by Cynthia Hogue and Thomas Fink

Cynthia Hogue: So much of this poem speaks to me personally, as well as poetically, because of the terrible injury that is the background context of this poem (and all the effort that goes into regaining one’s mobility). At risk of overreading this poem as autobiographical, I was most sorry to learn of this accident, Alice. As I read the poem many times, its structural clarity helped to contain the thematic complexity and range of thinking. I haven’t read Henry Adams on the Virgin and the Dynamo for decades, so my implicit references are general and perhaps so vague as to be inaccurate, but please feel free to clarify / correct wherever pertinent.

The poem opens with the speaker (or author-surrogate, or you) feeling the hardware in her body. By the end of the stanza, there seems to be a connection or association drawn between the repaired body and the reclaimed site of the bird sanctuary (once salt mine, then dump, transformed into haven). Later in the poem, especially in the fourth stanza, there seems an almost fusion of speaker and the broken horses the speaker pays to save from becoming dog food. Would you say these perceptions or understandings are accurate on my part?

Alice Fulton: Thank you both for these insightful questions. It’s unusual to have such perceptive close readings of a single poem.  And I warmly appreciate your sympathetic comment, Cynthia!  The poem is autobiographical, and you’re certainly not overreading. 

Like you, I haven’t read The Education of Henry Adams in decades. When I read it, I found it quite tedious, to be honest.  Adams’s third person voicing felt self-conscious, arch and coy, in an autobiography. But while working on this book, I came across a powerful quote from Adams in one of my old notebooks, a sentence that speaks to the immense power of deeply held beliefs: “All the steam in the world could not, like the Virgin, build Chartres.” 

Your reading of the reclaimed site, Salt Point, as an analogue for the speaker’s body is wonderful, hopeful.  You’ve shown me an aspect of the poem that I hadn’t really considered.  I like your reading!  The industrial past of Salt Point represents materiality, what can be built with sweat and tears, bodily effort. And the Adams’s quote suggests that the greatest creations might arise from an invisible passion rather than any external labor.

The horses referred to later were saved because of what you might call fellow feeling or empathy. No practical reason exists. It’s a heartbreaking thing to attempt. My foray into the subculture of horse rescue was minor compared to the incredible people, mostly women, who devote their lives to it. It was a learning experience. For instance, I learned horses aren’t slaughtered for dog food. Almost all horse meat is shipped to Europe and Asia for human consumption.

There is an ironic connection between the discarded horses and the poem’s speaker. I was injured by a rescued horse who (unintentionally) kicked me. The pain that love and empathy can cause is part of the poem’s subject.Empathy made the speaker want to end the terrible suffering of innocent creatures, horses, and her actions had physical consequences, as if their suffering rebounded upon her. Speaking of irony, I fear I might be falling into the same self-distancing voicing as Henry Adams when I refer to myself as “the speaker” of the poem.  It’s helping me understand his choice.  The third person does allow one to reflect in a way that the first person might not. 

Hogue:  Do you think of such associations as poetic “entanglements”? Tracking the poem’s movement, I’m tracking the narrative and descriptive threads or strands that weave together in the poem’s structure. Is “interwoven” more accurate than “entangled” (in the sense of the physics of cellular structure)?

Fulton: Though I’ve never thought of those terms exactly, “entanglement” and “interwoven” are excellent descriptors for the fusion of the speaker and the horses, her body and the place.While “woven” implies pattern and intention, “entangled” might connote a more random joining.  I like both terms.   

Thomas Fink: You selected heavily enjambed, long-lined tercets full of caesuras as the form for this poem. Is there a particular reason for this?

Fulton:  I haven’t worked that much with long lines, and I wanted to explore the possibilities — or one possibility. As for enjambment, it’s a chance for something to happen.  End-stopped lines don’t offer the same syntactical, grammatical possibility for shifts of meaning.  I tend to be a fan of enjambment.  It’s one of the reasons to write poetry.  I hope readers pause briefly at the end of a line before moving on because an enjambed line can mean one thing when read alone and another thing when connected to what follows. Enjambment is a chance for ambiguity or depth without explication.  And avoiding explication, while still implying, is foundational to poetry. The caesuras are there to break up the rhythm, create a percussive effort.  A long line asks readers to think at greater length, and the midline pauses are rests, making it a less sinuous, fluid gesture. They make the line more staccato and offer a place to pause and contemplate within the line. They make the lines a bit punchy, and maybe easier to grasp or read. 

