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Bruce Beasley is the author of nine collections of poems, most recently Prayershreds (Orison Books, 2023), All Soul Parts Returned (BOA Editions, 2017), and Theophobia (BOA Editions, 2012). The Corpse Flower: New and Selected Poems was published by the University of Washington Press in 2007. His previous collection, Lord Brain (2005), an extended meditation on neuroscience, cosmology, theology, and language, won the University of Georgia Press Contemporary Poetry Series Award. Beasley won the Colorado Prize for Poetry in 1996 for Summer Mystagogia, selected by Charles Wright, and the 1994 Ohio State University Press/Journal Award for The Creation. Wesleyan University Press published his books Spirituals (1988) and Signs and Abominations (2000). He has won fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Artist Trust of Washington and three Pushcart Prizes in poetry. Dayna Patterson interviewed him over email in the fall of 2023.


Image: Several years ago, I heard you speak about your “conversion” to poetry. I remember you saying, “Poetry got its tenterhooks into me.” At what point in your life did this happen? What was it that gripped you and wouldn’t let go?

Bruce Beasley: I’ve recently been obsessing about metamorphosis. In The Mystery of Metamorphosis, Frank Ryan writes, “Recent research suggests that the processes of metamorphosis and puberty have so many commonalities that some developmental biologists suggest that ‘puberty may be considered a variation of the metamorphic theme.’” Similarly, my conversion to poetry felt like a variation on religious conversion, and in a very real way poetry has been a religious practice for me ever since.

When I underwent the metamorphosis into adolescence at thirteen, poetry became a living being to me. I essentially stopped talking for a year or more. I’d always been introverted, but this was something different. During a time of intense disorder in my family life, in the two years before my father died suddenly when he was forty-eight and I was fifteen, the outside world of talk closed itself to me somehow; at the same time I met the inner world of poetry.

My oldest sister brought home a poetry anthology from a class at the University of Georgia, and thumbing through it one day I encountered a way of speaking that was so strange and new to me, so hyperintense in emotion, idea, image, and the noises of words, it felt like here was a way of talking that matched the tumult going on in my mind. I remember wishing that everybody talked poetry all the time. It was a language I wanted to learn to speak, one where you could say anything, no matter how true it was and how transgressive it felt to say. Its chants and metaphors and enigmas felt like holy ones to me.

I grew up in a family afflicted with alcoholism, where so much of the emotionally chaotic reality of daily life wasn’t talked about; poetry felt like a place that was liberatingly undogmatic, that felt unrestrained by the strictures of social talk.

Image: You have a twenty-six-poem sequence, “Spiritual Alphabet in Midsummer,” in Signs and Abominations, in which you respond to Kierkegaard’s statement that “the soul must have a complete alphabet” by tracing your spiritual life across one summer in 1996. What are some of the crucial letters in that soul alphabet?

BB: That sequence came from an intensive reading of Puritan spiritual diaries by Michael Wigglesworth, Cotton Mather, and others. They saw the “finger of God” in everything that happened; daily phenomena read as oracular revelation. I decided to treat my life that summer as an interpretable series of spiritual signs and wonders, from a compulsive three-a.m. Tetris game to news events to oil leaks to a car ahead of me in a traffic jam with the last words of Christ handwritten in Aramaic on a filthy windshield. In many ways, all my poems are writings in a spiritual diary, both faithful and despairing (and seeking faith amid states of desolation). A long sequence called “Bodies Find No Resistance from the Omnipresence of God” meditates on the nature of the void in quantum physics via Newton’s notion that space, the void, was the “sensorium” of God, by which God perceived all the universe at once. Drawing on Schrödinger’s wave equation and understandings in contemporary quantum cosmology about the fluctuations of vacuum energy, the poem seeks faith in divine presence in what was thought to be emptiness, nihilism, void. Many of the letters in my soul alphabet try to sound out such a vision.

