There’s plenty that think we’re twins. By 18
we’d both wished secretly that it was true,
& that it wasn’t. Since we were 9
we met here on stealth banks of August,
each year another Savior & sweet thanks be
to Jesus for that old rowboat.
Remember my instructions when we met?
I’d bent a coffee can into a scoop to hunt
the mud banks for crawfish. “The whole
trick with blue pinchers is getting in behind
without setting off a stir on their tail.” Now
we’re getting to be His age. But apart
from watches & sky dates, you know how to find me
when my head’s full of scuppernong blossoms.
So we cast off past wisteria
& into night silk beyond the river’s edge. Empty skins
of tree snakes, ash vibrissa, draw the canopy.
Tangles of moss wisp past my cheeks,
fall out of a lullaby. No moon. If I spark my lighter,
willows young & old pretend they don’t breathe
the dark, don’t slip thru nights
in tangos with cypress & Saturn tuned in to bent
underwater reeds. Posed they stand like a big-city
crowd at a bust stop, & just reach
off the bank for elbow room. Come out that white blouse
& upside down, you watch open lilies fall away,
a bird’s eye vision
of your daddy’s parachute into the Mekong Delta.
A back bend arched over the bow, your bare torso slips
thru a summer breeze, cuts
a hush in the cicada din. A pale gash torn past my lips
leaves the night open. Light-plays off my chrome
Zippo. Hershey’s kisses harden
into rose thorns dense as a shut eye’s faith in tarot.
My name, dry salt on an arch-smooth eyebrow,
vanishes into steamed woods & gut-heavy
air like sweat into a prayer for rain. We take on water
in each Decatur Street groan for Mercy. It’s far too late,
slipway a damned sight too steep
for Esperanto or one-eyed jacks. To pull the moon
back with cracked oars curved like tusks, you’d better
mean it. It’s about time for round two.
Oceanus descends with an acetylene tear & dreams
of a blue tip, a cool flame; the other eye’s been gone
for years, blind & lid turned cold side out.
-from Paragh of Bone & Other Kinds of Blue
From: Arachnida Speak
we too carry dreaded glands in our abdomens
they hold secretions from our dark ages
born in true flame
honed in flat-toned howls
sure footed dances
we bear the chemicals of our struggle
some feel them useless
burdens in the face of this nimbus gnarl
sudden varacies become seizures of remembrance
how eyelashes turned centipedes in your sleep
sentinels stalked your face
our own mythic bugaboos hair drew back and rattled
noses and talons grew sharp
of course we had patterns of our own then
premonitions gifts of shadow
nook and boon of darkness
our metabolic pact with rock and hard places
so now you know it's coming again
taken in by appearances carousels rotisseries of
baked in booths of still light and peppered
with the haste of relishers
rivaled only by the Pentium whirr and bizillioned crackle
you've dug in well pilgrim
amazed as were our enemies we'd thought
the plains' wind
would blow you all away we watched you
tear at your ears for generations
now the howl's distant a red Doppler glow
barely stirs leaves in the street
after the storm a sunrise lifts
the scent of a daughter's hair tangled in a field of wheat
something in you too cousin feared our enemies
we owe it all to you now
our golden age we breed colonies
in what you've fooled your fool selves into knowing
cutting edge vassals
we were prepared to wait
but in your heady leap frog with evolution
in scant centuries
you've murdered most of our foes
and with your telescopes in orbit can almost see
never mind the solution for gravity
beheld our web in four dimensions Forms
hallowed and pristine crystalline lens and cast-iron mask
belief stalked and mothered
by fear and time have you any time at all?
if you'd only pause
we'd gift you our sacred jewel of night
we'd let you have Chicago and time enough to die
BIO: Ed Pavlić is the author of Visiting Hours at the Coloring Line, winner of the 2013 National Poetry Series, and several other collections of poems, including Live at the Bitter End: A Trial by Opera and Let's Let That Are Not Yet: Inferno. His first novel, Another Kind of Madness, is forthcoming; he has published essays, poems, fiction, and dramatic pieces in numerous magazines and journals, including Boston Review, Harvard Review, Ploughshares, and Callaloo. Widely respected for his scholarship, his critical work includes 'Who Can Afford to Improvise?': James Baldwin and Black Music, the Lyric and the Listeners and Crossroads Modernism: Descent and Emergence in African American Literary Culture. A recipient of the Author of the Year Award from the Georgia Writer's Association and a fellowship from the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard University, he has received the Albert Christ-Janer Creative Research Award, the Darwin Turner Memorial Award from African American Review, and many other awards and fellowships. Pavlić teaches English at the University of Georgia.
