(W.W. Norton & Company, 2014)
If there’s a story that starts and stops, pauses, picks back up and ploughs forward through Cate Marvin’s three books of poetry, it’s the story of a heart that would have broken if it were fragile or dumb enough to crack, or a heart that was taken back bitterly because it was unwanted, but maybe wasn’t given altogether away. It’s a glass heart attached to an elastic band, stretched and snapped underwater. The heart survives intact after every battle; the lover or friend may be dead or disappeared. This has to be okay.
One tension between boy and girl, man and woman, lover and beloved, expresses itself in the lines of “After Aftermath” from Oracle:
I’m unhappy with you, Mom.
You’re not my mom, but I’m calling you Mom
now that I’m his mom, Mom. Your son can’t
say what he thinks because you didn’t teach
him how to articulate himself, Mom.
This is men, Mom. Your mistake was begetting
I think this is a good place to start our conversation. Right on the cliff-face.
Elizabeth Trundle (Rail): You obviously relish formal control, structure, tradition, and history in your writing; your words are steeped in it, even if your delivery manages a subtle, contemporary toss and ease. What male valor from the past, or future, does your mother-blaming narrator ache for?
Cate Marvin: I don’t think my speaker is much interested in resurrecting male valor. Rather, she is frustrated, to put it mildly, with how seemingly low our society’s expectations for male behavior are. How can mothers teach their sons to understand women as human beings who deserve to feel safe in this world?
Rail: That’s a question unlikely to appeal to the men and women who might most benefit from pondering it. And then there’s this problem with women getting in their own and each other’s way, which you touch on in your poem, “Yellow Rubber Gloves.”
My advice: yellow rubber gloves
will save your hands, young bitches, awful
twats who think you’ll never be me. Trust
me as I never trusted myself. We’re in this together.
Look at your hands! Who else did
you think he had in mind, undermining your
time by leaving dish after dirty dish behind?
These lines hit me hard, eliciting outrage, self-recrimination, a sort of mute acknowledgement and acceptance, even laughter. Your words are cracking themselves up and your topic is bubbling over with rage. How would you describe the relationship between these two aspects of your work? Does the subject drive the words into the corner, or have you taught it to cooperate?
Marvin: In terms of technique, I think most younger American poets pull from a lot of traditions in a manner that is both provocative and humorous. As for the “what” of my poems, I suspect you’re referring to the fact that a lot of my poems are about human relationships. It strikes me that a great deal of literature concerns human relationships. Ultimately, I love poetry as a genre because it’s so rarely placed under the lens of marketing and as a result bypasses commodification. In other words, I want to be able to write about what I want to write about. Selfish, I know.
Rail: No. Not selfish. After all, the act of writing delivers a unique, never-before-seen-in-this-world reality to the empty page. If we see literary effort as a kind of service to the common, intellectual good, then you’ve been hard at work in the trenches for quite a while and you’ve earned your share of purple hearts to attach to your shoulder.
To push this metaphor, or emphasize it: some of the words I jotted down to describe your use of language are sonorous, rhythmic, alive, perfect, marching—and then I went even further to use the word martial: well-supplied with weapons, a camo backpack, and sturdy boots. There’s this question of how far, wide, deep, and into the cut your words can go. What is their wish? When will they rest?
Marvin: That’s a scary question. Right now I’m in between books. I can’t see the future of my work, and that’s a good thing. This will sound very cheesy, but if you know where you’re going, there’s no point. It wouldn’t be any fun. I regard my best poems as those I barely recognize as having written.
Rail: Yes, that comes through in the work. Your poetic voice keeps to itself, leads itself, answers itself, writhes and cries and even comforts itself. Does writing and rewriting your way through an act of abandonment or betrayal cure you of it? Or does it reinforce it, even enshrine it? Is it a step on the road toward burial and release?
Marvin: It would be nice if writing poems could provide a sort of emotional detox or thirty day cleanse, but the psyche is not like the body. We cannot conduct our own insistence for forgetting upon it. As such, it’s messy. I can make several poems from the same cloth in the hopes that I’ll eventually use up all of the material, only to find afterwards the entire bolt of fabric is still intact, with yards and yards remaining.
