Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Guest Blogger Nicole Rollender on Necro-poetry and Memory

Since joining a Facebook page where local writers gather, I’ve discovered many more Garden State writers, including Nicole Rollender. A 2017 NJ Council on the Arts poetry fellow, she is the author of the poetry collection, Louder Than Everything You Love (Five Oaks Press), and four poetry chapbooks. She has won poetry prizes from Gigantic Sequins, CALYX Journal, Princemere Journal and Ruminate Magazine, and her work appears in Alaska Quarterly Review, Best New Poets, The Journal, and West Branch. Nicole is associate editor of THRUSH Poetry Journal, and holds an MFA from the Pennsylvania State University.

Please welcome Nicole Rollender.

Have you heard of micro-chimerism, where a mother holds her children’s cells in her body – in her brain, hand, foot, even floating around, for her whole life? It’s an amazing concept, that our bodies are part of other bodies. That’s how I look at poetry – my words becoming part of other people’s memories, part of their bodies. In this way, I know why poetry is important and essential.

From a young age, poetry stirred something inside me – I felt excited, alive, tingling and connected while reading and writing poetry. I was obsessed with its technicalities: enjambment (line breaks), slant and internal rhyme, caesuras (internal line pauses). I devoured every poetry book I could find, looking at how poems were made, how I could poach that technique, that angle, and make it my own. How I could make my own poems sing and become a plank a reader can walk across (echoing James K. Baxter who says the poem is “a plank laid over the lion’s den”). I wanted to make poems to help other people feel less alone. I wanted to become part of other human beings.

Matthew Zapruder calls the poem a machine. The poem’s also a room, a house, a country, a world, a space of encounter as tiny or large as the poet or you, the reader, want it to be. Poems are meant to be read and passed on, and when you read a poem it’s easy to imagine the poet is speaking to you or for you, or writing you a letter from far away. Poems can also bring us news from a vantage point in the past or future, or from another continent. And, you don’t have to know exactly what the poet meant when writing the poem – the poem’s meaning is what you need in your life at that moment.

Aren’t we all afraid to die? Poems can help us come to terms with death. Heavy stuff, right? Many poets, including Robert Lowell, say  their initial encounters with poetry  occurred when facing a human or animal death for the first time. The poem was a way to make sense of the experience. “Necro-poetry” is also about elegy, memorializing others. We can go to a poem when we want to remember or celebrate someone who has passed.

Max Ritvo was a 25-year-old poet who died of cancer a year ago. Much of his work documented his battle with Ewing’s sarcoma, which he contracted at 16. He extended his cancer narrative into a larger compelling collection of work about the body.. He lived his life with such a visceral intimacy: a bowl of blueberries was holy; he’d breathe air in a church, feeling in instant communion with those who’d worshipped there before him.

In his staggering poem, “Afternoon,” he writes, “When I was about to die / my body lit up / like when I leave my house / without my wallet. What am I missing? I ask, patting my chest pocket.” He also writes: “I’m missing everything living that won’t come with me/ into this sunny afternoon.” This poem is filled with a sadness and longing for connection with what Ritvo won’t be able to connect with, what he’s going to leave behind.

In a New Republic interview, Ritvo said this about what good poetry does to you: “When your memories, things you’ve never disclosed to anyone, start appearing in your mind as you read the poem. When you discover that a poem links up to a chain of images from your own life like a song links up to its music video.”  In this way, Ritvo wrote his own elegies.

In Jim Harrison’s short poem, “Sister,” he writes an elegy for his deceased sibling: “You were buried at nineteen/ in wood with Daddy. I’ve spent a lifetime / trying to learn the language of the dead.” Those hard-hitting lines are followed and juxtaposed by this gorgeous line: “The musical chatter of the tiny yellow finches / in the front yard comes closest.” We can hear that gaggle of loud finches; we can hear his sister’s voice. We know we don’t mourn our dead alone.

I’m fascinated again and again by memory’s power to let us mingle again and again with the dead, but also how it teaches us how quickly our lives move away from the current moment.

I live with a strong sense of mortality that often informs my work, and  I often contend with heavier topics like death, the spirit realm, God, saints and the afterlife. Of course, I experience joy in my life, and that permeates my work. I also have a strong sense that what I have (and who and my own life) can just as easily be taken away, so when celebration does enter my work it’s with a sense of caution (it casts its own shadow). My poems live as artifact: They’re my attempt to create something beautiful from the imperfect and temporal world we inhabit. 

My poem, “The Return,” (it first appeared in Word Riot) was influenced in part by the concerns in Ritvo’s  work. My uncle does a lot of family genealogy and just a few years ago told me my great-grandmother’s name – I hadn’t known it -- was Florentine Bia, a woman who fled Russia in the early 1900s. I wanted to memorialize her, but also share the same air. I wanted us both to be alive in the same poem:

The Return

for Florentine Bia
I’ve imagined my great-grandmother in love,
her hands deep in a pig’s meat she rolled
into sausages. Blood’s aldehydic stench. Large clocks
laughing all over the house. Massive dark beds. Her long dress
licking the top of her foot. She remembered the geese
her mother strangled, the sound a whine just before
the final breath, the first time they made love. I didn’t exist.
I wonder if she felt her own death, her hands limp
on the bed after, the wind pulled out of her,
if when she finally spoke, look at the starlight,
look, her voice meeting that light would carry forward
to this day, when I say aloud, Florentine, Florentine,
we are both alive in this poem, my hands deep in tomato hearts,
the man I’ve chosen to love somewhere in the garden,
his words still vibrating: What you do is wake
the dead. You don’t let them sleep.
Sadness and joy  come and go, but weaving their imagery together  does create something indelible that doesn’t fade or  lose its sharp prick – that I will never know my great-grandmother, that my gardens will bloom, fade and die each year. In this poem, I’m celebrating small miracles of joy in the quotidian. This necklace of memories is what makes me nostalgic for a time and a self and others’ lives I can never return to – each day closer to the end of this life, and closer to the next. Frankly, I’m still afraid of death: The thought of leaving my children makes me shudder. I’d need to be dragged into the next world.

I’ll leave you with Audre Lorde’s point that there are no new ideas. We’re all living the same shared experiences. However, she says, there are new ways of making these ideas felt “of examining what our ideas really mean (feel like) on Sunday morning at 7 a.m., after brunch, during wild love, making war, giving birth; while we suffer the old longings, battle the old warnings and fears of being silent and impotent and alone, while tasting our new possibilities and strengths.”

There’s courage in writing and reading poetry – in building that plank  and also crossing it.

You can connect with Nicole via Twitter and Facebook.

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