Above All, Time: A Conversation with Beth Bachmann
Bachmann’s third collection of poems, CEASE, begins with “to keep the peace / we need a wall”—a statement that steps into the book’s exploration of architectural spaces that we need to both resist and embrace to survive. The poems draw on a solid line that refuses to rest, and as such, a reader both tumbles into the poems and digs her heels, slowing to consider how “terror is in the imagination” and “peace is armed like any man if the ocean is burning oil close.” And that is Bachmann—a poet capable of inhabiting dichotomous spaces, where the reader also dwells: public and private, violent and peaceful, warring and resting, speedy and slow, singular and collective, vulnerable and fierce, intangible and toothy.
The recipient of a 2016 Guggenheim Fellowship, Beth Bachmann is the author of Temper (2009), which won the AWP Donald Hall Poetry prize and the Kate Tufts Discovery Award, and Do Not Rise (2015), which received the Poetry Society of America Alice Fay di Castagnola award. Bachmann’s collections strike a balance between the conceptual and the human, and within each collection, she creates a larger narrative out of spare lyric moments that hit hard. Of her third book, CEASE, Henri Cole writes: “Beth Bachmann has written a scarily original, apocalyptic book about a time when it appears it is necessary to destroy and kill for peace.” Beth teaches in the MFA program at Vanderbilt University.
We were fortunate to correspond with Bachmann in the final days of August, when summer was closing and the new semester opened like a door. We spoke about the architecture of her poetry, the possibility of peace, and her desire for poems to quake.[Don’t miss a special Rumpus signed book giveaway of CEASE, available through October 31! Details here. – Ed.]
The Rumpus: While each of your books is completely original, will you describe CEASE, your newest poetry collection, in relation to Temper and Do Not Rise?
Beth Bachmann: It’s strange (and exciting) to suddenly be at book three!
I think if anyone is familiar with my work, Temper is the book that’s more widely read. It’s a book about my sister’s murder and though the poems are not narrative in nature, it seems to draw readers with a “true crime” fascination, which, given the context, can be disturbing. I’ve received some fan mail from prison (one said, in the spirit of Emily Dickinson, I write to you from solitary). When the book came out, I couldn’t even say the word “murder” and had to practice in the mirror before my interviews. Seriously creepy. So book one was a book about this big personal violence and used a lyric mode to relentlessly circle all the things that were constantly triggering me: death, death, death.
Do Not Rise grew directly out of Temper. One decision I made early on in Temper was to keep the violence violent to honor the magnitude of it. I fell in love with Chris Abani’s Kalakuta Republic and the poetry of Wilfred Owen for the intensity of their depiction of violence. I found a companionship in Owen’s poems about post-traumatic stress that echoed my own experiences; Do Not Rise is really a book about violence as a recurring present-state, so the title is in part a command for all the horror to stand down, but of course, it inevitably keeps coming back anew.
CEASE is an extension of that command, but I think it makes room for the idea that peace is a possible space, even if it’s only temporary. That’s a big step for me! I’ll take it.
Rumpus: The urgency and the plea for peace, however temporary, are palpable and affecting in these poems, Beth. You have such a clear vision about this book’s aims. Was there a particular moment or poem when CEASE became clear to you?
Bachmann: When I first started writing the “wall” poems, I wrote them as individual pieces, each with the same title “wall.” I have a friend I’ve exchanged work with for over a decade now and he helped me see I was really working on one big wall, which I wasn’t getting over anytime soon. I’ve had a fascination with architecture for years: Temper opens with a poem named after a paternoster, which, among other things, is a kind of elevator with no doors that moves on a continual loop; Do Not Rise contains a poem called “interior design of temporary space (museum)” which breaks the wall (here, window) between the poem and reader:
interior design of temporary space (museum)
I love how sculpture makes you keep moving around it – animal hip and shoulder and it
the stilled thing on the other side of the cage. Be muse, be room, be opening, be space, not
to move around but through, as breath, as bodies’ erasure, words not to edge along, but hold in the hull.
Fire, I can taste when you’ve been feeding on wild -flower. They’re all over the boat. Tell me anything
you want. Shout it over the face of the animal. I want to throw a stone through an old window. Watch me.
So, with the new book, once I could see I was surrounded by a giant wall, I could see the unpunctuated prose block poems that make up the majority of CEASE as rooms in between. And weirdly, that friend I swap work with, I also go to museums with where we often find ourselves looking at dioramas, dollhouses, architectural models; we’d been staring into discreet rooms together for years, but until I saw the wall, I couldn’t see that what was inside it could become so volatile—is the room defined by the wall or the other way around? So, you get these wild little poems boiling in between.
