Staff reader Sabrina Islam talks with NER 43.3 contributor Lindsay Bernal about mystics, the reflexivity of poetry, and the ekphrastic inspiration behind her poem “Visions.”
Sabrina Islam: “Visions” is inspired by your favorite mystic, St. Bridget, the patron saint of Sweden, whose revelations were influential during the Middle Ages. After her husband’s death, St. Bridget retired to a life of penance and prayer. What moved you to write this poem about her?
Lindsay Bernal: I was raised in the Catholic Church, attending parochial schools from pre-K until college when I began to reject Catholicism. My initial interest in Bridget stemmed from the fact that she was a writer. She was born in the 14th century and her revelations shaped decisions in Rome and established the revolutionary Brigittine Order for women with an abbess at the helm. I first learned about Bridget when I was preparing for Confirmation: before choosing the name that would seal my Baptism, I had to research the saints and write a paper justifying my choice. Ultimately, I went with Catherine, the Tuscan visionary, whose teenage life was darker and more rebellious.
I’m still fascinated by Bridget, Catherine, and other medieval women whose visions set them apart, gave them power, authority, and influence, and, in many cases, saved them from the potential violence of marriage, maternal morbidity/death, etc. I should admit, too, that within the context of writing the poem “Visions,” pure error led me back to Bridget. I misread Celia Paul’s 2015 abstract painting, St. Brigid’s Vision (featured in the spectacular 2016 exhibition, No Man’s Land: Women Artists from the Rubell Family Collection) as an allusion to my beloved Bridget. Paul’s painting, however, references the Irish Saint Brigid, who I don’t find as compelling. I brought my own autobiography, my long obsession with Saint Bridget of Sweden, into her canvas. Because I saw the sea in the painting, I assumed it had to be about my Bridget, who, in utero, had saved her shipwrecked mother and thus, herself. A supernatural miracle-worker from the womb.
SI: St. Bridget exercised a wide apostolate and sheltered the homeless and sinners. In “Visions” you write, “only after she became suffering / an abstraction unfamiliar / yellowed at the center / even more hollowed out / what Bridget saw / in her mind’s eye was dangerous.” Is the poem directing us to what comes after suffering?
LB: That’s a tough one: I have so much trouble with directives. I’m thinking about what can come through suffering. Bridget eventually gave up worldly possessions, desire, friendship, pleasure, to get as close to God as possible—to experience the ecstasy of a vision, many visions throughout her life. I’m deeply interested in the relationship between vision and imagination, vision and art: the artist as visionary.
As a child, teenager and young adult, I didn’t feel like I was good or blessed or worthy of God’s salvation. I prayed and prayed but whatever connection I should have created with God wasn’t happening. Unlike Bridget and the other saints I studied, I wasn’t able to communicate with God or Mary in a meaningful way. I was ashamed of myself for faking my faith at school, at church, at home. When I finally abandoned Catholicism, I found poetry: I don’t believe in God but I do believe in art, in language, in the imagination. Maybe in those rare moments when I forget myself entirely, when I get lost inside the reading or writing of a poem, I’m also experiencing something divine, something extraordinary.
SI: You’ve said you have been writing and rewriting “Visions” for several years. Could you speak about your writing process?
LB: My process is exhausting and involves a lot of drafts. I can blame Catholicism for the slowness, the ongoing rewriting.
“Visions” is the first poem I committed to from my in-progress second collection of poems, tentatively titled “Misreading the Precipice.” It began as a study of Celia Paul’s painting that I didn’t trust would be a poem until I discovered (through revision) its fragmented, anaphoric form. The first versions of “Visions” were terrible—to which Kara Candito and Liz Countryman will attest. I kept setting it aside, ignoring it, but it kept calling me back.
SI: In her review of your collection What It Doesn’t Have to Do With, Claire Denson writes how embarrassing and painful it is to grow up and become. She writes, “The speaker of her collection absorbs art and place then presents them back within her own context, transformed.” In “Visions” I see how becoming still holds a strong place in your poetry. Is becoming a kind of transformation?
LB: Claire is such a generous and careful reader, as are you, Sabrina, and you’re both astonishing writers. I know that poem-making is transformative. What is metaphor but a luminous transformation: one thing becoming another and deepening our understanding.
My second collection is even more focused on my childhood, matrilineage, my struggle with religion, the sexual violence that was normalized in the Catholic communities where I came of age.
SI: In a blurb for the collection, Jericho Brown noted how What It Doesn’t Have to Do With is disinterested in self-involvement or melodrama. You write, “Darkness doesn’t descend suddenly at all.” What role does self-reflection play in your thinking and writing process?
