These are such profound and meditative poems (Only So Far), I wondered as I was reading them if you had a spiritual practice? Or if writing might be, for you, a kind of spiritual practice?
Yes, I do think of writing as a form of spiritual practice, if for no other reasons, that writing makes me look hard at the world and myself. For years now, I’ve tried to sit and look at the world immediately around me, or walk and note daily changes in the life of my neighborhood, both in the natural world and in houses and the activities of the people around me. I also have done the Jesuit Spiritual Exercises twice and still use their “Examen” daily, which is a series of short prayers that give praise, ask for help in the long process of self-honesty and self-examination, and ultimately in the even more difficult activities of loving and hoping. And I try to read a Hebrew Psalm each day.
Reading this collection, I had the desire to weep. It’s so beautiful and so full of sorrow and grief. Were most of these poems composed in the aftermath of your father’s death?
No, a good portion of the poems was written at a retreat called the Hermitage in Englewood, Florida on the west coast. I did two three-week stays in January over two consecutive years. The poems about my father came quickly about a year after his death just when I thought I had finished my grieving.
In the opening section, you have this lovely poem about your father, “Still Listening.” I was wondering if you might post a section from the poem here.
This is from the last section called “My Father’s Hearing Aids.”
Too costly to throw out,
my mother says, my father’s hearing aids,
some whole, some in various stages
of disassembly, lie in his top drawer
like a museum exhibit of a lost past—
when he was still living,
hand constantly raised to his ears,
trying to take hold of the sounds
that fell out of the air or floated
around him like apparitions.
I pick one up and fit it into my ear
as if, my own hearing amplified,
I might pick up something he is
still saying, but all I get is that loud hum
and screech, which, like a rip
in the scrim of memory,
bring him back—he’s at it again,
working to tune in the scramble
of insect chirr, rain chattering
on the trailer’s metal roof,
wind in the pines, a grandchild’s
high-pitched play, the buzz
of his wife’s voice. He wants to hear
again without thinking
of what he’s hearing, wants the Sinatra
song on the radio to sound exactly
the way he remembers it,
and not as if some damaged stylus
were sliding across the black ice
of an old LP. In the end,
nothing ever came to him clearly enough.
I see him spinning those little dials
on his hearing aids back and forth,
nearly frantic, nearly in tears,
the world he’s hearing
like the static of space, those gurgling,
stuttering, anomalous noises
we have our radar pointed at
as if we cannot imagine, being human,
the deep, enclosing silence
without another voice.
This collection moves seamlessly from poem to poem—almost as if they were composed in order. But I am betting that’s not the case?
No, that’s definitely not the case. In fact I had more trouble with the ordering of the poems in this book than I’ve ever had. Even after I hit on the ordering principle of the two epigraphs and the movement between sorrow and joy, or life’s dead-ends and those moments, which Woolf called “matches struck in the dark,” I didn’t see my way. The person who truly saw the pattern of organization that the book’s final form took was my editor and friend, Baron Wormser. I am deeply grateful for his help.
There’s a dialectical movement throughout the book, sometimes a linear divide—whether it be Kafka’s Fence, the North Korean border, Philippe Petit’s tightrope, or the road one is crossing in “Amnesty.” Was that a conscious choice?
Yes, I wanted the poems to vacillate between the poles of the Herbert poem that serves as one of the epigraphs to the book.
I will complain, yet praise;
I will bewail, approve:
And all my sowre-sweet dayes
I will lament, and love.
I love your lines about Emerson in the poem “Midwinter Emerson,” his belief/ we were made for ecstasy and his fear of just that, which reminds me of the lines in the poem about Camus, “Watching Cranes, I think of Camus,” who wondered how we could ever be // miserable, so much beauty in the world,/ but also, how we could ever be happy, / so much shit in the world. Do you share their feelings?
Yes, I do. I have always lived, it seems, in a kind of “in between” place. By that I mean: on the one hand, my experience tells me that I live in a creation that is a gift of love. On the other, I see quite well the more rationale understanding that the world we live may simply be the result of accident and Darwinian evolution. I think Keats’ notion of “Negative Capability” and Simone Weil’s idea about contradiction have always been touchstones for me: that we must live in the contradictions of our experience without an “irritable reaching out after fact and conclusion,” to quote Keats.
Tell me about the title.
The title, Only So Far, comes from a phrase in the poem “Like a Dream” about manatees. Here’s the ending:
Have they made some placid truce
with our noisy world above them,
unable to do more than what they do?—rise
to the surface, their buoyant peace
a kind of offering and sacrifice,
a story to be told thousands of years from now
on some cathedral wall—of creatures that passed
beneath us, at rest in their movement,
then disappeared from our world,
never needing anything from us,
their peace only able to bear us so far,
even if we always wanted to believe in it.
The larger idea in the book is that we can only “get so far.” Like Moses overlooking the Jordan River, we can see the Promised Land, but never get to cross the river. Our place is always that “in between” I spoke about: between the “wilderness” and the Promised Land; between what we can know and the mystery we must acknowledge.
Do you have a specific time of day or year that you write? Do you have any writing rituals? Are their poets whom you work with?
When I’m writing, I work each morning from 8-12. I tend to read and make notes for poems for months, then write for two months, a schedule that came from teaching no doubt. I was never able to do much more than make notes and do revisions once a semester started up. Then in May, when the second semester ended, I would write every day for four hours until school resumed at the end of August. In response to your second question, I exchange poems on a fairly routine basis with the poets Jeffrey Harrison and William Wenthe.
Who are your primary literary influences?
Because I loved and taught British and American literature for forty years, my influences range widely, but behind most of my poems and thinking you can find George Herbert, William Wordsworth and John Keats on the British side, Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens on the American.
I admire so many of these poems, I wanted to underline most of the book. “A Christmas Story” is one of my favorites, especially when you describe the Polish poet’s revelation. I wondered if we could close with the interview by posting the poem below.
A Christmas Story
Sure, I’d had too much wine and not enough
of the Advent hope that candles are lit for;
and I’ll confess up front, I was without charity
for our guest who, glassed in behind those black,
small, rectangular frames, reminded me
of those poems that coldly arrange a puzzle
of non-sequiturs to prove again how language
is defective and life leads to nothing more
than dead-ends. So, after a night of wondering
if our never-more-than-hardly-surprised guest,
a young professor whose field of expertise
seemed to be ironic distance, would give
a moment’s thought, as he took apart everyone’s
unexamined stances, to how and why his own
might be constructed, I blurted out a story
over our Christmas dinner dessert, about
Alexander Wat, how the Polish poet,
taken one day from his Soviet prison
to see a local magistrate, stood in the sun,
reveling in its warmth on his face and arms
and hands; as he took in the beauty
of a woman in a light green dress, he knew
he would soon be back in his prison cell.
He never forgot, he said, the irony of
his freedom, and yet he felt, standing there,
something like a revelation, the autumn day
surging in those silly puffiest white clouds,
and a hardly bearable blue sky, and the bell
of a bicycle ringing, and some people
laughing in a nearby café, and that woman,
her bare languid shoulders turning in the sun—
it was all thrilling, achingly alive, a feast
happening right there on the street between
the prison and a government office, nothing else
mattering, not even the moment he knew
was coming, and arrived, right on schedule,
when he stood woodenly before the magistrate.
And when I had finished, my face flushed,
my guest looked at me with astonishment,
unable to process where so much emotion
had come from, and then asked, calmly as ever,
what I meant when I’d used the word, revelation.