Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg Interview, with Kaite Hillenbrand
“Questions for Home,” “The Life You Could Be Living (If You Weren’t Living This One),” and “Advice for the Material World” all personify objects and concepts in a way that allows you to speak to the human condition in an intimate way. Just a few examples: home and an unlived life feel longing; material items feel vanity; all three feel fear. What draws you to write about these human concerns and joys through speaking to objects and concepts? Does this approach offer something that other approaches don’t?
Whenever I write, I'm looking toward tilting the ways I normally see the world so that new and fresh language, and hopefully insights too, come out. I know that when writing about nature, there are some who would warn writers not to personify, yet I don't think it's possible most of the time to describe something without projecting our human experiences and understandings, limited as they are, onto what we perceive. I also don't really think that much about how to approach a poem – I just start writing without any idea where I'm going, what I'm doing, if it's going to work, and if I even know how to write a poem anymore. I find this process keeps me more honest and alive, and also a little on edge, but I love that edge of not knowing and going ahead anyway. After I finish a poem, I might notice that I was personifying objects or writing in second person, and then at the editing stage, I try to feel out if what I'm doing is working and go from there.
Time plays an important role in your poetry. Your poems look forward and backward with expectations; the present is contextualized as a memory that will get lost; past potential looks back to the point when another path was chosen; often, past and future intersect at the present moment—not even a particularly memorable moment, like getting into a car. Time becomes cyclical; lost cravings will return; lives you could be living exist alongside present life and dreams. “Self Portrait as a Grown-Up” ends, “she would still be all the concentric circles at once.” In your poetry, this use of time is more than just a device, though I would say it is also a device: it’s a way of understanding the world and life. This seems rooted in your voice as a person and as a poet—would you say that’s true? How do you understand the concepts of time, possibility, and memory, both in life and as they function in poetry? What brought you to this understanding?
Thanks for noticing. For years, I thought I mostly wrote about place, but as I get older, I realize how much I think about and write about time. Because time is on my mind, it comes out in my poetry, and why is it on my mind? I supposed having my children start to leave home, going through cancer, losing loved ones, and generally, just getting older, I'm aware of how strange and magical and beyond our reach time is. The Buddhists talk about everything as passing memory, and that makes sense to me. Everything in each moment has its own light, its own vibrancy even if we can't feel it at the time, and when I write (and as I live), I'm trying to get beyond what blocks me from being fully in each moment. I'm also trying to open up my peripheral vision and share what I find about place and time, which seem very similar: place is more horizontal and time more vertical.
Your poems address the idea of the unknown, unseen, and unlived potential as if they are present, vital, and connected to our lives. For instance, in “Advice for the Material World,” you write, “What I cannot see beneath or behind, be safe, / and tilt open your brown eyes in the dark night. / We’re watching for you, many of us, and wishing you well.” What brought you to understand and navigate life this way? How important is this to your voice as a poet? Do you see this, at least in part, as a metaphor for the way poetry can connect us to people, thoughts, and feelings that might otherwise remain unknown?
It goes back to what I mentioned in the last question about opening up my peripheral vision. In my normal day-to-day existence, like everyone else, I'm often occupied with what I need to do, following plans and routes, moving along and ahead. Yet I'm trying to pause and tell myself, "see what's happening." If I stop and look at the window at any moment, and if I drop my own agenda and really look, I will always see something -- a flood of birds taking off, a leaf blowing through the sky, a confident cat running up a tree. I believe that the life force is so evident in the earth and sky, and I'm a follower and student of the life force. My poetry is one of my key spiritual practices, teaching me how to observe, breathe, understand, live.
The Life You Could Be Living (If You Weren't Living This One)
The life you could be living aches in its compression,
tires of being a spark, an asteroid,
a falling raindrop bouncing when it hits.
It’s wound tight between muscle and sinew,
lodged in the happy gaps of a synapse.
It’s fluid like flowers. It sounds like geese
out of sight. It’s marvelous as falling asleep
when exhausted, and it foreshadows your dreams
like a stray piece of sunlight or an unnoticed icicle.
