08-18-2014

Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers

Pastoral: 2002

Free and clear? I wondered, as May finished
in a furious cadenza, the rhythm of that year 

coming undone.  Along 220 North, the kudzu
erupted into an archipelago of notes, levitating

in bottle-colored clusters. My whole body 
rang. At sixteen, seventeen, my lessons

were followed by long drives near 
the county line, where I relearned all 

that was linear. Through July you traced the V 
between my thighs; the sun throbbed

through the windshield. Sting 
on the radio. 

Do you know this song?  It was ‘85
you said, and meant college, the conservatory, 

your junior recital. In your office
there was a picture in which you wore

a tuxedo, and, like an emblem, a guitar.
When you’re young, you said, the fall from grace

goes quickly, so you can stand up again
without losing much time. I said ’85, 

that’s the year I was born,
and you didn’t reply. But like fret 

after fret, I could sense
heaviness, and a measured descent. You placed 

your hand back on the wheel, and turned.       

 

Echo
         After Antigoni Goni performing Brower’s “La Huida de los Amantes por el Valle de los Ecos”  

To turn back at the hill, or wall—
all dogs will come home.
all sons arrive, their pockets torn.  

A mirror: Narcissus drinks 
blue ink from the stream 
and cannot leave.  I love you 

I love you since to imitate 
is a pattern learned, call for 
yes again: a voice is made 

by doubling. Lungs lift 
against the chord 
box, stir its twin folds. 

Antigoni Goni’s hands 
butterfly across the fretboard, 
neck where strings pull 

like latitude through dark.
In her song, the lovers flee—
horses’ hooves accelerate

down to the valley—and before
they are caught, they call out.

Five Fades
          Climax, NC

(I)

Bent over testicular tomatoes 
and the hairy vines of squashes, 
she had gone out for an hour 
to escape the sick-bean smell
of the kitchen.  Inside, he dozed, 
the radio fuzzy, Lynchburg 
his honeybee.  The snores 
whisked out of his sickled lips.
He was dreaming of earthquakes. 
A clock-tower crashed through 
the barn roof, its idle hands—
sharp as Satan’s—still ticking.

(II)

We wouldn’t walk barefoot 
over that linoleum floor,
the tawny argyle
of a copperhead’s back.  
We wouldn’t touch 
anything—not the mirror 
that swung or the Precambrian 
Vasoline, wouldn’t ask 
about the Country Crock tub 
with overripe banana peels
on the back of the commode.
We didn’t want to think of them
gray and naked in there—
her behind frosted glass
or him sunk in the tub.
I drew the curtain 
so Jesus In a Jar wouldn’t look 
while I peed. Bent down
to the floor, I crossed my eyes, 
backed away from the dangers 
of this geometry, waiting 
for the magic-eye, the image 
to jump out.

(III)

He kept a shrine to Reagan
in the tractor shed.  Do not take her 

back there she’d yelled at him but still 
beyond the pitchfork and cans of stain 

he tugged my hand through one-hinged, 
walls closing in with a pin-up’s purple 

fade.  Was the ceiling sloped 
or was his cowboy hat cocked?  In the Reaganless 

spots, calendar photos of the Cascades, 
or animals in danger.  A far blue mountain 

tucked into closer black 
was how plaid disappeared 

into his belt-line. 
When he called my name

I kept my elbows 
held out—and cut 

quick across the corner
with the gray wolf’s head thrown back.        

(IV)


Between the preserves and crockery 
she kept her vanity’s copper key.  
I took a velvet seat and fit 
clover to clover.  Right drawer 
opened full to cotillion gloves 
and winter sleeves for attaching, 
the left with her scissors, snuff-tin
and two cuspids on a sliver 
of wire.  I couldn’t read the cursive 
in blue-lined letters but guessed 
something high and fake in those helium o’s.  
In her brown kitchen, tea made ice 
chatter at jar’s bottom. When I was called 
to grace, I smelled like gone-sour.  
Have you washed your hands? He cut 
a cold biscuit to spread with peaches, 
asked her his favorite question: remember 
your birthday, the one when Kennedy 
was shot?  When she opened to say yes, I saw 
what she had been missing—without the silver 
retainer, or his half-dollar put in its place.

(V)
    After Andrew Wyeth        
    
My grandfather kept his acres 
with a buzzing wire 
                     fence, and a grove 

of sweaty magnolias
drawing the most opaque 
            shadows I’ve known.  Almost frost 
                
beneath, despite heat 
that clabbered your blood. 
                     Even the concrete porch 
            
felt more like a fossil
than it did good living. 
          In the farmhouse, he napped

to Rush and Jerry’s 
drone. Faded prints 
                    formed a triptych: 

the first an auburn Jesus, 
hands folded in prayer. 
           The second Jesus leaned 

his head against a fishing net—
posed, it was hard to tell 
            if he’d walked on water, or suddenly 

cameoed as the surfer 
in a Juicy Fruit commercial.
                                The third was Christina’s World

I confused her first 
for Mary—her limbs gray and twisted 
                     as an orchard’s in winter. 
    
