Adam Tavel: Scar, recently published by Etruscan Press, is aptly titled. It centers on wounds in all their forms, be they of the body, heart, or psyche. While your older work never shies away from trauma, Scar feels particularly attuned to it. In these poems, the shadows of the Cold War still loom, American culture is a warped Narcissus, and the internet is a Dantesque hellscape. Even memory, dream, and fantasy sting and pang. At one point you write, “the wound in each is endlessly resourceful.” What called you to this dark journey? And despite it all, do scars suggest a capacity to heal?
Bruce Bond: As with everyone, I have my own wounds—in my case, physical and sexual abuse as a child, long-term health challenges, years of chronic pain, issues of victimization and misidentification that doubtless are more extreme for others who undergo more insistent and insidious marginalization. As my mother grew old, I watched her suffer greatly—both psychologically and physically—and in turn become more narcissistic, asocial, and compulsive, so the notion that suffering leads to wisdom strikes me as, alas, a wishful fantasy, albeit an understandable one, akin to the self-deception that narratively frames the act of misreading. That said, suffering provides an occasion for wisdom, so wedded to empathy as a process of affirming what is truly other, both connected to and critically distant from our ego themes, however conceived as altruistic and socially engaged.
When I discovered analytical psychology in the seventies, Jung’s distinctive take on the “complex” emerged for me as central to universal problems of misreading and prejudice, unconscious projections and introjections that catalyze mechanisms of aggression and cruelty, including the kind we direct against ourselves. Where there is a wound, there is a splinter psyche. There is scar tissue around a pocket of pain and trepidation and thus a relatively autonomous mind within the mind. Scars suggest the capacity to heal, true, especially if we are called to interrogate them, to have some conscious relation to them, but likewise scars can mark the gravesites of memory, the mind within the mind with its system of distortions and reflexes enabled by suppression. That said, some trauma can be collective in nature and so more enduring as a cultural narrative, more “binding” as a history embedded in material culture, which is a notion so beautifully articulated by Edouard Glissant in The Poetics of Relation. Glissant makes use of Deluze’s theory of rhizomic memory to better understand shared trauma, such as slavery, whose legacy gets transmogrified and expressed over centuries via a root-system of memory, a vast entanglement that, in spite and in light of painful associations, makes possible a deep sense of community.
So I want to explore wounds as both individual and collective, though I recognize too how critical it is to resist an untenable metaphysics where collectives appear to have a consciousness outside the interiority of diverse individuals. Such metaphysics drives the discourse of prejudice and erasure, however well-intended. Cognitive studies show that it is common to think of ourselves in complex terms as “many people” whereas group-speech—the “they” of the paranoid, for instance—tends toward simplification, often epitomized by some cartoon, an avatar animated by transference. The more sweeping the plural, the further estranged from the human. As obvious as this may be, such distortions are everywhere. So I tend to write about trauma, including collective trauma, via immediacies of individuals, the value of whom underpins all moral sentiment. There is, of course, little new in this. Most poets favor this kind of focus with its moving possibilities of identification and embodiment. Poetic meaning, by way of both a vividness of presence and a spaciousness of meaning, evokes the tangibly illegible. Evocation is a form of precision, a “making room” for multiplicities that speak to something hidden and immaterial in us, the broken, the lonely, the confused. Poetry is, above all, about the wordlessness just beyond its reach. It honors the silence of the world, and there is something deeply satisfying about recognizing the silence in us all.
