Here is the Room I Want to Fill with Birds: An Interview with Caitlin Bailey

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The story of Georg and Grete Trakl is a haunting one — a brother and sister living in the shadow of horrific war, sharing a life in poetry and music, but also sharing disastrous drug and alcohol addictions. They had an extremely close relationship, the extent of which no one firmly knows, but they no doubt cared for and protected each other until their untimely deaths — Georg by overdose and Grete, three years later, by suicide — before either had turned thirty.

It’s a story that Caitlin Bailey powerfully imagines in her debut collection, Solve for Desire (Milkweed Editions, 2017), which she dedicates to Grete. Assuming Grete’s voice through a series of richly textured lyric poems, Bailey explores an all-consuming desire that forever holds its subject captive. In the cold but safe interiors of these poems, persona and the personal are blurred, and history finds expression between individuals seeking each other across unimaginable distances.

Caitlin and I had a chance to talk about Grete and Georg, about desire and addiction, trauma and grief, and how the poet brings the lives of others into her own.


Too dangerous to keep you
            in the world.

Take to the woods, deer brother.
            Dear brother.
            Here I adorn you.
            Adore you.

(“Whoever Drinks From Me”)

I wanted to start with this heavily referential line, this flight into the woods, the adorning, echoing Grimm and Shakespeare and likely so much more (the Bible!), to ask a simple opening question about your project, about Grete Trakl (sister of Georg Trakl), how you came upon her, and what you have set out to do, for her, and her as a voice toward her brother. I am smitten with the readymade “adore/adorn,” and want to complicate this question through that — how are these poems forms of adoration (or how not), how is the lyric a form of adornment?

Two of my favorite people (and poets!) led me to Grete. My professor, Deborah Keenan, mentioned the Hungarian poet Miklós Radnóti in a workshop one day, and I actually started writing a series of poems about him. While I was writing those poems, my dear friend Gretchen Marquette suggested that I consider Georg Trakl’s work in conversation with Radnóti’s. Once I started reading about Georg’s life, and consequently Grete’s, I was quickly obsessed. This book is a constant reminder of how lucky I am to have created a network of friends and mentors who are deeply invested in poetry.

Initially, I was frustrated that so little information about Grete’s life was available. She’s often cast solely as Georg’s sister, but I wanted to explore her inner life. When I discovered that letters between Georg and Grete weren’t publicly available, I knew I wanted to write them, and it seemed an ideal vehicle for me to begin that exploration. At the same time as I began to write about the Trakls, I was also wrestling a lot with these big questions about desire — both personally and in my poems. What happens when we lose what we desire? What happens when we can’t have what we desire? Who polices desire, who gets to decide if desire is “good”? What do we do if we desire something that doesn’t exist? I was having these really intense dreams about a person I deeply loved. I knew this person in my dreams, obviously, but they didn’t exist in my waking life. I would wake up just gutted, knowing that the feeling would fade quickly. In my mind, Grete might have felt something like that. I wrote the poem “Men I Could Have Loved” based on those experiences, and I really felt the line between Grete and myself blur. Something seemed to click.

Look: here is the room
I want to fill with birds.

Window-walled and
Humming; ripe with flight. . . .

I imagine myself whole
in the center—

light streaming through glass,
streaked onto palms.

(“The Poem about Birds I Can’t Write”)

I bring this late poem in at the outset to ask a question about the “I” and who, exactly, it is. Perhaps a better question is: how do you navigate persona and personal poems, if that is even an adequate distinction to make in this collection? Or maybe an even better question: how have you conceived of the importance of Grete’s voice to your own? What sort of distance or separation do you see between the persona and the poet, both in Solve for Desire specifically, but also as you think about the larger practice of writing persona poems?

This is a something I definitely considered as I wrote these poems. I didn’t write all of these poems with Grete specifically in mind; some were written as personal poems, and others were written in the voice of some other person who wasn’t Grete or me. When I originally ordered the book, I put all of the Grete poems together and kept the others separate. I thought I needed to clearly delineate which poems were Grete’s, but it wasn’t working.

Caitlin Bailey

I reorganized the poems so that it was less clear who was speaking in a particular poem. I realized that I wanted to leave the speaker an open question — I wanted the speaker to be ambiguous.

