Joanna Klink curates poems that blend dream and waking, sparking ordinary life with visionary fire. She shares Jon Anderson wrestling with the desire to walk away (“In Autumn”), Sherwin Bitsui’s haunting epic of water (“Flood Song”), and Linda Gregg’s dreamscape of life without loneliness (“Alma to Her Sister”). Klink closes by reading her poem “On Diminishment,” an intimate, interior landscape of silences and withheld speech.
You can find the full recordings of Anderson, Bitsui, and Gregg reading for the Poetry Center on Voca:
Jon Anderson (1984)
Sherwin Bitsui, as part of “Multilingual Poetry of the Southwest” (2010)
Linda Gregg (1981)
[00:00:00.00] [MUSIC PLAYING]
Julie Swarstad Johnson:
[00:00:02.67] Thanks for joining us for a new season of Poetry Centered. The podcast that features recorded poetry readings from 1963 to today, curated and introduced by contemporary poets. These recordings come to you from Voca, the online audiovisual archive at the University of Arizona Poetry Center.
[00:00:22.47] I'm Julie Swarstad Johnson, here to welcome you to the show.
[00:00:26.73] We're joined today by poet Joanna Klink, author of five collections of poetry including her most recent "The Nightfields" which you'll hear her read from at the end of today's episode. She teaches at the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin.
[00:00:43.41] In this episode, Joanna shares readings from the archive by Jon Anderson, Sherwin Bitsui, and Linda Gregg. You'll hear in these recordings of blending of dream and waking, a sparking of ordinary life with visionary fire.
[00:00:57.63] Joanna, welcome. Thank you so much for bringing us this work.
[00:01:04.00] This is Joanna Klink in Austin, Texas in the spring of 2021. "In Autumn" by Jon Anderson from his reading on Wednesday, February 15, 1984. Jon Anderson has always been the poet I keep secret, the poet I read who is so close to the mystery that I hesitate to speak about it.
[00:01:35.46] But in the last few years I've started teaching his books almost all of which are out of print. Because the poets in my classes immediately sense the rarity of his work, the strangeness of his vision, and his acute understanding of the dark energies shifting in us.
[00:01:58.22] My love for this particular poem, "In Autumn" runs deep. It follows maybe a more conventional arc than his other poems. Like "The Parachutist" which imagines the quiet thoughts of a parachutist reflecting on his life as he falls to his death in a lake. Or Anderson's homage to the poet John Clare which begins, I know there is a worm in the human heart.
[00:02:31.69] The plot of "In Autumn" is fairly simple. The speaker climbs the hill by his house at dawn with his dogs and stands on a great stone looking down at the river below. Then he descends the hill winding through cedars and pines. And that's it.
[00:02:51.82] When he introduces the poem, Anderson says that it's about belonging too much to his own life and wanting to walk away. And you feel that, the strong blurring of himself with his friends and his partner, his exultation at leaving it all behind for just a few hours.
[00:03:13.90] Anderson's poems always take you swiftly to the moment of greatest intensity when life turns into a dream and the dream makes life so vivid that it's possible to glimpse what's at stake.
[00:03:28.87] He says, "When I had finally stood, high above the house, land, my life's slow dream, for a moment I was required to turn to those deep rows of cedar, and would have gone on walking endlessly in."
[00:03:51.50] These lines and what arises out of them break my heart each time I hear them. Perhaps because he feels compelled by some force outside of himself to turn, to turn to the cedars, to keep walking into the stands of trees, endlessly to keep walking, to keep changing.
[00:04:16.21] But the poem written in the middle of one's life in the October of the season of your life seems to say yes, but you must descend back into who you are. If you change you change by the body's knowledge, and the body knows you will never really begin again. So you must love how your life unfolds.
[00:04:44.32] Here is the poet Jon Anderson reading, "In Autumn."
[00:04:52.63] Two poems I want to conclude with that I usually finish readings with. "In Autumn" is a poem that I won't go into the details about. It's a poem about-- in a sense it's a poem about belonging in my own life too much and wanting to leave it if only for a split second.