LB: Poems are inherently reflexive, “memories recollected in tranquility,” and opportunities to connect with history, with the dead, to communicate something that in real life you were too shy, too afraid, too embarrassed, too rushed, to say.
Many of the poems in my first book as well as in the second manuscript are elegies, engaged with the act of honoring—and resuscitating—a place, a loved one, a past self from whom I’ve grown apart.
Writing, as we all know, requires solitude, which I have to believe is different from loneliness: writers need no materials beyond our imagination. As painter Joan Mitchell states so astutely, “When you are really involved in writing or painting you are someone else . . . You are what I call, ‘no hands,’ the riding a bicycle. You do not exist.” Mitchell’s quote brings to mind Keats’s annihilated self.
SI: In your exceptional poem “Rodin’s Fallen Caryatid” the speaker asks, “Does a child ever recover / from losing the vessel who bore her, / pushed her out of one watery world into this? / Is it an image of damnation?” How does poetry provide narratives for our own wounds and healing?
LB: In that moment, I’m thinking literally about my sister-in-law who committed suicide—after her death, we all lived inside our many questions. As a child she lost her mother: I’m wondering throughout that poem about that primal loss and how we can’t always survive grief. What It Doesn’t Have to Do With radiates around Oko’s narrative for which there is no healing. There’s no end to my brother’s grieving, there’s just time passing.
I don’t choose narratives or subjects: they choose me, as cheesy or unbelievable as that sounds, and then when I can no longer resist them, I shape them into poems.
Honestly, I long for poems that escape narrative, and I don’t turn to poems for healing. Rather, I read poetry to learn more about the world, to be moved, to be surprised, to remember.
SI: Are there poems or poets you return to often? How do they influence your work?
LB: Yes, of course. “Blackberrying” by Sylvia Plath is a perfect poem to which I return, without which I wouldn’t have been able to write “Visions.” In “Blackberrying,” Plath’s in Devon, where Celia Paul also lived, and the sea is everything (despite its nothingness). It’s literal and the objective correlative, where the self disappears when the imagination takes over: “ . . . nothing but a great space / Of white and pewter lights, and a din like silversmiths / Beating and beating at an intractable metal.”
I’ve encountered few sentences as aurally and visually supreme as Plath’s throughout “Blackberrying.” Stanley Plumly, quoting Eliot, refers to this effect as the “aural imagination.”
Celia Paul’s “St. Brigid’s Vision,” is an elegy to her mother, who died the year before Paul completed it. Only as her mother is dying does Paul begin painting the sea. Her recent “memoirs” about painting, Self-Portrait and Letters to Gwen John, have influenced my second book. She’s an incredible painter and writer.
SI: How does teaching inform your writing life?
LB: It remains an unending balancing act, but teaching and writing and reading are all indelibly connected. I definitely learn as much from my students as they learn from me. And whenever I contemplate a break from teaching, I remember the teachers who encouraged and challenged me and how awful my poems would be without their mentorship.
SI: Your poems are often inspired by other art forms including music, paintings, and sculptures. We’ve touched on how “Visions” is an ekphrastic poem inspired by Celia Paul’s St Brigid’s Vision, and I understand Louise Bourgeois’s “Femme Maison” series influenced your exploration of the feminist imagination in What It Doesn’t Have to Do With. How does visual art shape your understanding of language and poetry?
LB: While writing What It Doesn’t Have to Do With, I tried to discover in paintings and sculpture other ways to imagine my own lived experience, to simultaneously establish distance and a deeper connection between the speaker and the subjects that subsume her: heartbreak, grief, self-doubt, estrangement, and suicide. Ekphrasis as metaphor.
The “Femme Maison” drawings, in particular, provided another angle into my sister-in-law’s struggles and my own, as they imagine domesticity and motherhood as physical burdens or barriers, the house, no longer a place of comfort or rest, swallowing the mind.
SI: What obsessions are you entertaining now?
LB: I’m obsessively trying to finish my second collection, filling in the gaps between poems. This past month I’ve been working on a long poem about species collapse and the postmortem attentive behavior (grief) of North Atlantic right whales. My typical uplifting themes.
Thank you, Sabrina, for spending time with me and my poems.
SI: Thank you so much for your time too, Lindsay.
Sabrina Islam, who reads fiction manuscripts for NER, holds an MFA in creative writing from University of Maryland, where she teaches college writing and creative writing. She has received scholarships from the Kentucky Women Writers Conference and the Key West Literary Seminar. Her stories can be found in Flock, Acta Victoriana, Prairie Schooner, and the minnesota review. She currently lives in Washington, DC.