I’ve never slaughtered a pig. I’ve never actually seen an actual pig get slaughtered and I’ve never seen anyone actually die in front of me. I’ve never directly or intentionally killed anybody then watched them die in front of me. Nobody, it seems, has ever tried to kill me. There have been three exact moments so far in my life I’ve thought I was really going to die, and once I even resigned myself to death, but I didn’t die. I eat animals. I often eat them without any regard to how they lived or died. I’ve never killed anybody and I’ve never given birth to anyone either. My tragedies have mostly redeemed themselves as gifts. I am naïve. An hour into Jaws, after a teenage girl and a young boy have been gruesomely devoured and dismembered by the shark, hundreds of families still gather at the beach to celebrate Independence Day together, but no one dares go into the water, yet everyone, especially the mayor, wants to believe the shark isn’t actually a problem. Finally, after some goading, one family of five is encouraged to be the first to enter—three happy kids floating on an inflatable raft, splashing and laughing, flanked by their mother and father with twisted grieving faces. This is what it feels like to write a poem for someone as naïve as me, the lowering of my sugary body into the bloody feeding pools. They are naïve too, this family, foolish even—they are offering their legs up to the shark in the false name of play—a seduction of grief. In Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie, when Nana is transfixed in the dark theater by the grief in Joan of Arc’s face, she knows something new of her own pain. She lowers herself into the sea of it, like an offering. And also, in Enrique Martinez Celaya’s painting Untitled (Boy), the painting I was granted permission to use for the cover of Scary, No Scary, there is a yellow dot the size of a quarter on the pinkish bird-shaped heart of a boy I’ve stared at so much that it is now inside me, on my own bird heart. A yellow dot that can hold in it for me such a concentrated pinpoint of pain. We cry grief from outside of us into the inside of us because we need it. Grief is transferable. We get Dr. Frankenstein and Frankenstein’s monster so confused because the difference between them is just a question of in which body the grief gets housed. I write these poems to give birth, to kill, to give birth to the one thing I promise will kill me.
About a year and a half ago, a 6 year old boy named Hamza read two poems of mine during a performance for Poetry Press Week in Portland. The first was about a missing boy who had always been missing his entire life, no one ever knew him, he was always just missing. Hamza read that backstage with the microphone while a low and heavy drone played through the speakers, a track from Tecumseh, a doom metal band from Portland. Hamza’s fragile voice cutting through the overhead waves of death sound. When he walked out to read the second poem, he was a wearing a white sheet over his body, a ghost, walking so slowly out to the microphone, the drone still droning, and the bottom of his sheet had been dipped in fake blood. He read a poem of mine about needing to kill the chickens on a little boat with an axe, and later killing his parents with an axe. Hearing Hamza’s six year old voice, a voice that was hesitant with just learning to read, read about such violence, with the tone of such innocence and naivete, was very magical for me. His voice was the voice I’m always trying to capture when writing my own poems. Naivete understanding something of pain. He is my ideal presenter of the poems.
I don’t know what it feels like to be physically abused. I am naïve to what kind of emotional toll that could take. When I was 13, my mom and I were arguing in the kitchen. I don’t remember what we were saying, but I remember I was being indignant, feeling superior, feeling brave enough to lecture her—the days of being lectured in that moment seemed to be behind me. At some point, she slapped me across the face. The microwave door was open. The sun was in the window. It was my first time being slapped, and maybe her first time to do the slapping. It happened so fast. A hot flash of light. I asked her why she would have done that. It was outside of my realm of what could have possibly happened in that moment. I didn’t know how to feel except to be confused. I didn’t know to be angry, or to retaliate, or even to be hurt. I didn’t have any experience being hurt in that way. So, my question to her was genuine. Why would anyone have done that? I remember her face when I asked her that question. It twisted up, and she immediately apologized to me. She went to her room and closed the door. I could hear her on the other side of it, crying in her bed. I can’t explain with any accuracy how I felt in that moment, but I know now it is the same feeling I get when I write a good poem.
I’ve done something terrible. I’ve done something beautifully. There is a new sick and healing feeling that I now have to hold and give a name. But it is the poem that teaches me that feeling, not the other way around. It isn’t prescribed. Many times I’ve had my poetry students start their terms by reading Richard Hugo’s Triggering Town. Over and over again in those first chapters, Hugo implores us, essentially, to let the poem be in charge, to be the reader of the poem and not its writer. It is only then that a poem can be violent, can know its own violence, because the writer is its victim, not its perpetrator. The poet must be frightened by what could possibly happen next, which should be something, ideally, that the poet could never have expected.
