I awoke on Veteran’s Day in the United States
To blue skies and a republican Cali sunshine
That made the whole town of McKinleyville
Appear lit from the inside, as if it were its own
Source of light, as if it still heard the sad music
Of its first name, Minor, and heard the minor
Third McKinley sang when he was shot through
The stomach and the pancreas and the kidney
At the Temple of Music in Buffalo, New York
In nineteen hundred and one. We were talking
Poetry, my friend and me, and what happened
To the lake in Blue Lake after the Mad River
Was leveed and how McKinley was the last
Veteran of the Civil War elected President,
How he died of gangrene because the surgeons
Had been forced to operate by reflected sun-
Light and could not find the bullet. We talked
As we drove the back roads of Humboldt County
About our faith in the persistent wellspring
Of meaning and sang along with Springsteen,
Headed north to the tall trees at Prarie Creek,
Past the beachhead at Trinidad and the casino
And the Orick gas bar, past the present moment
Into our late afternoon beer at the Fieldbrook
General Store where we sat in the dimness
And recalled things that happened long before
Us like the redwood forest and the salt marsh
In Humboldt Bay, like the Pan-American Expo
Where the first x-ray machine was on display
And President McKinley reached out to shake
The hand of a man carrying a pistol concealed
By a hankerchief. “All my people are larger
Bodies than mine,” my friend quoted Agee,
“By some chance, here they are, all on this earth.”
These are the facts as I know them. McKinley
Died from a lack of light and the assassin
Was executed by electricity on State Street
In Auburn, New York, on the traditional land
Of the Iroquois Confederacy, two weeks before
A wrecking crew razed the Temple of Music.
(Poem from A Doctor Pedaled Her Bicycle over the River Arno, copyright 2011 House of Anansi)
Talking Trojan War Blues
“All the new thinking is about death,”
Robert Hass said, longingly, in a scribble
Of blackberries. I was dreaming Seamus Heaney
On the porch while the children pedalled
Their bicycles down the street,
Dragging their long, late summer shadows
To death behind them. Such tender
Desecration. Even Achilles’ horses wept
In the field of battle days before
They were made to drag through dust
Hector’s body. “Longing, we say,
Because desire is full of endless distances.”
Robert Hass said that. You can be in my dream
If I could just remember it. I said that.
My Life Aboard the Last Sailing Ship Carrying Cumberland Coal
You give your firstborn daughter
A central-Asian name
Meaning blue or water.
Years later two bluebirds alight on either arm
And an artist’s quick needlework
Stitches birds to skin
In your obsequies your fetlocks
Wing away, appear then disappear. Of course
Now you are a horse
With pale blue withers on a high Afghan plain.
What does it mean to be
Such a thing? Behind you, the blue Pamir mountains.
Before you, antiquity.
You follow a trade in lapis lazuli
From Badakhshan to the court of Cleopatra.
You see morning’s blue aurora
Alight on the Nile delta and around the eyes
Of the pharaoh. Oh.
Isis, God of sailors. Entering the Salish Sea
Pamir becalms in a thick mist
Off Cape Flattery.
The water beneath the ship is dark lapis.
You are on the yard of the crossjack working canvas.
Out of the blue
Wings of eros and agape alight in you. Deus ex caritas.
Your God is born.
The hurricane with a woman’s name that sinks Pamir
Off the blue shores
Of the Portuguese vernacular.
It all comes together in the English word
Azure. The hue of your daughter’s eyes.
Cognate of lapis lazuli.
A sailor gets on his arm for sailing the globe in three thousand years.
The horse that gathers away, appears then disappears.
Unspeakable Acts in Cars
It’s the first day of summer and we’re so happy
To see the sun and the satchel of colours it schleps
All those dark kilometres. The sky is so blue
And the sea is blue and the small islands in the sea
Are blue also. How our sun must love blue.
We have beachgrass and bull kelp and lion’s mane
And we love them all because we love the sea
Which is cold and buoyant. Friends now of seasalt
And knotweed, the mountains know all about us
And who we are when we are most ourselves.
But their blue haughty distances are no help.
We are who we are with mock orange and wisteria.
We’ve nothing to bitch about. The high cirrus
Can’t touch us. We been alive just long enough.
