Bent Beneath the Low Heavens: An Interview with Dan Rosenberg

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Dan Rosenberg is a deeply curious poet, experimental, playful, always pushing after new forms and approaches. It’s evident in the books he has published, each of which expresses new talents, from the image-and-voice-driven pieces of The Crushing Organ to the tight and angular poems of cadabra to the exuberant sublimity of his latest chapbook, Thigh’s Hollow, which has just come out from Omnidawn. His successes with reinvention give any poet exhausted with “finding one’s voice” a refreshing new outlook: the voice is always right in front of you, part of whatever project you are pursuing.

He is a generous poet and a great conversationalist, and we had a chance for a quick couple of exchanges that got right to it, ranging from Eliot to Wittgenstein, from Nintendo to the Song of Solomon.

*

Some things are known
only by their limits,
some can’t be stared into
or out of. The slick heart
of the sun. The sun’s
turbulent heart.
In the party of our system
I’m eccentric on the outskirts
and declassified, a limit
repeatedly breached.
I swing close to what
I want to see, say hey,
I touch an arm and the arm
doesn’t jiggle. It’s
a banister. My voice
fits into the dance beat
like a name
on a grain of rice. 1

It seems to me a primary question at the heart of a lot of your work is about the limits of what we can see and how we can speak—the limits of image and language, the blurred edge of resonance. This might class you as an experimentalist, or a surrealist, but behind these categories is a more direct ambition, to look into the sun’s turbulent heart while still fitting the voice into a beat. How do you think about the relationship between language and image? For instance, does one take primacy over the over?

Your question is too smart for me to stare at directly. Here’s a couple of famous quotes to look through instead:

“An ‘Image’ is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.”—Pound

“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”—Wittgenstein

I think of the poetic image as the limit of language, the edge of what I can say. Not the edge of what can be said—the limit is my own: my world, bounded by my intellect, my emotions, my experiences and imagination. And I think the energy of a good image comes from that tension in the language, that sense, hopefully palpable to the reader, that these words are the most direct way to articulate what I couldn’t say more directly.

But I also think that getting there involves less profound thinking and more openness to accident, more availability to play. So, in the section of “Microburst” you quoted, thinking about the limits of sight led to the sun, and the sun led to poor Pluto, which, in the party of our solar system, had recently been declassified as a planet for being eccentric on the outskirts and for breaching the limited plane of all the other planets’ orbits. But if I’m talking about Pluto there, I’m just as much talking about how bad I am at parties. And I’m talking about how speech can be absorbed by music, so I’m also (always) talking about the very question you asked.

*

This is America and I am pixelated with love. 2

I’m smitten with this line in this poem, which ends in a kind of heartbreak: “run a current through me / I won’t light up enough for you to read by.” Love is an important force in your poems—in a general way, it drives a curiosity with the world and objects around you, even as there can be terror and nightmare. Let’s call this affirmation, and let’s call this question 1 of 2 about love. Can you talk about poetry, and specifically image making (an assembly of pixels), as acts of affirmation? What is American about this, and about your poems?

A pixelated picture seems to me to be like a poetic image that calls attention to its language. A calling attention to the artifice, which makes the artifice more honest. Do you remember how in Much Ado Beatrice and Benedick are tricked by their friends so that each thinks the other has professed their love? And how that lie engenders a new truth: They each let down their guard and allow themselves to honestly love the other? I find that deeply affirming. If Plato’s main beef with poets is that poetry is mimetic, I confess—we trade in lies.

But, to leapfrog across philosophers and centuries, Wittgenstein understood that sometimes we have to lie—or in his case spout nonsense—in order to express a truth, particularly if that truth is at the limit of what can be said: “My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.)” Maybe what I’m saying is that there’s still a large part of my brain that operates like an analytic philosopher—with a kind of mathematical rigor—and what poetry affirms for me is the beautiful triumph of escaping that. What did T.S. Eliot say? “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.” I love that snark at the end, and if you add rationality to the list of things that poetry sets us free from, then I’m on board.

