Poet Of The Week

Daniel Tobin

     October 2–8, 2017

Daniel Tobin is the author of seven books of poems, most recently the book-length poem From Nothing, winner of the 2016 Julia Ward Howe Award, as well as critical studies and edited volumes. His poems have appeared nationally and internationally in journals such as Poetry, the Paris Review, the Times Literary Supplement, Image and the New Republic, among others. A recipient of awards including the Massachusetts Book Award in Poetry and creative writing fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, Tobin teaches in the Department of Writing, Literature and Publishing at Emerson College in Boston. “In the Green-Wood” appears in the Brooklyn Poets Anthology, released this spring.

In the Green-Wood

No country churchyard, where now the avenue
    blusters and throbs with weekend shoppers
hot for buys, its buses and delivery vans,
    cadenzas of boom-boxes and car horns,

but this archway like a cathedral wall
    fashioned out of brownstone, as though Upjohn
had turned to fresher labors, before steeple
    and vaulting nave and great rose window

found manifest form, so only this gate
    rises solitary above its city
of patient sleepers. Jet-lagged, nearly late
    for the tour, we pull up incongruously

it seems to us, as if we’d been sped back
    like Twain’s time-shifter into stereoscope
only to discover the heart’s true Gothic,
    a lost extravagance in our idea of home.

We fall in behind, following our guide
    through steam-blasted spires, the funeral bell
silent as our group rambles up the grade,
    our train boisterous, motley, raggle-taggle,

more Bruegel than Currier & Ives—
    those swallow-tailed, bonneted picnickers
on Sunday daytrips in their carriages,
    the graveyard less a graveyard than a park.

Here was heaven’s waiting parlor, benign,
    tombs like villas along bluffs and dells,
ornate plots café-stocked with lounges,
    in unused fields the grazing animals

dissimulating into their fluent Eden.
    And here, still, is nature in pastoral,
little worse for wear, where Resurrection
    reclines like Autumn into the moraine.

Sylvan Water, Crescent Water, Vision Path.
    Each floral lane and woodland boulevard
bends along the rim of a new expanse,
    weaves back again, a lost urban heaven

our guide unfolds in wit and anecdote:
    Colgates, Whitneys, Pierreponts, the Steinways,
their grand mausoleum like an annex
    big enough to house a hundred guests;

Marcus Daly, Montana’s “Copper King”;
    “Big Bonanza” Bill MacKay, his crypt
heated like a marble country cottage
    for the grace of his eternal comfort;

Henry Ward Beecher, Horace Greeley;
    Basquiat, Bernstein, James Weldon Johnson;
Roosevelts, Morses, Tweeds, and Tiffanies.
    Though we prefer the less familiar stones:

Here lies Fannie, dog “with limpid eyes,”
    the sewing magnate’s pet; brash Lola Montez
(a.k.a. Eliza Gilbert) who would drive
    men wild with her erotic “spider dance”;

McDonald Clarke, “Mad Poet of Broadway,”
    doggerel lines scrubbed from his obelisk;
Captain Hayes of the clipper ship Rainbow,
    these fathoms empty, his last voyage wrecked;

Bill the Butcher and Albert Anastasia,
    killers who called themselves “true Americans”;
Do-Hum-Me, Barnum’s Indian Princess,
    buried in her wedding dress, her husband

the brave weeping on her stone, like Azrael
    the angel of death; and the other lovers
with their iconographies of loss—
    a groom’s pruned oak branch, a bride’s clipped rose—

such early deaths. And here is a column
    transplanted under yews in this calm grove:
Matilda Tone, who buried her children
    and died alone. We’d seen her husband’s grave

who slit his throat in the Dublin Barracks;
    saw his comrades in the vault at St. Michan’s,
their bones crossed, skulls staring from their nests.
    For these doomed lovers, America was exile—

insufferable, “a culture of boors
    and swaggarts” she would suffer nonetheless,
her afterlife of life without him moored
    to a widow’s dream of revolution.

