Chestnut Tree, Jardin des Tuileries
What sparrows come,
come briefly, briefly displacing
Forgive me, they zeroed in,
landing impossibly, they ruffled
and pecked . . .
When they left,
when the tree is negated, I try
to love it no less,
remembering the imperial one
riding its uppermost limb,
This is the antidepressant.
What force dismissed the flock
as imagination, the tree entirely
symbolic now, the birds as
well, that fell and fell.
Hall of Mirrors, Versailles
Where gowns dizzied and whispered
and official footfalls diminished is my mother,
wet-eyed with cold. Schoolchildren
hold hands, in pairs, as they will not again.
Her own, how they suffered,
were sentenced, and she, she was ignorant,
mirrored, imperfect, spectacular.
Chandeliered, she looks at me through tears.
Stripped in woods, where birds sang
in spectral blue and carriage guards looked on.
Naked at the border. Reborn,
she is dressed in French clothing. White-
haired, in prison, wed to incomprehension.
She carried out the life she was given.
TH: Landscape and buildings in your poems often act as lenses through which other historical moments come into focus, as with Versailles in this poem. Are they reminders that the past isn’t so far from us?
PB: I like the friction of fixed physical atmospheres with different lives passing through. When I think of human nature – its frailties and ambitions, feelings of love, delusion, and fear – then Henri Cole has said that animals in his poems can function as masks, and his statement rings true for my own poems. the past doesn’t feel far away at all. I’m not sure that ‘Hall of Mirrors, Versailles’ would have worked, for me, if only one woman’s life was examined. The doubling tries to express something universal, which is that the lives we are born into (no matter the station) can be crippling. Marie Antoinette, namelessly referenced, is at her most vulnerable in the poem: as a naked teenager and as an imprisoned woman whose children have been executed. I couldn’t have written those lines about my mother without that counterbalance figure.
Several of your poems in the collection display an affinity with the natural world, sometimes coming close to inhabiting the perspective of animals including a deer and an owl, to name a few. Are you partly inspired by trying to make these leaps into nature?
I’m often surprised by the number of animals in my poems because I usually think of them as symbols, expressing something human. Animals themselves exhibit so many poetic qualities: intensity, mystery, aesthetic beauty, authenticity, innocence, precision. At the same time, they can be quite blank, as well as universal, and so it’s easy to use them to express some larger idea or emotion. Henri Cole has said that animals in his poems can function as masks, and his statement rings true for my own poems. I often write to order chaos, and so the goodness and calmness of animals, in my poetry mind, is soothing to me and hugely helpful in that endeavor.
Your poem in Exit Strategies, ‘At Thirty’, tells of a breakdown with devastating clarity. There’s a sense that a newly formed routine – daily swims – become a ritual. Is uncovering the ritual in the everyday something that interests you?
Absolutely. I’m a bit frightened by routine – the idea of being asleep, of banality, of days blurring one into another – but the wakefulness of ritual is fascinating to me: the need for it, and the knowledge derived. During my ritualized swims, during that incredibly strange year, I was happier than I’d been in a long time. I had a baby’s simple happiness. What I was supposed to feel, I told myself, was shame, but my body only had room for pleasure. And it seemed to come from outside of myself, in that pool, and felt like God’s grace. Truly, the mindfulness of any ritual, examining the repetition and what is found there, feels immensely receptive to poetry.
In your collection solidarities between women are often under threat. There’s an unsettling poem that tells of the murder of forty-eight women at the hands of one man on the Green River. Does throwing your voice into such extreme situations reflect back on where we are more widely in terms of women in society?
That particular poem seemed born from the river itself, in the tension between its natural beauties (the fish, birds, and animals) and the Truly, the mindfulness of any ritual, examining the repetition and what is found there, feels immensely receptive to poetry. horrors that occurred there. Many of those murdered were runaways or prostitutes, and to think of their lives and deaths felt overwhelming but necessary to me. I’m drawn to instances of vulnerability and the poverty of circumstance, and I think it’s reflected in this poem and elsewhere in the book with the Dionne quintuplets, for instance. Woolf and Melville, exposed perhaps at their lowest points, also held that intrigue for me. I think I’m drawn to extremity because in the pulling-apart-at-the-seams there are small illuminations that can be gentle, meaningful, humane, and true.
Dickinson, Melville, Rilke and Rothko are some of the figures that hover behind individual poems here – does poetry offer a chance to have a dialogue with artists who have inspired you?
Engaging with these artists’ lives and works has been a supreme pleasure lately. It feels like the most honest kind of talking, which I why I read and write poetry to begin with. Writing can be such a lonely experience, one that even the people you love can’t really understand, but when I imagine artists who’ve experienced the same struggle, and how that struggle affected their lives, it feels comforting. The universality of the blank page or canvas, of terror, of failure, of small triumphs: it’s such a strange and specific way to go through the world. I can’t help but feel drawn to others who’ve navigated it.
Photograph © Gillie Rhodes