[00:05:22.23] It's an odd poem for me because it really happened, all the details in the poem are true. Like I had climbed a hill beside the house, a little house I was living in Ohio.
[00:05:36.80] "At day's light I dressed my cold body and went out. Calling the dogs, I climbed the west hill, threw cut wood down to the road for hauling. Done, there was a kind of exultation that wanted to go on. I made my way up through briars and vines to a great stone that rises in the hill's brow, large enough to stand on. The river below was a thick, dark line. My house was quaint. I sat, not thoughtful, lost in the body a while, and came down the back way, winding through stands of cedar and pine.
[00:06:19.13] I can tell you where I live. My grief is that I bear in our grief and so I bear myself. I know I live a part. But have had long evenings of conversation, the faces of which betrayed no separation from a place or time. Now, in the middle of my life a woman of delicate bearing gives me your hand, and friends are so enclosed within my reasoning. I am occasionally them.
[00:06:51.09] When I had finally stood, high above the house, land, my life's slow dream, for a moment I was required to turn to those deep rows of cedar, and would have gone on walking endlessly in. I understand by the body's knowledge I will not begin again. But it was October. Leaves in the yellow light were altered and familiar. And we who have changed and have no hope of change, must now love the passage of time."
[00:07:33.49] "Flood Song" by Sherwin Bitsui on September 10, 2010. I love the Sherwin Bitsui's "Flood Song." It's a book length poem, a long dream, a flood of song, it's incantatory with a vast pulse threading through telephone poles and goals and storms.
[00:08:01.75] At the opening of the book after the extraordinary evocation of water the speaker says, "I bite my eyes shut between these songs." It's as a vision when the song stops, is unbearable.
[00:08:18.92] The song makes it bearable like Whitman, Bitsui's summons persons and things into the space of poetry, and thereby elevates them and stitches them together, holds them in suspension so that you can't separate the cloud from the skull. The axe from the first tree. You feel how violence interwoven with sunlight takes on a steady glinting precision. These poems are searing unspooling catalogs connected through the wash of music.
[00:08:58.50] Drawing on Dine myths and medicine songs and also on European surrealism, Bitsui unleashes fever pictures. Each image is burning. We are between elemental landscapes and modern landscapes, high deserts and supermarkets. A phone is ringing and a drum is pulsing somewhere in the dark. A city drags its bridges behind it until finally it collapses.
[00:09:30.66] When Bitsui introduces the poem at the beginning of his reading, and you should listen to the whole thing start to finish because it's riveting. He observes that the book is a journey inside some place that wants a name. It's also a flood.
[00:09:49.95] It's so moving how Bitsui tracks the space of things coming into being before they are granted names and shapes. Before they are classified and made transactional.
[00:10:03.08] We were on the same surgical table says Bitsui waiting for the surgeons to carve us back into shape. Name giving like the carving by surgeons, does violence to energies that simply want to be, that want to glide through us like rain. Again and again we see distortions and losses, a disconnection from our bodies and tribes.
[00:10:34.07] The shadow of my face grew into a swallow with folded wings and dotted into the fire. I think of Bitsui as both an epic and lyric poet. Writing at the height of his powers, breathing through his eyelids, speaking for the luminous shadows for a people about who they are, who they were, who all of us might be.
[00:11:02.32] The scale of the loss feels profound to me. It is made profound by the dream that meshes it together. The dream of clarity that makes it bearable if only for the time that it is spoken aloud.
[00:11:19.10] The last seconds of the poem are devastating. Just for an instant Bitsui pivots into a vision of a world without loss. No one questioned the sand anymore, he says. No one untucked themselves from their bodies and wandered the streets without knowing their clans.
[00:11:43.76] Here is the poet Sherwin Bitsui reading from the final passage of "Flood Song."
[00:11:54.60] "And I wanted to swallow the song flowers, swim diagonally it's arched back, its shadows stinging my hands with black pollen.
