On the Occasion of an Argument beside the River Where I Live
Someone says we are trapped in language, and so the sun drops overhead
through stilly pines where the river explains nothing and far away now
several men and women on the Yangtze look up from their nets and
point to the sky.
Bright Chinese fish, like all my words struggle in the nets of a stranger.
But because there is no surprise nor delight in the hour of owl-call and
locusts vibrating in the walnut trees, my friend despairs. All she hears
are owls and locusts and though two grandfathers molder in the silk of
their caskets and she loved them, the night is just the night.
And two men flying overhead from opposite directions embrace and hover
over the house, kicking their long spindly legs. Foolishness, I hear one
Tonight the chatter of things is enormous and also the silence that allows
such chatter—the empty space the tongue clicks through to make a
word, the cataract between atoms a light thing might leap.
So, if there is nothing here, then the absence of the river makes the river
And the slow stripping of all my clothes makes the heat of this July night
a bearable delight and a secret joy, walking down the driveway, to the
bank of the river, over the water-worked stones, and into the current.
Laura, I don't know what you are doing but I am swimming naked in the
Shenandoah and the sun is in China, still rising over the Yangtze.
And there is nothing for you here if two men can't fly, skimming the
surface of the water eating horseflies and laughing; and it is the truth,
not my truth or some private certainty I tell you.
It is midnight and I sparkle like a trout.
Something New Under the Sun
It would have to shine. And burn. And be
a sign of something infinite and turn things
and people nearby into their wilder selves
and be dangerous to the ordinary nature of
signs and glow like a tiny hole in space
to which a god presses his eye and stares.
Or her eye. Some divine impossible stretch
of the imagination where you and I are one.
It would have to be something Martin Buber
would say and, seeing it, point and rejoice.
It could be the mouth of a Coca-Cola bottle
or two snakes rolling down a mountain trail.
It would have to leap up out of the darkness
of a theater and sing the high silky operatic
note of someone in love. And run naked
slender fingers through the hair of a stranger,
or your mother or father, or grandfather, or
a grassy hill in West Virginia. It would live
on berries and moss like a deer and roam
the woods at night like the secret life of
the woods at night and when the sun rises you
could see it and think it is yours and that
would be enough and it would come to you
as these words have come to me--slowly,
tenderly, tangibly. Shy and meanderingly.
Drinking Gift Whiskey
Between white miles of snowfall where the land drifts,
gliding black water sears the local cold hump of place
that is home to worn paths in briars and my father and I
who count, in the abacus of days, another dusk as the sun
disappears by degrees behind Shorthill Mountain.
We are working through January's arctic surprise
to cross, on foot, the unfrozen waters of the brook,
and step hand in hand as grown men in love from stone
to stone--a bottle of mash sloshing unopened as a gift
for a neighbor in the wool pocket of the warm sweater
he wears, under his coat, to hold in what is precious.
And unforgivably lost here. Taking one false step
on a slick rock he takes us both into the cold Virginia
water he will die from in days. Alone, I am only writing
now to say we almost made it to the Christmas farm,
trees standing in snow like young scholars of the snow.
We almost joined them, slowly plodding across the field,
we almost made our way to the horse fence singing
its barbed melodies in the holiday wind. We, almost,
laughed our uncertain though light way into a neighbor’s
coatroom fully drunk with journey's snowy work.
Now I return every cold day to stand on the misshapen,
force-worn stones to feel the balance of who I am rock
back and forth in the wood's wind as bright, precarious
birds make their familiar notes wing from oak to ash.
And I swear to remember this is the place of my beginning,
the one permanent moment where I learned loss is
lugging your body back to the house, breathing the air
of far pines on quick wind. Father, there are not many
words I know by heart as true as that late afternoon
when you began to die in earnest, but I have learned
for us, in the cold work of rescue that fails, some.
-from Sparks from A Nine-Pound Hammer
BIO: Steve Scafidi was raised in Virginia and earned his MFA at Arizona State University. His first book, Sparks from a Nine-Pound Hammer (LSU, 2001), was nominated for the 2001 National Book Award, the 2002 Pulitzer Prize, and won the Fifth Annual Larry Levis Reading Prize. His second book, For Love of Common Words was published by LSU Press in the spring 2006. He works as a cabinet maker and lives in West Virginia with his wife and daughter.
