Books In Conversation
Giving Voice to What's Unsaid: FRED MARCHANT with Olivia Kate Cerrone
Said Not Said
(Graywolf Press, 2016)
Fred Marchant’s powerful new collection Said Not Said, recently published by Graywolf Press, examines the necessities of life and survival in a world ravaged by war, violence, illness and political corruption. His poetry serves as witness to the humanity present amidst sorrow and brutality, where haunting images arise through language, perhaps with the intent to carve out a space for grief and trauma. I recently had the privilege to speak with Marchant about his work.
Olivia Kate Cerrone (Rail): Your work offers haunting meditations through images seared with unwavering truth in situations raw with complexity. I think of “The Migrants,” where a refugee mother and her infant find shelter on the side of a dirt road, or “Olive Harvest,” where fruit continues to grow “ripened on enough bloodshed and hardened / human behavior to make you think it will turn / away in disgust, year after suffering year / comes back, as if to say here and here and here.” Where do images start for you, especially in this context, where language is driven on hope and greater meaning in the presence of suffering?
Fred Marchant: What comes to mind instantly is something that Seamus Heaney wrote in The Redress of Poetry, his collection of essays, in which he meditates on that word “redress.” How does poetry redress injustice and suffering? He said, “sometimes it’s important for the writer to create the maze to better understand the maze.” That's a paraphrase, but the idea is that the evocation of suffering is an effort to come closer to its reality. There are lots of corollaries that go with that, including the possibility that you might not be able or willing to come that close to the fire. There are all kinds of evasive impulses inside oneself, along with pressures in the world, all helping one to deny, ignore, or forget. The obligation of the artist is in fact to recognize those evasions and denials and work through them.
You ask where images start. I suppose they start with a persistent sense that for some suffering—mine, yours—words don’t seem to exist yet. There’s something mute in the experience, sometimes enforced, sometimes “natural.” This dissatisfaction leads to a desire to find and arrange and intensify what words one has. As language itself becomes available, perhaps it’s driven on by the hope that the poem will allow us access to that which seems beyond words, and the new or invented language will lend meaning to the suffering endured. Let me illustrate via the two poems you mentioned.
Where did the images of “The Migrants” come from? Well in one sense they come out of the film reports of refugee crisis in the Middle East. I tried to imagine what the nights were like on that journey. That led me to think of what the cooking fires needed, which led me to think of those ancient lands, and the Greek myth of Prometheus, stealing fire. All of those are sources, but the pivotal moment in the poem is in this complicated sentence: “The hunted, wayward god stood beside a mother who held her infant before her the same way he held the stalk that carried the embers he had stolen.” I don't know how exactly the gesture of holding a child in one's arms started to “rhyme” with the way in which I imagined Prometheus carrying the embers. I suppose it was a moment or act of hope to align the movement of these people to safety as being a gift to all of us. That maybe these folks on the road were themselves Promethean.
I wrote "Olive Harvest" when I was in a delegation to Israel and Palestine with an organization called Interfaith Peace-Builders. It was composed of a wide range of people with different professional backgrounds and interests, but I was the only person in the group for whom writing poems was a central concern. To be honest, I wrote more prose pieces than poems during that two-week visit. We were all encouraged to contribute to the organization’s blog while abroad, and I wrote three prose vignettes and a rough draft of “Olive Harvest.” The poem began in an olive grove in Jenin in the West Bank at the annual olive harvest festival. Those trees in all their gnarly beauty seemed an image of determination and persistence in the face of overwhelming hardship. They were to my mind an analogue to the many peace activists I had met in both Israel and the Palestinian territories.
As I looked down rows and rows of ancient trees, I thought also of how much it requires of someone to commit themselves to non-violent responses to injustice and systemic violence. I didn’t want to say, “Oh, these peacemakers were just like the trees.” Nor did I want to say that the trees were just like the peace-makers. Yes, there was a certain kind of gentle personification going on in my mind, but what I wanted to invoke was just a simple thread of connection between these trees and those people I stood with. The lines of the poem you quote in your question are exactly what I’m talking about: where the fruit was “ripened on enough bloodshed and hardened / human behavior to make you think it will turn / away in disgust, year after suffering year / comes back, as if to say here & here & here.” The key, mediating phrase is the "as if." What I hoped for in this poem wasn’t "talking trees," but rather to evoke a person who marvels at the miracle of these trees and those who remain devoted to peace building amid violent conflict.
