I hate it when people ask me questions like that. These days I especially hate it when people ask me for a blurb. People I’ve never met, whose work I don’t know. I’ve been asked a lot lately. I know—it’s all part of po-biz, but I’m tired, really tired, so I’m taking a much-needed blurb-vacation. I also hate it when folks ask me, in an effort to be polite, what my books are about, as if I should be able to give my books an elevator pitch. Or why I write. Or what poetry is for . . .
Maybe I should have started this blog-post by saying I am not in a good mood. Last week my beloved Boston terrier, Miss Froda, (depicted to the left in this old comic of mine) died, and I’m feeling bereft. Lost. Inconsolable. A part of my soul has departed. I am quite sure there has never been a dog like her. She was everything: free verse, prose, short fiction, a novel. Without her I feel as if every day is an endless and unpunctuated page. No joyous reason to wake up, no urgent reason to go outside several times a day—see the clouds, the sky, the sun, no reason to stop writing at 3:00 PM for her dinner—always topped with a sliver of salmon. Salmon, the only poetry she really understood. Disruptive and beguiling, she was my solace, my soul mate, my confidante, my punch line. Sounds like I am writing a blurb for my dog, doesn’t it? But she was the best dog ever. My vet agreed but then she added, Aren’t all our dogs the best?
Nope,I said. Just like all poets aren’t the best, even if every blurb seems to say they are. What is it with blurbs? (Before writing a blurb, I always try to decide what kind of dog this poet resembles.) I told the vet about my first dog, Luger, a Rottweiler, who loved only me. Everyone one else he wanted to eat. He would look up at me, clearly begging, May I bite him? Oh please? Just a nip? Back then I was a runner, and I spent a lot of time jogging on deserted country roads. Having a guard dog had its advantages. But I always worried. To be fair, Luger only bit Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses and one vacuum cleaner salesman. (This was back in the day when people sold vacuums door-to-door—they’d dump shit on your carpet and then want you to buy a vacuum to clean it up.) My mother said Luger had good taste—I’m not sure exactly what she meant, but she always sided with the dog. Her logic went something like—if I were a dog, I’d want to bite him, too. My dog, Luger, sold her on the breed.
My vet laughed and confessed that there are days she feels just like Luger. Me, too,I said. (That’s when I knew—this lady is the vet for me. Or should I say, for my next dog.) I’ve been feeling like taking a bite out of everyone lately. And not just the poets who ask for a blurb. Don’t even get me started on the news. After listening to NPR, I need a muzzle.
That’s when I turn to poetry. Even when poetry is dark, I feel oddly uplifted after reading it. Maybe because it represents truth, a level of depth, heart, intimacy and intelligence missing from the news. It places a value on the human soul and renews my faith in humanity, what little faith I have—which brings me to Nancy Mitchell again. Because last week I mentioned Nancy Mitchell’s new collection, The Out-of-Body-Shop, and I don’t think I did her justice. Her poetry is powerful, and I mean powerfully beautiful, elegant, reflective, insightful. Her poems are often painful and moving like this one about sexual abuse:
Why I’m Here
I have no clue—it was weird, yes
but I would say molested but
not abused like the one
here who was raped
repeatedly and caged or that one
chained four hundred days to a radiator . . .
But, the technicians insist (in layman’s
terms) there is always the initial incident, after
which the connection to the body
is intrinsically damaged—think
electric cord, think frayed—
it’s the culmination of subsequent,
less significant incidents that cause
the final, often irreparable, split.
We all here want, hope, to be fixed—
but chances of a successful retrofit
to the body depend
most cases are too far
Nancy Mitchell is also a brilliant essayist, so I thought I’d ask her (forgive me, Nancy) some of the very questions I dislike answering. One of those wide-open questions like . . .
Tell me about this book? What is the Out-of-Body Shop?
Thank you, Nin for saying such kind things about my poems, and for my asking me about my new book. Basically, The Out-of-Body Shop is a metaphor for the psychological/spirtual space a psyche/soul ends up, the connective cord to the body, damaged by a primal trauma, then frayed from successive shocks— the loss of loved ones by death or abandonment or to geography and time and the distracting minutiae of the news, social media, etc. of life— finally split. In this shop, reconnection is possible if the splintered parts of the psyche can be recovered or reintegrated. The book is about the recovery of these parts—the psyches/speakers in these poems sift memories, scratch through the veneer of appearances and relentlessly stalk ghosts until they surrender the part they hold hostage. With these recovered fragments the arduous task of retrofitting the psyche to the body begins.
You know Nin, I think we all end up in the Out of Body Shop from time to time as a result of varying degrees of trauma via loss-as you say of the loss of your beloved Miss Froda “A part of my soul has departed.” The life routines, and their resonant, tactile sensory details we share with our departed-from-us beloveds—and “beloveds” can be a place we’ve lived for years, a job we’ve loved and lost, etc.—are what tether us to this sweet old world, and without them we’re like a helium balloon cut loose, the pleasures of our life receding. I think we suffer more subtle losses on a daily basis as our “social media” presence, edited of every idiosyncratic, real sensory detail, becomes more real than who we are. . . the wizard of Oz effect. I explore this kind of loss in this new book, particularly in the poem
All we are is a now
Is floating text
Next to a thumbnail
Of the body
We left. We reminisce
On all the ways a warm
Body feels against
Another body, how
So differently in fog
Than in the dark
And day and everything
The smell of rain
Changes. We try
Not to complain
About the constant ache
And to be grateful:
We like each other;
We have emojis.
So, it’s a place of regrouping, remembering, retrofitting, where, with the help of some friendly “technicians” we are put back together, but with fault lines.
Nancy Mitchell is the author of three volumes of poetry, The Near Surround (Four Way Books, 2002,) Grief Hut (Cervena Barva Press, 2009) andThe Out-of-Body Shop(Plume Editions, 2018.) A 2012 Pushcart Prize winner, she teaches at Salisbury University in Maryland and serves as Associate Editor of Special Features for Plume. She can be reached at email@example.com
Nin Andrews' most recent collection, Miss August, was published by CavanKerry in 2017. You can hear her interview with Grace Cavaleiri and see a picture of her with her Boston Terrier here.