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?
AB: It is still true that the art that matters most to me engages with what I’m calling spirituality, for lack of a better term. Dozens of painters, composers, and writers launch me (and I’m sure others) into the spiritual realm. People think of Larkin as pinched and despairing, but I have always heard the hopefulness and tenderness, which obviously embarrassed him, behind the tough words. Another writer who has meant a great deal to me is Chekhov; my admiration for him, and my frustration that I can only read him through the veil of translation, only deepens with time. I mention both these writers because they are, to my mind, profoundly spiritual while also skeptical or atheistic when it comes to religious faith. Richard Gilman wrote of Chekhov’s plays—specifically, Three Sisters—as creating “an opening into eternity.” This reminds me, in turn, of Rilke’s reference to “the Open.” Critics like to write about Modernism as if it marked, absolutely, “the death of God,” but it seems obvious to me that another, parallel stream of spirituality, not confined to Christianity but not bothering to repudiate it either, also emerged from Modernist concerns and flows ever forward. Doubtless, I am part of that flow.
I never meant to write about God at all; and yet when I wrote my second book, Psalms, I realized that I wanted to pray to, and quarrel with, something like God. The horrors of AIDS killing off a generation certainly pushed me that way.
“Something greater” does not have to mean only the spiritual realm, of course. Many concerns are greater than the self; those few poets who manage to write well about political matters are certainly writing beyond the self. Meanwhile, the lyric, which is as old as Sappho, is the form of personal utterance, in which the poet’s interior life reaches out through the gorgeous inadequacy of language to the reader’s interior life; and by so doing, it makes something much greater than those two people. It makes a third, shared thing: love, or communion, or political purpose, or merely (!) music itself.
AD: A poem from Romanticism (2009) begins, “The cloth edge of certainty / has shredded down to this: / God and love are real, / but very far away.” These lines made me think of Gerard Manley Hopkins, an important poet for this collection and for anyone thinking about the closeness or distance of God. How has Hopkins helped you to think about the relationship between poetry and God? In “You can sing it,” you write that Hopkins’s “odd-ball meters” help “to mottle a vista that leads, / in variable measures, to the world / behind the world, where raggedy / becomes pattern and a staggered / amen in dappling laps whole.” Are there other poets who offer you a similar vista?
AB: No one is quite like Hopkins. There really is something in the music of his verse that takes us to truth, whether beautiful or terrible. So many poets can do the same thing for me—not in every poem, but Stevens and Moore and Rilke and Wyatt and Clare and Donne and Herbert and Shakespeare do it consistently. Poems by Frost and Bishop also achieve this sublimity; more recently, the poems of Frank Bidart, though stubbornly of the material world, bring a sorrowing historical sweep that approaches the spirit from a different angle. And, of course, Ashbery.
AD: Some of my favorite moments from the new book come in your descriptions of animals. In one poem, you write that a beloved dog “fills the world with peace, making / permanent what would otherwise fly away / on the lash of a clock’s tick.” Elsewhere you write that encountering a seal in the cold water off Nantucket brings about a respite from “all the pain our clever brains, self-winding like watches that won’t stop, make in the world.” I’m struck that both passages mention mechanized time: ticking clocks and watches. How do animals cause us to think about, or experience, time differently?
AB: There’s also the line from “This Life”: “We know only a little more / than the animals, and it is pain,” by which pain I mean our complex self-consciousness. To be able to measure time puts us that much further away from the peace of the present moment; counting the minutes is the curse of humanity.
When an animal seems to be able to “read” you intuitively, and you the animal, the wordless communication is better than poems.
AD: That prose poem about meeting a “big-headed seal” in the Atlantic echoes Elizabeth Bishop’s similar encounter with a seal in “At the Fishhouses.” You studied with Bishop at Harvard and love her as a poet. What do you love about “At the Fishhouses” in particular?
AB: Oh, that fishhouses poem—and yes, of course, I was honoring Bishop. I know that I had Bishop’s characterization of her seal gesturing with “a sort of a shrug” in mind when I described mine as “looking like he was about to laugh.” Her poem ends, memorably, with a gesture of putting her hand into the cold sea, invoking a loss so great as to, paradoxically, create presence; one of many such moments in her work.
If you tasted it, it would first taste bitter,
then briny, then surely burn your tongue.
It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,
drawn from the cold hard mouth
of the world, derived from the rocky breasts
forever, flowing and drawn, and since
our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.
Another way to describe the ending is that it “comes off the page,” and leaps into the ether—like the end of Moore’s “An Octopus,” or the end of Dickinson’s “Dare you see a Soul at the White Heat?” Bishop’s influence on me predated my meeting her and taking a class with her, and her work, studied closely still, all these years later, continues to educate me in the ways of intellectual and aesthetic resilience.
AD: Several of your new poems look back to the sixteenth century: “Lord, crack their teeth” gets its title from Mary Sidney’s Psalm 58, “Wreathed with error” borrows from Thomas Wyatt’s “My Galley Charged with Forgetfulness,” and so on. What draws you to the Elizabethans? Is it their wit? Their use of the sonnet form and the particular movement of the mind and soul it suggests? Something else entirely?
AB: I’m excited by the way that the English language, as it was groping its way toward its “modern” form, exhibited so many idiosyncratic and evocative turns of phrase. Wyatt, the Sidneys, Shakespeare, Fulke Greville—all are vividly audible to me. “Such hap as I am happed in,” for instance, contains “happy” and “happenstance” and “mishap” and makes them all alive at once. “Wreath’d with error” set me off on an intense meditation on what it feels like to live a life (mine) that feels encircled by the choking vines of mistakes and regrets. Any nonstandard English—whether from the sixteenth century or in any of the many regional styles and dialects of English spoken around the world—opens up new spaces for the imagination; I can get just as revved up by Brooklynese or Montana cowboy-speech as I am by the Elizabethans. These particular nonstandard Elizabethan speakers also happened to be incredible poets.
AD: In “Tree-crazy,” you use the word “enargeia” and then offer the poet Alice Oswald’s gloss: “Bright unbearable reality.” The term was often used to praise Homer’s ability to make things vividly present. It is, Oswald continues, “the word used when gods come to earth not in disguise but as themselves.” Among living poets, whose enargeia do you most admire?
AB: While there are many living poets whose work I love, I don’t actually see an engagement with energeia animating much poetry these days. Gorgeousness is very much out of fashion, and even the most musical of my contemporaries seem slightly embarrassed by their flutings.
The book that I keep giving to students and friends is David Ferry’s translation of Virgil’s Eclogues, which Farrar, Straus and Giroux has, thrillingly, kept in print. Its music, gorgeousness, and energeia are firstly due to Virgil, of course, but Ferry’s contributory genius has made it available to us in English and it is really something.
The other poet I’m reading—again and at last, with a new understanding and awe—is Adam Zagajewski, in Renata Gorczyńska’s translation.
Two poems from The World Behind the World were published in Commonweal alongside this interview. You can read them here.