An Interview with Ed Pavlić by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum
Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: When we first discussed featuring "Masqualéro," you mentioned that this was "possibly the first poem I ever wrote that looked then and still looks to me like a poem."
I find this very interesting. Can you tell us a little bit about where you were in your development as a poet when you wrote this poem?
Ed Pavlić: Where I was? I was just this side of a realization that visual images matched with the rhythms of everyday speech could teach me things that statements of verbal thoughts would never find. Whether I knew it or not, I was shedding personae.
“Masqualéro” happened when I’d given up attempting to make a poem say what I meant (or what I thought I wanted to mean…). The title comes from a Wayne Shorter composition made famous by Miles Davis’s “Second Quintet” that existed from 1965 – 1968 or so.
In the song, the rhythm and time signatures slip and move underneath each solo, the song breathes and each voice (instrumental voice) sounds like itself at the same time each sounds as if the other voices are wound all up in it as well. From here, I could see it was a kind of private communion. Back then, I didn’t know that but I followed what I heard and what I thought that music had to do with what I felt like in the world.
I had this passage from Miles’s Autobiography :
Every night Herbie, Tony, and Ron would sit around back in their hotel rooms, talking about what they had played until the morning came. Every night they’d come back and play something different. And every night I would have to react. The music we did together changed every fucking night. Man, it was something how the shit changed from night to night after a while. Even we didn’t know where it was all going to. But we knew it was going something else.
I also had the rapper Rakim’s phrase, “follow me into a solo,” in mind. I had the visual images and the rhythm of words leading me out, in, into an open tableau of possible, unframed meaning. I had these two figures (the characters in the poem) in view. I remember saying to myself, “these two figures need each other and they don’t know exactly why.” I remember thinking, “they share organs.”
AMK: What, in your view, makes a poem a poem? What does a poem "look" like on the page? What does a poem do?
EP: I sometimes think I can tell if a poem’s done from across the room simply by the shape it cuts on a page. Maybe not. But, I do think I can tell if it doesn’t work by the shape. At the same time, of course, there’s no prescribed shape in a free verse poem. But, something happens to the shape of a poem when it clicks out of what it was (or wasn’t) and into being itself.
I suppose a poem exists, that’s what it does. One part of a poem exists when it answers a need in the author. Something has to happen while writing, out of bolt-blue, that answers a question that didn’t exist in the mind until the answer identified it. Another part of a poem exists when that accident in the author’s body answers something in the need of a reader. I think readers and writers both come to poetry out of a need distinct from the ways we approach various kinds of prose. I think we come to it closer to the way musicians and listeners come to music or the way a painter and a viewer approach a canvas. Poems are made of language held in tension with its non-verbal properties.
The connection between the needs of readers and writers, in poetry, is elastic but there’s a relation between them. There’s a mystery in that elasticity that poetry (if not poets) can’t live without.
AMK: What makes a poem remain a poem over time, even as poetry evolves?
EP: What lasts? The lyric. When an experience (experiences are basically mute) can be made to speak, when it can be literally voiced, in a way that opens it up (rather than sums it up) into what’s behind it, into what surrounds it, that can last I think. It’s similar to what makes a song seem to mean more than what the story of the words tell. I think that lasts, but it can’t be requisitioned or controlled. It’s in the way one can instantly come to depend on the results of an accident. The best parts of poems are the results of the right accidents; I think that can last.
I think of Catallus writing about being at a friend's house and then leaving and keeping his friend, the visual, sensual memory of their time together, under his eyelids. I love the material, literalness, of what he means. I have you, your body, flesh, right here under the lid of my closed eye. I’ve taught (whatever that means) that poem to third graders two-thousand years after he wrote it. We read it together and they have no trouble understanding it.
AMK: You are known by some as a Jazz poet. Can you explain to us what a Jazz poet is?
EP: I love music, that’s for sure. I’m currently in a friendly (I hope) dispute with a writer about this, actually. Each of us thinks we love music more than anybody in the world. We’re looking for a way to measure this quantity so we can settle the bet and pay up.
Seriously, if we could agree that “jazz” is the impulse to search for the shift, the way a thing has to change to stay itself, then maybe.
