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Three women wearing Bay Fish Company yellow oilskin aprons
made clean work, gutting the fish for Passover and Lent.
We headed back to our car from the cutting
floor with a good pound-and-a-half of whitefish livers
in a clear plastic bag. We'd gotten a good deal.
There's no sweeter sauteed liver.
But something stopped us. An old, cracked leather voice.
Who knows what shape the voice of God might choose.
Next to a stripped down pound net boat-- gray end-nailed
fender strakes no longer meeting end-to-end--, we stood
with our sack of bloody livers. The vibrations rose one octave
higher: drier still, more plaintive. In rut where someone
had thrown them we found three dust-caked drums-- trash fish--
paying themselves out as drums will, gyrating their fins,
getting no place, and croaking such love notes as connect kingdoms
underwater-- amplified by water and sweetened by water,
We were without memory once. We were pure memory.
We'd come too far to put them back,
where they could swim away their filthy wrappings,
re-tune their earstones,
consummate their callings.
In cold bay water, clear of nets and hooks and words
we choke them with, they conjugate no one's
Hebrew, Greek, or
Latin, but roll and spawn with drums.
Mysteries Of Faith
Wouldn’t you know it’s a Dutch Masters cigar, this being Holland,
Michigan, St. Francis de Sales parish, you a fifth grader
and a connoisseur of cigars. And wouldn’t you know it’s a Corona,
big around as a nickel, which is what one costs
across the street at Ward’s Drug and you count up again all your
collection basket nickels, all the sacrificed chances
to get your favorite battery, Yogi Berra and Bobby Shantz,
or Charlie “Paw Paw” Maxwell, or Rocky Colavito,
the true ecstatic long ball saint of Cleveland, to get hard pink
slabs of gum that sail through seven sanctuaries of light
after your sidearm throws, and God in heaven, why not one cigar,
but a White Owl, like your grandfather’s White Owls, wrapped indecently
in cellophane so you can see everything, the leering know-nothing owl
on the ring, the glowing-brown leaves, lovely as your unrequited
love for Constanza Morales. Lord, you’re so mixed up you don’t know
what to do, but wouldn’t you know Father Thome’s cigar
is still smoking even as you see where Father’s teeth have chewed
and tongue has laved the believer’s end into a pulp,
a half-digested sign of appetite and see where Father’s heal
too tenderly has crushed it.
Then, the devil tells you,
Pick up Father’s Thome’s cigar. Suddenly you know every last thing
in the world, what you must do, and how you must do it. Why else
have you been blessed with the school’s best arm,
the best-schooled sense of distance? Why else would Father Thome’s
cigar lie smoldering at your feet? All your after recess pals
come to attention at your cry of pleasure. You feel their fervor
as you pick up the cigar, blow sparks into a full-crowned
cunning orange and yellow glow-- the Holy Paraclete! The open classroom
window is only half the distance to the plate, thirty feet away,
above the walk, above the lovely beds of variegated tulips the sisters tend,
and the forsythias, all blooming wildly, (It is after Easter.
Christ is risen!) and you wind, and kick, and throw a perfect pitch.
And wouldn’t you know, Father Thome appears in the window.
The apostles all slip backward. They fall asleep on cue. Father Thome elevates
the butt. His hand is smoking .You see the black hair
on his four fingers. You see he sees you’ve wasted all his hours of drilling
in the faith. You know you’re on his calendar:
One of four servers for tomorrow morning’s High Mass. And worst of all
(because you always mess up the notes), you’ll be on his right hand:
Black and white, you’ll be his acolyte, the one assigned to ring the bells.
-from The Smallest Bird in North America
BIO: Robert Grunst was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and was raised there and in Holland, Michigan. He taught 9th grade English in Midland, Michigan, and later worked as a deckhand and as an engineer aboard commercial fishing vessels on Lakes Michigan and Superior. He holds an M.F.A., an M.A.W., and a Ph.D. from the University of Iowa. He has published many essays focusing on the language, culture, and history of Great Lakes commercial fishing people. His poems have appeared in The Iowa Review, Poetry Northwest, Prairie Schooner, The Review, and elsewhere. He is an Associate Professor English at The College of St. Catherine, St. Paul, Minnesota. He is the author of two collections of poetry: Blue Orange and The Smallest Bird in North America.
An Interview With Robert Grunst by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum
Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: “Three Drums” opens with “Aplodinotus grunniens,” the scientific name for the Freshwater Drum that the poem, of course, addresses. This poem reminds me a lot of those of Robert Hass’s first book,
Do nature, spirituality, and poetry coexist in your mind in this way as well?
