“All I Want Is to Be Opened” Interview with Joseph Fasano
wo poets in conversation about their craft: One, Salvatore Ala, profiled earlier here, “In Pursuit of the Sublime;” the other, Joseph Fasano, winner of the 2011 Cider Press Review Book Award and nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
Raised in New York State’s Hudson River Valley, Fasano earned a BA in philosophy from Harvard University and an MFA from Columbia University, where he now teaches. His poem, “Mahler in New York,” won the 2008 RATTLE Poetry Prize.
Mahler in New York
Now when I go out, the wind pulls me
into the grave. I go out
to part the hair of a child I left behind,
and he pushes his face into my cuffs, to smell the wind.
If I carry my father with me, it is the way
a horse carries autumn in its mane.
If I remember my brother,
it is as if a buck had knelt down
in a room I was in.
I kneel, and the wind kneels down in me.
What is it to have a history, a flock
buried in the blindness of winter?
Try crawling with two violins
into the hallway of your father’s hearse.
It is filled with sparrows.
Sometimes I go to the field
and the field is bare. There is the wind,
which entrusts me;
there is a woman walking with a pail of milk,
a man who tilts his bread in the sun;
there is the black heart of a mare
in the milk—or is it the wind, the way it goes?
I don’t know about the wind, about the way
it goes. All I know is that sometimes
someone will pick up the black violin of his childhood
and start playing—that it sits there on his shoulder
like a thin gray falcon asleep in its blinders,
and that we carry each other this way
because it is the way we would like to be carried:
sometimes with mercy, sometimes without.
~from Fugue for Other Hands by Joseph Fasano
Salvatore Ala: Your wonderful poem, “Mahler in New York,” includes images of falcons, violins and wind. Do these archetypal and elemental images arise in your sub-conscious or do you construct a sub-stratum of such images before beginning a poem?
Joseph Fasano: Falcons, violins, wind, horses, birds—these are all images from my childhood, which I suppose is one kind of substratum. A poem, for me, usually begins with an image or two more or less haunting me until I work out the architecture. The images announce themselves and try to tell me where they belong in the poem. I usually get in the way.
Salvatore Ala: It has been said that your poems “resist explication.” Do you think this is true? And if so, how far can we say that this resistance is a kind of aesthetic?
Joseph Fasano: I don’t know if they resist explication, but I hope they don’t resist themselves. A poem might end up looking terribly mysterious—I hope it does—but if it’s resisted baring itself, it’s failed. Fragmentation and ellipticism may be aesthetic strategies, but resistance isn’t. All I want is to be opened.
Salvatore Ala: One of the things I admire about your poetry is the way you create meaning through imagery itself, somewhat like T.E. Hulme suggested when he called images, “visual chords.” How does a poet follow such metaphoric threads, while preserving, as you do, a profound sense of meaning?
Joseph Fasano: That’s a difficult question. I think “follow” is the right word, but only in one sense—to move behind. If a poem is going well, I’m aware of moving along with the images and waiting to see what, if anything, will happen. ‘Meaning’ is another matter. I think my poems are only successful when I get out of the way and stop trying to worry them into meaning. Then, if I’m diligent, patient, and lucky, they start teaching me what they’re up to.
This is the season in which the lambs begin
to die, in which the boy in his red and blue plaid
shirt gets down on his wrists and his knees to crawl
into the moorland at night and spread a cross of pumice
on their foreheads, in which he reads to them a hymn
like a freighter burning with a cargo of ripened fruit
because in the morning he will have to kill them.
Because in the morning he will wake to find his father
standing in the hall like a horse with a lamp in its mouth
and he will have to wade into a river with only that silence
in his arms, and he will harm them. Because every year
I watch him stand at the threshold of a season and begin
to call them, to hold the ruined bodies of the dead
with only a dim chord of flame between his lips
and to touch them, to touch them
and to be with them, to touch them
and to sing with them, the way a child
touches everything, with the hand of his murderer.
