Clare Rossini’s most recent book, Lingo, was published by the University of Akron Press. She is currently completing a collection that includes poems about science, technology, and climate change. She is artist-in-residence at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, where she directs a program placing Trinity students in a public school arts classroom. Her poem “The Man Transfused with the Blood of a Sheep” can be found here. It appears along with another poem in the Sept/Oct 2016 issue of the Kenyon Review.
What was your original impetus for writing “The Man Transfused with the Blood of a Sheep”?
My dad was a high school chemistry teacher, a guy with a passion for the wonder and drama of science; one of my last conversations with him was about the search for the Higgs boson. At the same time, I was given a strict, old-fashioned Catholic education and attended daily mass for years, which meant that I was regularly immersed in the pageantry of ritual and sacrament. I don’t want to romanticize my Catholic upbringing, but the sensory aspect of it—the music, poetic language, “bells and smells” as a friend calls it—became, like science, another way to know the world and frame human experience.
What attracts me to early scientists and their experiments is the way they were slowly, often blunderingly, moving our culture away from a worldview informed by religious practices to one rooted in empirical reasoning and quantifiable observations. The tension between the two provided the drama of my own childhood: chemical reactions might be discussed at the breakfast table, then off to mass, during which a few words uttered by a priest transformed bread and wine into a deity’s flesh and blood. Which interaction with the stuff of the world was more valid, useful, “true”?
The story of Arthur Coga’s transfusion, and his response to it, raises the same question. In scientific societies of seventeenth-century Europe, the human circulatory system was a subject of much debate. The members of England’s Royal Society hoped that by replacing some of Coga’s blood with that of a healthy animal, they could cure him of his “crackt” (depressed?) mind. Coga’s response was a huge public embarrassment for the Society, a Royal stumble. More to the point, what Coga wished for was not to be more reason-able, but more sheep-like, to live in the rich sensory present of shade and grass and water. Some historians feel that Coga was put up to writing his letter by enemies of the Royal Society. Whatever his motivation, I love Coga’s Agnus Dei letter, the sly rebelliousness of it all.
Both of your poems in this issue use couplets—is there something in particular that drew you to this form for these poems? Given that both “The Man Transfused with the Blood of a Sheep” and “Anatomy, Brief History of” present the anatomical alongside the psychological, do you find there’s something about pairing your lines which allows the duality of your subjects to mingle or interact?
I like how you’ve put that—the couplets allowing “the duality of your subjects to mingle or interact.” There is a lot of shifting around in my poems, of the sort you describe and also of tone, diction, perspective. I think I’m attracted to the couplet form (which I’ve been using almost exclusively for several years) because it not only accommodates that kind of feistiness in the poem, but seems to encourage and enhance it. You read two lines, pause. Then you travel ever-so-briefly through time and space, arriving in another stanza—the word in Italian means “room”—another room where things might be a tad different from the one you just left behind. A poem written in couplets keeps the reader moving along, keeps opening doors. I like reading poems that have that kind of unsettledness and aspire to write them, too.
Do you see Arthur Coga’s desire for acquiring more sheep blood in the hopes of attaining a simpler, easier, and quieter life to be unique to him or somewhat more universally human?
I would imagine that this is a more universally human desire, though perhaps not everyone aspires to the life of a sheep! In the last couple of decades, there’s been an explosion of interest in simple living and spiritual practices. Meditation, mindfulness, and—god help us!—the decluttering frenzy have spawned mini-industries of how-to books, workshops, and gurus. It’s apparent that many of us (including me!) are exhausted by our stuff, our thoughts, our to-do lists. Most weeks, I could really use a few hours hanging out in a pasture with a flock of the like-minded. Even better, I’d like to spend a week as a tree, preferably a Norway maple.
How has your writing or writing process changed since you started out?
Oh, great question, one I talk to my students about all the time. When I first started writing seriously in college, I would produce voluminous drafts, “loose baggy monsters” that wended from reflection to impression to narrative to dialogue to detailed descriptions, all bouncing off some experience or idea. Writing those elephantine drafts was exhilarating. But then I’d sit back and read them and feel utterly overwhelmed by their fecund chaos. So I’d look for a stretch of lines that seemed to cohere, ten to twenty lines that I could lift, almost intact, out of the hodgepodge. I’d fuss and fiddle with those lines, shape and prune. When I finished the poem, I’d stand back and look—and feel utterly depressed. It was as if I’d reduced a cornucopia to one small, very polished apple.
Over time, I figured out ways how to allow more in, to work with the here and there-ness of the imagination. Now my most successful poems feel more like collages than tightly-painted miniatures. But I still often feel as if I’m writing against a compulsive desire to make a small, tidy poem.
What is either the best or the worst piece of writing advice you’ve received or given?
I’m looking at the wall in front of my desk, where a faded scrap of blue-lined paper is inscribed with this statement: “When I get the music of a poem right, I know I’ve written something true.” The late Donald Justice said that in a workshop years ago, and I continue to find his words a very helpful guide to the revising process. But Justice’s comment is also a beautiful insight into the peculiar power of poetry, no? It says that a poem’s music—however fluid or fraught—is inseparable from its value, its truth. Amen.