Ek: Poems of Ekphrasis, 114 pages, Cervana Barva Press, October 1, 2017 ISBN 10: 0998102768
Tree Riesener/Review and Interview
Tree Riesener’s book, EK: Poems of Ekphrasis, is a tour-de-force of intellectual responses to art of all varieties. Some books in this collection are imaginary, most art is real. It is interesting that this fantastical and beautifully rendered work begins with an epigraph from Goethe because to me it belies the Key to All Mythologies, the never-finished book by Casaubon in Middlemarch. Those familiar with the story will remember this fictional character had a great secret in that he could not read German. This poetic work reminds me of what Casaubon might have achieved had he been more brain and less bluster.
In EK: Poems of Ekphrasis, Tree Riesener is clearly a generous teacher. These mythologies are never overwrought nor overambitious. They are rooted in scholarly histories born into poetic fantasy. Riesener’s wild ride brings us around the world and back again, changed and gasping, with a better understanding of life filled with the beauty of poetry and art.
Before starting the first page, there is a brief note “about the poems,” which says that these are “poems of witness.” The verb would be witnessing. Christians use it to speak of one’s faith. Witnessing is telling others about forgiveness, love, deliverance, and empowerment of religion. Riesener does this through ekphrastic poetry in all its glory. These poems have stories, parables, biblical references, mythological references and historical references. Casaubon would have coveted what is achieved here, but we are enriched and not rendered poor.
The final bold and emboldened line on the cover (which is an intriguing cloud of words pointing toward the poems in the book) says, referring to a 1410 icon by Andrei Rublev, “visions of the trinity on a philadelphia street as seen through a bus window.” There are many windows and gates to the unconscious in this work. Three is a magical number not only in the trinity. Rumi asked of speech: “Before you speak, let your speech pass through three gates. Is it true, is it necessary, is it kind.” These poems are always necessary.
She leaves guideposts to help us down this ekphrastic path. Helpfully grouped as 1. Documents 2. Paintings 3. Media 4. Music and 5. Miscellany, this is a frenzied rummage through steamer trunks in a favorite relative’s attic. Where to begin? Each takes us on a delicious journey. There is the “Scarlet Letter,” but then an obligation to Leonard Cohen. Then we are kidnapped by Oliver Wendell Holmes. We wander a nautilus shell both shocked and enchanted by phrases such as “your coffin/ issued at birth/grows new cubicles/as the old are filled.” This feels almost like a biblical reference—my father’s mansions have many rooms in this nautilus of the mind.
“Travel babylon/a travel report by herodotus” for this traveler is exquisite and steeped in the first sense of memory, smell. This is a bergamot tea; you are as enchanted by its taste as its fragrance. “O city of fragrance and clouds Babylon/after sex/you sit up all night/throwing incense on the brazier until dawn.” I can taste this one. I find I need water to clear my tongue of these heady words that end majestically in “whose skin is redolent of smoke and full-blown roses.”
LB: Tree, before we enter a painting and look at it in detail, I’d like your thoughts—it seems as if many of these pieces of art were familiar to you.
TR: You’re quite right when you compared my mind to an old steamer trunk in an ancestor’s attic. Since I was a child, I have read widely (although not always wisely) and remember most of what I read. In the same way, I have spent hundreds of hours with art, whether in museums, in books, or in life. Put this together with Forster’s commandment, “Only connect,” and you have some idea of why the poems are filled with allusions and metaphors, all those good tropes. I’ve also been a diarist for most of my life. My shelves are filled with many journals of the trivia and glories of my life. When I am writing, I often browse through these notations of my journey and thoughts and pull out relevant connections that help the poem or prose. It’s as if my soul knew I would need this data, and so as I went along, long before I wrote the poem, I was harvesting the necessary thoughts and images.
LB: Technique? What happened first? Did you write poems and then group them, or did you think of categories and write poems to fit?
TR: I think this happens to most writers. They are interested in certain things, and so any notes or poems that pop into their heads can be slotted into certain themes. Poems about interests just naturally group themselves. For example, I am not a gardener or botanist (although I like a pretty posy as well as the next person), and so you will find few examples of such things in any poem I write. I have become aware of this lack in my life, and I am looking at nature more, reading books about plant life. Probably poems will start to emerge building on this heretofore neglected part of my world. On the other hand, I am very interested in the Demeter-Persephone story and notice the mother-daughter connection in my poems. Transformation is a huge interest of mine, and I like to use mythological ideas transmuted into happenings in the modern world. Ideas are seldom monolithic. You can take my poems (or most poems) apart and find a bit of this and a bit of that, cobbled or woven together.
