Sundress: Welcome to Lyric Essentials, where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer. Today Anne Champion reads “Prayer to Delay the Apocalypse” from Rookery by Traci Brimhall.
Brimhall is widely published: The New Yorker, Poetry, Ploughshares, Kenyon Review to name just a handful of journals; her last full length was published with W. W. Norton. What was your first encounter with her work like? Was it Rookery?
Anne Champion: Rookery was the first collection I read of hers. Sometimes the right book just collides with you at the right time. I had recently left a long term relationship in which my boyfriend had been unfaithful. I was in grad school at the time, and I confided in another student. Later that day, he emailed me a link to Brimhall’s “Aubade with a Broken Neck,” and said that her work might speak to me as much of Rookery deals with infidelity.
I immediately bought the collection, and I read it several times. It’s hard to describe my experience with that book—it was personal, it was finding a kindred spirit, it was spiritual, it was inspiring, it was heartbreaking. At every turn, I marveled at her images, her hard hitting truths, her gorgeous rhythm, cadence, and movement of a line. As the poem I chose suggests, Brimhall is unafraid to tackle big game in her subject matter, and she unabashedly stares directly into the abyss, revolting and marveling at the profane simultaneously. There’s so much wonder in her work, and even at its darkest, I feel strangely hopeful and comforted.
Sundress: It is often about the right piece at the right time. This is a prayer that seems both simple—to be cared for like an angel would carry someone—and complex at the same time. I’m guessing that complexity is ‘the abyss’ you mentioned. Can you walk us through “Prayer to Delay the Apocalypse”?
Anne Champion: “Prayer to Delay the Apocalypse” strikes me as incredibly layered and complex. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of the poem itself as a sort of prayer, a calling out to the world for something. And this poem does exactly that, though what it calls for is unexpected. Anyone familiar with the Book of Revelations would see why we might want to avoid the nightmare of the Apocalypse, but Brimhall seems to suggest she wants to avoid the utopian idea of perfection and heaven. The speaker claims she wants a heaven that’s “dirty, beautiful, and sinking” with “riots in the city of peace.” She doesn’t want to be spared gunshots outside her window or a creepy stranger who touches her while she’s sleeping.
But why? The speaker mentions that gone would be “Goya, Paris, and the Marinsky ballet.” In this, she’s suggesting that the world’s seedy underbelly serves us in inspiration, it is the catalyst for the most admirable part of the human condition: art.
I feel like this hits a complex truth: as much as we hate the world’s evils, as much as a more perfect world is in our dreams, we do, indeed, “love what we kill.” The world, in all its infallibility, in all its pain, is still a world we cherish, just as imperfect people (like the speaker’s father mentioned at the end) are people we deeply desire to be loved by.
Last year I went on a peace delegation to Palestine: I’ve never been so sad in what I witnessed there. I’ve also never been so inspired by the human spirit. It’s a binary so tightly woven, and Brimhall’s poem seems to suggest that heaven would unweave it and leave the beauty in tatters.
I also love the references to God, the Devil, and other religious myths. For example, it starts with lifting a candle to see who the speaker speaks to—that’s a nod to the Greek mythology of Eros and Psyche. The cadence of the poem sounds like a sermon—it booms in its confident declarations. And the form—tercets with each line indented—works in a couple of ways. Tercets generally signify instability, as three is an odd number. You never have a three-legged chair or a three wheeled car, for example. It just can’t hold things up. But the indents also feel like a constant reaching out and pulling back, like waves on a shore, a cycle of begging and being denied or ignored–something like prayer. You can only reach out, but nothing reaches back to you.
Sundress: There is so much in what you just said—I’m taken with the image of tercets being naturally uneven.
Am I right to say than that the speaker of the poem doesn’t necessarily believe that the artist or poet needs to especially suffer as an individual in order to create art, but rather that it is the general mess of the world that inspires artists? The simple everyday chaos? When you first read “Prayer to Delay the Apocalypse,” was it a poem which supported or challenged your personal views?
