From One Wound, How to Navigate Another

A Conversation: Fiona Sze-Lorrain, Dan Beachy-Quick, H. L. Hix

Fiona Sze-Lorrain, Rain in Plural (Princeton University Press, 2020)

Yin Lichuan, Karma, translated from the Chinese by Fiona Sze-Lorrain (Tolsun Books, 2020)

Dan Beachy-Quick, Arrows (Tupelo Press, 2020)

Dan Beachy-Quick, Stone-Garland: Six Poets from the Greek Lyric Tradition (Milkweed Editions, 2020)

HLH: I have the feeling reading these books that any one moment contains all the others, so I have the sense that even my starting us with a very simple observation won’t prevent the conversation from leading somewhere interesting.  When I read Fiona’s “Never Once,” I immediately associated it with Dan’s “The Made Thing Considers Itself,” for no reason smarter than that they both employ anaphora.  But even if my initial basis for associating those poems is superficial, I wonder if either of you has a sense that there is something deeper there to be seen.  Each feels to me as though it is significant to the collection it’s in: do they “talk to one another” across the books?

DBQ: “Never Once” is a poem in Rain in Plural that strikes me deeply, as so many do, but does so for slightly different reasons, not the least of which is the most obvious—that the anaphora works the poem toward a different formal stance than the others. Somehow that opens a means of consideration, the “wound open to interpretation” that difference might mark. This is a large thing to say, and I’m not sure it’s right or true or even responsible, but I feel in that ongoing “After” of the poem an aspect of your work, Fiona, I’m just apprenticing myself to—and it is a profound kind of afterness. By that I mean I can feel the poems finding themselves at the far advent of the mind having formed, having collected within it the strange facts of experience and history that build a resource of unconscious possibilities, and much of the pleasure I find in the poems comes from the deeply strange resonance of the images, that feel to me simultaneously emerging and submerging back into that source, that resource, made of a kind of afterness. In this way it could be that the poem of mine you mention, Harvey, acts as the opposite side of the same fact, where the poem feels to me seeking after an origin, a beginning, found nowhere, but hidden in itself, in the poem—or, another way to put, a beforeness. I feel this contrariness, this harmony (“jointure” in the old sense) in the translated work as well, just so struck by how the direct, liberated, bodily work of Yin Lichuan’s poetry bears in it an ethos I find in some of the ancient Greeks I’m translating—Anacreon, Archilochus, both coming most quickly to mind. It makes me think there are ways as poets we are continually retrieving, renewing; or maybe it is truer to say, some force moves through the poet writing the poems, and turns our attention where the form needs it to go. I feel this somehow, Fiona, in your elegies, eulogies, requiems that haunt your book.

HLH: Just to tag on, Dan, to your observation about retrieving/renewing.  The combination of afterness and beforeness in retrieving and renewing makes me want to add restoring to the list, by association with an entry in the daybook of a poet I know that you and I both admire, George Oppen: “A poem is written to test, salvage, restore — two or three words.  Or one word.  More likely one word.”  I am led back to the two poems, to read Fiona’s poem as a retrieval/renewal/restoration of the word “after,” and to read Dan’s poem as a retrieval/renewal/restoration of the word “made.”

DBQ: & this from Emerson: “Genius is the repair of the decay of things.”

FSL: Having poems converse across books—or languages, for that matter—can be a dynamic and fluid experience.  It tests boundaries, mobilizes them, erases them . . . and opens up spaces.  It allows us to think of poetry as an expression beyond form: what does it want to say or offer?  What has it now said?  Given what is said, what can be heard?  [What do we hear or not want to hear?]  And what does the making of a poem mean in our and others’ lives?  At its best, such conversation—very much a travel—brings poets of different time-spaces together, not just in consensual contexts or agreements, but also through differences.  Dan has picked this up from the start: the “wound open to interpretation” that difference might mark.  It is such conversations that teach us to trust one another, and even transform reciprocity.  Mutual trust is a powerful mirror: it helps us look into our own poetic vulnerabilities, unmask ourselves [when or if we hide behind the poems we read or write], and learn from one another as well as the ancients.  This may be what you both meant by retrieval, renewal, and restoration.  I, too, think you are hinting at processes that are much more organic and sometimes inexplicable.  

