poemoftheweek poemoftheweek.com poemoftheweek.org poem of the week
It’s like waking up with someone else’s
the hills shoring themselves against the dusk,
a thin ice hinging on the lake’s edge.
I can almost remember
the months we lay
huddled up together in the womb,
and the hospital
on Hemlock Street,
where we incubated,
four pounds each;
I can still almost feel
strength, as he lifted us,
one in each hand,
and call back the smell
of bleached sheets
on the wind through our window,
and the crabapples
crushed on our street…
I can see us
on Easter, acting
pinned to our lapels, Vitalis
slicked on our hair,
as we crooned with the hymn
Were you there
When they nailed Him to the cross…
And I can still see the Siamese twins
in the Guinness Book of World Records,
merged at the waist, each
we’d lie on the floor, hip to hip,
and look at the picture ands giggle.
We walked to school each morning,
identically dressed, living
the same life,
gravity of childhood holding us;
each day in school the earth
and cold, on its globe, and each
summer our grandfather cut
white slabs of apple from his tree, or poured
gold from a knotted sock
buried in his drawer;
each morning our mother gathered
white slugs from her garden,
in half-buried cups of beer,
and each night we sat
on the corner, barefoot
and bug-bitten, talking,
waiting for the streetlight to come on.
I dreamed our bedroom window
cracked, letting the air
leak out, and you
were gone; your bed
perfectly made, the closet
I woke up and walked through the room
as if it were empty.
And sat at our old desk, lay
my head on the cold glass,
my hand on the wood,
saw the window
wrapped in dark curtains
and felt the air
filling the room again,
so damp this time, so cold.
In the zodiac, the Twins
move together through the heavens,
A hundred miles away from me,
is learning the thrill
tottering away from you
no no no no…
She’ll never be part
with a sister, safe like that,
we carried on conversations
in our sleep, I’m told,
nonsense to nonsense
in our cribs,
ourselves together, figuring
The winter of 1958
through the bars of the twin
crib vanishes again;
of the two of us on horseback
in cowboy boots and chaps
back into white again…
I can hardly
see us now, adult,
with our painted mailboxes,
our perfect lawns
wrapped around the dead
ends of the street…
There’s always an absence,
sadness we carry with us,
kept in two
bodies, like shades
of one shadow, stricken
out of the light.
-In olden times, when wishing still helped…
-Grimms Fairly Tales
Let the dead stars
fume and burn,
wherever they are.
Let the raw
color of carnations
white against red.
Let the funeral home
by the Farmer’s Market
go on with its planting
its hanging flowers
shrouding the wooden porch.
Let the impatiens and morning glories
always surround the hearses.
Let the children go on wishing
on the stars’
borrowed light, even when
it won’t help, when the moon
is spare, three-quarters black,
at the night’s rim
like a mote in the eye.
Even when the sky
is dull with stars, when they’ve all
sputtered out, one by one,
Let us still
see them. Let us
believe there is someone
when we mourn or pray
who will listen,
who will bend down.
BIO: Bruce Beasley (1992), MFA, Columbia University; Ph.D., University of Virginia, Professor. He is a poetry advisor for the Bellingham Review, which is located in the English Department. A National Endowment for the Arts Writing Fellow, he is the author of five collections of poems: Spirituals (Wesleyan University Press); The Creation (winner of Ohio State University Press Award); Summer Mystagogia, winner of the Colorado Prize (selected by Charles Wright), from University Press of Colorado; Signs and Abominations (Wesleyan University Press), and The Corpse Flower: New & Selected Poems (University of Washington Press). His poems have also appeared in such journals as ParisReview, Poetry, Yale Review, and in The Pushcart Prizes: Best of the Small Presses. He teaches courses in creative writing and American literature at Western Washington University.
INTERVIEW: An interview with Bruce Beasley, by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum
Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: What I think most intrigues me about “Shades” is how easily it reads. At no point does language get in the way of the speaker’s story and, yet, this is not a poem that merely tells a story. It’s a lamentation, an act of expression. This is not an easy task to accomplish.
What can you tell us about the process you went through composing a poem that is simultaneously narrative and lyrical?
Bruce Beasley: I wrote “Shades” in the spring of 1985, between March and May, to my fraternal twin brother David. He and I are the youngest of five children, with three older sisters. As twins, we grew up almost as one person, it seemed to me; when our family talked about us our names even blurred together, something like “Davi’andBruce.” We always wore the same clothes, and I remember it seeming traumatic to me if for some reason we had to dress differently.
