James McMichael was born in Pasadena, California, in 1939. After earning a doctorate at Stanford University, he taught at the University of California Irvine for over forty years. McMichael’s early work consists largely of shorter lyrics and sequences notable for their restraint, subtle musicality, and clarity of perception. These same qualities mark the more expansive Four Good Things (1980): a book-length, discursive poem drawing on diverse subject matter—including history, carpentry, aeronautics, and economics—to explore the origins of Pasadena and his own place within it. Other works include Each in a Place Apart (1994), which deals with the poet’s marriage and divorce; The World at Large: New and Selected Poems (1971–1996), whose new poems initiate the uniquely intricate use of line and stanza that characterize his later work; and Capacity (2006), a book-length sequence encompassing everything from deep-sea disturbances and historical catastrophe to the origin of photography and the physiology of desire. His most recent work, If You Can Tell, appeared from Farrar, Straus and Giroux in February of 2016. In addition to its return to more candidly autobiographical content, the work is McMichael’s first to address explicitly his religious belief—especially his relationship to the writings of the Apostle Paul. He was interviewed by R.M. Haines.
Image: I notice that your latest book, If You Can Tell, appeared ten years after your previous work, Capacity (2006). Taking that amount of time is quite rare in the current literary world. Could you discuss your writing process?
James McMichael: Most of my writing projects have been book length. To complete each one has obliged me to get stuck in the project until I feel I can let it go. Once that’s over, all I know about what might come next is that I want it to be different from what I’ve just done. By my count (including my book on Joyce’s Ulysses), I’ve needed to wait seven times for something new to emerge. If that should have been enough times for me to have learned how long I need be patient in lying fallow, it hasn’t been. I’ve found no timetable for what to expect in the way of discouragement and the abject fear that I’ve written my last book. In the months (and in some cases years) in which nothing good is happening for me on the blank page, I’m reading and taking notes on other writers (almost all of them writers of expository prose) whom I want to learn from about my own interests. That’s of course much easier to do than to come up with lines of my own. The longer I stay in that easier part of the process, the more uneasy I become with what seems more and more like laziness. During such times I usually go through a series of false starts, each one of them just lively enough to fool me into thinking it might work. It’s difficult to catch myself faking it at such times, but that’s what I’m doing. Once I’m blessed to be doing something that has some promise, I do what I can to let it tell me where it needs to go.
Image: In Capacity, the “I” makes no appearance whatsoever. How did you come back around to first person in If You Can Tell?
JM: Writing in the first person had occupied me from the mid-seventies, when I began Four Good Things, through Each in a Place Apart, almost twenty years later. Two of the three new poems in my New and Selected (1996) disguise the first-person speaker in the second person. The (much longer) third poem, “The World At Large,” speaks in the third person of Greenland. I think of it as having pointed me southeasterly toward the poems in Capacity. The third-person subject of the last of these, “Back,” is me. The poem is in that way an introduction to the first-person speaker of If You Can Tell.
Image: In the new work, we see the return of Capacity’s stanza pattern, in which a one-line stanza cannot recur until you’ve used lengths of two, three, four, and five lines (though not in that order). Having used this stanza for two books now, what do you see as its unique advantages for composition?
JM: It’s indispensable to me that I write not only inside the container of the sentence but also in the one provided me by that number of syllables that make up a line. The line of verse offers me two prominent advantages over prose. First, writing in lines somehow equips me with antennae which help me identify the many phrases I draft that for one reason or another aren’t good enough and thus must be dropped. Second, there’s a kinetic relation between any one line and those lines immediately before and after it. This relation may be drawn from to let the reader know more than she would otherwise about how I myself stress the syllables in a given clause. I’d like it to be that running over to the “at” in
I’m lost to the ways that love is right
at bodies sometimes
has enough slam in it to underscore how close I feel love comes.
Writing in stanzas as well as in lines extends the advantage by generating relations not only between individual lines but also between groups of them. The stanzaic form in both Capacity and If You Can Tell is my shortened-to-five version of Schönberg’s twelve-tone system. As I move from series to series of one-, two-, three-, four-, and five-line stanzas, I want to instill as much variety as I can by sticking to a few rules for getting from here to there. If the first series starts with a three-line stanza, the next series must not. If the next-to-last stanza in the first series has two lines, a two-line stanza may neither begin nor come second in the series that follows.