These three constructs become pregnant and meaningful once we identify them with realities—the actual, the emotional, the complex, and the unknown—which aren’t quite as “neat” or “straightforward” as they seem in theory or dialectics.  They don’t come free or without risks.  For instance, the renewal bit might work very well, but the restoration part could fail, maybe only to make the retrieval more relevant.  Or all three phases may happen asynchronously, who knows.  They probably don’t need resolution as much as we want them to bring us resolution.  More and more, I come to realize how an existence simply can’t always “make sense” as societies would like, or induce “results,” “plans” and “productivity”… even though as someone fairly Cartesian by temperament, I don’t wish to let artistic generosities and humanness make room for confusion and ambivalence.  It is in times of chaos that time sees who resists and is lucid.  That is how I try to see creation—the making of some-“thing” for instance—and a soulful life.

“Never Once” indeed relates to my commitment and attraction to the “ongoing” and its unpredictabilities.  The poem began with a thought that in itself carries a doubt or question: perhaps a poem cultivates an afterlife, and if so, might this afterlife sustain its [or any] present?  Could it generate ongoing possibilities—visually and/or behaviorally as “circles” or “curves”… plastic forms or the so-called irregular, “clouds,” and so forth . . . rather than “lines,” “squares,” or “points”—in turn dismantling the “one-way” unity of time and dimension:

After reaching different planes of existence during an induced sleep

                                                                        for science and mainstream journalism

After the dismissal of a caregiver

After listening to the last stretch of Callas: her aria and its antipositivism

After a duel in Umbria, in which the maestro lost his secret

After nonthought/nonaction via a nonself/nonmoment—preferably with some emotion

After every king, his children, and their revised list

            of queens, plays, and errors

After after, après, dopo . . .

                               in English, the word was used before the Middle Ages, the fall

of Rome

and a wound open to interpretation—

By extension, a translation can be an afterlife of a poem.  I tend to have a difficult time intellectualizing the choices of interpretation to justify a translation.  It takes away much of its inner beauty and silence.  Seeking a poem’s afterlife allows me to live by the less materialistic endeavors of language, the spiritual grounds of aesthetics.  I still have a long way to go.  How a poem once written reflects a certain way of life—concrete conduct and course of action—seems more vital to me than it being a product of thought to regenerate thought.  Ultimately, what one says or writes has no or little value if it is not being practiced or acted upon—or worse, if contradicted and negated by action, a marker of decision and thought.  In this sense, its philosophy aside, I read Dan’s poem, “The Made Thing Considers Itself” as demonstrative in precise ways.  The incantatory feel of the piece—its accomplished music—follows up with the title and its intent or doing. 

More broadly, though not to simplify or generalize, Arrows expands mind and thought to the larger—nature, the divine, and then to other surprises and invitations.  It is a deep book with deep respect for language.  In “Eidos,” I am offered room, and a sense of the pace and setting:

While rain gains weight at the window

Frame the ever lessening portion

Still mine

                of mind

Called the open sky

In another, “The Oracle at—”, the poetic voice seems to snap back at [or to] a plain fact—mortality:


Has a savings account for future

Travel called the mind. Called mind

To mind, but not much was there.

This poem stopped me: life and money.  It is darkly funny and serious and efficient.  The gravity prepares me for others such as “Drone.” 

I should add that earlier on, when I mentioned “circles” or “curves” or “clouds”… instead of “lines,” I thought of lines from Dan’s opening “Primer: astronomy”:

     spin darkly to say

I I I your kind

    stutter waits

          for one line

               to break so

           sky tilts, cracks

     and clouds tumble

into the gap

HLH: Already this conversation has stirred much into circulation for me.  I am drawn strongly to (drawn strongly by) Fiona’s praise of mutual trust, how “it helps us look into our own poetic vulnerabilities, unmask ourselves … , and learn from one another.”  That we need help regarding our vulnerabilities seems inherent to vulnerability.  And vulnerability has everything to do with our collecting, as Dan puts it, “the strange facts of experience and history that build a resource of unconscious possibilities,” and with, as Fiona puts it, our practicing or acting upon what we say or write.

