Thomas Fink and Angela Bisceglia
Thomas Fink: Dead Ringer (BlazeVox, 2017), one of your two new books of poetry, is not the title of one of the poems or even one of the six sections in the book. It possesses a fertile ambiguity (i.e. resemblance or telephone feature) that brings out the life in an old cliché. What motivated the selection of this title?
Charles Borkhuis: Well, like most jumps of the literary imagination there is the flash of an off-center fit or happy dislocation, in this case from title to book. I like your association of Dead Ringer to the interruptive ringing of a telephone, perhaps while someone is reading Dead Ringer. Who is on the other end? A loved one? A wrong number? Do I answer or not? What was the last word I was reading? This can be a provocative and enchanting spark of irritation and illumination like the scream of steam, or the bubbling over of reality into the throes of uncertainty. The insistence of the moment repeats itself, incessantly ringing time by the neck, at once an invitation and a meditation. I once wrote a play called Sunspots in which a man receives a phone call from his dead wife. But that’s another story, or the same story that keeps ringing.
I’ve heard that in the 19th century sometimes the dead were buried with bells in their coffins, so that if they had been mistakenly interred alive, they might wake up and ring the bell. Poe might have been delighted by such an ending. These days one could imagine a cell phone placed on the chest of the deceased because as Robert Desnos says in the last lines of The Great Days of the Poet “… one never knows.”
On another level, Dead Ringer refers to someone who is the “spitting image” of someone else. And that’s a delightful linguistic wordplay in itself. Why “spitting image” and not the more obvious “splitting image”? Does that refer to someone who is close enough to get hit by my spit or someone spit out of my mouth? Origins are always somewhat uncertain because they keep spitting and splitting. I don’t know and don’t want to know past a certain point. I’d rather let the linguistic associations have a good time crossing paths in the subways of my effluvium. Another detour perhaps, another double, or phone ringing in a dream. Pick up sticks. The theme of “the double” appears throughout Dead Ringer, especially in the first section of the book, The Dopplegänger’s Double, which brings up the question of identity, mistaken or otherwise. The Dopplegänger’s Double might be the bounce back of oneself in the mirror, which is to say the flesh and blood you, whoever that may be.
Some people have said that at times the voices in this book appear to be written from the pov of a dead man, or someone in the bardo state, or a ghost haunting the everyday world. This is not altogether untrue and brings to mind some film noir voiceovers in which a character tells a flashback story of the incidents leading up to his death. And here I am reminded of the Jean-Jacques Rousseau quote: “I can truly say that I did not begin to live until I saw myself as a deadman.” I would just add that gallows humor does not go idle in this book, but perhaps taken to another level, it offers a certain amusing upliftment. Mortality, after all, can go in many directions. Alfred Jarry on his deathbed reportedly asked for a toothpick. Just for the record, Dead Ringer was a 1964 film with Bette Davis and Dead Ringers was made in 1988 with Jeremy Irons.
Angela Bisceglia: In “Home Movies,” your speaker talks about death as if he or she could possibly know what it’s like:
death’s never stopped pulling my leg
or maybe I’m just having
a knee-jerk reaction to the silence
on the other end of the line
blind nerve twitch at close of day
or let’s just say when no one’s home
the body has a mind of its own
performing the old song and dance
in front of a smoky mirror (74)
It’s either a human being seeing himself as if he has died but keeps on living, as in the premise of Sartre’s No Exit, or there is a repetitive struggle going on in daily life.
Fink: This reminds me of Yeats’ notion in “Byzantium” of “death-in-life” and “life-in-death,” and the last part of “Smoking Gun” alludes to Dickinson’s poem about hearing a fly buzz at the verge of death.
Bisceglia: Could you comment on this kind of extended trope in “Home Movies” and elsewhere in the book?
Borkhuis: I’ll respond to Tom’s comment first. Tom, you mentioned Dickinson’s fly – another wrong number that appears at the end of “I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died.” What I love so much about that poem is that Dickinson opens the poem to let a fly in. The fly appears as an interruption while the poet is readying herself for death. And it comes with the unpredictable SMACK of a Zen stick. Suddenly – the most ordinary of creatures shifts the scales of importance. For an instant, the fly is the “king” referred to earlier in the poem. It’s this almost surreal emergence of the fly as an image of interruption and reversal that Hitchcock would have also loved. To take that back to Dead Ringer, the second section of the book is called Sonata for Flies. It begins with a poem called Drawing Flies which is about Hitchcock’s film Psycho. The poem ends with an image of a large fly in the fruit cellar and makes reference to losing one’s balance “to the dizzying buzz / of a harmless housefly.” Of course, the last words of the mother as murderer in Psycho are “I wouldn’t harm a fly.” Certainly, Dickinson and Hitchcock are two buzzing flies that haunt this book.
