July 19, 2017


S. E. Venart

She was sixty-nine or was she seventy?  Some people said a ripe old age.        
It’s said that if the young learn that they are dying, they become holy.    I suppose
it’s their face.  It is said, anyway.     Above the barn sink, the glass held the reflection
of a barn cat leaping for a barn swallow. I saw it go down, slapping my wet hands and seething: Shit! Well, that’s over.      I looked everywhere for meaning: in her soft-tissued pyjamas,
in her perhaps-holy face. I read poems to her that were little stories: man walks into autumn
beach town, is a skunk, finds a skunk, the end.      I made lemon custard.
I set spoons on the two-by-four table. This is my gold-packed love.   I pushed in her puritan bench. The other side of the window bloomed lilac— I can’t say what I want that to mean—
she was already above me, outside me, beyond me? Still I brought a bowl to her table.  
Each spoonful she spat into the napkin, her face lit with adoration for that later-place.  
She made a device of folding her napkin into smaller squares, hiding my love without looking.     
But who can talk about what you will miss every minute?   We turned toward signs painted Peaches, I recited.      Once she looked up and said, I’ll miss that face    
Oh, how I hoped. I kept combing the moment. It was said. I return to it.  
Falling action, floodlit.   Anything could happen. Nothing fixed in place yet—. 

S. E. Venart lives in Montreal.
Read Chance Harbour 
More poems

June 21, 2017

A Convergence of Gazes: Gjertrud Schnackenberg on "Afghan Girl"

I was enjoying my second coffee on a quiet morning some time ago when this message from Gjertrud Schnackenberg arrived in my inbox. 

Dear Susan, At last I’ve finished the poem I’ve been working on day and night since October, 2012.  When I began the poem I was overjoyed because I thought it would be a short poem, and I always want and hope to write short poems — but as weeks turned into months and years, the writing began to feel like a dream in which I was using magic scissors to cut into it and cut into it,  and with every cut, the poem grew longer and longer. 

She had attached a file. I put down what I was doing and opened it, and began reading. And re-reading. It was, to put it simply, astonishing. 

“Afghan Girl” (New England Review, June 2017) pays tribute to Steve McCurry's iconic photograph of a young woman, later identified as Sharbat Gula, in an Afghan refugee camp. Her arresting gaze is the starting point for Schnackenberg’s interrogation of conflict, empire, religion, beauty and presence. It's a poem that meets the gaze of Sharbat Gula with its own intensity, unfolding in rhythmically propulsive short lines its quest to understand what that gaze expresses and what it stirs in the viewer.

I wrote back. How do you do it, break my heart in a poem and lift it up at the same time? The conversation that follows, with the kind participation of Gregory Fried, is Trude's extended answer to my question. Gjertrud and Gregory spoke with me via email over a period of several months.

Steve McCurry's June 1985 National Geographic cover.

SUSAN GILLIS: Your poem “Afghan Girl” opens on Sharbat Gula's gaze as it is caught and held in Steve McCurry's photograph. Let's begin there, then. Is it fair to say the poem is one in which image-making as subject is explored through image-making?
GJERTRUD SCHNACKENBERG: Image-making as a way of exploring the image, and of exploring the insuperable drive to make images — yes, and the poem seesaws between the opposing facts that human images are prohibited in Islam, and that this photographic image of an Islamic girl is one of the most famous photographs in the world. 

In reference to the paradox of this poem's subject, an image taken from an image-forbidding culture, the poet Mary Jo Salter has spoken of "the unwinnable, unlosable argument of imagery." Her phrase goes directly to the heart of how poetry thinks, and I think it furthermore hints at the bond between imagery and negative capability. That is, the way that poetry thinks, which is so often in imagery (and in imagery that imagines thoughts about images), is one of the ways that poetry slips the cuffs of ideologies and beliefs (and of the self and its viewpoint, too) while retaining the value, even the moral value, conferred by witness.