Melissa Kwasny is the author of four books of poetry, most recently The Nine Senses (Milkweed Editions, 2011). Her prose collection, Earth Recitals: Essays on Image and Vision, was recently published by Lynx House Press (2013). She lives in western Montana. An excerpt from her poem “Letter to the Soul” can be found here, and the entire poem appears in the Fall 2013 issue of The Kenyon Review.
Is there a story behind your KR poem “Letter to the Soul”? What was the hardest part about writing it?
I first encountered Ankoku-Butoh, or Dance of Utter Darkness, in a film of a troop of dancers depicting the suffering and dead after the bombing of Hiroshima. Their ghastly and ghostly figures, moving up a hill, expressed devastation so silently, so slowly, that it was like watching the spirits of the firestorm victims from behind the veil of time. It was as if their suffering had taken over the bodies of the dancers and we, as an audience, were required to look them in the eye. I was equally horrified and drawn in.
It is said that Butoh developed as a language to help the dancer transform into other states of being, much like the ritual drumming or prayers of a shaman would do. Mirceau Eliade, the great researcher of mystical states, writes that it is in his “ability to travel in the supernatural worlds and to see the superhuman beings (gods, demons, spirits of the dead, etc.) that the shaman has been able to contribute decisively to the knowledge of death.” Kazuo Ohno, one of the originators of the dance, and one of its most famous practitioners, said that Butoh means “to meander, to move, as it were, in twists and turns between the realms of the living and the dead.” Describing the state that he experiences while dancing, he said, “A great many people are constantly coming to life in me. Aren’t they reaching out to me in my day to day life as their souls permeate my body?”
Ohno, in Eikoh Hosoe’s photographs, seems to me an embodiment of the human soul—aged, weathered, fraught, wounded—the soul not in terms of religion but rather in the shamanic sense, as a part of us that is deeply connected to the earth and, thus, capable of understanding the catastrophic “language of nature.” I had already begun a series of poems exploring the concept of the soul, and when a poet friend, Brandon Shimoda, sent me Hosoe’s stunning online versions of Ohno, in his nineties, performing alone by a river in rural Japan, I was moved to write the poem included here.
Your poem could be considered ekphrasis on two levels: first, as a response to Hosoe’s photos, and, secondly, as a response to butoh dance and performance. What challenges do you face when writing about works of art in other mediums? What opportunities can this present?
The challenge is to avoid shallowness, i.e. simply describing, reflecting, or reproducing the photograph or dance, as if the source were insufficient in itself. That seems the most obvious. Since first encountering Butoh, I have seen a few live performances, watched online videos, and read some excellent books on the subject, most notably Kazuo Ohno’s World: From Without and Within by the dancer and his son Yoshito Ohno, which includes marvelous photos of Ohno at different stages of his life. In writing “Letter to the Soul,” I brought all of that to it, as well as my current thinking about the human species as it exists in the natural landscape. That cluster or matrix of my attentions was focused finally through the images in Hosoe’s photographs. It is the tragic mystery in the photographs, the spiritual and animal nature of the soul that both dancer and photographer were able to capture, that I wanted to express in the poem, that I was drawn to, because of something in me that was already moving toward expression. We are not drawn to images arbitrarily.
Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing?
I suppose it is the fact that I live and have lived in the same mountains of rural Montana for over thirty years, that I spend a lot of time alone in a place I know intimately. I have also been fortunate to know many American Indian people here from whom I have learned a great deal, about history, family, art, and ways to live one’s life more ceremoniously, with more gratitude.
In the 1950’s, John Crowe Ransom invited a coterie of critics (William Empson, Northrop Frye, etc.) to write a “credo” for The Kenyon Review. The results became an essay series by 10 leading critics on their core beliefs regarding literature and the critical practice, entitled “My Credo.” What would you include in your own credo? What core beliefs do you have about literature and books?
Lynx House Press recently published a collection of my essays, Earth Recitals: Essays on Image and Vision, which contains much of my thinking on poetry, art, and literature in general. A labor of over a decade—I find the writing of prose a slower, more excruciating process than the writing of poetry—the book consists of eight essays on the life of the natural image and its role in visionary experience. I’d like to answer this question by quoting from the introduction: “In investigating the differences between image and vision, allegory and symbol, the abstract and the concrete, my intention is to explore the question: how might we draw on our encounters with the non-human, whether we are writers or not, to enlarge our consciousness as human beings, and thus, to live more wholly? Or put another way: how might poetry facilitate and transform our initial perception of a “thing” into another form of being, more closely resembling a dialogue between object and subject? Most importantly, I believe in the potential of the image—particularly the image from the non-human world—to bridge the increasing rift between human consciousness and nature’s consciousness, that ‘the shaping spirit of Imagination,’ as Samuel Taylor Coleridge called it, might help unite ‘the living self to the living outer world.'” These are investigations that have been with me most of my writing life. I have always thought of credo more as a pointing in a direction than an answer, an end.
Could you tell us a little about one of your current or upcoming writing projects?
During the course of writing the essays in the aforementioned book, especially the central, extended essay, entitled “The Imaginal Book of Cave Paintings,” I became especially interested in the ancient origins of our concept of the soul. Although historians of religion such as Erwin Rohde, author of Psyche: The Cult of Souls and Belief in Immortality among the Greeks, have placed the beginning of the philosophy of the soul with the Greeks, even he speculates that the Dionysian rites that led up to it were of much older origin. It could be that Paleolithic people who painted images in caves and pecked or incised them into rocks conceived of the immortal part of animal or humankind that continues its existence after death, a concept for which there is no other word but soul, because of their travels in trance to this deeper world.
These ideas, as well as my ongoing interest in and relationship with tribal people in Montana, have led me to begin a new series of poems of which these in Kenyon Review are some of the first. I am interested in writing poems that speak to and address concepts of the contemporary soul, the damaged soul, the American soul tainted by the torture it has enacted on recent detainees, the soul of America after the devastation it has enacted on the tribal people (and the self that refuses to speak of this), the blindfolded, gagged soul of history, as well as the soul of those who survived: the Indians who continue ceremonial traditions, the Japanese Butoh dancers who devised an expression that would include the souls of those incinerated in the nuclear bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima.