Traci Brimhall is the author of Rookery (Southern Illinois University Press), winner of the 2009 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award. Her poems have appeared in Kenyon Review, Slate, Virginia Quarterly Review, New England Review, The Missouri Review, and elsewhere. She was the 2008-09 Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing and currently teaches at Western Michigan University, where she is a doctoral associate and a Kings/Chavez/Parks Fellow.
NOLI ME TANGERE
We do not understand why they are dying,
but we know the disease spreads when they touch
so we let the tree frogs sing to us. We answer,
beckoning, faking mating calls to lure them
to our wet hands. We take note of their length
and weight and wounds, and put them in plastic bags.
Separated, their confused fingers press the surface.
This is not the body they longed for, no broad back
and speckled knees, no eggs waiting to release
and swell. But still, they sing like prisoners
with hands full of moonlight, and I want to quiet them,
the way, as a child, I broke a shell to keep it
from crying out for the sea. It’s so loud here,
this country where a flower dreams of its color
before it opens, where we coax the sick from the trees.
Each morning I wake to kookaburras and a man stroking
a guitar, singing a song another man wrote about love.
At night, we transect creeks, eels skating our shins,
swollen leeches hooked to our calves as we shine
our flashlights on the banks. Everywhere we look
vines are choking the trees. They cling until they suffocate
the trunk beneath them, the strangler taking the shape
of what it has killed. Maybe some animals want to die
this way, to hold fast and feel something weakening
underneath them. Sometimes we interrupt the small male
in amplexus, gripping his lover’s generous back,
limbs freckled by sores, their pile of eggs, round
and imperfect. When we return to our tent, we take off
our clothes. This is not what we expected. We believed
in gristle, tendon and bone. Pathogen and host.
But we are minor kingdoms of salt and heat.
We trace each other’s scars—proof of our small
green hearts and violent beginnings, engines of cell
and nerve, yielding to a silent, lonely union.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
In the winter of 2004 I went to Australia and traveled around New South Wales with a team of biologists catching endangered frogs. Many of the frogs were afflicted with a disease that spread when they touched, which most often happened when they were breeding. The ones that weren’t infected, we released. The ones that had clearly developed sores, we put in plastic bags and brought back to the labs for testing. I wrote the first draft of this poem my first semester in grad school (2006).
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
This poem went through many drafts over a period of three years. I wish I knew the number. Somewhere in the double-digits though.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
I definitely believe in inspiration, but this poem is the end product of a lot of drafts and conscious choices.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
This poem went through many drafts where I reorganized and cut down the original version of it. At some point I decided to completely reinvent the poem. Some of the original lines survived, but I basically started over. I wanted to leap more, pull in the landscape, make it bigger than a single moment. I also invented a lover for the poem to sort of mimic what was happening in nature and to make the problem of desire tangible for the speaker.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
About six months after it was finished it appeared in The Missouri Review.
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?
It varies a bit poem by poem, but I’m definitely guilty of sending poems out pretty quickly. I find that I’m often wrong in what my best poems are, or at least can’t guess what an editor will like. Several of the poems I was convinced were the best poems from my first book never found homes. If I let a poem sit around too long, I’m liable to think it’s not any good, so I just shove the fledglings out of the nest and see how they do.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
I mentioned before that I invented a lover for the sake of the poem. I think many poems, especially ones that come from autobiographical experience, have to weigh the value of truth and Truth. It was more important for me to get closer to the complexities and dangers of desire than it was to adhere to the play-by-play facts of the experience.
Is this a narrative poem?
Definitely, although less strictly narrative than it was in its first draft.
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?
Perhaps if a desire for understanding is ethical, then this poem is ethical. I think many poems seek to discover something, even if it’s just beauty. Even if it’s just the grotesque. Knowledge and inquiry do not make a person just or moral, but they can give us the tools we need to make those choices.
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
I remember reading Yannis Ritsos around the time I finished this poem, although I don’t see him in the poem. Continual influences would definitely include James Dickey, Brigit Pegeen Kelly and Larry Levis.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
I read that Annie Dillard said her audience for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek was two monks she’d never meet. I’d like to borrow her answer.
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 had a group of writers in grad school who were extremely helpful. Now my writing partners are people who see rough drafts not so much for editing suggestions, but as a way to check in with each other and see what we’ve been working on.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
This one was more difficult to write than most, largely, I think, because it took me a long time to figure out what it was that I was trying to say.
What is American about this poem?
Pleasure can ruin you anywhere, even America.
Was this poem finished or abandoned?