Some of my spiritual alphabet I imagine in the large alphabet blocks from Trinity Presbyterian Sunday school in Macon, Georgia. Those letters stand for a conviction I had for many years that all that happened was God’s will—how could it be otherwise, given the omnipotent and sovereign God of Calvin? For years I believed that suffering and evil, however impossible it is for us to understand or believe it, were meant and meaningfulThere’s a fascinating passage in the fourteenth-century German mystic Meister Eckhart’s treatises where he preaches that God, in divine foreknowledge, has already decided before the universe was ever created how to answer a prayer we pray today. For years I was drawn to a vision of an omnipotent cosmocrator whose will will be done, however inscrutable it is to us. Part of me still craves the faith to trust, like Job does after the whirlwind, that that will is good, even if in ways we as humans can’t wholly fathom.

Even Calvin wrote, though, that “faith is so tossed about by various doubts, so that the minds of the godly are rarely at peace.” Many of my spiritual letters are “tossed about by various doubts.” Doubts not about the existence of a cosmocrator God but about our capacity to know and be known by such a deity. I dreamed once that all of human history was, in God’s perspective, like a quark or lepton is to us—vastly too infinitesimal for even God to see directly. In the dream God had just discovered how to read it (as humans have glimpsed at last the quantum realm) and was uncovering human history for the first time, God full of awe at God’s own creation.

“Sometimes what’s meant by God / goes out, // goes out,” I wrote in a poem called “Reading Jesus Again with a New Prescription.” There’s a double sense of “meant by God”: what we mean when we speak of God; what God intends for us. And of the experience of God being sometimes extinguished: “goes out” like a blown-out candle; “goes out” as in, is broadcast or announced. I have (I think most people of faith have) what Emil Fackenheim called, in Judaism and the Meaning of Life, “times of divine farness,” when God feels far from me because I am far from God, and times when faith feels like certainty to me, though I think the certainties of faith are in a very different category than the certainties of evidence or reason.

Most of the letters in my spiritual alphabet spell out a faith (sometimes a faith against faith) that the cosmos is a scrutable text we’re given some of the vocabulary and syntax to read, and that our lives are in some sense meant, as in, charged with spiritual meaning. (Like Hopkins’s “The world is charged with the glory of God”: charged as electric, charged as ordered or commanded: we are charged with finding and enacting the glory of God.)

Image: How do you carry that doubt about “our capacity to know and be known by such a deity” alongside letters that “spell out a faith…that the cosmos is a scrutable text…that our lives are in some sense meant”? In other words, as a person of faith, how do you cope with doubt? Or, conversely, as a person of doubt, how do you cope with faith?

BB: I exorbitantly love that question. I have always experienced being alive as terrifyingly and exhilaratingly ambiguous. In our rational lives, we’re trained to disambiguate everything; in my faith life (and my poetry life) there’s a chosen plunging into mystery. The mystical, like poetry, is a place of paradox and enigma and submission to (embrace of) the rationally unknown. There are other forms of knowing than the rational. I thrive spiritually (and in my poetics) on a vision like that of Peter Rollins, in How (Not) to Speak of God, that “God is not a theoretical problem to somehow resolve but rather a mystery to be participated in…religious truth is thus that which transforms reality rather than that which describes it.” 

Poems, too, I think of not as reproductions of the real but as transformations of linear experience into a realm where curiosity and wonder prevail. There’s a faith in that process, too, of willingly entering a sacred mystery. The forms of my poems are often immersions into states of being and perception I mean to invite the reader to experience: not to ask what the line or the poem means so much as to experience a different mode of knowing. Peter Rollins, paraphrasing Karl Barth, wrote that “even the revealed side of God is mysterious.” As crucial a Christian concept as the kingdom of God is itself deeply elusive, to be felt with the whole being rather than consciously or analytically understood. And the parables of Christ are, to me, magnificent poems, with all the invitational enigmas of poetry: figuration, metaphor, hyperassociation. Like poems, they have to be experienced first, in all their strangeness, before the conscious mind can begin to talk about them.

