Tom Healy says his poems are “aggressive.” And something wakes up in the poetry tidepool—awash as we are (according to critics) in gentle wisdom, limpidity and acuity, clairvoyant dreaminess and spotlit linguistics—and here is Tom, describing the unsparing, in-your-face uppercut of his unapologetic poems. “I think that aggressive, martial kind of expressiveness is deep in my bones.”
I’m not a fan of tough-guy bravado or macho posturing, don’t get me wrong. I’m not a fan of the fucked-to-death-by-irony, smart-ass joyboy sophisticates either. Or the bullying male weepies. What I’m a fan of is the kind of truth Tom Healy tells. Nobody gets a break in these poems—they are not cruel, but they are unerringly smart about how the heart is hurt.
Emily Dickinson tell us the same story in “Not with a Club the Heart is Broken.” Her take: “Shame need not crouch/In such an Earth as Ours/Shame—stand erect—/The Universe is yours.”
Tom mentions, in an"(external)interview":http://w3.fiu.edu/gulfstream/healyinterview.asp , how Stanley Cavell’s essay on King Lear, “The Avoidance of Love,” affected him—"I trembled when I first read that essay." The shame that is met head on in the poems of What the Right Hand Knows , is the shame Dickinson connects with the whip that lashes the “magic creature till it falls” and the shame that Stanley Cavell describes as “the most primitive, the most private of emotions” —and also the most primitive of “social responses,” burning up the individual and the family, burning up Love itself.
“I have more questions about love than answers” Tom says—and these poems are charged inquiry, apt interrogation. When I first read them I felt the relief that comes from being able to drop the mask of The Answer, the standard of self-applause for the convention, Love.
I don’t think I’ve ever read a first book of poems quite like What The Right Hand Knows . Apart from the bravery and directness I’ve alluded to—there is an aesthetic sophistication that partakes, as Richard Howard has said, both of elegance and stoicism. These are not just smart, tough-minded poems, these are beautiful poems, even as they sing of what is shattered forever.
Tom Healy grew up on a farm and this early experience with the non-idealized confrontation with the earth and its cultivation underscores the poems’ antecedent drama of family violence and the violence of life on the farm, the brutality of the animals’ lives, the savagery and lack of sympathy, but the refusal of the fantasy, the refusal to tart up the pigsty. Eeee-iii-eee-iii-o.
I am a proponent of animal rights, but I recognize the importance of a hard stare at the realities of what our “use” of animals requires—and what the cost is to other sentient beings (and to us)—what Tom faces so fearlessly here.
But relax, love,
into this world we’re finding
and the perfect hurt
of how it turns.
(from “The View from Here”)
I think the exact center of “The Right Hand Knows,” is for me, Cordelia’s silence, (speaking of Lear) —unsayable, perhaps “unhearable” love—dramatized by the poet’s one deaf ear:
Did you know,
I said to my mother,
that the moon’s dark side
has no sound?
(from “What the Right Hand Knows”)
The family member who refuses to make love sound like familiar and fulfilled expectation becomes the soul of alienation and eloquence. In a poem that refuses to be “ekphrastic,” yet is—Phocion’s wife (as in the “offstage” painting by Nicholas Poussin), ingests the ashes of her husband’s dead body, making her body his tomb. The articulate silence reverberates—the poems’ “unseen grief” breathes.
So—I’ve “introduced” Tom Healy, but haven’t provided any facts beyond my own jagged edges of awe.
So here’s the 411:
Educated at Harvard and Columbia, Tom has played a longtime role in New York City’s art scene, opening one of the first galleries in Chelsea. After 9/11, he served as president of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, leading efforts to rebuild the downtown arts scene. He has traveled the world doing work on microfinance and AIDS prevention and he served on the White House Council on AIDS during the Clinton administration.
He also flies airplanes. Of course.
Carol Muske-Dukes We’re here at the Miramar Hotel in Santa Monica.
Tom Healy On a foggy Monday morning.
