Adam O. Davis selects and shares poems that engage with journeys—across time, through mystery, into the past, or to shape a future. He introduces Nathaniel Mackey meditating on eternal questions (“Glenn on Monk’s Mountain”), Maurya Simon reminding us that the dead surround and sustain us (“El Día de los Muertos”), and Robert Creeley poignantly speaking across time (“I Know a Man”). Davis closes by reading his poem “Interstate Highway System,” his own plea for living sparked by a 2015 road trip across America.
You can find the full recordings of Nathaniel Mackey, Maurya Simon, and Robert Creeley reading for the Poetry Center on Voca:
Nathaniel Mackey with jazz pianist Marilyn Crispell (2013)
Maurya Simon (2019)
Robert Creeley (1963)
Check out Davis’s Index of Haunted Houses Hotline by calling 619-329-5757.
[00:00:00.00] [GENTLE MUSIC]
Julie Swarstad Johnson:
[00:00:02.61] You're listening to Poetry Centered, featuring recorded poetry readings from 1963 to today, curated and introduced by contemporary poets. These recordings come to you from Voca, the online audiovisual archive of the University of Arizona Poetry Center. I'm Julie Swarstad Johnson, and as always I'm here to welcome you to the show.
[00:00:26.05] Today, we're joined by poet and photographer Adam O. Davis. His debut poetry collection is Index of Haunted Houses, published last year. There's a very unique Index of Haunted Houses Hotline where you can hear selected poems from the book. We'll put the phone number to find that in the show notes. In this episode, Adam shares recordings by Nathaniel Mackey, Maurya Simon, and Robert Creeley, all engaging with the idea of journeys--across time, through mystery, into the past, or to shape a future. Adam, thank you so much for being here with us today.
[00:01:02.58] [GENTLE MUSIC]
Adam O. Davis:
[00:01:05.74] This is Adam O. Davis, coming to you from San Diego, California. This is Nathaniel Mackey, reading his poem Glenn on Monk's Mountain on Thursday, March 28, 2013. Why do you travel?
[00:01:21.28] For many like me, I think it's to engage with mystery and in doing so, preserving that mystery. Leave answers to the guidebooks. I'm looking for my questions to be multiplied with every flown mile.
[00:01:32.83] With this in mind, what I find so rewarding about Nathaniel Mackey's work is his mastery over mystery. Or maybe I mean mastery under mystery. His epic imaginings of the travels of both the real and fictitious people are all about how what is is not, if it ever was. That is, they're about all the ways in which we live while imagining other ways of living. His poems invite us to engage with the central mystery of our lives, the eternal why, while reminding us that language, like time, is always there to usher us forward.
[00:02:08.71] What I love about Mackey's work is its focus on inversion, and how his use of inversion illustrates the temporal nature of any taxonomy. After all, if travel teaches us anything, it's that the definition of anything, let alone words, is only good for a limited time. If we don't act now, the operators of the future won't know of what we speak, for not our words but their meanings will have shifted.
[00:02:33.27] In this, Mackey's use of sound works like a wound that we work to heal with our mouths. As if by renaming the injury, we can tame its hurt. Note the way in the following poem that Mackey telegraphs our tendency to refine our experience through mutable language, how liturgical ambush melts to limbic ambush, reminding us that trumpet tongued angels only have tongues because we had one in the first place. We are, after all, the origin of our origin stories.
[00:03:05.45] As always with Mackey, jazz is the veil through which his words are seen. And so in his poetry, we encounter jazz as belief in the moment, clashing with poetry's sense of the pluperfect past, the future announced through revision rather than reflex. Given this, in these songs as the poet often calls them, we encounter a world in flight, its energy potential and kinetic at once, where we find our past, present, and future selves evermore truly and more strange. This is Nathaniel Mackey reading his poem Glenn on Monk's Mountain.
[00:03:41.12] [MUSIC PLAYING]
[00:03:44.87] Glenn on Monk's Mountain. Glenn on Monk's Mountain is actually a phrase from a novel by the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard. It's called The Loser.
[00:04:00.81] And it has to do with the character modeled on Glenn Gould. So the Glenn on Monk's Mountain in that phrase is a reference to Glenn Gould. And the Monk's Mountain is not a reference to Thelonius Monk, but to a place in Strasbourg.
