In her debut collection, Danielle Blau gives me a glimpse—a peep—at the emptiness at the center of all things. The emptiness within and the emptiness without. And she makes the view beautiful, though no less unsettling, even terrifying. The book is called peep, and if you hear slang for “friend,” you hear—and see in those lowercases—something of the style of the poems, wise but not academic, free but piercing, formal but artfully fickle about it. And if you’re the sort of reader who notices that “peep” is a palindrome, you’ve got another way into these poems, poems that make a ritual out of structure, a solidity out of the meaningful meaninglessness of numerology—the book’s last poem, “Arpeggio Progression in Missing Key” comes in numbered sections, each number for a while corresponding to the number of stanzas in the section, a pattern that dissipates somewhere between section 7 and 19. The palindrome, in this context, becomes not only a figure for the formal imagination at work here, but also for Blau’s obsession with the emptiness—the “hole” in the “mirror” that is also, sometimes, unexpectedly, a “seed,” a placeholder for possibility.
Here’s what that sounds like, the opening lines of the book:
On the twentieth of March, day & night
hung in the balance, & we
would chant our palindromes—Redder. Peep. Noon. Oh who was
it I saw. Oh who
tree shadows, till cloven
sky quivered, aswarm, & Light
spake again: Behold,
Three sections of poems follow, and the first poem of the first section, “The Fear,” seems to me iconic, a troubling report from a troubled age:
If you’re like
me, a person
in this world even
now as we speak there’s
no more I can say.
The lines drop with plainspoken but jittery quickness, like Robert Creeley or William Carlos Williams, but with the verve and directness of Maureen McLane—proposing an if-then statement whose “then” is a collapse into the speechlessness of fear, the paralysis of unwanted recognitions, the shock of a mirror, enacted in seven quick lines. “What causes it?” the poem asks, “No one knows.”
But Blau is not satisfied with bardic mysteriousness—she’s too curious and too impatient, too open to the strange modifications of experience. So the poem asks again “What causes it? No one // knows. It / is still much too early. No / comment.” Notice the way the second iteration suddenly shatters the tidy relationship between syntax and line break, and simultaneously uses that enjambment to heighten and foil expectation. The first “it” and the first “no” rhyme with the “knows” and the second “it,” in the middle the singular thing, the “one.” And the next “No” doesn’t resolve with “one” but jags sideways into common parlance—“No comment.” Like so many of these virtuosic poems—there’s a villanelle, a poem that goes in and out of strong, chiming couplets, persona poems and couplets and blocks of prose—the engagement with emptiness is not only linguistic but emotional:
You know that Thai spot in Soho where
the bathroom walls are one-way
mirrors? Peep, it’s called. I think it’s
closed now. But their eel tacos were good, and in the bathroom, on all four sides
you saw people eat
dinner with red
faces that flickered in and
pinched little flames. It was
the zeros or the
aughts or however you’re supposed to call it, so mood lighting, etc, and you could
see them but
they couldn’t see you …
Or this, in the twelfth section of “The Fear”:
My mother used to sing me
this song before bed
about a sweet little doll dear
who is the most beautiful
thing in the world
but then she gets lost
in like a field or large meadow.
What, the allegory asks, can be seen? And what is a friend? What is a daughter, and what is a mother? Is “lost” the only real condition any of us ever inhabits? The poems answer by calling to—and into—the very abyss they see.
JESSE NATHAN: How do you think about the idea of fiction in your poetry? I’m thinking of the various speakers of your poems. Who are they? Where do they come from? So curious what you think of the idea of the poem as a fiction, as something “made up.” And wondering if it has anything to do with Wallace Stevens’ idea of a “supreme fiction,” the stories that we tell ourselves.
DANIELLE BLAU: I love these questions so much, although I guess I’ll start by coming clean that none of this “Supreme Fictionalizing” is a conscious decision on my part. Every writer has their own idiosyncratic way of generating new work (obviously), and for me, it just so happens that the seed of a poem most often takes one of the following three forms: Sometimes a phrase or a line or even just a very insistent rhythm announces itself in my head. From there, my job is to coax the disembodied announcer into telling me more. In these cases, it’s all a matter of burrowing in—and getting to the bottom of—the disembodied voice who’d just found its mysterious way into my brain. Who is this particular speaker with this particular inflection, this particular diction, and what is their particular world? Why did they make their initial announcement—the poem’s opening gambit—and what else are they trying to say?
