Shining Rock Poetry Anthology

"A Conversation Between Cleopatra Mathis and Allison Funk" with poems at end of article

Allison: For more than 40 years you and I have talked with one another about our writing, but this is the first time that we've set out to explore our respective bodies of work since we met in 1976 as students in Columbia University's MFA program. What a joy it's been in preparation for this talk to reread your recent volume of new and selected poems, After the Body, as well as your seven previous books.

Cleopatra: Yes, it's wonderful to be able to talk in depth about our work. It's rare that we go back and read all the books of a writer we admire. What a different viewpoint it's been to consider your work as a whole! I'm very much looking forward to your own new and selected book, which you are working on now, for the insights it will give me.

Allison: I hope we can give some perspective on what it was like to be young women starting our writing careers in the mid-seventies. In many ways, it was a different world. There were no women teaching poetry in our program, and it was difficult for women to get published at the time. There were few living American female poets who could serve as role models. Elizabeth Bishop, who had just published Geography III, was finally getting the attention she deserved. Gwendolyn Brooks, who had won the Pulitzer Prize more than 25 years before, was still not widely read, at least not in our program. Since then I've come to believe deeply in the importance of having role models who, by their example, give us "permission" to speak. I struggled a lot in the beginning to trust that I had something of value to say. You, on the other hand, Cleopatra, landed at Columbia already in possession of a voice indelibly your own: strong, direct, with many of the qualities your work exhibits to this day. 

Cleopatra: I didn't feel, even early on, that anyone could prevent me from saying what I felt. My insistence and focus came from events in my childhood and helped me speak from the beginning, I think. I escaped my life in rural Louisiana because my voice was stronger than the father who deserted us when I was five and the stepfather who later was such a detrimental force in my young life. On the other hand, I had the support of my Greek family, particularly my grandparents and uncles. 

Even so, I was not aware of the strength of my voice. I just had a subject that compelled me and determined what I'd write. I was not aware of craft or the necessity to pay attention to other writers, male or female. I look back now and think I was a bad student. I didn't understand when one of our professors told me that I should resist some of the elements of my voice. What seemed to come naturally to me was rhythm and repetition to develop the poem's subject. Our teacher thought I overused serial images. You're always doing this, he'd say: participle phrase, comma, participle phrase, comma, and so on. I didn't see what was wrong with that grammatical construct. I didn't understand that he was talking about the emotional possibilities that good and variable crafting of sentence and stanza allows.

Allison: I'm glad you didn't listen. If you had, your poems might have stopped sounding like you. Those sequential images build a necessary tension in your poems, an urgency, a relentlessness that is one with your vision. They contribute to the distinctive music of your poetry, as well.  Teachers can sometimes have too much influence on young writers--I hope I avoided doing that when I was teaching, but it's an occupational hazard, for sure!

I realize, of course, that none of us should expect anyone else to give us permission to speak. We need to "authorize" ourselves. I don't think, however, that I am alone in my childhood experience of having had a strong father who often made me feel otherwise. Early on, I came to expect correction or judgment when I expressed myself. My father didn't mean to hurt me, I'm sure of that, but he was unable to escape his generation's patriarchal culture. My mother and I were silenced; my brothers were not. Whether one is reacting to the tyranny of a head of household, or a head of state, writing is a means of standing up for oneself, of affirming one's worth.

Cleopatra: I know your father made speaking openly hard for you. I see that struggle to speak through all your work and I feel you've wonderfully come to terms with it in your most recent book, The Visible Woman. I wonder whether visual artists often appear in your poems because they don't use language to say how they feel. Perhaps you identify with them. In your earliest books, rather than use a direct personal narrative, you depend on a persona or third person speaker to speak for the self. The various voices, and, later, the specific works of artists like Louise Bourgeois and Dora Maar serve not only as a portrait of a particular artist's work but, more importantly, reveal the development of your own interior life, an insistent consciousness. 

Allison: I sometimes imagine my creative process to be more like a sculptor's than a writer's. Language so often feels unyielding. Keeping its secrets from me, its stony silence. And still, stubborn as I am, I keep chipping away at it because something might reveal itself to me. Something, perhaps, like the hidden form inside an uncarved stone that Michelangelo believed, in sculpting, he could free.

I have long liked an observation by Rodney Jones in an interview in Story South. He said that a poem, while language, "evokes the character of an animal that cannot speak. In many ways, the unspeaking animal must come out in the poem; else the poem seems all surface, all fluency; no temperament, no drama." 

While your poems are beautifully crafted, Cleopatra, you have always conveyed the "animal" that I think Rodney is getting at. The visceral. Temperament and drama are intrinsic to your work. I love that you titled your new and selected book After the Body. From the beginning, as early as in your first book, Aerial View of Louisiana, the body has been a subject of yours. And your poems really feel embodied to me; I appreciate this quality especially when reading them aloud, or, better yet, hearing you read ones like "Dancer Among the Constellations" in The Center for Cold Weather. I love the incantatory movement you create over several stanzas: "I run for change, / to learn the art of now and wait, to love / what's not a part of me..../ I run to leave the self / whose need I cannot bear...." By the end of the poem, you are "leaping." It is poignant for me to remember this poem, given your struggles now with Parkinson's Disease. 

Cleopatra: Before we talk about that, I want to come back to what you said about the challenge of finding your own voice. In your fourth book, The Tumbling Box, the title poem's first line announces the history of that reluctance to speak: "As a child / I learned to keep my stories to myself."  In all your books, you find others (family members, visual artists, etc.) to speak through, but here you say it directly, and it is presented almost as a proclamation, and your central subject, in the first poem in the book.

Later in the poem, you write about being drawn to "the tale of a woman // who said nothing / but what she heard first / from others." That woman is Echo from the myth of Narcissus and Echo.   

Allison: Referring to another's story is something you almost never do, Cleopatra. A brilliant exception is your use of the Demeter and Persephone myth in your book What to Tip the Boatman.

Cleopatra: It was altogether new for me: using something outside of my experience to augment my own voice and subject. 

Allison: I think your blending of Demeter's story and your own is seamless. Even when you don't assume Demeter's persona, in poems like "The Ruin" it's clear that you identify with her. 

Cleopatra: It was never a matter of searching for a story to match mine. In What to Tip the Boatman, as I was writing about the period in her teens when my daughter lost her best friend to suicide, that hell, I thought: "I am Demeter: this is her story." Writing the book once I discovered that emotional connection was almost easy. The poems wrote themselves. 

Allison: I found in The Visible Woman that the opposite can also be true for me. The artist Louise Bourgeois and her work figure in the poems, but less because I see myself in her, and more because her art is so radically different from mine. Hers is filled with bodies: misshapen, sexualized, wounded, angry. Her work makes me really uncomfortable. I wanted to explore why that is so.

