Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Opposite of Kiss:
Three Original Poems and an Interview with David Gruber

                                                     …and bodies eroding
the only home I’d call a body

whispering out from darkened corners,
offering the opposite of kiss.

David Gruber is a graduate of Bard College, the University of New Hampshire, and the University of Denver. He holds a PhD in English, and has taught at the United States Military Academy and Bard College. He lives in Rhinebeck, New York.

Three Poems from David Gruber’s Sleeper’s Republic.


And turning towards night
whispers reports of failures and losses
from the front that blacken
all the playful beaches hot
with nude whispers continually

walking long streets
distant invasions awake


I had been that ghost wavering
on a footbridge. They cut off my head
once they broke my neck once
once they pulled my arms
tender from their sockets.

                                 I gulped down my last breaths
which were epistles addressed to you
from the trash-strewn foot of the gallows.

I soiled my pants going up that ladder.

After, I dreamed of being in your belly
when they split it open and emerging
fully-grown and blood-slick,
swinging my son by his hair,
                                             flesh to bludgeon flesh,

blowing steam from my nose and ateeter
at the edge of the earth a new heaven of stars
spread open above me as the body of a woman, the body of a child:

as we are folded in our blankets,
                                                    as we are rebels.

An Instant Heaven

Truly, these are dog days, and they try us to our limit.
But for the moment it is raining, and you are looking out
into the haze that has risen from the ground, and
another day has left dry petals in our teacups.
And the serfs are still idle in the fields. We’ve had some good
times, of course, but nothing like what I promised,
or was promised. Me, a lousy country doctor,
and you, a lousy country wife, kings of what little
we can see from the open doorway. The tractors are due
to arrive any minute, to wrap garlands around
our necks and lead us off to the tower, or maybe
the scaffold. It could be worse.

Our bad habits never really disappear but are reabsorbed,
distorted and transformed, revolutionized, born
disheveled and looking like tramps, while they wait for the day
when the low vault up the ladder again,
striking their heads on the rafters,
and hang those wreaths with the streamers that dangle
down almost to the barn floor.
The kids love it, dressed in their white pinafores.

Your face is wet with tears or snow, carrying the wooden mantle across
your shoulders as I hold my tie collection up out of the mud.
I saw you once, laughing with a gaggle of girls
behind the tavern, and I thought: “Here’s trouble.”
Pack your bags, my love, it is time to throw open the windows –
our fairy lights have burnt out but they’ve restarted
the electricity in the city. I’ll put on my dilapidated cap
and we will play at peasants again under the willow.


GL:: The title of your book, Sleeper’s Republic, brings to mind a number of fascinating associations. On one hand, sleep offers the solace of non-being, “the balm of woe,” etc, during which the mind can rest, forget and repair. On the other hand, sleep presents a state of imaginative intensity—dreams—that the poet depends on for his or her art. For example, this anecdote from Breton: A story is told according to which Saint-Pol-Roux, in times gone by, used to have a notice posted on the door of his manor house in Camaret, every evening before he went to sleep, which read: THE POET IS WORKING. Sleep is also (I’ve run out of hands now) a preview of death, the site of nightmares, and in general a routine but deranged and intimate encounter with self. I’ll stop there for now so I could finally ask you a question. What kind of sleep is it that dominates Sleeper’s Republic and obsesses you as a poet? And how does this Sleeper’s Republic (the republic you construct in these poems) parallel, distort, reflect and/or refract the ways in which we (sad humans) organize socially and politically to form our republics in the waking world?

DG: I’ve never been an easy sleeper; it seems that all my life I’ve struggled to find my way into sleep – often lying awake for hours at a time – and then when I do I am often awoken many times each night, whether by the sounds of the night, dreams, or even my own tossing and turning. As a result, I often wake with lingering threads of dreams and nightmares intermingling with the returning sensations of the “real world.” I think that this kind of moment, when “awake” means being awake both to the world and to the world of dreams, has shaped many of the poems in SR. This is the kind of awakeness where intimations of desires and denials, pleasures and sorrows, life and death, all seem to co-exist. I suspect that, at least for me, these are the moments when we can know the truest things about ourselves, and often the most surprising things as well.