[00:12:03.81] We were on the same surgical table waiting for the surgeons to carve us back into shape.
[00:12:10.02] The drum pulsed somewhere in the dark and I heard a woman unbraiding her hair.
[00:12:14.91] I felt morning songs from the hooghan's smoke-hole and curl outward from the roof of the sky, gliding through us like rain.
[00:12:23.37] I sang, sang until the sun rose.
[00:12:27.39] The shadows of my face grew into a swallow with both wings and darted into the fire.
[00:12:34.74] The cloud became a skull and crashed to the earth above Black Mesa.
[00:12:41.25] The cloud wanted to slip through the coal mines and unleash its horses.
[00:12:47.07] It wanted to crack open bulldozers and spray their yolks over the hills so that a new birth would awaken the people who had fallen asleep.
[00:12:55.80] It wanted to push their asymmetrical ramblings into the weft of the storm blanket, dye it hazel and sink it into the rising waters.
[00:13:04.81] A city drudges bridges behind it and finally collapse in a supermarket asking for the first apple that was ever bitten.
[00:13:13.35] And no one questioned the sand anymore.
[00:13:16.44] No one un-tucked themselves from their bodies and wandered the streets without knowing their clans.
[00:13:22.32] Everyone planted corn in their bellies and became sunlight washing down plateaus with deer running out of them.
[00:13:30.60] The phone was ringing through it all.
[00:13:34.74] The line was busy when I picked the axe and chose the first tree to chop down."
[00:13:54.47] Alma to her sister" by Linda Gregg, from her reading on Wednesday, April 22, 1981.
[00:14:07.59] Linda Gregg's "Too Bright to See" is one of the great first books of American poetry. Born of time she spent in Greece on a Fulbright Like Jon Anderson and Sherwin Bitsui she brings a blazing intensity to ordinary life. She steps into a dream state in her poems and stays there.
[00:14:32.75] Her poems are shot through with silence and they carry a kind of radiant transparency so that the goats, and seek help, and rain, and roads, seem otherworldly and connected somehow to the origins of things.
[00:14:52.71] I love her poems for their dark truths, their attention to currents of loss, their spare precision with language.
[00:15:03.36] Linda Gregg has said that the figure Alma, who appears in her early books is not exactly me, a figure of mystery. This poem "Alma to her sister" could be an allergy. Perhaps Louise has died and she is seeing her again in a dream, or perhaps Louise has simply appeared in almost dream, and in the dream she and her sister are together in the sunrise, in the sunset, just the two of us.
[00:15:38.28] What I understand immediately about the poem is that it is incantatory like Sherwin Bitsui's "Flood Song, but quieter pared down. It is all dream. And the dream is a repetition of just a few words, just a few pictures shuffled to reveal different meanings by proximity. It is a brief intense vision of life without loneliness. The loneliness is over, m she says, no loneliness, done.
[00:16:16.48] The word alone might be the hinge of the poem. Here is a dream world where you can be alone but not alone. Alone but not lonely. As if your sister were right there with you, just the two of you in the quiet of the day, in the whole of life, in the sunrise, in the sunset, no loss, no loneliness.
[00:16:45.79] Every poem is set down somewhere between real life, ordinary daily life, and dream. And the poet shuttles back and forth between realms.
[00:16:57.99] The sound of that shuttling is lyric sound. The music of loss and hope of degradation and perfection of the world as it is and the world as it might be.
[00:17:13.75] Linda Gregg places the last poem in her perfect book, fully into the realm of the imagined, where all losses are restored. It is all dream, it is the poem inside every poem that says you are there. And the one who understands you, the one you most love is with you, your sister, who has a name, Louise. You are not alone. You have not lost anything.
[00:17:45.76] If the poem is heartbreaking it's because we understand how impossible this is even as we inhabit for a moment how real it feels.
[00:17:57.57] Here is the poet Linda Gregg reading Alma to her sister, The last poem in "Too Bright to See. "
[00:18:10.81] This is the last poem I'll read tonight. And it's also the last poem in my book.
