Chet’la Sebree leads us to acknowledge liminal spaces, those places that are not quite one thing or another, moments of transition and not-yet that have become so familiar to us throughout the pandemic. Sebree introduces Camille T. Dungy’s recognition that grief relentlessly intrudes on joy (“Notes on What Is Always with Us”), Brenda Shaughnessy’s reflection on the difficulties of understanding time (“Three Summers Mark Only Two Years”), and Ada Limón’s transformative rendering of relationships (“What I Didn’t Know Before”). Sebree closes with a new poem of her own on liminality, “Blue Opening.”
Julie Swarstad Johnson:
[00:00:03.06] This is Poetry Centered, the podcast that gives you a chance to hear poets reading their work between 1963 and today, with recordings curated and introduced for you by a contemporary poet. These recordings come to you from the University of Arizona Poetry Center, and our online audiovisual archive Voca. I'm Julie Swarstad Johnson, here to welcome you and introduce our host.
[00:00:28.08] Our host today is Chet’la Sebree, a poet, educator, and editor. Her most recent collection of poetry is Field Studies, winner of the 2020 James Laughlin award from the Academy of American Poets. She's a professor and the director for the Stadler Center for Poetry and Literary Arts at Bucknell University.
[00:00:47.88] Chet’la takes us into liminal spaces in this episode, inviting us to linger in the places in between states like joy and suffering, the past and present, between now and what's to come. She does this through a fabulous selection of poems by Camille Dungy, Brenda Shaughnessy and Ada Limón. Chet’la, thank you so much for leading us today.
[00:01:11.20] Chet’la Sebree, reporting from Middletown Delaware. “Notes on What is Always with US” by Camille Dungy, read November 17 2016. In the past couple of years, many of us have done a lot of grieving over people we've lost, or plans we've had, or the state of the world. And even when we're trying to write about joy we find ourselves writing about all we must muscle through to get there.
[00:01:48.30] In this poem, Camille Dungy who I'm grateful to have met virtually during this pandemic, holds the complexities of not just this moment, but of what it means for me at least to move through this world seeing the dead celebrated alongside the living, and the slow decimation of this planet alongside a birthday celebration. All of the things we try not to say but notice, feel, see.
[00:02:22.17] In this way, this poem reminds me of Audre Lorde's “Litany for Survival,” in which she writes, so it is better to speak, remembering we were never meant to survive. Dungy here shows us that in order to write about the joy of babies, and birthdays, and birds, she must also write about grief.
[00:02:47.99] I love the knowing voice in this poem, the self-awareness of the poet, and the attempt to write. In particular, I appreciate how the refrain in the poem about the attempt shifts. I am trying to write to, I try to write to, I'd written to, I was trying to write. In this way, I feel a part of the notational journey, notice how what is always with us is also always changing. Here is “Notes on What Is Always with Us” by Camille Dungy.
Camille T. Dungy:
[00:03:33.83] As I hope, you're hearing from these poems that I'm reading my poetic imagination has been consumed by loss for some time. And now with the presence in my household of someone who's going to be the age I am now in 2050, which is when scientists predict that the most extreme effects of the catastrophic climate change that we are part of now is going to be part of her daily life.
[00:04:06.86] And so, I feel like my poems now are just incredibly possessed by this concern about what this is doing. And so, I don't know what that means. I've always been thinking about the environment and the climate.
[00:04:22.58] Now there's this other state, there's this I just don't lock it up for my daughter, for my students, for this future. I feel like we are responsible for making something better and working on it. I mean getting really mad now, because I'm really mad.
[00:04:45.62] Notes On What Is Always with Us. This week. I threw a birthday party for my mother and grief came along for the cake. Ten mothers at my mother's birthday dinner, three of them bereaved of a child. The dead celebrated right there with the living. We asked grief to be quiet but she smiled, smacked her lips, and tore into her steak.
[00:05:13.92] On land, adult penguins have no natural predators. The big bad wolf is not in Antarctica, a problem. No lions, No tigers, no bears. Penguin eggs and penguin chicks are always at the mercy of scuba and disaster. But even from the Leopard seal and orca, the land hulled adult penguin is safe.
[00:05:41.28] I'm trying to write about penguins, about predator list terrains. I am trying to write about joy, and a kind of cold beauty, but grief won't stay away. Grief will ride in on the smallest of bodies. A tick on a cormorant’s wing.
[00:06:00.99] If the winter isn't cold enough to kill it, that tick will embed itself in a penguin's neck, the back of her head, anywhere the penguin cannot reach. And because she has no way to tell anyone, and because even if she could convey her agony, there would be no way for her fellow birds to help, she will itch for a while, swell for a while, then abandon her nest for the water's relief. To a run, and slide, and dive into danger. Her eggs will die, and her chicks will die, and she may die as well.
[00:06:42.78] I am trying to write about predator loose terrains, but grief will ride in on the smallest of bodies. A tick on a cormorant's wings. I try to write everything down, because I know it would be easier to forget, and I want to avoid the comforts of suppression.
[00:07:03.81] Scouring journals for my notes about seabird, ticks, and their toll on Antarctic penguin populations, I find a different set of notes. I'd written, the only time I really talked to you was in your Trenton kitchen, what I meant that was the only time I ever saw you genuinely smile.
[00:07:25.11] The baby needed food and you just back from pushing his stroller on a long walk during which you and he both watched the morning sun shine on the faded splendor of those Trenton streets, were boiling a hot dog for your only son and smiling.
[00:07:44.31] There are things I do not want to say I said in my journal, except the not saying won't return anything you love. The boy is dead, the boy's mother is dead. I'm trying to write about beauty but grief won't stay away. I was trying to write about babies, and birthdays, and birds, I was trying to write about joy.
