I believe that no great lyric poet ever speaks in the so-called “proper” language of his or her time. Emily Dickinson didn’t write in “proper” English grammar but in slant music of fragmentary perception. Half a world and half a century away, Cesar Vallejo placed three dots in the middle of the line, as if language itself were not enough, as if the poet’s voice needed to leap from one image to another, to make—to use Eliot’s phrase—a raid on the inarticulate. Paul Celan wrote to his wife from Germany, where he briefly visited from his voluntary exile in France: “The language with which I make my poems has nothing to do with one spoken here, or anywhere.”
Sometimes, walking into the kitchen for tea or a glass of water, I forget my mother is dead, my husband is gone, my children—their childhood is over. In the night I look out the window, new snow falling in the yard. Snow covers everything but the tracks of the rabbit suddenly show up. Pebbled footprints go around in circles, then back into bramble. What hides the grass gives away the rabbit. Rabbit, I know where you live now. For a moment I forget who I am. For a moment I look out the window as if nothing had happened.
She trembled a great deal, as though cold or afraid; she cried, suddenly and noiselessly, and the tears would fall and she would not wipe them away. She’d cry paralytically, sitting rigid in a chair or walking the street or in a market, cry without knowing she was crying, and not touch her eyes, but continue walking or continue sitting or continue shopping.
She had to go very carefully across floors or over lawns because the world was so delicately balanced and because life was everywhere and her foot coming down might injure something, not necessarily an insect, but grass and wood too, for everything was vulnerable to pain and destruction.
The music continues furious like blood moving for a few more minutes in a dead man. She lies under the sound and witnesses her brain coming back, lighting its candle in the dark. And breathes in and breathes out and breathes in and breathes out.
Writing is survival. Writing is sticking a flag in the terrain of your life & making a claim on the territory. Writing is confirmation, a telegram from you to yourself, telling you that you’re still alive. Writing is the last outpost of vital, independent thought in lobotomized times. Writing is a proactive act in a prescribed world. Writing is a connection to our innate wellspring of creativity, which is our connection to the magical box of tricks which is the universe. Imagination is the umbilical chord connecting us to god – creating is the closest we get to being gods ourselves.
Tina Chang: Do you think that absence has a presence, too?
Li-Young Lee: I love that question. I’ve been thinking about something for a long time, and I keep noticing that most human speech—if not all human speech—is made with the outgoing breath. This is the strange thing about presence and absence. When we breath in, our bodies are filled with nutrients and nourishment. Our blood is filled with oxygen, our skin gets flush; our bones get harder—they get compacted. Our muscles get toned and we feel very present when we’re breathing in. The problem is, that when we’re breathing in, we can’t speak. So presence and silence have something to do with each other.
The minute we start breathing out, we can talk; speech is made with the outgoing, exhaled breath. The problem that is poses, though, is that as we exhale, nutrients are leaving our bodies; our bones get softer, our muscles get flaccid, our skin starts to loosen. You could think of that as the dying breath. So as we breath out, we have less and less presence.
When we make verbal meaning, we use the dying breath. In fact, the more I say, the more my meaning is disclosed. Meaning grows in opposite ratio to presence or vitality. That’s a weird thing. I don’t know why God made us that way.
It’s a kind of paradigm for life, right? As we die, the meaning of our life gets disclosed. Maybe the paradigm for living is encoded or embedded in speech itself, and every time we speak we’re enacting on a small-scale, microcosmic level the bigger scale of our lives. So that the less vitality we have, the more the meaning of our lives get disclosed.
…the idea of alienation. And loss. I believe that that’s the beginning of poetry. Poetry begins with alienation, and poetry speaks against our vanishing. The lyric poem in particular seems to me to have the burden and the splendor of preserving the human image in words, as the most intense form of discourse. Poetry speaks about and against loss in its root function. I see the writing of a poem as a descent. The descent is psychological. That which is darkest in human experience. It can be in yourself, it can be in others, it can be in the death of someone you love. It’s a descent into the unconscious. You try to unearth something. You try to bring something to the light.
