.]
McLane: What does poetry do for you‚ to you‚ that other modes of art-making don’t?
Donnelly: My answer to that will probably turn out differently every time I’m asked it. But right now it seems to me that my writing answers a need to dramatize complex inner states. To externalize them. There’s a sentence in Wallace Stevens’s “This Solitude of Cataracts‚” one of my favorite of his poems‚ that’s always on my mind: “There was so much that was real that was not real at all.” If I can use a phrase like “the life of the mind” without it sounding like rubbish or me like a kind of rube‚ and if it can be admitted that a life of the mind participates only partly in what we usually mean by reality‚ which is to say that mental life isn’t of the same order of reality as a tree or an apple or any manifest thing‚ then I’d like to say that a poem stands to make manifest that other part of our reality‚ that life of the mind‚ and to give it some fixity‚ some solidity. Poetry‚ it seems to me right now‚ serves to reveal the reality of what appears—compared to a mountain‚ say‚ or to an armchair—not very real at all‚ and yet which has often seemed the surest reality we can know of‚ even as we experience it slipping away.
Thoughts occur‚ for the most part‚ in language‚ so it would stand to reason that the art form to give them shape would itself be language-based‚ as poetry is. The emphasis poetry places on the material properties of language adds to the sense of its giving particular substance to the insubstantial. As Paul Valéry says in “Poetry and Abstract Thought‚” poetic language is less inclined to dissolve than merely instrumental language is; it doesn’t seek to transmit an idea that can be extracted from its phrasing‚ but insists upon the non-fungiblity of its terms with any other. Lineation sensitizes us to the way thoughts unfold incrementally‚ and how the experience or significance of one increment depends upon‚ and changes with‚ what comes before and after. In doing so‚ lineation reveals something of the mechanics of the language that may be less apparent in prose and it also stands to foreground the way language shapes our understanding of experience.
The first lines of Paradise Lost are often pointed to as an example of how lineation can operate this way. When Milton asks the Heavenly Muse to sing “Of Mans First Disobedience‚ and the Fruit / Of that Forbidden Tree‚” the suggestion at the end of first line is that he wants to hear about the fruit of that disobedience‚ which is to say its outcome‚ but as we read on‚ we find that “fruit” refers to the actual fruit of the tree itself‚ and that it isn’t being used in a secondary‚ abstract‚ metaphorical sense‚ but in its primary‚ tangible‚ physical sense. Not the conceptual fruit of the mind or the fruit of abstract thought‚ but the kind you see with your eye and hold in your hand‚ the fruit we experience sensually. And yet‚ the sense that “fruit” means outcome here doesn’t really go away‚ nor should it—it’s a crucial part of the significance of those lines‚ which demonstrate‚ at the poem’s very beginning‚ the way the human mind depends upon sensual experience‚ that its knowledge is abstracted from experience the way the secondary sense of fruit is borrowed from what grows on trees. And again‚ the lines demonstrate that rather than state it explicitly‚ so that from the very beginning of the poem we see how our understanding even of the text at hand will be abstracted from our experience and consideration of it as a complex physical thing.
All of what I claim here as being what distinguishes poetry from other modes might end up being truest of relatively conventional poetry—poetry not only written in lines but attentive to the shifts in sound and sense that happen over a line break‚ poetry attentive to its musicality‚ poetry that makes use of rhythm as a means of further distinguishing poetic language from language more inclined to evanesce‚ as a means of binding it together‚ setting lines into relation‚ and acting upon the reader’s mind and even body by creating a sense of rhythmic expectation‚ which itself is like a state of vigilance‚ really. This is to say poetry that sometimes still gets referred to as “well-made‚” and sometimes disparagingly‚ as if to suggest that it’s analogous to a stately bourgeois residence‚ or that it’s cleverly built but not inhabited‚ or that it’s blindly obedient to convention rather than thoughtfully pursuing what those conventions were able to accomplish so effectively.