Your question about the trope of “death-in-life” and “life-in-death” is also pertinent to Dead Ringer and leaves many coffins open. I think poetry is especially good at turning over this soil; it buries and disinters itself, one step after another, one word after another. Beckett is particularly good at turning his sentences over and over in this way, not that there aren’t sparks in his echoes. He is another good ghost hanging around my poems and plays.
Angelia, I think that in my poem Home Movies there’s a running or perhaps limping joke that starts with “death’s never stopped pulling my leg.” Perhaps it’s the terrifying “silence / on the other end of the line” that keeps the poet’s knee jerking. At the end of the poem, the poet, having failed to explain himself to the “peeling wallpaper,” appears as the “birthday boy” doing a tap dance in front of a room of half-dead relatives who laugh uproariously at him. This has a personal reference because as a young boy I took tap dancing lessons and performed before school audiences. The teachers didn’t care if I’d memorized the steps of particular dance, so I’d just improvise when the piano teacher started playing. I knew the steps, but I never put them together the same way twice. Somehow, I had the courage to stand up in front of an audience and do an unrehearsed tap dance on the spot. Poetry has been something like that for me. I hear a few words in my head, write them down, and start adding to them and moving them around without any clear sense of where they are taking me. I spend a lot of time editing, but I always want to be surprised by the fly in the poem.
The “dance in front of a smoky mirror” referred to in Home Movies is a kind of magic show, a trick of sorts, but the object is to trick oneself into doing something unexpected yet somehow right. When I’m writing poetry, I feel that I’m spiraling around a moving center, and every so often I have to jump orbits or branches because the center is empty, an unknowable abyss, so I can never really get to it in any direct way. Crawling out on a limb that, past a certain point, won’t support my weight forces the jump to another branch or way into the poem. This moving empty center is a whirlwind of tremendous magnetic energy. It’s a literary black hole, a singularity of sorts, perhaps a wormhole to other dimensions, which poets are drawn to. For me, poetry is a kind of meditative entanglement with alterity, with an otherness that one can never really know but that one can sometimes get intimations of. Why else would Dante, Beckett, or Borges waste their time in these curious parallel dimensions and warped universes of the imagination?
I am of the opinion that if there is another world its roots are already in this one. These strange traces or poetic links that we have been talking about in this interview, these intimations of chance occurrences, accidents, interruptions, and serendipitous coincidences are always close at hand. The idea that entangled particles that correlate simultaneously from different ends of the universe has become part of the standard model in physics and points to a dimension of non-local contact between great distances. I would just add that the psyche is already quite familiar with these “communicating vessels.” Are we are not made of such communing quantum particles? Pierre Reverdy wrote about the poetic image in 1918: “The image is a pure creation of the mind. It cannot be from a comparison but from a juxtaposition of two more or less distant realities. The more the relationship between the two juxtaposed realities is both distant and true, the stronger the image will be – the greater its emotional and poetic reality.” Indeed. Poetry invites the far and the near to dance. One could always chose not to roll the rock up the hill, but for the living, the dance is unavoidable. It’s both our first move and our endgame. Beckett’s play Breath, which lasts about 45 seconds, is set in a room of rubbish where we hear a faint cry followed by an inhalation and then an exhalation, which is followed by the same faint cry, then silence for five seconds. To breathe is to dance, to set in motion; even if you’re meditating or immobile, your molecules are still dancing.
Angela, I like your reference to No Exit and would just add that if Sartre is right and man is condemned to freedom, he is also condemned to dance and make a fool of himself. Maybe this is what makes Beckett and Chaplin so poignant. For us, to choose to live means to keep breathing, to take the next step. This is a kind of dance, no? One never knows where one is going to land or what thought will turn the last on its head. Facing down the unknown or facing up to death is a large part of the dance. I think you made a fascinating comment on Home Movies when you said “It’s either a human being seeing himself as if he has died but keeps on living, as in the premise of Sartre’s No Exit, or there is a repetitive struggle going on in daily life.” I see this as perhaps not so much of a dichotomy as the two parts of a proposition affirming each other in a curious way. To see yourself as having died but continuing to live can be a “repetitive struggle going on in daily life.” When my father died, a part of me died with him, but another part of me is still communicating with him, and as I get older I think I’ve gotten to know him better than when he was alive.
Fink: Yes, your imagery breaks down the dichotomy. When, as you say, “poetry invites the far and the near to dance,” sometimes death seems so strangely near that life turns out to be what seems far, even as one is living it. I get this sense in some of your poems. Sartre’s three main characters in No Exit are, indeed, “condemned to dance and make fool[s] of” each other and “themselves”; they botch their freedom by thinking and behaving inauthentically.
Borkhuis: Yes, poetry often shifts very quickly from far to near or from center to periphery like an accordion squeezing and expanding our perspectives and multiple levels of awareness. What’s amazing is how rapidly the mind can recognize and accommodate these shifts in scale and point of view. For example, the emergence of the fly as the secret king at the end of Dickinson’s poem completely alters our sense of scale. The smallest may carry the greatest significance; the greatest may be living out the life of a fly. The accordion inhales and exhales accordingly.
Tom, you intimate that under certain conditions it feels as if death is somehow nearer to us than life. I would agree and just add that the dead suffer a second death when they have been forgotten by the living. For me, what links the living and the dead more profoundly than anything else is our thoughts about them. What I am suggesting is that thinking about someone who is dead and thinking about someone who is alive is essentially the same process. The living and the dead are equally alive in my head. When I’m not actually in someone’s presence, I’m relying on my memory to constitute their presence in my mind. But that’s what happens in the overwhelming majority of the time. The person I am thinking about is not actually there. So, when I am thinking about you, Tom, I am thinking about a kind of “living ghost” who is tall with curly black hair and has a kind soul. In this sense, we are all ghosts in each other’s minds. Of course, I don’t mean to say that we don’t feel the presence or loss of a real person in this world; I’m just saying that memory is working on another level and doesn’t fully recognize this severance between the living and the dead. If someone told you that I had just died last night, the image of me in your mind would not have changed one iota. Even when we are present with others we are communicating with images of them in our minds. It’s those images that we walk around with on a daily basis. This is not to say that there aren’t real people in the world that we love and admire or hate as the case may be, it’s just that we will never truly know them. We know our Dick and Jane. But there are as many Dicks and Janes out there as people who observe them. Our reality is largely a function of memory even at the moment of perception. Our perception of an event is continuously filtered through sieves of memory in order to make any sense out of what we are experiencing. In this way, the past is never over and done with; it is deeply embedded in our perception of the present moment. The “ghosts” of the past are alive with us in the present, and as in Bergson’s idea of duration, time is not external to us but is a conscious process and cannot be divided into units of past, present, and future but is continuous and interpenetrating.
Bisceglia: In the first half of “Training Wheels,” you write:
when is a photograph
like a tombstone
and why is happiness wrapped
in a riddle of inverse proportions
we all looked so cheerful in the photo
with our party hats and noise makers
perfectly balanced on the frozen rope
of a smile extended into a future
that never quite arrives (35)
It seems that the speaker may be criticizing a way of going about living. Is he finding hypocrisy or acknowledging naivete in those who look cheerful in a photo, even though these smiles represent “a future that never quite arrives”?
Borkhuis: Angela, you bring up my poem “Training Wheels” and ask the question how does the speaker really see the “cheerful” partiers and do their smiles “represent ‘a future that never quite arrives”? Well, I did see some humor in these partiers readying themselves for a photo that these days will probably be Facebooked with perhaps the hopes of going viral. Click here for more happiness. Can I have my 15-minutes of fame with those fries? Maybe the “happiness” in the poem “is wrapped in a riddle of inverse proportions” because I feel that happiness is a byproduct of something else not something that you can get by directly striving for it.
Our media saturated culture has become so complicitous in its branding, so ubiquitously absorptive that the concept of selling out is no longer part of our working vocabulary. It is both fascinating and frightening to see the culture going full-speed ahead into a “future that never arrives,” by which I mean, a future that may be unsustainable or threatened by extinction. This new “Age of Acceleration” is starting to make me feel more and more like I’m riding on a train that is speeding out of control. The next blockbuster theme park might be called Dystopia Land. Let’s hope we don’t have to live there. Conversely, the world of Walter Benjamin’s flaneur who strolls through an arcade or bookstore is becoming foreign to us. What is threatened here is the chance occurrence or coincidence that keeps us curious and alive. Amazon is good at leading us to what we might like based on what we last ordered, but it doesn’t allow us to wander through the various possibilities in a bookstore.
My poem “Training Wheels” starts with a kind of riddle as to why a photograph is like a tombstone. The photo is stuck in time and will always remain the same; what’s missing in the photo is change, movement, life. Although offering moving images, film and video have a similar problem. They may last forever, but they are tombstones marking a life that has already moved on. Theater or live performance are much closer to our living condition because they are perishable, and we must call upon our memory to recall them. The first part of “Training Wheels” ends with the lines “while the living stumble past / on shaky stilts.” To me, “the living” in this image have a sense that they are headed into a frightening, precarious future. What lies before them are replacement parts and more efficient replicas of themselves, and one wonders toward what end is all this headed? We appear to be living in the transition between a hands-on world that we once felt a part of and a virtual, avatar world that we no longer understand or feel a part of. Cyber-Alienation is a growing concern and has the effect of distancing us from our own bodies, psyches, and histories. In this sense, “Training Wheels” is a cautionary tale about the nearsightedness in racing into the future without assessing how we are changing and what we want the future to look like.
The second part of “Training Wheels” deals with compartmentalization, which also speaks about the dangers involved in walling off certain parts of ourselves. It starts off by saying “no doubt it is necessary to compartmentalize / so we can saw through the thighbone / without having a nervous breakdown.” I must say that I have no idea how one steels oneself enough to saw through someone’s thighbone. However, in some cases, it must be done. I suppose that I could do it under the right training and conditions, but that would take some serious compartmentalization. And that is the point here. There is a trained compartmentalization that allows this kind of operation to take place, and the surgeon must afterwards go through a reassessment of what he or she has done to avoid ending up in a nightmare scenario. In “Training Wheels” the surgeon completing the operation and the pilot flying the plane “safely through the storm” are returning to a world that thanks them for their deeds.
But there is another “blind-compartmentalization” that allowed the Nazis to commit horrible, inhuman atrocities on their victims by day, and write love letters to their wives and loved ones at night. Obviously, the Nazi murderers had compartmentalized their acts to avoid thinking of their victims as human beings. Their victims might as well have been cattle in a slaughter house. I tried to write about this in another poem in Dead Ringer called Compartmentalization. That poem ends with the lines “perhaps it is necessary / to keep a constant murmur-peck / call and response echoing / between compartments.” In many cases compartmentalization is necessary and important to our development and survival, but it can also become dangerous when the compartments are walled off and aren’t communicating with each other.
Fink: In fact, “Compartmentalization” comes right after “Training Wheels.”
Regarding your point about how you are “relying on [your] memory to constitute [the] presence” of those who are not actually present “in [your] mind,” as you would for anyone deceased, I think this is actually affected (negatively) by Web 2.0 culture because, not only do people probably see each other “in person” less, but they rely on branding in social media to purvey a simulacrum of themselves that may interfere with the memory of a more acute, authentic accurate presence.
Borkhuis: I think you make an excellent point here, Tom. The Web 2.0 culture seems to feel more comfortable with a screen between themselves and others. Face-to-face meetings can get emotionally sticky; the participants are less able to control the situation. Messaging is now preferred to phone calls for the same reason – one can control one’s time and environment more effectively and with less emotional involvement. As individual memory defers more and more to electronic sources, we are less responsible for knowing anything that we can simply Google. Certainly, such an instantaneous source of information is a tremendous help in research, and yet it makes us that much more dependent upon its function and maintenance and steers us away from accident and personal vision.
In David Lynch’s 1997 film Lost Highway, Bill Pullman’s character Fred Madison is asked by a detective who is investigating a mysterious video of the interior of Madison’s house if he has a video camera. Madison responds in the negative and adds “I like to remember things my own way … not necessarily the way they happened.” The detective looks at him like he’s a weird, suspicious character. Why would someone prefer his own hazy memory to the facts? Of course, Lynch is playing with us here. Madison is a squeaky, atonal tenor sax player – an artist who trusts his memory to guide him through his own introspective spin on reality. Facts don’t necessarily take him where he needs to go.
