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Here the serpent-son,
Apollo’s offspring, came to land, put on
His heavenly form again, and to the people
Brought health and end of mourning. The old god
Came to our shrines from foreign lands, but Caesar
Is god in his own city.
~Ovid Metamorphoses, book XV
Ooh, the vision comes and goes, and again it appears
the poet was right. There is something out there mounting up
beneath the surface…This morning the lake is invisible.
We’ve come to the harbor on my twenty-sixth birthday
with hopes to see the big ship set to arrive from Japan.
It will not be carrying back triumphant men—just better cars.
The longshoremen stand out the length of the dock in blazing jumpers,
waiting for the dawn arrival already delayed an hour
by this fog in my father’s hometown.
A hundred-or-so stand near us in the infinity hallway;
a few close enough to reveal noses and hands, Italian-looking,
like my grandfather’s, and father’s, and mine (though less and less so).
Kenosha is hideous behind us, cloaked by this cloud that hangs
on the pigeons flushed out: the last exhalation of the auto assembly.
We wait at the base of the docks, and talk about the White Sox,
not the Roman Empire. My father and I stare right at it, but talk baseball.
Do you know what I mean? Further out in the distance,
the trundling distance that you, my father, can’t see—
even if you’d stop talking baseball a minute and look
—another hundred men settle in, stretching necks and backs,
to laze in varied stations of disappearance, and are gone.
There, in the Senate of the even greater distance,
Caesar is made a god to account for his brilliant succession
—his boys, who, in turn, give the kingdom slowly away.
And then I see it—don’t I?—vague in the flocks of what
promised to be a mighty ship, a mound spooks up
gaining huge ballast, riding high in the fog. It breaks
through the surface of the lake with a hush, and then, yes,
I see the eye, a swollen mirror, staring right back, seeing me.
Clearly the freighter is nowhere near. Knowing nearly nothing
about ships, we know no one would risk this run in the fog.
Why don’t we speak of it? Dad, everywhere in Ovid a god
pursues us. Do you see it, but know of something truer?
Do you see, at least, that Kenosha is hideous?
When you stare at the lake do you see it’s my birthday;
that it’s me in the harbor? Do you see me coming in?
Were there times in your life when you knew
the kingdom was over? Were there times when you saw
what your father could not?
Glass Work Song
Well, he was no theologian,
but when we were children
my best friend’s father would speak of the lord,
though only when given a question,
so we asked him often.
his cantos were carried by a foreman’s voice
so unlike our own—volume high
to overcall the furnace howl, tone low
to part and cross the shriek
of those conveyors he left at five,
and the shattered eardrum he didn’t.
But ask of Golgotha,
ask of the Good Samaritan,
and the great voice slowed, faltered,
bent, and broke finally, grunting to carry
the words of the lord. Grace, Angel,
Nazareth, Rome—disparate notes
of a fractured tune
in dinnertime steam. Rising
over beans, beets, venison chuck,
a melody hummable by none of us
was nonetheless hummed by all.
And so it was for my friend
in his twenty-second year.
He set out quiet from the Windy City
six months early, out of cash,
out from the school of his choice
to the job he’d sworn he’d never do.
This song: his father’s job. This song:
the glass plant.
And so it was
that Wednesday, hump day,
his third day of work.
He began to sing nonetheless.
Over coffee mugs and cigarettes
on picnic tables, among men mid-
break in a brick wall room,
he raised his voice.
It sounded like this:
Couldn’t we go faster if we lifted alone?
Isn’t this tri-pane impossible to shatter?
—not good beginnings.
Whoever you are, you aren’t surprised
how quickly, sharply, the men, in response,
said nothing at all.
they spoke about the sheets and sheets
they’d stacked six days a week
for years—always two men to a pane.
This song is not about materials.
This song is how to pick and swing
an eight-foot length without decapitating
Bruce or Joe. Among them this song
is not knowing glass. Lifting it? Yes.
But those ponderous rectangle
hushes of air, those reflective spans
they won’t lift alone? Daily they sing
one another this omittance. Each will have
enjoy this Grace, Angel,
Nazareth...They are in attendance
to the music—
scales heard, day in,
day out, in common; a lifetime
of tickets to La Scala, but knowing
there’s no need to leave Kenosha.