LB: Is there an overall theme you are hoping to achieve?
TR: Not an overt theme. I think most of these poems wander through tenderness and anger. Anger and sorrow. I like a poem that asks something of me. I can spend days, weeks, or more thinking what a poem means, why I like it, where it comes from, and I think that sort of person is whom I write for. People have said to me that my poems are difficult to understand, that they don’t understand the references. Well, then, you are not my reader. You should jump into understanding a poem with great joy, be willing to work. One of my great favorites, Hopkins, asks such work of a reader (not that I dare to compare myself). When he writes about “goldengrove unleaving,” he’s asking you to think, make the jump—it’s autumn, the leaves have turned, and they’re falling. If that reminds you that Persephone is missing, and Demeter has blighted the earth, well, good for you! Then, if, in the middle of the night, you wake up and think, “Unleaving. Oh, that could mean that the tree and its leaves will come back (un-leaving = not-leaving) but Margaret isn’t making the connection.” Well, you’re on your way to a deep and happy relationship with poetry. One good poetry book should suffice for reading for at least a year, just one book (although it’s riches to have more). I hope it’s my book. If I had to say what emotions suffuse many of these poems, and by that perhaps mean a theme, it would be tenderness and love for humanity, anger and sorrow for all the difficulties humanity faces in this world we have created.
LB: What influences you? Specifically in this book? Was there a point you were making?
TR: The only influences I can mention here is what I have said before, a lifetime of reading plus great concern for the state our world is in. For example, I have poems about male mistreatment of women (“on a field sable the letter a gules”), the male aggrandizement of war (“a fragment from praxilla of sicyon”) but you won’t know this unless you look up the fragment of Praxilla I quoted. Oh, well, I’ll tell you. The male poets of the time said it was ridiculous to think someone in the afterlife would think about apples, pears, cucumbers, stars and moonlight. They said the only thing worth remembering would be glory in war. If you know this, it enriches the poem. If you don’t, the poem still works. The poem “pages from a book of vowing” is about a language invented by Chinese women who were denied the gift of reading and writing by their male oppressors (sound familiar?).
As I look through the poems, I realize they are witnessing exploitation of the weak by the powerful, including animals by humans. The poem “witness” is about human joy in executions, whether by a matador in a ring or a prisoner dragged to a deathly injection. I actually witnessed many of the happenings in the miscellany section. I remember running through the streets of Philadelphia to get to Mother Bethel Church in time to say good-bye to the boxes of bones from murdered slaves, I took a selfie beside the artifacts of Queen Puabi, really did get down on the floor to look through Galileo’s telescope (although the part about the guard and the chocolate bar is pure invention). I stood in tears in front of the helmet maker’s beautiful wife in New York, I watched the Eucharistic wafer float around the church, I made the notes about Ste. Geneviève du mont in an old church I wandered into by chance in Paris, and wrote the beginning of the poem about the bonsai woman as I was wandering through Shanghai streets. I take the liberty of listing all these to show my influences. I have had the good fortune to wander in exotic places, but inspiration is everyplace, as shown in the poem about the naked fat woman in my gym club, the shop window in Wayne, Pennsylvania, and my uterus. Influences are all around us. Just watch with open eyes, witness and connect.
LB: Have any particular poets influenced you?
TR: I love so many poets it is hard to say which have influenced me. One and many. I have loved the Cavaliers, especially the one where the dying duelist “laughed and kissed his hand to me and died.” I love Sexton and Dickinson, Ponsot and Stone, Seiferle and Wilner, Auden, Rilke, Owen, Lorca, Fargnoli, Carson, Dickinson, Akhmatova, so many, and most of them have written about survival, as have I. Many poems are about survival, maybe most. I haven’t even listed many of my contemporaries. There are so many writing new and exciting poetry for our time. I just keep on reading and writing and making connections.
LB: I’d like to go back to your mention of Forster’s “only connect,” as a tenet in his philosophy. In my Bloomsbury book, I had to write a poem about Forster, and another phrase stuck with me. Here it is, a quote from Howard’s End: “Death destroys a man: the idea of death saves him.” Forster seemed to adhere to various succinct formulations to guide his life.
I am not sure what my “tenet” would be. Maybe something along the lines of “What she didn’t know, she didn’t know. She found the answers through poetry, through writing.”
