new Mennonite Life logo    March 2000     vol. 55 no. 1     Back to Table of Contents

A Multimedia Colloquy with Keith Ratzlaff

Ami Regier

Keith Ratzlaff's poetry has received national attention since his book length manuscript, Man Under a Pear Tree, was selected by poet Robert Dana for the 1996 Anhinga Prize for Poetry. His second book of poems, Across the Known World, was published in the same year by Loess Hills Press. In addition to two previous chapbooks, Ratzlaff's poems have appeared in major poetry journals including Poetry Northwest, which awarded him its 1996 Theodore Roethke Prize. Originally from Henderson, Nebraska, Ratzlaff earned his B.A. degree from Bethel College, and his MFA from Indiana University. Now Associate Professor of English at Central College, in Pella, Iowa, he teaches writing courses and, he claims, bowls an average game of 144.

As the resonant titles of his two recent books suggest, his work offers a series of maps for varied geographies--the regionally defined landscape, the personal territories of memory and body, as well as the conceptually wide spaces of liberal-arts knowledge. Visual art becomes a kind of topographical map, layering the relations among all of these areas of inquiry in Man Under a Pear Tree, which draws its title from a painting by Paul Klee (1887-1940), and maintains an ongoing relation to Klee's paintings referentially throughout the book. However, the paintings do not appear in the book, with the exception of one image on the cover, Klee's "ach, aber ach!" Mennonite Life now offers readers the opportunity to enter these poems in Man Under a Pear Tree through several kinds of interpretive maps: by reading a recent interview with Keith Ratzlaff, listening to the poems read by the author, and examining images of Klee paintings which are relevant to the book.

Man Under a Pear Tree

Reading: wav file (15 MB)
Reading: mp3 file (616 KB)

August and pears falling.
It's as if I've gone
blind, as if my life has been.

As if I were a boxer pummeled
and pummeled
with soft, left-handed jabs.

There's a radio somewhere,
a parking lot,
a boy singing along

his voice like a great mallet
beating a car engine.
"Oh," they sing, the boy and the radio,

"oh and oh baby." It's as if
pears were breasts
if breasts were like that,

like rain on a day I remember
when the everywhere nature
of rain was on my face, in the trees,

in my hands outstretched.
As if I had
climbed the pear tree

with one part of my body and
shaken the limbs
for the delight of the rest of me.

One fall I climbed the ridge,
acorns dropping
in the oak leaves like gunfire --

but this is not like that.
Pears fall,
and what green is left

leaches quietly into the air
just before
they hit the ground.

Then yellow, then blush pulled
into the earth
like multiple lovers -- if pears

and the everywhere nature
of seed and fruit
can be imagined that way.

As if blindness were a cure
and delight
for the eyes; as if

the blind man hit
by lightning
in his own back yard

had his sight restored
as a curse.
I am not in danger.

Woman Flying

Reading: wav file (19 MB)
Reading: mp3 file (773 KB)

There's beer on the table
And the woman with red hair is thinking
What if the door opened
What if the roof blew off
What if the whole bar didn't have its arms in the air
    watching the playoffs
What if she broke into flames
The whole bar, its arms and fists in the air
    as if this were Fidelio and tragic
And wishing it could happen: flames, corolla, ash,
    and none of it her fault.

Someone else has been looking over her shoulder
    all day, mimicking her
The way pearls on a string mimic each other
The way a dancer's movements in one stopped moment
    finally rush up to be her and now
And she's thinking of apples
    the moment before the moment they hit the ground
Thinking of the old woman in the street
    kneeling in the traffic, praying, her voice raised
Of a female house finch faking a broken wing
Of the woman in traffic with her eyes closed,
    her green tam, the blue of her eyelids
Wishing then that God would simply lift her out
And thinking, this self at any one moment,
    the man who survived being hit by lightning
    seven times, who then committed suicide

And the glaze on the road going home
The picture her daughter drew of a house
    some clouds, two ankles, two shoes
    disappearing off the top of the page
It's a woman flying above our house, the girl had said
And thinking of the abstraction, the new stage
    it signaled in her daughter's development
The five simple lines around the shoes that mean motion
    and up and trailing away
And wishing it might be her, the woman flying
    blessed for no reason with a great invisible gift

Q: Your poetry seems to me to hint at the meditative side of the Mennonite farmer, the "man under the pear tree," never pure farmer, always part thinker, ambivalently torn between his feelings of loss and his feelings of his own growth, his own ripening. Given the historical moment, I want to position him as a millennial figure in the text, along with another potentially millennial figure, who might also have a relation to the Mennonite past: the woman of the last poem, closing the text in flight out of and above the house. In these senses your poetry documents sadness while gesturing toward "a great invisible gift." The gift of change? Perhaps cultural change?

