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12-23-2014

 

Camille Dungy 

 

Daisy Cutter

Pause here at the flower stand—mums
and gladiolas, purple carnations

dark as my heart.  We are engaged
in a war, and I want to drag home

any distraction I can carry.  Tonight
children will wake to bouquets of fire

that will take their breath away. Still, 
I think of my life.  The way you hold me,

sometimes, you could choke me.  
There is no way to protect myself, 

except by some brilliant defense.  I want
the black iris with their sabered blooms.

I want the flame throwers: the peonies,
the sunflowers.  I will cut down the beautiful ones

and let their nectared sweetness bleed 
into the careless air.  This is not the world 

I’d hoped it could be.  It is horrible, 
the way we carry on.   Last night, you catalogued 

our arsenal.  You taught me that devastation 
is a goal we announce in a celebration

of shrapnel.  Our bombs shower 
in anticipation of their marks.  You said this 

is to assure damage will be widely distributed.  
What gruesome genius invents our brutal hearts?

When you touch me I am a stalk of green panic 
and desire.  Wait here while I decide which

of these sprigs of blossoming heartbreak I can afford
to bring into my home.  Tonight dreams will erupt

in chaotic buds of flame.  This is the world we have 
arranged.  It is horrible, this way we carry on.

 

A Massive Dying Off

When the fish began their dying you didn’t worry.

           You bought new shoes.  
                               They looked like crocodiles:
snappy and rich, 
           brown as delta mud.  

                                 Even the box they shipped in was beautiful, bejeweled.  

           You tore through masses of swaddling paper, 
                      these shoes! 

                     carefully cradled
in all that cardboard by what 
                               you now understand
must have been someone’s tiny, indifferent hands.

            *

The five-fingered sea stars you heard about on NPR.  

You must have been driving to Costco.  
It must have been before all the visitors arrived. 

You needed covers, pillows, disposable containers.  
At Costco, everything comes cheap.  

Sea stars, jellies, anemones, all the scuttlers and hoverers 
and clingers along the ocean floor.  A massive dying off, further displacing 
depleted oxygen, cried the radio announcer. 

You plugged in your iPod.  
Enough talk. You’d found the song you had been searching for.

            *

One cargo ship going out.  One cargo ship coming in.

                                                      Crabs crawling up trawler lines. 
                                                                  Giant lobsters walking
                                                                             right onto the shore.  

                    You’ve been sitting in your car
        watching the sunset over the Golden Gate.  
                                                  NPR again.

One cargo ship going out.  One cargo ship coming in.

                                                      Those who can are leaving.  

          The Marin Headlands crouch
toward the ocean, 
           fog so thick on their side of the bay 
                     you can’t tell crag from cloud from sea.  

One cargo ship headed out, another coming in.  

                                                    They’re looking for a place
                                                                where they can breath.  
    
                     You’ve been here less than an hour.
When the sun has finished setting 
you’ll go home.   

    
*


In the dream, your father is the last refuse to wash ashore.
                      This wasn’t what you wanted.  
                                          Any of you.  
                                                                The first sign

of trouble was the bottle with the message.  
           That washed up years ago.  
Then, so many bottles 
                     the stenographers couldn’t answer all the messages anymore. 

                                           The women of the village wept when your father died. 

Then they lined up to deliver tear-stained tissue to the secretary of the interior 
           who translated their meaning
and had it writ out on a scroll.  

These were the answers your people had been waiting for! 

                       That papyrus wound around your father like a bandage.  
            The occasion announced, 
                       you prayed proper prayers, loaded him onto an outrigger, 
set him off, 
                                  but here he is again.  Stinking.  
            Swelling.  

You can’t dispose of the rising dead and you’re worried. 
           What can you do? 

 

My Lover Who Lives Far

My lover, who lives far away, opens the door to my room 
          and offers supper in a bowl made of his breath. 

The stew has boiled and I wonder at the cat born from its steam.  

The cat is in the bedroom now, mewling.  The cat is indecent 
          and I, who am trying to be tidy, I, who am trying to do things 
          the proper way, I, who am sick from the shedding, I am undone. 

My lover, who lives far away, opens the door to my room
          and offers pastries in a basket spun from his vision.

It is closely woven, the kind of container some women collect.
    
I have seen these in many colors, but the basket he brings is simple:
          only black, only nude.  The basket he brings is full of sweet scones
          and I eat even the crumbs.  As if I’ve not dined for days.