Rail: I love the echo of ongoingness that these final words convey, leaving the reader with a sense of endurance and hope. The poems of Said Not Said offer sustenance and deep compassion. I’m reminded specifically of the book’s first section, which is rooted in the devastating impact of schizophrenia on the life of your sister. These are poems of great tenderness, examining the greater nuance of her existence under the confines of disease, institutionalization, and related issues like tardive dyskinesia. Where did these poems begin for you?
Marchant: Early in the writing of Said Not Said, I realized that in every book I assembled there was always one poem about my sister. In Tipping Point, the poem “Minotaur” recounted, in somewhat disguised form, a visit to my sister in the mental institution she spent most of her adult life in. In Full Moon Boat there was another poem that had a visit to her, one that spun back into memories of my childhood. And then in The Looking House there’s a pivotal poem called “The Custody of the Eyes." I say it’s pivotal because it was with that poem I first really stayed with her in the poem, or rather stayed with the poem long enough to discover it was Pat I was writing about.
The poem begins with an ekphrastic discussion of an installation piece by an artist named Lynn Doiron. It consisted of a large white dress splayed against a wall and a variety of attached items, ranging from chandelier glass to a multigenerational photo of women in a family. I didn’t know why I was drawn to it so. I thought at first the poem was done with just that ekphrastic description. It was a poem about the coercions in roles assigned to women, but somehow that wasn’t all the poem was after.
My editors at Graywolf helped. They said an early draft of the manuscript just didn't take off, that it needed another tree branch placed on the fire. Over months of revision, I wondered about the connection between the splayed white dress to my sister Pat in the hospital. I’m not sure where I learned of the devotional practice of guiding the eyes away from distraction and/or temptation. I’m not sure when I first heard of the martyrdom of Saint Agnes. Perhaps these were all floating around in the back of my mind and waiting for the right moment to surface. When they did, I felt I had written the first meditational poem.
"The Custody of the Eyes" is the poem that guided me toward "The Unacceptable," the opening suite of poems in Said Not Said. My sister was fourteen years older than me, and the onset of her schizophrenia began when I was quite young. I came of age as her mind became more and more dispersed by the illness. Over the course of my life, the periodic visits to her in the hospital, especially after our parents and siblings passed away, became more and more etched into my consciousness. I knew my earlier work was telling me I needed to offer a portrait not only of her suffering, but also her resilience. I also needed to examine something of my own guilt and helplessness in the situation. As I began that poem, I felt called on to witness her life, and in the end her passing. I felt, to borrow that great phrase from Richard Wilbur, called by love to the things of the world I shared with Pat.
What stayed with me on the day she passed away was her struggle against the attendants at her bedside. Some of the nurses couldn’t stand to work with her. Pat was thrashing and cursing and spitting. She was strapped down, and it was at first frightening to see this. But gradually I began to see that in a deeply confused and tortured way, she was claiming her agency. Even at this moment when life was slipping away, she declared herself here, present, alive. And I loved her for that. The ending of the poem, the scene of it in my mind's eye, is what began my writing of the whole poem, which was an effort to capture some of the expanse of her life:She said they had taped a death-line to the port in her arm. They said she should believe in the plastic tube at her nose, that it would fill her lungs with good clean air.
She shook her head as hard as she could, got her whole body to say nope, thou shalt not, no way, nothing doing, thou shalt not touch me.Not with the elbow-bendable straw adjusted to the lips, not with the insidious needle pointed upward and dribbling over. And absolutely not with that wheezing apparatus of the unacceptable the big attendant in his scrubs was wheeling in.
Rail: There are also instances where the language of certain poems mimics the nature of schizophrenia itself. Unexpected associations between words and sensations reflect perhaps disordered thought patterns. I think specifically of the poem “In the As If” where: “One morning a pinto-splotched nerve gallops into the corral / bushwhacked / where your old inner wrangler straddles the fence a lasso and snaffle / paladin / draped over his arm while his fingers scratch the pony behind the ear / jangling / as good cowboys do while telling the bewildered animal all will be / ¡Hola!” Such lines seemingly invite the reader to inhabit a more intimate understanding. How did you approach language in this capacity? How might poetry speak to the nature of mental illness and the presence of public fear and alienation that often accompanies it?
Marchant: Thank you for these remarks about the language, and I’m delighted to hear you say these lines invite the reader into a more intimate understanding. The whole set of poems in Part One of Said Not Said aspire to that. The poem you mention is, technically speaking, a personal poem. And the lineation as well as the diction of the poem is intended to enact some of the surprises and millisecond associations of what might be labeled as disordered or irrational thought. To be honest, however, I approach persona poems with a degree of skepticism. The personal poem too easily can turn into an appropriation poem. When they work there’s a respect for the ultimate unknowability of the other. I did not become an expert on my sister's mind. I hoped to replicate some of what I heard and felt near her. But I can also think I got it all wrong or a little right.