A: My first recollection of anything millennial was in the "end of days" context of conservative Mennonites I grew up with. One family in town, I think, had the entire history of the world on a chart, beginning to end. They didn't claim to know the exact date of Christ's return, but you got the impression they had a pretty good idea. I've always been jealous of--and alarmed by--that kind of certainty.

I shouldn't be proud of this, but my ambivalence often seems to find its real twin in Robert Frost's. Frost's speaker in "For Once, Then, Something" looks and looks into the well's depths but sees only reflection. Then the one time he thinks he sees "something white, uncertain" in the water it's so vague he's only left with a "something"--but something nonetheless.

If characters in the poems are "millennial" it's by the accidental context of the times. I think the last part of the 20th Century--the time I've been alive--has been lived under the gloom or promise (take your pick) of the millennial, but so has most of the last 1000 years. I do hope, though, there's at least a hint of my own sense of grace to both the characters you mention. For what it's worth, both the man under the pear tree and woman in the bar speak about their "something's"--their "gifts"--in the subjunctive, wishing for them rather than actually holding them in their hands.

Q: It is irresistible to ask you a millennial question related both to poetry and to Mennonite Life, since this interview will appear in the first issue of this newly online journal existing in the highly visual, spatial world of cyberspace. What is your take on the forms and needs of poetry at this historically interesting time?

A: It's obviously exciting and flattering to be translated into cyberspace (whatever or wherever that is). The lateral connections you can make with computers and the web are models for the kind of liberal arts mind we've preached in higher education since the Greeks. I hope these types of connections are reflected in the method of the poems in Man Under A Pear Tree, but you see this kind of thing in other poets, too, the need to include, to pile up what we know and try to unify it. I'm thinking here of poets like Jorie Graham or Gerald Stern, and also of Jeff Gundy's Inquiries and his latest work.

I read in the paper the other day that poetry is "hot," with some small poetry publishers even making money! Imagine. The truth is most major publishers--Oxford University Press only the latest--have suspended or canceled poetry publishing. For the most part, poetry has never had a wide readership. Imagine any poet at any moment in history who could draw even a fraction of the average National Basketball Association audience--15,000 people paying $50 a seat. Plus Cokes and hotdogs. The strength poetry has always had is intimate: the connection between the poem itself and the individual reader, no matter how the poem is delivered. The poems I love best are still the ones where I find my own voice meshing with that of the poet; those are the ones I read aloud to myself and my students.

As far as Mennonite Life and this inaugural issue, I don't know if what we're doing is really different in kind, even though it's surely more efficient, easier, faster. The danger as always--I'm going to go off on the usual rant here--is that we become passive, make a virtue of simply connecting things up without thinking through the connections. Maybe right here in the interview--at this point on the screen--there should be a place for the reader, viewer, web crawler (you ARE out there, right?) to click if they'd like to read the poem aloud to someone else in the room, or click if they'd like to copy the poem down with a pencil in their own hand writing in their journal.

Q: Man Under a Pear Tree, the title of this 1996 book, wraps this collection of poems in a highly structured, referential relation to the work of Paul Klee, most clearly to the 1921 painting by that title. An epigraph from his Pedagogical Sketchbook further opens this collection:

Revelation: that nothing that has a start can have infinity.
Consolation: a bit farther than customary!--than possible?

How did your interest in the visual experiments of Klee come to shape this book?

A. I'd been living in London, England for two years and I was going through what I thought of then as a crisis. I'd been forced to change the way I spoke to make myself understood to my English colleagues. The nasal short "a," for example, that is part of my Henderson heritage had to be swallowed, refocused into my throat; I had to use more air and talk more softly--not to sound British, but just to keep people from cringing. The American Midwest accent sounds to British ears, I think, much like the Australian one sounds to us.

