Scribal: My Mother in the Voting Booth
Stabbing the hole by Nixon's name, with a stylus on a chain,
like some scribe
in Lagash piercing wet clay slabs for the palace records. The count
for the Priest King's
chariots & Amorite slaves must be exact. All day her adding machine
has purred, the shavings
litter the floor. Stylus through Nixon, stylus through Agnew. Two hours
she's waited in the wet
November snow of Minnesota & her cold next week will worsen
to pneumonia. Over
the churning columns she'll cough & pass out & waken in County General,
shrouded in an oxygen tent
where she cannot smoke. The count must be exact--14 lyres with
the heads of bearded bulls,
130 votives, 6 figurines of Marduk, fashioned of hammered gold.
The water glass is trembling.
Beside her bed I hover, the clear walls of the tent breathe in & out.
Flicker of Cronkite,
of Nixon on the wall in black & white. He has a secret plan
to end the War.
She sleeps. The tent draws a breath & the joint I smoked
in the parking lot turns the light
a jack-o'-lantern orange. I tell myself in my teenage hubris
that I will not work on
Maggie's Farm like her. Ain't gonna work like her
to blindly serve.
But how her white ectoplasmic face looms back at me this morning
(breathe in, breathe out,
the tent's rise & fall) in the waiting room of Richmond Pediatrics.
All night Luke's coughed,
meaning the pneumonia's returned & the office radio oozes hate,
talk show & its porcine
fascist droning on. He has a secret plan to replace the Constitution
Over us all it washes, the fine volcanic dust, over the fevered
toddlers of the suburbs
& their mothers in sensible shoes, over the Parentings
& the parking lot minivans, the toxic "W"s affixed to their bumpers.
Breathe in & serve
breathe in & serve. A slab of plastic for the co-pay,
the computer station hums.
Cylinder seal & tapestry, 90 geldings in the palace stables. Nebulizer
Pink Amoxicillin, doctored to taste like bubblegum. 7 double-headed
battleaxes, burnished bronze
now oxidized the color of pond scum. Blindly, blindly do we serve.
O Priest King, Dear Leader,
Jealous God. There hangs her scarlet car coat with its Nixon button,
bogus leopard skin along the collar.
She unzips the tent, she recovers. Manhattans prohibited for 14 days.
The adding machine reanimates,
numbers coughing & the tapes scrolling out. She lives on, 20 more
deluded years. In the parking lot,
Rx in hand, I strap sleeping Luke in his car seat--streetlights, the yellow
& blood-red leaves, pasted
to the window by the rain. Let me serve him. Let me live on
20 years. Let me stand
above the burial pits, their goods interred and catalogued, the miles
of dirt tamped down.
A nurse gathers up the afterbirth. My mother
had been howling but now could sleep.
By this time I am gone--also gathered up
& wheeled out. Above my jaundiced face the nurses hover.
Outside, a scab commands a city bus. The picketers battle cops
& ten thousand Soviet conscripts in goggles
kneel & cover their eyes. Mushroom cloud above the Gobi,
& slithering toward Stalin's brain, the blood clot
takes its time. Ethel Rosenberg has rocketed
to the afterlife, her hair shooting flame. The afterbirth
is sloshing in a pail, steadied by an orderly who curses
when the elevator doors stay shut: I am soul & body & medical waste
foaming to the sewers of St. Paul. I am not yet aware
of gratitude or shame.
I do know the light is everywhere.
Napping on My 53rd Birthday
Middle or late,
we cannot know.
We spoon like children,
purple throw scattered
& your mystery rustling
open on the bed,
In Haifa, a bomb crater,
dog-earred in a magazine.
the ceiling fan's thrum.
Here, John Clare
has been searching
a yellowhammer's nest
for the holy, embers
from the Gypsy camps,
his madness a decade away
& thus the place
seems all the world.
we have moored
once more at Ithaca,
the heat finally broken,
bowing blossoms to the lawn,
transfigured back to gray,
the shade of old letters,
reread until the creases
& wedged into
some attic suitcase,
your dead & mine,
the shades who each year grow
less hungry & insistent,
Down the upstairs hall
the boys sigh in dream;
the red arc of the monitor
ripples & quiets.
With pulleys & cherrypickers,
the workers ease
dead oak groundward,
a system strangely cantilevered,
like those stage devices
built to raise
& lower gods.
Eyes closed, you turn to me.
I stroke your sleeping face.
sets homeward from Essex Asylum,
perilous & long
o summer pleasures
they are gone.
Noiseless, the oak tree
meets the ground.
The chainsaws begin their dividing,
the sibilant wail,
the 27 synonyms for blue.
