JENNY BROWNE’s most recent collection of poetry is Dear Stranger (University of Tampa Press, 2013). New work has appeared in At Length, Boston Review, and the Oxford American. Among her honors are the Cecil Hemley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, the emerging writer award from The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland, and an NEA fellowship. A former James Michener Fellow at the University of Texas in Austin, she is a professor of English at Trinity University and the 2016-18 Poet Laureate of the City of San Antonio.
THOUGHTS ON THE PAST IN GUADALUPE COUNTY
I was only trying to buy a gently used kayak
from a man named Skunk & his toothless
brother who explained in great detail
how yesterday’s bass catch weighed more
than his common-law wife. The knots
they tied to my roof rack weaseled free
before I even reached the old state road.
Was it then the mesquite started screaming
they were so thirsty? For years now
my friend has collected the saddest songs
he can find. He does this instead of painting
the old gate from rust back to blue
or penning the bull that eats his grandmother’s
parsley to the bone. We all have our reasons
for driving farther into the dark than we
ever intended. That spring back on Brazos St.,
a woman yelled Santiago! at the exact same time
every single night, and Santiago never came.
Or “Santiago” was the chorus of an old song
half in Spanish, half in gone. Dear placenta
we buried not quite deep enough beneath
the rose bush. Dear good dog that dug it up
& swallowed a soft piece of me whole.
Our daughter has grown a freckle on her lip
without speaking a word of it. You can’t tell
a forest fire to tie her shoes. Dear every late
night we sat too close to the speakers
& didn’t hear a thing. The wisdom teacher
on the CD I am trying to listen to
for the seventh time suggests that wisdom
begins with knowing you know nothing.
This may or may not apply to the river
I just saw turning back on itself, sharp
as a dirty trombone. Dear Skunk,
if the handle of your grandfather’s ax
has been replaced twice since he last held it,
is it still your grandfather’s ax? Dear Skunk,
I once read Ahkmatova for three days
on a train and was never the same.
ET: Can you describe a bit about your process for writing this poem?
JB: I think this poem began as several poems. (Maybe it still is? Or maybe all poems are? At least, maybe the ones are that build energy by interrogating their own intentions?) That said, it literally did start exactly where it starts: with a journey to buy my husband a kayak that ended up being more exciting and strange than I expected. Some time later, I found a note in my journal about it, which evoked the larger questions: What was I doing there? What are we doing here? Doesn’t everything seem to happen at once? I tried to draft into those questions rather than into the particular memory, and the poem grew branches and some roots from there.
ET: The shadow of an argument seems to underpin this poem. The poem itself seems at once to make a conceit and resist it at the same time. And, in that space there seems to be an acknowledgement of connection among all things: the natural world and the humans there, but at the same time an astute understanding that “You can’t tell / a forest fire to tie her shoes.” Repeatedly, throughout the poem, the nudge of violence or pain or struggle seems omnipresent. And yet, the poem itself resists that lyrical tradition to name it and end on that formula of emotional resonance – I find that quite refreshing. The haunting actions and voices that permeate the poem are much more telling, I think.
Did you find that writing the poem through these questions inherently took you to this “shadow-structure”, or did you intentionally uncover it and use it as a pressure point for meaning?
JB: Your question seems so much smarter than the poem! I would like to say it was formally intentional. And, yes, as I did eventually revise against the urge toward epiphany or even resolution in part because I actually had a sort of Creeley-esque “the darkness sur/ -rounds us, what/ can we do against it...” feeling that night. And, that felt like the truth of the poem-- that sense of what is going to happen is already happening which is both exhilarating and terrifying. I just tried to write into that momentum.
ET: Can you talk a little about your book Dear Stranger? How did the book happen? What are its major concerns?
JB: Some years back I was given an “assignment” by the San Antonio, TX art collective Refarm Spectacle to quite literally write a love letter to a stranger for a project on which they were working. I found the exercise both fun and challenging. So, I gave myself the assignment of writing a bunch more of them while also intentionally trying to push deeper into my own definition of what makes some one/place/thing a stranger and how I might somehow address them with love. I wrote to past versions of myself that I have trouble feeling love for, to my recently deceased father, to countries I’ve never visited, and even to objects that scare me. I didn’t use them all in the book, but by the end, this felt like a line through which I might organize the manuscript as well as a working definition of a poem. At least, for me, at least, for now, it was a vehicle for trying to speak intimately and with love to that which we don’t understand.