[00:04:22.86] Glenn Spearman died at age 51, and Glenn Gould did as well. Then the book has much to do with that. The book was actually given to me by a friend as a birthday present for my 50th birthday. And I'd also been in Vienna recently, so some of that comes in.
[00:04:52.17] Glenn on Monk's Mountain. Next, it was Austria we were in. Unexpected rain soaked our feet. Unexpected snow froze our feet.
[00:05:06.47] A bitter book took us there. A bitter book in our stomachs, an aftertaste on our tongues. A book based on another Glenn, Monk's Mountain not the monks we took it for. A book of overlay, a book about death at 51, a book we lay awake at night reading, a book we read wanting to wake up from.
[00:05:31.49] So it was another Monk's Mountain we haunted, sat upside it cross-legged, lotus headed, humphed, heads encased in crystal it seemed. Bits of straw like unexpected snow filled the sky. Stars with bits of straw blowed about in the crystal we were in. The rags on our backs, a bolt of black-star studded cloth. The jukebox dressed us in gabardine, burlap, scratched our skin with raw silk.
[00:06:03.50] A bit of straw caught in my eye, made it water. Water filled my head with salt. Straw, ridden by water, filled my hair, my throat, my chest. Salt filled my head with sound. A sound of bells, not of bells, but of pounded iron, the Falasha spoken to by Ogun.
[00:06:28.61] I played Asaph, the horn's bell a swung censer, wafted scent, the furtive sound I sought. Liturgical ambush, fugitive straw. Limbic ambush, Nastic address.
[00:06:47.77] Pads and keys cried out for climb, clamor, something yet to arrive we called rung. Rickety wood, split reeds, sprung ladder. More splinters the more steps we took.
[00:07:02.47] Rung was a bought made of air, an unlikely plank suddenly under our feet we floated up from. Rung was a loquat limb, runaway ladder, bent miraculous branch, thetic step. Flesh beginning to go like wax, we sat like Buddha, breath and abiding chime, chimeless, bells had we been rung.
[00:07:28.96] [GENTLE MUSIC]
Adam O. Davis:
[00:07:35.66] This is Maurya Simon recording her poem Día de los Muertos on Thursday, February 21, 2019. There is hyperbole and there is hype, and then there's the truth. In this case, the truth is that I would not be recording this podcast, indeed, I would not even be a poet without Maurya Simon's mentorship.
[00:07:56.06] If not for my taking her poetry workshop in the winter of 2001, if not for her kind words of encouragement, if not for her patience and humor and wisdom, and if not for her insisting that I apply to MFA programs instead of pursuing a career as a Club Med tennis instructor, I would not have the life that I have now. She has again and again given me the words I needed to not only make sense of this world but to build a path through it. I'm indebted, to say the least.
[00:08:25.59] Simon, like myself, had a peripatetic upbringing, traveling all over the world as a child and then as an adult. One of my favorite stories of hers is how when she was young, her family camped in Stonehenge. Not at Stonehenge, mind you, but in Stonehenge, pitching their tent in the very middle of that prehistoric lytic ring back before that ring was roped off and made verboten to the public.
[00:08:49.71] What this aside illustrates for me is how adventurous a spirit and writer Simon is, and how deeply her work enmeshes itself with the specific nature of the world where her poems take root. That said, despite her globetrotting ways, she is at the core a south land writer. And in particular, Los Angeles and its environs are her most resonant terroir.
[00:09:11.43] This can be keenly felt in her poem Día de los Muertos, which functions not as a postcard but an oil painting of LA's vibrant corners and pockets, those places that people often are, in her words, blind as air to. These spots that go unexplored by the film crews and star tours but are an essential component of what makes this metropolis so multifaceted. A place where picnicking on the graves of family members isn't piracy but pilgrimage, where the sugary bones of ancestors nourish those yet unborn, who leaven like bread as they're held faster to the world by the arms of those who went before them.
[00:09:49.74] The continuum presented in her work is not only heartfelt but heartening. Simon reminds us that beauty always awaits in the unexamined and that we can redeem our days through examining it. This is Maurya Simon reading her poem Día de los Muertos.
[00:10:06.05] [MUSIC PLAYING]
[00:10:10.57] This is El Día de los Muertos. Ten candied skulls are lined up ghoulishly upon the shelves of La Boccanegra Bakery. Though some stare gleefully at passers by, others glare vacantly this All Saints' Day into the hot blast of yeasty steam that waft out like dreams from fiery ovens in the back.
