3-21-08

Pattiann Rogers

Being Accomplished

 

Balancing on her haunches, the mouse can accomplish
Certain things with her hands. She can pull the hull
From a barley seed in paperlike pieces the size of threads.
She can turn and turn a crumb to create smaller motes
The size of her mouth. She can burrow in sand and grasp
One single crystal grain in both of her hands.
A quarter of a dried pea can fill her palm.

She can hold the earless, eyeless head
Of her furless baby and push it to her teat.
The hollow of its mouth must feel like the invisible
Confluence sucking continually deep inside a pink flower.

And the mouse is almost compelled
To see everything. Her hand, held up against the night sky,
Can scarcely hide Venus or Polaris
Or even a corner of the crescent moon.
It can cover only a fraction of the blue moth's wing.
Its shadow could never mar or blot enough of the evening
To matter.

Imagine the mouse with her spider-sized hands
Holding to a branch of dead hawthorn in the middle
Of the winter field tonight. Picture the night pressing in
Around those hands, forced, simply by their presence,

To fit its great black bulk exactly around every hair
And every pin-like nail, fored to outline perfectly
Every needle-thin bone without crushing one, to carry
Its immensity right up to the precise boundary of flesh
But no farther. Think how the heavy weight of infinity,
Expanding outward in all directions forever, is forced,
Nevertheless, to mold itself right here and now
To every peculiarity of those appendages.

And even the mind, capable of engulfing
The night sky, capable of enclosing infinity,
Capable of surrounding itself inside any contemplation,
Has been obliged, for this moment, to accomodate the least
Grasp of that mouse, the dot of her knuckle, the accomplishment
Of her slightest intent.

 

Justification of the Horned Lizard

 

I don’t know why the horned lizard wants to live.

It’s so ugly—short prickly horns and scowling

Eyes, lipless smile forced forever by bone,

Hideous scaly hollow where its nose should be.

 

I don’t know what the horned lizard has to live for,

Skittering over the sun-irritated sand, scraping

The hot dusty brambles.  It never sees anything but gravel

And grit, thorns and stickery insects, the towering

Creosote bush, the ocotillo and its whiplike

Branches, the severe edges of the Spanish dagger.

Even shade is either barren rock or barb.

 

The horned lizard will never know

A lush thing in its life.  It will never see the flower

Of the water-filled lobelia bent over a clear

Shallow creek.  It will never know moss floating

In waves in the current by the bank or the blue-blown

Fronds of the water clover.  It will never have a smooth

Glistening belly of white like the bullfrog or a dew-heavy

Trill like the mating toad.  It will never slip easily

Through mud like the skink or squat in the dank humus

At the bottom of a decaying forest in daytime.

It will never be free of dust.  The only drink it will ever know

Is in the body of the bug.

 

And the horned lizard possesses nothing noble—

Embarrassing tail, warty hide covered with sharp dirty

Scales.  No touch to its body, even from its own kind,

Could ever be delicate or caressing.

 

I don’t know why the horned lizard wants to live.

Yet threatened, it burrows frantically into the sand

With a surprisingly determined fury of forehead, limbs

And ribs.  Pursued, it even fights for itself, almost rising up,

Posturing on its bowed legs, propelling blood out of its eyes

In tight straight streams shot directly at the source

Of its possible extinction.  It fights for itself,

Almost rising up, as if the performance of that act,

The posture, the propulsion of the blood itself,

Were justification enough and the only reason needed.

 

-from The Tattooed Lady in the Garden

 

The Voice of the Precambrian Sea

 

During the dearth and lack of those two thousand

Million years of death, one wished primarily

Just to grasp tightly, to compose, to circle,

To link and fasten skillfully, as one

Crusty grey bryozoan builds upon another,

To be anything particular, flexing and releasing

In controlled spasms, to make boundaries—replicating

Chains, membranes, epitheliums—to latch on with power

As hooked mussels now adhere to rocky beaches;

To roll up tightly, fistlike, as a water possum,

Spine and skin, curls against the cold;

To become godlike with transformation.

