Saturday, January 31, 2009

Greg Wrenn on "Centaur"

“Centaur” is by far the longest poem that I’ve ever written, beginning as a five-page poem whose dimeter and trimeter lines were inspired by Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Moose” and Marianne Moore’s “Marriage.” But it wasn’t just the shortness and neatness of the lines that drew me to those poems. Although my speaker, Mark (“Marquoose”), in being surgically joined to the lower half of a horse, does not just simply cross paths with an animal as Bishop’s speaker does, I was still fascinated by what insights, joyful or dreadful, are precipitated by a highly charged encounter with an animal. For me, such an intersection is a wonderful chance to examine the less rational, more primal, self-destructive aspects of the self. And although he’s not interested in dissecting or satirizing heterosexual institutions like marriage, Mark is keen on feeling his way through (or around) the sort of ambivalence about union and companionship that Moore lays out for us:

"I should like to be alone;"
to which the visitor replies,
"I should like to be alone;
why not be alone together?"

Over time, I began to feel that the form of my draft was entirely too staid, that a formal restlessness was needed to amplify the sexual, spiritual, and intellectual restlessness that leads Mark to take such a drastic measure “[t]o reawaken waist to feet.” He suffers greatly from sexual addiction, particularly through the Internet, and he feels that he has exhausted all possibilities for healing, for even managing his acting-out so that he can live a productive life of integrity; the trip to Bishop’s Brazil for centaur-surgery is perhaps the product of a desperate imagination still unable to admit its powerlessness. Martha’s Collins’ book-length poem Blue Front, with its sonnets, historical documents, and unpunctuated free verse that alternate between narrative and more lyrical modes, inspired me to move toward greater formal fluidity—in other words, the agitation of a mind unable to solve a problem that threatens the body’s long-term health: “Once, only once, / I let him ride me / bareback.” Dante’s tercets, whose grandness is deflated by a prose poem in the first section, seem appropriate for a (pseudo-?)spiritual journey—elsewhere there’s a double sonnet, laterally oscillating stanzas haunted by the Dantean tercet, and prose poetry that compulsively reverts to lineation. Like Collins, I’m interested in reinventing the ways in which the lyric can be reconciled with storytelling, without being antagonistically post-modern.

I want to end with one of my favorite stanzas from “The Moose,” when the approaching creature triggers a burst of compassion:

Taking her time,
she looks the bus over,
grand, otherworldly.
Why, why do we feel
(we all feel) this sweet
sensation of joy?

I think what propels Mark on his journey, however misguided and ridiculous, is the deep sense that it is compassion, “this sweet / sensation of joy,” not the momentary bliss of orgasm, that ought to be valued and cultivated. What are your thoughts?


  1. Greg, I was blown over by this poem when I first read it in the new issue, and after many re-readings it still has the same charge. It's a beautifully poised web of contradictions: poetry and prose, the animal body and the human mind, wildness and restraint. I'm fascinated by your account of its creation, the web of allusions in which it found its shape.

    On every reading, the most devastating, the most shocking section for me has been the final one. Formally, this is one of the tamer sections, with its neat tercets and short, mostly end-stopped lines. But it's also the section where the metaphor of the poem settles most nakedly into reality: "Once, only once, / I let him ride me / bareback." This is where the full self-destructiveness--as you put it--of the narrator is revealed, and I find it wrenching.

    But what's really striking, for all the heartbreak, is how joyful an ending it is. (The Bishop quotation feels exactly right.) Precisely through this dangerous, potentially self-disfiguring act, Mark earns his extraordinary moment of triumph, not just in his new-found ability to run for the field like those "lithe cheetahs" whose grace has caused him so much pain, but, much more profoundly, in the graced moment of understanding between the two partners. How can a poem that has been so tormented end with such calm (and yet such ecstatic) affirmation? "There's a trust / that won't throw us. / No bridle, no reins."