In the same way, the poetic voice that I'd learned from American poets I admired--William Stafford, William Kloefkorn, James Wright, Richard Hugo, Robert Frost--seemed odd and flat and parochial and unrelated to the urban, international, theatrical, artistic world I found myself in. (Of course none of these poets are really flat and parochial but I thought so at the time.) I literally stopped writing. Then I saw an exhibition of Paul Klee's work. Immediately--I still have the notebooks from that day--I was struck with Klee's humor and playfulness, the endlessly inventive and serious use of materials, color, form, language, story. These seemed to point a way out of the narrative, regional box I had locked myself in.


Reading: wav file (5.7 MB)
Reading: mp3 file (733 KB)

it was worse before.
Now I have learned
to open one eye,
now my hair has turned
into its own comb,
now my heart is
inseparable from my body.

It is all so much gravity
stacked at the end of a board;
it is all so much fulcrum
to have grown so light
that small and uncentered
things are my equals.
I have grown so light

snow could tip the scales.

Take the cover drawing of the book--"ach, aber ach!" The imagery in the first stanza can be seen in the picture: comb, hair, eyes, heart. But what interested me most was that little squib of black ink at the bottom left. Without that small touch, the huge head would topple over from its own weight. That balance, the pathos of that vulnerability, is the point of the picture for me, and the point of the poem. That was a completely new way for me to set up the tensions and voice of a poem.

In the section of the Sketchbook I took the epigraph from, Klee is lecturing about the form of the arrow in drawing, its strengths and limitations. Even with all its energy and movement and promise it can't overcome its built in inertia. And humans, of course, are like arrows: "Half winged -- half imprisoned, this is man!" he says.

The "revelation" is really no revelation--we know we are alterable, and that we die. But the "consolation" has two distinct emotions you can hear if you read it aloud--the dramatic exclamation we all make at one time or another, a bravado that says we will achieve something more--go "a bit farther than customary!" Sound and fury. And the softer, wishing question that implies the real and paradoxical revelation--that there's hope even if it's impossible to go "further than possible."

(image removed due to copyright restrictions)
Paul Klee (1879-1940)
Athlete's Head
Watercolor, gouache and pencil on laid paper mounted on light cardboard, 1932.
Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art,
The Berggruen Klee Collection, 1987.
Photograph © 1985 The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Athlete's Head

Reading: wav file (19 MB)
Reading: mp3 file (733 KB)

At the fairgrounds
a women With the Body Of a Snake
will speak to you for three bucks
and you pay it, even if it is only
an Amazingly Real Illusion. Poor body
disclaimed like that, poor head
for three crappy bucks. And
for three bucks more Tracy Steele,
the Voluptuous Centerfold Model,
decapitated in the car accident,
her body Kept Alive! A Medical Marvel!
will stand and walk around, the barker says,
and why not? What other purpose is there
than travel and glamour and the fair?

It's 1932. Paul Klee has left the Bauhaus
and is cooking veal and cauliflower
with grated cheese and butter in Düsseldorf.
"Such a meal stimulates me mentally," he wrote
his wife, Lily. "Afterwards I feel
especially healthy and not at all sleepy."
In Düsseldorf, in a portrait of an athlete,
it would take Klee only 4000 dots of paint
to separate the athlete's head
from the athlete's body -- and the brain
from the head as if it could be removed
and why not? Think of the woman
who plays Tracy Steele's body,
who jitters in her hospital gown as if galvanized,
whose body has been removed from her head
if only for 5 Big Shows A Day,
someone who could pull back the little drape -- Ta-Da --

and reunite the body and the mind
and why have they been apart for so long?
But she doesn't, and she usually has Monday off.
What if she were to jog in the park,
anonymous like all the rest of us,
our bodies running by themselves,
silver stars falling,
no one's head doing much of anything --
thinking of recipes or dogs or
rerunning that hackneyed movie
in which the body is famous
and athletic and safe --
How Would We Know It Was Her?