Can catharsis be obtained through the writing and rewriting of an emotional experience? This was absolutely the activity I was attempting to undertake in my first book, World’s Tallest Disaster. Like any writer, I’m obsessive as hell. I’ve had students bewildered by the sonnet sequences of Petrarch and Shakespeare: why would a poet choose to write so many poems about a single figure? Because they can. The figure of the beloved becomes more of an occasion upon which the speaker can meditate, philosophize, and reflect.
When I look back on the poems in my first book, I see they are in several cases enshrinements of particular memories, and this brings to mind lines from a Christina Rossetti poem I’ve long loved:
I have a room whereinto no one enters
Save I myself alone:
There sits a blessed memory on a throne;
There my life centres.
I guess the long and short of my response is: I hope that a poem I’ve written will provide catharsis for my reader in whatever form. Whether writing poems has ever delivered me from psychic pain is highly doubtful. In some ways, as you so accurately observe, some of my poems serve as memorials or headstones for the experience being addressed.
Rail: Rossetti describes an inspired inner sanctum. I find this same kind of space in many of your poems, which expand inside their containers with a muscular, transformative power. As the speaker of one of your poems puts it: “my heart is huge and its doors are small.” How do you crawl into that poised, taut starting place? Or do you arrive from there, and the writing is an effort to break yourself out?
Marvin: There’s no one answer to this question! And process can be hard to talk about because it’s difficult to remember the writing of a poem as it occurred in real time. For me, the key is writing a great many drafts, so I’m continually moving toward the goal of the poem, which becomes clearer the further I’m into the writing of it. The goal is to come to a revelation that I have not, as the writer, anticipated.
One thing I do rely on is the creation of a strong first line that sets the stakes for the rest of the poem. This line usually dictates the quality of the language as well as the attitude of the speaker.
But I also write a lot of poems that never see the light of day. I don’t enter into writing with the expectation that I’m going to make something lasting. Rather, I’m interested in creating the experience of writing the poem itself. In order for a poem to be alive, the writer has to exist inside it, as if it’s a fantasy being projected onto a screen. I’m in agreement with Robert Frost’s observation: “No tears for the writer, no tears for the reader.”
Rail: This isn’t fair to Robert Frost, but I just can’t picture him gnashing his teeth and getting blood on his hands as he gave birth to his stanzas. Not that I see you doing that either—well, maybe sometimes. I guess I see you as a point in another lineage.
You do observe the longstanding tradition of referencing nature in your poems, specifically the moon and the sun, the bounties of the sea, and certain flowering vines. But I detect a note of disappointment, even scorn, in your descriptions of these grand symbols: “I’m sick of nature’s pawnshop.”
Or from “Dread Beach:”
and someone’s lost
his pants three times by three
wave-worn rocks, by the pyre
of piss-filled Gatorade bottles,
discarded tampon applicators,
two combs jagged with teeth.
Rail: Was nature kinder to past poets? Is it failing us now or playing a different role?
Marvin: I think it’s very likely that Frost was a teeth-gnasher! There’s an incredible violence to his work that perhaps exists as an undercurrent, something the reader might be distracted from given how he occupies formal restraint in the manner a hand wears a glove. In a lot of ways, restraint can be an indication of volatile contents. The Neoformalists can’t have Frost to themselves, no sir, no way. If you want to read an incredible homage to him, check out Jennifer Michael Hecht’s “Not Stopping By the Woods On a Snowy Evening” at the Poetry Foundation. And if you know your Frost, you know his nature is anything but kind.
I think I have a heightened awareness of how contaminated the world is because I’ve the opportunity to compare my daughter’s childhood to my own. It’s not that I think the natural is innately beautiful or meaningful as compared (or contrasted) to the manmade, because there are buildings and skylines that possess alien kinds of beauty that move me in ways I can’t even begin to explain. But here’s something to think about: Nobody can walk around barefoot nowadays. You and I are old enough to remember a time when children were largely unsupervised and had access to all sorts of dangers, many of which “nature” was apt to provide.
“Dread Beach” was written many years ago for a project called Underwater New York. I noted there was a tendency for its content to focus on relics, or charming objects that’d washed ashore. I found this ironic because I lived at the time on Staten Island, where the beaches are less than pristine. My students would warn me to avoid the beaches (where you cannot swim), intimating that I might step on a used syringe or get held up. There’s so much I could say about this—the experience of living in a place that has long been essentially a giant trash can for the rest of the City (home of the Fresh Kills Landfill), in contrast to the attitudes of people and poets who tend to fetishize NYC.