Helping one another look at our own vulnerabilities feels urgent to me, always, but never more than in our present historical moment, so charged with mutual distrust, so bent on the pretense of invulnerability.  Fiona’s words call to mind other recent beckonings toward helping one another in our vulnerability.  In Hiding from Humanity, Martha Nussbaum calls for “something that I do not expect we shall ever fully achieve: a society that acknowledges its own humanity, and neither hides us from it nor it from us; a society of citizens who admit that they are needy and vulnerable, and who discard the grandiose demands for omnipotence and completeness that have been at the heart of so much human misery, both public and private.”  Adriana Cavarero in Inclinations advocates, against the centrality of rectitude as a moral metaphor, with its implications of autonomy and self-sufficiency, choosing instead “vulnerability as a paradigm of the human,” with its permission for us not to have to stand upright but to incline toward one another, depend on one another.  And with specific regard to poetry, not to mention concord with Fiona’s Cartesian temperament, Lyn Hejinian in her essay “Reason” presents theorizing as “the very opposite of theorem-stating,” describing it instead as “a manner of vulnerable, inquisitive, worldly living, and it is one very closely bound to the poetic processes.”

All this leads me back into the books, in which, alerted in this way, I see vulnerabilities everywhere.  The “white and round and so quiet” vase “shrouded in dust” that in “Vase” evokes from Yin Lichuan’s speaker the experience that “dust is so moving and tender.”  The call in Julianus’ epigram for Archilochus to the passerby to be quiet near Archilochus’ grave, not to avoid disturbing the person buried there but “so that your step doesn’t wake / these wasps sleeping on the poet’s tomb.”  Dan’s evocation in “Personae” of the moments “When I see what I can see / No more,” Fiona’s in “This winter…” of the moment of giving “the sun my bones to lick, glad to feel mortal before salting the bean curds.”  I experience such moments as offering trust and inviting trust.

DBQ: It feels so much is at hand, there is in the conversation so many paths one could take, so many threads one could try to weave together, I hardly know how or where to begin. Some thoughts angle weirdly in the echo-chamber of the mind. I hear so distinctly Fiona—your question of the poem cultivating an afterlife. I feel too that the poem might contain an afterlife, the undergrove of the poem, in which words come to us bearing the entirety of their utterance, have heaped within them as within an urn the fragments of consciousness that have informed them across, but an unlike an urn, the fragments are able, or are learning, to speak. Maybe it is truer to say they are teaching us to speak.

I find something of this nearly impossible lesson articulated so succinctly in one of my favorite sequences in Rain in Plural. In section V of “Sea Ballads,” “Late Shower,” you write, as if in apostrophe: “Nostalgia, heal my lacuna.” I feel a profound ethical plea here, and one tied to the various forms of trust and vulnerability Harvey speaks so movingly of. It is as if you’re teaching us how one wound might help us learn not to heal, but to navigate another. (Here, too, I hear your encouragement to think toward action, toward a poem manifesting itself in how we live our lives.) The wound of home, the wound of memory, the wound of life and what life has lost, every trace still within us, or traces enough, to help us reckon with that lacuna—the gap, chasm, synapse, abyss of other sort. What has gone missing from us, or in us, in a different way. This positing of absence within absence, the subtlety of feeling difference where most would find none, it feels nearly redemptive to me.

As do other aspects of Rain in Plural. The “Cyclical” in “Sea Ballads.” Moon & Ocean & Womb. These patterns cosmic that govern our lives when our lives are vulnerable enough to admit to them. How desire, lust, sexuality offer themselves as aspects of macrocosmic motions in the microcosm of the self. (I could even feel numbers, the letters of the alphabet, moving through as the grave pull of the moon does. Pythagoras.) Such motions occur then, just as Fiona says, by also manifesting in the ways we live our life, and in the quietest of ways, I often feel myself most moved:

I made a bowl of sakéd ginger,

looked for a sail

in and out of its horizon, and prayed

without Amen.

The domestic here is also the realm of the philosophical, ontological, and theological—that feels right to me.

