You held sharp branches back for me
and I for you
as we paused, muck-streaked
and hesitant to step into the wetlands.
Sliding on moss-slick rocks,
sinking into cattails' spongy hillocks,
we waded in knee-deep
and there they were,
the beaver ponds, long abandoned,
lovely, terraced slopes
We hiked from buck brush into pools
knotted with stems and long ropes of cupped leaves
spiked with yellow flowers,
carrion scented, sheathed in spathes.
The bog lanterns were rising.
Fly-kissed they rose, flashing,
pulling the deep night down around us.
I still dream of you,
who grasped the upswing of a sudden song
and followed the varied thrush
she led us home
through silver firs
buoyed by the moon's maize light.
Ruby Crowned Kinglet
I saw a bird, or rather, heard
the humming whir of wings
as loud as June bugs or the stun
of noise late April brings.
He didn't fly away from me.
Alongside, he stopped and perched,
front facing, stern, as if affronted
by footsteps near his birch.
He told me what he thought of dogs,
Displayed his bright red crown.
Tiny, short tailed, livid
Emperor, displeased by unrenown,
please forgive this rude, two-legged
gait, this trespass unannounced—
please winter-sweep this rift
aside in time for New Year’s count.
For days we drove to find this watershed of oak, grassland, birds,
Laguna Santa Rosa,
unseen yet felt, an ancient pulse, the distant roll of rock pools drained
then covered by the comings
and goings of waves we can't see. It's dark. Killdeer are calling—
insistent as nighthawks in the prairie where you and I met.
Remember how they swoop-whooshed
around the incandescent streetlight orbs? Their flight made visible by shadowed,
crisscrossed lines, chasing insects,
diving out of sight. No nighthawks here. Yet all around us,
as we walk tonight, killdeer
rise, screeching, perhaps to veer us from their nests. Or warn each other—
surely our heavy-footed strolling
interrupts their tree-frog hunting. Trailing the raddled green
without our awkward stumbling, they stalk just-hatched grubs in trees too far off
for us to see, wiping their beaks
on rough-barked branches. If their cries have nothing to do with us, still
I love how their skirling
follows us inside, tousled arias swinging, somersaulting me to sleep.
Such lullabies! Praising lawns,
driveways, grazed pastures, parking lots, sandbars—equally.
The male scrapes a shallow bowl
in the ground with both feet, lowers himself into the hollow,
and steps away when she approaches.
She takes his place, sinking. He leans from side to side, drops his wings, reveals
his glorious burnt-tangerine-
terracotta back patch, and turns around, fanned tail raised, whirling fast
and faster, turning
into a banded blur of earth-streaked, raw sienna, trilling softly of furrows
filled with larvae, beetles, worms,
and marshes brimming with snails, minnows, and crayfish, asphalt roofs
hot by dawn, the beauty of barren
gravel pits, and dung mounds holding clutches of pale buff eggs. Taking turns,
one at a time, they stand
for hours in shifting light, casting shade on their rock-built nest.
BIO: Christianne Balk grew up in Woodstock, New York. After studying biology at Grinnell College, she received a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Iowa Writers Workshop. In 1990 she moved to Seattle with her family, where she now writes and teaches.
Christianne’s collections of poetry are Desiring Flight (Purdue University Press) and Bindweed (Macmillan). Honors include the Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets, Verna Emery Poetry Prize from Purdue University, and grants from the Ingram Merrill Foundation and the Seattle Arts Council.
Her writing appears in The Atlantic Monthly, Alaska Quarterly Review, Cirque, Switched-on Gutenberg, The New Yorker, The New Republic, The Alhambra Poetry Calendar, and other journals and anthologies. In 2009 she received Prairie Schooner’s Annual Strousse Award for her poems. In October 2013, Peregrine Literary Journal awarded her their annual Pat Schneider Poetry Award for her poem “John Muir’s Wild Silk Moth.” Over the years she’s led creative writing workshops through Artists-in-the-schools, Washington State Arts Council, University of Washington Extension, Centrum/ Port Townsend Writers Conference, University of Alaska-Fairbanks, and University of Iowa.
INTERVIEW: An Interview with Christianne Balk by Anna Knowles and Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum
Anna Knowles & Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: It seems that nature and biology (not the stuff we see but the actual science behind what we see) are crucial in your work. How is the natural world a partner in your work?
