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03-24-2014

Katy Didden 

 

Excavating the Cyclops' Eyesocket

                           -Serifos Island, Cyclades, Greece

Inside the forehead,
bats hang upside-down
asleep in what they do not need to see.

 

I feel cold air 
over my face as I stare
into the place light vanishes,

 

where I imagine some deep source
keeps clear and holy water 
in a bed of stone. Meanwhile,

 

in a green and shallow pool 
of the Aegean, a sleepless eye 
inspects the sea.

 

Severed from the mind, 
the eye neglects its duty, 
and though it notes

 

the slope of sand, 
the boat-swelled waves, 
the pull and sway of seaweed,

 

and the silver, black, and blue-
striped, leaf-like fish that shimmer 
into the eye's periphery, it lets them be.

 

I saw the eye from up above
while I was swimming. I watched it track
the shadow of my shape.

 

"Ancient Eye," I signed, 
"How can you stand the sting,
this weighing sorrow?"

 

But the eye had survived many centuries,
and it didn't see the way I see.

 

Before Edison Invented Lights

if you stood outside at night
at a moonless hour
you could mark your place in the universe
by how you fit
among the field of stars.
The world was colder then,
and the distances between 
one family and another
were bigger by an exponent,
which meant people traveled more,
if they didn't go as far.
Anyone who watches a bird flying-
a small bird especially-
and sees it rise in full flight
like a voice shifting octaves, knows
that you can get anywhere
if you only imagine the connecting line
between where you are 
and where you'd like to go.
A stone on a stone makes a wall,
an arch in a tower holds a bell,
the air in the bell catches sound
and the wind carries it
over the lake
where it fills the white sail.
You navigate by stars.
Between the stars 
are more stars you can't see, 
and between all stars is a dark silence
and the great pull
we only understand as longing,
to which we're tuned like bells,
over which our eyes draw lines
between the bright places.
We give the blackness shapes
with names of gods.
In a fist-sized glass dome,
in a vacuum atmosphere not unlike the universe,
Edison, after many trials, suspended
a filament of straight bamboo
whittled down to its threads 
then charred by heat 
until it resembled the stuff of stars.
It burned for six hundred hours,
and the ceilings of our dreams
lost their dim flickerings,
to the steady glow of incandescence. 
And now, whole cities shine up
like planets, and most stars, 
to our eyes, have gone out.
Unless you travel. 
In the North Cascades, on a ridge 
overlooking a white volcano,
the only thing darker than the night
is the gliding shadow of a great owl.
When you sleep with your face to the sky
the stars are not so much above
as around you. Stare long enough
and you begin to feel 
you could lift your body off the earth 
and hover in the black night 
on the web of your awe 
at a billion suns
towards which 
everything you're made of yearns.

 

The Glacier's Wake

Tooth-snout, blue eye, white-tongued as icy Jove
on a god-slow lay,

 

as alive as how I thought my grief should be-
a heaving ice field, an evaporating history

 

onto which, inside the crags of which, 
I liked my mind to climb.

 

Down where the cold erases the weather's structure,
where ice eclipses

 

the too-wide sky, I waited in a cell of air 
for the year to melt each brittle inch

 

into what's green-the growing sea, 
the wind-scummed water mirror

 

with clouds I read as words from my loved dead.
By my own heat, I melted room to hold my body.

 

I made a god of birds out of the man.
 

-from The Glacier's Wake

 

BIO: Katy Didden grew up in Washington D.C., and has lived in many cities across the U.S., including Seattle, Chicago, and St. Louis.  She holds degrees from Washington University, the University of Maryland, and the University of Missouri, and she has taught courses in creative writing, composition, literature, and film.

