We Were Born in a World with Predators: Featured Poetry by Rose McLarney

Our series of poetry excerpts continues with a poem from Forage by Rose McLarney. Her poems always make me want to linger. If poetry, as an art, slows us down, then McLarney’s poems slow us and sink us and rejuvenate our sense of the surrounding world.

McLarney’s poems are so tactile; here we follow the narrator’s hands into the cold chicken, feel the “warmth of eggs / in the time when we / collected them fresh.” These moments of touch allow McLarney to widen her scope with the shift of a line—so that her abstractions feel as tangible as lemons and herbs.

After Hearing of His Passing
I kept sliding lemon under the skinand herbs into the openingsof a chicken, its cold countering
the recalled warmth of eggsin the time when wecollected them fresh
from beneath hens. Our hands,feather-brushed, found waysto come near one another.
We took the birds’ eggs. We tooktheir lives too, if raccoons didn’tfirst, eating the craw full of grain
only and leaving the bodyto waste, as the whole of himdoes now that he’s dead young.
Most waste I can avoid (I’d save hearts,sauté livers, when we slaughtered).But not the truth that I have handled
his body, intimately, and other beings’entrails. And I still make meals.We were born in a world with predators.
We have lived, from the beginning,knowing how we were created,sharp-toothed and hungry.
But not who would have the pleasureof feeding, when one would feel the painof prey. I will serve another chicken,
and I may say its cooked skin is golden,a kind of exaltation. And the sorrowwill be biting. And birds will keep surviving.
Scavenging insects and flesh from the sickof their flocks, seeds from sunflowersand blossoms from rose bushes in reach.
I kept sliding lemon under the skinand herbs into the openingsof a chicken, its cold countering
the recalled warmth of eggsin the time when wecollected them fresh
from beneath hens. Our hands,feather-brushed, found waysto come near one another.
We took the birds’ eggs. We tooktheir lives too, if raccoons didn’tfirst, eating the craw full of grain
only and leaving the bodyto waste, as the whole of himdoes now that he’s dead young.
Most waste I can avoid (I’d save hearts,sauté livers, when we slaughtered).But not the truth that I have handled
his body, intimately, and other beings’entrails. And I still make meals.We were born in a world with predators.
We have lived, from the beginning,knowing how we were created,sharp-toothed and hungry.
But not who would have the pleasureof feeding, when one would feel the painof prey. I will serve another chicken,
and I may say its cooked skin is golden,a kind of exaltation. And the sorrowwill be biting. And birds will keep surviving.
Scavenging insects and flesh from the sickof their flocks, seeds from sunflowersand blossoms from rose bushes in reach.

From Forage by Rose McLarney, published by Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2019 by Rose McLarney. Previously published in the Birmingham Poetry Review.

Must-Read Poetry: September 2019

are eight notable books of poetry publishing in September.

Forage by Rose McLarney

McLarney has been a gifted
storyteller since her first book, The
Always Broken Plates of Mountains
, but I dare say that she’s getting even
better, more hypnotic. She’s one of our finest poets of the wild: her notes of
appreciation are grounded in a love of careful cataloging of the world through
language. There are the paired, almost petite lines of “Pet” about a cat: “How
long I watched, how I loved // to watch, and how I tried / to make him a little
home. // But what is wanted wants / to leg it elsewhere, no matter.” Gentle
lines, but the poem ends with a start: “He would slaughter // his way back to
solitude.” McLarney is masterful at those turns—an awareness of how quickly
life can jolt. That range is also present in “And Still I Want to Bring Life
into This World.” The narrator is driving home from a doctor’s appointment,
listening to a radio broadcast—the words reverberating within that small space.
The broadcaster speaks of “failed fields, washed over.” A dying world. The
narrator can’t help but turn the pain inward: “I can think only of the news //
that I may have no children, when there are more / than the world can manage to
keep alive. // Must the answer be only the variety / of grief? If not to envy
all the irrigated orchards bore, // to sorrow for the trees, sprayed and
sterile?” McLarney’s environmental threnodies move from the quick truth—“Wildflowers
tend to themselves // while all people plant these days are satellite
dishes”—to a sense that has been accumulating across all of her books: how do
we hold on to despair, and dust, and memory? A gorgeous book.   

Ringer by Rebecca Lehmann

“Elegy for Almost,” a poem
that sits halfway through Lehmann’s collection, took my breath away. “It was as
simple as this: I really wanted you / and then you were gone.” Those first
lines—finely-timed and direct—speak across the page and toward the soul. Throughout
her poems, Lehmann is well-paced, creative, and constructive, and the result in
this poem is a powerful song of grief. “I was unconscious when the doctor
slipped / her instruments in and took you out: / sac with no heartbeat,
placenta that wouldn’t / let go its hold, raspberry sized cluster / of cells
that didn’t put together right. / My love.” And then from that stanza to
17-year-old memories: driving, “stoned, around the Wisconsin countryside,”
drifting over the yellow line. Wondering: “Why do I think of those far away
days now, / and again and again?” Ringer
teems with excellent poems, including the title piece, which offers many truths
in a single page. “Each morning trumpeted into being with a chorus of baby
squawks,” the refrains of her life. It is a poem about motherhood, about
occupying space in this weary world. Snow clings to curbs, even as daffodils
push through mud. Life, all around her, tries its best. The narrator brings the
stroller around the block, again and again, the cycle bringing her back to her
son’s birth, when “two medical students / held my legs and joked about going to
the gym. The epidural coursed / strong medicine into my spine. The anesthesiologist
flitted in / and out of the room like a large hummingbird.” Lehmann, generously
and gracefully, swings us through entire lives.

Father’s Day by Matthew Zapruder

“When I was fifteen / I suddenly knew / I would never / understand geometry”; where Zapruder begins his poems, and where he ends them, are often quite different places—and that is one of the joys of Father’s Day, a heartfelt, melancholy collection. Often his columnar style naturally guides our eyes: he’s a poet of syntactic movement, often spare with punctuation, instead letting the lines themselves do the lifting. In “When I Was Fifteen,” he remembers “those inscrutable / formulas everyone / was busily into / their notebooks scribbling.” The narrator had his own talents. He writes the story of the field hockey star for the school paper, and then gives his history notes to her. She “took them / from my hands / like the blameless / queen of elegant / violence she was.” Zapruder has a great way of mapping our interiors, as when the narrator, wrapped-up in his down jacket, walks home and “listened to / the analog ghost / in the machine / pour from the cassette / I had drawn / flowers on.” Other poems are wry jabs, as with “Generation X”: “I was born the autumn / after a wave of flowers / swept the land // too late to appear in even / one poem by Frank O’Hara,” and “The Poetry Reading”: “At the poetry reading I am listening / to the endless introduction. / The young poet waits / for a cloud of applause / through which he will go / to his doom.” You’ve got to laugh at po-biz to stay alive. Also: stay for Zapruder’s beautiful afterword.

Daybook 1918: Early Fragments by J.V. Foix (edited and translated by Lawrence Venuti)

Foix is the pen name of Josep Vicenç Foix i Mas (1893-1987), a Catalan poet once lauded by Harold Bloom but largely neglected by English language readers and critics. Venuti does a necessary service in translating and curating these unusual and intriguing pieces. Daybook 1918 includes prose poems and fragments which Venuti notes “endows recognizably Catalan customs and geography with a surrealist quality” through a particular process: “Foix developed a method that favored not automatic writing, freed from rational control, but rather a combination of dream and hypnagogia.” Venuti is a sage and lyric guide through Foix’s strangeness. In one untitled piece, the narrator begins: “She assured me that two hundred young men lived in the village, each the owner of a black horse like mine.” No such thing is true, the man learns, as the “stables lie empty, as do the houses. Only my horse and I wander the village, night and day, through the labyrinth of its shadows.” Another piece, “Without Symbolism,” offers some: “The conductor of the municipal band is so corpulent that he takes up half the square. When he extends an arm, all the village children stretch out their hands to turn somersaults as if they were on the horizontal bar.” Foix’s poems are probably best read between midnight and dawn—or any similar time when we are most attuned to our shadow selves. Added bonus: a few excellent essays on poetry, consciousness, and art by Foix.