M: Throughout The Cloud Corporation, there’s an interest in mythmaking and its collapse. And there is a real “end of an era” or “end of period”/”end of empire” or even “end of species” feel to a number of poems—in which you offer an inquiry into a kind of neo-barbarism‚ pointing both backward and forward‚ as in “Montezuma to his Magicians” and “His Future as Attila the Hun.” Could you say more about this historical consciousness‚ and what you elsewhere characterize as your “[t]uning in again to the long elaborate / talk of the dead”? (“Chapter for Removing Foolish Speech from the Mouth”)
D: I’ve always been fascinated by ancient cultures—Greek‚ Roman‚ Mayan‚ Aztec‚ the various Mesopotamian cultures‚ and definitely the Egyptian. So the first reason why they appear in the book is that they genuinely interest me. I always want the National Geographic with the mummy on the cover; when I go to a museum‚ I usually spend the most time among the antiquities. It’s like humanity at its most geological or stone-like‚ but also its most abstract . . . its most permanent‚ so beyond dead it’s eternal. And my interest in the distant past grows and grows. The brownstones in the part of Brooklyn I live in were built in the mid- to late-nineteenth century‚ and I used to walk down the streets at night on my way home from work imagining what it was like back then—horse-drawn carriages‚ gaslights‚ etc. Now I imagine when it was just trees.
Do I mean to suggest that our own civilization is collapsing? Yes, of course.
Anyway‚ after the Egyptians made their way into my poems via the Book of the Dead‚ references to other past civilizations found there way in and didn’t seem so randomly anachronistic or out of place. I started to worry that if I didn’t draw from ancient sources other than the Book of the Dead then it might have too overwhelming a presence‚ and a sort of precious if not hokey one at that‚ so I just kept an ear open for a few years. When something stuck with me‚ I’d chew on it‚ sleep on it‚ try to write a poem. For example‚ I caught a documentary on the Aztecs on the History Channel and was really struck by the thought that the Spanish Conquest had been facilitated by the fact that the Aztecs thought that Cortez might actually turn out to be the return of Quetzalcoatl heralding the apocalypse. I did a little research and wrote the poem “Montezuma to his Magicians.” For years I’ve loved these amazing Assyrian alabaster reliefs of genies in the Brooklyn Museum and after reading an article about how so much Assyrian and Babylonian art and architecture‚ some of it yet undiscovered‚ was being obliterated by the war‚ I felt compelled to write something. What came of it was the poem “Between the Rivers‚” which features a hodgepodge of details drawn from Mesopotamian history. The long poem “Globus Hystericus” draws from the cosmology‚ including the whole 2012 end-of-the-calendar/end-of-the-world stuff and the extraordinary figure we know as God L—a deity associated with wealth‚ commerce‚ black sorcery‚ death‚ and warfare. I was conscious of the fact throughout that these references weren’t just to ancient cultures but also to empire‚ war‚ and commerce as well as to apocalypse and obliteration. Do I mean to suggest that our own civilization is collapsing? Yes‚ of course. Not that I necessarily believe that it will. But the feeling that it will is everywhere. And at some point far into the future‚ or maybe not so far‚ it will of course come to an end‚ and that thought is never too far from my mind.
M: “Partial Inventory of Airborne Debris” is remarkable‚ not least in its handling of the Abu Ghraib torture photos and circulation of them. Do you think of yourself as an American poet of terror‚ as a New Yorker?
D: I don’t identify as a poet of terror in any sense of the phrase that I can think of‚ really‚ but I suppose I see where someone might get that idea. A lot of terrible things happened and started and continued to happen while I was writing the poems that became the book and sometimes they’re referred to directly‚ at times obliquely‚ and often the poems are suffused‚ I supposed‚ with a dread that is timeless but also very much of our time. I’ll admit to finding it a little strange‚ still‚ that I’m the one who wrote “Partial Inventory‚” though‚ because I’m far from the most politically minded poet I know. Not that I sat down one night and thought to myself “Okay‚ let’s get political tonight.” I wrote the poem first and foremost from the feeling—the shame‚ sorrow‚ horror‚ outrage‚ disgust‚ self-disgust‚ and self-pity all at once‚ a confusion of feelings‚ really‚ and none of them pleasant.
