What comes to mind over and over in reading Ruth Danon’s Limitless Tiny Boat is Keatsian Negative Capability. Everywhere, she tells you that what you see may or may not be what you get, but one certainty is that you will get nothing from grasping after meaning. “Information” is both desired and suspect, something that eludes the speaker time and again, or just happens to fall in her lap, in or out of context. One other certainty: “You can’t get away from your own history” (“X Marks the Spot,” page 81). The author’s history includes a dire illness that incapacitated her for nearly a decade; many poems are marked by its traces, Part III of the book is entitled “Code Blue,” and the penultimate piece, a ten-part, perfectly pitched prose poem full of humor, irony, tenderness, and rue and deliciously entitled “The Small Perfectly Lidded Copper-Bottomed Cooking Pot” (an analogue to the boat of the title and the not-so perfect body of the poet), is devoted to her ordeals in and out of surgery and to life with “the bag.” “The bag,” the poet’s friends tell her, saved her life, and therefore they love the bag; it is not so easy for the poet to love the bag, however, especially when it leaks and spills and her devoted husband must wake up and change the sheets in the middle of the night, only to do it again a few hours later. “You do this for years./Your husband does this for years./You stay married.”
Our selves, especially as we learn in severe illness or pain, are contiguous with our bodies. True that poetry can bring consolation to the sufferer (whether writer or reader), but to imagine for a moment a release from gravity—the downward pull of pain and earth—is delusion. Danon’s offbeat writing, often reminiscent of Stevens and Ashbery, performs a series of improvised games or copper-bottomed gavottes within mortality’s circle. It is liberatory work, because it does not offer false consolation. Heavy knowledge cannot be unknown; the clock cannot be turned back; we live in a post-catastrophic world. There is no Mary Oliver-style latter day Romanticism in Danon; the woods contain small biting creatures, the pastures are polluted, and human history has left most of us in a condition of displacement. Danon’s complicated family history, which she is currently writing in a prose memoir, is one of flight, loss, and exile.
Ruth Danon is the author of Living With the Fireman (Ziesing Brothers, 1981), Work in the English Novel, Croom-Helm, 1985), and Triangulation from a Known Point (North Star Line, 1990). Her poetry and prose are forthcoming in Post Road and The Florida Review and have appeared in Versal, Mead, BOMB, The Paris Review, Fence, The Boston Review, 3rd Bed, Crayon, and many other publications in the US and abroad. Her work was selected by Robert Creeley for Best American Poetry, 2002.
I observed to Ruth, as we settled down with tea and cookies on the capacious red sofa in her Washington Square apartment, that the more I read her book, the more the poems speak to me; they take time to sink in. Is that just me as a reader of poetry, I asked, or is it something about these poems? It seems to me they have a Zen koan quality; my initial response to many lines is a kind of watchful blankness—I can feel the meaning coming, but it sometimes comes after the reading. The fact that a section of the book is concentrated on the mythical figure of Echo confirms me, I decide; it is in their second or third iteration inside my head that I really hear these lines.
Ruth Danon: I want to engage the reader in constructing the meaning and experience of the poem: the reader completes it. As a poet, I’m not interested in telling people stuff, what happened last Tuesday, how to solve their problems. I’m interested in uncertainty, not knowing, liminal spaces, and the limits of language. Also in the relationship between abstract and concrete.
Natania Rosenfeld: Tell me more about that. As a college teacher (which you are, too), I often find my students have trouble with that relationship.
RD: It’s something we as a culture have trouble with. We either make grand pronouncements or only want “the facts.” Creative writing programs overemphasize “show, don’t tell,” overprivileging the detail, losing sight of the possibility that the abstract might contribute to the poem—Ashbery is someone who masters the marrying of abstraction with concrete detail. Happily, I never learned those writing-program doctrines.
NR: A propos your poem entitled, after Blanchot, “Writing the Disaster,” what are some of the larger human catastrophes that haunt you?
RD: To write this book, two other manuscripts got cannibalized, one called “White Room” and the other, “Code Blue.” The latter is obviously related to my own catastrophe, but “White Room” concerned the catastrophe of war. I was very caught up with the war in Bosnia and wrote a long poem called “A Field of Blackbirds.” War, its stupidity, all that goes with it, was of great concern to me. For most of us, knowledge of war is entirely mediated. I was interested in the gap between war as a concept, idea or mediated thing and the reality of it. Another catastrophe that preoccupies me is the one the earth faces. And the minor catastrophes of love, failed love; even more minute, the disasters we cause ourselves: the self-betrayals and self-erasures . . . Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Art of Losing” is a touchstone of that.
In “White Room,” I wanted to have the sense of ever-widening circles of disaster—that what we know intimately is repeated over and over by the power of tens. In my first book (Triangulation from a Known Point, Blue Moon Books 1995), I was interested in fractals—the idea that you can take, say, a small piece of the shoreline and it will have the same mathematical properties as the whole shoreline—these things are isomorphs. Winnnicott says, “The disaster we fear is the disaster that has already occurred. So if we fear being abandoned, it’s because we’ve already been abandoned.” [Danon, I should mention, in addition to being a poet, teacher, and Associate Director for Academic Excellence at the School of Professional Studies of NYU, is a Winnicottian psychoanalyst.]
NR: Is there no such thing as a disaster that hasn’t already occurred?
RD: I don’t know if there are disasters without precedent: perhaps Hiroshima . . .
NR: “Words are/the only boat I have”: you’ve said this is a Lacanian idea, but it’s also what exile writers say, in a somewhat modified version: “Words are my home.” Is there a difference between “home” and “boat”? What is it?
RD: Boats move and homes stay still.
NR: I like the concept of a moving home.
