When Air Becomes Breath: Dan Beachy-Quick on Song and Silence, curated by Cassandra Cleghorn

Dan Beachy-Quick is the author, most recently, of gentlessness (Tupelo Press, 2015) and A Brighter Word Than Bright: Keats at Work (Iowa University Press, 2013). He is a Monfort Professor teaching in the MFA Creative Writing Program at Colorado State University and lives in Fort Collins, Colorado.  Tupelo Quarterly’s Associate Editor, Cassandra Cleghorn, recently had a chance to interview Dan about his poetics.


Cassandra Cleghorn: You’ve said that the writing Of Silence and Song took place over the past several years, when you also began learning Greek. Greek language and literature threads its way through the new book. Have you found time to read Emily Wilson’s new translation of The Odyssey?

Dan Beachy-Quick: I am in the middle of it.

CJC: What do you think?

DBQ: I do like it, especially its pacing — the move from line to line, and moment to moment. Narrowing the English translation down to the number of original lines in Greek has created some gravity, a simplicity. Having just taught the Iliad last semester — the Peter Green translation, which I really love, I do miss the larger moments of poetic complication. But the clarity of light, which is something I’ve thought about since I started to read Greek literature — Wilson has that in abundance.

CJC: That light makes me think of what Alice Oswald aims at in Memorial

DBQ: …which I just taught…

CJC: …that is, “translucence rather than translation”: “Instead of carrying the words [from Greek] over into English, I use them as openings through which to see what Homer was looking at. I write through the Greek, not from it.” How did you teach Oswald’s work?

D: So, oddly perhaps for a graduate seminar, I taught as patiently and as slowly as I could, stretching out the Iliad over the full 15 weeks, seeing how much pressure we could put on a slow reading of the poem. The first ten weeks we went through every Greek tragedy that carried a character forward from the Iliad, and then once we were through those, we moved to the 20th and 2lst century workings through, including H.D.’s Helen in Egypt and Simone Weil, and ending with Memorial.

Memorial is one of the most brilliant and devastating books I know of. There’s something about the doubled repetition of the metaphors – really, 95% of the time, the way the language looks back on itself, recognizing, if not actually accusing itself of, its own figurative nature. There’s a skepticism in language, which I feel quite deeply in Greek thought, the sense that there’s no reality we are going to make other than the one this language makes. Turning to the names and the biographies, language becomes a world-making activity, and at the same time a deeply-imbedded human effort at valuing everyone who can be valued, a value that is tied to name, ancestry, parents, lineage, rivers, landscape, and so on. It’s very moving to me.

C: Wilson talks about the formulaic repetition of Homeric epithets, and how she was concerned that simply repeating the same phrase with every iteration of the Greek phrase would trigger in the contemporary reader the impulse to skip ahead. Her solution was to offer slightly different facets of meaning with each use of the formulaic phrase. But repetition is fundamental to Homer. Oswald gets this. She figured out how to exploit that almost incantatory feel. That’s one thing I miss in Wilson’s translation.

D: I miss it too. I miss in Wilson’s Homer what Oswald opens so entirely: how the exactitude, the inevitability, the fated-ness of those repetitions reintroduce us into thinking as a strangely ritualistic activity — however “original” or “creative” we might like as modern readers to think it is. Something else is going on in the creativity imbedded in Homer’s language; it’s doing something other than proving the worth of our originality. Maybe quite the opposite, actually.

C: “Creativity imbedded in language” — I love how often you attend to the drama of syntax in your new book. Where and how will the sentence end? What are the twists it takes? I gather that this carries over from your study of Greek.

D: Yes. Slowing down and lingering is hard to do in one’s native language.

C: Your discussion of euphemism, for example, the intricacies of its etymology: “It is a speaking so as to keep silence, lest a word that is unlucky enter into the sacred blank light of day or page and defile it.” In the first fifty pages or so of this book you’re really wanting us to think about poetry as an act of figuring out what we think we know, and then forgetting it — “speaking so as to keep silence.” This book made me appreciate anew how wonderful you are on the subject of thinking about thinking. And what we know about knowing, which is, in this case, that there’s lots to be known. You know? Which also connects to something you said to me once: “In some ways, what the poet does is ‘nothing,’ is to make nothingness, to keep open the apophatic, so that world can keep filling it and keep reality in its ongoingness.” Can you say more about this unknowing you are so passionate about?

D: Everything you are saying deeply resonates with me, with an unmistakable happiness: that some of the threads in this book I most want to be feel-able and think-able might be there for the kind of reader that you are. That’s a real comfort to me.