To stack these panes for many years
and say very little of glass:
this is fellowship among them
among us, a chorus that aspires
to a certain quiet; a quiet becoming
the closest we can get.
A river. And if not the river nearby, then a dream
of a river. Nothing happens that doesn’t happen
along a river, however humble the water may be.
Take Rowan Creek, the trickle struggling to lug
its mirroring across Poynette, wherein, suspended,
so gentle and shallow, I learned to walk, bobbing
at my father’s knees. Later, whenever we tried
to meander on our inner tubes, we’d get lodged
on the bottom. Seth, remember, no matter how we’d
kick and shove off, we’d just get lodged again?
At most an afternoon would carry us a hundred feet
toward the willows. We’d piss ourselves on purpose
just to feel the spirits of our warmth haloing out.
And once, two bald men on the footbridge, bowing
in the sky, stared down at us without a word.
-from Carnations, Selected by Guest Editor Mark J. Brewin
BIO: Anthony Carelli was raised in Poynette, Wisconsin and studied at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and New York University. In 2011 he was awarded a Hodder Fellowship at Princeton University. His poems have appeared in various magazines, including the New Yorker. His first book of poems, Carnations (Princeton, 2011), was named a finalist for the 2011 Levis Reading Prize. Anthony lives in Brooklyn, New York and teaches expository writing at New York University.
An Interview with Anthony Carelli by Aaron Bauer
Aaron Bauer: It seems that the landscape and physical surroundings—a harbor in Kenosha in “Birthday,” Rowan Creek in “The Prophets”—are an important part of your work. Why is it important for you to name these locations? How do the specifics of a place collaborate with the poems you create about those places?
Anthony Carelli: These places I name in the poems are well off the beaten path. Before you asked this question I hadn’t really thought about why it is important for me to name them. These are places a reader is likely to have never visited or even heard of. Their names alone don’t bring a picture to mind. They are places that aren’t part of literature. Having made that observation, I feel I need to add that, in writing these poems and naming these locations I wasn’t hoping that they be added to a great map of literature (and even if I was I have certainly and unsurprisingly failed). I named the places, I suppose, because I thought the poems needed the specifics. What do I mean by needed? Well, I’m not sure. I can say that when I read these poems at readings it is a thrill to say the names of these utterly un-famous places because their utterance creates a tiny moment of drama, a moment of definition for the “characters.” The speaker is revealed to be someone who knows this setting well enough to call it by name. But more interestingly the speaker seems to expect the individual to whom he is speaking to know the place as well as he does. Speaker and listener are part of the same provinciality—we’re locals. And maybe, just because we’re from here, we are free to do all sorts of things, say all sorts of things that would be inappropriate and meaningless elsewhere. So naming the off-the-beaten-path places makes me feel both humbled and free at the same time. And maybe the reader will be surprised to find that, though she isn’t Seth or the father, though she’s never visited the Kenosha harbor or stepped foot in Rowan Creek before, she may be, through the address of the poem, invited into her own provincialities.
AB: When you are writing a poem about a specific place, do you visit that place? Do you prefer to draw from your memory or notes?
AC: The poems about specific places tend to be about places I have visited already and still remember. I don’t recall ever returning to a place in search of more material for a poem. I don’t use notebooks to sketch an experience as it happens. My notebooks are full of sketches of what I can’t seem to forget.
AB: In “Glass Work Song,” you often insert a line break in the middle of the line. I noticed that many of these mid-line breaks come at grammatical stops as well (i.e. the end of sentences), but sometimes they occur mid-sentence, such as:
[. . .] Each will have
enjoy this Grace, Angel,
What is the impetus for adding more line breaks in this poem? What influence does this have on the sound of your poem?
