The Colorado Poet, #16, Fall 2011
Inside issue #16:
Nicky Beer’s The Diminishing House won the 2011 Colorado Book Award in Poetry.
Bob King: The title poem of The Diminishing House is a prose-poem that ends the second section. It describes, as the title indicates, a house that day by day--and while being observed by two people--is losing its attributes, a window, the siding--until only an easy chair is left. I think it’s a great title for the whole book, but why did you think so?
Nicky Beer: The book is largely grounded by the event of the death of a father by a cancer, and so the idea of the gradual diminishment of physical bodies, in one way or another, runs throughout the work. The original title of the manuscript was Apocrypha for the Body, but as the work evolved, the title seemed less and less of a good fit, and such an explicit reference to the body started to seem a little too “on-the-nose.” One of the reasons why I like this title for the book is the dual definitions of the word “house”—as a domestic structure, but also as a term for the family line, such as the House of Atreus.
BK: There are something like a dozen poems about human anatomy here: “Floating Rib,” “Lobe of the Auricle,” and “Variations on the Philtrum,” to name a few. What’s the attraction for you in such subjects?
NB: The philtrum poem was the first of these to be written, and it stems from a moment in my childhood that speaks, in part, to my attraction to anatomy, and more specifically, anatomical names. My father had purchased a visual dictionary called What’s What, and it was filled with diagrams of common objects and structures, in which their various components were named—the portion of your shoe that covers your instep and the bottoms of your toes is called a vamp, and the shadow-casting blade that protrudes from the center of a sundial is called a gnomon. There was also a section on the human body, and I have a very clear memory of my father telling me excitedly, while pointing to the divot above his upper lip, “Do you know what this is called? A philtrum!” That, for me, encapsulated the charm of discovering the connection between language and the world—that there were so many names for things, and that language could clarify the parts of life that might otherwise go unnoticed. In the context of the book, the anatomical poems also serve as a way to contend with grief, as though by naming an mythologizing the parts of the human body can counteract its frailty and imminent mortality.
BK: Still speaking of your subjects, I get a double-feeling about the poems based on, or from childhood. When I see what you’re taking as a subject, I think That’s right! Why didn’t I think of that? Right now, the poem “L M N O” comes to mind, those four letters of the alphabet we sing or say as one word. So you take that recognizable phenomenon and then really run with it, the word becoming an incantation about childhood’s perspectives: “”O Ellamennow, you became / pleasures, dreads, unfurlings: / the collapsed brown divot fouling / the apple, the lingering smell / a penny left in my sweaty fist, /the shimmy of a recoiling pillbug.” And the poem’s imagery accelerates into stranger and stranger stuff.
So my question is, how does this happen for you? What’s the process of starting with an experience in common with many people, including poets, and then making it a stranger and stranger world, still recognizable but also original?
NB: I don’t know that I have a specific process that addresses this—I think it’s the job of the writer to always be on the lookout for those kinds of subjects. And then, once you start circling around the subject, you need to think about presenting it to the reader in such a way that both confirms experience and refreshes perspective.
In talking about the closing lines of Elizabeth Bishop’s “At the Fishhouses,” Seamus Heaney makes a remark that I love: “[They] do what poetry most essentially does: they fortify our inclination to credit promptings of our intuitive being. They help us to say in the first recesses of ourselves, in the shyest, pre-social part of our nature, ‘Yes, I know something like that too. Yes, that’s right; thank you for putting words to it and making it more or less official.’” As a writer, I strive for that same kind of effect, partially because I’ve cherished it so much when I’ve found it in someone else’s work.
BK: Then let me give you another example. The opening of “Ouroboros” is: “Discovered in a New Zealand school’s basement: / a colony of garter snakes / twelve inches deep” And by the end the language has risen into: “his flicker // of life/ within a living hoop of / eternity, the compass of water and air, / and the earth’s innate burning.” Now this kind of movement from fact to imagination is common to poetry, but it seems so strikingly illustrated in some of your work. How do you push yourself forward and up to arrive at your closings?
NB: I think, because I’m so interested in the research that can give way to poetry, I’m also conscious that one can be too faithful to the facts, to the point where one’s poem becomes nothing more than a dressed-up Wikipedia entry. So I think, consciously or not, I’m looking for those opportunities where one can depart from history, from science, and move into the imaginative.