Rumpus: The “wall” poems play such an important role in the book, framing each section, the first of which makes an allusion to Frost’s “Mending Wall” by imitating his famous opening line: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” How are your “wall” poems engaging Frost’s argument in “Mending Wall,” and what argument or arguments are your “wall” poems making?
Bachmann: You know I never thought my poems would quote old man Frost, but I guess you never know who’s going to appear. A line from “Mending Wall” that comes to mind a lot these days is “before I built a wall, I’d ask to know what I was walling in or walling out.” One of the things I considered for the cover of CEASE was a photograph of the prototypes for Trump’s insane border wall, which are extremely strange—a large gray block against a bright blue sky. They reminded me of Rothko, how the colors seem so permeable at the edges and much of the wall poems are about that permeability, the ineffectiveness of any wall or border to actually contain. One section of the poem that speaks to this imagines a garden on one side of the wall and the fruit falling to the other side of the wall, luring insects across:
a wall to run along your fingers to let bear the weight
of execution on one side stilled now the other a garden
interior courtyard more insects than fruit both segmented
sugar does not obey the wall it wants a thousand mouths
yours mine from inside the fruit the strain release me the strain
deserter the wall black juice only skin
So I suppose the argument is simply to expose the cracks in the wall, its, our, failures.
Rumpus: Could you discuss the architecture further—what are the walls holding in, holding out? What cracks are you exposing? What are the central subjects or aims of each section?
Bachmann: Robert Duncan is a huge guiding light behind the collection. For two years (or more) I read only (and all) Duncan in the two volume collected. It must’ve begun with my falling in love with, as many do, “Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow.” Oh how I love this poem, but I’ll quote only the end:
Often I am permitted to return to a meadow
as if it were a given property of the mind
that certain bounds hold against chaos,
that is a place of first permission,
everlasting omen of what is.
As for the walls and the flaws in them, the walls are variously made of water, oil, stone, skin, and their accompanying breaks. Sometimes we build a wall against darkness or an indulgence or a behavior, the point where we swear that’s it; I’m done; never again and yet, we find ourselves there again flesh-to-flesh and have to build again. Here are a couple of lines from the second wall:
beyond the wall a series of walls if we could not see
or hear each other we could touch the ideal form of the cage
So, yeah, the walls are attempting to “hold against chaos” and the space between is that beautiful meadow, that lush but temporary space that can be returned to, but not held in stasis.
I’m with Duncan in his introduction to Bending the Bow, where he talks about the poem as event: “In the room we, aware or unaware, are the event of ourselves in it.” Elsewhere in the same essay, he describes the poem as “a field of ratios in which events appear in language.” You can see this happening in the unpunctuated “rooms” that make up the majority of CEASE. Look at that last couplet in the Duncan above: it moves from past (first permission) to future (omen) to present (what is); my hope is that my “rooms” will have a similar effect of folding and unfolding, closing and opening as you read them.
So, to answer your question, the sections in CEASE are, like Duncan’s, chronological. There is no central subject or aim in each section other than what’s created through the proximity to what’s come before, even within a poem, e.g., here, the refrain is created by what precedes it:
what can the meadow be but in between you & me an undoing of air where the rain is the god is in between us released by repetition the river permitting horse after horse a mouthful of flower what it is to mean to own a house a field in the middle of the teeth to eat is erasure first refrain
Rumpus: Yes, absolutely, the walls do “hold against chaos” and the unpunctuated prose poems present “a field of ratios in which events appear in language.” In fact, the lack of both punctuation and line breaks—as well as word play (such as the puns “piece” and “peace”)—slow down the reader, so we question how to read each word in relationship to its surrounding words. That is, language suddenly becomes unfamiliar. How does this de-familiarization factor into your writing process and relationship to the reader? How does that de-familiarization affect your approach to writing about chaos and peace?
Bachmann: Yes! De-familiarization, strangeness; I think you are helping me move closer to the heart of what I think a poem—any poem, whether about chaos or peace—can do. To me, a poem only works if it’s quaking.
My favorite filmmakers are overtly cinematic—Bergman, Tarkovsky—I’m not sure that’s the right word, what I mean is you can see them using their materials, not in a way that distracts from the content, but in a way that is inseparable from the content. I’m thinking now about the texture of a van Gogh. I could die in that field—the paint’s so thick I feel like I am in it. But you can’t look at a van Gogh without seeing the work of the brush. So I suppose I’m saying, to me, a work of art is more beautiful when as a viewer or reader I can see the mastery, the how of its hold on me.