As for Americanness, my poems are American because they are unlike each other except for being mine. Because they stumble between the personal and the political, and most of them want very much to believe they belong somewhere. Because they don’t really know what it means to be American, but they’re pretty sure they have at best a partial and tentative claim to it. People from the generation before me see the title of that poem, “Contra,” and tend to think, “Iran.” People of my generation tend to think, “Nintendo!” (They don’t think of Nintendo as Japanese.) That’s American.

 

*

A deer kicks, can’t take
another summer fire. I scrub
my ear to the floor

of the pool. This
is rest. I float so low. 3

I love the composure of the poems in your second collection, cadabra—the movement of the eye is much slower, the lines shorter, more angular, and the images are left in a more pristine and resonant state, with less assertion of personality by the speaker. Can you discuss the development of this style, the difference you see between the two books, and maybe more broadly, the pleasures and difficulties of transforming one’s approach?

I talked about the genesis of this style a bit over at American Microreviews and Interviews, but didn’t really talk about your very astute observation that this style involves less assertion of personality. There’s Eliot again, but also: I think in my first book I had an impulse to impress, to stake a kind of claim on the poetic landscape. This is my voice, my fingerprint. And so there are far more gestures toward self-definition, and toward declamation. When I was working on the poems for cadabra, I knew I wanted something else—though I wrote other poems during that time, it was always clear to me what belonged in cadabra and what didn’t. They’re poems of small gestures, tight turns, close attention to the domestic.

And they were fun to write! But I can’t write those poems anymore; they require a kind of quiet and sustained calm that’s no longer available to me with a baby constantly whirlwinding through the house. Luckily, I feel like I’ve exhausted that mode, at least for now, and before the baby arrived I’d already moved onto the more modular form I’ve been working in recently.

As for transforming one’s approach, I don’t know how difficult it is. I don’t think I could write poems in the same mode for years and years—not without turning the act of writing into something mechanical and predictable, which would be a direct violation of why I write in the first place.

I admire most the poets who constantly reinvent themselves. Of the American modernists, I’m a Williams guy all the way, because he never stopped trying something new. There’s the Imagist Williams who gets anthologized and taught poorly, but even that old schoolchild’s bane, “The Red Wheelbarrow,” came from Spring and All, which is a deeply weird book influenced by Dada and Cubism, full of goofy prose manifestos and poems that don’t behave at all in line with Pound’s Imagism. And then there’s Paterson—and all the plays and fiction and translations he did! The man never settled down, never stopped reinventing himself, never devolved into self-parody. And I think it hurt his career, honestly: He kept changing his fingerprints, which makes it hard to see where he grabbed onto the world of poetry and squeezed. And it’s hard to build a poetic movement around a changeling. But I also think Williams did it because he had no choice; he was writing to discover, not to brand, and I feel a deep affinity with that approach.

*

With staples I mated my torso
to my hips: unsawn. I struck

doves from her top hat, scrubbed
their shit into the lining. I’m the hinge

you know nothing about. The secret
gears. Cadabra, she says. When I’m on
fire, no one puts me out. 4

Let’s talk about the body, the speaker’s body in particular, which figures prominently in many of the poems across your books and is often the object of the most metamorphosis. Often the body is unwieldy, at times grotesque, hybridized, such as the figurine/plant image on the cover of cadabra. Can you talk about the body as an agent and the body as another object in the world? What about voice, mimesis—the body as the instrument of the poetic line? What about violence and transformation? What about magic?

The body is a perennial obsession. In fact, one of the poems in my first book, “Dear Body,” was an attempt to exorcise that word from my poetic vocabulary. It clearly failed, mostly because I’m drawn to the body as a site of transformation. Philosophers have worried over the mind-body problem for centuries, but poets have ignored that problem just as fruitfully for just as long: We know that thinking happens in the body, through the body—that invulnerable Achilles still needed an intricate shield to protect his body, to celebrate it and glorify it, fated for death though it was. We know that for things to truly exist in our poems (“No ideas but in things!”) they must be embodied: the real toads in our imaginary gardens.

