Thursday, July 1, 2010
Gabriel Spera’s first collection of poems, The Standing Wave, was a 2002 National Poetry Series selection and subsequently received the 2004 PEN-West Literary Book Award for Poetry. He received a 2009 fellowship from the NEA. He lives in Los Angeles.
IN A FIELD OUTSIDE THE TOWN
Three days later, Suljic was finally given a drink
of water and marched with a dozen other men
onto a small livery truck, one of two, fenced
along each side by wooden planks,
the back left open to give a clear shot
to the automatic weapon poking out the window
of the red sedan that followed, the squat nose
trained on them, ridiculously, as if they'd any thought
of hopping off a moving truck. Suljic peered
vacantly through the slats. He'd missed the yellow flowers
of Spring and by now saw a landscape taken over
by Summer, the grasses closing behind them as they veered
from the road and lurched across cow paths. They drove
to the center of a wide field and stopped. Old sweat,
without the breeze of movement, prickled in the heat.
A metal smell drifted, an untended apple grove
baked on a hill, and the weeds droned, motory with bees.
But Suljic noticed none of these, fixed instead
on the gaps in the field where bodies, all dead,
matted down the wild carrot and chicory, their khakis
splotched darkly, like a fawn's dappled haunches
obscuring them. The men clambered down into the tall grass
and lined up at gunpoint. Suljic was sure the last
good thing he'd ever see would be the apple branches
drooping with fruit, but the man beside him grabbed
his hand, and looked him in the face, as if
Suljic, just a bricklayer, had any assurances to give.
He squeezed the hand back, hard, and felt a scab
crossing the man's knuckles. He saw, too, a thin scar
worrying the arch of his left eyebrow, much older,
perhaps from a fall as a child from a ladder
picking fruit. His hand was like a clump of mortar,
and three nights without sleep had webbed his eyes red.
And Suljic suddenly stuttered to ask his name,
what town was he from, his job—anything—but there came
the crackle, like sometimes thunder, undecided
whether to begin, that starts, stalls, then trips
over itself, the sound crinkling from one
end of the sky to the other. The sound took possession
of his face until it, too, crinkled, his grip
pulsed, and he fell forward. Suljic winced
in the tackle of bodies, and splayed down in the dirt
flattening himself like a beetle, not hurt
in any new way, not yet convinced
he wasn't dead and didn't feel it. He heard the click
of fresh clips sliding into place, and shut
his eyes lightly, sure someone had seen he wasn't shot
and would come finish it. But no one came. Another truck
rolled up. The men climbed down, and lined up, docilely.
He recognized, solely by rhythm, a prayer, cut off
by the crackle, the hush of crickets, the soft
whump of bodies folding at the knees
and knocked by bullets shoulder first
into the grass. No one yelled. No one tried to run.
Another truck, another group, falling like a succession
of bricks sliding off a hod. Suljic finally pissed
where he lay, and blended in all the better
with the others. The noise stopped, and he cracked
his eyes enough to see, across the backs
like bleeding hills, a man strolling along the scatter
of bodies with a pistol, putting a slug
into the skull of anyone that still twitched
or mumbled. Then came the snort and low-pitched
rumble of diesel engines as two backhoes dug
a trench along the margin of all the collapsed
bodies. Impossibly, the crackling started anew,
and when darkness finally settled, the squads continued
in what light the backhoes' headlights threw. Perhaps
the shooting was over long before the sound
left him, the crackle to his eardrums
was like the rolling of a boat to his limbs
echoing long after he'd reached dry ground.
The soldiers left. Still he didn't move, but eased
his eyes full open. The moon above the orchard
was shrinking higher, its light glossing the awkward
pale forms that stubbled the dry weeds,
glinting off teeth and eyes. He scuttled from beneath
the arms and legs flopped sleepingly over
his own, as though by drunkards or lovers,
and rose like a foal to his numb feet,
seeing throughout the field no man not touched
by three dead others. He stood for a moment, trying
to guess, even roughly, their number, multiplying
bodies per square yard, but the math was too much,
the count too huge. He stared at the faces beside him
in the grass, like a man leaving something he knew
he would someday have to return to,
looking for the landmarks that would guide him—
the crooked teeth, the welted cheek, the pale eyes eclipsed
by half-shut lids, lolling upward, inward, swollen
as though with weeping, blood from an unseen hole
glistering down a chin line, crusting on lips.