Cleopatra: You convey your discomfort with the bodily in a poem like "Self-Portrait Starting as a List." The form of the sestina helps you do this. Your six repeating words--head; throat; middle; breasts; hands; feet--become your "charms." Over and over you say them, as if to call into being, to conjure, a self. A "visible woman," as your book's title suggests. This poem is unique in your work also because in addition to your excellent command of the form, you abandon the musical grace that usually dominates your work. The poem is urgent, not pretty: if anything, it stumbles through its repetitive list of nouns that make up a body. Your syntax is made up of short declarative sentences claiming, asserting until in the poem's crucial turn, you say: "I'm about to make a clean breast / of it, empty the cups of my hands / and pour myself headfirst / into the blue of middle / distance when I hear a note as sure as footfall / start up the sheer flight of my throat // like a glissando along a cello's fretless throat." 

Your struggle runs throughout the poems in The Visible Woman. There is a fury underneath their crafted surface. Though your book ends without resolution, the importance of claiming one's life, that hunger, is clearly affirmed in poems like "Portrait Missing a Self," the end of which describes "the writer, // nearly done for" in the process of "creating a likeness/ to embody herself."
                 
Allison: The third section of the book is filled with "self-portrait" poems. In them I'm after exposure, not erasure. In the title poem I introduce what will become my central metaphor for the book: an anatomical model given to me as a child: "I want to go back to when I was ten," I say, "to start all over with the bones, / the brain, the heart in two parts / I'm trying to glue together." 

In your new book, Cleopatra, the body you relied upon that would "run" for you and "leap" has deserted you. In "The Difference," you write of your separation from the self you relied on. It's "terrifying to have one's self give way" you state. "I who have lived my life intent on direction, / now I am blank. No destination after all."  In another poem, "Arm, Etc.," your arm is no longer even yours: "Arm has become her own machine /stuck on the job of reaching, all the rules broken / in some other language dragged from the depths." Then you tell us, "This sorrow is all about my mother."

Cleopatra: My mother is a difficult subject for me, one that I know I'm not finished with. She died almost ten years ago, after having Parkinson's for the last five or so. The sadness I feel is rooted in childhood and it is complicated by not only anger, but also the fear that I am like her. For various reasons, she was not a protective mother.  I have fought that aspect of my upbringing all my adult life, particularly with my own children.  In my fourth book, Guardian, I write about the experience of mothering an infant, my intense joy as well as the fear and grievances. You have written extensively about motherhood, as well, of caring for a son challenged first by mental health problems, then the damage of a traumatic brain injury. 

Allison: How does a parent survive such demands? This is a theme for me that goes back to The Tumbling Box and Wonder Rooms. In the process of trying to save our children, we often forget to care for ourselves. In my poem "Daguerreotypes" I write about the actual 19th century practice of disguising mothers in photographs of their children. Bizarre as it seems now, a woman holding her baby still for the camera would cover herself with a blanket or cloth, so as not to be seen in the final image. Is that what she really wanted, to be hidden in plain sight?

I love how you describe your life in "Poem for Marriage" as "a child / crying for milk." Perhaps my trapped spirit in "The Escape Artist in Winter" is such a child.  In one of his most terrifying acts Houdini was bound and lowered through a hole in the ice above a bitterly cold river. My narrator is also "under it again, that foot of ice. / No headroom. On me, the weight of a house." The poem goes on to question why the escape artist doesn't free herself as fast as she can, speculating that she'd "imagined death as a spaciousness // I hadn't known on earth, another element--/ not water exactly or air. // I wanted to float there." For her "poor trapped" spirit, though, my escape artist chews at her bindings, then swims to the surface.

Cleopatra: Maybe the hunger for life is what saves her. I don't think I've ever thought of death as spaciousness, that freedom from earth the spirit in your poem desires. For me, it's always nourishment that the earth offers, as in "Black Walnut," from my second Louisiana book. That Southern tree is emblematic to me for its toughness, its rough meat, as if it contains the sorrow that for me is endemic to the South. My hunger was never satisfied, but the place itself survives in me. Somehow it gave me what I needed to survive. I never doubted the body to take what it needed.
 
In the new poems in After the Body, the terror of the body's betrayal is undercut by my understanding that the spirit is present in all things, even pain. The "extraordinary design" in my poem "Silver" refers to my own "three long silver hairs" that have been woven into a spider's web, to be made part of a larger whole.

Allison: That the spirit is present for you in all things helps explain your passionate connection to the natural world, to earth in all its wonder. In your early work it was the red clay of Louisiana, then the mountains of New England, where you moved in the 1980s, and finally the seascape of Cape Cod, which you love. You amaze me with what you notice in nature, writing sometimes about the nearly infinitesimal. In "Salt," from White Sea, you describe the "little spirit, essence, psyche, anima" as a dust mite! 

Cleopatra: Your relationship to nature seems very different from mine. The earthly often seems the site of calamity and disaster for you.
 
Allison: That was certainly true in Living at the Epicenter. I have a friend who has called the poems in that book my "big weather" poems. And it's true, floods, earthquakes, tornadoes, and analogous human disturbances dominate that book. Whatever order we construct is so precarious.

I do have poems, as well, that reflect the power of nature to astonish me with its beauty.  Is any creature more gorgeous than a deer? I share my one acre with families of them. In "The Deer," I write of a doe and her young feeding on my apples, those "beautiful thieves, in the falling light...." 

Cleopatra: Yes, but that's a romantic view, as if you come to some kind of peace with the "thieves" (who've consumed your grapes, too) because of their beauty.  In a much later poem, "Diptych with a White-tailed Doe," you overcome that distance and identify with the deer. Rather than an intriguing, distant creature, the deer becomes close to you, a metaphor for your own suffering. The emotional source is there: in "Something like hunger pawing / within drives me out," your life and the deer's come together. And later: "twinned, neither of us stirs / until the wind picks up / the scent I can't wash off."  This way of looking outside the self compels you--pushes you-- to reveal yourself. I find that totemic sense of nature is present in the new poems you've been writing. It's as if you are trying to keep chaos at bay, as you told me once--a balance between chaos and disorder. It's a precarious balance, you said; as in childhood, you were always trying to not precipitate your father's anger. No wonder you write about magicians and walking a tightrope!

Allison:  I wonder if you think your relationship to nature may also have changed over the years.

Cleopatra: Yes. In the beginning I used nature to evoke a place, the emotional life of a place. I felt that the natural world of Louisiana in my first two books was an extension of me, like my own skin. I've always been fascinated by the miraculous lives of animals and plants--how they survive was somehow key to my own survival but also my faith in myself to survive. In my book, The Center for Cold Weather, I write in "The Faithful" about birds, fish, and my mother's care of them.  I can't see the way she sees, though I long for that kind of sight, "the seeing that will save us." 

With the increased recognition in my new work of my body's fallibility, I am more aware of the ways in which, unlike me, nature restores itself. Plants wither in one season and are reborn in another. I think of Louise Glück and her observation: "It is spring! We are going to die!" 

Nature, unless we humans make it impossible for it to survive, is autonomous and ongoing. We, on the other hand, are governed by the temporary status of our bodies, and I no longer look for similarities, let alone reasons to think I can identify with an animal or a bird. Their lives continue to be endlessly fascinating, but they live apart from me. That I no longer identify my spirit with theirs is a source of sadness for me. On the other hand, I still feel the way I did in a much earlier book, Guardian. The poem "Blues: Late August" ends with "I can't speak for love of the world, // its terror and sufficiency."