As for the question of the grotesque body, I’m not sure. I find the image on the cover of cadabra to be quite beautiful—perfectly recognizable but still surprising, organic but also artificial, small in scale but resonant. I think hybrid bodies are only grotesque when they enter the uncanny valley—when they’re similar enough to unhybridized bodies to cause category problems—but I’m less interested in such problems than I am in bodily transformations as movements toward a kind of grace. This concern becomes far more prevalent in Thigh’s Hollow, my new chapbook, as there are human characters in it who transform into angels (Rilkean angels, horrible in their distance from humanity but ontologically above us as well). In those poems, there is literally a movement toward the divine that is simultaneously a movement toward the bestial. As human bodies breach their limits they become something more, but remain insistently bodies nonetheless. Thank god: I wouldn’t know how to write a poem without them.

*

still circling the airport like a moth
pivoting toward a false moon I am
unsure of my car       my route       these roads
knotted like a disease I follow
faithfully the signs they say to yield 5

Are you ready for question 2 about love? While there is this sense of love as an orientation to the world, love also features heavily in your poems in a more familiar, localized way, as a partnership between two people. And so often in your poems we are in domestic settings, in the house, on the sidewalk, on small errands like this one— from this lovely chapbook which has just come out from Omnidawn, Thigh’s Hollow—circling the airport to retrieve one’s partner. In these lines we feel the anticipation of reunion—which is to say, we feel love is often an energy of the ordinary. And yet within this ordinariness you explode your vision. So, do you write love poems? Tell me about the ordinary, the familiar, and your process for finding the fantastic there. And what’s love got to do with it?

thighshollowHa, is love a second-hand emotion? Only if you think of it as an economic exchange. And the title of that poem, “My Beloved Is Mine and I Am,” is pulled right from the Song of Solomon, the great sex poem of the Bible, which does indeed think of love in such terms: Alternate translations include “I belong to my beloved, and my beloved belongs to me.” I tend to raise such thinking only to trouble it. I do write love poems, most definitely—because I find the fantastic in that ordinary, familiar situation. There is no process but attention.

That said, that language of mutual ownership appears on the ketubah my wife and I signed, before witnesses, as part of our marriage ceremony. Jewishness and Jewish thought run through Thigh’s Hollow, and the larger project of which that chapbook is a part, and the contractual mode of engagement is a necessary aspect: The Jewish people’s relationship with God, that paradigmatic relationship, is a covenant, after all. Also Jewish is my impulse to deeply overthink. But that impulse leads me to believe that the ordinary and the familiar are utterly captivating—how boring to live otherwise!—and that domestic love, familiar love, the love I feel for my wife and for our son, is the central obsession of my life now, and therefore a perfect locus in which to discover and create the fantastic.

*

I am bent beneath

the low heavens fat with their flight
so clipped and tearful their wet flight

falls down on my splay this holy
rain soaks me to the back I keep
feeling my shoulders for no wings 6

Another way of thinking about the ordinary and the fantastic is to think about myth. “Thigh’s hollow,” as an image, is also suggestive of myth, Apollo, or the winged man, Icarus, and thereby a pursuit for communion with the gods. Everywhere in this chapbook rain is falling with heavenly insistence, a form of speech, a way of being touched, a baptism maybe, and certainly a connection. I get the distinct feeling that these poems especially are a form of meditative exercise, an Icarus-like leap beyond the terrestrial, the earth, the body. And as Kazim Ali eloquently puts it in his introduction, these poems “ask the hero to fail.” As you put it in “Unworthy You Find Me and Awake:” “lord I will buy my heart from your hands / if you but show a part of your face / to this mud clutching mud before you.” Can you talk about myth and flight, about the human and the terrestrial, and poetry as a vehicle, a form of flight, between the human and godly realms? Do you think of your work as spiritual, gnostic, or devotional? What is the place for visionary and spiritual poetry among the fashions, these days, for the ironic and the profane?

