COWS ESCAPE SLAUGHTERHOUSE, STAMPEDE THROUGH CALIFORNIA NEIGHBORHOOD
—from Poets Respond
June 27, 2021
COWS ESCAPE SLAUGHTERHOUSE, STAMPEDE THROUGH CALIFORNIA NEIGHBORHOOD
—from Poets Respond
June 27, 2021
WHEN HE DOESN’T GET THE JOB
And the only mail that comes is from people wanting money, I look out the window at two pink blooms—wild lilies—their long, alien stems out of nowhere touched down on an ivy bank I’m told rats nest in when you don’t trim it. If only to think garlands, perfumed thoughts about us—the wrestled years, rocky soil and thriving anyway, like these two mulish plants; every day the marriage opening its eyes, sitting up to take another sip of air. And noting each bud’s meaty cup, rosy star-shaped sphincter, how the flesh mirrors mine where he still hunkers down to kiss each glazed petal, the snail trail of licks—groundswell when he takes the whole warm fruit inside—nibbling slowly, gently, I’m scared there won’t be enough, the way I’m scared now, only the feeling switched, ingrown, such a vicious creature, would rather gnaw its own tail than go without a meal. There it sits, sucking its teeth, grubbing the ivy for one fat crumb. Nose to the mud, an enemy of day, the unbid brightness bursting around. Have you heard about the girl, fed her spite when faced with cutbacks? How the green leaves quivered:
there’ll never be enough
there’ll never be enough
—from Rattle #24, Winter 2005
Michelle Bitting: “I wrote this poem on a hot, stagnant day mid-summer. We had little money and no plans for a vacation whatsoever. I was pissed but it was lovely outside and I didn’t want to feel empty and without. So I pulled this little rabbit from my hat hoping to make some sense and beauty out of nothing. Maybe I was successful.”
LABOR AND DELIVERY
—from Rattle #16, Winter 2001
Michelle Bitting: “Most of my early poems were about motherhood and dealing with my brother’s death. The psychological compression of suddenly being ‘confined’ with a baby triggered a survival-instinct need to write, I mean, it really was a lightening to the skull kind of phenomenon. The release and freedom and wisdom that I gleaned through the journey inside made life bearable, and miraculously, my little world of triumphs and trials became relevant to more than just me.” (website)
Review by Michelle Bitting
THE SILENCE TEACHER
by Robert Peake
c/o Dr. Wolfgang Görtschacher
University of Salzburg
Department of English and American Studies
2013, 32 pp., $7.00
the shell of the world,
and carry it gently.
It carries us too,
the echoing stairwell,
the empty glass aflame.
—Robert Peake, from “Piece Work”
When I first met Robert Peake, he was still in the early stages of mourning the loss of his infant son, James Valentine, to whom The Silence Teacher, his gorgeous new collection is dedicated. I was immediately struck by Robert’s depth of knowledge, quick wit and skill as a poet—a talented wordsmith with a deep emotional register and intellectual acuity—a writer capable of feeling much and wielding precise language in order to reveal the beautiful, wounded worlds spinning inside and around him.
The Silence Teacher lives up to this author’s reputation as a keen, sentient observer and is a heroic account of a father’s journey dealing with death. As the title suggests, silence becomes an element, like water or music, to measure and express the unfathomable grief of losing a child: “The music within me is quiet, but persistent./ One day, like you, I will return to being the song./ Beneath my eyelids, too, runs the sound of water.”
Peake deftly weaves this concept throughout the book, mining absence and anguish for the glittering trove it has to offer. As Nietzche once said, “Truth is a mobile army of metaphors,” and Peake knows how to arm himself for the battle of surviving the inconceivable, beginning with the literal silence of the hospital room and infant son the moment his tiny life ceases. From the title poem “The Silence Teacher”:
Grief’s small hands cupped before me,
reliving the news of our infant son’s tests,
his brain as quiet as her soundless sea,
and still as winter in a robin’s nest,
I did not say: I was the one who held him last
until the ticking heart stopped in his chest
or what that silence taught, and how it pressed.