Anne Champion: Correct—I don’t think this poem attempts to promote the tired cliche that all artists must suffer. I actually don’t believe in that myself—I think we can and should write about all subjects, including happiness, love, exaltation. Nor do I think this poem wants to suggest that suffering in the world is necessary, or even good. I hate the injustices in the world. I don’t feel inspired by dead children washing up on beaches, by unarmed people of color murdered by cops. I will write about them, yes, in an attempt to combat them, but I do not sing the praises of suffering. I would love to see a better world, and I hope to actively keep fighting for it.
So yes, I think this poem is praising the chaos, praising the ways we can still sing, write, and create in the midst of the imperfect world. It praises the wonder of what we are capable of, despite everything. It’s actually awe striking that we can have so much awe and joy, given the terrors, both large and small, that fall upon humanity’s shoulders. Even in the midst of it all, we can still want to “die of love.”
When I first read it, it didn’t challenge or support my previous beliefs, but it showed me a truth that I didn’t know I already knew. I love when a poem can do that.
Sundress: Do you think your experience in Palestine was at all influenced by having previously read “Prayer to Delay the Apocalypse”? When you were in Palestine did this poem come to mind?
Anne Champion: Nothing could have really influenced or prepared me for the experience in Palestine. I did a ton of reading: I read poetry, history, political articles, and kept current on the news. And still—I was not at all prepared for the range of emotions I felt, the things I witnessed, or the stories I heard.
Actually the experience is really hard to articulate. I can never answer any questions about it well except to say that I can’t describe it all. I felt every range of emotion, every day. But I was also in a constant state of grief, as the situation there is quite dire, bleak, and heartbreaking. But then I felt adoration and gratitude for the people I met, for the spirit of resistance, and the art I witnessed.
To be honest, this poem didn’t come to mind during the experience—but no poems did. I was simply trying to cope, trying to absorb as much as possible and manage the grief I was feeling, while also figuring out a way to become useful to the cause in a concrete way.
It was only after coming home and beginning to process the experience that I turned back to poetry, both writing it and reading it. In reflecting on the experience, this poem simply felt even more true. It’s not that I don’t want to see horrible situations changed—I do, passionately. But I do still love this horrible world, despite everything that should have made me not love it. I don’t want the Apocalypse and heaven, I want to stay here and keep fighting for the “dirt and music.”
What is essential to you as a writer or poet? What piece changed your life? Gave you hope, validated and voiced your fears, was there while you triumphed over them? What piece brings you joy? Made you laugh or grin like a fool? Who was it who made you sit back in wonder, inspiring you to be a stronger writer? We want to know. Send us a recording (or packet of short recordings) of you reading your Lyric Essential—a short story, a handful of poems, an excerpt or two—to SundressLyricEssentials AT gmail DOT com. Then we’ll talk.
Anne Champion is the author of Reluctant Mistress (Gold Wake Press, 2013) and The Dark Length Home (Noctuary Press, forthcoming). Her work appears in Verse Daily, The Pinch, New South, Redivider, PANK Magazine, The Comstock Review, Thrush Poetry Journal, and elsewhere. She was a 2009 Academy of American Poets Prize recipient, a Pushcart Prize nominee, and a Barbara Deming Memorial Grant recipient. Find her at anne-champion.com.
Traci Brimhall is the author of two full-length collections: Rookery (Southern Illinois University Press, 2010), winner of the 2009 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry and Our Lady of the Ruins (W.W. Norton, 2012), selected by Carolyn Forché for the 2011 Barnard Women Poets Prize. Her poem, “The Silk Road Epistles,” appeared in Sundress Publication’s 2011 Best of the Net anthology. A graduate of Sarah Lawrence College (MFA), and Western Michigan University (PhD), Brimhall is currently an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Kansas State University.