RD: One of the nicest experiences in my marriage is being in a car with my husband—he’s an incredibly good driver, so I feel very safe, there are no distractions, and the rocking motion is like being an infant, rocked. My mother [who raised Danon on the grounds of the upstate New York mental institution where she worked as a doctor] never owned a home—I’ve lived most of my life in institution-owned homes, but there’s always that sense of moving toward an elusive permanent home. Europeans of my mother’s generation and ilk didn’t have the concept of owning a home. Part of my love affair with America has to do with the idea of a home. Yet, in a psychic sense, it is nice to feel one’s identity isn’t fixed in some absolute way.
NR: Speaking of homes and spaces, tell me about “The Architecture of Wind,” the title of Part I of your three-part book.
RD: That evolved from the manuscript “White Room” and a long poem called “Architecture.” I decided to meld the two ideas. A lot of the poems concern presence and absence; wind is a metonymy of desire—of seeking, searching, moving toward something. Desire is an animating aspect of the book.
NR: When you think of architecture, what do you think?
RD: It all started with [Leon Battista] Alberti’s Ten Books of Architecture [1485, the first printed book on architecture]. I drew language from Alberti for a long time. I was interested in the elemental aspects of a structure: doors, windows, the ground on which you build something. The quest became more about a journey than building something. Architecture involves finding placement in the world (the secure country the last poem talks about [“Arrival,” part 5: “I am looking for settlement in/a secure country”]).
NR: Does this have something to do with your family history of displacement?
RD: My family’s history of exile and feeling out of place surely impacted me and my work in some way, albeit unconscious.
Architecture is of the body: when it’s damaged, you become aware of its significance—that you are a structure, a built thing. I often get interested in something because of the language: I opened Alberti and found the language I needed. There was a time when almost all my work came with heavy doses of borrowed texts. It’s not so much the subject that drove me as language.
NR: How did you come across Alberti?
RD: I was at Yaddo and walked into a bookstore in Saratoga Springs and it was there. I needed the next thing because I’d been writing using books about mapmaking and had exhausted that phase.
NR: You were at Yaddo before the illness described in the final section of Limitless Tiny Boat, right?
RD: Yes, but these poems were written over a long period yet have coherence, which leads me to believe we write one poem all the time.
NR: Was the illness a caesura or a radical break for your work?
RD: It changed my attitude toward work and the way I worked. I gave up certain habits and took on others. For a while, I stopped writing daily in notebooks. Before that, I wrote in notebooks every day but only wrote six to eight poems a year. Then I started writing every day: many more poems, much shorter, in sequences. I was reading Celan and wanted to get a greater degree of compression.
NR: Was there a period of no writing at all?
RD: There was a period of not writing in any concrete way. I could only write abstractly: there were no nouns, I couldn’t name anything other than abstractions.
NR: Like what?
RD: Desire was a big one. My naming capacity was gone—I couldn’t write about a tree or a mushroom but only collectivities. When I was really sick, I couldn’t write at all. My very first communications after I survived cardiac arrest had to be written because I had tubes in me and couldn’t talk. My first note to Gary [Buckendorf, her husband, an abstract painter] was, “Nose cold.”
NR: Your poems sometimes bring to my mind Virginia Woolf’s description of life as a “sidewalk over the abyss” [in her essay “A Sketch of the Past,” a memoir piece written quite late in her life]—although in contrast to that strip of pavement, the limitless tiny boat has a sturdiness, a sureness, that lets me know it will survive most storms.
RD: I looked up boat symbolism one day just to find out what my boat was all about. Really, the boat represents a poem, the poem’s infinite capacity to be itself. The power of language is the only thing we have—I’m sure this belief is influenced by Lacanian psychology, the idea that we live by the letter, not by the law.
NR: Tell me about the first poem in the volume and the ambiguity of its title “Something Larger than the Self I Don’t Understand.” Which isn’t understood, the self or the something larger?
RD: The something larger. Often I title poems and don’t know exactly what I mean, it just feels like the right title. I think people ascribe to writers much more conscious intent than they actually have. I often realize something after I’ve written, and then I tweak things in the direction I see I’m going. I trust the accidental.
NR: Your title “The Poem Cannot Know” suggests just that. When I read your poems I think of Keatsian Negative Capability but also of Pascal, “All man’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.” In “Long After (Mallarmé)” the speaker says, “I could sit all day, cat/at my feet. Assertion as/comfort, certain as death.”
RD: That poem has a particular origin. My friend Catherine Barnet, author of Into Perfect Spheres Such Holes Are Pierced, told me about her sister’s two children and husband who were killed in an Alaskan Airlines plane crash off the cost of California. The poem was a reaction to my sense of the senselessness of that event.
NR: The first line of the final poem, “Arrival,” reads, “At the important moment I was not ready.” Things come when they come, and either you’re receptive or you’re unready, and you can’t control this, it seems.
RD: I had rehearsed the death of my mother in my mind for two years, but I was not ready when it happened. With all the best intentions and practice, you always come up against what you don’t know. The fact that my heart stopped did not leave me understanding any more about death than I had before. You can prepare for something, but you can’t anticipate what the moment after it happens will be like.
Natania Rosenfeld’s book of poems, Wild Domestic, appeared this spring from Sheep Meadow Press, and she is also the author of a critical book, Outsiders Together: Virginia and Leonard Woolf (Princeton 2000). Her poems, essays, and stories have appeared in numerous publications including The American Poetry Review, Gettysburg Review, Raritan, and Michigan Quarterly Review, and three essays have been listed as Notable in recent Best American Essays collections. She has been a Fellow at a number of writers’ and artists’ colonies, including Hawthornden Castle in Scotland and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, where she will be revising a novel this March. She is Professor of English at Knox College.