A metaphysic of the page, a mode of inquiry called wonder: an interview with Dan Beachy-Quick

Andrew David King
October 22, 2012
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B. K. Fischer, writing about two of Dan Beachy-Quick’s books for the Boston Review, locates what she sees as a struggle for him and his contemporaries—or for any poet born in a “post-structuralist intellectual climate,” where arguments about the instability of meaning and language have taken on a lacquer of given-ness: to not let these theoretical claims become so unquestionable that they begin to resemble what they set out to destabilize. Beachy-Quick’s corpus is an exercise in just this kind of questioning, but it is also—dialectically, beneficially, and self-critically at once—an exercise in affirming, in casting positive hypotheses, in setting up an arena in which the premises of valuation and interrogation are not wholly at odds. And not only are they not wholly at odds, they are often mutually celebratory: constituent parts of a greater mechanism that has cranked its gears before us and will continue cranking its gears long after us. As Thoreau—to whom Beachy-Quick dedicates a significant amount of his newest volume, Wonderful Investigations—wrote in his 1859 edition of A Week on the Concord and Marrimack Rivers: “Go where we will on the surface of things, men have been there before us.” Beachy-Quick knows this, and makes that knowledge apparent in an entry from his 2009 book-length meditation on Moby-Dick titled A Whaler’s Dictionary: “When we open a book, the face of the page confronts our face. The face of the page both masks and reveals the author who wrote the words we are reading.” We share the “I”; its status as the locator of the individual in speech just as quickly flips over to reveal a history of other faces that all spoke through its misleadingly singular mouth.

It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that Beachy-Quick’s poetry navigates this polyphony of voices past, present, and future through a heightened awareness of its most established conduit: the page, that surface both opaque and transparent. In Wonderful Investigations, reading is described as “a form of experience” that occurs “in some twofold world happening simultaneously in the author’s mind and the reader’s mind with only the thin printed page as conduit between.” This is where understanding catalyzes its illuminative sparks, after all—where the past of what has already been written reaches into the present and future to forge what might be written. But in order to glimpse these hypotheticals, Beachy-Quick chooses to enter rather than deface the archive. Most of his collections situate themselves in the extensive tradition of citationality in American poetry that stretches back to Eliot’s The Waste Land and before it; he hitches everything and everyone together, from Pre-Socratic Greek philosophers to Walter Benjamin. In doing so, he is not concerned as much with positivist notions of categorical coherence as with the experience of juxtaposing seemingly alien concepts and the virtues it might produce. More than anything, Beachy-Quick’s incorporation of this juxtaposition as a formal feature in his works—by directly citing, borrowing, and appropriating the language of so many long-gone writers and thinkers—lends it a particular vividness, an awareness that might be likened to the moment of wonder that accompanies a new discovery. And wonder, too, is a massive entryway into his poems and poetics: a wonder that, as he writes in the preface of Wonderful Investigations, “withdraws from the mind, from the willing mind, which would make of mystery a category.” Mystery is the element that begins and ends all of Beachy-Quick’s books (in keeping, if obliquely, with Robert Graves’s assertion that to be a poet “is a condition rather than profession”), but it is no blind sense of mystery, no refusal to quantify or analyze or scrutinize under the banner of irreducibility. For Beachy-Quick, irreducibility is certainly there when the mind fails or when the matter prevents it, but mystery is acrobatic—it is the aperture, the entry-way, both the door into the archives and the first step through that door. It allows all that follows.

Beachy-Quick’s seeing-backwards is hardly ancestor worship as much as a motion to do away with the conventions of time and biography that plaster great writers inside historical mausoleums. So enshrined, the inhabitants of the canon are dead; resuscitated on the page, without the centuries of critical sediment clogging their throats, they can speak again. Literary heritage isn’t so much a repressive bind for Beachy-Quick as a neutral fact, one capable of being both repressive and instrumental in turn; for every posthumous reemergence of Dickinson or Melville or Montaigne or Wordsworth in his writings—often by way of direct quotation—there’s a corresponding impression of newness, an anachronistic glimmer through which the literature of the past foregrounds, if only for a second, its validity outside of its own temporal bounds. “Literary tropes,” he writes, “mimic a magic that recognizes death, and in doing so, gives us the means to undo it.” These literary séances aren’t confined to those already christened to the highest tiers of the canon, however: in This Nest, Swift Passerine, a quotation from Ronald Johnson’s seminal but seemingly forgotten epic ARK appears; in Beachy-Quick’s new chapbook, Heroisms, Plato’s allegory of the cave is referenced. Taking a cue from Johnson—as well as Olson, Eigner, and other poets conscious of the space of the page—his pages are as much fields as they are mirrors and telescopes. They are both theaters on which actions unfold and lenses through which light is refracted. As in Spell—his book-length “fantasia” on a themes from Melville and Moby-Dick where the materiality of the page and the ocean become conflated, reality and literature are both mimetic of each other, caught in a hermeneutic loop. Each turns to other for interpretation but finds, as Ahab does of the whale, that they are each “the wall behind which the universe mockingly lingers whole.”