During the 1960s and early 70s, the German painter Gerhard Richter referenced black and white photos in his portrait series, but his paintings often contained a blurred or smeared image. This had the effect of smoothing out the sharp edges of the photo and integrating the foreground and background material. For me, his paintings of that period suggest the effect of memory upon the photographic image, which he says “… does not change; it is absolute, and therefore autonomous, unconditional, devoid of style.” Richter’s portraits never obscure the subject, nor do they make it more artistic; rather, they release it from being captured by the photograph.
Bisceglia: In “Rendezvous,” a couple’s “bodies ooze like oil on glass,” and the speaker suggests that “the object of desire” is “to get truly lost,” but then getting lost involves a kind of doubling effect:
turning the corner we see
another couple dressed up
in our thoughts and skin
and suddenly we’re in their bodies
looking back at ourselves
horrified yet fascinated
by the possibility of having sex
maybe it was inevitable
that sooner or later
we should meet (38)
Is the reference to “another couple” a reflection of the speaker’s longing for deep mutual understanding and companionship? What does the couple find “horrifying” about the prospect of “having sex”? And does the strophe pattern twice using a monostich convey some emotional resonance?
Borkhuis: In turning to my poem “Rendezvous,” Angela, you bring up several insightful observations and questions. The poem is another dead ringer of sorts. It deals with doubling and desire, danger, otherness, voyeurism, and abandon. It sounds serious, but actually I found it quite humorous as I was writing it. Or at least, let’s say I was having fun with it. It has a mock-surreal, maybe Robbe-Grillet “Last Year at Marienbad” quality about it in the sense that lovers get caught in the mirror and see themselves as other people.
As with most poems I write, I started with a line or two that suggested a direction or series of images. In this case, I was intrigued by the first lines “the attitudinal pen / is scratching another provisional plot / across my chest // I can almost read the future / backwards in the mirror”. This started the ball rolling, and as you mentioned, the couple’s bodies begin oozing “like oil on glass”. This is my film noir side coming out, and somewhere in the background there is Hitch’s “Vertigo” with Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak doubling in the mirror. Slowly we realize that there are three couples in the poem: the original couple, their reflection in the mirror, and a third couple “dressed up in our thoughts and skin,” who become a foreign couple that introduces the theme of otherness within the self.
I was thinking of George Bataille when I wrote the lines “tell me isn’t the object of desire / to get truly lost” because Bataille sees desire as a transgression into total abandonment and with it the dissolution of the self. In my poem, the couple finds themselves suddenly having switched places with the mirror couple, who sees the original couple transformed into a third couple – strangers that simply look like them. That’s why the possibility of having sex with them is both horrifying and fascinating.
You ask “Is the reference to ‘another couple’ a reflection of the speaker’s longing for deep mutual understanding and companionship?” Yes, that is definitely there, but it’s the self as otherness that is calling to the couple in the mirror. Their excitement comes from seeing themselves as two other strangers. The objects in the mirror have become the new subjects. The roles have reversed themselves and there is a dance going on between the identities of the three couples as they internalize and externalize the images and possibilities that resonate between them.
Bisceglia: Your poems present speakers acutely aware of their physical bodies. The poems elaborate on a translucency:
blind star by day
see-through body by night (“Restless,” 50)
or a complete withdrawal/absence of oneself:
I wasn’t present at my birth
a local stand-in took my place…
whoever looks at me
sees through me to my silhouette (“Smoking Gun,” 89)
my only chance to be someone
was to be someone else
no doubt there is contradiction at the core
take this face for instance
I won’t be using it anymore (“Sunset Boulevard,” 70)
This theme of anatomical shedding is again present in “Pressure Points”:
I know you’re the kind of guy
peels his skin off at night
and lets it dry over a chair (78)
Is this dedicated use of somatic language a safeguard for the soul to remain private/ambiguous? And do the speakers discuss their semblances negatively because they have experienced a rebirth?