CMD On the 26th of April. We’re going to be talking about What The Right Hand Knows, Tom’s brilliant book out from Four Way Books. It was nominated for the LA Times book prize and also for the Lambda Literary Award. I want to thank you for this book. For a first book, it has a kind of accomplishment and a structure and a developing argument in terms of its aesthetic that’s really original. I have not seen anything quite like it. And I’m a huge supporter of the book. I’d like to start with you reading the poem “Phocion’s Wife” so we could begin by talking about the ekphrastic.
TH I’d be happy to. The poem is based on a painting by Poussin. He did three subtly different versions of the subject. Phocion, was a famous and controversial Spartan general who’d tried everyone’s patience after losing several battles. The Spartans wanted him punished by death without burial, so his spirit would wander without a home. An interesting discovery for me was that Philip Johnson owned one of these three paintings and it’s in the Glass House in Connecticut. I was somewhat stunned to see it there—a classical painting in a minimalist house with Johnson’s collection of contemporary art—but Johnson was such a connoisseur that I knew something was up. The painting looked beautiful and so strange there. I kept thinking about the painting and its placement, and I realized that Johnson wanted it to be a jarring conversation piece; he wanted the painting to stir his guests into an argument about perfection and flaw, about what classicism is, what modernity is. And he obviously thought of that conceptually perfect glass room, looking out onto a consciously perfect landscape, as exactly the right salon for this question—a fundamental aesthetic question. It made me start to think of how a poem might be a site for that conversation about works of art. And then I went home, and hard as it was to believe, there was Sister Wendy the very next night on PBS talking about one of the Poussin paintings! I knew I needed to write about it. So here it is:
and they wanted him dead.
They made a fire.
But that was not enough.
So they abandoned him
When did the thought
occur to her?
Was it a promise
or something understood
at the strike
as flames reached up
and carried off
A child at play again,
the blackened silt of him
into water, fizz
of a few last
Her hands, blistered
from having gathered him,
lifted the jar of thick paste.
She stirred and drank,
It must have taken
Is this love—
the taste of ash
the grit of bone—
TH (laughter) Sorry, the restaurant music swelled there in the background while I was reading.
CMD It was actually a kind of commentary! As I’ve re-read this poem, I’ve realized that it is a site for the body of the painting as well as Phocion’s body—this idea of burial within the self, which in a way is also a metaphor for the engendering of poetry. When you think about Antigone, the ancient idea of non-burial was worse than death, because you had no home, you couldn’t go on to the afterlife. You did wander forever. So by ingesting her husband’s ashes, Phocion’s wife—who is not named—becomes his tomb. But more than that, as you said, the body becomes this holy, venerated place as it consumes and absorbs the Other.
TH The story appealed to me on many levels, one of which was that we never learn the name of Phocion’s wife. It’s difficult even to find her mentioned in Greek history. She is deliberately diminished in Poussin’s landscape. But she’s obviously, almost perversely, the main focus.
CMD I’d like for you to talk about the ekphrastic, the idea of calling attention to one kind of art in the form of another, but taking as your task, if it’s possible, getting beyond that initial image of inspiration. Mark Strand said once famously that, essentially, the poem should erase what inspires it.
TH Yes. I love that. And I don’t talk about Poussin in the poem.
CMD No, you never mention him.
TH The story is operative. I’m not the biggest fan of Poussin, actually. There’s a kind of theatrical chilliness to his classicism. What most intrigued me about the painting is how the story takes place in a tiny center field of an architectural scene. You almost need a magnifying glass to find Phocion’s wife. It’s not unlike the Brueghel painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus. The idea is that the human story—what is most profound, what we care about most—is minor in the scene. It could be lost.
CMD It isn’t privileged in the landscape; that’s a commentary in itself.
TH And that’s deeply moving when you look at the painting. I got attached to that, and I can’t even really look at the properties of the painting without looking almost “inside” it. The story intrigues me because it’s about time. The scene is frozen, it’s classical, it’s about its own symmetry and the beauty it represents. But it is actually Phocion’s wife who has stopped time—within herself—and contained it. She’s stopped time in his death, and she’s also continued his life.
CMD It’s odd because it’s the reverse of birth. She has taken back the body.