And I often think that those true and surprising things can tell us something important about the way that we relate not only to ourselves but to, as you put it, our social and political republics (in the sense of commitments made and obligations incurred through our own choices and actions). Last year, I was teaching Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, a book that I had [originally] read during my adolescence; it made an impression on me then but my memory [of the book/work] had faded over the years. While reading the book, I re-encountered the passage, part of which eventually became one of the epigraphs of Sleepers’ Republic, in which Thoreau has this great pun on sleepers and sleepers, the track-ties of the railroad against which he was railing as an example of the way that the individual submits himself to the commercial needs of the state without enough concern for his own experience. He writes: “And when they run over a man that is walking in his sleep, a supernumerary sleeper in the wrong position, and wake him up, they suddenly stop the cars, and make a hue and cry about it, as if this were an exception. I am glad to know that it takes a gang of men for every five miles to keep the sleepers down and level in their beds as it is, for this is a sign that they may sometime get up again.” And this passage threw a sudden light over what I had been trying to think through in this collection, the way that our dreams and ideals make possible a quiet subversion of the “way things are” in the world, not only in our relationships toward the state, which I think is of course vitally important, but in the way that our sense of the possibilities of relating to other individuals are also shaped. The question of whether my book parallels or distorts our social/political relationships, well, I’m not sure I’m the right person to answer that question, but those are the questions I’m trying to ask in this book, and I’d be interested to know what my readers might think.

GL: A number of the poems in this book reminded me in certain ways of Ashbery’s shorter pieces. For example, poems such as “As One Put Drunk Into the Packet-Boat,” “Street Musicians,” and “At North Farm” seemed to inform such Gruber short poems as “Biedermeier” and “Bildungsroman.” Like much of Ashbery’s work, these Gruber poems feature allusive/elusive titles, associative leaps and nuanced and even obscure declarative observations about places and things the reader can only see in fragments. Yet your poems seem sculpted, less concerned with “tr[ying] each thing” and spontaneous bursts; your poems appear to pursue their own hallucinatory scenes and meditations with meticulous care. Could you discuss the ways in which Ashbery, whether as a teacher or a poet, has influenced you?

DG: Ashbery has been very important for me, and I would be remiss if I didn’t begin by remarking on his generosity to me as well – not only as a teacher, when he helped me feel like I could actually do this (write poems), but obviously his willingness to write a beautiful blurb for the back cover of the book as well. I think my poetry has always been a little more, as you say, sculptural, less improvisational, than Ashbery’s, which perhaps just says something about the differences between us as individuals, and about what interests us in poetry. That’s not to say I haven’t written my fair share of (thankfully unpublished) poems in the mode of Ashbery. I also wanted to be able to achieve what he has achieved in his poetry and understand what makes it work. In fact, for many years I wanted nothing more [than] to write a great long or book-length poem as Ashbery had done, and so I produced a number of incredibly boring, twenty-plus-page pieces.

But I recall, maybe about six or seven years ago, reading an interview with Ashbery that was collected in Michael Palmer’s edited volume Code of Signals, in which Ashbery is reported as saying something to the effect that, if one really values a poet, one tries not to write like that poet, but to write away from that poet, because what one really values is that poet’s uniqueness, and so the logical thing is to cultivate one’s own uniqueness as well. And that was really freeing for me. I think, though, that my titles have kept something of Ashbery’s spirit (I am really damning myself here, I think) in part because I love the way that they set up a tension between the expectations of the reader and what actually follows in the poem, and the way that they point towards interpretations and meanings that the poem itself then tries to dance around or escape.

I think that, yes, I have ended up coming back to Ashbery’s short poems as well, perhaps for some of the same reasons I see that I’m still influenced by Ashbery’s titles, but in my reading of Ashbery, his poems are just as meticulous and deliberate (if I may adopt your term of, I hope, praise) as mine are. That is, I’ve always thought that Ashbery means exactly what he says, in the way that I try to mean exactly what I say too. So I guess that’s something else I’ve taken from my experience of his work.

