The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Anne Marie Macari about her new book Red Deer, how to write simplicity with depth and mystery, and the sacred feminine.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month the Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts an online discussion with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To learn how you can become a member of the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, click here.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Brian S: As a start, could you talk a little about where, geographically, these poems came from? How you came to be in these places?
Anne Marie Macari: I had always wanted to see cave paintings and when my youngest son left for college I decided to do something special for myself and I took a trip with a group to see caves in Spain that had paintings in them. I had no idea there were so many. I became hooked pretty quickly and returned a year later to see caves in France, later again in the Pyrennes (spelling that wrong) and I have been studying the art and the culture since then. I also wanted to go underground wherever I could, so when we were in Rome I went underground in as many places as I could.
I immediately had the feeling, coming out of those caves, that I (we) live on the surface, not just literally, but figuratively. That there are things—memories, history, cultural memories—that we have lost.
Brian S: I’ve only seen some petroglyphs on hikes in the west, and went on some hikes through Mammoth Caves, but I really felt these poems in a visceral way. There was something universal about them that spoke to me and to a number of people in the group.
I remember that feeling from Mammoth Caves, especially since, as with the cave paintings you write about, there’s the signs of people who lived in them, held them as sacred spaces even.
Dana: In some of the poems (Paddling Upstream, Cave River) it seems as though the speaker is drawn toward darkness… sucked into almost. This urge you mention to go underground is fascinating, as we so often speak of being drawn to light.
Anne Marie Macari: I’m very happy to hear that. I sometimes had the sense that being inside the cave was a mirror of being inside my body—
Brian S: ”Some things//abhor light and I almost / understand them growing // in their slime.”
Anne Marie Macari: Yes Dana, exactly. I began to realize that darkness was where most of the universe is, that light as we know it—electric and ever present—made us unavailable to the darkness, to a kind of mystery that is missing now from our lives.
Brian S: Yeah, there’s no darkness like the pitch black of a cave where there’s no ambient light to connect to.
Anne Marie Macari: Oh I did feel that way sometimes, and leaving the caves I would crave that darkness, I would miss the underground. “Living on the surface I dream of caves,” I think is my line.
I had been inside a cave in Belize years ago with 2 of my sons and while the group went climbing in the dark I was afraid I’d panic because of the heights and I sat alone in the dark for about 20 minutes. During that time I began to feel like my body parts were separating from me, that because I couldn’t see them they weren’t there!
Brian S: When was it in this experience that you knew you’d have to write about this?
Anne Marie Macari: I think very early on. I knew I wanted to but I didn’t want to force anything, that’s why there are many caves I’ve seen, or sites, that I never wrote about even when they were very powerful I felt the poems had to come to me without too much pressure to make it into a project.
Brian S: 20 minutes! I don’t know how you did it. I was in a darkened cave for about 30 seconds and people around me were whimpering, and I was close.
Anne Marie Macari: Yes, I’ve been in groups like that, but I settled into the darkness fairly easily, knowing I could turn my headlamp on if I needed to.
Brian S: That’s the danger of thinking of poems in terms of a project isn’t it? That you’ll start forcing them to fit particular nooks.
Anne Marie Macari: Yes, Brian, I like to have something to explore but I don’t want to be directing the poems. I don’t want it to become a mental exercise. I want something to grapple with and I have to let the material grab me.
Brian S: I hate to use the term organically, but there’s something to the idea of letting the poem be born, with all the fighting and grappling that entails, without manufacturing it, if that makes sense.
Anne Marie Macari: That is right. I want to be receptive and searching, but I don’t want to know where I’m going. I want to get lost in the poem and have to find my way out.
Dana: Something I really loved about these poems is that I get the sense that relying too heavily on what we think we know has come to hurt us… it’s complicated our lives. I felt that the speaker was identifying with the crude drawings and finding a sense of innocence in them. Was able to relate to their simplicity.
Brian S: That’s interesting, Dana, because I don’t think of the paintings in that way. I see them as revolutionary in the way they allow for communication across generations. Those cave painters were groundbreakers in their time.
Anne Marie Macari: Simplicity is important to me, simplicity but with depth and mystery. When you plan what you’re writing, or know ahead of time where the poem is going, there’s no discovery, not for me not for the reader. I think we don’t have a lot of mystery in our lives right now—obscurity, but not mystery.
Dana: I do agree with that, Brian!
Brian S: I know with my students I have to convince them, over and over again, that you can’t find everything on google, that there are unknown things despite your use of wonderful search terms.
Anne Marie Macari: Those painters are still groundbreakers. The word primitive doesn’t apply here. They were working with crude instruments perhaps, but the work isn’t crude. Some of it is incredibly sophisticated. Even that simple drawing on the cover is opposite a painting in a small alcove in a cave called Covalanas. That painting moves like a moving picture, of a deer running, when the light flickers. Seriously.
Brian S: That’s something that Neil DeGrasse Tyson talked about on the Cosmos reboot last year. It’s fascinating.
Anne Marie Macari: I have to see that. Also the painters were working with 3 dimensions, not on a flat plane like a canvas. So they used the shapes of the rocks to indicate musculature, or whatever else they saw there. And they sculpted, they made incredible reliefs on rock walls.
Brian S: Are you still writing about these paintings or have you moved into some new work?
Anne Marie Macari: I’ve been writing some prose about them but in my poems I’ve moved on. I try not to repeat myself, although I hope to travel more when I can and who knows what will happen. I worked on these poems for a good 5 years.
