Out now: Capricorn, Venus Descendant, Broadstone Books

Michael Joyce

Biennial Poems

Hear Michael Joyce read from Capricorn, Venus Descendant (title poem and “Frieze,” “Men,” “Reticulate,” and “Sea”)

“Frieze” by Michael Joyce
“Men” by Michael Joyce
“Reticulate” by Michael Joyce
“Sea” by Michael Joyce


Beginnings: What prompted this book? What were you thinking about, how is it the same or different from previous work? How long did you work on it, how did the pandemic affect the process of writing it? 

MICHAEL JOYCE: It would risk seeming fatuous to say, however true it may have been, that what prompted the book was history in the sense of unprecedented eventfulness, with emphasis on the oxymoronic fulness of a three-legged stool supported by what might seem the empty reeds of retirement, pandemic, and cancer.  

The work is the same as my previous work to the extent that it possesses a certain density of my verse that I’ve been trying to work/find my way out of for years; and it is different, I think, because I may have succeeded in doing so, if only in the way that an overly wound spring can be said to have succeeded when it takes flight from the apparatus that enclosed it. A sprung verse, to make a bad pun. 

I worked on the sequence more or less over the pandemic year, wherein, as we all know, time itself became an elastic oneness. Speaking again of eventfulness, the pandemic’s (and cancer’s and retirement’s) affect, as well as its affect upon the process, was a transcendent experience of the sort of the Anglo-Saxon wyrd, a kind of fate, familiar to readers of Beowulf, a half-rhyme etymon of weird and word, that stands for the destiny one chooses, or in the case of these poems, what one discovers as a result of loving and being loved.

What was your favorite thing about writing it? What gave you the most satisfaction, what was energizing or enlivening about it? 

MJ: I can say without exaggeration, or any sense of hubris, that every poem of the sequence was enlivening to the extent that each reflected upon love and death in quotidian ways; energizing in that they partook—or proceeded— from something like the force that people mean when they speak of the muses or inspiration, “writing themselves” in a way that I have always been deeply skeptical, if not outright dismissive, about. 

I don’t do Wordle but what I experienced in writing these poems was similar to what my friends and family obsessed with Wordle describe as the joy of the sudden coming together (all ecstatic puns intended), much in the way that the “she” of the poems considers, in the poem titled “Men,” seeing freely for herself “in a way that phrase belies” where “for her free is to know patterns before rhythms/enter into the limbs.” 

So for me by far my favorite thing about writing these poems was the ceremony that evolved where each day when a poem showed itself and came together, I set out first to fold a printed copy of it in a sort of idiosyncratic, free-form origami and then to hide it under Carolyn’s napkin before cooking and sitting down to our midday meal, where she would unfailingly—and I believe not disingenuously— always be surprised when it fell free, and then commence to read it aloud, with loving attention, attention to loving.

Was there a section or poem or part of the book that you felt doubtful about including? What made it so? How did you come to the decision you did?

MJ: Sure, several of them. Mostly ones that risked verging upon the confessional since, with the significant exception of some of Lowell’s poetry, I always distrusted, if not detested, the exhibitionism, not to mention the narcissism, of so-called confessional poetry, since it is so controlling, prancing before the footlights as if to distract, the whole fan dance meant to remove the possibility of truly seeing, all the while not being certain whether what one saw or heard was really what was. Even for the speaker. 

As opposed to this, for me the “he” and “she” in these poems are artifice but also reportage, shadow puppets, not us, but not not-us. Maybe I’m arguing for the poems as dramatic, or not arguing as much as confessing <insert ironic smiley face emoji here> that intention. And so, when for instance recounting embarrassing— but familiar to many— post-operative details in the poem called “Reticulate” the poem reports that “he’s afloat/also, latterly rigged with red rubber tubing, a tug/now, the tailored diaper like a codpiece” and “she finds/him somehow sexy and so he does also,” the poem resolves into a dance and their shared discovery, as opposed to knowledge, that “it seems little more can/happen to them, but also that it shall, life scrawls/upon them.” What’s being reported is a dramatic event, a moment of actual (with emphasis on the act) mutual self-discovery.

What are some lines, phrases or images from the book that stay with you, either because they capture something that feels very true, or they came to you in a way that felt whole and generative, or some other reason? 

MJ: This one is easy. In the last lines of “Sea,” the last, nine-line poem of the book, the fifth, middle line, “there like waves on sand. And the ocean above will know,” marks a sort of caesura, a shift in speakers/writers as well as a break in the fourth wall of the drama of “he” and “she.” 

Knowing that I had wanted, for what probably were shamanic/kabbalist reasons as well as to acknowledge the debt to Neruda and end the sequence at 50 poems, I asked Carolyn if she would write the poem with me, taking on the form of a truncated (actually equally weighted) Petrarchan sonnet. Which she did, making the poem an instantiation of the “boundless estuary” of the shared love that it recounts.

Can you share a few other art forms / works / books / experiences that influenced you in the writing of this book? Do you think these influences will be visible to your readers? Would you like them to be? 

MJ: The most obvious, and I think likely visible, influences are Pablo Neruda, a line from whose Sonnet LXXIII of One Hundred Love Sonnets, “El amor supo entonces que se llamaba amor” (Love knew then it was called love) is the book’s epigraph; and Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, whose one word titles, not to mention attention to the collision (and collusion) of the erotic and the quotidian have influenced my writing from nearly day one as a lovelorn Jesuit high school boy and would-be poet. 

As regards the latter influence, I am fond of Lyn Hejinian’s notion of Stein’s realism in her “Two Stein Talks” as a matter of how “it is possible and even likely that one can have a confrontation with a phrase that is as significant as a confrontation with a tree, chair, cone, dog, bishop, piano, vineyard, door, or penny.” (Temblor #3, 1986) In my case—and in my hopes—much the same confrontation is true of Blankets, Robe, Pond, Feet, Bowls, etc..

Meanwhile of Neruda (or, for that matter, Shakespeare, Lawrence, or even the other, greater— greatest—Joyce of Pomes Penyeach, whom, along with e.e. cummings, which that “lovelorn Jesuit high school boy and would-be poet” was reading) it is presumptuous to offer a list such as this. While to Stein, one (I, “he”) could (would) easily, and as presumptuously, add Fanny Howe, Lucille Clifton, Jane Gregory, Laynie Brown, Janet Kauffman, Joan Retallack, C.D. Wright, and Harryette Mullen, not to mention (but also especially) the author of the love poems Between Night & Day

While I’ll leave it to others to say how much my work with your and my (and Carolyn’s) shared medium as hypertext pioneers in the days before the web influenced this work, I will say that these poems are deeply influenced by my collaborations with the painter Alexandra Grant, who uses “ text and language in various media—painting, drawing, sculpture, film, and photography—to probe ideas of translation, identity, dis/location, and social responsibility”; but also and especially other visual media especially raku pottery and textiles, which are among Carolyn’s many art forms.

Michael Joyce has published poems and translations in journals including Agni, Beloit Poetry Journal, FENCE, Gastronomica, nor/, The Iowa Review, New Letters, Notre Dame Review, Parthenon West, Spoon River Review, Metamorphoses, New Review, The Common, and THE SHOp (Cork) among other journals. Many of those poems were collected in Light in its Common Place, (2020) also from Broadstone, which also published A Hagiography of Heaven and Vicinity (2017). Two prior sequences of poems, Biennial (2016) and Paris Views (2012) were published by BlazeVOX.