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Far from the din of the articulated world,
I wanted to be content in an empty room--
a barn on the hillside like a bone,
a limbo of afternoons strung together like cardboard boxes,
to be free of your image--
crown of bees, pail of black water
staggering through the pitiful corn.
I can’t always see through it.
The mind is a pond layered in lilies.
The mind is a pond layered in lilies.
I can’t always see through it
staggering through the pitiful corn.
Crown of Bees, Pail of Black Water,
to be of your image--
a limbo of afternoons strung together like cardboard boxes,
a barn on the hillside like a bone.
I wanted to be content in an empty room
far from the din of the articulated world.
A great pain strafed the city.
The air was a tapestry weft with cries.
Everywhere, women bandaged
the pietas of soldiers.
They washed their babies with sand.
They slept above enormous knives.
Finally, the sky erupted
with little blue parachutes.
Torn from faces, veils
waltzed across the plaza,
which was like someone
leaving a wedding ring
inside the body of a bride.
Because You Refuse to Speak
A hammer sounds
between two mountains.
White butterflies scribble
in tall grass.
A passing cloud.
Out on the pond, a snake
inside a swan glides past.
The Hymn of the Pearl to the Moon
Cast in your image
and into darkness
we are luminous nudes
by cave pools
mistaking our reflections
Restoring the Fourteen Stations of the Cross
I looked down on a mountain, on a cry rising up from the cracked
earth. I looked down on the swine and the cattle, and they moaned a
little. And I looked down on the tiny beings with their tiny tools, and
a few looked back and shuddered. I looked on their blades slung low
on their hips, their ropes and whips, their hem-stained gowns, their
field of filthy crosses. And it was good. And looked down then on
a shepherd lost. I moved over his path in the dust, and it vanished
under my great fist. This too was good. He stumbled. He bled over
stones. Everything was as it should be. I painted him pale and thin
as parchment. I drained blood from his crown thick and dark like
oxblood. In the end, his nimbus crumbled in my fingers. And when he
looked up into the firmament— I withdrew from him, from all of them.
BIO: Kristin Bock received her MFA in poetry from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst where she currently teaches in the Business Communication Program. In 2008, her collection, Cloisters, won Tupelo Press’s First Book Award and the da Vinci Eye Award for cover art. Her poems have appeared in many literary magazines and journals, including the Black Warrior Review, Columbia, Crazyhorse, FENCE, Pleiades, Prairie Schooner, Sixth Finch, and Verse Magazine, among others. She is also a contributing editor to the magazine, Bateau.
INTERVIEW: Devotions, Solitude, and Reflection: an Interview with Kristin Bock by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum
Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: "On Reflection" is a very cool poem, the first nine lines reappearing as the final nine lines but in inverse order, much like the image of a tree reflected in the water of a lake. I feel like I’ve heard of this sort of move before but haven’t actually seen it in print anywhere. Do you mind talking about how "On Reflection" came to be? How did you come up with this form?
Kristin Bock: I hadn't encountered another poem like On Reflection at the time of its conception--although I'm sure many exist. The poem was born from a burst of afflatus when it occurred to me to repeat the line "The mind is a pond layered in lilies" in an attempt to build an abstract representation of the pond and its layers of lilies with words on the page— and thereby the mind and its patterns of thought and reflection. After I repeated the line, I knew the poem wanted to reassert itself in a new way and I obeyed.
AMK: "On Reflection" might be interpreted as some as being "gimmicky," a poem that pulls off an inventive and no doubt difficult form but without much of a rationale behind it. But "On Reflection" doesn’t make the mistake of actually, physically reflecting itself, choosing to emulate the reflective nature of water by inverting line order rather than taking this reflection too literally and flipping the lines in the second half of the poem upside down.
