One of the many compelling things about the work of Camille Dungy is the fact that it offers a lyric record, book by book and poem by poem, of the pain of learning that the world is a violent and unforgiving place. Not that sweetness doesn’t thrive on this earth, too, but that it must contend with immense forces of nihilism, racism, and plain meanness. So it is that her first two collections’ titles read like instruction manuals—wisdom won by experience, and directed at the self as much as anyone else: What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison appeared in 2006 and Suck on the Marrow in 2010. Dungy’s grandfather was a preacher and her father a doctor, and the poems in the first book draw on her personal story in a genius sequence of sonnets and sonnet-like poems. The sonnet hasn’t likely seen so much variation in one book since Ted Berrigan’s iconic collection. In her spare, instructive lyricism you hear Rita Dove, Louise Glück, Robert Hayden, Ellen Bryant Voigt, and sometimes the blues—even the bleeding, burning stream-of-consciousness of Toni Morrison’s Beloved:
where jasmine lemon-sweets wind and salt
slicks the breeze where sage spices sundrench
there where the fragrant cloud-nest drives
the pump-beat of my blood I am home.
Or, in this memory of childhood:
I tricked Mom into talking about Christ,
the Bible, and what Heaven held in store.
Why should I sleep? I told her, When I die
I want to meet all the dead. They’ll be dressed
and acting just like they did when they lived.
She snapped the sheet, a warning, kissed my head.
Someday you’ll be more careful what you wish.
That poem is called “Before My History Classes.” History spurred Dungy’s second collection, too, which departed from the personal and confessional mode of her debut. In Suck on the Marrow Dungy demonstrated her skill at bringing forth a world, imagining the lives of a group of enslaved and free Black people in nineteenth-century Virginia, Philadelphia, and elsewhere. Her persona poems are gorgeous, visceral inhabitings of lives far removed—but not so distant, in the end—from Dungy’s own life as a modern Black woman in this country of contradiction and bigotry. You would be hard-pressed to find poems that combine eros and violence in a more devastating fashion. “Almost Like They Wanted It” dramatizes how “Anyone she chose could be shucked like surplus property tomorrow,” how a Black enslaved woman might give her body but save her heart—“Because she knew if she set her sight on nothing she’d get nothing”—would make “quick work of pleasure” and “she showed him”—her lover, another enslaved man—“the dark coils areoling both her breasts and all the ways / she bent and lifted, bent and lifted, steady, strong.”
By the time she finished Smith Blue in 2011, the poet was a professor at San Francisco State University, had a child of her own, and had edited the iconic anthology Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry. Smith Blue, like her most recent collection, Trophic Cascade, moves us back to the intensely personal, and also to the contradictions of the interior—to the quarrel with the self, as much as the life of a young mother. A series of “Frequently Asked Questions” runs through Trophic Cascade, interwoven with a series of “Ars Poetica” poems, poems both homage and response, self-instruction and self-definition. “Ars Poetica after William Carlos Williams” goes like this:
If when my hubby is sleeping
and the baby and Vanessa
and the sun is a yellow-gray Frisbee
in nets of fog
caught in burled trees—
if I in my kitchen
wrote poems unceasingly
at my table
twirling my hair round my finger
and whispering softly to my old self:
“I am awake now, awake.
I have always been awake,
it is just so!”
If I admire my fingers, their grip,
the muscle in my arm, breasts
full with uncried for milk—
Who is to say I am not
the fortunate creator of my household?
JESSE NATHAN: Your writing is so compressed and lyrical and musical, but also glimmers with accounts and encounters and fables. How have you tended to think or feel about narrative, about storytelling, as you write poems? Your work often seems to draw on a narrative impulse, even as it complicates or evades or subverts any sense of traditional storytelling. Did you ever think you were going to write novels?
CAMILLE DUNGY: I’m going to tackle the final part of that question and see where we go from there. Yes, more than once I’ve had the impulse to write a novel, but I am more inclined toward the compression of poetry. Say I formulate an idea that feels like the makings of a novel. I sat down to build an outline with one such brainstorm, and when I stood up again I had a poem that turned into one of the first in the constellation that became Suck on the Marrow. I think of that book as a novel-in-verse. There is a sustained narrative, a defined set of timelines, recurring characters, and chronologically developing dramatic situations throughout the poems, but the book is, as I said, a constellation. Each individual poem stands on its own. Together they can be seen as a whole picture, but their individual autonomy is a key part of their viability. With several poems in Trophic Cascade I remember wondering if maybe I had the start of an long essay or a short story, but again the drive toward distillation and compression pushed the thoughts toward single poems, and toward a constellation of independent poems connected by proximity and affinity.
You could think of it like a good album. It sounds great and tells a story when all the songs are listened to together, but it can also be absolutely appropriate to listen to songs individually, or in some alternative order than what’s presented in the packaging. That’s not possible with most novels, where the start-to-finish motion of the read is key.
Maybe one of the things that draws me to poetry is the fact that it offers an opportunity to focus on one small thing at a time, and when I focus on that one small thing there can be a complete reward. In poems, stories are told in various ways. What I think you mean by “narrative” is one of them: The talk-y, plot-focused, character-driven, often chronological movement of ideas. But poems also operate by what I call paralogical means. Kinds of logic that run on parallel tracks to the logic we glean from the newspaper. Sounds, rhythms, senses, metaphor, allusion and references, the palimpsests of misapprehensions and shifting meanings revealed via line breaks, even visual responses to the shape of a poem on the page: we accept all of these and more as ways poems can make meaning. And so more can be said in less space for a poem. That idea I thought was going to be a novel can be thirty-two lines because so many modes of storytelling are available to me on all these paralogical tracks.