Robert Grunst: Nature, spirituality, poetry: Well, that’s a trinity. Of the three terms, I think I can say with some confidence what nature is; then, thinking that, my confidence immediately diminishes. Nature: three weird-looking fish thrown into a wheel rut, a couple of people stopped in their tracks by the stark fact of the fish out of their element—dust-covered, filthy—and stopped by the fishes’ even stranger croaking. (Some people know freshwater drum as croakers.) All of that’s nature: and the bay, the air and the light and the near and far squabbling of seagulls.
The most difficult term is spirituality, with poetry a close rival for most difficult term... We talk of spirituality but always with the understanding that what we are talking about is not: We aren’t talking about drum, and by the way there were, in fact, only two drum, and we aren’t talking about God, as God—we know—fills a gap with three letters of our alphabet, as useful for filler material as any we’ve come up with. Material, you see, as opposed to what’s immaterial—unspeakable, totally beyond any boundaries we can dream up.
Which is why the dreaming up goes on: and often enough a fuse ignites and the ignition leads to bad end and bad end again and again.
Part of the work of poetry is to belay against bad ends, to resist too many words, maybe to resist the very impulse to speak: If we choke fish with our languages, we sure are not immune from choking ourselves—first and foremost.
On one level the drums are pure syncopation or the tension between silence and expression. Too bad some smart engineer hasn’t figured out some way to get a driveshaft spinning using that energy.
AMK: Is poetry one way for you to praise the natural world; to connect with a higher power?
RG: Poetry provides me something like a sounding line that I use attempting to get some depth perception on matters I do not understand very well, or at all. Melvin ‘Moe’ Gauthier, a long-time commercial fisherman I knew, made a sounding line for me years ago: a cast iron window valence for the weigh and gillnet line, or maitre, for the counter. Before affordable sounding machines came onto the market, the old-timers just threw their lead lines and got their depths counting their orders of knots—fathoms markers. They knew their bottom contours! They were extraordinary people.
If your line tells you you’re between the twelve fathom and the twenty-four fathom humps, that dialogue amounts to praising the natural world all right, or it’s the natural world praising you for hand over hand agility and the ability to count and to carry on such talk.
Poetry never goes without counting, as the counting of drums identifies drum, say, from gar pike: that is praise too, that difference-making. That difference-making poetry allows, then, gets maybe to a higher power, which, at its best, poetry always aspires to and always fails to achieve. Isn’t there a correlative in physics, or for that matter in T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, and the notion of the ever-expanding universe.
AMK: How and why poetry rather than some other form of art?
RG: Thoreau sat still in the woods and chickadees landed on his hat, on his knees. Sitting still like that is an art. My great-grandmother ran an apple vinegar business out of her home, and making that vinegar and running that business was an art. I am proficient working in the net shed—stringing new and repairing torn up gillnets—and I think I still might be able to start a 100-120 Kahlenberg semi-diesel, and I assure you, both activities require art.
But poetry because poetry is so elusive; because I seldom if ever get it just right; because of the music; because of the lifting; because I play a little clarinet ; because I’m asthmatic; because while I get the idea, the idea is poetry, which returns us to the beginning of the first phrase of the riff. That doesn’t make perfect sense, which betokens the elusiveness.
AMK: Speaking of form, “Mysteries of Faith” consists of long couplets that in a number of instances are too long for the margins of the page and are thus indented on the line following. Why the long line? Why the couplet?
RG: You remind me of Elizabeth Bishop’s questions: ‘Why the extraneous plant? / Why the taboret? / Why, oh why, the doily? The two question sets are identical in as much as they are questions about arrangement or form.
The long line and the couplets felt right to me. Grade two through eight I was educated by Sisters of Mercy. One of the things I remember about that education is diagramming sentences. Diagramming sentences as often as we did and at such pains as we suffered or, perhaps, thrilled in, instilled in me a love for the elasticity of language, how sentences are made up of these parts of speech and units—clauses and phrases—and how, by a leap, every bird builds a different nest with different materials, different weave, or no nest at all, you know, so I am arguing that the case is that, say, the fifth grade made the long couplets in ‘Mysteries’ a plausible option: because I had syntactical tensions to work with along with tensions set off between free verse and now and again iambic phrasings. There are slack stretches set off against runs of iambs: maybe naiveté, a boy’s impulse to show off, poised against a world governed by pretty strict rules.
Not to propose that consciousness of syntax is at issue only with a long line.
At the elevation of the host the sequencing and timing of the bells was absolutely serious. No error was to be suffered, and no error went unsuffered, if the suffering was imposed only by a boy’s own daemon, who took the call for perfection to such heights as to imbue a boy’s version of disaster.