Being a creature of the senses and of rationality, I try in my faith and in my work to confront honestly the craving I have for tangibility, certainty, and physical presence that might be read by some as a form of doubt, but that craving for the physically present is to me just deeply human, part of being creatures (as we are) of the senses. “I believe,” as a man in the Gospel says to Christ, followed by the plea, “help thou my unbelief.” And I try to dispel what to me are clearly teachings made in the name of Christ that in no way resemble what I understand to be the central teachings and practices of Christ. That, too, is a form of faith. Even the earliest participants in Christian mysteries struggled mightily to comprehend the parables, Christ’s primary form of teaching, and even they misunderstood and doubted the very faith they had surrendered their lives before. For me the paradoxes of faith are as holy as the doctrines. I think of what we call doubt and what we call faith as two species of spiritual experience, as the bread and the wine are species of the body and blood of the Eucharist.

Image: You mentioned that early in your life poetry became a religious practice for you. At its core, is that because, as you say, in both there’s a “chosen plunging into mystery”? Are there other aspects of poetry that align with religious practice for you?

BB: Poetry, for me (as reader and writer) sacralizes perception. Dickinson wrote that, in the aftermath of a death,

We noticed smallest things—
Things overlooked before
By this great light upon our Minds
Italicized—as ’twere.

Poetry is that way for me: language itself feels italicized, stressed, “instressed” in Hopkins’s sense of  experienced in a transformational way by truly seeing into it. Like reading ancient scriptures, poems bring being into order, for me, and simultaneously (like reading mystics, like dreaming) open a world of perceiving that is very different from banal consciousness. Poems grant permission for extravagance of emotion and thinking. They reorder and disorder meaning. They hold, as prayer or liturgy does, rationalistic thought in semi-abeyance. Poems hold open for me, as faith does, a space of wonder. And part of that space is an invitation to multiple possibilities of understanding, many means of comprehension. Language turns into chant, incantation, litany. A word explodes with several simultaneously evoked (but very different) meanings. A metaphorical image doesn’t explain itself but beckons to readers to bring their full attention to its potential suggestions. I think poems train us how to understand, with our full minds, the onslaught of experiences we encounter every moment, most of which demand serious acts of interpretation. It’s not accidental, of course, that so much of scriptural writing (in the history of faith traditions) takes the form of poetry, with poems’ incantatory rhythms and unquenchable figurations and surprising metaphorical similarities. Poems approach obliquely what isn’t approachable through the language of rationality and linearity. They use cadences of liturgy and music in what Hopkins calls “oftening, over-and-overing, aftering,” the patterns of sound and of the physical world.

And for me, theologically, poetry’s intense attention to image and physicality and what I like to call “radical specificity” is incarnational: it brings attention to the sacramentalism of the existent world and praises it through that attention. Metaphor and simile are ways of saying that the things of the world are replete with meaning and deserve to be read until those meanings begin to emerge. “New wine must be put into new bottles.”

Image: Many of your poems engage with science and spirituality simultaneously, in particular your collection Lord Brain. While some Christians are wary of science, you ardently embrace neuroscience and particle physics and botany and entomology and cosmology, as if science is one of God’s many languages. Did you always have this approach? Are there any branches of science you haven’t delved into and remain eager to explore? 

BB: In 2001 I set out on a several-year period of intense and exhilarating research into cosmology, neuroscience, relativity, quantum mechanics, the history of human understandings of the cosmos and the brain. This wonder cabinet of ancient and recent theories of the origins and evolution of the universe and the brain took me through years of reading articles like “Paranormal and Religious Beliefs May Be Mediated Differentially by Subcortical and Cortical Phenomenological Processes of the Temporal (Limbic) Lobes” and books like Is God a Virus, A Celebration of Neurons, and How the Self Controls Its Brain. The book that emerged, Lord Brain, is named for the distinguished British neuroscientist and baron by that name. I mean its title to suggest God’s dominion over the mind and our minds’ power to conceive of and believe in a God as creator and sustainer of the universe. The epigraph to that book, from Judith Hooper and Dick Teresi’s The Three-Pound Universe, reads,

As one neurologist we spoke with put it, “Ten billion neurons, 1014 different connections—hell, you can do anything with that. That’s more than enough to contain a ‘soul.’”