Beachy-Quick’s poetry is Ahab’s chase, sans harpoon and stormy Atlantic: it is a pursuit of the unification of the self with the text, or, if such is not achievable, immediate adjacency to the text. In such a pursuit, memory—both cultural, on the level of mythology, and individual, on the level of psychology—inevitably becomes central. At once amorphous and pivotal, memory guides but also dictates. Beachy-Quick’s work is a vantage point onto the so-often-obscured site of the self-resolution of memory writ large and small. In an interview for the Poetry Foundation’s “Poetry Off the Shelf” podcast, he said that the memorization of certain poems was an act of letting the poem “have control,” a control that might allow the past to speak freely and thereby reveal its mechanisms. His projects are hinges between the past and the future that appropriate both temporal senses but lean toward neither: they are, emphatically, modes of “conducting a labor,” as he puts it, the present participle—and all the ongoing-ness it implies—being antecedent to completion and therefore able to hold mystery and wonder (what Fischer calls a “poetics of the gerund”). In this space, speech and exchange can occur—though the past can also be tampered with, as Beachy-Quick makes clear when he told the Poetry Foundation that “In a Station of the Metro,” his poem written after Pound, was an attempt at an “inflationary poetic,” one that unraveled the “residue of forceful compression” in each of Pound’s words. “I think I just want to write so as to be within the conversation of another book, not merely a reader of it, always somehow on the outside,” Beachy-Quick said of Work from Memory: In Response to In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust, a volume he co-authored with Matthew Goulish. Beachy-Quick preempts outside-ness, the sense of floating in the historical periphery and marginalia, for closeness. The resultant proximity is a human one—one that does not, for all its humanness, sacrifice its intellect; it insists, rather, on intellectual engagement as fundamental to experience—and might be best embodied in one of the many imperatives that find their way into the loom of This Nest, Swift Passerine: “so bind me to you.”

Over the course of the past month, Beachy-Quick (a KR contributor) and I exchanged questions about the manifold patterns and relationships that can be charted across his books and collaborations, about both interrogating and rehabilitating the past—and, of course, about wonder; our conversation can be found below.

KR: So many of your projects—The Whaler’s Dictionary, Spell, and Mulberry, for instance—engage in conversation with the dead: Melville, Dickinson, philosophers of the Greek canon, writers and thinkers from past centuries and millennia. I think it goes without saying that, were you to write without nominally addressing or incorporating these personas, these voices, you’d still be in communication with them. (A less direct communication, albeit.) What motivates you to so directly “summon” them, if you will? To name them? But not just name them—to appropriate their works and lives as the first steps on an ascending staircase?

DBQ: The longer I’ve spent reading poetry and writing it, too, the more distinctly I’ve come to feel the lyric space as one in which voices seek a means to persist beyond the bounds of the life that wrote them. It’s an old thought, one easily dismissed, hardly part of the conversations I hear about poetry today, the way in which a poem seeks some kind of eternal utterance. I feel just as keenly that the words I use contain within in them a history of uses—often by the poets and writers I most love—which carry forward in nearly occult ways in my own poems. Even more than an appropriation of works and lives, I suppose I think of the poem as a kind of conjuring and a kind of repair. I mean this perhaps in an odd way. I can see how every intense use of language brings one deeper and deeper into the realization of a poet being a kind of Echo, that being punished for her loquaciousness by being able only to repeat the last words spoken, and so there is no speaking for herself. I don’t think the poet is one who speaks for herself or himself either—at least not in any normal sense. A poet speaks the already spoken words but, like Echo, has access only to those last few that remain in the air and available. But these memories of words build into a poetic resource over time, echoing again and again in heart and head, so that a poet is both Echo and echo-chamber, and to speak is to hope that those you speak toward, whose words you use to do so, hears, looks up, and steps into the poem. This sense leads me to think of the poem as a gathering place—something furthered by lyric’s connection to chorus, that oldest song occurring next to the events the singers witness but cannot alter, in which every “I” is also a “we,” and whose etymology can be traced all the way back to a “dancing ground,” a “place of enclosure” and so a place of embrace.

Dan Beachy-Quick

KR: Emerson, in an essay titled “Quotation and Originality” from his 1876 essay collection Letters and Social Aims, makes stark claims about originality akin to some claims contemporary critics, like Marjorie Perloff in Unoriginal Genius, have made. “The originals are not original,” he writes. “There is imitation, model, and suggestion, to the very archangels, if we knew their history.” I’m wondering if you agree with this strict declaration about the impossibility of originality to be truly original, and if that influences your work or prompts you to speak of—and to name—those writers who have affected you.