I wanted in this poem to tell some memories from childhood and to meditate, too, on the act of individuation, which of course involved a kind of painful separation. (At one point the poem had an epigraph from Wallace Stevens: “Only we two are one.”) I wanted here to combine narrative, lyrical, and meditative moments.
At the time of writing “Shades” (it appeared in my first book, Spirituals, in 1988) I was interested in using fairly simple, colloquial language, traditional syntax, and a great deal of metaphoric imagery. My poetics have changed over the course of five more books since Spirituals. When I returned to the subject of twinship—in a long poem called “The Monstrum Fugue” in my 2000 collection Signs and Abominations—I approached the subject in a much less narrative and linear fashion.
There I allowed two forms of multiplicity-in-oneness—conjoined twinship and multiple personality—to themselves form a kind of inseparable twinship in the form of the poem. But at the time of Spirituals I was aiming much more for narrative and colloquial directness.
I wrote the first section of the poem and the last stanza first, so knew early on that the poem’s trajectory would be from pre-birth through childhood and to a meditation on adult separation through individuation as the “temporary gravity” of childhood sameness gave way.
AMK: It’s interesting how the narrative structure of “Shades” implies that some sort of conclusion will be reached. We’ve got the numbered sections. The characters change over time. We go from the womb to childhood, into adulthood, and then back…but I’m not sure the speaker comes to the sort of conclusive moment or realization that, by the time we reach that final, wonderful image of the “shades / of our shadow, stricken / out of the light,” we expect.
The result is a sense of something unfinished; a mystery of the flesh that our speaker not only fails to nail down but doesn’t seem interested in attempting to nail down in the first place.
Looking back, this mystery is threaded throughout the poem. In the “father’s / strength,” singing the hymn, “waiting for the streetlight to come on,” the constellation Gemini, etc, etc… I think this changes the meaning of the poem quite a bit.
While I’ll avoid asking you what the poem is ultimately about, I’d be interested to know what you make of this reading.
BB: The poem for me is in a large sense about individuation and connection, a process that’s never complete, so the in-conclusion you describe in the ending has to do probably with that sense.
Over time I’ve become much less interested in certainties in my poems, much more willing to let language and its occasions remain indefinite, mysterious, half-understood. That closing image—“kept in two/bodies, like shades/of one shadow, stricken/out of the light” calls back I suppose to Plato’s parable of the cave, the shadows mistaken for the light.
To be individual, to be adult and coherently oneself in the sense of ego-development, is seen there as the illusion, I suppose, rather than the reality—my brother and I both being shadows, but united in that, two shades of one shadow.
To be “stricken out” is both to be eclipsed and to be delineated, and I hope that both meanings are available in those lines. The poem moves from “almost” remembering and “almost” feeling things I can’t possibly remember or feel to being unable to see what’s right in front of me: “I can hardly/see us now, adult, /deliberately/whole.”
It’s a kind of elegy for childhood itself, along with for the childhood closeness between twin brothers who were almost literally “living/the same life.”
AMK: As you put the poem together, did you consciously call back to this thematic undertone, combing through numerous images and metaphors and choosing those which fit the larger meaning of the poem? Or is this something that happens more subtextually; on its own, perhaps?
I’m curious because there seem to be two schools of thought revolving around this subject. There’s the one side that argues that writers pay a lot of attention to how the various elements of their poem fit together, not simply in a narrative way but in a symbolic/metaphoric way, as well. And then there’s the other side that argues that a lot of what writers do is, perhaps, practiced but not necessarily applied with a high level of intention.
BB: I have most of the drafts of this poem still, and looking over them I see that I cut material that was, though true, irrelevant to the imagistic structure of the whole sequence as it developed. The lines about David and me laughing over the Guinness Book of World Records, for example, originally went like this:
I can still
imagine the face of the girl
in the Guinness Book of World Records
who cried for seven years.
Hysteria, we’d whisper
to each other,
and giggle and giggle and giggle.
Though true, that memory had less metaphoric connection to twinship, obviously, than did the also-true memory of my brother and me obsessively wondering about the lives of conjoined twins, whose twin connection was a physical version of the emotional one I felt.