AMK: This poem starts with a dedication, "after Miles." I'm assuming this refers to Miles Davis. Can you explain how this poem is a reflection of Miles Davis?
EP: Apart from what I’ve already said. I think of Miles’s advice to young soloists : “Play above what you know, and finish before you’re done.” I think, in “Masqualéro,” I was able to do that.
He also talked about the shared privacy of instrumental music and about how he didn’t want to intrude into a listener’s experience of music. There’s something counterintuitive about what he means. He’s not (as many thought he was…) saying “stay back” or “let’s agree to disagree.” Some thought he was saying “fuck you.” He may have been saying that, but he was saying something else on that horn as well. Nothing in his sound supports these fraudulent reductions of what Miles’s music was up to.
I think what he means is that, somehow, we can hold parts of ourselves (in this case, verbal selves) back and allow other parts a deeper encounter with each other. Given the history of our country and its present, riven-blind condition, how could it be otherwise?
By the title and the dedication, “after Miles,” I’d hoped that someone might listen to Miles’s version of “Masqualéro” and read this poem. I still do that.
AMK: "Masqualéro" merges the culture of New Orleans ("Esperanto," "one-eyed jacks," and "Decatur Street"), mythological figures (Oceanus), and historical settings (Mekong Delta) with twists of image in lines like "upside down, you watch lilies fall away / a bird's eye vision // of your daddy's parachute" and language in "A pale gash torn past my lips / leaves the night open."
I think that "understanding" this poem takes a few readings, but I think that this is one of the aspects of your work (and of poetry in general) that makes verse fun to read. It is oftentimes difficult and yet delightful and intriguing. For some readers, however, finding joy in this sort of discovery can be a lot to ask.
I'm wondering what motivates you to write in this way. Why push image, narrative, and language the way you do? Why ask this of the reader?
EP: Why play with your back to the crowd? Miles said it’s because the band sounds better to him when he faces them and not the crowd. That’s simply a matter of the shape of the human ear and the way it sits on our heads. This is before many stages had monitor speakers. Before surround sound, etc.
If we can say understanding is a kind of intellectual control that has its uses as well as its limitations, its blindnesses, then I think this poem attempts to exist at the border of what can and can’t be communicated without fencing in the writer, reader, and the poem. The poem’s set in a basically recognizable place.
New Orleans is in view, there’s a river, there’s a boat. There’s a recent past with the American War in Vietnam still in view. These are the children of veterans.
But, their experience opens out into dimensions that won’t obey the checked boxes on the census reports. There’s also a shifting play of racial identity afoot in this poem and throughout the book. But, I don’t think there’s one openly racialized designation near the lyric-pulse of the book. One of the “other kinds of blue” is blackness. This book was, for me, a way to find what I had and call what’s mine, mine.
That figure, posed, in “a back bend arched over the bow” watching the water lily blooms morph into her daddy’s parachute in Vietnam. That friend watching her torso tear the night open…What can I say, every time I read that poem, I can’t wait to get to those lines. I can’t wait for that comma, and then I get to say “fall out of a lullaby." If I’m the only one in the room who feels that, it’s an indulgence. If I’m not, maybe it’s not. It’s about what can be shared and how. Intimate visions, history, myth can be seen as alternate modes of sharing. Geographies.
I should also thank Andrew Krivak, who was the editor at DoubleTake at the time, for working through the music of this poem with me before publishing it. I’ve often gone back to the images he convinced me to cut. I miss those images, man. But, the poem’s better for the cuts. He taught me a lot. He didn’t know me from anyone. He did it for free and he published my work in (what was then) my favorite magazine.
AMK: Arachnida Speak: This sequence of poems is in an interesting form with its lack of punctuation, capital letters, and the spacing between stanzas and the indentations and such. Why put it together in this way?
Ed Pavlic: I've written a lot of poems in this format, actually. The absence of capitals and punctuation gives the page a uniform, code-like appearance. A kind of communiqué impression. Three spaces between phrases when there are breaths in midst of lines,
in-jambment. Certain poems call for that approach as they come into bring. I usually go with it. I don't think it's that uncommon.