An American Sunrise by Joy Harjo

If you’ve somehow never experienced
the work of our new poet laureate, Harjo’s new book is a great introduction.
From “Seven Generations”: “Beneath a sky thrown open / To the need of stars /
To know themselves against the dark.” That reflexive turn—themselves—which could be so heavy and stodgy in the hands of a
lesser poet, becomes illuminating here. Sunrise, sunset, morning, night, pilgrimage—much
of Harjo’s book is about movement northward and drifting south. An introductory
note recalling the 1830 Indian Removal Act offers a roadmap to her central
theme: the desire of indigenous peoples to return home. In certain ways, this
happens through story: “I leave you to your ceremony of grieving / Which is
also of celebration / Given when an honored humble one / Leaves behind a trail
of happiness / In the dark of human tribulation.” She writes: “Once there were
songs for everything, / Songs for planting, for growing, for harvesting, / For eating,
getting drunk, falling asleep, / For sunrise, birth, mind-break, and war.” An American Sunrise affirms Harjo’s
identity as a poet of testimony. “Let’s honor the maker,” she ends one poem. “Let’s
honor what’s made.”

I Will Destroy You by Nick Flynn

“Haecceity,” writes Flynn,
is a word “almost impossible / to pronounce,” but means “thisness, as in here / &
now”—which makes it quite useful. Flynn’s poetry does this: a little turn
or refraction to refocus our gaze, moving from words (their sounds and shapes)
to bodies (our sounds and shapes). “In / the end I held your arms briefly /
over your head & // warned that I was in no way / safe,” the narrator says.
He is “often not filled with any great love // for—of—God,” but “then, briefly
& wholly, your / thisness, like
// beeswax, it / filled me.” Wholly and holy, Flynn’s poems feel encompassing. Yet
there’s a tender fear of that action, as in “Life is Sweet”: “I worry sometimes
// how everything can be / contained // turned into a poem.” That’s a
refreshing worry. Flynn, who has powerfully mined his own life within his
poetry and prose, carries a particular caution in his lines. In “Saltmarsh,” he
writes of finding “a book, splayed / open, spine broken, // facedown in the
flattened // grass.” Turned-over, the “words // slide off the page as if each /
were a bug // that dies in sunlight. It’s how / I want this // poem to be—unreadable—
/ not at the beginning // but by the end.” The words dissolving; the poem
becoming us and everything around us.

A Fortune for Your Disaster by Hanif Abdurraqib

“& I tell my boys
there is a reason songs from the 90s are having a revival & it’s because
the heart & tongue are the muscles with the most irresistible histories.” Abdurraqib’s
lines lunge; his titles blur into the text. There’s real energy in this book,
and there’s also a compelling sense of love, longing, and loss. His poems hold
hope, but a measured one: “If one must pray, I imagine // it is most worthwhile
to pray towards endings. / The only difference between sunsets and funerals //
is whether or not a town mistakes the howls / of a crying woman for madness.” In
a series of poems titled “How Can Black People Write About Flowers at a Time
Like This”—a question that is, tellingly, also a statement—Abdurraqib delivers
some of his most pointed lines: “maybe all the blues / requires is a door /
through which a person / can enter and exit.” He ends one poem: “a father
stands / over his crying son & hisses / I’ll
give you something to cry about / as if he didn’t already / bring a child
into a world / that requires neither of them.” A deft collection.

Valuing by Christopher Kondrich

Valuing opens with an apt epigraph from Simone Weil: “Everything without exception which is of value in me comes from somewhere other than myself, not as a gift but as a loan which must be ceaselessly renewed.” Her words mark this collection. “It is alright,” Kondrich writes. “You may dwell in me.” Elsewhere: “In order to be immortal you have to be invisible to the part of you that knows you have to die.” Kondrich’s poems have the curious gift of being gently abstract—not vague, but broad, perhaps even kenotic. From Caedmon: “I sit with my head in my hands, turned / against everything. I’m facing what I think // is the wind. It has the eyes I’ve sought, / the skin I’ve felt under stone.” This outward sense makes many of Kondrich’s poems feel like hymns released into the sky. Valuing is a refreshingly sincere and skilled book about the ineffable: “Friend, if you are there, / come to meet me. I am drifting devoured. / I am ready to say goodnight. / Come meet me so I can release it.”

The Space Between Silence & Enough: Featured Poetry by Nick Flynn

Our series of poetry excerpts continues with a poem from I Will Destroy You by Nick Flynn. His books are often God-haunted, with doubt and faith giving breath to each other.

Flynn has said that he writes “about Jesus quite a lot, he’s appeared in nearly every book I’ve written, it seems…distilled down to his essence, I think he’s a beautiful figure…he is a scrim for each generation to project upon—he seems the perfect ambiguous image, which forces us to figure out what he means, over and over again.”

The complex identity and legacy of St. Augustine fits that same description, and in this poem, the final in Flynn’s excellent new book, we feel the narrator’s conversation with the past. “Even as I write each word I am farther from God,” he says—a powerful song of longing.

“Saint Augustine”
Saint Augustine preached humility &the need to simply be on the ground.Do you wish to rise? he asked. Whatwould he say of these words then, which,after all, are meant to replace us? Whatwould he say of the way I go back, again& again, to the burning house, the housewe’ve already escaped? These words—so quick, the way they rise up, like sparks,or smoke, a person could get lost in the skywatching them, a person could lose trackof the important things. Spot quiz: What’sthe opposite of standing before a houseon fire, trying to understand the flames,& knowing you will never understand?I want to enter into that moment my motherstrikes her first match, but I’m still asleepupstairs. In the dream I’m walking throughthe marsh, because only there, surroundedby water, am I safe. Are your handsthe water? Are these words the flame?The reeds are taller than I am, the mudslows everything down. In some waysI cannot imagine seeing you again, but hereI am, kneeling as in prayer at your bedside,counting our breaths. What would stop mefrom taking your hand then & placing it on mychest? O Lord, help me be pure, but not yet.Even as I write each word I am farther fromGod—sometimes I just can’t find it. If only I couldhave the faith I hear coming from the radio,the way it always knows I’m listening. One daythese years will be known as the space betweensilence & enough. I still have trouble being alonein either, which is why the radio is always on.Do you wish to rise? Augustine asks. Beginby descending.

“Saint Augustine,” from I Will Destroy You. Copyright © 2019 by Nick Flynn. Reproduced with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, www.graywolfpress.org.

B.J. Hollars Explores the Midwest’s Strangest Corners

During his yearlong trek spent researching paranormal claims throughout the Midwest, B.J. Hollars admits “whether discussing the mundane or a monster sighting, it’s hard to know who to trust.” Everyone, it seems, has a story.

“The irony,” Hollars writes in Midwestern Strange, “is that much of the research conducted by cryptozoologists, ufologists, anomalists, paranormal investigators, and the like undergo the same processes employed within academia’s hallowed halls—namely, hypothesizing and theorizing toward a greater understanding of truth.” He often returns to this sentiment: Strange tales demand our attention, but such research is met with skepticism.

Midwestern Strange is a fun and fascinating romp through those
tales—delivered with Hollars’s talent for connecting dots while remaining
comfortable with unanswered questions. The author of Thirteen Loops: Race, Violence and the Last Lynching in America, The Road South: Personal Stories of the Freedom Riders, and other books, he is an associate professor of English at
the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

We spoke about Goosebumps, folklore, and the hidden strangeness of “flyover country.”

The Millions: I like to hear of other
writers who were born wandering library stacks. You said the books of your
childhood were “part pulp, part peculiarity.” Why—and how—did books about
creatures and the paranormal especially capture your imagination?

B.J. Hollars: I think what fascinated me most about books on creatures and the paranormal were that these books were shelved in the nonfiction section of our library. I was probably nine or 10 when I fell headlong into strange and spooky tales, but prior to wandering toward the nonfiction shelves, I’d only known these subjects in their fictional forms.