I went with a friend to a few beaches on the Island and was shocked to see just how much was washed up or abandoned there, which I documented very literally in the poem. You wouldn’t believe how many plastic tampon applicators I saw! Where were they coming from? Did the female residents of Staten Island gather to collectively remove their tampons on this particular beach? Obviously not, but for whatever reason this debris found its way to this beach. Also present at this beach were the remnants of a children’s hospital that appeared to have been dragged there and seemingly abandoned.
In my poems, I’m playing with the idea that all those weary poetic tropes litter poetry; as such, refuse takes their place, becoming the new natural. This is hardly an original idea. Pablo Neruda speaks of it in his 1935 essay, “Toward an Impure Poetry.”
Rail: The new natural; I like the sound of that. I wonder if you aren’t walking that same edge when you take us into the often-trashed landscape of adolescent sexuality. When I heard you read “Dead Girl Gang Bang” aloud, I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach. There was a yes moment, then a no moment, then I think I’ve done something terrible. I’m not a horny, criminal boy but I felt like one. Can poetry prosecute? Can it have victims? Or is the satisfaction private and fulfilled in the telling?
Marvin: I knew the person who was once just a person and not the figure of the Dead Girl, and I know what happened to her. It was my intention to describe what actually happened to her, which was something no one ever talked about. These kinds of crimes get sensationalized in the media, and much is made of victimhood, but I wanted to get at how the female body is routinely the object of violence in a manner that women are expected to accept and adapt to, however much it may damage our collective female psyche.
Rail: When I think of the “collective female psyche,” I picture cavemen dragging cavewomen off by their matted hair to the darkened corners of caves, and centuries of women dying in childbirth after bearing ten to twenty children. The collective female psyche seems able to take a hell of a lot wear and tear. Which doesn’t excuse the violence, but maybe it helps to explain it. It’s bloody, being a girl.
As long as we’re discussing gendered gore, I’ll mention that I noticed a recurring image of injured, compromised, and disfigured hands in your poems, a preoccupation that resonates with one of my own dark fantasies, something to do with severed hands, chopped off at the wrist: a woman handless, helpless.
Marvin: Decapitations, disfigurement, and dismemberment suggest a loss of self in many of my poems, as they do in much of contemporary American women’s poetry. And about the blood, yes. Your statement immediately brought to mind a poem from my second book titled “Landscape With Hungry Girls” which opens with the statement: “There’s blood here.” Much of physically being a woman requires one to contend with a lot of blood and gore—stuff we’re expected not to out to language. Indeed, we’re expected to cover it up, when it comes to menstruation, childbirth, breastfeeding, etc. I made this observation last night to my boyfriend and even he was like, “TMI.” I’m all about the TMI, especially when it comes to poems.
Rail: TMI as a poetic mandate; it works for me. And what about a third limb, which you offer in “Poem for an Awful Girl.” If women had one, would we use it for compulsive needlepointing? Is that a reasonable fear?
Marvin: “Poem for an Awful Girl” is not only about an awful girl, it is spoken by an awful girl. She needlepoints in this poem because it is the only way for her to exercise control over a canvas; the canvas she wishes to stitch is not hers: it’s a narrative that’s occurring outside her life. I should also note that it’s in conversation with Adrienne Rich’s “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers,” and that I myself am a pretty avid needlepointer. It’s an undertaking that requires a tremendous amount of concentration (as such, it’s a terrific thing to do if you’re really pissed off). I have great admiration for stitchers; knitters, not so much. There’s something about the tautness of the stitch for needlepoint that reminds me a lot of the poetic line. It has to have just the right tension to hold. And all the stitches require uniform tension or else the overall quality of the work is marred.
Also, this poem is about the worst kind of jealousy. There’s a lot of that in Oracle as the speaker is no longer what we might call “competitive” with other women because she is older.
Rail: That’s a very interesting idea, that the stitch and the line share certain qualities. And I wouldn’t want to get caught in a face-off between the needlepointers and the knitters. But back to the worst kind of jealousy in the “Awful Girl” poem:
I could sit here
all afternoon, scratch my crotch while plotting her
death, and no one would care; worse, not even her.
Of course the conservative solution to getting too old to compete with younger women is selling yourself off before that happens; in other words, give your hand away—another lost body part—in marriage. Is it possible to give it away and also keep it?
