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On Purgatorio I
Go with this man; see that you gird his waist
With a smooth reed; take care to bathe his face…
(trans. By Mark Musa)
Sometimes mercy fell all the way down and made tiny windows in the fields. And sometimes it simply hovered in the seven times twenty panes of glass. It’s not that I couldn’t stand such utter selflessness— one thing passing into another across the distance— it’s just that the sun resembled more a burning kite than star and stained the building with the pinks and muted oranges, muted yellows, of its raging sorrow. Still, it held me there, winter sunset, and stood me helpless. The beauty was in the fuel of the thing. How each window banked like ignited water, the red bricks riffling in the perfect residue of seconds… Years later, it was my daughter wandering casually in to watch me bathing that undid me. How she played with the stacked towels awhile, toothpaste, soap, until this game bored her and she turned to me to wash my face and hair as only a child can: in the frank, religious spirit of cleansing, nursing. Awed, I let her scrub me. I let the grimed water sheet me like a radiant cloak until this too bored her and she wandered back to play with toys, left me chilled above the whirr of traffic. I was in the car again. It was 1968. The dream-time was all around me spilling the others’ blood, the car that held us such a poor kite to the hill’s wind. I remember waking upside down above the pivot and knowing nothing of time but a kind of hurry-up to save the cell-life, my father’s borrowed jacket on another scrunched beside me in the filtering light… Witless, our ritual cleansings, the actual timings: a second window flared beneath me on the bitter earth. I dropped and hurried toward it, crawled hands and knees into the charity and utter coarseness that was ditch grass.
Message to Be Spoken into the Left Ear of God
This is the child drowning: face-up in an amniotic pool of tap water:
my crucible, liquid garment; eyes spanked open in the rocking
inches of light.
Above me: my mother’s face torn, her print dress blown
to flame; refraction making me seem— at least to her, looking down—
like those in the ward my sister was rubied to when a neighbor
rammed her straight down hard— bumper to hip— to the packed snow
of Dolores Avenue,
branches scarring the dome of sky like the cracks in her
skull, or like the veins in the policeman’s face when he jumped
downstream into chunks
of ice to catch a neighbor girl like a toy Ophelia. Her body
in his pale blue arms as limp and blue as grief, her
coat tails dripping
above the steaming current. Tadpole— minnow— knife blade—
tag of flesh— layer of bone— my father’s face finally astonished,
forehead piercing a nail angling from a joist. Oh, these crucifixions
staining the fingers, tasting of raw sewage, fish,
cicadas like a giant
rust in the trees, 40,000 ticking Geigers, and not one rock
to set them off; rather, as if our bones in sleep were their decaying
marrow gone soft, gone nuclear. The way the heart shrinks, and
veins go flat as dying rivers. Or twist in swirls of blue elastic.
The bath water drawn,
the liquid steaming, melting the crude minerals just beginning
to line the child’s brain, hair drifting in the gentle
slosh. The body—
pale, naked, wingless. How I hovered once like a sea-
horse in my mother’s womb. And then dropped out screaming.
-from Message to Be Spoken into the Left Ear of God
BIO: Dennis Hinrichsen is the author of three full-length collections of poetry: The Attraction of Heavenly Bodies, The Rain That Falls This Far, and most recently, Detail from the Garden of Earthly Delights, which won the 1999 Akron Poetry Prize. A fourth collection, Cage of Water, will be published by the University of Akron Press in 2004. He has a BA in English from Western Michigan University and an MFA from the University of Iowa. Among his awards and achievements are a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, two grants from the Michigan Council for the Arts, and prizes from The Carolina Quarterly and Poetry Northwest. His work has appeared in numerous journals including AGNI, Black Warrior Review, Crab Orchard Review, Field, Notre Dame Review, Passages North, and Third Coast.
An Interview with Dennis Hinrichsen by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum
Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: “On Purgatorio I” responds to Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. The epigraph, “Go with this man, see that you gird his waist / with a smooth reed; take care to bathe his face…” particularly informs the moment when the speaker’s daughter “turned to me to wash my face and hair as only a child can.”
Can you tell us how this poem reflects on the Purgatorio?
