Amanda Jernigan on Bringing to Light

H. L. Hix: I am fascinated in Groundwork by the pervasiveness of what I’ll call the “deep past”: the three sections unified by, respectively, archeology, Eden, and the Odyssey.  How would you speak about the role in your poems or the  meaning of this “deep past” (for which you may have some other, better name)?


Amanda Jernigan: When I was a child I went through a phase in which I aspired to be an -ologist: geologist, paleontologist, archaeologist — I wasn’t sure which, but what I knew was, I wanted to dig things up from out of the ground. The passion was more practical than intellectual: I liked mucking about in the muck on the riverbank behind our house, from which I’d excavated sundry ‘finds’: groundhog skulls, old bottles, the occasional fossil-bearing limestone shard. My mother taught me about the WWII soldiers’ graffito ‘Kilroy was here’: I inscribed that on pieces of stone which I then returned to the riverbank, hoping to confound some future archaeologist. So my fascination with the deep (figurative) past was originally a fascination with the deep (literal) past: with the physical remains of things, under the ground.


My interest in mythology predates my interest in archaeology. I encountered myth in children’s stories, in the poems my grandfather read aloud to me, in the retold versions of the Greek myths that I excavated, so to speak, from a family bookshelf, one summer. But the Greek myths never felt to me like the deep past — not even like the past. They were every-way present.


Years later, I would read Northrop Frye, reassuring religious readers that he didn’t mean ‘myth’ in a pejorative sense. By ‘myth’ he meant, not ‘falsehood’, but a story that is perennially true: a story not about what happened, but about what happens. This agreed with my own feeling about myth — about stories of all kinds, really. I had grown up outside of any organized religious tradition, so I was not given stories with the proviso that some were true and some were not. All were true, to me. (I suppose I could as easily have decided that all were false — but, at least at that time, I did not.)


So in Groundwork, these two things come together: the past that is in the ground beneath our feet, which is in some sense dead to us, and the past that is in the stories we tell, which is in some sense alive.


Yet there is crossover: when we excavate an artifact, it becomes part of the living present, becomes part of the stories that we tell. And when we write a story down, it becomes an artifact, capable of recovery or destruction.


At the same time, the stories that we tell are very often about that which we have turned up, uncovered, brought to light. And they are themselves a way of bringing to light: not that which is buried in earth, but that which is buried in memory. I have recently been reading new poems by Jeffery Donaldson. In one of them, an elegy for his mother, dead of Alzheimer’s disease, he talks about faces marooned in the winter storm of a decaying brain: still in there somewhere, but all the wires are down, the roads closed. That is, for me, a terrifying image.


Then, too, there is Richard Wilbur’s haunting poem, ‘To the Etruscan Poets’:


Dream fluently, still brothers, who when young
Took with your mothers’ milk the mother tongue,


In which pure matrix, joining world and mind,
You strove to leave some line of verse behind


Like a fresh track across a field of snow,
Not reckoning that all could melt and go.


All poets are Etruscan poets, of course: even if one’s mother tongue is a language of empire — Greek, say, or Latin, or English — its lifespan is likely to be only marginally longer than that of the imperial buildings in which it was spoken: all melts and goes.


In Walter Benjamin’s essay on the Russian storyteller Nikolai Leskov, he talks about Leskov’s character, ‘a simple man of the people’, who believes that ‘the Czar, the head of the sphere in which [these] stories take place, has the most encyclopedic memory at his command’. Surely, traditions in which God is Alpha and Omega, the encyclopedia of everything, spring from the same kind of belief. Even an atheistic archaeologist might conceive of the ideal archaeological site, the Deadest of Dead Seas, in which, astonishingly, everything has been preserved; or tell herself that, in the grand scale of things, nothing is lost, energy becoming matter, matter energy — were it not for the ‘bad dream’ of entropy. (I am thinking of Hamlet here: ‘O God! I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.’) Richard Outram has a late poem entitled ‘The Accuser as Entropy’, which associates the ‘bad dreams’ of science and religion in this way. ‘Bad’ does not necessarily mean false, however: both bad dreams and good dreams may come through the gate of horn.


I am skeptical of the traditional poet’s-boast that poetry can keep its subject alive forever (‘… My love shall in my verse ever live young’). What I believe is that poetry can keep its subject alive for now, in the moment of reading, or recalling, or reciting.



Amanda Jernigan.  Groundwork.  Biblioasis, 2011.

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