Grant me this life,
o spirit of the shades,
we occupy, this instant
Ripple & quiet, pulley & chain,
your eyes cleave open.
- from World Tree
BIO: Ever since his first collection, Icehouse Lights, was chosen for the Yale Series of Younger Poets award in 1981, David Wojahn has been one of American poetry’s most thoughtful examiners of culture and memory. His work often investigates how history plays out in the lives of individuals, and poet Tom Sleigh says that his poems “meld the political and personal in a way that is unparalleled by any living American poet.”
His collection Interrogation Palace: New and Selected Poems 1982–2004 (2006), which Peter Campion called “superb” and “panoramic” in a review for Poetry, showcases Wojahn’s formal range, the scope of his personal narratives, and his intense, imaginative monologues and character sketches, such as his sonnets on pop culture icons and rock-and-roll musicians in Mystery Train (1990). He is also celebrated for the emotional resonance of his poetry—the ability to, in the words of poet Jean Valentine, “follow . . . tragedy to its grave depths, with dignity and unsparingness, and egolessness.”
In addition to his books of poetry, Wojahn is the author of a collection of essays on contemporary poetry, Strange Good Fortune (2001), co-editor of A Profile of Twentieth Century American Poetry (1991), and editor of a posthumous collection of his wife Lynda Hull’s poetry, The Only World (1995).
He has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, the Illinois Arts Council, and the Indiana Arts Commission. He teaches poetry at Virginia Commonwealth University.
An Interview with David Wojahn by Steve Davenport and Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum
Steve Davenport & Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: So much of "Scribal" depends on emotion and memory, yet there's also the inclusion of so much shared history. As you set about weaving the parts together, do you do homework? That is, do you go over old historical or personal materials and/or read something new and unusual so as to come to the poem or moments in the poem from a surprising angle?
David Wojahn: I often find it puzzling that so many poets who are my contemporaries or younger lack what could be called-a little pompously-an historical sense, or a concern for the way that personal and public history conjoin. I suppose what I've learned from the poets I've always considered my masters-Lowell, Oppen and Rukeyser, among the middle generation, and poets such as C.K. Williams, Bidart, Transtromer. and Heaney from a slightly later generation-is that the personal and the historical are as often as not inextricably linked. A poem which tries to focus on one of those things while excluding the other is apt to seem stentorian or preachy on the one hand, or navel-gazing on the other. And to write about your own memories means you almost always have to also reckon with the public expression of recollection which we call history. So, in a poem like "Scribal," it would be almost impossible for me to try to capture the often frustrating and stubborn nature of my mother's character without also including-as "evidence," I guess--the fact that she voted for Nixon in three presidential elections. My mother was deeply and abidingly cynical, and it makes perfect sense that she would be drawn to that most cynical and opportunistic of politicians. But of course I was also very bonded to my mother. And I wrote "Scribal" during the darkest time of the George W. Bush years, a time of national hurt and turbulence that was very much like the later part of the ‘60s. So there's a lot of references to both timeperiods-a Bob Dylan song, my pubescent self smoking a joint in a hospital parking lot; and in the passage that has me taking my son to the pediatrician there are similar references to the Bush era-looking at Bush bumper stickers, for example, or obliquely referencing Rush Limbaugh. (He's the "porcine fascist droning on".) But one of the reasons I made this the lead poem in the book is that it also tries to wrestle with the fact that any assessment of history, whether public or private, is vexed and mysterious. That may be why all the references to the Sumerians come in-the first "civilized' and urban culture, and the culture that begat writing. But writing, we know, developed from a need to better consolidate the power of the kings and priest-kings. The accountants created it, so they'd know exactly what possessions were owned by the Caesars and Kim Jong Ils of their time. And my mother was an accountant. So I'm sure "Scribal" plays around with the irony of the written word being invented for the purpose of tallying goods up, not for writing poems....I don't really do "research" when I start riffing on the interplay of motifs such as these, but I do have a lot of books about history, particularly ancient and classical history, sitting around the house.
SD & AMK: Discuss this structure with us a bit. Are these long lines that have been indented or did you write the poem with these indentations as their own structural apparatus? Why the long lines in the first place?
DW: I've always been attracted to the possibilities of a very long line-hexameters, fourteeners, etc. I know that prosodists often say that if a line gets longer than about 14 syllables it's hard to recognize it as a line, as an individual unit. But I'm not sure I believe this.
