||Photo credit: Melissa Buckheit
Click to enlarge Rebecca Seiferle's text/image
The Drunken Boat
Poet, Translator and Reviewer
Books by Ms. Seiferle
There is something mesmerizing about Rebecca Seiferle’s work. Reading her poetry is like stepping out in an electric storm. The images conjured can be strangely beautiful or frightening but always invigorating, and each nerve ending comes alive. Seiferle’s words, passionate and fierce, are honest and unafraid; they release a riptide of memories and emotions in a strong, flowing current. The reader finds resonance at the core of her poems, feeling empowered and vulnerable at the same time. Such are her transformative powers as a poet.
Rebecca was born in Denver, Colorado, but had attended over 20 different schools all over the country by the time she graduated from high school. She grew up in many places and says of this circumstance, “My father just liked to move!” She lived in New Mexico for more than 20 years, so the flavor and culture of the desert southwest permeates some of her work. The essential landscapes of her work, however, are far more universal in nature. In some ways, her unconventional upbringing may have contributed to enhancing her already keen intellect. It would have been natural for a young girl, sensitive to every nuance of life, to develop an ear so finely attuned to the language of poetry. A natural genius combined with a boundless imagination fuels her poetry. She writes with great compassion and love for earth and its inhabitants, but with recognition of their limitations.
Rebecca Seiferle has a BA from the University of the State of New York with a major in English and History, and a minor in Art History. In 1989, she received her MFA from Warren Wilson College. She has taught at the Port Townsend Writers Conference, Gemini Ink, Key West Literary Seminars and The Fine Arts Centre in Provincetown. She was poet-in-residence at Brandeis from 2004-2006. She currently lives in Tucson, Arizona. Rebecca is an award-winning poet, but more importantly, a great voice of our times. She teaches and continues to write and publish, and in a remarkable balancing act, publishes and edits the fine literary journal, The Drunken Boat, which she founded in 2000.
The Drunken Boat
Rebecca Seiferle is Editor-
in-chief of The Drunken Boat,
previously a quarterly online
magazine of international
poetry and translation,
now published bi-annually.
The Drunken Boat is one
of the most successful
international literary journals
online because of the quality
of editing and the high caliber
of poetry, reviews, interviews
and poet spotlights featured.
Two Boats, Argentuil by Claude Monet
From: The Drunken Boat
by Arthur Rimbaud
“Now, I, a boat lost in the hair of the coves,
tossed by hurricane into the birdless air,
me, whom all the Monitors and Hansa sailing ships
could not salvage, my carcass drunk with sea;
free, rising like smoke, riding violet mists,
I who pierced the sky turning red like a wall,
who bore the exquisite jam of all good poets,
lichens of sun and snots of azure,
who, spotted with electric crescents, ran on,
a foolish plank escorted by black hippocamps,
when the Julys brought down with a single blow
the ultramarine sky with its burning funnels;
I who tremble, feeling the moan fifty leagues away
of the Behemoth rutting and the dull Maelstrom,
eternal weaver of the unmovable blue—
I grieve for Europe with its ancient breastworks!
I've seen thunderstruck archipelagos! and islands
that open delirious skies for wanderers:
Are these bottomless nights your nest of exile,
O millions of gold birds, O Force to come?
True, I've cried too much! Dawns are harrowing.
All moons are cruel and all suns, bitter:
acrid love puffs me up with drunken slowness.
Let my keel burst! Give me to the sea!
If I desire any of the waters of Europe, it's the pond
black and cold, in the odor of evening,
where a child full of sorrow gets down on his knees
to launch a paperboat as frail as a May butterfly.
Bathed in your languors, o waves, I can no longer
(Translated by Rebecca Seiferle)
wash away the wake of ships bearing cotton,
nor penetrate the arrogance of pennants and flags,
nor swim past the dreadful eyes of slave ships.”
