Excerpt from Persephone’s Abecedarium: An Alphabet Play (An Ecopoetical Adaptation of the Homeric “Hymn to Demeter”)
. . . this I shall do, by printing in the infernal method . . .
which in Hell are salutary and medicinal . . .
displaying the infinite which was hid.
—William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
To not have entered language entered her
One hundred questions is to wish a wish
For tendrils she begins to mean: “Is
A flower is a flower
And sending out their tendrils, their last sounds
Flailing-hoofed, beak-hooted, matter-rasping
Especially crying thousands from their carts,
From carts, to which the names are strapped and howl
Themselves; furred epilogues shuttled by nurses
Who push cartfuls, flap in capes of ash
Forgotten daughters cross the After-Garden
Serve silence from dustless cubicles
From cubicles they mulch the last words, unwards
To keep the unwords safe among the dead
Unbird unheard unutters hush unmeaning
From which the next newborn it will resound.
Her heavy tantrum seeded that rehearses
Hearsed, and horses see her tantrum bluing
At the bluish base it flickers tresses
In the Quiet Pantry was the girl
The girl is holding the Narcissus
When is a child and when a flower.
That power is. I, pupil in her eye,
Iris, in my death exits my death.
“Who doesn’t love the dead best.”
Questions and Answers
Is there a specific moment that inspired you to pursue poetry?
I believe poetry came for me as a young child.
I had always been acutely enchanted by words and recall that each new word I learned felt like it opened a revelatory portal (spells/spells)—as if it made the world “come true” to a more significant and sublime depth of reality. How to be clear about this? I do not mean an experience of control as the result of naming things . . . rather, I am reminded of something Gertrude Stein wrote in “Poetry and Grammar.” There, she wrote of discovering, with a sibling, the love poems of an older sibling. She deduced that “being in love made him write poetry” and extrapolated that “nouns are poetry.” I do not mean that I had this experience with/in language as a child by being in love—it is something like this: words—yes, even nouns—got me closer to the world, the world of language in and also as the world. The etymology of poiesis is “a making”—the participation in the phenomenon of language felt epiphanic, closer to being/Being, and also a way of participating: becoming.
I also recall being moved by a very dark book of children’s rhyming poems at around age 6, perhaps especially because it was given to me by a significant father figure. (I maintain that language is social, and that stories and poiesis are inextricable from our identities and vital social relationships). The book was called A Great Big Ugly Man Came Up and Tied His Horse to Me. Also, after recently moving house, I re-discovered my “Will and Testament” comprising short rhyming letters to friends and family, written at the age of eleven.
As a published writer, what are your tips or words of motivation for the aspiring poet?
Here I will echo the words of past mentors and many other contemporary writers: it is vital to read widely and wildly.
Please explore both works from past eras and contemporary writing in multiple genres and styles. Here, I recall something the poet George Oppen once said; he thought of literature as “a conversation across the ages” in which we can participate (and he put little emphasis on the notion of “genius” or “inspiration” or the fame/ego/cult of personality of the individual participant, an echo of John Keats’ beautiful ethical idea of “negative capability”). T.S. Eliot also dared writers to invest meaningfully in history and in our present time, a dare to respond meaningfully and in a timely, “present” way within a provisional continuum of history (alternate versions of “History” required, of course).
What inspired you to write this poem?
This poem is one among many siblings; it comes from a wildly expansive manuscript, Persephone’s Abecedarium: An Alphabet Play (An Ecopoetical Adaptation of the Homeric “Hymn to Demeter”).
I fell in love with the original Persephone myth around the age of eleven, likely because it was the only story I had encountered in which a single mother was raising a daughter, which mirrored my own upbringing. It captivated me. The task I set for myself, to consider it anew as an adult writer and scholar is a challenge, as is the idea of writing about the character Hades. In the myth, Hades is a vital force, the Keeper of the Realm of the Dead, and he is also, quite clearly, a possible rapist of his niece Kore/later re-named Persephone. I am trying to honour the myth as a profound esoteric meditation on death and interconnectivity and ecology, and I am committed to also honouring it as a proto-feminist critique of misogyny and violence against women. And so, in this poem, Hades “a very important man” as we might hear said of him in our era of #Me-Too, is also a figure who wildly abuses power. Without “explaining away” the poem (or pretending that a poet can fully understand her own work!), I can say that I wrote this poem to try to encounter the complexity of his character without letting “an important man” off of ethical accountability. Essentially, he was a character, a Keeper of Death who sought to own and control a young girl who, herself, was also formidably powerful as a force of life, eros, fertility, harvest. In this manuscript I imagine her not as just a person, or a character, or a goddess, but also as a force of poetry, “poiesis.” I think of poetry (a sense of it borrowed from the poet Paul Celan), as a force that never arrives or understands or limits or controls, as a “going towards” in humility, towards the other.
What poetic techniques did you use in this poem? How much attention do you pay to form and metre?
My work is often termed “experimental” and nevertheless, I do engage conventional poetic forms such as rhyme and metre if I understand that a particular poem’s inquiry requires these structures in its music and its “thinking.”
When I do import traditional forms (rhyme, metre, sonnet structures, blank verse etc.) I do give myself a rule: that I employ these historical literary habits—which are so steeped in politics, power, ideology—in a critical fashion. I mean to say that if I use them, I must also work to criticize the exclusivity of their historical origins and formation.
In this specific poem, I understood that blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter) as its central metre was what was required. Both the poem and the manuscript interrogate, and try to imagine, to “language” beyond colonial and patriarchal power structures and uses of language. By extension, this poem is framed within that traditional metrical shape while trying to critique that belief system internally, conceptually, ethically, “poetically.”