In Living Definition & Loving Detail
A Critical Interview with Eleni Sikelianos by Melissa Buckheit
MB:Hello, Eleni. Thanks for taking the time to speak to me about one of your most recent collections of poetry, The Loving Detail of the Living & the Dead, the title of which I love. To start, I’m thinking about the trajectory of your poetic oeuvre (the word seems most appropriate). Many of your books have photographs, a certain element of documentation, often from a variety of fields outside of ‘poetry’ or the Humanities. Other books work intentionally with the word and text coalescing as the poem. I’m sort of astounded by this range and your choice to allow other media and forms of art, beyond the written word, into your books. It seems a most natural expression or instinct for you, but I say ‘allow’ because there is an unfortunate lack of space for this natural co-existence in mainstream poetry and literary publishing. I find such collaborations a joyous relief from perceived structures and rules.
The Loving Detail of the Living & the Dead seems almost a crossroads as well as a synthesis through, around and within previous books. In saying this, I’m not suggesting reprise exactly, or any falling back on previous individuals books as worlds. Instead, many of the preoccupations, investigations, and subjects are here, seem to co-exist, and be arranged spatially together: anthropology, geography, biology, family narratives, culture, politics, the nature of perception, the body, the sexual/sensual, love & desire, humanity and agency, beauty, as well as the spiritual and metaphysical. There’s also grief, suffering, a sense of witness binding these things with our human living present.
ES:That may be because I didn’t perceive this book as a project, so perhaps a wider range of discourses is allowed to slip in line by line. Although there are certainly themes being explored (death and details of loved ones, shadows, a demi-character, and so on), I very purposely resisted turning the book into a singular inquiry. I feel there is already a lot of that in the innovative community, and I wanted to re-explore what a discrete poem can do differently. It’s a bit of a mutt, though, because I do tend to compose with the book as the unit of measure, so there are recurrent apparitions in language and image — poems seem to exist somewhere between independent entities and parts of a whole.
I also didn’t want to incorporate too many images, or visual props for the poems to rely on, though there are a few here. I was working simultaneously on another project (You Animal Machine, just out in July) that is to a great degree driven by images, so all that visual energy probably went there.
MB:That’s very interesting, especially about your intentional resistance to a single inquiry. Maybe that’s what makes my mind leap the most — how much is in this text. The idea of the book as a ‘unit of measure’ does reframe how one might approach both the individual poem of any length and our sense as writers of each poem’s relationship to another, and to the larger whole. When I get to that point that I realize I’m writing a book, I truly feel a sense of freedom at the fullness and expanse.
I’m thinking of your previous books, what has come before The Loving Detail. I see structures, titles, and echoes in language and subject about perception and science from Earliest Worlds and Blue Guide. There seem to be questions about agency and human suffering, as well as engagement with the beings we love or lose that pick up or continue inquires from The Book of Jon, Monster Lives of Boys and Girls and Body Clock. The presence of or a steeping in the natural world, Earth, is here too and recalls The California Poem, particularly. I’m curious how you perceive this ‘progression’, or rather the sense of your books in sequence, if you do at all?
ES:I am a little resistant to the notion of progress in poetry because I’m resistant to the notion of progress in general (it’s gotten us into a fine mess!), and I think it’s been a way for some poets to think of themselves as more “advanced” or avant-garde than others. It’s always seemed like a Christian notion, where time begins, and progresses, once Christ is around, and therefore seems a notion given to instigating colonizing gestures. Yet I still want to believe in it, too, in that I’d like to believe (against indications) that humans can evolve into a more generous consciousness. And I do learn things as a poet (how to do some things), but I also probably unlearn as many (good) things as I learn.
MB:How would you describe the energy of this book? After reading it, I could feel the way it held human energy and beings in a space. When the book completes, it doesn’t open out into the horizon. Instead, I felt the book as its own entity — vibrating and created, encompassing, with a consequential mass, weight and thus, gravity — final.