Q: Focusing on the poem "Athlete's Head" in relation to the painting brings into focus a central theme running through the book: that the body is where we live and suffer, and yet its metaphoricity, its richness, its structures are intellectually--and hilariously, in this poem--elusive. Through subject matter ranging from pop-cultural fetishism, to cancer, to racial violence, the troubled treatment of suffering bodies and souls comes up over and over again in this book, from "The Body Pledges its Allegiance" to "Gospel," which features "the first day my body discovered / its real predicament / and sent my voice out for help."

How do you approach the body in your work?

A: Klee thought you didn't use your mind in sports and so didn't have much time for them. What would the Bauhaus football team have been called--the Fighting Functionalists? By the way, did you know that there's a college in California--Whittier College--whose athletic teams are nicknamed "The Poets"? Could you yell, "Smash 'em up, Poets," with any conviction?

Anyone who grows up in a farming community knows how vulnerable the body is: I think in national statistics farming is rated the most dangerous occupation--more so than mining or police work. I'm thinking here of my uncle who nearly lost his arm (and life) when he caught his sleeve in a power takeoff shaft. But any rural place would have its own stories. I didn't set out to write a book of poems about the body as the place we "live and suffer," as you say, but that's obviously the battleground of the poems in the first section. A cynic would say I wrote the poems because I had just turned 40 and needed to vent my anger at my first real back pain and first pair of bifocals. Maybe so.

Photo by Fred Nelson, 1994

Photo by Fred Nelson, 1994

Before I wrote "Athlete's Head," I'd just been to the Iowa State Fair and had seen sideshow signs for the Tracey Steele show. (A friend later actually saw the show and so my descriptions of it are second hand.) The body of the woman in the show is a different sort of body than in the rest of the poems, silly and American: A centerfold model reduced to just her body, her sex; the body then rescued by technology; then re-commodified in an even worse way than the original centerfold. The most honest (and best) part of the whole thing is that everyone knows it's a con.

Q: Your exposé of the visual con in this poem seems to me to be related to one of the poems in the collection that I find to be tremendously powerful. "Gladiolus" is such a loving poem, first giving an exposé of forms of racist historical violence perpetrated upon the black body, and then honoring the integrity of the body and the metaphoric resonances of all the Latinate words used to anatomize it. And, the poem is packed with visual images all the way through.


Reading: wav file (16.6 MB)
Reading: mp3 file (675 KB)

There has never been a shortage
of places the body wanted not
to be: in the lifeboat,
at the awards dinner, under the tree
after falling, in the tree hanging,
in the box, in the box exhumed.

Or here in a photo on an inside page
of the Times: a skeleton
from the African Burial Ground, hands
folded across the now-collapsed chest.
A gesture, the Times says, meant
to help the spirit find Africa

again. And now scaphoid,
the wrist's bone boat, rides
in what was the heart's little harbor.
And cuneiform the wrist's wedge,
and semilunar the wrist's half moon
rises over the ocean. Remember

how often the torso was just bloody
cloth, the groin a red triangle,
the arms fired and set adrift.
That's over. Now fingers, wrist,
ribs, spine are mixed, all crossed,
all merely cups in the same cupboard.

But spirit you were right all along --
the journey is a map of the body.
Here in the backwash of the chest,
above the Inlet of the Pelvis,
north of the great and nameless
Os Innominatum, here at the sternum

you crossed your two lucky arms
at the middle bone called Gladiolus --
north of Ensifor, the false one,
south of the Manubrium -- Gladiolus,
also called the sword of the body,
once called the wild iris of Africa.

A. On the same day I'd clipped the photo the poem mentions from the New York Times, I was--for whatever reason--browsing a copy of Gray's Anatomy. I know some teacher of mine, somewhere, must have told me this, but I'd never realized that the Latin names of bones are metaphoric--except for the Os Innominatum (literally the bone with no name), because whoever was in charge of the skeleton that day couldn't come up with anything it looked like.

I thought it was poignant that those who buried this person must have crossed the body's arms in a secret sort of gesture that would let the spirit transcend geography. And my own map tries to use the history of the word "Gladiolus" itself as a way "home."

Q: Your snapshots from sideshow advertisement really are evidence of how important the role of the visual world (and visual blight) is in your work. The technical term for a book of poetry interacting so deeply with visual art is ekphrasis: as Grant F. Scott suggests, "it is the genre specially designed to describe works of art, to translate the arrested visual image into the fluid movement of words" (xi). Scott derives his terms from the Laocoön, which famously presents visual art as a static representation of subject matter in spatial terms, and verbal art as the unstopped, temporal, always fluid medium. As we gaze at the ekphrastic poems in this book, listen to them, and gaze at the paintings from which they come, how would you position your work in relation to this art-historical problem?

