Margaret Gibson is the author of eleven collections of poetry, most recently Broken Cup, and a memoir, The Prodigal Daughter. Her second book, Long Walks in the Afternoon, was a Lamont Selection (now the James Laughlin Award) of the Academy of American Poets in 1982, and Memories of the Future in 1986 was co-winner of the Melville Kane Award given by the Poetry Society of America. The Vigil was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1993, and One Body was the winner of the Connecticut Book Award in 2008. A new collection, Not Hearing the Wood Thrush, is forthcoming from LSU Press in 2018. She was interviewed by Edward A. Dougherty.
Image: It seems that questioning is central to you, and it goes hand in hand with self-inquiry. Why is questioning so important to you?
Margaret Gibson: I love the word question. There’s a quest in it, a seeking. Sometimes one asks a question, looking for a specific object, something lost perhaps—the grail quest. Or questions can be so open we’re not sure what we’re looking for, only that it’s essential to ask and to remain in a state of not-knowing for as long as possible, to give all of the mind a chance to respond.
I grew up in Virginia during the Cold War, at a time of segregation and social resistance. Sides were taken, lines drawn. My parents were Presbyterian of the southern stamp; everything in the Bible was literally true. We worshipped this way, not that way, and our way was right. So much certainty invites questions, don’t you think?
Actually, at first I was given the questions—in the catechism—and taught the answers. While the aim of this process is to train the child within orthodox boundaries, it’s essentially hearsay: hear what I say and repeat after me. Eventually, you have to ask your own question and then live into an answer that is embodied rather than theoretical. And sometimes you have to question the questions.
But there was an early, first question that arose out of a mysterious depth I knew nothing about. The family had driven home from the country, arriving late, after dark. I’d been asleep on the rear-window shelf of the old Chevy—I was small enough to fit there, so I was perhaps six. I remember standing on the front porch, waiting for my father to unlock the door, and looking up at the summer stars in a very black sky. And out of nowhere came this question: What if there is Nothing?
I remember being stunned by the possibility, and I was afraid. This was my first experience when thinking stopped and the stunned mind was still and empty. Was my question about death? Was it about God? Was it a sense that I was myself nothing? Whatever it was, I didn’t stay long in that not-knowing—almost immediately I answered my own question: “How can there be Nothing if I’m here thinking nothing?” That was my rescue thought; I embraced words as a way of establishing presence—my own. God and the world perhaps came tumbling after, back into assured being.
I consider images to be tacit questions; certainly they lead to investigations one might not have pursued had not the image provided the magnet. I’ve never forgotten that girl on the night sky porch and her question. The poem “Beginner’s Mind” in Out in the Open concludes: “Suddenly I hold everything I know, myself most of all, in question.” In “The Garden,” the speaker says: “Spirit of the Garden, hear guesswork / or if questions are prayers, these prayers.” Among the questions are these: “What are the names of the resurrection? Whose eyes have I borrowed from darkness? How can the soul be separate? Why don’t you touch me? Why don’t you speak?”
You might call these questions part of a personal catechism. I don’t mean to imply that a poem is an answer—it’s really the ground where image and inquiry meet.
Image: The Irish poet Eamon Grennan has said, “Every poem is a memory of some kind, a celebratory elegy.” Your poems often enact this paradoxical “celebratory elegy.” How do the two impulses arise in you? How is the fusion accomplished in your life and in your work?
MG: Your question brings to mind an image in an early poem, “A Simple Elegy.” There had been a death in the family, and my mother had called me to say, “Don’t come home. There’s nothing really to be done.” The occasion is death, but the poem also marks my sense of a transition from being under the sway of my family and its directives. Since my mother purposely called me too late for me to get home for the funeral, I traveled there by way of the poem.
Here’s the image: after a death, the family has gathered together around the table. When the preacher says, “All flesh is grass,” the speaker says, “And I heard glass, seeing all of us / suddenly in the lamplight / transparent figures / who could never hide anything.”