Fink: “Captive bolt” is a marvelous adjective-noun combination. On the one hand, “bolt” means that the horses you rescued would have been confined during “the panicked trek to Canada.” On the other hand, it could suggest that they could have broken out of confinement, yet this temporary escape could have subjected them to a different but equally horrible route to death. Could you comment on this ambiguity?

Fulton:  I love your reading of “captive bolt.” You’re showing me something I didn’t see. Horses being vanned to slaughter panic inside the van — and you’ve made me think of this turmoil as a “captive bolt.”  As prey animals, bolting is a horse’s means of survival, the ability to run.

But I wasn’t thinking of this wonderful reading that you found, Tom. I was referring to the literal mechanism of slaughter.  The horses are forced into a tight enclosure and a metal bolt is shot through their foreheads. This technology is called the “captive bolt.”  Cows are killed the same way, in fact, the captive bolt was created for cows, not horses. Horses toss their heads, the bolt sometimes misses, and it takes several tries. It’s cruel, to say the least.  

Hogue: The poem puts into tension and contrast the force of belief (“the Virgin”), which built Chartres, a medieval structure of order, symbolism, and beauty that stands today; and the modern force of industry, which builds a “plant,” or a racetrack, and then discards (fires) the people who worked in the plant or kills/sells the horses that ran the races. Even the “free library is crammed with castoffs.” Could you talk a bit about how you envisioned and built the poem?

Fulton:  Initially, I wanted to write a poem with a sense of place, something I haven’t done too often.  My husband and I took frequent walks in the area called Salt Point, right by Cayuga Lake.  Walking there was an important part of my recovery. After being non weight bearing for about five months, I had to learn to walk again.  It’s something you never think you’ll forget, but the body does forget, and quickly. 

The power of the invisible is a thread throughout the book, and the immaterial and material are facets of this poem.  Belief is airy, intangible, like the feelings that compel people to rescue animals.  Industry, on the other hand, is weight bearing, highly visible, heavy with materiality — like salt mining or animal slaughter. The little free library is full of captive books, if you like, waiting to be rescued.  There’s a trope of enforced constraint – with manacle, captive bolt, the wrap of humidity.

Fink: “Salt Point Vesper” appears in your new book directly after “Motherese”; it includes two examples of your mother’s typical expressions and a flashback to her “on her deathbed.” The main narrative component involving your trip to Salt Point while you’re “feeling the hardware in your body,” as Cynthia aptly puts it, prompts you to juxtapose this vulnerability with memories of your mother’s attempts to encourage and comfort you in times of difficulty, as well as her wish to gain some comfort as she approaches death. Maternal compassion based on experientially-acquired knowledge is tied to spirituality.

Intriguingly, after citing another person’s mother, ”the Virgin” Mary, “Chartres,” and “a little church,” you include the Yiddish term “Schvitzy” to describe humidity — and after “damp pashmina”! And then a simile aligns “Schvitzy” with “omniscience,” a grandiose assertion about knowledge. I’d say that omniscience is in short supply, whereas humidity is all too common, though perhaps those who maintain and contribute to “the Office of Spirituality and Meaning Making” are a bit too confident of their ability to “know” everything. What makes this simile tick for you?

Fulton: I have to differ a bit about “omniscience” being in short supply.  In today’s surveillance culture — with cameras everywhere and phones that take videos — the world, or at least U.S. culture, seems omniscient in the sense of all-seeing. There seems to be a panopticon gaze on everyone, everywhere. The thought of that is enough to make you break out in a sweat. And being omniscient must be hard work — enough to make any god schvitzy, which as you know means “sweaty.” The schvitz was a steam bath for men, and it must have been a convenient place for exclusionary wheeling and dealing. In part, I wanted to playfully poke fun at both the lofty, magisterial concept of omniscience and its association with an all-powerful god.

But “schvitzy” rather than “sweaty” also was a tonal choice.  I’m not Jewish, but I appreciate many Yiddish words for their visceral, casual directness. Yiddish has given some delightfully unpretentious words to English. Before “schvitzy” appears, the poem’s tone is sincere, serious, factual. There are lines alluding to religion and the power of faith. With “schvitzy” I hoped to lighten the heaviness briefly, throw a curve. Anything too sincere can seem cloying or smarmy — especially in poetry. If you think of the Dali Lama, his authority springs partly from his lightness, smile, humor.  His jokes are always a little unexpected.  The poem’s language has been pretty transparent. Then suddenly there’s this surprising word, a weird shift of diction. I hope it makes readers pause and think, maybe reread. Also, from a craft perspective, “schvitzy” sounds good with omniscience; there’s assonance, consonance. Because of its popularity in Western fashion, “pashmina” has become a common name for a large scarf, and that’s all I intended.