The poems in that book engage with Newton, Einstein, Descartes, Augustine, neuroscientists’ attempts to trace what brain processes correlate with mystical and religious experiences, Pythagorean cosmology, “Area X” in canary brains that swells as they learn their yearly mating song and shrinks when mating season is over and the song is forgotten, the search for the Higgs boson. I was fascinated by cosmologists’ theories that the universe arose from a quantum fluctuation of the vacuum. (“The universe may be just one of those things that happen from time to time,” as physicist Edward Tryon wrote.)

Lord Brain set a trajectory for my work since. I believe, fundamentally, that the languages of mathematics and sciences are among the ways God speaks. To me, maybe the most astonishing thing of all is that the mind has evolved to be capable of even partially reading that language, of even imperfectly understanding the origin and evolution of the cosmos.

In more recent work I’ve been engaged with microbiology, botany, and the physiology and behavior of beings like the Toxoplasma gondii parasite, which is capable of rewiring the neural circuitry of rats to make them attracted to cats rather than fearful of them (so that the toxoplasma microorganism can transfer from rat to cat’s gut, where it breeds). I’ve written poems and sequences on extremophilic life forms like the Pompeii worm, which flourishes in conditions of extreme heat and pressure, and the recently demonstrated ability of the scarab or dung beetle—sacred in ancient Egyptian religion—to practice celestial navigation. “The earth is the Lord’s,” as the psalm proclaims, “and the fullness thereof.” 

In a dream my father portentously urged me (from the back row of a poetry reading I was giving, decades after he passed away) to pursue my Beasley ancestry “to the eleventh generation.” I discovered when I awoke and did what he said that that branch of my family had lived in Goosnargh, a village in Lancashire, for hundreds of years, and that the brother of my direct paternal ancestor was a Catholic priest martyred for his faith in London in 1591 and beatified in 1987 by Pope John Paul II. Last year I finished a sequence of poems called “Y: Genomic Pilgrimage,” in which I trace the Y-DNA that connects me, father to son, through the centuries to Blessed George Beesley. The poems meditate on the physicality of DNA and the mysteries of received faith. They use the number of DNA nucleotide repeats in my Y-DNA sequence as a chant and use the chemical formula for the nucleotide sequence TCTA in a villanelle (lines and rhymes repeating like the DNA sequences do). I’ve incorporated equations by Schrödinger and Heisenberg in the text of poems.

So questions of faith and questions of science (genomics, zoology, botany, physics, astronomy) are inextricable from my poems. And what remains unexplained in the sciences draws me strongly, as does the counterimpulse toward craving absolute knowledge, complete revealing.

Image: I understand you’ve been writing about dreams for a long time. In your collection Summer Mystagogia, one poem riffs on a dream journal entry from when you were a child. Has that connection between dreams and spirituality always been present for you? If prayer is one of the ways God might communicate with us, are dreams also a field of revelation? Are all dreams revelatory in some way?

BB: An emphatic yes to those last two questions. I believe strongly, as people throughout human history often have, that dreams can contain oracular messages from the divine and communications from the dead. I think of every dream as a katabasis, a descent into the underworld of our own minds, into parts of who we are and what we think that we don’t know we know and don’t think we think.

Dreaming for me has always been a spiritually revelatory experience. Dreams speak a language of their own. Like poetry, like mystical experiences, they proceed through a syntax of rapid emotional and associative linkages. (This feels like that did; this reminds me of that.) The dream theorist Mark Blechner wrote that “the dream is the answer for which the interpretation is to find the question.” Dreams, I believe, ask us to see our spiritual and emotional lives in just as strange a form as they really are.