In the poem, loss, once it’s surrendered to and reflected on, produces a vision. A very hopeful one, to say the least. As it turns out, that image of glass continues throughout my work—although it alters. That’s the lovely thing about images. They change as we do.
Traditional elegies move from anguish to affirmation, often with a corresponding “breaking open” within the maker of the elegy. The world shatters; putting it back together differently is transformative. What’s affirmed is the power of ongoing creativity.
Elegy says that life force and death force spring from an unknown, perhaps a common, source. I call that place holy—though I can’t name it. The agent for fusion in the poem is the image. The agent for fusion in one’s life? In mine, perhaps it’s the willingness to bear and lay bare—to stay with the grief until there is disclosure. Elegy is a practice that cradles our deepest fears and deepest longings in an embodied moment or series of moments. The occasion may be momentous—a death. Or it may be ordinary—simply one moment passing into the next.
In that latter sense, Grennan is right—all poems are elegiac. Our words may turn us back to what has passed and will never again return, not in the same form, unless the poet calls up memory and finds the words to recreate the loss. Language, particularly figurative language, is the echo of a particular moment’s presence and its passage. What was it Robert Hass said? “A word is elegy to what it signifies.” Poems, as constructs of words, establish or reestablish presence. Often the poet’s choice to use present tense to recreate a past event is rooted in just this wish to preserve, to present, to be present once again.
Image: You draw from both Christian and Buddhist traditions. How do their spiritual practices or theology inform your poetry?
MG: In my early years I was grounded in Christian ritual and in the literature of the Bible—those images and cadences became part of me. Over the years, I’ve been drawn to meditative traditions—at first the faith and practice of Quaker meetings, then Zen practice, and these led me back to the Christian contemplative tradition, to Meister Eckhart in particular. Buddhist practice has led me to an interest in the way the mind works as it investigates the causes of suffering; the practice of zazen and mindfulness I have found indispensable.
Christianity led me to look for revelation, transfiguration, epiphany—big moments that might convert or perfect my sinful self. For a long time, sitting on my cushion, I was looking for a big experience. Now, after more practice, I ask questions and sit with them until an intuitive response awakens in the mind—perhaps a sense that one is a great being already.
Of course, sitting practice isn’t at all about perfecting or saving the self, or even thinking about the self in a metaphysical way. Western Christianity points to a transcendent self; Buddha wasn’t interested in metaphysics. Zazen leads to the sense that an independently existing, unconditioned and inherent self is a fiction despite this mysterious sense of being “someone.”
There’s a poem of mine called “Glass Elegy,” which I wrote years before I began Zen practice and zazen, which describes this shattering of the sense of self. The poem describes a woman who goes for a walk in the woods, and something in her secure sense of self snaps. “Hold still!” she commands the world. The poem says this: “She’d been so long in front of mirrors, an image in glass, a glass bloom / in a bowl— / and when she broke through / the woods moved in quick, everything out there / verb, quicksilver changes. And these swallow you / unless you turn mirror yourself, and the world / flashes from you each moment.” The woman in the poem doesn’t understand what’s happening to her. Nor did I, the writer of the poem. The poem knew something I didn’t. But that fortuitous phrase “turn mirror yourself,” which came on its own in the writing of the poem, suggests how, when the fictive (solid, transcendent, fixed, separate) self shatters, and the mind quiets, one turns outward, filled by whatever is reflected of the world in the mirror mind. One can welcome the peace of that emptiness and its simultaneous fullness.
“Dwelling in emptiness,” which is what Buddha said he did, turns out to be a way of life in which one is connected to “all my relations,” as I think I put it in a poem.