TH It seemed to me that temporal element in this really static painting was intriguing as a metaphor for what can happen in a poem. A poem has a physical presence on a page and yet you want it to have some kind of motion, some kind of containment, and then some kind of breath outward.
CMD Yes, absolutely. The idea of stopping time and then the movement outward are exactly it. As Auden says in “Musee de Beaux Art,” and I think your poem is in the tradition of that poem, he says the Old Masters were not wrong about suffering. Icarus is falling out of the sky in a part of the canvas the eye does not go to immediately. He says we see the torturer’s horse rubbing its rump against the tree—and all this is happening in the foreground. It’s the subject-less subject.
TH Yes. I loved making that idea physical in a poem. If we’re talking about the ekphrastic, what obsessed me was seeing how Phocion’s wife becomes an artist. She’s working with her hands and water and mixing that paste of her husband’s ashes. I love watching painters make paint and get ready to make something. And she’s making her husband and making herself a new identity as his tomb. The physicality of that—what had to be actually happening in her hands —was so easy for me to imagine even though Poussin barely shows it. I couldn’t escape that image of making. The tricky thing with this poem, though, is once I was able to slip away from Poussin and into the characters, it was hard to make sure I wasn’t getting sentimental about the scene.
CMD And it would be hard not to. It’s as if you’re forced into either violating a taboo of some sort or avoiding sentimentality.
TH That’s why it was interesting to watch Sister Wendy talk about the painting. She makes you want to cry. She tells an eloquent, sad and very sentimental story. It’s how she reads art. Yet there’s something so wrongly seductive about that kind of reading, that weird, easy eroticism of hers. I’m mesmerized by it. She’s a siren. And it’s a good corrective for me to hear her, so I can consciously block her out. Bizarrely enough, I have a kind of Sister Wendy voice in me when I’m writing … a voice that’s there to recoil from. Rather than being one of my better angels, my elderly nun with the overbite is my worst. I hear her entrancing, lisping excitement and I know I’ve got to hold tight to the mast and steer away from her.
CMD Maybe you would read another poem in response to this, in following through with this idea about emotional perspective, the poem “What the Right Hand Knows.”
TH Sure. “What The Right Hand Knows”—which is also the title poem of the book.
WHAT THE RIGHT HAND KNOWS
I am not in stereo.
Deaf in one ear,
I am unable
with any accuracy
to pinpoint clamor
Argument reaches me
only on my left or
the center of the street
of other traffic.
I lose the background,
the sotto voce.
I lose scratch,
white noise, color
if it’s muted,
the good gossip
unless I turn to it.
I have no east.
I learned this
on an ordinary afternoon,
my parents fighting,
torching one another,
and the only place
to run for cover
was standing there,
covering my ears.
But my right hand slipped—
I rolled up the gates,
brought my fingers
flat again, lifted
one, then the other.
Both hands. Neither.
I don’t know why I didn’t
the sound wasn’t working.
hearing and not—
I kept the sugar taste
of that secrecy
landed on the moon
and our family’s first
broadcast the Earth
reflected in the bubble
over the astronaut’s face—
attached to the body
of the best father
of all possible worlds.
Did you know,
I said to my mother,
that the moon’s dark side
has no sound?
CMD It seems to me that aversion of the sentimental is part of this poem as well, not sentimentalizing the self, even in great loss. But the deficit, what they say in neurology, becomes an advantage here. Am I understanding that correctly? There’s the boy’s loss, but there’s also a different sense of the world. There’s the other side of the moon.
TH Yes, I hope so. I don’t want to be able to claim that much for myself. Certainly, it’s known that people compensate with their other senses when they have lost one. Being deaf in one ear, I can still hear. But there’s also a lot lost. It’s curious that I had to discover that. I didn’t know anyone heard any differently. I didn’t know what hearing in stereo was. And when I suddenly realized that I heard out of one side and not the other, I didn’t want to tell anyone. I was in a panic, but I also immediately knew this was an important secret to keep.
CMD Getting back to the idea of the body—this sense of a privileged position. I hate to say the tomb of the body. But let’s say the enclosure of the body, and the enclosure of the senses at the same time they are opening up, seems to be a metaphor for poetry.
