A conversation with Robert Fernandez

THERMOS editor Zach Savich introduces contributor Robert Fernandez’s lovely We Are Pharaoh (Canarium Books, 2011) and gives Fernandez a chance to share his thoughts on sublimity, the lyric, and Florida.

It wasn’t quite warm enough to sit outside but I sat outside and read Robert Fernandez’s first book of poems, We Are Pharaoh (Canarium Books, 2011), my bench bisecting school groups on their way to the greenhouse. Inside, they must have seen iridescent petals different to the touch than you think and sturdier, and the overflowing hanging bleeding hearts: Robert’s poems feel similar to that flora, forged of lush and crisp careening forms that show “Dionysian” and “relaxing” can be synonyms, that a “ring of keys” can be a “meadow,” that art can shimmer in “plates of hunger / & luminosity” with desperation that is also empathy. They left me, like good books do, unable to read for the rest of the afternoon.

Instead, I sent Robert some interview prompts—not questions, but concepts his book brought to mind. He responded to a few of them with incredible depth, and also sent us a poem from his forthcoming collection Pink Reef (Canarium Books, 2013). I’m pleased to present Robert’s thorough, thoughtful answers here, preceded by a poem from his first collection. Additional work by Robert can be found in Thermos #6, which also features poems by Julie Carr, Nik De Domnic, Shannon Burns, and others, available from thermosmag@gmail.com.

Zach Savich


Hell Me Down

We take stock of the forearms:
They are like red snapper, slick
And sharp; they are like glass.
You see I am falling through

My pleasure like an intimacy
Of mirrors rubbing against
The face and you cannot uncut
The stomach: it is a die.

Here is the heat because we must begin.
Red rainbow spread like a hawk’s gills;
Red rainbow tied off in its black holes
Which dot the ceiling because it is enough.

A nurse raises
Her beak from my chest:
All my vultures are warm
And with gold discs for heads,
All my vultures are form.

Lord find me,
Who is another? Where is the flesh
Of gain? Venture and thighs
Of gold and living glass?

I forget that I consented to wander
To wander by the pier; I consent
That I wander and am like paper:
A black kite wet with night.

Grid I am good and like the Aeon,
A child playing with colored balls.
In the hall because they know me,
The young ones, the eternally. They see

The stela in the flesh of my throat they divine
The throat-rod and its glyphs. Bright to burn
And nurse on cold marrow-like light:
It is midnight and I am speed cut

Into thirds of day; I am threes everlasting &
Hells of foment. Then I stand like eternal resistance
Like hell. No one who walks over this
Ground senses it is sound: look again:

We find ourselves on the shore
And the flame follows us it flows
Through our speaking it is here.
I have failed again, I am no longer I am failed.

I am first to run aground I am seen.
Let us style vital light: New moon again but I am light;
We are not otherwise we are seen.
How shall I stand how shall I be seen?

The morning curled around us like warm like
I am clasped by infinite waters, I am seen.

—from We Are Pharaoh




1. Tradition, the lyric

The lyric is a perilous topic, one that turns poets and critics into priests arguing for either the sanctity or insidiousness of the genre—if it can even be agreed that it is a genre. Let’s grant that it is possible to traverse 2700 years—from Archilochus to Shakespeare to today—and still arrive at a set of intact lyric conventions. Some of the most salient characteristics of the lyric might be: compression; the sense of an “I” speaking to a “you”; apostrophe; hyperbole; associative logics; distinct experiences of time (e.g. a sense of simultaneity/the ecstatic); refrain; heightened imagistic and/or sonic intensity; constructedness (formal, metrical, etc.). The lyric is non-narrative, non-dramatic, non-didactic.

While genres are indeed useful in establishing frameworks of intelligibility, in the end I’m less interested in cataloging and comparing traits than in posing questions about the lyric I can’t safely answer. For instance: Is it possible to think of the lyric as not only a set of genre conventions but as an accord that seizes on a given material—whether language, paint, or bodies—under the right conditions? Something is possessed by lyricism, it becomes lyrical. Or is the lyric a mode of revealing (say poiesis, i.e. the kind of making that appears identical to nature as springing-forth) in which things emerge in the light of their constitutive foreigness? Which is to say, is the lyric language that, while seeming to come as naturally (as self-directedly) as leaves to a tree, presents a surging, elusive world? Is the lyric-as-song simply language echoing its own immanent emergence and passage, language resonant with the bare fact that things are—that existence is—rather than is not? And can the lyric even be considered an event—something other than the mere sum of its parts—without overlooking historical context or losing its integrity as a genre?