Here, from the start, I was enveloped in Peake’s spell, listening with him to the sounds of silence, hyper-aware of the opposing tension of this bereft parent’s primal scream held deep inside as he attempts to carry on with the routine of daily life, “the hum of the living still buzzing around my ears.” Whether describing the image of deer prints left in snow when his wife was still pregnant, feeling the anvil-weight silence of friends and strangers who struggle, not knowing how to respond (What can one say? What words could ever address such gravity?), or the strange comfort of bright carp swimming noiselessly around a koi pond—silence is everywhere, and like his small son’s life, it is both dead cold and white hot, blazing up “like sun upon the sea.”
At times, I’ve known Robert Peake to exhibit a delightfully dry sense of humor, as well as an appreciation of games and small creatures—assets he artfully employs to aid him in understanding personal tragedy. In poems like “Traction” and “Runt,” I valued such wisps of humor—miraculously intact—and the smart way he reflects on past experiences with children and animals to help him claim ultimate allegiance to the life force that “flashes up like an Olympian bolt” even as he struggles to put one traumatized foot in front of the other.
There is a subtle arc to the mourning process in The Silence Teacher. A pivotal moment comes with the poem “Visitation of the Wild Man,” a master and novitiate-type confrontation Peake imagines with a savage, wise elder who helps the speaker wrestle his way into new frontiers of understanding and acceptance. The Wild Man, a persona energy of the author himself, says it all: “’Confess and claim—you need/ to express this mystery,’ he smiled, ‘and fail—but do it well.’”
At one point in Elegy, a book that deals with the loss of her grown son, poet Mary Jo Bang concludes that “life is an experience”—a seemingly oversimplified expression given such grave stakes. But this is no pat epiphany, and as with Peake, is rather an extraordinary, frightfully tenuous revelation the author claims through surrender to both the sensual fullness of the everyday physical world and what is glaringly empty and absent in the wake of loss. Stumbling forward through silence, a parent must carry the excruciating burden of telling his story, of passing it on with vulnerability to the truth—not acceptance entirely; because, after all, we will never stop loving our lost beloveds—but with an ember of will kept alive to honor memory and keep going. Perhaps, in the end, it is simply this that one is left with, as Peake, with breathtaking delicacy puts it:
Tie a message to my foot. I will assume
my place in the ariel formation. Let me
be a single snowflake in that flurry.
Michelle Bitting grew up near the Pacific Ocean and has work published or forthcoming in The American Poetry Review, Prairie Schooner, Narrative, River Styx, Crab Orchard Review, diode, Rattle, Linebreak, the L.A. Weekly, and others. Poems have appeared on Poetry Daily and as the Weekly Feature on Verse Daily. Thomas Lux chose her full-length manuscript, Good Friday Kiss, as the winner of the DeNovo First Book Award and C & R Press published it in 2008. Her book, Notes to the Beloved, won the 2011 Sacramento Poetry Center Award and was published in 2012. Michelle has taught poetry in the U.C.L.A. Extension Writer’s Program, at Twin Towers prison with a grant from Poets & Writers Magazine and is proud to be an active California Poet in the Schools. She holds an MFA in Poetry from Pacific University, Oregon, and recently commenced work on a PhD in Mythological Studies at Pacifica Graduate Institute. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, actor Phil Abrams and their two children. (www.michellebitting.com)
SILENCE TOOK MY TONGUE WHEN MY BROTHER WENT
Silence took my tongue when my brother went
away, now words are skittery rabbits: soft,
furry lumps huddled in my throat’s dry den.
I wait for him at breakfast where the clock
clicks its mean teeth, wait for him to tease me,
please Lord, anything, but his empty chair
staring back: a hard, narrow beast. Scary
to know one hundred sixteen children there
and then not. Scary the ambulances,
lights that would not end, turning the street blue.
Now I won’t leave Father’s side; who knows when
earth might tumble open, swallow him, too?
You know the queen flew here; kneeled down and prayed,
left a fancy white wreath on brother’s grave.
—from Rattle #32, Winter 2009
Tribute to the Sonnet
Hawks circle fields near the highway
homing in to catch the scent
of animals deep in the high dry grass.
So many wildflowers in bloom,
watery purples and acid yellows,
I’m dizzy in my car
blazing up the California coast:
Santa Barbara, Pismo, Salinas,
nicknamed The salad bowl of the world
with its patchwork plots
of endive and spinach,
the almighty artichoke
in whose honor Norma Jean Baker
was once crowned queen.