Immersion in both Christian and Buddhist traditions and asking questions can drive one further into the mind and its fascination with puzzling words and shining abstractions; one lives in the holy world of words. Or the asking can become a way to quiet the mind in the face of the unanswerable. Either way, it’s a patient attempt to plumb the mystery of being alive, here, moment by moment, breath by breath. Writing poems, I’ve set out (without knowing it) to write my own story as I live it. And I live it in images. I don’t know the plotline. Perhaps I set out to write my own litany and liturgy, to redefine things according to “my own” light, to experience or embody salient abstractions and to reenact them in words. The list of abstractions includes revelation, co-arising, impermanence, transfiguration, awakening, emptiness, self/soul/no-self, confession, beginner’s mind, sin/error/forgiveness, intimacy. Meanwhile, I wash my cereal bowl.
Image: The image of being a threshold ends the poem “The Door” in your forthcoming collection, Not Hearing the Wood Thrush. Why is this threshold condition so important for you?
MG: Whether we notice it or not, each of us lives on a threshold, breath to breath, image to image, word to word, sensation to sensation. Watching the mind, one sees how each perception arises, then comes a gap, then the next perception. To stay mindfully in that gap allows for the possibility of a response that is more appropriate, rather than a quick, habitual reaction. If I stub my toe, there’s a sliver of a threshold I balance on before I either react angrily and call myself clumsy, allowing name-calling to shadow the moment and dump me into a bad mood. Or I might say ouch! and choose a response that is fresh, innovative, creative. I might even laugh! That threshold interval is where freedom of response is possible.
To live alertly, on a threshold, pretty clearly reveals that we have no idea what’s coming next. Writing a poem is like that, too. You think you know where it’s going, and there’s a turn. Openness, uncertainty, not-knowing—are all parts of living on the threshold, or living as a threshold. We think of thresholds as borders we cross from one way of life into another, but we are thresholds by nature. We’re the meeting place between inner and outer, the point where they open to each other.
Image: How has your conception of God changed so that you now address the absolute as “No one”?
MG: In Not Hearing the Wood Thrush there’s a series of poems that speak to “No one.” They are prayer poems, in the sense that they reach from the deep heart of solitude toward a felt (but not physically manifest) presence. The words “No one” assert absence of form, and yet the fact of personal address, of saying “you,” establishes relationship and a presence. “What if now I say you and intend that / to frame a space the holy / might inhabit?” one poem asks. My experience of God, like the experience of love, is of a felt presence that at times crosses into a felt absence. It’s like my sense of self—traceless, a fiction, no doubt, but an odd sense of something there nonetheless. No one means no one, but if you talk to that no one, an energy of presence arises, if only from the speaker’s intensity of desire to be heard. “No one” is as close as I can get to doing without personification of the holy; it’s not an absolute negation, more of an attempt to reach to the God behind God, and to hear myself in moments when, after being in silence, words insist on arising.
One of the poems in the collection says, “There is nothing to pray to, yet everything is prayer.” Prayer allows me to hear more clearly and intimately. It’s a way to embrace both suffering and joy, a variation on inquiry, a way of attention. In that sense, poetry can be a prayerful attention to what needs to be refreshed: one’s life, or, for that matter, words like “God,” “soul,” or “Be here now.” Words get stale, laden with the dust of casual usage and abstraction. They need to be re-felt and re-thought, re-experienced.
“Soul” makes more sense to me as a verb. Specifically: to pay attention in a way that is open, compassionate, healing. I understand “spirit” as an intense vibration on a continuum of energy, rather than the opposite of flesh. In another poem, the image for self is a window. The speaker is looking out the window on a bright moonlit night and says, “What I used to call the self is a windowing of / light / in the flood plain of the boundless.” That sounds a little fancy to me now.
I try not to think in terms of absolutes. The final poem in the sequence addressed to “No one” says, “Some days / I only am that I am / when known by what I do not know. And that mystery, No one? You.” The phrase “some days” is important; I try to be provisional.
Image: You say you were raised a Presbyterian of the southern stamp, with a literal way of reading the Bible. What have your conceptions of God become now?
MG: Ideally I’d just remain silent in response to that question—not a Cheshire cat silence, and certainly not the silence of one who knows and isn’t telling. I’ve moved a great distance from the religion of my early years. I find spiritual teachers across many traditions—one of whom, Lao Tzu, says, “The Tao that can be told / is not the eternal Tao.” The question for me is not so much how I conceive of God (what concepts I hold) but how to live.
