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Malena Mörling

In the yellow head of a tulip


In the yellow head of a tulip

in the sound of the wind entangled in the forest
in the haphazard combination of things
for sale on the sidewalk
an iron next to a nail-clipper next to a can of soup
next to a starling’s feather
in the silence inside of stone
in tea in music in desire in butter in torture
in space that flings itself out in the universe
in every direction at once without end
despite walls despite grates and ceilings
and bulletproof glass
the sun falls through without refracting
in the wind hanging out its own sheets
on all the empty clotheslines
in the bowels of rats
in their tiny moving architectures
in a world that is always moving
in those who are unable to speak but know how to listen
in your mother who is afraid of her own thoughts
in her fear in her death
in her own derelict loneliness
in the garden late at night
between the alder tree and the ash
she rocks herself to sleep in the hammock
a little drunk and wayward
in everything she is that you are not
in the well of the skull
in the fish that you touch
in the copper water
in its breath of water
in your breath, the single bubble rising
that could be you
that could be me
that could be nothing

When Our House Was Old

         If it’s true
what Lorca said,
     that dead people
hate the number two,
         what do you suppose
they think of
     the number three?

The number three
         that can vanish
without a trace
    twice into 
the number six
         and three times
into the number nine.


     I’ll tell you,
if I were dead,
         I’d love
the number nine.
     Because it’s
as if it’s made
         of metal.
And it’s lilac-
     colored and beautiful
like a circle.


          And also because
any number
      divisible by nine,
itself adds up to nine.
          Take for instance,
the number 18
    or 27 or 36…


It’s a puzzle
          that’s immaterial
and soundless,
     like a shuttle.
A shuttle only the dead
         travel by
from the horizon
     to the pawnshops
in Vivian
          and back.


Or from the horizon
    to the stockyards
in Omaha
         and from the stockyards
to Spain.
     And from Spain;
back in time


          to when our house
was old
      and we had
a lot of books
          and Lorca
was our light
     of eyelids
and billfolds,
         of bitter roots

and floating terraces. 


-from Astoria

BIO: Malena Mörling, assistant professor of creative writing at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, is the author of Ocean Avenue, selected by Phillip Levine for the New Issues Poetry Prize.  She has translated works by the Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer, a selection of which appears in the collection For the Living and the Dead.  Her work has appeared in numerous publications including The New York Times Book Review, New Republic, Washington Post Book World, Ploughshares, New England Review, and Five Points.   


Feeling My Way In The Dark: an Interview with Malena Mörling by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum


Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: Several months ago, Poem of the Week featured Philip Levine’s “They Feed They Lion.”  The reason I like this poem of Levine’s is that it proceeds completely without narrative; it is sound, syntax, word choice, and connotation that carries the poem. 


Is this the sort of operating principal via which you composed “In the Yellow Head of a Tulip?”  And, if so, how do you hope the poem accomplishes its goal?


Malena Mörling: Yes, in a sense, but I did not have Philip Levine’s “They Feed They Lion” in the forefront of my mind when I wrote the poem. (Although having loved his work for so long I am sure his poems are always somewhere in mind) I was walking around Manhattan one windy afternoon in the spring when I started to hear the poem in my head. At the time, I was in love with the seemingly haphazard combination of things that one would find in the city. Like a “an iron next to a nail-clipper next to a can of soup/next to a starling’s feather” for sale on the sidewalk, etc, and I wanted to write down a list of things in which the strangeness and beauty of each item would become even more strange and beautiful when placed next to some other unlikely thing.  I loved to consider things taken out of their context. And naturally in the case of a litany the rhythm and the sound of the line became a driving force. I hope its wider, more open narrative is a relief. Sometimes in the face of all the stories--the absence of a story is welcome. I must admit though that writing to me is a bit like feeling my way in the dark.


AMK: Looking closely at this poem, I’m awestruck by just how imaginatively each line moves from “the yellow head of a tulip,” to “silence inside a stone,” to “the fish that you touch/ in the copper water.”  I can imagine you putting together with ream upon ream of images like this.  But, then again, I can see this as one of those rare poems that come fairly quickly…perhaps instinctually. 


So I’m wondering, was this a difficult poem to write? 


MM: No, it was kind of fun and easy but it took some time, some months to wait for all the lines to present themselves to me.


AMK:  Why these particular images, these particular moves?


MM: I think I was fascinated by the idea of space at the time—the space inside and outside of things. And I think too that I regarded the images in the poem as a filmmaker might have considered his/her shots. A sort of play with perspective—the little miniature dome that is the tulip—and the need to isolate the sound of the wind in order to really hear it. When was the last time you actually heard the wind blow? There are a few great lines in one of Fernando Pessoa’s poems that go something like this: “Occasionally I hear the wind blow. When I hear the wind blow, I know it was worth having been born.” I love that, the depth and mystery of that.