So fresh in her red gingham blouse,
remember? Her elation,
her perky, generous D cups
held up to the leafy bulbs
as everyone cheered. If only
it stayed so rosy, the tough layers
unstripped, the heart left intact.
If only you weren’t topless
on a gurney, Rachel,
under the scouring glare
of hospital lights,
your own sweet breasts
offered up to the surgeon’s blade.
A hundred miles north
of where you are right now
I’m a slave to this shifting view,
anything to avoid the thought
of your chest picked clean,
tender globes that fed three mouths,
now poison the body’s crop.
So I’ll imagine birds and flight
as the elliptical sweep of sharpness
cuts the pale sky of your chest,
steel beaks of surgical tools
carving out the flesh cream,
making smoke of tumor meat—say goodbye,
pay my respects
and picture them floating up,
slipping through the ceiling cracks,
two blond angels,
beyond the moon’s milky scar,
they spread their innocence
over the lustrous scrim of L.A.,
those brave, radiant girls
wave and then they’re gone.
—from Rattle #32, Winter 2009
2009 Rattle Poetry Prize Honorable Mention
Read by Author
FIRST BOOK INTERVIEW WITH MICHELLE BITTING
Note: The following interview was conducted by
email through January and February of 2009.
GREEN: Let’s start with you. Was there a moment you realized that poetry was something you’d pursue seriously? That you’d actually be a poet with a book? My own first book just kind of gradually materialized, but there was a specific poem I wrote in an undergraduate workshop where something clicked—for the first time I really accessed that inner creativity, and I graduated from writing lines to really chasing poetry. Not that it was good, but something was different. Did you ever have an experience like that, or is poetry something you always knew would be a part of you?
BITTING: You know I’ve always felt like I was supposed to do something in the arts, but it wasn’t so clear which medium was mine for the long run, which one I’d like to take to the grave, until a few years ago. I sang in church in elementary school and in junior high and, just to embarrass and freak myself out, asked if I could sing “What I Did For Love” from A Chorus Line at the all school assembly. I acted in college and had a career as a dancer in my twenties. Yes, I wrote poetry, I had the poetic haunting when I was younger, but it really hit me, and I mean in the old cliché “by lightning” way, just after I had my first kid. Everything I’ve done in the arts and even my time as a chef led me to taking up the pen for real. The big epiphany in terms of believing I might have a book someday came as I passed the twenty-poem “keeper pile” benchmark, and began to see the stirrings of a bona fide compilation. Of course, most of those poems were eventually thrown out by the time I got to Good Friday Kiss. Getting acceptance letters from Stellasue (Rattle) and Hilda Raz (Prairie Schooner) in the beginning stoked my fires, big time, and I certainly won’t forget the day I was dropping my son off at his therapeutic preschool and got a call from the folks at Glimmer Train saying my poem “Trees” had won first place in their contest. Publishing isn’t everything, but it does incite a desire to carry on.
GREEN: That’s something a lot of people try to deny, I think—that there are rewards beyond the writing itself that matter. Looking at the back of the book, several poems have won individual awards; I believe your chapbook, Blue Laws, won a contest by Finishing Line Press. And Good Friday Kiss, itself, of course, was published as winner of C&R Press’s first annual De Novo Award. Obviously you must be happy with the contest experience, having had so much success, but would you recommend that route for other young poets? Were there times that you doubted whether or not it was worth the investment? And now that you have a book under your belt, are you going to continue entering them with new work?
BITTING: Sure, I’ll keep submitting to contests—why not join in the fun? I don’t send as much as I used to, mainly because I wait for prizes offered by journals where I’d really like to see my work published, places that like to print some or all of their finalists. The entry fees really add up, yes, this is another factor, so I’m pickier about when and where I throw my money and words into the big spin. I think it’s great that Rattle is able to offer such a hefty purse for its annual prize. I mean, you could actually live off that money for a couple months and write! How dreamy is that? And I’ll bet you receive a ton of spectacular poems, people saving their best stuff to submit in hopes of winning five grand. The poem that took first place this year, Joseph Fasano’s “Mahler in New York,” was breathtaking.
GREEN: Ha, I asked that question and completely forgot that we have our own contest! Let me ask one more thing before we dive inside the book itself—had the manuscript Good Friday Kiss that won C&R’s prize changed significantly from the first time you submitted it to a press? In other words, do you feel like the original manuscript was different from the book you have now? And if so, does that mean the contest process itself was constructive, in forcing you to self-edit?