TH It’s also why I thought about Neil Armstrong. His space helmet bubble is a kind of television. But Armstrong was also entombed in that suit. I was eight when the moon landing happened. You couldn’t be an eight-year-old boy in the Summer of ‘69 without being obsessed with Apollo 11 and the astronauts. On a little black-and-white TV, every minute it was on and replayed, I watched the moon landing. Then I bought every little book, shoulder patch, school book cover, and every talisman I could to keep the obsession alive. And I also fantasized about this man I knew absolutely nothing about, this father figure. In some way, I guess it’s important that there is the absence of a male figure in both of these poems. Both men disappear. The best father of all possible worlds is a fantasy whose face I can’t even see, it’s a screen reflecting everybody and everything on earth. And Phocion disappears too.
CMD I’m also thinking of James Tate’s first book, The Lost Pilot. The father there was in space forever. His father, who died, was a pilot in WWII and disappeared. The poet describes his father, eternally circling, “Younger than I am now,” he says at one point, and faceless in a way too, or with the perfect face of nostalgia, with no pinpointed memory. But also entombed in an image.
TH I love that book. I love James Tate.
CMD Someone once described him as a “corn-fed surrealist.”
TH It’s partly the “corn-fed” that I relate to. Growing up on a farm. Always desperately hoping to escape, to get some sophistication away from it, but retaining a real deep attachment to it.
CMD I wonder if you’ll read a poem about farm life or animals and talk about that idea of growing up not in Eden, not in a paradise. Again, you’re writing against sentimentality. It was full of violence, but you say, “at least we knew the names of our animals.” And you counted the cans of weed killer. You’re quite explicit in saying, “We knew what we were doing.”
TH Yes, it was not idyllic green farming, what we were doing. This was our scratching and scarring of the land, small as it was, a couple hundred acres. We had 50 cows, some other animals, and eked an existence out of this. But I only began to understand as an adult that at that time, on this beautiful land, in the elements, we had no history of wonderment or sense of responsibility to the earth. The earth was the thing that resisted us, that we had to fight to steal something from. We were primitives with pesticides and we were not happy. In a certain way what we were doing was strip mining, we had no more care than that. Some of that’s just a function of poverty. But the great thing is, the world resists us. And it haunts us.
CMD You said that was true even about gardening, that going out and planting things is not idyllic.
TH No, not for me.
CMD My mother grew up on a farm in North Dakota. It was once a wealthy farm, but when the Depression hit, everyone was, as you say, eking it out. This idea you raise isn’t talked about much: of the cold techniques and habits of farm work, there being factory farms as well as green farms. The pastoral ideal is that the earth is abundant, giving itself to us. But that is not necessarily the relationship of farming to the earth. Ever since Virgil’s Georgics onward …
TH Yes, as Virgil describes, it’s a science, an activity, a cultivation. This may sound ridiculous, but I don’t think I’ve ever thought consciously about the making of my poems in terms of growing crops and having our farm. But lots of people talk about an organic process to their writing, as if there is a sort of romanticism that happens. That is not my way of writing at all. I am pouring bad chemicals on my poems and cracking rocks and pulling weeds and plowing things under. I’m physically very aggressive with my poems, I think of them as objects, and I’m not kind to them, I’m not reverential about them, I’m afraid of them. And I’m angry when I’m working on them.
CMD I’m so glad to hear you say this. It’s such an antidote to that enshrining of the poetic process. It is so anti-sentimental. I think of William Carlos Williams’s poem “A Sort of a Song” which speaks of saxifrage, the flower that grows out of rock. It’s not a particularly beautiful flower, and the rock cracks open, and in fact “saxifrage” is the old Anglo-Saxon word that means “break apart the rock.”
TH “Saxifrage is my flower that splits the rock.” I’m glad you bring up Williams because he had such a beautiful sense of the land and at the same time a skepticism about it that I just really relate to.