Here, I find the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas so useful—not just his awareness but his reverence for the unspeakable in others. Where knowledge ends, love begins. The notion gestures toward another sort of healing, a breed of knowledge that appreciates, as mindful poems do, the exhaustion of our power to capture and preserve. Levinas returns repeatedly to his notion of the ethical as a realm beyond our effacing categories for one another. While “inwardness,” as an operative term let alone a virtue, has undergone criticism in cultural theory, our attention to the psyche, in all its wonder, contradiction, obscurity, and self-deception, has never been more critical to balance a broader dialogue whose categories of understanding continue to efface and wound. For this reason, the surreal as an element in a poem has always been dear to me. There is the potential for something hugely humanizing in it, in the love in it that honors the unrepresentable. That said, I often mix surrealism and narrative realism to work a kind of dialectic of perspectives. Each mode has the power to answer what is missing in the other. My poem about my student who was a cutter is one example. I did not want something imaginatively imposed to distract my gaze from the literal girl whose suffering begs a question about which boundaries are healing and which are not, how it is imaginative writing both mends and opens up certain boundaries, how it nurtures a stronger relation to sequestered memory and pain.
Our own suffering is designed biologically to make us pay attention to ourselves, as we do when we get sick. We must. The last section of Scar entitled “Narcissus in the Underworld” looks more specifically at the relation between pain and self-regard, plus the role of the internet in evolving this relationship. I thought Dante’s hell would provide both an echo and a foil for the underworld of the net. Where Dante’s is concentric, with an uncompromising sense of moral structure, the underworld of the internet goes on and on without center. The extremities of order and disorder both figure as dystopian. True, the internet, as an apparent totality without boundary, possesses elements of the divine, but the infinitude of competing narratives can shake our confidence in facts and universals. It can ramp up the anxiety that clings to self-objects in the form of tribes. What I love about the psychology of Heinz Kohut is how much compassion he has for that most hated of humans, the narcissist. Yes, the narcissism that outlives its childhood is difficult and potentially destructive, but Kohut feels called as a healer to seek out what will best transform unresolved feelings of worthlessness and dread. Less productive than the pathologizing of the narcissist as a moral failure is Kohut’s impulse to understand the source, to lay bare the narcissistic wound in an effort to mend the obscure, divided self below.
AT: Scar is comprised of three long sonnet sequences. The sonnet has been a steady companion throughout your career, and one of my favorite collections of yours, Black Anthem, also employs the form exclusively. What is it about the sonnet that you find so amenable, so malleable, so full of possibility?
BB: With the sonnet form, I wanted, in Black Anthem, to emphasize the scale and music of them, the sense of the small song as a means of exploring the powerless, the marginal, the obscure, the other, variously conceived, just beyond our eyes. To me, the musical demands of a sonnet accentuate the voice as a musical instrument and so a precedent to language. The notion of the little song as defined by its proximity to the unknown suggests, I hope, some alternative to notions of sonnets as regressive, closed, complacent, bourgeois even, harboring delusions of an autonomous self. Of course, musical recursiveness can be read that way. So can the sonnet tradition. Or not. Form is not so stable as a code as folks might think. First of all, I cannot imagine a successful poem ever that endorses or pretends to embody the autonomous self. All good poems gesture toward otherness. Or more precisely, the commerce between self and other drives the poetic imagination. Narrative has been essentialized, as has rhyme, and so on, but a sonnet’s organization could evidence care, akin to the visual echoes in Bishop’s “Filling Station.” Recursive form could suggest sanity, not as normalcy, but as a condition dear to those mending the pain of runaway anxiety and mental fracture. It could constitute an “other” by virtue of the very formal demands others are free to read as control. For me, the sonnet feels more fragile, more vulnerable than, say, an epic. At its best, it is a burst of beautiful energy, and it has something to teach me still, something about the heightened sense of priorities that little songs create.