AMK: Is there a particular sense or idea that you hope a reader takes away with them after reading this poem?  If not, how do you justify a poem that situates itself openly?


MM: No. Nothing in particular. I suppose I read poems to get a glimpse of a moment in another poet’s life--to have my limited world blown open in order to make new connections, to have my perception altered--even if it is only for a fraction of a second. I write poems because I enjoy the possibility and the impossibility of the situation--of trying to see something and to write something, as William Stafford said, in such a way as to catch a reader’s attention. Open up the world a bit from the perceptual conventions that generally narrow down and limit perception. That’s the idea anyway. There is a great quote from Tomas Transtromer about his earliest memories of writing poems. “When I started writing at sixteen, I had a couple of like minded friends. Sometimes, when the lesson seemed more than usually trying, we would pass notes to each other between our desks—poems and aphorisms, which would come back with the more or less enthusiastic comments of the recipient. What an impression those scribblings would make! There is the fundamental situation of poetry. The lesson of official life goes rumbling on. We send inspired notes to one another.”


AMK: Is there a poem or poems in particular that informed “In the Yellow Head of a Tulip?”


MM: I might have been reading Pessoa at the time and Whitman and Ginsberg and Levine but I don’t recall there being a single poem that informed it. I love lists and litanies—in a way every poem is a list--at least most of my poems.


 AMK: “When Our House Was Old,” is a poem I could read over and over.  I just love the number nine “made / of metal… / …lilac- / colored…beautiful / like a circle.”  And the “number / divisible by nine/ itself adds up to nine // …18/ or 27 or 36…”


What I think is most impressive about this poem is that it never gets trapped.  How it leaps from the question, to the answer of numbers, back to Lorca, and then to that final contradictory movement of the house that, somehow, was once old, and again to Lorca, and to the “light/ of eyelids/ and billfolds.”


Tell us a little about leaping.  How does it work?  What does it do in a poem?  How do you avoid getting carried away or exploring TOO much?  How do they come forth in the poem, naturally, via revision…?


MM: This poem felt like a gift—I was reading Federico Garcia Lorca’s “The Little Infinite Poem” in Robert Bly’s translation and when I came to the line that goes “Dead people hate the number two” I could not believe it. All I could think about was, if that is the case, what do they think about the number three? And I was off writing it in pretty much one or two sittings, which is extremely rare for me. Perhaps leaping felt natural in this poem because I was writing about the dead and the dead having opinions about numbers—Also my strong reaction to the line from Lorca stems from having spent time thinking about my synesthesia. For me, all letters and all numbers have different textures and colors. I used to think that everyone on this planet had the same experience with letters and numbers. It dawned on me that that was not the case when one day I was watching a morning news show on TV.  I saw a psycho-neurologist, Richard Cytowic, the author of “The Man Who Tasted Shapes”, discussing his book about synesthesia. It turns out one in one hundred thousand people have some variety of synesthesia. This fall I gave a reading and a colleague, an anthropologist, came up after the reading and told me that he had never realized that he too had synesthesia. We swapped notes about correspondences between numbers and colors. He was amazed.


I am not entirely certain how leaping works beyond it being intuitive—I suppose I felt that I could leap both geographically and backwards and forwards in time in this poem fairly freely. Perhaps this was in part because the inquiry about the numbers was the core or solid internal structure of the poem. So it was not like it was totally floating in space without a connection to something. Leaping is of course a good device in poetry since it allows for range and depth to enter what otherwise may be a fairly narrow picture. I don’t think you have to worry about leaping too far as long as the conversation with the internal structure of the poem is still ongoing and in tact. Of course leaps can be discovered via revision, by cutting and rearranging the sequence of events in a poem or by perhaps reading it backwards.


AMK: This poem reminds me a lot of Charles Simic.  Do you consider yourself a surrealist, or….do you consider moves of this nature of a surrealist mode; that sort of mode that isn’t just imaginative, but pushes reality to a level that we know isn’t quite real but is totally acceptable?


MM: I don’t consider myself anything in particular. Of course I love Charles Simic and I suppose you could say this poem might use moves similar to those made by surrealists. I am reminded of the bumper sticker that says,” Reality. What a concept.”


AMK: Why place a poem on the page like this?


MM: I like the way it looks and I love the short line, how it slows the poem down, how it hopefully reveals the rhythm and the texture of each word. Hopefully the line operates a little bit like a close up shot of something. The work of the Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, his films and his writings, are a tremendous source of inspiration.


AMK: What are you working on right now?


MM: A bunch of poems that will hopefully form a new manuscript soon. I am also working on some translation projects.


AMK: Thank you.


MM: Thank you.

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