Winner of our 2022 Terry. J. Cox Poetry Award
A Self-Portrait of the Poet in Four Parts
Over the years, I’ve published a chapbook of poems, Boys Who Go Aloft, and two full collections, The Household Gods and Where No One Spoke the Language. The recipient of four poetry fellowships from the Ohio Arts Council, until my retirement in 2020 I taught in the English Department and in Environmental Studies at the College of Wooster. When I came to Wooster, I brought with me Artful Dodge, a magazine I founded in 1979 while I was still living in Bloomington, Indiana, and which along with new American fiction, poetry, essay, has always kept up a special interest in translation. Along the way, I’ve interviewed a number of literary figures for the magazine, including Jorge Luis Borges, Czesław Miłosz, Rita Dove, William Least Heat-Moon, Terry Tempest Williams, and W.S. Merwin. Just recently, Artful Dodge transitioned into The Dodge, an on-line literary forum devoted to environmental literature and writing about animals, though I remain as Translation Editor. In terms of individual poems, I have contributed work to such journals as Ploughshares, American Poetry Review, Field, Boulevard, Guernica, Salmagundi, Pleiades, Shenandoah, Cimarron Review, Prairie Schooner, Seneca Review, Plume, Yale Review, Weber-The Contemporary West, Indiana Review, Quarterly West, River Styx, and Michigan Quarterly Review.
But I did not set out to be a poet. I grew up on a 180-acre farm in southeastern Illinois in Wynoose, a four-corners burg with a small store and two churches. My house was about a half-mile to the east, and the Little Wabash River bottoms were located about a mile to the south. Many times a year the river would flood all the roads to the south, and, in general, there weren’t many roads out of the place at any time. The nearest bookstore was located in a chicken hatchery store in Olney, the county seat, a town of about 8,000 located fifteen miles away. When you walked in the door, if you turned to the left you would get all your poultry-raising needs fulfilled—from baby chicks to chicken meal and heat lamps. If you turned to the right, there were several rows of used paperbacks to browse, mostly Louis L’Amour westerns and Harlequin Romances. But there were also a number of more interesting discards, probably books sold off by survivors of the local community college’s comp courses as soon as the semester ended, sporting titles such as Jane Eyre and The Moonstone. It was a limited universe, but enough to survive.
And then I encountered Tolstoy’s War and Peace. I don’t know why I ended up pulling it off of the shelf of my high school library, a little room that served about 170 students in grades 9-12 and whose librarian Mrs. Lutz once hid the latest issue of Look magazine because there was a woman in a swimsuit on the cover. “I’m not a prude,” Mrs. Lutz declared, “but enough is enough.” But from the moment I started reading—“Well, Prince, so Genoa and Lucca are now just family estates of the Buonapartes”—I couldn’t put it down. One thing that attracted me to the book was Tolstoy’s ability to talk about both the national and the individual, the political and the personal. Although I’ve come to question Tolstoy’s own views very much, his sensibility, both lyric and panoramic, has very much stuck with me.
I also became very much aware of translation, and, through that, how wording affects the way a reader apprehends a work. In hindsight, I was so lucky to encounter Aylmer Maude’s translation first. Not only did Maude know Tolstoy, and the translation of War and Peace for him was largely a labor of love, but Maude was also unusually sensitive to the process of translation—that choices needed to be made and that Tolstoy himself had to deal with issues of translation in the initial publication of the novel in Russia. Indeed, when Tolstoy turned in the manuscript to his publisher, he was told that there was too much French-talk. For Tolstoy, it was a matter of authenticity. Virtually all of the Russian noblility at the time of the Napoleonic invasion spoke French, not Russian. His publisher, however, pointed out that his readership was Russian, and that he needed to make the work more accessible. For one of the few times in his life Tolstoy compromised, though there was still a lot of French and other European languages sprinkled in, which Maude dutifully preserved in the original while providing the English in a footnote. In general, Maude’s generous provision of translated dialogue, historical commentary and other contextual tidbits made each page just a little bit non-linear, a tiny bit messy. Sometimes the book reminded me of the old polyglot commentaries where the central text didn’t get very far from page to page. Instead, it was a tiny window surrounded by a textual stain glass of extensive notes leading off in all directions, the marginalia becoming the main thread.
