Four Walls and a Roof
If only I were fluent in another language, I might be fluent at last and
at least in this one.
When I hear an angel rustle in the matrix of vines and hedges amid a
thousand thorn spurs,
When the screw-head is stripped and no tool I own can turn it,
When I find a pale blue egg fallen, unbroken, in the green shade of
the shriveled irises,
It is my own wordlessness by which I set down the moment and its
Underfoot, the ground gives way to what was a yellow jackets’ nest,
but it is winter,
And what might have been five months ago stories of stings is merely,
it turns out, a twisted ankle.
Through a trapdoor, Jesus, having harrowed hell,
pulls Adam up by
the forearm onto stage.
There were times, when I lived on the karst topography of Missouri,
after heavy spring rains,
The roof of a cave gave way and a sinkhole opened and swallowed a
house, Black Angus or two.
I put a single poppy seed inside a mason jar, screw on the top, and call
I put a single pomegranate seed inside a mason jar, screw on the top,
and call it Persephone.
Soon enough four walls are lined with shelved jars— one with a
spindle in it, one with snake skin…
And those who enter the gallery praise the idea of the project. Not one
Attends to craft, how not a lid is mis-threaded, how the shelves are
level, the nails countersunk.
Lost in the woods, not acquainted with the sublime, not stumbling
upon it by journey’s end,
I found no clues of East or North in the snow clouds ferried on the
wind. No sun, no stars,
Not a single landmark visible through the pines,
through the twelve
acres of oak,
The principalities of the screech owl, no other footprint in the vole’s
I was lost, not predator, not prey, but I am here and so I conclude I
found my way.
BIO: In 1959, Eric Pankey was born in Kansas City, Missouri, the son of two accountants. In 1981, he received his BA from the University of Missouri at Columbia, and in 1983, his MFA from the University of Iowa. When he was 25, his first collection of poems, For the New Year (Atheneum), was selected by Mark Strand as the winner of the 1984 Walt Whitman Award. He then began teaching English at the high school level and writing poetry, essays, and reviews in his spare time. In 1987, Pankey joined the faculty of Washington University at St. Louis, where he served as director of the creative writing program. He is the author of twelve collections of poems, including Augury (Milkweed Editions, 2017), Crow-Work (Milkweed Editions, 2015), and Trace (Milkweed Editions, 2013).
About him, the poet Jane Hirshfield has said: “Eric Pankey is a poet of precise observation and startling particularities. His poems possess a sense of a self not the least self-regarding; they unbridle us into a freshened and metamorphic wordscape. The soundcraft is superb, the modes of investigation by turns lyrical, surreal, meditative, allegorical, direct-speaking, and allusive.” His honors include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, and the Ingram Merrill Foundation. He is currently a professor of English and the Heritage Chair in Writing at George Mason University in Washington, D.C. He lives in Fairfax, Virginia.
An interview with Eric Pankey by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum
Andy McFadyen-Ketchum: "Four Walls And A Roof" is a poem concerned with the life of the artist and, in this case I’d say, of the poet. In the first stanza, you claim no fluency with “language,” be that of the heart, the world, or actual written communication. I love the metaphor of the “screw-head…stripped and no tool I own can turn it;” the image that creates. I’m reminded of my father who taught me as a child the various ways to solve this problem, but poetry doesn’t really work this way does it?
Eric Pankey: At any given moment, the poet has only the words that he or she can access or muster, only the language that he or she can coax, conjure, wrestle, or lure. What one ends up calling one’s poems are the poems that came closest to being what you could almost hear, almost taste, almost say, yet to one’s self they always fall far short of what one had hoped. I always say that my poems are the poem I wrote and not the poems I meant to write. I do think that any artist is primarily engaged with the medium of that art and its possibilities and limitations.
