Part of what’s devastating about Jennifer Grotz’s Still Falling, her fourth full-length collection, is the calm, piercing exactitude of her renderings. Her language is supple, clear-eyed, neither showy nor minimalist, evincing an almost journalistic fidelity to the real—a fidelity that simultaneously allows her to leap and associate in dazzling, unexpected ways. She has the spiritual ranginess of W. S. Merwin or her teacher Adam Zagajewski, but also their consistency: you pick up a Jennifer Grotz book because you want to hear that voice again, and again. She’s making some of the finest work of our times. Maybe it’s no surprise, then, given these times, that her newest sweep of poems—Still Falling—is a cataract of grief, a cascade of elegy that is as quietly ecstatic as it is undaunted, steady, loving life as it mourns. There are echoes of Ellen Bryant Voigt in the opening sequence, which takes its measure, its beginning, from a bewildered memory of leaving behind a lover—of having to go, even as so much in the speaker of the poem yearns not to. As she drives away, the voice wonders:
What did you do, left up there in the empty house?
I don’t know why. I don’t know
how we keep living in a world
that never explains why.
It’s the question at the heart of any haunting. The poem moves suddenly, quickly from the “what”—what did you do, left up there in the empty house?—to the unknowable why, the way we are led on, subject to, crushed by, formed out of that which can’t be known. It’s the so-much unseen—either because it’s impossible to know, or obscured, or even because it’s something we don’t want to know or see, can’t bear to—that is the black hole pulsing and pulling at the center of this book. In “Now I See Through a Glass Darkly,” she writes:
More and more I pay attention to what’s not there.
Not there, or in the dark. I don’t want to be
certain. Don’t let me see. Whatever I see—
either the world is broken or I am.
Grotz, who grew up in Texas and has lived in France and Poland, sometimes translating poetry from French and Polish, writes out of a changed—and painfully changing—sense of reality, of time’s passing and its damages.
Many poems in the book are in tercets, which makes a form for the kind of travel—roving from Europe to Portland, Oregon, to the suburban Texas of her childhood. Other poems, the more discursive pieces, come in verse paragraphs, chunks of thought, or in couplets, which for Grotz harkens back to her previous collections, like The Needle, or Cusp, her debut, which was picked by Yusef Komunyakaa for the Bakeless Prize. Still Falling, though, is a verb, and the book—more than any of her previous collections—is more motion than noun, more travel than object, more being than thing: “What had been treacherous the first time / had become second nature …” There are elegies for a “lost little brother,” for a lover who took his own life—but in the end there is an anti-romantic insistence that death is no saving grace. Quoting Frost, Grotz elaborates:
Earth’s the right place for love.
This world, the living, the mind where
the literal and figurative collude. Not death
where darkness and silence and dust are
only darkness and silence and dust.
This is a poet of love, but not a love poet. A poet of death and dying, but not of despair.
JESSE NATHAN: I’m curious how much distance—how much daylight—there is for you, in these poems between the person who writes the poems and the person represented in them. What I’m really interested in, I guess, is how you translate experience into poetry. What is that process like for you? Different every time, I imagine. Or are there consistent elements, trends in how it happens for you? How does a poem like “Marseille” or “Staring at the Sun” or “The Conversion of Paul” get started? Do you have visions? Do you hear a voice or voices? I’m curious how the line itself unlocks language for you, the gentle gorgeous tautness of your music …
JENNIFER GROTZ: Speaking of daylight, your question makes me think of the dark, or rather this keen memory I have of sitting in the dark of a college auditorium in my first art history class, looking at projected slides of paintings that were painstakingly described and elaborated upon by the professor. It was marvelous to me that looking and description were slowed down and how much meaning and beauty language seemed to grant me access to. I think that’s where I developed the practice of narrating my own looking to myself, converting looking and attention into language to “see” better, to deliberate and appreciate. So yes, I do sometimes hear a voice, or I will a voice, if that makes sense, to start a poem. That’s certainly true for one of the poems you mention, “The Conversion of Paul,” which is in part an ekphrastic on the Caravaggio though also a way to approach ongoing poetic conversations and most urgently for me at the time, my friend Paul Otremba’s cancer. It’s paradoxical but true somehow that through the mediation of language—that distance or “daylight” actually makes me better able to encounter a given subject or situation. I like the notion of “distance” as opposed to being impersonal or ironic as a means to approach what, yes, are almost always autobiographical subjects and situations. “Marseille” is not about looking at a painting, but it’s attempting to look at the world almost as if it were, with that sort of curiosity and attention.
Sometimes, though, after long practice, I suppose, a voice does surface in my head all on its own, like a kind of inner whispering I can hear when I’m alone and quiet. I love those poems that feel found or received in that way. Miłosz describes it as " a thing… brought forth which we didn’t know we had in us, / so we blink our eyes, as if a tiger had sprung out /and stood in the light, lashing his tail." He also calls it “indecent” (and that image of the tiger is somewhat ominous), but in my experience these poems feel precious, like buried treasures floating up from the seabed of the unconscious.
“Staring at the Sun,” to the extent that it achieves distance (I think any distance sort of collapses at the end) comes from it being cast in the past, now inaccessible except through memory and language. Occasionally (like in “Edinburgh Meditation” in my last book or “The Morning Will Be Bright, and Wrong” in this new book) I establish “daylight” or distance of some kind by the use of third person for a situation or meditation that is obviously autobiographical. That use of distance, though, I think of as being helpful for the reader, giving her the ability to listen without having to react or respond to heavy or uneasy subject matter.
I’m really intrigued by the part of your question about how the device of line is working in the new book and in relation to this question of establishing distance of some kind. There’s a way in which the line insists on being something intuitive or musical (and not predictable or logical) that I really need. It performs the language somehow. I’ve always claimed that I’m a poet because I realized early on that I do my best thinking in poems, but another way to say that is that the device of the line somehow allows me the best access to and articulation of my own thoughts.