An Interview with Steve Scafidi by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum
Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: Essentially a sequence of fragmented statements, such as the first line “It would have to shine. And burn.” combined with leaping and imaginative images and similes, such as the “tiny hole in space // to which a god presses his eye and stares” and the “mouth of a Coca-Cola bottle / or two snakes rolling down a mountain trail,” “Something New Under the Sun” is an intriguing poem.” It reminds me of poems like Phillip Levine’s “They Feed They Lion,” which relies primarily on the lyrical association between words to express its meaning, or of much of Charles Wright’s work, which often circles around a central impulse or idea but never quit touches it. Having read it countless times, I’m left feeling as though I’ve read a poem of great importance but if you were to ask me why or how, I’m not sure I could tell you. I know that I find pleasure in the poem’s language and its fast pace. This is the first poem of your first book, Sparks From A Nine-Pound Hammer. I’m curious to know what you like in particular about this poem. What makes it important to you?
Steve Scafidi: People often say with a kind of fatigue that everything has already been said and done. I hear that there is no such thing as originality. Ecclesiastes says “There is nothing new under the sun.” My poem disagrees. Most poetry disagrees. Why get up in the morning if everything is old and used up? This poem seems like a small prayer against such thinking. Without wonder and surprise and mystery there is no point to reading or writing poems—or even getting out of bed in the morning. I think this is a small celebration of waking up.
AMK: There’s a certain degree of strangeness in the lines about Martin Buber and in the “leap[ing] up out of the darkness / of a theater and sigh the high silky operatic / note of someone in love.” and in “the secret life of // the woods at night…” Combine these lines with the Coca-Cola bottles, the snakes, and the “divine impossible stretch of the imagination,” and you have a poem that brings together not only a number of strange objects, ideas, and images, but ones that are extremely different and, without the poem, would probably never be in the same place all at once. Is this one of the aims of the poem?
SC: Yes. The imagination associates and finds order among disparate things constantly. The ordinary and the extraordinary are mashed up and mixed up in our daily lives and we sort through this mess of shapes and signs and we find our way through. We do it unconsciously as we walk down the street. It is an amazing faculty we have and this poem is just pointing to that. If you made a big list of all the things you saw and heard and tasted and touched with your fingers and thought and dreamt and imagined in a 24 hour period you might have an epic of real beauty. It seems every poem I write is a portion of that epic. It is made of the sacred junk of my life.
AMK: Tell us a little bit about this poem’s evolution. What was its genesis? How did it change over time? Did it ever have a more telling narrative? How did it end up in this more lyrical form, using the title to inform us of its central concern, sentence fragments, and all those strange, otherwise unrelated images, objects, and ideas?
SC: For a long while, over a year, it seems I was writing wedding poems. Someone would ask for one and I would write one. This poem came from that time. It celebrates the union of disparate things and it gives us one unlikely image or idea after another. Living feels this way to me—a strange union, some kind of shot-gun wedding of the real and the unreal. I remember playing with my wedding ring and thinking on that circle as I wrote this. I’ve always thought of this poem as an epithalamium.
AMK: One thing I notice that’s also a little unorthodox about “Something New Under the Sun” is where the lines choose to break. It’s a general rule that a good poetic line ends on a good, poetic word, but many of these lines end otherwise; your first line breaking on “be,” your second on “things,” the fourth on “of,” and so on. It seems to me that you’re doing this to speed up the poem as much as possible, enjambing these early lines in a way so unconventional that it draws great attention to itself and, thus, speeds up the poem to an almost furious pace. Was this your intention?
SC: If it weren’t for enjambment I wouldn’t write poetry at all. I love a poem that rattles and wrecks itself on speed and feeling. When I was a kid I lived on a dirt road that people would fly down raising dust in their old cars and my dog would race after every one of those cars, and when he got up close to the wheels he would bite at them and snarl and keep up as long as he could. Now, that is pretty stupid, I know--but that is what I am up to. I can’t seem to stop the force barreling past me and I can’t seem to keep up either. But I am trying. Of course my dog was eventually killed doing this, but I found it heroic somehow. He must have dreamed himself prancing through the yard with a Buick dead in his jaws. What it is exactly I am after I don’t know—something beautiful in language, something truthful. Keats knew Beauty and Truth were both Mack trucks. Large rumbling forces to be respected—and to be chased.
AMK: “On the Occasion of an Argument beside the River Where I Live” is another unusual poem but in a very different way. Unlike “Something New Under the Sun,” this poem is made up of several very long sentences in extremely long lines— the spaced-over lines indicating that they are a continuation of the non-spaced-over line above it. As a result, this poem reads a lot like prose or like the long lines of Walt Whitman and C.K. Williams. Why compose a poem in this way?