DBQ: I’m not familiar with that particular essay of Emerson’s, and only cursorily with Perloff’s book (which is on my desk in the office even now), but this lack of originality within creative work is something that is very important to me. I think often about genius in the oldest sense—not a capacity of mind, but that most intimate aspect of self that also is other than the self. Genius seems to me not only what is realized most in Rimbaud’s “I is other,” but genius is the space between that “I” and “other”—a genial space, and generous, and genuine. It feels to me the apprehensive and adhesive space into which the poem capably falls. What is important to remember is that genius as such isn’t any kind of condensation of ego, no complex of psyche, but the opposite; genius is what frees the self from the personality, makes as general, opens the “I” into anonymity. It is, I think, in such unoriginal spaces that what is creative occurs. That same anonymity allows a radical invitation of other’s voices into the poet’s voice—again, this sense of the voice as gathering place rather than “self-expression.” And so I name so as to summon: Keats, Dickinson, Celan, Oppen, Hopkins, Herbert, Melville, Emerson, and so on.

KR: I’m also wondering about the phrase “if we knew their history”—it seems to imply that a perpetual reaching-back (in Emerson’s case, into the very origins of mythological or theological thought) is possible, and it also seems to suggest, maybe, that there’s value to be obtained in tracing lineages to their roots. But more than those two considerations, even, I’m interested in hearing your thoughts on history in general, whether it’s capital-H History or “history,” a word which might encompass personal “histories”—in your mind, what are the prominent considerations a writer should have when he or she “moves through” the materials, literary or otherwise, of the past?

DBQ: I don’t think poetry is beholden to history with a capital H. Poetry’s nature seems not only to distrust such absolutes, but seeks a way to destabilize them (poetry also, and I think this is more easily forgotten, also seeks to stabilize assumed instabilities). I keep feeling poetry’s unceasing contradiction as its primary motion. One of those contradictions is that history is not a measure of the past, but a sense of what is impending (much as Faulkner suggests), that the past is what is ahead of us. The page is an enactment of that realization, bringing with it words whose roots dig back to the dawn of human consciousness—Emerson, “Every word was once a poem.” I suppose I also feel that poetry is remarkably atavistic; at least those poetries I am most drawn to are, and the poems I would most want to write are. A poem looks back through its own utterance to ask a question about the source that makes its own song possible, roots through itself, a violent action. In this sense a “traditional poetry,” so often naively aligned with promoting history with a capital H, is the very poetry that enters its own history so as to torment it with the questions it is itself tormented by. To seek origins is a dangerous thing—turn to Phaethon and Apollo to learn the lesson again. A word sought to its roots takes us to the primeval chaos, that silence that is the very cusp of world. What is there to keep in mind? I suppose that we must remember the violence of this work is also a form of utmost care, even of love.

KR: I want to ask about this great interview you did with Poetry to accompany your poem that appeared in the December 2011 issue, “In a Station of the Metro.” You get to talking about the workshop as a pedagogical model, and wonder why it is that workshops are supposed to make poems “better”; then you ask if “in making a poem ‘better’ by implicitly turning to a set of inherited conditions that have proven their worth over the course of nearly a century, am I secretly pushing students into a place of received values that, in the end, undermines exactly that sort of complicating work poetry does, and for which I love it so deeply?” How does one both “make it new” (to reference Pound’s often-misappropriated dictum) and still adhere to an inherited standard of craft? Is it possible to hold convictions about the work poetry should do while also being committed to a constant reevaluation and re-interrogation of those convictions?

DBQ: As long as the conviction is to that commitment of constant reevaluation I do think such work is possible, but it’s hard. In part, it’s hard because of the poetry one writes oneself, and how that opens up a particular sensibility of seeing, and so also the same of thought. To find a way to let your approach to another’s poem merely be informed by your approach to your own and not dictated by it is one the more burdened nuances of teaching a workshop. In the oddest of ways, what has felt like a guide most to me comes from Leibniz’s Monadology. He speaks there of entelechy—the complete unfolding of a given plenum’s possibilities. If one can think of the poem on the page as a plenum—every word making up the totality of its world—then the workshop effort is to push a poem not into being “good,” or even “new” (which as you can tell from above I also have my doubts about), but into the fullest unfolding of its inherent possibilities. Such work requires those who read it and offer advice for it to enter into the poem and workshop may be no more than the effort of each reader to describe what she or he finds—a mundane work until one understands that such description (as Lyn Hejinian would have it) is exploratory and radically apprehensive work. Such workshops give back the poem to the poet as a world they created without knowing it, and revision is just unfolding the poem further according to its own natural laws.

KR: What you said about H.D.’s Sea Garden in that interview also really caught me—you claimed that “the power of the work lay not in any single poem, but in some abstract and evolving sense that what is fitting as a gift back to the old gods (governing poetry, ripening, fertility, language) could only be felt across the entirety of the book.” Is this the same poetic logic that underlies your pursuit of so many book-length projects (which, it might be then said, are themselves but segments in the larger oeuvre of your life’s work)? Spicer also commented on his work beginning, at a certain point in his life, to feel like an extension of a singular poetic project; is this true for you, too, despite the thematic designations your collections appear to orient themselves around?

