A Journal of poetry and kindred prose

Kathleen Lynch

Featured Poet Lynne Knight

by Rachel Dacus
How did you decide to write a book of poems focused on your mother’s illness and death? Were most of the poems composed as you underwent the process of caring for her, or afterward? I’m especially interested because I’m going through a similar bit-by-bit loss of my father to Alzheimer’s.

I think all of the poems in Night in the Shape of a Mirror were written while my mother was ill. Since you’re going through a similar experience with your father, Rachel, you know what it’s like to lose a parent, as you put it, “bit by bit” to dementia. I wrote as you’re writing, just to be able to feel some sense of control over the uncontrollable. We can know we have no control, and yet—as poets, it’s our job to control, if not our experience then our response to it.

I found writing immensely helpful. It wasn’t therapy—I heard Tobias Wolff say once that writing isn’t therapy; writing’s a lot harder than therapy, and I agree with him—but sometimes it came close to therapy. It kept me from going under. My mother was ill for eight years. I was exhausted much of the time, partly the strain of watching my mother diminish, partly just trying to live my life alongside the diminishment. Writing brought me calm. Maybe it was closer to meditation than to therapy.

Because I write every day, and because my mother was ill for almost eight years, I wrote slews of poems about her. Well, most of them were exercises not poems. I’m still writing them. I realize that there ought to be a point at which I stop writing poems about my dead mother, but of course there’s no choice in this. Poems are like blood: they will out. I’m certainly writing far fewer, now that she’s gone. She died two and a half years ago.

When I chose the poems for the book, I was conscious of putting together a collection that wouldn’t read like a journal. Yet I wanted it to be faithful to the particular experience. That’s a tricky dance, one I sometimes did with two left feet, I think. But for the most part, I’m pleased with how the book turned out. And I love how it looks, especially the cover, with Marcia Falk’s beautiful painting.

You have written three books of poetry focused on themes. Your topics have ranged widely–including themes of betrayal and the decline and death of a parent, and even a traveling exhibition of Impressionist paintings (Impressionists in Winter: Effets de Neige, the Center for the Arts at Yerba Buena Gardens in San Francisco in 1999). Do you find that a compelling theme will more often inspire a series of poems, or do you use a theme as a retrospective strategy for assembling a collection?

When I wrote the cycle of poems on Impressionist paintings, I had no conscious awareness of what was going on thematically. It wasn’t until I’d finished the poems and poet David Alpaugh had published them through his Small Poetry Press that the poet Kathleen Lynch remarked, really just in passing, that of course the poems were really about my mother and her body, the body in winter. I remember hearing that and being shocked: but of course that’s what they were and are about. Kathleen has a way of putting your experience to light in a sentence or two.

I think I saw the exhibit only two or three weeks after my mother had been diagnosed with Lewy body dementia, a form of dementia that has some similarities to Alzheimer’s but is accompanied by motor difficulties, hallucinations and some Parkinson-like symptoms—tiny little handwriting and a shuffling gait. For the first two years, we thought it was Parkinson’s. Anyway, I was very aware of my mother’s aging body, having spent so much time with her by then. And the paintings—I was just stunned by them, swept into them, partly through nostalgia for my own childhood, which was spent in Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York, where there were plenty of snowy fields.

The paintings had such a deep impact. I went the first time with my writing group, thanks to the poet Sharon Fain, who’d seen the exhibit and said we had to go, and then I went with my mate Michael. I bought the catalog and some postcards—I keep postcards of paintings on my desk, and the overflow goes into a basket at my side; I often use them for inspiration when nothing else is happening. One day not long after the second visit, maybe a week, maybe a month, I was staring at a postcard reproduction of Alfred Sisley’s Snow at Louveciennes, and I wrote a poem called “The Snow Bride.” And then I was off. The rest of the poems came in the next two weeks, one after another, in a white heat. A white heat against the white cold, I guess. Against death.

It was an exhilarating experience, to be seized like that. But that doesn’t usually happen. I’m monkish in my writing habits. I write every day, same time, same place. I write directly onto the computer, and I rarely sit down intending to write something. My themes seem to be loss and betrayal. Sometimes people ask me why I’m so focused on the negative, but what I write doesn’t seem all that negative to me. I’ve always been drawn to things that explore the darker side of life. It’s not morbidity; it’s not depression. It’s just that figuring out how to live with the reality of loss and betrayal seems to me the task set us. If we’re lucky, some joy comes our way. I’ve had more than my share of joy, and I think it’s my responsibility never to exaggerate or dramatize my own suffering. After all, my suffering is nothing compared to that of most of the people on the earth.