CMD Yes, that adversarial relationship with the earth is not necessarily “bad.” What’s important isn’t that you’re “harming” the earth or “harming” your poems. What’s important is what’s within your battle with them. Perhaps even our notion of damage alters in your poems. When you talk about growing up in that hardscrabble farming life and with the violence in the family, that damage becomes—not that it transforms in a Yeatsian way into this “praise”—but it does become poetry. It’s just that the process is different from how poetry is commonly thought of—as an act of sanctifying.
TH Well, what happens instead is that you end up respecting your antagonists. So if you’re in a struggle with the earth or your poems, you have to listen to them warily, but you develop deep respect for them through getting to know them. And you learn to see yourself through what you fight against. So perhaps you are transformed by that, become more respectful of all things. Maybe something is sanctified. I’m not for destroying the earth either. (laughter)
CMD But you’re not painting Peaceable Kingdom either. Poetry is not beholden to any one aesthetic or point of view. But what I find original is that you’re taking these opponents on in your poems fearlessly. They’re brave poems. Maybe you’ll read one of the farm poems, “Chorus of Animals.”
CHORUS OF ANIMALS
And on that farm, the pitch
and fever of pigs singing,
cut by the crack and the thud
of a .22 pistol when we shot and
slit them, boiled them in barrels.
Here a warble, there a hiss
of geese davening in the yard,
chasing dogs, pinching children
until we snapped their necks
and stacked them in a freezer.
Here a whimper, there a wailing
of cats begging milk,
coiled, wild and frightened,
stuffed in feedbags
and drowned in the pond.
Here a bellow, there a moan
arthritic yellow cows,
dry, too old, pushed
and dragged to a truck
to the dog food factory.
And on the farm,
an auctioneer comes chanting
Here, there, a story abandoned—
tractors, all the animals, the sofa, the car.
And on that farm,
a family broken in empty June,
no one singing
CMD Such a powerful poem. The child’s nursery rhyme and jingle from “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” working against perspective, working against expectation. Nobody is supposed to admit to what one needs to live. No one is supposed to admit to the fact that, in this case, it’s the animals versus us. There is pity for them, but it’s never indulged. At every level, it’s like anti-Eden. You’re naming the animals, but then they’re taken away instead of given life.
TH The ultimate, chastening part—and I don’t describe this so fully in that poem—is that there’s nothing more humiliating than losing your farm, having the neighbors all show up for the auction where even your bed is out on the field to be sold. You try to have a few suitcases of things you’re going to keep, but almost everything goes. The animals you’ve named, that you’ve loved—you either kill them or they take them away. Where I grew up, it was actually my job to shoot the pigs because … I fed the pigs. The pigs trusted me. They were my friends. They’re very smart animals, and I (laughter) had very long conversations with the pigs in the mornings. But my stepfather was a bit of a sadist, and he knew about me and the pigs, so he had me kill them. His rationale was that they trusted me, and you need them to feel alive until the last moment so their blood doesn’t turn. But that’s hard to do, no matter whether you’re going to eat them or not. We didn’t waste anything, we were respectful, we needed the food. But to pop a pig in the head with a gun isn’t something you forget doing.
CMD And the next one that’s about to die is there looking at you, right?
TH Well, yes. Still, many, many kids grew up on farms and dealt with this, many kids grow up with far more hellish things. As you’ve said, the question is how do you avoid sentimentality when trying to tell these things and give them some kind of sturdy life. Sometimes having a vehicle to start from, like a painting or in this case a nursery rhyme, helps to shape something and gives me a structure on which to build.
CMD Unlike the ekphrastic poem where you were deferring to the painting and living within it, here you’re taking the song to the poem and the song is absorbed within it. I keep coming back to this idea of enclosure and entombment. And it’s not entombment as in the end of life, it’s actually where this all went in you and how it returns to us in the poem. I’m wondering if you could read “Learning to Land” because it’s connected to this same idea.
TH I got my pilot’s license, and this poem is about that process. It was painful to write this poem because I wrote it not after I got my license but after I lost it. This isn’t in the poem, but the FAA decided that people who were HIV positive could not have pilot’s licenses anymore. We tried to fight it. But they felt somehow you might have a psychotic episode from the effects of drugs on your mind, or something. So you can be an alcoholic pilot, or a diabetic pilot or whatever, but you cannot be HIV positive. So that’s the unfortunate background of this poem, my rage about not being able to fly anymore.