And what if they had given up the cause,
    chose another life as settled farmers,
their heirs harkening to Greeley’s “Go West”?
    Or would they become like Bellows’s Cliff Dwellers

(the artist asleep in his unmarked grave)
    crowding sheer tenements? Now further on,
Battle Hill rises above the Narrows,
    Washington’s stand, studded with monuments;

and other hills lush with Civil War dead,
    no masts in the harbor now, but barges
churning under the bridge for Gowanus docks
    astride the projects where my father lived;

and farther out, the island with its stalls
    and cages, its teeming, endless labyrinth
and line of faces, its railroad heading west;
    and farther west the meadowlands, and farther….

Here is the soul, a granite sphere with wings.
    Here pollen rains gold dust from the trees.
Monk parrots fruit the branches. We watch pass
     high sculpted clouds, opulent and migratory.

—From The Narrows, Four Way Books, 2005.

Tell us about the making of this poem.

I wrote “In the Green-Wood” as one poem in a book-length sequence of poems called The Narrows. The book as a whole intends to be a mural in verse, so one could see “In the Green-Wood” as a single scene in part of a more extensive panel among other panels forming the larger architecture of the whole. “In the Green-Wood” is about a walk through the famous Green-Wood Cemetery, of course, a place that always fascinated me when I was growing up in Bay Ridge. The poem takes its form from Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” though “In the Green-Wood” is far less interested in bucolics and far more interested in the juxtaposition between the cityscape and the idyllic world behind the great gate with its buried histories of the famous and the not-so-famous. The biggest formal challenge was to make Gray’s 18th-century rhyming English quatrain eat the stuff of 20th- and 21st-century America.

What are you working on right now?

I’m working on a book-length poem about the life of the 20th-century French philosopher and activist Simone Weil, a sequel of kinds to my latest book, From Nothing, which is about Georges Lemaître, the physicist and Jesuit priest who was the first to elaborate a theory of the universe beginning in an explosive singularity—the big bang. Fred Hoyle, the “steady state” theorist of the mid-20th century, called him derisively “the big bang man.” The phrase stuck beyond Lemaître.

What’s a good day for you?

Waking up, feeding our cats, sitting on the deck with a cup of coffee, breakfast, then upstairs to work on a poem born out of an idea I’ve squirrelled away between classes or meetings or whatnot. An alternative good day involves a class that comes off particularly well with my students. There are other variations, involving walks and reading and talks with friends.

So you were born in Brooklyn. Tell us about the neighborhood you’re from. How long did you live there? What did you like about it? How has it changed? How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?

I grew up in Bay Ridge in the 1960s and 70s and lived there until I went off to college when I was eighteen, though I came back routinely and moved to Park Slope after I graduated. I took off a year later for graduate school. We lived at 310 85th St, Pearl Court, an apartment building just off Third Ave. The building had something of the feel of a transplanted Irish townland with my grandmother living on the first floor, an aunt and uncle on the other side of the apartment house, and neighbors stopping by constantly. I’ve written about the building, and the neighborhood, pretty extensively in The Narrows and in other books of poems. There were a great many characters inhabiting the place, from the old man we all called “the farmer” who would plant tomatoes along the thin dirt border of the courtyard, to our downstairs neighbor Kathryn who drank and sang show tunes all day in a booming voice, vaguely Ethel Merman. You don’t have space for the many I could name, along with the names of the shops that are gone now, some with an almost allegorical nuance about them—Circles, Woods Butchers, Rose Glass.

What I loved about the neighborhood was its vitality, the sense of community on the immediate and surrounding blocks. Sally’s Coffee Shoppe on our corner was one of the go-to places, run by two sisters. Telly Savalas, the actor who played Kojak on TV, came in for lunch one day. I have never tasted a better falafel sandwich than Sally’s, not to mention her hummus and tabouleh. She made great burgers as well.

