Matthew Thorburn, Poet - Author of Dear Almost
Born in Kobe, Japan to a Japanese mother and a French Canadian-American father, Mari L’Esperance is the author of The Darkened Temple (awarded a Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry and published in September 2008 by the University of Nebraska Press) and an earlier collection Begin Here (awarded a Sarasota Poetry Theatre Press Chapbook Prize). Coming Close: Forty Essays on Philip Levine, co-edited with Tomás Q. Morín, was published by Prairie Lights Books in May 2013. A two-time Pushcart Prize nominee and recipient of awards from the New York Times, New York University, Hedgebrook, and Dorland Mountain Arts Colony, L’Esperance lives in the Los Angeles area.
Let’s begin at the end. Your book closes with the realization that “the life you have chosen” is also “the life / you could not help but choose.” To me, many of your poems have that feeling of inevitability too—that these are the stories you had to tell, the songs you must sing. Did you have that feeling when writing these poems and putting this book together?
Most of the poems in my book were written out of urgency—of a deep need to make sense, or attempt to make sense, of an upending, painful, and bewildering experience (the unresolved disappearance of my mother in 1995 while I was a poetry student). The poems span about 12 years, which included long periods of silence. When I’d finally amassed enough poems to create a book-length manuscript, I had more psychic distance from the material and the process felt more task-like at that stage, albeit still infused with feeling. But the making of the poems themselves—yes, that involved considerable emotional investment and, alongside, a more dispassionate editorial self that allowed me to shape them into art.
That same poem, “As Told by Three Rivers,” takes place in a hospital, on “the seventh floor of Eye & Ear,” which seems absolutely appropriate since both resonating images and the sound of the line are clearly very important in your work. Does one or the other—the image or the music—come first for you?
Images and music are central for me, in my own work and in the poems that I enjoy reading, and admire. When writing, image almost always comes first. Images represent the earth’s body and ground us in the physical world. By the time an image makes its way into a poem, it’s been simmering internally for a good, long while. The music comes as I’m writing and then revising. I was raised by a musician father and was a piano student for ten years as a very young person, so phrasing comes fairly naturally. My early teacher Jane Mead taught me, through her work, the importance of pacing, of music, and how music in poems is also of the body. I know every poet is different, but when I read a poem with (to me) oddly placed or seemingly arbitrary line breaks, I just want to REACH IN and change them! Someone else might read the same poem and have a very different response.
Your powerful sequence of poems about your mother’s disappearance, "White Hydrangeas as a Way Back to the Self," feels like the heart of The Darkened Temple. I’m curious to hear how you wrote these poems and shaped them into a sequence. Were you conscious of the shape these poems might take as a collection from early on, or was it a case of diving into the writing and then discovering a shape afterwards, or…?
Thanks, Matt. Well… I knew it was going to be a poem in sections pretty much from the start, or that was my intention going in. I knew I wanted to write about a descent and reemergence, but that was about all I consciously had in terms of content. I knew I wanted a lot of white space so each section could float in it, like a bell’s tongue. I had an image, which was inspired by Stevens’s “The Poems of Our Climate”: “The day itself / Is simplified: a bowl of white, / Cold, a cold porcelain, low and round, / With nothing more than the carnations there.” I loved the image of a bowl of clear water and white flowers, and how it made me feel: calm, serene, inward. The carnations became white hydrangeas, a flower that I associate very much with Japan. As for the rest, it was an epic wrestling match, especially trying to convey an emotionally freighted and complex experience in language that wasn’t maudlin, self-pitying, lurid, etc., but still had heft and resonance. It was a long, arduous process of writing, then pulling it back, writing some more, then paring it down, etc. I have to thank Alan Botsford, editor of Poetry Kanto, for publishing all ten sections.
In “White Hydrangeas as a Way Back to the Self,” you write, “My mother disappeared without a trace. // How else to say it?” That’s a line I kept coming back to, because I love how you bring together the lyrical and the matter-of-fact so naturally in your poems. Your poems are meditative in the way they move, yet also tell a story. That’s a tricky combination to pull off. I wonder if you could talk about how you balance those two approaches, and how they come together for you when writing poems.
It’s heartening to have you reframe as an attribute what I consider a flaw in my poems, which is my tendency toward narrative. There’s no conscious attempt at trickiness; it’s just how my mind works. All my attempts at elliptical, nonlinear poems have largely been failures. My poems want to follow a trail of crumbs in the mind’s dark wood. Beyond that, I can’t say how I do it. So much, for me, is about feeling as I’m writing, of being deeply attuned to it, then giving it rein, but not too much… always tempering, tempering—that delicate balance (hard!) and the underlying wish to create a world of stillness, depth, and dream. If we think of a single poem as a complete ecosystem, I guess that’s what I’m aiming for.