    I wonder if this is your sense of the ending. I'd also be interested in your thoughts on other technical aspects of the poem, both syntax (especially in section five, those weird, compelling unpunctuated lines, formally so unlike anything else in the poem) and image. I love your description of the poem's take on the traditional Romantic encounter poem, and I'm interested in the minor encounters and metamorphoses that spiral off the central conceit. There's an extraordinary menagerie here, covering land, sea, and sky: cheetahs, penguins, quahogs, chicken throats, strange birds, the palsied crab. They all seem right to me, but I'd love to know your thoughts about them as you were writing.

    Thank you for this astonishing poem.

    Garth Greenwell

  2. Garth,

    I don't intend for the ending to be decidedly hopeful, but you aren't the first reader to respond to it that way. I remember that in a workshop the poem was criticized by some for shutting down too easily, too melodramatically, for galloping off into the wild yonder in a way that was too "Hollywood." (I don't think you're suggesting that.) But my sense of the ending—and I'm only speaking as the writer, and there's much I don't know about the poem—is that there's a great deal of irony and pathos in a line like "No bridle, no reins." The absence of those two controlling intermediaries—meant to steer the horse’s direction and make the ride safer—is meant to link back up with that zinger of a word, "bareback," which refers to both horseback riding without a saddle and, in gayspeak, having condomless anal intercourse.

    And yet what’s literally taking place in the section is another man riding on the back of Mark, who has become a centaur. Relationships—platonic and romantic, long-term or anonymous, whether or not they are ever consummated—involve some risk, usually emotional, but sometimes physical. And, as a gay man, I can't help but especially understand risk-taking as exhilarating and ultimately nourishing—or leading to life-threatening, stigmatizing disease; marginalization; and loss of faith. Or some unsettling, disorienting combination of the two. So to what extent has the centaur-surgery—Mark’s last-ditch effort to make himself more “at-home” in his body, to manage his sexual addiction—been successful, enabling him to actually share an experience of freedom and peace with another person? He does, after all, “start for the field / what felt like an ocean.” But to what extent does the poem’s final gesture suggest what you elsewhere called “the full self-destructiveness,” just another anonymous encounter with someone whose HIV status he doesn’t know. So, for me, the ending bewilderingly alternates between joy and horror that can’t quite be experienced simultaneously, like that famous optical illusion: one moment there’s a duck, the next a rabbit. I often have felt that bewilderment and those stretches of denial, and hope that they embodied in the poem.

    Here are some quick responses to your other questions. The fifth section’s lack of punctuation and heavily enjambed lines are meant to convey the inner turmoil of expectancy and disappointment as Mark waits for a horse to whinny at him, thereby acknowledging himself—pardon the pun—as Mark’s “other half.” As far as the proliferation of animals in the poem, I didn’t do that consciously. I just love animals—maybe that’s why I enjoy Moore’s poems so much—and think that various species often work as shorthand for different mind or bodily states. Inanimate objects, in my experience, don’t work as well at conveying our less rational, more fickle aspects. I think of Moore herself as a rather armored, private person; so a poem of hers like “The Pangolin” feels to me like a self-portrait. I’m one of those creative writing teachers who asks their students to write a dramatic monologue in the voice of their totem animal—my hope is that they have easier access to what’s untamed, unnamable, and reckless in themselves.

    Garth—I’m humbled by your astonishingly clear, subtle, and enthusiastic response to “Centaur.” Many thanks.

  3. I've been in awe of this poem and have been swishing it around in my mind for some time. I did see glints of irony in the last movements: "There's a trust/that won't throw us/No bridle, no reins". I had been reading it as a struggle between a spiritual human potentiality to overcome psychic obstacles/find security and the burden of physicality that makes that all the more difficult.

    Where I find the irony is in the abstract notion of "trust" mentioned at the end, being that it's seemingly been transformed by a symbolic, yet figuratively physical procedure- But wouldn't that potentiality for a lapse in comfort still remain for a character who is, at heart, within the same persona? This is where I started to see the last stanza as less optimistic-- It seems Mark suffers from a somewhat conceptual distrust in his body, which places spiritual constraints. However, his solution is to superimpose the spirit with a more mythic, superlative being (a term which can run two directions) to amplify a trust in a relationship.