~from Fugue for Other Hands by Joseph Fasano
Salvatore Ala: In your poem “October” you conclude the poem with these startling lines:
“…the way a child
touches everything, with the hand of his murderer.”
Without you saying so, this image made me think of Ezekial 18:2. “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” The poem also brings to mind the story of Abraham and Isaac. The child in your poem is unaware that he is his father. Is this a metaphor of the creative act for you?
Joseph Fasano: I hadn’t thought of the Ezekiel passage, but the story of Abraham and Isaac has always interested me; I have a poem in Fugue for Other Hands that addresses it for other reasons. You’re absolutely right, I think: The child in that poem is becoming suddenly and violently aware that he’s creating himself, that he has to do so, and that the process will cost him everything. Of course, there’s the whole world to gain when you understand you’re going to lose it.
You sit at a window and listen to your father
crossing the dark grasses of the fields
toward you, a moon soaking through his shoes as he shuffles the wind
aside, the night in his hands like an empty bridle.
How long have we been this way, you ask him.
It must be ages, the wind answers. It must be the music of the wind
turning your fingers to glass, turning the furniture of childhood
to the colors of horses, turning them away.
Your father is still crossing the acres, a light on his tongue
like a small coin from an empire that has always been ruined.
Now the dark flocks are drifting through his shoulders
with an odor of lavender, an odor of gold. Now he has turned
as though to go, but only knelt down with the heavy oars
of October on his forearms, to begin the horrible rowing.
You sit in a chair in the room. The wind lies open
on your lap like the score of a life you did not measure.
You rise. You turn back to the room and repeat what you know:
The earth is not a home. The night is not an empty bridle
in the hands of a man crossing a field with a new moon
in his old wool. We abandon the dead. We abandon them.
~”The Figure” by Joseph Fasano, first published by The Academy of American Poets.
Salvatore Ala: What differences or similarities do you see between your own style and the “deep association” poetry introduced by James Wright and Robert Bly?
Joseph Fasano: I’ve loved James Wright’s poems since I first experienced them, though naturally my work differs in fundamental ways. Certainly he was in tune with those Jungian archetypes you’ve mentioned, though. What really distinguishes Wright’s poems, I think, is the tone: an admixture of the archangelic voice and the “ruptured” American one. I’m thinking of lines such as, “All right. Try this, / Then. Every body / I know and care for, / And every body / Else is going / To die in a loneliness / I can’t imagine and a pain / I don’t know.” It’s a Heraclitean idea: the way down and the way up are the same. Bly’s translations over the past decades have introduced many American readers to ferocious possibilities of the poetic image, and I think you’re right in suggesting some of my own poems have an affinity with this kind of archetypal work. The question is always how to say these ancient things in one’s own voice, in one’s own time. I’d like to think that my poems are on their way to doing that. My most recent work is more or less obsessed with the idea of narrative, the possibility or impossibility of it. Many new poems address this problem explicitly, sometimes drifting away from those wild images to do so. It seems I usually come back to my landscape, though.
Sudden Hymn in Autumn
I remember a woman handing me fruit
through my illness.
I remember her hands were thin:
two gazelles lost in a field of clove.
Every time I came back, I heard insects
splitting their cores for slender wings.
I remember a woman they hanged
from the barn’s rafters,
her nightgown blowing toward the pond.
Some boys had wrestled a buck
to the ground, covered him in gasoline.
In the morning someone came
with a knot of black antlers: what he’d found
ten feet high in a poplar tree.
I remember October hunched like a colt
in a suit of black leaves.
I remember hearing him breach the room,
how his heavy tack dragged on the floor,
how I lifted an arm in trust of his body.
~from Fugue for Other Hands by Joseph Fasano
Salvatore Ala: Having completed a philosophy degree from Harvard, how has this discipline informed your art?
