Marianne Boruch, photo by David Dunlap
Sarah Wolfson talks with Marianne Boruch about the platypus, Pliny, and the discovery lurking in “the spill of words.” Read “The Lyrebird Hidden…” and “Every Available Blue…” in NER 42.1.
Sarah Wolfson: These poems are part of your forthcoming book, Bestiary Dark, a project you launched as a Fulbright Senior Scholar at the University of Canberra’s International Poetry Studies Institute. The purpose of your research was to observe Australian wildlife in order to write a bestiary. How did you first become interested in the bestiary genre?
Marianne Boruch: Is it an honest-to-Zeus genre? I just knew the platypus has always been my favorite animal. So when I saw Australia was offering Fulbrights, the University of Canberra and its wonderful International Poetry Studies Institute among them, I thought I might have a distant chance to look that confusing, species-rich creature straight in the eye. I very much wanted to observe that continent’s astonishing wildlife—not only the platypus—and write a sequence of poems about it. About climate change too, and our stained human hand at fault behind it. All this morphed into what I like to call a neo-ancient/medieval bestiary because I drew inspiration from those beautiful often outrageous woodcuts made in the Middle Ages, and from Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia, one of our earliest (and weirdest, cross my heart) natural histories, his final effort before dying at Pompeii where he’d gone in a boat to save a friend caught in Vesuvius’s eruption. (Clearly a bad idea.)
The fact was I was suddenly free as well. I’d recently gone rogue and emeritus from Purdue University where I’d established the MFA program in creative writing and taught for thirty-two years. That good timing also worried me. Maybe I’d seem too old, my retirement possibly rendering moot the Fulbright aim to foster lasting, ongoing links between universities around the world. Plus I’d been awarded a first Fulbright in 2012 for a coveted English-speaking spot in the UK, one of its most beautiful cities, Edinburgh. So perhaps I had used up my chips.
In short, I figured my application was more than dubious. And probably doomed. But my mantra always is: what the hell what the hell what the hell…
SW: What did your journal or field notes for this project look like? Waterproof? Bowerbird-theft proof? How much actual writing occurred on your forays to look for wildlife?
MB: I do wander around with a wee notebook, what I call my “image journal” for jotting things down. I’m basically an old-school imagist, I guess. So I did use that. Since I also carried an un-smart phone that nonetheless had a camera buried in it, I could take pictures to pry open my memory later. My husband and I were there mainly in the drought months—so no, not much concern about rain.
I did write a bit of the collection’s “Book 1” in Canberra. (Bestiary Dark is made of five of those “books”; I was mining Pliny’s organization.) But mainly I wasn’t writing poems “on site,” as such. It was overwhelming enough just to absorb the strange stunning details of that country, as many as I could. From start to finish, we loved it there. I mean, who wouldn’t love a place where your house was in a grove of eucalyptus trees, a mere ten-minute walk to see hundreds of kangaroos just lounging about of a morning? We called that our “kangaroo fix” for the day. Canberra turned out to be a fantastic city for me because, though the nation’s capital and quite urban, 60 percent of it is green space, by design. Which is so smart.
But to answer the rest of that question: I wrote the bulk of the poems after we returned, and mainly in two residencies, one at Yaddo in the fall, the other at MacDowell the following winter, before both places shuttered because of Covid. Such luck! I think about this a lot, how I made it just in time. Which seems a miraculous accident, and doubly so that we were there for that Fulbright when we were, and not the next year when the virus hit and sent all the American scholars packing only a couple of weeks after the new round started in February 2020.
SW: Yes, your research took place in 2019, right before the Australian wildfires and not long before the pandemic. How did these events shape the poems or change the course of your manuscript as a whole?
MB: Well, absolutely the fires shaped the poems and, finally, the curve of the book itself. But it was curious. As I mentioned above, the real writing began after July 31, 2019, when our visas expired and we had to leave the country. And after we spent our fifth and final month circling the Outback in a little yellow rental car that seemed to our Australian friends exactly the wrong vehicle in which to do such a crazy, grueling trip.
Preparing for that was disconcerting. We were constantly warned about the western half of the country, about getting gas and bad roads and the terrain’s desolation, the UFOs that might snatch us up, about the lack of places to stay the night and buy food, etc. But we ventured out anyway. Our back seat was a little grocery store on wheels! And we filled up huge containers of water in cities like Perth and Darwin and Alice Springs where the pipes were reliable. I would have given up the ghost on the idea from the start though—I’m a wimp at heart—except for my husband’s passionate insistence that we’d be fine, and his expert planning. He was right. And I am so grateful. It was a spectacular trip. Such a privilege.
But your question… The fires, even from a distance, across an ocean and half a continent, haunted everything I wrote. I lived for news from the good friends we made there, both poets and wildlife people. We were so concerned about them. Utterly terrible, the pictures on the news and the internet, and the photos people attached to their e-mails.
I had to be careful: I was seeing it all from away, as they say in Maine; I understand I am a highly questionable outsider. Australian poets are the ones with the right to hold forth about it directly. I didn’t want to appropriate. But I did feel the awful pressure of those fires, especially what it was doing to the koalas, also the wallabies and kangaroos. This was true even for the platypus. In Tidbinbilla, the vast reserve where we had been volunteers, they had to be moved elsewhere since one or two of their ponds were feared to be in the (literal) direct line of fire.
SW: Both of these poems move inductively: they focus first on the immediate details of the birds’ behavior and then whorl outward toward human questions. Only late in the poems do we encounter an “I.” When you were writing, how did you balance the observational mode with the impulse to point toward broader concerns like art, knowledge, catastrophe, hope?