|Photo credit: Kristen Nelson
The Poet, Translator and Reviewer
Seiferle has experimented with alternate poetry forms which she has shared with us for this issue. (Please note the top right of this page, the homepage, and the current issue) She describes the process as follows:
“I’ve been working on a series of “Other: poems” which combine text and image. I began making images in photoshop, often starting out with a micro jpg taken from a nude photo and then expanding the jpg and altering it with the various capabilities of the program. The images are non-representational, highly textured, though they have evolved to include drawing upon them, and have become more complex visually. I had been writing a long poem that seemed to unravel like a breath and at a certain point realized that the poem, or bits of it, belonged with the images. It was interesting to me how the image became another presence, exerting a kind of force like the world, as the weight of language had previously done in my work, which required that text change, often becoming simpler, more compressed, more intense…”
Ms. Seiferle’s translations of Alfonso D’Aquino and Ernest Lumbreras are included in Reversible Monuments: Contemporary Mexican Poetry (Copper Canyon, 2002). Her translation of Cesar Vallejo’s, Trilce (Sheep Meadow, 1992) was the only finalist for the 1992 PenWest Translation Award. Her excellent translation of Vallejo’s The Black Heralds was published by Copper Canyon Press in late 2003 and has been favorably reviewed in The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, and her translations of several Cuban poets are forthcoming in The Entire Island, edited by Mark Weiss, from the University of California Press in 2009.
Rebecca Seiferle has regularly reviewed for The Harvard Review and Calyx, and interviewed various writers for The Drunken Boat. Seiferle’s interviews and reviews show her immense understanding of the poetic utterance supported by a thorough knowledge of literature, language and their historical origins. Her analytical ability is evident from the depth of probing in her insightful questions, and from the answers she elicits. A few years back when I discovered another favorite poet, Alison Croggon, I read Rebecca’s interview with her and was struck by how the interview facilitated a better understanding of Ms. Croggon’s work, and I was grateful for the shared clarity. Rebecca referred to Alison Croggon as a “Renaissance woman.” That description can also be applied to Ms. Seiferle herself, a writer of many talents. A three time Pulitzer nominee, she has received dazzling reviews for her work, and four of her poetry collections have been published to high acclaim.
Books by Ms. Seiferle
||The Ripped-Out Seam (Sheep Meadow, 1993) won the Bogin Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, the Writers’ Exchange Award from Poets & Writers, the Writers’ Union Poetry Prize, and was a finalist for the 1993 Paterson Poetry Prize. It was also nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
||The Music We Dance To (Sheep Meadow Press, 1999) was nominated for the 1999 Pulitzer Prize and won the 1998 Cecil Hemley Award from the Poetry Society of America Poems from this collection were included in The Best American Poetry 2000 and The Extraordinary Tide: New Poetry by American Women (Columbia 2001). Poems from The Music We Dance To were nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 1997, 1998, and 1999.
(Copper Canyon, 2001),
won the 2002 Western States Book Award and a Pushcart Prize. She was awarded a 2004 Lannan Literary Fellowship.
(Copper Canyon, 2007), has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and a Pushcart Prize. She was awarded a Lannan Literary Fellowship in 2004 and was the recipient of the 2008 Grub Street National Book Prize in Poetry for Wild Tongue.
In Rebecca Seiferle’s world, everything matters. There is nothing unimportant or irrelevant. She has that “inner eye,” the extra sense many artists have that allows them to see beyond the obvious, but her strength lies in making those leaps with her readers. The beauty of her concise language is amplified by her luxuriant, rich images. The metaphysical and physical fuse in her poetry, producing a meditative tone to some of her work.
(From “Dragon Hill”)
Human, animal or divine . . .
there’s a large blackness in the center
of the iguana’s forehead,
murky as a galaxy
coalescing, a new face forming, and in the depths of the new
cells, a third eye, its eyelid closed, dreaming
the heart’s refrain: Out of so much,
so little; out of so little, so much.
Seiferle arrests our attention with strong, fresh visuals and captures our doubts, fears, hopes and pain. She sets all these to a deep, sonorous music. She produces language that is so precise and organic, it becomes part of the action itself—so seamlessly connected to the membrane of the poem, it becomes a living, writhing, twitching thing. The words wrap themselves around one’s skin. Through her words, one can feel, see, touch, and above all, know. It is the ultimate reading experience. Savage beauty wars with tenderness, regret, a dark sadness, and… tragic inevitability, such as is present in the destruction caused by wars, famines, disasters and other harsh realities of life. (See Goya: Los Desastres de la Guerra, Current Issue)
One of her poems will stay with me forever. Even now, I can see vividly, and feel the fascinated horror of an accidental mutilation. How minutely Seiferle dissects her feelings. The imagery and narrative is unflinching and brutal in its honesty, as the narrator takes painful responsibility for an inadvertent action:
The Ripped-out Seam
I will never stitch back together
the horned toad that I halved with a shovel.
All summer, in my mind, holding itself upright,
trying to balance its torso
between its front legs, the toad has tried
to drag itself forward, to escape
the agonized coils of its own
entrails spilling out of the gaping absence
of its lower body. No
meaning I can think of, no matter how deft
of hand, can knit the pale
distended bowels, or reconnect
the webbed feet's chaotic twitching
to the brain that lunged, leapt,
propelled them forward.