But the most important thing is that as I approached the end of the novel, I grew sad. My time in this world was fast coming to a close. Meanwhile, my family had ignored my weeks of obsession with the book, or were puzzled by it—or, even exasperated because I probably should have been doing chores instead of having “my nose in a book.” At school, I would catch my English teacher anxiously looking on, wringing her hands at whether she should say something or not. Then I finished the book. Sure enough, my teacher materialized with yet another Tolstoy novel—Anna Karenina. Hrummph, I said to myself. “All happy families are alike. Unhappy families are unhappy in their own way.” I read to the end of the first chapter. “Hrummph,” I said again. I gave the book back to her.
I had already pronounced War and Peace the greatest book in the world. I would no longer need to read another book. Instead, I only needed Tolstoy and his novel. Henceforth, I decided,I would compose a great work of music, employing both classical music and the latest in folk-rock, to do homage to the novel and its characters. Of course, all of this was folly. I did start to read other books, and soon read through Anna Karenina and went on to more novels not just by Tolstoy but also Dosteovesky, and soon found my way to Chekhov’s short stories and plays as well. It was my year of Russian literature, and I must admit to this day I feel I am much more deeply imprinted on the Russian “canon” than I am on the English/American one. It was what I first saw when I hatched from the egg.
But an even more momentous thing happened while I was reading War and Peace. My father was found to have colon cancer, and the cancer cells had metastasized. As I lay by his bedside after the surgery, and when complications brought him back into the hospital, I fantasized about the talks we should have together, weighted with the recognition not just of impending death but the ferocity of life right now, of my love for him. Basically I wanted both him—and me—swaddled within the universe of War and Peace. I wanted metaphoric language there along with the beeping panels and invading tubes. I wanted us to talk, to discover, to redeem and to reconcile what was happening with something mythic and profound.
Instead I followed the doctor’s advice not to talk with him as someone who is dying; and this silencing festered and spread within me, until it popped out in the first “real” poems I wrote, after I turned to poetry in my early twenties, after I had graduated from Indiana University and had written several absolutely atrocious short stories that were my way of writing like Tolstoy a hundred years later. The reason why I had switched genres had very much to do with jettisoning such baggage and instead starting to “play” around with language. I was working in a rare book library at Indiana (more about that later), and almost every day I was handling the first editions of countless books of poetry published in English on both sides of the Atlantic. Even more so, I was handling and figuring out how to store countless poems written on broadsides—the work of Galway Kinnell, Sylvia Plath, Gwendolyn Brooks. Along with marking them needing to have protective acid-free jackets, I read the poems. I went “huh.” I went “what is making this so interesting to me.” Before, I knew all about powerful image and story, but in some way or another I started to hear the line. And I started to write down my own words on yellow legal pads, often times even when I should have been working on library things. From that point on, I was now aware of poetry, and aware that it mattered within my own life. As Robert Hass writes in Twentieth Century Pleasures: Prose on Poetry:
Poems take place in your life, or some of them do, like the day your younger
sister arrives and replaces you as the bon enfant in the bosom of the family; or
the day the trucks came and the men began to tear up the wooden sidewalks and
the cobblestone gutters outside your house and laid down new cement curbs and
I had read War and Peace when I needed to, right before and during that time when my own old world became invaded, ripped up and ploughed under. Without those earlier experiences, I don’t think I would ever have become a poet. By the time I started writing those poems that appeared in my first book The Household Gods —about my father, his cancer, his equally tragic loss of his farm and his self-identify—I was on to reading David Justice and Philip Larkin, Mona VanDuyn and John Ashbery, Czeslaw Milosz and Anna Akhmatova. Nonetheless, I still retained that desire to talk to my father at last, to walk with him into that world of language I had first encountered in Tolstoy. Those poems in the book were—if not that conversation with him—at least my recognition of my failure back then as well as my ongoing fury at not having been braver than I was. And, years later, after I had already spent time in Poland (the Slavic land I ended up voyaging to rather than Russia) I had a dream in which I was speaking with my dad about the weather, a common topic on our southern Illinois farm. We were speaking in Polish, however, and at last it felt like he was giving me his benediction.
