Chiropractic (Bootblacks & Light Bulbs)
for Chelsea Marie Henderson
Not the massage you were expecting,
but one that parts the many waters
of your back muscles-latissismus dorsi,
trapezius, the ones that sound so much
like stars, rhomboideus minor, iliocostalis-
until the vertebrae, living stones, sing,
right down to the sacrum-named
the ‘sacred bone' by the Greeks
because the soul resides there-down
to the coccyx, formed by vestigial
vertebrae & named for the cuckoo's
bill it resembles, & as two hands
memorize each angle until even
the fossae-the small depressions
only the wind knows about-hum
like wineglasses, you sink into a sleep
like waking, a dream like forgetting,
& the answer to the last crossword clue-
what do bootblacks & lightbulbs do-hovers
like a crow over withered fields, unknowable,
& you try to remember the body's
fourteen stations-or was that something
else entirely-is there one for clavicle,
for what follows joy, one for what sparks
grief, were desire & laughter two halves
of one station, because it feels like they should be,
& where on the list were the ankles' sharp
spurs, or hands holding water, tongue
tasting lemongrass, liver remembering
malbec, none of them the answer that is always
just out of reach, just beyond the misdirection
& sleight-of-hand memory plays, & no, it wasn't Fu
Manchu who wrote dry creek bed glimpsed
by lightning, that's ridiculous, it was oh
the look on his face when he saw you
by morning light for the first time, it was something
like a blessing for they who thirst,
something like grace-mercy for the undeserving,
rain where there are no clouds-it was an answer,
in the synapses' electric blue voids, an answer
somewhere in the fault lines of the body, shine.
Slow Migration Towards Ecstasy
A year passes between hiccups, another between
the verbs forgive & forget, & sure enough the moon's
drifted an inch & a half away, then another inch
& a half, its tug on the nape of my neck a little fainter.
Just now another ounce of starlight streaks
into the atmosphere, ten million years
just to get here, & why we don't call that a miracle
is beyond me, or the way certain particles whistle right through
our bones without a sound. A storm moves on, its carotid
flare & flash above another town,
the town in which the hour we lost between Chicago & New York
is changing its outfit in the ruined theater,
putting on a new face at the mirror, a face
we'll never see, now trying out its lines for the last scene
of its audition for another day, as it watches ants
the size of eyelashes move across the floor, gathering
the sweetness of the ruin with tongues too small
to be seen, in a slow migration towards ecstasy-
we study them to gain insight into traffic jams,
which is like listening to Chet Baker play his trumpet
because it reminds you to practice more diligently,
& not because it conjures a night parked above
the Devil's Punchbowl where you ask a girl
what she's thinking, & she says, I'm thinking
I love you. Not because it teaches you to be lonely
a little better, to preserve as best you can the fine edges
of the solitary. From the leafless maples a host
of starlings sweeps out as one body, the history of flight
in each bird, each hollow bone. I don't know jazz
from God's ribs, but if the speck in my eye divides the world
in two, re-leaves the oak & makes of them each a dragonfly
against the sun, if it makes of the morning frost
a cathedral in which someone's trying to pray
but the carillonneur doesn't know it-begins to play the bells
with his fists-the words hallowed be thy name shorting out
as he's kneeling, thinking if I were a priest I'd be home by now,
thinking as he looks up at the trillium-shaped cathedral Jesus
how the hell did they build this place, a glacier
drifting the length of its days like a ghost ship
to some nameless ghost town, nothing
to do but witness the ruins of stars & what becomes
of all songs & starlight, thinking if I've forgotten,
if it's been that many years & a little more, forgive me.
Nocturne Past Dreaming
Birds are following their cries in long arcs
above the earth, trailing our names in their wakes,
until they're little more than white sparks
above the horizon. Zen says the way back
will be unknown to you, if you do not go.
That there's no end to a prayer that has yet
to begin, that they follow grief as birds follow
their cries. What you'll make of the moonlight-
a thousand origami moths, a hundred blind swans,
a geisha writing a letter-is nothing compared
to what you'll make of your grief, how a body's absence
deepens a shadow. Led out beneath the stars,
you can trace the old stories in the lights, & from birth
to death see your own in the few that fall back to earth.