Don’t stare. A few children 
came to church in a special van. 
                       They sang “He-e-e-’s alive!” 

clapping off the beat. 
My grandfather under his breath: 
           God’s punishment, then mothers’.  


My grandma sucked in 
her breath, and, turning 
                       away from him, said nothing.


Later, she canned 
preserves, pinched raw 
            pie crusts. On her feet, bunions 
        
bulged through nylon.
She sent me out with a bag 
            to snatch the windfall pecans. 
            
I tried to imagine a field 
open as Christina’s, without
                      its edges hemmed 

in overbearing trees. 
But I knew that spiral down 
            her spine. It was the way 

oak leaves let go. I knew 
that dead-sea distance 
                       between the farm and girl.

-Poems from Rogers' Chord Box, Selected by Guest Editor Mark J. Brewin 

BIO: Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers is the author of Chord Box (University of Arkansas Press, 2013), finalist for both the Miller Williams Prize and the Lambda Literary Award.  Her poems appear in The Missouri Review, Boston Review, FIELD, The Journal, Mid-American Review, Crazyhorse, Prairie Schooner, Hayden's Ferry Review, AGNI Online, Crab Orchard Review, Seneca Review, POOL, Kenyon Review Online, StorySouth, on Poetry Daily and Verse Daily, and many others. Her creative nonfiction has appeared at The Rumpus.  

Born and raised in Greensboro, NC, Rogers was educated in the public schools and trained as both a dancer and musician.  She received her B.A. from Oberlin College in Creative Writing and Dance in 2007 and an MFA in Creative Writing from Cornell University in 2011.  She was also an Oberlin Shansi Fellow from 2007-2009 at Shanxi Agricutural University (山西农业大学) in Taigu, China, where she taught English and dance. From 2011-2012, she was a Freund Lecturer of English at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY.   

Rogers also received the two-year writing fellowship at The Kenyon Review,  where she edited, wrote, and taught at Kenyon College from 2012-2014. She now lives in New Orleans, where she teaches creative writing at Tulane University.

An Interview with Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers by Aaron Bauer & Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum

Aaron Bauer & Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: You have some wonderfully visceral images in your poems. For example, in "Five Fades" you write: "Bent over testicular tomatoes / and the hairy vines of squashes." When writing, at what point do your images come into your poems? Do you start with the image and develop the tone and narrative around it, or is the narrative the impetus for the poem that images and sounds develop from?

Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers: It's certainly different for every poem, but I usually start with imagery, and then the tone-as well as the narrative, if there is to be one at all-often emerges out of the images. "Five Fades" is primarily driven by imagery, but narrative threads, if not a complete narrative, arise in the poem. I have always been drawn to storytelling, even if the lyric is my primary impulse.

AB & AMK: You seem to be a fan of unexpected juxtaposition in your images, such as the triptych with pictures of Jesus on either side of Wyeth "Christina's World" in "Five Fades." How do you think these unexpected turns work for your readers and serve the poems they are part of?

ELR: "Five Fades" has what I'd consider Southern Gothic characteristics, and I hope the poem's moments of horror arise from these over-the-top, sometimes-shocking comparisons-- "testicular tomatoes," "linoleum,/the tawny argyle/of a copperhead's back"--and, on a larger scale, the two images of Christ linked to Wyeth's painting of a woman disfigured from polio, seemingly trapped in a stark landscape. I want the reader to feel the alarm I felt as a child, experiencing this family farm and the house and the people who lived in it. So often I see depictions of rural life defer to a kind of bucolic complacency. I guess I'm more interested in what is terrifying and strange about the rural South, if that makes sense.

AB & AMK: In these three poems, you tend to lean towards shorter lines (ie. decasyllabic or less). What attracts you to a shorter poetic line? What tone or movement do you believe this gives your poetry?

ELR: I got addicted to the short line for so many reasons. In the first section of my book, Chord Box, there is real emotional ambiguity in the story that's being told: it's not just the biography of a musical education, but also a coming-out story and a narrative of sexual abuse. Here, and elsewhere, the short line has ability to create a great deal of emotional tension, since heavy enjambment creates multiple, sometimes accidental, meanings.

 

Aesthetically, I'm also drawn to the short line because of how much blankness it leaves on the page. Negative space is a powerful force! It can be just as important as the words themselves. In my new work, however, I'm trying to lengthen my lines a bit, free things up. I don't want the short lines to seem like a tic.