In these poems, and in other persona poems I’ve written, I’ve found it impossible to avoid inhabiting the persona. The line between persona and poet are definitely blurred here, and more so than I’d initially intended. My first impulse was to build a world for Grete, to make her inner life more visible. However, as I was writing, it became clear that I was also writing these poems to wrestle with desire, grief, and neurosis as it existed in my own life. Once it became clear that these poems were serving these dual purposes, I tried to find a balance between the two.

Desire fogs through the halls. We build
the house with cedar strappings. The salt
disaster of our skin whirls through doorways.
The rooms are smug, spotted. . . . Smartly, I kiss
the soles of your feet. We bury our luck
in the firmest piece of land.

(“This Is The House”)

The house, the apartment, the room, hallways, doors, keys, beds — the home features heavily in these poems as a distinct sort of agent. I would use the word “dwelling,” with its resonances, and as we can see in this example, the dwelling is also the body. Can you discuss the impulse to locate these poems so firmly in these rooms, how you’ve thought about the way dwelling becomes a manifestation of Georg and Grete’s relationship?

I think the original positioning of these poems in interior settings simply happened because I imagined that Georg and Grete had to hide their relationship to some extent. I like to think that they had places that were safe for them both as artists and as humans who experienced the world deeply. Ultimately, though, dwelling plays such a large role in these poems because of my own relationship to dwelling and domestic spaces. I have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and it largely manifests itself in how I interact with physical space. I recognize that even our safe havens can stifle, and safety can feel like a trap. I wanted to consider these competing forces as they play out in physical space.

I wake to find someone has replaced my heart.

My hands peel and blister, and I grieve for skin
you once touched. The house has begun to rot, swaths

of paper hanging from the walls, great pieces of the floor
gone soft.

(“Where We Are Both Well”)

In this example, we see the tragic trajectory of the dwelling-as-body, which might be described as an inexorable deterioration. But we also see echoes of amputation, transplant, here and in other poems as well, which certainly makes us think of war. Could you talk a little bit about deterioration as a kind of narrative or trajectory, and its relationship to the sustained traumas that Grete and Georg endured — post-war post-traumatic stress (specifically Georg), drug abuse (both), and grief (specifically Grete)?  

There’s definitely a sense of deterioration happening throughout these poems. I think that’s exactly the word for it. It’s happening in a couple of ways: their bodies are physically deteriorating with the effects of drugs and alcohol, and they’re clearly struggling emotionally, too. I’ve dealt with anxiety since I was a child, and it can feel like your body is falling apart. The physical nature of anxiety is so powerful for me that I wanted to write poems that embodied these feelings. Again here I used my own experiences to lend emotional weight to the poems.

I have been replete
with lust I have watched from another room I have given
myself over to everything you’ve touched (P. 47 Litany for G)

we wake dry-mouthed and hang-tongued
roll clumsily toward the brassy glow of hands
in the matchlight

all those bright, blossoming capillaries

veritable poison, our covetous hands
ether mouth

(“Umwelt”)

I quote these back-to-back poems to get at the simultaneous topics of Georg and Grete’s drug addiction as well as their (possibly incestuous) love. Can you talk about the differences and similarities between addiction and desire? What about addiction and obsession? What about the dynamic between desire and satisfaction (“replete with lust” is the desire, “blossoming capillaries” the satisfaction)? What about desire as a “fog,” as we’ve seen described in the earlier example, something neither figure can quite escape (this can be desire for relief, for inebriation, but also the desire to see and be near the beloved). What about the forbidden?

One of the things I most wanted to explore was desire that can’t be sated. What happens when you get what you want (or think you want) and it’s not enough? What happens when you want something that doesn’t exist? In the universe of this book, Georg and Grete both desired a world that didn’t exist. I think addiction can manifest that way — no matter how much of something you get it’s not enough. Obsession also looms large in these poems. The compulsions associated with OCD can absolutely feel like an addiction that can’t be satisfied: “if I just check this light switch one more time it will be enough”. It never is. The obsession is clearly in focus and the rest of the world a blur. The comfort that I’m reaching for doesn’t exist.

