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On the train to New Orleans my sister and I
light the Virgen de Guadalupe candles
and the line of unlucky women steps out from the flame.
They file past at the window where we sit,
where we have given up being safe from them,
our four aunts with their loose dresses for mourning,
their fasting, their silent refusals. These women loved
their grief like the bread they would not let themselves eat,
like the children they would not allow into their bodies.
We know their unspoken lesson—take nothing
into the body. We know they will wait for us,
a line of dolls cut from the same sheet of butcher paper,
the sister of this family linked by their hands and alone.
One mile into Mississippi, the train passes a statue
of blue-robed Mary in someone else’s yard, bathtubs leaning
against the wire fence. I place us there. With relief,
I lower each of us into the bath, into the crystal salts.
Oil pools on the surface of the water. Sulfur is staining our skin.
The train drags on across the tracks, away from us,
leaving us in our own story. My first aunt looks down
at the flat pan of her pelvis, strung tight between hipbones
she’ll never touch. She likes her body empty and clean.
Coaxing her into the tub, we preach the virtues of this water,
its power to wash away sin. The second one taps
her cigarette ash on the grass and blows smoke at the sky
while we plead with her about drowning,
tell her not to go all the way down. Why should she listen?
We know how good the body can feel, unused, expecting
nothing. But my sister and I are trying to prove them wrong.
When I kneel beside my family, I am desperate.
My sister drags the sign of the cross in the dirt
with a stick. Why don’t we quit telling the story?
Once upon a time there were four princesses and a single
safe tower. No prince. In place of a man, a basket
of primroses they ripped into pieces, four finches
fighting it out for the kingdom. In another story,
my sister and I take them all home to New Orleans.
I take them all into me, my secret collection.
I give up. They live in my body. Oh, we are beautiful.
In the real story, we are all starving together. Sisters,
the wafer floats on my tongue like bad luck, like our name.
In the unnamed village the priest breaks the Body
of Christ above the child who will become my great-grandmother.
The baptism is complete with the Bread of Heaven, the bread
other women shape into loaves to bring luck, good fortune
to be passed through her body into the bloodline to her unborn
children like water leaking from the fields through
the dirt floor of the house. By now, at the end of the century,
it’s clear you’re not coming back for us. You’re not returning
to save us, and my inheritance is the wish for nothing
but emptiness. I cast my lot with the women in my family.
I follow them. I choose the rituals of grief.
Again and again the boat crosses the ocean from Europe
to America, then back, and I am running. I circle
the block where you once lived, the house
I can’t enter, where my aunt and my mother lie
side by side in the dark in your bed. I run until
my muscles burn. Your granddaughters will sleep together
in this house for the rest of their lives.
The day you leave Budapest, meat hangs in the market,
a lamb skinned and strung up by its front legs, body
slit open. Steam rises from its belly, from the space
between its back legs. Is this the moment when it began?
When you vowed to fast, to turn your body pure, immaculate
like Mary, to prepare yourself for the kind of love
that accompanies refusal and holds sisters together?
I circle the block again and again till my breath catches
in my throat. If you believe the dead send messages,
here is you punishment—all of us hoping to become
children, hoping for safety. We will do anything
to prevent the panic that stutters in the chest,
anything to keep ourselves hollow and flat.
Inside your house my mother spoons milk
into her sister’s mouth. They sit silently at your table.
I circle the block, holding my breath. My mother drinks
glass after glass of vinegar on ice to fill her stomach
with the pain that’s familiar, the pain that we love.
When we finally find you in the afterlife, will we be pure
enough for you? At night in my own house I lay
the table, crystal plates and saucers, three forks for each
guest, a spoon set above every place. There is room for all
of the women at the table. I serve the objects that promise luck:
pigeon feathers and coffee beans for love, ten-cent babies to signal
fertility. I pile pennies on each plate for prosperity.
Here is a stone from the bottom of the sea you crossed.
Lay it flat on your tongue. Pass it from one to the other
in your mouths. At the end of the century I will step out
of my body like a dress, leave it on the floor.
Rose, I want to speak with your voice in the language
none of us understands. I want your kiss, your tongue
in my mouth. This is not love but how we inherit
each other. I sit alone at the table, notebook open on my lap.
Listen. I am the one who will tell about it.
BIO: Nicole Cooley grew up in New Orleans, Louisiana. Her most recent book is Breach, a collection of poems about Hurricane Katrina and the Gulf Coast, published by Louisiana State University Press in 2010. In November 2010, her fourth book of poems, Milk Dress, co-winner of the Kinereth Gensler Award, was published by Alice James Books. Her multi-media artist's book, collaboration with book artist Maureen Cummins, titled Salem Lessons was published in 2010. She has published two other books of poems and a novel as well as the chapbook, Frozen Charlottes, A Sequence, from Essay Press.
