My guest today is Ann Fisher-Wirth, whose fourth book of poems, Dream Cabinet, has just been published by Wings Press. Her other books of poems are Carta Marina, Blue Window, and Five Terraces. Also she has published three chapbooks: The Trinket Poems, Walking Wu-Wei’s Scroll, and Slide Shows. She is coediting Ecopoetry: A Contemporary American Anthology, forthcoming from Trinity University Press in 2013. Her poems appear widely and have received numerous awards, including a Malahat Review Long Poem Prize, the Rita Dove Poetry Award, the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Poetry Award, two Mississippi Arts Commission fellowships, and twelve Pushcart nominations including a Special Mention. She has had senior Fulbrights to Switzerland and Sweden. She teaches at the University of Mississippi, where she also directs the minor in Environmental Studies. And she teaches yoga at Southern Star Yoga Studio and Blue Laurel Yoga in Oxford, MS.
For today's post, I present a short review of Ann's latest book, Dream Cabinet, and ask her some questions about the role of the poet, of the reader, of form, and of her passion for the environment.
In an interview for Very Like a Whale, when asked about the role of the poet in the world, British poet Tony Williams said, “It’s very difficult for a poet to write well in the light of a perceived responsibility to engage with matters outside the poem – whether these are political, historical, moral, theoretical, aesthetic, etc – because as soon as you have a conscious desire to do so, you’re serving two masters.” Ann Fisher-Wirth’s new collection from Wings Press, Dream Cabinet, is an extended meditation on this very dichotomy, this push-and-pull the poet feels between the world inside and that outside. The poems, ranging from formally experimental environmental meditations to intimate lyrical narratives, are fueled by the simultaneous desires to both make sense of the world and acknowledge its senselessness. In the title poem, the speaker is moved by the changing seasons of the Swedish landscape to wish “to know this place in the fullness of its seasons. / And watch the light on water, day after day, / empty out my everlasting self-regard.” It is a wish the collection fulfills, moving from poems that struggle to define experience to poems that, finally, acknowledge “nothing needs / to happen” in order for us to claim our places in this world.
The collection begins with poems capturing moments that resist definition while at the same time desiring it. The opening poem, “Slow Rain, October,” features a quotation from Williams Carlos Williams, “Minds like beds always made up.” Enjoying the possibilities of “div[ing] into an unmade bed and sleep[ing],” the speaker turns her vision towards the “sixty years of family” represented in the photographs nearby, and relishes the “Sweetness of not making the bed today, / not making the body today, not making / the life today.” It’s easy to see why Fisher-Wirth chose to begin the collection with this quiet poem. It holds all the collection’s themes inside: family, especially their comings and goings; nature present but inscrutable in its “cloak and foggy stars”; and the poet herself, attempting to make sense of it all yet deriving more pleasure in the telling than the told, in the unmade bed.
Subsequent poems pick up on this theme but take it into darker territories. A memory of a lazy afternoon in Athens is shadowed by the earlier memory of the shattered family that preceded it:
When I speak of that time my tongue
grows thick and I think of the family I broke
to be with you; years later my daughter told me
her father said to her, You will have to be
the mommy now.
Other poems, such as the powerful “Answers I Did Not Give to the Annulment Questionnaire,” explore the boundaries of remembrance, the difference between change and destruction, between the passage of time and death. Faced with annulment papers after twenty-two years of divorce, the speaker travels through the lifetime of memories encompassing fourteen years of marriage, and challenges the readers of the document to “Make to nothing now the path that led / to the house next to the chicken farm / in Upland, California” where the family once lived. This is a poem that explores the value of experience even in the face of failure, that simultaneously wishes the “Fathers” to whom it is addressed to “Make to nothing my self-hatred” and “explain that, Fathers, / to the children of this marriage.”