What I think I caught in that poem was her capacity to make wisecracks, sometimes arising out of her helplessness and anger, with a sense of her mixture of delight and contempt for the world of mental illness and treatment. I think I caught her tone of voice in the passage you quote. The whiplash lineation, the long and extra short lines, I hoped would capture the rapidity of her thoughts. From her medication, she did often suffer from tardive dyskinesia, and maybe that movement disorder can be felt somewhat in the lines. I should note too that “In the As If” as a title really is a kind of shorthand for dwelling in a realm that is both true and not true, and of course it’s related to the “as if” in the “Olive Harvest” that comes to the reader at the end of the book. I think my sister would have loved the idea of the olive tree limb offering its fruit, saying here and here and here, abundant and endless.
Each of the poems in the first section of Said Not Said, offer glimpses of life, her life, the state of the “as if.” The last poem in the section, however, opens the book outward from her sad predicament. This is a poem in response to Titian's painting, The Rape of Europa in the Gardner Museum in Boston. The painting is based on the story of Zeus who, in the form of a white bull, abducts Europa and swims off through the Mediterranean with her on his back, to land ultimately in Crete, and symbolically speaking, begin European history and civilization. It's worth me saying here that there are five ekphrastic poems in this book, and that is no accident. Before my sister's life became derailed by her illness, she studied to become a painter, and had in fact begun her adult life as a commercial artist, all the while experimenting on her own with abstraction. In my family, art sometimes took the blame for Pat's illness. It was the royal road to madness, if you will.
As I studied the Titian painting, I saw how the impersonal forces could take over a life, how all of existence, even the bull, had nothing to say or do that would change those forces. I saw in Europa's tiny dots for eyes the kind of terror that I sometimes remembered seeing in Pat's eyes. I imagined how it must have felt to have these forces take you away, and cast you up on a shore called the Day Room, where nurses needed to tell medicated patients the name of the day they were living through. That too was the land of the “as if,” and as that realization dawned on me, I also understood how close Pat was to me, how the thought of her life could rise up before me, how in effect she was still with me.
Rail: Your work is also so often absorbed with the influence of violence and the unending presence of war and political oppression has on the psyche. In “Checkpoint,” readers are thrust inside dehumanizing security measures, experiencing both the shame of the speaker, and the constraining movement and demands put upon the body as expressed through the very form of the poem. In “Here is what the mind does,” a pool of blood gathers inside a Palestinian refugee camp, where a car is riddled with bullets “…as if blood could / choose not to leave could hang around / be curious and puzzled like the children / who to watch men who have duties / do them as quickly as they can in a slow / reluctant and deliberate picking through.” How might you reflect upon rendering these devastating moments and complicated images in the space of a poem? Can language broaden one’s sense of awareness or offer transcendence through suffering?
Marchant: I appreciate how you sense the movement from the first to second section. The book—as a book—radiates outward from the first section. It takes some of the "unacceptable" dimensions in Pat’s life, and uses that as guide to the larger world. What are some of the other unacceptable dimensions of life? Who or what is responsible? How are we to respond to them? These are some of the tacit questions behind the rest of Said Not Said. The second section opens with a "Bone in the Throat," and presents a world where capricious affliction seems the norm, not the exception. And worse, it’s we who are responsible for it. Not acts of God, nature or biology, per se, but predicaments we have something to do with. "Here is what the mind does” is about the killing of Juliano Mer-Khamis, a man who founded the Freedom Theater in Jenin, in the West Bank. He was the son of an Israeli Jewish mother and a Palestinian Christian father. A famous actor and movie-maker in Israel, he returned to Jenin to continue a theatre that his mother started there in the camp. It’s not clear who shot him in the front seat of his car—with his son on his lap and the babysitter seated next to him—but it was clearly an assassination. Speculation runs from the Mossad to the Islamists in the refugee camp, for his political theatre could have offended either. When I was with the Interfaith Peace-Builders' delegation in 2008, we spent a day at the theatre, and an afternoon with Juliano, and thus when I read of his death in 2012, I felt that inarticulate shock familiar to all of us. This poem tries to dwell in the immediate aftermath of violence, where the mind simply can't do anything but pick through the remnants, be it shell casings or fragments of memory.