More importantly, "On Reflection" operates on the most essential elements of good poetry. The language is beautiful: "Far from the din of the articulated world, / I wanted to be content in an empty room." Its similes and metaphors are startling: "a barn on the hillside like a bone, / a limbo of afternoons strung together like cardboard boxes." And its imagery is masterful: "to be free of your image— / crown of bees, pail of black water / staggering through the pitiful corn." The result is a poem full of such fresh, unexpected lines that, when the repetition occurs, you don’t at first take notice; there’s a tingling of familiarity but an unassailable need to read on. The result is a very good poem.
Are you concerned that the skeptical reader might tune this poem out because of the inversion? Did you ever play with idea of flipping the words upside down?
KB: Now I am! No, not really. The possibility of my reader tuning out the poem hadn't occurred to me. I generally believe that if a poem can keep my interest after reading it to myself a hundred million times, it has a good chance of keeping my readers' attention too. It also hadn't occurred to me to flip the words upside down. I guess that would better mimic the reflection of the tree in the water you mentioned earlier, but I was never very interested in poems that made any particular shapes on the page. I don't think that kind of poem-making adds much to a poem or the craft.
AMK: I think the true genius of this poem takes place when you make very small but hugely consequential changes to punctuation in the reflected half of the poem, altering the syntax of these lines and, thus, their meaning.
Line three and four, for example, "a limbo of afternoons strung together like cardboard boxes, / to be free of your image—", utilizes an emdash to refer to the strange images in line five, "crown of bees, pail of black water." When these lines are inverted in lines thirteen through fifteen, however, you end the previous line, "a limbo of afternoons strung together like cardboard boxes," with a period and capitalize the nouns in what was previously line five, which become:
Crown of Bees, Pail of Black Water,
to be free of your image—
a limbo of afternoons strung together like cardboard boxes.
These variations modify the fifth line from a statement of image to an address— with a simple twist of syntax we find ourselves in a realm where one can speak to what was previously an inanimate object. This, of course, reworks the way we perceive and interpret the reflected images, word choices, and symbols that, at first glance, are exactly the same as their originals.
You use inversion and syntax in a similar way in the first two lines: "Far from the din of the articulated world, / I wanted to be content in an empty room. These lines tell us, first, that the speaker is a great distance from "the articulated world" and, second, that the speaker desires to be content with its absence. But when they reappear at the end of the poem, "I wanted to be content in an empty room / far from the din of the articulated world," the final line now denotes the location of the room rather than that of the speaker. Now we have a speaker who not only has been transported by the work of the poem but who seems to exist in two places at once. Either way, she still desires a contentedness she cannot have; the speaker’s physical location may have changed but his internal discontent remains the same.
Do you agree with this reading or am I making all of this up?
KB: I agree! My hope was that, like you, my readers would find the nuances in meaning created by changes in syntax and punctuation engaging. I was particularly excited when I capitalized the nouns in the line "Crown of Bees, Pail of Black Water," since as you mentioned, I could address and characterize the "you" in the poem in a way that would symbolize the relationship between the speaker and the second person. Hopefully, the line conveys the stagnancy and pain the "you" creates for the speaker upon reflection. In fact, I think that altering the latter half of the poem not only allowed for subtle changes in meaning, but created a phrenetic voice that works well with the idea of obsessive thinking or reflection.
AMK: How did you come up with this idea of altering punctuation to change the meaning of the reflected lines? Did some of these changes sort of "make themselves;" meaning, did some of this occur subconsciously as you immersed yourself in the poem or was it very deliberately composed from start to finish? Did the content of the poem come first or is its content a result of form?
KB: In my case, form is almost always a result of content. Aside from writing a sonnet or two, I don't approach poetry through form. For me, an image or intriguing line tends to drive my work, and in general, like most poets, I enjoy the revelatory act of playing with language. In On Reflection, once the poem expressed the emotive qualities I wanted it to convey in the first half, I realized I could bring more meaning and weight to the poem by altering the second. Just as the reflection of a tree is a similar yet distorted image of the tree itself so is the second half of the poem. I was attracted to its distortions. It's kind of like when one falls in love with something imperfect—like the small scar on a lover's hand. Also, as the title suggests, I had a desire to speak to the idea of reflection—how our perception of past events, especially painful ones, often yields a version of reality that is unmercifully replete with illusions.