I was excavating a pit for the children to play in
with their fleets of miniature cars and must have
scooped the legs from the body in one motion.
When I lifted the shovel and saw the flayed skin
resting in the blade, I thought
the thighs' cavities, bloodless
and filled with dirt, were the ancient remains
of a cat's nightly predations, or the relic
of a hiberation from which
the horned toad never awoke, but then
I saw the upper half, alive, sitting at the edge
of the heaped earth where it, too,
had been tossed.
What shocked me was how perfect
the unwounded half of the body was:
the eyes' stunned gold,
the jaw's tiny teeth, the spine's
prickled barbs, the crimson gills'
breeding color, the throat's throbbing rhythm,
the head and forelimbs trying to go on, to continue,
while the lower half had been interrupted
in the emptying out
of the blue and yellow guts,
the soft pulp of the liver and lungs.
That was June, now it's the end of August
and in my mind, I am still carrying
the still living torso behind a tree
where I hit it with a shovel,
fracture the skull,
so it will no longer suffer
what I have done to it. Again and again
the creature drags itself forward,
tries to reunite the two halves
of what it is, to heal
the wound it keeps dragging behind.
Only in the ripped-out seams
of body, of mind, do we resemble each other...
the horned lizard and the human figure
drawn in black on the white surface
of every vessel that the Acoma people paint
and sell to tourists. They shrug
if anyone asks what the meaning is
of this design, of that one, at the idea
that everything must mean something
other than it is.
(From: the Ripped-Out Seam, The Sheep Meadow Press, 1993)
And then, as is often the case with a poet of great range, Ms. Seiferle shifts gears into the fluid and lyrical. Here is softness in contrast with the stark beauty of some of her work. There is a delicacy of line and feeling. Here, her brushstroke is applied with subtlety and finesse:
(From: Dredging for the Face of the Earth)
Is it the way the light falls
or the way my eye follows
that most resembles
a hand stroking a face?
It is as if I were
in love with the blue shadows on the mesa—
an angel peak with one wing missing.
(From: The Ripped-Out Seam)
Seiferle works on a grand canvas, but even in this tiny, confined area of scrutiny, the force is large and shattering; there is such movement in this exquisite, detailed piece, a sonnet from a linked series:
(From : “A Broken Crown of Sonnets for My Father’s Forehead”)
Not in the kingdom of death, in the jar
of my childhood, a male seahorse floated
like debris. Solo, thickening, in a tear
of Morton salt and tap water, he snorkeled
up pink clouds of shrimp, and gave birth to four
children, each a tiny Pegasus, whirring
through a bare and gelid world, circling
his great hippocampus head. Who was I
to fathom such a creature, concoct a sea
within a jar? When I lifted the glass,
the tide of my touch sent him crashing. He
could only drift in the directionless ache,
as his young vanished, one by one, his pouch
filled with nothing but the current itself.
(From: The Music We Dance To)
Rebecca Seiferle is a storyteller in the most intrinsic sense with natural gift for the narrative. She has it all—the hook, the pauses, the buildup, the climax. Even in the most lyrical works, she spins a tale that is hard to resist.
In Seiferle’s poetry, we are made aware of how we constantly walk alongside death and violence, but become inured to it, numb. Rebecca rips those protective shrouds away to illuminate even the most gruesome truth, to see what really is, and to accept that we live in a world where dark and light exist side by side. Her explorations are accompanied by a sense of wonder and compassion. There is a haunting quality to this poem which is written with a heartbreaking beauty:
The only ghost I’ve ever seen
was that of a baby black bear, waiting
for me one night in the kitchen in Salmon, Idaho,
a small green tornado caught in the corner by the stove,
full of pale yellow lights like the tiny polished stones
that flash in the bed of the coldest mountain streams.
All winter, we lived in that rented house, while the landlord,
in the garage, practiced his butcher’s art, skinning, gutting, dissembling
whatever the local hunters brought him–and I’d seen the cub
hanging outside my window. Flayed of its rich black skin,
reduced to the scaffold of its bones, its overlay of red muscle and white fat,
without claws or snout, pud or tail of bear, it hung in the glare
of the porch light like a human child. So when I went roaming
the silenced house so late at night and was met by that wild presence,
I spoke to it until it sighed and vanished into the peeling wall,
and left me, the only child still there, snared in the net of the world.
