In May, I had the opportunity to sit and talk with Katherine Bode-Lang, whose book The Reformation is the 2014 winner of the American Poetry Review/Honickman First Book Award. I asked her to share some of the as-yet-unpublished manuscript with Tupelo Quarterly, and over email, we talked a bit more about this beautiful and surprising work.
The first poem from The Reformation I read was “Pruning,” and the first lines of the poem are these:
I am pruning the herbs.
I do not actually know
how to do this.
I thought: oh, I’m in good hands.
It’s funny how a particular simplicity and rhythm of syntax, an open humility of voice underlying the technical smarts, can establish so much relationship with the reader so quickly. That poem, and many others in the book, shine with those simultaneous, multiple intelligences.
In “The Names of Snow,” the poem seems to be an analysis of language itself, a play with it; when we come to the final stanza, though, with the “peony-flake snow” and the what-if:
…you did not know the heavy skirts
those flowers wear in early June?
Therein lies our sadness, the quiet in our mouths.
We realize we are somewhere else entirely. Somewhere much larger.
This happens a lot in your work. The cornsilk destruction of “Autumn Storm,” the thunderstorm that is the family in “When the Angels Go Bowling.”
Talk with me about this dual consciousness in your work: great beauty, and the cracks down the middle of it?
I love your phrasing of “great beauty, and the cracks down the middle of it.” It’s indeed a good place to start.
I think for me the dual nature of the poems has its roots in my experience as a child. As a minister’s daughter—while I was growing up, my sister and I were the only young children of a minister at a church with nearly 2000 members—I heard and saw what people thought and felt about my family. (People forget that six-year-olds have ears, I think.) I would never have known to call it this, but there was a mythology around my family. The myth that I took in was that my family was perfect. So I made myself love getting dressed up for church, hanging onto a parent’s hand while my mother and father chatted with parishioners after the service, wandering around the sanctuary after it was empty, still waiting for someone to take us home an hour after the service was over.
There was this glossiness of happiness and perfection around my family as I understood it, and I, at least, came to believe that we weren’t able to exist without that glossiness. For the record, I don’t think that was the fault of the church, nor do I think it’s what everyone at the church believed. But from my perspective, it seemed that my family—no matter what—had to be “good” come Sunday morning. And so everything is cracked. But then what about the beauty? What was genuinely good? Even the beauty in the physicality of the church: it was a cathedral, with a pipe organ, rose window, marble pulpit. As a child, I couldn’t reconcile the two—the beauty and the cracks—and so I did my best to make that myth reality.
It wasn’t till much later that I was able to finally recognize, in retrospect, my own very mixed feelings, including anger, about my and my family’s place in the church and in this mythology. It took a long time for me to get there, and so in the meantime, the only places where the cracks started to show were in my poems. As a teenager, I became more aware of the truth I felt but was still entirely devoted to the myth. When I started battling depression, it seemed there was no plausible reason why I would be depressed, and so–as I know is common with artists–the place where I was able to express that distress was in my writing.
In my case, it wasn’t simply that I got to “express myself” though—because I still would’ve told you how happy I was and how good my family was. It’s something more than that: I’ve always felt that my poems have been “ahead” of me; they are at the leading edge of my growth and consciousness as a person. Indeed, I’ve found that with some poems, it takes me years to truly catch up with what I wrote. I still find this to be the case: my poems often know more than I do, long before I do–or at least before I’ve fully integrated that understanding into my knowledge of myself… I don’t censure when I first write a poem: it’s all just free flow, and I often take turns in the middle or toward the end of the poem—turns I didn’t anticipate when I started the poem. I think it’s those leaps within the poems that carry me the furthest.
I’m thinking of another moment that holds both the beauty and the darkness at once. A little back story: my father frequently included poems in his sermons, whether as a reading or as the basis for the sermon. He also taught poetry “classes” at the church, facilitating reading groups around a poet. The poets he most frequently referenced and featured were Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Robinson Jeffers, Frost (a wink and a nod in your direction), and Mary Oliver. In this particular instance, I remember specifically hearing and being amazed by one of Jeffers’s poems. I must have been a teenager at the time, because I know I was writing poetry myself. The poem was “Vulture,” wherein Jeffers imagines the majesty of being eaten by a vulture at the end of the poem:
[…] I tell you solemnly
That I was sorry to have disappointed him. To be eaten by that beak and
become part of him, to share those wings and those eyes-
What a sublime end of one’s body, what an enskyment; what a life
“Enskyment” was what stayed with me—I remember wishing deeply at that moment that I had written that word (this was my first experience of such wishing). The beauty of becoming part of the sky, the beauty of the word itself… I loved all of it. Never mind that the poem is about death. Coexistence.
Or perhaps more accurately, mining for light in the darkness. In that small poem, I felt like Jeffers understood something that I also wanted to understand: that very little in the world is simplistically good or bad; our daily experience means holding both. I didn’t have that option as a girl, and as an adult, I don’t find it to be an easy task, holding duality. And yet there it is: a ferocious storm takes down all these trees, but walking under the canopy of iced-over red leaves is stunning.