AMK: Why did you decide to open your book, Cloisters, with "On Reflection"?
KB: I thought it set the tone for the book and gave it some kind of emotional context. In the spirit of the title, Cloisters, On Reflection introduces the reader to the hermetic vision of the speaker. In medieval times, cloisters served the primary function of quiet meditation or study gardens. In this way, I like to think of each poem as a cloister, a place that offers regeneration through devotions, solitude, and "reflection." More to the point, the first poem introduces the troubled relationship between the speaker of the poems and the "you" or female character found throughout the book.
AMK: "Windscape" and "Because You Refuse to Speak" are poems that employ a series of bold, musical, and imaginative statements: "A great pain strafed the city. // The air was a tapestry weft with cries. // Everywhere, women bandaged / the pietas of soldiers." and "A hammer sounds / between two mountains. / … / Out on the pond, a snake / inside a swan glides past."
It’s interesting how these poems don’t tell much of a story, eschewing narrative and choosing to stand almost solely on the strength of language, especially with those surreal yet concrete images and word choices. These lines are so fresh and unusual that a reader is simply surprised to have found that they exist…we enjoy reading them so much for these properties that we accept them on the basis of these properties alone. At the same time, however, there’s a sense that some sort of darkness shadows these lines, the indication of an unseen landscape, a narrative that simply isn’t being told, these poems the byproduct of something larger and unspoken…
What do you think of this? What is it you hope readers will take away from these two poems?
KB: Well, you're right. I never much cared for poems that explain everything away so to speak. I'm much more interested in the lyrical beauty of language and the way a poem with mysterious and haunting images can resonate in us long after reading it. I believe we don't need to hear the whole story to be moved by a poem that illuminates only a moment in the story.
However, I wouldn't say I avoid narrative entirely. As you suggest, there is an unspoken darkness that shadows most of the poems in the book. The architecture of Cloisters attempts to document a year of estrangement from a close friend of mine. She departed my life mysteriously, with no explanation, and therefore I was left with the task of finding closure on my own. Hence, there are a lot of loud silences in the book such as in the poem "Because You Refuse to Speak."
For the most part, the speaker of the poems struggles with the idea of letting go and resists grief, as if to complete the process would mean some form of forgetting which is unacceptable. Nonetheless, the book is divided into sections which loosely mirror the five stages of grief: denial, bargaining, anger, depression, and finally a kind of acceptance, or in this case—forgiveness. The book also follows the four seasons which are marked by an arc of prayer, of reflection, of abandonment, and of redemption. Whether or not my readers intuit the sub-text, my hope is that they will consider the poems collectively and share in the speaker's journey out of great pain and loss.
AMK: Do you mind talking a little bit about how you end these two poems? "Windscape" ends with the dark and ironic image of "someone / leaving a wedding ring // inside the body of a bride." "Because You Refuse to Speak" ends with the surprising: "Out on the pond, a snake / inside a swan glides past." Both employ the concept of existence within something larger; both employ images of death.
KB: Windscape is a poem about the Iraq war. I was moved by the stories of women fiercely protecting their families and caring for the wounded in the streets. The last image of "someone/leaving a wedding ring/inside the body of a bride" not only suggests the kind of haphazard surgery that takes place during wartime, but also refers to the idea that even though the war was declared over—it was obviously not. We all knew this wasn't going to be a tale of happily-ever-after.
In general, the poems in the book are filled with "cloisters," small enclosed spaces that contain something inside them. There’s a spore wintering inside a thimble, an apple darkening inside a scarecrow’s chest, and in Because You Refuse to Speak there's a snake inside a swan—an image akin to the wedding ring inside the bride. I like the idea of getting to the core of something—what secret hides within, what dark seed, what force that through the green fuse drives the flower? Something is always beginning inside something else, and I enjoy peering inside the cocoon.