Allison: This is a big question, but one which we might conclude by exploring. Why did we, you and I, as far back as our twenties, choose poetry, choose to spend a good part of our lives writing it? 

Cleopatra: This is a question I've never considered, though I've always had an obsession with words. From around the age of three, I wanted to speak English. I was the oldest grandchild in my Greek family and until I completely rejected Greek in first grade, I was bilingual. Early on, I was aware that there were two words for everything; this both attracted me and offended me. I wanted so much to completely accept English, to be American, but so many of the words sounded wrong; they didn't "fit" the nature of what they described. And some of those words seemed intimate to me, inviolable somehow. I especially think of "milk," which in Greek is yallah, with the emphasis on the first syllable. This is a word intrinsic to my memory, and even now, the Greek word signifies the "true" substance called "milk:" creamy and flowing, slightly yellow. But in English the word is harsh, like furniture, hard and unyielding, and, to my childhood ears, like a command rather than a life-giving substance. I think now that the fact that "milk" in English has another meaning (and is an action verb no less) must have intensified my reaction. Other words, too, from the lexicon of a small child, were improbable in English. Knowing that there were two meanings, two sounds, which were supposed to represent the same thing, made me intensely aware of words: language seemed to be always double, unreliable, even duplicitous. 

In third grade I had an amazing teacher who loved poetry and read aloud to us daily. I saw that the words could mean so many things without being necessarily "true." It was then that I must have become aware that it was also the music of the language that attracted me, how the sound carried the meaning. When I began writing poems, it was first the image the words could create, then the sound of those words mirroring the image. 

As I absorbed this, poetry then became something almost magical, key to something that I needed to find deep in myself. Half the time when I'm writing, I feel desperate to get to what I want to say, and the words seem to refuse me. There's always something I can't say, or the words lead me to something I don't know. Even now, the emotional possibilities, interior triggers of what was not said, or could not be said, create an urgency for me.

Allison: What's not said. And what is said. Poetry more than other genres asks us to say only what we absolutely must: what is essential. I love the inherent reticence of the form. When I have written non-fiction, especially memoir, I've felt pressured to divulge more than I'm comfortable doing. In poems, on the other hand, I can intimate my deepest longings, even confess to some of them, but sidestep the whole story. I can reveal through metaphor and other ways of telling it "slant," as Dickinson says, the truth of what I experience without telling all. For this reason, poetry felt safe for me from the outset. It also feels dangerous, in thrilling ways. In writing poems, I encounter what frightens me, and what enthralls me. Poetry gives me a means to say what I can't in speech. 

Cleopatra: It is dangerous: what we might encounter when we look in as closely as possible and are asked to struggle with our most important feelings. In the end, Allison, isn't this how poetry also can save us-- by giving us a way out, as well as a way in, a validation of self? 


Five Poems by Allison Funk


The Visible Woman

She's virtual as well as visible
     on a screen that lets me enter
through the gate of her ribs
     and fly so fast into her heart

I'm almost convinced
     it's pumping. Who knew,
inside, I'd find symmetries
     vivid as mandalas

monks create to erase.
     Mine, too, is a story
of how we disappear.
     Yet I keep returning

to The Visible Woman,
     the digital version scientists made
from flesh cross-sectioned,
     a feat unthinkable

in the nineteen-sixties
     when my Visible Woman arrived
in a kit of little plastic organs and bones.
     Thinking I was done with dolls,

my parents meant for me to recognize
     myself in this model as I grew,
even encouraged me to open
     the box of extra parts labeled Optional:

The Miracle of Creation.
     But faced with the enlarged breastplate,
pregnant uterus and thumb-sized fetus
     along with sheets of directions

(skeletal, respiratory, nervous, endocrine)
     I quit. Boxed up her vitals
and buried her at the back of my closet.
     Forgotten, she lay hidden for years

until, by accident, I found her
     and my way on the web
to her counterpart, where I discovered
     a woman's lungs bloom a deep rose.

The heart is stained a shade lighter,
     close to the blush of Mary's gown
in a Fra Angelico painting of the Annunciation,
     the one the girl forsakes to become

a Woman Clothed with the Sun.
     Queen of Heaven and Earth, Lady of Sorrows,
Mother Most Pure, Mother of Perpetual Help,
     the Mystical Body.

Icon, simulacrum, or the anonymous phantom
     who was once a real woman
from Maryland--I'm thinking again
     of how we're swept away,

and I want to go back to when I was ten,
     to start all over with the bones,
the brain, the heart in two parts
     I'm trying to glue together.



Portrait Missing a Self
 
On a bad day, I feel the ache
          of having been,
as if I've become a phantom limb.
 
Then it starts, serrated wave
          after wave,
everything dangerous, bladed:
 
the keen edge of a stair,
          a pill bottle's rim,
my plane about to go down
 
behind enemy lines
          or into a wilderness
in which ready, set,
 
even the arrows of trees
          are taking their aim
until I remember
 
the sea star in extremis.
          Which regrows
an arm. And the writer,
 
nearly done for,
          creating a likeness
to embody herself.


Self-Portrait Starting as a List

No artist, I start with a list: head
first, of course, then throat,
trunk, or what I call my middle
which, being female, rises in breasts.
What else but appended arms, hands,
and legs ending in feet?

Head. Throat. Middle. Breasts. Hands. Feet.
Already this inventory in my head
won't do. Better the outline I drew by hand
as a girl: penciled boundaries--throat,
wrists and the rest, my own. When my breasts
filled in, the image changed. Later, too, midnights

as a mother roused in the middle
of a dream. On my feet,
on my way, though half-awake, breasts
weeping. We all know the icon. Her head
bowed toward him. The newborn's throat
rippling as he swallows. Hands,

all of him, latched. Unhanding
is something else. In the middle
of old arguments, games played cutthroat,
I think of a gorge hundreds of feet
across, wind the only voice in my head,
the path up too narrow to walk abreast.

I'm about to make a clean breast
of it, empty the cups of my hands
and pour myself headfirst
into the blue of middle
distance when I hear a note as sure as footfall
start up the sheer flight of my throat

like a glissando along a cello's fretless throat.
In what part, mind, heart caught in my breast,
will I find the fearlessness I need to secure my footing
on any tightrope I'm crossing? Freehand
on a highwire in the middle
of nowhere I know, I repeat my charms--head,

feet, throat--
as I head for the other side--breasts,
hands--at large in midair.


The Tumbling Box

As a child
I learned to keep my stories to myself.
Inside they spun

like stones in a tumbler,
one of those rotating drums
for polishing

amethyst, jasper, rose quartz
to the smoothness of a lozenge
on the tongue.

And so in conversations
I lagged behind.
When pressed to speak

I'd agree with someone else--
to more than that,
who'd want to listen?

Even now I'm drawn
to another's version
of the tale of a woman

who said nothing
but what she heard first
from others.

Her voice trailing
after, repeating.
For Echo

nothing could have been worse
than falling in love
with Narcissus.

Unless they'd had children.
To this familiar story
what can I add

that hasn't been said before?
Over and over,
my stones remind me.