DBQ: I deeply want to believe it is true, though I also feel, or maybe it is fear, that one’s own sense of such work is dimly lit at best. I’m not so sure that such building of poetic concern over many poems and even many books—the kind of subterranean coherence that marks the oeuvre of poets I most love—can be a willed effort. I do sense that no single poem is a place of arrival, but each a place of departure—and so of the books. It seems a page offers itself most as a place of wonderful abandonment. My pursuit in the book-length projects, and what I hope is the unifying harmony underneath collections of more discrete poems, is conducted with the sense that no single poem can do the work I feel most in pursuit of—and the partiality of each poem, its failure and so its fragility, is also something I think is very important, a kind of mirror poetry offers us who read it, not merely to comfort us in the same realizations about ourselves, but to encourage us in our ongoing failures, to encourage us not to heal our frailties but to trust them as what in us might be most essential to poetic work. To do so, I hope, inevitably brings the work into a kind of communication across its entirety, for to write from such a place orients the poems to those most basic crises in any given poet, his or her deep woundedness—the wound out of which reality is sought, even though reality is what wounded—that the poems keep revealing, or perhaps written so as to reveal. This work isn’t something that can be faked or something that can be cleverly planned. It just requires the work of the poem, of poetry. It is why, I suspect, some poets are so prolific—it is something that can only be encountered in doing the work, and if the encounter is necessary, is essential, then one should be writing as long as one can bear to do so.

KR: The entry titled “Other” in A Whaler’s Dictionary quotes Emmanuel Levinas (who is referenced throughout the volume): “To approach the Other in conversation is to welcome his expression, in which at each instant he overflows the idea a thought would carry away from it. It is therefore to receive from the other beyond the capacity of the I…” So many of your books directly interrogate their own materiality and metaphysics—and the materiality and metaphysics of the author-reader relationship, too. The entry for “Expression” states, “When we open a book, the face of the page confronts our face. The face of the page both masks and reveals the author who wrote the words we are reading.” And earlier, in Mulberry’s preface, you wrote that poetry “does this work in us of making I anonymous. What is a poet? A person who says I for another. But I worried that I could not say I for myself.” How does one go about the business of “saying I” for both others and oneself?

DBQ: I suppose one accepts that the poetic voice is a doubled thing—or as Allen Grossman has it, a daemonized one. The poem’s limits are not my own; my limits are more limited. The self of self-expression slips past the minor zone of offering its own experience as proof of its existence once a lyric space truly opens in the song it sings on the page. When that does occur, the I voices itself doubly, triply. It carries within it the reality of those others’ voices whose experience—even the experience of the word itself—secretly informs the nature of the poem. Susan Howe exemplifies such work, I think. She understands the poem as a haunted space. More, she understands it as Emily Dickinson would have us understand it: that Nature is a haunted house, and Art a house that wants to be haunted. The voice is that house asking to be haunted. When we can push our thinking of voice past the mere workshopism of what one is trying to achieve, to form as proof of each of our own originality, and instead see the voice as filled with that which must be unoriginal, that voice is not creative but apprehensive, then we can also see it as a gathering place, or even as Keats’s “penetralium”—that centermost space in a holy building, poorly protected by the tattered veils.

KR: When I think about incorporating citations into a project—in whatever form they might take: quotes, references, permutations, excerpts, etc.—I also think about the ethics of doing so, and what responsibilities are incurred when one borrows more than just shared language for aesthetic purposes. But you end the entry on “Other,” in which Levinas is quoted, with the declaration that “Ethics and aesthetics are one.” (Tom Phillips, who I interviewed earlier in September, mentioned that he thought—as some before him had—that ethics was in fact a subset of aesthetics: not its correlate, but its dependent.) This makes sense to me in terms of a work like This Nest, Swift Passerine, where quotation and attribution are such central aspects of your aesthetic project. But on a larger scale, I’m wondering if your claim is more an “ought” than an “is”—are you saying that our aesthetics should be ethical, and our ethics aesthetical? Or that no meaningful distinction can be made between the two?

DBQ: That sentence, “Ethics and aesthetics are one,” has been one that has been important to me, and importantly bewildering, for many years. It comes from Wittgenstein’s Tractatus (a book as important as any in how it’s led me to think about poetry). I should say I’m not exactly sure how Wittgenstein means it. My sense is that he sees that ethics and aesthetics both press down on the world an order that is by necessity outside of the world, ordering it in a mystical way because not of the logical underpinning that facts the world into existence. In this sense, ethics and aesthetics are one in that both descend so as to offer that which is beyond the fated quality of existence, a kind of grace one might say, that in altering our vision from mere necessity expands the limits of the world. They press onto us from outside that limit Wittgenstein gives us as that silence whereof one cannot speak, and allows us to incorporate into being that which otherwise would be beyond it.