ES:Well, I suppose it’s hard not to think of death as final — it’s the one very final thing we experience. But it does go on living (death goes on living) in the consciousness of those who are left behind (which is a funny way to describe actual living — being left “behind”). So there’s a double movement, finality and continuity of experience. A number of the poems in the book were brought about by the deaths of people I love — my uncle Poppy (who was my father’s brother; as you know, I’ve written another book about my father and his death — so my uncle’s death was like another sculpture going down in the ancient line of warriors); poet Akilah Oliver, whom I’ve known for most of my adult life; and Luke Cole, who was my longterm boyfriend’s, Peter Cole’s, brother. Luke was a pioneer in environmental justice, co-founding the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment, so his loss was a loss to the world at large. He was doing really important work, battling mining companies and mega-polluters in poor communities and communities of color.
The way you’ve worded this question echoes Akilah’s notion of “holding the space” — which I take as holding the shapeless forms — the air — open to the shapes the body and its consciousness made in life, even after that body/consciousness is gone. The last lines of the book — all surface, no border — point in that direction, too. All kinds of borders (between ideas, bodies and consciousness, nations, language, etc.) are dissolved, but there is still surface, a plane on which movement not only takes place, but from which movement actually arises. So there is still some kind of form implied, even if its unlocatable.
MB:Your response feels like a humming in the mind — I know of that sense, of how death goes on living in those left behind, the double consciousness — holding it and letting it disperse. I can feel some of these people who passed in your book, even though I only knew one of them — Akilah.
I feel almost startled awake by The Loving Detail in its first few opening poems — they seem to set the stage for several views and narratives in the book. The first, “Bird & Meat Subject,” is the detail, the familiar, personalized, almost intimate in the way a mother will look at the new and unselfconscious actions of her growing toddler; there seems a tenderness and love in the speaker’s voice, and yet the ‘subject’ of the poem, the “little human eye unhinging like a door” is all our perceptive human eyes, isn’t it? As we view the world and ourselves? It is the peculiar and unique human being — funny, brilliant, awful, transcendent.
ES:Yes, all those things! It is the daughter, the little bird, and all our meat — new and mortal both — the eye unhinging to see the world, the body as “a boat that begins to take water.” And I suppose there is a fall from grace and innocence here too — a throat “once sure as cream” becomes part of the collective voice that splits atoms, makes bombs. The last utterance of the poem, “say hello/to this time-eating spider,” is straight from my daughter Eva’s mouth, from when she was about three. It encompasses innocence and experience so succinctly.
MB:I love that eye, that view. The second poem, “Finally, the Shadow – Sw.t – (inside the hem)” immediately begins from a larger view or field. I feel the horizon here, the universe behind it and the light from the sun viewed from outer space on the edge of a darkly fading earth, its face moving into night. The speaker, you, (both/either) tells a creation tale. The ‘we’ seems to speak for any human civilization, telling a story that starts where a post-apocalyptic or slowly-being-destroyed Earth exists, then moving into the anthropological past then back into a dimly advancing present, until “Soon so many persons made so many person-things/ till it seemed all that was left of the world was human.” There’s a beauty, and an innocence at the beginning — “We ate them all./ Ate chrysanthemums, ate nasturtiums, every blossom, grass, anther and nut” — that suggests human as synonymous with animal or nature, a time before humans framed nature as an exotic thing to tame. As the poem closes, quickly, a confusion is suggested, a decay where the destruction of Earth is spiritually, energetically and mentally linked to dehumanization:
How quickly sound travels through these acidified oceans!
How quickly we folded spring into summer!
Constructed bio-available time!
The idea of ‘bio-available time’ would seem to indicate a human arrival at the loss of our true biology, in the largest sense of the world, on Earth; perhaps the artificial has been made to mimic it — this is already happening. Please speak about these ideas.
ES:Those are very accurate perceptions. I think of this poem as a compact imaginative history of the human earth. It begins with an image of the margin where all the dead collect. Then our first wanderings, before we’d made so much of the world, through what must have felt like labyrinths of color — green fields, golden sands, etc. It’s fairly astounding to think of so much happening in such a short history — from the first bone pipes to military drones — and the ways in which much of this is off-margin — our origins are as secret to us as the terrifying surveillance programs we’ve built up. The list of things we ate might sound innocent, but also speaks to our hunger — I imagine that we have been omnivorously hungry from the beginning of human time — our hunger has defined our species.