AC: This is a pair of good questions for which I have no good answers. I cannot describe the impetus of adding these mid-line breaks. I break a line for any and all of a thousand and one different reasons and I can’t keep those reasons in my mind, especially as I am writing and revising. Someone has probably written a list of the thousand and one reasons to break a line. I can’t imagine the list would help anyone write or read a poem but it might be a humbling reminder of how immensely sensitive we are to shifts in the pacing, emphasis applied to, and spatial arrangement of language. As I revise I break and re-break lines over and over again until the poem looks and/or feels and/or sounds right to me. I also cannot describe the influence of these mid-line breaks on the sound of the poem. I wonder how this passage sounds when you read it, Aaron. I hear so many sounds in this passage, I don’t know what to do with them all. The passage sounds slightly different to me every time I read it. I notice that when my eye steps down the page from “next” to “enjoy” I slow down my reading a bit. I end up saying the phrase “enjoy this Grace, Angel” as a discreet unit of speech, which sounds to me like an utterance that might accompany the giving of a gift.
AB: You begin “Birthday” with a rather long epigraph from Ovid. At what point in your writing process do you decide to use an epigraph for a poem? What do you think having one adds to the poem’s overall effect?
AC: I’m not sure when I decided to include this epigraph—at some point in the middle of my writing the poem. And what overall effect? Robert Frost said something about a poem being best read in the light of all other poems ever written. That makes good sense to me. Of course what Frost suggests is impossible. All the better. I guess the epigraph singles out one particular light among all the poems ever written and moves that light a bit closer to the new poem beneath it.
AB: Since the opening epigraph of “Birthday” is rather long, how do you think the sound of Ovid’s lines influences the poem to come? How do the elements from Ovid work to set a tone for that which follows?
AC: When I read this poem to an audience I preface the reading of the epigraph by telling the audience, in all honesty, that I’m not entirely sure what the epigraph means
and that, if anyone figures it out, I’d like to hear their take on it. I find this passage from Ovid wonderfully perplexing. That pivot, the “but” in the second-to-last line spins my mind. But you asked about the sound of the lines. Well, because the lines are in translation (I think Rolphe Humphries is the translator) we don’t actually hear Ovid’s language, of course, but I like that you still ask the question in terms of sound. The movement of the mind in that “but” seems to be evidence of Ovid’s mind that is not obscured by translation. The movement of his mind seems clear and present in that turn and I suppose that movement of mind has a certain kind of sound or signature or identifiable light. The Ovid lines seem to also be some part of the dramatic circumstance of the poem. I couldn’t say in which many ways Ovid’s work sets a tone for that which follows the epigraph. I can say that I imagine the speaker had read the Ovid lines some time back and those lines are still kicking around in his mind. So, the young speaker is here in the Kenosha harbor trying to make new sense of his world by the light of Ovid’s mind.
AB: Still looking at “Birthday,” the ending line of the poem is significantly shorter than the other lines in the poem (six syllables compared to an average of twelve or so in the other lines). What are you going for here?
AC: I think the line stopped short because I ran out of things to say. I’m not entirely kidding. I don’t think I was going for something, as you say, by ending the poem with the poem’s shortest line. Trying to honor your good question I find myself reading and rereading the end of the poem, trying to recall that earlier me that may have been going for something specific with that conspicuously short last line, but I don’t come up with much. I just find my mind reaching into not one but three, four, five possible significances of that short line. I’m interpreting as a reader or a critic might, and I’d rather not let my reading of the poem get in the way of your reading. Yours is probably better.
AB: In “The Prophets,” right in the middle of the poem, the speaker begins addressing another individual: “Seth, remember, no matter how we’d // kick and shove off, we’d just get lodged again?” Why withhold that we are listening in on a conversation until this moment?
AC: I don’t see the beginning of this poem as a conversation between the speaker and Seth. The first six lines seem like an account of a memory of Rowan Creek addressed beyond the speaker’s current circumstance to a listener that the speaker may have never met. I see the turn toward Seth as the speaker being interrupted, in a way, by suddenly encountering an old friend who was present in that remembered scene. A similar turn from an account of an event and a landscape to a direct address of a particular person within that event and landscape happens in “Birthday” when the speaker begins addressing “Dad” toward the end of the poem.
AB: How did you come up with this concept of the poem as conversation?