 

And in that time one eventually wished,

With the dull swell and fall of the surf, to rise up

Out of oneself, to move straight into the violet

Billowing of evening as a willed structure of flight

Trailing feet, or by six pins to balance

Above the shore on a swollen blue lupine, tender,

Almost sore with sap, to shimmer there,

Specific and alone, two yellow wings

Like splinters of morning.

 

One yearned simultaneously to be invisible,

In the way the oak toad is invisible among

The ashy debris of the scrub-forest floor;

To be grandiose as deserts are grandiose

With punctata and peccaries, Joshua tree,

Saguaro and the mule-ears blossom; to be precise

As the long gleaming hairs of the gourami, swaying

And touching, find the moss and roughage

Of the pond bottom with precision; to stitch

And stitch (that dream!) slowly and exactly

As a woman at her tapestry with needle and thread

Sews each succeeding canopy of the rain forest

And with silver threads creates at last

The shining eyes of the capuchins huddled

Among the black leaves of the upper branches.

 

One longed to be able to taste the salt

Of pity, to hold by bones the stone of grief,

To take in by acknowledgment the light

Of spring lilies in a purple vase, five white

Birds flying before a thunderhead, to become

Infinite by reflection, announcing out loud

In one's own language, by one's own voice,

The fabrication of these desires, this day

Of their recitation.

 

-from Splitting and Binding

BIO: Pattiann Rogers has published twelve books, most recently Wayfare (Penguin Poets, 2008) and Firekeeper, Expanded and Revised Edition (Milkweed, 2005),  Generations (Penguin, 2004) and Song of the World Becoming, New and Collected Poems, 1981 - 2001 (Milkweed Editions). This book contains all of her poems previously published in books, plus forty new poems, and line and title indexes. It was a finalist for the LA Times Book Award and was named an Editor's Choice, Top of the List by Booklist.

Her sixth book, Firekeeper, New and Selected Poems , was chosen by Publishers Weekly as one of the Best Books Published in 1994 and was one of five finalists for the Lenore Marshall Award given by the Academy of American Poets for the most outstanding book of poetry published in the United States in 1994. It also received the Natalie Ornish Poetry Award from the Texas Institute of Letters.

She has received two NEA Grants, A Guggenheim Fellowship, a 2005 Lannan Literary  Award in Poetry, and a 1993 Lannan Poetry Fellowship. Her poems have been awarded the Tietjens Prize, the Hokin Prize, and the Bock prize from Poetry, the Roethke Prize from Poetry Northwest, the Strousse Award from Prairie Schooner, in 1993 and 1996, five Pushcart Prizes, and an appearance in The Best American Poetry of 1996, edited by Adrienne Rich.

Her poems have appeared in Best Spiritual Writing in 1999, 2000, 2001, and in many anthologies and textbooks, including The Prentice Hall Anthology of Women's Literature, Verse and Universe, Poets of the New Century, The Measured Word (On Poetry and Science), Stand-Up Poetry, The Made Thing, The Discovery of Poetry.

In May, 2000, she was in residency at the Rockefeller Foundation's Bellagio Study and Conference Center in Bellagio, Italy.

Her previous books are The Expectations of Light (Princeton University Press, 1981); The Tattooed Lady in the Garden (Wesleyan University Press, 1986); Legendary Performance (Ion Press, 1987); Splitting and Binding(Wesleyan University Press, 1989); Geocentric (Gibbs Smith Publisher, 1993); Eating Bread and Honey (Milkweed Editions, 1997); The Dream of the Marsh Wren, Writing as Reciprocal Creation (Milkweed Editions, 1999) in the Credo Series, A Covenant of Seasons, a collaboration with the artist Joellyn Duesberry (Hudson Hills Press, 1998),

She was born in Joplin, Missouri, and graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a BA from the University of Missouri in 1961. She received a Master of Arts from the University of Houston in 1981. She has taught at the University of Texas, the University of Montana, Washington University of St. Louis, and Mercer University as the Ferrol Sams Distinguished Writer-in-Residence. She was associate professor and taught in the MFA Creative Writing Program during the spring semesters, 1993 to 1997, at the University of Arkansas. She is currently on the faculty of the low residency MFA Program in Creative Writing at Pacific University, Forest Grove, OR. She is the mother of two sons and the grandmother of three grandsons and lives with her husband, a retired geophysicist, in Colorado.