Those untrustworthy masters!
Always reversing themselves,
turning toward me,

then away, upside, down.
Never letting me have the last word
with their never ending

end over end.
Is anybody listening?
End. Over. End.

The Escape Artist in Winter

I'm under it again, that foot of ice.
No headroom. On me, the weight of a house.

This winter's hard as the year the river froze over,
that December they bore a hole

the size fishermen cut for their bait,
then lowered me down, bound hands and feet.

Wouldn't you think I'd free myself fast,
seeing through the lens just above me

the faces I'd left?
But I'd imagined death as a spaciousness

I hadn't known on earth, another element--
not water exactly or air.

I wanted to float there. The spirit, though--
it lists toward the light, poor trapped one

with me under a layer of ice. For her
I fought the current sucking at me like a child,

all the time wanting to open my mouth,
wanting to drink, swallow the murky liquid I was in.

But I chewed at my bindings instead,
remembered how to breathe without air,

and we swam toward the surface
she and I, as if finned,

as if there were a school of us.
We were a multitude.


Five Poems by Cleopatra Mathis

The Difference
 
Terrifying to have one's self give way--
old boat which has carried me around,
stubborn at the helm. Self the great
spirit-finder, haphazard navigator; in the end
a hand dragging in the water.
Energy, I thought, was her great strength, her voice
chattering under the whip of wind.
Meanwhile, out here in the complicity
and amplitude, brazen in their plainness,
fin and wing and wave
are one moment of action. Hawk takes off
with a nestling, then the hammering
dive of the plover's chase. Gull after gull
drops the clam on the rocky flats and knows how
to peck out the salty meat.  Over and over,
nature does one thing, and this is the difference.
I who have lived my life intent on direction,               
now I am blank.  No destination after all.
And she whom I called desire,
called must and act--oh goodbye, that idea
striking me with her impertinence, her stone.
  
Arm, Etc.  
 
Arm has become her own machine
stuck on the job of reaching, all the rules broken
in some other language dragged from the depths.
The brain's got secrets that even
arm doesn't know. Arm no longer cares for
 
anything hand might want to do, and hand
gets pulled along. Sullen child, poor hand
caught in a vise, stiffened by its throb and drum. 
Arm still insisting, holding hand behind my back,
mad tap-tapping to keep from being dragged away.
 
What a story: me walking with a stick
along the beloved beach, and arm refuses, starts up
directing the waves, flying out in the good
beach air, as we all try to look away. Can't stop,
says hand. Can't balance, leg says. This is how
the body wakes me up and this is how she knocks me down.
 
This sorrow is all about my mother: 
did I not believe her stuttered
spoon-to-mouth, soup on the floor? Her level black eye 
entering me. She could slap my face now,
hand could, in this boring chorus of saying.
 
But sometimes hand flies up to pat my shoulder
or curls close by my side, pretends to sleep--sweet pet
doesn't want arm to make me weep.
Then when I start to forget, hand
runs off, slams the glass, the plate, the sink.
And as for the little slave fingers--in the grab, they just let go. 
 
 
The Ruin
 
When I was young, it was enough
to save myself. Childhood's house gave way
to the birds of the night, the rich
Louisiana dark which in its green
carries melody and chorus.
I set my own clock to it, rising
to rain in leaves, a voice
that told me I could leave that place.
Even later, the sun reflecting the image
of water onto a bedroom ceiling
could wake me.
 
But when my daughter disappeared,
no beauty gave back a reason to live.
I was nothing but mother, I would blow out
the world's candle. No burning,
no fire with its regeneration,
not even ash, that little cold ruin.
It was then I understood
the nothingness of the sea,
the crush of waves driven across miles,
riptides and currents deepening
in a water too vast to freeze.
Thousands of feet, impenetrable:
no diver, no machine, could breathe
in the time it took to reach that bottom;
nothing could live in that black, the descending
zones that cancelled out creatures--
the tiniest slime of protoplasm, eggy scum
on the chalky mud, whatever design
managed to quiver three hundred fathoms down
to the zero of the final zone.
And everything above rendered trivial
by the great salt body rocking
through sea floor canyons and mountains.
All of it a locked tomb, and me
in my iron boat.
 
Salt
 
All those years I went the way of grief,
     turning my stony eye on disorder, something to be cleaned
          and fixed. I was lost, scrubbing away at the hidden,
 
hating the vase where the fruit flies nested,
     the artful bowl that held ruined fruit.
          Throw away the rot, I said, making myself saint
 
of the immaculate, not knowing a thing about the soul.
     Meanwhile, little spirit, essence, psyche, anima,
          the forever-alive-but-unpinnable one
 
turned its gaze away, claimed a crack,
     found a rusty needle, curled up in the eye of it.
          In the pine floors alone, a million crevices,
 
a million particles of grit, pinch, and crumb.
     What sea in my bucket could wash the world clean?
          And who knew the soul
 
was right at home in dust, passing
     through every incarnation: the tiny breathing
          mite it entered in the gray swirl under the stove,
 
expelling itself into a draft that carried it
     into the filmy grease so lightly pocked
          on the cabinet glass. Releasing, floating down,
 
the soul finding the one grain of salt
     lying there under my nose. Me at the sink,
          scouring the porcelain, not seeing.
 
Blues: Late August
 
Bluefish boil the water silver; they tangle in the chase
and the frantic smelt run headlong onto the sand,
caught by the blinding mirror, the water's

skimming sheet. And in the tide's remove, the knife-like
bodies hardly struggle, laid out in one long row
like silverware by a child's hand. All the bathers

scramble out of the sea, fearful of the indiscriminate
bluefish jaws, and around our heads, the gulls
flail about, sharp-eyed and diving, a frenzy

guarding the feast. All along, the ocean
turns its back to the spectacle, locked
in its usual resolve, but I can't move

for love of the world, its terror and sufficiency.

Allison Funk is the author of six books of poetry, including most recently The Visible Woman (Parlor Press, 2021). The recipient of awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Poetry Foundation, and the Poetry Society of America, she taught for many years in the creative writing program at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.

Cleopatra Mathis has published eight books, most recently After the Body: Poems New and Selected from Sarabande Books in 2020.  Her awards and prizes include the John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, two National Endowment for the Arts grants, and two Pushcart Prizes. She founded the creative writing program at Dartmouth College. 


Publication credits for Cleopatra Mathis: "The Difference" and "Arm, Etc.," from After the Body: Poems New and Selected (2020) and "Salt" from White Sea (2005), are reprinted by permission of Sarabande Books. 
"Blues: Late August" from Guardian (1995) and "The Ruin" from "What to Tip the Boatman?" (2001), were first published by Sheep Meadow Press, and are reprinted with the permission of the author. 

Publication Credits for Allison Funk: "The Visible Woman," "Portrait Missing a Self," and "Self-Portrait Starting as a List" from The Visible Woman (Parlor Press, 2021) are reprinted with permission of Parlor Press
https://parlorpress.com . "The Tumbling Box" and "The Escape Artist in Winter" from The Tumbling Box (C&R Press, 2009) are reprinted with permission of C&R Press https://www.crpress.org .