Brian S: Did you have a favorite set of caves?
Dana: Could you expand a little on “Necropolis”? I had truly never heard of such a thng as a “city of the dead” before reading that poem.
Anne Marie Macari: Well, the very intimate cave of the cover is a favorite, though it’s quite simple compared to others. And then there are the great caves of France, like Rouffinac (Cave of 100 Mammoths) where you ride on a little train like something out of 1960 Disneyland and travel a mile through the tunnels alongside giant holes in the cave floor dug by hibernating cave bears. And along the walls there are paintings and engravings of mammoths.
In ancient Rome, and of course in other places, the wealthy could buy houses for their dead loved ones, or for themselves or their whole families. This Necropolis is little known but is directly under the great Basilica, St. Peter’s. The vatican dug it up hoping to find evidence of St. Peter’s grave, but instead it found a whole city of the dead. The houses are decorated with murals and urns, etc.
Brian S: I don’t even know how to respond to that. 🙂
Anne Marie Macari: Of course the Vatican decided that they’d found St. Peter when they found bones of a man who was around 60! It was a place of the dead, how could they not find a man’s bones! Nevertheless the tourists with me gasped appropriately when they turned the flashlight on a gold bag of bones and declared them to be St. Peter’s!
Brian S: And of course it furthered the story that Peter was martyred in Rome.
Anne Marie Macari: Right, but who knows if Peter, an illiterate fisherman, ever made it to Rome.
Anne Marie Macari: There was a sarcophagus of a young child down there, with a carving of the grieving mother on one end and the father on another.
Brian S: If I ever make it to Rome, I’ll have to see it. I live across the road from a huge cemetery with graves that go back almost 200 years. Some of the designs are wild. My favorite is a style that’s about 120 or so years old. There’s a concrete tree with the bark peeled off to show the family name, and little logs for the individuals buried around it.
Anne Marie Macari: What was also interesting in the caves was the gender politics of the guides, some of whom would say, “A woman couldn’t have made this!”
Brian S: Ugh. I’d probably holler at the guide for that.
Anne Marie Macari: The newest science is that 2/3’s of the handprints in a cave in Spain, El Castillo, were made by women. They’ve developed a way of distinguishing women’s hands from men’s, by the length of the 4th fingers. I got into all this stuff, reading Nature magazine and following everything I could about Neanderthals and cave discoveries.
Brian S: Nice! Do you have a link to that by some chance? I’d love to read about it.
Anne Marie Macari: Well those hand prints have been in the news a lot because a few years ago they realized that they were about twice as old as they’d been thought to be, over 40,000 years, which put it in the realm of possibility that Neanderthals could have made them. I don’t remember where I read about the gender identification, but, I hate to say it, you can google it!
Brian S: Ha! I deserve that. Is that the way you usually work? You find a subject and do a deep dive into it?
Anne Marie Macari: I find an area of concern. But I’m always working, in some sense, on the sacred feminine.
Brian S: What’s your current area of concern, if that’s not too private a question to ask?
Anne Marie Macari: I was inspired last year by a performance I saw in NYC of Shaker Spirituals. I’d been walking around thinking that I wanted to write poems that were much more musical, and then that performance and several other things catapulted me into a new group of poems. The first ones came very fast, that has happened to me before, then I go deeper.
Brian S: That sounds interesting. I’d like to read those. Even though I’m not religious anymore, I’m still drawn to the music and the rhythms of that world.
Anne Marie Macari: Yes, I’m not religious in that sense. I think our religions remain too egocentric, too human centric, too earthcentric. If we’re just a tiny blip in the universe it would do us good to think more about that and less about ourselves and our created gods. For me my religion is the unknown—But I am also acutely aware that women have been completely erased from the religious/spiritual language, from the stories. And that loss, our disappearance, haunts me.
Dana: I really liked the epilogue to part two…”It gets into your head—the certainty, I mean—the human certainty, and then you mss it all.” There’s this sense that everyone seems to think that they have all the answers… when it would do us all good to just accept all the possibilities.
Anne Marie Macari: We’re not the end result!
Brian S: I love that you say created gods. I wrote a draft of a poem this morning in the voice of God (the Old Testament one) which ends with the suggestion that he was created in man’s image.
Anne Marie Macari: Brian, that’s great! And that’s it exactly. If we could step back and look at our stories, at ourselves, instead of killing each other over them, and raping the earth because our creation story tells us that we’re in charge!
Brian S: The poems I’m working on are titled Sex Crimes of the Old Testament, so I’m working with the sacred feminine as well.
Anne Marie Macari: Wow, those sound very powerful! Poor Mary! They even took the mystery of birth away from us!
Brian S: On the occasions where the women aren’t disappeared entirely, they’re so often victimized, and I’m hoping that by giving these women voice, they’re able to speak back to the traditions that have done this to them. These are all persona poems.
Anne Marie Macari: In the caves I felt strongly that art is a human right. It’s part of who we are. If women and men who had such hard lives could paint, engrave, make music, no doubt tell stories, I’m sure every one had their way of contributing.
Well, those poems sound necessary. We need as many retellings of these stories as we can get.
You’re doing midrash! I had some Mary poems in my second book Gloryland.
Brian S: Is there anyone in particular you’re reading right now.
Anne Marie Macari: Well, like everyone, I’ve read and been blown away by Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. Also Jane Mead’s book Money, Money, Money, Water, Water, Water—a gorgeous book that circles around ecology and the land. Kimiko Hahn’s new book too.