by Rob Taylor
You’ve given yourself, on every plane,
to time and to its rushing.
Your body complying somehow with my dreams,
losing its cohesion, becoming a speeding mist
pushed along just above the earth, a hurrying cloud.
You want to twist away from me, become a blur,
the face of anyone, neck curled into any bent elbow.
You want to wipe yourself out of me and become a blur,
time held back by a box until space melts into mere movement.
You want to melt, become the pattern in the wallpaper,
the shadow of a door ajar, a two-dimensional spill
of watery ink on a moment’s onionskin page.
At what moment does the body become a smudge,
a pool of thumb-wiped colour bleeding into another pool?
– Diane Tucker
from Bonsai Love
(Harbour Publishing, 2014).
Reprinted with permission.
Diane Tucker has been on a bit of a roll of late – a novel (His Sweet Favour, Thistledown Press, 2009) and a play (Here Breaks The Heart: the Loves of Christina Rossetti, Fire Exit Theatre, 2013) have come out in relatively quick succession. But it’s been seven years since her last book of poetry, and eighteen since the book prior – her debut, God on His Haunches (Nightwood, 1996) – was shortlisted for the Gerard Lampert Award.
So despite Diane’s productivity, her third poetry collection, Bonsai Love (Harbour Publishing, 2014), seems long overdue.
Diane will be launching the book on Sunday, April 27th at 7 PM at the Cottage Bistro (4468 Main Street, Vancouver). She’s got a snazzy launch poster and everything:
Diane and I exchanged a few emails about Bonsai Love, and what follows is the result. I hope you enjoy the read!
I love “Time Lapse Video” and I wonder if it is an ekphrastic poem — i.e. if it is based off of a particular source video. If so, I was wondering if you’d mind speaking a bit about the source? And if not, perhaps speak more generally about the inspiration that brought about the poem?
No, it’s not an ekphrastic poem, I’m sure of that. It’s been a few years since I wrote it… I’m pretty sure I was thinking about a person dear to me that I’d not seen for a very long time. I’m not young anymore (50 next year!), and one begins to forget things. I have to think hard to remember my grandparents’ voices, for example, grandparents I grew up with living in my house but who have been dead for almost three decades. And I’m starting to lose the names of people from my childhood and people I don’t see regularly. It’s frightening.
So as far as the images in the poem, I made them up, simple as that. It’s certainly probable that it was written in a season or on a day of mist, rain, blur. There are plenty of those around here. And you will find another “time-lapse” image in my first book, in the title poem, “God on His Haunches”, where I refer to God as a “time-lapse photographer”. Apparently I like that.
I do remember distinctly that the first couplet and the last were originally flipped. The poem began with the question and ended with the sparse assertive statement. Something bothered me about the poem and I kept tinkering. When I flipped them, when I put the question at the end, the whole thing fell into place. I think it gives a greater sense of powerlessness and alarm, of the narrator thinking, “What’s happening?!” and remaining in that moment of loss.
Because I think there is also the sense of the poem’s object wanting to be forgotten, wanting to live as though the relationship had never happened. It’s convenient for us at times to live with the dangerous idea that we can compartmentalize ourselves, our relationships and periods of time in our lives. As though everything didn’t affect us to the core all the time in ways we cannot begin to fathom.
“The dangerous idea that we can compartmentalize ourselves”… yes, I like that, and it brings me to my thoughts about the religious elements of Bonsai Love.
Right off the bat, with the opening poem “Prologue: Eve as rib”, you declare that you won’t be shying away from religious themes and imagery in the book. I’ll admit that, despite being the son of a United Church minister, and happily raised in the church, this gave me a moment of hesitation. These days it feels hard to discuss religion (big R or small) without being sucked into US political battles around Creationism, anti-gay legislation, and other byproducts of the ever-churning American “religious right.” For me, this has sadly meant that the main reasons people are drawn to, and stay within, religions — love, community, and the collective searching meaning — are almost impossible to discuss, as they are drowned out by all that right-wing political noise (and the equally loud left-wing push back). It’s in this much healthier way that I read Bonsai Love as (in some ways) a religious text, and in this way I’m grateful to you for taking the risk of wading into “religious” territory during our current political moment.
Do any of my thoughts above about Bonsai Love ring true to you? Do you consider it to be a religious book? And if so, do you consider that a risk?
