On February 3rd, the second day of Writers Week, I heard the UCR Creative Writing Department’s new poets, Associate Professor Katie Ford and Assistant Professor Allison Benis White read in the campus bookstore lounge. My friend, poet and artist Lavina Blossom, came with me. It was the first poetry reading I had been to since my knee replacement surgery in November, and the several months of intensive therapy and recovery following. And maybe, because of that, I was particularly delighted to be out in the world, and focused on the nuances and music of words. In any case, I think both Lavina and I were heart-struck, mesmerized. We each bought one of the poets’ books (and will be exchanging, soon).
The poets indicated that Tom Lutz (Professor of Nonfiction in the Department) had suggested that they arrange a responsive reading, each poet “responding” to the other with a poem of her own. Because of this, it seemed that each poet saw some aspects of their own and the other’s work which had perhaps not been salient to them before. Each poet’s work is informed by an experience of personal trauma. Many of the poems in Ford’s Blood Lyrics (Graywolf, 2014) concern the very premature birth of her daughter and the uncertainty that she will live and thrive; the poems in White’s Self-Portrait with Crayon (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2009) are prose poem meditations on Degas’ art that body forth almost hidden feelings about abandonment by her mother when she was a child. However, it is clear from some comments the poets made during the reading, as well as from their work, that neither poet is remotely “confessional” in the limited sense; artistry utterly transcends the merely private.
I have been reading Ford’s Blood Lyrics and have been struck, as I was during the reading, by the ways her fierce poems keep turning and surprising with their diction and imagery. Here’s the opening of “Of a Child Early Born”:
For the child is born an unbreathing scripture
and her broken authors wait
on one gurney together.
And what is prayer from a gurney
but lantern-glow for God or demon
to fly toward the lonely in this deathly hour;
and since I cannot bear to wish on one
but receive the other,
I lie still, play dead, am delivered decree:
our daughter weighs seven hundred dimes,
paperclips, teaspoons of sugar,
this child of grams…
Ford’s poems confronting the public world are among the best “political” poems that truly are poems I’ve read. Here’s the beginning of “Foreign Song”:
To bomb them,
we musn’t have heard their music
or known their waterless night watch,
we musn’t have seen how already
the desert was under constant death bells
ringing over sleeping cribs and dry wells.
I have not yet obtained a copy of Self-Portrait with Crayon (though it’s on its way from Amazon). But I do want to report on a brief, wonderful conversation I had with Allison Benis White after the reading. I was absolutely struck by what she is doing in this book. I found an interview with her that allows me to share, in her exact words, something close to what she told me as we talked:
When I started writing prose poems that meditated on Degas’ artwork, I didn’t know I was writing a book. In fact, I wrote the first one as a random exercise in response to a postcard of Degas’ “Combing the Hair” I brought home from London—and in responding to that painting, I found, to my surprise, that I could write about my mother’s disappearance in a way I never could before.” So I tried again, with Degas’ “Dancers in Blue,” and it worked again. So I kept going. I had found a way in.
The first thing I said to Allison was something like this: “It’s the difference that matters, isn’t it, when you work from a piece of Degas’ art.” It had struck me forcefully that her use of Degas is one of those extraordinary lucky accidents at the heart of poetry. I asked if Allison had ever studied Degas and learned that she had not; these poems are completely apart from “academic” knowledge. It is just because the Degas works are completely other, though perhaps instinctively attracting, that this poet was able to use them in the most nuanced way to explore her abandonment, and even more. What started out as a “random exercise” completely metaphorizes her experience in the most visual manner. I felt that I was in touch with the mystery at the heart of poetry. And could only wish for the next transformative “accident” for my own work!
Here’s the first paragraph of “Curtainfall” (which I got from Google Books), so you can hopefully see something of how these meditations work:
Back to your own mind and the blank look of the curtain half-
lowered and red velvet. Their heads are already gone. Only
the closest dancer who kneels and looks away. Soon her head
and neck. Soon her shoulders. And when she is gone, only the
backs of their heads who stand and applaud into the absence
of movement. Nothing else will ever happen.