A poem is a manipulation of reality, or maybe a mutilation of reality. A poem is inherently violent. The moment we try to recreate something of our reality, or of our inner reality, by putting words together, we’ve already failed. The inherently violent act of writing a poem is instead a way of understanding a new thing through putting words together, by mutilating reality.
The violence in a poem is when something goes a different way than the path it was on. A poem is not a path. The violence is a shaking up, drastic movement, an assault, however dramatic or subtle, on expectation, on not only a poem’s subject and images, but also on its logic, language, line and syntax. A poem is a confrontation. So often I encounter young poets who have limited their range of motion, of what is possible in their poem, unwilling to shake it and spill it in order to find beauty, find something that frightens. They’re unwilling to discover something they don’t already feel, or know. They’re unwilling in the same ways that we are all unwilling to consider our own inevitable decompositions. We just keep carrying on with our eyes on the same safe things, out of fear, the things we already thoroughly understand. These young poets are like a young river carving out its own bed, its own grave, down the mountain. It knows no other way down. But the violence in the poem is when that poet sees it can flood the mountain, make it float away into a new sea.
A poem, then, is not violent if it uses an image of a man falling from a building, and the red wreckage of his body on the pavement—a poem is violent if it uses that red wreckage, let’s say, and then also an image of his mother making him a sandwich, one without mayo, like he likes, and her shiny clean butter knife caringly and carefully cutting off its crusts.
When writing a poem, instead of thinking about what you can do to get this image, or this narrative, or subject or sound, safely and soundly into the wanting and capable hands of the reader, think instead about what you can do to enact violence, to dismantle, complicate, deconstruct, so that you’re not communicating but being communicated with.
When the poet Gregory Orr was 12, he accidentally killed his younger brother by shooting him in the head with a rifle on a hunting trip with their father. Two years later, his mother suddenly died at the age of 36 and his father’s lifelong addiction to amphetamines began. A few years after that in 1965, as a member of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), he was beat nearly to death by both the police with clubs and also by vigilantes at gunpoint in rural Alabama where he was held in solitary confinement for eight days. He said that the first poem he ever wrote “was a simple, escapist fantasy, but it liberated the enormous energy of my despair and oppression as nothing before had ever done.” And he also said that poetry for him is a way “of surviving the emotional chaos, spiritual confusions, and traumatic events that come with being alive.”
A father and his four sons
run down a slope toward
a deer they just killed.
The father and two sons carry
rifles. They laugh, jostle,
and chatter together.
A gun goes off
and the youngest brother
falls to the ground.
A boy with a rifle
stands beside him,
I crouch in the corner of my room,
staring into the glass well
of my hands; far down
I see him drowning in air.
Outside, leaves shaped like mouths
make a black pool
under a tree. Snails glide
there, little death-swans.
(excerpt from “Gathering the Bones Together” by Gregory Orr)
What is violent here isn’t the gun going off, the brother falling, it is the laughter, the jostling, the chatter, the glass well, the mouth leaves, the black pool, the gliding snails, the little death swans.
When my partner was very young, her only and older sister was killed by being crushed in a rock slide while her entire family was driving to Hood River, Oregon, on Highway 84 to go apple picking. Her cousin was also killed. She was sitting right next to her sister and wasn’t physically injured. Her sister is now a person who lives in photographs. She is just now starting to write poems about that tragically violent day, a long epistolary poem to her sister. This is why, in part, she is a poet, because she has something so imperative to understand. I cannot understand this kind of violence, how it holds on and colors everything else, how it hovers. And that is why, in part, I am a poet, because I have something so imperative to understand.
Violence is when something happens to something else. Violence needs a subject and an object.
The next morning, the pansies
are re-dotted with dew.
(from “If Scissors Aren’t the Answer, What’s a Doll To Do?” by Matthea Harvey)
I’m not calling for more violence in poems, nor am I saying that hyper violent poems are inherently valuable, I’m saying that poetry is violent. You’re already there.
In On Photography, Susan Sontag talks about how to photograph someone is to subliminally murder them, to make them an object, that the camera is a sublimation of the gun. There is something predatory in the act of taking a photograph. To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have. They become objects that can be symbolically possessed.
Poetry, like photography, is a testimony of time’s relentless melt. To write a poem is to admit, confess, testify in mortality. Because it can be looked back upon as it always existed from its moment of manifestation. A poem, like a photograph, doesn’t age.
In an interview in the Kenyon Review last year, Mary Ruefle, explained that all poetry is seeing, in so far as it is an encounter with something. All primary primers begin with some variation on “See me / I see you.” It is the basic life encounter. An overused, obstructed vision depends not on the object seen, but by the mind doing the seeing. Ruefle later explains that art gives us the knowledge that many have gone before, and had the same strange feelings and the same unanswerable questions, and that we are not alone in the art-endeavor, let alone life. Poetry gives us the knowledge that people have always been stupid and violent and cruel, and compassionate and confused and curious and wondrous and astonished and tired. What poetry does not give us is answers. It gives us instead a picture. It does not ask that we analyze the picture, but that we stand before it and look, in the hope that looking might turn into gazing. Gazing will hold our attention for a very long time.