The environmental poems also speak to the theme of broken vs. annulled. “BP,” a formally complex poem arranged partly from quotations, presents a stark look at the disastrous oil spill, with animals large and small struggling through the oil muck. Even in its agony, however, the gulf is teeming in its “filthy iridescence,” and the “flames [that] roll over the waters” are alive with ominous intent as they “lick the legs of our chairs / where we sit sipping coffee.” Like the ever-changing landscape of Sweden, the natural world of Dream Cabinet has its peaks and valleys, transforming but never disappearing. Like families that dissolve and coalesce into new families, Fisher-Wirth’s natural world is a place that holds “no vow,” that is a soft rain one minute and a terrifying tornado the next. “There’s nothing to be done,” writes Fisher-Wirth, and she revels in it:
others have written of blackberries,
but these are my fingers gently twisting
the tender knobbly fruit from the hull,
this is my hour and cherishing, I breathe
blackberry into every cell of my body.
Bees love me. They come to buzz
and hover around my crimson fingers.
In this stained, thorn-pricked
meditation, nothing needs
What is the role of the poet in such a world? This is one of the questions I asked Ann Fisher-Wirth:
Q: In “Credo,” you write, “And the artist, what is she? The one whose hands are empty.” Could you say more about how you perceive the role of the poet?
A: Recently a friend who read Dream Cabinet pointed out what she felt to be an interesting conflict. On the one hand many of its poems grow from personal experience, from engagement with four generations of my family and with history, politics, the environment. They strongly bear the marks of my personal identity; they are autobiographical free verse grounded in lyric and to some extent narrative. Yet on the other hand “Credo” expresses a conception of poetry as coming from a kind of relinquishment, an emptying of the known self, a listening and channeling, so that language comes through but not exactly from oneself. I think, though, that what appears to be a conflict is just two sides of the same thing. Existence expresses itself through us, shaped as we are shaped. Sometimes, the shaping will be of “things that happened to the writer,” and we call that autobiography. Sometimes, the shaping will hew more closely to dream, fantasy, meditative states, the free play of the imagination. Even so, the poet is (in Gerard Manley Hopkins’s beautiful phrase) “Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came.” We speak the language, yet the language speaks us.
The role of the poet is to serve the poem. Sometimes this happens in one way, sometimes in another. Along the way, the poem cannot help but reflect the nature of the poet’s engagement with all aspects of his or her world—including the desire to empty the self out and, as much as possible while one is still alive, become one with the world. I have practiced and taught yoga for a long time, and I think of this desire as akin to what happens in meditation or Savasana.
Q: Many of the poems in Dream Cabinet seem to resist resolution, to travel through the murky waters of experience without a map. How do you perceive the role of the reader, then?
A: It’s funny, I always think of my poems as abundantly clear, even too clear—so your statement that many of the poems in Dream Cabinet seem to resist resolution delights me. Experience doesn’t have a map; instead, experience has its plenteous and as you say murky self. Poetry—like all literature—thrives on questions, complexities, conflicts, ambiguities. It is a journey, a means of exploration. And I suppose I’d want a reader to take the trip, to “learn to love the questions themselves,” as Rilke advises in Letters to a Young Poet. I think contemporary American culture is way too addicted to answers, solutions, game plans, for complicated reasons that probably have much to do with confusion and fear. Once, long ago, in a time of great trouble I asked someone, “What is the meaning of life?” I was looking for some clear-cut statement of purpose, a map that would chart my despair. He replied, “The meaning of life is life.” It was exactly the right answer. And while poetry cannot resolve life’s complexities, cannot do away with murkiness or suffering, it definitely offers us life more abundant.
Q: I was particularly impressed by “BP,” in which you not only incorporated quotations from a government document and a news article, but also did so in a very formally interesting way. I was equally taken by more traditional poems, like “Thirty Years.” How do you think about form so differently, especially in relation to content?