Pull apart the paper vignettes and subtle
understandings. Find a favorite shoe lost
decades ago, a line to an old song,
and behind that, the melody that once
made you lift your arms and twirl
in your childhood bedroom after dark.
This life startles you with its foreign tongue
of traumas and kisses, its vulnerable eyes
staring into yours for mercy as it lies down beside you,
tries to say – although it doesn't know your language –
that it's okay how it turned out, that it's still here,
and despite its wish to be lived,
it's not going anywhere.
Questions for Home
Did you imagine there was more than this?
More than the grass or the sky?
More than the quick touch of a six-year-old’s fingertips
on your sleeve? Did you believe it would add up
to a history of torrent and mathematics,
ultimate meanings, causes and effects intersecting
like constellations of the greatest minds
you never knew?
It’s just a gravel road in the country.
An edge of grassland washed out of its redness.
It’s just a bobcat you missed because you opened the door
a second too late. The breeze inside the breeze,
the dominant gait of weather, the green light in the distance.
Here, don’t be afraid. It’s not like you lost anything
but the craving for craving, and even that will return.
Where else would you rather be than right here
where the bluebird blurs past the cedars
and time sheds its old skin so its new one can form?
The Last Moment
On the corner, the accordian player
infuses the humid night with a darkness
sweet and grieving in perfect hue
with the green neon fish two stories up, over the bar,
you crossing the street, a nighthawk diving,
and the cobalt blue of the sky, almost turquoise
at the edges of a leafy horizon.
This is your town on a hot June night.
You reach the other side, turn away
from the swaying musician and tattered linden tree.
Down the block, you see only one room lit
at the top of the loft apartment building;
in that room, a potted ficus tree and a chair
someone may or may not be sitting in.
You turn toward the alley, aim yourself
between decay and limestone,
stairs on one side, blue dumpster on the other.
A breeze pours down from the rooftops, and
you realize this could be the last moment
you remember, decades from now, as you lean
into death or stop leaning away.
This could be the line between the life you've lived
and the life you will live as you step across
the parking lot, toward your husband and sons,
already in the car with the new books
you will have long read and forgotten
by the time this is a memory,
by the time so many you love are gone,
so many you don't yet imagine are here.
You reach for the car door to join
the present, the blue chord of your life,
the pulse of time and music,
the quick fire, the wide water of home.
Advice for the Material World
Don't be afraid to be beautiful,
I tell the wind chimes.
Feel free to relax,
I tell the table.
Go to the forest
and find a clearing,
I tell the rug.
To one glass pane, I say,
lean back and let the silver sun
tell you its stories.
The same for the river banks, the rocks
set apart in the grass, the curvature
of bones in wings.
Water, I say, stop rushing away
from memory; it's your nature.
The crest of the horizon, visit
on time even if time shifts shadows
Shadows and buildings,
remember, you're no different
from the trees and sidewalks
you look down on.
Lines between the cobblestones,
don't ever forget you're just as important
if not more so than the fleshy brick.
What I cannot see beneath or behind, be safe,
and tilt open your brown eyes in the dark night.
We're watching for you, many of us, and wishing you well.
Self-Portrait as Grown-Up
They said this would happen.
Clothing would stay and not go. Cars
would break down or hit other cars.
Boys would become men, and men would not
return calls. Sex would become a declaration,
then a sport, then a minefield, then not anything
static enough to be named. Touch would be too much
or not enough, what to wear would be as existential
as weeding gardens or jump-starting cars, and
dark chocolate would eclipse milk chocolate.
In the morning, she would become the waker-upper
instead of the one woken. In the afternoons,
coffee would be needed along with many distractions
falling across the rooms and cubicles like
early autumn leaves. Money would change
from something needed for the swim club
to a magician's hat that never holds enough rabbits.
Dusk would become night, dishes would be done
or heavy with remnants of animated conversations.
But dreams wouldn't move out of the child house,
a dead father would still be arguing with her
that she said something she didn't and wouldn't,
and when awake again, walking down the street,
stopping to lean on a tree to tie her wild shoelace,
she would still be all the concentric circles at once.