BIO: Mark Wagenaar is the winner of numerous poetry awards, including the Yellowwood Poetry Prize, the Gary Gildner Award, the Matt Clark Poetry Prize, and the Greg Grummer Poetry Award. His poems have appeared in such journals as the New England Review, Subtropics, Southern Review, American Literary Review, Crab Orchard Review, New Ohio Review, and Antioch Review. He lives in Denton, Texas.
An Interview with Mark Wagenaar by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum
Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: "Chiropractic (Bootblacks & Lightbulbs)" is a single sentence organized into forty-one lines. Did you "find" the poem in this form over time, or did it strike you from the get go that it should be in this form?
Mark Wagenaar: The animating idea behind the poem was to offer up someone's discovery of the body as a place of both transcendence and memory-those are very different things, of course, and I wondered what transcendence looks like, if we can call something transcendence if it resembles something we've known all along-some valence we reach when memory, eros, and the sacred collide. I wasn't as interested in the idea of enlightenment reached through meditation, or long suffering, or sustained prayer, but rather a more ordinary kind-an everyday enlightenment, a blue-collar transcendence. And it became more and more apparent that the process itself, the road to getting there, was extremely important to the poem-especially because the final bit of knowledge realized is just an answer/pun to a crossword puzzle, if the answer doesn't evoke an associational barrage of everything else that shines, which is what I was hoping for-a lingering post-poem blaze of the world's ten thousand things (good to be ambitious about one's own work, I guess). So the single sentence is at once an enactment of this stream of thought as well as a form that allows the reader to (hopefully) better follow this stream.
This poem is partially a "found" poem though-my roommate, Aja, had left her crossword beside a lamp, and I came back from teaching one morning to find that clue-and the riddle became the underlying, and perhaps most important, structure within the poem. Of course, if you're an avid puzzler, you might know the answer right away-a bit of a risk I decided I would take.
AMK: This is a gutsy move for the first poem in your first book of poems, Voodoo Inverso. I'm wondering if "Chiropractic (Bootblacks & Lightbulbs)" was always the first poem in this book or if it moved around for this reason (and others).
MW: As soon as I wrote it, I thought that this was it-this was a new form for me, a new kind of poem, and my girlfriend, Chelsea at the time-now my wife-loved the poem, and prized it above everything else I had written at the time. She's my first and best reader, and a better poet than I anyways, so I took her fondness seriously. I like the ground it opens, the poem's so rangy-I think it's one that exemplifies one central concern of the book even while it wanders-and I think that helps key the reader's expectations for the book, that you're going to be shaken out all over the place.
I will say though, that after this poem & "Slow Migration" (we'll get to that poem a few questions down), I stopped this technique, because I had written a few more of these, and submitted them as part of my PhD applications-and one director said that he didn't particularly care for how long my sentences were. I've become an admirer since then of some of the syntactic structures of poets like Gerald Stern and Carl Phillips-so maybe I'll try my hand again-but I also see the danger in moving in sentences, rather than lines.
Thanks for your kind words, but maybe "gutsy" isn't quite the word-maybe "foolish" does a better job?
AMK: I really enjoy these short, enjambed lines. I tend to work in longer lines but when I do work in shorter, I get super anal about each line being of similar length to the last. This doesn't seem to bother you as the poem progresses. How did you determine when to break or not to break these lines in this particular poem?
MW: In many of these line breaks I hoped to surprise the reader-as in, "...no, it wasn't Fu / Manchu who wrote dry creek bed glimpsed by lightning..." -which seemed funny to me at the time, and slightly ridiculous, yet I also think of the quoted line as a foreshadowing of sorts, or an imagistic match that anticipates the "synapses electric blue voids." Some line breaks are meant to enact the following line, as in the line "...hovers / like a crow over withered fields..." I often wonder why poets break on articles or prepositions, so especially on the "soft" breaks, I'm always asking, is the line that follows worth the break? I love ending a line on an image, where possible, but using a line break to twist the preceding line, or to set up a startling departure, is always preferable to me than to have lines of identical length.