[00:18:20.09] "Alma to her sister."
[00:18:26.64] "Alone no loneliness in the dream in the quiet in the sunrise in the sunset Louise. In the dream no loneliness in the dream. In the quiet of the day done in the sunrise Louise, in the dream in he dream in the sunrise in the sunset.
[00:18:55.43] Alone no loneliness done. No loneliness in the dream in the quiet in the sunrise in the sunset. Louise in the dream. In the sunrise in the sunset." Thank you.
[00:19:28.87] I'm going to read a poem from my new book, "The Nightfields" and it's called "On Diminishment"
[00:19:39.07] "On Diminishment." "The hours I wake into are not empty but the sounds have grown smaller. Vertical drop of a spider thread, its slow glass passage. A breath beneath rooms full of paper.
[00:20:02.76] I am, since you turned away from me, the most delicate book. And I think, I made myself kind, I put things down for you.
[00:20:16.91] I wish it had been quiet enough then to say, I am sorry. We are sorry. We take all our love back.
[00:20:32.96] And here, in the month of my birth, light crosses the walls for hours until dark blue summer dusk surrounds me. Each day I return unnoticed to my home.
[00:20:49.04] But at night I hear the cool roads across town, see rain on the hands of a child who lingered a while in the yard.
[00:20:59.88] Somewhere insects are brushing the lamps and stars have slipped in their dome over us-- their are positions fixed, intact, and perfect.
[00:21:16.94] It is hard to shape oneself to oneself. Who are you? What is here?
[00:21:25.98] Kites above a muddy field, your body windlass as it watches.
[00:21:33.68] If too much has happened to you, whom do you tell?
[00:21:38.57] It is costly to love without giving over to love.
[00:21:43.81] It is costly to look too much after yourself.
[00:21:53.33] I was no more than bones, cloud, I was only rain floating. Some days more stone than road.
[00:22:04.10] Some days the high white flash of a fountain.
[00:22:08.64] I was only a country, a body folding nightly into its tides. I could not expect anything.
[00:22:19.70] I was wood without knowing.
[00:22:27.63] It is possible to love without purpose. It is possible to walk far into another and find only yourself.
[00:22:38.67] If there is a right action of the throat, it is to say I tried, I stayed a long time there.
[00:22:48.59] You can let the whole of those years go unanswered. The stairwell, the porch swing, the reading chair where I'd greet you looking away, as if my arriving and leaving were never really part of the pleasure.
[00:23:06.55] The most fragile thought can live inside you for months and you carry on as if it weren't real.
[00:23:16.02] You can speed up so fast you can't even hear the ruin in the bell, the slip of pain inside trust, the ownerless nothingness you have now come to share with someone you once found so good."
Julie Swarstad Johnson:
[00:23:46.39] Joanna, thank you so much for putting those poems into conversation with one another and for sharing your own work. Listeners, thank you for joining us for we're always grateful for your time.
[00:23:57.32] If you're interested in hearing the full recordings that Joanna selections came from, check out the show notes where you can find links to Voca.
[00:24:05.08] This is the start of a new season of Poetry Centered, so we hope that you'll join us every two weeks for a set of new episodes. Two weeks from now you can look forward to an episode hosted by Adrian Matejka. Thanks again for sharing this time with us today
Diana Marie Delgado:
[00:24:21.43] Poetry Centered is a project of the University of Arizona Poetry Center, home to a world-class library collection of more than 80,000 items related to contemporary poetry in English and English translation. Located on the campus of the University of Arizona in Tucson, the Poetry Center library and buildings are housed on the indigenous homelands of the Tohono O'odham people.
[00:24:44.21] Poetry Centered is the work of Diana Marie Delgado, that's me, and Julie Swarstad Johnson with support from.
[00:24:51.64] Sarah Gzemski.
Diana Marie Delgado:
[00:24:53.29] Explore Voca, the Poetry Center's audiovisual archive online at voca.arizona.edu.