LEARNING TO LAND
The world folded
and I let go.
Cuffed, shoved and
my single-engine Cessna
clouds and rain.
Though I was
mugged and tumbled,
it’s actually difficult
for a small plane
not to fly.
The propeller lashed
the air and the plane
through the window
of late afternoon,
a couple thousand feet
above the earth’s belly,
its easy rise and fall
against a ribcage
of trees and road.
There was a slow lift
from the body
below me breathing—
the world unfolded
and I let go.
CMD Beautiful. Would you talk a little bit more about—not aerodynamics but the idea of lifting off from the earth. Since we’ve been talking about an adversarial relationship with the earth, what about lifting off above the earth and then coming down to land and being welcomed by it? Richard Howard talks about the erotics of landing the plane in the poem. But maybe having a complicated relationship with the earth says something about the erotics of takeoff too?
TH Flying is a strange mediated experience of technology and grace. Because you’re floating, you have this extraordinary feeling of seeing the world below you and being out of your own body. But you’re connected all the time to technology. There’s a very male-centered, engineering-based language around flying and you don’t escape that; it’s in your ear from the tower.
CMD And there’s power because a small plane is so completely connected to your body.
TH When you’re learning to fly, the instructor blindfolds you at times or suddenly reaches over and shuts off the engine mid-flight and you have to find a way to get straight and level, find your altitude, find a way to land. It sounds crazier than it is. You’ve got a bit of time before the plane is going to spin or dive. A jet is different, because it’s propelled like a rocket, but a prop plane can glide more easily. And landing in a small plane is something that can be done much more very gracefully. There’s this period of time when you just float a little bit above the runway and because of the way pressure works against the plane, there’s an updraft, there’s this feeling, you just have it, that you know you’re going to feather down. It’s hard to describe. It feels almost like you’re caressing a body. It’s really beautiful.
CMD I can hear it in your voice. I think I know the answer, but do you miss flying?
TH Yes, I do miss flying, I do. I don’t want to sound self-pitying, but it’s a wound that hasn’t healed, so I try not to talk about that part of it. That happened a number of years ago, under the Bush administration. I haven’t gone back to try to fight it, even though living with HIV doesn’t have to be an urgent medical condition. It’s simply ignorance on the part of the FAA to have this ban.
CMD The Bush administration, that’s a whole other topic! But I always have a terrible desire to tie up loose ends and sum up. So I’m thinking about what you say about having a wound that has not healed, and yet here again, we have a poem that is perfectly balanced, that’s whole. It has perfect pitch. I see you seeking a perfect pitch in all of the poems. Yours isn’t a flight away from the earth, or away from trauma, or away from the wound, it’s in fact calibrating the anger or, as you say, the aggressiveness, which is not a bad thing at all. You’re taking the poem by the lapels and saying, not that you’re going to do my will, but we’re going to fly together. It’s like the plane, this poem, isn’t it?
TH Yes. I think it is. I’m actually thinking of the many stylistically spare poets I admire who know how to make that calibration, everybody from Elizabeth Bishop to maybe Raymond Carver. However, there’s something different about our talking culture now. In fact, even in this interview I’m afraid I’ve been too revealing about my life rather than about the poems—because what I hope to do is resist a kind of self-display.
CMD Biography, we’re sick of it! No, you’re not doing that. What I think you have done is in the appropriate places linked your life with the poem. We as readers can track what’s necessary without specific facts about your life. You’re living in the poems, and that’s really what we see. I hope I’m not a broken record, but there’s “Phocion’s Wife” again! You’re living in the poems. We internalize trauma, we internalize all that makes us poets. Surely, that’s not just Freud’s idea of the narcissistic wound. In your sense, when you say “aggression,” it means you’re turning it back around and saying, “I’m not suffering, I am speaking.”