(From: Bitters, Copper Canyon Press, 2001)
Seiferle’s poems encompass a wide spectrum of topics such as war, death, love, religious inquiry, criticism of injustice, and the acceptance of human failings, to name just a few. She draws from a rich amalgam of sources: mythology, religion, history, and her own varied experiences. She writes with as much accuracy about the human condition as she does exploring relationships between people:
(From: “My Mother’s Hip”)
“Now I’ve nursed my mother back to health,
I know what my birth cost her. Then as now,
she had to be knocked out, in labor
for hours, made into scaffolding, her legs
spread in horrifying angles, so I
—umbilical cord knotted around my throat—could be
extracted by the forceps that shaped us both.”
Yet with Ms. Seiferle, we enter the unexpected, for she can suddenly switch register and write with a delicate beauty as in the poem below. The flow is both narrative and lyrical, with a measured cadence and natural rhythm like the sounds of water, or the heartbeat of a forest creature carried away by fluttering wings:
The Face in the Depths of the Desert
I wasted so much time
fishing at night, my anger
burning and anchored
to the railing of the houseboat,
while the lantern cast the rippling interstices
of my nets, snarled rods and lines,
onto the canyon walls of that damned river.
My fingers aching from so many knots—
trying to thread back through the original loop—
I kept casting, trying to retrieve
something formless, absolute,
from the halo on the water,
while only the dying silvery lives
heaped up around my feet or trembled on the stringer.
Only the arrival of the carp made me stop.
Those useless, undesirable, “trash fish”
that my father taught us to leave, gasping for air
on the bank, arrived like the embodied breath
of a dragon, each finned flame, interweaving
around, beneath, above one another—
on every side of their bodies—not
just “above” or “below.” Out of the mist of unknowing,
they came into view, merging then breaking away,
rooting in the bottom mud or rising to take with a tiny kissing sound
a dragonfly from the surface,
and the skin of the lake trembled
With a probing depth, more complex and psychological in nature, many readers are astounded by the emotional force of her “Bat in a Jar”from The Ripped-Out Seam. It steals one’s breath with a gripping force:
Bat in a Jar
The jar was a mason jar, made to preserve
apricots and stone cherries and to withstand
the extremes of cold air and hot water baths
where the steam, rising, lifts
the canner’s black lid
only to drop it, hissing, again. And the bat,
trapped inside knew, if it knew anything,
it would never escape, though
the sky kept humming
with insects and the orchards darkened
as usual, apparently the same.
Someone had put the bat in a jar—to avoid
bites and disease or to protect
the bat itself from house cats and dogs?
In any case, the bat kept calling
for rescue, measuring what confined it, trying
to scale the horizon, that sky of glass. But though
the bat’s ears shaped themselves
to the echo, though the echo
filled the glass, the jar parodied
the bat’s longing and gave back
nothing of itself.
Mirrored, only the bat was mirrored. Its fear
inaudible except to itself, confined
to its own mind. That which enabled
the bat to select a mosquito
or to nip a June beetle out of the air
now sickened it. Open-mouthed,
wings beating hopefully, hopelessly, the bat
lifted its wing like one seamless membrane
and again and again
tried to answer.
(From: The Ripped-Out Seam)
Ms. Seiferle relates how she came to write this poem:
“Bat in a Jar” for instance could be said to occur in the personal experience of the time I was working at a motel and someone found a bat hanging in one of the alcoves, which set off all sorts of worries about rabid bats, etc, so one of the houseboys caught the bat in a jar and brought it into the laundry room. I was looking at it closely and it was wheeling around and around in an ever increasing distress, and I realized that its own sonar, bouncing off the concave sides of the glass, was killing it, so I persuaded someone to let it go into a nearby field. But I was so struck by that perception of being killed by one’s own sound, how one’s own gifts could become lethal if confined and captive. And yet the fact is I don’t think I would have, or could have written the poem, from that experience alone, for it would have been merely descriptive and lent itself to various ‘meanings’. I didn’t write it until a few weeks later, I had been reading poetic theory and some philosophy of which I remember nothing in particular just the sort of soup it created in my brain, for reading often seems to me like that, like creating one of those ponds of the primordial ooze full of compound elements that a bolt of lightning gives life to. And I loved someone then who wrote me a long and pained letter that was like a knot of confined and pressurized feeling which I felt was impossible to answer, so I didn’t know if that person or I was the bat in the jar or if reality itself, “this” life, wasn’t such, and out of that unbearable pressure, I wrote the poem and the image of that bat came back to me as I did so.