I kept a dream journal when I was about twelve years old. In one dream my family were prehistoric humans: “We were primitive people. Daddy hunted for our food. He left. We were going to have to get our own food. I was raising fish. Snakes kept hatching out of them.” Years later, coming across that journal, I was startled to realize how the dream drew from the words of Christ in Luke 11: “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead?”

When I was writing Lord Brain and deep in reading about cosmology, I dreamed that an inquisitor of some kind was giving me an oral examination and asked what mass was. I hesitated and finally said, E=mc2? He looked at me sadly and said, “You don’t know what Mass is, do you? You don’t even know.”

Image: A dream pun! Was there a consequence for not knowing, besides the inquisitor’s disappointment?

BB: I think the dream inquisitor was warning me against a wholly materialistic view of matter (and what really matters). My answer pointed toward relativity—Einstein’s realization that mass and energy were fundamentally exchangeable, that mass and energy are “both but different manifestations of the same thing.” A single gram of matter could be converted into a staggering amount of energy. The inquisitor was talking about Mass: the Eucharistic conversion of matter into the body and blood of Christ. A different form of exchange between matter and energy—a spiritual rather than material metamorphosis.

Image: I’ve heard your poetry described by other poets and readers as complex, cerebral, and difficult. Do you think of your poems as difficult? What for you are the uses of poetic difficulty?

BB: I think of poems as linguistic, intellectual, and sonic thrill rides. Once when my son Jin was young, we went to a virtual-reality exhibit in Las Vegas where he got to design a really elaborate roller coaster for me to ride in virtual reality while he and my wife Suzanne watched. He knew what was coming next at each turn, but I didn’t and was terrified and thrilled by every swoop and agonizingly slow climb and plunge. Poems are meant to be felt like that, in the gut, newly designed each time to shock and throw you out of your habitual state of rationalistic mind. You’re not meant to know what’s coming next: that’s the thrill of it.

I think we make poetry hard on ourselves, unnecessarily, by self-demanding that we understand (consciously and rationally) what often isn’t conscious and works much more through association, intensities of emotion, wordplay, metaphor, and the pure noise and chant of rhythm and patterning of consonants and vowels and half-rhymes. Our being surprised by language in a way we’re usually not is part of poetry’s mission: shocking us into awareness again of words and the multiplicitous subtleties and implications behind them. Often we see things more clearly when they’re made suddenly unfamiliar.

The first line in my latest book, Prayershreds, is: “I am words in a language I don’t know.” That’s meant to be startling and strange, especially as it appears under the title “Self-Portrait.” A self-portrait consists of a depiction or demonstration of who the artist really is. Often it doesn’t resemble a face much at all; it wants to let distortion get beneath the visual surface. This poem is a self-portrait that says right from the start, “I don’t know who I am; I can’t read myself; I can’t even talk to myself.”

I wrote that first line along with a poetry class I was teaching. I gave us the assignment to write “I am _______” and, without thinking about it too much, to fill in the blank with a surprising but true metaphor. I was startled to find myself writing that I was “words in a language I don’t know” (which kind of proves the point that we don’t always know what our own selves are thinking, or what we really mean when we say something).

I was writing this poem amid the pandemic quarantine, feeling so isolated and way too much inside my own mind. In close touch with our thoughts, we often discover things happening there that we would never expect. We’re always to a certain extent strangers to ourselves. Much of who we are is a reflection of who others think we are; when we’re cut off from others, we’re left partly not knowing who we are anymore. Words in a dead language, one we don’t even speak, and maybe nobody does. Poems say things that are so true we don’t recognize them.