SC: Sometimes a long line is freeing. It gives you the space to think without the self consciousness and constant turning of shorter lines. Why not write a poem with long lines? The decisions we make about our lines—their length, their cadence, their tone—come from our sense of craft and something else, more curious. Sometimes the desire to write a poem is very specific in its dimensions. Sometimes I want a skeltonic jumping spider of a poem—or at least I sense some need or urgency that is best satisfied by the words taking that shape. Sometimes I want a redwood of a poem that begins under the earth and travels so far upward that I can’t see the top of it. That would be the desire for something, perhaps, in a longer line. It is like my hunger for certain foods at certain times. Perhaps my body needs a carrot. Well, go get a carrot. We follow our instincts as writers and hope we have the craft to get there.
AMK: “On the Occasion” is almost entirely made up of statements embedded with imagesbut ones that aren’t terribly specific or drawn out. I’m referring to the images within lines such as: “Someone says we are trapped in language, and so the sun drops overhead through stilly pines where the river explains nothing…” or “Laura, I don’t know what you are doing but I am swimming naked in the Shenandoah and the sun is in China…” These images are more like references to things we knowrather than illustrations of things we can actually see— we know what the sun set looks like; we know what it’s like to skinny dip, but we don’t necessarily see these things occurring as we read them on the page. This could be a criticism, but I’m not so sure…there’s something that resonates in these lines, an energy that (as in the first poem) defies convention. What do you think of this?
SC: I think that image, music and thought make up the rhetoric of a poem and many poems (and poets) will lead with one of these three elements as a guiding principle. Poems don’t always have to show us everything to be believed. Some ideas can exist outside of image and outside of rhythm and still function and live convincingly in a poem. Sometimes we can just tell a thing, just say a thing. Sometimes it will fly out of your hand like a bird. Sometimes it will drop like a stone. When James Wright says “I have wasted my life” in his poem “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm, Pine Island, Minnesota”, I believe him. Others don’t. It is a radical leap away from the images and rhythm that dominate and make the poem. In fact, the lushness of what precedes that famous last line, in some way, demands a leap. I think my poem leaps a lot from image to statement and back and forth and aims to keep us a little off-balance.
AMK: I love those imaginative moments in the poem of the “two men flying overhead from opposite directions” and the speaker “sparkl[ing] like a trout.” They create a sense of mystery or of an awe of mystery and how we go about observing and expressing it, which is what I think this poem is largely about. What can you tell us about the importance of imagination in poetry?
SC: This poem came from an argument with a friend. I had said that anything can happen in a poem. She said no, that is not true, there are limits. She said that even if it were true, whatever happens—however amazing and unlikely--would be stuck in the language and so be of limited use and little value. We were arguing about the reality of poetry--its power and its powerlessness. That is an old argument. Auden said that poetry “makes nothing happen,” and some poets today have taken refuge in this, celebrating the uselessness of the art. I understand the point but won’t devote my life to it. Essentially my disagreement still stands. It is like my disagreement with Ecclesiastes. I think there is something new under the sun and I think that anything can happen in a poem. If it happens there, then it can happen here in some form or another. Without your imagination and those of the people nearest you, what would you be? What would you think and do? I like the word divine and how it hides in the imagination.
AMK: You don’t seem to mind using a lot of adjectives. You got your MFA at Arizona State. Were you criticized for this? If so, why have you chosen to continue using them in the face of that criticism?
SC: My MFA experience at ASU was one of the best experiences of my life. I wrote a completely experimental book for my thesis, the poems of which I have never published and never will. But that work was deeply important to me as a poet. It had to do with the joy of writing. And though I was writing something strange, I got encouragement and advice and generous time with all of my teachers there. I feel deeply grateful to them. And yes, I do use a lot of adjectives. I love them and I love adverbs too. But most of all I use too many conjunctions in my poetry. What might be worst about my poetry is probably what is most crucial to me. Our failures are a large part of our character I guess. Who said character is destiny?
AMK: It seems the one rule we can be certain of in poetry is that there are lots of them and there are lots of ways to break them. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if they serve any purpose at all. What do you think of the observance of rules in poetry, generally speaking?
SC: There are men I work with who can eyeball a piece of wood and see straight lines and exact angles and near perfect circles without using a rule, a square or a compass. This comes from talent and talent comes from long experience with rules, squares and compasses. All of the rules of an art help us to understand our medium and so, eventually, the world the medium is a part of. Learn your rules as a writer and buck up against the ones that hold you back. You will know which is which if you pay close attention to your mind, your language and your art. The beauty of a life like this is that the “which-is-which” changes as you age. You’ll find some broken rule of your youth to be a helpful thing, if restored, in middle age. Rules are useless and invisible unless we fight against them and so--understand them.