And one of the primary materials of the poet is time. I’ve said peace is fleeting, but so is chaos. Chaos ongoing becomes status quo (living in America now under this administration we know this all too well). A poem or film or painting is only interesting to me if it can keep me actively engaged in the reading/viewing/perceiving of it. If I feel like all a poem has to offer is apparent on a first read, I’m not interested in reading it again. I think of the best poems as miracles, something to wonder or marvel at. Disorientation should not just be a grid that tricks the eye, but a way of looking twice and seeing something new. The new does not replace what was there before, but is also a part of it. The word Duncan uses is “polysemous.”
Puns, multiple meanings, but above all, time! The lack of punctuation leaves me breathless reading the poems aloud, but I think for the reader, it has the opposite effect; it slows things down because the images change before the eye. I began doing this in Do Not Rise so there’s a lot of white space within the lines of those poems. Elizabeth Willis very kindly described it as “a slowing down of time within the poem allows us to enter the folds of its thought.” I thought in Do Not Rise I needed to give the reader the white space, time for the eye to adjust, but CEASE is rapid-fire in its changes, which I suppose speaks more to the chaos, but I think the poems can also crest too and dissolve/resolve into a peaceful state. I should say the writing from one book to the other is not particularly intentional, more one growing out of the other and what I’m writing now is a different branching and perhaps even more strange!
Oh, googling the correct spelling, I just found this quote by Bergman on his reaction to first viewing Tarkovsky:
Suddenly, I found myself standing at the door of a room the keys of which had until then, never been given to me. It was a room I had always wanted to enter and where he was moving freely and fully at ease. I felt encountered and stimulated: someone was expressing what I had always wanted to say without knowing how.
I’m pasting it here because of the word “room,” but also the word “how.” I love art that amazes me with how it did it. One of my favorite contemporary poets is Airea D. Matthews, and she recently tweeted a list of essential questions every book of poems asks. It’s a hilarious list, but also spot-on. One question was “how, tho” and I immediately felt called out in the best way.
Rumpus: We see the poems as both post-Romantic and, as Henri Cole describes, apocalyptic. Would you describe CEASE as a post-Romantic, apocalyptic collection? Why or why not?
Bachmann: I think apocalypse has its roots in “revelation,” right?, and that would seem to speak to the poem’s method of disclosure. If an apocalypse is “an imminent end of the present world,” it does seem the poems in CEASE play out by “imminent end of the present word” as the meaning reveals itself turn by turn. Oooh, I just looked it up and found also apocalypse: vision, hallucination. That seems to fit too; hallucination evokes that sense of looking twice to see if something is real and I think that speaks to the speed at which meaning changes—I love the idea that as you’re reading along, you look back and something you thought you saw is gone! Apocalypse, of course, also speaks to the political dimension of the book, too, as Henri puts it, “a time when it appears it is necessary to destroy and kill for peace”—and certainly one of the primary objectives of the book is to stress peace as an equation that includes cataclysm.
Hmm… thinking about the post-Romantic makes me think about music marked by contrapuntal motion, that play of the independent and interdependent note. It’s not exactly right to say the first image or word-meaning disappears as you read it. It’s actually still there, more like a halo.
Here’s a poem where the post-romantic appears. It contains a line about flesh from that Romantic Delacroix: flesh only has its true color in the open air. It also makes use of Darwin’s book on facial expressions that differentiates between expressions of horror and terror.
the landscape is triggered with post-romantic stress the world is unmastered again all we see is light from the bomb terror comes before horror because there is no reason not to be afraid flesh only has its true color in the open air holy god trouble you are sublime only you could take shelter in the bright sky put your hand over your mouth terror is in the imagination
Rumpus: There’s such a clear development from your first to your third book. Do you have a sense of what’s next, of where the next project might go?
Bachmann: I am well into the next book. It’s a multi-genre project called GOLDEN, and I’m psyched to report the first big excerpt is forthcoming in VQR. Some pieces have been published as nonfiction, others as poems. The basic unit of the book is the sentence. You could call them poems made of one-sentence stanzas or essays made of single-sentence paragraphs. They cohere through logic or symbolic ties. So, yes, I imagine it comes naturally out of CEASE—that after dropping all the punctuation, the only way back is step-by-step, sentence by sentence.