Leslie Harrison’s second poetry collection, The Book of Endings, part of the Akron Series in Poetry, takes place in a space between the real world (where it’s usually winter), the imagination, language, art, and myth. The poems seem always to be trying to get to the bottom of things, and one of the pleasures of reading them is never knowing where they’ll end up, feeling the mind thinking as you go along. Lines often stutter and re-start: “For I have loved the blade with all my crippled / with all my awkward soul”; “for I have loved / Leviathan for being only for being exactly / what god hated” (“[Wilt thou play with him as with a bird]”). Haunted by ghosts, a mummy, Jesus, a lost mother, a lost love, and pre-lost children, The Book of Endings gives the sense that we need all of the answers—many truths as opposed to the Truth—to make sense of anything at all in this cold world; I kept thinking of Frost’s “momentary stay against confusion.” By the end of the book, the speaker, for better or worse, is setting sail.
Harrison is an NEA Fellow and the recipient of the 2008 Katharine Bakeless Nason Prize in poetry for her first book, Displacement (Mariner). Her poems have been widely published, in journals such as FIELD, The Kenyon Review, The New Republic, and Memorious. A long-time resident of Sandisfield, Massachusetts, she now lives and teaches in Baltimore.
To me, the poems in The Book of Endings often seem like incantations, a way of killing the silence, staving off absence. They seem constantly struggling against confusion and unknowing—struggling to make the world mean. Would you describe them that way? Is there a better way?
Incantation—from the Latin incantare—to cast a spell upon, or to bewitch; it shares a root with enchantment. So wow, I hope so. I love that this is a word you want to use to describe the poems. I hope it is a true word, that they are even a little like that. So many poems have spellbound me. Ambition and generosity—what others have done I wish to do; let me give to you, dear reader, what someone once gave to me.
And yes, I’ll talk more in a bit about trying to make the world mean, but first the silence question. There are different kinds of silence. Some of them I love. I don’t have TV in my house, and lately I’m not listening to music. I live with two dogs, one of whom is deaf. And one of the things I struggle with now, living in a city, is how damned noisy it is all the time. Sandisfield was so quiet you could hear a raven flying overhead from inside your house. I love that kind of silence.
But when someone dies, a very particular silence infects your life. My mother was in pain toward the end of her life, and mostly confined to her house. So she and I would talk nearly every day, sometimes for hours. We probably spent 10-20 hours a week on the phone toward the end. I grew up with a single parent. My father vanished when I was a baby. We were poor—on welfare, living in the projects. She kept us safe and fed and entertained and taught us to read and bake and ride bikes and play poker (which we did, by the way, with Tootsie Rolls or pennies). My mother was my whole world, and we were close for all her life.
So one way of thinking about the way the poems work is that her death brought a kind of inhuman (and inhumane) silence into my world, and I think the poems are indeed trying desperately not to end, not to fall into silence, even for the space of a period, a comma. They’re me talking into the void, trying to calm myself, trying not to panic.
And yes, the poems absolutely do want to be stays against all sorts of things—confusion, grief, silence, and the terrible sense I have that the world is arbitrary and random and does not mean, in fact, can not mean.
I gave up writing poems in college in part because language seemed so useless, so completely inadequate. When I came back to writing, it was with full knowledge that I would fail, that language is inadequate, that the most I can do is hold back silence, stay confusion for a moment before it all collapses back into chaos. But if I could create moments of trying to make things make sense, or at least make music and beauty and consolation, then it was worth the daily failures.
So even if the world is arbitrary and random, we, the world’s artists, have to try. That is, I think, the work of the artist—to try to speak the world into moments of sense or order or beauty. I think of Olena Kalytiak Davis quoting Vincent Van Gogh, “I have tried / to express the terrible passions / of humanity by means of red and green.” Language is red and green.
