BY JOANNA C. VALENTE
The sheep assemble: the near-dark: their hooves knocking on dirt: they look for the dead:
rise and walk: knock, barefoot: spiriting baskets of clover and forbs: across fields, this man
I pass: his face reminds me of my first lover: I still belong to myself: in cemeteries I ask
how to die well: to part kindly with the women I’ll never become: the ewe lies down
the same way: whether birthing or dying: she doesn’t call to her departed mother the way
a lost woman might: or reach for a grandmother’s hand: when her pelvis is rocked: a coming
rain: tonight my name means halfway home: drowning the girl: love my spine: the moon
filling my belly: light and water tessellating within: a farmhouse rising in mist: a lamb shakes
in sleep: sometimes what tastes like a voice: we wake to this world in someone else’s
blood: saltlick, illusive as a tongue’s mark: my wrist jangling: I’ve changed no one’s life:
when you were a girl: remember knocking: because your mother hid in her room: what
sounded like metal on bone: when you’re on the other side of heaven: blessed: the holy:
the sainted: even so, when you’re the mother: your children’s loud hands hold your bones:
they knock and knock: they’re saying: forgive yourself for each of these fractures: forgive us.
SOMETIMES IN THE DARKNESS OF MYSELF
I wake up homesick.
Then someone turns on a lamp. She follows
the ghosted hallway between now
and the hours of my before-life.
She barely makes a sound. I wouldn’t know
she was there except for the tiny tread
of her feet as she begins to climb
the stairs, each step a drop
into my bucket of waiting, wanting.
Sometimes like a tree bending toward
the earth’s rim, I bend
to tomorrow and next year,
trying to hear what I’ll say when
someone asks: How did you learn
loneliness is useful?
No one wants to be loved more than me.
This is the swan song I imagine:
the man who adored me
holding my skull
filled with soil and seeds,
some wild flower about to bloom
from my toska (that fine anguish
this man wanted dead).
WHAT I WANT TO EXPLAIN IS THAT I’M HERE
so short a time with you:
your hand on my back,
unfurling chrysanthemums, omens,
rising my grandmother again
within my body. Her ashes, her first
from a hundred years.
A blackbird outside breaks into chatter,
as if to assert, Every life shatters. Every
bone, darling, will be washed clean.
This remaining touch, this word,
wish – so fragile,
and yet, here we are. Here, my hands
pushing yours into the dirt where I buried a poem
about how I finally tired of life, felt water freezing
my bones, a horse in my heart galloping
back to the beginning when my father first
kissed my mother, when I was the thing they called beloved,
the one wished for, rocked in a cradle
on the city’s indefinite edge. When my mother’s womb
was a haven, when I was survival.
When eventually my father would find me covered in blood.
And he would remember how the first flutter of me
was beautiful. And how the glorious also is what slays us.
It’s a century ago. Or it’s tomorrow.
The earth-bound man throws
dried apples and pears, shriveled
as the dead’s ears, at his grove. He shouts
at the leaves—the trees mourning their long
fallowness, as he holds an ax
to a sapling’s base. Before his first swing, you
lay your head near roots, saying no, no, this
one will bear fruit. Should the five-
petaled blossoms feel shame, their many
inflorescences containing the assemblage
that should, but does not, grow the apple?
For the man flung one of his only red glories
at your body, saying give yourself over, eat
this fruit whose beauty is as short-lived
as yours. Beyond your spread arms
is an untilled field planted with finger
bones. You can see the farmers who once
plowed this ground burying their brothers.
There are no priests left to deliver
babies, to set your waters on fire. Yet,
if you believe the moon can seed the trees,
the man will spare you. If you tie braided
straw around the lowest branch’s white
wrist, you’ll make him fall
in love. His longing for things
to multiply will lullaby the ax until
the blade swings slow enough
JV: What is your full-length collection about?
NR: More than anything else, Louder Than Everything You Love is about transformation. The narrator in these poems is many: women who talk to the dead, women who mourn dead mothers and grandmothers, women suicides, women who've been raped/escaped rape, women who cradle premature babies, women who suffer depression, women who prepare the bodies of the dead, women who exist between their children's bodily needs ("this body-psalm of need the only holiness I know") and saints' incorruptible bodies. These women also live inside themselves, contending with the wolves within, asking: "How do I measure the body's gardens form within its bone fences?" The dead, the living and the divine inhabit this collection -- they're looking for kinship, remembrance, for some kind of communion. The poems in Louder Than Everything You Love are about the struggle of living in a body, being a parent, trying to find the balance between what our lives on earth mean/what it means to come to terms with dying.