[00:10:40.71] Three whitened bakers exercise strong hands to work doughy miracles in a careful dance with time. The dead are all around us here and everywhere, though we are blind as air and only feel their gaze when knives of lost peel back the stupor of our lives. Hunger barely masks the longing in their eyes, for the dead dine emptily upon our sighs, yet hope to harvest sweetness from our breath.
[00:11:14.96] The dead love us with tacit tenderness. Behind the bakery, the Sunday mourners picnic on the graves of family members, shivering in the cold, sucking the sugary bones of their ancestors. Expectant mothers intone the names of their unborn, lives that are swelling like bread leavened in the invisible arms of the dead.
[00:11:44.30] [GENTLE MUSIC]
Adam O. Davis:
[00:11:52.74] This is Robert Creeley, reading his poem I Know a Man on December 4, 1963. Believe it or not, but what you're about to hear is the Poetry Center's earliest known recording. That hum that hums behind Creeley's voice is nearly 60 years old, just as is Creeley's voice and his fevered recitation of his best known and certainly best loved, if the audience's reaction tells us anything, poem. The applause at the end is combustive and the poet's bashful laugh charming. That they have both traveled so far to reach us is a triumph of technology over time reminding me of Robert Browning ecstatically crying out hip, hip, hooray at the end of his 1889 reading captured on an Edison cylinder knowing that at the least, not only his words but his voice would live on.
[00:12:43.84] What fascinates me about Creeley's reading is his deep reverence for the line break and how definitively it crystallizes Yates's comment on how a poem must be read as verse because he had quote, "a devil of a lot of trouble to get first into the poems," unquote. In other words, this ain't prose, folks. So read it like you mean it.
[00:13:04.49] If you know Creeley's poem, then you know it's transcribed almost stenographically on the page. Normally, this is something that would be lost in a live reading. But Creeley's synesthetic speech translates every visual abbreviation and pause to our ear. His clipped, almost Dalek-like recitation reflects not only the poems fractured physicality but also its crippling existential concern.
[00:13:27.41] In a cri de coeur fit for any Costco, the poem's speaker wonders what significant purchase can be purchased to stave off the creeping sense of insignificance in the face of all the literal space that surrounds him. I mean, here we are adrift in an ever-expanding universe. But rather than going full-blown extraterrestrial in the search for meaning, Creeley brings us back to Earth. Let's ask our friend John, whose name isn't really John, what might save us as we drive through a dark so thick we need a spoon to scoop it. A dark that, for me, Tucson native that I am, reminds me of Tucson's supernatural desert nights, the way darkness settles so wholly upon the city that it makes an island out of it.
[00:14:12.48] Now, I admit this description of the poem isn't all sunshine and Mercedes Benz's, but what saves this piece from nihilism is its humor, the goddamn bigness of the concern and the absurdity of the question. Because in the end, it's not about what is being bought but the idea behind the purchase. Speed.
[00:14:32.10] If we can just, if we might, if we could and should speed away from the gnawing anxiety of our common age, then we should, if only to say that somewhere between the one big question we're born with and the one big question we end with we did something. We attempted, not to answer, but to engage, to see, to experience, to live. This is Robert Creeley, reading his poem I Know a Man.
[00:14:59.98] [MUSIC PLAYING]
[00:15:04.60] And this, again, thinking of thinking of other men who had this very clear use for me, Williams makes the point at some point that the-- he says the poet thinks with his poem. In that lies his thought. And that in itself is the profundity.
[00:15:19.48] So the poetry became for me a way of articulating senses of feeling or senses of dilemma or senses of realization or recognition that other means of saying things or of expressing things, and all the complexity of that possibility, writing in this fashion gave me an access to terms of feeling that I otherwise I feel couldn't get to. Here's another, actually, that's almost at that same time. Which again, is this sense of trying to locate something that was a frustrating sense of impotence, of being blocked. John is simply any friend. And seeing how one might get out of it, I Know a Man.
[00:16:08.42] As I said to my friend, because I am always talking, John, I said, which was not his name, the dock that surrounds us, what can we do against it? Or else shall we and why not buy a goddamn big car? Drive, he said, for Christ's sake. Look out where you're going.
[00:16:27.89] Thank you. Yeah. Well, let me tell you something about that particular-- one of the only times that I've ever had the honor, really, I suppose in an American-- an issue in American writing of the London times literary supplement. This particular poem came into their discussion.
