Chris: 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 Becca Barniskis reads “St Mary Magdalene Preaching at Marseilles” by Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin.
Becca, this is an awesome poem you’ve read for us today. Almost a year ago now I interviewed Adam Tavel who mentioned how he strives to read English language poetry written outside of the U.S. Is that something you make a priority as well?
Becca: More and more lately, yes. But when I first read this poem back in the 90’s I barely knew anything about any contemporary poets writing in the U.S. let alone outside the U.S. I just happened to stumble across Ní Chuilleanáin’s poetry in a review and felt an immediate affinity for her work. I read the book this poem is taken from, The Magdalene Sermon and Earlier Poems (Wake Forest University Press, 1991), over and over. The rhythms and terseness of the poems really appealed to me. And the way she created mystery out of a familiar world. Her work made me feel like I could write poems finally, something I had not allowed myself to do since high school. Eventually I took a class at the Loft Literary Center here in Minnesota, enrolled in a graduate program and embarked on a whole lifetime of writing and reading and performing poetry of all kinds. And when I went back to this poem last week after not having read it for at least ten years, I realized that the tropes of sainthood, a woman “on the loose,” sexuality (disguised as hair), expressing nuanced political and historical ideas through a particular character and depiction of place—these are all things that I explore in my own poetry. I never set out consciously to do those things, but Ní Chuilleanáin’s approach definitely lodged in my writing brain.
Now all these years later, after my MFA and after having studied and read a very wide variety of contemporary poets, I wouldn’t say that I necessarily make it a priority to read English language poetry written outside the U.S., but I do make it a priority to seek out poets who are writing in ways that are unfamiliar to and surprise or unnerve me. And I think that it’s more important than ever for American poets to know the work of poets not from here. We are in a particularly conservative phase in American poetry—as if we have forgotten what it means to really push and experiment with language. Instead I see and hear poets really hung up on getting their point or personal experience across. Or they embark on very academic or moralistic projects that are extremely boring! Everyone knows that climate change sucks. Or that oppression is oppressive. Or that war makes people do evil things. We all struggle, balk, suffer, love, die, some of us more often and in worse ways than others. But when I read a poem I want it to tell me something new and to blow up tired rhetoric; to use technique and language that jolts me into new insights and associations. Poets need to work the medium of language more assiduously to help us see our human experience in new ways. That’s our job as poets: to constantly work and push our medium. Not to find a subject or way of writing that people like and then settle in to doing that over and over. We should be challenging ourselves and our audiences, not catering to them. Irish writers that I love like Beckett, Joyce, Ní Chuilleanáin, and most recently, Eimar McBride, do things with the English language that are exciting. And they also manage to be deeply subversive without devolving into self-conscious authorial posturing. There are many other writers out there, who, like the Irish, have used the language of their oppressors—English—to great effect in order to subvert the status quo and offer fresh perspectives and ideas.
Chris: I noticed an interesting thing going on with the use of commas in the middle of lines creating a division of the metrical feet. For instance, the line “And she breathes evenly, her elbows leaning” is one example, and the line, “On their stomachs, like breathless fish.” is another. I’m not sure I’ve seen or noticed that in U.S. poetry. I’m embarrassed to ask, but what’s going on there with that use of the comma? Does it change how you read the poem?
Becca: I hadn’t thought about how she’s using commas until you pointed it out. It is idiosyncratic and interesting once you start paying attention to them. Certainly in this poem the comma plays a role. In the lines you quoted the comma enacts the characters’ own pauses in their breathing while also slowing the line down for us as readers. The word “comma,” the image and shape of the comma all appear throughout this poem. You can see the hair that covers St Mary Magdalene as a profusion of commas, they act as little hooks catching at her, and in the penultimate stanza, there appears a “comma of ice” and finally those sepia feet of the water-weeds that flip altogether at the end feel like even more commas to me. I love how Ní Chuilleanáin evokes so much in such a short poem: the strange prison and the freedom that comes from being a female saint in the Catholic tradition—and Mary Magdalene in particular with all the associations of her being both “loose” and holy. Evoking such a deep and nuanced history in a twenty-three-line poem shows a kind of skill and efficiency to which I constantly aspire in my own work.
Chris: You mention that Ní Chuilleanáin’s approach is something you subconsciously strive towards and that she writes with an efficiency you admire. Are there other elements of this poem that you try emulate in your own work? What are the parts of this poem that jolt you?
Becca: I love its use of present tense. That gives it an immediacy that I find exhilarating and that makes the character of St Mary Magdalene seem alive right now—she’s not a dusty legend. I love the description of her day in small moments, not epic ones: she leans on her elbows and watches the boys in the piazza playing on their toy carts; she tucks her hair around her and gazes off into the distance, maybe thinking about the next morning and where to go next. She feels like a real person with an interesting inner life—not a caricature of a saint. There is nothing in this poem that goes over the material that I might expect to find in a poem about a saint who preaches. That surprising perspective on a “known” subject is very exciting to me and that is something I try to do in my own work.