Her first book, The Glacier’s Wake, won the Lena-Miles Wever Todd Prize from Pleiades Press. Her poems and reviews appear in journals such as Ecotone, Bat City Review, The Kenyon Review, Image, The Missouri Review, Smartish Pace, Poetry, and the Best New Poets Anthology (2009). She won the Beulah Rose prize from Smartish Pace, three Dorothy Sargent Awards, and an Academy of American Poets Prize, and her work has been featured on Verse Daily and Poetry Daily.

She has received scholarships and residencies from The Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Vermont Studio Center, the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, the Ragdale Foundation, and the Hambidge Center.  She recently completed a Post-Doctoral Fellowship at St. Louis University, and she co-curated the 2012-2013 Observable Reading Series with the poet Rickey Laurentiis for the St. Louis Poetry Center.  She is currently a Hodder Fellow at Princeton University.

An Interview with Katy Didden by Jenna Bazzel and Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum

Jenna Bazzell and Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: Formally, your poem "Excavating the Cyclops' Eyesocket," is ten stanzas comprised of only eight sentences in which one sentence extends the length of three stanzas. Can you talk about what went into these decisions, especially the sentence that extends over three stanzas (stanzas 5-7)?

Katy Didden: I just went through my notebooks to remind myself how this poem evolved. At an early stage, it only had two stanzas, and the lines were slightly longer. The syntax in the first stanza was very regular, and then things loosened up in the second stanza-this makes sense, because there are two main elements in the poem: stone, and water. The Cyclops' skull is stony; the (imaginary) eye is watery. Part of why that middle sentence is so long, then, is because it had a different, longer shape in the block stanzas-there was more room in the old room, as it were. Still, I prefer the version in tercets, since tercets flow better, and it seems to make the stone/ water contrast less definite. Consider how stone used to flow. I was in touch with the poet Liz Arnold around the time I was revising this poem, and she mentioned, not in relation to this poem but in relation to her own work, that the Cyclops was not just in a volcano, it was the volcano.

JB & AMK: Previously I noted the sentence that extends over three stanzas which seems to be the "eye" of the poem, and this is also the place where the "eye's periphery" is indicated. What is the importance of this sentence and its function for the rest of the poem?

KD: While I've whittled out a lot of words from the poem since the original draft, the sentence you mentioned, that extends over stanzas 5-7, didn't change. I think the extension that happens there is central to the poem, somehow. If it were a song, that would be the bridge. At least one friend suggested I pare down that line, which might have worked, but I couldn't get that long sound pattern out of my head-it felt necessary to push the sentence really far. I think this was because it was concerned with creatures in current, and with the eye's unfathomable endurance.

JB & AMK: In the poem "Excavating the Cyclops' Eyesocket," all of your stanzas are end-stopped. What effect does end-stopping the stanzas have on the poem as opposed to enjambing the stanzas?

KD: To me, those doubly-emphatic pauses are part of the music of the poem, so the cadence I was hearing in my head dictated those choices. Looking at it now, I see the breaks come after short runs of iambs. There is a companion poem to this poem that I never published, which is more overtly an elegy for my father, and this poem is also an elegy. I should say, it is a poem concerned with grief, and how to grieve, and how to endure sorrow. I guess those attempts at extension, and then the blunt end-stops, are a kind of sonic figure for mourning, or for the first steps of moving forward beyond grief-there is still a heaviness in that movement. 

JB & AMK: In the poem, there is a direct address to the eye from the speaker "I." Additionally, the very end of the poem ends abruptly and does not continue with the metaphor of seeing, but instead ends on "see"-the way in which one "sees." Why end the poem after the speaker "I" directly addresses Cyclops' eye?

KD: To be honest, I never thought about that! I followed my intuition when I wrote this poem. I do know that I wanted the first person in this poem, again because it is an elegy, and the key feature, for me, is the speaker's need for guidance-an assurance of survival, a sign that strength returns after mourning. But the speaker doesn't get what she is looking for, and that is key to the experience as well. There is no clear path through the grieving process, in my experience. You have to figure it out, to some extent, in your own terms, your own language.