Your epigraph is from Heather McHugh’s poem “Etymological Dirge,” which is about unintuitive etymologies, for example in the line “Calm comes from burning. / Tall comes from fast”: the word “tall” comes from the Old English getæl, meaning “prompt, active,” and “calm” from the ancient Greek kaiein which means “to burn.” Coincidentally, I’ve been walking around listening to this Bill Bryson book The Origin of Language (N.B. Bill Bryson books are perfect for listening to while walking or driving—the right pace, the right concentration of information). That book reminds us of things like the fact that the words “brave” and “bravado” mean exactly opposite things—and that both come from “depraved.” I love remembering about the mutability of language—that words are sort of there for the making and taking. It’s liberating. Anyway! The mutability, the possibilities, and the impossibilities of language come up quite a bit throughout your book, for example in “[I keep throwing words at the problem because words]” and “[What I mean].” Is this a preoccupation of yours as well? Could you speak to it a little bit? Maybe I should say it better this way: could you tell us why you chose that epigraph, or what books you were reading, or what your preoccupations were, as you wrote these poems—essentially, where they came from?
Ha! You and me and Heather McHugh—don’t you just love language sometimes? Because, yes, it might be a blunt instrument, but it is ours and it does do things.
I love that poem. I memorized it a while ago, and I say it like a rosary sometimes, quietly, to myself. It has become a talisman, a way to acknowledge language’s mystery, power, and elusive nature. A part of me just wanted to say thank you to Heather. I can’t thank Shakespeare or Auden or Berryman or Bishop or Frost or Bogan. But where I have the opportunity to tell a poet how much their work matters to me, I try.
But also (as you say below) the entire quatrain but especially the final two lines gesture quite strongly to a lot of my obsessions as they play out in the book. It says,
Afford yourself what you can carry out.
A coward and a coda share a word.
We get our ugliness from fear.
We get our danger from the lord.
I tell my students that prose writers believe they can say things with words. They spend sometimes 70,000 or 80,000 words saying things. Poets (or at least this one) know that words can’t really say anything. Sometimes they can gesture toward capturing something, but really, language is so inadequate—it changes shape, morphs, its roots are obscured in its branches and it is composed mostly of water— and we say, “I love you” to a mother and the same thing to a beloved and we say, “I love tea.” And they’re three very different things. So yes, I’m a bit obsessed with etymology, with the efficacy and failures of language, with its shifty, clouded nature, its odd lineage.
I don’t think most of us think about it, but I’m well pleased I write in English. It is such a strange mash-up and portmanteau and thief.
Formally, these breathless, unpunctuated poems—each about a page—are pretty different from those in your first book, Displacement, which are shorter and more tightly controlled, punctuated, organized into regular stanzas (although there are hints toward the end of the book that things are trending towards entropy—not that it is ever, of course, entropy. It’s all craft!). How did you arrive at this new form? How does it function, for you?
True story: I thought I had a brain injury.
The formal change happened overnight. I woke up and punctuation was just gone. I literally didn’t use a piece of punctuation again in a poem, barring apostrophes, until quite recently, and then only once, and only a little bit. I’d write and not be able to punctuate. I’d write and not be able to stick two lines together. It made me crazy to see a string of couplets or tercets and I’d be like, NO! nonononono. If I was drafting and didn’t put the stanza break in, I couldn’t go on until I corrected it. (I’m also weirdly allergic to regular multi-line stanzas in other people’s work; I see a poem in stanzas and I have to fight my desire to stop reading.)
I’m in a totally dysfunctional relationship with punctuation. It’s just not that into me. And multi-line stanzas are over me in a big way.
It isn’t really even a choice, which is why I thought I had a brain injury. So the question of how it functions is a little like asking how my lungs work. I have no idea, but I’m super-grateful to be breathing.
And I expect it to end (the form, not the breathing thing, though, yeah, eventually that too, I guess). I’ve come to believe it is tied to something I’m working out, something I’m dealing with in both language and content.