GL: In your beautiful mostly-prose poem, “The Fair Republic,” the speaker appears to mourn the fall of a certain utopia: “The ideal city we vowed to build trampled by rioters / to reach the last toy on the shelf, the first motor off the back of the truck.” That is, your ‘city on the hill’ suffers from physical and moral chaos brought about by consumerist obsessions and/or possibly a faltering of resources. Beyond this collapse the speaker looks forward to the “borderless day” and the “zone of disappearance” of the future. Is this poem a snapshot of our tottering zeitgeist, a dream-hymn to the decline of empire and terrible days to come?

DG: Ha! Well, I’m certainly happy to accept that it might be a “dream-hymn to the decline of empire and terrible days to come.” That is, if the poem can be read in this way, then I think it has succeeded in being more than an artifact of the moment in which I wrote it. And this, it seems to me, is what poetry should do: speak as much to the moment in which it is read as that in which it was written, to achieve an intimacy with its reader rather than clinging to that with its writer. And I also welcome the idea that it is a comment on the chaos that our consumer culture causes for us poor men and women.

GL: Your poem “Instructions for Antigone” draws language “from the speeches of Osama Bin Laden, Jean-Jacque Rousseau’s The Social Contract, and The Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks on the United States,” according to your notes. The language from these texts intermingles with a triptych of cinematic portraits, moving, first to last, from Antigone to Creon to a panicked Chorus that stands “in the middle of the street yelling into a cell phone” following an un-named but all too familiar calamity. These portraits are novel but not entirely re-imagined. The somersaulting ruin of the Oedipus Cycle bears down on contemporary America, where the integrity of the social contract is threatened externally by terrorists and internally by “soft and weak” politicians and executives who mismanage our calamities. The poem concludes with the now famous and haunting weather report from the morning of 911: “Tuesday dawned temperate and nearly cloudless in the east…weather conditions could not have been better for a safe and pleasant journey.” This breathtaking poem forms, I think, a kind of lyrical keystone to Sleeper’s Republic, which tries awfully hard to wake up from the ‘nightmare of history.’ Could you tell me why you sought to blend these texts with a retelling of Antigone? What is it that you found so intriguing about connecting those Theban ruins with our own?

DG: I’ve always been very interested in the story of Antigone, and, re-reading Sophocles’ play a few years ago, I started to think about the way that my sympathies for the characters had shifted, or had become more complex, in response to the rise of terrorism – both the kind that comes from outside, as with our September 11th attacks, and that which emerges home-grown, as in the British July 7th attacks – and our at times misplaced, at times correct, reactions to it. I found myself much more sympathetic to Creon than I’d ever been before, as a kind of gray bureaucrat who gets the responsibility of state thrust upon him by the abdication of Oedipus, and has to deal with this kid, Antigone, who refuses to be bound by the laws of the secular state in favor of familial bonds, which are underwritten by supernatural diktat. Obviously this is in part a deliberate misreading of the play, but I didn’t set out to simply translate the story into contemporary terms, but to rethink it in such a way that it might say something about our own moment. So I found in the tension between loyalty to the law of the state and loyalty to a supernatural “law” that there were things I wanted to think about, and kind of “recasting” Antigone in this way made sense to me.

I looked to the texts of bin Laden (for the passages focusing on Antigone) and Rousseau (for Creon) as a way to think about the kind of language that might inform the way that these figures might speak to themselves about the world that they live in, and the reactions and motivations they might have for their actions. I was also, right before I wrote the poem, reading a collection of Brecht’s essays on theater, and came across his notion of providing a kind of director’s instruction book, containing notes on staging and photographs of sets, costumes, even scenes, which could be sent around to theaters that wanted to put on performances of his plays, and it struck me as an interesting structural idea for the poem; thus we get these scenes that I see as simultaneously frozen and moving, in some way. I also find it satisfying that there is a sonnet-like logic to the poem as well.

