on Intruder, poems by Jill Bialosky (Knopf) – and an interview with the poet

“The source of poetry is always some mystery, an inspiration, a sense of unknowing in the presence of the irrational – strange territories,” wrote Cesare Pavese in his essay “Poetry is Freedom.” “But the act of poetry … is an absolute willfulness to see clearly, to reduce to reason, to know. Mythos and Logos.” Although this may sound cleanly definitive, for years his own journals debated the finer points of the statement, and he chastened himself for failing at both inspiration and intention. He believed writing was a long deliberation, but he felt “one cannot know one’s own style and consciously employ it. One always uses a pre-existent style, unconsciously molding it into something fresh … To be conscious of our style means that we have finished expressing part of our mystery.” Still, he was perpetually aware of his style: “I cannot rise above my lazy habit of reducing everything to an image-story.” Yet if he remained stubbornly wed to observed detail, it was because he assessed the habit of “regarding states of soul as an end in themselves” as a “luxurious indulgence.”

bialosky4.jpgJill Bialosky’s third book of poems, Intruder, makes the writer’s (or artist’s) conflicts her central subject. It is an unrelenting inquisition conducted with the reined protocol of a $400/hour analysis session complete with dream sequences: the wish for meaning must not be confused with the will to meaning. In a mode instantly reminiscent of Louise Glück’s carefully controlled yet vocally various books that circumscribe alternately mythic and domestic materials, Bialosky’s Intruder probes a singular situation, evoking archetypes and Manhattan types. But where Glück maintains boundaries between the mythic and domestic in those books, Bialosky meshes them and blends the hieratic and demotic. The poems speak in a quasi-orphic voice, rising in pitch for questioning and moments of dramatic tension.

THE FIGURE

From a blank canvas sprang a swirl of color and emotion:
a mysterious figure emerging from a dark thicket.

Was he beautiful? Did it matter?
For once ugliness could be a form of beauty: an equivalent

to prove the soul’s existence.
Dried paint like a second skin on our hands, its oily smell –

Was it possible to replicate love?
The paintbrush unleashed a river of blood.

The day darkened in the room. Time lost track.
We forgot our mothers still in bed, the failure of fathers,

secret lives of our sisters. Is it the figure’s mystery
that enthralls or the shock of seeing manifest the passion

we longed to hide? Is he our stillborn twin or a lost love
buried under the debris of daily existence? Or the terror

of loss itself? Brutal hands, a slash of red.

bialosky3.jpgIntruder is a book of questions and “The Figure” is representative, its lines strung across the gap between allegory and diary. The artwork in the poem and the poem-as-artwork are bridged by the line of inquiry. In his essay “Poetry and Psychoanalysis,” Adam Phillips wrote, “The art of poetry is the art of being happily unacceptable in public.” In Intruder, Bialosky charms by happily surrendering to rushes of doubt, skepticism, modest satisfactions, and an enclosed wonder perhaps unbecoming in a mature and verbal West Sider. Her speakers are intruders of a different sort – not alluring or repellent “mysterious figures," but voices close to the mom in the bleachers at the local park asking entirely private questions about the nature of mid-life desire and the difficulties – even the legitimacy -- of portraying it. In “Rules of Contact,” the mothers are chatting while watching their kids play ball, but the speaker sees the boats on the Hudson and asks, “How to quell the current rising against the boat? / How to trust what moves beneath it?” The lovely question itself is far from trustworthy since it wanders off from the situation at hand. She can neither indulge her inner dialogue with herself, nor feel comfortable gabbing with the girls. This is the pathos of Intruder. She must be satisfied with the happy unacceptability of turning her incommunicable experience into legend. Elizabeth Bishop said, “By ‘pretending’ the existence of a language appropriate and comparable to the ‘things’ it must deal with, the language is forced into being.” To deal with the shock and effects of intrusive desires (her material), Bialosky has placed all her chips on a language of theater.