Other times, what comes to me unbidden is not a voice but, instead, an image, almost like a detail of a painting—what painting, though? That’s the question. My job in writing the poem, then, is to uncover the rest of the canvas. And these paintings, I should mention, are all thoroughly out of fashion, which is just to say that the full canvases always portray some species of a specifically human world—worlds filled with concrete particulars as seen, heard, and felt by particular protagonists.
The third seed is the most straightforward. I encounter a real person in the real world who moves me in one way or another. From there my job is to get to the source of their particular poignancy for me, and then, again, to burrow in—and get to the bottom of—their (necessarily fictionalized) internal voice, making liberal use of my imagination as I go to fill in any relevant biographical gaps, altering the facts to fit the needs of the poem.
So, the natural upshot of each of these processes is a poem that is largely “made up,” as you rightly put it, whose speaker is fictional (or at the very least, highly fictionalized). And who are these various speakers? Well, it varies from poem to poem. But I have noticed (again, only after the fact—no conscious decision-making about it) that they share certain commonalities, the most important and most salient of which, I think, is a certain unwitting estrangement from their own lives, a certain unwitting alienation from their own selves. They all, in their ways, come at this business of living from a strange distance, though none of them knows it. A few of them are straight-up unreliable narrators—but more than that, these speakers are unreliable surveyors of their inscapes, to borrow Hopkins’s word. They are abysmal readers of their own psychological states, mistaking loneliness for contentment, panic for contempt, self-immolation for love, disquietude for hatred, apathy for rectitude, sadness for a trick of the light.
What else can I say about these speakers? Well, until July 25, 2021, probably not a whole hell of a lot. In the months leading up to the birth of my first child this past summer, people loved telling me how much becoming a parent reveals to you about yourself, and about your childhood, which I didn’t not believe or anything; I mean, it seemed to make a sort of obvious sense. But then I actually became a parent—and hot damn, the people were right. So, yes, I’d long ago discovered that my poems’ various fictional protagonists bear certain similarities to one another. But only since having a child of my own did I begin to realize that many of these protagonists also bear certain profound similarities to me. And now, with this new clarity born of new parenthood, I can confidently report: How many of those disembodied voices I referred to earlier are truly disembodied is an open question. How many have been living inside me, chattering away in (to borrow a phrase used by one such questionably disembodied speaker from peep) “one of my brain’s shuttered rooms” all along? I don’t know.
This reminds me of another observation people love to make, but hot damn, the people are right: Our poems know so much more than we do. My poems, for instance, were intimately acquainted with various strangers who lived inside me, even as I mistook them for purely fictional characters with no relation to myself, for purely disembodied voices come from afar. And my poems were well-aware all along that, apparently—much like my characters—I am not the most reliable surveyor of my inscape, or at least the conscious-most part of me is not. It’s like Alice Notley says—“soul’s waters are reticent/sly swamps.”
All of which leads not-even-all-that-tangentially to Wallace Stevens, to his idea of the “Supreme Fiction”, to which you (cautiously) allude in your question. Because we are all so hopelessly befuddled, not just about ourselves, but about, you know, everything. And there are so many fictions we have to believe—we can’t help but believe—in order to just muddle through. For Stevens, the lies your mind tells you—and, specifically, that whopper about your being the singular hub around which the world pivots (that unflappable sense we all have, from the inside, that “[t]he sky is”, as Major Jackson puts it, “full of my thinking”)—for Wallace Stevens, anyway, these lies are your saving grace: “The world about us would be desolate except for the world within us.” From the desolate depths of a centerless universe, the mind produces—like a rabbit from an empty top hat, abracadabra!—a focal point. And therein only, according to Stevens, can a human find some peace.
I think for me, though, it’s always been the plurality of these “world[s] within us” that is, somehow, the ultimate solace. At every given instant, the vast plurality of inner worlds, each of them feeling themselves to be the universe’s singular focal point—because we can’t help but feel this, for all that we know it’s not true. And for every focal point, a protagonist. A narrator. A speaker. A voice.
“The world about us” has no focal points, and no protagonists, no. No, it doesn’t revolve around me, and it doesn’t revolve around you either. (Sorry.) But also, from the inside, it does. It really does. So I guess something I’m always striving to do—in my work, but also in my life—is to reify as many focal points as possible, as “mendacious” (in Nietzsche’s phrasing), yes, as fictitious as they may be, from the outside perspective. Because here’s another thing people seem to like saying, but hot damn, the people are right: Life is hard (then you die). Or in the words of another of my fictional characters, “please world don’t cut/ me down to size”—but the world never listens. It can’t. We can, though. We can listen. And maybe that’s our saving grace.