Bridget Lowe Interviewed by Peter Mishler, with Two Poems from Vol. 33

 

PM: In your first collection of poems At the Autopsy of Valsav Nijinsky you write from the perspective of a number of public figures. How did you choose these subjects?

BL: I honestly don’t feel like I did choose these subjects. It always seems to happen naturally for me. It was at the thrift store where I found the case study called The Wild Boy of Aveyron, and at a yard sale where I found the diaries of Nijinsky. I have been going to the thrift store my whole life, and I am a big believer in its powers to deliver me what I need. And even after finding the books, I didn’t think of how I could use them exactly. I just became a bit obsessed with each book and wrote in response to what I was reading. But once it becomes clear to me that I am writing a lot about a particular person, I do make the conscious choice to try to maintain a balance of just enough information with not enough information. I don’t want to quantify these figures––I want to understand them.  I don’t believe information always leads to knowing. And I think because it is me writing and not them, the poems are more about me than them.  I don’t think I could deny that, even if I’ve wanted to sometimes.

 

PM: What voices or experiences are you drawn to in your reading?

BL: I’m drawn to voices that feel authentic and idiosyncratic, some of my favorite writers being Montaigne, Girolamo Cardano, and Sir Thomas Browne. I’m attracted to the voices of those who insist on their humanness, sometimes in spite of people or forces around them trying to deny them that. I love reading firsthand accounts of saints, people who have come close to or encountered the ecstatic and want to describe it to you, as an individual reader—I love being directly addressed on the page. On the other hand, I love the clinical text or voice, the doctor’s assessment. I am drawn to both the subject of assessment as well the assessor, which I think is clear when reading the book.

Something else that comes to mind is a song I remember my dad singing when I was growing up called ‘Danny Farrell.’ The song is a catalogue of this particular man’s failings, a portrait of an alcoholic and all the damage he’s done. But the chorus of the song, after going through all of his failures, concludes with ‘but Danny Farrell, he’s a man.’ I think the book is concerned with similar questions about what makes someone a person and not something else. And I’m interested in these questions because I don’t know what that something is; no one does. I’m also aware of how naïve this sounds—but I’m stuck on it and so tend to read accordingly.

 

PM: In your poem ‘Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier and Wife, Posing with Scientific Instruments Just Before He is Beheaded,’ you write from the perspective of Lavoisier’s wife. Why did you choose to write about her?

BL: I didn’t begin the poem with a particular interest in her, actually; I was drawn to her through reading about her husband’s work on oxygen in the blood. The book, which was part of a set of vintage reference books on the human body, illustrated Lavoisier’s work with the painting by Jacques-Louis David that’s in the Met, ‘Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier and His Wife.’ They look very happy together, very unified. in a mutual tenderness and creativity. She is sort of flanking him from behind and he looks pensive and distracted.  But the moment portrays, to me, a genuine intimacy between them. I was drawn most of all to this intimacy. This poem is a love poem, plain and simple. I wondered, what if all of his work was really just to impress her, or for her in some way? In that ‘schoolyard love’ sense.

 

PM: Your book includes several poems in which you return to specific subjects (Nijinsky the Wild Boy, The Pilgrim, Sean Young).  Do you see this poem as part of a series that a reader can follow throughout the collection?

BM: Yes and no. While, yes, there are several figures in the book who recur, Lavoisier and his wife only appear in this single poem, so in that sense this poem isn’t part of a series. But the book works as a collection of ideas, and I see this poem as belonging to a series in that sense. To be specific, as I was working on the poem, I read that Lavoisier’s wife [Marie-Anne-Pierrette Paulze] is believed to have been his pupil, and it’s known that she assisted him quite a bit in his research and illustrated his work. So I was curious about what kind of power she had, the same way I wonder about the Wild Boy living a life in which he was a constant pupil and patient. They both fit into a model based on one’s assumed wholeness and the other’s lack, and there’s just so much potential indignity in that. At the same time, Mme. Lavoisier and the Wild Boy, while both of the same period, had remarkably different amounts of agency in their respective relationships, so they can’t be just lumped together.

 

PM: I notice that your poems seem to create new, imaginative spaces for the subjects you are writing about. For instance, in ‘Proof,’ Pythagoras has had multiple reincarnations, and your poem ‘Achilles and Penthesilea’ includes Penthesilea’s afterlife.

BM: In each of these poems the mind and the body are completely separated. It’s both a horrific thought and a pleasant fantasy, that the mind could survive without the body and vice versa. This is a dilemma that all of the poems in the collection are engaging in some way, some more obviously than others. But Penthesilea, for example: her body is being defiled in the most grotesque way, but her mind is not only somewhere else but in her childhood specifically, where a particular sense of power is restored to her. I think people in psychic pain naturally dream of other worlds, one of my favorite examples of this being The Land of Cockaigne––the fantasy of being filled, completely and totally sated. I’ve always been interested in the people that get pushed to the margins, and I think the role that imagination plays in the lives of the marginalized is one of necessity, as if they would die without it. When I write a poem for or about someone, which is what I’m usually doing when I write, I am trying to give that person a new space to exist in, as a gift. I want to bring them some comfort for a minute, offer them a little cloud to sit on before things get hard again.

