Life's Great Lies, Thought Made Flesh, and the Ritual Possibilities of Form: Joseph Fasano on His Poem "Hermitage"
When I initially contacted Joseph Fasano for an interview in late July, I had several poems in mind as possibilities to discuss. But when he suggested "Hermitage" I felt in that choice something of a predestiny; it was the first poem of his I had ever read, and when we had our interview I was reminded what about it had so commanded my attention and drawn me to all of his work: lines of unusual breath and music, cultivated from language of the kind his teacher Mark Strand described as "so forceful and identifiable that you read [these poets] not to verify the meaning or truthfulness of your own experience of the world, but simply to saturate yourself with their particular voices." Rilke's "inner wilderness", twined with Fasano's bracing intelligence, were strongly in evidence throughout this exchange. — HLJ
It strikes me that the subject on which this poem turns consists in its final two lines: "the great lie // of your one sweet life", that thing at the poem's opening that was once "too much." The speaker's address to a "you", the reader, seems to presuppose that at one time or another everyone will have to reckon with such a lie in their own lives. So let's begin there and work our way backwards…tell us a little about the great lie that began this piece.
All I know is that it's different for everybody, that great lie. It's a platitude to say that we all lie to ourselves in some way to live. Maybe we tell ourselves things are fine when they're not. Maybe we need to believe they're not fine when they are. In any case, of course it's true that a certain falseness in the way we live might protect us from a radical truth we're not ready for. Maybe we need an actual, practical change in our living situation. Maybe we need a change in our way of seeing things. Whatever the case may be, it's terrifying to face the nakedness of a new truth–or perhaps I should say an old truth, an ancient truth that has been living inside us – especially when we hardly have a language to talk about that truth.
I see this poem as the speaker's way of beginning to say 'yes' to certain things that he had previously rejected–things perhaps in himself, things perhaps in the world. But what interests me most is the silence after the last line. It's clear to me that the speaker of this poem has yet to find a language in which to say that 'yes,' in which to live it to its fullest. I see the final question as both confident and desperate: What would you have done? What should I do? Everything we say asserts our deepest beliefs, even when we're unaware of those beliefs. But what happens when those beliefs change, radically and even perhaps without our knowing? What steps forward to fill the new silence of our lives then?
It’s true there were times when it was too much
and I slipped off in the first light or its last hour
and drove up through the crooked way of the valley
and swam out to those ruins on an island.
Blackbirds were the only music in the spruces,
and the stars, as they faded out, offered themselves to me
like glasses of water ringing by the empty linens of the dead.
When Delilah watched the dark hair of her lover
tumble, she did not shatter. When Abraham
relented, he did not relent.
Still, I would tell you of the humbling and the waking.
I would tell you of the wild hours of surrender,
when the river stripped the cove’s stones
from the margin and the blackbirds built
their strict songs in the high
pines, when the great nests swayed the lattice
of the branches, the moon’s brute music
touching them with fire.
And you, there, stranger in the sway
of it, what would you have done
there, in the ruins, when they rose
from you, when the burning wings
ascended, when the old ghosts
shook the music from your branches and the great lie
of your one sweet life was lifted?
Your answer puts me in mind of Rilke's letters and his call to "live the questions." New truths are borne on changes whether we dial them into our lives or not, and those truths usually call on us to assume a new identity. But that earlier phrase in the poem, "...empty linens of the dead", already signaled to me early on that this is not a poem about death or loss but resurrection.
Tell me a bit about Delilah and Abraham. Why these two Biblical characters in particular, and these particular paradoxes? How do they serve counterpoint to the "wild hours of surrender" that follow?
Abraham says 'yes' understanding neither the command nor his answer. Bob Dylan has a good way of putting this: "God said to Abraham, 'Kill me a son.' Abe says, 'Where you want this killin' done?'" I skipped some lines there, but the point is essentially the same as Kierkegaard's: Abraham's 'yes' is an inexplicable leap of faith. Now, you can get yourself into all sorts of moral problems here. The world has plenty of people right now running around saying 'yes' to their God's imperative to kill, but that's not what I'm getting at in this case. I think the poem is concerned with the metaphorical significance of Abraham's sacrifice: the notion that each of us has one great thing he or she has to lose before he or she can inherit the world. And to say it's a metaphor is not to strip it of its visceral reality. Metaphors are not abstract. They are the real flavor of human blood on the tongue when someone bites his lip and tries to leap over the abyss between one thing and another. They are the taste of our song. As for Delilah, well, there's another image of loss, but it's also an image of betrayal. Delilah reveals the secret of Samson's strength, his hair that he has grown in devotion to his God, and her betrayal deprives him of it. Again, though, here I was probably thinking of a betrayal within the self. Just as Abraham has to sacrifice something (of himself) to inherit the world, each of us must betray something in himself to find the weakness where a secret might be spoken.