Sacred teachings are essential, and I value those teachings which, while being clear, retain enigma, mystery, the unspoken. There are so many gleanings: “Everything that lives is holy.” “God is love.” “The wise shape their lives.” Or these words of Lao Tzu: “Use your own light / and return to the source of light. / This is called practicing eternity.” These are words that have to be lived, that have to be opened further by inquiry and event, experience, even story and poem perhaps; they have to be embodied. Concepts can be divisive. A tender gesture, an appropriate statement, an open heart: these bypass concept. Concepts have to be clothed in flesh and image: that’s the way of incarnation, the way of the poetic imagination.
Image: I know you love to garden and to take walks. How has engaging with and reflecting on the natural world urged your development as a person?
MG: I have lived for over forty years in a house in the woods, down a lane a third of a mile off a country road. Even though I’d never lived in the woods before, when I came here I realized that this was where I belonged. It was a choice to live here, but it felt more like the flowering of an innate intention—it was that swift and sure a recognition. I’d written “The Garden” and had tended a faculty garden where I taught outside DC—I was a city girl—but there I was, in the woods, in a house with a garden, and in love with the man who had built the house and made the garden. My life changed along lines that had already been appearing in my poems. I just knew I’d come home—and I was miles from anywhere I’d ever been and knew no one but David, whom I’d just met at Yaddo, a writer’s retreat. And I’m still here.
Annie Dillard once said something like, “If you stay in one place long enough, you’re bound to learn something.” Antonio Machado said, “The deepest words / of the wise men teach us / the same as the whistle of the wind when it blows / or the sound of water when it is flowing.” Those lines could just as well have been said by a Zen monk. By the way, I still stand out under the night sky and look up at the stars. I’m still that kid. I don’t repeat her experience, of course. Now the intent is to restore perspective, for ego to see just what a speck it is. To see is to learn. So I go to school here in the woods, in the garden.
Image: Has the way you employ images of the natural world changed over the course of your writing life?
MG: Some of the learning continues to be empirical—how to tell one bird call from another, also bird nests, wildflowers, weeds, stars, or moths. And what I learn naturally flavors the stew I make for dinner and the poems I write. The hike I take into the woods becomes a metaphor for what’s emerging through me, life at that moment unfolding, transformations great and small. You become the pond you watch, and the hawk, and the fox. When the deer dies and you find its body in the woods, and return daily to stand by it and watch, it’s your body that’s eaten slowly by coyote and company, and when you put the skull on your wall, it’s your skull, too. The images that accompany you become you. It’s seamless in the same way that writing doesn’t just happen at your desk, mindfulness and meditation don’t just happen on your cushion. Our lives can be moving meditations—and for me, more easily so in some places than in others. Perhaps that was what I recognized when I first came here and chose to live in the woods.
I have always used images from the natural world, but the longer I live here—dwelling, in Heidegger’s existential sense—the less I use metaphor and symbol as emblems of the spirit behind nature; the images now more likely point to what things are as themselves. And I write about nature now more for its own endangered sake, and ours.
Image: How has your concept of nature changed over the years?
MG: I’m more liable to refer to nature as “the living world” now, “nature” being another word, like “God,” that carries so many questionable, even false, ideas—a suitcase word that too many people have packed stuff into and then locked and left unopened, unexamined.
Nature is not separate from the human—although a class of mine, to a one, when asked to define nature, wrote: “what’s separate from the human” or “not me.” We need to shift from that kind of thinking by separation and division; we need be able to speak of wholeness with its many parts. “Not one, not two,” as a Zen phrase has it; we need to think inclusively.
The religion I grew up in separated creation and creator, flesh and spirit, body and mind. What if the creation is the creator? What if being “withed” in the world is our actual experience, rather than being set apart?