Borkhuis: I think you present a close observation of my poems in Dead Ringer taken from several revealing angles. I have used references to the physical body in many of my poems as a kind of grounding to help establish a material touch point and a sensual stabilizing effect. I have also used the dreaming body to locate another source of agency from which the poems may arise.
You suggest that the poems “present speakers acutely aware of their physical bodies,” and that they “elaborate on a translucency … or a complete withdrawal/absence of oneself:” I feel that the conscious physical body is connected to a larger context of communications that we don’t fully understand. Near death experiences and extra sensory perceptions may come into play here and there has certainly been a lot of scientific research done in this area, although not enough in my estimation. I am drawn to the idea that the universe is conscious on many levels and although it’s not self-aware in all of them, it’s intimately involved in a subtle, local and non-local exchange of information. I tend to agree with those scientists and philosophers who think that the universe is more like a great thought than a great machine. I have referred to the entanglement of subatomic particles at great distances in a poem in Dead Ringer called Entanglement. In that book, I have also made reference to the idea that we may be living in a holographic universe that stores information at its boundary surfaces and folds back on itself in an undivided flow of information. Entanglement, the holographic universe, string theory, and parallel worlds theory are a few ideas that I’ve been thinking about for many years, and they’ve found some unexpected ways of influencing my writing.
I am continually referring back to the body in my poems because it is the source of our particular awareness and because the body is so vulnerable and perishable. If I return to the feeling of the body as “translucent” it is because of the shimmering state of being that it occupies. It is both our frame and our freedom. I have written in a poem from an earlier book called Disappearing Acts that “only in metaphor may we meet”. To me this implies that there is no absolute knowing of another person or ourselves or that matter, but that we live with subtle, nuanced images that disappear or become something else as soon as we try to touch them. This is our all-too-human condition. Most of the universe is made up of empty space. It’s the electro-magnetic force inside atoms that makes things appear solid. But empty space is not empty; It’s filled with virtual particles appearing and disappearing at delirious speeds. I want to make room for the quantum level of probability and parallel worlds/dimensions which individual bodies share with the larger sense of how the universe operates. The bodies I write about are filled with this kind of space between particles or words, but they are also the purveyors of our mortality. It is indeed some kind of tragic-farce that we should live with the provisional meanings that we have cobbled together to make a life and ultimately, if we are honest with ourselves, that end in uncertainty. But all this can be viewed in a somewhat more humorous vein in the sense that we take ourselves much too seriously and life has and will go on without us and care nothing about any of our conjurings and conjectures.
The frequent use of “anatomical shedding” is certainly a part of my work and hopefully a source of some humor. How do I get rid of myself in so many words? I don’t know, maybe it’s a minimalist tendency. Phantom Limbs is the title of my first full-length play, so the theme of ventriloquism has been kicking around with me for a long time. Who’s speaking for me when I’m not myself? And what’s with this odd observer who keeps referring to me in the third person. As I disappear in certain ways, so I feel reborn in others. There’s something of a matter-energy exchange going on. G.B. Shaw says: “You have learnt something. That always feels at first as if you have lost something.”
Fink: At least two poems (and probably others) in this volume can be read as including a reflection on the author/reader relationship. In “Close Reading,” we are commanded to “look closely at this page of sky/ pierced by dark branches// scraps of words and phrases/ collected in the trees,” and the “rough ends” are characterized as “made to cling/ to tenuous beginnings” (37). And the poem seems to conclude with the poet’s “confession” to the reader about his own motives for writing:
I only played the stream of notes
to get to the stone
I mean the silence
which was never quite
quiet enough (37)
Of course, the distance and proximity between “quite” and “quiet” say a great deal.
Although the poet himself is a “spectator” of many things, I would hold that “Distant Learner” invokes readers at the very end:
night can only become
an image of night and fall like a blade
upon the necks of spectators
the stars can only move farther away from us
no doubt the numbers will find me one day
at the end of my rope
dancing a furious shadow-jig
for a virtual audience of distant learners (93)
I had never thought of the reception of poetry as “distance learning,” but indeed it can be. As you ponder the troping of these poems, how do you think about your emerging contract or lack of a contract with your “audience,” “virtual” and perhaps not, of both “distant” and neighboring “learners”?
Borkhuis: Perhaps my experience as a playwright has influenced my awareness of the presence of an audience. Readers are another type of audience, but for me, writing is always something of a performance. I am consciously aware of losing the audience or reader in personal abstractions, which are, of course, the kiss of death in the theater, and I think this has carried over into my poetry.
