Kathleen Hellen Interview, with Kaite Hillenbrand
I’m a very logical person, and I’m fascinated when I come across a way of understanding the world that is new to me. Your poems – “Web at the Center of the World” in particular – fascinate me for that reason; the images, grammar, line breaks, juxtapositions – all of the elements of craft seem to combine to interpret the world with a logic I’m not used to. What is the logic, or the kind of logic, of a poem? Of your poems in particular? Is the logic that I see in these poems expressed in ways other than poetry, or is it inextricably connected to the poems?
Like dreams, poems manifest their own logic, the emotional content often telegraphed or displaced by image. In “Web at the Center of the World,” the images “occurred” the way ideas occur, in connection with the experience of actively seeing. I followed these to the implicit: The spider. Absent, though very much a presence in the poem, which is the web.
I love seeing grammar rules manipulated and “broken” by someone like you who really knows what they’re doing. What’s your attitude toward grammar?
Grammar is a set of possibilities, and if we accept that poetic language is, as the philosopher and literary critic Julia Kristeva says, an “unsettling process”— if not the destruction of meaning— “broken” grammar is the free play that extends what is permissible. It conveys something other than knowledge, and correlates with the poet and the crises of her times. Its best practice is in the intersection of desire and beauty and meaning.
Your mother is Japanese and your father is American, and I read in an interview you did with Urbanite that you consider yourself to be a product – almost a metaphor – of World War II. I’ve been thinking recently of how we all seem to have cultural memories embedded inside of us deep enough that we still have strong feelings about things that happened even generations before us. Does this seem accurate to you? Would you share a little about the cultural memories you have as a product, or metaphor, of WWII, and as your daughters’ parents?
My mother used to always say: “You are samurai. Don’t you feel it?” The generations that come before rise and fall like tides within us. Bushidō, a reference to the educated warrior-poet ideal — the way of the samurai — informs my writing, my teaching, my fierce devotion to my sons. In its absence, that annihilation, the Occupation of the Other, is the Father who wills its surrender.
Like the samurai, the geisha also rises in me, often unintended. She includes the art, the practiced skills, the things I know to do and say as if instinctively to create the “floating world,” a world of pleasure; yet Ukiyo, its homophone, is also the “sorrowful world.”
In your poetry, there are various instances of violence. I read in your Urbanite interview that your understanding of the world is influenced by Buddhism. Does a Buddhist perspective influence the way you understand and deal with violence?
Buddhism extends compassion to all sentient beings, and yet in many instances it has also provided an ideology for counter-forces to the State — inspiring peasant revolts, feudal struggles. To kill out of compassion, to prevent another from committing evil, for example, is justice. In this regard, violence has a practical nature.
But so much of the violence entrenched in our society is not practical. It is a mirror of human frailty. Of illness and addiction, of despair. Its agents are not self-aware. In the tenets of Buddhism it is held that the person who kills with selflessness, knowing that all is illusion, kills no one.
Web at the Center of the World
A line inside a line gives order
Axis. It stretches, fine as wisdom in the
smallest twig wrapped up in it. Clots of withered
earth and spit. The things we never see though
they are there to hold our plans in substance.
A tiny speck of something lately buzzing, dead,
laid out in threads that tend toward the vibrations.
A tiny head, a leg that’s missing one of six
Other webs that corner spaces
Only then the spider
From the Metro
We are skimming landscapes, a lap of magazines. The city quitting under hunched shoulders, its streets implied by signs, the grid. Bare trees hide nothing. Detritus of foam and fuel and wrappers. Shrouds of plastic in the cables. Carcasses of steel. We’re going nowhere. The traffic fences flight. The right of exit lost. The left of reason. We tour the last occasion of the rain. A forest dreaming winter. I press my hand to where a sparrow might have crashed into what to it had seemed transparence. Doors are suddenly flung open— a rush. I do not recognize my own reflection.
A monarch of the undiscovered countries
Each step I take in this approach
a foraging. The fizzled Coke
caught in her antennae
She does not fly—
as she is wont
under the oak. Her
One mullioned wing
in nectar lately sipped
Better to be dead,
I think she says:
her wings as thin
as colors of transcendence
in her dust—
The chair is waiting by the desk.
The room seems small, which enlarges me.
The green walls seem
acquainted with the cracks,
the dusty ledges, the freckled mud on glass.
The sun on brick, settling,
like an apology for leaving
A nest of moon, the fractured hip of it
What am I afraid of? Something
is about to happen, if
I let it. Wick the desk. Ravel me in light.
A basking. Fire me to fire that is sun, dying.
The light that burns until the thought ignites
is unimpeachable. Orange the trees.
Write, the chair says.
… what does it matter what reality is outside myself, so long as it has helped me to live, to feel that I am, and what I am?— Baudelaire
Neighbors on Sunday swept streets. A nuisance of raking. A car in a heap, crushed by a tree, up to its wheel-wells in water. A man and his son bagged debris. We talked on my walk to eyewitness the scene and he joked: What next? Volcanic
eruption, as bees from felled trees dislocated
as millions lost power. Elsewhere the trauma downed trees, the colors advancing, crawling in colors, red yellow green— tracked in the forecast to pass over islands at nightfall, the eye-
fall on maps on screens, in the brilliant colors of crawlspace. The landfall in
Hatteras, layered: Grey, oyster white, jade-green, roaring toward
wreckage in raw, six-foot waves. The rain inundating. The sea
wall crumbled to rock.
She choked Ocracoke. Cars submerged. Airports locked down, ahead of the storm's progression the federal emergency. Wind gusts and flooding. Coney Island. Jersey Shore
Viewers sent pictures and tweets. The boats on their backs
A history of bridges tumbled
We talked of the wind that riffled the trees, clipped branches— she was
chatty, he said, and I turned back to what I should get:
Batteries, water, canned food. What would I need besides these?
A pen in my hand. A poem in the darkness. Belief
I’ll see you in dreams.