Much poetry—certainly the poems I love best—casts us into a terra incognita for a while. Poems are often places of linguistic estrangements and surprises, as well as of intensities of imagistic description that bring things back, very physically, to the world we recognize. Like many dreams, poems often work by creating metaphoric landscapes that stand for and embody emotional landscapes

In the childhood dream I mentioned, the fear of losing my father gets represented as emotional privation (“primitive”) and abandonment: “Daddy hunted for our food. He left.” (I dreamed this less than two years before he died suddenly; that dream journal is filled with other dreams of his dying, and unconsciously my thirteen-year-old self clearly sensed that loss on the horizon.) The dream enacted anger at that coming disappearance of presence and care through the metaphor of that loss depriving me of food: like the parent in Christ’s parable who, when the child asks for nourishment provides instead something terrifying and potentially poisonous.

Poems act like that dream does: through allusion, metaphor, association, making visual landscapes of emotion. I want my poems to invite readers to experience language and the poem and the world as mysteries-in-action they don’t have to solve or resolve. (“One must picture everything in the world as an enigma,” the painter Giorgio de Chirico wrote, “and live in the world as in a vast museum of strangeness.”)

When I write lines like

what follows is to be understood
as enigmatic, transmundane, inenarrable, mantic—
parts of speech we never thought to utter

I’m inviting you into a shared place of openness to what we don’t already know, and to a way of talking you shouldn’t expect to be familiar with before you enter the poem. Imagine the poem is a dream you’re having and let your gut feel it before your rational mind does.

And like a crossword puzzle: let the sense of what you do feel surround and fill in what you don’t yet intuit any connection with. Don’t worry about “getting” everything; some things remain elusive, as in life itself. “Before I got my eye put out—,” Dickinson wrote, “I liked as well to see / As other creatures, that have eyes— / And know no other way—.” In the lines I mentioned before, I use the word inenarrable, a glorious mouthful of a word that means “incapable of being narrated.” I don’t expect any reader to know that word already; I invite the reader to learn it with me. The word is as strange as the concept it embodies: that some human experiences can’t be described or narrated by ordinary means. Poetry is an extreme form of speech, and one that often uses its strangeness to try to narrate things not easily told.

I will never know why my neighbor’s dog is yapping so furiously right now or why a treeful of crows is squawking maniacally. I don’t know if the dog is reacting to the crows, or the crows to the dog, or both of them to something I don’t hear. That’s okay; I just go right on talking about the difficulties of poems, as if every moment in time didn’t contain its own unplumbable mysteries.

Image: As a former student, I can affirm that you helped ease my anxiety over difficulty and meaning and steered me toward leaning into mystery, for which I’m very grateful. Are there parallels for you between the difficulties inherent in the forms of your poems and the difficulties of faith and scripture?

BB: Very early on in the Gospel of Mark (3:21), when Jesus first begins to preach, his own family “went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind’”—or even more bluntly in the World English Bible translation, “‘He is insane.’” People of faith (any faith) confront in doctrines and scriptures “hard sayings” that sometimes resemble madness to the uninitiated. “Whosoever will save his life shall lose it”; “From him that hath not, even that he hath shall be taken away from him.”

Misunderstanding and confusion are an insistent motif throughout the Gospels, as when the apostles go off alone “questioning one with another what the rising from the dead should mean” (Mark 9:10). It’s clear (even in the double negative of the translation) that “without a parable spake he not unto them.” The apostles are always asking Jesus in effect to translate his speech out of parable for them; “If you don’t understand this parable,” Christ asks (Mark 4:13), “how will you understand any of the parables?” 

But a parable is a kind of poem: a metaphorical likeness in a brief story, the meaning of which is open-ended, open urgently to interpretation. A parable—like a parabolic poem—insists that the meaning arise in the mind of the listener through an act of interpretation that alters the listener. (“He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”) I think anything that approaches boundary questions such as how the cosmos came to be, how intelligence and self-awareness arose, how we should live our lives, what happens after death—the questions prophets, cosmologists, philosophers, poets have confronted throughout the ages—are bound to be difficult; how could they not be? Radical new ways of making sense—whether in poems, dreams, scriptures, mystics’ writings, philosophies, quantum cosmologies—are the dwelling places of ultimate questions.