KR: One of the most intriguing things for me about your re-engagement with the Romantics and Transcendentalists is how alien but fresh some of their themes feel when re-presented or transplanted in a modern (or postmodern, or post-postmodern) context. One of these is the notion of love, both essential and fraught—one which might appear uncouth or “uncool,” even, to some contemporary aesthetic groups. This Nest, Swift Passerine invokes it (“holding hands w/ / in love w/”) and takes a line from Meister Eckhart’s Sermons on the subject: “Love has no Why.” Mulberry describes “a sentence in love.” Your peers seem to have also located this impulse in your work: Lyn Hejinian writes of A Whaler’s Dictionary that “it is in fact a love poem”; Kazim Ali described This Nest as “a love letter to every breathing creature”; Peter Gizzi says the book hones in “to the heart of song.” And in the interview with Poetry, quoted above, you mention that you found yourself “grapping” with “poetic inheritance, with the fact of love’s difficulty…” What is “love’s difficulty,” and how is it—and love more generally—related to poetry and inheritance?

DBQ: Love finds in us a lack it depends upon to thrive, and that’s one difficulty. I guess I want to step back a moment and just think. I’ve recently been immersed in Keats, a process of the last few years, but intensely in the last 15 months or so. Keats’s poems, his poetic, offer themselves as a kind of erotic epistemology. I feel very much that one aspect, perhaps the largest, of my own poetic works in a similar way. I’ve long felt, and try to suggest the same to students, that part of poetry’s ongoing importance, why it’s worthy to be read and written still, among all the “posts” of our given moment, is that it teaches us how to desire. Desire and love feel to me inextricably linked. That lack love finds, I might say it also founds—that is, it makes within the self a foundation whose paradoxical nature is that, rather than being bedrock, it is emptiness. But it is a charged emptiness. Desire pushes one into encounter, it mines the self with a motion that demands one enter into that which is not one’s self, and love ethically seen, demands that the self in love relax its hold on its own personality to become something other, to exist multiply, as self and selves and other, too. Love feels adhesive and abandoning, gathers into it all that love also knows is not to be held on to, for love’s difficulty is also in feeling desire so as to desire more, to desire as an ethical-aesthetical principle which impels one not to satisfaction, but to purer degrees of want.

KR: You also talk with some frequency of “magic,” “mystery,” and “wonder” in your work. This shows up in your preface to Wonderful Investigations, too; there, you write that its essays seek “to near those ways in which wonder, magic, ritual, and initiation continue to exert a numinous presence within the work of reading.” You also use a parable to conceptualize the divide between a world a knowledge and another world “where thoughts refuse to lead to knowledge.” But are there any pitfalls to wonder? How does one negotiate a sense of “true wonder,” if you will, and escape confusing the difficult for the irreducible?

DBQ: Wonder has numerous pitfalls, even dangers. Wonder can so stymie the mind that it disengages from the very world that triggered it. Wonder astonishes; we can find ourselves as if made into stone by it, a kind of witness outside of an ethic. I keep thinking here of Cortez’s men who came into Tenochtitlan and saw before their eyes a city as if pulled from the pages of a book, something more than real and so less than real, which allowed them, in part, to commit the atrocity they did. Whenever wonder works so as to disassociate the mind from the world, I think we find ourselves mired in a crisis we seldom see as a crisis, and imagination loses its ethical possibilities in favor of the mere pleasure—not a loving pleasure—of enjoying a world that doesn’t actually exist. What concerns me most is wonder as it might reorient us back to the actual, wonder as a threshold to the real—assuming, I guess, that we are in constant need of return to the thing we are already in.

KR: You begin “The Hut of Poetry,” which was originally published in KR under a different title, with the following sentence: “The difficulty of being a nature poet is that nature always intervenes.” Do you consider yourself a nature poet? I ask this because you go on, immediately afterward, to talk about the delayed-ness and paradoxes of perception, a constant theme in your work. “But a home is never the world—a home is a separation from the world. A poem is never the world—a poem is a separation from the world.” The blurb on inside flap of Wonderful Investigations describes it as an exploration of “the problem of duality,” but it seems, also, that there are divisions inherent in not just perceiving the world but in turning away from it to write it down. “I look up from ‘sparrow’ to see sparrow,” you write in This Nest, after writing earlier that a poem “forms a lens on a page.” From your story “A Point that Flows” (harking back to Plato’s definition of the line) there’s another semblance of this: “Looking down I saw up.” Should poetry aspire to mimesis—“The virtue of an honest ethic, to write only what one sees…”—and is this attainable, or desirable? What are poets to make of this perceptual separation, if it does in fact exist, from the world they wish to access?