The World of Elementary Particles, an Interview with Pattiann Rogers by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum

 

Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: In all of these poems you manage to create a sort of internal logic, a certain way of thinking that, in a way, allows the poem to be written.  I’m thinking of those first lines in “Being Accomplished” (“Balancing on her haunches, the mouse can accomplish / Certain things with her hands.”) and in “Justification of the Horned Lizard” (“I don’t know why the horned lizard wants to live.”).  In both cases, these opening lines act kind of like thesis statements, that is, if you think of a thesis statement as that element declaring what a piece of writing is going to be about and how the piece of writing plans to address it.

 

What do you make of this?

 

Pattiann Rogers:  First, I make of this that you are a careful reader.  It is true that the opening one or two sentences of a poem can be extremely important to the writing of the poem in its entirety.  Those sentences set the tone, the attitude, the cadence and the music of the poem to come.  But the opening sentence is unlike a thesis statement in that it does not state what the poem is going to be about or how it will conclude, because generally that isn’t fully known by the poet at the beginning of the writing.  The writing of a poem, for me, is a process of discovery.  I’m curious about something and I’m using language as a tool to discover exactly what I’m curious about and how I’m moved or touched by it.   At the beginning of the writing of these poems, I didn’t know where they were going or how either would end.

 

AMK: I first heard of “Justification for the Horned Lizard” and “Being Accomplished” watching a recording of the reading you gave many years ago for the Lannan Foundation in Los Angeles.  I was struck by how accessible these poems were without sacrificing music (the horned lizard “propelling blood out of its eyes / in tight straight streams…) and imagination (the mouse that “can pull the hull / From a barley seed in paperlike pieces the size of threads. / She can turn and turn a crumb to create smaller motes /The size of her mouth.”).

 

What’s most important to you as you write a poem; narrative, music, metaphor, imagination?  At what stage of the writing process do you start concerning yourself with accessibility?

 

PR:  Any one of the qualities of a poem that you mention in your question could become the most important, depending on the poem.  However, I would hope to consider and employ all of them at some time during the process of the writing.  Most strong poems go through many revisions, 20 0r 30 at a minimum.  It’s not possible to work on every aspect of a poem at once.   I most often want to establish the music of the language first, because it helps me to feel and decide the best words to use, words that maintain the cadence of the music established.   I always want my poems to be as accessible as possible.  I am my first reader, and I don’t want to confuse myself.  I aim for rich, original language and clarity.

 

AMK: How important is the reader in your poetry?  Do you write with an intended/imagined audience?

 

PR:  Of course, I just said that I am my first reader.  I want to please myself and surprise myself.  But I have other imagined readers in mind too, sometimes different ones, depending on the poem.  I think it’s very important for a poet to imagine a reader receiving the poem and give consideration to the reader.  That reader can be an editor, a teacher, an admired poet, God, maybe a lover.  Ideally, it should be someone who is an excellent and demanding reader and who understands what makes a wonderful poem.

 

AMK: What do you think of poetry that asks a lot of a reader?

 

PR:  It’s all right for poetry to ask a reader for effort and time, but only if the poem actually gives something of value back to the reader in exchange.  I’m not in favor of obscurity in a poem, of course.  Mystery will always be present to some extent, because our language is not so exact as to eliminate it.  A poet’s aim is to make positive use of that mystery, in some instances to highlight it.  