A: I am glad you liked “BP”! That poem was a challenge for me to write, because whereas I am intensely involved with environmental issues both in my teaching and as a citizen, and whereas I live in Mississippi, I don’t live close to the Gulf of Mexico and so did not see the destruction caused by the BP oil disaster with my own eyes. Yet Jonathan Skinner, who was co-editing a special issue of Interim magazine focusing on the disaster, invited me to contribute and I really wanted to. So I leaned on what I did have: a Nation article by Naomi Klein, the Congressional report a year after the disaster, various images in the press, and a digital photograph taken by Gara Gillentine, with whom I collaborated on the piece. I decided to run the found text in one jagged column across the page from my own jagged column of language, and to use the found text to address the large environmental implications of the event, and my own language to address the beauty and suffering of the nonhuman creatures—pelicans, dragonflies—caught in the web of our greed. So, the poem is in three sections: first, the Nation text and my poem about dragonflies; second, the Congressional report excerpts and my poem about pelicans; third, two contrasting voices—both mine—the first of which expresses our lack of interest in what does not impact us directly (“What does that have to do with me”) and the second of which expresses a warning: it does have to do with me, for literally and metaphorically, the waters are rising around us all.
Different poems present different challenges, and I like to experiment with a wide variety of ways of writing free verse. Many of the poems in my first, second, and fourth books are fairly traditional free verse lyrics or lyric/narratives. My chapbook Slide Shows is a sequence of nineteen short-line poems, each of which is only ten lines long. My third book, Carta Marina, is a book-length poem in three parts, each of which has multiple dated sections, and the sections are in all sorts of free-verse forms; formally, it’s the most experimental thing I’ve done. Some longer sequences in Dream Cabinet, like the poem “Answers I Did Not Give to the Annulment Questionnaire” or the title poem “Dream Cabinet,” are in short sections some of which utilize open field composition. I also love to write prose poems; in fact the manuscript I am working on now, “First, Earth,” is all prose poems.
Q: Dream Cabinet seems obsessed with the passage of time, both on a personal and a global scale. What can you tell us about your own relationship to environmentalism and how it has evolved over the years?
A: It’s true, I am obsessed with time—particularly with the passage of time. I guess that’s inevitable if one is as drawn to autobiography as I am, and also pretty common as people grow older. I was born right after World War II, only because my father lived through the war. I was a teenager living in Berkeley during the Civil Rights era and the first part of the Vietnam War. Growing up in Berkeley, I became aware of politics at a fairly young age—of civil rights and environmental justice issues, in particular, because of a guy I dated who was much involved with Cesar Chavez. Then as a graduate student, young mother, and eventually Assistant Professor at the University of Virginia, I became very interested in second wave feminism, women writers, and feminist theory.
My focus on environmental issues grew gradually, and I can think of four main sources for it. First, when I married my second husband, Peter Wirth, we moved to live in the guesthouse of a 600-acre farm south of Charlottesville, and I realized that what I’d always thought of as my passion for the natural world was actually a fact: I really, truly did love nature. Second, as I became aware of the dire state of the environment, I realized that, for me, that was the most important issue of all; if we destroy the planet for human life, nothing else is going to matter. Third, at around that time I became involved with the nascent Association for the Study of Literature and Environment, which has now become an international 1000-member group known as ASLE. This has been a major professional investment for me; it has had many results, among which is my directing the Environmental Studies Minor at the University of Mississippi. And fourth, as I have continued in my study of Eastern thought, combined with my study of environmental literature and my practice of yoga, my awareness of the other-than-human world and forms of life has grown. The bodhisattva consents to remain in the cycles of birth and death until all beings attain enlightenment—not just all human beings. That, to me, is a supremely beautiful concept. The idea of extending compassion to all living beings opens up one’s awareness immeasurably, and though I can’t say I fully live with that compassion, it inspires me.
Thanks for passing on that inspiration, Ann, and thanks to Joanne Merriam of Upper Rubber Boot Books, coordinator of the Couplets Blog Tour, for providing me with the opportunity to get to know Ann and her work. If you want to keep up with the Couplets tour, check the updated list of posts here.
Read more poems from Dream Cabinet:
"Cicadas, Summer" and "Disorder and Early Sorrow"