Word of your death comes on a Sunday,
your name there on the letter, Trakl,
in careful lettering. The city has begun
to unravel into dark filaments,
your name a rope drawn taut.
I discover your loss in new places:
a bruised plum, tender globe,
hoofprint filled with water.

(“Spin”)

Georg dies, and Grete’s plight becomes one of the bereaved. Interestingly, you handle the fact of Georg’s death with a journalistic clarity (both here and in other poems) that stands in stark contrast to the highly evocative lyric handling — with deep images, metaphors, and sonically rich writing — that otherwise convey Grete’s experiences. I wonder if you could talk about this stylistic choice, perhaps as it expresses a dynamic between Grete’s intimate, personal grief (which these poems attempt to enact) and herself as a public, historical figure, say, the subject of a collection a poems?

The only fact that the public knows about Grete’s experience of Georg’s death is that he died. I don’t know how Grete felt, how his death affected her in the moment and for the rest of her life. I didn’t want to tiptoe around his death, I suppose. I wanted to make the fact of it heavy and stark in the way I imagine it might have felt to Grete; like a gut punch, a blunt thing that could only be expressed exactly. I didn’t want these poems to feel sensational, either, and I think this choice was an attempt to move away from that.

Weather crowds
the city and I cling
to the walls.
The room is dark.

The rabbit in the yard
suddenly, miraculously still.

(“Riot”)

Tragically, grief, for Grete, becomes something more: we might say depression, or neurosis. But it is of a very particular kind, tied, again, to this sense of dwelling, the room now as both sanctuary and prison. The echoes of Sylvia Plath, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and even Emily Dickinson are quite audible in this quote. I’m interested in your perspective as a poet entering into and occupying this space. What is the relationship between poetry and neurosis? I think many would say that this condition, as expressed in poetry, is historically gendered. Does gender play an important role in this project and for the way we think about Grete’s experience?

I love that you hear those echoes in this poem! I was definitely thinking about the history of grief and neurosis as it pertains to women. Before I really understood what it meant to live with a mental illness, I was always drawn to writing that explored women’s experiences of mental illness and neurosis, and it made me feel as though I had company in my experience of the world. Poetry, and writing in general, allowed me to come to terms with what I was experiencing, and provided me with a model to process my world through writing. More specifically, my own experiences with mental illness heavily influenced this sense of grief/neurosis living so firmly in domestic spaces. You said it exactly — my home is alternately sanctuary and prison, and sometimes both at once.

I’m hoping to explore all of this further in my next project.

The lamps are turning off in all of the windows. I wonder
what it would have felt like to have a choice, to choose love,
to hold anything with both hands. It’s taken me this long
to say I want I want I want, to take up the gun—to join you—

(“To G, After the Party”)

Grete takes her own life, after what we assume to be insurmountable grief following Georg’s death. I want to talk about time, and writing toward death. You knew your charge from the outset, that you would always be in approach to Grete’s suicide, and I’m hoping you could talk a little bit about that experience as a poet. Can you talk about your choices for this poem in particular, if you knew you wanted to write it as a letter, or if you had thought of other ways? Did you write it early, or was it one of the last poems you wrote for the collection? I’ve been using this word — tragic — and I wonder how accurate it is to describe these poems; would you use it?

I actually wrote this poem fairly early on, and I knew from the start it would be a letter. Writing this poem helped me articulate how being in love can, at times, feel like a lack of agency; we so rarely get a say when it comes to who we love.

There were certainly tragedies in Georg and Grete’s lives — war and its aftermath, untreated mental illness and drug addiction — but I didn’t, and don’t, view their love as a tragedy. It’s true that we’ll never know the extent of their relationship, but that was never the driving force for me in writing these poems. Whatever the nature of their relationship, I wanted to explore the way they experienced the world, to consider every messy iteration of desire. I think it’s safe to say that both of the Trakls desired more from the world than they were able to get. Even so, a friend asked me if I would change it if I could — the way my brain works. I can say now that I wouldn’t. I suffer as a result of my brain, but I also get immense joy from the way I interact with the world. I hope that Grete had these moments of joy, too.

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