I admit it: I was a Goosebumps kid. By which I mean I mowed as many lawns as I could to earn the four bucks I needed to pick up R.L. Stine’s monthly addition to his wildly popular series. I devoured the earlier books faster than Stine could write them, and once I ran dry, I travelled a little deeper into the library. Imagine my surprise when I learned that there were shelves overflowing with nonfiction books on subjects as strange as Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, werewolves, and the Bermuda Triangle. I gathered them up by the armful, then spent more than a few weekend nights sidling up to the kitchen table, notepad in hand, anxious to get to the bottom of these mysteries.

Prior to venturing to the nonfiction side of those library shelves, I felt I had a pretty clear understanding of the demarcation lines between fact and fiction. But books on Bigfoot and the like dramatically complicated my understanding. Suddenly I wasn’t sure what to think. I was 10 years old and the world had doubled in size for me. There was so much to see, so much to learn, and the widening of my world was revelatory.  

TM: What is particularly
Midwestern about these cases and stories—other than that they are located in
the region?

BH: One of the things I love most about the Midwest is its chameleonlike ability to blend in with its surroundings. The downside, of course, is that as a result, we Midwesterners are often overlooked. We are, for many, merely “flyover country”—just a swath of land you pass through en route to another place. But the upside is that in being overlooked, we’ve got a lot left to explore, especially in terms of the strange. I’m a firm believer that every place has something unique, but in the Midwest, it’s not always so apparent. We don’t have a coast, we don’t have mountains, and so, our “uniqueness” sometimes requires a little digging. Many of the “case files” within the book discuss how small Midwestern towns often take it upon themselves to employ creatures or stories or legends to serve as proof of their uniqueness. As I’ve learned, those towns that embrace the strange—rather than shy away from it—often benefit both economically and culturally. In the Midwest, it’s cool to be weird. We’re humble about our oddities, of course, but we’re a little proud of them, too.  

TM: Other than Project
ELF—the Navy’s creation of “a one-way communication system to relay messages to
America’s nuclear submarines by way of extremely low frequency waves”—which of
these cases do you think is the most likely to be true, and why?

BH: Throughout the book, I try to steer clear of making too many definitive statements about my own feelings toward these subjects. For reasons of trying to preserve at least a little credibility, I let the narrative and the research do the work. As the various case files thickened, I tried to take an Occam’s Razor approach to the truth, assuring myself that the obvious solution was likely the correct one. But some of these events and creatures and phenomena seemed to defy any and all rational explanations. One interviewee said, and I’m paraphrasing here, that she likes to “keep an open mind without my mind falling out of the back of my head.” I really appreciated that candor. And I suppose I feel similarly. If you fess up to believing in phenomena such as UFOs or cryptozoological creatures, the general public dismisses you pretty quickly. But I’m always surprised by how many thoughtful and logical and rationale people come up to me in private to share their own encounters with the strange. Oftentimes folks begin by saying something like, “I know this sounds crazy but…” I just listen. And I try to do everything I can to intimate that I’m not judging them. That’s important, I think—just listening without offering an explanation. And I think that applies to most of our interactions with our fellow humans, too. Sometimes people don’t need an answer, just an ear.

Having said all that, the case that gives me the most pause is the Minot Air Force Base Sighting of 1968. It’s one thing when a single witness comes forward claiming to have seen a UFO, but what do we do when dozens of highly-trained military personnel claim to have seen something? Further, what are we to think when radarscope prints confirm that something strange was bolting through the sky? One answer, of course, is that the “UFO” seen over the Minot skies was an “unidentified flying object” of terrestrial origin. We tend to link UFO sightings with extraterrestrials, but we can’t forget the likelier explanation: that the technology is human made. That the strangeness in the skies is of our own making. Which is scarier: acknowledging intelligent life in the universe with technology far more advanced than our own, or that we ourselves possess such technology and refuse to speak of it?

TM: You reference journalist and ufologist John Keel several times in the book. Keel is best known for The Mothman Prophecies, but my favorites of his are The Eighth Tower, and “The Flying Saucer Subculture,” a 1975 essay that appeared in the Journal of Popular Culture. “Ufology has been a propaganda movement rather than a scientific movement,” he argued. “The ufologists began stumping for a myth in the late 1940s before the sighting evidence was empirical.” You include a few UFO cases and encounters in this book, and speak with several researchers. Do you think Keel’s assessment is correct?

BH: One lesson I learned throughout this book is that everyone has a motive. As I sought out interviews with folks who had stories to share, I was always leery of those who were a little too willing to talk. Most of the interviewees that made it into the book were people who were a bit hesitant. They needed to know more about me and the project before they signed on. And I appreciated that vetting process immensely; mostly because it provided me the opportunity to get to know them better, too. So much trust goes into writing a book based primarily from firsthand accounts. At every turn, I was acutely aware that I might be played for a fool. In most interviews, I tried to tease out what the interviewer might get out of the process. On occasion, people said things like, “Look, nothing good came from this incident in my life, and I don’t expect anything good to come from it now.” Their hesitancy is what solidified my trust toward them. And I hope my willingness to listen without judgment allowed me to reciprocate that trust.

I haven’t read John Keel’s work widely enough to make a proper assessment in any definitive way. But speaking directly to the quote, my gut tells me that a good chunk of the population would likely agree. And that many Ufologists would, too. Carl Sagan famously told Ufologist J. Allen Hynek, “I predict that if and when you ever get a really good case that involves hard evidence, there will be no lack of federal funds.” It’s not that Sagan was dismissive about other intelligent life in the universe; rather, he just needed science to support such a claim. All serious-minded Ufologists likely share that sentiment. Because without the scientific backing, it’s even easier to dismiss the claims. An eyewitness account always proves insufficient. But unaltered photos and videos and radarscope prints, those are the building blocks of proof.

TM: The story of Oscar the Turtle—an alleged giant turtle spotted in Indiana during the 1940s—leads you to discover a folklorist who wrote his dissertation on the subject. “For a folklorist like [John] Gutkowski, it was never a question of whether or not Oscar ‘existed’: what mattered most were the stories surrounding the creature.” You’re a professor and writer; what did you learn about storytelling from spending a year steeped in folklore?

BH: We twist ourselves into knots over the so-called “truth,” when in fact “truth”—for better or worse—seems to grow more relative with every passing day. In the introduction, I write that one of my primary motives for this book was to test “whether our grappling with such unanswerable subjects might fortify us against the onslaught of misinformation now embedded in our lives.” Following the 2016 election, I became terrified by the weaponization of misinformation. Which is to say: there are serious socio-political ramifications for how we spin a story. Whether or not Bigfoot exists is hardly the most pressing question of our time, but I’d argue that better understanding how and why some people believe fiercely in Bigfoot, while others refuse even to entertain the possibility, is a question worth considering. What information tips our belief scale? How can two people look at the same information and arrive at two diametrically opposed conclusions? Of course, it’s hardly as simple as that. But, indeed, exploring the strange might be a vehicle for testing our own critical thinking skills on an array of subjects.

Throughout the research process, I found plenty of pitfalls in my own thinking. How easy it is to get caught up in the lie. And how difficult to return to solid ground once your heart gets ahead of your head. If a story is good enough, it’s easy to suspend our disbelief. And when we do, sometimes we let down our guard. For me, that realization is both empowering and terrifying. In the right hands, stories can create positive change, but in the wrong hands, they can prove destructive to the world beyond the story.  

TM: Midwestern Strange includes stories and legends that range from the bizarre to the silly to the violent. What led you to focus on these particular cases (and were there any interesting cases that you researched that you didn’t include in the book?)?

BH: About 35 miles due west of my home in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, is a village called Elmwood, which claims to be the UFO Capital of Wisconsin. No matter that a few other places in Wisconsin make the same claim, Elmwood totally claims it the hardest. Not only does Elmwood host an annual summer festival called UFO Days, but back in the 1970s, following a rash of UFO sightings, a few of the village’s citizens led a grassroots effort to raise $50 million to build a UFO landing strip. While surrounding towns were working on finding funding for the library and the school, a select group of folks in and around Elmwood set their sights a whole lot higher (pun totally intended—I couldn’t resist). The story is fascinating, yet I couldn’t track down enough of the key figures in the fundraising campaign to make the story worthwhile. And so, I had to let this particular case file. As far as I could tell, there was no new discoveries to be had.