Image: In one passage in If You Can Tell, you are a boy in Sunday school telling a lie about being born in China. If your experience of the church began early, how did your relationship to it change and evolve over the years?
JM: I think my relationship to the church depended from the start on what I heard when I was in it. At home, I’d become addicted to the radio. My shows came on every weekday at 4:30 and lasted until 7:00. I’d then listen with my parents to theirs. All of it got to me. I lived from its words. The piano my nanny had given me lessons on I now picked at with my right hand one note at a time. I was in the boys’ choir at the Pasadena Presbyterian Church, which was a gothic shell, had good organists, and, before I left, a preacher named Ganse Little, whom I wishfully remembered as having been there sooner than I’ve come to learn he was. Of the services bookended by Bach, his sermons were my favorite part. He’d always put together something important and followable. What he found to say sold the use of language to me in a way nothing else did. As good as the radio was, he was better. The church had its own radio station (and still does.) Guy-wires from each side of the nave suspended a microphone through which everything inside the church was transmitted. Those wires were a strange contentment for me. There were times during the service that I couldn’t take my eyes off them. I came to covet the trust they gave me that what was going on right there where we were might be reaching a larger, appreciative public.
I went to church only sporadically once I was in my teens. For several years after JFK was killed I attended again and then stopped going after the assassination of his brother. What remained constant for me during that time and since was the reading I did, almost all of it within the tradition I think of as my own. It includes (in my own language) Chaucer, Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, George Herbert, Milton, Richardson, Austen, Keats, Emily Dickinson, George Eliot, Hardy, Henry James, Frost, Stevens, and James Joyce. It’s obvious that each of these (along with other writers who have been important to me) had his or her own (often only tacit) responses to the Old and New Testaments, to the vast commentary on them, and to the political and social history of religion in the West. More explicit on these matters were theologians and philosophers: Augustine, Boethius, Aquinas, Duns Scotus, Occam, Luther, Descartes, Leibniz, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Husserl, and Heidegger.
I’ve been reading Emmanuel Levinas in translation for forty years. He describes, more accurately than I thought words could, what it is that happens to me when I’m addressed by another person: That person speaks to me from a height. If I could (magically) remove me from myself and then take up a neutral point outside, I’d be able to see that for him, too, my words to him are spoken from above. From such a viewpoint, I could tell myself there’s a symmetry between us within which we are equals. But Levinas explains that no such viewpoint can be mine. For me to be alive inside my skin is to be subject to words I perceive as coming toward me down here where I am. No one can take my place as the person by whom these words are heard, comprehended, felt. To the words I hear I must bring in response as much of my life as I can. Inescapably obliged, I find myself inside the Judaic covenant of works. How I got here I’m reminded of all the time by Paul’s question, “What do you have that you did not receive?” The question obliges me no less to the old covenant but also introduces me to one that’s new: while it was exactly the terms of this life I was given, I was given them in grace.
It’s these and other thoughts and feelings that a dozen years ago led me back to church.
Image: The Apostle Paul plays a major part in If You Can Tell. Could you say more about how it was that he took hold of your thinking and writing?
JM: From fairly early in my conscious life, I’ve understood that the tradition that’s shaped and shapes me is Judeo-Christian. With that understanding in place, I got old enough to be troubled by the truth that I’m not good at loving Jesus. That I’m not good at it is why I’m a bad reader of the first three Gospels. Because I do much better with the fourth, I recognize that it’s not the protagonist of the Gospels that’s my problem, but much more (and maybe even exclusively) me. Paul has become my mediator in this. Any closeness I’ve come to have with Jesus depends most upon how vital he is for Paul. Paul couldn’t be clearer that it’s the intensity of his love for Christ that compels him to build churches. It’s of course as a church-builder that he writes his incomparable letters with their continuing call to everyone to be with and for one another, working out their own salvations with fear and trembling. That any one mere person’s words should minister with the force that Paul’s do is more of a wonder to me than reported miracles.