That said, I struggle with the feeling that everything I write is self-indulgent, useless; I should be working in a soup kitchen, I say; I should be doing something socially of use. I think most poets struggle with this, and then we come to our senses and realize that, no matter what Plato and Auden said, poets and poetry matter. Art really is necessary for our survival. We’re all mortal, and it’s been given to us as poets to help people understand both the terrors and the gifts of mortality. I regard one of those gifts as the ability to recognize and accept that we are mortal. Does the bird know it’s going to stop singing? Probably not. But we do, and I think each of us—this is so pervasive a feeling in me that I can’t help but think everybody feels it—harbors a secret notion that somehow we’ll be the one to escape death. We’ll be the one chosen.

Then someone beloved dies, and we’re brought up short against the reality of death and loss. There’s that stunning poem about April and its cruelty by Louise Glück where she comes right out and says it: You are going to die! You are going to die! I don’t want to die, and this grief over my own mortality is something I find worth thinking and writing about.

When I start putting a collection of poems together, I keep in mind something I heard Tree Swenson say at a publishing conference way back in 1991: The days of putting all your good poems between two covers and calling it a book are gone. That’s just not enough, anymore. But since I do write so much about loss and betrayal, it’s not hard for me to arrange poems thematically—what’s hard is finding new ways to write about loss and betrayal so I don’t feel as if I’m writing the same book all over again with a different cover. Pound’s Make it new, which struck me as a pretty easy dictum to follow when I first read it at the age of 17, now seems to me almost impossibly difficult. And yet—that’s where the joy of the whole enterprise resides for me. I wake up every day thinking this just might be the day I write a poem that is new, a poem that people might remember. A dear friend confessed to me that that’s his ambition—to write a poem people will remember. He seemed worried that I’d mistake this ambition as conceit. But I find it a worthy ambition, one I hope belongs to every poet. Otherwise, why work so hard?

Who are the poets you most often reread, and how has that reading shaped your own goals?

I think I’d rather answer that by saying what poets got to me first and deepest because I can still feel their influence, and I think it’s pretty obvious in my work. In high school, I fell in love with Eliot, especially with his poem “The Hollow Men.” I just loved the hypnotic rhythms of We are the hollow men. We are the stuffed men. I came of age when existentialism was at its height although I didn’t hear the word until I was a senior in high school, a Catholic school in Newburgh, New York. I was the co-editor of the school newspaper, and my co-editor and I went to a journalism conference in New York City where some kids who were more enlightened than we were did a skit about existentialism. We were mortified that we’d never even heard the word—mortified and envious. Of course the nuns wouldn’t have mentioned it! we said when we found out what it was. I was hooked. It involved black clothing, cigarettes, French. And “The Hollow Men”—it just felt so, well, existential.

After Eliot, it was Rilke. Reading The Duino Elegies was the most profound and affecting reading experience of my life. The elegies knocked me out. I can still remember the thrill of reading them in a German-in-translation course, my senior year at the University of Michigan. I felt as if they were speaking directly to my soul. From my soul, even, if that doesn’t sound too presumptuous. In ways I couldn’t fully articulate, I understood them. And every time I reread Rilke, the same thing happens: I feel as if it’s my blood speaking. Or maybe I should say my borrowed blood. I only wish my blood would out like that!

Months after that, it was Sylvia Plath. I’d graduated from Michigan; I was living in New York City with my to-be first husband, the summer of 1965, and he bought me a copy of Ariel, the London edition. It hadn’t been published in the States yet. He bought the book when we were on our way to a baseball game at the old Shea Stadium. We had seats way up in the bleachers, but I wouldn’t have seen much of the game, anyway; I was too busy reading those amazing poems. Her voice! Like most women my age—I’m 63—I wanted to be her. There were days I thought I was her. Days of terrible poems, obviously! I didn’t imitate just her poetry. When my daughter was young, I’d get up before dawn to write because that’s what Sylvia Path had done. Then I married again, and I took a long hiatus from poetry, for almost twenty years. When I came back to it, I still had to write my way out of Plath’s influence, that’s how deep it was. Eliot’s, too, and Rilke’s.

The two contemporary poets whose work has most directly affected my writing are Anne Carson and Louise Glück. I love Carson’s The Glass Essay. I wish I’d written it. I think it’s brilliant the way she uses Brontë and her father’s dementia as parallel experiences to the loss of love that’s the ostensible subject of the poem. And I love that her language is so plain yet full of astonishing turns and revelations. As for Glück—I have to be careful with her work because I find myself so seduced by her voice that it overtakes my own, and I end up writing complete junk. Worse junk even than that I wrote when I imitated Plath. Glück is harder to imitate, I think. She closes more doors for you. She makes it impossible for you to imitate her without sounding ridiculously vatic and inflated.

I sometimes wish I’d fallen in love with Zukofsky and Olson instead of Rilke and Eliot. I think, Oh, you’d be so much more interesting a poet. You’re so pathetically mainstream. But we don’t get to choose our subjects, and we probably don’t get to choose our styles, either. If we choose the poets we love, there’s probably some poetic equivalent of pheromones at work.   I can be educated to admire work I’m not initially drawn to, as I now admire Zukofsky and Olson and more recently William Bronk, but that happens at a distance. The falling-in-love part—I think that just happens, blood-and-bone deep.

