Simon Perchik Interview, with Julie Brooks Barbour
In these poems, the ambiguity of loss is connected to tangible items: dirt, a watch, and a headstone. Could you talk about the merging of the emotional with the tangible in these poems?
Great first question because the emotion of loss tied to a common, everyday object is central to my work. My goal is to evoke an emotion (mostly loss, fear) by the touch of what you touch every day; only after you read the poem you never again touch, say, a brush in the same way as before. The terror in simple daily acts is my theme. Otherwise the fear or loss means nothing.
Would you say that your use of landscape, such as a hillside or a river, works in much the same way as your use of objects? Or is it different?
I would say hillsides and rivers serve the same function as doorknobs, toasters, windows etc. Hillsides, of course connect to death. Same for rivers. Both are common, everyday objects that I would like the reader to look at as a source of fear.
Simon, I’ve admired your work for years, and have always wondered about your choices in form, especially in the ways your lines use enjambment to allow the narrative to flow from first to last stanza. How do you make decisions about form in your poems?
First, thanks for the kind words. Now, with form, I have a goal. There must be tension. To me, tension is everything. The lyric burst must be unbroken but a sudden shift can break the flow yet maintain the tension. I use enjambment as the natural pause a breath takes. That may explain why there's no comma at the end of a line. I break the line as a cue to the reader to take a breath, not a big one but a breath. It's at the end I would hope the reader needs a big breath. Of course it doesn't always work out that way. Not every poem sustains the tension I try to create. But I try. Lastly, a few words about the three line stanza. That's also a form of enjambment. If the poem is taut, a rest at the end of three lines seems warranted. I put some air between to help the reader breathe in enough to get to the end.
I notice that these poems have many connecting images. One poem flows into the next, strengthening the images of flowers, water, dirt, and stones. The omission of titles for each poem aids in this work. Could you talk about your decision to omit titles?
With reference to omitting titles I do have a reason. What's odd is that it wasn't till lately that I came up with the reason. From year one I never titled a poem. Didn't know why, didn't even think about it. Just didn't give the poem a title. But lately I have come up with what I think is the reason. My work is abstract and as such works the subconscious. This means there are many facets, often conflicting. A title might steer the reader to one facet to the detriment of the others. Also, titles are for royalty. My poems deal with common, everyday things. In short, a title is putting on airs. Incidentally, I used to number the poems but when I read an Italian poet whose poems were titled with just an asterisk, I thought that was neat. So I stole it. Hey, if Nellie Sacks can pick up the Nobel without titles, well, you get the idea. Lastly, a word about the flow of one poem into another. That's a kind way of pointing out that I'm writing the same poem over and over and over. And I must admit I am. Nothing I can do about it except repeat the old joke that I'm going to do it till I get it right. You know I write against photographs and when I finished the 482 photographs in The Family of Man my friends called the work one poem with 482 stanzas. So it goes.
Ear to ear though the tree
darkens the way this saw
no longer drifts alongside
in the open, clings
to wooden boats and the dead
you can touch with your tongue
once it's morning and the blade
has nothing to do, already
half rainbow, half riverbank
low over your mouth
opened so you can read
between the lines, send back
a note smelling from wood
older than anything on Earth
stretching out till the dirt
overturns and you drown
swallowing leaves, branches
days –you cut with hours
that know each other
that bind and by themselves
filling with clear water.
For a time, carefully reduced
as if these shoes were watertight
and each pricetag pointing out
–you don't know where to dig
though dirt must mean something
motionless under the exact place
that could be anyone
the way nothing in this shop window
is left standing, needs more dirt
more and more and the hillside
that always falls backwards
refuses to get up, no longer tries
and all these passers-by two by two
in your arms already opened
for so many dead from just one grave.
You strap this watch in place
as if it inherited the wobble
that grew into sunlight
then darkness, then wear, then
you set the time years ahead
the way dirt still unravels
and between each finger
a slow, climbing turn remembers
the middle before it became
the sun –it’s hopeless! the watch
trying to keep up
taking you by the hand
though you dig alongside
clearing the ground for later
for the footsteps already wagons
and you wait, humming
to the small circle passing by
tired and in your mouth.
One headstone leaning against another
float though neither moves
taking root the way these flowers
wait for someone under the ground
soothed by gust after gust
from a sky that feels at home
dug itself down as the first tide
planted in business-like rows
still beating, wandering through.
Without the crumpled map your shadow
fills and the cold breeze
you puff into both hands --you learn
to sail the way this yard
pulls your mouth wider and wider
--any morning now the sun
will fall exhausted, standing here
in the wind where nothing grows
except a shadow, first as far off
then empty, lost, sent down
as if your lips would remember
its name, its sky, its faded Spring.
As if the sky could admire itself
rippling on the surface
the way each river that carries the dead
clogs with dirt and clay and you pour
flood the cup with tiny waves
that block the air from entering
are used to how your whisper
cools with its wings end over end
as lips and helplessness and the leaves
half tea, half trying to remember
how to drown --you stir slowly
the only thing you can do
to keep the sky in a tight circle
though you don't drink, just let the water
go cold, expectant, become more or less
the darkness it once was.
Without any flowers
you are still breathing
--without a throat
still eating the warm air
though what's left from the sun
is no longer blue
hides the way your grave
is covered with stones
and still hungry
--you could use more stones
a heaviness to become your arms
one for working harder
the other invisible
leaving your heart
lifts from the dirt
your mouth, your eyes
and the sky letting go the Earth
as if you weigh too much.