(Excerpted from an interview with Mia for Tryst3.com)
In this new poem below, Rebecca uses her palette with mastery to lend color to emotion. Please read her interview for some of her insights on this piece:
Being Born at Any Hour
I don’t know why there's fog, the desert as if
pregnant with some vanished or impending sea, or why
waking up, I'm wondering into it, remembering those lines
by Auden "many have died for lack of water, not one
has died for lack of love," except that it's my birthday
in two days, and his poem was written a year or two before
the emotional climate into which I was born: that sad decade
where everyone would die for nothing but the lack
of love, stillborn, held in insensate arms. Still,
just as aridity sputters back to green at the touch
of water, something rises, sings, on the blue lips of the infant
who, in us, is always tunnelling toward the light. I don't know
why at the bedrock level of misery (the way my head just yesterday
crucified its third eye), something touches down and springs
back up--so green, coming back to life, it's being
always newly arriving, this being born at any hour,
the earth's generosity in my body and in the morning air.
Going on to the next work, the language here is the language of music, of otherworldly beauty and the call to spirits that reside in the earth and trees: a voice that brings to surface long asleep memories, perhaps even from another birth or life as one hears the voice of a seer singing of legends and myths:
Standing here at the beginning of the ruins, we inhabit
a sky full of cries too numerous and varied to be identified. And what would we
The bird that cries like a man…
the bird that buzzes
with the locust pinched in the thumbs of a branch, the bird
with the voice of a broken whistle,
one last breath…just before
it breaks, the bird whose periodic
cry is a bright thread through the bullrushes…
These warbles, clicks, cries of surprise throng us with a language
we do not understand
our own voice, the lost voice
of our fathers meeting our mothers so long ago, the voice of whatever calls
us into being…
In the two poems below, you read about quotidian occurrences and how Seiferle extrapolates from them, assays beyond the obvious for connections and puts it all together, with her pulse firmly on the narrative. You keep reading to see where she is going with the thread she wraps so firmly, and uses to ensnare:
From THE CUSTOM
down to the bone, every year
all that's left of the Thanksgiving
feast is the wishbone. Stained
the color of tea or rain seeping
into wood, it could
be beautiful, a singular harp
from which no one
has learned to coax
a tune, or ivory white,
a bow of stars that never shot
a wounding shaft,
but, instead, impelled
a feathered being into the air,
a hinge for the drumming
of earthly wings. But
the custom of the breastbone
is that only two of you can fight
over this good fortune,
only one of you can win,”
From: Divided Continent
“…As I ran, screaming war cries
around my parents’ house, my hands already
scarred from trying to fashion arrows
from the dwarfed bushes in the suburban yard,
the necklace around my neck
gave me the power of another world,
its red eye, the ruby eye of the grebe
that dives into the water and comes up
on the other side of the lake.
On the other side of the street, in another
lot, three girls in white frilly dresses,
their hair coiled in ringlets and bows, curtsied
around a portable table where real eighths
of a sandwich dressed
each miniature plate, real tea was poured
into tiny play cups, and they, too, were rehearsing
another ideal. I was seven, then,
and, oh my longing to be like her, to be her,
and her longing to be like me–the one
who looked up and stared back
out of the perfectly cultivated
garden of her face.”
Whether Ms. Seiferle is revealing the capacity of man for self-deception and injustice, as in her poem, “Comparative Religion,” or examining the source and implication of a creature’s pain, her gaze is intense and scrutinizing, and rips away all pretence and cover. Her eye is sharp and piercing, she zeroes in, leaving us dry-mouthed, inarticulate, raw…but joyful to have read and experienced her world, and we return to our own world, a bit more aware, a bit more awake—it is a poetry of vision, and contains a richness of experience and maturity. Like an ancient medicine man, she wields the force of the elements. Their essence is woven into her words which surround us and flow under our skin, interweaving with our flesh and senses, taking us where they have come from: her immense imagination and fierce heart that exults in the beauty and spirit of life.
We thank Ms. Seiferle for her gracious permission to use all materials, poetry and artwork, for this feature, and her generosity in sharing with us her new poems and her “Other poems” (image/text combinations.) We are also indebted to Ms. Seiferle publishers, Copper Canyon Press, www.coppercanyonpress.org, for the opportunity to reprint poems from Bitters and Wild Tongue, and Sheep Meadow Press, www.sheepmeadowpress.com, for The Ripped-Out Seam and The Music We Dance To.
Please click here to read Pirene’s Fountain’s interview with Rebecca Seiferle