Lots of questions in that question! The foundational truth of my life is that I am a Christian. Bonsai Love is a religious book only in the sense that everything a believer does is, ideally, informed by her faith, insofar as her faith is integrated into her being. And one of the great goals of a Christian’s life is that there be progressively less and less difference between who one is on the inside and how one lives on the outside. A Christian trusts that God is doing this work. So I feel no compulsion to use poems to proselytize or push an institutional agenda. In my experience that produces lousy poetry anyway, and letting bad poetry into the world intentionally is a kind of sin. I trust what poetry is; my faith is the faith of the Word, and the Word made flesh, after all! No better endorsement of the metaphor and all it implies than Jesus himself: God’s Word made flesh. And I trust what Jesus said about the truth making you free. And if the truth makes you free, then I am free to tell the truth and trust God with the results. Thomas Merton’s writing taught me that, to do all I can to be “detached from the results” of my work.
That said, in this culture espousing any belief as an absolute spiritual truth is a risk. But in Canada we still have freedom of religion and thought and speech, which we need to diligently and zealously protect. I will protect anyone’s right to say that Jesus was a dirty lunatic just as anyone else should protect my right to say that he is the Lord.
If my poetry helps you think about “religion” (such a problematic word!) in a less politically polarizing way, then amen to that! That’s no way to think about nearly anything.
This desire for there being “progressively less and less difference between who one is on the inside and how one lives on the outside” resonates with me, and seems well reflected in your book. That the book involves religious themes flows naturally from that. That said, a handful of the poems (“Eve as rib”, for starters) take on religious images and stories very directly and (seemingly) intentionally. In those cases, did you set out to tackle religious stories directly, or did they too slip in there organically?
Organically, absolutely. Again, it’s who I am. I don’t have to try to wedge it in someplace. What is perhaps not so organic is the choice of poems and their order. I consciously left out of the book some poems I have written that deal more explicitly with Christian topics or biblical themes, because when I decided to assemble the story of a romantic relationship I used poems that would serve that theme. Which is why Adam and Eve scraped in there by the skin of their naked bums.
Yes, I’ve been meaning to ask you about this relationship that runs through the book. Is it, as you seem to be suggesting, a composite you assembled during the editing process for this book, or? And why did you choose to structure the book in this way?
Each individual poem in the book is about a real thing or person in my life. But the whole, the manuscript, is a composite, assembled to create a narrative arc that can be read as a story, if the reader chooses to imagine it. One must choose to enter into it, just as one chooses to enter the world of a work of prose fiction. Or simply read the poems as poems; ignore the narrative if it distracts or irks you. No problem.
Why structure the book this way? Well, it makes room for a bunch of poems that span a good fifteen years of my life, and perhaps allows me to examine this area of myself — I’m what they call a “hopeless romantic” — without a preoccupying amount of autobiography. My, that sounds cagey, doesn’t it?
One of my favourite elements of Bonsai Love is the series of ghazals that runs throughout the book. They are written on various objects (“Cup”, “Hands”, “Pearl”) with the repeating word at the end of each couplet being the title object. Could you speak a bit about your interest in the form, and also about how you composed the poems: did you write them out linearly, or did you write a bunch of couplets and rearrange them? Was the editorial process one more of building up, or paring down?
About ten years ago I wrote a bunch of ghazals and enjoyed it so much. The form lets you walk around something and poke it from different angles; the poet gets to be all the various blind men touching all the parts of the elephant, if I can use that old one — and that seems just a gift. I wanted to respect the form as much as I could, without being ridiculous. The form has served Persian poets for centuries so surely there must be something to it! I remember writing some with my name in the last couplet (that’s part of the original form), but that got silly and distracted from the whole so I gave up on that bit.
With some of them I had to pare down — I had too many things to say! But not all. The one about hands was the first and the richest for me to write. I even took one of the couplets out of it after it was published in a magazine and before it went into the Bonsai Love manuscript, to help it fit better into this book. That’s one of the nice things about the form; it’s endlessly tweakable. I was experimenting with a number of forms for a few years there, and the ghazal form seemed to suit me. I haven’t actually written one for years. Maybe I need to give it another go.
Please do! Continuing from the ghazals, which are all meditations — in one way or another — on physical objects, they are joined in the book by many other poems that turn over and inspect items in different ways. My inexhaustive list of “things” considered in the book includes: scabs, books, a wine glass, an earring, beach glass, shadows, bread, cheese, apples, hearts, and, of course, cups, hands and pearls. What was it about writing object poems that drew you to them so strongly? What did they unlock? What did they allow you to see or say?