Dennis Hinrichsen: When I drafted this poem, I was living in the Boston area working as a technical writer for a large engineering firm. My then wife and I had just had our first and only child. At work, I edited all kinds of documents dealing essentially with the making of light, as well as dealing with the waste products of that process. On the train rides in, I read Dante. So as I stood above the blueprints of power plants—which seemed to me cathedrals of light—with engineers guiding me through the runs of piping, the equipment, what happened here to the water, what a turbine was, etc., I couldn’t help but make all sorts of connections to Dante’s journey toward Paradise, Virgil as guide, the filth and waste associated with the process, the massive scale of it, the overwhelming light at the end. And so I made big plans to write many poems. In the end, I wrote a handful. On Purgatorio I was one of them. I think what struck me about that passage in Dante was how unbelievably human and tender the moment is, and how small against the enormity of the 34 cantos of the Inferno. The only other moment that does a like thing for me is from Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry.” Anyway, my daughter may have been two or so, I was taking a bath, she came in and scrubbed my back. I was thinking about Dante, the power plants; I was also trying to work my way toward writing about a car accident I was in when I was in high school where four people died. That pivot in the Inferno, Canto 34, toward Purgatory played a role as well—I fell in a like manner out of the car. Anyway, I pushed the power plants aside, and let this other material collide. I drafted the poem and then worked on it off and on for quite a while.
AMK: This is a prose poem, which, in some ways, is a form without form. I’m wondering why you chose this form in this instance.
DH: I think the form chose me in the end. The poem at the onset was drafted in triads for obvious reasons. But they didn’t work—I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s the hybrid nature of the poem. The poem is more narrative, more prosaic in its middle stages; more lyric in the opening. After awhile I gave up trying to find a line or stanza identity for it and just typed it up as prose. I let it sit for a long time—years. Every now and then I would go back to it—slowly I came to realize that the paragraph was the right shape for it. There was something unadorned about the speaker’s voice, at least to me; it seemed more guileless or free of rhetoric, flat in a way, than other poems I was writing at the time. Ideas and music that would not fit into lines. Thus I was changed, thus it was finished. Very slow Zen.
AMK: Is writing a poem in response to another work a form/structure in and of itself?
DH: Yes, I’d say so. What I respond to when I read is the formal aspect of the work, even if the poem’s main thrust is emotion. The endless fascination is not with channeling one’s autobiography or emotional life, but rather with finding a way to massage, shape, alter, ultimately transform that material into art.
AMK: What advantages are there to writing under the direct influence of others and how/why did you find yourself proceeding in this manner?
DH: Many years ago I came across the phrase—“sphere of influence”—it may have been in an article or review by David Shapiro in APR. The gist I took from that phrase is that we are always writing under the influence of others—reading goes hand-in-hand with writing—and that we are always responding to this direct influence. It doesn’t always reveal itself as in my poem. But it’s always there. At least it is for me. I read John Cage’s Silences and have two or three projects. I read a poem that does something intriguing and I’m off trying to steal that thing.
AMK: I love the way “On Purgatorio I” moves from the description of what I believe is a church lit by the sunset, to the moment with your daughter, and then to, again what I believe, is a car accident you were in as a child.
First: I’m wondering why it is that this poem is so clearly situated within a narrative landscape and, yet, that landscape remains elusive.
DH: I’m not sure this was a conscious plan—at the time I was writing the poem I was interested in moving associatively in my work (still am I suspect). I like poems that made quick leaps, huge leaps. I liked the tension between that improvisational impulse and the grounding nature of the narrative scene. A jazz model as I understood it. I was listening to a lot of jazz at the time. So it all made sense in that the melody line of the poem is clear—the idea of mercy to the washing to the memory of the car accident. It really doesn’t matter where the first image is grounded—it can float because the second moment is grounded, no mystery there. Then the poem can open up again. I admired poems (and other art) that did this—it’s how I understood the idea that writing is an act of discovery.
AMK: Second: How did you come to the leaping nature of “On Purgatorio I,” which uses the ellipses and italics as mechanisms or markers of time shifts in the poem?
DH: The leaping nature of the poem was a matter of how my mind worked then—I was always looking for ways to push the poem, finding interesting things to connect to the narrative line. The revising is just trying to find ways to manage all that. In this case it was how to connect three separate moments. The ellipses and italics seemed like clear ways to suggest the passage of time (and to isolate the first moment) and then to allow the speaker’s inner thoughts to shape the last moment.
AMK: “Message to Be Spoken into the Left Ear of God” is a poem packed with wonderful metaphors: “refraction making me seem…a macrocephalic,” “branches scarring the dome of sky like the cracks in her skull,” the entire 8th and 9th stanzas, “cicadas…40,000 ticking Geigers,” and “I…once like a sea- / horse in my mother’s womb,” to name a few.