I love that you went Greek with your mythological thinking here. That reading enriches the poems, I think. My central mythological tradition for this project is the Jewish one, though: The hollow of the thigh is (in the King James version of the story) where the “angel” famously strikes Jacob in their wrestling match. Some things I find endlessly fascinating about that story:

  1. The character Jacob wrestles with is most often presented as an angel, but the Hebrew word for him is better translated as “stranger.” Among the many theories about who this stranger is, my favorite is that he’s Esau, Jacob’s estranged and wronged older twin brother, toward whom Jacob is traveling. In this reading, the brothers have a private confrontation and come to a private resolution before their more public (and suspiciously smooth) reunion.
  2. This scene, where Jacob wrestles with the stranger, involves a couple of amazing speech-acts. Jacob refuses to let the stranger go until the stranger blesses him. The blessing the stranger grants him is a new name, Israel, which means “He who struggles with God.” In response Jacob names the site of their wrestling match Peniel, “Face of God.” The stranger becomes divine, an angel, only in this naming that occurs after their conflict is over.

My work is not devotional at all, and I’m a bacon-cheeseburger kind of Jew. But my work could be considered spiritual in the Jewish tradition of Israel himself: It’s a grappling with the very idea of the divine. And in that grappling there’s plenty of room for the ironic and the profane, but those are modes of engagement, not ends unto themselves: “Unworthy You Find Me and Awake” ends with those lines you quoted, a direct appeal to the “lord,” but the rest of the poem dramatizes watching late-night TV commercials. I like that a couple of dudes wrestling in the dirt can become a metaphor for struggling with the divine. I like that beer commercials can make a man feel like the world is impossibly strange and cry out (Rilke again) to the Angelic Orders for order itself. If poetry can’t take the base metals of life and transmute them into gold, even fool’s gold, then what’s the point of ever getting off the couch?

*

here in the cramp I mind I have mined
I am mined by the dark of the world 7

I think we’ve drilled pretty deeply, so let’s finish with a lighter question: what’s next? You’ve proven an impulse for reinvention, new approaches, new projects—what is on your horizon now, what sounds fun, or edifying, or refreshing to you?

I’m deep in that larger project, which I’m calling Esau, of which Thigh’s Hollow is a cornerstone. The poems have veered, weirdly, more toward confessional writing recently—it seems that the speaker in these poems wants more and more to be a version of me. So be it.

Now might be the time to admit the form: All the poems in Thigh’s Hollow, and in the larger project, are in a strict syllabic form. As a result, they’re all the exact same length (except for the proem which is a bit shorter but still in a strict form), and that constraint has given rise to the particular voice of this project—each poem is a song whispered through a straightjacket, and the belts and loops shape the song.

The most exciting part of the Grecian Urn is the town that isn’t even depicted on it, precisely because it isn’t depicted: It’s the moment in the poem when Keats’ imagination runs from ekphrasis to world-building. Right now I’m enjoying watching my world and then writing poems that start in it before burrowing down and launching up simultaneously, the uncontrolled growth of a magic bean. I can’t tell yet where it’s all going. Who would want to know?

_______________________________________________________________________________________

  1. “Microburst,” from The Crushing Organ
  2. “Contra,” from The Crushing Organ
  3. “Default Swap,” from cadabra
  4. “The Magician’s Technician,” from cadabra
  5. “My Beloved is Mine and I Am,” from Thigh’s Hollow
  6. “Pattern Flows True Heavy To Me,” from Thigh’s Hollow
  7. “Where Light Falls Less from Reflected Eyes,” from Thigh’s Hollow

Dan Rosenberg is the author of The Crushing Organ (Dream Horse Press, 2012) and cadabra (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2015). He has also written two chapbooks, A Thread of Hands (Tilt Press, 2010) and Thigh’s Hollow (Omnidawn, forthcoming 2015), and he co-translated Miklavž Komelj’s Hippodrome (Zephyr Press, forthcoming 2015). His work has won the American Poetry Journal Book Prize and the Omnidawn Poetry Chapbook Contest. Rosenberg holds a B.A. from Tufts University, an M.F.A. from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a Ph.D. from The University of Georgia. He teaches literature and creative writing at Wells College and co-edits Transom.

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