 (2020) and
 reprinted with the permission of the author. 

 
Allison: For more than 40 years you and I have talked with one another about our writing, but this is the first time that we've set out to explore our respective bodies of work since we met in 1976 as students in Columbia University's MFA program. What a joy it's been in preparation for this talk to reread your recent volume of new and selected poems, After the Body, as well as your seven previous books.

Cleopatra: Yes, it's wonderful to be able to talk in depth about our work. It's rare that we go back and read all the books of a writer we admire. What a different viewpoint it's been to consider your work as a whole! I'm very much looking forward to your own new and selected book, which you are working on now, for the insights it will give me.

Allison: I hope we can give some perspective on what it was like to be young women starting our writing careers in the mid-seventies. In many ways, it was a different world. There were no women teaching poetry in our program, and it was difficult for women to get published at the time. There were few living American female poets who could serve as role models. Elizabeth Bishop, who had just published Geography III, was finally getting the attention she deserved. Gwendolyn Brooks, who had won the Pulitzer Prize more than 25 years before, was still not widely read, at least not in our program. Since then I've come to believe deeply in the importance of having role models who, by their example, give us "permission" to speak. I struggled a lot in the beginning to trust that I had something of value to say. You, on the other hand, Cleopatra, landed at Columbia already in possession of a voice indelibly your own: strong, direct, with many of the qualities your work exhibits to this day. 

Cleopatra: I didn't feel, even early on, that anyone could prevent me from saying what I felt. My insistence and focus came from events in my childhood and helped me speak from the beginning, I think. I escaped my life in rural Louisiana because my voice was stronger than the father who deserted us when I was five and the stepfather who later was such a detrimental force in my young life. On the other hand, I had the support of my Greek family, particularly my grandparents and uncles. 

Even so, I was not aware of the strength of my voice. I just had a subject that compelled me and determined what I'd write. I was not aware of craft or the necessity to pay attention to other writers, male or female. I look back now and think I was a bad student. I didn't understand when one of our professors told me that I should resist some of the elements of my voice. What seemed to come naturally to me was rhythm and repetition to develop the poem's subject. Our teacher thought I overused serial images. You're always doing this, he'd say: participle phrase, comma, participle phrase, comma, and so on. I didn't see what was wrong with that grammatical construct. I didn't understand that he was talking about the emotional possibilities that good and variable crafting of sentence and stanza allows.

Allison: I'm glad you didn't listen. If you had, your poems might have stopped sounding like you. Those sequential images build a necessary tension in your poems, an urgency, a relentlessness that is one with your vision. They contribute to the distinctive music of your poetry, as well.  Teachers can sometimes have too much influence on young writers--I hope I avoided doing that when I was teaching, but it's an occupational hazard, for sure!

I realize, of course, that none of us should expect anyone else to give us permission to speak. We need to "authorize" ourselves. I don't think, however, that I am alone in my childhood experience of having had a strong father who often made me feel otherwise. Early on, I came to expect correction or judgment when I expressed myself. My father didn't mean to hurt me, I'm sure of that, but he was unable to escape his generation's patriarchal culture. My mother and I were silenced; my brothers were not. Whether one is reacting to the tyranny of a head of household, or a head of state, writing is a means of standing up for oneself, of affirming one's worth.

Cleopatra: I know your father made speaking openly hard for you. I see that struggle to speak through all your work and I feel you've wonderfully come to terms with it in your most recent book, The Visible Woman. I wonder whether visual artists often appear in your poems because they don't use language to say how they feel. Perhaps you identify with them. In your earliest books, rather than use a direct personal narrative, you depend on a persona or third person speaker to speak for the self. The various voices, and, later, the specific works of artists like Louise Bourgeois and Dora Maar serve not only as a portrait of a particular artist's work but, more importantly, reveal the development of your own interior life, an insistent consciousness. 

Allison: I sometimes imagine my creative process to be more like a sculptor's than a writer's. Language so often feels unyielding. Keeping its secrets from me, its stony silence. And still, stubborn as I am, I keep chipping away at it because something might reveal itself to me. Something, perhaps, like the hidden form inside an uncarved stone that Michelangelo believed, in sculpting, he could free.

I have long liked an observation by Rodney Jones in an interview in Story South. He said that a poem, while language, "evokes the character of an animal that cannot speak. In many ways, the unspeaking animal must come out in the poem; else the poem seems all surface, all fluency; no temperament, no drama." 

While your poems are beautifully crafted, Cleopatra, you have always conveyed the "animal" that I think Rodney is getting at. The visceral. Temperament and drama are intrinsic to your work. I love that you titled your new and selected book After the Body. From the beginning, as early as in your first book, Aerial View of Louisiana, the body has been a subject of yours. And your poems really feel embodied to me; I appreciate this quality especially when reading them aloud, or, better yet, hearing you read ones like "Dancer Among the Constellations" in The Center for Cold Weather. I love the incantatory movement you create over several stanzas: "I run for change, / to learn the art of now and wait, to love / what's not a part of me..../ I run to leave the self / whose need I cannot bear...." By the end of the poem, you are "leaping." It is poignant for me to remember this poem, given your struggles now with Parkinson's Disease. 

Cleopatra: Before we talk about that, I want to come back to what you said about the challenge of finding your own voice. In your fourth book, The Tumbling Box, the title poem's first line announces the history of that reluctance to speak: "As a child / I learned to keep my stories to myself."  In all your books, you find others (family members, visual artists, etc.) to speak through, but here you say it directly, and it is presented almost as a proclamation, and your central subject, in the first poem in the book.

Later in the poem, you write about being drawn to "the tale of a woman // who said nothing / but what she heard first / from others." That woman is Echo from the myth of Narcissus and Echo.   

Allison: Referring to another's story is something you almost never do, Cleopatra. A brilliant exception is your use of the Demeter and Persephone myth in your book What to Tip the Boatman.

Cleopatra: It was altogether new for me: using something outside of my experience to augment my own voice and subject. 

Allison: I think your blending of Demeter's story and your own is seamless. Even when you don't assume Demeter's persona, in poems like "The Ruin" it's clear that you identify with her. 

Cleopatra: It was never a matter of searching for a story to match mine. In What to Tip the Boatman, as I was writing about the period in her teens when my daughter lost her best friend to suicide, that hell, I thought: "I am Demeter: this is her story." Writing the book once I discovered that emotional connection was almost easy. The poems wrote themselves. 

Allison: I found in The Visible Woman that the opposite can also be true for me. The artist Louise Bourgeois and her work figure in the poems, but less because I see myself in her, and more because her art is so radically different from mine. Hers is filled with bodies: misshapen, sexualized, wounded, angry. Her work makes me really uncomfortable. I wanted to explore why that is so.