As for the cases that are
included, I selected them for a variety of reasons. First, I think they
provided a nice range of “strange.” On one end, we’ve got wolves running about
Wisconsin on two legs, and on the other we’ve got a pre-Columbian stone with a
runic inscription dredged up in western Minnesota. One’s the kind of thing
you’d see in a horror movie, the other, something you’d see on an archeological
dig. In between, we’ve got creatures like Mothman, whose sole existence is
based on eyewitness reports, as well as Project ELF—a top secret military
operation with no shortage of documentation. Each of the cases provides a new
way to view our world. As you mentioned, some of the case files are scary,
others are a little goofy, but all of them, at least in my opinion, were
totally worthy of further exploration.

TM: In your epilogue to the
book, you write “Researcher be warned: when it comes to the strange, the work
never reaches its end.” Keel has written about this; the feeling that
existentially (or even psychically), paranormal researchers are trapped in
constant inquiry. You spent a year “living strangely”—what has happened since?

spent a year leaping headlong down every rabbit hole I could, then another year
trying to dig myself out. Researching strange phenomena was like nothing I’d
done before. With this subject, the “written record” was always pretty thin. And
even when I did find written accounts, there were always questions of
credibility to consider. I began every case by calibrating myself toward
neutrality. I had to leave any and all preconceived notions at the door. Of
course, that’s virtually impossible to do. But I tried.

But the truth is, with few exceptions, the deeper I got into a case, the further from the truth I became. This was a wholly unexpected development. At the start of the project, the whole point was to let the evidence lead me toward explanations. Not necessarily to “debunk” any phenomena, but to provide additional possibilities. If I turned over enough stones, I figured, eventually I’d find something new. The problem, though, was that there were always stones beneath those stones. I turned over one and I found another.

The “Martian” section of the book was the most difficult in this regard. Information on UFOs and extraterrestrials is simply without end. I suppose this probably confirms Keel’s quote about UFOs being a “propaganda movement rather than a scientific movement.” One of the most startling moments of my research was when I tracked down a well-known Ufologist who’d been off the grid for some time. He made it clear to me that his UFO research had done real harm to his life. It ruined his career and his personal life. And he told me I ought to be careful if I insisted on going down this particular path, as he had. It really shook me.

Equally strange was the
moment when various interviewees from various case files began highlighting the
same specific detailed locations and mineral deposits, claiming that these locations
and mineral deposits seemed to attract strange phenomena. I figured this was
part of some larger theory, but not so. I searched every search engine and
found nothing. These folks, on their own accord and without prompting, were
simply mentioning a few details which they couldn’t make sense of. Having heard
these details again and again, suddenly I was in a place to try to make sense
of them, or at least look a bit closer. That was the moment I knew I needed to
either go deeper down that rabbit hole or begin to claw my way out. Coward that
I am, I chose to claw my way out. Things were becoming a little too strange,
even for me.

The biggest change in my own life is that now I view the world differently. Mysteries aren’t something to be solved, but something to be embraced. We don’t need to conquer; we just need to be curious. For me, that’s where the revelation lives—in the not-knowing.

Holy in the Hands of Old Oak: Featured Poetry by Alexandra Teague

Our series of poetry excerpts continues with a poem from Or What We’ll Call Desire by Alexandra Teague. Her book is full of richly-textured pieces like “Driving After Rain,” a poem whose rhythm begins with its first line—a single sentence, dressed with complementing s and f sounds, appended with a final, single word that moves us forward. She’s as skilled moving among phrases and sounds as she is portraying bodies—our ineffable drift through this world: “we were always driving nowhere // and it didn’t matter then.”

“Driving After Rain”
The self like silverware laid out finally for a feast. Brightlanes of light along the gorge this morning, that watery rush
like the waterwheel I used to love to go see at the mill:the War Eagle gushing brown Southern babble
over sunspots of stone, dark flecks of childhoodlifted into swinging buckets, rain pockmarks of failure
or giver or grief churning not in transubstantiation but in waterrising up as water, holy in the hands of old oak;
Oh God, make them like a wheel, not a curse, but a wayto ride the whole way around our bodies
and back—like once in the front seat by an L.A. highway,I’d pull over with a man, a storm
so blinding rain blinding no one saw my skirt liftingagainst steering wheel; we were always driving nowhere
and it didn’t matter then, suspendedlike water I don’t quite understand, how it falls fast enough
to carry itself up and over and still be wholethe way I pretended I wasn’t—knowing he was lying
that he’d ever love me, throwing myself anywaylike this river was everything. As stubble before the wind.  
Inside that mill, flour dusts every skin. So whatif I’m dammed and damned and driven; some days
I’m also shining like spoons milled by water, breadmy mother kneaded as I set knife beside fork—hunger
taught to be orderly as wheels at fairs, that sky-swinging dangerwith its sturdy spokes like psalms splitting the word of God
from the water of every other word.

“Driving after the Rain” by Alexandra Teague from Or What We’ll Call Desire by Alexandra Teague. Copyright © 2019 by Alexandra Teague. Posted by permission of Persea Books, Inc. (New York). All rights reserved.

Little Islands of Faith: The Millions Interviews Tupelo Hassman

Early in gods with a little g, the story’s teenage narrator, Helen Dedleder, describes a night with her friends: “And on one of those early evenings as the light in Rosary was fading, back in the early days when the glow from those first beers still warmed us all the way home, we were christened.” The syntax and sound of the sentence represents one of Tupelo Hassman’s gifts in this novel: her ability to capture the beautiful fragility of those teen years.

That fragility is created from
the novel’s tender route between grief and faith. Helen lives each day with the
memory of her mom’s death—and what that has done to her dad: “he fell right
apart, and I’ve been collecting the pieces of him since.” He begins to date a
woman named Iris, who “is the type of person who ends statements with question
marks. She is the type of person who will use the word love in sentence after sentence until it is empty as a deflated
balloon on a dance floor.” Yet Helen loves her dad—which makes her skepticism
of Iris complicated. Love complicates everything in gods with a little g, Hassman’s second novel. Her first book, Girlchild, received the American Library
Association’s Alex Award. She has written for The Boston Globe, Harper’s Bazaar, ZYZZYVA, and elsewhere. The
first American to win London’s Literary Death Match, she earned her MFA at
Columbia University.

Hassman and I spoke about faith, doubt, and the other ways that we fill the chasms in our lives.

The Millions: I love the way Helen Dedleder, the book’s first-person narrator,
tells her story, and the stories of those around her. Early in the book, she
describes hanging out with her friends at Fast Eddie’s Tire Salvage: “Like
we’re stuck, here with each other. The best and worst of everyone we know,
doing what we must but shouldn’t, becoming who we are and always will be.
Without thinking, maybe.” How did you find her voice?

Tupelo Hassman: Helen is the kind of girl I am still not cool enough to be friends
with, she’s confident and tough and doesn’t fumble (until she does) and if I
get to live in someone else’s head, I’m checking into hers. The moments of
boldness Helen has, when taking dares, when reading dirty books aloud, that’s
when I knew I’d found my girl. Because of what she’s lost, in her mother’s
death, she worries a little less than some might about how she presents herself
and about getting hurt. Having nothing to lose is a magical thing.

TM: gods with a little g is suffused with belief and unbelief. Rosary, California, is full of “Thumpers”—nearly-fundamentalist Christians who regulate everything from tattoos to the Internet (which is not allowed). Helen’s relationship with God is beautifully strained; at Vacation Bible Camp, she would make paper flowers from pages from the Song of Solomon: “Bible pages tear quietly and easily and fold perfectly.” That feels a lot like a metaphor—in fact, listening to Helen made me think of the novelist R.O. Kwon, who fictionalized some of her own emotions and experiences in leaving religion within her novel The Incendiaries. Kwon said writing the book helped her realize “there is no resolving” faith and lost faith. She laments: “I loved God. I loved believing.” It’s a beautiful sense that I think is reflected in Helen’s life. All of this is to say: could you talk about Helen’s idea of God? Of faith? Of existence and meaning?