If Pavese’s work embodies the struggle of his temperament between the flow of vision and the drive for exactitude, Bialosky’s magnetic poles in Intruder are the surfeits of artistic selfhood and the hollowness of everything else. These two poets may seem like an odd pair for comparison’s sake, and perhaps in most respects they are. But both of them adhere to the poet’s primary task of working from that spot where the difficulties of their art meet the unique binds in their nature. It is simply that in Bialosky’s work, the bind is more a topic than an impinging reality or (in most poems) an element of the language itself.

Bialosky keeps the tension alive through variations in the arrangement of the material. The book has seven sections, each with a narrative purpose and purview. Part one tells the reader how the book must be read. Beginning with the urban fable “The Seduction,” this section introduces “The Poet,” a figure who appears in several poems throughout the book.

THE POET CONTEMPLATES HER CALLING

Come to me, he said, I want to touch you.
I will never disappear.
The voice was deep and resonant
as if it belonged to her true nature. Some nights
enchanted by the voice and its lyric resonance –
the memories it evoked – she could hear nothing else
save its desperate music. Stay with me, he said, don’t go back,
and the divide between the real and invented
grew like a split in a canyon.
She thought the tender dinners, open window
at the table to allow in fresh air,
their private chitchat sealed off
and protected as if underneath glass
inside the insular walls of their home might be enough.
That she could still follow what compelled
through the narrow courtyard down the unsafe, spiral stairs
and into the mysterious garden if she managed
to live with the disturbances, and she continued to travel further,
to seek more, forgetting she could never turn back,
even when the voice grew so faint she could barely hear it,
to ponder what she had left behind.

bialosky2.jpgOf course, this is an old story, the Faustian deal. In Bialosky’s work, the peril is psychological – though the poem that tells the tale speaks from a safe distance, a point of sober reflection. If the poems do not seem to enact the dramas they name, it is because the poet-contemplator has shifted to another zone. Intruder is largely an invitation to the reader to envision the poet’s new purlieu, an eerily calm place of assessment. Suggesting a shadow self, Louise Bogan spoke of “the destiny which stands half in us, half about us … split and equivocal beings.” But Bialosky’s intruder is a detached element, tasted and measured, shaped and re-shaped, and relegated to dark anecdote. Her speakers have closed ranks against him. As in the poem above, the intruder’s voice fades out, leaving the poet out of sorts, disoriented, and feeling foolish.

As Intruder proceeds, the intruding second self appears in various guises and persons. He speaks, she answers, or vice versa, and the scene plays itself out. In “Subterfuge,” the two are together in a house; there is an exchange about the “rules” of their relationship. You know the rules, he said. / There are boundaries.” They can hear and imagine the lives next door. The poem ends:

The rain turned to storm. It pushed
against the windows, threatened to seep
into the cracks underneath the windowsill.
It slashed against the shingles, as if the house
were a boat and subject to the tide of the water.
In the wind’s determination was a force
that wanted to carry you with it,
engulf you in its madness
and then throw you spent into the field,
sure of itself and its need to purge and punish.

Despite the dramatic diction (or because of it), it is difficult to feel the emotion here. There is no rue, no lingering fear in the telling. Everything has been stylized into self-fable. The “madness” related here sports a near-gothic 19th-century pedigree, lavishly expressed. Its significance is glaring rather than clear. Living in the aftermath of the intruder, this speaker simply no longer has access to the dark, subtle, lyrical power that she perhaps once imagined such encounters inspire. This is a poetry that recalls an intruder – but that has rejected (or has never been able to deliver) the wayward, experiential enactment in expression. Intruder is a book of profound disenchantment.