BK: You also have some ekphrastic poems. I’ve read a fair number that seem merely descriptive of the art in the subject, but you go farther. In writing about Rembrandt’s “Young Woman at an Open Half-Door,” you focus on the red beads the woman is wearing, how she got them, how she feels about them, how they connect her to the past and to life. So you’ve added an element that the painter, I’m thinking, didn’t explore in the painting. Again, how does this come about for you? Do you see it, the beads in this case, right from the first or did you write about that painting and discover their importance or some third way?
I love reading and writing ekphrastic poetry, because I see the poems as a way of participating in a conversation the artist has initiated with his or her own work
NB: I love reading and writing ekphrastic poetry, because I see the poems as a way of participating in a conversation the artist has initiated with his or her own work. The way I usually begin to write about a work of art doesn’t usually start from a place of liking or appreciation, but a kind of fruitful irritation. I feel as though the work is nagging me somehow, pestering me, and writing the poem is often a way of figuring out why.
In the case of the Rembrandt in “Genes,” the painting was one that I’d seen many times at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. I was attracted to the painting, but couldn’t understand why. So I found myself engaging in a Q &A with myself: “What catches your eye here?” “The beads, and the young woman’s expression.” “Why do they stand out?” “The beads are red, and the rest of the colors of the painting, including the woman’s dress, are more muted.” “So what does that tell you?” “The beads are special to her.” “Why?” “Probably because she inherited them—her dress is too modest to suggest she or someone else deliberately chose them out of a sense of decorativeness.” “From whom did she inherit them?” “Likely her mother.” “What does that tell you?” “She looks pretty young, so her mother may have died when she was still a child.” My mother died when I was eighteen (my father died when I was fifteen), and the experience of having a parent die who is the same gender as you means that, to a certain degree, you can’t help but predict your own future in that parent’s demise. So the death of a mother became a point of imaginative kinship between the young woman in the painting and myself, and the poem came from there.
BK: The book is dedicated to the memory of your father and several poems poignantly show him to us, through your eyes as a child as well as a mature poet. But the book doesn’t seem to be all about those key experiences either. Was it difficult to get these differently-focused poems into one book, or arranged the way they are, or are they connected in ways I can’t see?
It’s a book grounded in grieving, and the act of grieving always involves a kind of reassessment and renegotiation with the physical world.
NB: Well, it’s a book grounded in grieving, and the act of grieving always involves a kind of reassessment and renegotiation with the physical world. The survivor looks at the surrounding world and becomes hyperaware of its fragility, its transience. So the work of grieving, and of all the poems in the book is to figure out how to negotiate being in the physical world, knowing all the time that it’s always slipping out of our grasp. So poems like “Blue Thought/Blue Shade,” “Still Life with Half-Turned Woman and Questions” and “Midwife/Midsummer,” while not explicitly about the death of the father, speak to the anxiety and exhilaration of being a mortal body in the world.
BK: What’s your concept of “the line” in poetry or in poems? Let me just ask it that simply.
NB: The line has many uses within the poem: it can challenge the reader’s relationship with the familiar grammatical sentence by subdividing it through enjambment; it can create conscious or unconscious connections between the poem’s subject matter and its physical form on the page; and it can function in tension with the white space of the page surrounding the poem. One could say that it has an analogous relationship to the brushstroke in painting—whether or not it perceptibly announces itself to the audience, its influence is always present, and the individual choices of size and deployment of each stroke add up to the large-scale effect of the artwork.
BK: Your husband, Brian Barker, is also a poet and I’ve been reading his The Black Ocean and want to interview him about it. But what’s it like with two poets in the house? I’ve heard some writers say it’s an ideal and others who very pointedly are not going to marry another writer. What’s your experience?
NB: As we are both fond of saying, it’s a little like cheating (at the game of poetry, that is)—I’ve got one of my favorite poets and best readers right in the next room, ready to talk about literary ideas and writerly problems, loan me books, jog my memory about the authors of poems I’m half-remembering, etc. Additionally, living with another poet means that your partner is already familiar with all of the bizarre obsessions that seize us, so if I spend the whole afternoon researching the life of Marlene Dietrich or taking photographs of a dead bird I’ve found on the sidewalk, Brian knows it’s all in the line of duty. We don’t talk in rhyme or leave sonnet to-do lists for each other, though.