 

We are surrounded by language that is didactic, or that tells us what we want to hear or expect to hear or reconfirms our prior opinions, language that is geared toward convincing us of a rigidly held opinion or geared toward convincing us to act or believe in certain ways, or language that is so simple it comes into our consciousness and departs quickly and easily.  Poetry uses language differently.  The best poetry uses language in new, imaginative, and original ways.  The best poetry should surprise and stun a reader with a new perception deeply felt and should draw a reader back for re-readings.  Re-readings of a strong poem should continue to be revealing and enjoyable, just as the best music can be listened to with pleasure over and over.

 

AMK: I’m curious to hear your thoughts on free verse, free verse being a poetry that isn’t set in a traditional form or in any particularly structure.  This interests me because, while your poetry is mostly in free verse, it’s clear that you pay close attention to the formal elements, i.e. meter, rhyme, line breaks, etc.  And many of your poems (particularly the three featured here) read like odes or eulogies to me, which are both sorts of traditional form.

 

PR: You’re correct that free verse doesn’t adhere to traditional forms.  But that doesn’t mean a poem written in free verse doesn’t have structure.  A successful poem written in free verse will have a structure that is one with its meaning, a structure, a form, that came into existence as the poem was being written and helped the poem to fulfill itself, just as a tree takes its form as it grows, the form that allows it to flourish,

 

AMK: How do you choose line breaks in lines like

 

She can hold the earless, eyeless head
Of her furless baby and push it to her teat.

 

and

 

During the dearth and lack of those two thousand

Million years of death, one wished primarily

Just to grasp tightly, to compose, to circle,

To link and fasten skillfully, as one…?

 

PR: I have many different reasons for breaking lines where I do.  I have broken the lines in different poems for different reasons, but always I have reasons.  Because many of my poems follow a pattern of thought--sometimes laying out a pattern of cause and effect, sometimes following a logic established in the poem, sometimes folllowing a process of experimentation or investigation of an idea or an image or perception--I don’t want the structure or form to get in the way of the reader’s ability to follow that pattern.  So I want a fairly simple, controlled form.  Sometimes I am writing a poem about motion across a landscape, and I want a form that will facilitate or replicate that motion and I want the line breaks to function in a different way.

 

In the first example you gave above, I would guess, although I don’t remember exactly, that I didn’t want those three adjectives ending in “less” to appear on the same line.  They might call attention to themselves and draw a reader out of the poem.  Also, I’m certain that I had established a definite line length in the poem, and I wanted to adhere to that length unless I had a good reason not to.  I did not want a complicated form as I worked by way through the poem.  Incidently, I rewrote and rewrote and rewrote the last stanza of this poem.  It was sent back to me several times by the editor of a journal to which I had submitted it who urged me to think harder and deeper about it.  He accepted the poem with the last stanza as it is now.

 

In the second example, a good rule I think about in terms of where to break a line is to try to assure that each line by itself can be interesting, either in terms of a strong noun or a vivid adjective or an unusual word or a common word used in a suprising way or an interesting cadence.  Every line should contain

something of interest.  Similar to the first example, in this one there is a list of five infinitives—to grasp, to compose, to circle, to link and fasten.  That list absolutely had to be broken by a line break so it wouldn’t be seen as ‘over the top.’

 

AMK: One thing I love about these poems is how there’s clearly a larger story beneath the surface, and, yet, rather than write a narrative poem about, say, a mouse you’ve observed in a field, you meditate on the narrative of the mouse itself rather than the narrative of the observation of the mouse.  It’s kind of like a film inspired by actual events.  The goal in films like this is oftentimes to convey some meaning beyond simply that which took place.  And while I think most narrative poems do this, you go about it in an entirely different way.  How/why do you write this way?

 

PR:  I’ve never been asked this question before.  So I’m not so sure of my response.  I know that I want to get as close to the subject of any poem as I possibly can.  I’m asking myself questions, “Why am I so fascinated by a mouse?”  My son had pet mice at the time.  I generally took care of them.  At the same time, our cat brought home a mouse from a field nearby.  In order to address my interest and fascination, I started with a mouse, described it as specifically as I could, related as much as I could about it and hoped the poem during this process would begin to open and reveal something to me that I felt but as yet had not articulated.