I tried a variety of line lengths with this poem, and to my ear this flexible 3-4 stress line with laidback music best suited the conversational tone and series of discoveries/mini-revelations that follow. And because it's, as you mentioned, one sentence, the end-stops become so important, I think they (along with the em dashes) help slow down what almost becomes a tumble-down momentum. I tried to prioritize sense and tone, and pace, over music-so while I hope the lines ring a bit, the unfolding structures mattered more.
AMK: "Chiropractic (Bootblack & Lightbulbs)" utilizes a number of shifts in narrative or in pattern of thought. The first twenty lines focus on these various parts of the body and the images the speaker associates with them. The next twelve or so focus on the "body's / fourteen stations" and the last ten lines or so focus on this "he" and his relationship with this unidentified "you." What's going on here?
MW: The poem enters a different arena when the riddle is mentioned. That's one revelation-the answer that the poem ends with. The part in between is an enactment of bodily revelation. Mentioning the "body's / fourteen stations" shifts the locale to an arena of bodily sensation that's edged with the language of the numinous-taste, touch, wine, a half-remembered poem, and finally eros-how it arrives, charges us, dissolves, and how it resembles mercy, grace-the "you" is experiencing this bull run of revelations.
I have a memory of Chelsea looking out on a magnolia from my window one morning. It's such a beautiful memory. So this passage is like a distant signal gradually becoming tuned in on a TV, getting clearer.
I tried to open the door to memory's roofless chapel where need & regret quarrel.
AMK: Like "Chiropractic (Bootblacks & Lightbulbs)," "Slow Migration Toward Ecstasy" starts with our slowly migrating moon, moves into a scene in which a town "is changing its outfit in a ruined theater" to the movement of ants we study to "gain insight into traffic jams" to Chet Baker to "God's ribs" to this final request for forgiveness. Woah... this poem seems to know no bounds in much the same way Plath's "Daddy" or web-surfing ( I think I just commited a sin comparing these two!) allows us to roam across time and place. Each idea/image is associated in some way (sometimes very obvious, other times less obvious) to the last but these things aren't necessarily connected in the real world until you connect them in a poem... It seems this something you go for in your poems. Do you think this is an act somewhat unique to poetry itself?
MW: This is something I've been attempting for a number of years, the technique of proceeding by associational logic. I don't want to write obscure or opaque poems-I don't want to shut the reader out. The poem, for me, is an invitation. Since I've written a few poems like these, I've also had the chance to read many other poems by poets who are, I think, attempting similar techniques. Laura Kasischke's poetry, for example, has been revelatory for me, in terms of the associational ripples she manages to draw between world and memory.
Mahler once buried a riddling little four-minute section of music within a symphony he called "Purgatorio." I hope that each of these movements is a little purgatorio unto itself. I like seemingly unconnected things measured against each other, and I think there's a quality of comparison that juxtaposition affords us, and that it can work in a manner similar to a metaphor or a simile. I love poems that eat of the world, and eat of the beyond just beyond it, but a poem can't be a parade of random things, I don't think, or the news itself, or the reader will tire quickly-as you mentioned, why not surf the Web instead? This is a poem, like "Chiropractic," that I envision as a prayer labyrinth of sorts.
This is not something that only occurs in poetry, but poetry does it best.
AMK: It's hard to say what "sort" of poem this is. It's not narrative. It's definitely highly imagistic and imaginative, but while it uses language beautifully, I wouldn't exactly call it a lyric. This poem seems more driven by this host of characters and this stream of consciousness that leaps from character to character, notion to notion. What are you going for here?
MW: In one of his beautiful journals Hopkins recounts a Maundy Thursday communion (I'm writing this two days before Maundy Thursday!), when he began to weep when the elements were carried in. He didn't see it coming-it's such a dear ritual, but something he would have partaken of quite often-but out of the blue he began weeping. He couldn't explain it. He likened it to a blade that is pressed to your skin-you'll feel the needlebite of it, but it won't cut unless it moves-and this was a case where some blade knicked him out of nowhere. And I hope these movements are similar-seemingly unconnected movements that deepen the resonance of each previous one.