In our recent email exchange you mentioned this particular poem being a transition point for you both in style and outlook – how did that come about?
By force. Life happens and you hope something is wise enough in you to adjust. It remains to be seen with me (ha).
You seem to be in possession though of a highly distinct bank of words and images that seem rather constant: “strangers”, “drifters”, the dead, fire and water, celestial bodies, familial archetypes, landscape features such as rivers and valleys, etc. In past interviews and elsewhere, you’ve drawn on Ludwig Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language, namely that a word’s meaning is its use in a given context. Why is this idea so important to poetry? And to your own poetry? How does it reside in this particular poem (and others you’ve written)?
Frost says somewhere that a poet's voice is mostly his tone, his attitude toward things. Is he reverent? Placid? Ironic? Of course there are variations within a voice, but I think that's mostly the way it is. Just as important, though, is his reservoir of images. What kind of thing is he attracted to, and why? I could say that the natural world (a term we could unpack indefinitely) has always been my "Hermitage," but that wouldn't really explain anything, and I doubt it would be interesting to anyone. A poem might concern itself with certain images that the poet loves, or sees, or is haunted by, but I think it had better make those images resonate with a reader who doesn't necessarily love or see or consider herself haunted by them. This is why I always talk about the archetype, which for the sake of a discussion about poetry I'll say is an image that resonates across individuals and cultures. That's quite a leap of faith, but there we come to Abraham again. What's the poem if not such a radical leap, a blade honed for the sacrifice, asking for more?
So I'm looking now at the poem’s fifth stanza. I know enough about wildlife that I couldn't help noticing your inversion of fact with those red-winged blackbirds (I'm always astonished by their harsh songs, too, though my husband likens them to the sound of cameras going off). They typically live in marshy lowland areas, and so it’s fascinating that you have them building “strict songs in the high pines”, the point at which fire enters the poem. What’s happening there?
Yes, blackbirds live mostly in the low growth of open fields. I grew up in Goshen, New York, and across the road from my home there was such a place, and blackbirds filled it with their little geometric songs, saying something about the order and the chaos in things that I'll probably never be able to understand. Also, when they're spooked and they rise up, baring that little blood-red secret on their shoulders – that's the stuff I love. So why are they there in the high pines in this poem? Something seems a little out of joint, doesn't it? People used to believe in omens like this. They are rising up, rising through those pines. A place of transition is not a place to live indefinitely. I think that's true of the rising blackbirds in this poem and the speaker who sees them. Also, blackbirds of this kind are most often solitary. And yet here they seem very plural. It's a gathering, somehow, of little solitary ghosts.
At the level of this poem’s drafting and composition, was it “received” all at once or did it require a lot of rework and revision? You've got a pattern of tercets broken at the end by a single line. How did you arrive at that structure?
If I remember correctly, the poem happened somewhat feverishly, meaning I had a draft of it in a few sleepless days, for better or worse. It originally had a final line tacked on after that question (I won't tell), and good ol' Abraham had to come in with his knife and cut it out. Here I should say that Abraham clearly lives in at least two very good poet friends of mine who saw the poem for what it was.
Don't we need them, always. And I love the poems that just present themselves to us that way.
It seems vital at any stage for every poet to find the style and language that will give definition to his or her experience. Still, when had our meeting we were talking about Louise Glück, who pointed out that those "habits of syntax, vocabulary, and rhythmic pattern that distinguish a collection or poet are at once useful in the moment and dangerous to repeat." (“Arson”, which appeared in Print Oriented Bastards, is a poem of yours I also adore, and seemed to me to bear striking similarities to this one). What habits show up in your own writing and how do you write against them?