AMK: “Drinking Gift Whiskey” is one of my favorite poems in this book. I just love how it stays in the present tense in the first few stanzas even though there is certainly a past and present going on in the poem, the past being the journey the speaker and his father have made and the present being the writing of the poem itself: “We are working through January’s arctic surprise…step hand in hand as grown men in love from stone / to stone…”; “Alone, I am only writing / now to say we almost made it to the Christmas farm…”
This use of present tense when describing past events reflected on in the present has that great effect of, one, shadowing the subject matter of the poem until we learn in the final stanza that the speaker’s father died on that journey (Father, there are not many / words I know by heart as true as that afternoon / you began to die in earnest…”) and, second, of merging time on the page in much the way that time is merged in the mind, which understands the passage of events from one moment to the next but in their haunted rememberence experiences everything in real time, which is essentially the present.
Was this your intention when you chose to merge tenses— to slyly come at this telling; to show the speaker’s haunting via form rather than with words? And, if so, how did you come up with this way of composing the poem?
SC: Wow, that is a nice thing to say, and it sure makes me look smart, but I don’t remember enough of what I was considering then and why. After enough time passes I cease to be the writer of my poem (in the helpful technical way I would like to be this instant) and instead become just another reader. One thing about this poem—my father is alive and well. This poem is a mask or voice that helped me deal with the fear of losing my father. Art sometimes is practical and helpful this way. I remember one of the biggest revelations of my adulthood was discovering the mortality of those I love best. Of course once I realized their mortality, my own was included in the bargain. All of my writing seems obsessed with this matter.
AMK: There are a number of wonderful metaphors and similes in this poem: “the abacus of days,” “tress standing in snow like young scholars of the snow,” the fence’s “barbed melodies,” the “balance of who I am rock[ing] / back and forth,” and “the cold work of rescue” to name a few. What is it that draws you so consistently to metaphor?
SC: I am drawn to metaphor—as every poet is—for the force of it, the magic and impossibility of it. For one thing to be another thing is the metamorphoses Ovid wrote about and of which all myth and religion seems to be a part. Metaphor is the beginning of my argument with death and with Ecclesiastes and my skeptical friend Laura. Metaphor says “the sun is a burning wheel” and the implication of those six words alone could be a life’s work. The sun is a burning wheel? From a chariot? A wheelbarrow? A dragster? Metaphor is the god in the room. It is dynamic, charismatic and mesmerizing. It powers the imagination. To stand in another man’s shoes is to say however briefly: “I am you.” Love sometimes says this too. It is why Plato kicked the poets out of the Republic for certainly the sun is not a wheel and anyone who says so is a liar! And yet, I have always loved that moment in Plato’s Phaedo where Socrates, just before his death, praises anyone who can free a man from the fear of death by “singing a charm.” He says “You should search for such a charmer, sparing neither trouble nor expense, for there is nothing on which you could spend your money to greater advantage.” That sounds like sly praise for poets. I like to think that one hot summer day in Athens, Socrates looked up and thought “Yes, a burning wheel!”
AMK: I notice from your bio that you are a cabinet maker. Typically I don’t ask questions of this nature, but I’m wondering how being a craftsman of an entirely different sort affects your poetry?
SC: The men I work with have always been a larger force on my poetry than the actual cabinetry. The friendship and the stories and the prattle and the bullshit of the place inform my writing the way a dream shapes the sleeper waking into the day. I write at night—from midnight until three, and a central reason I have stayed at the shop for so long is my boss’ encouragement of my writing. He has always encouraged his employees—our creative projects and outside endeavors. If I want to come in later than 9 in the morning and work later than 5 in the evening…well, that has always been fine with him. Nick Greer, my boss and friend, has been like a patron this way.
AMK: Have you ever considered taking a more typical teaching job?
SC: I am currently teaching at Johns Hopkins University and working at the cabinet shop and it is a nice mix. I like teaching. It is exhilarating. It is also exhausting and embarrassing to talk so much (like this interview), but it is also a real comfort to be around young writers. I distrust too much authority in any conversation about art, and so I value my questions and my confusions and try to use them in my teaching in order to find, with my students, some answers—however tentative—and to find some clarity in our lives as writers. Mostly though, I try to cultivate joy in the reading and writing of poems.
AMK: What are you working on now?
SC: For a few years now I have been writing a biography of Abraham Lincoln. It consists of three small collections of poems. So far, it is the most fun I have ever had as a writer. I am not anxious but I am curious about what will come of it. Often with me nothing comes from my writing but some private lesson. You never know. I do hope the poems will live in the world soon. It would be nice to finish in a year or so, but books have their own timetables. We’ll see. Thanks for asking. Thanks for all of these questions. It has been fun to talk with someone who has read my work so closely.
AMK: Thank you.