Cleopatra: You convey your discomfort with the bodily in a poem like "Self-Portrait Starting as a List." The form of the sestina helps you do this. Your six repeating words--head; throat; middle; breasts; hands; feet--become your "charms." Over and over you say them, as if to call into being, to conjure, a self. A "visible woman," as your book's title suggests. This poem is unique in your work also because in addition to your excellent command of the form, you abandon the musical grace that usually dominates your work. The poem is urgent, not pretty: if anything, it stumbles through its repetitive list of nouns that make up a body. Your syntax is made up of short declarative sentences claiming, asserting until in the poem's crucial turn, you say: "I'm about to make a clean breast / of it, empty the cups of my hands / and pour myself headfirst / into the blue of middle / distance when I hear a note as sure as footfall / start up the sheer flight of my throat // like a glissando along a cello's fretless throat." 

Your struggle runs throughout the poems in The Visible Woman. There is a fury underneath their crafted surface. Though your book ends without resolution, the importance of claiming one's life, that hunger, is clearly affirmed in poems like "Portrait Missing a Self," the end of which describes "the writer, // nearly done for" in the process of "creating a likeness/ to embody herself."
                 
Allison: The third section of the book is filled with "self-portrait" poems. In them I'm after exposure, not erasure. In the title poem I introduce what will become my central metaphor for the book: an anatomical model given to me as a child: "I want to go back to when I was ten," I say, "to start all over with the bones, / the brain, the heart in two parts / I'm trying to glue together." 

In your new book, Cleopatra, the body you relied upon that would "run" for you and "leap" has deserted you. In "The Difference," you write of your separation from the self you relied on. It's "terrifying to have one's self give way" you state. "I who have lived my life intent on direction, / now I am blank. No destination after all."  In another poem, "Arm, Etc.," your arm is no longer even yours: "Arm has become her own machine /stuck on the job of reaching, all the rules broken / in some other language dragged from the depths." Then you tell us, "This sorrow is all about my mother."

Cleopatra: My mother is a difficult subject for me, one that I know I'm not finished with. She died almost ten years ago, after having Parkinson's for the last five or so. The sadness I feel is rooted in childhood and it is complicated by not only anger, but also the fear that I am like her. For various reasons, she was not a protective mother.  I have fought that aspect of my upbringing all my adult life, particularly with my own children.  In my fourth book, Guardian, I write about the experience of mothering an infant, my intense joy as well as the fear and grievances. You have written extensively about motherhood, as well, of caring for a son challenged first by mental health problems, then the damage of a traumatic brain injury. 

Allison: How does a parent survive such demands? This is a theme for me that goes back to The Tumbling Box and Wonder Rooms. In the process of trying to save our children, we often forget to care for ourselves. In my poem "Daguerreotypes" I write about the actual 19th century practice of disguising mothers in photographs of their children. Bizarre as it seems now, a woman holding her baby still for the camera would cover herself with a blanket or cloth, so as not to be seen in the final image. Is that what she really wanted, to be hidden in plain sight?

I love how you describe your life in "Poem for Marriage" as "a child / crying for milk." Perhaps my trapped spirit in "The Escape Artist in Winter" is such a child.  In one of his most terrifying acts Houdini was bound and lowered through a hole in the ice above a bitterly cold river. My narrator is also "under it again, that foot of ice. / No headroom. On me, the weight of a house." The poem goes on to question why the escape artist doesn't free herself as fast as she can, speculating that she'd "imagined death as a spaciousness // I hadn't known on earth, another element--/ not water exactly or air. // I wanted to float there." For her "poor trapped" spirit, though, my escape artist chews at her bindings, then swims to the surface.

Cleopatra: Maybe the hunger for life is what saves her. I don't think I've ever thought of death as spaciousness, that freedom from earth the spirit in your poem desires. For me, it's always nourishment that the earth offers, as in "Black Walnut," from my second Louisiana book. That Southern tree is emblematic to me for its toughness, its rough meat, as if it contains the sorrow that for me is endemic to the South. My hunger was never satisfied, but the place itself survives in me. Somehow it gave me what I needed to survive. I never doubted the body to take what it needed.
 
In the new poems in After the Body, the terror of the body's betrayal is undercut by my understanding that the spirit is present in all things, even pain. The "extraordinary design" in my poem "Silver" refers to my own "three long silver hairs" that have been woven into a spider's web, to be made part of a larger whole.

Allison: That the spirit is present for you in all things helps explain your passionate connection to the natural world, to earth in all its wonder. In your early work it was the red clay of Louisiana, then the mountains of New England, where you moved in the 1980s, and finally the seascape of Cape Cod, which you love. You amaze me with what you notice in nature, writing sometimes about the nearly infinitesimal. In "Salt," from White Sea, you describe the "little spirit, essence, psyche, anima" as a dust mite! 

Cleopatra: Your relationship to nature seems very different from mine. The earthly often seems the site of calamity and disaster for you.
 
Allison: That was certainly true in Living at the Epicenter. I have a friend who has called the poems in that book my "big weather" poems. And it's true, floods, earthquakes, tornadoes, and analogous human disturbances dominate that book. Whatever order we construct is so precarious.

I do have poems, as well, that reflect the power of nature to astonish me with its beauty.  Is any creature more gorgeous than a deer? I share my one acre with families of them. In "The Deer," I write of a doe and her young feeding on my apples, those "beautiful thieves, in the falling light...." 

Cleopatra: Yes, but that's a romantic view, as if you come to some kind of peace with the "thieves" (who've consumed your grapes, too) because of their beauty.  In a much later poem, "Diptych with a White-tailed Doe," you overcome that distance and identify with the deer. Rather than an intriguing, distant creature, the deer becomes close to you, a metaphor for your own suffering. The emotional source is there: in "Something like hunger pawing / within drives me out," your life and the deer's come together. And later: "twinned, neither of us stirs / until the wind picks up / the scent I can't wash off."  This way of looking outside the self compels you--pushes you-- to reveal yourself. I find that totemic sense of nature is present in the new poems you've been writing. It's as if you are trying to keep chaos at bay, as you told me once--a balance between chaos and disorder. It's a precarious balance, you said; as in childhood, you were always trying to not precipitate your father's anger. No wonder you write about magicians and walking a tightrope!

Allison:  I wonder if you think your relationship to nature may also have changed over the years.

Cleopatra: Yes. In the beginning I used nature to evoke a place, the emotional life of a place. I felt that the natural world of Louisiana in my first two books was an extension of me, like my own skin. I've always been fascinated by the miraculous lives of animals and plants--how they survive was somehow key to my own survival but also my faith in myself to survive. In my book, The Center for Cold Weather, I write in "The Faithful" about birds, fish, and my mother's care of them.  I can't see the way she sees, though I long for that kind of sight, "the seeing that will save us." 

With the increased recognition in my new work of my body's fallibility, I am more aware of the ways in which, unlike me, nature restores itself. Plants wither in one season and are reborn in another. I think of Louise Glück and her observation: "It is spring! We are going to die!" 

Nature, unless we humans make it impossible for it to survive, is autonomous and ongoing. We, on the other hand, are governed by the temporary status of our bodies, and I no longer look for similarities, let alone reasons to think I can identify with an animal or a bird. Their lives continue to be endlessly fascinating, but they live apart from me. That I no longer identify my spirit with theirs is a source of sadness for me. On the other hand, I still feel the way I did in a much earlier book, Guardian. The poem "Blues: Late August" ends with "I can't speak for love of the world, // its terror and sufficiency."