W. S. Di Piero once complained generally about poetry that “since 1945, the tribal uses and shared values of poetry have thinned out. Poetry now is primarily a conductor of discriminations and deliberations of selfhood and its qualities. It has become more psychological, more obliged to an overly nuanced studiousness of personality and less concerned with relations. Cultural memory now functions often not as a quality out of which poetry issues, but rather as an interesting subject matter.” But the audience for Intruder believes “cultural memory” now simply is more psychological in context. As for the narrow focus on selfhood, if anything Bialosky’s speakers’ idiosyncrasies seem watered down, their selves converted into fabled prototypes. The intensity of their internal experiences makes them worry over their relations with the world.

bialosky1.jpgThere are several strong narrative poems in the book, including “The Beauty of the Clearing” which weaves a nimble course between “the desire to run” from “the beloved” and the local staging of Long Day’s Journey Into Night. In these longer narratives, whether pitched as fables or character profiles, Bialosky seems less driven to contain and more at ease to let an impulse play itself out. In “The Beauty of the Clearing,” the poem’s obsession with fleeing seems to have liberated the telling itself. The digressions of “The Poet Discovers the Significance of the Old Manuscripts” are also enlivened by mystery. Here, the “poet” and (presumably) the intruder-guy go to the Morgan Library to gaze at erotic manuscripts: “She sat on a bench afterward drinking cold bad coffee / and denouncing the chapter on passion.” Meanwhile, a story is told of the poet who created the erotic poems, and soon both poets are swept up into an erotic scene. Yet there is something subtle in the telling that is “denouncing” the passion, and this is what we respond to.

Intruder is the accomplished work of a poet in mid-career, grappling with both the mystery and the will to embody it. There’s an admirable stubbornness to its project, a willingness to try this and try that. Each poem is a return engagement, another stab at pinning down some aspect of a complex experience. Such returns suggest an appealing awareness of defeat before greater, confusing forces that compel the attention, forces to which, as in “The Listeners,” “She listened / with such passion as if listening were a grieving / for not seeing. Until even desire / became a kind of sorrow.”

[Published October 2008, 96 pp., $25.00 hardcover]

****

An Interview with Jill Bialosky

RS:
Intruder reads to me like a book of deliberate repetitions and intended effects. But how deliberate was your choice of the lyric identity itself and its qualities?

JB:
I’m not quite sure I understand what you mean by lyric identity but perhaps I can take a stab at some of my intentions for Intruder. I wanted the book to question and challenge the notion of selfhood and the different levels of reality we inhabit. There was a recent piece about the book in American Poet. The reviewer wrote, “with a distance filled with feeling but also steady observation, {Bialosky} parses out what makes a life, a relationship, a family, a self inside a body.” I think that sums it up well. Who is the subject in poetry? Is it the self or the universal self? Is the speaker in the poem the poet herself or a fictive self? Or perhaps both? Is poetry ultimately a fiction? These are some of the questions I wanted the book to raise. I decided to call or name the subject in the book “The Poet.” And I do have a group of poems in the book where there is a pattern of repetitions in certain titles: “The Poet Contemplates the Nature of Reality,” “The Poet Confronts the Self, “The Poet Contemplates the Intensity of Emotion,” for instance. I also created a figure who appears throughout the book in many guises -- an intruder so to speak — who sometimes appears as doppelganger, as imagined lover, as muse, to challenge the poet. There are other repetitions and intended effects in the use of form, but mostly I hope the poems are mysterious enough that they can be entered on many different levels.

RS:
There’s a sense, especially in the poems about “The Poet,” of a dissecting analysis, a candid eye. Do you ever sense a danger, creatively speaking, in giving up too much invention for the benefit of argument and explanation?

JB:
Well, there is always the question of balance in poetry, the balance between mystery and clarity. I suppose I do like the surface of a poem to be fairly specific and yet I’ve been told that there are layers of depth in my work, which of course pleases me. I do, however, feel as if the poems are fueled more by the imagination and invention than the poems in my earlier two books. Of course, part of the subject matter is the creation of art, its pulls and seductions and dangers.

RS:
In “Cathedral of Wonder” the boy “glimpsed an interior world” but was “unaware of suffering in pursuit of beauty.” Here the boy is the intruder, not yet intruded upon. How do the “interior worlds” of adults as subjects in Intruder relate to the interior nature of the poems’ speakers?