In writing ekphrastic poems, do you respond to an absence in the painting or a presence?

That question just stops me in my tracks. I don’t know. I don’t really think I ever know what I’m responding to when I write about a painting. I just look at the painting and go. Sometimes I’ll have a postcard on my desk for months, not really paying any real mind to it, and then one day I’ll find myself writing about it, seemingly out of the blue, though of course the unconscious has been at work all along.

I try not to think too hard when I’m writing. When I start thinking, I usually kill the poem dead. I mean, the You’re not Shakespeare-Rilke-Eliot-Plath-Carson-Glück voice starts in pretty fast if I think too much. I think of it as my saboteur. It’s probably not coincidental that the word can also mean shoddy worker in French.

I have trouble with revision because of this voice. It almost feels like an unhealthy obsession, sometimes: I just keep working and working the poem. I know it’s dead, but I keep working and working it. I’m like that character in Camus’s The Plague, writing the same paragraph over and over and over because every day, he can see how moving a phrase here instead of there improves things. So he never gets beyond page one.

The only really successful revisions I’ve done have all happened at the hands of others. Kathleen Lynch helped me salvage what I now think is the best poem I’ve written about my mother, “Wrapped Songs.” The poem started out as a group of sonnets. I knew sonnets weren’t the right form, knew there shouldn’t be a form, given the wild unpredictability of the disease and hence the experience. So I tore the sonnets apart, and just when I was about to abandon the whole thing, Kathleen stepped in and said, Do this, do that. I did what she said, and the poem came back to life.

To get back to your question: I am mindful, when I write about paintings, of the objections raised against ekphrastic poetry—that it’s fundamentally an insult to painters, as if the painting alone isn’t adequate and needs translation. But I’m not trying to translate it into words. I’m not interested in merely describing it—I find most poems that just describe works of art are pretty dull. I really would rather be looking at the painting. What I’m trying to do when I write about art is to enter the painting. It’s a defined space in the universe—a room or a field or village or a zone. I think Rothko’s paintings are zones. Zen zones, maybe. I haven’t written about one, mostly because I don’t think I know how to enter them yet.

Would you have chosen to publish the book Snow Effects, Impressionists in Winter if the poems had not been able to be published with reproductions of the paintings? Do you feel that an important dimension of ekphrastic poetry is the perception of both pieces at the same time–the original piece of art and the poem responding to it?

No question, the presence of the paintings in the book enhances the poems. I suppose an ekphrastic poem should be able to stand on its own, but there’s just no denying that the Snow Effects is a better book with the paintings. I probably would have tried to publish the poems anyway, yes, but the book would have been so inferior! The problem is that it’s so expensive to print the paintings. David did a beautiful job, and thank the universe for his devotion and his Small Poetry Press, since no publishing house big enough to be able to afford publishing the poems would have taken Snow Effects—I’d be too much of a risk, being too no-name a poet.

But I do have another chapbook of ekphrastic poems, Defying the Flat Surface. There aren’t reproductions of the paintings and photographs—just the poems. I’m pleased with the book. The Ledge Press did a wonderful job producing it, but I think both the editor Tim Monaghan and I know that the book would be even better if there were reproductions alongside the poems.

What are your writing habits? You said you write every day; how does that go, exactly?

I do write every day—at least every day that I’m here in Berkeley. I hardly ever write when I’m away. Unless I’m sick or my computer’s out of whack, I go downstairs to my writing room, which is separated from the rest of the house, after breakfast.

Michael knows not to talk to me in the morning. I don’t like any interference from the outside world before I write. I used to read The New York Times at breakfast and then do the crossword, but I gave up reading the news in the morning when Newt Gingrich took over Congress. My blood boiled so I couldn’t think. It interfered with my work. I always wait until my work for the day is finished before I go online to read the news or my e-mail.

I sit down, open a new file and wait for a line. Usually in less than a minute a line comes. It comes in through my right ear. I can feel it as well as hear it: there’s a slight pressure in my right ear canal. I follow the line wherever it leads me. Most days, it doesn’t lead me anywhere to speak of: I have thousands of files that are no more than scales, exercises. But every once in a while, I feel the blood rush of discovery, and I know I’m writing a poem. I pray the phone won’t ring before I finish; I pray my computer won’t die. I stopped handwriting poems when I was 16 and inherited my grandfather’s blue Royal typewriter.

Taped to my printer is a quotation from Louise Bogan: It’s silly to suggest the writing of poetry as something ethereal, a sort of soul-crashing emotional experience that wrings you. I have no fancy ideas about poetry. It doesn’t come to you on the wings of a dove. It’s something you work hard at.   I work as hard as I can. I feel incredibly lucky to have the time to be doing work I love.