The best way to answer this question is with Gerard Manley Hopkins and his idea of “inscape” (an idea he derived from medieval philosopher Duns Scotus): that each created thing has its own unique inner qualities, that which is itself and nothing else.
“[Hopkins] felt that everything in the universe was characterized by what he called inscape, the distinctive design that constitutes individual identity. This identity is not static but dynamic. Each being in the universe ‘selves,’ that is, enacts its identity. And the human being, the most highly selved, the most individually distinctive being in the universe, recognizes the inscape of other beings in an act that Hopkins calls instress, the apprehension of an object in an intense thrust of energy toward it that enables one to realize specific distinctiveness. Ultimately, the instress of inscape leads one to Christ, for the individual identity of any object is the stamp of divine creation on it.”
– Stephen Greenblatt et al., Ed. “Gerard Manley Hopkins.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature.
This renders even the most humble object an ocean of meaning, a depth that I think is corroborated by many of the findings of modern nuclear physics. The unmediated realness of reality — how does it come to us but through objects?
Christianity’s most important ceremony, the Eucharist, has at its centre two common substances, bread and wine. But they are infinitely dense with meaning in that context, and in themselves perfectly beautiful and complex enough to bear all that meaning.
And of course objects connect us to other people — the Pearl ghazal in the book, for example, is strongly connected to my mother because it was her birthstone and she always had lots of pearl jewelry. They connect us to the unreachable past; they connect us to other places. Why do we bring home a souvenir from a faraway place? To remember. Pictures don’t cut it, not completely. I want to hold in my hand now, here, the thing I held in my hand there, then. It’s a way of pinning an Eternity button on a fleeing Time, I think.
Speaking of time (and how it flees), you have had an interesting publishing timeline: a book of poems in 1996, then no books for 11 years, then three books and a play in the last seven years. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that that publication gap had something to do with raising your children, but I was wondering if you could speak about it a little more. What was that time in-between books like? Were you comfortable with it? Stifled by it? And does it feel like vertigo now, to have all these publications in such a (comparably) short span?
Those eleven years were increasingly difficult, in that respect. Yes, my husband and I were raising two children who are now duly raised, but all that time I never stopped writing and sending and writing and sending. I had a manuscript of poems to send out only two years after the first book was published, but it never got accepted; I sent it out a good twenty times. I picked it apart and reassembled it with newer work into what eventually became Bright Scarves of Hours. When the years got long, I put out a couple of self-published chapbooks and that held me over a bit, and I received steady journal acceptances all that time. I got pretty discouraged at a couple of points and some good friends, some dear poetry friends, kept me going. But what are you going to do? I’m a poet. I’m not likely to stop writing poems. I don’t want to.
I sincerely hope that when the work was good enough, the work got accepted. Madeleine L’Engle had a long dry spell after her first couple of novels, a decade I think, and the next thing she came out with was A Wrinkle in Time, so those years had a reason. But the waiting was no fun!
Now I have raised my children and over the last few years both my parents have passed away. So I feel strongly that this period of my life, however long it will be, is for me to devote to work: poetry, drama, whatever. In middle age there’s no getting around how fragile one’s sanity and physical health are. We can become unable to work at any moment. So I must work hard while I still can.
And of course I love being published. What does one bother with all this for if not to be read? Heaven knows there’s no money in it. But to be read, and understood, and connected with in that way. There is nothing like it in all the world.
Very true. What’s your next plan, then, for being read? Poetry? Fiction? Theatre? A – god forbid! – break?
I never stop writing poems. I have more than a hundred unpublished poems sitting around awaiting their fate and fool that I am I keep adding to their number. And yes, I have branched out into writing for the theatre, which was my first love as a young person. Though I’m not directly working on one at the moment, I hope I’ll write more plays.
Having one produced was unbelievable. I described it as like having everyone you know all sitting in a room reading your book all at the same time, and you can see into their heads. How cool is that? And you can sell a play more than once, unlike a book, which means there might be slightly more money in it. Slightly. Because poets, we’re all about the big money, aren’t we Rob?
If you want to help Diane rake in that big poetry money, you can pick up a copy of Bonsai Love from your local bookstore, or from the Harbour Publishing website or Amazon. Or, even better, you can get a signed copy at Diane’s Vancouver launch on April 27th!
You can read more of Rob Taylor’s interviews here.