I’m a weirdly intuitive writer; I don’t want to look too closely at both what I’m doing and how the poems work, because I tend to lose interest in things I think I understand. I could list current obsessions—the sea, especially shipwrecks, the photographs of Ray Collins, huge waves and the men who surf them; the pieces of language we all recognize (childhood games, the wedding ceremony, some psalms, some prayers); knives and blades of all sorts; horses, owls, all birds really; trees; really old living things; glass; rectangles; Hiroshige prints, and certain physical talismans, like a Lego minifigure I often carry around. And I can’t tell you why I love and pay attention to any of them. If I knew, they’d lose their power, like a question the world actually answered for once. And I think the form that shapes the poems is like that—a question I don’t have an answer to, though I may, in time.
I will say I have part of a collection of prose poems about a shape-shifter that has a much more conventional relationship with punctuation. So something is going on and it relates to the content of these particular poems. And when I’m done, I think I’ll be able to move on.
So far though, I’ve got another 32 decent drafts, and 26 rougher drafts toward a new book, and all of them follow the same form, though some are getting longer and some shorter.
The Book of Endings is a triptych—divided into Left, Right, and Center sections—evoking Christian art and altarpieces. Moving through the book, I felt like I was like opening up a painting: first the left panel, then the right, and then seeing the whole picture. Would you tell us a little bit about why you divided the book this way?
I’m so glad the structure is visible in that way! Once I discovered the structure, the book was actually titled Triptych. It was months after it was under contract that I figured out the real title. Then I still had “A Triptych” as a sort-of subtitle. In production we let it fade away, and I was concerned it wouldn’t be read the way you read it, so I’m happy that is still visible. What is that O’Hara poem? “Why I Am Not a Painter.” It makes me laugh because I
did that—I erased almost all of the genesis of the structure of the book. Maybe the book’s real title was Sardines or Oranges.
I think a lot of writers will recognize this frustration: I couldn’t order the book. For years. Displacement was easier—there is a buried narrative in that book—a beginning, middle, and end. But it turned out that knowing how to order that book is not the same as knowing how to order a book.
How did it come to me? It feels a little like something an old photography teacher said to me when I described a classmate as lucky. The teacher said that you have to put yourself in the way of luck. Get out there; do the work; be prepared for luck, and recognize it when it happens along.
I love art, especially painting and early Japanese woodblocks. I have a weird aptitude for theory. I read philosophy. I am a little obsessed with lapis lazuli. I have a AAA membership (TripTiks!). I love architecture. I studied art history a fair bit. I am an obsessive reader. I can’t, for example, point to what I was reading during the writing of the book—on a slow week I’m reading 8-10 books at once.
All of those were swirling around. I was teaching a poetics class and thinking about the tripartite structure of argument credited most recently to Hegel (who credits Kant), but really it’s much older—thesis, antithesis, synthesis. And I was reading a lot of theology and yes, looking at early Christian alter pieces, which are often triptychs—threes being a thing in Christianity—and trying to figure out why Mary was often dressed in blue (lapis lazuli!).
And suddenly, I realized the book was a triptych.
Once I had that bolt out of the blue, I ordered the book in about 20 minutes. And for those of you trying to place a manuscript, I can say that I sent it out a lot before I ordered it and it was kicked to the curb over and over again. I sent it out with the final order just 4 times. It was a finalist but not picked by the judge all four times. And Mary Biddinger at Akron selected it for the Editor’s choice. And a couple of the other editors where it was a finalist lamented that it got away, which is a lovely thing to hear, even if I don’t entirely believe it.
My lesson was that, for the next book, I should not beat my head against a very hard wall in frustration, not send the book out until I’m sure it is ready. Do the work, be patient, and listen to what the book wants to be. And (not that I needed the reinforcement) keep reading, looking at art, doing research, teaching—put myself in the way of the luck, the happy insight that might make the difference.
There are many allusions to religion and Christianity throughout the book—in the epigraph, in the structure, in poems like “[God speaks]”, “[Take, eat]”, “[Parable]” (which appears twice), and many more. Greek mythology, too, saturates this book—Sisyphus, Penelope, Sirens—and your last. What role do myth and religion play in your writing process, in your everyday thinking?