You wonder if poetry or art might offer transcendence through suffering. The word transcendence seems too grand. It has the same connotative power as words like salvation and redemption. Those words may have real importance in the lives we live, but in matters of art and the purposes of art, they need to be handled with great care. Maybe part of that care is some honest, down-to-earth skepticism, maybe some genuine doubt about whether art can accomplish those grand things. I’m drawn more to a sense of poetry that brings us closer to what is real. Maybe that is a kind of redemption, but I'd leave that to others to determine. In our own moment of dominant falsehoods, it seems like a worthy goal of art to help us find and hold in our minds some element of what is real. Let's look at that blood that pools outside Juliano's car. It looks like it doesn't want to leave, but holds on. How can that be drawing a little closer to what is real? My answer would be there’s an emotional reality here, an emotional truth. Something about the killing is “unacceptable” even to the blood that has been shed. I’m glad you mention “Checkpoint” too, with a person forced to lift his shirt to show he has no suicide vest underneath. I imagined it at any checkpoint we can think of, from the West Bank to Iraq to the borders of our own country. While we understand the necessities, there’s humiliation in the moment and the poem wants us to feel something of that humiliation, the sense of self as violated as the privacy of the body: the air and warm light that touches your inspected and guaranteed to be unthreatening flesh turns you into an infant who is glad the mother from whose stomach he sprang is no longer among the living and cannot witness or ease his shame.
Rail: Throughout your collections, your work also wrestles with the ongoing trauma of the American war in Vietnam. Perhaps these poems speak to a sense of collective grief, as in “Quảng Tri Elegy,” where a U.S. veteran visits Lao Bảo, and watches children play, wondering if they know of “the dead who come down to the river at night / to bathe…and let the fast water wash over what they are /…the stream rushes toward, eager to give them / back their flesh unharmed, their mothers’ own.” Poems in translation, such as “The Peach” by Võ Quê and “Letter” by Trần Đăng Khoa, published in Full Moon Boat, serve an essential presence, particularly as a means of offering a larger conversation between poems themselves. Could you speak to the significance of including such works of translation? How did you approach them as individual pieces, and how they might function in the larger context of a collection itself?
Marchant: Thanks for raising this question. My relationship with Vietnam goes back to the war years, in that I enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1968, but left it in 1970 as a conscientious objector. I had been stationed on Okinawa, and did not go to Vietnam during the war years. My first visit to Vietnam was in 1994, and was made possible by affiliation with the William Joiner Institute for the Study of War and Social Consequences at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. It was there, and specifically at the annual Writers' Conference that I met many Vietnamese writers, and it was there that I began to co-translate Vietnamese poems into English. I couldn’t have done it without my co-translator Nguyễn Bá Chung, the poet, scholar, and translator at the Joiner Institute. Over the years, and with his invaluable assistance, I translated works by the poets you mentioned, and Said Not Said does indeed have that poem by Võ Quê, and the “Quảng Tri Elegy” as well as another poem, “Crossing Nguyễn Du Street.” Since 1994, and because of my Joiner work, I've visited Vietnam every third year or so. The people, culture, and landscape draw me, but there’s also the shared history, the sense that somehow the American war required of me and many others of that era that war years not be lost to oblivion. All three of the Vietnam poems in Said Not Said pick up that question of what it means to have a war as a shared history. Let me illustrate with my and Chung's translation of Võ Quê's short poem, “The Peach”:
Overnight a bat has eaten half a peach,
the rest has fallen to the saddened earth.
For you, I leave a portion of our happiness,
For me, I shall keep my share of the sorrow.
Võ Quê was from Huế, in the central part of the country, and during the war years he was imprisoned by Saigon regime in the infamous tiger cages of Côn Són island. The poem was written long after the war, and could easily be read as a poem about a broken heart. But it’s also possible to read it as a post-war poem, in fact an almost allegorical representation of the war and its aftermath. It has within its aesthetic what I love about Vietnamese poetry in general, a quiet tact, a lovely indirection, an intimacy of discourse, a gentleness. There’s much I don't know about Vietnamese poetry, but what I do know is that every utterance is shadowed with the richest ambiguities of feeling and meaning. I can hear within the very words I’m using the debt I owe to Vietnamese poets for introducing me to the vivid sense of something being said and not said all at the same time. So too with the work I have done with other Vietnamese poets, especially my friend Trần Đăng Khoa, who was a child prodigy of a poet during the war years, a poet whose early work includes vignettes of village life with only slivers of reference to the B-52s that bombed his area regularly. It was as if the boy-poet was intuitively asserting that the life of the village would survive, that it was far longer lasting than the bombing runs. So too the “later” Khoa, when he wrote to his mother after he was drafted, that she shouldn’t worry, that if he died, he’d come back as a soft night breeze at her window. In this too, he’s saying indirectly there were things greater and longer-lasting than wars.