[00:08:19.01] “Three Summers Mark Only Two Years” by Brenda Shaughnessy, read February 2nd, 2005. I chose this poem because of how strangely time has moved in the past two years, which both feel like an eternity and a blip.
[00:08:39.51] I met Brenda in 2017 at a residency, a space in which time also feels like a strange vacuum. In this poem though, I love the speaker laments a year stolen by mosquitoes. Feels like hard work was taxed a full third despite the loss of time.
[00:08:59.97] What I love most is that the speaker still wants to suffer the stolen year. Meaning, that she wants even the bad parts, time spent working or alone, if that year could be returned to her. In it there's a plea, like there seems to be an all three poems shared, to be present in all of the complex fully formed messiness of what it means to be a person.
[00:09:31.26] And this plea at the end of Shaughnessy’s poem feels familiar to me as I scramble in so many ways to make up for all that has been lost. Here is “Three Summers Mark Only Two Years” by Brenda Shaughnessy.
[00:09:53.96] Now we're going to switch to summer, you can decide whether it's last summer or the coming summer whichever makes you feel better. If there's a mathematical problem when you talk about summers or seasons which is the title of the poem, Three Summers Mark Only Two Years.
[00:10:12.29] No wonder time is so mistaken, three summers like any other three summers aren't they long and doubtful with train trips to the sea edge and free legs? Why do we only get two years in exchange for three Summers?
[00:10:25.52] A full year stolen by mosquitoes, like a club sandwich we need an extra summer to separate year of bacon from year of turkey, like a lot of hard work taxed a full third. I'll gladly suffer in a stolen year, make it a year of sweaty nights alone in a cube and days in a cubicle time spent to buy time. I'll take a year of that just give it back to me.
[00:10:58.31] "What I Didn't Know Before" by Ada Limón, read April 5, 2018. I met Ada during a summer program where I was working and she was a guest poet, and I believe that was the first time I encountered this poem. The metaphor of love being a fully formed being ready to run always strikes me here.
[00:11:27.96] How a horse is born finds its feet immediately exists not in the liminal state of baby. While small, the young horse moves through this world whole and complete as early love might. I chose this poem because it reminds me of how we plan for things and how suddenly a fully formed present comes charging at us, be it love, be it a pandemic.
[00:12:00.94] As you listen, listen for that moment when we transition from the world of the horses to the world of humans, the word of the beloved. And then how we return full circle to the animal of the beginning.
[00:12:16.71] For me, Limón is deft in these transitions, these pivots like voltas that shift seamlessly into new landscapes. This is something as a lover of sonnets, I'm always mesmerized by in her work. Also for how she always reminds us of the animals we are here is Ada Limón's "What I Didn't Know Before."
[00:12:44.57] [MUSIC PLAYING]
[00:12:51.09] Has anyone here seen a horse being born? A few of you? OK. It's a pretty bizarre thing because a horse just comes out of a horse. So you just need to know that. What I didn't know before was that horses simply give birth to other horses.
[00:13:19.20] Not a baby by any means, not a creature of liminal spaces but a four legged beast hell bent on walking scrambling after the mother. A horse gives way to another horse and then suddenly there are two horses, just like that. That's how I loved you.
[00:13:38.73] You off the long train from Red Bank carrying a coffee as big as your arm, a bag with two computers swimming in it unwieldy at your side. I remember we broke into laughter when we saw each other. What was between us wasn't a fragile thing to be coddled, cooed over it came out fully formed, ready to run.
[00:14:03.91] [MUSIC PLAYING]
[00:14:10.38] Despite the gravity of all of these poems, I find levity and beauty in each of them and the tenderness with which Dungy describes the penguin, in the swinging bags and laughter and love in Limón's poem. And the way Shaughnessy likens time delineation to lunch meats.
[00:14:30.42] And then I realize all of them also deal with the mentality, before and after the birth of something whole, the line between joy and grief, and the whole confusion that is time. So I thought I'd share a poem from a new manuscript on which I'm working about some of those states of mentality. This poem is called “Blue Opening.”
[00:14:58.48] You want to freeze a swan dive in that midair fraction of existence where you aren't jumping up or out or falling. You are not the owner of this vessel you thought you owned, implies the man trying to sell it to you.
[00:15:17.21] Over his shoulder a couple with a diaper bag scours piles of plastic laid out on my lawn. He glances at them as if he knows they know they'll find their son's Lego. Here you're not sure where you are, on the cliff, in the water, or floating, falling.
[00:15:40.94] These worlds are not parallel and neither has an air sickness bag. You have the money but don't know if you want what you think is yours. So you hand him 61 for your life give him an extra 100 to put it in your car. This is the sliver where you are, half an air, half in water, cold slap of blue opening as the invisible spits you out.
[00:16:12.13] [MUSIC PLAYING]
Julie Swarstad Johnson:
[00:16:19.78] Chet’la, thank you again for that wonderful array of poems and their mix of gravity and levity. Listeners thank you so much for sharing your time with us in this liminal space. In two weeks. Look for a new episode hosted by Sarah Borjas.
[00:16:34.33] Until then we invite you to enjoy our back catalog of episodes or to check out the Poetry Center's website for lots of great poetry content at poetry.arizona.edu. We hope you're all staying healthy and safe and we look forward to being with you again soon.
Diana Marie Delgado:
[00:16:51.73] 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--
[00:17:21.97] Sarah Gzemski.
Diana Marie Delgado:
[00:17:23.35] Explore Voca, the Poetry Center's audiovisual archive online at voca.arizona.edu.