DBQ: I guess I do consider myself a nature poet. I should qualify that by saying I don’t know what else a poet can be. It feels to me there is a world, and we write into it to write about it. But doing so is complicated by the medium of our entry, the offering of the poem that is in itself a world, tied not only to mimesis as a primary crisis, but to the fact of the image as it doubles world to represent it. I’d want to argue for mimesis as a use of language that must attend to itself as it also attends to what it names. I might even suggest that nature knows this about the medium of language, the slippage consciousness creates between word and world as interpenetrating, not wholly embodying, realities. I think this is, in part, what Heraclitus means when he says, “Nature loves to hide.” Duality isn’t wholly of interest to me. But there is an inevitable arrival in basic dichotomies that poetry recognizes even as it tries to undermine them, keeping together what should fall apart, reconciling opposites. Such work is another reason why Romanticism is so deeply important to me—much of their deepest work occurs here.

KR: There are frequent mentions, across your books, of time you spent in a museum of Chinese art and artifacts. You write in This Nest of “wandering longer through galleries few visit,” staring “at objects in glass cases—removed from time for being touched so long by time.” Your note prefacing Mulberry meditates on composition by beginning with an anecdote about holding a work of pottery more than 6000 years old; in Wonderful Investigations, you think back to an exhibit of ancient southwestern pottery to draw more parallels between sculpture and writing. And there’s also this remarkable hybridization that happens in your books, where the act of writing and its materials are transformed. In the fifth chapter of Spell,  for instance, the ocean is imagined as paper (“The ocean as a page. Page-flat.”), the whiteness of which leads to an association by color (“Teeth and pages and the whale are white.”); lastly, the pen is described as a “dumb-spear” and the “calm sea [is] / Stanzaed into fury.” Do the materials of writing alter what perceptions it can capture and convey? What can writing learn from other disciplines, like sculpture?

DBQ: What it is necessary to learn is that for a poet language is our material. It seems obvious and simple to say, but of course, isn’t. Language asserts and betrays its own materiality, seems always more than and less than an object (curiously like a self in this sense). It is a material that can put itself in consideration of other materials in ways that one feels a block of marble may not be able to be in consideration of an Impressionist canvas. It doesn’t lessen as it is used; indeed, it seems the opposite may be true. Part of the nature of the material is its metaphoricity, its pointing at that which it isn’t, and in pointing, verging into what it’s not. Not only does language have within it the ability to alter perception, it is a remarkable forging of perception. And it may not be that it has something to learn from sculpture, etc., but the point may be more fundamental, that language is always in the process of learning from that which it isn’t. It is a medium of encounter.

KR: In the entry titled “Brain” from A Whaler’s Dictionary, you consider the brain of the sperm whale in Moby Dick, which leads to a contemplation of shape (or shapelessness, as the case may be) and function: “Form is evidence and proof of its own mortality. Form is not thinking but having had a thought…” Your writings are markedly acrobatic in terms of form: text is set against the left and right margins; sometimes it’s centered; geometrical placements abound; some lines are even crossed out. Returning to your claims about form, I’m prompted to recall Lyn Hejinian writing in The Language of Inquiry that, in being formal, poetic language “opens.” Is there ever a way in which form can be a thinking—a thinking-through, a structural process, visual evidence of ongoing-ness?

DBQ: I love that phrase you use: “a way in which form can be a thinking.” Yes, absolutely. Precisely because of what this thinking form does a poet must be devoted to the formal life of a poem. There is perhaps no more difficult work for a poet to do, though I think a poet is uniquely suited for that work. At one level, it isn’t far from what Hopkins asserts in seeking the inscape of a thing through the poem—the poem itself evidence of that inscape, revelatory of it, disclosing of it. A poem’s relation to itself even as it relates to world and other and self is of deep fascination to me. It is, I think, a formal relation. Part of what form in this sense offers is the thinking that poem can do only itself; that is, the thinking the poet cannot do within himself, the thinking that can only occur by the writing of the poem. It is perhaps hard to accept that part of what Keats may mean by an by an organic structure—“the poem should come as naturally as leaves to a tree, or it should not come at all”—involves thinking not of form, but thinking in form, as I’m trying to articulate here. Thinking is a natural law of the poem, and each poem thinks for itself. Form is what limns that work, what necessitates the poet writing the poem, for what is thought there can only be thought in the poem. Form shows that expression, creates a limit that allows that expression to exist. Form seems to both inform and to define, is a principle absolutely interior and absolutely exterior at the same time.

KR: Another “form” that interests me, if we can call it that, is the fragment—the presentation of snippets of material as such, whether quoted or “original” to oneself. In Spell you not only appropriate this form, but Melville’s own permutation of the form—titling it “Extracts” just as he did when prefacing Moby Dick with a similar section. The entries “Line” and “Tongue” from A Whaler’s Dictionary adopt this tack, too. There’s something to be said of its brevity, maybe—how it approaches aphorism, and at the same time risks commodifying history. (“Aphorism is aristocratic thinking: this is all the aristocrat is willing to tell you,” wrote Susan Sontag.) What are the benefits of the fragment—or the aphorism, the epigram, the epigraph—and what are, perhaps, its drawbacks? Are there more than just superficial differences between the “fragmentary” and the “complete”?