It’s a curious thing, of the last ten years, and especially of the last three in which I’ve been diving into Greek, that I’ve taken an epistemological turn. I find myself very concerned with how poetry acts within and against thinking and knowing, and with the profound distance there is between thinking and knowing. A poem allows us to say, You know, there’s a lot of thinking we might have to do whose natural end or consequence isn’t arriving at knowledge at all, but is actually a remarkable withholding, or forgetting, or turning away from knowledge or particular kinds of certainties. That’s why this book ended up being so long–it was a book that had to forget its own method. It becomes an invitation to thinking, rather than a prescription.

Though this book is mostly prose, I think of it as working within poetic logic. The gift of poetry lets us admit and dwell in the kinds of confusions that our culture doesn’t readily allow. Poetry asks us to wonder if the resources of our intelligence are as profound as we think they are. Inevitably, they are not. They are meager. And yet, rather than lead to an easy, pyrrhic dismissal of what intelligence is, this need to enter into difficulty about thinking — to admit to those oblivions, to enter into and embrace that forgetting, rather than feel shame about what don’t know — is one of the great ethical works that poetry continues to do for us.

C: As you talk, I hear Emerson threading through your words, his life-changing essay “Experience,” especially. You quote at length the passage in which he despairs that he cannot access his feelings about something even as wrenching as the death of his young son only two years before. I’ve always taught this passage as a lament about the limits of what can be known, and therefore expressed. But as I listen to you speak, and as I think more about what you are up to, I have a new understanding of the incredible optimism at the end of “Experience.” I wonder if Emerson isn’t on the very same page as you are. “Why not realize your world?” he asks at the end of “Experience”: “Far be from me the despair which prejudges the law by a paltry empiricism.” That is, by the end of the essay — and, even more so, by the time he writes “Fate” — he suggests that the discovery of this ungraspable “swim and glitter” is liberating. How does the recognition of this devastating set of limitations give rise to a sense of renewed energy —

D: –when we understand that thinking is when thinking doesn’t know itself exactly? I absolutely hear this optimism in Emerson’s moment of utmost despair, or, better, numbness — the opposite side of the same fact of finding yourself trapped in a particular kind of idealism where all that isn’t you is incapable of touching you. After all, it’s not only that the innavigable sea washes with its silent waves between us and everything outside of us, it’s also within us. And so the shock of arriving at that kind of optimism is that somehow in that very same realization there is a profound understanding of our ongoing intellectual desire. What’s so powerful is Emerson’s understanding that in the act of writing that essay in the midst of such sorrow and grief (a “griefless grief,” as he calls it), the work of art itself becomes strangely a kind of plank, an ark, a frigate, a ship, a place of encounter that holds itself remarkably open, a territory so vast we don’t know how to measure it. For a brief while, in that ongoing, astonishing relationship of what a writer is to a reader, that co-creative work, you gather yourself into that little bit of safety. And it works for a while.

C: That reminds me of something you say in “The Hut of Poetry”: “We enter the poem to threaten the security of the knowledge we possess before we read it. We enter the poem to be asked a question we will not ask ourselves otherwise, a question that begins at the point of our certainty.” Emerson says at the end of “Experience,” “I know that the world I converse with is not the world I think…and one day I shall know the value and law of this discrepance.” There’s that optimism, which he must nonetheless reassert. “I shall know this.” I hear you being torn between wanting to know more (I’m going to learn Greek, etc.) and being ready to threaten the security of that knowledge.

D: Yes. That earnest grasping toward knowledge is itself a kind of desire. It’s rife with all kinds of emotion. And oddly the gaining of knowledge is a threshold into that remarkable undoing of self and self-knowledge and knowledge itself. There’s an approach poetically, I think, to whatever knowledge might be where the arrival is anything but a kind of answer. It’s the stumbling into the possibility of a kind of question you didn’t know how to ask until that knowledge was in a way gained or earned. And it’s as if knowledge is offering an opportunity — not toward greater amounts of certainty as you move through your life in the world, but actually giving you opportunities strangely of doubting and questioning more fruitfully.

C: Beautiful. This opportunity for questioning makes me think of H.D. In preparing to talk with you, I took a look at Helen in Egypt, which I hadn’t read since college. I had forgotten how she structures that book, beginning each lyric section with an often extensive set of questions that follow from the previous poem, an almost Talmudic method. What did your students think of that book?

D: It was very curiously a real struggle for them, at least in the first week. In part because the book is so remarkably divorced from the ease of how narrative itself should work. The first conversation we had about it — that first hour and a half — was just spent establishing what world it was occurring in: in some fundamental way we were sitting in the temple of Amen-Zeus, learning how to read the hieroglyphs. Her very primary position is to understand symbol, the symbol in a hieroglyph that is itself a whole world of thinking. And when she steps out of that temple, Achilles shows up — and the students knew that Achilles was dead, so they were confused. They didn’t know how to think through the impossibility in ways that were furthering of possibilities of relation, rather than dismissive. So it took us a long time just to say, Here’s how we might have to think. That somehow she is in a world in which the past, present, and future don’t really know how to tell themselves apart from one another. Once they began to accept this astonishing place of initiation, they were more open to its oddities.

