Next up in our APIA Kundiman poetry series: R.A. Villanueva!
R.A. Villanueva is the author of Reliquaria, winner of the 2013 Prairie Schooner Book Prize. A founding editor of Tongue: A Journal of Writing & Art, his honors include the 2013 Ninth Letter Literary Award for poetry and fellowships from Kundiman and The Asian American Literary Review. His writing has appeared widely in journals and anthologies including AGNI, Bellevue Literary Review, The Common, DIAGRAM, Gulf Coast, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and Virginia Quarterly Review. He lives in Brooklyn and is a Senior Lecturer at New York University.
What I love about R.A. Villanueva’s poems are their complexity of diction and detail, their lyrical precision and grit, their dance between the strange ephemera of daily realities and the sublime. In one such poem, “Sacrum”, Villanueva mixes the ancient with recent memory, recent history, to consider the way our bodies remain long after our lives have departed. In the opening three stanzas, Vesalius the anatomist is aligned with Abraham and Achilles, to give us three different experiences of ways the “sacred bone remains”. Then in the fourth stanza, the poem takes a shift into the “I”—a surprising perspective, given the seeming omniscience of the initial voice. It shifts into a conversation between the “I” and “you”, one that is at once intimate and singular. The poem literally travels through time—into the not-quite-present (that also deserves an elegy). The speaker imagines the “you” experiencing Greater Bangkok, the “fires and protest tambourines”, the “makeshift triggers”. “Sacrum” is a poem that unsettles the divide between histories, contexts, and geographies—it crosses borders, it sings, simultaneously elegiac and full of reverence. I’m definitely looking forward to R.A. Villanueva’s debut collection, Reliquaria, which is out September of this year from the University of Nebraska Press.
Though lacking the breadth
and mass of the iliac wing,
this sacred bone remains,
for Vesalius, broad as hunger,
as grand and spacious
as the sea. But he leaves names
and reasons for others, wants
only the seven figures of the thorax,
cares more about the Cartilages
of the Rough Artery.
He does not mention how this holy
place, cut from the ox-calf wrapped
in fat, was Achilles’ mourning offering,
how the blessed ram, shank broken
over the fire, was Abraham’s sacrifice
after his son. When I think aloud,
Nothing we do living
can be as beautiful
as what the living will do
with our bones, you reply
with ceremony, recounting
cremations from your childhood:
boys at pyre’s base sifting through ash
for that fragment of sternum
which resembles a man
lost in meditation, those shards of hip
worthy of marigolds and hand-thrown urns
to set upon the Ganges. Years later
you find yourself home, on the edge
of a Greater Bangkok throttled
with fires and protest tambourines.
There amidst talk of the hereafter
and makeshift triggers, you tend
to a lung bruised through the cage
of the ribs, send photos of Varanasi,
its bargefields and silks, a barber
drawing his knife across the cheeks
of the dead and their brothers.
What I have yet to show you back
is Sta. Rita de Cascia, its reliquary
chapel overtaken by flowers, this
grave mason preparing a space
for my Grandfather as we watch
the youngest girls of the barangay
lifted up and passed, kicking
at the air, over the face of his casket.
Someone whispers, So that his spirit
will keep to heaven, and then I know
I am not entirely here: I stare
as a boy trowels earth into a paste
of mortar and spit; I hear Vesalius
take his artists to the head and
its moveable sutures, the bulwark
of temples made for the soft nerves,
formed for the sake of the eyes; I kneel
beside priests burning camphor
upon the ghats, brace this eldest son
for what he must break with his hands
and the sight of his father’s soul
freed from the fabric of his skull.
First published in Ninth Letter
To quote Angry Asian Man, who are you? What are you all about?
Here is an animated GIF of a small chicken strutting, Velcro-strapped to a plunger.
And here, some context: a quintet of researchers curious about the mechanics of dinosaur movement, posture, and mobility fastened prosthetic tails to domesticated chickens. Because living Tyrannosaurs are hard to come by (mass extinction, alas), their hope was to “gain important insights into previously unexplored aspects of bipedal non-avian theropod locomotion” by observing changes in the gait of “extant birds.” That is to say, they strapped sticks to the backends of twelve juvenile chickens and video taped them as their newly weighted spines adjusted themselves to new centers of mass closer to those of ancestors earlier in the bird line.