She received her BA from Brown University, her MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop and her PhD in American Literature and Women's Studies from Emory University. Her awards include The Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets for her first book, Resurrection, a Discovery/The Nation Award, an NEA, a Creative Artists fellowship from The American Antiquarian Society, and the Emily Dickinson Award from the Poetry Society of America.
Her scholarly work includes editing the "Mother" issue of the journal Women's Studies Quarterly as well as essays in American Poet, Women's Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, The American Poetry Review, Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture as well as in the edited collections Devouring Institutions: The Life Work of Kathy Acker and We Who Love to Be Astonished: Innovative Women Writers and Performance Artists. Her non-fiction essays appear in Toddler, The Best of Literary Mama, and the recently published Mama PhD: Women Write about Motherhood and Academic Life
She is currently completing a non-fiction book My Dollhouse, Myself: Miniature Histories and two new collections of poems, Mad Money and Of Marriage. She is the director of the MFA Program in Creative Writing and Literary Translation at Queens College-CUNY where she is a Professor of English.
An Interview with Nicole Cooley by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum
Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: “Hunger” is a poem largely about ritual, starting with the baptism of the speaker’s great-grandmother and ending with that wonderful moment of the speaker setting the table for the dead women in her family and sitting down to record the events that follow. Considering that this is the first poem of the book, Resurrection, and assuming that the speaker in this poem is you, the poet, is “Hunger” a poem that serves as a sort-of anthem to the poems to follow; a poem that declares that the writing of poetry is, in and of itself, a ritual?
Nicole Cooley: I like that idea of the poem as an anthem! And, yes, I agree with your reading of the poem as linking poetry and ritual too.
I felt almost as if I were setting a table when I ordered that poem first in the manuscript. I spread out all my poems on the floor when I ordered the book and just looked at them as visual documents, walked around them, studied them in a different way.
AMK: Many poets write from the first person. I’m assuming you’re doing the same here. But I’ve found that this is often a false assumption or that, even if they poet is the speaker, it’s only to a certain degree--the speaker being a combination of the poet and of a number of other factors, as well, i.e. the past, other figures in the poem, etc, etc.
I’d be interested to hear your take on point-of-view, not only in this poem but in contemporary poetry in general.
NC: My second book, after Resurrection, wanted to challenge that idea—the relentless I of contemporary poetry. It focuses on the Salem witch trials of 1692 and is titled The Afflicted Girls (LSU Press, 2004). Wallace Stevens once said that “poetry is a scholar’s art,” and this is very true for me. Researching for this book was wonderful, and it drew me into many communities outside of poetry. I met historians, genealogists, and descendants of those who suffered in the trials. I’d always been fascinated by the Salem witch trials since I was a child.
Yet, this book, despite my claiming otherwise, was autobiographical in spirit too. I wrote from the point of view of the lesser known figures in the trials, but there were personal reasons I chose the figures I chose, the landscapes I described.
I do believe that with each book you write you should take on a different project. For my next book, called Breach (forthcoming, LSU Press, 2010), I explored something very close to home—literally. The book looks at my family’s experience during Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath and my own experiences revistiing New Orleans where I grew up and the Gulf Coast. This book is a new way to look at family history as well as a collective story of a terrible disaster.
AMK: I like how this poem moves so quickly through your family history starting with “the child who will become my great-grandmother” and illustrating in very few words the immigration of your family to America, the “lamb skinned and strung up…/…Steam [rising] from…the space / between its back legs,” your mother’s impoverished childhood, and the lifetime of pain they dedicate their lives to. I think you accomplish this because you make it clear within the first ten lines that the poem acts as an address to your great-grandmother (By now, at the end of the century, / it’ clear you’re not coming back for us. You’re not returning / to save us…”). The result is that we don’t expect to learn everything about these women’s lives in this particular poem because the poem is speaking to someone who only needs small moments of narrative (and the images connected to that narrative) in order to know what you’re talking about. This is really interesting because the form instructs the reader to read it not as a poem attempting to tell us all about your family history but as a poem to one of them, which is very different.. h
Do good poem teach us how to read them?
NC: Absolutely. I think every poem should take you (the reader) someplace new and teach you a new way to envision the world. That is the gift of poetry—its use of testimony. In her wonderful book The Life of Poetry, poet Muriel Rukeyser talks about the way in which the reader functions as the witness of a poem. I find that opens up my ideas about language and poetry.
AMK: It would be interesting to know when you discovered that this was a poem that worked best as an address. Did you spend a lot of time on the narrative elements of the poem before this idea came into play, or was it something you thought of fairly early?
NC: Much of my writing—maybe all—takes place in revision. I try to not think too much in a first draft, with the knowledge that I will go back and do that work in revision many, many times.
The first draft of this poem was awful! As my first drafts always are. As one of my writing teachers at Iowa said, If you have writers block, lower your standards. Hearing that was incredibly helpful. I realized that while I may not be capable of writing a good poem on a given day, I can write a bad one—which then of course might become a better poem in revision or lead me to a new place and a new poem. I love telling my students this quote. They often look aghast.
