Ben Purkert: Yeah, I agree. And also, you know, it would be such a different poem, you know, if it weren’t titled “Notes on the Reality of the Self” that I think the most interesting part maybe is the “Notes.”
Kevin Young: Right.
Ben Purkert: You know, a river does lots of things. One of the things it does is it can scatter. You know, it can scatter fallen leaves as it does here. And so I almost feel like the poem embodies that sense of, sort of, debris that’s the debris of thought, really.
Kevin Young: And that’s what the notes are.
Ben Purkert: I think so. I think so.
Kevin Young: Well, it suggests that, you know, it’s like a sketch, you know? There is an oil painting coming. But actually, of course, we love the sketch. You know, we love the artist thinking about the process or preparing to do something big that in itself is big, I think. And I love the ending, which, you know, you start to see what one takes for quotations or certain this italic section. “I see myself. I am a widening angle of / and nevertheless” and then suddenly you say, Well, are these just ways people think, or these kind of part of the notation—the fragment of thought? And then this end: “quick—the evidence of the visual henceforth—and henceforth, loosening—”.
Ben Purkert: Yeah.
Kevin Young: What do you take that loosening to be?
Ben Purkert: Oh, it’s a good question. It’s also hard, I think, for our listeners, because it’s not, you know, you can’t—you can’t see exactly. But there are these phrases that are in itals. But I was cur—“the evidence of the visual henceforth” was a phrase that really stuck out to me. I looked it up and it’s from Ashbery’s “The Skaters.” And a lot of these italic phrases are. And so . . .
Kevin Young: They’re all from Ashbery?
Ben Purkert: They’re all from “The Skaters.” I think maybe one of them is not. And if you were to look at the poem, they all sort of congregate closer to the end. If we do, you know, read the poem as a metaphor for a river, in some ways, it’s almost like the silt. It’s almost like, you know, they’ve collected. The mind of the speaker is less active or has somehow accrued, you know, language from other places. You know, “henceforth, loosening—” and then it ends with a dash. I don’t know if this answers your question, but I don’t know how this poem could arrive at any—at anything more conclusive than that. You know, where does a river end? I mean, it’s really . . .
Kevin Young: The sea.
Ben Purkert: Yeah, exactly! Right, and in that way it doesn’t. It only . . . it loosens and it goes on.
Kevin Young: Well it’s funny because just today I was looking at “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” by Langston Hughes, a very different set of rivers, but also one that, as he says, is “ancient” and “dusky” as the “flow of human blood in human veins.” He says that poem’s thinking about the archetype and trying to draw across time. And this feels like something different. An “I” speaking across time and one of the qualities of that is reaching toward not, you know, other rivers or other histories, but reaching toward Ashbery, other poetries, other imaginations. The dash, of course, also for me conjures Dickinson.
Ben Purkert: Yeah.
Kevin Young: And her own meditative, argumentative, philosophical verse. You know, I think sometimes when we read another poet through another poet, sometimes people get frustrated or they don’t know why are you referring to another poet. You know, that’s how we breathe. You know, we think of poetry. And I felt like what’s beautiful about it is it’s not relying on this other poem. It’s devoured it. It’s swallowed it whole. It’s felt it in its bones. And it’s part of this poem’s language, too.
Ben Purkert: Yeah. I described this poem earlier as not necessarily easy or accessible. And I don’t know if that’s completely true because I think that there are so many—as I reread it—so many honest questions that really feel almost childlike in their innocence. Like, for example, “Is this body the one / I know as me?” I mean, it’s a deeply philosophical question, but it’s also a question . . . You know, my wife and I just had a kid. And I know that, you know, one of the joys of this process is going to be, you know, when my son Emilio starts asking questions, and asking questions about the world and about himself. And, you know, questions that maybe we start . . . Maybe as poets, we don’t, but, you know, everyone else takes for granted, right? I mean, we do, too. Let’s be honest. But: “Is this body the one / I know as me?”
Kevin Young: I mean, it’s both a youthful question and the oldest question on earth.
Ben Purkert: Right, exactly.
Kevin Young: Is this me? You know, where is me—does me start and end?
Ben Purkert: Right. And is this. . . You know, the body, of course, could be the body of water or the physical form. But I guess I’m mentioning it because I think, you know, what you were saying around the different ways in which we are influenced, like, “Is this body the one / I know as me?” Is this poem that I’ve written entirely mine? I mean it—you’re right, there’s shades of Dickinson here. I mean, for Jorie, you know, someone like Stevens I see in here, too.
Kevin Young: These are good things to have echo in your poem.
Ben Purkert: Yeah, sure.
Kevin Young: Like all the poets we’re mentioning are the poets, you know, are some of our great poets who thought aloud with us and we think aloud with them. I also would say that there’s something about the body of the actual poem. You know, if you’re hearing it, you’re hearing some version of that body, but also it’s a visual poem, too. And it kind of, almost kind of, narrows to the part where it says “earth gases, rot gases.” That’s just one line.
Ben Purkert: Yeah.
Kevin Young: “I take them in, a breath at a time. I put my / breath back out” and then suddenly it goes back out, like it’s the whole poem narrows to these really, I mean, kind of visceral gases like the stinky river. It’s wonderful. And then it goes back out with this breath.
Ben Purkert: Yeah.
Kevin Young: And I think it’s thinking about the body, but also the line. What makes a line up? Is it breath? Here I think it’s thought and breath, kind of meeting.
Ben Purkert: Yeah. I mean it’s weird how often rotting comes up in this poem and, you know, before today I reread “Materialism” and there’s so much rotting in that book and material sort of rotting away. And erosion is something that Jorie has written a lot about and, you know, “Erosion” is another book title. And I think there are all kinds of ways in which nature and the natural world is meant to degrade, whether it erodes or it rots, you know, on its own. They can be unpleasant, but it can feel organic. And then, of course, there are the ways in which our natural environment has been, you know, rotted—has been ruined, has been eroded. And I think she’s a poet who also has great concern for that.