This said, the tidy sense of closure of many sonnets does not appeal to me. If a poem snaps shut like a little box, I feel disappointed. The spell breaks. I hear a tiny voice that says, “Look at me.” Some sonnets feel too reliant on form as a source of their authority. I figure, here is this conscribed space that becomes the perfect vessel for disorder. In other words, a music. And what is music but the art of surprise. To vary how sonnets work, Black Anthem deploys a lot of slant rhyme and changing patterns of echo. Other sonnet cycles like Scar and Dear Reader use blank verse. I realize that sonnets can seem uber-traditional, nostalgic even, but I also associate them with experiment—the engaging of history in order to move it toward a future. The form resembles that of many tunes that began as secular and found themselves quite comfortable at church. Music does not seem to care much about what you call it. However you code it, the hymn you hear is always more, especially when profound. In the sonnets, I wanted some of this awareness about the unspeakable in music to emerge. I wanted to pay homage to music’s freedom, how it comforts, solidifies, liquifies, heats, cools, raises bridges, brings down walls. It can facilitate transformation or, as in the case of the Bach Chorale, provide a container, a shelter for the broken and lost. Music defies understanding, and yet it feels so deeply embedded in us, so close to us it aches, it blurs. It “speaks” to the speechless in us, especially in times of need.
As I looked at my failures, my attempts to shape the thought and feeling in sonnets, I began to develop a mantra: focus and move, focus and move. I like that mantra, in part because of the contradiction in it. Out of that opposition, I found something generative, something wedded to the spirit of poetic meaning itself. Time, compressed, begs the question of necessity. And meanwhile, there are the interjections in our process of values related to formal demand. Not that I want that always in my process, but I like it now and then, the sense of collaboration it inspires. In a meditative sonnet especially, there is little room, if any, for elaboration or description, if we want the arc of an interrogation that feels committed enough, vulnerable enough, generous enough, small on the page, large in the mind.
AT: Another new collection, Behemoth, won the New Criterion Poetry Prize and was just published this winter. While your poems have always inhabited metaphysical yearning, this collection interrogates our immemorial need for religious fulfillment while simultaneously cataloging the malevolence inherent in idolatry, fundamentalism, fanaticism, and demonization. It is a moving yet haunted book that feels eerily prescient. I wonder if these poems were inspired in part by this American zeitgeist, where we find ourselves in pitched debates over the very nature of fact, belief, and the social contract.
BB: Yes, clearly, the American zeitgeist served as crucible for the book. We are in an age where a relativism once considered generous in its tolerance of divergent perspectives has devolved into a populist enabling of deception and abuse. Our culture of permission has bred a culture of intolerance, where an upsurge in “evidence” by rumor and repetition fuels fundamentalist rage. The phenomenon is not exclusively American of course, though our mythologies that celebrate the rebel against the status quo have long inspired whole communities of distrust, so-called individualists whose rhetoric excludes. In Behemoth, I wanted to explore the psychology of exclusion, how collective identities, particularly of a religious nature, tempt the imagination, how they can reify the same barriers critiqued by values in their culture. To love one’s enemy is to be called to unfinished business, since we all have shadows. So, the poem “Fire Scripture” begins with the history of the Mayan codex and the monastery that coerced its native community to burn their sacred texts. The animation of the pieta in that poem voices an alternative spirituality. Telling her story to her dead child, the Madonna exemplifies empathy as an imaginative opening and illumination, a letting go. I wanted a sense of both intimacy and distance, grief and wonder, history and fable. So much of how I write about religion began, for me, with my childhood love of Emerson, his sense of the imagination as sacramental, his affirmation of the god in each. I love how he gives the marriage of attention and invention a primary spiritual authority.
So many spiritual traditions have no trickster in them, no figure to loosen our grip on idols, to free the archetype from the archetypal image. The fetishist over-concretizes, much like the delusional who believes he is Jesus Christ—an identification that might reveal something, if the belief were not so literal. Many paranoids owe their hallucinations to a weakened ego, wherein the contents of the unconscious overwhelm internal circuits. Conspiracy theories structure fear. Everything must fit. They give the ego a surrogate architecture, much as online communities of the disgruntled do. Institutions, including religions, are organisms—bound in skin, longing to survive—creatures like us with power needs that threaten to supersede spiritual awakening and human kindness. They can make idols of themselves. This is not to deny their benevolent potential or our own. Indeed, I have yet to encounter an atheist soup kitchen. One of my good friends, Jehanne Dubrow, told me, after reading Behemoth, I wrote an anti-ideological book which is just what the culture needs. My book aside, I agree that the culture could use a greater awareness of how ideology occasions cruelty. Where there is conviction, there is shadow. A self could become a church, or a church a self. Either way, we miss essentials predicated on a separation between a symbol and what it means. I know a few who would throttle you with their big hearts, and I worry if it’s infectious. I wonder what got broken along the way.