TH: Helen
is a believer, in an unwilling way. She’s too smart to ignore an organic
instinct for connection to something greater than herself but she’s pretty
pissed at that something at the same time. And she’s too smart to ignore the
hypocrisy around her in the performative connection to faith enacted by the
Thumpers. This leaves her in a no-man’s land, really, water everywhere. But she
has her Aunt Bev’s insistence that there is more to life than meets the eye,
and Helen has her mother’s example. Helen’s mother was a person whose way of
being proved her faith and proved to Helen that faith is worth having. Helen
hasn’t quite gotten to figuring out existence and meaning yet, but she is
beginning to think about responsibility, about serving, and she may find her
answer to those questions, if she doesn’t burn it all down first.

TM: You
have a way to make your readers feel—absolutely, intensely—the emotions of your
characters, especially Helen. The grief she has for her dead mother is
palpable. There’s a great moment when Helen thinks of how her mother would tuck
her in at night: “I’d open my eyes then and watch her go, watching until she
turned off the hall light. Just as she flipped the switch, I’d close my eyes
tight, so the light would burn her shape into the darkness, a blazing pure
white against the black of my eyelids and the night, more real than any
electricity.” Her mother’s favorite Bible verse was Matthew 28:20: “And, lo, I
am with you always, even unto the end of the world.” Her mother is always with
Helen, especially giving her daughter a sense of wonder; Helen even imagines the
shape of a human body forming “in the dirt and weeds of Rosary’s empty lot.”
How do you envision their relationship—and what role does faith (in all its
varieties) play in that relationship?

TH: Losing a mom. That’s a god-shaped hole. Helen’s mom, Evie, was one of those parents able to do the delicate work of instructing her child without damaging her autonomy. Maybe Evie was able to do this because she knew she wouldn’t be there to see the first years of her work done and maybe she was able to take a gentler hand because her parents had driven away her sister, Helen’s Aunt Bev. Of course, when a parent dies early, we have the silver-lined luxury of imagining perfect parenting that would have spanned a lifetime. But what is the relationship between Helen and her mom now? You know those kids who eat paint and dirt because they have a mineral deficiency? It’s brilliant and terrifying how we will try to fill unmet needs without even recognizing sometimes that anything is missing in the first place. The relationship now, for Helen, is a vacuum of need and her work is to figure out what will sustain her. In that process, she’s going to eat some dirt.

TM: Rosary
feels like a place outside of time. I read gods
with a little g in two days, during a heat wave, and it felt like I was
incubating within the book, within this strangely surreal town. One of the many
setting points that really resonates are the telephone poles: “The telephone
poles around Rosary are white with flyers.” Helen adds to the collection, but
the street sweepers take down flyers on poles: “Rosary’s desires are washed
away. In the mornings after, all that’s left are the naked staples running the
length of every pole like the bark of a petrified forest.” It’s a great, sad
image. Rosary feels like a beautifully melancholic place. Did it feel that way
to you during the writing of this book? How do you spatially, geographically
imagine the town (is it inspired by a place? an amalgam of places)?

TH: Rosary’s skyline is inspired by Vallejo, Califf, just north of Berkeley, where there is a…beautiful, maybe, oil refinery right on the edge of the water. You crest a hill and there it is, sometimes in fog. It is out of place, if there even is a place for such a thing, and monstrous, and it has taken my breath away (not an air quality joke) my entire life. The economic disparity in the Bay Area is increasingly segregating and I’m struck by the other kinds of segregation that come with that, purposefully or not, especially for young people whose freedoms are still limited by their age. Just across the bay from that factory and what surrounds it is San Francisco and all of its complicated freedoms. How can a kid cross that water? And what happens to them if they don’t?

I wrote most of gods with a little g after moving to Charleston, S.C. This is my first time living in the suburbs and I was, and still am, unprepared for the pristine desolation of this kind of a lifestyle. People come out to mow but otherwise, the streets are empty. After living in the Bay Area, Los Angeles, and New York, this feels like another country, so well kept, and harder to escape.

TM: The
scenes between Helen and Bird—her step-brother and romantic crush—are so
awkward and believable. “When the food is ready we hold hands,” Helen narrates.
“And when Bird’s hand touches mine for those seconds over the table, his middle
finger circles around and around in my palm.” What attracts—compels—Helen to

TH: The heart, and various other parts of the body, want what the heart and all those parts want. Bird is shiny. He’s impossible. Bird has that kind of charisma that has to be mastered or it will get him into trouble his entire life. He needs a handler, really. To top it all off, he’s found out that he’s very good at something, sex, and can’t find any reason to stop doing this thing at which he apparently excels. Or, in other words, he’s a teenager. Helen is extremely disappointed in her attraction to Bird and this disappointment makes it harder for her to stop focusing on him. She sees herself as an original thinker, making her own decisions, and here she is, like everyone else, unable to resist being awed by Bird’s parade of sex-appeal. People in recovery have this saying about going to bars, in light of the temptation they hold to fall off the wagon: hang out at the barbershop long enough and you’re going to get a haircut. Even if Helen could’ve kept sidestepping her attraction to Bird, once they start spending even more time together because their parents are dating, well. Shave and a haircut, two bits.   

TM: Catholicism haunts this book. It is like a shadow; something a bit more incantational and mysterious than the rote beliefs of the Thumpers. Rosary was founded as a Catholic town, and a few streets still hold the names of saints. There’s a scene when Bird is at a church service, sitting “in the dusty light coming through the windows and the stained glass colors his face, blushes his cheeks…And he’s beatified, like the Bible promises it will do. If we were allowed saints here, if the Catholics weren’t cursed, I would call this a sighting.” The word and concept of Rosary, of course, are central to the faith practice of many Catholics. Why did you decide to name the town Rosary? What does the word mean to you—literally, as a concept?

love those outward symbols of faith. A person with a rosary in her hand, like
someone reading a book, is doing this thing right before our eyes: she is
believing in a world unseen. Whatever the religion, when I attend a service, I
am so moved by what in a theater is called the suspension of disbelief, and in
a place of worship, what is it? The…comprehension of belief? belief’s
un-suspension? Those moments when we remember that this need to connect with
something greater than ourselves is as real as anything else, as real as this
conversation, anyway, there is something essential there, going back, I guess,
to that god-shaped hole. To my mind, Catholicism has many of the prettiest and
most satisfying ways of evidencing faith. Because we want to touch it, don’t
we? We just want to hold this thing in our hands that we feel inside of us so
heavily but cannot manifest. Rosaries meet that need for physical connection to
what is immaterial. It makes sense to me. There are so many gaps in life,
chasms, and we fill them with faith and conceit and whatever else we can find,
rocks, to make it across. For me, I see these chasms everywhere, it’s like
there’s an insurance agent in my head with a fist full of actuarial tables,
running risk assessments for every instance: is the helmet on tight enough? how
many days until the paycheck? how far away are those sirens? here are the 100
ways to give your family salmonella. Each bead on a rosary is a way of managing
those questions and chasms, little islands of faith.

TM: gods with a little g so authentically captures the wild years of high school (and I say this about to start my 16th year as a public-school teacher). Can you talk about those years? Are they particularly ripe for great stories?