My lover, who lives far away, opens the door to my room
          and offers tea made from the liquid he’s crying.

I do not want my lover crying and I am sorry I ever asked for tea.

My lover, who lives far away, opens the door to my room pretending
          he never cried.  He offers tea and cold cakes.  The tea is delicious: 
          spiced like the start of our courtship, honeyed and warm. 

I drink every bit of the tea and put aside the rest.

My lover, who lives far away, opens the door to my room 
          like a man loving his strength.  The lock I replaced 
          this morning will not keep him away.

My lover, who lives far away, opens the door to my room 
          and brings me nothing.

Perhaps he has noticed how fat I’ve grown, indulged.

Perhaps he is poor and sick of emptying his store.

It is no matter to me any longer, he has filled me, already, so full.

My lover who is far away opens the door to my room

          and tells me he is tired.

I do not ask what he’s tired from for my lover, far away,
          has already disappeared.

The blankets are big with his body.  The cat, under the covers
          because it is cold out and she is not stupid, mews.

 

-from Smith Blue

BIO: Poet and editor Camille T. Dungy was born in Denver but moved often as her father, an academic physician, taught at many different medical schools across the country. She earned a BA from Stanford University and an MFA from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.
 
Dungy’s full-length poetry publications include Smith Blue (2011), a finalist for the William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America; Suck on the Marrow (2010), winner of an American Book Award, a California Book Award silver medal, and the Northern California book award; and the sonnet collection What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison (2006), a finalist for both the PEN Center USA Literary Award and the Library of Virginia Literary Award. Describing the poems in What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison as “rogue sonnets,” Dungy said of the poems’ speakers in a 2007 Boxcar Review interview, “These are folks who take the restrictions and traditions that have been handed to them and they do what they can to make beautiful things with their lives […] so the fact that the sonnets follow some rules and flaunt others is a direct reflection of their subjects.” In a 2009 review of the same collection for Pembroke Magazine, Tara Betts observed that the collection “offers a number of ways to look at what is considered to be a part of nature, whether it is a part of the plants or the people that inhabit a place.” As Betts later noted, “This tension of living close to passion and death simultaneously creates urgency in these quiet poems.”
 
Addressing the paucity of African American poets in anthologies of nature poetry, Dungy stated in a 2010 interview for the Oakland Tribune, “I miss seeing writers of color in the conversation. Until we have greater variety in the conversation, it is not a conversation—it is a monologue.” To that end, Dungy edited Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry (2009), which won a Northern California Book Award and was nominated for an NAACP Image Award. She was also co-editor of From the Fishouse: An Anthology of Poems that Sing, Rhyme, Resound, Syncopate, Alliterate, and Just Plain Sound Great (2009), and assistant editor for Gathering Ground: A Reader Celebrating Cave Canem’s First Decade (2006). 
 
Dungy has won the Dana Award and the Sustainable Arts Foundation Promise Award, and was a finalist for the NAACP Image Award in 2010 and 2011. Dungy has also received fellowships and awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the American Antiquarian Society, the Virginia Commission for the Arts, Cave Canem, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Djerrasi Resident Artist Program, Yaddo, Virginia Center for Creative Arts, and the Norton Island Artist Residency Program.  

Recently a professor in the creative writing program at San Francisco State University, Dungy is currently a professor in the English department at Colorado State University. She lives in Colorado with her husband and daughter.

An Interview with Camille Dungy by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum

Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: There's a lot going on in "Daisy Cutter." I find I am particularly drawn to the way it invites the reader in with the opening command, "Pause here at the flower stand-" then proceeds in a first person that invokes both the "We" and the unidentified "you." It sort of feels like a conversation someone is having over the phone in which the reader only receives half of the conversation. Talk to us about the... "behavior"/"personality" of this poem and how it developed. Did it always start with a command? How do you think you manage to invoke the "We" and "you" so successfully? This, after all, is something we poets are often told to avoid...

Camille Dungy: I'd love to go back and find the journals from the days I was writing that poem to tell you if the first command was always the beginning of the poem. I somehow doubt it. I think of the first lines of my poem, "What you Want," which feel to me to have always been extent just as they are on the page now but which, I discovered purusing old journals, were once very different.

I wrote "Daisy Cutter" in 2003, in the lead up to the Shock and Awe invasion of Iraq, and I have to admit I can't recall the construction of the poem at this distance. What I do remember is the urgency to write the poem. The conflict I felt at being so horrified by what I was learning about my complicity in the death of others, and the means by which many of those deaths would occur, in relationship to my insular concern about my own rocky relationship.