A: I suppose Keats' urn is the great ekphrastic symbol in English literature--the static moment held forever where love is never consummated, but also never dies. And the urn may well be a "friend to man" and "beauty may well be truth and truth, beauty" but it's also a "cold pastoral." Keats couldn't have known that his poem may well outlast the urn, but I'll bet he hoped it would. Those last two famous lines have always seemed to me less about the pottery and more about the poem itself.

I tried to use the Klee paintings more as starting points for language, the way any poet might use trees or sunsets or the beloved or children. If they work, there ought to be a kind of symbiosis, but it's almost impossible for me to judge that. Do the poems need the paintings? I hope not. I don't think so. But I do hope--for my sake and Mennonite Life's cyberstatus--there's a little shock of recognition, a broadening of context for both when they're seen together.

Q. Scott describes a sort of "Medusa" model when things don't even out--the weight of the art stuns the viewer or the poems themselves, and sort of kills them off. I like to think that the language of poetry, with its leaps and its open, multiple references, prevents the paintings from becoming too weighty or powerful.

A. I never wanted the poems to merely "illustrate" the paintings. That leads to Scott's real problem--that the art simply outweighs the poem, becomes the sole reason for the poem's existence. What fun could that possibly be for a writer or reader? That the plastic arts--and music and dance, too--are more immediate is a given. But poetry has, in addition to the "fluid" attributes you mention, the advantage of being spatial, aural, oral--even tactile in the weight of a book, the texture of the page--so I think things even out.

(image removed due to copyright restrictions)
Paul Klee (1879-1940)
Rough-Cut Head
Black ink wash and pencil on wove paper mounted on light cardboard, 1935.
Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art,
The Berggruen Klee Collection, 1984.
All rights reserved, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Rough-Cut Head

Reading: wav file (17.3 MB)
Reading: mp3 file (704 KB)

When the woman in the purple trousers
on the bicycle -- now at the corner
now up the street now by the sign
now by the tree -- turned the corner,
I thought of her in the dual wind:
the cold one from the west today --
and the other wind beginning with her,
spreading out behind her like geese.
I thought about her flying hair
and the cowl of her skin
and her forehead
defined and reddened by the wind,
of her lips defined and burnished
by the wind. And how even on a bicycle,
how easily we breathe and how easily
our wondrous heads are invaded by the wind.

How open and hollow are the mouth's courtyards,
or the sinuses, or the hallways of the ear.
How vulnerable. How much of us is absence
like drawers, or pictures of absence --
the sky in photos of clouds at night,
the outline of a breast in an x-ray
taken before the mastectomy.
How easy it is to find a place in the skull
for the chisel, or the gun, or the wind
and its glitter. We are alterable.

I know a plastic surgeon who put the gun
in his mouth, fired, and lived.
Think of the echo. The brain in its great hall
banqueting, then besieged. And the joy of impact --
the eyes unbolted, shifting, siting new stars
in the new red sky, the jaw turned to grit
and glitter the wind would fling at us later.
He was depressed for reasons he couldn't name.
In woodshop he has made a letter holder
covered in curious purple spangles.

Q: When I showed a slide of the painting "Rough-Cut Head" to the poetry workshop class, while interpreting the poem, students commented on the seeming fortress-like monumentality of the head in the Klee painting. They were fascinated with the poem's reshaping of the head into a structure with vulnerable spaces: "How open and hollow are the mouth's courtyard's, / or the sinuses, or the hallways of the ear. / How vulnerable. How much of us is absence." For me, the translation of the spondees "rough-cut" from hewn to abstractly drawn and therefore transmutable can be a great thesis of this book (despite your earlier note that such knowledge is not necessarily a revelation): "We are alterable," the poem asserts, capable again of producing our own desire for death, even for great devastation, and then of recasting it again as a desire for growth.

In the class, we were all fascinated with the story of the cosmetic surgeon who would know better than anyone else the structure of the head, and who thus would feel its devastation, and its survival so very strongly.

