At one point in her sixth and latest collection of poetry, The World Behind the World, April Bernard writes that “almost nothing is so terrible it cannot // also be of interest.” These lines are honest: it’s “almost nothing,” not nothing; it’s “of interest,” not good. But they also show Bernard’s sense that, as she writes in an earlier collection, amid “all this brawl and jag” of existence still “a sluice of sweet delight / runs through them.” If that sounds like Gerard Manley Hopkins, it’s for good reason: he is a central presence in The World Behind the World.
Bernard has always had a good eye and an even better ear. She’s interested in music: why we make it and why we listen to it, how it moves us and what it means to be moved by art in the first place. For her, the aesthetic orients us, in complicated and deep ways, toward the real. As she writes in an earlier collection, “When actors speak and move / we all become more / real.” As she writes in The World Behind the World, “Making music, we / make God thereby, / or a simulacrum / so powerful I fear / to meet the real thing.”
Bernard and I spoke by email.
Anthony Domestico: In “Sithens in a net,” you record a wonderful literary exchange: “At a reading, John Ashbery was asked, / ‘But what was that about?’ and he said, ‘I guess I’m just sad about time.’” If you were asked the same question about The World Behind the World—what is it about—how would you answer?
April Bernard: One reason I love Ashbery’s response is that he was helplessly, and humorously, gesturing towards the impossibility of saying what his own poems were “about”—he was always accused, of course, of being too obscure. We usually do know what most poems are about, more or less: this sonnet is about how beauty dies and so does love; this poem is about the need for renewal after the destruction of a world war; another is about how trees are better than poems, and so on. As the writer of my book, I think I can say that I am, indeed, as advertised, writing about the spiritual world that I believe—or hope to believe—exists “behind” the material one, and that I am writing in order to reach it. That spiritual cosmos is a place of love, and kindness, and harmony, and terrifying beauty, and I am—in my best moments—convinced of its existence and trying to be worthy of it. I am also trying to show it to others.
Because we are all trapped within our own subjectivity, many of the occasions of spiritual insight accompany very personal ones. Moreover, I have a lot of large opinions about what’s wrong with this world. One reader told me that The World Behind the World unfolds like a novel about my life; which also makes sense to me.
AD: The collection’s first poem opens, “Six months after death, my mother / has come to haunt me. Ever / the opportunist, she finds the virus / lockdown a handy time to slide / into the slot for my shadow.” One of the collection’s final poems talks about a different kind of haunting: the cells that a baby leaves behind in his mother, “his dna t[aking] up residence // in organs various, brain / and heart and liver.” What draws you to haunting, both at this point in your career and, as the first poem indicates, at this particular and strange moment in history?
AB: Hauntings happen whether you want them to or not; I don’t write about them as a choice, exactly. In the two cases you cite, interestingly, I see that my hauntings have generational aspects. One haunting is unpleasant; the other, which links the scientific reality of DNA traces in my body to a spiritual experience, is about the deepest kind of love, the love for one’s child.
Alas, it goes without saying that we live in a strange and mostly terrible time. If you are of a historical cast of mind, then you find yourself searching the past for the traces, the ghosts, that proleptically haunt the present.
AD: In a previous interview, you said that all serious art “reaches beyond the subjective and personal to something greater.” That sense of something greater, and art’s role in gesturing toward and maybe bringing us to it, has been present in your work from the start, and it’s present in the new book, where you write that “All shared harmonies / tune it into being: / dance, pipes, a room / of students reading the long / poem by Ashbery aloud.” (The “it” seems to be God.) How has your understanding of the relationship between art and “the world behind the world” changed over the years?