DBQ: A genuine fragment is more whole for its brokenness. We can feel it is so in Sappho, in Heraclitus, in Simonides. It says more than itself in how absence occurs within it. Far from the aphorism being “aristocratic,” I might suggest that the aphorism is that form of writing that most invites absence to intervene within it. The aphorism hazards a truth-claim about the world. This is a naked effort, a vulnerable one, for it opens up the assertion of fact to every doubt that can disassemble it. Time is one such doubt. So is knowledge as it builds over time. We feel in the aphorism the resistance to those forces even as they work to destroy it, even as we ourselves may cease to believe in the aphorism, and its utmost importance is in allowing us to witness that process that is so often hidden from us. We feel the pointed drama—even the tragedy—of consciousness in the fragment in ways we very seldom do elsewhere.

KR: The motif of the compass—and all it might imply: direction, mobility, navigation as a mode of mobility (which is also temporal movement)—appears both semantically and visually in your books, the latter in a way reminiscent of Johnson’s concrete poetry, which you cite. In This Nest, the N/E/S/W configuration is even made explicit on the page with a positive “+” sign acting as its center; in the same volume you also write “north no center // looking up and both / are true” and “The compass point / On which the needle spins is soldered / To abyss.” From the title of North True South Bright—for which Donald Revell praised you by saying that “the compass of his [your] eye to be perfectly exact, precisely true”—to the geographical references in Spell (“You fold / Circumference into center—you tell me both / Are one”; “The world is flat if the page is flat. / …Here’s one country: my hand.”), compasses and the planes they translate are everywhere. What is it about this symbol of located-ness that results in its prevalence in your work?

DBQ: I’m not so sure it’s an issue of being or becoming located for me, although that must be somewhere inside the symbol of the compass. I feel there is something in the work of writing a poem, likewise of reading it, that is orienting. I feel it in Dickinson’s “The Sailor cannot see the North— / But knows the Needle can.” In ways that feel closely akin to Platonic aporia, the poem shepherds us into bewilderment—a being lost that must occur if the poem is also going to open us to finding that north that can be found in no other way save the becoming lost.

KR: What prompted you to begin Wonderful Investigations with essays, move into meditations, and then end it with four tales? At the end of the book, you write of the last section as “the hazy border to the wonder-world. But the entry for “Knowledge” in A Whaler’s Dictionary begins with the statement that mystery “retreats before knowledge,” which seems to place knowledge on a higher pedestal than mystery, or at least sets up a dichotomous relationship between the two—this makes for a more difficult definition of just what “mystery” is. Does mystery lead to knowledge, or should we lead ourselves from knowledge back into mystery, as the sequencing of Wonderful Investigations seems to suggest?

DBQ: I’m most interested in that place where knowing and not-knowing have not yet resolved into their opposition. Keats’s negative capability opens up the possibility of the poem as a means of dwelling in just such a half-lit place. I’m curious about the knowing that comes from wonder’s bafflement, the consideration that survives beauty’s obliteration. The structure of Wonderful Investigations mimics the mirror of fairy tales, that classic symbol of unexpected equivalence. The long essays on aspects of wonder felt somehow an out from wonder’s difficulty. They seek to recognize how wonder is at work in the authors I’m concerned with in them—Keats, Thoreau, Eliot, Proust—and in doing so remove themselves from suffering their own concern. (I work hard in writing such essays to make them beautiful so as to contain within themselves a counter to their own mind.) The meditations are a threshold back into myth and monstrosity, a loosening of reason’s hold, that allow one to enter into the reciprocal tales. Those tales posit them as fiction, but they aren’t, not really. I meant them as fairy tales, not concerned with narrative motion, not the craft of fiction, but allowing the symbols within them to guide the unfolding of the story. I wanted to find a way to write so as to give the brunt of the story over to the figure that dominated them, not plot, but the awry engine of a symbol in all its chaotic energy. The structure of the book is one that begins by considering wonder, and ends in suffering it—it felt dishonest, in a sense, to think without experiencing that which threatens thought.

KR: What motivates you to repeat certain elements when writing, whether they be formal elements, phrases, themes, or images? This Nest depends on a specific kind of self-made repetition: the series of “Twinings” of themes that make the titular nest, and then the ultimate “Twining of Twinings.” In North True South Bright, the image of the almond and the mulberry leaf can be found, as they can also in the later Mulberry; the Tower of Babel cranes upward in North True South Bright and also in A Whaler’s Dictionary; an image of “darning needles” resurfaces and dives down in This Nest. Sometimes the repetition becomes reproduction, or at least mimeograph: “All men live enveloped in whale-line”—a quote from Emerson—appears in Spell and in A Whaler’s Dictionary (though in the latter book with an “s” appended to the last word). If fate “occurs in repetition,” as you’ve written, what kind of fate have you tried to create for yourself or your work by employing repetition?