Maybe every author needs to keep faith with Nabokov, and every reader with Barthes. For how can you write, believing in Barthes? Still, I’m glad I’m not the reader I was in college anymore, and I’ll tell you why: it made me feel lonely. Back then I wanted to tear down the icon of the author and abolish, too, the idea of a privileged reader—the text was to be a free, wild thing, open to everyone, belonging to no one, refusing an ultimate meaning. Which was a powerful feeling, but also rather isolating, because it jettisons the very idea of communication, of any possible genuine link between the person who writes and the person who reads. Nowadays I know the true reason I read is to feel less alone, to make a connection with a consciousness other than my own. To this end I find myself placing a cautious faith in the difficult partnership between reader and writer, that discrete struggle to reveal an individual’s experience of the world through the unstable medium of language. Not a refusal of meaning, then, but a quest for it.
"And this is good for us." I want to write something so simply about love or about pain that even as you are reading you feel it and as you read you keep feeling it and though it be my story it will be common, though it be singular it will be known to you so that by the end you will think— no, you will realize— that it was all the while yourself arranging the words, that it was all the time words that you yourself, out of your own heart had been saying.
“There was a muddy ditch at the side of the road where the road took a sudden turn. If I could jump—.” Five Muselmänner abreast, the marching dead, skeletons on the march to some other camp.
“I came up with a plan: If it wasn’t already too late, if the weather held, if the guard didn’t turn his head, by the grace of dark I’d make my way to the right and take my chances. Chances were all I had.”
“Where in that hell did you find the nerve to live? You knew what was ahead if you were caught.” I thought he’d say, “No choice. Jump or be killed,”
but he wasn’t giving lessons on being brave. “I was loved,” he answered, “when I was a child.” I tell his story every chance I get.
So today I tried to write again about the most important things—the enormous sun rising beyond the smokestacks. The crimes of the entire nation. And the twisted throat of a song bird accomplishing its daily heroics during an argument. But I couldn’t get a line by Elena Shwarts out of my head: the heart is like a punching bag, pounded from the inside.
—Anzhelina Polonskaya, “Today” (translated by Andrew Wachtel)
I have sat down in the middle of the Earth, my love, in the middle of my life, to open my veins and my chest, to peel my skin like a pomegranate, and to break the red mahogany of these bones that loved you.
—Gabriela Mistral, from “The Abandoned Woman” (translated by Randall Couch)
We think of hidden in a white dress among the folded linens and sachets of well-kept cupboards, or just out of sight sending jellies and notes with no address to all the wondering Amherst neighbors. Eccentric as New England weather the stiff wind of her mind, stinging or gentle, blew two half imagined lovers off. Yet legend won’t explain the sheer sanity of vision, the serious mischief of language, the economy of pain.
Of course it was a disaster. The unbearable, dearest secret has always been a disaster. The danger when we try to leave. Going over and over afterward what we should have done instead of what we did. But for those short times we seemed to be alive. Misled, misused, lied to and cheated, certainly. Still, for that little while, we visited our possible life.
When I walk all the things of the earth awaken, and they rise up and whisper and it’s their stories that they tell.
And the peoples who wander leave them for me on the road and I gather them where they’ve fallen in cocoons made of footprints.
Stories run through my body or purr in my lap. They buzz, boil, and bee-drone. They come to me uncalled and don’t leave me once told.
Those that come down from the trees braid and unbraid themselves, and weave me and wrap me until the sea drives them away. But the sea speaks endlessly and the more I tire, the more it tells me …
People who are chewing the forest and those who break stone want stories at bedtime.
Women looking for lost children who don’t return and women who think they’re alive and don’t know that they’re dead, ask for stories every night and I spend myself telling and telling.
I stop in the middle of the road between rivers that won’t let me go, and the chorus begins closing in and they trap me in the ring.
At my thumb come those of the animals, at my forefinger those of my dead. Those of children, being so many, swarm like ants on my palms.
The crackpot mariners who ask for them sail no more, and those they tell I tell them in front of the open sea.
I had one that went like the flight of albatrosses and scissortails. You could hear the wind in it, it lapped sea-salt contentedly. I forgot it when I was inland like a fish nobody feeds.
Where could the story be, flying like a drunken gull, that fell at my skirts one day and left me blind from such whiteness?
Another faraway woman tells a story that saves and frees, maybe she has it, maybe she’ll bring it to my door before she dies.
When the one I had took my arms like this, they all would run like rivulets of blood through my arms all night long. Now, facing East, I’m giving them to that one as a reminder.
The old ones want them falsified, the children beg that they be true. They all want to hear my own story which on my living tongue is dead. I search for someone who remembers it, page for page, thread for thread. I’ll lend them my breath, give them my beat to see if hearing it wakes it in me.
—Gabriela Mistral, “The Storyteller” (translated by Randall Couch)