TH Given my background in the visual arts, it’s hard not to think of what some artists do in this regard. You think of throwing paint. It’s aggressive and powerful, but more, the actual throwing itself becomes an aesthetic act, and the action is an aesthetic object. You just hope it’s not futile self-indulgence. You hope you yourself might be shaped by that action. The poem helps make you or the painting helps make you. That’s been the thrill to me in learning to start to write, in making this first book: it’s broken apart my habits of thinking and given me whole other ways of seeing myself.
CMD Yes, it is the first book, but it has the authority of your recognition of all of this, an authority beyond anything we might call a “debut.” It is a way of seeing. We talked once before about “Archaic Torso of Apollo” by Rilke, another poem about art, about imagining what is not there. One gets comfortable almost, as the reader in the perspective of the viewer, looking at the torso. And then alarmingly …
TH Alarmingly, that turn!
CMD The torso becomes suffused with light, it begins to glow as if it is re-animated. The imagination begins to supply Apollo’s eye and hands and the perspective broadens again. Then there’s the line, “There’s nothing here that does not see you.” You think you are doing the looking, but there is nothing that does not see you. You are being observed by art or whatever this is. And … you must change your life.
TH Something else Rilke wrote where art is essentially the actor and we are the spectators is in Stories of God, the story, “About One Who Eavesdrops on the Stones,” where Ewald encounters Michelangelo’s unfinished Slaves. I had just that kind of encounter the first time I went to Florence. As you know, Michelangelo’s four slaves for Julian’s tomb were never fully carved out of the marble blocks. I hadn’t seen them, hadn’t read about them, hadn’t read Rilke’s incantation about them. It was one of those adolescent experiences, except that I was 22, my first trip to Italy when I came upon them. I had this sense of something, more than the slaves themselves, inside the stone, alive and staring at me, some force about to break out and overwhelm me. Only later did I read Rilke. And, of course, I discovered that practically everyone has this experience with Michelangelo’s sculpture. But, still, it’s something that really happens. It happens. Art starts breathing. It comes alive. Good art comes after us, it forces a moral imperative, as Rilke said best.
CMD Yes. And again with that relationship between making art and writing poems, you wonder if Rilke hadn’t been Rodin’s secretary, maybe some of that insight, some of those poems and stories, would never have come to be. I was wondering if you would maybe read one last poem.
TH Sure. What should I read?
CMD I’ll leave it up to you. Maybe “My Orbit?”
TH I’m an amateur at so much—writing, flying lessons … I took boxing lessons for a while, certainly not in any way to become a boxer, not even a minor George Plimpton, not even to get good enough to write about the real thing. My great anxiety is how often I feel I’m just on the surface of things, not committed enough, not really at risk enough to succeed or fail. And somehow I’m always taking that anxiety out on others. But I should just read the poem.
I spar with a boxer
who’d destroy me
if this were anything
But on this wood floor
I am what I pretend to be—
my hook blisters,
my jabs blind.
I am the sun
in a Copernican circuit
of sweat and bruise.
Enter my orbit
at risk to your own.
My wild swings
will scorch your fields
and bleed the sky.
All poems by Tom Healy quoted in this interview are from What The Right Hand Knows © 2009 by Tom Healy. Reprinted here by permission of the publisher, Four Way Books. All rights reserved..
—Carol Muske-Dukes was appointed California Poet Laureate in 2008 by Governor Schwarzenegger—her statewide poet laureate project is The Magic Poetry Bus and the Magic Poetry Bus Driver’s Guide, a handbook to teaching and learning poetry. Carol is Professor of English & Creative Writing at the University of Southern California and founder of the PhD Program in CW/Literature at USC. She is the author of seven books of poems—her most recent, Sparrow, was a National Book Award finalist and her new book, Twin Cities, will be out in 2011 from Penguin. She is also the author of four novels, including the recent Channelling Mark Twain and two collections of essays: Women & Poetry and Married to the Icepick Killer: a Poet in Hollywood. She is a regular reviewer for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times (where she was poetry columnist for many years) and presently blogs and reviews poetry for the Huffington Post. Her awards include a Guggenheim, a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, Library of Congress award, Dylan Thomas award, a di Castagnola award from the Poetry Society of America, and six Pushcart Prizes. Her website is www.carolmuskedukes.com.