The metaphor is one of the most natural tendencies of language and, of course, of poetry in particular. But I don’t think the metaphors of “Message” are simply there for the sake of being there; rather, they seem to forward an otherwise internalized, metaphysical discussion regarding the difference between the conceived self and the actual self. Like looking in a mirror or listening to your voice on an answering machine and for the first time realizing that the self you think of and the self you actually are not always the same.
Without asking you to explain what this poem is “about,” are we on the right track here?
DH: I think so. The poem came out of an exercise I did with my lyric writing class. The idea was holding your breath for some reason. Can’t remember where it came from. My take on the exercise was to have this kid under water in the bath tub holding his breath and looking at the world through the water, seeing and remembering things—and then muttering those things into God’s left ear (Lucifer’s side). So there is a disconnect between the conceived self and actual self in the poem, leading to a rebirth, or in this case, the kid bursting from water gasping for breath.
AMK: Do these metaphors act as a narrative element in the poem, moving it forward, associatively linking images to moments in the life of the speaker?
DH: Yes, the images tell a story about my early childhood. A memory scan that plays off the idea of drowning more or less. I was horsing around here, trying to get a bunch of guitar players to get beyond all those bad songs they were writing about their girlfriends or getting drunk.
AMK: “Message” reminds me a lot of Carolyn Forché’s poetry…I think it’s, first, the honest voice that permeates the images. There’s a sense of a personality behind this poem that doesn’t declare “What you’ve heard is true” (Forché, “The Colonel”) but that tells the story in such a way that the reader feels that there is much that is left unsaid. I’m thinking of scaffolding, how as a building is being constructed, it must be scaffolded in order for the workers to do their work. But, once the building is finished, the scaffolding is removed.
Is this a good model for the way you “construct” poems?
DH: I suspect it is in some respects. I work with the idea of the scaffolding in my head—it’s often never in the poem—often much to the dismay of the members of my writing group. So the poem rises along some other architectural principle with the scaffolding ghosting the scene. I like the idea of something being unsaid—there’s something for the reader to discover. I’m okay with a little dissonance or distortion, accessibility with a Dickinson slant. I’m okay with doing some work as a reader.
AMK: Speaking of elements of poetry, both of these poems (and, in fact, all of the poems of "Message to Be Spoken into the Left Ear of God") are narratives docked in an incredibly imagistic, imaginative, and musical universe.
Is this the sign of a dedicated and principled approach to poetry or does music, imagination, narrative, and image come naturally to you when you sit down to compose a poem?
DH: I’m not sure. When I look back, it seems a matter of practice—finding ways to be interesting on the page. I wrote differently early—more flat, less textured. As I continued writing, I got better at texture, at ramping up things in a way that interested me (and hopefully others). Keat’s “Ode to a Nightengale” was the model there. I was always trying to out-Keats Keats (with a heavy dose of Williams in there) in a way. It seems natural now. Almost too second nature so that recently I’ve been trying to compress and find resonance in shorter poems. Poems that flatten some of that music, some of those leaps, and cleave closer to the subject.
AMK: Being still fairly new to poetry, drafting what I think of as a good poem roughly follows the seven stages of grief: First, there’s the shocking realization that what I’ve written is nowhere near as good as I at first thought. Then come the stages of denial, bargaining, guilt, anger, depression, and, if I’m lucky, hope.
Obviously, it’s not all that bad, but this seems fairly universal for students of poetry. Seeing that you’ve published five collections of poetry and publish regularly in well known journals…does this get any easier?
DH: I’d say it does. It’s practice—keep at it long enough—keep pushing at the edges long enough—and you get better. You make better choices about what to write about. The poems you put in a drawer for later are better. The poems you keep are better. The learning curve is forever, but you can make progress pretty quickly and find an audience for your work. I’m trying to learn how to play guitar right now—this is hard. Much harder than learning how to write ever was. The learning curve is quite staggering, and humbling.
AMK: What are the dangers of this sort of success?
DH: I wish I had experienced some of the dangers. What looks like success from the outside is something else in the inner precincts. It’s just work, keeping at it, in a context that routinely takes me away from the work. At times it seems like someone else—someone less busy—is writing the poems. The danger, or course, in the end, is not growing. Not trying new things. Not trying to write poems you can’t possibly write. And, of course, thinking you can make a living from it. Need to find something else to do to make the rent.
AMK: What are you working on these days?
DH: I have a new manuscript currently in a close-but-no-cigar orbit at a number of contests. A mix of poems about the American Southwest, my father’s death. It has a kind of clarification via chaos core to it. It’s called Kurosawa’s Dog.
AMK: Thank you.
DH: My pleasure. Thanks so much for asking me to participate. I appreciate it.