So many of the recorded teachings of Christ “resist the intelligence,” as Wallace Stevens wrote that a poem should do, “almost successfully.” 

I believe one reason for that resistance is that rational intelligence can block our access to other ways we are given the capacity to know. I’ve been rereading The Cloud of Unknowing lately and was struck by this passage: God “cannot be comprehended by our intellect” or “even angels’ for that matter…. But only to our intellect is he incomprehensible; not to our love.” The author of The Cloud of Unknowing writes of “this secret love pressing upon the cloud of unknowing…with an outreaching love and a blind groping for the naked being of God.”

Poems feel that way to me. “I doubt You Lord,” I wrote in a prayer-poem in Prayershreds, “but only / the way I doubt myself, a Thinking Thing.” Descartes famously reduced what he could be certain of to the fact that he was thinking and therefore must exist; my doubt, I say here to God, goes further than even that. But it presses with secret love upon the cloud of unknowing, in its own form of “blind groping.” 

In my work I often aim to make slippages and gaps in our capacity to know through rationality alone part of the poems’ form. So catechism questions of ultimate metaphysical issues meet with metaphorical and partly non-sequiturial answers, or with questions that open up further metaphorical questions: in my poem “Revised Catechism,” the question “May we question also that which is not dubitable?” is met with parable-like double questions: “Should the spider’s legs stick to its own capture silk? / Does the spider consume, each night, the orb of its web, to furnish / again the very silk it will need to rebuild it?”

The ending of my poem “Loathsome Repetitions” repeats four times in a row a single line from Psalm 143—“My soul is like earth without water for Thee”—to emphasize its marvelous multiplicities and nuances of possible meaning: I crave you, God, the way droughted earth craves rain; the drought in my soul is a sacrifice I undergo for God; my soul is too parched to spare any of my water with you, God.

Faith is difficult because life is. Of course we want certainties, but I ask myself often what kind of explanation Job took from God’s barrage of eighty-eight rhetorical questions as to providence, undeserved suffering, and our place in an inconceivably vast cosmos. (“Gavest thou the goodly wings unto the peacocks?”) Or what the disciples of the Buddha did with the list of the Sixteen Imponderable Questions the Buddha said, in the Sabbasava Sutta, they should never even ask, including “What am I? How am I? Where has this Being come from? Where will it go?” Uncertainty and wonder (and wondering) are where we live, and not just in poems.

Image: Your work has often engaged the visual arts: painters like Leonardo and Francis Bacon, photographers like Andres Serrano, and more recently, the abstract sculptor Bruce Beasley. How did you discover and begin collaborating with the other Bruce Beasley? What was it like to find someone with your exact name who is also an artist?

BB: I discovered Bruce Beasley’s stunning work when a colleague said, “I didn’t know you were also a sculptorand handed me a feature on Bruce Beasley’s translucent cast-Lucite sculptures. I got intrigued by the idea of a see-through sculpture, as if seeing through the work of art to what surrounds it, and also seeing “through” a name into the inner life of the artist(s) who bear it. I thought of a poem called “Doppelganger Self-Portrait” in which I would draw my own portrait through the lens of Bruce Beasley’s sculptures. I made rough starts but hadn’t finished anything when I received a heavy package from myself, or so I thought. It was from the other Bruce Beasley, a magnificent retrospective volume of his work with a note saying, “I don’t know how you feel about sharing a Google search with a sculptor, but I love sharing mine with a poet.” We began a collaboration, and I spent a wonderful afternoon at his home and sculpture garden in Oakland.