Whatever the case, it seems reasonable, as Jonathan Culler has argued, to think of the lyric as more than just “overheard speech.” Lyric language might as convincingly be described (and accessed) as a kind of haunted singing which makes that which is most familiar to us, language, strange, and in so doing reveals the human being’s essential strangeness—reveals that one is constituted by difference and always at home in otherness. This would amount to a reversal of that problematic strain of the lyric that fatuously seeks to make the home and its inhabitants all the more intimate and familiar. We could speak of the lyric as an artifact capable of registering and transmitting the experience of modernity, of the lyric that poses alternatives to capitalism’s nefarious effect on the human capacity for valuation (namely, its reduction of everything to the status of a commodity). There is a sense of lyric language as the language of birth, joy, or upheaval; of love, intoxication, or praise (in line with which, we might consider the lyric’s relationship to things, to naming). While poetic genres like the ode, hymn, or elegy may deal more narrowly with these concerns, with each it still feels as if we’re safely within the terrain of the lyric. Of course, we shouldn’t smugly or recklessly employ the term if that means overlooking other practices or genres. And one wants to stay alert to the dangers of passivity and euphony, which as Celan pointed out “more or less blithely continued to sound alongside the greatest horror.”

Although the lyric is hard to pin down, it is clear that it would be rash to simply abandon such a rich and potentially transformative reservoir. I think that in We Are Pharaoh lyric language is often in conflict with itself. Conflict is in any case structured into the language of an epoch that pitches itself toward disaster even as survival (the preservation of both one’s life and one’s way of life) is held up as its foremost priority. The book’s particular forces and concerns attempt to mirror this logic. Units of sonic and imagistic intensity are either disparately constellated or constrained by formal logics and the logic of micro-narratives, initiating a struggle between erotics and necrosis, figures and their dissolution, or, alternatively, suggesting a desire for style as transformation, seeing as worlding. Perhaps the language’s intensity, as your email put it, is a function of its conflicting urges to erase, transform, and affirm itself.

Valuing tension in the poem has a bit of a controversial history. Nevertheless, in my work I consistently find myself trying to establish the conditions under which something like a struggle might emerge. Struggle is of interest to me in that, if it takes, it appears endless, ongoing, alive, and that it asks that the work submit to its own design and pursue its own values.

2. Grandeur, the sublime, who’s real

I’m less interested in grandeur as such than in embracing language as desire, abandon, laughter. To hell with anyone who feels it is their duty to discipline excess or ambition. This is, after all, art. Why feel guilty, ashamed, or frivolous for pursuing what kindles, spurs, and gives pleasure? Furthermore, it may indeed be possible to invest in questions of vulnerability and responsibility while also attempting to engage a spirit of joy and courage. When, at sixteen, Rimbaud says of the poet “Let him die charging through those unutterable, unnameable things: other horrible workers will come; they will begin from the horizons where he has succumbed!,” the “adult” in me winces, but I also remember that a sense of innocence and serious play are vital to both one’s work and one’s world.

As to the sublime: we generally understand it as a staggering, ineffable limitlessness, correct? I admit that I feel invested in poetic language as a coming up against or an unfolding of limits. These days the sublime would seem to be more relevant in a consideration of the apparatus of global power than the awesomeness of nature. Nonetheless, that coruscating fog of integrated military, economic, institutional, and media technologies may in fact be unthinkable (it certainly can’t be met face to face). Maybe it would be interesting to reinvest in a sense of the Romantic sublime, to seek out fresh astonishment in the presence of some visually arresting primordial immensity. The problem is that we’re so accustomed to spectacle that such immensities, if not immediately placing one at risk, are only likely to elicit the tourist’s array of uninteresting clichés and inanities. Dread (or a sense of uncanniness) is arguably a more productive starting point for thinking about one’s shared finitude. It presents itself in the poem as an experience of our exposure to a groundless and irreconcilably unfamiliar world. One takes up residence in the unknown and unknowable, sustained by supports/activities (e.g. language) that are inherently uncertain, at risk. These supports, which bear the burdens of the past, provide only a temporary ground upon which a work or world might be situated.