TH: Holy moly, Nick. You know a lot about teenagers. If we had a time machine and I was a student in your class, I would be…invisible. I dropped out two weeks into 10th grade and my teenage years were…a mess? a disaster? dangerous…a thesaurus entry for “unseemly adventure.” And, frankly, it is a wonder that I am here. But I had two friends, also living on edges, and though we led each other to the danger sometimes, we ultimately saved each other too, over and over again. That’s the only story there is, maybe. Those friendships we form in our teenage years can and do save our lives. And then we forget. Adult amnesia about the wherewithal of teens is a phenomenon to me. We all made stupid choices in our teens, but we also were quite more capable then most teenagers are given credit for being. How does this amnesia happen? I am guilty of slipping into this too, it’s like being slowly roofied, how as we age we succumb to this idea that teenagers aren’t the actual shit. Some child sociologists note that keeping teenagers in the category of children serves to preserve power for the older generations. Jeff Chang (We Gon’ Be Alright) talks about young people as our primary change agents. Teenage years are ripe for great stories because we make big choices then, with the power of immortality behind them. And this ability seems to escape us as we grow older and then we are suspicious of it, or jealous. We go from ride or die to bide our time in a hot second and then spend all of this old-people energy trying to stop the powerful, young, fire-bellied creatures from doing their actual jobs of fucking up and saving the world while they’re at it. I wanted to write about those kids, the ones we need now more than ever, the ones we once were.

Must-Read Poetry: August 2019

Here are six notable books
of poetry publishing in August.

Or What We’ll Call Desire by Alexandra Teague

“Because without words
what are we // but ourselves—inarticulate as the sky.” Teague’s poems, so often
first anchored in singular moments, evolve into mazes of time and space, as
with “The Giant Artichoke.” The narrator, thinking of herself as a child,
remembers her mother reading highway billboards, her words filling the space
left wide by grief. “I learned love,” the narrator says, “as rituals of hunger,
a nest of thistles / around the heart.” Later, “Matryoshka (as Madness),” a
poem perfectly suited for its columnar form, begins with conjecture: “If you
could start / at the center: nest / a solid self inside / a safer self / like a
house / so no one sees / all the ways you’ve / twisted open, copied /
yourself.” Her narrow lines feel more insular than claustrophobic; walls in
which the narrator must reflect herself. She is “trapped inside wood / inside
air inside wood / like a prayer in a crucifix / you don’t know how to / believe
in, the church / only as solid as / the ripped-roof blue / the congregation /
stares into in Siqueiros, / their prayers like a windbreak: / pale trees in the
sure belief / of storm.” Teague’s poems turn and turn, their lines moving
about, I never feel lost in her work. One of my favorites in this accomplished
collection is “Sketch: Charcoal and Body on Paper.” The narrator thinks about models—college
students like her—“who posed for Beginning Drawing, / insecurity slipped off
their shoulders / and draped over chairs.” She thinks about their “faces / when
I’d pass them later in the hall, out of place, / too intimate to look at.” What
she is really thinking about, though, is herself: “What I feared of my skin— /
its proportion, perspective; the way I was always / and never really posing.
How I wanted that beauty / that knew how not to care: let people / stare. Let
them mismeasure, / smudge pages with charcoal, erase me.”

100 Poems by Seamus Heaney

Heaney once said “my way
of knowing that I’m being myself is to be displaced from home, and I think I’ve
almost created conditions of being at home and not at home, at once. I think
that’s the way most people grow.” His legacy continues to grow. Six years after
his death—and in anticipation of his forthcoming letters and biography—arrives
this welcome collection of work that spans his entire career. There’s a nice
personal touch here: the poems were selected and arranged by his family:
“Perhaps inevitably,” his daughter writes, “the resulting selection is imbued
with personal recollections of our shared lives.” The poem begins with his
iconic “Digging”—a mainstay of classrooms, and yet still a poem that resounds. Another
classic, “Blackberry-Picking,” feels fresh again. 100 Poems captures one of Heaney’s greatest gifts: the power of
single lines. From “The Forge”: “All I know is a door into the dark.” From
“Into Arcadia”: “It was opulence and amen on the mountain road.” The feathery
sounds of “The Lift”: “A first green braird: the hawthorn half in leaf.” And
his words can still coax tears, as in his elegy, “Clearances”: “So while the
parish priest at her bedside / Went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the
dying / And some were responding and some crying / I remembered her head bent
towards my head, / Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives — / Never
closer the whole rest of our lives.”

Be Recorder by Carmen Giménez Smith

“What propels us back into the hard grind of art, of birth, is a remembering that, as writers, the becoming and re-becoming of our writing corresponds to the new becomings of ourselves.” Smith, whose prose is also a gift, feels like she captures that sense of new becoming in Be Recorder. Her poems often glance back toward childhood (our life’s first revision and becoming, and for Smith, the genesis of her narrative sense). In “Boy Crazy,” sirens, cicadas, and “the drunk boys who howl / into the trees at 2 a.m. infect / my window while I sleep” bring the narrator back “into a girl I once was, / calling for love into a sky transected / by power lines until sunrise when the town / tightened into itself.” The poem “Self as Deep as Coma” begins “When I was a girl, I thought clouds were God, / and that we dialogued about sin, / which mirrored my desires” and ends wonderfully: “When I was a girl, I collected reams of paper, soothed / by the white over and over, the hope of starting / from blank. I hoped to endure being well enough, / to conjure a new bright vessel because I wanted to live.” Be Recorder is full of such conjuring, including the titular, long poem centered in the book: “though I was born in America / I wasn’t born American / I know it’s hard to understand.” And, again, a return to her past: “I forget,” the narrator reflects, “my real vocation / not executive / not supplicant but / stepping back into daughterhood.” This long poem, at moments symphonic, is often wise: “let’s admit to our own complicity release into / the wound because imagine it’s like a rose / blossom of scarred red tissue not beautiful / but layers and layers of lesions / layered over with more scar then more wound.”

To the Wren: Collected & New by Jane Mead

“I think I am by
temperament inclined toward repetition as a structuring element, one that
tempers the adventure, structures the movement toward the unknown”—Mead’s
repetitive methods (call them anaphoric, incantational, or perhaps simply
natural) are one of her most distinctive and hypnotizing features. Her poems
churn, accumulate, and arrive. Mead complicates and expands the identity of an
environmental poet—her natural subjects so often dressed in sadness. In
“Sparrow, My Sparrow” she writes: “What is a prayer but a song of longing /
turning on the thread of its own history?” The poem ends: “I feel myself loved
by a voice in the wind— / I cover my ears with my palms. / The whole world
rocks and still / the cold green river does not spill.” “Hint” continues her
work on nature and grief: “There are geraniums / on the doorstep, bug-eaten //
at the blossom and at / the leaf: you can pinch off / the dead parts, you can
// water, you can turn away— / but you cannot stop yourself.” I like that
tension in Mead’s work: how we live within a world we must care for, but which
resists our urges. And yet we can’t help but rightly praise its beauty, as in
“The Geese”: “Their call, both strange / and familiar, calls / to the strange
and familiar // heart.” An expansive collection that reveals Mead’s talent.

Partial Genius by Mary Biddinger

Biddinger’s prose poems
are eccentric, meandering, and surprising. The first poem of the collection, “Historical
Achievements,” ends: “One year I wrote ‘mouth’ across my knuckles for Halloween
and exited the pep rally before the microphone was switched on, flocks of
balloons still humping the plastic bags designated to contain them.” The
sentence is pure Biddinger: funny, dizzying yet specific, and grounded in a
pleasantly wistful storytelling (her poems don’t often feel melancholy, but
they do contain absences—incomplete stories—which offer pauses of sentiment
within her play). Partial Genius is
unlike any book of poetry that you’ll read this year; a credit to Biddinger’s
voice, and the range of her interests. There’s much to quote here: “Let’s
listen to Black Sabbath and inhale the rage of vinyl car seats”; “At
christening I gripped chain crosses that relatives slathered around my neck. My
mother refused the heirloom ankle bracelet, claiming it looked like bondage,
but I don’t think she meant it that way”; “When I was declared free of
scoliosis, something lifted out of me . . . At the Walgreens, I exhibited
radically poor posture and bought candy cigarettes, which never made it out of
my sock drawer.” A little joy can go a long way in poetry.