I graduated from Indiana University with a double-major in Comparative Literature and in History. I left with a desire to work as a diplomat (quelled because my query to State Department about how to sit for the foreign service exam never got answered), to be a fiction writer, and to be a translator of either French or German, the two languages I had studied in Comp Lit. But—as I mentioned earlier—working at Lilly Library was an equally important education first as the student stack supervisor, in charge of making sure the books were all stored safely as well as filed in place, and then as a full-time staff member. In fact, it was probably through handling Ezra Pound’s literary journal The Exile or the mimeographed pages of the late 1960s journal Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts, that led to my own folly of starting Artful Dodge in 1979, when I was only 24. There was a copy of the Gutenberg Bible there (or, at least the New Testament part with only a few pages missing) as well as the working scripts of Star Trek. Down in the basement in the Manuscripts Division—the Marines of the Library with even tighter security than up in the Book Department—they housed Sylvia Plath’s paper dolls, which only very special people ever got to view or touch. But it was decided that Sylvia Plath’s own collection of books from college would be housed in the Book Dept., and I was the one asked to shelve them. While opening up some of the dust jackets to put protective Mylar covers on them, I noticed that someone (Sylvia?!) had made various x’s next to books in the publisher’s standard list of “Which Books Would You Like to Read?” printed on the jacket’s inside. Did anyone ever notice this before?
Perhaps the most fascinating thing I ever held in my hand while working at the Lilly Library was a packet of pencils produced by the pencil company owned by Henry David Thoreau’s father. (Thoreau not only worked there for a bit, but was instrumental in working out the various amounts of clay that would make up the best type of “lead.”). I often thought about writing a long poem about someone like me, who, working alone in the stacks one day, would decide to break the tiny fragile paper wrapper, sharpen one of these pencils, and start writing and writing. When he finished with one, he’d go to the next, and so on. Of course, I never told any of my colleagues at the library about this idea. They probably would have fired me as a security risk. Of course, in the real world, even breaking the wrapper would have not only dropped the value of the pencils thousands and thousands of dollars, but destroyed a part of our cultural story as well.
But ah that image: something that is valuable because it has not been written with, because it is still in potentia. I may just write that poem yet, pick up that pencil from that early poet of the woods and write my way through all the books that surrounded me in Lilly as well those that make up the textual forest around me now. I follow some trails, I bushwhack and stumble and lie down to rest. There’s so much wilderness and wildness, and I want to see it all.
I went to Poland in the Summer of 1980 in the hopes of accompanying a girl friend of Polish descent as she rediscovered her roots there. The plan was to go there as a “native speaker” lecturer for a Summer English language program at the polytechnic institute in Wrocław. But Ruthie’s father suffered a massive head injury in a car accident, and she ended up not going. I was much more smitten with her than she was with me, and it has been a major irony of my life that it was I who ended up going to Poland instead of her and that, although our relationship was over by the time I returned from Poland two months later, I have ended up spending a good part of my writing life translating Polish poetry and prose into English.
I came to Poland having just started Artful Dodge just one year before. At that point, except for the magazine and writing a few poems, I hadn’t done much. What I did bring with me to Silesia, however, was an introduction to Eastern Europe born out of my earlier interests in Russian history and literature, and an itch to translate. But my only languages were French and German, and, ridiculously of course, I thought that everything in those languages worth translating had already been done.