Your poems have a strong sense of place—and I know from our emails that you recently visited Japan. Does going there—or traveling to other places—tend to trigger new poems for you? If so, do you write in the moment, or are those experiences something you’ll come back to later in your writing?
Japan is a place that lives in me, as it’s the place of my birth and my mother’s homeland. It’s motherland, in every sense of the word. My visits there have indirectly inspired new poems, often months or even years later. Although after this most recent visit, I was moved to write a (still in progress) poem about Kobe, the city where I was born and which I visited in March after over 40 years away. The city was devastated by the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake and has been transformed by new construction and roads, so I recognized very little. When I was there, I felt disembodied and emotionally disconnected. But afterward the impact of my visit, with all its layered meanings, constellated, along with images both imagined and remembered, and I felt moved to begin the poem.
As for other places, it depends. I nearly always take notes when I travel—both detailed notes and general impressions. I lived in New York City, a place that is deeply meaningful to me, for three years and wrote copiously in journals, but wrote only a small handful of poems out of that experience. I can’t explain it, but there it is. Often the places in my poems are amalgams of the real and the imagined—a liminal “third”. Like Margaret Fuller’s Italy in my poem “After Reading of the Expatriate Writer’s Death by Shipwreck”—to me, it feels like Italy more than it is Italy, if that makes sense.
Is there a story behind your title? How did you decide to call your book The Darkened Temple?
I played with several titles, but what circulated through each of them was Engaku-ji, a prominent Zen temple in my mother’s hometown of Kamakura. She grew up right next door to it and played on its grounds as a child. When I visit my family, I have to make at least one visit to Engaku-ji. It is also where my favorite Japanese filmmaker, Yasujiro Ozu, is buried, so there’s a lot of meaning for me there. So there’s the literal “temple”. But “temple” is also a symbol—for the body, the self, a relationship, a world, the mind. I want readers to make their own associations, whether or not they’re aware of the “actual” temple the title, in part, alludes to.
Lastly, what are you working on now? What’s next for you, writing-wise?
I am slowly writing poems toward a second collection that remains, for now, a distant reality. Art takes time and I’m in no hurry. After The Darkened Temple was published in 2008, I felt enormous relief—I'd been living with some of the poems for so long—and enormous dread, for I really had no idea where to go next with poems, and my professional and personal life had left little space to think about new work. For a time I was in the grip of a “project,” but lately I’ve felt myself letting it go and instead wanting to go back to writing poem by poem, which, of course, requires being in the unknown without an “assignment”. My core themes are still with me, as they’ll likely always be, but I sense an internal loosening that's reflected in these newer poems, which breathe more easily on the page than did many of the poems in The Darkened Temple. That, to me, is a sign of health, and I’m following it.
Two poems from The Darkened Temple:
As Told by Three Rivers
Eight a.m., up too late the night before
learning the nose and throat, the bones
of the hand. Rounding a corner
on the seventh floor of Eye & Ear, the view
from the window takes you by surprise:
the city of Pittsburgh fanned out before you,
its verdant wedge of land softened
by the arms of three rivers, their names alone
like music--Monongahela, Allegheny, Ohio--
threading their slow eternal way home,
knowing. You think of Naipaul's book, how
that distant mythic river in that distant
unnamed place reminds you somehow
of these three rivers meeting, the purpose
in their joined ambition as it should be,
how their journey tells the same story,
a story of becoming, of knowing one's place
in the world. Standing there at the window
you see how everything that's come before
has brought you here, how it all makes sense,
these three timeless rivers moving forward,
deliberate and without question, telling the story
of the life you have chosen, of the life
you could not help but choose.
Finding My Mother
Near dusk I find her in a newly mown field, lying still
and face down in the coarse stubble. Her arms
are splayed out on either side of her body, palms open
and turned upward like two lilies, the slender fingers
gently curling, as if holding onto something. Her legs
are drawn up underneath her, as if she fell asleep there
on her knees, perhaps while praying, perhaps intoxicated
by the sweet liquid odor of sheared grass.
Her small ankles, white and unscarred, are crossed
one on top of the other, as if arranged so in ritual fashion.
Her feet are bare. I cannot see her face, turned
toward the ground as it is,
but her long black hair is lovelier than I remember it,
spilling across her back and down onto the felled stalks
like a pour of glossy tar. Her flesh is smooth
and cool, slightly resistant to my touch.
I begin to look around for something with which
to carry her back--carry her back, I hear myself say,
as if the words spoken aloud, even in a dream,
will somehow make it possible.
I am alone in a field, at dusk, the light leaving
the way it has to, leaking away the way it has to
behind a ridge of swiftly blackening hills. I lie down
on the ground beside my mother under falling darkness
and draw my coat over our bodies. We sleep there like that.