Those three lines:
How quickly sound travels through these acidified oceans!
How quickly we folded spring into summer!
Constructed bio-available time!
begin with two simple facts. Sound travels more quickly through the acidified state of our oceans than it used to — and human sounds now permeate most of the earth’s surface (you probably know about those scientists who have been studying the loss of non-human soundscapes). And we have forced a change of seasonal markers, which will have profound impacts on the rhythmic structures human and other animals have long lived with. There are all kinds of unprovabable things to think of in relation to this — how the rhythms of sap moving in trees or blood in human/animal bodies might be tied to these same foundational seasonal rhythms, how our earliest art forms (certainly our earliest rituals) drew from these, and how our art-making is still tied to them. How will our new imaginative faculties shift as all these things shift? So the third line is a kind of casting forward — imagining what other spaces we will learn to exploit. There is going to be — there already is — a lot of exploitation at the cellular level. I wouldn’t call it “dehumanization,” because what it is is humanization — human use and interference at every level — soil, water, air, cell — of this planet.
The last stanza — which is one I struggled with a lot — where to leave this mini-history? — seems to suggest that the minute, micro rhythms of the earth will prevail. We (i.e., humans) can’t really, in the long run, outdo earthly time. That is a strange comfort.
MB:I agree, it is a strange comfort. I have a poem, “The Future,” where I imagine the dust of humans returning back into the geoscape of planets and beyond, how “no more will remain than there/ ever was.” It’s a sort of peace I only feel in my nervous system when I realize, as you say, that we can’t “outdo earthly time,” and rhythms.
The third and fourth poems in The Loving Detail of the Living & the Dead, “Charlene,” and, “Skin on a Dime” introduce a third perspective or ‘angle’ — that of a somewhat detached, and in moments, lost, child-like, and monstrous character, Charlene, who seems mired in the midst of the suffering and material chaos of the world. She’s interesting and deeply human, and is a sort of American image, in a way; she feels dusty like the parking lot of a motel in the American West, big and loud and in your face, almost a contemporary goddess, the image of the speaker/poet, or anyone, really. “Charlene” starts where “Everyone is the weather of our home star,” and ends with “Charlene/ Eat your bowl of money.” In “Charlene is talking about,” a later poem, the speaker asks,
But Charlene: is she brown or blonde or black
When I posted the shadow of myself
was her shadow blanched white?
Where did she come from, and what is her role in the book? She seems an image transformed through ages to function differently, and yet the real.
ES:She is indeed all those things, not fully formed. She springs from a real person, but is not at all that person. Maybe something like Athena springing from Zeus’ head — but unlike Athena, she is not fully-formed! The originary Charlene was a childhood friend who began to appear in dreams (about 30 years after our friendship). As a character, she began to take on all kinds of possibilities — oracular, ordinary, child-like, consumer, sibyl. She holds one of the places in the book where I resisted development, because it was very tempting to make her into a fuller, more active, consistent character. I like thinking of her along the lines of the Greek goddesses, because they are also inconsistent, with shifting epithets and actions, wise, simple, complicated, gift-giving, and terrible.
That first line (“Everyone is the weather of our home star”) comes from Edwin Denby, by the way.
MB:The Greek goddesses — that makes so much sense now that you say it. The necessity for consistency or goodness of the gods/goddesses being wholly incongruous to the ancient Greek worldview — whereas the opposite was more relatable and, well, true. Thinking of her with such an echo seems to shift and flesh out her presence in the book. Characters have always been hard for me (in my own poetry), so when a poet chooses one so distinctly, I’m always curious.
And shadows — they seem everywhere in this book, in many senses. Can you please speak about ‘shadow’ — I’m thinking specifically of the poems, “The Drama of the Shadowdrome” and “Shadow Zoo.” There are several associations which arise with the word ‘shadow,’ both from your book, and outside of it: the shadow in psychology and Taoism; concepts of shadow as another realm just beyond ours/our living world, whether of a different dimension or energy, or of the dead; and a reflection or mirror of the self attached to the self or other beings, perhaps interconnection or disconnection, as in “Shadow Zoo,”
About the depth the eye
perceives through the limbs
when my shadow touched itself
where was your shadow?