I think a great many of the poets of my generation started to think more about how the long Whitmanic line could work in poems when C.K. Williams' TAR was published in 1983. The line that Williams used often was over twenty syllables long, but its rhythms seemed very forceful, partly because there was a strong iambic quality to his meter, and partly because of the obsessiveness of his subject matter. But Williams' line in that book was usually so long it reached the right margin and had to be carried over into the line that followed. So this created the effect of the poems appearing as very long lines alternating with very short lines. I pretty shamelessly started working in that sort of line for awhile, but in time I started conceiving of the form I was using as a consciously wrought long line followed by a consciously wrought short one that is indented a few spaces from the left margin-not as a single line being carried over to the next because the line had reached the right margin in the way Williams was doing it. I fele I also learned a lot about long lines from the Irish poet Ciaran Carson, who is to my mind one of the finest and most ambitious poets working in the language. In the ‘80s, he seems to have discovered how to use the longer line via Williams, but he plays with its possibilities even more inventively, with lots of end-rhyme, for example, At any raste, I like the form and still use it a fair amount of the time. It's capacious enough to allow me to juxtapose a lot of seemingly disparate material into a poem that is basically narrative in its intentions. And the long line allows me to undercut a tendency I have to favor the iamb too much. A lot of early drafts of my poems are written in blank verse, but I sometimes find that it's important to abandon that line. The motifs that meet in my poems often don't seem to be able to be contained in pentameter. I frequently want something more sonically discordant-I worked hard to get a lot of spondees and strong trochees at the start of "Scribal": "Stabbing the hole with Nixon's name with a stylus on a chain..." and so forth.
SD & AMK: I just love the musical yet often simple language of this poem, particularly in moments like "she waited in the wet / November snow of Minnesota..." We've got alliteration, enjambment, AND internal rhyme happening all at once. You've been doing this for a little while now. How much effort goes into creating music in your work?
DW: A lot. The passage you quote sounds almost Anglo-Saxon. I don't consciously try to achieve such effects, at least not on early drafts, but I am very conscious of trying to incorporate them into later drafts of the poem. I don't do that to make the poem sound polished or self-conscious. I think I share with a lot of other poets a writing process that starts as much with sound as with images or ideas. The revisions of poems often seem to be designed to bring out whatever sonic qualities of the poem that I heard in the back of my mind when I first was composing it-composing it in my head, subliminally and not consciously, rather than on paper. I hear something like a poem's sonic melody first, and then try to poet its words in. The first few drafts never seem to jibe with that melody, but in time they start to better reflect it. This is a process which takes place for me whether the poem is in free verse or in meter or in some fixed form like the villanelle.
SD & AMK: Much was made of the rock sonnets in Mystery Train, both in terms of your use of rock ‘n roll and in terms of the ways in which you played with and transgressed the boundaries of the sonnet form. Is "August, 1953," with or without that broken fourteenth line, a sonnet? Have your thoughts about the sonnet changed over the years?
DW: I started writing the Mystery Train sequence as a response to a feeling that my poems were becoming too narrative-in the ‘80s there was a lot of talk, now very dated, about trying to "revive" narrative in poetry. I felt that a fixed form like the sonnet would help me to cure what I saw at that point as a problem. Of course, what I ended up doing is writing strongly narrative sonnets, some very strict, some not so much. I recall a review of the book by some prosodic strict constructionist that appeared, I think, in Hudson Review. The reviewer took me to task for seeming to violate the essential purpose of employing rhyme by rhyming "etc." with "ooo-wah." Clearly he had no sense of humor.
I also felt a certain delight at mixing subjects drawn from popular culture with a form as hoary yet resilient as the sonnet would be a novel pairing. Besides, the music of the era MT covers is as dear to me as anything in literary culture. But when I write sonnets I frequently find that the poem has to take a form that little resembles conventional sonnets: sonnets look so damn boxy, and when we see a single stanza of a 140 syllables of rhymed iambic pentameter, we're hard-wired to read it in a very restrictive way. We look for how the argument of the octet is elaborated upon and varied in the sextet; we look for a tidy closure in the final two lines. We too readily forget that sonnet means "little song"-it doesn't need to be a versified syllogism with a thesis, an anti-thesis, and synthesis. Generally, I'd much prefer to have the reader recognize one of my pieces as a sonnet during a reading or re-reading of the poem. "August, 1953" is a case in point-I'm fond of putting asterisks or similar typographical forms between lines in a sonnet because they throw the reader off track just a little. The fact that the poem is a sonnet doesn't reveal itself immediately, and the added spaces between lines can make a reader pay more attention to individual lines, and a little less attention to the rhyme scheme, the argument, the turn. This doesn't mean that all my sonnets employ a form as wiggy as "August, 1953," for some of them demand to be encased in a more conventional appearance. If I've learned anything about the form over the years, it's the simple fact that a bad one is easy to write and a good one is devilishly hard to write. That's surely not a profound revelation, but no matter how far I may stray from the form, my awe when I read a resonant sonnet is something that intensifies with time.