Christianne Balk: I find it hard to separate myself from the natural world. I'm often baffled by a sense of enmeshment that seems at odds with the apparent boundaries and edges of the physical world around me. Or just the opposite occurs-an isolation descends that's equally inexplicable, in light of all the connections I see in the world around me. Perhaps it's this confusion that makes poetry so compelling to me. A poem has the ability, if it's working, to provide an almost physical place where there's space and time to explore all sorts of relationships and quandaries. I never know who else might show up! That's part of the fun. This happens not only in my own work, but also while reading other poets. I've been thinking lately of Maureen McLane's wonderful poem "Mesh," (New Yorker, August 12, 2013). She captures so many facets of entanglement.
AK & AMK: How would you describe the relationship that exists between you, science, nature, and the line?
CB: I like your phrase "the actual science behind what we see." I'm reminded that the word "idea" comes from the Germanic "weid," which is rooted in the Greek "idein" and means "to see." The poem "Ruby Crowned Kinglet" began with a simple question-what the heck is the name of that bird the dogs and I encountered on our walk this morning? I'd never seen anything with wings quite like that individual. Thumbing through Birds of North America, I realized he had probably been a Kinglet. Then I set the field guide aside and started to write. During those brief moments of research, I'm sure I felt a partnership with Robbins and his cohorts-and with the science behind their work-via their Golden guide to birds. Science, it seems to me, is just one of many lenses we can choose to look through, to observe what's, going on around-and within-us. A fascinating, endlessly questioning tool! But there are many other tools, equally important-the senses, dialogue, narrative, song, dreams, history, and poetic form, to name just a few. As I moved away from looking at the initial, triggering dog-walking experience, and stepped into seeing what was going on in the actual place of the poem itself, other tools, other ways of looking and understanding came into play, including playfulness itself.
AK & AMK: I love when poets address someone/ omething in their work that can't necessarily talk back. For example, in "Ruby Crowned Knight" there's a clear transition in the last stanza when you address the bird itself: "Emperor, displeased by unrenown, please forgive this rude, two-legged gait." Do you find yourself in dialogue with nature often in your work?
CB: All the time, in my work as well as in everyday life. Like many gardeners, I talk to the plants in my yard while watering and digging. More like trash talk, to the weeds. And who doesn't talk to their dogs? Of course the natural world doesn't speak our human language, not even dogs. They have their own tongues. Yet we've all been thrown together and somehow we have to live together. What can we learn from one another? That's a question I feel at the heart of "Killdeer." There are never any clear answers, of course. A poem is often like a journey for me, an attempt to explore questions that can never really be answered. Along the way all sorts of unexpected discoveries pop up, often in conversation with whomever or whatever happens to appear in the poem.
AK & AMK: Do you feel poetry is a way in which you can communicate/commune with such natural things?
CB: I think poems that affect me offer a place to go, like a teahouse or a bar or a grassy patch along a trail, a place where I can pause. I'm very curious about who comes along. The luxury of entering already completed poems-as when reading someone else's work-is that this "space" is already constructed. As a reader, I can go into that poem-place and have all sorts of experiences. The challenge in writing, for me, is that in working on a draft of a poem, the space it may eventually inhabit must be hand-built every time, word by word. With each new poem, I start from scratch. There are plenty of tools available but there are never any prefab structures that can be carted in and plopped down. Each new poem's shape is unique to the specific material and terrain surrounding it. And of course the structure may not be a house or even a shed or anything like that. It might be a trail, requiring lots of heavy lifting of rocks, digging in the dirt, diverting snowmelt and so on. Many of my attempts to build fail. Drafts can collapse spectacularly. However, when the structure of the language begins to actually take shape and the foundation feels solid, I get a physical feeling-an actual sensation in my body-that this is a place I can enter, a trail I can walk, a structure I can walk inside. That's when things get exciting. At that point, it's hard for me to stop writing.
To get back to your question about communicating with natural things within a poem: in "Bog Lanterns," there's the bog, a realm that the narrator and her companion stumble into. They cross paths with other plants and animals who find their homes in the bog, places of intersection where the human voices and the inhabitants of the natural world connect. They're tangled together in a sort of ecosystem tangle of language-but no-one speaks the same language. Not even the people. Still, an exchange happens. At least I hope the reader feels that something happens. And everything in that bog is different because of that exchange. They don't speak the same languages, but they're all influenced by one another's presences. I think your word "commune" is well chosen.
