September 22, 2018

LATTICE: MOLLY PEACOCK IN CONVERSATION

The force of poetry known as Molly Peacock has brushed my life in several ways over the years, most recently in her thoughtful and moving essay "The Plexiglass Wall and the Vital Verb," from Judith Scherer Herz's 2017 anthology John Donne and Contemporary Poetry (Palgrave). (This anthology brings together essays and poems by scholars and poets in surprising and wonderfully resonant ways -- highly recommended.) Molly graciously and generously agreed to explore with me some of the various paths that brought her to poetry, that essay, and beyond.

SUSAN GILLIS: How did you first come to poetry, or it to you? 

MOLLY PEACOCK: About the year 1200, a speaker of Old French wanted to separate the distinctive from the ordinary, something beyond the general category of species (kind or form).  The word especial was born.

About 1955, an eight-year-old girl, the first-born in her working-class family in Buffalo, New York, was asked what she wanted to be when she grew up.  Teacher?  Nurse? Answer: Something special.  Especial.

That was the beginning of poetry for her—well, for me, though it’s she I see though the telescope of seven decades. I was a girl for whom the forces of class, nature, socialization, and politics (that is, sexism and classism) were a great obscuring gale.  All I knew was:  I wanted to be.  To see.  (And be seen.)

People complain that poetry is sidelined in schools, but to that girl, poetry was special because it was sidelined.  It came at the end of the school year, always after the winter gales; it wasn’t graded; you could let your imagination spark words you’d never say aloud; and utter truths you couldn’t say aloud except in metaphor.  Poetry was small.  You didn’t even have to turn the page!  Giving up picture books with just a few words on them for more grownup books with nothing but a stream of words in paragraphs set up in her a longing for the visual with a few rhythmic words full of images.

My maternal grandmother, a country gardener, wrote me letters, enclosing poems she had cut from the local newspaper, The Perry Herald.  In the summer she walked me around her garden and repeated the common names of plants:  Bleeding Heart, Sweet William.  I loved this slow learning by walking and repeating.  All this, outside of school, began the task of the poet: naming.

One day that girl lay down under a gnarled apple tree in her grandmother’s garden and looked up through the branches to the sky.  The world was inverted—just the way poems turn perceptions upside down.  She kept mulling for a word for all the criss-crossings of branches, and found it:  lattice.  Later she went in the house and decided to write a story.  But a story required characters and events happening—and she never could get that story going.  All she had was an image and a single word.

Poetry had come to me.  Or I to it.

There was an elementary school botany experiment to demonstrate osmosis.  1. Put a stalk of celery in ink (in 1955 something readily available in a bottle to fill pens.)  2. The next morning when you wake up and look at the windowsill, you will discover the celery stalk veined with stripes of navy blue.  THAT is that way she liked to absorb things.

I’ve always felt that learning in a classroom went too fast, that I wished it all were slowed down to a level of absorption that a plant would have.  I could imagine myself being part plant.  When I said “Something special” in answer to the question, “What do you want to be?”  I meant distinctive, something not everybody else was.  In retrospect, I see I also meant someone who absorbed the world, drinking it up through her veins.

Her young poet’s nature seemed part of a species of slow absorption.  A strange, other species, as that speaker of Old French wanted to designate around the year 1200:  not information in paragraphs, but experience at a still point, passion patterned—like lattice.  Poetry itself, distinctive from the general category of prose species or kind, or form: especial. 

SG: For that young person, the image and the word, “lattice,” appear as an emblem, almost a vision of how a poem might be something a person could make. The poem that accompanies your essay “The Plexiglass Wall and the Vital Verb” embodies the lattice in several ways: in its form, its allusions, its sources in Herbert and Donne, and the two real lives it is peopled by. Those first images situate us in a mental state – “After the Plexiglass wall slams down: Rain. / Rain in the mind. Thinking feels like camping out. / … / How far are we …? / I see right into our kitchen from this wilderness /… ” – then the poem drills straight to the core of what in the essay you call “the contradictions that serve understanding.” How important has contradiction been to you? 

MP: What a relief it was to me in my twenties to read “Do I contradict myself?  Very well I contradict myself” from section 51 of Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself (“I contain multitudes”).

I had been feeling and thinking in crosscurrents of energy that seemed contradictory all my young life.  Yet adults in school seemed always to demand that one straighten out one’s contradictory thinking and go step-by-step—linear.  My own thoughts, infused by feeling, went every which way.  Circular.  Zigzag.  Plant-like. What a relief to find poetry, which also seems to move this way.

Poems are unpredictable.  A good poem contains some discovery that takes us by surprise. But there’s a contradiction there, since you also have to have predictability in order to appreciate a surprise. (Otherwise, you have surprises exploding like war—or, in my case, like growing up with an alcoholic father.)

For a richly lived life—as well as for a poem—there has to be a basis of predictability punctuated by surprise.

How does this relate to lattice?