The stanzas are three staggered (3-0-6 space-indented) lines. Then there's one full stanza on each page, the rest are partial, decayed, broken. Something's held back, you know, lip bitten. My first book was all staggered three-line stanzas. . . I think these are relatives of those. I've got a complete book, unpublished, of poems in this form, some punctuated, some not (this can't be interesting to anyone but me!). It's titled "Visiting Hours at the Color Line." But, I think the approach follows something similar to a statement by a really fine, S.F. Bay-area painter named Henry Jackson. Of his work with abstracted human figures, he wrote :
To merely depict an action or a gesture is not my concern. . . this tearing down of form, is a reminder to me of what we lose of ourselves everyday -- a reminder of the inevitable and the battle to exist.
I read that in his catalogue and thought, yes, that's my stanzas. Exactly.
AMK: It's unclear who is speaking in these poems. The title obviously implies that the speakers are arachnids of some sort, but it seems that the voices shift from section to section and may, perhaps, be speaking back and forth. How did you come up with writing from the point-of-view of arachnids? Are you concerned at all that readers might be a little lost in regards to who is speaking and to whom or is this something you feel is apparent upon a deep reading?
EP: I thought of the poems as "scorpion monologues." But, I don't like that as a title. The initial image came from Alfredo Véa's autobiographical novel La Maravilla set on Buckeye Road outside of Phoenix, AZ. Alfredo's a brilliant and not-well-enough known writer; he's also a death row criminal defense attorney, he only does capital cases in California. Anyway, there's a bottle of magical (and / or poisonous) liquid in the book. Clear liquid. And, I remember that the bottle had 100 scorpions in it who had all stung each other to death producing a kind of fantastic and terrifying potion.
At the time I started writing them, maybe 2002 or 3?, I was thinking that the air and atmosphere of the U.S. kind of felt to me like a similar kind of potion. We were living upstate in NY. The terrified drones (our fellow citizens) buzzing about, pouring even more power into a deluded, even murderous, executive branch. Bush/Cheney, etc. It was terrible; in a way, it was business as usual, of course. 2012 has a different style, but the general energy is still the same, only perfumed up a bit (which is fine enough as far as it goes which isn't far).
So, back then, I felt like I wanted a voice of wrath to work with. . . Alfredo's image came up in my memory and I started thinking about scorpion monologues. I learned a few things, not much, about scorpions. One thing that stuck was that the species (I think that's the term) is the oldest fork in earth-beings on land with "maternal instinct and behavior." 350 millon years old, and they care for their young. They ride the back of the mother scorpions. So, smiles, they're the oldest "mothers" on the planet. . . So, the voice is a kind of braid of ironies in the voice of an ancient wrathful/motherly being far, far older than our particular species has any hope of becoming.
I remember hearing Gilad Atzmon and The Orient House Ensemble in York, U.K. Atzmon is a reed player, novelist and a militant anti-Zionist Israeli. His album Exiles, from about 2002 I think, for my money, is the most important jazz album in 25 years. And, he introduced the band in York saying: "We put the band together to destroy the state of Israel but, since the state of Israel is doing such a good job themselves, we decided to play music." I think that's verbatim what he said from the mic. He was serious and playful. Serious when the audience was playful, "you're laughing people are dying that's not funny," playful when they (we?) were serious, "you guys are so serious, this is a concert, what's wrong with you?" The band nearly blew the stones out of the walls. He reminded me of Mingus. I thought, 21st century "Fables of Faubus."
I think these scorpions are coming from a similar place. They're radicals. The Invisbile Committee's recent book, The Coming Insurrection might be a book on their shelf, for instance.
I don't think any conscious reader in the US could be lost in these poems. If you read the poem and feel lost. Maybe pick up Howard Zinn's The People's History of the United States or Manning Marable's (riffing on Walter Rodney in) How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America, or David Stannard's American Holocaust, or read Baldwin's No Name in the Street. Leslie Silko. Or, maybe, just try inhaling deeply at noon at the corner of any two major streets in the United States. You're implicated, complicit, surrounded. I wanted a voice with that sense of things pervasively political but particular enough not to be confused with anything metaphysical or transcendental. You're dangling, something's playing with you. It's real. It's you. It's now. Frost's "Design" and "Once By the Pacific" meets Robery Hayden's "The Web" and "American Journal" meets Yusef Komunyakaa's "Safe Subjects" meets Adrienne Rich's "Camino Real" and Arthur Sze's "The Redshifting Web" all played by Joy Harjo on a saxophone, with a Baul combo, in India.