Syntactically those poems are related, without doubt, but I just wasn't done with the form. I use "form" loosely here, but I mean it. In our workshop-oriented culture, so many writers are terrified of repeating themselves even to the smallest degree. I get that. I teach workshops and I've taken them. I have nothing against them. Yes, we should all have that healthy fear, especially in a culture that commodifies sameness. And yet we should also beware of a culture, even a poetic culture, that commodifies novelty. If a form is valid (and who decides that but the reader?), it says something about the structure of who we are, as individuals and as a culture. Maybe we're talking about any number of inherited forms–a sonnet, say, or a villanelle–each of which might resonate more at a given cultural moment. But we can also be talking about forms of syntax, forms that a poet might feel have not been exhausted by one exploration. Of course he can lie to himself in saying that it's not exhausted, but I hope that's not what I've done. I just try to work out the poem. Yes, we should be afraid of sameness, but I have always believed that poetry can be, among other things, a space to find the rituals that will bring us close to whatever it is we need to approach. And the nature of ritual is repetition. And if the ritual is a good one, well, every revelation will be new. In any case, the forms that matter to us are not molds into which we pour the changing content of our selves. We are the forms and their changes.
Amen to that – we do live in a ritual-deprived culture, and no doubt individualism as an ethos has some part to play in that obsession with originality.
What I've always admired in your poems is your ability to make language commensurate and equal to your subjects in largeness, and I’ve noted how often people refer to your work as “beautiful” or “stunning.” I think Jack Gilbert said in one of his interviews how beauty is a perfectly worthy function of poetry but hardly the point, poetry being a form (at least to him) that also concerns itself with ideas meant to provoke thought and reflection. Where would you say your own work falls, along these lines?
Here I should make it clear that I'm talking about what I would want my work to do, not what I think it's done, but I'll say that I admire the kind of poetry that (simply, seemingly naively) does not find "ideas" and "lyrical beauty" mutually exclusive. Why do we say they are? Are we saying reason is ugly? Are we saying beauty is useless? These are complicated questions. Of course there is a difference between the syntax and rhythm of logical ideation and, say, a song about a beautiful woman pumping water from a well. Have a friend pick a random book from your shelves and read it to you from behind a closed door, so that you can hear only the muffled rhythm, not the words. I guarantee you'd be able to tell if it's fiction, poetry, or the Federalist Papers. So these distinctions are all very valid, of course, and I think they're informed by cultural norms and innate structures.
I studied philosophy as an undergraduate, and whenever I pick up a book it's just as likely to be Wittgenstein's Lectures on Mathematics as it is to be Jack Gilbert's poems, and all I can say is that I admire the kind of poetry that finds a way to think with the body. I'm thinking of Rilke's Duino Elegies, for example, or Larry Levis' longer poems that seem to effortlessly marry the meditative and lyrical impulses. See, the problem is when I say "meditative" or "lyrical" I'm already defining a norm, raising expectations about "beauty" and "truth," which just requires further unpacking. But if I did that we'd really discover the difference between philosophy (albeit the armchair variety) and poetry, wouldn't we? In any case, it would be nice if Keats' "beauty is truth" satisfied everyone, but it doesn't. But look, those very lines of Keats', as beautiful as they are, have now "provoked [us] into thought and reflection," haven't they? And can't we then clearly be moved by the "stunning" lyricism of that Ode while also being moved to meditation? In Keats' terms, we're "teased" both into and "...out of thought.” I've always admired the kind of poetry that, to put it poorly, makes thought visceral. Whitman says it best here: "I believe in you my soul, the other I am must not abase itself to you, / And you must not be abased to the other."
People seem to have a conception of a beauty that excludes the mind. At least in my own experience – beauty in Gilbert's world meant something different, perhaps – and that returns us to Wittgenstein's problem.
Gilbert was a classicist with a Romantic's soul.
He wanted to be stone but he was fire.
He definitely thinks with the body in his poems.
And that tension makes for some great poems.
How do title your poems?
In one word? After. I never write a title at the top of the page before I begin (well, maybe I'll have one I mind, especially if it gives information necessary to the poem, but I tuck it away somewhere, because it has a way of nailing down the poem before it finds itself.) As for "Hermitage," believe it or not, this is a "real" place (don't get me started on that word), a little ruined place on a small island that was once part of a monastery. I can't tell where it is, of course, but it's there. It's so very there.
The island is such a popular fixture of the imagination, perhaps because of its innate solitude and offer of refuge. I'll just say that when I encounter an island in a piece of literature, I always feel something in me pulling itself down into the grass.
Tell me a bit about your poetry education. And is there any advice you would offer to poets writing and practicing without an MFA or other degree in creative writing?