How could he explain his life, what could he say
to those who weren't here to see, to the mothers and wives
who'd swear for years their men were still alive,
somewhere, the bodies never found, bulldozed into clay—
would he tell them how he tiptoed, unable to avoid
stepping on hands and ankles, or how the tears
like a secret he'd harbored through three years
of siege shook loose, and how he let them, no longer afraid
of being found out and cut down by gunfire,
or how he ran anyway, when he reached the open, quick
as his bum leg would let him, without a look
back at the faces turned like gourds in the dark mire.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
It must’ve been written some time around 1995–1996. (Hard to believe that’s nearly fifteen years ago!) I was living in Oakland, CA, at the time, and was working (minimally) as a freelance writer, so I had more time to devote to longer pieces such as this one. These days, my poems tend to be much shorter—a reflection of the increased demands of my day job and family life.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
Paper is cheap (I know that’s not the most ecologically enlightened thing to say). I go through reams of revisions. I still work longhand, with pen and notebook, and just keep rewriting and rewriting the whole thing until I no longer need to consult the previous draft. At that point, it’s ready for the keyboard. Also, by rewriting without consulting the previous draft, nonessential elements tend to drop out. I do recall that this poem started out much longer, but I decided that the first several pages did more harm than good, so I dropped them. The result was a rather abrupt start, but a start that also conveyed a sense that a great deal of suffering had already been endured.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
For me, it’s not so much inspiration as obsession. Something sticks in my mind, and eventually forms that basis of a poem. In this case, that something was the testimony of the only three survivors of this incident, which I’d read in the newspaper. So, some of the details were based on their descriptions.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
I made a conscious decision to compose in abba quatrains, the basic form used by Tennyson in In Memoriam. It seemed appropriate, though I didn’t adopt his strict iambic tetrameter. I need more room in a line. Also, while form provides a useful scaffold, I’m never dogmatic about it. A lot of my rhymes are extremely slanted.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
About two years. It was rejected by six journals before Poetry picked it up, and it later appeared in the Best American Poetry. I never include any biographical info when I submit material to a journal. If my poems get noticed in the slush pile, then I know they’ve got some merit.
How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?
I typically let a poem sit for a few months at least. It’s wonderful to pick up a poem that I’d nearly forgotten about and find that it surprises me. But much of this delay simply stems from the fact that I’m not a prolific writer, and most of what I write ends up in the trash, so it takes me a long time just to get together enough material for a respectable submission.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
Well, I’ve never been to that part of the world, so everything is fiction, or fictionalized. But one of the virtues of art is that it helps prevent the powerful from rewriting history, from recasting the truth. Documents can be destroyed or manipulated, witnesses can be silenced—but its impossible to eradicate a work of art—particularly poetry—once it has found its way into society’s collective imagination. This will sound odd, but I’m more concerned with honesty than truth. In a poem like this, I can’t portray the scene truthfully—factually—but I can forge an honest connection to the subject. Too much knowledge is the death of art. Poetry, like faith, thrives in the places where knowledge leaves off.
Is this a narrative poem?
At the heart of this poem is the specter of morality, the idea of right and wrong. Is all good poetry in some way ethical or just?
Art, as a mirror, can be neither ethical nor just in a world that is neither ethical nor just.
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
I recall reading Mark Doty at the time, but I don’t think he influenced me very much. More importantly, I was reading Schopenhauer, and Isaac Babel, and Chekhov, and I’d say they’ve had a far more enduring influence on my work and life.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
I don’t write to be read—that comes later, if at all. (See next comment.)
Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?
I never share my work. Even my closest confidantes rarely see a poem until it appears in a journal. I start each poem with the assumption that it will end up in the trash can, and that no one will ever see it. Without that assumption, I don’t think I could really be honest in my work.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
Actually, it’s fairly representative—the narrative mode, the third-person voice (I loathe Confessional poetry), the extended metaphor, the rhythm and form, the subject matter. I suppose what’s different is that someone noticed it!
What is American about this poem?
Was this poem finished or abandoned?
It was finished. Closure is important for me. Poems that get abandoned really do end up in the trash can, never to be seen (though I like to think that any element worth saving will stick in my head somewhere and show up in another poem where it’s most needed).