Allison: This is a big question, but one which we might conclude by exploring. Why did we, you and I, as far back as our twenties, choose poetry, choose to spend a good part of our lives writing it? 

Cleopatra: This is a question I've never considered, though I've always had an obsession with words. From around the age of three, I wanted to speak English. I was the oldest grandchild in my Greek family and until I completely rejected Greek in first grade, I was bilingual. Early on, I was aware that there were two words for everything; this both attracted me and offended me. I wanted so much to completely accept English, to be American, but so many of the words sounded wrong; they didn't "fit" the nature of what they described. And some of those words seemed intimate to me, inviolable somehow. I especially think of "milk," which in Greek is yallah, with the emphasis on the first syllable. This is a word intrinsic to my memory, and even now, the Greek word signifies the "true" substance called "milk:" creamy and flowing, slightly yellow. But in English the word is harsh, like furniture, hard and unyielding, and, to my childhood ears, like a command rather than a life-giving substance. I think now that the fact that "milk" in English has another meaning (and is an action verb no less) must have intensified my reaction. Other words, too, from the lexicon of a small child, were improbable in English. Knowing that there were two meanings, two sounds, which were supposed to represent the same thing, made me intensely aware of words: language seemed to be always double, unreliable, even duplicitous. 

In third grade I had an amazing teacher who loved poetry and read aloud to us daily. I saw that the words could mean so many things without being necessarily "true." It was then that I must have become aware that it was also the music of the language that attracted me, how the sound carried the meaning. When I began writing poems, it was first the image the words could create, then the sound of those words mirroring the image. 

As I absorbed this, poetry then became something almost magical, key to something that I needed to find deep in myself. Half the time when I'm writing, I feel desperate to get to what I want to say, and the words seem to refuse me. There's always something I can't say, or the words lead me to something I don't know. Even now, the emotional possibilities, interior triggers of what was not said, or could not be said, create an urgency for me.

Allison: What's not said. And what is said. Poetry more than other genres asks us to say only what we absolutely must: what is essential. I love the inherent reticence of the form. When I have written non-fiction, especially memoir, I've felt pressured to divulge more than I'm comfortable doing. In poems, on the other hand, I can intimate my deepest longings, even confess to some of them, but sidestep the whole story. I can reveal through metaphor and other ways of telling it "slant," as Dickinson says, the truth of what I experience without telling all. For this reason, poetry felt safe for me from the outset. It also feels dangerous, in thrilling ways. In writing poems, I encounter what frightens me, and what enthralls me. Poetry gives me a means to say what I can't in speech. 

Cleopatra: It is dangerous: what we might encounter when we look in as closely as possible and are asked to struggle with our most important feelings. In the end, Allison, isn't this how poetry also can save us-- by giving us a way out, as well as a way in, a validation of self? 


Five Poems by Allison Funk


The Visible Woman

She's virtual as well as visible
     on a screen that lets me enter
through the gate of her ribs
     and fly so fast into her heart

I'm almost convinced
     it's pumping. Who knew,
inside, I'd find symmetries
     vivid as mandalas

monks create to erase.
     Mine, too, is a story
of how we disappear.
     Yet I keep returning

to The Visible Woman,
     the digital version scientists made
from flesh cross-sectioned,
     a feat unthinkable

in the nineteen-sixties
     when my Visible Woman arrived
in a kit of little plastic organs and bones.
     Thinking I was done with dolls,

my parents meant for me to recognize
     myself in this model as I grew,
even encouraged me to open
     the box of extra parts labeled Optional:

The Miracle of Creation.
     But faced with the enlarged breastplate,
pregnant uterus and thumb-sized fetus
     along with sheets of directions

(skeletal, respiratory, nervous, endocrine)
     I quit. Boxed up her vitals
and buried her at the back of my closet.
     Forgotten, she lay hidden for years

until, by accident, I found her
     and my way on the web
to her counterpart, where I discovered
     a woman's lungs bloom a deep rose.

The heart is stained a shade lighter,
     close to the blush of Mary's gown
in a Fra Angelico painting of the Annunciation,
     the one the girl forsakes to become

a Woman Clothed with the Sun.
     Queen of Heaven and Earth, Lady of Sorrows,
Mother Most Pure, Mother of Perpetual Help,
     the Mystical Body.

Icon, simulacrum, or the anonymous phantom
     who was once a real woman
from Maryland--I'm thinking again
     of how we're swept away,

and I want to go back to when I was ten,
     to start all over with the bones,
the brain, the heart in two parts
     I'm trying to glue together.



Portrait Missing a Self
 
On a bad day, I feel the ache
          of having been,
as if I've become a phantom limb.
 
Then it starts, serrated wave
          after wave,
everything dangerous, bladed:
 
the keen edge of a stair,
          a pill bottle's rim,
my plane about to go down
 
behind enemy lines
          or into a wilderness
in which ready, set,
 
even the arrows of trees
          are taking their aim
until I remember
 
the sea star in extremis.
          Which regrows
an arm. And the writer,
 
nearly done for,
          creating a likeness
to embody herself.


Self-Portrait Starting as a List

No artist, I start with a list: head
first, of course, then throat,
trunk, or what I call my middle
which, being female, rises in breasts.
What else but appended arms, hands,
and legs ending in feet?

Head. Throat. Middle. Breasts. Hands. Feet.
Already this inventory in my head
won't do. Better the outline I drew by hand
as a girl: penciled boundaries--throat,
wrists and the rest, my own. When my breasts
filled in, the image changed. Later, too, midnights

as a mother roused in the middle
of a dream. On my feet,
on my way, though half-awake, breasts
weeping. We all know the icon. Her head
bowed toward him. The newborn's throat
rippling as he swallows. Hands,

all of him, latched. Unhanding
is something else. In the middle
of old arguments, games played cutthroat,
I think of a gorge hundreds of feet
across, wind the only voice in my head,
the path up too narrow to walk abreast.

I'm about to make a clean breast
of it, empty the cups of my hands
and pour myself headfirst
into the blue of middle
distance when I hear a note as sure as footfall
start up the sheer flight of my throat

like a glissando along a cello's fretless throat.
In what part, mind, heart caught in my breast,
will I find the fearlessness I need to secure my footing
on any tightrope I'm crossing? Freehand
on a highwire in the middle
of nowhere I know, I repeat my charms--head,

feet, throat--
as I head for the other side--breasts,
hands--at large in midair.


The Tumbling Box

As a child
I learned to keep my stories to myself.
Inside they spun

like stones in a tumbler,
one of those rotating drums
for polishing

amethyst, jasper, rose quartz
to the smoothness of a lozenge
on the tongue.

And so in conversations
I lagged behind.
When pressed to speak

I'd agree with someone else--
to more than that,
who'd want to listen?

Even now I'm drawn
to another's version
of the tale of a woman

who said nothing
but what she heard first
from others.

Her voice trailing
after, repeating.
For Echo

nothing could have been worse
than falling in love
with Narcissus.

Unless they'd had children.
To this familiar story
what can I add

that hasn't been said before?
Over and over,
my stones remind me.