When I was still in grammar school, St. Anselm’s parish defined where I’d range, mostly, with my friends—from 78th St to 87th, from Sixth Ave to Shore Road. Bay Ridge was predominantly Norwegian and Irish when my parents first moved there from Sunset Park in the 1950s, though when I was growing up most of the immigrants moving into the neighborhood were Middle Eastern and Greek. My closest friends were Syrian and Lebanese, and a few Irish kids like myself. Some mornings, in my bedroom, I would listen to the muezzin chanting worshippers to prayer in the basement mosque from the apartment house next door. When I went to high school the wider world of Brooklyn and “the city” (as we called Manhattan) opened up for me, along with the bars on Third (there was no need for a fake ID back then for a fourteen-year-old to get a beer in Brodies and play a game of pool). I’ve lived in many places since I left to attend graduate school and eventually teach college—Boston, Charlottesville, Dublin, Racine (Wisconsin), back to Boston—but at least once a year I return to Bay Ridge and visit my old grammar school friends who, happily, never left the neighborhood.

Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.

I’ve had so many defining Brooklyn experiences I find it hard to slip one from my mental Rolodex, which is what some of us used before there were iPhones. I’m tempted to select a common after-school activity with two of my friends. We’d climb up the telephone poles behind the row houses, and off we’d go, hand-over-hand down the block some twenty-five feet or so above the yards and concrete driveways, resting on the garage roofs. We called it cabling. It was good (very exciting and risky, like an early rite of passage), and bad (I fell twice, though I didn’t break anything), and always in between. Then there was that amazing time the whole city went black with a power outage and practically everyone in our apartment building was on the roof staring up into space.

What does a poetry community mean to you? Did you find that here? Have you found that where you live? Why or why not?

I started writing poetry as a teenager, though wouldn’t say I had a poetry community. I did have an exemplary high school teacher, Raul Rodriguez, who encouraged my writing and would tape me reading my very fledgling poems. I remember he called me “a dirty diamond” and that meant a great deal and still does, though I trust I’m a bit more polished now. Boston, where I live now, has a tremendous number of poets though the sense of community to my sensibility at least is a bit fractious, cliquish. In many ways, my poetry community is virtual now, with friends I’ve met over the years, though I am part of a group that meets once a month for an informal workshop.

Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.

One always must go back to Walt Whitman, obviously, and Hart Crane—the ambition of The Bridge had a huge impact on my work, especially The Narrows. I’ve come later in life to appreciate Marianne Moore’s quirky and meticulous craft. I suppose one can consider Auden a Brooklyn poet as well, since he lived for a time in that house on Middagh Street with Chester Kallman and Gypsy Rose Lee. I’ll stay with these early influential oldsters for fear of leaving off in an extended list one of the names of the living.

Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?

I’m assuming you mean principally in-person encounters and not encounters entirely on the page. If the latter as well there would be so many, both living and dead, beginning most emphatically with John Donne—passion wedded supremely to intellect and both feeding the other—then onward to Hopkins, Whitman, Dickinson, Stevens, Bishop, Robert Hayden and so many more. So I’ll stick with the personal lamplighters.

As a senior in college I read Field Work by Seamus Heaney and that really lit me. After a year of writing on my own in a Park Slope studio on Seventh, I went off to Harvard for graduate work and ended up taking a workshop with him. He was incredibly generous and supportive. From there I went off to the University of Virginia where I worked with Gregory Orr and Charles Wright, then to the Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College where I worked with Tom Lux, Ellen Bryant Voigt, Michael Ryan and Joan Aleshire. If all of these mentors have anything in common by way of influence it might be their trust in sonic texture, dramatic urgency and a certain architectural vitality whether in “form” or free verse.

Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.