For many years I dreamed of studying physics and mathematics, and during my first year and a half at Harvard I was in the astrophysics program. Long story short: I believed in that kind of vastness, that kind of mystery, but it took me a hell of a long time to realize I was fighting the way I really wanted (needed?) to explore such things. (Another "great lie"?) I've spoken elsewhere about how reading Wittgenstein liberated me; hearing that the "meaning of a word is its use in the language" was one way for me to change my epistemological perspective. Suddenly I wasn't trying to use language to poke through the 'veil' of things, so to speak, into some external, independent reality, but rather to consider itself and its structures and what it says about who we are. I began to see that our being limited by the categories of our perception does not compromise the vastness of who we are.
That sounds terribly grandiose, but I remember it being a formative time for me. I teach in the MFA program I attended, so of course I believe in communities like that, but I also believe passionately in the old platitude: there's no right way to do it. As for practical advice, I'd encourage young writers to reach out to writers they admire. I know not everyone is able to respond, but those correspondences can be tremendously inspiring. Also, trust me, the term "literary establishment" has just as much accuracy – no more, no less – than a term like "liberal media." The refreshing truth is that the poetry community in this country is often as close to a meritocracy as might be possible; it's tempting to think of editors and such as some sort of cabal organized against the 'outsider,' but in my experience people are always hungry for fresh, interesting work. If you get a rejection (every writer until the end of his career will get them), it might be because someone didn't read your work closely, but it might also be because the poem is not resonating. All the old advice is truth: read everything. Work on that damned poem until it banishes you.
I think the only key is to decide what kind of community you want, if any. If you're a Hermitage writer, you'll have to find it. If you're a weekend workshop writer, there are so many amazing things like that. And, in my experience, these needs change. Berryman says somewhere that in the end it's just about how much the writer wanted it. That's only partly true, of course, because he or she needs a lot of circumstantial stuff to work out, but I'd echo that the drive has to be there. How about another platitude: trust yourself. That's a must.
Is there any "homework" you'd like to assign our readers?
Sure, these are fun. I'll make one up right now: Start writing a poem that begins in contact with a wild animal. Perhaps such a contact happened in your life, or perhaps you've imagined it. But in any case try to know as much about that animal as you can: how it smells, what season it drops its young in, how long it lives, what it eats and what eats it. Begin writing the poem and let it drift to some very different subject matter, preferably a dynamic between the speaker and another person. Overwrite it. Make it long. Let it be. When you've come to the last line go back to the beginning and take the animal out, wherever it appears, leaving only its scent. I mean this: leave the scent of that animal, without naming it, in the rest of the poem, which you'll now have to revise and stitch up and see into a new form. I promise you the poem, which is notionally "about" something else, will have a strange energy to it. The animal will be gone. But the wildness will be there.
Tell us a poem you love and why you love it.
I'm overwhelmed, as always, by having to pick one. But since we've been talking about Jack Gilbert, I'll mention one of my current favorites of his, "Me and Capablanca". Gilbert says somewhere that America, in particular, has the poems of youth and even the poems of old age, but it does not have the poems of adulthood. It's helpful for me to think about what that might mean, and why it might be so. Gilbert's poem takes as its reference the great Cuban chess player Jose Raul Capablanca, and it becomes a meditation on one of those great problems of our lives. And, as always with Gilbert, the poem is a bit sexy. Here it is:
ME AND CAPABLANCA
The sultry first night of July, he on the bed
reading one of Chandler’s lesser novels.
What he should be doing is in the other room.
Today he began carrying wood up from the valley,
already starting on winter. He closes the book
and goes naked into the pitch pines and the last
half-hour of the dark. Rain makes a sound
on the birches and butternut tree. There is not
enough time left to use it for dissatisfaction.
Often it is hard to know when the middle game
is over and the end game beginning, the pure part
that is made more of craft than it is of magic.
JOSEPH FASANO is the author of three books of poetry: Vincent (Cider Press, 2015); Inheritance (2014); and Fugue for Other Hands (2013), which won the Cider Press Review Book Award and was nominated for the Poets' Prize, "awarded annually for the best book of verse published by a living American poet." His honors include the RATTLE Poetry Prize and three Pushcart Prize nominations, and his work has been anthologized in Poem-a-Day: 365 Poems for Any Occasion (Abrams, 2015) and The Aeolian Harp (Glass Lyre Press, 2016). His writing has appeared in The Yale Review, Blackbird, The Southern Review, Boston Review, Tin House, Verse Daily, American Poets, and other publications. He teaches at Columbia University and Manhattanville College.