 

The same is true of the horned lizard.  One of my sons did capture one, which started my curiosity, although many of the details in that poem came from research on horned lizards.

 

AMK: Your known by many as a “scientific poet.” I’m hoping to join you there some day.  What is it about science that so fascinates you?  Our existence?  Its lexicon?  Mysticism?  Something else???

 

PR:  I love the stories science is in the process of telling us about the physical world we live in.  I love the vocabulary science has amassed and is continuing to build as more is learned about the earth and its life, and the universe.  That vocabulary is lyrical and evocative.  The stories science is telling have greatly expanded the boundaries of our experience, down to the world of elementary particles and out to the galaxies in the far reaches of the universe and time.  All of these stories influence our definitions of what it means to be human.  Scientists, when they are doing the work of science, cannot and do not try to address spiritual questions.  They can address these questions as human beings, but science as a process cannot address them.  That is left to all the arts, music, visual arts, poetry, drama, fiction, creative non-fiction, and to theologians and philosophers.  Science affects us in too many ways to be ignored by the arts.  Any expression of spiritual concerns in our time must include the vision of our place in the physical world as revealed currently by science, in my opinion.

 

AMK: Thank you for your time.

 
PR:  Thank you for you.

A Day in the Life of Pattiann Rogers, by Pattiann Rogers

 

The patterns of my work habits were formed during the years when my sons were young and living at home. Although they are grown now and on their own, those early work habits remain with me. During those years, I always wrote with some kind of noise and activity going on around me, pre-schoolers to teenagers. If I wanted to write, I had to do it in the midst of that activity and adjust to interruptions. I generally worked on the kitchen table and never wrote in a room behind a closed door.

 

A typical day for me now, the spring of 1999, begins when I wake up, usually out of dreams, around 6:00. If I’m particularly excited about a poem I’m working on, I will have left it on the floor beside the bed the night before. I pick it up the first thing then, read over it, eager to see how it seems to me after a night’s sleep. I will revise it a little before I’m out of bed.

 

Then I do whatever domestic chores are waiting, which was always my habit in the past—cook and clean up after breakfast, usually soup and a sandwich. I dress, make the beds, start the washing machine, feed the cat, see what’s happening out of doors, weather and birds, a new poppy in bloom, an unleashed dog running down the street. I go to my desk around 8:00 to think again about the poems I’m working on. I turn on the radio to the classical station. Either the radio or the stereo will be on all day when I’m at home. I’m beginning a new poem today, so I leave my desk with my clipboard and folder and sit in a chair by the window or at the kitchen table where I can see outside. In my folder, I have a list of words and phrases and brief thoughts I’ve jotted down, simply because they attracted my attention and I liked them. These notes are never in complete sentences. Complete sentences in these very early jottings would kill any poetic potential the images or the words possess, limiting them somehow. I look through this collection of notes to see if anything there still interests me and also to see if any of the separate items might work together in some way in a poem. Finding something, I begin to write, in pencil on notebook paper, in a slightly disorganized way, never orderly.

 

After working a while, I quit, leave the table to move clean clothes from the washer into the dryer or to take clothes out of the dryer, fold them and put them away, thinking all the while of what’s happening in the new poem, listening to the music on the radio. When I go back to the poem, I generally see something there I had missed before I left. The early morning proceeds in this way. I write. I stare out the window. I add a line or two, a metaphor, a word. I leave the writing to attend to a small chore or two. Something Karl Hass says during his radio program, "Adventures in Good Music," catches my attention. I make a note of it. Whatever I’m doing, there’s still a part of me working on the poem, thinking about what it’s saying, the direction it’s going.

 

When I see the writing beginning to take a form, generally in the first couple of hours of work, I go to the computer and type in what I’ve written, work with it a while at the computer. On my desk I have a small stuffed doll, a jester wearing red, pointed shoes, a three-belled hat, a silly grin on his face. He reminds me not to take myself too seriously. I print out the poem, move back to the window and begin to revise once more, adding, deleting, rearranging, clarifying. I stop again, go outside, into that openness, and water the wild flower garden. I go to the grocery store, then meet my husband John for lunch.