We need to hear earth speaking in the words we speak; we need self-mastery, not empire; we need to see the lovely thusness of each thing, its intricate and unrepeatable being; we need to learn we are mutual, not exclusive. We need to know “earth I am” and let the resonance of that shimmering implication reach far along the continuum to Spirit. Poets have always known that the more exact the language, the more mystery is embodied and released, and that the well-wrought poem mirrors the harmony and beauty and surprising connectivity of the cosmos itself. For me, a poem is the verbal meeting ground of earth and mind—perhaps that is what “nature” (as a concept) is. A poem conjures and enacts, insofar as words can, the transformations that occur around and within us all the time.
Image: Many of your poems culminate in transformation, sometimes an expansion or enrichment, a becoming; other times a loss. Can you speak about this aspiration to transform, to disappear into something else, or altogether?
MG: At the end of a life, the breath stops, the heart stops. At the end of a poem, the voice stops speaking. Not until a life has ended do we see the plotline of that life—the form emerges with the sense of an ending. Lifeline or plotline, we move breath to breath, or word by word. In a poem, the writer, and also the reader, tend to like surprise, shift, change; in actual life, change is often feared. We’re attached to the static, because we think we know it, and we think knowing makes us safe. That attachment makes for bad art—it makes for an uncomfortable life, also. Impermanence governs this life, but so do resonance, interconnection, and transformation. One form succeeds another, merges and continues, alters and dissolves, on and on. So when the speaker in “To Say Nothing of God” contemplates day after day the body of a deer decomposing, being eaten by coyote, its antlers and hooves a feast for squirrels, it’s not just death the speaker watches as the deer literally disappears; she’s watching a transfer of energy, the continuation of life as it changes shape.
You make the distinction in your question between transformation as a becoming (hence enriching, positive) and transformation as disappearance, a loss. I suppose the distinction depends on which side of the moon one’s on at the moment. The via negativa calls for subtraction, letting go—but it is also a becoming. It leads to a new condition of being. The via positiva effects change through metamorphosis, through becoming—but there’s no burgeoning without a shedding of a previous skin. All these metaphors have to do with helping us to accept impermanence, and more than that, to use impermanence skillfully, especially when the impermanence appears to be an ending.
Perhaps some of my poems end on moments when there is a transparency of insight, when the grace to see more clearly is offered. Krishnamurti, in his often abrupt and stern manner with questioners, says that to see—to see completely and truly—is to be changed. Seeing is transformation. The old self disappears. It is our nature to change, continuation and loss swirling together in an unending dance of being.
Image: If a book could have a patron saint, then Gerard Manley Hopkins would be the patron of your 2001 collection Icon and Evidence. The language is so deeply charged and musical. How did that come about? Is Hopkins a touchstone for you?
MG: I love Hopkins’s poems and his notebooks, in which his language is also charged and musical. But I also love Robinson Jeffers’s poems, and his view of the living world is so different, he who loved the mysticism of stone. Hopkins walks out into the world of rushing clouds and surges of wind in the meadows, ginger-colored leaves aswirl in the road—and he sees intrinsic patterns emerging in the movement and transience, shifting formal pattern, structure (all this before chaos theory); he sees inscape, and the glory of God shot through each artful form making and unmaking itself. His language was able to enact the joy and energy he felt as a witness to the world in all its fullness around him.
When I began to write the poems that would gather into Icon and Evidence, I had just completed Autumn Grasses, a book whose project was writing poems in the quieter mode of Chinese and Japanese poetry, and whose poems reflect an effort to move away from the “I” of so much lyric narrative poetry of our time. That book had been a practice of restraint and simplicity. In Icon and Evidence I think I decided to let ’er rip, so to speak. I love arcane and difficult words and complex sentence structures, and in my tributes to Hopkins, Keats, and Jeffers in that book, as well as in many of the other lyric poems, I followed Hopkins into the deep verbal thickets and open fields of rapture.