GL: How long did you spend working on this book? How did your sensibilities change, if it all, while you were putting this book together? How different is the David Gruber of today than the (slightly) younger David Gruber who first started writing Sleeper’s Republic?

DG: The book came together over a period of about eight years, although there are only maybe three or four poems that have survived that many re-workings of the collection in all that time, and themselves have been revised quite drastically (so maybe it is better to consider it younger than eight years, I don’t know). I’d say that the majority of the poems were written or significantly revised during the period 2004-2007, and the idea for the collection, or what makes the collection cohere, came to me during the 2004 Democratic national convention. It was while listening to John Kerry give his convention speech that I actually started writing lines from what would eventually become the poem “Ingathering of the Exiles.” That’s not to say it all came together as a collection right at that moment, but that I started to think more seriously about the questions that motivate many of these poems at that time. And I hope what comes across in the collection is that I’m not really interested in the bien-pensant liberal responses to the questions of politics and polity that were raised during the Bush era, and which seem to permeate much of the discourse about politics among practicing artists right now, but rather of really thinking about how those questions matter to the way that we experience even mundane things. I’m not sure how much my sensibilities actually changed during this time, aside from the inevitable changes that come with getting older and thinking more seriously about perspectives other than the ones one is surrounded by in the stereotypically-liberal grad-school milieu, but I do think that if you look closely enough at these poems as a collection, you can probably find evidence of a desire to speak to a wider audience than I had been considering before.

GL: Over the past twenty to thirty years there has been an extraordinary proliferation of MFA programs around the country. During the past ten years or so the Internet has allowed writers and editors to launch all manner of web publication with little to no cost aside from donated labor. Blogs (my apologies) run rampant. Are we drowning in poetry? Or is poetry thriving?

DG: Both, I think. We are both drowning in poetry as it is simultaneously thriving in the corners and spaces that it carves out for itself. I suppose this is in part a survival mechanism, since I tend to agree with the new-old saw that only poets are reading poetry these days. Of course, on the face of it that is not at all true, since plenty of non-poets read poetry, they just tend not to read contemporary poetry unless it falls into the Irish epiphanic-lyrical tradition, the American confessional mode, or else is translated from Spanish. But it is obvious that there is a dwindling readership for a serious-minded (though often humorous) contemporary American poetry, and so I think that is where web publication and blogs provide a tremendous service, even while at the same time inundating us with poetry that goes largely unread.

It’s hard to tell if the volume of poetry published either in print or electronically at this moment is much different in proportion to previous eras, though; I suspect that there has always been a great glut of poetry about, and it simply takes time for the important stuff to find its way to the top of the pile. Where I think we might differ from previous eras, however, is that with contemporary professional poets seemingly less interested in addressing a readership outside of the poetry world, we might not end up with anyone who is all that interested in searching out the best of what is being written now. Though no doubt there will be plenty of English doctoral students around in thirty years who will want to resurrect some of our criminally overlooked talent.

GL: So what’s new with David Gruber these days? Are you continuing to work in much the same way as years past? Embarking on new and zany lyrical experiments? Are you out to reinvent poetry? To destroy it? Oh, and by the way, what is the opposite of kiss?

DG: Like everyone these days I am busy worrying about the economy and employment, which I’ll admit hasn’t been all that conducive to writing. But fortunately I managed to finish the bulk of a new collection of poems before it all hit, and I’ve been keeping myself busy with editing and revising those poems over the last few months. The new collection is quite a bit different, in my opinion, from Sleepers’ Republic, or at least I’ve attempted to strike out in a somewhat different direction both stylistically and in terms of the questions that interest me in these new poems. I’m excited about it, honestly, although I’m not sure that anyone will describe the poems as zany.

As for reinventing/destroying poetry, I suppose the answer I should give is “both,” but in reality it’s probably “neither.” Though if one wants to be philosophical about it, every poem both reinvents and destroys everything that has come before (didn’t Frost say something to that effect?). My aim, I suppose, is to remake poetry in my own image. And a handsome image it is, I promise you.

And the opposite of kiss? Again, I think I’ll leave answering that one to the readers of this book.