“The Office of Spirituality and Meaning Making” is a real organization at Cornell University, supporting all religious identities and beliefs.  Like many academic groups, it has an officious, bureaucratic title. When I wrote the poem, that Office was accepting questions via email.  There are four in the poem:  “Who wants lame / mules, slow Thoroughbreds?” “What would you like to wear? my sister asked / my mother on her deathbed.”  “Is there an Upholder / of the tranquil soul?,” a quote from Wordsworth’s “Prelude” that makes me think not only of God but of the tibial plateau.  And finally, “Is the force of love too fierce?” I tend to dislike rhetorical questions in poetry — queries that suggest their own obvious answers, and the four questions in this poem aren’t rhetorical.  I don’t know the answers, and I didn’t think the Office of Spirituality and Meaning Making could help with them either. That Office is wonderfully inclusive, a good consortium. Yet I suppose the poem is making a slant, gently sardonic allusion to the limitations of corporate, organized religious entities.

Fink: The poem’s third line, which you identify in the “Notes” as coming from The Education of Henry Adams, and its final line, echo one another. I read the sentence from Adams as refusing credit to technology for the construction of monuments of spiritual grandeur and giving credit to the impact of contemplating images like that of “the Virgin.” The last sentence indicates that the liquid manifestation of sadness, despair, etc. cannot be reduced to the substance’s physical properties. How does this echo-effect relate to your sense of the poem’s overall trajectory?

Fulton: To me that quote from Adams speaks to the stunning power of belief — in contrast to the grunt work of labor — to build something marvelous.  Adams uses the example of the Virgin Mary, successor to the Mother Goddess. But a fervent, deeply held faith in anything can inspire extraordinary work. Steam builds factories, faith builds cathedrals. And I say that as an atheist.

I hoped the poem’s last line might encourage rereading of its questions. As you point out, the last line refers back to the Henry Adams quote in stanza one.  And it suggests a dichotomy: concrete/abstract; tangible/intangible.  Salt, a material substance, doesn’t create tears.  Tears arise from immaterial emotions and thoughts.  Invisibilities.  Salt is inert, while thinking and feeling are active, alive, creative.  “Salt Point” is a physical place, but “salt point” might also suggest the tipping point for tears. Salt thaws roads, grief thaws feelings.

Hogue: The speaker herself is broken, but that which in her broke is structurally repaired: She limps, but lives “to witness [the sun’s] fair minutes.” She also lives to grieve, remembering her beloved mother’s humor and pragmatism. And then what I might call the astonishing contemplation of art’s raison d’être, its office (in the sense of task) “of Spirituality and Meaning Making”! Is it driven by love’s ferocity, as strong a force as belief or industry? What “builds tears”? To go back to the speaker’s own repaired body: like the “tibial plateau” which isn’t a place, but a structural foundation on which “Everything rests,” is it the force of love that makes meaning in our lives?

Fulton: These are such wonderful thoughts, Cynthia. The last question — “Is the force of love too fierce?” — wonders if love can destroy us with its ferocity. Love creates meaning, but it also creates grief. So the answer might be yes: love is too fierce. Still, we desperately need love, it’s a risk we have to take. So the answer could be no: love can never be too fierce. I don’t want to summarize, but maybe the last line suggests that thought and memory — grief and love — are more forceful than physical stuff. Emotion, not salt, builds tears.

Hogue: The poem reads like a powerful discovery, a logical conclusion to this very complex meditation, but should we think of it as “vespers,” that is, as prayer? As Paul Celan said (I’m paraphrasing), “prayer is the attentiveness of the soul.”

Fulton:  What a beautiful phrase from Celan. My husband Hank De Leo has said “Attention is a form of homage.”  I like that, too. And I want to thank you and Tom again for your attention to my work.  I suppose this meditative poem is as close as I come to prayer. Yet it’s questioning rather than supplicating.  It comes from grief, loss, and a wish to understand, a wish that will never be granted.  I’ll never understand so much of what happens in this world.

Now I think I’ll go for a walk at Salt Point.


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