What is your writing process like? Do you have a particular set up?
I don't have an office setup -- I just have a laptop that I port around in the house to wherever I want to write. I have a stack of rotating poetry books that I read to kind of enter that poetry mind or trance-like state where it becomes possible to write. I don't like writing shitty first drafts; I'd rather be in a state of mind where I can write less shitty first drafts because then I feel like I'm working within a poem space to which I can keep returning. I go through periods where I write every night and times where I don't write for weeks. There is a compulsion to write that comes upon me. I do write at night though, rather than the daytime. Perhaps that also echoes my work, which deals more with mortality, seeking the divine and seeing the dead. I revise obsessively too, so I email myself a draft over and over and over, with sometimes one word changing each time. That's kind of a trick I developed -- I send myself the poem in a different font than I write in and I've told myself it's coming from someone else. It helps me to be more objective.
Mortality is a huge part of your poems. Why?
My grandmother and my great-grandmother saw the dead. From the time I was 3 years old, I remember also seeing the dead, but not knowing what these beings were -- but assuming everyone saw them. When I was about 7, I made the connection (that these were spirits), and also learned about the ability to see in my female lineage. When you see people in their next form, it takes away doubt that there is an afterlife -- it also highlighted to me at a young age what my next life is, and that it co-exists in a way next to our earthly life. I am also a Catholic, and it's strange how the ability to see doesn't quite jive with a religious point of view. The focus on mortality in my poems is me trying to reconcile that we exist in two forms on earth (body and spirit), and there is a tension there. Also, I think in the stories of Catholic saints, the telling is that they can't wait to die to be reunited with God, but I haven't evolved to that point. I'm rooted on earth because of my spouse and children. My time here doesn't feel close to done. In one of my poems in Louder I write that we're here together so short a time, and without getting overly poignant, that's the feeling I often have. Things are fleeting, rushing away; the poem becomes an artifact of our joys and sorrows.
Punctuation & structure are clearly crucial parts of your poems — the visual aesthetic creates both a narrative and pacing. Talk to me about this.
My professional background is as a magazine editor -- I've been doing that for nearly a decade, so grammar, punctuation, structure, etc., is ingrained in how I write and edit. On the poetry side, my work does tend to be more narrative (I'm always telling a story in my poems), somewhat confessional and also supernatural/mystical. So the poems aren't traditional narrative like Philip Levine, but they're rooted in a story. I have struggled with wordiness in my poems and reading Robert Bly's Leaping Poetry helped me prune better. But still, my poems are narratives, filled with discordant images that I weave into a structure, part of which is an abbreviated story -- there are holes for the reader to make their own assumptions and insert their own perspective. In a way, it's taking what's in the chaos and pulling it down into a carefully constructed ladder, but the reader can't necessarily see what's at the top.
What part of you writes your poems? What are your obsessions?
Good question. I mentioned that I'm a magazine editor, and I find that I'm an odd bird. I'm highly creative, hyper and strung out, but also super logical and organized, which isn't the norm in my field. The disciplined part of me forces my chaotic self to write, to work out the inner kinks that twist me up inside. I often feel that there's a woman in me trying to get out, you know, climb up my throat and part my mouth and step out into the world. It's that woman who writes me out of the chaos, who writes from my fears. One of my biggest concerns in my writing is mortality -- I have a constant sense that we're walking alongside the afterlife. I have a constant sense of being in the current moment, but feeling such a deep sadness that it's so fleeting. There's a tension between wanting to stay on earth and mother my children, and knowing that I will have to die. I imagine myself kneeling next to my own grave and throwing flowers down the hole. The one who writes my poems wears black, roams fields at night and talks to the dead. But she's also a mother who has found an unexpected tenderness for her children, who have mended her heart.
Nicole Rollender is editor of Stitches. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Adroit Journal, Alaska Quarterly Review, Best New Poets, The Journal, Radar Poetry, Salt Hill Journal, THRUSH Poetry Journal, West Branch, Word Riot and others. Her first full-length poetry collection, Louder Than Everything You Love, is forthcoming from ELJ Publications. She is the author of the chapbooks Absence of Stars (dancing girl press & studio), Arrangement of Desire (Pudding House Publications), and Bone of My Bone, a winner in Blood Pudding Press’s 2015 Chapbook Contest, forthcoming this year. She’s the recipient of poetry prizes from CALYX Journal, Ruminate Magazine and Princemere Journal. Find her online at nicolerollender.com.