Image: In your poem “Of Paul,” we begin very much in the speaker’s place: his thoughts, his backyard, his bed, his sleep. However, in the poem’s fourth section, we move by way of a photo by Eugène Atget to a place and time at once extraordinarily specific—the Little Dunkirk at 3 quai Conti, in Paris, in the year 1900—yet bewildering for this very reason: it is so far outside the speaker in whom we’ve been comfortably located. What went into choosing this particular place?
JM: England having been a prominent location for me in Four Good Things, Each in a Place Apart, and Capacity, I felt the poem “Of Paul” needed a foothold on the continent. Eugène Atget’s photograph of the Little Dunkirk’s partly invisible proprietor reminded me of Paul’s insistence that the world’s form is passing away. By the time I’d included along with it references to three other Parisian shop fronts Atget had shot, the city itself had enough claim on the poem that I decided its final section should be set there.
Image: The way the poem engages its persons is somewhat elusive. Is it fair to say that much of the imagining and thinking about personhood here hinges on the idea of substitution and its difficulties: “The unsubstitutable / life of someone”? Was the idea, in part, to get other persons least wrong by substituting for the speaker those who won’t assimilate comfortably into his self (or, say, the reader’s idea of that self)?
JM: It can of course be one’s very self whom one has trouble loving. Paul fails to assimilate into himself with any comfort when, as he tells us he does, he does things he hates. Since he knows from God that he must love others as he loves himself, there’s no way around his loving himself if he’s to fulfill the law.
I fail to love in myself those traits that hold me back from helping other people. My limitations being what they are, who do I think I am that anyone might want my help? This question is most prominent for me when it comes to strangers. How might I find my way to what can be most alive and good in my dealings with them? Whom of their whole lot do I next set myself to loving? “The least among them”? Which one is she or he? As I suppose we all do, I tend to follow my nose, keeping it out of the business of those whose cues inform me that that’s what they want. When someone lets me see he might welcome my interest and care, I usually say something to him, and he says something back, our civilities almost always making it clear to us both that they’re enough. The intricacies in such situations are likely as different each time as each of us differs from everyone else. In the silence that follows each encounter I have, I’m back to me as another mortal. Called by Paul to join “in Christ” all those I’ve lost, I draw as much as I can toward an answer about where to look next from what may have been Jesus’s last thoughts of God.
Image: In one passage, the speaker of “Silence” asks, “Who in the world / / is he, / this ‘least’, / / or she?” It becomes apparent there how unsatisfying is the speaker’s experience of Pauline faith. Taking on this faith, then, one becomes oneself “the least” insofar as one has entered into an impossible relationship. I wonder if you could say more, in this connection, about how you’re thinking of “what may have been Jesus’s last thoughts of God.”
JM: Your having turned “the least among us” back from being anyone other than me to me was a possibility I hadn’t let myself consider. That I might be this “least” does follow from the logic of Pauline faith. Having entered into that faith requires me to know that I’m among the least of those who can affect the well-being of someone I love. The more my love compels me to hope the best for someone, the less I’m satisfied I can help that person gain it unless by way of prayer. Prayer offers me more than one comfort. Because it requires me to disavow my own agency in the outcome I pray for, it relieves me, syllable by uttered syllable, of the responsibility for that outcome—an outcome that almost always differs radically from the one I’d prayed for but proves in time to have been no less good. It’s also a comfort for me to sense that prayer is something I’m “in” right along with everyone else who’s prayed, is praying, and will pray.
It was Jesus Christ alone who experienced the task of delivering eternal well-being to all those prayed for in his name. How deadly a task that was for him depends, for me, on what comfort God gives him prior to, during, and immediately after he asks “why hast thou forsaken me?” Less prayer than imploration, the question is preceded by Jesus’s addressing God twice as (still and nonetheless) his own. Jesus is beholden to God from first to last for whatever it is that comes next for as long as time is what matters. Comfort from forsakenness will have to entail the timelessness at the heart of Jesus’s declaration that “Before Abraham was, I am.”