And it seems to me now, seeing the book completed, that the people I write about are often trying to figure out why they feel so far away from their own bodies. But Pythagoras, in ‘Proof,’ he’s just going with it. He’s been living in so many different bodies and forms that he’s comfortable with a kind of disconnection that the people of the period he’s visiting are not. I would also identify him as pure imagination in this poem, a space both inside and outside of the world. He’s very happy too. I imagine him as sort of settled with life, like the kind of older man you occasionally meet who has just decided to always have a good time.

 

PM: You began this interview by stating that the subjects you’ve chosen have allowed for an entrance into personal expression, that a poem that begins with a particular subject becomes more about you.  In what ways do you think these poems are personal?

BM: I like that you say the subjects I’ve chosen have ‘allowed for an entrance into personal expression.’ I definitely prefer to think of it that way, but this is very tricky, and I struggled with this quite a bit, because I recognized that writing on behalf of others, about their experience, was very problematic. The appropriation of the weak by the powerful for their own gain is something I was dwelling critically on throughout the book, and I wondered how using someone as the subject of a poem was different from making someone the subject of a scientific experiment, such as the Wild Boy. I didn’t see how I could write in the voice of someone else or even use a real person as a catalyst without enacting the very thing I’m mourning in the poems.

But while working on the Wild Boy poems, I ended up writing a series from the point of view of Dr. Jean-Marc Gaspard Itard, the doctor who wrote the case study I was using as a guide. Only one of these poems ended up in the book (‘The Doctor, Drunk, Gives the Wild Boy of Aveyron Advice on Women and Sex’) but that was a surprising time for me. Up to that point I had been thinking in terms of the emotional experience of the Wild Boy—the patient, the subject, who I easily felt a tenderness toward that I could access on the page. But I found that I really liked writing from the point of view of the doctor as well—he embodied a belief system that deeply frightened me, especially because of his good intentions and his tenderness toward his subject. I think that was a necessary element to making the poems appropriately complicated. And I do believe that I write partially in order to try to integrate things that frighten me into my conception of the world, to fit it all together in one space.

These poems are also incredibly personal in the sense that I have always used poems to better understand what I believe, and I don’t mean that in a self-help kind of way. I don’t care about understanding myself nearly as much as I care about understanding how my ‘self’ has been formed by the environment or culture in which I exist. That’s the same concern I express in regards to the Wild Boy, or Nijinsky, or my loved ones for that matter. We believe our ideas are personal to us but mostly they’re not. It makes me sad because it was a belief that used to bring me comfort as a younger person, that all of my ideas were mine and mine alone. I thought of my ideas as my soul, and the imagination as a refuge, as a pure place, but I don’t believe that anymore. Because our very fantasy lives belong to the storylines we consume, in my poems I have probably tried to depart from some of those storylines, to see if there was a place beyond or outside of the narratives we’re offered. I think there is, I really do.

 

 

Antoine Laurent Lavoisier and Wife, Posing with Scientific Instruments Just Before He Is Beheaded

 

Good riddance, waved the small

handkerchiefs of the Republic, as the rational

became muddled, a mix of colors

 

pouring from my husband’s severed head.

Wigged and alive, the two of us

were more like twins, his slender leg

 

that of a schoolgirl’s, blond

curls rolling down my back. My blue sash.

In our portrait such illumination,

 

all around us light striking glass

and copper as I lean upon

my husband’s shoulder, his elbow propped

 

on the red velvet tablecloth, a beaker

upturned at his foot.

How to know what to look for?

 

The dream is here, I thought, in this

pillared room, a pheasant quill

in his right hand, about to make something real.

 

The body is like fire, he wrote, it consumes

and gives off heat. It seemed

so romantic, like a love letter, like the tomb

 

disappearing under a current, briefly.

Like the word he invented—oxygen

for the steam that escaped my mouth.

 

 

Proof

 

It is said that Catherine the Great

requested the mathematician Euler

confront Diderot, atheist, with this:

 

“Sir, (a+bn)/n=x,

hence God exists. Reply!”

 

There was a long silence as Catherine

crossed her legs and Diderot turned

and fled like a barn cat from fire, an “x”

 

solved for as useless, eliminated.

But Pythagoras—who heard the cry

of his dead friend in the bark of a dog

 

and could flash a golden thigh

like some barroom harlot, who rejoiced

in the perfect spirals of seashells

 

and pinecones, who had lived four lives

that he remembered in detail and believed

that the mind was the key to the heart—

 

laughed at the folly of this display

from his perch in the castle rafters

where he was currently living his fifth life as a bird.

 

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