A. When I looked out the window one morning, my neighbor across the street was riding her bike, wearing really brilliant magenta slacks that made her the brightest thing in the neighborhood. My eye simply had to follow her. Klee's painting was on my desk and the rough, faceted head became a way for me to link that small initial meditation with the story of the "sculpting" done by a plastic surgeon who was on the ward when I worked at Prairie View Mental Health Center in Newton, Kansas. The "head" of the painting becomes a theme I can play variations on. Except for the title, there's really not much of the painting in the poem, but that title is crucial. Like most of the people who are "altered" in the book, the plastic surgeon's message--his art, I guess--of "spangles" at the end is enigmatic to the speaker of the poem.

(image removed due to copyright restrictions)
Paul Klee (1879-1940)
Winter Journey
Watercolor and transferred printing ink on laid paper bordered with black ink mounted on light cardboard, 1921.
Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art,
The Berggruen Klee Collection, 1984.
All rights reserved, The Metropolitan Museum of Art


Reading: wav file (29.5 MB)
Reading: mp3 file (1.17 MB)

This is the boy next door discovering
what he wants his voice to do --
that his lungs in the cold
and throat and teeth and tongue
can mirror alarm if he likes.
He fakes a bicycle crash on the ice,
jumps up, and yodels his imitation of a siren.

This is the red folder blown open in winter.
This is the street under a window.
Inside Schubert is at the piano,
singing Die Winterreise for the first time
to friends: "Never again will the leaves
be green at the window. Never again
will I hold my love in my arms."
And they hate it.

This is Paul Klee's Winterreise,
a portrait of the artist one-eyed,
caped and hooded at his mother's grave.
This is Klee's mother on the way to his studio.
This is Schubert in the November marigolds.
This is the boy outside my window
making the journey again and again
down his driveway, pedaling hard on the ice,
staging his accidental death,
rising and singing like an ambulance.

This is the white fog changing to yellow.
This is Klee's mother after tea in his studio.
This is Schubert dying of syphilis.
This is Schubert singing to the crows:
"Krähe, crow, even if you want to leave me
don't leave me. Don't leave me."
This is Ida Klee walking into Klee's studio
after tea on the day she died.
Klee was in his chair, asleep.
Evergreens were on the horizon.

This is Ida Klee released from paralysis,
This is her ghost walking the studio
after tea, after she had died,
winking at her son as if it mattered --
that kind of message from the dead --
winking at Klee, who was not surprised,
who for the rest of his life took it seriously.

This is the folder blown open in winter.
A week later Johann Vogel sang
Die Winterreise to Schubert's friends
and they listened
and loved it this time.
This is Vogel's baritone in the marigolds,
the wondrous conduit of his throat
and mouth, diaphragm, teeth and lungs.
These are the crows who throw snow
at Schubert's scorned lover
from every roof of every house in town.

There are accidents of the flesh;
there are the unbalanced lovers
we have been and still are.
Yesterday the twist of sunlight in a room
filled me with longing.

This is me putting on my coat,
walking downtown to sing
Christmas carols in the open square.
This is Klee painting himself from memory.
This is the boy who has been dying all day
hoarse and unrescued, going in to supper.
I've driven by the same woman's house
for 20 years remembering she kissed me.
This is me in the December marigolds.
These are her father's fields blown full of snow.

Q: In the poem "Winterreise," I want to see the boy who "fakes a bicycle crash" and then imitates the sounds of an ambulance as a cycle of play all day, and finally goes in "hoarse and unrescued" as a millennial figure also--seeking solace in sound, singing in the winter of our many discontents, knowing song is not redemption, but that it is one important way of seeking love, and of responding to the partial, incomplete loves we experience in families, through deaths, through winters. Is there a relationship to the Schubert song cycle by this name?

A: The method is again theme and variation, to try to literally keep four stories in the air at once, like a juggler. I knew Schubert's song cycle, but when a commentator suggested that Klee might have taken his title from Schubert, the connection seemed somehow right even though there's nothing in the painting other than the title that would lead you to the music. As with most of the Klee poems, it was only by linking up the two other "real" stories--the kid outside my study window and an autobiographical bit about a girl I loved in high school--that the poem became satisfying for me. I've fragmented the story lines to "disrupt" the narratives, but I never wanted to lose any of the threads. Instead I wanted to cement the connections in a sort of democratic form that the anaphora of "This is" tries to underline.

