Chris Stanzione, phoebe’s Assistant Poetry Editor, asked Peter Streckfus to reflect on his past Phoebe publications, “The Carpenter” & “Death in a Fig”. He discusses the formal restraints, process of development, and explains the impact other texts had on the ones crafted here and how those texts continue to impact him today.
I finished both of these poems while I was in grad school at Mason. At the time, and still to this day, Milosz was a giant in my writing life. I remember reading somewhere, I don’t know where, so hopefully it’s not apocryphal, him speaking of the poem as “a mechanism for thought,” perhaps his revision of William Carlos Williams’s dictum, “a poem is a (small or large) machine made out of words.” In any case, I had in my mind how clearly the poem serves in Milosz as a mechanism for thinking about being in the world. What I love about William’s statement is how it foregrounds the words as things themselves, as musical, material signs. Those qualities are important to me. But the Milosz version of that statement (if I can call it that) foregrounds the human mind at work, the presentation of mind, of point of view, and the usefulness of the poem as a means to work through trouble.
The novelist Janet Burroway, building, I believe, on the conclusion of a short story by Amy Bloom titled “The Story,” claims that the writer’s manipulation of point of view reveals to us a perspective of “the world as it is and as it ought to be.” In other words, the writer desires, and seeks to communicate that desire, however big or small. The poem is a mechanism for sharing that desire, that thought in the world.
I wrote “The Carpenter,” as a response to a prompt Eric Pankey gave in a workshop on form when I was his student in 1997. He presented us with these instructions:
Write a poem that uses one of the following groups of end rhymes in whatever order you choose:
A. fall, cloud, all, shroud, rose, wave, peonies, shows, rave, eyes
B. bloom, fern, home, origin, hang, cleft, dung, graft, kind, understood, mind, wood
C. opposed, tongue-and-groove, closed, roof, feeling, ceiling, hatch, thatch, extravagant, open, inhabitant, palsy, forgiven, away
Or, write a twelve line poem in iambic pentameter that rhymes.
Or, write a twelve line poem that rhymes as follows: a b c d e a b c d e a b
I still have the syllabus with those instructions, and I have used them a couple times in my own teaching, with credit to Eric. I chose C, which comes, a quick internet search now tells me, from Seamus Heany’s poem “The Skylight.” I still remember the experience of starting that poem, seeing those two words together, “extravagant” and “open,” and putting down the first two lines of the poem: “The Peacock’s is so extravagant, / his cry so open.” The list put me in mind of a scene from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Cien Anos de Soledad, in which a unnamed laborer falls through the roof to his death after catching a glimpse for the first and last time of Marquez’s inhumanly beautiful Remedios la bella. The rest of the poem followed. I remember wanting to complicate the use of end rhyme with internal and slant and to create a form that was more open: “his form so forgiven / God, what else could a man or woman / want than to be the blessed inhabitant.” The poet’s desire to explore sound, to think about what sound patterning does to meaning, becomes, too, part of the manipulation of point of view: a machine made of words.
Thinking about this poem qua form, as a desire to find meaning via form, I notice the nexus of “open,” “form,” and “forgiven” as a kind of ars poetica. Reading it now, I think also of how important Cola Franzen’s translation of Ibn Sa’id’s codex Poems of Arab Andalusia were to me at the time, in their use of metaphor and their rhetorics of desire. How interesting it is to read Heaney’s sonnet as my poem’s progenitor, the repetition of its concrete and abstract things.
I wrote the first part of “Death in a Fig” after a meal, described therein, and after having read an article on the fig wasp. The life and death of the fig wasp, which is the size of a nat and, in some species, eats off its own wings in order to enter the fig and lay its eggs there, and the invisibility of this drama in our everyday experience of eating this enigmatic fruit, the paradox of those narratives, was on my mind. The second poem of this series I wrote a year or two later, thinking back to the stand of figs my father planted on the eastern side of our little house, and my ambivalent relationship, my being both drawn to and repelled by the carnality of the fruit and trees. When I decided to put this poem in The Cuckoo, I removed the second section, as “the centers of our bodies” and the notion of the garden facet another poem in the book, “Event.”
is the author of two poetry books: Errings, winner of Fordham University Press’s 2013 POL Editor’s Prize, and The Cuckoo, which won the Yale Series of Younger Poets competition in 2003. His poems appear in journals such as the Bennington Review, The Chicago Review, The New Republic, and the Academy of American Poets’ poem-a-day. His awards include fellowships and grants from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Peter S. Reed Foundation, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the American Academy in Rome. He lives in the Washington DC area and is on the faculties of the Creative Writing Program at George Mason University and the Low-Residency Pan-European MFA in Creative Writing at Cedar Crest College. He is the associate director of Poetry Daily.