I remember reading about Daniel Pearl’s beheading while waiting to get my hair cut at the Supercuts on Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights late in 2002. His murder at the hands of al Qaeda was obviously a terrible‚ tragic event and would have been regardless of how he died. But the fact that he was decapitated really disturbed me. And not just because I imagined the brutality of the act from Pearl’s perspective‚ or felt for his family‚ or felt horrified for my own family because of the anti-Semitism of it. But also because I couldn’t help wondering how a person could actually do that to someone else‚ even just physically. And thinking about how they videotaped it‚ how they had the presence of mind for that‚ and how they cut the body into ten pieces at some point afterwards. I wondered whether to be able to do all that meant something bad had to be added to or good taken away from the brain or brains behind it‚ or maybe both‚ or maybe neither‚ maybe that was just part of what the human can do when given the motivation or the right incentive. I’d hate to think that’s true‚ but millennia of evidence hint in that direction. And the fact that the guy who actually performed the decapitation pretty much ended up boasting about it‚ saying he did it with his “blessed right hand” like it was some sort of holy honor. Because of course to him‚ and others‚ it pretty much was. And all the while I kept feeling like I was responding to it all in a very naïve way‚ not being honest with myself about it‚ knowing that there were complicated histories behind all of this‚ motivating it‚ making it happen‚ and not just the big shared histories‚ but all the individual histories of the people involved‚ and how each of them had led to that moment. I often think that‚ even at a place like Supercuts‚ maybe even especially at places like that‚ to roil in the absurdity of it: “My whole life has led to this moment.” Like when I’m ordering a McRib in Connecticut.
Anyway‚ being at Supercuts‚ I replayed‚ as I often used to when I’d get my hair cut‚ the first line of the Rimbaud poem usually translated as “Evening Prayer”: “I live sitting down‚ like an angel in the hands of a barber.” I had always thought the poem was arch and full of bluster‚ which is fine by me‚ but this time I thought there was something sorrowful to it. I remember thinking that there was a sad sort of “taking stock of one’s life” quality to it‚ one I imagined taking place in an implied mirror because of my own experience at barbershops. I think I was put in mind‚ too‚ of a scene in the Charlie Kaufman movie Adpatation (it came out that year) in which Meryl Streep walks away from her self-satisfied muck-a-muck dinner guests and goes to the bathroom where her mood grows grave and lonely and she looks in the mirror and has this beautiful inner monologue in which she says things like “I want to know what it feels like to care about something passionately‚” and when I first saw the movie‚ I was completely choked up. I was pretty choked up throughout that movie when I saw it. Turns out the line was taken verbatim from the book Adaptation is based on‚ Susan Orleans’s book The Orchid Thief‚ which I should but haven’t read. I was really knocked out by that movie when I saw it‚ in part because of the long amazing intimate voice-overs. I identified very strongly both with Nicholas Cage’s as well as Meryl Streep’s. This craving to care about something passionately—it’s so beautiful and human and horrible. I mean‚ whoever killed Daniel Pearl probably felt that way too‚ right?
So this idea of looking into a mirror in the course of a day and suddenly taking stock of one’s life and being repulsed by it‚ repulsed at the site of vanity‚ haunted me for years. I knew I wanted to write a poem that started that way‚ and one day‚ playing around with the idea‚ I wrote the beginning of the poem:
Small wonder I recoil
even from my own
worn image looking back
where I always find it
looking like it’s trying
to warn me something
unspeakable is coming
The poem just took off from there. The recoiling is disgust‚ the warning is compassion. Truth is‚ if I had tried‚ in my twenties‚ to write a poem like “Partial Inventory‚” a poem about military torture and the average person’s complicity in it‚ my complicity in it and how I stupefy myself so as not to have to think about it—well‚ it would have been a colossal pompous train wreck‚ let me tell you. And it probably would have been all disgust and irony and no pathos and compassion. So anyway my head was filled with this complex of thought and feeling‚ and if this is how one feels and how one thinks‚ and all the while one still has to go to work and be polite to people in corridors‚ and still has to go grocery shopping and take their kids to see doctors and what not‚ the pressure of it all starts to rattle you in a way that it might not have in one’s youth‚ you feel the need . . . not to exorcise it‚ that isn’t the right idea‚ not to get rid of that feeling‚ I don’t think‚ but rather to articulate it‚ to give it shape. That again. Perhaps‚ admittedly‚ to feel‚ at least for a moment‚ in control of it. When you’re writing from that kind of state‚ in that kind of state‚ you don’t really think about what category of writer it will place you in. You just get to work.
And yes‚ I definitely think of myself as a New Yorker. I love this city. I still think of myself as a Rhode Islander‚ too‚ deep down underneath it all. And under that‚ a Mesopotamian.
[Read Part One of the interview.]