HLH: Your term highlights for me one thread that runs through this conversation, and it sends me back to read the poems (and the books, each in its wholeness) as ethical plea.  By contrast with ethical imperative.  A plea, as much as a charge, to “take stock of the endings of those lives you left behind” (the fifth of Fiona’s “Nine Solitudes”); a plea to search for what one holds in one’s hands (Dan’s “Some Rules of Grammar”); a plea for hearts to “think the same as the world they encounter” (Archilochus, “Two Fragments”); a plea to love in one’s fingers rather than in the tip of one’s tongue (Yin Lichuan, “Truth”).

The poem as ethical plea recalls to mind Audre Lorde’s sense of poetry as something that “forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action.”

FSL: Dan can no doubt speak better than me in terms of the ethical urgency of writing.  His experience and corpus of work—I was also thinking of his prose book Wonderful Investigations, my introduction to his poetry—consistently brings up the big question of “the church of mind,” to borrow his words.  By extension, to suggest ethics as associated with thought, or so “the rational thought” that Dan would mention, and to suggest poetry as a vehicle for all of these through beauty, that is a honorable vision. 

These seem or sound obvious, one may mock, but our current political chaos should be lessons enough to make us come closer to the earth than to cling to egos and intellect and technology and the material knowledge, and to find solutions through similar channels: “But men are infinite generations of fools” is truer in my opinion, than “It’s difficult to cleave to goodness,” says Pittacus in “Fragment” (Simonides).  For if so, should “goodness” be easy then?  Isn’t it supposed to be difficult, anyway?  These are my questions and doubts, and some of the ways I seek to improve myself.

I realize how varied yet generative our work put together can be read.  Both of you translate, too, on top of your own writing.  So the vehicle of poetry can run on different engines, different “rational thoughts.”  I am keen to know about Dan’s ways of seeking songs in songs for his writing and translation, and Harvey’s nimble approaches to intertexuality, his ways of weaving song to song—and how all of these nourish and keep alive one’s engagement with the work, the ethics of the practice, and if I may, the vocation of creating.

DBQ: This notion you give us, Harvey, of plea—an ethical plea, so different from an ethical demand, so different than the imperative. (I hear in my mind Whitman: “Poetry judges not as a judge judges, but as sunlight falling on a helpless thing.”) And this quiet and disquieting reminder Fiona offers us that beauty is part of this plea. And more, Fiona so honestly, so nakedly, reminding us that being good is difficult work, and that in some way, poetry still invests us in the possibility that we can better ourselves, be more worthy of the world we are given. I hear in plea a way of speaking this is ever-opening itself, ever more vulnerably, to the possibility of another. A plea is made not using force, but surrendering to it—surrendering to the possibility of it. I suppose I think of it in such ways in part by Fiona’s wonderfully nested question to me—of how to seek songs in songs. There is a line Susan Howe writes in an essay, something to the effect of: “I have risked my whole life on the possibility of an immense pattern.” I suspect my own searching bears in it the same faith, and the only way I can seek out what I most need to learn is by a kind of singing, a kind of song, that cannot be discovered as something original in myself, but only as an origin in another. To learn to follow in the drift of another. To point at wanders away up ahead. It is a kind of audacious reticence—to step toward and yet also step away. I find this paradoxical quality (I almost want to call it a virtue) in the last poem of Fiona’s Rain in Plural.

Sprit, I don’t tell myself you control our field,

            the random face

            of a god who leaves us old,

            an alley to somewhere hypnotic,


            and curved at each turn.

& just below:

I don’t tell

a soul—what you intuit

on a peak. I won’t tell others how storms heal

            or stop the countdown,

why echoes blink

to preserve drift.

I won’t paint your dream in this portrait.

I find in that moving forward only to refuse a form of wild care. Of leaving possibility open so as to preserve…preserve something…what, I don’t wholly know. Maybe, to steal from one of Fiona’s titles, to preserve the the saying from the said.

