The war-torn imagery of these poems is quite visceral and real. Have you done any research or any other exercise to enter into the shadows of that imaginative space?
Oliver de la Paz is the author of three collections of poetry: Names Above Houses (SIU Press, 2001), Furious Lullaby (SIU Press, 2007), and the forthcoming Requiem for the Orchard (U. of Akron Press, 2010). He is the co-chair of the advisory board for Kundiman.org and is the recipient of grants from the Artist Trust of Washington and the New York Foundation for the Arts. He teaches creative writing at Western Washington University.
Oliver de la Paz Interview, with Nickole Brown
These poems are quite distinct from your previous work. Could you talk about the origin of this series?
I had been working on "Aubades," which are love poems that take place at the break of dawn. I wanted to write their opposite, in a way, so I wrote a sequence of "nocturnes" as companions to the aubades from FURIOUS LULLABY. They wound up being so tonally different that they ended up in a "save file."
Are these poems an excerpt of a larger collection? If so, do you imagine them to take the shape of a novel in poems or other narrative form?
They are indeed part of a larger collection. Right now, they work as framing poems for what seems to be a dystopian novella in verse and prose poetry. Well, maybe dystopian is inaccurate . . . the work is more like an allegory on war and art.
Actually, I didn't do any research for any of the scenes. The scenes are quite fictional. One thing that I did do is imagine a particular character or point of view upon which to focus. From there, the scenes became more about character than anything. They're not quite dramatic monologues because, really no action is occurring in them that's a result of either the action or speech of the characters located in the pieces.
Nocturne in Red and Blue
The sofa in the parlor is red, and in the foreground
a man rises to put a cord of wood in an iron stove.
A veil of music plays like grease, smeared across a window.
The roofs of old homes have been pulled down, leaving only
the dark crisis of memory. Vivid and heavy, the man
strolls through the dark brick kitchen with a servant’s candle.
His face is tawny in response to the light. The little worried breath
from his nose transfigures his shadow onto the sofa
so there are repetitions of his ghost, dancing. An inhuman cathedral
will grow from the pit of ruins. Mice have left
excrement in the grain pot and the man plucks them out
with his thumb and forefinger. The angels have come
looking for food and now they are becoming men whose boots
resound on the cobbles outside. It is the last year of the war
and the soldiers coming to the door do not know this. Nor
does the man, simmering hunks of animal fat in a pot
over the stove. From his hands, he lets the grains pour
into the simmering stew pot. Each glitters like mica. The odor
is an arrow fired from his window and the soldiers let themselves in.
It must be a clear night because the light of the moon
is a tourniquet for the small home full of displaced shadows.
The blue from the door twists the candlewick’s flame
outlining the shadows of the forms at the door into a checkering
of shades: blue, then red, then blue again. The dead
in their upended thatched houses must be full of moonlight
given the outcome of the soon to end war and given
the audacity of the redness of the scene.
Nocturne with a Wood-Burning Stove
The porphyry bricks turn a deeper red and the smell
of lamb roasting over onions pulls the soldiers
into a tighter fist. The shellac from the table
mirrors their faces. Tongues of fire from the stove
spasms their shadows on the wall. The house is not theirs.
The wounded wrap their limbs with dresses taken
from a child's nursery closet. A young soldier pulls the arms
off a doll he's found, and burns its hair with a lighter. Then
the smoke. The doll completely engulfed is thrown into the stove,
its body slowly rising into sitting position before it melts.
Off in the hills, the artillery-men are shelling tombstones
for the hell of it, waiting for relief. The old villagers
are besides themselves with grief. Cloistered at gunpoint,
they see the deep black smoke of impact and curse the devils
and their children. Hard packs of cigarettes between the soldiers
jump at each strike and just past the tree line, hunks of marble fly high
into the dark ozone of winter. The light from the village
wavers in and out upon impact. Parts of the dead are in the trees
and parts are mashed into the ground, disintegrating with the snow.
Soon the artillery-men will be relieved to write their letters
in the warmth of the house. They will lie in their cursives, about the food
and the enemy. They will tell stories about the horizon at sunset
and of the loved ones tucked in crisp blankets in their dreams of oleander
in the spring. They will speak in low tones to each other over the hungry fire,
saying nothing about the dead. Saying nothing but how tired they were,
and how, they thought, the winters were terrible and cold.
Nocturne With the Ocean That Is at Once, Not An Ocean But a Sine Wave
Something has happened: the rain has nothing to say
and the boat out on the waters carries its shoulders
up, parting breakers because breakers have nothing
to say either. And tonight, there is nothing to remember about
them, those men on the boat, because this night the summons comes
as the keel tilts this way and that with the dispassion of
the afterlife. There is nothing to say because the sky invents
this country where the nautical birds stay in the water, knowing
winds will tear them to shreds. The low-bellied cumulus
oozes its heaving body up and down the skyline and
the birds, they stay where they are because this ocean is,
at once, not an ocean. Some men in that boat spill into
that dusky forgiveness that is the water, their bodies
seal-sleek in thermal suits, and the seated gulls are far off,
their cries pitched just so that the men in the water feel
their hearts swell against their ribs, and it's tedious, swimming,
so tedious that the men in the water want to be carried, to be
buoyant like remembered light--to be carried with the rising
waters, lifted up, to be visible and then to descend at a constant
amplitude. To have nothing to say with each descent, except
your name and the names with you in the water. Something
has happened and the fatal quiet of the lost gulls or
the lost motor's drone finally has nothing to say.
The ocean moves the boat up and down in the darkness
like a child's hand practicing scales, and the world is
preoccupied. There are fish, shining like phosphor
beneath, and above, there are stars, endlessly repetitious.
Nocturne with Wasps and Flowers
Seated on ammunition creates, the captain withdraws
into the stones of his quarters and draws in a long drag
from a cigarette. The gem of the tip, slowly moving
closer to his lips. From the window he can see
in two directions--to the lit taper on the sill of the infirmary
but also out to the rhododendrons, heavy with rain.
Early summer and the intolerant wasps had been burned
from their vespiary by one of the soldiers with a newspaper torch.
How they curled in lazy pirouettes, drunk on the smoke
and on their grief for their queen. Now the rows of pines
move over the roofs with the dusk while behind a green curtain,
a young private loses consciousness from a swollen wind-pipe--
the edema from a single sting very much like the heavy bulb
of a rhododendron, near vibrant in bloom.