These mentions, these characters-lost hours, lost days, those of us who listen to jazz and miss the music, watch ants and think of traffic, this man in a cathedral who can't pray-I think all of them are getting after something similar, that you can lose something precious because of inattention, and carelessness.
AMK: Most of the poems in Voodoo Inverso come in three basic shapes: the single-stanza poem, the poem organized into stanzas of the same length, and poems that utilize a sequence of dropped lines. Can you talk a little bit about this choice in these three poems. Why the single stanza form? Why split up "Nocturne Past Dreaming"?
MW: I believe in very little about form beyond Stevens' idea that a poem is the cry of its occasion. A poet should be a master of form-which also means being practiced enough to make aesthetic choices that mirror the content or that make interesting departures from it. To always have a why behind the what, that is, a formal choice behind what you're saying. Some of what you see in Voodoo Inverso is the formal experimentation of someone beginning his lifetime apprenticeship.
Form's my prison snitch. It gives me an idea of what's already happened, gives me a couple of whys behind my formal decisions. Yet, much as a snitch might give a tip about an upcoming prison riot, or escape, or who's getting shanked next, form gives me some idea of a possible coming horizon-and any time you have that kind of shape in mind, you can also think about how you might depart from that vision in arresting ways. One sort of stereotypical MFA-workshop question a poet sometimes encounters: What does the poem want? Are you listening to the poem? I was never totally sure what that meant. After thinking about it for a few years, I think it might be like placing a stethoscope on both the poem's possibilities and upon our own subconscious. David writes in the Psalms that his heart also works in the night seasons, and I think the process of listening to a poem involves the heart's work in the night seasons. To bring in that process of soul-making, I think Keats called it, though in a different context.
As to those three forms-the single stanza, the low-rider, and the symmetrical stanzas-I can point to my influences behind all three. I love the work of Paul Guest, and I think he's done tremendous things with the single stanza form. You see this form used all over the place, of course, but I'm particularly drawn to poets that manage to wander far afield and yet still manage a range of emotional resonance. Dean Young and Bob Hicok are two other poets who come to mind. I think the lack of stanza breaks might better prepare the reader to follow a rangier poem. I tend to be drawn to this form when I'm using a more laidback diction and tone, or investigating certain contemporary trends and ideas. You certainly see the influence of Charles Wright upon my work-I'm steeped in his work, and in the traditions that figure upon his work, and I'm also someone who believes it's important to listen to the landscape, and to look past looking into the landscape. I also count syllables when I'm working with longer lines within a vers libre framework (is that an oxymoron?), and the low rider just clicks with me-there's extra space around some lines, some are better set off, and I think the technique makes better use of white space. I think this form speaks to some ideas of spiritual paradoxes as well, since a long line with a low rider is both broken and not broken. Music, I think, becomes more important here as well, and if I've any ear at all, it's because Charles taught me to listen.
There are a variety of other forms as well, but writing in symmetrical stanzas appeals to me too-it's a rigor in and of itself. And it makes me think hard about brevity, the integrity of a line, especially within a form like terza rima.
For "Nocturne Past Dreaming," I actually tried a single stanza. The line breaks are important, but I think the stanza breaks are important too-not just that the reader is able to trace distinct movements through stanzas, but that there's a quiet between the stanzas, a little space to let some light in, to hear yourself breathing. I think it sets the rhymes a little farther apart too, and maybe you hear them a little more distinctly.
AMK: What's your take on the sonnet? Why are we poets continually drawn to them, even as we seem to have little concern for following the exact form.
MW: Haha, tough question. I think there are a number of answers. Part of it has to do with familiarity, like finding yourself on a road you once knew and loved. Part of it, no doubt, has something to do with our culture-how busy we are, and fourteen lines are manageable in ways that a thousand lines of blank verse aren't. And part of it has something to do with the tradition we inherited. When we write a sonnet, we're speaking to, and with, the dead. For example, a couple weeks ago I was working on a sonnet sequence involving the story of Francesca and Paolo, and I happened upon Keat's "On a Dream" sonnet (check it out! -I had never read it before! So here's one of the greatest poets of all time, working on a similar project (did I just compare myself to Keats?), two hundred years ago! It's humbling. It speaks to something bigger and greater than us. But I think it's a tradition that many of us would love to leave our stamp on, or continue in some unique way, the way that Vito Corleone left his legacy upon a tradition. We'd like to find an innovation within this tradition-our version of blue meth, if you will. Look at Hopkins with his "curtal" sonnet (I'll shut up about Hopkins, I promise). Myself, I've begun experimenting with incorporating the "low rider," or the dropped line, into the sonnet form-I keep the rhyme scheme, and there's a turn in the ninth line, but the lines are of irregular length-so I have versions where the low rider's incorporated into the rhyme scheme, and poems where it's excluded.