The We/you/I/we flux of the poem has a lot to do with this swiveling of my own perspective. I was worried about other people and I was thinking about how "we" [Americans] were about to irrevocably change the lives of people most of us would never see, really I was, but also I was worried about myself, about the "us" that "you" [my lover] and I were still trying to create, despite our ongoing conflicts [both the global ones and the domestic]. I'd say that's where the motion of the poem comes from.

My thoughts were in constant motion inward and outward, and my ideas about these things were conflated as well, a fact that I was as often distressed by as I was distracted because of. Also, flowers are beautiful, but also complicated in their own right. It's all complicated. Isn't it?

There's a glimpse into the personality that created the poem...

AMK: That makes good sense. "Daisy Cutter" plays around a lot with the controlling metaphor of blossoms as bombs and this notion of beauty and the ugliness of war, the terrible ways our "gruesome genius invents" the tools of war, and, toward the end of the poem, the speaker's reflection on her own frailty in the hands of a lover. There are a lot of what we call political notions at work in the poem: the politics of nations and war, the politics of beauty, the politics of the self, the politics of personal responsibility ("It is horrible, this way we carry on.") and so on and so forth.

Talk to us a bit about metaphor, politics, and poetry. Are you always reaching for a statement in poetry? Do you feel poetry is a tool that can be used for political purposes? What's your take on the notion that great poems must be "about something," must have "something to say," that they cannot simply be "beautiful?"

 

CD: "Are you always reaching for a statement in poetry?" No. In fact, I am rarely, more likely never, reaching for a statement in poetry. That I might arrive at a statement in poetry upon the successful completion of a poem is fine with me. But if I am reaching at the outset of a poem for a statement I am significantly more likely to create propaganda than poetry.

 

That said, I do believe poetry can be "about something" and that it should have "something to say." I think my point is that I don't set out with the intention of saying one thing. In "Daisy Cutter" I set out thinking about the fact that we had named these bombs, these awful, cluster bombs, after a flower, or after something that cuts down a flower (perhaps that's even worse).

 

I was in Brooklyn in the spring, when flower stands abound, and I was also with this lover and all these things came together in such a way, during my drafting and my revision process, as to produce the poem you now read. I am not saying that I don't ever think about what statement a poem might make. I think very seriously about that question during the revision process (which I believe is a key part of the production of a poem), but I don't begin reaching for a direct statement about how domestic and global conflicts can conflate and are demonstrated by the things we see on a flower stand. I think through poems in a far more circuitous manner than that.

 

As to the part of your question about whether poems have to do something or say something to be important, and whether beauty is enough...I am a thinking woman, and I think thought provoking literature is beautiful. I think sound and image also accrue to create beauty, but if I am not left with thought and feeling as well as image and sound I am often unsatisfied. Though not always, I will admit.

 

Maybe I didn't answer your questions. I think I said yes and no. This is a yes and no world. Of that I am convinced.

AMK: "Daisy Cutter" is in couplets whereas "A Massive Dying Off" plays around quite a bit with indentation, white space, dropped lines, and sections. Talk to us a bit about free verse forms and why these poems are in these particular forms.

 

CD: Well, "Daisy Cutter is about dyads: the US citizens and the Iraqi citizens, the I and the you, the us and the them. Couplets made sense to me. "A Massive Dying Off" is a massive jumble of complicity and rupture, loss and corruption, stagnation and acquisition. It couldn't be contained. (In the body of the poem I try to acquire more containers, and there are those endless container ships coming and going...) The subjects of those particular poems suggested their forms.

 

AMK: You play quite a bit with language as well in "A Massive Dying Off" and seem to get quite a bit of joy from moments in the narrative like

"you prayed proper prayers" and

 

          The Marin Headlands crouch
toward the ocean,
          fog so thick on their side of the bay
                    you can't tell crag from cloud from sea.

How do you manage to so seamlessly weave musical language without losing the reader? How much do you expect from your reader? Do you hope that they can absorb everything the poem has to offer technically as well as metaphorically and narratively in one reading, or do you aim for a poem that pleases the reader enough for them to return to it and, hopefully, dig a little deeper?

CD: I think that poems should be read more than once. There are still songs that I hear from my childhood or adolescence, songs that I sang and sang and sang and sang but only later realized I'd been singing...let me not say wrong, let me say differently than as they were recorded.