I am also really taken with how this poem ends. It has always felt very mysterious to me the way that its focus and imagery unexpectedly shifts to the marshes in the distance. There’s shining water out there. Not yet frozen water-weeds that are lying collapsed and then flip suddenly “their thousands of sepia feet.” What is that about? Are the marshes and their waters a metaphor for the blemished human soul that shines through the weeds? Why is it important that the water is not yet frozen? Are those weed-feet alive and choosing to move or simply being manipulated by the tide/God/ruler and entirely passive, marching in step? Does Mary Magdalene think about her responsibility to move people to salvation, now, before her own ardor cools? I like how this part of the poem raises all these possible questions without easily landing on one simple explanation. They are not, however, each “THE QUESTION,” a triumph in itself; rather they are provocative, often mundane questions well-posed in the special language of poetry such that the reader has no choice but to begin to imagine answers to all of them.
I also really appreciate that the way that Ní Chuilleanáin describes those “suburban marshes” makes them seem like she could see them out her own window. Her description is accurate and closely observed—not too showy, but very stunning.
Chris: I dig your earlier comment about poets having to challenge not only themselves, but also their audiences. How are you doing that in your own writing? What sort of things are you writing about and challenging your readers with?
Becca: Well, for a long time I have been interested in characters in my poems. They have popped up repeatedly over the years in my work, sometimes issuing forth dramatic monologues, sometimes in conversation with other characters. Sometimes they just start talking. I appreciate the freedom that a character with its own voice can give me as the poet. I can talk as someone entirely unlike me, Becca. I can say things and imagine worlds that are not my own. I perform and improvise with musicians often lately, and I allow my characters to sing and say things spontaneously that are not the usual poetry one hears at a poetry reading. Like a genocidal blue-gill fish who wants all the other pan fish in the lake he lives in to die. Or a squirrel who wants to fly and reads from a pilot’s manual to learn. Or a person who buys a bag of poets at the gas station to snack on.
I recently completed an entire manuscript of “village” poems. The villages are each characterized by metaphorical, associative, political, historical, and technical-scientific dimensions. These are not ordinary villages—they’re in outer space, made of ice cream, carved in soap, populated by birds, inhabited by people who live to play football, full of bored people, or described only in relation to pancakes—I went all over the place. I was following a loose idea of “community” and who gets in and who stays out and how a community can form out of a conversation between two people or between the air and light. It isn’t a gimmick, it just was an idea I could not let go of. These poems baffle some because readers are not sure always how to take them. The poems are full of discontinuities. Some readers want me to tell them exactly what the politics are, or how these poems relate to me personally and then use that as their entry point. But the whole point as I see it is for me to not know how these poems relate to me personally—poetry that arises out of one’s unconscious is much more interesting and weird and lively! And sometimes it is best to not peer too closely at oneself. Also, I expect my readers to work a little at making their own meaning. And I strive to provide them with enough interesting raw materials to do just that.
I also completed another manuscript of poems, even more recent than the village poems, and this one is filled with saints. But not the usual kind. I grew up Catholic and have a very particular internalized sense of what it means to be a saint—I was sure I would be one for some time when I was young and I strove very hard to be holy. These poems that I have been working on allow me to explore objects and animals and politics and culture through the lens of sainthood. They are short poems in the voice of Saint Coffee Cup or Saint Batted Eyelash or Saint Telephone or Saint Egg or Saint Mutt or Saint Cow…they are amusing but also serious. I mean for them to be serious. It’s like Ní Chuilleanáin’s water-weeds’ thousands of sepia feet—they are lovely and swaying, almost seeming to ignore you, but they could drown you
Becca Barniskis has a chapbook of poems, Mimi and Xavier Star in a Museum That Fits Entirely in One’s Pocket (Anomalous Press) that is available also as a collaboration with musician Nick Jaffe in both vinyl LP and in digital formats. Her poetry has appeared in numerous journals, most recently Sporklet, Handsome, The Boiler, and Mid-American Review, and she performs her poetry to live audiences regularly as part of the bands Downrange Telemetrics and Pancake7. She is co-author of the Teaching Artist Handbook and lives in St Paul, Minnesota. More at beccabarniskis.com.
Chris Petruccelli is the author of the chapbook Action at a Distance (Etchings Press). His poetry appears or is forthcoming in Appalachian Heritage, Still: The Journal, Nashville Review, Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel, and elsewhere. In his free time Chris enjoys drinking whiskey and smoking cigarettes with older women.