One of our favorite poets and writers, Chris Dombrowski, will be joining us most months with a meditation on his recent enthusiasms from the world of verse. In this first installment of his new series, Plough Lines, Chris celebrates the work of Montana-based poet Melissa Kwasny, whose latest collection of poems is The Nine Senses. Published in 2011 by Milkweed Editions, it’s a “morphing, fleet, intricately paced” engagement with the question: Who is the earth? Let’s let Chris take it away.
While many contemporary poets look at the natural world, few have the rarified eyes to gaze out from it as Melissa Kwasny does in The Nine Senses, a quietly magnificent collection of prose poems that can be read as luminous, rill-fresh engagements with Sufi scholar Henry Corbin’s question: Not “what” but “who” is the earth?
The award-winning author of a book of essays, four collections of poetry, two novels, and editor of two anthologies, Kwasny began her engagement with the prose poem in the final section of her third book of poems, Reading Novalis in Montana, and in The Nine Senses asserts herself as one of our finest practitioners of this enigmatic form. Morphing, fleet, intricately paced, register-stretching, comfortable in myriad modes of discourse, Kwasny’s prose-blocks act more like clouds than the bricks they resemble visually. Here is a descriptive and, by chance, methodological passage from “At the Shore”:
Clouds, all hovering. Yesterday, like a gull’s wing. Soft as the tiniest bird eating thistle. Today, slick as a coot. Hissing like asphalt. Cleared of incense.
Elsewhere in the book she writes, “Between the wagon trail of the quest and the swell of the new, there is a crowded city pouring through the heart,” a sentence that serves as a kind of core sample of the poems’ concerns and aspirations. Often isolated in rural landscapes but informed by a rich array of texts (written and visual) and keenly aware of her (“our”) inevitable impact on the earth and creatures she adores, the open-souled speaker of these poems can be as slyly political as she is impeccably observant, as achingly tender as she is venomously ironic.
Here’s the opening of “Yellow Warblers”:
They are birds meant for willow, camouflaged midair. Where all is suddenly yellow warbler. New thoughts flit through a nation, promising repair, and absolve us of our responsibility for the weather. Sparkling tent of leaves we live under. The tent is big and you can still sit up in it, reading about birds while birds wash up dead on shore.
In an interview with Greta Aart of Cerise Press, an online journal based in the U.S. and France, Kwasny quoted the late American poet Robert Duncan, who observed: “Poetry reveals itself to us as we obey the orders that appear in our work.” Recently, over e-mail, I asked Kwasny if she would mind expounding on Duncan’s assertion. From her home in the mountains of Western Montana, she responded generously, and an excerpt of our ensuing exchange follows.
MK: Duncan is speaking of intuition, in-tuition as a tuition or education coming from the interior. To intuit something is to listen deeply, to listen in imaginative relationship to the world, which is not to say one simply “makes things up.” For me, the orders are first revealed in the exterior world by my encounters with forms of nature. (Another word for orders might be “directions.”) What comes to me? Where am I being directed? I believe in the writing of poetry as a means of revelation of deeper, more conscious ways to live and interpret the world we live in, which is one of continuous relation. The orders, therefore, are never-ending. I read the world as if it were talking specifically to me, because it is. That is what we call consciousness.
To speak more specifically about the poems, I see the progression through my books as one that enacts both an increasing faith in the earth’s response to my attention and my increasing ability to include more and more into my view, expanding my vision from individual tree to healing herb to qualities of healing, or from elegy to communication, or from one image to matrix of images or what Duncan calls “the progression of images.” They also reflect my ability to live with what I believe. Because I believe the earth speaks to us, I must practice listening. During the writing of the poems that comprise The Nine Senses, I came across a statement that said that the Sufis believed there were nine senses with which to attend to the world; in addition to the five we are familiar with, there are four more: telekinesis, telepathy, teleportation, and clairvoyance. In reality, any one of them can be the opening of a door. (Most people tell me they think there are far more than nine!)
CD: What first drew you to the prose poem? What factors led you to begin practicing it exclusively?
MK: At the time, I was trying to write myself out of a personal, emotional devastation in the middle of a Montana winter, as well as the despair I felt at the beginning of the war in Iraq. I was looking for signs and paths of rebirth, in myself and in the world at large, and, as is my practice, I looked to nature to instruct me. I found it answering me, guiding me in ways more profound than I had yet experienced, and yet that I did not have a language and form for. I knew instinctively that description was not enough. I wanted a way to engage with the images (beings) that were coming to me in a deeper way: spiritually, poetically, mythological, physically. In other words, I wanted a form that could move from the external encounter into the interior and out again. I wanted a way to explore, expand, deepen my encounters.
I suppose I haven’t finished with what the form has to offer me—my newly finished book of poems, entitled Pictograph, contains prose poems exclusively. Of course, there are also formal challenges: How to find silence and pause within that block of text. How to sustain momentum, instill rhythm within the sentence, and the rhythm of each sentence, without the line break. How to turn. I suppose there is much more to discover, or I wouldn’t be continuing to explore the prose poem, although I have been experimenting lately with single, aphoristic-like lines, again, influenced by the French poet René Char.
CD: Whitman said, “Those who are free throughout the world, they are free and they make free.” Do you think your relatively simple life in the woods with your garden and the creatures allows you to make discoveries you wouldn’t otherwise make if you were immersed in, say, a more professional or academic lifestyle?
MK: Let’s put it this way. Poetry for me is my vocation, not my career. I have, as Keats advised, arranged my life according to that necessity. I do have a job. I teach writing and research methods as an adjunct at a small liberal arts college near my home. I also teach in a satellite program for educators working on their Master’s degrees, teaching them how to integrate poetry into their curricula. I like teaching. But it’s true that I have more time—more solitude and quiet—than most people, even most poets. Contemplative time. And I am incredibly fortunate to live in the mountains of Montana, where it is still possible to live on far less than most people do. Which I do. The less one spends, the more choices one has. Real choices, not the ruse of choice capitalism seems to offer everyone. Choice of what one fills one’s consciousness with.
Chris Dombrowski’s new collection of poems, Earth Again, is just out from Wayne State University Press; Melissa Kwasny’s most recent book is Earth Recitals, a collection of essays just out from Lynx House Press. Kwasny, whose series of prose poems “Rock Drawings of the Northern Plains” appeared in the September/October 2011 issue of Orion, lives near Jefferson City, Montana.
Two of my favorite writers in one small space. What a treat. Melissa, I return to The Nine Senses all the time as a guide for how to take the process of art and observation seriously when I might feel like slighting it. I love the prose poem form (or to claim it for another genre, the lyric essay), offering a voice both intense and casual, a conversation where you are really, finally, saying what you mean. Looking forward to the new book.
Makes me want to run out immediately and find Nine Senses, along with Earth Recitals too. Also, to move to Montana from the hinterlands of Colorado. It’s getting crowded down here and – to paraphrase Kwasny rather crudely – the problem of thinking we aren’t responsible for the weather.
Chris: I love this “To intuit something is to listen deeply, to listen in imaginative relationship to the world, which is not to say one simply â€œmakes things up.â€ For me, the orders are first revealed in the exterior world by my encounters with forms of nature. (Another word for orders might be â€œdirections.â€) What comes to me? Where am I being directed? I believe in the writing of poetry as a means of revelation of deeper, more conscious ways to live and interpret the world we live in, which is one of continuous relation. The orders, therefore, are never-ending. I read the world as if it were talking specifically to me, because it is. That is what we call consciousness.”