I think that for poets especially, there is a tendency to start talking to themselves and lose track of the audience or reader’s response. The poem “Close Reading” ends with the notion that, of all forms of writing, poetry comes the closest to silence. Unlike works of longer duration, poetry always seems at risk of collapse, of falling into silence at any moment as if the words themselves present almost too much weight on the branch and the poem cannot sustain much more.
Maybe the “spectators” or “distant learners” in the poem “Distant Learner” have lost the spark of connection that makes poetry move, or they are too removed from it to feel it happening to them from the inside out. Perhaps they are too far from the screen “stars” they are watching, which make them feel that much more remote and their lives inconsequential. The “furious shadow-jig” that the poet performs at the end of his rope to remind the spectators to take back their lives, to show them the creative energy they still possess is sadly lost on them. The “distant learners” don’t want to break the mold, they want to confirm the formula and be given their own values back with a little “twist” and some attention-grabbing special effects. They don’t call that “clicker” a remote for nothing. Is each generation becoming more and more “distant” from their own bodies and the history of their culture? Who knows? Stay tuned. I once taught a course in “Critical Thinking” to a class at another site that was on a live-feed circuit which had a time delay of a second or two. This emphasized the out-of-time aspect of the whole process and, as you can imagine, was not without its humor and frustrations. Of course, the technology got better but the principle is the same: what is lost between a live teacher and a virtual one is negligible. What is not negligible however, is what I remember about my best teachers, which was not so much what they said, but had something to do with their live presence, their integrity as people, which was related to me in lots of ways that to this day, I don’t fully comprehend. I think we are still surprised by the multiple ways in which we actually learn.
Fink: Various poems in Dead Ringer allude to the fraught relationship between the signifier and the signified. In the book’s concluding poem, the paradoxically titled “No Last Word,” we learn that “words” are “ahead of meanings” (98). Here is the middle of “Dead Letter”:
the architecture began
to swim through my eye
and I felt the fleshy pulp
of a thought on my tongue
like a cold raspberry come to chat
as if words and things
were cut from the same suit (49)
Here, “suit” can mean “cloth” and “petition,” “intention,” or “legal action.”
And in “Under Construction,” there is a pithy articulation of Derrida’s differance as engaged in both temporality and spacing yet leading to rapprochement:
each word draws a blank
before and after itself
which intimates the distance
necessary for intimacy (66)
What pleasure, edification, frustration, or liminal state do you gain from exploring this dynamic in your poems?
Borkhuis: Well, that’s a very fascinating, intricate set of questions with many doors and passageways and plenty of wiggle room. I’ll start by saying that I think that poetry does what it does best when its “words are ahead of [its] meanings,” and by that I simply mean that if left to its own devices, the mind puts things together more quickly than we give it credit for. This is where the synaptic-jump is at its most effective. Meaning often lags behind and forces the game to go a certain way, whereas poetry actually doubles and triples its entendre, reminding the reader how to move in multiple directions at once.
You mention the “fraught relationship between the signifier and the signified,” and I have to say that that’s a hornet’s nest of successive interpretations and counter interpretations of the sign best left for another format. I will say that in terms of the arrow of time and the linear progression of events, it’s clear that the world preceded the development of language. But considering that the “world” is first of all an idea, the “word,” in an important sense, preceded the world. This is not just empty word play. Without the concept of a “world,” we wouldn’t have a world. We would be living in something else entirely. And here we must go further to say that language is crucial to the construction of reality. Reality is quite different for a fly than it is for a being who uses symbolic language.
As far as language is concerned, nothing is ever over; there’s always another rereading waiting in the wings. We don’t seem to be able to bury anything sufficiently or keep it from reemerging in another form. Endgames are provisional at best both in science and the arts. “No Last Word,” the final poem in the book, alludes to Barth and ends with the words “perhaps closure is near / but provisional at best / a body at rest is haunted / by what remains unsaid / witness your ghost writer fiddling / with the last few words.”
