Carolina Ebeid, a CantoMundo Fellow, grew up in New Jersey. She holds a degree from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas. Her work has appeared in Poetry, 32 Poems, Gulf Coast, H_NGM_N, Copper Nickel, and many other journals. She is currently living in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, where she is the 2012-13 Stadler Fellow at Bucknell University. Her poems “Aher, in a Vale of Asters,” and “Aher, the Other, at the Ear of God” appeared in the Winter 2013 issue of The Kenyon Review. This interview was conducted by KR editor at large G.C. Waldrep.
First, tell us about Aher. Who or what is it or s/he? Are these two KR poems part of a current manuscript-in-progress, and if so, how do they fit in (or not) with other work?
These two poems come out of a small manuscript I wrote called “This World which is Wholly Night” for whose poems orbit around a story in the Talmud: Four Who Went Into Paradise. I took a seminar with the novelist Joseph Skibell in which we read Talmudic tales, examining their symbols, characters, their structures which are so often riddles with aporia. The Aher refers to Elisha ben Avuyah, a rabbi born in the first century CE in Palestine. He was renamed the Aher (אחר), which in Hebrew means “the other one,” for his heretical thinking. There are many tales about him in the Talmud, but the Four Who Went Into Paradise is my favorite. Paradise is an orchard in which one will encounter “slabs of pure transparent marble.” One of the four warns the rest, “do not say: Water, water!” when they stand before the glittering slabs. This seems like the most luminous, beautiful thing, this marble. But one mustn’t say as much, one must not compare it to falling water or otherwise try to replicate such mystical beauty with words, as there is no earthly measure for what is in paradise. I think perhaps wonderment mutes us in a similar way.
We still live largely, in American poetry, in a post-confessional landscape. While the “I” in “Aher, in a Vale of Asters” seems stable, the action and description of the poem feels dreamlike, oneiric. Every poem is a poem of experience, surely, but of what sort of experience is this poem born? Tell us a little bit about your compositional process.
First, thank you for not identifying the poem as a persona poem; I certainly wasn’t constructing a mask that would resemble the Aher, though I was thinking through an imagined, “aheric” world-sorrow. I have to admit, I love the idea of oneiric action in a poem, or that a poem can follow a dream-logic, whose trajectory is at once unpredictable and inevitable. I wish I could say that this poem draws from the experience of writing in itself, which is sometimes autochthonous, springing up from the page, from the very act of writing, stimulated/activated by putting pencil to paper. But I was not so lucky here. This poem was made by cutting lines and limbs from a file of defunct poems to make a new creature. When I look at it, I see a toy chimera: a smiling goat’s head, somewhere the tail of a snake, a lion’s body stuffed with newspapers. I often work this way, trying to fit together phrases, lines, images from a notebook or dismantled poems. The opening to Frank O’Hara’s “In Memory of My Feelings” usually swirls in my head when I am writing: “My quietness has a man in it, he is transparent / and he carries me quietly, like a gondola, through the streets.” I was echoing those lines in the beginning of my poem. More often than not, my poems are born out of the experience of reading.
I’m interested in myth, and one of the questions I’m going to be asking each of the writers this round will deal with myth in contemporary American literature: whether or how it works. How does myth move in the landscapes of these two poems? What, if any, is the relevance of myth or mythic process to your work?
How myth functions in our patchwork culture is fascinating to think about. I’m always cautious to define our present moment, or to examine a monolithic “we.” It is safe to say that we use the sciences to explain the phenomena of our world, and that we don’t turn to “mythic” explanations, which is to say, mystery. I’m interested in the double-mind that can look up at the natural satellite the moon is, understanding its physical properties, and still see the rabbit from the Mesoamerican myth, flung up there to darken the second sun. “And to feel that the light is a rabbit-light,” writes Wallace Stevens in “A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts.” Such creation-myths are scripted on the landscape. Out of mystery comes mythology; it’s in that negative space of mystery that we make not so much an explanation, but make something beautiful––the story of the narcissus flowers. Isn’t mystery a vital part of art-making? Aren’t we still reaching a hand into the dark? I’m very attracted to how myth is alive in Cormac McCarthy’s imagination, in his novels that explore evil, or the potential of darker forces moving through the landscape. An enchanted landscape. The two poems in this issue reject myth, I think, because both inhabit a speaker that has fallen away from God’s love and lives in some hardened shadowplace where the life of the imagination isn’t possible.
Speak a little bit to the power of metaphor in contemporary poetry. Is it figurative? Alchemical? Something else entirely? How does metaphor function in your own work? What is metaphor’s role in contemporary American art or culture?
Metaphor as alchemy! That’s a metaphor I like. Just looking at the early history of the word alchemy tells us something about metaphor’s function in contemporary poetry. Here is only part of the etymology for the word in the Oxford English Dictionary:
branch of medieval science whose goal was the transmutation of baser metals into gold (1275 in Old French as alkimie ), metal alloy imitating gold, alloy of gold or silver with a baser metal (1387), intrigue (late 14th cent.), complex and more or less mysterious activity (a1460), trickery, deceit (1547),
Metaphor, indeed, does the work of “transmutation,” of “imitating gold.” The activity of metaphor is “complex” and “mysterious.” Metaphor becomes “trickery, deceit.” I see them being applied self-consciously: “here is a metaphor,” says the poem, “it is a mischief.” There is something of the trick that contemporary poetry loves. It’s like watching a woman being sawed in half on stage: we know the screams and blood aren’t real, but something terrifies nonetheless. I am wildly invested in metaphor; it is how I understand and explain concepts in my everyday. When I am working through a metaphor, or its cousin metonym, I am interested in examining how the tenor and the vehicle interact. Anatomy: “It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.” They transform one another, woman and sun. And yet, there is such semantic distance between Juliet and sun, approximately 147 billion meters of semantic distance! Of course the word itself is a metaphor: something is being carried over in the very word, meaning to “carry” to “bear.”