Group Portrait with Ukuleles

Reading: wav file (15.7 MB)
Reading: mp3 file (640 KB)

Once I was a boy
in a classroom
of boys learning to play

the ukulele. In the end, even
the stumpfingered
learned three chords:

G, C, D7. Our big felt picks,
our whiny
little strings. We were a part

of the American Folksong
inspite of ourselves,

in spite of our penises
and voices
rising and falling like elevators.

Imagine us, our 25 faces
still forming,
heads slightly out of round,

singing "I Gave My Love
A Cherry,"
or "Big Rock Candy Mountain."

There was the recital
we never gave
because, to tell the truth,

we weren't very good.
One boy is dead
now, three are welders,

two joined the Navy, one
sells used cars,
half a dozen are farmers,

one has been convicted
of exporting
Nazi literature to Germany.

I don't remember any of us
as mortal
or talented or cruel.

All we ever learned was that
chord progression,
knowable and sequential --

beautiful as gears shifting --
something useful
and at the bottom of all

the music we imagined we
could care about.
We knew who Mozart was

but there wasn't any Mozart
for the ukulele.
That would have been wrong

and we knew it -- some of us.
Or none
of us. Either way.

Almost no one will remember this, but I started out as a music major at Bethel. I quit because--like the guys in the Ukuleles poem--I wasn't very good and hated to practice. So I like the idea that music isn't redemption but solace.

(image removed due to copyright restrictions)
Paul Klee (1879-1940)
Angel Applicant
Black ink, gouache, and pencil on wove paper, 1939.
Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art,
The Berggruen Klee Collection, 1984.
All rights reserved, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Angel Applicant

Reading: wav file (25.4 MB)
Reading: mp3 file (1.01 KB)

Because Paul Klee has stopped playing the violin
I am lifting my arms to heaven
Because in Switzerland you are nothing without wings
I am applying in place of Paul Klee, who lives in Switzerland
Once I applied in place of Mondrian
Because three is two put in motion
Because it is harder to apply in place of myself
Because obviously I was turned down
Once I applied as a man hanged in a barn behind a house
    Cezanne painted in Auvers
I am not immortal enough
If I were given the chance to remake the world I would defer
If I were on a third floor balcony I would test the railings
The barn behind the house with the blue door
I am not sure photography is an art
Because Klee has stopped cooking, too
Where else would I go
From the hayloft there was a grand view of the green
    Provence hills
The dry rope and the dry esophagus
Above my head starlings were in the rafters
There was the moon
I do not think irony has a place here
Van Gogh painted the same house -- but not with such
Because not everything is up to me
Not like Cezanne
Who signed his paintings with a little gallows for years he
    was so pleased
The rope and the twisted nature of the cedar
Pisarro and Cezanne in the clear Provence air. Their pallets
    slowly brightening
Because he cannot swallow solid food
Red for Pisarro, blue for Cezanne
Because Klee has given me three arms to raise
Because I will have to apply next as a woman in a late Picasso
And nobody wants that
Three arms
The moon above me
I had always been told birds living in your eaves were a sign of
    good luck
But I don't know why
Because in the Talmud, a man turns into a worm but I am not
Where I am the ground is mottled; the room is small and the
    flat has sheets hanging in the hallway
And my legs are vague
And because the moon
Who dies in photographs? At what moment?
If I thought there were a chance
Because the moon
Is pulling my head up into the first prong of a crown

Q: In the poem "Angel Applicant," I love the idea of an artist being an applicant to be an angel--and I also love the idea of any of us, out there struggling with meaning in our lives, being such an applicant! Certainly the recent spate of angel movies resonates with the image of angel applicants as well.

Yet this is the most discontinuous of the poems, and perhaps the most disturbing of the paintings. The narrator in the poem, when applying to be an applicant in person, "obviously was turned down" in the beginning. By the end of the poem, the moon appears to pull the arms of the pictured applicant toward itself, as if by gravitational, lunar pull, like the pull of the moon on the tide, or upon female physical cycles. Is there a nature theology connected to the system of art perceptions pictured here?