That's enough. Where I live (Athens, GA) there are billboards advertising automatic weapons along the highways at the edge of town. They're for sale within a few isles of the basketballs. Kids riding in shopping carts. Am I lost when I turn on the news, as I did this morning, and find a dozen dead at a showing of Batman? Terrified, yes. Lost? That's nothing but a stale prayer. I think of a group of people who've conspired to live their lives, say, at night, with stealth-suits, and never step out of MoMA. Ok, Maybe them.
A few weeks ago I was waiting for a take-out pizza having a beer. A Palm. A good beer. And, just after my pizza arrived at the bar, before I was done with my Palm, a plain-clothed man walked in with a shoulder holster over his blue polo shirt. As fast as I could without rushing, I put down my beer and left. When I reached the door, and looking without looking, I saw that the holster was, in fact, empty. But, am I supposed to be reassured that he left his piece in the car? I'm not. In GA, of course, handguns are legal in taverns.
This is part of our civilization, its texture. That texture is replicated at various levels, even across the globe. The war on terror is a neighborhood watch program. Recent violence in Syria has caused the U.S. to send an aircraft carrier (or another one, I can't keep track) to the area, the U.S.S. John C. Stennis. Where did the power in that name come from? Answer: a viciously segregationist prosecutor before he became a long-time segregationist U.S. Senator from Mississippi who retired in 1989 as the most senior member of the U.S. Senate. Are we still lost? Can we connect the dots? Why not?
The scorpions love it.
AMK: You're also rather abstract in this poem in lines like "sudden varacies become seizures of remembrance" and "you've dug in well pilgrim ... we watched you / tear at your ears for generations..." and so on. Perhaps abstract isn't the best word. Metaphorical might be a better way to put it. But we're sort of dropped into these voices so abruptly that understanding these metaphors/interpretations might take a little more work than many readers are willing to engage in. I have a feeling you're going to say this isn't your main concern when working on a poem. Is that fair to say. What are your main concerns when writing a poem, when reading?
EP: Maybe there's a little Thus Spoke Zarathustra in there. You know:
Companions, the creator seeks, not corpses-and not herds or believers either. Fellow creators the creator seeks-those who write new values on tablets.
In any case, the repressed lives of our history are being endlessly re-lived by us and those around us. The history, the real lives of people, in time, that have been forced into silence are rehearsed, if not re-lived by us all. One's only defense is to re-engage. There's no place to hide. Period.
That's it. Facebook won't even save Mssr. Zuckerberg. I hate to say it. But, it's true.
These images aren't metaphors, still less abstract. They're particular. Maybe they're symptoms. I think of them as shrapnel. Some would might call them images. Things people thinkfeel and feelthink, everyday. Things we see each other do. Things with no causes. And, to the extent the non-causes slosh about and slip around on us, in the lives we pray are personal (they're not), we go to the psychologists. Those with jobs. The rest self-medicate, they "tear at their ears," so did their parents though, maybe, they did it discretely. Manners. Style. The blues. Coltrane plays "Nature Boy." Take a listen. I write. When I'm not writing, I'm trying to survive, to live, staying (and failing to stay) one-step ahead of what I know. that's my style. Maybe it's a little abstract. Smiles. Styles.
Anyway, that last line in the poem is a riff on the 70s band Chicago, "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?" and also on Rilke's The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge where he observes a hospital and thinks, no one has a life of their own, we know that, now it appears no one will have a death of their own either. . . What would Brigge have done with Predator Drone strikes? There's a workshop exercise for the teachers: "You're in a Volkswagon Passat wagon with faulty air conditioning and loose struts, driving in Northern Yemen when. . .".
AMK: Is this part of a longer work?
EP: No. I think I wrote about 30 of them but lost it all in a computer crash. Which, somehow, I thought was appropriate. You know. The tablets broke on the path down. These are the only archeological evidence we know of. The Teeth Mother. . . in dress rehearsal. The population all dressed up, everyone, in bands of 1 or 2 or sometimes 4, or 100,000 any fall Saturday in the S.E.C., it's the same thing: leading secret marches against themselves in the mirror. Watching their faces in the mirror, thinking: "is it an insurrection, or an undeclared civil war?" Privilege or padded cell? Or, maybe those thoughts are effaced under: "Was that wrinkle, that dim blotch, there yesterday?"
Look. That's what you'll see.
At least, that's what the scorpions see.