[00:16:50.09] And the reviewer-- I only want to suggest to you the difficulties of the possible confusions that can come of trying to read into a poem more than is actually stated in it. This particular reviewer felt that John had some equivalence to John the Baptist. And felt that therefore the speaker must be Christ. And ended up by making a parallel with one of Auden's poem. It's something of a Christian advice to undergraduates on the dangers of abstract thinking.
[00:17:25.98] But I don't think it's that. I mean, again, I don't think the poet, I mean, whatever to call him, I don't think the man who writes the poem is always the best man to ask as to what literally means. It means a very complex thing to him.
[00:17:38.06] I mean, he wrote it. He has particular needs of his involved. He may not be able to say what it means in any quote objective way at all.
[00:17:43.52] For me, that poem quote means simply a wish to think of some way happily to get some ease and some release. And then the sense of a friend coming in as qualification of that simply to watch what all this is leading to, which I suppose is partly the exercise of friends. And all the poems of this period are involved with this character. This one, this next one, wait for me--
[00:18:10.76] [MUSIC PLAYING]
Adam O. Davis:
[00:18:16.46] To conclude this sonic road trip, I'd like to read a road trip poem of my own, Interstate Highway System, which, while concerned with the question of how to live both within and without yourself under the umbrella of America, draws heavily from experiences I had in the summer of 2015 when I drove alone across the nation following abandoned railroad lines as I researched a novel. Much was afoot over those ten days as I took in the unvarnished beauty and overwhelming decay of rural America, feeling myself so much a stranger in a country that, as the televised Republican primaries made clear, was a bully pulpit on the precipice of fear and xenophobia. The central anxiety in travel is often related to identity, our own and others, and all the ways in which we might find ourselves transformed. So this poem is a plea for transformation, meaning that it is, like the poems you've already heard, a plea for living.
[00:19:17.06] This is Interstate Highway System. In the beginning, I was incorporate, plain as skull, in cahoots though in Kuwait. A suit suited to combust, my body a blunderbuss brandished in traffic bright as dog bite. I drifted like sand under the winds hand, saw super cells and speed traps, saw God in the face of a forest fire.
[00:19:43.74] The sky was froth, the land foment, ichor and ozone, bees swarm and wildflower. Every living thing shivering under the long range bellow of the transnational semi-trailer truck. Thrush melodies tumbled forth from trees still full of the didactic temper of birds. But I could only froth and foment, my tongue diabetic with word deeded as property in the gun safe of my mouth.
[00:20:14.93] Thereafter, I heeded hints and omens, held hearsay dear as a family Bible, so listened smartly when gossip hopscotched households like house fire. In later years, I leaned prophetic, suffered visions, saw myself sullen on a windswept prairie, saw myself salved in a station flush with tropical disease, snakes shaking in my fists like bad mail. Still, when I slept, I slept sound under the promise of diesel. When I dreamt, I dreamt darkly under the auspices of convenience. When I woke, I ate in the assurance of eating all I could.
[00:20:56.79] And when finally I corrected my iconography, I wept to find my eyes ever blue. The sun fled, clouds militant, the moon an ambulance of rock. Under its urgency, I succumbed to the hobby of my body, held my health like a cigarette from the world I watched through drawn curtains, listening all night to the opera of wolves behind the motels of America. Wolves I ran with, wolves I ran from.
[00:21:28.64] I lived on stick. I lived on stone. I hunted myself any way I could.
[00:21:36.79] [GENTLE MUSIC]
Julie Swarstad Johnson:
[00:21:45.18] Adam, thanks again for your time and for taking us on that sonic road trip. Listeners, thank you, always, for joining us. In the show notes, you can find links to the full recordings by Nathaniel Mackey, Maurya Simon, and Robert Creeley, along with the phone number for the Index of Haunted Houses Hotline. We hope you'll join us again in two weeks for an episode hosted by Silvina López Medin. Thanks again.
Diana Marie Delgado:
[00:22:12.96] 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. Poetry Centered is the work of Diana Marie Delgado, that's me, and Julie Swarstad Johnson with support from--
[00:22:43.20] Sarah Gzemski.
Diana Marie Delgado:
[00:22:44.91] Explore Voca, the Poetry Center's audiovisual archive online at voca.arizona.edu.