SD & AMK: Your use of the entire page in "Napping" is visually striking. The three-part lines simultaneously cascade down and across the page. Would you talk about the use of space in this poem? How, for instance, does the tripartite partitioning of information affect voice and/or the construction of meaning? Why this particular poem?
DW: I was pretty blatantly imitating the form William Carlos Williams employs in late books like Journey to Love and The Desert Music. What he famously called his experiment in "the American triadic foot." He had quite an elaborate theory about that form being the perfect replication of the American vernacular, but I have to confess that I don't understand what the hell he's talking about when he expounds on this. Mainly, I just like the way that form looks on the page, although I think the half-dropped lines add a bit of hesitation into the poem's sonics--not the full pause you find in conventional lines, even enjambed ones, but something like a half- pause. There's a kind of invisible colon or em-dash at the end of many lines of free verse, but in a poem like "Napping" I think of the stepped lines as something more akin to semicolons or commas. The pacing of this particular poem is meant to be fairly slow, legato, since it means to praise the delights and small wisdoms that come with middle age, but also to suggest transience, mortality, and maybe a recognition of the limits of my own poetic powers, despite how long I've been exercising them. I suppose that's one reason why John Clare gets quoted. I sure as hell am grateful not to have anything like his benighted and tragic life. But I am also very envious of those exquisite, and seemingly off-handed phrases he could turn.
SD & AMK: How are we supposed to read these lines? Do we treat them as if they are dropped, kinda-sorta end-lined, what? I can't imagine you want the reader stuttering through the whole poem, but it could be read that way. It could also be read much more fluidly...
DW: Well, it always seems to me that form, whether a received meter or form or a nonce form, is interesting not because of its patterns, but because of the way that the writer must vary the pattern once it has been clearly established. Paul Fussell says that in writing a poem in meter, it's almost impossible not to make most of the lines somehow buck against the meter that's been chosen. Metrical strictness is really stultifying, but things like trochaic or anapestic substitutions within a line of, say, iambic tetrameter, tend to be places in a poem where I pay a lot of attention to what the writer is trying to say. The pattern and expectations have been violated, and in a good poem there's always a thematic or emotional reason for this. The lineation of "Napping" may at times make the poem seem to "stutter" but the hesitations, pauses, and violations of the pattern are reflective of the poem's themes-after all, the poem derives from a deep ambivalence.
SD & AMK: Would you talk about influences and how they have perhaps changed for you over the years of your publishing poems? I'm interested in how those influences have altered or fine-tuned your approach to craft but also to any preparations you might go through as you come to a new poem or project.
DW: The poets who counted the most for me early on were James Wright, Lowell, and Berryman, among American poets. I also read a lot of poets in translation who still inspire me-especially Milosz, Pavese, Transtromer, and Vallejo. They're all still enormously important poets to me; though I'm much more aware of Wright's sentimental excesses, Lowell's studied grandiosity, and Berryman's boozy mannerism. But when you've read and reread writers you love, their poems become as essential a part of your identity as your own poems do, maybe more essential. And you also learn to forgive them their tics, excesses, and uneven writing. And I really do think there are poets who a person can't really appreciate until he/she reaches a certain age. Everybody claims to love Bishop, but I don't think I really got Bishop until I was in my forties; ditto Oppen, who I admire greatly. And I've reached a point with all the people on this list at which they no longer so intimidate me that I'm reluctant to zero in on and perhaps steal some unique element of the way they shape poems-Lowell uses adjectives brilliantly, though the workshop cliché is you should avoid adjectives like the plague. I used to think that if I were to screw up the syntax of a line too much it would seem to shamelessly copy Berryman, but I no longer worry about that. I think the most important thing for a young poet to learn is to always be aesthetically inclusive. I love Lowell with all my heart, but I also love poets as different from one another as Ted Berrigan, Yvor Winters, Lorine Niedecker, Robert Lax, Armand Schwerner, Phil Levine, John Burnside, Hugh McDiarmid, Anna Swir, and I'm only scratching the surface of a list that could go on for pages. And if you love a poet, it also means that you should pay homage to that writer's work by letting him/her influence you, even if it means co-opting something as seemingly trivial as the way that writer employs a punctuation mark. These writers are an endless source of joy for me, and writing poems, too, hard work though it may be, is also a source of great joy. I started writing because the process gave me pleasure , but at a certain point in my twenties the writing process started to seem more laborious, churchy, more involved with professionalism in the worst sense of the term. But somehow, around the time I was in my mid-forties, the joy returned. And I pray it will stay around.