Image: I keep thinking about the nameless woman in section IV of “Of Paul.” Is she fictional?
JM: What her father told her about the halo around her whole body my father told me. What happened to her at the hospital and then at the funeral parlor with her mother happened to me. The sweep of country over which she’d watched the clouds stack is seven or so miles east of my cabin in Idaho. Wherever she is in Paris isn’t fictional. But she’s fictional for me. I have no idea what she looks like. The women in Atget’s photos I think of as having been born generations earlier than she would have been.
Image: Your relation to her is analogous, perhaps, to how your poem imagines Christ’s relation to Paul: “Paul / as not Paul.” Why was it important for the you-as-not-you in this poem to be a woman? And why a prostitute?
JM: She’s just enough me (and I she) that she emerged, walking the streets of Paris. A draft of it I sent to a dear friend contained all the lines in the published version except the ones about her having a stranger’s “flesh to reply to.” In the absence of that later addition, it was my friend who explained to me the nature of her job. Had I missed that truth because I needed protection from recognizing myself in her character? It does turn out that she’s so much me-as-not-me that it took someone else to identify how she makes a living. Does this mean an otherwise-buried part of me feels I’ve prostituted myself in how I’ve made mine? It doesn’t seem so, but who am I to tell?
Image: I wonder if you could comment on a passage from “Exchange”: “It’s projected that in not many years / there will be fewer of us / dead than alive.” I read this as saying that there will soon be more people living on earth than the total number of all those who have ever lived. Is that accurate? And if so, how was this projection arrived at?
JM: The projection is simply wrong. Since I wrote those lines, I’ve learned that of the 106 billion persons ever born, only about 6 percent are currently living. With the geometric growth of world population, we’ll be adding geometrically to the number who have died and the living will never catch up. As Bogart’s Rick was about the location of Casablanca, I’d been misinformed. When I told my wife I’d published an untruth, she said, “Well, it was something you’d ‘heard said.’”
Image: The poem “Heard Said” seems to me unique in your body of work: a series of short sections, each in a different voice. The listener is posited as virtually mute, almost hostage to things heard said by others. This is underscored by the most harrowing moment: “I’ve killed other people. / You’ll find that this will go better / if you and I don’t talk.” What brought this piece to be? Also, at the risk of spoiling the fun, could you tell us the sources of any of these moments?
JM: “Heard Said” comes straight out of my having heard what I did from the crank-caller in the poem “Exchange”: “Gotcha, / / Gotcha a little bit.” Turning up “hostage,” as you say, to certain utterances can go on and on. It can be lifelong if we let this advice from the person who’s about to kill us be the last words we hear. Those words are spoken in a movie from the early forties, Watch on the Rhine. I think Bette Davis was the killer’s wife. His job was to eliminate significant Nazis.
Each moment in “Heard Said” is an exception to everything I’ve listened to over the course of my life and then perfectly forgotten. The speakers include an anthropologist, a ground-floor resident who keeps an eye on the street, a newsperson, a former auto-worker, a senescent widow, a golfer who sells motorcycle parts, my wife’s aunt Hattie, and someone who’s just learned unhappily that she’s with child. It’s a motley cast, each one of whom the Apostle Paul (himself a killer) would make room for in his church.
Image: The poem “Wisdom” contains the new book’s title: “What is his name, and what is his / / son’s name, / if you can tell?” Tonally, that line reads almost as a taunt or check on the speaker’s capacity to tell the truth. Could you expand on this passage?
JM: I know the word Wisdom is waiting to hear from me about what “his” name is. By going ahead and saying “God” even though I can’t tell if God is gendered, I might fool Wisdom with my lie: I wouldn’t fool God.
The things I find to say about what matters to me: am I myself able to understand them? I say I know my death will be final. It seems impossible that death could be anything other than that for me, but then that possibility is right there in the very truth I’m asserting as certain. Having not yet died, how can I know what I can’t know? And yet I say I do. It would be wise to remain mindful that the story one ventures about one’s destination risks being dead wrong.
It has of course been caused that much larger than any person’s one mortal term is the truth that life is.