C: When you say “she,” do you mean Helen or H.D.?

D: Helen.

C: But H.D. has that austerity about her —

D: — yes, H.D. and Helen move into one another in very interesting ways. It’s like those few times when Homer exerts his presence in the Iliad, almost a reinvocation of the muse. Once, as though he suddenly seems worried that there’s no way he can keep track of all the names and of everything that’s going on, he suddenly insinuates himself into this marvel, a comment on the faultiness of his own memory, which is deeply endearing. And then, of course — though there’s no guarantee that it’s an image of Homer himself — on Achilles’ shield there’s the poet plying the lyre and the dancers dancing around him. It seems that H.D. is in her poem as well, insinuated not simply into particular characters, but into the nature of the thinking.

C: It seems that few people talk about H.D. these days.

D: I deeply love H.D. I think Sea Garden is as fine a first book as has been written.

C: Thinking of slighted books makes me think of your interest in “abandoned words,” your desire to “rescue the revision from the tyranny of its improvements.” You spent an extraordinary amount of time in the Houghton Library researching this book. I especially treasure your descriptions of your encounter with Dickinson. As though where exactly each pressed flower is found is significant in ways you can’t parse, but need to record for us. And then there’s her Bible, with its cut-out passages. (“the HOLY BIBLE, a crack in the green leather obscuring the Y, so that properly seen it reads HOL BIBLE.”) Your understanding that there’s arbitrariness there, in the passages that are left behind. The whole experiment of reading — the pressed-flower leavings, the contexts, the textual holes — almost doesn’t tell us anything except that these things happened, that they were done, that you witnessed them. Tell me more.

D: That was an odd and uncanny event. First, I had to meet with the librarian who is the head of the Houghton. I was very intimidated, because my project wasn’t academic in any particular way. It was actually a little bit loony. But they gave me permission. And they let me sit in that room and write for hours. They allowed me to take her Bible, on the condition that I not open it. But of course every page has been digitally reproduced. So I was in the odd position of being able to read the book I wasn’t allowed to open. And in some odd way, that’s my very sense of what all reading experience is. The book is open in front of me, but somehow I feel that it’s not. I haven’t yet learned how to open it, even as I’m reading it. And to have that moment realized physically in my life was a strange activity. That encapsulated the difficulty of thinking to me. You’re doing it, and you’re not doing it, simultaneously, and the activities don’t cancel each other out.

C: You sent me the draft of a poem once, about the Greek hero Philoctetes: “ancient / hero with his ankle’s foul wound, dragging his body / over stones, eating raw / the birds his bow and arrow brought low (as books do / I enter as air and leave as breath).” You said that.

D: I’m glad I did. It’s lovely. I have no memory of it.

C: That little parenthetical line tells me a great deal. That, yes, you’re wanting to stand at the limits of knowing: saying, The books are there, but how do we read them? How do I know what’s in this book, even after I’ve read it? But there’s also this other thing that is true of you, I think, which is that reading is as natural to you as breathing. To open that book (which must stay closed), to enter into that compact, which we do whenever we engage truly, when our reading is not, as Emerson says, “mendicant and sycophantic,” then we empty ourselves into that process of taking out and putting in. Does that make sense?

D: It does. One thing that does seem true – and I don’t think I’ve ever said it to myself so plainly – is that more and more fundamentally, my question is what is it to read. The other side of that question is obvious: what is it to write. These operate, again as Emerson would have it, as two sides of the same fact. It makes me very curious about what the nature of that fact is, what’s the symbolic nexus of these co-creative energies: pure, passive reception, and pure, audacious making. How they interact, and undo one another. That seems like the crux where I want to read and to write, the work I want to love, and the work I do love.

But that sense of air and breath. It’s so lovely and meaningful to me. That sense of air in its archaic meaning, as song, not just atmosphere, but as a strain of music. Reading ancient literature, especially Greek literature, and Socrates primarily, makes it all so strangely available, in the air, of the air, but of course also silent, in a way that frustrates the ease of our sensible approach. And so all we can do to make it our own is to turn air into breath. And what we do with that breath is put our words into that larger, invisible, unapproachable, but inescapable conversation. It is such a wonder and terror to be part of such a thing. With poets I inherently trust — you get that immediate sense on the page, really within a line or two – that there is a kindred quality. It’s such a privilege, to be part of that exchange, which is not just from living poet to living poet, from friend to friend, but is a wholesale conversation that is the air itself, and that air is our breath.

Cassandra Cleghorn is the author of Four Weathercocks (Marick Press, 2016). Her poems, essays and reviews have appeared in many journals, including Paris Review, Yale Review, Colorado Review, New Orleans Review, Boston Review, Poetry International, and Tin House.   She teaches English and American Studies at Williams College, and serves as Poetry Editor of Tupelo Press.