    So does this speak to a true mind at ease by the last stanza? Is the character giving up himself, his core of being, to another physical shape that could eventually bring the same discomfort as the prior?

    Just a few scattered musings; this work is highly engaging, and when it passes through my thoughts I always grit my teeth hoping to somehow tear into the meat of it.

  4. It's sort of like "Games Magazine" -- poems sprung from the pattern, inexplicable otherwise, without the key. Next time, please leave the key in the lock, not under the mat.

  5. Greg, would you say something about the poem's tonal range, how it enacts the intentions you've elaborated in your essay, and how you imagined the tone would affect the reader's response--

  6. What struck me first about this poem was its unapologetic narrative form. With insular, self-reflective works proliferating in literary journals, I found it refreshing to encounter a story so strong that it could transfer to any genre.

    At the same time, "Centaur" IS a markedly reflective poem. But Greg links this meditation with such a universally comprehensible narrative that Mark's inner terrain can't help but come into stark focus. As a further aid, Greg insists on a barrage of sensory cues. You smell the poem in the first line (no, I'm not saying it smells like shit), and by the end you can feel the grotesque suture.

    To me, "impulse" seemed a strong factor in the poem. The impulse of jealous longing that sparked the character's malignant desire to be swift, the animal impulse (that of the sacrificed horse) that alerts it to danger, and especially the impulse of finding the advertisement, the "dubious relic." This stanza brought to mind the spark of inspiration that germinates a strange idea into real words on a page.

    My favorite lines were about the Sharpie marker - sends a chill up my spine. Makes me wonder what Dr. Angel did with the unused halves.

    Great great great poem.

  7. Nate,

    For me, the last few stanzas emanate from a mind that thinks it has found a solution but is tragically wrong about that. Whether the speaker has horse legs or human legs, he's still embodied and therefore, in his own way, doomed. Craving, acting out that craving, and death are inescapable--they can't be galloped away from--for him and, as far as I know, for nearly all beings. As Stevens writes in "The Well-Dressed Man with a Beard," "Out of a thing believed, a thing affirmed" -- and, appropriately enough, three lines later, "It can never be satisfied, the mind, never." For "Centaur," I think it's the body and the mind.

  8. Lee,

    The tone of "Centaur" does vary greatly: the mock-Petrarchan voice in Section V, the ominous account of the surgery in Section VI, the slimy exhortations in Dr. Angel's advertisement, and so forth. And that tonal variety, like the poem's formal shapeshifting, is meant to reinforce the sense of underlying restlessness and dissatisfaction. And, because this poem is "long," I didn't want the reader to get too bored!

  9. Joe,

    There's another section of "Centaur"--called "My Therapist's Last Notes"--that appeared in LIT magazine last year, providing Mark's therapist's perspective on his decision to go to Brazil to have centaur surgery. It's a fragment of a prose poem--a faux "found" poem--that's meant to further undermine a sense of a smooth narrative. Thanks for your kind, insightful words.

  10. I'm stuck by how humor, which makes its appearance in the poem's first words, establishes itself in the rest of the first section (the deviled eggs and honey fast, the appearance of the cartoonish Dr. Angel), and sustains itself throughout the poem through word play and animal imagery as it works out its wild premise, rubs up against its serious of intent. That friction disorients me from my established vocabulary of responses to poetry, making "Centaur" hard to figure but leaving me open to fresh apprehension.

  11. Greg,

    I began reading this poem sitting, and finished standing up. I could not stop reading. All these previous fellas have said so much about "Centaur." I don't want to analyze it. I just want to enjoy it.

    I want you to know how much I love its surrealism, mixture of humor with horror, and formal variety. You are now on my radar of poets to watch. I have a few more questions, some of which may be best asked in a non-public forum. Would you mind if I emailed you?

    Evan J. Peterson