Religion, myth, and folklore are all systems of information, systems of knowledge by which cultures attempt to order and explain the world. But they’re also a weird and amazing kind of cultural shorthand. Most people know who Icarus was, who Penelope was. So it is efficient to drop a mythological figure into a poem. You don’t have to explain.
I studied Greek and Roman mythology in college. In grad school I did an independent study in folklore with a very well known folklorist. I am of course fascinated with language and with ritual. And I am obsessed with metaphor. It’s a bit old-fashioned these days, to love beauty and metaphor, but I do. Mythology is also a system of metaphor—metaphor and mimesis are why such systems persist. And sometimes they’re really plausible, like Aristotle believing in spontaneous generation.
As for Christianity, that is a more complicated thing. All of what I just said still applies—I’m fascinated by the stories of Christianity, and the ritual language associated with it. The writing in the Bible, especially the King James, is gorgeous.
My mother died. And then my grandmother died, and then my best friend. In two years. And in that time I also ended an intense relationship, and a couple of close friendships faltered. I spent nine days alone in the dark after an ice storm, and had a serious health scare. People started to joke about my life resembling Job’s. And Job is one of the strangest books in the Bible. In part, I think it is an attempt to account for suffering. So it did resonate with me. And it created one of my ongoing obsessions—Leviathan (not Hobbes’s, though that book does have a very famous triptych frontispiece).
People talk about the stages of grief, and they’re not wrong. At some point after my mother died, I found myself angry. But I had nobody to be angry at—she had fought hard to live, so I couldn’t be mad at her. So I ended up deflecting a lot of my anger toward this particular system. My thinking went like this: if God exists, he is either not omnipotent, in which case, why bother, or he is unbelievably cruel and deserves my anger. If he doesn’t exist, then being angry with him is a kind of healthy outlet.
So a lot of the poems that are directly or indirectly interested in Christianity were born out of that sea—of grief and attempts (past and present), yet again, to make things make either beauty or sense.
In Displacement, we have “Instructions to a Realtor” about moving into a house, and in The Book of Endings, we have “[Things the realtor will not tell the new owner]” (one of my favorite poems in the book). What’s with these realtors?
They’re agents of change, aren’t they? I’ve moved over 50 times, and I am obsessed with the idea of home because, basically, I never had one. But then I bought my little house in Sandisfield.
Those two poems are sort of an alpha and omega of my time in the only home I’ve ever had. Weirdly, both poems were very late additions to the books—probably the last poem I put in each book. In the most recent one, I was in the process of trying to sell the house, as I’d gotten a job in Baltimore and had to leave. I knew I’d take so many memories, but I wondered if the house and the creatures I encountered daily would remember me. How did all my encounters with hungry bears (that is redundant, since bears are composed mostly of hunger) change the bear or live in its memory? I saw the same trees, the same creatures, windows and walls daily for a decade. I watched generations of phoebes fledge from the nest in the bathroom eaves, saw deer, goose families who came annually to the lake to raise new goslings, woodpeckers, coyotes—the list is long. And I was so damned grateful for the house, its shelter and light and quiet.
I wondered what of me the house would keep. The trees and animals and the house, which shaped my days and nights for a decade—would they notice my absence? I wanted, very much, for the house to remember me, though perhaps not quite as sadly as the poem says. There was dancing there. And gratitude. And a staring contest with a swan. Misadventures with fences and wasps. And being way too close to too many bears. And the songs of the coyotes. And the milky way overhead like I’ve never seen it anywhere else—a bright ribbon of light. Moons and meteors and a comet and eclipse and every dawn and every dusk for a decade.
And then the realtors sold my house to someone else, and for the first time in my life, I left home.
Interviewer Sarah Trudgeon is the recipient of the 2015 Poetry Society of America 30 and Under Chapbook Fellowship for her collection Dreams of Unhappiness, selected and introduced by Don Paterson. Her poems have appeared in the London Review of Books, The Nation, The Paris Review, The TLS, and the anthology Eight Miami Poets. A graduate of Johns Hopkins University and the MFA program at the University of Florida, she serves as managing editor of Sink Review and director of the Writing-in-Schools program Mastheads Fireside.
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