I recently reread for a class I’m teaching Gwendolyn Brooks’s extraordinary poem “A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile, a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon.” The ingenuity of the poem’s narrative with its restrained but devastating portrayal of two mothers—Emmitt Till’s and his murderer’s wife—is sheer brilliance. Such emotional complexity and gravitas, the visionary adherence to the truth of grief and injustice, and all of it done without any rhetorical overreach. The poem is scorching in its politics, but the force of its judgment—judgment in every sense—transcends everything. What an example of necessary art.

What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?

I have been planning for two years to read a book called Till We Have Built Jerusalem, which explores the relations between architecture, urbanism, and the sacred. I believe there is something relevant to poetic form in there, a dynamics of form, that I intend to explore in an essay just as soon as I get together the time to write it.

Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?

I tend to read cover to cover, often guided by an intuition that I hope will spur poems, at least in the long run. Over the past couple of years I’ve been reading pretty voraciously about the life of Simone Weil, and have begun drafting a book-length poem. I do tend to ramble through a number of poetry books, however, and do not proceed cover to cover with those but just diving in and running with what I’m reading. There is always planning involved in something like the Weil poem, as with the Lemaître poem, but I do think it’s important to leave a door open for the surprise, for the gift encounter out of the blue, the improvisation from life and learning that you hadn’t planned on. I’m a physical person and I like physical books, and I take notes obsessively.

What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?

I’ve tried a great many forms and have written many sequences, but I confess my prejudice against concrete poetry: the poem called “Teabag” for example that is shaped on the page like a teabag, or a poem called “Lamplight” that radiates words from a central bulb configured by the white space. George Herbert managed two brilliant concrete poems, “Easter Wings” and “The Altar,” and James Merrill’s “Christmas Tree” is likewise remarkable. But they are few. I’d like to pull a really good one off someday.

Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?

I’ve always had to teach a substantial schedule, or administrate, except when I’ve been on leave or sabbatical, so I find I’ve had to write wherever and whenever I can put pen to paper or notebook, at least to get started. And I’ve gotten started more than once on the subway. I’m not sure that means I actually enjoy working on the subway, or in my office at school. Working on your art wherever you happen to be is better than waiting for the ideal space, or when you can get home unburdened after the day since the days have a way of providing burdens one tends to have to take home. I don’t plan to head off to a café to write, but quiet always helps.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

I love Shore Road and the walkway along the narrows nearby the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge since I saw the towers of the bridge rising over the apartment buildings at the bottom of Third Ave. Of course, I love the Brooklyn Bridge as well—who wouldn’t?—how when you’re walking across it Manhattan becomes defamiliarized into a wonderfully strange landscape of crystal towers. I love the Coney Island boardwalk, or what’s left of it, the Cyclone and Nathan’s, but I do miss the Coney Island of the old Steeplechase days. When I lived in Park Slope I loved walking down street after street looking at the brownstones. The Church of St. Mary Star of the Sea has considerable significance for me—it was my father’s parish where he grew up in Red Hook (when Red Hook wasn’t separated off by the Gowanus Parkway and Carroll Gardens didn’t have that catchy name the realtors love). There is Farrell’s Bar in Windsor Terrace, to which I need to make a pilgrimage, and there is a marvelous mural by Edward Laning in the Brooklyn courthouse that was once in the Ellis Island cafeteria. My book The Narrows opens with a meditation on that mural. It’s well worth going to see, but you have to make sure you can view it between court sessions.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate Sally’s luncheonette,
And what I eat you too should have a bite,
For every falafel in me as good could be in you.

If you have time, write a nine-line poem using these end-words (in whatever order) from Jay Z’s “Brooklyn Go Hard”: father, Dodger, jack, rob, sin, pen, love, Brooklyn, Biggie.

Riff, Go Hard

My father
too was a Dodger
fan, saw Jack-
Robinson rob
home with élan—no sin
his steel steal: he’d open
that door. To love
is word is biggie.

Why Brooklyn?

Stickball. A galaxy of chalk dust where the flung ball meets its mark.