Poetry Editor Rick Barot talks with Dan Beachy-Quick, author of “Memory-Wax, Knowledge-Bird” from NER 38.3, about the nature of knowing and forgetting, and of the work we do to construct our own minds, hearts, and philosophies.
Rick Barot: “Memory-Wax, Knowledge-Bird” is such a richly meditative poem. In the poem, you manage to generate an atmosphere that’s both intimate and spacious at the same time. Can you talk about the origin of the poem, and perhaps describe the process of writing it?
Dan Beachy-Quick: There’s really two sources for the poem, though as I think often happens, by poem’s end those two sources revealed themselves as one. The first was reading again Plato’s Theaetetus, that dialogue that so questions the nature of knowledge. I felt very taken by one of the discarded theories, that of the mind as wax tablet that the impressions of the world fall onto, fall into, leaving their mold as memory. I felt even more taken by the vision of the mind as an aviary, where each bird is a form of knowledge, and to catch it in the hand is to learn—but there are also birds of forgetting, of ignorance, of oblivion, and it’s hard to tell which birds those are by looking at them. I guess you only know when you catch one and forget why it is you’re holding it.
I’ve long been of the awful suspicion that each of us has to create our own epistemology—that we must in the end explain to ourselves how we built our own minds, how we constructed our own hearts, and in this way, each of us is a philosopher. Of course, I love most that ancient confusion where what is poetic and what is philosophical aren’t so easily told apart, and so the poem becomes the testing ground (or is it threshing ground?) for the mind’s question it must ask itself. It means, or might mean, that the poem is a mind outside the mind, a heart outside the heart, offering back its questions. So it feels, at times, anyway, to me.
But I also was thinking of my childhood. I spent my summers with my father in Ithaca, New York, walking through the woods outside of town—woods I loved and still love. I spent the school year in Colorado with my mother, and every fall, a package would arrive: a box from a department store, but instead of a shirt or socks, inside would be a parcel of leaves, each dipped in paraffin to keep the color. Over the years I would take each one of these boxes out, and look at the leaves of many years, all spread out over the floor, each leaf encased in wax. It’s an image indelible in my mind—in the wax of my mind. More than that, I realized whatever thing my mind is, my heart is, that it was formed in some significant way by those experiences—by being in the woods, by having the woods sent to me from a long distance away.
The process of the poem was one of long patience. Reading again the passages in Plato and pondering them in the early morning, drinking coffee before the family wakes up. And then writing just a few lines, only 2 or 3, and putting the poem away for another day. I wanted that world to unfold by itself in my imagination, so that I could wander through it as I once did, looking around, listening, wandering and wondering, and line by line, the poem is that record of crossing back over the years, trying to return to a point of origin, feeling the miracle of arrival, while feeling also, the whole time, the distance of years and more that make such return impossible. Just like thinking about anything—you discover the distance within what grows near.
RB: Reading “Memory-Wax, Knowledge-Bird,” I kept feeling the resonance of Romantic lyricism fused to an awareness of the slippages of various late 20th-century avant gardes. You have, in fact, written a book on John Keats, among books of poetry and prose that are in conversation with poetic tradition. How do you see your work as a contemporary poet in relation to the long, complicated tradition?
DBQ: Both as an investigation and a participation, or so I hope. I think I’ve long had a suspicion that the bloom of experiment is rooted in tradition, and that the necessary work isn’t to abandon the past, or feel one has advanced beyond it, but to dig down, with care and curiosity, to get within the loam. I like it when Thoreau says his head is an organ for burrowing. I’m with Shelley when, in “A Defence of Poetry,” he writes: “The sacred links of that chain have never been entirely disjoined, which descending through the minds of many men is attached to those great minds, whence as from a magnet the invisible effluence is sent forth, which at once connects, animates, and sustains the life of all.” I feel that writing a poem is oddly tending those links, and by tending them, discovering them anew. It may well be that one of the primary paradoxes of a poet’s life is that you care for the chain by adding another link, and then the mind reaches back, somehow, to those first utterances, the need for that first utterance, a kind of invocation, that first word that breaks silence, that looks like a link in a chain itself, “O.”
RB: You work in many genres. What are the writing projects you’re engaged in now?
DBQ: For the past few years I’ve been working on a book of essays, fragments, and poems titled Of Silence and Song. It has many hopes, some of them contradictory. The large thought, somewhat absurd, was to return to one concern over and over again—to search for that form of silence that lurks inside what we say, inside what we think, not as a denial of speech or meaning, but as the very source of it. I wanted to learn how to hear that silence, to find some comfort in it. But at the same time, I found all the ways in which what is unspeakable is so out of the various horrors present throughout human history, and that silence also made itself present in the work. I found myself yearning after a form of writing that refused any distinction between the personal and ancient, the aesthetic and the political, the textual and familial, the poetic and the philosophical, and so wrote so as to disturb the boundaries. And in the writing of it, I grew very skeptical of the ease with which we think we’ve advanced beyond those thinkers and writers whose lived occurred millennia ago, and came to think instead that the crisis of the human condition is constant, and that’s a difficult blessing, to sense we have not gained or gotten better at all. The book comes out in December from Milkweed Editions, who have been so good in publishing a number of those books you mention above in conversation with poetic tradition.
RB: Who are the writers and texts you’re deep into these days? What are the books you’re recommending?
DBQ: I’ve been reading much ancient literature for the past few years, and right now, am teaching Homer, so find myself most deeply immersed in The Iliad and Greek tragedies. And I’ve returned to Plato. When Socrates claims in the Protagoras that he is an absurd kind of physician, because he “makes the malady worse,” I find some jolt of recognition about the work of the poets I most admire—those that don’t “heal,” but make the genuine crisis more felt. Some books that have done that for me lately that I’ve been ushering others toward: Sally Keith’s River House, Jorie Graham’s Fast, Susan Howe’s Debths, John Tipton’s Paramnesia, Pam Rehm’s Small Works, Brian Teare’s Companion Grasses, and Laynie Browne’s You Envelope Me. Katie Peterson’s poetry has been a powerful presence to me for the past year. But the writer who has most lit up my mind and eye has been a return to Sir Thomas Browne, whose Urne-Buriall, Religio Medici, and The Garden of Cyrus have shown to me the mind I’d most wish to have myself, that one which can write, “Life is a pure flame, and we live by an invisible Sun within us,” and has learned how to see by that invisible light.