JB:
This is such an interesting question I hardly know how to answer it. One of the obsessions in the book has to do with privacy and the distinction between our public selves and private selves. Are we defined by how intimates see us or how we see others or how we see ourselves? I was obsessed with the painter Eric Fischl’s early work and I have a series in the book called “Intimacies: Portrait of an Artist” inspired by those paintings. The paintings evoke for me infringement of boundaries within intimates in family. The “Intruder” in the book intrudes upon the private self in ways that are both disruptive and exciting. I suppose the book finally asks, “Who am I?” I suppose it is subversive to write about selfhood in the climate we are in now where the world seems so vulnerable. And yet, I can’t help myself!

RS:
The poems are often about vexed minds, or as in the superb poem “The Figure,” about mysteries or questions – unfinished things. But the poems work toward formal resolutions. This opposition, which seems especially marked in your work – does it present difficulties, or is there some other aspect of composition that poses a greater hurdle for you?

JB:
This is an intriguing question. Again, the tenuous balance between mysteries or questions and formal resolutions. Poems for me are often vehicles for private arguments. Mostly these arguments have to do with the dichotomies within us as individuals: the pulls between desire and stability; safety and danger; emotion and reason. I’m very interested in these ideas and in my poems I find ways of addressing the questions in a way that interests me and I hope will interest my readers. I’m not aware that my poems seek resolutions per say, but perhaps suggest how we might live in confusion and how this state might be what keeps us most alive. How’s that for an answer!

RS:
Did you look to particular models – other poets – for a path into these materials (the domestic veering into myth)? If there were no models, were there any influences?

JB:
When I was writing the poems for Intruder I was reading The Odyssey with my young son so the Greeks were on my mind — the wonderful Greek myths that I enjoy wandering in. I suppose those myths have become another layer of consciousness I inhabit. I also was slightly obsessed with versions of the fall, including Milton’s Paradise Lost, Dante’s Inferno and stories from the Old Testament. The long sonnet sequence in the book called “The Skiers” is my version of the fall from grace and temptation. I was also reading Eliot’s “Four Quartets.” I certainly looked to and read other poets work, but in Intruder I felt as if I had found my own course.

RS:
What do you see as the constants in your books of poems – and what changes or ripenings do you find in Intruder?

JB:
This is a challenging question. I hope voice is a constant, and attention to music and rhythm and craft. I want my poems to probe the human experience. In a recent piece I read about David Foster Wallace, he said that he writes to make people feel less alone inside. And I suppose that is a motivating force. To find a construction or structure that captures a slice of reality in a way that is engaging and seductive. The poems in my first two books,The End of Desire and Subterranean were born out of necessity. The poems in Intruder were also born from necessity but were much more about the imagination and its pulls. I was also attempting to challenge some notions of poetic conceit and aesthetic. I think the book is riskier, more idea driven perhaps than my first two books.

RS
A final question about giving poetry readings … Do you believe your speaking voice captures the lyric voice of your poems? Do you hear the lyric voice completely when you read, or does some part of it remain separate from you and unvoiced?

JB:
I find reading poems a completely odd experience. I don’t mind it, but I can’t say I love giving readings. Creating art is so very private. When I imagine my reader, I imagine the reader in a quiet, private space reading my work. Say, after a challenging day, or in need of a little nourishment, perhaps slightly lonely or lovesick or in distress. I like the idea that one reader might read one of my poems aloud to a friend or lover or child. I hope my work can provide a sense of comfort or affinity or even disturbance. Sometimes I write to wake myself up. I hope my poems might do that for a reader. I think poetry readings ought to be more like a symposium. It would be fun to read among a chorus of voices, around perhaps a theme. But I’m getting carried away. I have no idea whether my speaking voice captures the lyric voice of the poems. I suppose an audience would have to answer that question.

[This interview was conducted via email in March 2009 through the helpful graces of Sarah Robinson at Knopf.]