AT: For Bruce Bond readers, the past few years have been an embarrassment of riches, as you’ve published several new collections. Your work remains as searching and lyrical as ever, yet the voice, or should I say voices, in your recent books—including Scar, but also Dear Reader and Rise and Fall of the Lesser Sun Gods—seem far more private. The vivid historical narratives that mark older volumes have given way to a dense associative interiority, or what you once deemed in a previous conversation “strangeness and intimacy.” What accounts for this shift—if it is a shift at all?
BB: I see the shift you are talking about. Ironically, I think of my work as more political now, but not obviously so. When we use the words “inner” and “outer,” we of course are talking in approximations. It is the nature of the poetic imagination to go inward and outward at the same time, and indeed all good writers write into the history of which they are a part. All good poems have a strong inwardness in them, since, relative to other forms of speech, poetry excels at figuration. Metaphor provides our finest lens into felt experience, but poems also beg the question of values. They invest. Thus poetic meaning as premised on a blurring of boundaries between inner and outer. I used to write far more poems with names of historical figures in them. There are many homages in Black Anthem for instance. I could return to that someday, perhaps in long poems that delve deeply into the meaning and character of a lesser-known person or time, but recently I am wary of historical names, since a poem can rely too heavily on them. It can relax into ready-made authorities and affinities that operate at a distance. To remove the proper name is to prioritize the actual thought and music in the room. If I am writing about a composer, I want to hear the sound in his hands. I want to slip in and out of a consciousness, however contrived, that feels deeply interior and yet removed in place and time.
I am aware that “inwardness” has a bad reputation as a form of disengagement, but I think of the human psyche as political. We have never been more in need of introspection and attention to the unconscious power of language, moment by moment, room by room, in our discourse. In my experience, you can hammer someone’s head with notions of correctness and still not fundamentally change behavior. There remains no surrogate for awareness, no credible morality divorced from inner work. Reactionary times need more of what Daniel Kahneman calls slow thinking, the activity of the whole physical and self-reflexive mind mobilized to pay attention. My attraction to the speculative lyric resides in the visual metaphor it evokes. Seeing is one branch of “thought,” less an application of logic than an illumination. Less a beacon, more a flashlight in the woods. Thus, the etymology of idea, something seen. The trick is not to kill a poem by making it into a sententious, self-important, cognitive machine. There is an unexplored future to Breton’s conflations of waking and dreaming life. If the spirit of a “higher realism” is one of inclusion, then why not the freedom of the thinking dream. Wallace Stevens once said of surrealism that a lobster playing an accordion is an invention not a discovery. But surely the surrealist poem that is deeply funny, sad, and “beautiful” (Breton’s term for the “marvelous”) has something to reveal. Sometimes absurdity gives us liberty to go deeper into dangerous territory, as dreams can, to negotiate and transform trauma, shame, and shadow.
AT: Some years ago at AWP you casually remarked that your writing process is “meditative.” I’m curious about your use of that word—its suggestiveness, its multiplicity.