 

I do think a shorter line provides some resistance to the forward-moving reader, which can be a useful counterbalance to a plainspoken language style. A poem shouldn't be too transparent; it's much more satisfying if a reader is compelled, at the end of the poem, to read it again. That doesn't mean it should be completely opaque, but I believe it's really that balance of clarity and mystery that drives a good poem.

 

AB & AMK: In "Echo," the poem is constructed mainly of tercets, aside from the ending couplet: "down to the valley-and before / they are caught, they call out." What effects do you think an abbreviated last stanza has on the poem?

 

ELR: It's not unusual, in a formal or traditional sense, to have a poem end with a couplet. In this case, there's also a way in which the poem's form echoes content: at the moment the fleeing lovers are about to be captured, the poem is "stopped" in its tracks. However, practically speaking, probably what happened is that I couldn't force the poem to go on any longer. I'm a big believer in saying only what you need to, even if that means breaking out of the form.

AB & AMK: In some other interviews, you have referred to Chord Box as a bildungsroman. Books in the bildungsromangenre would be concerned with the formation and education of the protagonist. What role(s) do you believe didacticism can or should play in poetry?

 

ELR: Chord Box really does tell a story, starting, in the first section, with the foundational narrative: the romantic, troubled relationship I had with my music teacher when I was a teenager and she was in her late thirties. But I didn't set out to write a narrative book, or any kind of book in particular. Even though we don't generally use the term for poetry, I do sometimes call the collection a bildungsroman, mostly because all the poems are largely focused, as you just said, on the education of the speaker, an education that is rooted in language, culture, music, and sexuality, among other aspects.

 

I like poetry collections that have an arc, but that arc need not be a narrative. There can be a danger of falling flat when all the poems in a collection are too similar in subject or approach. I guess I don't have any strong beliefs, in the end, about didacticism. I don't like to be too instructive or too moral; I like to complicate things, evoke as many possibilities and emotions as possible. I just think we should strive to write about subjects that matter in one way or another: "something at stake," as the writing teacher would say.

 

AB & AMK: In these poems, I noticed some compelling instances of phatic communication-words meant for sound rather than meaning, such as in "Five Fades," where you write: "In the farmhouse, he napped // to Rush and Jerry's / drone." What interests you in using this non-communication as a subject for your own writing?

 

ELR: It's funny: in the lines you just mentioned, I actually meant them to read quite literally: he is falling asleep with right-wing radio shows playing in the background. In a poem like "Echo," however, I focused on sound above meaning, enacting the echoes rather than just describing them. For me, focusing on sound gets me out of my logical brain, the brain that makes the predictable choices about language. Sound makes me less able to feel my own hand so heavily against the page. I've always had a bad tendency towards reining my poems in a little too tightly. But if you focus first on sound, the language becomes more alive. It doesn't become devoid of meaning, but takes on additional meanings, making the poem have more layers.

 

AB & AMK: Since sound and poetry are intrinsically linked, what are the key differences in your view between poetry and phatic communication?

 

ELR: For me, it always has to be a balance between sound and rational meaning. I think that's true for most writers, though not all.

 

AB & AMK: When you are writing, do you draw on certain literary theories or theorists for inspiration for your work? Do you find that literary theory is useful for writers or does it get in the way of the writing process?

 

ELR: I'm sure it's different for everyone. I'm not a scholar, though I do read some criticism, have studied it along the way, and have incorporated it some into my teaching of literature and writing. But I don't write from a theoretical framework, especially not literary theory. My formal training is as a writer, dancer, and musician much more so than as a scholar. Writing-wise, I am more influenced by music theory or modern dance than I am literary theory.

 

Interestingly, the last section of my book is set in China, and it contains Chinese characters-a natural product of the place-but many people have assumed I must have been taking my clues and inspiration from Pound and Fenollosa here. I didn't read their work involving Chinese characters until after I lived in China, and until after my manuscript was almost complete, when I was taking a graduate seminar on poiesis. I couldn't get on board with most of what Fenollosa and Pound were saying, actually-they made some very dangerous claims regarding a language they didn't really know, got most things wrong, I think. But Fenollosa's essay I wrestled with for a while, and finally decided I could accept it as a kind of ars poetica more readily than a piece of criticism, if that is allowed.

 

And as to your second question: I have so much anxiety about writing that almost everything gets in the way of my writing process! This could include literary theory, but it also includes any number of things.

 

AB & AMK: Who are you reading at the moment? What did you most enjoy about this book?

 

ELR: I just finished B.K. Fischer's St. Rage's Vault, which expanded my understanding of what is possible with the ekphrastic poem. She's a wonderful poet and critic of both literature and art. I also finished Barrie Jean Borich's Body Geographic, a great book of essays that elides body, land, queerness, and American history in ways that I've long been interested in as a poet. The creative essay is such a flexible genre, and with Borich's book, it's great to see my obsessions at work in another genre.

