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.

June 1, 2017

A Most Anticipated Kindness

Another most anticipated 2017 collection: Susan Elmslie's Museum of Kindness, Fall 2017 from Brick Books.

Why are there so many museums devoted to acts of war, instruments of torture, all manner of atrocity, but not to acts of kindness? This is essentially how Susan Elmslie explained her new collection to me when we chatted one day last fall. It's wonderfully affirming, the thought of honouring kindness this way. It also sparks something slightly chilling: is kindness so strange to us that it needs to be set in a museum? But museums are not the only places the things in them inhabit....


Museum of Kindness, cover image by RenéBolduc
As the publisher's website says, in this book Susan Elmslie's is "a sober and unflinching gaze that meets us where we really live and does not look away." Read "In Praise of Hospital Cafeterias" here and more from Museum of Kindness at Numero Cinq

SUSAN ELMSLIE: A POEM



SUSAN ELMSLIE
In Praise of Hospital Cafeterias

Water, is taught by thirst. — Emily Dickinson


Not exactly an oasis in the desert,
but as you bide time before the biopsy
or loosen your watch to let the news
sink in, good to avail yourself
of the $2.22 coffee & muffin combo
or Fairlee pulp-free OJ and bagel,
benign beige plastic chair,
dusty plant languishing on a ledge:
a single bloom, reaching
toward the window’s frosted glass.
On another day this plant
would be giving God the finger. 
The food service worker’s skirt
argues with her butt.  Luck
sounds like a word a baby might say,
trying out her tongue.  So what
if you have forgotten the common names
of trees, the taste of a carrot with the dirt
just rubbed off, which bird
says, youcheeseburger, cheeseburger,
cheeseburger, cheeseburg.
There is ordinary comfort in wrapped straws.
A lady is scraping a muffin paper
with her teeth, so
beautiful.  For now
there is no bloom of blood in the syringe—
magenta, a magician’s scarf.
Here you are:
a hiatus before climbing an endless flight
of unpainted stairs or sitting at home, suffering
the Muzak of the incontinent faucet.


"In Praise of Hospital Cafeterias" first appeared in Prism 52:4. Reproduced here by permission of the author.