The Only Worlds We Know by Michael Lee

Lee’s poems often follow unique routes, as with “Hum,” which begins with a hovering fly “touching me lightly / before lifting off surprised, as I am, / by my warmth.” A little stunned, a little curious, the narrator is frozen: “this buzzing I cannot kill.” He can’t swipe the fly, but he also “cannot touch the ones I love // made small by love.” The poem gently moves to a second-person recipient—“I try to resurrect you here— // where you live now—on the haggard wings / of memory.” It’s an early poem, and a good indication that Lee has a careful, and yet open, approach. “The Study of Knives and Music” is a particularly inventive piece: “The knife / remembers when it was bone, when it lived // inside an elk or man and kept the rind / together until it didn’t, / until the body // was used against itself.” To follow that line with a question—“Do you see how / everything returns to its maker?”—reflects Lee’s method of turning his poems toward us. His flexible second-person returns elsewhere, as in “The Construction of Lies and Memory”: “Even if when you turn / to stare upon it, until your eyes / widen and dry, it feels / almost as if it’s staring back / and shimmers and blinks / like you, certain, but not.” A strong debut.

This Is Our Intimacy Now: Featured Poetry by Carmen Giménez Smith

Our series of poetry excerpts continues with a poem from Be Recorder by Carmen Giménez Smith. Her poems often reflect a narrator’s childhood memory or perspective—and these glimpses into the past help sharpen the present.

In this poem, Smith shows the pain of seeing a parent struggle, someone who was once “remedy and anchor” but is now disoriented, unsure. It’s a moving poem of loss, love, and how both are “beautiful and sad and strange.”

“I Will Be My Mother’s Apprentice”

as if I were a hunger becauseit is our bleak and common futureto reverse the sphinx. I study the meanderof her logic for context. Sometimes it islike a poem that is not quite realizedfilled with hollows and bursts,a stranger’s grief and rage. She asksfor home when she’s home. She screamsfor the purse we haven’t hidden from her.Sometimes we circle the same spots,and I try to be as I know she was with meonce: remedy and anchor. I’m a fairto poor replica, yet still her proxy.

That you didn’t know her is yourmisfortune: a hot planet’s core,late summer’s best light. As metaphorI evoke a pink, vulnerable jelly,translucent and containing the past.I hold it in my hand and against a lamp.This is our intimacy now. My nails tracethe brown spots that mark her losses.Beautiful and sad and strange, I say,because I’ve made her into something else.

“I Will Be My Mother’s Apprentice,” from Be Recorder. Copyright © 2019 by Carmen Giménez Smith. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, www.graywolfpress.org.

My Poem Will Not Save You: Featured Poetry by Dunya Mikhail

Our series of poetry excerpts continues with a poem from In Her Feminine Sign, the new book by Dunya Mikhail. Full of gently-delivered lines that rumble with resonance, Mikhail’s poems are worth pondering—and they will often leave readers with much to carry forward. “My Poem Will Not Save You” begins with an arresting viral image, gracefully delivered—an elegy for this child whose body and soul has taken on another, digital life. Mikhail’s poem reminds us of difficult truths: her poem “will not turn him onto his back / and lift him up / to his feet.” Her poem will not defuse a bomb or block a shell from falling. Poetry might not save us—at least in the way we desire. The poem’s refrain—”I am sorry”—feels so authentic, so necessary.

“My Poem Will Not Save You”
Remember the toddler lying face downon the sand, and the waves gently recedingfrom his body as if a forgotten dream?
My poem will not turn him onto his backand lift him upto his feetso he can runinto a familiar laplike before.I am sorrymy poem will notblock the shellswhen they fallonto a sleeping town,will not stop the buildingsfrom collapsingaround their residents,will not pick up the broken-leg flowerfrom under the shrapnel,will not raise the dead.My poem will not defusethe bombin the public square.It will soon explodewhere the girl insiststhat her father buy her gum.My poem will not rush themto leave the placeand ride the carthat will just miss the explosion.Many mistakes in lifewill not be corrected by my poem.Questions will not be answered.I am sorrymy poem will not save you.My poem cannot returnall of your losses,not even some of them,and those who went far awaymy poem won’t know how to bring them backto their lovers.I am sorry.I don’t know why the birdssingduring their crossingsover our ruins.Their songs will not save us,although, in the chilliest times,they keep us warm,and when we need to touch the soulto know it’s not deadtheir songsgive us that touch.

By Dunya Mikhail, from In Her Feminine Sign, copyright © 2019 by Dunya Mikhail. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.

John Zada Is Still Searching for Sasquatch

In the Valley of the Noble Beyond begins with a dramatic scene in British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest. John Zada, a journalist and photographer, is being led to where a local man saw a Sasquatch 30 years earlier, in 1983. Zada and his guide don’t see the fabled creature—but they do barely avoid an encounter with a grizzly bear and a cub.

“We’re forced to crawl on our hands and knees, past sprawling blooms of wet, rotting skunk cabbage, making loud noises, and occasionally having to untangle ourselves from the branches that snag our packs,” Zada writes. The men came looking for Sasquatch, and found fear; Zada’s book suggests they are one and the same.

We spoke about the
mythology of the wilderness, the political and cultural implications of writing
about Bigfoot, and why we keep believing in mysteries.

The Millions: You write about being “obsessed by stories about Bigfoot” when you were a kid, thinking the “most memorable tales were set in the mountainous and exotic Pacific Northwest.” Among the roads and houses of your Toronto suburb, there was “a wooded ravine through which a creek ran…It didn’t matter that it was a pruned pseudo-forest existing in a choke hold of suburban sprawl. The ravine was a self-contained extension of all wilderness areas—a spark from the fire of grander wilds.” How did these two experiences—a whisper of wilderness among suburbia and 1970s television shows about the paranormal—coalesce into an ardent search for Sasquatch?

John Zada: Even though I had let the Sasquatch preoccupation slide somewhat in early adulthood, I kept having serendipitous run-ins with the topic. Years ago, something large and seemingly bipedal shadowed a friend and I while on a day hike near Nelson, British Columbia. Later, a few acquaintances who had almost no knowledge of Sasquatch, and were the least likely people you could imagine to discuss it, had eyewitness encounters. Those sightings included lesser known, but nonetheless typical, details of the creatures. So in a sense the topic kept seeking me out. Finally, when I was on a solo press trip in the Great Bear Rainforest on the British Columbia coast and came across a bunch of reports without seeking them out, I knew I had to look into this further.

TM: What is it about the Pacific Northwest that captured your imagination as a kid—and why does it seem to be the center of American Bigfoot mythology?

JZ: Like most peoples’ predispositions, my attitude to the Northwest was a function of my environment and upbringing. Growing up on the outskirts of Toronto, a Great Lakes city set in a largely flat and mundane landscape, left far too much to the imagination of a kid with vagabond genes. Road trips from Toronto to Detroit and Montreal were (and still are) journeys of tortuous visual monotony. By contrast, mountains are wild and magical landscapes that contain depth and brim with loftiness. Because, from a distance, they conceal far more than they reveal, mountains insinuate mystery and beckon one to explore them.

The Cascade and Coast ranges always struck me as the most mystical of mountains. Their primeval forests, volcanoes, and snowcapped peaks seemed to be tailor-made for giants. When I looked at old pictures of Washington State’s Mount Saint Helen’s, or California’s Mount Shasta, I intuited a spirit and wildness tied to them that spoke to the ineffable magic of life. I think Sasquatches are the personification of those same essences, which is why they’re so often associated with the Pacific Northwest.

TM: In the book, you note that John Burns, a writer for Maclean’s magazine, wrote dozens of “articles about the [Sasquatch] creatures, which he wholeheartedly believed in and whose protection he later advocated for—but which he never once saw.” Later, you admit that “stories of monsters, the fairy-tale landscapes, and the novelty of travel mix to form an intoxicating cocktail…The thrill of the chase is a high. And I want something to show for it.” In the Valleys of the Noble Beyond is full of dramatic, tense chase scenes—the book is, quite literally, an adventure story. How did you negotiate being an objective journalist with the pull of adventure? Is such negotiation even necessary?

JZ: At a certain point in the journey I realized that the book couldn’t be a work of pure, classical journalism in which I doggedly cling to a dualistic, black-and-white, and very left-brained investigation into whether—or not—Sasquatches exist. I agree with British scholar Iain McGilchrist, who writes in his book, The Master and His Emissary: “The nature of attention one brings to bear on anything alters what one finds; what we aim to understand changes its nature with the context in which it lies.”