DBQ: Sometimes I think, like the stitch-work of the darning needle, that repetition is what holds the whole together. It feels so of days as they repeat through a life, the blinking of an eye is it takes in the day, sleep as disrupts again and again our waking. Repetition, from refrain to the return to thematic concerns to repeated images, is just such a stitch-work for me. It should also be noted that in the image such repetitions comes in as a kind of violence, a piercing of the whole so as to make it more whole, to make the whole connective, apprehensive. Repetition at the level of line, refrain, also counters time as a merely linear force—a line that cannot help but be an introduction to mortality. The refrain pulls the reader back to a moment already occurring, not a past tense, but an ongoing present, so that within the poem we find an unexpected access to an archaic sense of time, a demonstration of eternal return, and the poem in ways we shy away from now, becomes again a thing concerned with eternity. It keeps us attuned to the reality of sacred spaces, mythic spaces, that which unfolds on the page in its repetitions, in refrain and in rhyme. When repetition comes with that sense in the reader of prediction, of expectation—that which form as such lets us feel and lets us glimpse—well, that is one of the few times in life in which we feel a sense of fate, or oriented toward that which has yet to happen by knowing it will. That feels to me like a needed experience, and is one of the reasons we turn to poems when we do, and as we do—to feel fated.

KR: I wanted to ask about your ideas of chaos and stasis, and how those inform your writing. In the entry for “Chaos” in A Whaler’s Dictionary, you argue that “to speak materializes word into world… we dwell in such wording, such worlding.” It’s interesting to me that you talk about “an urge back toward silence,” if the primordial silence—the “grammar in the abyss”—was the chaos preceding the speech that constitutes our search for meaning: our search “is not for language, but done in language.” Chaos is also described in This Nest as a function of human physiology: “the healthy heart is chaotic between every beat.” I’m reminded of Frost’s “Design,” where we’re asked to consider if order is a local or universal phenomenon: “What but design of darkness to appall? / —If design govern in a thing so small.” Metaphysical grandiosity aside, is there some greater order in literature or nature (or in both, or neither) that we should be after? Does language impose an artificial order, get us closer to “orderly” meaning, or something else entirely—is it a successful tool for arriving back at that silence?

DBQ: I’m not sure one can be in that silence that is chaos; one can only get closer to those forms of order that immediately emerge from it. In some sense, every order is artificial, is artifice; and so a poet works in techne, and a poem is a made thing. The blank page is a form of chaos, and in ways perhaps too easily forgotten each poem is a work made possible—as is the cosmos that is world—by the silence from which it emerges and to which it helplessly opposes itself. A poem feels to me as if it is re-enacting that oldest of stories, where chaos alters, where Night and Eros merge into world, and an order is formed. Can one arrive back at that silence? To ask about origins, to seek them, this is a poem’s encouragement; it may be its fundamental gift. I don’t know if it can take us into silence, but perhaps it can take us to that edge where silence can be felt, heard almost, so that the margin sings to us of beginnings and endings, and the white of the page between the dark words offers us a reminder of the chaos that lurks necessarily under form. Is it too much to say that the written page is a demonstration of the world’s own formation? Probably. But I think it is.

KR: You mentioned you were working on a project having something to do with Keats. Can you tell me more about that, and how it links in to the volumes you’ve already completed (if it does)?

DBQ: I just finished a short book on Keats that will be published by Iowa UP’s new (and quite wonderful) Muse Series. It is titled While the Bee-Mouth Sips: Keats and the Poetics of Ardor. It seeks to do a strange thing, walk a fine line. It has two interwoven components. It contains within it a series of “allegorical portraits,” a notion that leaps off of Keats’s sense that most important aspects of our lives are allegorical, though few eyes can see it. I wanted to offer a way into his biography that didn’t privilege the historical over the symbolic, and so have chosen certain moments in his life, from childhood to his death, that pressed on in a certain way reveal something of the Poet as it also reveals something of the man. The other part is a chronological moving through the letters and poems showing, from 1816-1820, how his poetic concerns developed and changed over time, arriving most poignantly in the Odes of 1819, which hold not the solution or conclusion of his thinking, but are themselves the crucible of his poetic’s difficulty, and their power is in their searching through their own ideas for proof they also know they cannot find. I suppose one cannot help but discover oneself in the work one does on another, and so I do find this book a kind of statement of my own highest hopes for my poetic work, an explanation of their highest aspiration found by looking at a poet I deeply love and have learned from. It is part of the whole work in that way, as everything I’ve written seems to come from that same drive to study, and through study, to offer a tribute.

2 thoughts on “A metaphysic of the page, a mode of inquiry called wonder: an interview with Dan Beachy-Quick

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