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Mary Jo Firth Gillet
-after Stephen Dunn
From everywhere and all-at-once,
from somewhere beneath the moon,
came the deep-sea fish that needed
to see, came the not-yet-flying squirrel
eyeing the two-far limb, came whale
and dolphin and bigger brains,
hair before razor, less fur more skin,
the opposable thumb, and fingers
for rings, for triggers, and of course
the triggerfish, though not in that order,
came bate-and-switch, lure and gulp,
the alligator snapping turtle,
came dog and god and much later
The Spanish Inquisition not-for-the-inquisitive,
came the rack and correct truths
and a need to stretch the truth,
and then a taller world—
upright posture before posturing—
came anger and angst and absinthe,
wastelines fat and thin, fancier hair and skin,
hook and eye in search of closure, exposure,
came style and stink and thus the harpoon,
and soon demigods and demitasse,
swagger and soiree, clipper ship and film clip,
and (without order) pit bulls, tar pits, cherry pits and pitfalls,
bells to sound joy, danger, and then
a complex of fears, because with neurons
come neurosis, bats in our belfry,
a lift from Zoloft, and learning to embrace
your beard of bees, your May your mayhem,
the hive of days honeycombed
with sweetness and stings.
Dear Departed Reverend Grandfathers,
there’s no way to explain my wallowing
in fields of burdock, golden rod, yarrow,
the lure of rocks that hide slime-pathed slugs,
pillbugs, dewy leaves that prism sunlight
into muted stained-glass Sundays I still carry,
close as a pocket, familiar as a tongue,
my child eyes and ears infused with spectacle,
thin voices singing as hands pantomimed,
This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine,
a wish to hold, to shape the world
as we passed that brass collection plate
up and down the pews of the few who knew
beyond the shadow of a doubt what was what,
poems proffering wine and wafer, mouths little O’s
closing on metaphor— site and sound beyond sense—
the sheer pressing opulence of cattail, cane,
chicory, the blood love of my children,
the deep sweet oblivion of skin on skin.
invisible as Venus in daytime.
Grandfathers, where are you in this restless
flurry of taught-ribbed leaves turning in the wind,
quackgrass, timothy, bulrush, rising in
roadside and field? In the irrepressible green,
somewhere beyond my own embroideries,
what thin strand in chlorophyll and red cell,
in amoeba and sperm whale, in the complex
turnings of unseen meiosis, gamete, straining
for replication, threads through all
like the drawstring of an enormous bag?
-from Soluble Fish
BIO: Mary Jo Firth Gillett received a Master of Fine Arts in Poetry from Vermont College. Her work has appeared in the Gettysburg Review, Harvard Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Third Coast, The MacGuffin, and many other important literary journals. She’s won the New York Open Voice Award, and co-edited the anthology Mona Poetica with Diane Shipley DeCillis. For the past 7 years Gillett has taught advanced poetry workshops for Springfed Arts-Metro Detroit Writers. Her first book, Soluble Fish, won the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award for 2007.
Dog and god, anger and angst, fat and thin and hair and skin, a discussion with Mary Jo Firth Gillett by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum
Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: “Itch, Scratch,” like many of the poems in your book, Soluble Fish, is a poem that reaches for an understanding of human origin and, in a way, seeks to teach others in the various ways to look at how human history and world history intersect, converge, and diverge.
When I was a kid, my parents tacked a world map, an illustrated geological timeline, and a huge period table to the kitchen wall. Reading this poem, it’s like looking back at that wall, fascinated by the history and makeup of our environment. Is this what “Itch, Scratch” attempts; not only teaching us a little bit about our species’ timeline but also moving us into that timeline, ourselves a piece of the puzzle?
Mary Jo Firth Gillett: Thanks for your interest in the poems in Soluble Fish, Andy, and for your questions. I find it fascinating to hear what specific poems have had an impact on a reader and what questions have arisen from that reading. What a lucky child you were, to have a concept of the greater world even from your early years! Although I have a wide range of interests which doubtless enter my poems, my intention in writing is to give and receive pleasure rather than to teach or edify. That is, my poems arise primarily from a pleasure impulse, the great fun of wordplay, of exploring that aforementioned “greater world,” of trying to make sense (often in a sensory manner as opposed to an intellectual one) of the crazy and conflicted world we live in. And although I’ve certainly written my share of poems grounded in interiority, the poems I enjoy most range widely, making great leaps and discoveries.
AMK: You say this poem is after Stephen Dunn. I’m wondering which poem this plays off of.
MJFG: “Itch, Scratch” owes an enormous debt to “From Nowhere” (Local Visitations, Norton, ’03) by Stephen Dunn, a poet I admire tremendously.
AMK: I’d like to hear your thoughts on poems that “bounce” off or are “informed” by other poems. Is this a matter of course?
MJFG: None of us writes in a vacuum. I often read poetry before writing and revising my own work and quite often it seems there is something in what I read that is exactly what I need to spark a new poem or take an old one in interesting new directions. I suppose it has something to do with receptivity and/or thin borders (solubility?), but there is also an eerie near magical sense when, without intent, it seems that I’m reading exactly what will feed my writing.
AMK: What do you do when you have a poem that is clearly influenced by another but isn’t overtly so…so that most readers wouldn’t notice. Do you think that it’s your obligation to give this poet or poem the nod or does it depend on the degree of influence? What’s your reaction when you read someone else’s work that is clearly influenced and, yet, this influence goes unacknowledged?