You used the word “charged.” You might as easily have said “passionate.” I say in “Epistle to Gerard Manley Hopkins” in that book, “What keeps me / from blank despair is just this word-tumbled world of ours.” Perhaps imagination keeps faith by way of word-passion—enter it and one might just touch the hem of the holy as it rustles across the field.
Image: What’s your process in composing a collection?
MG: I do like the whole of a book to read like a single poem—and that sense of the whole evolves gradually. If a title occurs to me early on, having it in mind may accelerate my insight into how the collection might be unified—not just sequence, but substance. In books where there is narrative and persona, the missing substance might be factual, or a missing scene, a different point of view, further development of character, possibly more research. I did six years of research on the photographer and Marxist Tina Modotti before writing Memories of the Future, and even a single lyric poem may require research. Writing “To Say Nothing of God,” I not only watched that lovely corpse decompose daily, I did background reading on deer, their anatomy, habits, the color shift in their coats.
With the lyric, there are tonal shifts that matter as much as a shift in story matters to a longer narrative poem. One poem might raise a question that another poem will take up and investigate further. In the primarily lyric collections, I like to arrange the poems with a sense of the speaker’s inner development in mind. I like to think that the speaker in the last poem isn’t identical with the speaker in the first: poems change us, both writing them and reading them. This process is clearly part of Not Hearing the Wood Thrush. Several poems in the book have the same title, “Passage,” and are spaced at intervals throughout. They suggest the movement within the speaker as the book unfolds, working through its issues and images.
Image: I see Broken Cup and Not Hearing the Wood Thrush as companion volumes. Central to both is your husband’s progressive degeneration from Alzheimer’s, but the books are quite different. How do you see their relationship and what they each reveal about the experience of profound loss? [Gibson’s husband, David McKain, died on December 27, 2017, months after this interview took place.]
MG: My husband’s illness is now in its eleventh year. In the beginning, we both experienced chaotic feelings—fear, denial, the panic of not-knowing, rather than the grace of it. David’s illness has put all my talk about elegy right on the line. For years I’ve been drawn to elegy; now I’m asked to live it—elegy without an end point as yet. In that early period of adjustment, I didn’t write poems for two years or more, and then the poems that became Broken Cup began to come. David was able to read them for a while. After he took up residence in a nursing home, where I am with him daily, I began to write the poems for Not Hearing the Wood Thrush, poems that explored the changes in my life as it’s now lived mostly at home alone. David’s illness, very much in the foreground of Broken Cup, is backgrounded in Not Hearing the Wood Thrush, whose poems take on loneliness, fear of change, fear of death. It’s true: the poems are written in the presence of death and dying, but they also explore the mystery of being in love, of being alive, and aging, or becoming “no one.” Without the via negativa of living with Alzheimer’s, I couldn’t have written the sequence of poems that address “No one,” poems which reach out to establish a relationship with the sacred and unknown.
David’s ongoing illness is a long denouement, a slow transformation that appears to be a deconstruction not just of the body but also of the constructed self. And the mind, how it works or doesn’t, keeps altering. The long goodbye can be very hard. Memory provides a sense of continuity—and that continuity perhaps gives rise to the sense of being a separate self. Now that David no longer remembers much of his life, what provides continuity? What remains?
Under the pressures of loss, a new humility has arisen in each of us, an awareness of our human brokenness. With that, the tendency to idealize—and to judge—has diminished. I appreciate this new simplicity. Being with him, I witness moments when a radiance of spirit flares and flashes out of him. Is that new? Or just more visible because so much has been cleared away?
And so it seems there are gifts Alzheimer’s offers, for the caregiver mainly the sharpened opportunity to practice being present. There’s no sense in longing for what used to be. The one to love is here now, and to focus on what’s lost would be beside the point; the future is also beside the point. The focus is on being with, on acceptance. It turns out that acceptance widens and deepens the capacity to love. In the midst of intense solitude and loss, there is the experience of the heart opening. And that’s something to be grateful for.