Rail: In an essay you wrote for Another World Instead: The Early Poems of William Stafford, 1937–1947, you speak of the poet’s work as a function of pacifist poetry, describing through the “paradigm of mindful human connectedness, and it is the archetypal act underlying Stafford’s poetry,” the conscience that emerges in acknowledging “the importance of the other … it proposes that we find or create a sense of right relation with one another, with the world around us, and with ourselves.” Simone Weil also exemplified this in her virtues of hesitation through language, resisting violence through taking pause and greater consideration of others. How does poetry engage us in this greater act of listening, fostering greater human connection in the ongoing reality of violence and war?
Marchant: Thank you for recalling my introduction to the collection of early Stafford poems I edited. It was a privilege to enter the Stafford archives, and then to discover and present a selection of poems, mostly unpublished. The selection centers on his years as a conscientious objector in Civilian Public Service during World War II, and yes, I did in that introduction explore the relations between his pacifism and poetry. However, let me swerve away from the idea that the poet's work might be “a function of pacifist poetry,” or that there’s even a pacifist poetics per se. I do think that Stafford’s poetry and his ideas about poetry are rooted in the same soil as his pacifism. For example, you are so right to note the importance he attached to a deep listening, of being steadily receptive and non-aggressive in response to the world and those who share it with you. For Stafford, the world spoke to him, and his job, as he said in one poem was to learn what the world was trying to be. Along with that receptivity went significant skepticism about received “wisdoms,” especially about the need to meet violence with violence. He wasn’t a member of traditional “peace church,” but was more a philosophical pacifist, with Emersonian self-reliance at the center of his being, and that central self didn’t believe in killing his fellow human beings.
As I read through and assembled his early poems, I was reminded of Simone Weil's great essay on the Iliad, written at the beginning of World War II. In that essay, she notes that in those moments of bloody fighting, few of those combatants pause to reflect on what they’re doing. No one, she writes, insists “on that interval of hesitation, wherein lies all our consideration for our brothers in humanity.” This observation clarified for me the hesitations and wonderings present in many of William Stafford's poems. It also helped me understand my own impulses to poetry, my long learning curve in the art. The idea of the ethical pause or hesitation (or the absence of it) became the fundamental concern of the poems in Said Not Said. I found myself anchoring each section of the book with poem-sequences that were extended meditations, not just about my sister or Vietnam, but about such topics as the Gulf oil spill and ecological disaster, and how language connects to it. The first section of the title poem of the book has the closest connection to that remark by Weil. It’s called “The Teacher” and is a paraphrase of the story of the woman taken in adultery found in the Gospel of John, where Christ commands whoever is without sin to cast the first stone. In the immediate aftermath, Christ writes in the sand, and in that pause, the accusers and would-be executioners slowly, silently drift away. What the writing does is create a pause, and quite possibly a hesitation, in which some degree of human connectedness is recognized. Now it’s probably true that the historical Jesus wouldn’t have been literate, but the story is symbolic enough, and like Weil's reading of the Iliad, teaches us something about one of the fundamental purposes of art. The other three poems in the sequence of “Said Not Said,” look at some other kinds of pauses, each having to do with stones, some of them thrown, most of them not. In each poem of the sequence, I’m hoping to evoke via words the immense and immensely important “unsaid” dimension of mind and experience.
The hope I have for the book overall is that lyric poetry and art of any sort can stay the hand of vengeance and diminish the misery of our times. If it cannot, then perhaps the work is to at least find the words for those miseries and violations, to voice our objection to them. But there are other hopes for the art as well. There’s the hope that the poet’s words sometimes evoke within us a sense of something just beyond the horizon of what words ordinarily give us. Sometimes it’s a song of praise, other times a song of lament, but perhaps what is always just beyond that horizon of what is said is a song, the capacity to make a song out of what the world gives us. At the end of Said Not Said, I've written a coda. There are some brown goats high on a mountain somewhere in Greece (of course it could be anywhere), and they have just noticed us arriving at this high place where the sun is bright and the air is clear. They look back at us, puzzled enough to ask us, without words, what took us so long to get there.