 

Afterward, we go to the hardware store to select a new kitchen sink and faucet. We’re having the old sink and cracked faucet replaced. We’re confused by the choices.

Home again. The mail has arrived. There are three or four letters, a form to complete giving permission to reprint a poem, one letter from an editor I respect who has accepted a poem I submitted to his journal. He suggests a change in the last line of the poem, but insists that publication does not depend on my agreeing to the change. I think he gives good reasons for feeling the last line is a little weak, but I don’t like his suggested solution. I begin to read the poem carefully again and again, trying to feel what’s happening in that last line and trying various ways of rearranging and rewording it. I work for an hour at this. Now I’m not only dissatisfied with both the original ending and the ending suggested by the editor, I'm dissatisfied with all the other new endings I’ve tried as well. I’m beginning to feel anxious, afraid I’ll have to stick with the original ending. It’s only four words but not quite the best four words.

 

I put both the new poem and the poem with the flawed ending aside and answer my e-mail—someone needs a bio for an upcoming reading; someone else wants to know if I can come to a scheduled reading three days early in order to participate in other events; another gathering I’ve agreed to participate in is trying to arrange a conference call among the faculty members; a friend has had her novel accepted for publication. I e-mail my son in Austin and my son and daughter-in-law in New Jersey just to check in with them and finalize our plans for visiting them next week.

 

I turn to the new poem again and see the necessity for a little research—the origin of a word, a synonym I need, the description of a flower or a weed or a bird, double check whether I’m right about where a reptile lives, an historical date. It’s a pleasure to look through my resource books. I like the kind of vocabulary and perspective there. I think about the questions the poem is raising, all that I don’t know, how the poem might address my ignorance. The work is almost like solving a puzzle, choosing the word that fits. There IS a right word, a right image, a right turn for this space—right in music, right in meaning. What are they? I want the words that will show me something I wasn’t aware of previously. This is the same puzzle I face with the flawed ending of the other poem. I work back and forth between these two poems for a while, engaged in the puzzles they present. I make many revisions in the new poem, entering my changes in the computer and printing out the new versions, often revising at the computer itself.

 

Toward late afternoon, I take a walk. The Front Range of the Rockies is always in view, so far away and full of colors, never looking the same twice. I can see a great distance off. But I pay attention to what is close at hand, too, how life is reacting to the conditions of the day, what is being said out there in the world.

 

When I arrive home, I feed the cat again. I tell him everything I would like a god to say to me. It’s time to start dinner. I peel and pound and dice and stir and mix. And one time I wondered how the movements of my hands engaged in these various cooking chores day after day were informed by the movements of the words in the poem and vice versa. I keep both poems close beside me, on the countertop as I cook, on the table as we eat, just as I have always kept the poems I’m currently working on with me. After dinner and clean-up, John and I usually watch television for a while, sometimes a Poirot or a Sherlock Holmes mystery, or an NBA game, a Live Performance from Lincoln Center, a video we’ve rented, and we talk about what we’re viewing, critique it, admire it or ridicule it and laugh about it. I look at the poems off and on through it all. I change a word here and there.

 

We take a 30 minute walk around the neighborhood. The moon is one day away from being full. It owns the sky. It dominates, influences the earth.

 

I read before bed, South, by Sir Ernest Shackleton, the last Antarctic expedition of Shackleton and his ship, Endurance. How strange and frightening to be caught in a sea of ice and carried along with its drift, the sounds of its great cracklings and eruptions. I look at both poems again, reading through them several times, trying to catch inconsistencies in the new poem, trying to hear the music it’s making. I think I have a solution for the flawed ending to the other poem, but I won’t be certain until I sleep on it and read it again in the morning. I put both poems on the floor beside the bed.


-from The Cortland Review, October 1999 Feature