Image: “I love my life,” you write in a poem in the sequence addressed to No one, “each flash of radiance / each ghost of grief.” Could I call that statement a threshold resolution? It arises in a poem in which you say you “understand” incarnation.
MG: “Word-passion” may be a way to reach toward what is always just out of reach—an elusive God, the No one of the heart. Incarnation, in Christianity, points to the need to believe that the distance between us and the Other, and between us mortals, can be closed. It’s true I used the word “understand” in the poem, but the images before and after make it clear, I hope, that it’s not a rational understanding. Understood, yes, but also perhaps better left unspoken. What I think we really want is wholeness, non-separation—and in the rare moments when that happens, there is a radiance that convinces and makes sense in the way love makes sense.
In a human love relationship, passion acts on us, and if it’s not merely sensation but also relationship and feeling that’s released and experienced, there can be a new vulnerability, an opening that is both inrush and outrush. The line you quoted from the poem “Open Window” follows a moment’s looking out the window at birds pouring into oncoming night, a moment when “everything shines,” a shining the speaker says she finds also in “No one”—“in you / more intimate than any / lover who gives back to his beloved / the taste of her body, giving it back to her mouth with his tongue.” That personification of “No one” as a lover is all about incarnated love.
I use personification very sparingly. Nevertheless there is another poem, from Icon and Evidence, which addresses a hillside field directly, as if it were a person. The field is in Pennsylvania where David and I spent many summers, a place I know and love so deeply. I speak to it in the poem as if it’s a lover I’m parting from. At a certain musical pitch of feeling, in word-passion, it’s hard to tell joy and grief apart as the whole world pours into you—through the chink of an image witnessed with passionate attention, whether in a field or through the open window of the heart. What we call “revelation” of the incarnate is simply letting everything be as it is—I’ll let William Blake supply the adjective—holy. Shining. Shimmering.
The God (if it is God) one doubts or questions and loves (with or without knowing it), that impossible-to-personify God, or No one, is released for contemplation in a poem by word-passion. Word by word the poem is created, a net of sound and silence, a song, a whisper between lovers after love-making. Word-passion is our attempt at incarnation, if I can call it that.
Image: In your collection One Body, the title poem caps a sequence about war, violence against women, the plight of the poor and dispossessed, and racism. Can you speak to how you turn lyric inquiry outward toward the world?
MG: Inquiry, however lyric, is still inquiry, whether its focus is on an inner or outer world. Lyric is a tone inquiry can shift into, or not. Inquiry into tangible and terrible occasions where there is suffering and injustice requires another tone. The title poem in One Body begins as a lyric presentation and manages to sustain it as the speaker, watching the slaughter of animals and birds who have taken refuge in the center of a field from the circling mower, transforms into “a storm of voices.” She’s outraged. If you believe the imagery, she towers and has the storm power of lightning. But she doesn’t forget compassion—for those doing the killing as well as for those being slaughtered. We are “one body,” and our true home is “the one shining field.” Perhaps the sustaining force of that faith allows the poem to come to its lyric conclusion. The aim of the poem is to redirect our perspective and provoke further inquiry: How can we kill what we in fact are? We are in that shining field. We are also of it.
That towering figure, I realized much later, was the source of “Conjure Woman” in the next book, Second Nature. Her poems tacitly assume the personification of mother nature, who morphs into Conjure Woman, a powerful natural force allied with the one body of the living world, aggrieved by its degradation. I let her box my ears for a while.
Turning outward to social issues, therefore, may require assuming a persona, especially when the issue at hand isn’t one the poet has participated in or witnessed.
And yet when there has been experience or witness, it’s crucial to take a stand, to speak as oneself. In “Respect,” a poem about racism and division based on difference, I couldn’t have turned toward persona or fictive character. The reader needs to know I lived this. Marie, the black woman who was my country aunt’s cook, speaks for herself so eloquently. I let her speak within the poem directly, just as she had spoken to me as an adult. And the poem forced an insight on me: as a child, my own sense of difference and difficulty with my sister gained impetus from the fact that I was raised in a racist culture, where difference was enough to justify separation and discrimination, fear and dislike. I spoke from experience, but I also used narrative as a form of confession.