AMK: Like Macbeth, who draws out the metaphor between life and the stage, this poem seems to say that you feel you have been grabbed by "the forearm onto stage." This poem also argues that verse is not a collection of poetic devices, i.e. metaphor, sound, image, soul, etc, all of with which you have shown your mastery. Rather, you claim, poetry is the “wordlessness by which I set down the moment and its / abracadabra.”
It’s funny that you use that word, "abracadabra.". First, when’sthe last time (or first!) I've seen this word in a poem?! And second, and more importantly, we teach our students that, No, writing is not a form of magic. Writing takes time, work, and dedication, but is certainly not a mythic event.
“Abracadabra,” is a word with its own sort of magic isn’t it? With its own sort of body and sound, separate from some sort of unattainable sorcery? I think that’s what pulls me so frequently to your work: the layering of language, the compacting of definitions, images, and metaphors…and the use of flourish (abracadabra the word uttered by a magician as he sweeps the white cloth from the table).
So, to my question, is it the poem that brings you to such a state? Is it poetry that, like a mother and father, provides you with little more than you need: “four walls and a roof?” Or is it a spirituality, a religiosity, that claims you, like “the roof of a sinkhole opened swallowing a / house” that reaches up from some deep place and moves you to song?
EP: Words have always been connected with magic. Those witches in Macbeth speak, of course, in poetry! It is through the spell of language that they cast their influence upon the world. If we read John’s gospel, it is a word, rather the Word, that calls creation into being. Is it the laying on of hands that heals or the words spoken by the healer, or some interchange between the two? I don’t know. For me, the poem is a place to investigate, to speculate on, that which I don’t quite know: not a vessel for thought, but a vehicle for thinking.
AMK: My next question concerns craft and form, which I’d be foolish not to ask about considering the “not a lid mis-threaded;” the “nails countersunk.” The book in which this poem appears, “Reliquaries,” consists of five sections, each of 10 poems, each poem composed of four sections, each section composed of five long lines, which often flow beyond the right margins and thus have the appearance of indented lines.
It’s hard not to think of the Russian matrioshka nesting doll, which, when opened, contains another smaller, identical doll, within which is another smaller, identical doll, within which, etc, etc…
Looking at this poem, we are presented with four different and, yet, almost identical ways of looking at the same moment of verse. While I would never claim you had the matrioshka doll in mind, and while I would never ask you to “explain” the form of your poetry, it would be interesting to hear your thoughts on how you conceived of this book, this form, and what you think of form in regards to its importance in poetry in general. Is poetry without form, in fact, “playing tennis without a net?”
EP: I like the idea of nesting dolls and your description of the form of the book, the individual poems, and each poem’s four sections seems apt. The title of the book is RELIQUARIES. I saw each of the fifty poems as a reliquary and I saw each five line section as a kind of relic—of memory, language, things felt. . . held within the reliquary. What is a relic but something we might have overlook that for our not overlooking is given value, imbued with significance, and even at times, sacredness.
AMK: I want to thank you for your time. My last question maybe a bit off topic, but I think it’s worth looking into.
I graduated from Virginia Tech in 2003. You, of course, teach at George Mason University in Virginia, just outside D.C. I remember making the four hour drive fairly often as an undergrad to GMU because some fool told us there were more girls there than at VT. I think we were more moved to the trip, to taking to the road, in search of whatever was to be found, female or not.
I’m not going to claim that being four hours from Virginia Tech means you are intimately connected with the events there just a few months ago, but, being a poet, what is your connection to critical events in American…culture…history? Do you find yourself reacting poetically, or wanting to react poetically when things like Katrina, Virginia, Virginia Tech, or 9-11 occur?
EP: Before I am ever a poet on any given day, I am many other things—a father, a husband, a dog-owner, a teacher, and of course, a citizen. Some of my poems directly confront the moment in history we find ourselves in, for instance, a poem called “History” in ORACLE FIGURES, while other address things more indirectly, for instance, a poem in my forthcoming new and selected poems, called “Between Wars.” “The world is too much with us,” as Wordsworth argued, “late and soon.” There is no ignoring what you can called rightly “critical events.”