Violence is so beautiful because it reminds us that we’re going to die, and there’s nothing more beautiful than that. Because it is the absolute truth, because it is something we all have in common, a common and uniting plight. Beauty is truth, truth is beauty, and there is nothing more beautiful than seeing a glimpse of our own identical futures. And we’re going to die. You’re going to die.
A photograph is made of light. A painting is made of paint. They are not the thing itself, the reality they’re representing. The word also is not the thing. Its job is beauty. And there can be no beauty without pain.
One of those times I thought that I was going to die happened almost four years ago in the summer of 2011. I was in Lincoln, NE, walking to a friend’s house around 11pm near R Street and 30th after an evening of a few drinks at Yia Yia’s on O Street. We were followed by a group of about 8 teenagers and then assaulted. I was punched in the head while trying to run away and eventually I fell to the ground where I was kicked over and over in the ribs on my left side while trying to cover my head. I tried to cover my head despite being kicked in the ribs because I anticipated a bat crashing into my skull and killing me. I was sure the words I was saying to them, which were mostly please and stop, would be my last, that a sharp white hot pain was imminent. After they finally ran away, I was helped to a nearby porch where I struggled to catch my breath while waiting for an ambulance. The police were asking me questions, but I could barely even breathe. My ribs were fractured and my lung was bruised. I worried that if I passed out, that my body wouldn’t be able to keep breathing on its own.
Whatever power they saw in me while walking down that neighborhood street is the power that they took. It transferred completely to them. In that moment, they had all of it, and I had none of it. And in the weeks after that, my relationship to both violence and poetry changed slightly. I’m more aware now that my poems, just by being poems, are inherently violent. They are an imposition upon the reader, of which I am the main one. They are an act of aggression, of complete control of every poetic choice, and the choices can make no sense, are beholden to no one. In a poem, how can I hold that implied bat above the face-down head of my poem. How can I make the reader anticipate it crushing them, and within the poem, recognize, for just one clear moment, their own inevitable mortality. The difference though between myself, the poet, and my attackers is that I must be empathic. A poet and the reader are the same person. In no way do I mean to say then that you should have mercy on your reader. I simply mean that you should try out anticipating the crushing of your own skull.
One of the best questions you can ask yourself as a poet is what can I do to language in order to complicate and confuse my own typical emotional responses, and in turn the readers.’ How can you manipulate, or mutilate, the language on the page, until you discover you’ve never had an experience like this one, so you don’t have a set pattern of emotional response to it. How horrible my attackers must have felt when going to bed that night, most of them not even realizing how horrible they must have felt.
Writing a poem is a lesson in the truest empathy. And to truly have empathy is to truly know power, or at least the only kind of power I’m interested in. In Dorothea Lasky’s “I Had a Man,” from her third collection, Thunderbird (Wave Books), Lasky absorbs the poem’s subject of violence, the violence as it exists on the poem’s surface between subject, the man, and object, her, and embodies that violence within the poem itself. The poem, like many of her poems, unhinges, becomes uncontrolled in meaning (she contradicts herself and her ideas resist being clear and simple), in line, in syntax, and at the poem’s last five or so lines, she crafts an ars poetica on the poems of violence. She is ultimately empathic to her subject—she is not only speaking of her own voice, the voice of women, the voice of the poem, but she is speaking of his voice too, her subject.
Dear Amy Lowell,
“Appuldurcombe Park” is a fine piece of work. Accept my praise. Lines 18 to 30 are full of your best touches—a luxuriant perfection of mood set in a broken, almost sobbing rhythm.
Perhaps I would not have written this letter had I not a knife in my hand. I wish timorously to call to your notice that in moonlight a red coat—even a red coat—does not “crash” against anything. I have no suggestions to offer except that in reading the poem at that place one goes from moonlight into full sunlight and then is bewildered at the reappearance of the moon. Too violent. I realize of course that you want violence.
In any case this is the best poem of yours I have seen in some time.
Yours, with perhaps a few minor reservations—
James Tate’s father disappeared in action in WWII around the same time his mother gave birth to him. In “The Lost Pilot,” in the face of loss, of loneliness, of the search for identity, James Tate mutilates the faces of the living. They are rotting. They are cornmeal mush. His pain is beauty. Within the first ten minutes of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Holy Mountain (1973), a row of men on their backs, hands bound with rope in front of them, are fired upon by a firing squad. Instead of blood, birds fly out of the brand new holes in their chests. In Murakami sometimes odd things fall from the sky. I think of Magnolia, the frogs hitting the windshield at the end. And I’m thinking of Magritte and those well-dressed men with bowlers. But also what about snow? Or rain? They’re the strangest of all.