AK & AMK: I'm intrigued by the way in which these poems ... I'm searching for the right words ... slide, perhaps, back and forth between you looking into nature, nature looking back at you, and the entrance (almost magically) of the reader into the poem. I'm thinking of moments like "Yet all around us, as we walk tonight, killdeer rise, screeching, perhaps to veer us from their nests, or warn each other -" and "You held the sharp branches back for me and I for you." How do you approach the idea of bringing the reader with you into these places?
CB: Good question. I'm not sure, except I do find the speakers in my poems addressing others, as in "Bog Lanterns," with the lines "I still dream of you, / mud-rooted man..." It's not conscious. These callings-out just seem to happen sometimes.
AK & AMK: Why do you think you make this move (bringing the reader with you to these places) as often as you do?
CB: Perhaps it's because there are these incredible enmeshments we all live within, complex bio-systems of relationship, the sticky threads and "tangled webs" that connect us. Or bind us. Or isolate us. And connections break, at times, right? Threads snap, stretch beyond repair, or are severed. Friendships fall apart. Or they wear well, burnished by friction, worn thin but still strong. Or they fray and hang on-and then tear. What tools do we have that can ultimately bridge such distances? What can we use to cross the abyss? Only our voices, perhaps. Calling out to one another.
AK & AMK: What I like most about these poems is your use of image. You don't wax poetic on ideas or culture or love or anything abstract; it's the image that draws you to the line. Tell us about the image. Why is it so important to you?
CB: I'm not sure concrete images and abstractions/ideas are exclusive of one another. Strong images contain both surface and deep essence, just as a lover's skin reflects texture and color and scent-and, at the same time, contains muscle, tendon, bone, heart, and spirit. Leonard Cohen sings "I love your body and your clothes." His choice of the word "clothes" embraces not only the beloved's passion for clothing and surfaces but also the sound-echo of the word "soul." A good image casts webs of connotation and denotation way beyond itself-before we know it, we're pulled in deeper than we ever expected to be.
Also, I think I'm a rather concrete person. When I'm not writing, like many writers I'm usually doing something hands-on, like gardening, cleaning, working with one of the dogs, care giving, reading, preparing for a class I'm teaching, cooking. Though I admire people who can sit and talk for hours, theorizing and analyzing, and I sometimes like to sit and listen to them, especially if they're into theoretical physics-like Brian Greene's astonishing work with string theory and the hidden dimensions all around us, my favorite being the donut-shaped dimensions I once heard described as "floating near our feet"-in real everyday life, I have little patience with pure theoretical abstraction. As beautiful and insightful as such theories can be, I have my hands full living in the three dimensions we can see, not to mention that always present and complicating fourth dimension, time.
AK & AMK: How much time do you spend out in the field writing poems?
CB: Almost never. I love being outdoors. But I write inside, in my little basement studio looking over the backyard's green-cone mulch piles. I try to remember to bring 3 x 5 index cards with me, whenever I go out, just in case something grabs me, an overheard phrase, an intriguing plant, any little detail that strikes me, so I can jot it down. I'm almost always carrying a notebook, scribbling observations, taking notes. But it gets complicated. The dogs' leashes get jumbled up with my pens or the mosquitoes start swarming or it gets too cold or rainy or the ink smears or the paper gets wet, softens, then rips...
AK & AMK: All of these poems share a precise attention to detail. Is that something that comes naturally or with intention over time?
CB: When I was seven years old, I was given prescription eyeglasses for the first time. I put them on and was instantly stunned. What had just yesterday been a soft, blurred, fist-sized moon of pink was suddenly a complex individual, a fiesta of delineated, grapefruit-tinged, precisely enfolded petals called peony. I've never recovered from that moment. Part of me is still stumbling around, utterly amazed by the textures and lines and sounds and scents of the world. My passion is to always be learning to see better, to understand more of the world. But as I grow older, I'm also finding it useful to take off those precious Rx lenses. The fist-sized moon is also intriguing. I think both gestures, putting on lenses and taking them off, are integral to my writing.