Image: In “Pasts,” you construct three pasts for yourself: time prior to your birth; the autobiographical past; and a third past which is more difficult to define. You write of it, “…I construct as an impossible / / third past / my / over-before-I-know-it- / / if-never-quite- / here-yet / last moment ever.” I wonder if you could elaborate on this third past.
JM: For me to have a third past (in addition to the two I have already) would require that a post-mortal identity that allows me to remember be substituted for the oblivion I expect. Scripture promises that I’ll outlive my life. Only if that happens will I then be able to look back on my present life as on a past that’s been completed.
Image: “Of Paul” asks, hauntingly and outright, “Is God’s face death’s?” Could you expand on the relationship between the face, death, and God? Also, how might Levinas’s writing on the face have influenced your thinking here?
JM: If two pasts is all I get, I don’t survive my one life once it’s been completed. It will have to be someone other than myself who sees my death mask. My death mask will be there to be seen, I expect, by some of those same living faces I was (in Levinas’s account) “mastered” by each time I faced them while I still had life. It’s a life I wouldn’t have been allowed to be mastered by if—as I imagine toward the end of the poem “Back”—I’d never been conceived to inhabit this body which differs from photographs of the British countryside taken at about the same time I myself was “brought to pass.” Had I not been given either of the two pasts I now have, “I” would forever be the same as what shows in those photographs. As Elizabeth Bowen writes it, “nothing then could impair what had not been.” Rather than having not gotten made, though, it happened that I did. It has been caused that, born and living, I’m mastered by my life in a world with other persons, a world out of which death’s mastery will send me.
Image: Your book makes it at least possible to consider that death, as a kind of never-arriving force, ultimately compels one’s existence to empty into love and compassion: that in death one realizes or is “given to” God in and for others.
In this connection, I am interested in the way the first and last poems in the book speak to one another. While “Hidden” (which ends the book) has the speaker “beholden to it all the way that… / death hasn’t used itself / up yet,” “The Believed In” (which opens it) has the speaker “lost to the ways that love is right / at bodies sometimes, always just as it’s leaving and / often without touch.” In both, the speaker is given to a “way,” and both are concerned with limits and departure. Was it your intention to have these two poems mirror one another, suggesting a line of development across the book?
JM: Certain living persons enact “deity” for Emily Dickinson. Learning that another of these just yesterday had been made dead, she pleads for reinforcements:
More Hands—to hold—These are but Two—
One more new-mailed Nerve
Just granted, for the Peril’s sake—
So greater than the Gods can show,
They slink before the Clay,
That not for all their Heaven can boast
Will let its Keepsake—go
Keepsakes that can’t be kept are losses. If God lost Jesus first to flesh and then to death on the cross, it’s at the very least possible that he and God are restored to one another in the resurrection. “The Believed In” supposes that my mother, nanny, and father sensed daily (even if all three of them suppressed it) that my mother would not be restored to them (nor they to her) once her imminent death arrived. It supposes they sensed it right in their bodies and were at the same time thereby lost to how welcome mortal love was between them. Because the stakes were unignorably different for my mother than for my father and Florence, the poem supposes that he and Florence may have wanted to “empty” themselves into the impossible-to-realize wish that they might take Elva’s place and thus spare her her denial, pain, and fear.
That was the three of them (and not me) during a time when I was still young and stupid enough to be sure my mother was from day to day getting better. It was sixty years later that I wrote the lines about my being lost to love’s ways. I think that lostness continues along any line of development the book may have from its first poem.
Image: In “Silence” and other poems here, the speaker’s sense of lostness opens a space in which he “auditions” death, so to speak. If “faith comes by hearing,” it is possible for him to listen ahead into the moment of death, when he will be lost even to his being lost. And the poems suggest, to me, that his doing this is not mere dread but is, if mindfully engaged, capable of generating a kind of love.