A: Klee knew he was dying from scleroderma (a disease where the connective tissues of the body thicken and harden) when he painted this in 1939--and he painted or drew 50 angels in the last two years of his life. It's hard not to see this late one as a kind of self-portrait; Klee's angels always seem to be caught in transit--half in heaven and half on earth, unable or unwilling to make the leap. The speaker of the poem--the applicant--isn't really interested in saving Paul Klee, but in getting into heaven any way he can. The semi-tragedy is that he can't seem to find the right modernist art persona that the immigration folks in heaven will accept. By the end he'd even try applying as a "real" person in a photograph. This angel is certainly one of Klee's ugliest. That the "applicant" seems to have begun the transformation into angel at the end in spite of his ugliness wasn't meant as anything more than a small bow to the idea of grace--and perhaps my joking way to elevate Klee above other modernists who can't seem to get their subjects into heaven.

The moon is just the moon.

Q: Yes, I grant that perhaps the flailing critic will just have to live on the real earth! I do think your comment on a "small bow to the idea of grace" is all the more important for the modernist context, which, as you suggest, tended to limit or critique gestures toward transcendence. Along these lines, you commented earlier that the body is the ground, even a battleground, for one section of the book, and the last section of the book seems populated by a number of angels, restless and middle-aged, speaking to "God, who was once behind the door," as in "Fitful Angel." What kinds of ideas and images ground or shape the second and third sections of the book?

A: The structure of the book was just a matter of corralling poems with similar interests. In the first section I meant to treat the body in general--I wish there were a better metaphor than "battleground," but that's the idea. The second section I saw as more narrative, more connected to the actual "me" (whoever that is), more related to, as Johnny Carson used to say, "my boyhood on the plains of Nebraska." I wanted the general arc of the last section to go up, to lean toward the redemptive if not actually get there.

Q: Your invocation of Klee's Pedagogical Sketchbook in the epigraph of your book suggests a theoretical line of thinking. Klee's theories suggest that the act of looking/interpreting is an act of constructing the object as well as simply perceiving it; all acts of perception involve editing or other actions. No act of perception is purely passive and innocent. Yet, the Pedagogical Sketchbook emphasizes in bold print, "The eye travels along the paths cut out for it in the work." Would you like to comment on the relation of your poetry to contemporary literary theory?

A: No. Or instead, let me use the Pedagogical Sketchbook examples to try and answer. The Klee of the first quote is the teacher intent on helping his drawing students understand how readers/viewers make meaning or "continuity" as he says later. "Meaning" is the joy that readers, viewers, listeners have made since the first story was told, or the first picture was scratched onto a cave wall, or the first song was sung. That it took until the 20th century for theory to catch up to this notion tells you something about theory. But it's a good thing we've finally recognized the basic truth: Readers will own poems they love and will interpret them, connect them to their own life stories, bend them to individual human need, will "love" them. We talk about art (and sports and politics) in these subjective terms all the time.

But no poet I know writes to make meaning, at least not initially. I write to make things, to control the world in some modest way. One thing many of my beginning literature students seem to believe is that poets are intentionally obscure. When students are really paranoid, they seem to believe poets mean for them personally to feel stupid. But that confuses the reader's problems with the writer's. I don't know any poet who is willfully obscure. When I'm in the act of writing a poem--and during that first ur-reading writers do--I'm convinced there's only one meaning for the poem and that the meaning is clear. Content isn't the issue, style is. Thus Klee's emphasis--always in the Sketchbook--is on the how. Criticism and theory, interpretive acts that rightfully belong to the reader, come later, hopefully traveling along at least some of the paths the work has cut out for it. When it works right, the poet and reader walk the path together.

Bonus (more poetry readings):

Forgetful Angel (wav) (12.5 MB)
Forgetful Angel (mp3) (512 KB)

Gospel (wav) (14.6 MB)
Gospel (mp3) (595 KB)

My Students Against the Cemetery Pines (wav) (25.5 MB)
My Students Against the Cemetery Pines (mp3) (1 MB)

Surgeon (peeling an orange) (wav) (14.2 MB)
Surgeon (peeling an orange) (mp3) (578 KB)

The Body Pledges Its Allegiance (wav) (15.6 MB)
The Body Pledges Its Allegiance (mp3) (637 KB)