AMK: What can you tell us about titles? You use them quite often to assist in the story-telling aspect of these poems, "The Hymn of the Pearl to the Moon" explaining who is speaking and to whom while the capitalized "You" in "Because You Refuse to Speak" informs us that the speaker is speaking to God. Why not include these particulars in the poems themselves? Should we be thinking of titles as equally integral to a poem as the lines that appear below them?
KB: Yes. Titles, I believe, should work as hard as the poem.
AMK: "Windscape" is 72 words, "Because You Refuse to Speak" is 26, and "The Hymn of the Pearl to the Moon" is a single sentence of 21 words. What can you tell us about the short poem? How it operates; its function; why it appeals to you so?
KB: A short poem cuts right to the heart. I like its precision, its directness, its audacity if you will. The short poem has to pack a powerful punch or it will be lost. I remember reading The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner by Jarrell as a teenager and being floored by it. I couldn't believe how deeply I could be moved by language in just 5 short lines. From then on, I've always been drawn to short, highly imagistic poems that seem to be successful at marrying idea and image. I always thought the Imagist movement faded too soon. Pound said "use no superflous word, no adjective, which does not reveal something" and that's a philosophy that may not be completely realistic, but one I've aspired to my whole writing life.
AMK: Of all the poems in Cloisters I think "Restoring the Fourteen Stations of the Cross" has to be my favorite. I never get tired of reading those first four sentences chock full of wonderful word choices, images, repetition, and sound, followed by the complete surprise of "And it was good." There’s no question whose speaking, God, and when, during the final hours of Jesus’ life on earth. The result is a poem through the eyes of God on the day of his son’s slaying, and I’m not sure that I’ve encountered a Contemporary poem that takes this perspective so effectively. How did you come up with this poem, this point-of-view?
B: When I'm not teaching, I work with my husband restoring liturgical painting and statuary for churches throughout western Massachusetts. The poem, Restoring the Fourteen Stations of the Cross, came out of this experience. We were commissioned to refurbish fourteen very large stations in bas-relief. While I was working on them for nearly a year, bending over the figures, mending their broken limbs, sanding, scraping, painting them, becoming intimate with each scene and its symbolism, I had the sensation of literally being the hand that created them. The speaker emerged rather naturally as the voice of God in the poem.
AMK: "Restoring" has the sort of velocity that I think all poets desire in their work but is often never achieved or is lost over time, perhaps due to overworking a poem or of failings in the poem that must be solved and, yet, are elemental to the original energy that created it. "Restoring" doesn’t have that problem. It feels like a poem that came subconsciously, its work done long before the words came to you. At the same time, however, this is a rare thing. Did this poem come quickly or with much labor?
KB: You guessed it! The "work" was all manual labor--and one day the poem just poured out of me like water. It was as if I had very little to do with it!
AMK: It’s interesting to me that "Restoring" is a poem of fifteen lines. I’m a little surprised you didn’t find a way to make it fourteen, each line thus symbolizing a station of the cross. Then again, that last line depicts the departure of God, which seems kind of fitting; a way to wedge your way into the narrative of Jesus’ death. Is there something to this?
KB: I should be more concerned with form than I am—or at least more aware of an opportunity like the one you pose! However, I considered this poem a prose poem, so I guess I was looking at it as a paragraph instead of individual lines.
AMK: How much time would you say you spend in general on your poems?
KB: Some are gifts and come quickly, and others have evolved over the past 10 years. My writing process changed in graduate school. I used to work on one poem for a day or two, but now I work with fragments for a long time before anything jells. It’s like this amorphous, organic thing that I’m constantly molding until something breaks off, something like progeny I guess. I may start with a line I know will appear at the end of the poem, so I write it at the end of the page. I work until I am stumped, at which point I will turn to another collection of fragments and work on them. I suppose at any given time, I’m working on about ten poems at once. To quote a poem by Charles Wright, I consider myself blessed when I'm "pierced by that occasional void through which the supernatural flows."
AMK: Thank you.
KB: My pleasure, thank you!