AMK: I think “Autumn” is a really nice poem because it accomplishes so much with so little. The first stanza “It’s like waking up with someone else’s / loneliness” establishes the point of view of the speaker. But, because we don’t have a narrative, this statement also establishes the point of view for the reader.
As a result, everything we see thereafter in the poem is of large implication; our point of view changes and we see the world within the poem very differently than we might otherwise. Structurally, I think this is brilliant.
But I think the other effect a poem like this has on a reader is that, once he/she has read, he/she sees not only the world of the poem differently but the world outside the poem differently, as well. This would seem to be one of the primary objectives and objections to poetry.
Did you have this effect in mind when you wrote “Autumn?’ Were you at all concerned that people would reject it?
BB: I was interested, in writing this small poem, in trying to imagine what it would feel like to experience another person’s ego and emotional life wholly, and to feel lonely not for oneself but in place of somebody else: somebody else’s loneliness for you, rather than your loneliness for someone else.
The images that follow are images of trying to overcome one’s own separateness: the hills trying to merge with the dusk sky, as at twilight it’s hard to distinguish what is sky, what is mountain; the ice that clings to the edge of the lake—different from the water but still holding on to it, maintaining its oneness with what it has turned into no-longer-being.
AMK: I also think “Autumn” displays your range as a poet. “Shades” is four pages long. “Benediction” is a single page. And “Autumn” is four lines long. Was this on your mind at all as you put your first book, Spirituals, together.
BB: Yes, I’ve always been interested in juxtaposing longer, more complex structures with very immediate brief ones.
The poems I’m writing now are very short—often 3-4 line lyric passages—that are strung together with 13 or more other such lyric fragments into a larger structure. The parts obliquely comment on and amplify one another, but the connections are subtle and cumulative rather than linear or narrative.
AMK: “Benediction” is a poem that seems to end sort of abruptly. I don’t mean this as a criticism, but I enjoy the language so much that I’m still a bit disappointed when I turn the page to read more and discover the poem has, in fact, already ended.
I think that’s part of what the poem’s about. Our need to believe in some sort of being much larger than ourselves. But to encounter this being would be something else entirely…something that, while it may disappoint us not to experience, we should probably be glad we don’t.
But then you have to realize that “Benediction” is, in fact, a prayer, repeating the word “let” and the imagistic moves that follow. It’s a lot like a list poem, expressing simply by showing us one thing after another and nothing more.
But when we get to the line
Even when the sky
is dull with stars, when they’ve all
sputtered out, one by one,
Let us still
the poem seems to transform from a prayer for belief and into a prayer imploring that, when the end comes, we’ll keep on living.
Am I going too far here?
BB: “Benediction” is a wish-poem, a poem that wishes that—in the words of the fairy tale—“wishing still helped.”
It’s a wishing for the efficacy of wishing and prayer. In Atlantawhere I lived at the time there was a farmer’s market and nursery right next to a funeral home, and I was struck by that juxtaposition of death and new life. I lost my father and mother at a young age (when I was fifteen and twenty, respectively) and the poem calls for the ability to believe in the continued existence of the dead (“Let us still/see them”).
The poem’s a kind of magic spell that tries to talk itself into believing that “there is someone/when we mourn or pray/who will listen, who will bend down,” whether that someone is mortal or immortal, human or divine. And it’s a prayer more for faith than for the existence of any object of that faith.
AMK: Both “Shades” and “Autumn” make use of stanzas…even if they’re only one line long. Why did you choose to go with the single stanza in “Benediction?”
BB: “Autumn” uses its initial couplet to suggest pairing, coupleship (ironically, of course, in the act of wakingT up not with someone else but with “someone else’s/loneliness” and then splits the couplets apart as the natural images strive to reunite with a missing other: the hills with the dusk, the ice with the lake. “Benediction” is a single strophe, I suppose, because it makes a single linear argument that I didn’t want to interrupt. Instead I used the anaphora (Let, let, let, let . . .) establish a rhythm of separation and connection.
AMK: You use the short line quite a bit in this book. What is it that you like so much about the short line? What dos the short line accomplish that a longer one doesn’t?
BB: I’ve used much longer lines in later books, because the long line can generate so much more rhythmic complexity and variation. The advantages of the short line—and what drew me to it in a lot of the poems in Spirituals—include much more frequent enjambment, which allows for closeness and frequency of terminal rhyme, sounds like “stars” and “are,” “porch” and “glories,” “eye” and “sky.”
AMK: Thank you.