Joseph Fasano: I started out studying physics and mathematics—was totally obsessed with what I thought was logic. I’d planned to enroll at MIT, but decided on Harvard at the last minute, for reasons I didn’t entirely understand. I studied physics for a year or so, and then realized I wasn’t addressing any of the questions that really drew me. Studying philosophy felt right. Harvard’s department is extremely analytical, though, which I found slightly inhibiting—until I discovered Wittgenstein. I think he had a major effect on my thinking about communication, especially his remark that the meaning of a word is its use in the language. That seems relevant to your question about imagery and meaning.
The wind tonight is a mere
savant in the throes
of his deep prayer again and you are here, still,
when I drift in,
a small bowl
in my hands like the nest
of some unfledged darkness, your own
bread’s odor in my clothes.
Take this, woman, and eat
it, the moon’s coins uncounted
around you, the light
laid up like hornet’s
gold, shimmering in your best black wool.
the negligible music of a dressage harness.
Let the wind’s hands
riffle these hymnals, their script
like flocks under pasture
ice, their own wings
shrouding their croon.
It is only your son
to lift up your long hair
like the hem of a mooring rope,
broken, to fold down
your own hands forever.
It is only the wind and the holding
fast–the wind and the rest of it, soon.
Salvatore Ala: What was it like to study under the great Richard Howard?
Joseph Fasano: Incredible. Richard is everything you’ve heard he is: generous, exacting, brilliant. He doesn’t teach “workshops.” He invites each of his students to his home to discuss poems with him alone. He understands immediately what each poem is struggling to be, and he reminds you that it will be.
All night I’ve listened to the voice of a dead singer
from Memphis, Tennessee, who jumped up my stairs with a carnation
over each ear, once, and showed me his frail entrance wound
trembling over his eye like a hive; who convinced me
the voice of Christ is only the tenor of every slave who forgot
to be your father, then said he’d watched his family
carry a stallion from their house, in summer, while it burned
through a Mississippi night, and would I listen more.
I have always wanted to climb inside his voice and paint a huntress
up there, like a tribe I must come from. I have always wanted to sleep
with the nails of Christ in my mouth and suck whatever word
he didn’t draw from them, then bury them with his blue hair
in a constant orchard; I have wanted to eat that fruit again.
But tonight I only want to crawl down there with you, brother,
into the water, because I have been listening to your voice and all
its yellow locusts sifting through the trees I planted by hand,
alone, in these fields. Because I was the one who took those blossoms
from your ears, and laid them out on the wooden table. Because I remember
how you placed the river like a whetstone in your throat, and fell,
and the water washed off the word you carried on your shoulder
and did not want.
~from Fugue for Other Hands by Joseph Fasano
Salvatore Ala: What projects are you working on and what’s in your future?
Joseph Fasano: I’m working on several. I’ve completed a book-length poem in the voice of a man responsible for a particularly grizzly crime, a poem full of wilderness and mathematics. It’s based on events that happened on a Greyhound bus in Canada in 2008, and it’s so wild and devastated that I don’t think it will ever be released. But I had to write it. It’s funny that you mentioned Abraham and Isaac, because I’ve been working on another book-length poem centered around that story, although I’ve taken incredible liberties to try to get across what I see as a story about self-sacrifice and self-realization—as well as a story about storylessness. Another manuscript of poems in progress addresses those battles with narrative. A long poem from this manuscript, in many ways its centerpiece, will appear in Cider Press Review this summer. Also, a selection of my poems is being translated into Russian, so I get to watch that strange and dizzying process. Beyond that, I’m just trying to do good work for as long as I can.
To discover more about Joseph Fasano and his work: http://www.fugueforotherhands.com/
Salvatore Ala has published three collections of poetry: Clay of the Maker (Mosaic Press), Straight Razor and Other Poems (Biblioasis), and Lost Luggage (Biblioasis). His poems have appeared in journals and anthologies. He has also published six broadsides of his poetry.
Pierre Gable, of Les-Mées-Provence-Alpes-Cote-DAzur-France, is included in the Year of Subversion Exhibit at the London School of Liberal Arts. See his profile. Also visit his website: http://pierre-gable.fr/.