Perhaps what I’m also trying to say is that I don’t think my poems are without hope, at least I don’t see them that way. I want them to be moving forward. I want to be moving forward: toward understanding, toward knowledge, toward more completeness, even as I understand the world to be more complicated and cracked than ever.
I loved having the chance to sit and talk with you in Pennsylvania in May, and was struck then as now by the clarity with which you articulate how our art gets out in front of us, and we follow, catching up with what it already knows.
For me, this is one of the great beauties of what art does. On an individual level, it leads us to growth, of course, but there is an ocean’s difference between personal process and art that effects catharsis for a reader. In the unique, unshared specifics of an experience communicated with as much technical skill as skinlessness, there is a profound resonance possible.
Reading “The Reformation,” “How Far We’ll Go,” “Translation,” and “When I Miss Paris Most,” I found myself thinking: no one writes about this! with such appreciation for the way you have here. The poems are surprising as can be for that reason alone, but also for the way in which they use language to move the reader between subjectivities: the speaker, the nurse, the husband, the family and family context – there’s so much power here in speaking about what we do not usually speak about, because this is not disclosure, this is craft.
We are being implicated, by art/language, into an experience that makes us reconsider what we think we know, our worlds, ourselves, our bodies and those of others, perceptions both cultural and close about all of it.
That Robinson Jeffers line that struck you strikes me now as an apt description of the experience of reading these poems of yours:
What a sublime end of one’s body, what an enskyment; what a life
First, thank you—both for your reading of the work and for that comparison. There’s something particularly special in having some of my “hardest” poems be understood in the ways I always hoped they might be. I’m especially glad to share “The Reformation” with you, as that poem remains both very difficult and very important to me.
In thinking about my art being ahead of me, I’m remembering the first time I submitted the poem for publication. I was doing a final proofread when it occurred to me just what I was saying—publicly. I was surprisingly alarmed, and I went to my husband asking, “Are you okay with me publishing about this?!” He looked so puzzled because, even though I’d written the poem at least a year prior, I’d genuinely just realized what I’d be sharing. He was more okay with it than I was because of his understanding of the art of it, while I was concerned about the very personal nature of the poem. But that’s where art leads me, not vice versa.
What I also find interesting in retelling that story is realizing how I couldn’t have written those poems if I’d been thinking about audience. If I’d been thinking that my co-workers would read these poems, I wouldn’t have written them! But in the same turn, as we talked about in May, I want there to be something at stake with my work. I think the fact that the place where I first encountered poetry was at church—not in a classroom, or even in a library—has strongly shaped my reasons for writing. The poets who I grew up with, as I mentioned earlier, affected me in the strongest sense of the word—they affected change, if not publicly, at least personally. And so I think I’ve always wanted what I write to matter, and it must first matter to me. My hope then of course is that it might also matter to others.
I actually read the poem “The Reformation” for an audience for the first time this spring; I visited a college creative writing class that a friend was teaching, and I was surprised by my own response to sharing it: I was so nervous. The students were generous listeners, but until then, I don’t think I’d been able to fully step back far enough to really see how uncomfortable this poem, this topic can make people—even myself still, and I pride myself on having been a women’s studies major. Culturally, it’s awkward, but I think I understand now that without that discomfort—even my own—there is no possibility for enskyment. I’m not saying that’s the case for all art, not at all; I don’t for a moment think there should be a pain threshold attached to art. But for my work, at this time in my life, I think I need to be a little nervous when I speak.
I wanted to include “A Poem on Love” for its persuasive beauty and simple generosity, but also because for me, it articulates as much about attentiveness, joy, wonder, and the experience of being a poet as it does about the beloved.
Exactly. Whatever broad statements I’m making about art, the actual making of the art itself, for me, is still in the particulars. My inspiration—and the real sources of joy in my life—are often in the small and simple, the domestic, the quotidian in the best sense of the word. And finding someone who shares that with me is its own kind of beauty.
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The Reformation will be published this fall and distributed by Copper Canyon Press.
Read “The Names of Snow,” “Autumn Storm,” “When the Angels Go Bowling,” “The Reformation,” “How Far We’ll Go,” “Translation,” “When I Miss Paris Most,” “A Poem on Love” by Katherine Bode-Lang
Katherine Bode-Lang was born and raised in western Michigan. She is the 2014 winner of The American Poetry Review/Honickman First Book Prize; The Reformation will be published this fall. Her chapbook, Spring Melt (Seven Kitchens Press), placed second in the 2008 Keystone Chapbook Contest and earned the New England Poetry Club’s Jean Pedrick Chapbook Award. She has published in numerous journals, including The American Poetry Review, The Mid-American Review, Beloit, The Cincinnati Review, and Subtropics. Katherine earned her MFA in poetry at Penn State University, where she is now an IT Trainer in the Office of Research Protections. She lives in central Pennsylvania with her husband, Andrew.