AC: I like that you describe these poems as “conversation.” I guess conversation is different than address. A conversation is less formal than an address, maybe; and, unlike an address, a conversation assumes the listener is present and ready to talk back in some way. Conversations shift as a speaker reacts to an encounter as it unfolds. Many of the poems I love most are about encounters between a poet and people or landscapes that talk back in surprising ways. My mind immediately goes to Dante as a pilgrim negotiating his way through his three-part cosmos. The pilgrim’s accounts of the landscapes are routinely interrupted by shifts to address particular spirits and people within a given landscape. At every turn Dante asks “Who are you?” or “Who were you once?” Dante also turns to converse with the gods that oversee that landscape, or with his reader, or with a friend who may still be alive back in Florence. And of course Dante is in constant conversation with his guides, Virgil and Beatrice. Then, I guess every poet who has read Dante has been writing poems like this. I mean to say I can’t take any credit for coming up with this concept of poem as conversation but I am certainly governed by it. My drafts don’t seem to be poems until I’ve written my speaker into some puzzling encounter or conversation that he is compelled to speak to or about. It is through these encounters that I get some idea about the pilgrim in my poem. I guess I’m imagining the birth of a pilgrim Anthony. After years of drafting a poem I can sometimes manage to bring this pilgrim to the page to converse with someone or something for seconds at a time. On the other end of the hierarchy of poets, Dante and his pilgrim would seem to be nearly one and the same, both constantly in their place among his cosmos.
AB: There is a reoccurring theme in this set of poems of the disconnect between people of different ages. The old men who “stared down at us without a word” in “The Prophets” and there’s the unanswered questions between father and son in “Birthday.” What interests you about this theme?
AC: I don’t know if the disconnect between people is an interest as much as it is a constant of my experience. I do write about disconnect and confusion and surprise. If I am going to write about my life I’m going to inevitably write about disconnections and the brief connections that come of them. I feel as disconnected from a friend or my father as I do from, say, Elizabeth Bishop as I do from, say, Moses. And, like I said earlier, I am can only manage to connect with my own pilgrim for a fleeting moment. If I’m honest with myself I must admit that I walk through my life mostly confused and surprised by my circumstances and then, yes, once in a while, I stumble into some sweet encounter that reveals some measure of momentary grace. Maybe I’ll happen to say the right thing at the right time or maybe I’ll be able to recognize someone else saying the right thing at the right time. These graceful moments almost never happen but I try to write my way into them. I wish this graceful connection would happen more often but it seems my wishing doesn’t bring about such moments with any greater frequency.
AB: In opposition to the hostile silence in “The Prophets,” silence in “Glass Work Song” seems to hold a level of intimacy, as the poem ends: “a quiet becoming / the closest we can get.” Here we see a connection building across generations of men rather than a disconnect. Do you feel this silence and space translates into your poetry? What roles should silence play in a medium that is—ideally—read aloud?
AC: I’m surprised to hear you describe the silence in “The Prophets” as “hostile.” I don’t hear that hostility, but, now that you say it’s there, I’ll listen for it. Maybe the verb “stared” is hostile. Certainly that silence is unsettling. Faced with these silent bald men on the bridge I want to ask them Dante’s question—“who are you?” or “who were you once?”—and I want the men to answer. But the poem leaves us with none of that. I do see that connective silence you speak of in “Glass Work Song.” I am interested in your question about silence and space translating into poetry but I don’t know how to answer it. I don’t know what roles silence should play in poetry but I know that silence is an inevitable part of poetry because we need to breathe. And because it is an inevitable part of a poem I guess I consider it one of my materials, something to be used artfully and significantly.
AB: Speaking of reading poems aloud, do you agree that—ideally—a poem is an aural form or a written one or something between the two?
AC: I prefer to hear a poem aloud and I prefer that my poems be heard aloud instead of read on the page. I believe a poem has the best chance of being itself when it is being both spoken and listened to.
AB: What is your favorite book of poems at the moment? What did you most enjoy about it?
AC: I have two favorite “books” of poems at the moment; both are audio recordings. One is a collection of recordings of Elizabeth Bishop reading some of her own poems. The other is a collection of Hart Crane poems read by Tennessee Williams. I’ve only been listening to them for about six months so I’m still too overwhelmed by the experience to name what I enjoy most.