What is sacred. What is profane. What is worst than being known as a known bumbler at the keys to the bells. Or what’s better?
AMK: I took a class this summer on the form of fiction. One thing we talked extensively about was point of view and the difference that point of view makes on the most basic and most complicated levels. It’s something we sometimes don’t think enough about in poetry.
Typically, the first person is used by a speaker to refer to him or herself while the second person is used by a speaker in reference to someone being spoken to. But we know that the speaker speaking in “Mysteries of Faith” is the same person being spoken to: the adult self addressing the child self.
Do you mind talking about this use of the second person in this poem?
RG: I was talking about elasticity, and I am intrigued by the elasticity of the second person. There’s the I you, and there’s the you I, and that adds up to three points of view by my calculation. (My father was a time-standards engineer, a very talented numbers man, and a far better clarinet player than me too, which explains troubles that began with Algebra and which have gone unresolved to this day.)
First, yes, the you in ‘Mysteries’ refers to a fifth grade boy who might or might not have been something like myself, so the conceit involves a sort of dialogue between an I then and an I now. That adds up to two. The three comes through the appeal to a reader to, well, as it were, to pick up the cigar, or to pick up right from Wouldn’t you imaginatively occupy the I position.
Perhaps that third person cannot participate in that pick up quite, but don’t most poems welcome a transaction sort of like picking up the cigar. You puzzle over the occasion. Why did I pick this thing up. What am I supposed to do with this cigar or do with this poem. Where is this leading?
I am biased. I am going to say that we are all acolytes, and we are all going to be assigned to ring the bells. Maybe I’m hedging against loneliness.
AMK: Reading “Three Drums,” it’s the arrangement of image, music, and statement that draws me back to it over and over again. I love the image of the “stripped down pound net boat— gray end-nailed / fender strakes no longer meeting end-to-end.” Then there’s the music of that line, the pulse of “stripped down pound” and the repetition of “end-nailed / …meeting end-to-end.” And there’s that observation “no longer,” “stripped down,” and “end-nailed.”
“Three Drums” is one of those poems you give to a student and say “do anything this poem’s doing and you’re getting somewhere.” Robert Frost is known for combining all these elements in this way; not just in a poem but in nearly every line of a poem.
I’m wondering what your process is like. Do you carefully construct a poem line by line or do you start with a larger story or impulse that you then revise, merging these elements as you go?
RG: Almost always I begin with an image—usually an image which is, somehow or other, accompanied by some rhythm or baseline music; maybe the image says itself in a phrase, and that is what I start with, which is almost with nothing, which is an ample beginning sometimes—and sometimes not..
‘Drums’ started with those sheephead then—yet another common name for the fish: the image of the fish lying where they lay and the sound of their crying.
I cannot recall with any compelling accuracy now how the poem evolved. Though I can see what’s on the page, how the poem simply enough begins at a fish counter in the first stanza and how Passover and Lent immediately--and probably it was inadvertent at first—establish, say, a potential through which tensions flow into a narrower channel.
Maybe something reminded me of Saint Paul getting the message that set him down hard on the road to Damascus. The old cracked leather voice: well, you see how that went, that including how I’ve been educated, what I’ve read, including enough language philosophy to befuddle me many times over, and that including too—partly—a certain commitment to staying true to circumstances of an occasion without letting true circumstances ruin imaginative energies that must, ultimately, decide how a poem might be a poem.
The hulk of the pound net boat, then, refers to a kind of language that’s no longer viable. The boat’s grammar has gone bad. Like the drum or sheephead or croakers, the boat is out of its element. Out of water too long, the strakes will pull apart. The provisional – temporal nature of that language is disclosed. I did not know this until saying it just here.
The trouble with any poem is the trouble with language, big messes with language, while we know drum do possess their wondrous, rudimentary means of calling out to and receiving from one another instructions on where and when—maybe how— to satisfy their most fundamental needs: to propagate, to congregate upon a hatch of larvae or of another fish’s eggs, to call the brethren on to a rich feed, and no doubt to issue warnings of oncoming trouble.
AMK: Does the poem often dictate this process? Who is more often in control of the poem: you or the poem itself?
RG: If the poem is not in control, leading the dance—Mary Oliver’s figure—, maybe there’s the difference between an exercise or practice session focusing on just one set of steps or one established dance and the much richer possibility, say, of starting off in waltz time and then breaking into a hybrid flamingo - square dance – samba. Too much rational control and the outcome is banishment of imagination.