In other words, in this case, you’re going to limit what you understand a Sasquatch to be— what you see in Sasquatch—by looking at it solely from one specific viewpoint. There was too much to unpack subjectively and experientially on that journey, including my own struggle with the Bigfoot obsession, to push it all aside in favour of a very logical and formal investigation that would yield just one of two pre-determined answers. Anyhow, a journalistic work need not be “objective”—a word which, in that field, describes an artificial pretense of neutrality—for it to qualify as journalism.

TM: You make some mention of it in your book, but what is your opinion of the brief but iconic 1967 Patterson-Gimlin film as evidence of Bigfoot, and as a cultural document?

JZ: I’m no expert in bipedal locomotion or primate anatomy, and I can’t speak for the loads of analysis done on the film that argues for its authenticity. What does strike me about the purported creature in the film is its seeming body mass and musculature. As the creature retreats you see its muscles move and ripple. That 16mm footage came at a time when Hollywood started producing Planet of the Apes movies that featured more or less straight cut costumes. By contrast there’s something fluid and organic about the Patterson-Gimlin film that defies what we might expect from a gorilla suit made in the 1960s—or from the undeniable hoaxes we see online today. You see the female creature’s breasts move—an unexpected and superfluous detail for a hoax. The guys who shot that film were also men of modest means to say the least. There was no money to put to elaborate cutting-edge costumes. That’s what strikes me the most. I know that there are questions lingering about Patterson’s motives and credibility.

The Patterson film, our
dependence on it for either ultimate proof or disproof of the Sasquatch, is a good
illustration of our culture-wide mentality that something can only exist to the
extent we can visually or physically show it to. It’s a monument to our
unshakeable materialism.

TM: As you consider the various reasons for the preponderance of Bigfoot sightings across cultures and time periods, you note that “People who regard Bigfoot as real and who go looking for it, as well as eyewitnesses who become obsessed by it, are chasing a symbol, a mental representation of their own or someone else’s experience.” If Bigfoot is a “psychocultural or metaphysical phenomenon,” why has it taken the particular shape that it does—of a humanoid whose gaze disarms even hunters who have the creatures in their rifle sights?

JZ: One of the possibilities I put forward in the book, in addition to Sasquatches being real animals, is that some people who “see” or otherwise encounter a Bigfoot are experiencing emanations of nature for which their minds have no pre-set mental patterns, or templates. It’s as if they are experiencing, ever slightly, an altered state. That idea, I admit, is more of a philosophical or phenomenological assertion than a purely scientific one. Nonetheless, perhaps the mind, in an attempt to understand the subtle yet powerful frequencies of a living, sentient, forest, ends up personifying it somehow. Nature presents, and we re-present it—and then chase the latter bi-product. Or perhaps there is a pattern within us, an ancient one, of how we once were and appeared, which is brought out under those circumstances. A deep, deep memory of some kind.

TM: As the book develops, you become more and more invested in your quest for Sasquatch—and engage various theories of how we process reality and retain memory (including the work of Bruce Wexler and V.S. Ramachandran). These scientific and theoretical interludes never feel clinical. At what point in your writing of the book did you encounter or research these theories, and why do you see these sections as important to In the Valleys of the Noble Beyond?  

JZ: I don’t think you can approach a subject like this and not explore psychology, perception, and the nature of reality. I thought it would be beneficial on so many levels to include this material in the book. The research not only helps explain why some people see and believe in Sasquatches, but it also sheds light on why so many people might not see Bigfoots—if they exist and live around us.

Similarly, the material sheds light on how and why Sasquatch proponents construct and then defend (with such vehemence) their models of reality. But that applies too to hard-core skeptics, debunkers, and closed-minded scientists. I wasn’t picking just on Sasquatch enthusiasts. I wanted to shed light on all the players in this mystery. If in the process we can understand the deeper, unconscious machinations of our minds, we move that much closer towards self-knowledge. That, to me anyways, is a greater prize than even finding the Sasquatch.

TM: Your book is about Bigfoot, Sasquatch, and other humanoid creatures and legends, but it is also about culture and tradition. Part of the book takes place in Bella Bella, British Columbia, which is the seat of the Heiltsuk First Nation. During one scene at a backyard bonfire, a man says to you: “You’re on an Indian reservation and [Sasquatch] is the kind of thing you want to write about?” The man continues: “Look around you! We’re hurting here! There aren’t any jobs.” Do you think this represents the perspective of the majority of First Nation citizens—that outsider interest in Sasquatch stories is for reasons of entertainment, rather than genuine care?

JZ: Yes, a little bit. I think many residents of the places I visited get annoyed when people come to their communities with an obsessively singular mindset, ignoring all else those people and places have to offer. Bigfoot obsessives included. At the same time, there is so much interest in Bigfoot and Sasquatch in those towns and villages, and so many people with experiences, that having a serious, open mind created an instant talking point, or bond, with people there.

The context to the bonfire scene was that the community was distraught and traumatized by a tragic fire that had just destroyed their supermarket and other facilities. The town was in a state of crisis at the time. The man’s criticism, both valid and poignant, was an object lesson in the psychology of perception I later write about. It showed the extent to which I had marginalized that crisis because of my Bigfoot tunnel vision. I wonder if something similar happens to Bigfoot researchers when they are in the forest looking for Sasquatch sign. Because their minds are fixated on one thing, they lose sight of much else around them.

TM: I love that this is a book about wilderness. You make the great point that “How far-fetched (or not) we deem the Sasquatch might also hinge on our perception of space. Bigfoots may be unbelievable to so many people simply because most of us are disconnected from the true depths and expanses of the earth and its wild areas.” We don’t understand the wilderness—much of which “is dense, overgrown, and obstacle-littered, with little visibility and sometimes rent with cliffs, gorges, gullies, and canyons.” What—if anything—can be done to help people appreciate the authentic wilderness?

JZ: There is no better antidote to the urban-centric illusion of a human-conquered planet than to bushwhack a mile, off-trail (at your own risk), through a dense, mountainous rainforest. And then see how long it takes. There are many ways to consider space. I once read that many people who get lost in the bush don’t actually wander very far from where they originally became disoriented. They walk in squiggly lines and circles along a kind of infinite trajectory of their own making, through old surroundings that are unrecognizable because they appear different from different angles.

One’s introduction to the wild needn’t be that extreme. A period spent hiking, trekking, or otherwise traversing greater than normal distances on foot, where the pace of movement is slow enough to allow the appreciation of very small details, can reveal something of the immensity of a given landscape. That kind of journey may hint at, but will never truly convey, an entire region that is greater than the sum of its parts since our narrow trajectories are thin slices of a place. That applies just as much to brief travels to foreign cultures as much as to a five-day hike from one end of a park to another.

TM: You write: “In First Nations cultures, the creatures associated with Bigfoot, even if they are also flesh-and-blood animals, are imbued with religious and supernatural significance.”Do you see these religious and spiritual elements appearing in other cultures who report Bigfoot, including American culture?

JZ: I think the interest in the creatures among non-indigenous people in North America also largely stems from an impulse which we could call religious—maybe not in the conventional sense of the word, but where it denotes our deep yearning for something otherworldly and beyond the pale. As our thirst for that magic has deepened over time, running in parallel with the soulless mechanization of our species and the exploitation of nature, our depiction of the creature has become ever more complex and bizarre. Sasquatches in the 1960s were not associated with mysterious orbs of light or were not thought to dematerialize. Proponents of those views would say we simply know more about Bigfoots now. Perhaps. But I can’t help but feel those sentiments are both a sign of our turbulent times and a reflection of a deep, unmet need.

I do think it’s similar
elsewhere in the world. Wildmen are a bridge and a connection with the unknown
and unobservable universe that deep down we feel is right there, right beside
us, but which we can’t see or articulate properly. Whether it does or doesn’t
physically exist as an animal, that may be the Sasquatch’s deepest significance:
what it tells about ourselves.