Why not the exact form? Because it's difficult. I don't want to generalize, but we face a pressure to publish, and I don't know how many of us are convinced that readers (both readers of the magazine and the "first readers" on editorial staff) and editors are going to notice, much less care, whether or not we're writing in meter. And that takes a lot of polish to pull off. It's easier to take the same idea and slap the "sonnet" bow on the poem and call it a day-you could write three or four or five sonnets in the same time it takes to write one in perfect form. Of course, there are exceptions and throwbacks-my friend Nick McRae, for example, makes it look easy. Which makes me want to build a pig farm next to his house.
AMK: Was "Nocturne Past Dreaming" always a sonnet or did it evolve into this form over time?
MW: The general movement across lines and stanzas was consistent, as well as the emotional tenor of the images, though when I first "finished" the poem it had five quatrains. I kept cutting and cutting-in my mind I had just a single singing stitch, one riddling line, but I couldn't get down that far. I don't think there's any way for a reader to feel those erasures, but I still see and hear them when I read the poem-it's a ghostly feeling.
AMK: I felt particularly compelled to feature "Nocturne Past Dreaming" because, simply stated, it's beautiful. Are you a poet after beauty or is there something else that calls you to the line? I know that's my main focus as a reader and as a poet, but others argue that literature should first "have something to say." In my experience, poems with something to say seem focused solely on this aspect... but beautiful poems, poems the poet has taken the time and energy to make so beautiful, almost ALWAYS say something pertinent to our time....What's your take?
MW: Well first, thanks again for your kind words, that means a lot. I'm glad to meet a kindred spirit. People that believe literature should "have something to say" almost invariably have decided what they want to say before they begin. This means there's little in the way of discovery, and I think poems written that way tend to reflect that. You end up with something preachy, stiff, awkward. There's no journey, no soul-making involved.
Beauty is its own argument. It's discovery and revelation. It accommodates an incredible range of style and tone. Beauty is dangerous because it does not accommodate our comfort. It shakes us. It seduces us. And in an ironic hipster age, in an age of snark, it can offend us with its sincerity and earnestness. Beauty walks hand-in-hand with time-the Romantic poets obsessed over this-so it tends to speak to the time and age that we live in, yet still survives the age because it transcends it.
I've always loved the idea of inscape-the idea that everything living has its own unique, dynamic design that bears the fingerprints of the creator. That's a radical thing to think-and it bears profound implications as to the dignity of the living around us, and how we should be treating others. I love that Hopkins found it within medieval philosophy, both for the image of him poring over old books, and the press of the centuries he must have felt when reading them. He thought that instress was someone's recognition of another inscape-but that instress was a deliberate process, and that writing or reading poetry could be one of those processes. Beauty is only recognized during a process like that, a deliberate and deliberative looking and listening-that can be outwards or inwards, but beauty is something greater than myself. And much as Hopkins did (one of his journals, speaking about a bluebell-"I know the beauty of our Lord by it"), I see Christ in the world's beauty, and I see the need for Christ in the world's brokenness. Because I believe we are creatures created to worship something-someone-greater than ourselves.
I've often ended up with lines and images and music that were mere ornamentation, rather than serving the animating ideas or tensions within the poem. That's part of the danger. Some I ended up cutting. Some stayed in the poems of Voodoo Inverso-confession-time, one of my (many) shortcomings is I'm not a severe enough editor. I live with my failings. We all do. But that's part of the risk we take when pursuing beauty, and the hard truths it offers-we risk sentimentality, we risk not saying something ‘important' enough, we risk overfilling the wine glass. And we should.
AMK: Thank you, Mark.