BB: I imagine I was referring to my love of speculative poems, since I prefer poems that think in ways that embody wonder, pathos, and surprise. That said, part of the creative process for me is reinventing that process. There is a time to think harder and a time to chill or rebel or dream, to make a radical shift of context or rhetoric, perhaps, whose place in the poem has not yet revealed itself. As Eliot suggested, the lesser poem is either too conscious or not conscious enough, and I have a lot of practice failing in those ways. That said, what I love about the meditative poem is its flexibility and the less obvious ways in which meditations can develop. It can then freely move in an out of narratives or make meaning out of the blurring of boundaries between speculation and storytelling. This freedom gives the meditative poem a mercurial scope of feeling and idea. The consciousness of the poem unfolding before us emerges as a character in its own right. A story or occasion might then provide a ground, an authentication, a test even, a mode of investigation with the warmth of human bodies in it. There is often a breathing immanence to narrative presentation. Above all, poetry embodies the spirit of inclusion. So when I write, I am repeatedly asking then question, what necessary voice is missing? More precisely, it is the feeling of necessity that matters. What new rhetoric or perspective will open up the scope of the poem? What will animate its work? If I am writing of a monster, have I considered the monster’s point of view, or that of the monster inside the monster? What will meaningfully disrupt or otherwise challenge the poem, so that the search will continue? What transformations will heighten thought as an emotional priority. Imagination is inherently dialectical. It opens up the psychic barriers between hearts and minds. But to every dialectic, its tension. For this reason, when moving on as I write, it is often useful to follow conflict, however conceived. We make meaning out of it, after all, as one makes meaning out of problems.
AT: For those of us sustained by the fellowship poetry can offer, the necessary diminishment of interaction has been one of countless hardships during the Covid-19 pandemic. As director of a rural community college’s reading series, though, I’ve personally found virtual readings to be more heartening, and less alienating, than I grumpily anticipated. What has been your sense of them as both a poet and a reader? Are they helping keep us afloat?
BB: Virtual readings are a terrific idea. There is so much poetry of a high order being written now, it is very difficult to keep up. The proliferation of books and sensibilities in our time makes it tougher than ever to scan the landscape. I rely on friends and editors more than ever—folks whose kindred taste and judgement help me find the books that will most speak to me, move me, change me. Surely a virtual reading can forge relationships, even among the non-speakers who see each other in the gallery-view. I have followed up on several occasions to write something to someone whose poetry I heard and loved. Of course, the virtual format has its limits. Impossible to recreate the atmosphere of a reception, but I have been to readings where the Q and A at the end was particularly good. In one, each reader was asked to frame questions for the two co-readers. That worked great. I also think it is good to have a period where all the microphones at the event are turned on. I find the chat function on Zoom during the reading to be a bit distracting, so I don’t tend to pay attention to it, but I just attended a panel on Louise Glück where the chat function was used to supply a link, so I could view the poem as the speaker discussed it. I found that extremely helpful. So yes, virtual readings and lectures do help keep my spirits afloat, but as for that of the poetry world in general, or more specifically its market, I cannot say. I was told by one press that epidemic season had been so hard on presses, he recommended we bump publication into 2022. Surely, a virtual reading can give a book a little push. That said, I am a fan of multiple bodies in a room, someday. It amplifies our friendships. I know the folks on my computer are real, but the medium turns them to ghosts, especially the ones who blacken their screens. They are like one’s imaginary readers. Are you there? I wonder. I know you. Are you there?
Bruce Bond is the author of twenty-seven books, including, most recently, Rise and Fall of the Lesser Sun Gods (Elixir Prize, Elixir Press, 2018), Frankenstein’s Children (Lost Horse, 2018), Dear Reader (Parlor, 2018), Plurality and the Poetics of Self (Palgrave, 2019), Words Written Against the Walls of the City (LSU, 2019), The Calling (Parlor, 2020), and Scar (Etruscan, 2020). His work has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including seven editions of Best American Poetry. Four books are forthcoming, including Behemoth (New Criterion Prize, Criterion Books) and Patmos (Juniper Prize, University of MA Press).
Adam Tavel is the author of four books of poetry, including the forthcoming Sum Ledger (Measure Press, 2021). His most recent collection, Catafalque, won the Richard Wilbur Award (University of Evansville Press, 2018). You can find him online at adamtavel.com and on Twitter at @fawnabyss