I believe that our knowledge grows with time, but I don't necessarily think that the knowledge we had at first was any more or less valid. Well, if you thought global warming was a false theory and now think it might be in fact not just a theory but the fundamental truth we are living with today, then I would argue you were wrong and now you are no longer wrong. But what I'm trying to say is that I think we should return to what we read. I don't think we can absorb everything at first glance. Not poetry. Not love. Not the realities of the planet. I think we have to go back again and again and learn more and more each time we return.

As to the music question: I think a fundamental component of good poetry is musicality. That's deeply important to me. I want to make sense, both in terms of logical, rational sense, but also in terms of the engagement of your senses.

Perhaps the way I manage not to lose you is I talk to both your head and your skin at once. I want you to think and to feel, but if I just have you on one level for a while the other can catch up.

AMK: Would you call "A Massive Dying Off" an apocalyptic poem? I'm kinda sorta obviously obsessed with the topic, so I'm seeing it everywhere, but it really does seem like apocalyptic films, stories, poems, and even songs are all over the place these days. What do you make of this?

CD: Of course you're seeing it everywhere. We're living through the apocalypse. We've thought at other times in history that was true. We might have faced a nuclear winter when I was a kid. When my Grandmother was a kid there were many many many other horrible things happening all the time around her. And in the Dark Ages it was very, very dark.

But this whole warming of the planet, massive extinction, acidification of the ocean, desertification of the continents thing, this is worth being freaked out about. We're destroying our home base. Both for human habitation as we know it and for the survival of huge number of the other residents with whom we share this place. Artists have our ears to the ground, and we are not ignoring the reality of the world in which we live.

Yes. "A Massive Dying Off" is an apocalyptic poem. It's not my first, and it won't be my last.

AMK: I just love all of the imaginative moments in "My Lover Who Lives Far," particularly "The stew has boiled and I wonder at the cat born from the steam. // The cat is in the bedroom now, mewling." and the way in which each line of the poem builds on the next, as in "My lover, who lives far away, opens the door to my room / and offers tea made from the liquid he's carrying. // I do not want my lover crying and I am sorry I ever asked for tea."

I am certainly drawn to strangeness in poetry and how poems have the power to connect disparate images, ideas, etc...but I often wonder if such poems are more indulgent than they are...something more purposeful...or if that is the way imaginative and strange poems are received, even if they shouldn't be. 


Poems indulging in strangeness rather than something of more obvious substance.

Is this something you ever struggle with as a poet? How much do you allow yourself to indulge in the technical aspects of writing a poem before you think about larger issues of meaning, how they might be read, etc?

CD: This is a really interesting question. I don't want to write strange poems that are strange simply for the sake of being strange. I want my poems to do something.

Earlier I had a whole thing about how I didn't ask my poems to do something before they were written, so I want to clarify.

What I'm saying, in relationship to your example, is that I was having fun with the language in this poem. As I moved through the poem I kept turning on the details I'd included, shifting the language to pun on or play with the phrases that had come before. Things began to take a certain shape (I am visualizing a ceramic pot being spun. The way it takes shape beneath the hand both in a way that is guided by the hand and a way that is guided by the clay). I followed that shape, but I also remembered the path I had lain. The cat comes back. The steam and the cold and the cakes come back. The lover's tears come back.

They don't all come back in exactly the same form, though, there is a reason, you discover as you move through the poem, that each detail exists. I don't just throw in strange things and leave them there, alone, being strange. The things I put into the poem should add up to something in the end. That's what I mean by asking my poems to do something, to construct a larger meaning.

AMK: Talk to us about how you came up with this concept of writing a poem that drives itself forward with these weird, imaginative lines that become the subject or controlling image/metaphor of the following line? Do your poems tend to start with this sort of structure/behavior or do they find themselves along the way?

CD: I steer clear of "do you poems tend to" answers because my poems do a lot of different things. Once I think I know what my poems tend to do, if I play into that all the time what my poems will tend to do is to sound like plastic facsimiles of other, better, poems I've once written.

The main thing is this: I love language. I love ideas. I love sound. I love compelling images. I love the idea and the execution of one thing standing for three other things. I love playfulness, but there are really serious things to explore in this world. I love the gradual unfolding of knowledge, and I love the lightening strike of awareness. I love figuring out how to wrestle with what I love on the page.

If I do this consistently, I will occasionally manage to write poems that I am comfortable saying I love. I love all the poems you mentioned in this interview, and I am grateful that you are drawn to them too.

AMK: Thank you, Camille.

CD: Thank you!