Susan Gillis on Limitless Music

H. L. Hix: Two terms in the very first poem caught my eye, and I began to see them everywhere.  Some version of “limitless music” seems to me present in “Sleep,” “Ars Poetica,” “Entry,” “River,” and “Mid-Winter Dragon,” and some version of “troubled origins” seems to me present in “Sanguinaria canadensis,” “Spring Pries at Me,” “Habitat 67,” “Entry,” “A Good Plan,” “Birthday,” and “Retreating Ice.”  Which leads me to ask about the book as a whole: is it limitless music or a kit of troubled origins?


Susan Gillis: Thank you for this question, Harvey.


Both expressions come from a poem called “The Days,” one of several in the book that were written in conversation, if I can call it that, with Pablo Neruda’s Residence on Earth (the Donald D. Walsh translation). “Troubled origins” in particular is lifted directly from “Somber System” (Sistema Sombrío). I think of them, the origins, as poem-seeds.


In the Neruda poem, those “origins” refer beyond mere biographical detail to encompass doubt, sorrow, limitation, obsession, and other uncomfortable elements of experience and feeling. In addition to being in themselves troubling, these aspects of the human condition trouble us into speech (or, in other genres, some other kind of making). When they are stirred up, the poem begins. The “kit of troubled origins” in my poem is just that—a kit-bag full of poem-stuff. So in answer to your question, at least in part, yes, the book is a kit of troubled origins.


“The Days” is a sort of ars poetica, though there is a different poem by that name in the book, one of those you mention in connection with “limitless music.” This second part of your question is both more and less complicated.


The rapids of the title — real, particular rapids in the Saint Lawrence River near Montreal—stand in one sense as a metaphor for the turbulence that underlies all our lives.


The rapids are fierce: people can’t enter them without being swept away (though these days there are jet-boat adventure excursions for anyone inclined that way); we can only stand beside them, looking, distanced. Yet there is a mode of entry, and that is through the ear: the rapids are loud. Their roar is incessant. It surrounds us and vibrates in us. It makes us part of them if we let it. In some very cold winters they freeze, and all that kinetic activity going on beneath the silent ice turns even their silence into a force.


In this sense, the rapids embody that “limitless music” you’re recognizing in “Ars Poetica” and other poems. It’s a music measured in larger-than-human terms. Its pauses are seasons, decades, centuries, not seconds; its andante is the pace of a river widening its bed.


Calling this world-hum “music” superimposes a human structure on what is not, in fact, a human phenomenon, though it includes us, and includes the results of our actions in and upon it. The “music” in this context is both metaphor and not metaphor. We’re not separate from it.


What’s limitless about it is its unceasing nature. It resonates whether we attend to it or not. It’s measured, as all music is, yet without limits, immeasurable. It breaks temporal boundaries. I think of it as the poem that is always there.


So again in answer to your question, again in part: yes, it’s a book of limitless music. If poetry is an attending to as much as it is a voicing of such music, world-hum, it might be fair to say that I took my little kit out to the rapids and hung around awhile stirring up poems.



Susan Gillis.  The Rapids. Brick Books, 2012.



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