If re-readings are in part understood as recreations of a text, then the past is never quite over; it is continually open to reevaluation and reassessment. Borges, this in his essay on Kafka, makes the point that once the term Kafkaesque has been isolated, it can be applied back to writers of the past who could be seen as Kafkaesque, except that they were born too soon. Perhaps even our sense of cause and effect needs to be reevaluated. The past is not something over and done with, it’s something we carry with us, and is far from fixed. Forerunners of the past are not isolated by their time and place, they form patterns of influence, sparks and echoes that reverberate backwards and forwards in time. There is no way to cap these mutable conditions of time, language, and meaning. I think that there is an information exchange going on at every level of being, including the quantum level, and that in my poetry I try in some small way, to acknowledge the enfolding and recycling of these intricately layered forms and energies as they take shape in me.
You mentioned my poem “Under Construction” as it might relate to Derrida’s differance in terms of temporality and spacing. I think that Derrida’s notion of differance with its deferred meanings comes close to “No Last Word” in describing an open-ended creative reading of a text that eschews any final closure. “Under Construction” refers to the feeling that I often have when writing a poem: I’m not sure from where the last lines are coming or to where the next lines are going. There is something of a blank space or abyss that opens before or after each word or phrase and accompanying that is the feeling that the poem could go in many different directions. And so, this empty space or blank must be continually crossed or jumped. One goes through a series of possible jumps both forward and backward, and there is often the paradoxical impression that there is a part of one that has made the jump and a part that hasn’t. These feelings of having both moved and not moved are endemic to a projection of oneself so as to explore different past and future possibilities and narratives. There is the implication here that a certain “distance [is] necessary for intimacy,” which is the space between, the caesura, the abyss between jumps or for that matter, between people or between parts of the self. The empty spaces before and after an event are vortices that draw one in, while at the same time they are exactly what one is jumping over to get to the next phase. I have spoken before about this sense of jumping the abyss and that some double of ourselves is waiting on the other side, but it is not the one we have imagined. This is a theme that runs through Finely Tuned Static (Lunar Chandelier Press), my other book of poems published in 2017 with paintings by John McCluskey. There is a passage in that book that reads “slip my skin at the crossroads / slit the mirror’s eye / one stays while the other slides / sideways through the keyhole (3).”
To add to what I have mentioned earlier, I don’t write from a conscious idea or strategy. I try to be quite open about where the work is going and let the underside of my mind pull the strings. Of course, I have certain concerns and themes that keep recycling through the material, but I want the movement of the words to find the themes rather than the reverse. I approach writing from a certain mood or attitude that attracts things to it, but those moods and attitudes can shift on a dime, often in the middle of a poem. I think it’s very important for me to be awake in the changes, by which I mean that the introduction of a particular word may offer a sudden shift of context that changes everything. I want to be open enough to what’s going on to be able to incorporate these shifts in direction. I think that the reader can pick up on this and go with it because it’s the way the mind works when it’s not stifled by trying to make too much sense. I invite coincidence and accident into the work to help direct me toward a playful sense of surprise which delights me. As Breton says “Coincidences are veritable beacons in the night of reason.” The moment that the work becomes a labor I know that I have trapped myself into forcing the poem in a direction that it doesn’t want to go.
I try to balance my own interests with what I imagine to be the readers’ responses and leave room to undercut their and my expectations; however, I feel that my ultimate responsibility is to the poem, not to myself or the reader. I want to know what the poem wants to do. And so, the poem and I must talk to each other; eye to eye, face to face. That’s the essential dialogue that is taking place. Although I greatly admire many of Frank O’Hara’s breakthrough poems, I differ from his Personism in the sense that I never find myself writing to a person. I’m writing to the poem and it’s writing back. The poem and I share a cache of voices for the duration of the poem; we put on and take off a series of hats and perform for each other upon the page. Having said that, I should add that I very much enjoy and spend a great deal of time rewriting and rethinking the poem in search of the mysterious “glue,” the right word or phrase that allows the poem to move into an unexpected but hopefully relevant and revealing direction. For me, poetry is an invitation to play the great game with all its serious, ironic, and heartfelt consequences. It’s a game with rules and exquisite delights, but if it we stay with it long enough, it will break us and remake us many times over. Although closely aligned with words, poetry goes beyond them; it’s also in our silences, our actions, and our attitudes toward the world. Of course, the world may ignore poetry and find it of little or no value, but that doesn’t deter those poets I’ve met who are in it for the long haul. In choosing poetry they’ve chosen to play the great game, to play it out for all they’re worth.