Those untrustworthy masters!
Always reversing themselves,
turning toward me,

then away, upside, down.
Never letting me have the last word
with their never ending

end over end.
Is anybody listening?
End. Over. End.

The Escape Artist in Winter

I'm under it again, that foot of ice.
No headroom. On me, the weight of a house.

This winter's hard as the year the river froze over,
that December they bore a hole

the size fishermen cut for their bait,
then lowered me down, bound hands and feet.

Wouldn't you think I'd free myself fast,
seeing through the lens just above me

the faces I'd left?
But I'd imagined death as a spaciousness

I hadn't known on earth, another element--
not water exactly or air.

I wanted to float there. The spirit, though--
it lists toward the light, poor trapped one

with me under a layer of ice. For her
I fought the current sucking at me like a child,

all the time wanting to open my mouth,
wanting to drink, swallow the murky liquid I was in.

But I chewed at my bindings instead,
remembered how to breathe without air,

and we swam toward the surface
she and I, as if finned,

as if there were a school of us.
We were a multitude.


Five Poems by Cleopatra Mathis

The Difference
 
Terrifying to have one's self give way--
old boat which has carried me around,
stubborn at the helm. Self the great
spirit-finder, haphazard navigator; in the end
a hand dragging in the water.
Energy, I thought, was her great strength, her voice
chattering under the whip of wind.
Meanwhile, out here in the complicity
and amplitude, brazen in their plainness,
fin and wing and wave
are one moment of action. Hawk takes off
with a nestling, then the hammering
dive of the plover's chase. Gull after gull
drops the clam on the rocky flats and knows how
to peck out the salty meat.  Over and over,
nature does one thing, and this is the difference.
I who have lived my life intent on direction,               
now I am blank.  No destination after all.
And she whom I called desire,
called must and act--oh goodbye, that idea
striking me with her impertinence, her stone.
  
Arm, Etc.  
 
Arm has become her own machine
stuck on the job of reaching, all the rules broken
in some other language dragged from the depths.
The brain's got secrets that even
arm doesn't know. Arm no longer cares for
 
anything hand might want to do, and hand
gets pulled along. Sullen child, poor hand
caught in a vise, stiffened by its throb and drum. 
Arm still insisting, holding hand behind my back,
mad tap-tapping to keep from being dragged away.
 
What a story: me walking with a stick
along the beloved beach, and arm refuses, starts up
directing the waves, flying out in the good
beach air, as we all try to look away. Can't stop,
says hand. Can't balance, leg says. This is how
the body wakes me up and this is how she knocks me down.
 
This sorrow is all about my mother: 
did I not believe her stuttered
spoon-to-mouth, soup on the floor? Her level black eye 
entering me. She could slap my face now,
hand could, in this boring chorus of saying.
 
But sometimes hand flies up to pat my shoulder
or curls close by my side, pretends to sleep--sweet pet
doesn't want arm to make me weep.
Then when I start to forget, hand
runs off, slams the glass, the plate, the sink.
And as for the little slave fingers--in the grab, they just let go. 
 
 
The Ruin
 
When I was young, it was enough
to save myself. Childhood's house gave way
to the birds of the night, the rich
Louisiana dark which in its green
carries melody and chorus.
I set my own clock to it, rising
to rain in leaves, a voice
that told me I could leave that place.
Even later, the sun reflecting the image
of water onto a bedroom ceiling
could wake me.
 
But when my daughter disappeared,
no beauty gave back a reason to live.
I was nothing but mother, I would blow out
the world's candle. No burning,
no fire with its regeneration,
not even ash, that little cold ruin.
It was then I understood
the nothingness of the sea,
the crush of waves driven across miles,
riptides and currents deepening
in a water too vast to freeze.
Thousands of feet, impenetrable:
no diver, no machine, could breathe
in the time it took to reach that bottom;
nothing could live in that black, the descending
zones that cancelled out creatures--
the tiniest slime of protoplasm, eggy scum
on the chalky mud, whatever design
managed to quiver three hundred fathoms down
to the zero of the final zone.
And everything above rendered trivial
by the great salt body rocking
through sea floor canyons and mountains.
All of it a locked tomb, and me
in my iron boat.
 
Salt
 
All those years I went the way of grief,
     turning my stony eye on disorder, something to be cleaned
          and fixed. I was lost, scrubbing away at the hidden,
 
hating the vase where the fruit flies nested,
     the artful bowl that held ruined fruit.
          Throw away the rot, I said, making myself saint
 
of the immaculate, not knowing a thing about the soul.
     Meanwhile, little spirit, essence, psyche, anima,
          the forever-alive-but-unpinnable one
 
turned its gaze away, claimed a crack,
     found a rusty needle, curled up in the eye of it.
          In the pine floors alone, a million crevices,
 
a million particles of grit, pinch, and crumb.
     What sea in my bucket could wash the world clean?
          And who knew the soul
 
was right at home in dust, passing
     through every incarnation: the tiny breathing
          mite it entered in the gray swirl under the stove,
 
expelling itself into a draft that carried it
     into the filmy grease so lightly pocked
          on the cabinet glass. Releasing, floating down,
 
the soul finding the one grain of salt
     lying there under my nose. Me at the sink,
          scouring the porcelain, not seeing.
 
Blues: Late August
 
Bluefish boil the water silver; they tangle in the chase
and the frantic smelt run headlong onto the sand,
caught by the blinding mirror, the water's

skimming sheet. And in the tide's remove, the knife-like
bodies hardly struggle, laid out in one long row
like silverware by a child's hand. All the bathers

scramble out of the sea, fearful of the indiscriminate
bluefish jaws, and around our heads, the gulls
flail about, sharp-eyed and diving, a frenzy

guarding the feast. All along, the ocean
turns its back to the spectacle, locked
in its usual resolve, but I can't move

for love of the world, its terror and sufficiency.

Allison Funk is the author of six books of poetry, including most recently The Visible Woman (Parlor Press, 2021). The recipient of awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Poetry Foundation, and the Poetry Society of America, she taught for many years in the creative writing program at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.

Cleopatra Mathis has published eight books, most recently After the Body: Poems New and Selected from Sarabande Books in 2020.  Her awards and prizes include the John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, two National Endowment for the Arts grants, and two Pushcart Prizes. She founded the creative writing program at Dartmouth College. 


Publication credits for Cleopatra Mathis: "The Difference" and "Arm, Etc.," from After the Body: Poems New and Selected (2020) and "Salt" from White Sea (2005), are reprinted by permission of Sarabande Books. 
"Blues: Late August" from Guardian (1995) and "The Ruin" from "What to Tip the Boatman?" (2001), were first published by Sheep Meadow Press, and are reprinted with the permission of the author. 

Publication Credits for Allison Funk: "The Visible Woman," "Portrait Missing a Self," and "Self-Portrait Starting as a List" from The Visible Woman (Parlor Press, 2021) are reprinted with permission of Parlor Press
https://parlorpress.com . "The Tumbling Box" and "The Escape Artist in Winter" from The Tumbling Box (C&R Press, 2009) are reprinted with permission of C&R Press https://www.crpress.org .

 (2020) and
 reprinted with the permission of the author. 

 
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