Katie Peterson has written several searing books of lyric poems. She writes lucid lines, lines that pierce with their apparent simplicity. Her last book, A Piece of Good News, ended with this one: “In times like these, no one asks for sugar.” “I wanted to let go of sugar and eat everything else,” she writes in her latest, Life in a Field, winner of the Omnidawn Open Competition and a collaboration with her husband the photographer Young Suh. “In this story there is a girl and there is a donkey” is how things begin: the book is a collection of (mostly) prose bits, a deconstructed fairytale, a story that might be happy and might be the poignant sweet fable just before the great fall. Reading it, I was struck by the way I was never sure when a shoe was going to drop: something horrible was going to happen, I kept expecting, even as it kept not happening. A mixed feeling of pleasure at the beauty of the words and the world, combined with an unnamable dread—a feeling not unlike the experience of living, I think.
The poems, like so much of Peterson’s work, try to see what’s been lost and also what we never had but still might hope for. “You forgot your intuition and called that thought,” she writes at one point. In four parts, the book unfolds a story that never quite settles into the genre of fiction — part essay, always lyric, part philosophy, occasional comedy. A girl and a donkey become companions. They live in a field. They grow and share an intimacy, and in the end they “marry time.” It’s mysterious what this means, and also obvious. The tone is hard to pin down: sometimes childlike, other times ironic, catching a whimsy that seems to hide a sinister gravity. Economics, ethics, disaster are just outside the frame, pressing on the fairytale, and sometimes puncturing it. The field remains — Duncan called his a “meadow” that he was sometimes permitted to return to — the elemental place that you never really leave, even when you do. Or, suggests the poet, it never leaves you.
Ghostly photographs crop up in the course of the words, photographs of landscapes—Alaska, countryside, the Sierra of Peterson’s native California—and of a little girl in baptismal wear waiting in a pool of water. Waiting or wading: At the core of the book is an effort to recapture something of the religious imagination, knowing that to recapture it one must first separate it from its weighty parasitic fundamentalisms, must at least implicitly give it space to be a set of primal rituals that might give meaning — and narrative shape — to our complicated and terrified lives. Peterson roves from the book’s “story” to seemingly personal vignettes and essayistic investigations into the mechanics of narrative — there’s a brilliant passage on the relationship between “toll” and “troll” and why they haunt the bridges of our imaginations — and sometimes the poet takes us far outside the account of the child and the animal. It’s this range, probably, that gives the book a particular wildness and makes reading it such a haunted delight. Consider this psalmic koan near the middle, consider not only the way it showcases this poet’s dialectical mind, but also the way it eviscerates the very childlike right to be surprised that the book is so brilliant in presenting, capturing in this instance the hard music of the distance between the oppressed and the privileged:
The difference between poetry and its opposite is the difference between sadness and astonishment.
The difference between poetry and astonishment is the difference between sadness and its opposite.
The difference between a sad event and an astonished person has something to do with citizenship.
It’s possible that the difference between poetry and prose is nothing more than a French term for a horse’s hoof running out of bounds, enjambment. In this country, people call them line breaks. Prose poetry, whatever you call it, may seem to propose the end of all artifice. But its guise is only another. So it is in many ways the perfect means for getting behind language like you’d get under the hood of a car. Its seeming straightforwardness in fact argues that nothing is straightforward.
JN: There’s a plainspoken buoyancy to a lot of your poems—direct, clear, but sharp-edged. Unflinching, as people like to say. Life in a Field ends with the suggestion that we need “cold clarity” in order “to continue on this earth.” How does this relate to style, as you see it? I mean, is “style” something a poet can work at, or does it arise mostly unconsciously, incidentally, inevitably? Can we even call stylistic choices “choices”?
KP: Style looks like repetition. What you seek out in language, what you want to do again. Emily Dickinson likes absolutes and opposites smashed together, troubled, but with quick polish and finish, sometimes a smidge of a story, and a declarative attitude (“This World is not Conclusion,” “We do not play on Graves,”) and so do I, sometimes to the point of tiring myself and others out. But the extravagance that a voice that’s chosen poetry allows itself to pursue isn’t an indulgence but a necessity — at least that’s what the poem tries to reveal.
In Life in a Field, I used sentences rather than lines, because sentences have an expectation of arriving at a conclusion determined by a verb (I appreciate and do not deny the pun suspended within the word “sentence,” of a sentence served). Lines don’t arrive at conclusions, at least the same way — we break lines, or end them in poetry; we attribute great meaning to the silence at the end of the line and to what it fuels and means. I didn’t want to fulfill the sentence’s expectation of conclusion, I wanted to argue with it, to see how far I could push the sentence towards a lack of conclusion, even the small sentence, even the ordinary sentence, especially the sentence that didn’t show off how far it was pushing against its own container. I could see that better on revision.
What I saw, as I was writing, was a story I couldn’t shake, from a movie, Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar, surely the saddest movie of all time, in which a girl and a donkey suffer at the hands of ordinary life, which, as we all know, is full of devastation and tragedy. I wanted to make a counter-narrative. I wanted to make an image of a girl and a donkey happy together in a field, and I wanted to keep the picture still as long as I could. I used the sentences to try to keep the image still, and therefore intact. But the wish inside that verbal gesture was to keep the girl and the donkey happy. The combination of buoyancy and cold clarity you identify in the question must be the result of the combination of my hope for their safety and my equally powerful knowledge of all that endangers them. It should be so easy to keep them in the picture together! It should be so easy for the girl and the donkey to stay with each other in the field! But it’s not, there are dangers, one of which is simply the passage of time, which might be the scariest, though there are others as well. I wanted to leave many of the dangers to both of them in the negative space, since the world of our time has distinguished itself truly not by its excess of horrors (look at history) but by how informed we are enabled to be about those horrors, how we can know their names and still proceed with things. And so, their moment of happiness is purchased at a great price (like many weddings). But I purchased it for them, so am I not also entitled, as narrator, to enjoy it?
I’m sure I haven’t answered the question, at least completely. Let me try again. Just because you can recognize style as a set of practices, doesn’t mean we know where it comes from. I can admit to myself now, after writing a few different books, that there is always an argument at the start of every book I write. Not an argument for or against something — those are just opinions. An argument is something deeper — a tension, a rupture, a fault-line, a seam. An argument can create the world. I think style comes from the inner life pushing against the world for something it needs, that the world itself either can’t provide, or won’t provide, or, more often, one realizes as one gets older, the world isn’t designed to provide. For example, the world isn’t designed to provide an end to our grieving, or perfect justice. We need dissent for good politics because dissent is the language-form of the self simply occurring in the world, its little rupture of need and personality demanding not only attention (though children are constantly showing us that attention equals love) but shape and form and dignity. I think the inner life, whatever substance that is, that little mystery, does this work in language, if you’re a poet. My husband does the same work with his eyes and a camera.
You can work at style by hating yourself less. I began to realize in my last book A Piece of Good News that my poems would, in their syntax, find themselves in argument with their titles (there’s a poem called “Happiness,” that starts “They had decided against it”) — in recent poems about the fog in my neighborhood, I’ve tried to do this even more, not less, to trust the impulse even further. You can pursue style by forgiving yourself, by doing what you’re already doing with less shame.