So, my last question has to do with this idea of a writer’s “tenet,” especially yours. On page 11 of EK, a poem is called “page from a book of vowing/after a page written in nushu a secret script invented by footbound chinese women.” (A favorite of mine in this book, by the way.)
Your line reads: “words of life lost and found.”
Back to Forster and his and your reminder of “only connect.” Does your poem summon us with these “words of life,” an unbinding for us as modern female poets? Can you expand on this poem, touching on the idea of connection?
TR: Yes, I think you are pointing out a key phrase for my life, and I think especially for other women who are writers, pointing to the importance of written language, although Forster’s “only connect” echoes in my mind whenever I write. His words are enough to guide me.
In the context of this poem, and the amazing accomplishment Nushu was, we have to think how difficult it would be to connect if we could only do so with oral language, no reading or writing. A group of Chinese women four hundred years ago, denied knowledge of reading and writing, kept strictly in home-bound marriage usually far from their native villages, invented a script they could communicate with, even using it to embroider objects that to men were simply decorative. So a rebellious wife could embroider “Down With Men” in Nushu on a robe she was sewing for her husband, and he would say, “Oh, how pretty!”
According to Zhao Liming, a literature professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing, speaking about the emergence of the women’s language, “They just wanted a way to express themselves.” She added, “Women needed a spiritual life. They could not write Chinese, but they wanted to express their feelings.”
Most important to the women who learned it, sometimes memorizing letters written on the palms of their hands because of a lack of paper, Nushu liberated them from illiteracy and let them connect with other women and with history.
Nushu supported an ancient custom whereby village girls would pledge one another fealty and friendship forever. These tight sororities, which included growing up together in cobbled village lanes and gathering with adult women to weave and embroider, inevitably were shattered when the time for marriage came. Tradition dictated that a bride go away to her groom’s home, and that is where Nushu came in.
Three days after her wedding, the adolescent bride would receive a “Third Day Book,” a clothbound volume in which her sworn sisters and her mother would record their sorrow at losing a friend and daughter and express best wishes for happiness in the married life ahead. The first few pages contained these sorrows and hopes, written in Nushu that the groom couldn’t read. The rest were left blank for the bride to record her own feelings and experiences in Nushu for what would become a treasured diary. This is the experience referred to in the fourth stanza of my poem. The fifth stanza refers to the fact that only written records survive after the organs of articulation in the body have decayed. Oral speech preserves little. How important is writing!
This is a poem full of mystery. My hope is that the words will lure readers to do a bit of research. Everything they learn will make their next reading of the poem more rewarding. For those who do not like to track down bits of lore in a poem, I hope the music and mystery of the words will be enough. But you see how, in order to be at one with this poem, a reader must connect, only connect. In it there are echoes of Chinese women four hundred years ago, Helen Keller and her beloved teacher, the Old Testament (the bit about Ezra and the honeyed scroll), our own suffragists, many of whom were buried with their banner and regalia of the women’s cause, and the necessity of fighting every battle over and over.
LB: Tree, I would love to continue this conversation. Anything you would like to add? By the way, reader, I would highly recommend this book; I wish all libraries would purchase it. Do consider buying one if your local library will not! Thank you, Tree, for your time and effort toward helping our understanding of the poems of EK.
TR: Laurie, it has been a great pleasure to discuss my work. I’m very grateful to you for taking the time to read and study the poems in EK, and I’m also very grateful to Loch Raven Review for making this conversation available to readers. I look forward to many more discussions with you on all sorts of poetic subjects!
© Laurie Byro and Tree Riesener
Laurie Byro has had 5 collections of poetry published, most recently La Dogaressa (Cowboy Buddha Press). A 6th collection is due out in 2019, D’eux and Other Sorrows (Cowboy Buddha Press). Two collections had work that received a New Jersey Poetry Prize. Laurie stopped competing when she achieved 55 Interboard Community honors including 10 first places as judged. She has been regularly nominated for a Pushcart Prize for poems published in magazines and anthologies including 2017, 2018 and 2019. Laurie has been facilitating Circle of Voices in NJ Libraries for the last 20 years.
Tree Riesener is the author of Sleepers Awake, winner of the Eludia Award (Sowilo Press/Hidden River Arts), The Hubble Cantos (Aldrich Press), EK (Cervena Barva Press), Angel Fever,/Triple No. 5 (Ravenna Press), and three chapbooks, Liminalog, Angel Poison and Inscapes. A new full-length collection, Quodlibet, will be published by Ravenna Press in mid-2019. Her website is http://www.treeriesener.com.