BITTING: Yes! That’s one of the huge benefits of entering book contests, the hardcore editing eye it encourages. Every time you submit you ask the questions all over again, and anything that doesn’t fly can eventually no longer be ignored. The baby lived through two different titles before finding its name, Good Friday Kiss, and shed half the poems along the way. It took a few years to get it right, and frankly, I could have waited longer than I did to start sending the manuscript around, but them’s the hazards of being new and over eager. On the other hand, the earlier versions did place in several contests, so I was encouraged to keep at it and improve the material.
GREEN: This is a nice segue into what I’m most interested in—the evolution of the book, how it went from, as you said, a twenty-poem “keeper-pile” to a full-fledged and strongly themed book. As it’s published, there are five sections, each dealing with a different one of your relationships: brother, son, daughter, lovers, and finally yourself. When and how did that organizational structure emerge?
BITTING: Most of my early poems were about motherhood and dealing with my brother’s death. The psychological compression of suddenly being “confined” with a baby, and in the wake of a sibling’s suicide, triggered a survival-instinct need to write, I mean, it really was a lightening to the skull kind of phenomenon. The release and freedom and wisdom that I gleaned through the journey inside made life bearable, and miraculously, my little world of triumphs and trials became relevant to more than just me. So my subjects presented themselves like saints on burning stakes, their hair of smoke and flame—you know, I couldn’t ignore them! And then over time it became clear which one of these poems belonged with the other. For a while I wasn’t sure about putting the heavy brother and childhood poems in the front and then moving away from that to the domestic and sexual poems, or about placing all the poems about my son in one section. I tried mixing them all up, but it felt weird and disjointed, and I liked the idea of moving from the darker, intensely personal, childhood-related stuff to sections that contain more poems of awareness and connection with the world beyond my sticky cocoon.
GREEN: Well, if I might say, I think the arrangement really works. The darker content at the beginning haunts and informs the brighter world you’re walking into. How long after your brother’s death did you begin writing about it? Did you show those poems to anyone at first, or were they just for you?
BITTING: I’m glad you think so! The breakthrough poem on the subject of my brother was my poem “Trees” and I wrote that in 2001, about six years after his suicide. That one brewed for a good long time and then was triggered, released from its dormancy, when we were having some tree-trimming work done at my house, when our kids were babies. It came down with the overgrown limbs, you could say. I’ve written other poems about my brother, some shared, some not, but that was the ringer and I could never have written it immediately after his death. Some people can do that, maybe as you become more of a master, but I know I need eye- and heart- adjustment time when the really big shit hits the fan.
GREEN: Tell me more about that wisdom you gleaned from writing. Is there a specific a poem that was particularly revelatory for you? Particularly cathartic?
BITTING: You know, again, I have to name “Trees” as a pivotal poem as far as acknowledging the redemptive and cathartic power of writing poetry. There are numerous poems, well, the whole book Good Friday Kiss, really, is a huge purge and hopefully artfully executed enough to be meaningful to others, beyond my personal experience. But that poem, which won the Glimmer Train Poetry Open (the last year the contest existed) made something lovely and transcendent out of a truly ugly, terrifying and bleak occurrence. At that moment, I understood what could happen, and the more I write, the better I become at writing through the storms, to gain insight and connect with a greater self when the immediate nail-biting, cigarette-lusting one is overwhelmed by life. When I fall to pieces and need art to re-assemble my scattered self. I love how Palestinian poet Ibrahim Nasrallah puts it: “Writing is our best opportunity to understand ourselves clearly. Therefore, the secret of writing resides in the fact that we become whole in the act of writing, unlike any other moment in life.” I think that’s so right on! And he should know, writing such soaring, beautiful verse under the worst of circumstances.