MJFG: Hmmm. These are good questions to which I have only poor answers. Often we don’t recognize what our influences are and I have no problem with the fact of sensing unacknowledged debts to other poets in someone’s poem (I’m not talking about blatant plagiarism, of course). The acknowledgments in my own poems’ epigraphs often have to do with my gratitude to other poets whose work has made particular poems of mine possible. Of course, I’m sure there are many influences I’m unaware of, but the acknowledgments of those I note is my way saying thank you. I think of it more as courtesy and gratitude than obligation.
AMK: “Itch, Scratch” is a poem of a single sentence. How does this poem keep itself together? How is it organized? How is it controlled?
MJFG: “Itch, Scratch” is a list poem heavily dependent on sound and momentum. Of course, the role of repetition is obvious in moving the poem forward but also in terms of creating echoes within the poem, just as we are echoes of our evolutionary past. I call this poem my description of mammalian evolution in 32 lines because I want to both point out the absurdity (I love absurdities!) in thinking we’ve done anything but scratch the surface in understanding our origins, and also to prepare the listener for what I hope is a basic tone of playfulness in the poem.
AMK: How did you come to this way of writing this poem?
MJFG: Before I had any concept of how to use the wordplay, I’d been jotting down in my journal a series of sound connections: dog and god, anger and angst, fat and thin and hair and skin, demigods and demitasse. I was flying back from Boston, I think, when I read Dunn’s poem and suddenly felt I wanted to try a poem with a similar format addressing evolution. Darwin has always fascinated me as do many elements of science. The poem then was written mostly in one sitting. Actually, I find flying to be very conducive to writing; being encapsulated away from the usual distractions is always helpful.
AMK: I just love “Dear Departed Reverend Grandfathers.” I think it’s the lyrical quality of lines like “dewy leaves that prism sunlight / into muted stained-glass Sundays I still carry”— that twist of syntax reflecting the twist of light through the prism— and “palms proffering wine and wafer, mouths little Os / closing on metaphors”— the sounds within those lines, the layering of metaphor upon metaphor. It’s just gorgeous. It’s also different from the other poems in the book.
I’m wondering how this poem came to be, how it was shaped, and how it eventually became the poem it is today.
MJFG: “Dear Departed Reverend Grandfathers” is a poem no one would publish in a journal but I felt it was at the core of who I am and so I wanted to include it in both a chapbook, Tiger in a Hairnet, and now in this full-length collection. I’m glad you like it. Both my grandfathers were Methodist ministers and three of my four uncles were ministers of various Protestant sects. A bit of an epidemic. Although I am not a religious person in the traditional sense, I am a spiritual person and I’m grateful for that early experience of the world of hymn and sermon. I’m sure my poet’s “ear” is indebted to that heritage.
AMK: The poem ends in a sequence of questions that operate, on one level, as an element of the search already present in the poem, and on another, almost as a challenge to the long held beliefs of the “collection plate,” to the “hands pantomimed.”
It would be interesting to hear your thoughts on the use of questions in poetry. How is a question different from a statement when it is one of the primary roles of the reader to question that which is stated?
MJFG: For me, the most enjoyable poems, those which reflect most accurately what it is to be human, do not embrace Knowing. They have to do with not knowing, and they acknowledge that freely. The certainty of faith, and the sometimes attendant judgments and condescension, always bothered me, even as a child. I’m much more comfortable with acknowledging the unanswerable questions. Still, one can long for simple answers, the simple faith of a child while simultaneously saying, that’s not where I am.
AMK: How do you think this poem fits in with the rest of the book?
MJFG: I think that “Dear Departed…” is grounded in sound, image, and metaphor and is pushed ahead by elements of list and momentum, which is true of some of the other poems in the collection. It also has to do with erasing boundaries and embracing the fact that one is a part of the natural world, corporeal, an animal after all, despite our big brains, our repudiations, and the desire to distinguish ourselves from the natural world.
AMK: I’ve noticed lately that my favorite poems are those that merge the narrative and the lyrical. The more I’ve thought about this, the more I come to this idea that a good poem is one that uses the narrative to “fool” the reader into reading the lyrical. Does this make sense to you?
MJFG: Well, there are many ways to be lured into a poem. Sometimes I’m drawn to sound first, sometimes it’s a story, and sometimes there are just amazing elements of metaphor or other outrageous leaps that thrill me. I have to admit to being a metaphor junkie.
AMK: One aspect of your poetry that makes it such a pleasure to read is the rich use of reference to the natural and human realms. Contemporary poetry operates on this “local” level of allusion more than, I think, any other period in poetry. What draws you to it so often? What draws us to it?
MJFG: Thank you. I don’t know why I write as I do. I suspect it has to do in part with the fact that I read widely and that I’m excited when unexpected, even odd elements from that reading enter the poems. Also, I don’t see a dichotomy when I think of science and art. The “aha’s” of the poet and the epiphany of the scientist are very similar and so I feel no hesitancy about letting the world of science into my poems.
AMK: What are you reading right now?
MJFG: I’m returning to Tony Hoagland’s Real Sofistikashun, and am delving into Joah Lehrer’s Proust was a Neuroscientist. Also, Laura Kasischke’s Lilies Without, Richard Jackson’s Half Lives, E. O. Wilson’s The Creation, and Annie Finch’s The Body of Poetry. You have, there at Southern Illinois University, a particularly fine poet in Rodney Jones, and I’ve just been revisiting his collection, Apocalyptic Narrative. He does it all.
AMK: Thank you.
MJFG: A pleasure.