JM: I think I do find God in the absence of mortal body. That phrase itself, “the absence of mortal body,” applies to the condition that precedes every person’s life as well as to the (usually mourned) condition that succeeds it. It has been caused that the singular lives of mortal bodies are preceded and succeeded by the absence of their mortal bodies. Conditioned, caused, and then living, each mortal body spends its more or less brief while as entirely itself. In any succession of sounds, one may listen ahead as if “into the moment one is lost even to one’s being lost.” We know death’s a cinch to get the role it auditions for with us all. Once its time comes, the performance will be over as soon as it begins. Death will have played its part perfectly. Each of us will have, too. Hearing myself forward into that certain but never-to-be-experienced future seems more like knowledge than faith. While that knowledge lends itself to my faith in the import for me of this moment right now, I want so many more such moments that it’s the faith only (and not also the knowledge) that I’m able to love.
Image: I am reminded of a passage from “Back,” in Capacity:
Being is what there is
when beings that had come to light are
no longer there.
Being quenches itself on its
out-of-this-world pull forward.
I wonder about this passage in connection to the new book, where the speaker is concerned with—among other things—how “to get / being right in the Pauline.” I know it’s a tall order, but could you discuss your work’s concern with being? It’s such a vast concept—it’s all there is—but it seems to be particularly important to your work in Capacity and If You Can Tell.
JM: Anthropomorphizing of me to say that being “quenches.” Doing so, I’m compromising my attempt to understand what being means by projecting onto it an appetite I myself have that it of course doesn’t. In my figure for it, being lets worldly beings be and eventually pulls itself out of them until they’re no longer there. Not until its being in them is extinguished is being satisfied in its relation to them. In the meantime, being has gone ahead and let other worldly beings be.
Being’s “out-of-this-world pull forward” obviously happens in time. So does Paul’s being “in Christ.” Contained as it is within Christ’s timeless being, though, Paul’s own being is insulated against the extinction that befalls formed beings that are not in Christ. It’s not the dead but rather those who live on within it that quench Christ’s being. To claim as much seems less anthropomorphizing insofar as, incarnate, Christ could be slaked.
Image: In a sense, perhaps, Christ offers mediation between is and as, the ontological and the fictional/fabled: by accommodating the anthropomorphic—the as, and even the as if—one may be welcomed into Christ by virtue of what may otherwise seem our failure. Still, as “The Believed In” tells us, the nature of this saving as (or as if) is nothing if not difficult.
JM: Difficult for me to hear in what’s believed anything but doubt-driven protestation. Here I am on Easter morning writing what’s difficult for me about belief’s as if as if it weren’t true that every use of language is and must be metaphorical. As if belief’s measure isn’t God but rather these typed words, my telling as ifs. Because I think in the terms of the mortal being I am, I come no closer to getting it right than when I remember Heidegger’s “To think is to thank” and let myself be pulled as far as possible into that second infinitive.
Image: In my reading of the poems, as well as your response here, it seems imperative that one try not to hate one’s difference or mortality or partiality: one mustn’t hate being used up by being and being unable to adapt being to one’s unending uses. To do so would be to hate what is ultimately a blessing: “God is / / thanks I can’t fail to give / for lives that must be completed.”
JM: Every day, each of us sets about to adapt being to our singularly differing uses with differing degrees of failure and success. Remembering we’re mortal, we remember we’ll eventually be used up by being. Levinas defines time as “the postponement of death in a mortal will.” Leopold Bloom thinks what it’s like for someone who’s about to die: “It’s the moment you feel. Must be damned unpleasant. Can’t believe it at first. Mistake must be: someone else. Try the house opposite. Wait, I wanted to. I haven’t yet.” Hating it that being is eventually taken away from all persons (except maybe Christ) is ordinary for me: what’s extraordinary is to find I hate it even a little less when I let myself down into the absolute truth that, without death, life itself can’t be. It’s a truth I maintain faith in only by not sentimentalizing it, by not telling myself it helps me more than it does in fact.
Image: The work of life, then—as the poems have given me to think it—is to give of oneself from a place of magnanimity: not to balance one’s account, but to keep giving.
JM: Life seems more evident to me the less self-interest intrudes into what I’m living. I asked a friend who’s an excellent pastor how he understands the word “sin.” He said it’s any obstacle between himself and the person it’s possible for him to be.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.