GREEN: One of my favorite books on writing is actually a children’s book, Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories. The metaphor is that the mind is a sea—your consciousness is all you can know from the surface; you can read the currents, feel the waves knocking your boat around, glimpse the occasional fin of a shark… But writers are fisherman, throwing out lines and pulling up all the mysteries of the deep. Maybe even slaying some of the beasts that stalk us. I can’t help but think of how that metaphor works in another way, with poems like “The Sacrifice,” which we originally published in Rattle #27. When you sent us the poem, about a mother staying up late to sew her daughter’s Isadora Duncan costume for a school play, it was a powerful and emotionally charged piece, but without knowing the context, it seemed the subject was simply domesticity. The parent’s affect muzzled out of necessity. Obviously the mother was struggling through something, but we didn’t know what. Given the context of your brother’s death, the reference to Duncan’s drowned children is suddenly no longer figurative—and that final line, which we always loved, becomes brutal: The mother watching the daughter on stage doing “the hard, privileged work of feeling for both us.” Here you are, pulling this beautiful beast out of the inky sea, and we didn’t even know what we were really looking at. Which again demonstrates that this is a book, rather than just a collection of poems. This is a long build-up to what might be a very short question: How did your mother respond to “The Sacrifice,” which in the end is really a heartfelt “thank you”? And how has the rest of your family reacted to the subject matter of book?
BITTING: I’m glad you see it as a thank you—how great! I’m reminded of that signature poem by Sharon Olds: “Station” where she says: “We spent a long moment/ in the truth of our situation, the poems/ heavy as poached game hanging from my hands.” I certainly had that moment of recognition when I was writing “The Sacrifice.” I was looking at, and discovering, in retrospect, what my job or function or duty as a family member was, even from an early age and via a number of mediums, as a channel for what others could not express. There’s your beast, your shark fin, your “mysteries of the deep” or what Olds refers to as “poached game,” I guess. When it’s accurate it’s always deadly beautiful, a little dangerous—isn’t it? In a family of extreme and often wildly fluctuating emotional energy, you choose your armor: a costume, a box of paints, a guitar, etc… For my family still living, I hope they can accept this bringing forth of the darkness as a good, positive, redemptive thing. A rough song strung with barbed-wire notes, but one of grace, nonetheless. That may be too much to ask. I believe my mother is proud and, understandably, a little freaked out. I hope to write more poems of blatant praise, in time.
GREEN: Megan pointed out that the broadest theme of the book might be the inability to escape one’s physical body, for better or worse. All of the characters, yourself included, seem to be dealing in various ways with the biological cards they’ve been given, some trying to escape, others trying to accept. Were you conscious of that theme as the book was coming together, or was it something that only emerged later? And what do you think draws you to that subject?
BITTING: Yes, to escape the body by diving deeply into it, right? In this country, we do not love, I mean, truly love, the body enough. Hopefully, it’s going to turn around, this un-Whitmanesque loathing slash obsession and profound irreverence for and inability to accept the flesh. I know a progressive Episcopalian priest who acknowledges what spiritual damage is being done and the need for a more joyful, embraced sexuality among his congregants. The extreme exploitation and demonization of the body, the projection of what’s taboo and sacred in the most backward, repressed ways, is the source of some pretty twisted behavior and legislation in this country. I suppose I’m writing through the body to become one with it, and at the end of that is freedom, release. Ultimately, there’s no denying the terrors and beauty of the body.
GREEN: Last question—what’s next? That might be harder to answer than it seems; I’ve talked with a lot of poets about the sophomore slump—birthing your first baby is such a momentous process, that you’re left with a kind of post-partum depression. Or maybe just a sense of being lost, overwhelmed by all the possible directions you could go. Are you feeling that, or is the path ahead already clear for you?
BITTING: No, it’s not so clear at all, though I’m not feeling the debilitating post-partum effect so severely because I had a semester of an MFA to finish up when the book came out, so my energy was focused there. Now that I’ve completed it I’m a bit at sea, yes, but not exclusively due to the after book-birth let-down. I’m so caught up at the moment with sheer survival and figuring out how to take care of my family, I guess you could say I’ve got some hardcore distractions. It is becoming arrestingly clear that I have more than enough material for a new book, so I will have to spend some time puzzling together a manuscript in the not too distant future, and I look forward to doing that. My head and heart are so full at the moment, and I’m really looking at other artist’s work, trying to figure out ways to write that are true for me but not necessarily in the same, comfortable vein I’m accustomed to. Right now, it’s crucial I just find time to write and that the lines surprise and move me in ways I didn’t expect.
GREEN: Thanks, Michelle, this has been a pleasure.
BITTING: The pleasure is mine. All good things to you and Rattle!