AMK: “Three Drums” starts off with two tercets followed by a couplet, which is then mirrored in the following three stanzas, which then breaks into two stanzas of a single line followed by what I think is a couplet, followed by a dropped first line of a tercet, and ending with a dropped first line of a couplet.
Without feeling that you have to “explain” every choice you’ve made here, can you discuss the form of this poem?
RG: Working on “Drums,” I probably reached a point where I decided to keep to a discipline involving tercets. There probably were eight tercets; then, further along, I decided that that discipline was working against elements that wanted a looser grip.
But, then looser form is tighter form if the looser form fits.
Typically I’ll experiment with a wide range of possibilities: couplets, tercets, quatrains, sextets, short lines, longer and longer lines, listening for the most accommodating music – cadences, and if I don’t hear the right music that’s telling me there’s no poem. Not now, not this morning, not in this corner.
Then, of “Drums,” the first couplet is a step short and rhymes with something stopped us, and rhymes too with the impulse—or the command—to listen.
Listening, then, we look around to get ourselves further oriented. [The Bible is full of moments where this sort of orienteering is essential to the tale—Moses on Mount Tabor, for instance.]
Clearly a considerable jump comes after the second couplet. The two propositions do not follow immediately – “logically” from amplified by water and sweetened by water: so there’s a single isolated line. And then another: We’d come too far to put them back is a loaded proposition, which I do not want to try unpacking here, but the white space amplifies the situation. Well . . . . We’d come a long way away from the bay. There’s that. But the fundamental matter involves having coming too far with language, so, as it were, leaving the drum in the dirt, totally compromised.
Let’s just say that the rest somehow arrived in the form that it arrived in. By the way, still another variant name for drums is grunts.
AMK: What do you think dropped and indented lines do in a poem?
RG: Dropped and indented lines—the low rider that Charles Wright speaks of—they have everything to do with timing or cadence or rhythm. Also dropped and indented lines open up possibilities—that is open up or close up: I mean possibilities for using space a page provides.
Anyone might wonder, since when has language been so obedient, say, to fit neatly into to an ABAB quatrain, for instance, or a blank verse quatrain or a free verse quatrain. Since before Wyatt, Spenser, and Sidney is the answer—and farther back. Yes. But a contrary part of me is suspicious of the artifice figured in any sustained stanzaic order; never is it that orderly—it here being the process of writing, while knowing is another matter: Stanzas are known forms [invented and agreed upon] or matrixes which provide (other) possibilities for finding out what might be a plausible answer. So stanzas are problem solvers or heuristics. I’m flying with a crippled aileron here.
For instance, Wallace Stevens loves tercets, and here are four suggestive ones from “Notes Toward A Supreme Fiction.”
For companies of voices moving there,
To find of sound the bleakest ancestor,
To find of light a music issuing
Whereon it falls in more than sensual mode.
But the difficultest rigor is forthwith,
On the image of what we see, to catch from that
Irrational moment its unreasoning,
As when the sun comes rising, when the sea
Clears deeply, when the moon hangs on the wall
Of heaven-haven. These are not things transformed.
Yet we are shaken by them as if they were.
We reason about them with a later reason.
Stevens’ stanzaic orders are aspects of a supreme fiction, and so are dropped lines for that matter: not to forget the origin of the question.
I can’t say why, but I love couplets. I admire latitudes tercets open for use. By contrast, dropped lines can make apparent chaos of a page—first view—, and sometimes I find myself most engaged representing an appearance of chaos, something vaguely mirroring perhaps the chaos and the potential [energy] too which stand before all the unknowns. Yes. Dropped lines and indented lines are orderlies like stanzas are orderlies and like the word orderly is—a stay against . . . . Or a pure token of disorderliness, say, dressed up like an altar boy.
For years, I repaired nets of and on alongside a man in a Lake Michigan twine shed. Off times, Mun showed me how to tie perfect Turkshead knots. Beautiful complexly symmetrical knots. I never mastered all the turns of that knot, but I got the shroud and the barrel knot down exactly after repeated lessons. You can tighten and stiffen a Turkshead up with tung oil. In honor of order, tradition, you crown a fish boat’s steering wheel with a Turkshead—to single out the spoke that holds the rudder closest to a true straightaway course.
You can have the knot tight on that spoke but wrench your quadrant working in ice for instance. True straightaway, then, is not so close to true in spite of what the Turkshead says. Well, it never is, but it’s true in fulfilling one function of true, our desire for manifestations of order, which is pretty good. That’s very good, and you can correct for the warp by over or by under steering.
AMK: Thank you.