I am the kind of person fascinated by nearly everything in orbit around — and connected with — that image. From the title of the study (“Walking Like Dinosaurs: Chickens with Artificial Tails Provide Clues about Non-Avian Theropod Locomotion”) to the acts of imagination powering their simulation’s design, from their leaps of conception to the phrases “experimental chicken” and their word “energetics,” there’s something like poetry in it all.
Consider how that which is often forgotten or domesticated can (with conjuring and risk) reconfigure our sense of where we came from and who we are. Consider how present things contain vestiges of the past. Like Marianne Moore, consider aloud: “Do the poet and scientist not work analogously?…Each is attentive to clues, each must narrow the choice, must strive for precision [because our] objective is fertile procedure. Is it not?”
Tell me about your current or most recent project. How did you transform it from its genesis to its current form?
Reliquaria is my first collection of poems and it is a variant of an earlier manuscript titled This Skeleton Coast.
On a macro level, Reliquaria resembles its predecessor; the bodywork remains essentially the same. There is one poem outside of three sections, each section inflected by that first poem and an accompanying epigraph. Because there’s such a range of formal experiments and shifts in time and perspective/voice in the book (including a fairly extensive Notes section that offers another sort of narrative), the overall architecture wants to serve as a calibrating and complicating force.
And so, in terms of transformations, most of those happened inside that structure: re-ordering poems, replacing older poems for newer ones, exchanging an epigraph taken from T.S. Eliot’s Ariel Poems for one from José Garcia Villa’s Doveglion; etc.
And the difference in title? Reliquaria is a gift from one of those internal alterations. In moving “Sacrum” to its current place at the very beginning of the book, This Skeleton Coast no longer felt like a fitting name for the collection as a whole; it didn’t quite set the fugue in motion. Reliquaria is an invented word, sacred-sounding, a play upon the music of a “reliquary / chapel overtaken by flowers.”
Tell me what you get excited about, in terms of your poetry and your work. What have you discovered in the process of shaping and forming your manuscript(s)? What has shaped, challenged, or invigorated your poetic practice?
The ever-fraught, ever-fresh marriage of form and idea is infinitely exciting. There’s a moment from Thom Gunn’sThe Occasions of Poetry: Essays in Criticism and Autobiography that speaks of this preoccupation better than I ever could:
“Rhythmic form and subject-matter are locked in a permanent embrace:…in metrical verse, it is the nature of the control being exercised that becomes part of the life being spoken about. It is poetry making great use of the conscious intelligence, but its danger is bombast—the controlling music drowning out everything else. Free verse invites a different style of experience, improvisation. Its danger lies in being too relaxed, too lacking in controlling energy.”
I’ve discovered that negotiating that desire to be cerebral, conscious-of-materials, and emotionally-resonant reallymatters to me. Indeed, the writing that I admire most often finds its own ways to live in and work those spaces, those rivalries.
By the way, have you seen this video of the Manhattan Bridge?
A student of mine once asked me about how civil engineering had anything to do with writing. I showed him that short film and rambled on about give and rigor, flexibility and frame-building, elasticity of thought and tensile strength. Whether suspension bridges or sonnets, we yearn to make things that hold and move us.
Who are your influences? If you could map a poetic lineage, how would it look? Or the opposite: whose work do you admire and come back to, but contrasts from your own work?
I like that word, “lineage.” It calls up associations with inheritance and congenital defects and evolution (convergent, divergent). My immediate response to is to offer this woefully incomplete catalogue of those I am beholden to—and humbled by: Edna St. Vincent Millay, Anne Sexton, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Lucille Clifton, Octavia E. Butler, John Berger, Anne Carson, Jack Gilbert, Kurt Vonnegut, José Garcia Villa, and on and on.
What is one thing that you desire to say as a poet, but haven’t said yet? What does the future hold for you, if you could hold it?
For Susan Sontag, being a writer “means trying to understand, take in, connect with what wickedness human beings are capable of and not be corrupted—made cynical, superficial—by this understanding.” Writing for her is a martial art, a discipline.
Here’s to hoping that the future affords me the chance to keep paying attention to the world that way. And here’s to your word, “yet,” which sounds like faith.