The idea of direct address came up later, after about ten revisions when I looked hard at the poem and let go of what didn’t work. In this poem, I wanted to write something that invoked my great-grandmother as if she were the first reader—and even speaker—in the book as a way to begin. And I wanted to link her life, which from the outside does not look extraordinary, though I believe it is, to poetry.
AMK: There are a number of moments when “Hunger” takes some Olympic-sized leaps, such as “By now, at the end of the century,” “Again and again the boat crosses the ocean from Europe,” “If you believe the dead send messages,” and “At night in my own house I lay / the table,” to highlight a few. I think they are very well used, slyly moving the narrative forward but also doing so without any lack of clarity, which is pretty hard to do.
How did you develop this sort of leap? Is it something you admire in poems and often ask your poems to do? Or is it something more natural to you as a poet, something more elemental, like images, metaphor, etc…?
NC: I think leaps are what draws me to poetry as a reader and writer. In fiction—I have published a novel—you have to get characters in and out of rooms, they must eat, sleep etc. In poetry you are released from much of that. While I love the challenges of fiction, poetry offers different challenges. You have to bring the reader in and have him/her follow those leaps—whether you do it by image, sound, humor, or form or anything else.
AMK: That last line, “Listen. I am the one who will tell about it” reminds me a lot of Sharon Olds’ last line in “I go back to 1937.” Did Olds’ poem inform this one in some way?
NC: Yes, I was modeling that line after Olds. I just taught her book The Dead and The Living in my undergraduate poetry class and was reminded of what a fascinating writer she is—we think of her work as so narrative but there is much that is surreal in it.
AMK: I ask this question because I have a friend who got as master in Mathematics. When it came time to decide if he wanted to get a PhD, he said that he decided not to because “I’d only make a mediocre Mathematician…I’m more interested in learning how someone came up with a formula and duplicating their efforts than coming up with my own…” I immediately found this of interest because he seemed to be saying that good Mathematicians are required to create something new. Poets obviously have this goal in mind as well, but I’m not sure it’s all that necessary. After all, what we want is good poems and when someone does it well, why not use their work as a backdrop for something we’re working on? It eventually becomes something new not because its entirely original but because it tells its own story or tells its own story in a new way while borrowing a proven technique. What do you make of this? What standards do you have for you poems when it comes to this idea of originality?
NC: Originality is so complex. I’m very interested in intertextuality as it has been written about by everyone from Julia Kristeva to Kathy Acker. In some respect, all writing has already been written. But in another way nothing has—the combinations of words, the materiality of language, are infinite.
AMK: Both “Hunger” and “Romance” immediately engage the reader. I just love how the sisters in “Romance” “light…the candles” and how that candlelit image of the Virgen de Guadalupe and all that she represents is described as “the lines of unlucky women [stepping] out from the flame.” How important are the first few lines of a poem for you?
How much time do you devote to them?
NC: The first lines are crucial. So often, too, when you begin a poem –when I begin a poem—you are not starting in the right place, but it takes many revisions to realize that. I feel the same way about the closure of a poem too.
AMK: I must admit that I have a hard time understanding exactly what’s going on with this poem. I think that when you light the candles, they transform from duplicate Virgen de Guadalupe candles to images of your four aunts. But, then again, I’m never quite sure if I’m supposed to know something more about her, the Virgen de Guadalupe. Don’t get me wrong, no matter how may times I read the poem I’m nowhere near lost, but I’m always slightly concerned that I’m not entirely understanding it. Rather than ask you to confirm that I’ve understood the basic narrative of the poem, I’m curious about how you approached the subject matter of this poem. Did you expect people to already be familiar with the Virgen de Guadalupe? Did you expect people to have to look her up to understand the deeper metaphor of the poem? If so, did you expect they would look her up if they needed to? If they chose not to, what did you hope they would take away from the poem?
NC: How much information a reader should know is always interesting to think about. For myself, I love poems that teach me about things I didn’t know about.
I learned about the 1929 Gauley Bridge Mining Disaster from reading Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of The Dead. I learned about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire from reading Chris Llewellyn’s book Fragments from the Fire. I do like work that leads me to the dictionary that makes me seek out something new.
AMK: “Romance” makes use of a number of imaginative moments: the women stepping of the flame, the “line of dolls cut from the same piece of paper,” bathing in the crystal salts, etc… I like these moments not only because I love the imagination but also because it places us so clearly within the mind of this young girl on the train, and we are taken from the one place we actually are into another place that, otherwise, we’d never have gone. I think this idea of “being taken somewhere” is really important because, in the end, poetry hopes to entertain its readers and this sort of escapism seems to be one of the more natural aspects of entertainment. What is your view on this side of poetry? Should it attempt to entertain in some way? Was entertainment at all a concern of yours as you composed this poem?
NC: I think poems should entertain, frighten, please, flatter, make us rethink and reframe, save the world, even. Because that is what’s true to the human experience. I like a poetry that, to paraphrase Whitman, can “contain multitudes.”
AMK: Thank you.