JB & AMK: In the poem, "Before Edison Invented Lights," you use the second person "you" and then shift to the usage of "we" and "our."

KD: In Twyla Tharp's The Creative Habit, she discusses a fascinating concept about an artist's "focal length," and she argues that some artists tend to observe the world from a panoramic perspective, some from a middle distance, and some from close-up. In this book, and perhaps in general, I am the panorama sort of person (I just learned recently that my eyes are slightly slow to focus on what's immediately in front of me, so maybe this explains it?). All this is to say, that extension into second person and first-person plural might come from my desire to get into a more infinite sense of time and space. I wanted to be able to move across vast distances and I think the second person helps the reader to stay anchored in the scene somehow, while all the travel happens. 

JB & AMK: What I enjoy most about "Before Edison Invented Lights" is that the poem is a void of poem-before this technological thing happened, this was how the world existed and it was beautiful. 

KD: I've thought about this a lot, actually-electricity is such a recent development. It's mind-boggling. I love going camping, and I'm always amazed at how quickly I switch into the diurnal rhythm, waking at dawn and sleeping pretty soon after the sunset. I'm always amazed, too, to see stars, and like this poem suggests, I like to think about how it was to live when in most places you could see lots of stars all the time.

JB & AMK: Why did you choose to mention Edison's name in the poem when it is mentioned in the title? I wonder how necessary sentences 7-8 about Edison are since these sentences are expository of the title itself. 

KD: At that point, I felt that the speaker had traveled back in time and across space so much that I needed to return to the beginning, and re-ground the poem (grounding the current, ha!). I also wanted to show how the process of creating the lights that would outshine the stars was itself related to the stars. I have a love/ hate relationship with exposition, and I think I always will. I come from a long line of teachers. My struggle learning how to handle exposition has also been the single greatest teacher to me in my writing life-sometimes I get the balance right, and sometimes I don't.

JB & AMK: You begin the last sentence with an imperative: "stare." This is a move you have not previously utilized in the poem. What effect does the imperative have as the opening of the last sentence?

KD: Ha! You are such incredible close readers! Again, I'd never noticed that. I think part of the point of this poem is to lead the reader through the distant past, but in the immediate present. It plays with a cinematic reveal. But that last move is much more overtly insistent, and maybe it happens there because I've been leading the "you" all along. Maybe whatever intuition led me to do that was banking on the reader's willingness to go along with it, since a reader who stuck with the poem until the end would seem amenable. Maybe I sensed that I needed to ramp up the energy too, since it was building toward a conclusion.

JB & AMK: I love making up and using hyphenated words. In your poem, "The Glacier's Wake," your first line consists of three hyphenated words. How do you think you are able to accomplish such a feat? 

KD: I'm writing about a weird, Grendel-ish, ancient entity-a powerful, awesome, creaturely glacier. I think the hyphenated words give the sound structure a spiky pattern that fits the scaly and brittle topography. It is supposed to sound slow, torturous, and strange. Maybe the hyphenated words suggest the possibility of breakage? Maybe they suggest ice and land slamming together? It just seemed like the right way to get at that glacial feeling.

JB & AMK: You write, "the growing sea, / the wind-scummed water mirror." Water being metamorphosed into a mirror sets off cliché alarms, yet this feels different. How do you think you are able to transform this otherwise cliché metaphor? 

KD: One reason is that I am negating the image-it is not the pristine mirror that the speaker wants it to be, actually. If ideals of water promise reflective properties, in this poem the surface's imperfections, and its susceptibility to wind-scumming, make it hard for the speaker to decode the words or message she wants to receive there. This brings us back to the first poem we talked about, "Excavating the Cyclops' Eyesocket." This is another figure for turning to some kind of archetypal image, and failing to find clarity. The poem resolves with the speaker choosing to transform grief into myth.

JB & AMK: Thank you.

KD: Thank you both for all of your insights, and for your attention to details! It has been a pleasure to answer these questions.