My cousin, Ben, who was a teenager when I was 10, used to sit on my chest by putting his knees on my shoulders and tapping endlessly on my sternum with his dirty bony index finger. There was nothing I could say or do to get him to stop, no threat, no plea. I hated him. He stopped when he was bored of it, and I had to be patient, I had to do my best in those moments to be boring to him. (Life, Ben,…)
Once, after I beat him in the worst game of all time, one-on-one Monopoly, he forced me to crawl out of the third story window of our grandmother’s house and sit out on the roof by myself. He locked the window from the inside, and then, presumably bored, left the house to hang out with one of his friends across town. He was supposed to be my babysitter that day. My cousin, Ben, was a marvelous asshole, but he made for a terrible poet: He stopped punishing me when he was bored.
Here are a few of the most violent images I can think of right now in this moment. A door opening to the sound of an angry baboon. A fake leg on the wrong person. The just-released dove at a funeral taking a shit on your baby. A mouse in your grandmother’s mouth. A blacker than black cake. A piece of blue paper being folded with a ruler. A red balloon. The new iPhone. If you use one or two of them in a poem, don’t make them nice by explaining them, softening them with excuses or explanation. Dump one of these images on your reader’s lap like a bloody pot roast and trust that they’re more animal than you.
One thing you can do while writing a poem is ask yourself if Ronald Reagan would find this poem to be of value. Another thing you can do while writing a poem is ask yourself if Ronald Johnson would find this poem to be of value. Think of the most violent thing you can possibly think of. Now empty your mind of it entirely. Now write a line about a cloud.
One of my favorite children’s books as a child was Ferdinand the Bull by Munro Leaf. In it, Ferdinand is a bull, much bigger and stronger than the other bulls who gets picked by the banderillos to fight the matador in the ring, only Ferdinand is much more interested in butterflies than fighting. In the end, the matador becomes frustrated and Ferdinand is returned to the pasture to live out his life chasing butterflies. As delightful as this is for children, there is nothing to understand, there is nothing redemptive, there is nothing complicated. The violence has been removed like a heart. If Ferdinand would have met his real fate, we would have loved him, we would have known him, he would have been real and beautiful. In one of my very favorite Stephen Dobyns’ poems, “Querencia,” a violent clarification of the Ferdinand story, Dobyns writes a horrifyingly beautiful understanding of the fate of bulls in bullfighting, one that reminds us of our own pain and mortality.
When students in a workshop ask me how they should end their poems, I usually tell them that if there is a speaker, or a you in the poem, if there are either of those things, to have either the speaker or the you be mauled to death by a bear. In general, I can’t think of a better way to end a poem. Every other way to end a poem, of course, can be as good.
Write the most violent poem you can using only the letter x. What does it look like? Now write a sincere love poem using any of the 26 letters you want to, but make the poem the exact same shape as your violent x poem.
When I was in Tucson last year, I was at a friend’s backyard party when I heard a pack of coyotes tearing apart a heard of cats on the other side of the wall. The killing was so close that I could hear the cat’s flesh rip, and the coyotes sounded like they were laughing hysterically like school children. I was talking to a stranger who I didn’t really care to be talking to. We were standing there facing each other drinking wine. We ignored the sound of bloody horror on the other side of the wall. I tried to write a violent poem about it, and I found that the productive tension of the poem wasn’t in describing the sound of death, it was somehow in our wine, how we just kept on sipping it, that little glass of blood, as if nothing could ever die.
A poem is not a chance to be nice. That is for every other part of your life, of your relationship to people and the world.
Never let a poet tell you what a poem is, let alone what a good poem is. That doesn’t make any sense. A good poet is the last person who would ever pretend to know what those things are.
I don’t know what I’m trying to tell you to do. I don’t know if I can. I don’t know what you need to do. And I’m trying to figure this out for myself too. Those two things are different. But do something. If a poem doesn’t scare you, or doesn’t push your heart up into your throat, then don’t do it like that. You’re doing it wrong.
When I told you that a poem was a confrontation between language and logic, I was lying. A poem is not a confrontation between language and logic, it is a confrontation with your own heart. A poem is a lie. It is a lie to your own heart. Whoever told you a poem is a confrontation with two things is a liar. Whoever told you that is making shit up, is a poet. You are a poet. You are a liar. You are an artist. You are a violent human. You are a human. You are going to die.