In technological modernity, we can track an ongoing sense of being haunted—by language, images, commodities, bodies. And yet it’s increasingly easy to feel, especially if one has a seat at the table, untroubled, fleshed, streamlined—all crispness, fluency, and versatility. However, it’s also very easy to feel—this especially if one does not have a seat at the table—like a zombie or an animal (I would say “ghost” but ghosts sometimes speak). I’m interested in the ease with which one can pass from fluency to paralysis (and in the difficulty of passing back again), as well as in the trouble of effectively articulating either (each, in different ways, are conditions in which language has withdrawn). If Pharaoh otherwise tilts toward grandeur, it’s less about grandstanding and more about exploring the liberating potentials of generosity, love, and, as I said, innocence and courage.

3. Landscape

I had actually recently been thinking about certain poets (Stevens, Crane, Bishop, Brathwaite) for whom there is arguably a relationship between landscape and time. We find ourselves in the poem, say, as in the petrified remains of history: language reveals itself as time and appears brittle or crushed or powdery—there is a sense of language as fossil, heaving, or dispersal. Or we are in the poem as in some intricately contoured present, a radiant immediacy of detail and sensation (“infested / with tiny white sea-lice…,” “fresh and crisp with blood”). Or we occasionally sense the presence of an inhuman outside and its non-time or other-than-time: “A gold-feathered bird / Sings in the palm, without human meaning, / Without human feeling, a foreign song…”

I grew up in Hollywood, Florida (the exact landscape of Larry Clark’s Bully). Whatever landscapes have been imprinted in me are Florida landscapes, Caribbean landscapes. Using the word “imprinted” (a very Romantic notion) makes me realize—this with the hindsight of seven years spent in the Midwest—that it does feel like some psychic plates were stamped with the repeated exposures to those skies. On the ground, there are ports, diaspora and ethnic communities, spectacles of wealth, wealth disparities, varieties of speculative investments—none of which would radically distinguish the place from any other but for the fact that all are glazed in a near-beatific tropic luminosity and in the candied light of a distinct South Beach nihilism.

Ironically, We Are Pharaoh is probably more directly indebted to these environments than is my second manuscript, Pink Reef.


from Pink Reef

*

I will reform,
re-encounter love’s law
I will follow
after the bright
seeds of marrow are
shaken from the thigh
& the thigh placed
on a stick in
the faceless gallery
I will devote,
for thou hue
thou gravel
thou hearse—
the blood oranges
so bright
because they are
against a white
background
the blood oranges
so bright
because they are
against a white
background
the blood oranges
so bright
because they are
against a white
background
the blood
oranges
cold and light
cold and light
cold and light




The question of landscape is no doubt also a question of boundaries, of limits and the varied efforts to differentiate what one is from what one is not. The dangers of such efforts extend from the interpersonal and political to the ecological. It seems to me that the poetic not only unfolds illusory integrities, it also makes the outside that is already inside more raggedly manifest.

With that, Zach, I’ll say my thanks to you and the THERMOS editors for the prompts and this forum.

–6.12.11

Robert Fernandez is the author of We Are Pharaoh (Canarium Books, 2011) and Pink Reef, which is due out from Canarium Books in the spring of 2013. He is the recipient of awards from the Andrew W. Mellon foundation, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and the Gertrude Stein Awards for Innovative Poetry. With the poet Mary Hickman, he edits the chapbook press Cosa Nostra Editions.

2 responses to this post.

  1. […] “A Conversation With Robert Fernandez” at/with THERMOS: Lyric language might as convincingly be described (and accessed) as a kind of […]

    Reply

  2. […] just finished We Are Pharaoh by Robert Fernandez. In an interview with Zach Savich at THERMOS, Fernandez talks about his book: Although the lyric is hard to pin down, it is clear that […]

    Reply

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