3 Questions for Miriam Levine
1. What is your personal/aesthetic relationship to the poetic line? That is, how do you understand it, use it, etc.
The line, my line, tracks the speaking voice. Ideally I want to write a ten to twelve syllable line without a caesura. Sometimes my line is shorter, more emphatic. It depends on the subject and tone. Enjambments must not be obvious or tricky. I like near rhymes, so often arrange line breaks to emphasize sound patterns.
In “Candlewood,” which contains the title of my most recent book, The Dark Opens, each line ends with a full stop. There are no caesuras. I believe I hit it in this poem.
We go into dark and dark opens.
Boats tipped with light and moon on the water
There is no difference between the tree and the shadow of the tree.
There is no space between light and the wave coming shoreward.
No break between the voice and the word.
There is no difference between your breath and your dear life.
There is no end of you.
2. Do you find a relationship between words and writing and the human body? Or between your writing and your body?
There is a tremendous connection between writing and the body. If poetry is emotion recollected in tranquility, it is also sensation recollected in tranquility. The sensation re-created in sensual language and sometimes heightened by feelings of loss or nostalgia—nostalgia is not always a bad thing—can result in a poem more intense than the actual experience. Recollection is not the actual feeling, of course. Alfred Corn writes that a poem can be a “tomb inscription, recording some important moment of feeling that has now ceased to live and breathe.”
I often write about eating. What could be more physical?
Tilting the black shell,
I sucked the sack,
tongued the nub
where mussel stuck.
I do feel language in my mouth as well as my brain.
So many words are names of things. Bodily things. So it stands to reason that words are food in the mouth. In metaphor we yoke things that seem unlike, like chicken in a mole made with chocolate. As I write in “Snapper,” “black as a truffle/ a three-inch turtle.”
3. Is there anything you dislike about being a poet?
I dislike it when people ask, “Are you still writing?” And follow up with: “I really don’t understand poetry.” It would be enlivening if there were more of an audience for poetry, yet I don’t like those big-tent poetry festivals. I’m not one for crowds.
Don’t I wish I could get it right—the poems! And have long runs when one poem follows another. But I have to remember that even an accomplished poet like Elizabeth Bishop had the same feelings. I just read one of her letters to Robert Lowell in which she praises him for the run of good poems in Life Studies: “They all also have that sure feeling, as if you’d been in a stretch (I’ve felt that way for very short stretches once in a long while) when everything and anything suddenly seemed material for poetry—or not material, seemed to be poetry, and all the past was illuminated in long shafts here and there, like a long-waited-for sunrise. If only one could see everything that way all the time.”
It is difficult to be in between stretches, between illuminated moments, but a life of always looking back on an illuminated past or living in lit-up moments might be unendurable.
My Mother’s Blouse
A fandango of blossoms on a field of red,
hibiscus picked out in gold and shaded
with oxblood. My mother wore it into her nineties;
the colors grew brighter, bathing her neck scarlet.
“The clothes go! To charity,” my cousin said. “No clothes
from a dead person. Not for Jews. Not even from a mother.
Nothing,” as if Gert’s death had seeped into the immaculate
lenses of her silver rimmed glasses, a dress worn once for a wedding.
We bought it together. Back home she didn’t lose her nerve
when flowers flamed through tissue paper wrapping.
Though a scarf hides my white hair,
though I fill out the sleeves and shoulders,
when I put on the blouse for the first time, I thin out like a ghost.
It’s only grief come back. Only? Grief scorches! There’s a fraying stub
where Gert cut out the label that rubbed against her sensitive skin—postage stamp
size: a palm tree like a burnt wick, the name of the shop in Hawaii I’ve long forgotten.
Miriam Levine’s “The Dark Opens,” 2008, was chosen by Mark Doty for the Autumn House Poetry Prize. She is the author of three other collections of poetry; In Paterson, a novel; and Devotion, a memoir. She lives near Boston and in South Beach.