Marvin: If we didn’t have the institution of marriage as one of the primary means by which women’s worth is officially acknowledged, we’d likely be in a different situation. Who knows? It’s certainly a fantasy that is difficult to escape given all the institution promises. A lot of what’s happening in Oracle is that the speaker’s coming to terms with the futility of it all, and is thus trying to alert other women she believes are not yet privy to her newfound wisdom. Kind of like a voice from the other side. I hope the reader will understand the approach as humorous (black humor).
Rail: So funny I weep. But maybe wisdom is a fair exchange for the vanity challenge of getting old. A woman’s politics and philosophy are necessarily informed by her biology, and then her biology completely changes. It makes you want to lose the female organ set altogether. And lose men and their biology, too, for good measure. You write, in “Me and Men,” from your first book:
True, some nights their eyes pooled with light,
cleared to brown, unmuddied their river bottoms.
But more often, I liked best not being with them,
driving alone and thinking only of the fact of them.
Their flat bodies I held with grave disrespect;
perhaps this is why I sought them.
Here you acknowledge a female version of distorted desire. In fact, the haunted woman in some of your poems sips on her former lust and nurses thoughts of revenge. Is this kind of fantasy life peculiarly “female?” Does it feed the beast, weaken it, or leave it unaffected?
Marvin: Men have video games. Women have women’s magazines. Just kidding. I stopped reading women’s magazines a decade ago on recognizing they only provided a certain kind of poison. The intent of analogies is, of course, to exaggerate a truth so that it is recognized. The fantasy within the poem provides the vehicle, as well as the liberty to express the experience. It is a necessary truth that the experience of being female in the world is different than that of being male. Both experiences should be explored and examined from many different viewpoints. As such, it goes without saying that my contribution offers only one perspective. That’s the business of literature: to allow the reader to enter into different experiences with no real harm being done to the self. One hopes the experience of literature will ultimately be restorative if it’s doing its job, which is to get readers from various perspectives to experience on behalf of those different from themselves.
Rail: I associate this particular perspective, the titrated trance of lost or unrequited love, more with romance fiction than women’s magazines. But as you mentioned before, a strong dose of obsessive longing can be found in the works of Petrarch and Shakespeare. It’s dangerous to assign states of mind to specific genders in sweeping gestures. That being said, I found it fascinating to follow your progression as it’s reflected in your three collections, and to reflect upon how you bring your individual cup to this particular well, drink of it, and put the experience to work in your poems.
From “High School as The Picture of Dorian Gray:”
He walks in, refusing to recognize me, that’s how
ugly I’m considered: the first boy I ever kissed
says he was too drunk to remember anything.
There is a factory that produces heads like his.
One day, I’ll hear he’s died from an overdose
and not feel bad. Like him, I won’t feel anything.
You’re so skilled at using language and form to replicate the emotional experience you’re trying to capture. And to bring it back to the Neruda essay you cited, “Those who shun the ‘bad state’ of things will fall on their face in the snow.”
Marvin: What’s unusual about your approach in these questions is that you’ve regarded the scope of my work as far as what’s yet been produced in my lifetime. But some of your questions require me to look at my poems as if I’m my own therapist, and that’s removed the nice, comfy barrier that poetry places between me and my wretched psyche. I would never show my poems to my therapist, as I do not see them as accurate depictions of myself in the world.
Rail: I think it’s probably a good practice not to share your poems with your therapist. In my view, the story of “self” that we access for that kind of analytical conversation is just a starting point; in therapy, as with writing, after the first line is set, the words sometimes choose their own direction. Who’s to say what’s true, what’s wretched, what’s worth remembering?
Marvin: So many times when reading your questions, I’ve found myself saying, “I don’t know!” I think that’s probably a good place to be. If I had it all figured out, I wouldn’t need to write poems. Poems are a way of figuring it out. And ultimately they can only do so with the assistance of the reader. The greatest mystery is how a poem finds its reader, or how the reader finds a poem, and more so what happens after that. But we can’t know what happens. The magic of the poem and its reader is in the secret of that moment.
BOO TRUNDLE is a writer, artist, and storyteller whose work has appeared across various platforms, stages, and publications including The Georgia Review, Prairie Schooner, Risk!, McSweeneys, and NPRs The Moth. Her e-book, Seventies Gold, published by 3 a.m. analog, is available on Amazon.