I’ve published two extended series of poems based on his work: “Offspring Insprung” in All Soul Parts Returned and “Not Easily Pulled Asunder: Ten for Tenacity” in Prayershreds. Offspring is a bronze sculpture Bruce sent me as a gift, in which a series of cubes spring out from a base, each of them innerlapping one another, and some almost wholly buried within the others. In my poem I quote Bruce: “But the part of a cube that penetrates / out of another cube is no longer a cube.” My meditation on his sculpture got me thinking about how deeply our identity overlaps with those closest to us, as his cubes become inseparable from one another. And since the sculpture’s name is Offspring, I addressed the series to my then-fifteen-year-old son, Jin, thinking about how deeply he was part of me, I was part of him, and how much my father is imbricated in my identity (“I’ve got my father in me, his offspringing shape / closed in there, so implicated in the cubes that make me / not one of his faces or mine is uninterrupted”).

There are fifteen sections, for the fifteen years of Jin’s life, and the sequence has multiple refractions of my selfhood—so there’s my father, my son, and Bruce Beasley, all selves that the “cubes” of myself are partly contained by. Each section is six lines (for the six sides of a cube), and I set myself the formal challenge of paralleling in words some of the physical forms of Bruce’s sculpture. Phrases and images from one section repeat in other sections, so my lines and stanza “cubes” interpenetrate like Offspring’s bronze shapes do. Section XIV is literally contained inside section XIII.

Root words break out of words that contain them as the cubes fight their way out of other cubes that possess them: parent and parenthesis, sever and several, genitive and generation, foundation and foundering, close as adjective and close as verb. The poem meditates on how haptic language feels to me when I’m writing (haptic being a word Bruce Beasley taught me, meaning graspable; related to the sense of touch; giving cutaneous sensory input). I tried in both these sequences to create something like a geometry of words in tribute to Bruce’s sculptures and their celebration of the nuances of physical shape. “Homoousian comes crawling from the dictionary,” I wrote, “Sometimes words get haptic, available to touch.”

“Not Easily Pulled Asunder: Ten for Tenacity” takes its forms and ideas from Bruce’s 1990 bronze work Tenacity, in which a sphere breaks open to reveal cubes (ten of them) busting out, it seems, from its insides. I wrote the poem in ten sections, one for each of the cubes. (When I told Bruce I was fascinated that his title embedded the word ten inside tenacity, he surprised me by saying he had no idea he had done that!) The poem meditates on the difference between spheres and cubes, the rounded and the sharp, which become in the sequence figures for sculpture and poetry: two forms bursting out of the name Bruce Beasley.

One of the sections of that poem describes a dream I had that Bruce Beasley had mailed me one of his thumbs, covered with chisel dust, and that I had to figure out how to attach it to my hand. When I sent him the poem, he responded by mailing me a bronze cast of his arm, one of my most prized possessions.

Image: I’m very grateful for your mentorship, and I’m wondering how you developed your generous approach to other poets. What is the spirituality for you of teaching and mentorship? Are they extensions of your faith life?

BB: That’s a wonderful question, and yes: the work of paying close attention to the intellectual and creative lives of so many students over the years has often felt downright numinous to me. In poetry especially (and even more concentratedly in poems drawing from students’ dreams, which I worked with for years in my Poetry and the Work of Dreams seminars) I often felt I was being allowed to stand on sacred ground of things that mattered so deeply in my students’ lives. I often thought of every class I taught as if it were a poem, with all the experimentation and excitement and play and formal innovation I bring to writing. The closeness and authenticity of conversations with my students (and with their poems) and the nourishing of intellectual and poetic ambitions felt like such a privilege. And mentoring continues to bring me a great deal of joy, to treat a student or former student’s work with the same kind of intensity I bring to my own manuscripts. I hope I’ve been able to bring to it some of the passion I’ve had since I was a teenager for poetry as a way of being in relation to the world.

And to witness so many of my students (very much including you) come into the fullness of their talents as soul-wrestling poets and editors and teachers is such a continuing pleasure to me.



Dayna Patterson is the author of O Lady, Speak Again and If Mother Braids a Waterfall (both from Signature). The latter received the Association for Mormon Letters Poetry Award. Two of her poems appear in Best Spiritual Literature 2023 (Orison).




Photo by Warren Umoh on Unsplash

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