MB: Wow. What an insightful and primal question for any poet to consider, this eternal balance between self and world, past and present, disaster and hope, the mundane opening to larger realizations. Poems are destined to connect all that, being perhaps the most revered and ancient way to think about things.
Then there was the fact that we cracked up completely when our bird-whisperer friend, John Bundock, showed us the bowerbird’s truly off-the-wall collection of all-things-blue to impress a future mate. It was hidden way back in the bush. Then the lyrebird’s endless rattling off sounds natural and human-made (bring on that backfiring truck!) to woo a true love though we only heard of that. Which is to say, the comic element in both pieces—and throughout the book really—is crucial. In the case of NER‘s two poems, I hope that brings out the meticulous otherness of those birds, their passionate gravity, however quirky. Of course humor breaks down distance, and is a kind of linking of worlds. I mean, we can get as ridiculous as those birds in our various aches and passions, yes?
The bower-bird’s bower, photo by John Bundock
But the “speaker”—as we are in the habit of saying now—never sees the actual bird. That loss, that emptiness at the heart of most mysteries, seems important to note as well. And eerie. The sense of that, the shared situation of that, seemed to offer itself at closure.
Honestly, I never know how a poem will move. It rarely arrives anywhere predictable at the end—I hope for an unknowing throughout—though it mostly starts with an image that stops me. My theory, if I do have one, is the “begging bowl.” You go blank and wait for something to drop in, then try to hold back the agenda, let it go where it wants. Of course in revision—I call that my “hospital rounds”—you find out what the poem really is about; its initial reserve breaks down to reveal more of itself to you. It perhaps sounds crazy, but the poet’s patient attention day after day builds trust that there might be a discovery lurking in whatever spill of words after all.
SW: You mentioned that these poems unnerve you. Why is that? Do they unnerve you more than other poems of yours, or is being unnerved by one’s work part of a poet’s condition, in your opinion?
MB: It is the best and fully necessary condition for a poet, I think. To be knocked off one’s pins in the actual writing. I suppose that unnerved state is a version of Frost’s old saw “no surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.” The poems of mine I think the strongest do have a way of scaring me, freaking me out a little, or a lot.
That seemed pretty much always to happen in this new book, so much that I still can’t imagine who wrote most of these, though I recognize them. So many of the poems still strike me as deeply odd. This might be because that wildlife constantly astounded, those unthinkable animals that Australians, so used to them, consider largely ho-um. The beloved purpose of art is to make the strange familiar (and the reverse, of course), but I have to say, that didn’t happen to me in those five months, certainly not in these poems. The strange remained strange. In fact, got stranger. In many parts of the book a snarky archangel wanders in and out, sometimes spoiling for a fight. And a roadkill emu returns from the dead to speak. So there is that; a mythic thread entered the weave.
What can one say? Or do when an archangel turns up, a cheeky one, at that? You get rather unnerved. But it’s too late! He’s right there on the page…
SW: Speaking of strangeness, there’s a delightful strangeness to the language in these poems. Standard syntactical orderings are disrupted. Words are assigned new parts of speech. Chatty asides abound. How much do you think the distinctiveness of Australian wildlife invited this the linguistic elasticity? How much does it simply represent your poetic voice more generally?
MB: Sorry. These questions assume more self-scrutiny than I can manage. (I think about something I read once, that you can’t picture yourself laid out and lifeless. Can’t happen. Try it. Imagine you are looking down at yourself, from the ceiling. It’s true!)
But yes, perhaps the distinctiveness of Australia wildlife, as you rightly frame it, influenced these poems down to the word by word sentence level. More generally, I tend to hear poems this way because the mind works similarly, doesn’t it?—i.e., all over the place. I do value playfulness, and a grounded, image-rich invention. I love poets who do that.
And I fear I have to plead the begging bowl again.
SW: One of my favorite lines here refers to the speaker’s not having seen the lyrebird, which, true to the poem’s title, has remained hidden. The line goes: “But me, a life member, / the World Congress of the Disappointed, I understand hope.” This line extends metaphorical weight beyond birding, and it seems like a good emblem for the times. I mean this only slightly humorously: Do you have any suggestions of how other lifetime members of this particular world congress can nonetheless understand hope?
MB: Other suggestions beyond trusting art to help keep us going?
Well, I’ve become a better cook during this terrible pandemic. More ginger! More garlic! More vinegar! More coconut milk! That will help us hopeless sorts, I promise you.
SW: Thanks so much for your responses! It was a delight to spend time with these poems. I look forward to reading the book.
MB: No, I need to thank you, Sarah!
I appreciate the questions. And am so glad the poems make some sense to you. It was a disquieting thought to me, that they wouldn’t translate to this country somehow, coming from that wondrous other side of the world with all those seemingly impossible, most ancient and loved creatures in tow.
Marianne Boruch recently published her tenth book of poems, The Anti-Grief (Copper Canyon, 2019). Her forthcoming collection, Bestiary Dark (Copper Canyon, 2021), is based on her experience two years ago as a Fulbright Scholar in Australia where she closely observed the continent’s astonishing wildlife. She teaches in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.
Sarah Wolfson, a staff reader in poetry for NER, is the author of A Common Name for Everything, which won the A.M. Klein Prize for Poetry from the Quebec Writers’ Federation. Her poems have appeared in Canadian and American journals including The Walrus, TriQuarterly, The Fiddlehead, AGNI, and Michigan Quarterly Review. Originally from Vermont, she now lives in Montreal, where she teaches writing at McGill University.