A Review of Elizabeths Lindsey Rogers' Chord Box by Amanda McConnon, first published by Late Night Library

The poet Sharon Olds once exclaimed, “we are blessed by our obsessions!” Chord Box by Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers is a product of this blessing. It artfully weaves several select but disparate themes that seem to obsess the poet, the most prominent of which are music and language, and the resulting tapestry serves as a road map for this ink-and-paper navigation through the world that the speaker inhabits.

Rogers’s book is divided into three sections. The first and second, though different in structure, seem somehow similar in spirit compared to the third section. The first goes back and forth between the story of the speaker’s adolescence, and that of the adolescence of the speaker’s object of affection: her teacher. In the first section’s final poem, “Coda: 2003,” the teacher and her lover present our speaker with a necklace strung from their favorite earrings as she departs them for a distant state. This moment seems a vital shift to launch us into the second section, in which the voice seems more independent, more certain of itself. It still carries around those experiences and people like the necklace, but has had more time to hammer out what they mean, where they end, and where she herself begins.

Especially in these first two sections, the outer world takes on the inner emotions of its characters (and I say characters and not speakers because, while the book jumps around both in time or space, there remains only one true voice that speaks for each person in the book). In “Belt: 1975,” an eleven year old stuck in the car with her child molesting grandfather “watch[es] smokestacks spew / sinister questions;” in “A Road in the Sky,” two lovers yearning to truly connect with each other pass a “park that pushed / its own banks, spilled vines / over the lookout.”

Reading this collection is like looking around a room of funhouse mirrors: each image is a distortion of some sentiment working in another way elsewhere in the poem. But this multidimensional approach to exploring human feeling does not stop with the physical environment. True to the title, music takes on a vital role in this collection. On a drive through the mountains, the landscape rises in “perpetual modulation, a practiced scale” (“Coda: 2003”). Music also functions as a means for divulging hard-to-get-at truths, both out of the characters’ volitions and against them. In “Psalm: 1976,” a poem in which a child is shunned by her mother for telling the truth about her grandfather, Rogers writes, ”You start the song / with the door left / open, so that / she, in some other / room, can hear.” And when the speaker’s nervous body revolts against her, she explains “I’m quaking down / beneath the bone, where / my marrow, darkly / contralto, is humming (“Vibrato: 2001”). Music is treated as not just a force, or a tool, but also as a lowest common denominator between people. Music functions as the most primal and pure means of communication, something uncomplicated by language.

Because language often betrays us—a notion that is key in this collection. In the first two sections, Rogers is unafraid to throw musical notation our way (and almost always generously defines these symbols for us) or small symbols that depict the object that the speaker is looking at or thinking of. In “Nodes,” Rogers discusses Ernst Chladni’s 1787 experiment in which he discovered sound’s visual patterns, part of which process was drawing “a navel, encircled.” Directly after those words she includes an ancient symbol, the circumpunct, a dot inside a circle, which is most commonly used to represent the sun, but whose meanings also range from protection against the evil eye to a Scouting symbol meant to indicate the end of a trail and suggest the hiker return home.

Rogers’s willingness to use whatever visual and lingual tools are at her disposal is just another of the book’s characteristics that sets it apart. And this method takes on a different life in the third section, which is born mostly out of Rogers’s experiences living and teaching in China, a country with a language that works in a way entirely different from the poet’s native English. These poems swoop the Chinese language under their wings and incorporate them into their own vocabulary unapologetically, but sometimes not entirely confidently. While sometimes a definition is provided within the poem for you, other times the words or characters are placed there without translation, though a glossary is provided on the last pages.

Rogers manages to do this in a way that isn’t isolating to the reader. It is more like a friendly gesture of a mutual vying toward understanding. We are allowed to see the painstaking process behind a non-native speaker attempting to communicate in a language that doesn’t come naturally to her. In “gŭ láng yŭ,” she writes “Zhŭ! From their teacher, / the only syllable / I can register. I think it is the zhŭ / that means concentrate; join together. / Or was it the other one: god; master?” By giving us enough vulnerability that we can imagine the speaker as a real person who is learning herself as she tries to teach us, we are on board to make these daring lingual leaps with her.

Chord Box is a book that has an intricate and somewhat complicated approach toward language because it recognizes that life is intricate and somewhat complicated. In one of my favorite moments in the book, our speaker is in China and wonders why she sees her neighbors’ parrots in cages all along the road, but she lacks the language to ask someone. But by writing it, Rogers has found the language to at least express that frustration, releasing some of its burden. And that, too, is a blessing that poetry gives us.