Let’s take garden lattice; it’s made of flat wood strips crosshatched, like netting, forming diamond-shaped holes.  You use lattice in a garden for vines to grow up and through.  It guides the vines (predictability), but the vines themselves have their own habits (surprises).  When I see a garden lattice holding up a vine, a crosshatch overlaid with organic curvings, I think of the lines of a poem overlaid with curving sentences.

When I was 10, 11, and 12, about the same time as I was looking up at the latticework of apple tree branches, I was playing badminton.  Badminton has two lattices:  the lattice strung inside each racquet and the lattice-like webbing of the net that separates the players. 

Recently my husband and I have taken up this sport again, after a lapse of half a century.  It’s fabulous fun and exercise for two rather fit 71-year-olds who can use a play structure to air their differences and appreciate their stamina and strategies.  Competition, yet appreciation? How contradictory…

You mention my essay, “The Plexiglas Wall and the Vital Verb” in John Donne and Contemporary Poetry—a wonderful collection of essays and poems edited by Judith Scherer Herz in which I’m pleased to be included.  In the essay and in the accompanying poem I talk about the contradictions of illness and health as well as about claiming two literary great uncles, George Herbert and John Donne.  I refer to two sonnets: Herbert’s “Prayer,” constructed largely of whimsical, evocative and surprising nouns, and Donne’s “Batter My Heart,” famously made of some of the more passionate verbs in the English language.  Just to continue with lattice:  sentences crosshatch nouns and verbs.

My marriage crosshatches periods of illness and health.  My husband is a 9-time cancer survivor.  I’m the anchoring wife.  Yet he’s the steady one—the thinker; I’m the flow—the feeler.  (Just to massively over simplify!) When he is sick, I’m called upon to think and feel for both of us.  It’s huge to have to take on both roles.  At those times I’m so glad to have poetry.

The contradictions that serve our marriage are love and anger.  That goes for periods of dramatic illness and for the badminton court.  My husband is a super strong badminton player with a speedburst of a strategic, shallow  serve, illness notwithstanding.  I am a butterfly of a badminton player who depends on my intuition.  He is stronger at the game than I am, and you would think he would win every time.  But I play intuitively, and he cannot predict me.  So I can win just with sheer footwork and body response.  I baffle him.  I surprise.  Together we make a kind of poem that depends on predictability and surprise.

You cannot have the surprise without an underpinning constancy.  Vine needs lattice.  My husband has huge respect when I return a shot he never thought I’d get (his surprise causes him to miss), and I have huge respect for his steady strength and speed.  We’re a match.

Contradiction goes into other parts of my writing life, too.  One is public-private.  The extreme privacy required to be a poet is contradicted by my public poetry projects (Poetry in Motion in the US and Best Canadian Poetry in Canada — both of which are now carried on so beautifully and successfully by others).  Another is poetry-prose; I also write in the strange and contradictory genres of poetry and biography. 

SG: The young person you conjured at the beginning of this conversation, who is looking at latticed branches, gets up and goes to write a story, and doing so, finds she is more pulled to the image and the word – pulled to poem. Yet she does go on, later, to write many stories in addition to the poems. What draws you to narrative prose when you choose to work in it? 

MP: When I came to Canada, I saw that poets also wrote prose and thought, how liberating!  It’s hard to pack a life story into a sonnet!  Because life stories, biographies and memoirs aren’t made up like the tale I tried to write so long ago, and because they already have a shape, albeit sometimes an unwieldy one, it seemed possible for me to branch out into prose.

I also happen to be married to an excellent editor and proofreader who is glad to respond to the prose I write. My husband encouraged me to write a memoir, and after I wrote Paradise, Piece by Piece about my choice not to have children, I began to get interested in other people’s lives, especially their creative lives.  That’s how I came to write, The Paper Garden:  Mrs. Delany Begins Her Life’s Work at 72.  I’m working on another one now, about an amazing 19th-century Canadian painter, The Flower Diary of Mary Hiester Reid:  Her Paintings, Her Husband and Her Rival.  In some ways my most recent book of poetry, The Analyst, is also about creativity and visual art.  The lattice keeps crossing! 

SG: Did you always want to share what you — and later, others — wrote? Was it ever uncomfortable to be seen through your work? 

MP: When I was young, because we kept my father’s alcoholism a secret, all I wanted to do was shout the truth of all that was unspoken.  As I’ve gotten older, and I lead a life with less to hide, I don’t nearly feel the need to share intimate details.  Yet I do cling to my maxim:  honesty is generosity.  Sure, it’s uncomfortable to be seen through my work—but the thrill of being alive always comes with discomfort! 

Molly Peacock is a widely anthologized poet and biographer. Her most recent volume is The Analyst (Biblioasis), a collection of poems that tells the story of a decades-long patient-therapist relationship that reverses and continues to evolve after the analyst’s stroke and reclamation of her life through painting. Peacock's other books of poetry include The Second Blush and Cornucopia: New and Selected Poems. She is also the author of the noted biography The Paper Garden: Mrs. Delany Begins Her Life’s Work at 72. Currently she is working on The Flower Diary of Mary Hiester Reid:  Her Paintings, Her Husband and Her Rival.  
Molly and her husband

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