HLH: This moment in our conversation, its particular harmony (Fiona’s “vocation of creating” and Dan’s “audacious reticence”), makes me think of music.  We seem to be rubbing here against the “common-sense” distinction between activity and passivity.  In “ordinary life” we typically treat them as mutually exclusive (you’re either active or passive, not both), but music performs a counterexample to that exclusivity.  Music invites (demands?) a receptivity that is personal and interpersonal.  I think of Wallace Stevens’ “… she was the maker of the song she sang,” and Jan Zwicky’s “Musicians,” which describes musicians after a rehearsal “still breathing almost in unison, like people / the searchlight has passed over / and spared…”  Or Paul Woodruff’s account (in his book Reverence) of an amateur string quartet’s rehearsal as an example of the virtue of reverence, because:

(1) The musicians have been engaged, more or less harmoniously, on a project as a group; (2) their project involved ceremony; (3) they have felt themselves largely without ego; (4) they have felt themselves to be part of a clearly defined hieararchy that was painless for all of them; and (5) they have achieved in the end a shared feeling of inarticulate awe.

I know that Fiona is a musician, and that I’m a failed musician (a few years of lessons in classical guitar, to no effect!); I don’t know, Dan, about your musical experience.  But I see in the poems attunement — that musical metaphor — to this concern.  In Fiona’s “The Problem with Music,” activity (“I broke my guzheng, string by string”) meets passivity (“I did nothing”), and culminates in a paradoxical merger: “Telling myself I must do nothing.”  Dan’s “music” ends, too, in paradox: “clarity / will not ever / cohere.” 

Coherence seems to have (to be?) a fragility that can be summoned (Fiona’s word “vocation” — a calling) but not owned.  Property rights are rights of exclusion: owning my house means I can keep others out of it.  Ownership closes us to one another, but what can’t be owned, can’t be kept, opens us to one another, and to ourselves and our world.  Again Stevens: after the song, even “The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there” fix “emblazoned zones and fiery poles, / Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.”  And Zwicky: after rehearsal, “even / the gravel dust stuttering at their feet / is coherent.”

FSL: Doing nothing can be a state of passivity.  Doing nothing can also be the most active state of being and consciousness—Taoist “nothingness” is far from being nothing, for instance.  So in that sense, doing nothing is doing something.  Is silence music?  Yes.  Does it need to be music?  Of course not—yet that doesn’t mean it can be allowed to mutate to some kind of “noise” or “lies” or “flattery” or “pollution.”  More crucially, Harvey has highlighted one of the most problematic realities that we humans face in our constructed societies: ownership and the sense and privilege of proprietorship, and why people who need to own simply cannot arrive at a certain spiritual profundity.  At that end of the day, it is about giving up what we can give up in order to seek further the unknown.  I think that is what poetry is about.  That is what writing and translating as forms of poetry and expression are about.  Let me read these lines from Dan’s translation of Theognis:  

. . . those who do not die give

Sudden gifts of many kinds to those who do.  Submit,

You must.  Wed yourself to the gifts the gods give,

Whatever those gifts are.

And these from Dan’s beautiful poem, “Some Consequences of the Made Thing”:

Feel a silence there that reminds you of a scent.

Crushed grass the hooves galloped through

Or is it the binder’s glue?

Some silence never not real finally can be

Heard. Silence before the first words.

Precedent chaos. Or marrow work.

Or just the sound of the throat opening to speak.

Like those scholars of pure water

Who rode through mountains and meadows

To drink from each fresh spring a glass

And then with brush and ink wrote poems

On the differences of sameness,

You too feel yourself taste the silent page

Of the end and the silent page of beginning.

They taste so much of whiteness never more

White than white that’s been lost.

DBQ: I might only add, though “add” feels the wrong word…I might only quickly and quietly pick up this thread that feels most dear in that it feels it weaves this conversation, and so weaves us, most together. It is in that sense of “ethical plea” you mention, Harvey; and it is in this question of ownership you mention, Fiona, the necessary and true: “it is about giving up what we can give up in order to seek further the unknown.” That the gift of this conversation, its humble demonstration of what it is to open one’s thinking always in relation to another’s thought—not to do the work for oneself, but with, and in ways, for, another—feels also to me the most truthful work. It’s learning to share a silence that does not deny or erase, but opens, and invites those who can listen to it in. A reverent trio, apprentice still to their instruments, hardly knowing yet each instrument is. But how learn, but play them together? & I’m no musician at all. I can’t even carry a tune.

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