ES:I have talked in another interview about one of the real-life sources for the shadows in this book. I was hiking with Eva and Laird, and saw our shadows cast, long and lean, like a second version of our family. I had the very distinct feeling that they were shadow doors, and when it’s time to die, you just open them and walk down into the earth. Hinges have always been important to me, in terms of image-ideas. The shadow is also like a hinge, connected right at the foot (the part of our body that most often touches earth). The shadow is also what allows us to perceive depth, which is a simple but amazing thing — it gives us a sense of relation and spatiality. Imagine the world without shadows!
Brought about, I’m sure, by thinking about death and the details of the living, I was very attentive to shadows in this period. And I also started reading: Piaget’s studies of children’s development in understanding shadows; of course Plato; and A Short History of the Shadow, a wonderful book by Viktor Stoichita, about the history of the shadow in art and philosophy.
MB:That’s a startling image — and idea — of your three shadows, like hinges, cast by the sun onto the earth. Speaking of which, there are several poems that feature your daughter, Eva, or contain bits of her waking or dreaming speech. I also detect her presence hovering around and beside other poems in the book, real or invoked. Has she read many of your poems, from other books (such as Body Clock, for example), or The Loving Detail? What does she think of poems in which she features?
I also wonder how having a child enters into or alters your poetry, in your own sense? I’m thinking of some other poets who’ve written about or whose children enter into their work, such as Anne Sexton, or contemporaries, such as Farid Matuk’s My Daughter, La Cholla, or Brenda O’Shaunessey’s My Andromeda. These are all vastly different. But, as The Loving Detail is concerned with the living and the dead — for me, when I think of people I know who have died, or relatives, I often think also of the young children in my sphere or family. Perhaps it’s the sense of that thin shadow or edge between another realm — its arrival or retreat…
ES:Eva pretty much thinks Body Clock belongs to her, every single copy of it in the world. When she was littler, she especially liked the poem where I mention poop (“and we love it, biter, you, your/hectic hands and all that traffic you produce which has to do/with meteors and books and brains and words and poop”), and where she says, “WA A A A!” She was for some time offended by the end of “Eva’s Real-Life Pillowtalk” in The Loving Detail (“I wasn’t kicking you/I was clapping with one foot”), which is absolutely verbatim, because she felt it cast her in a bad light. More recently she’s been using those lines as a saying when she’s done something she wants to make excuses for, which I think is amazing and amazingly sophisticated. I love the shorthand and self-awareness of it, and I also love seeing her words, which became my poem, circle back into her life.
I was and am a little wary of using her language too much, I think because it’s been done, and by some of my favorite poets. Alice Notley, Bernadette Mayer, and Anne Waldman all revolutionized how the domestic realm and children — as a part of the fabric of everyday life — can appear in the poem. It’s another field of knowledge and experience available to the poem. Plath and Sexton (who was an early influence) are models, however beautiful and powerful, I reject. They display a latent (and not so latent) savagery of relationship, in which the “victim” victimizes, as well as the feeling that children are things to be used for poetry. There is a savagery to the mother-child relationship, for sure (embodied in, say, the cannibalism that occurs in the first months of life), but it is, can be, more subtle and less dangerous than what’s manifested in these poets’ work. I’m clear on rejecting these models (not the poems, but the stance), but I haven’t really worked out my thoughts on how I might be including Eva in my poems in a fresh, ethical way. What I’m saying is, I feel a little uncomfortable with some of the poems in the book. I think I’m always suspicious when anything in the poem feels too easy. Yet I always want the poem to be open to all aspects of life. And some aspects are easier than others.
How has having a child altered my work? “There is no time before/There is no time after/ ‘having a daughter’” — these books written after her birth would not be these books. She is part of the ground and fabric of my life, inextricable, as inextricable as air or poetry.