Image: Adopting a persona can be an act of tremendous empathy. Employing that literary strategy must introduce a dynamic between outer character and inner self. How does it work for you?
MG: Adopting a persona is so much more than a literary strategy. It is another way to realize that the other is no other than oneself, that what is fundamental to each human being far outweighs our superficial differences. Becoming someone else, acting that part willingly and with imagination, takes not just self-scrutiny but research—especially for an historical figure like Tina Modotti.
Delving into her life, I also discovered the roots of present social injustices. The issues haven’t gone away; they’ve intensified. Rather than speak about the issues theoretically, I chose to speak as the Tina Modotti I reimagined. As I wrote, I felt as if I were speaking more with her than through her.
Sometimes creating a persona can be a way to explore one’s own story with greater compassion and forgiveness. In The Vigil, I transformed aspects of myself into four speakers. In that book, Sarah was homebody, potter, meditator, mother, a bit of a mystic; Jenny, a lone wolf and social activist; Lila a prisoner of resentment and convention; Kate, a rebel caught in a bind of her own making. Sometimes, to see ourselves as we are we need to take a step out of self. Persona, when it turns us inside out, so to speak, may therefore be a form that combines identity and detachment, honesty and invention. It can be an opportunity to break away from the temptations of self-absorption.
Closing the distance between one’s self and others opens us as it breaks down barriers. Learning how to do that, in one’s art and in one’s life, is the true freedom. It helps to lead us out of suffering. It’s an act of love. And if my characters learn to forgive each other and themselves, how can I not participate? Niebuhr called forgiveness the “final form of love.”
Image: In “Motive for Praise, Perhaps,” you say that fear can become a koan. What do you mean by that? Can you talk about your engagement with Zen koans, and how fear feels like one?
MG: Asked to solve a koan—a puzzling, paradoxical verbal enigma—one can go nuts thinking until, finally, one gives up on thinking as a solution, and one becomes the question; in an intuitive leap, there’s a release and the possibility of an embodied presentation. You “get it.” It’s a liberating process.
There may be many responses to fear, but one surely is that the mind hypes itself up, telling stories, imagining consequences, spinning out resentments and defenses, on and on. The mind gets tangled up in its own story-making—intensifying the problem—and maybe, just maybe, one comes to see this desperate response as part of the problem, and the mind shifts a level and leaps free of the morass of mental overdoing.
A number of poems in Not Hearing the Wood Thrush study fear. In one, the speaker tells us that it takes fear only nine seconds to arise and fall away—unless we “feed it the custard of stories and lies,” which only strengthen it. The poem continues, however, to tell itself an imaginative (and funny) rescue story. I think the speaker gets, oh, maybe one foot out of the sticky mess of fear.
Image: The robust “Ha!” the painter Charles Chu utters at the end of the poem “Night Thoughts” seems to resonate throughout this most recent book. Can you say more about the experience of such a “Ha!” and how you see it relating to the other poems in the collection?
MG: I was in Charles Chu’s studio more than once as he painted. He would begin by standing before the blank paper—a moment of concentration, a quiet leap into the swift activity of the brush, and when done—in a flash!—he’d leap back a step, toss his brush, and cry out in a loud voice: “Ha!” The sound came from the center of the earth, which was at that moment situated right beneath his feet.
The poem that Charles Chu’s “Ha!” concludes is a poem about fear that finally faces the great matter of life and death—and “Ha!” That utterance reaches far. How do you hear it? I hear it as the cry of loving last resort. Faced with so much that’s impossible to understand, standing right at the edge of the mortality of everything we know and are and may come to be, what else can we do but create, make something, make it with love and clarity, make it with a desperation that turns into tenderness, make it out of the deepest part of ourselves present everywhere and nowhere—then throw down the brush, bow to the cosmos, and celebrate! Ha!
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.