(Poems from I Don't Want to Die Like Frank O'Hara, copyright 2014 Baseline Press)
Jeff Latosik: History (perhaps not coincidentally my favourite poem in A Doctor Pedalled Her...) is a word that resonates more and more throughout your three collections and upcoming chapbook. I'm thinking of your own personal history and the history of British Columbia and Western Canada but also the history of poetry, art, and war that informs much of your work. I'm interested, however, about when history in the poems seems to coalesce into a simultaneous moment. Here, I'm thinking of the doctor spilling her black bag in A Doctor.... where "the whole universe explodes into place"; in SN1987AZT, where a whole life seems to flash supernaturally in front of us in a single stanza; and "In My Life Aboard the Sailing Ship..." (from your upcoming chapbook) where a sailor gets a bird on his arm for "traveling the globe in three thousand years." These are moments where history no longer seems sequential but simultaneous, as if viewed by Walter Benjamin's angel of history or True Detective's Rust Cohle, who conceives of time as "a flat circle." Have you noticed this moment in your own writing? What are your thoughts on the importance of grappling with history in one's work? And, finally, do you see the poem as particularly suited to this simultaneous view of history given something about its length, design on the page, or its own long relationship to tradition?
Matt Rader: First, thank you for this question. It's surprisingly touching to have someone ask a serious question about my work.
The simple answer to your first question is yes, I have noticed this moment in my writing. Moreover, I've consciously worked to represent this moment in my poems, because this moment you describe of history being stripped of its sequentiality is precisely what I feel history is: for me, history is not so much a series of discrete events ordered by a linear expression of time as it is a complex of forces, or currents, experienced by embodied individuals who are themselves the nexus of this complex. Which is to say, that history is what we experience in a moment.
It’s worth making a distinction here between history and the past. I'm not suggesting that the past is a subjective construct. I'm suggesting that history is a subjective construct and that history is one of the ways in which we know the past. (History is also one of the ways we know the present and the future, but more on that shortly.) It's also worth noting that I use “experience” here to express the varieties of knowing— those that are available intellectually and those that are not, those that are imposed and those sought. What I'm trying to capture with the word “experience" is that knowing itself is an expression of a moment in time through which everything is moving. That expression takes place in, and to some extent is constitutive of, the body.
History, in this sense, might be seen as an attitude toward time. I almost imagine it in that old Greek way of the body moving backward into the future. When I turn around to see what Time is before me I feel history rush up from behind to (de)construct and interpret the world.
Of course, other attitudes are entirely possible. For example, lately, I've been considering the poetic genres of elegy and ode. Formally, these genres appear to me to have very similar, if not identical, shapes. So what makes them different? Maybe an attitude towards time? In David O’Meara’s new collection, A Pretty Sight, he describes a Hanoi morning street scene: “no history but the deal, offers/and banter, the good price of fish/caught that morning/in the Gulf of Tonkin./Fuck silence or permanence./Fuck elegy. Fuck time and pain.”
With respect to your question about the importance of grappling with history in poems or art I have two responses, one personal and one observational. The personal one has to do with politics and reverence and the values historicity brings to community, its foundational contribution to solidarity and resistance, its cartography of experience, its deep central mysteries. These are some of what attracts me to the historical view. The second, more observational response is simply that history is axiomatic in all our poems. In Art As Experience, John Dewey puts it this way: “Art celebrates with peculiar intensity the moments in which the past reënforces the present and in which the future is a quickening of what now is.”
I don’t know about any intrinsic identity for poetry with respect to history, but I do appreciate the way in which the formal aspects of poems constitute an important part of their “meanings” and in this way provide another “current,” to return to a previous term, of historicity for both the poet and the reader/audience. Other arts also have this formal current available to them—I’m thinking specifically of musical composers—but this current appears to me to be especially close to the surface in poetry.
Finally, I’ll close with a couple of sentences from Mary Ruefle (from Madness, Rack, and Honey) that act as the epigraph for my forthcoming chapbook and which speak to where my head has been recently with respect to history and poems: “People who are alive are not really people because they haven’t died; but people who have been alive and then died are the whole kind of people we want to be our teachers. I really can’t explain it, being alive and all.”
Jeff Latosik's work has recently appeared in Maisonneuve. He will publish The Patent Office, a chapbook with Junction books in Spring of 2014. A full-length collection, Safely Home Pacific Western, will be released in Spring 2015 with the Icehouse imprint of Goose Lane.
Matt Rader's work recently appeared in The Walrus. He will publish I Don't Want to Die Like Frank O'Hara, a chapbook with Baseline Press in Fall 2014. A collection of stories, What I Want to Tell Goes Like This, will also be released this fall with Nightwood Editions. This summer he will join the core faculty of Creative Studies at the University of British Columbia Okanagan.