I landed in the middle of history, the rise of the Solidarity Trade Union and the beginning of the end (or at least one of the beginnings of the end) of the Cold War era. The first strikes occurred in Gdansk on the Baltic coast about two days before I entered the country on July 4th; and, by the middle of my second month in Poland, there were strikes everywhere (including the Wroclaw Opera House), the Soviet army was contemplating whether to invade (luckily it didn’t—or couldn’t), and I was not only learning Polish but also becoming increasingly engaged in Polish literature and poetry, especially in how important history was to literature and vice versa. I had found a cause.
I also found my way to Czeslaw Milosz’s The History of Polish Literature, which I discovered soon after my first return from Poland. Milosz, whose receipt of the Nobel Prize for Literature coincided roughly with the rise of Solidarity as well as the naming of Polish priest Karol Wojtylla as Pope John Paul II, represents for me the way in which this one particular country and culture “on the edge” of Europe became a center of international regard during the 1980s. And, during my first explorations of this complicated terrain, I had gladly immersed myself in Milosz’s book, his connection of the various texts to the historical and cultural background around them as well as the printing of the poems in both Polish and English, so that my eye and ear and mind could dart back and forth between them. I realized that there was something important going on here, and that I needed to attend to it.
I returned from Poland at the end of August 1980 truly bitten by the Polish bug. I entered the MFA program at Indiana while also embarking on Polish language classes, then returned to Poland during martial law—this time to Warsaw University—on a graduate exchange fellowship between Warsaw University and Indiana University (one of the few institutions to preserve its ties with Poland during the martial law period). After this stay during 1982-1983, I returned to Poland for a two year Fulbright during 1985-1987, and have returned there for shorter stays several times since, including for seven months in 2013-14 to work on some collaborative projects with Polish poets and visual writers involving a sense of place and the environmental. (Since then, my bilingual collaborative poetry project “A Journey Between the Lands” with Tadeusz Dziewanowski was featured in the January 2015 issue of Plume, and my poetry/visual art collaboration with Wojciech Kołyszko, “A Deep Map of Sobieszewo Island,” also appeared on the Portland Review’s website.) Most recently, I was in Poland in 2018 and 2019 to start work on an anthology of Polish Poets of the Baltic, including such poets as Wojciech Kass, Krzysztof Kuczkowski, Krystyna Lars, and Artur Nowaczewski.
I’ve published a lot of translations over the years. My translations of Polish political poet Tomasz Jastrun are in Penguin’s anthology of Eastern European poetry, Child of Europe and in Norton’s Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness (edited by Carolyn Forché), and have also been in River Styx, Quarterly West, Willow Springs, Northwest Review, Partisan Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, Colorado Review, and elsewhere. In 1999 Salmon Run Press published a book of my translations of Jastrun’s poetry and essays, On the Crossroads of Asia and Europe. My translations of Bronisław Maj appear in Mid-American Review’s translation chapbook series as well as in Boulevard, Salmagundi, Field, Sonora Review, Green Mountains Review, and Manhattan Review. In fact, a collection of my translations of Maj’s work, The Extinction of the Holy City, is forthcoming from Free Verse Editions/Parlor Press.
Others before me have talked about how the process of translation has enriched their own poetry—the close reading, the challenge of breaking apart and then reassembling the linguistic puzzle in the adopted language, the various decisions about what must not be abandoned or the despair at realizing something has to be left behind. It is a kind of workshop, and perhaps there are some elements that you can discover in this other language that can then show up in your own writing. Poetry often involves some kind of risk, some sort of attempt to see what you can get away with. What is a poem anyway? In Polish, as in many other languages, the conventions and strategies at times can be quite different, and so why not attempt this strange thing that works so well in Polish within my own poetry and in my own language as well.
And what has drawn me to Polish poetry is not only in its gaze towards history (again, this combination of the personal and the political, the lyrical and the panoramic) but the way that its imagery can sometimes imbue the inanimate world with the human, an animism that shows up in other Central/Eastern European art as well. I think of Nikolai Gogol’s “Nose”, or the flight of household objects—like so many domestic angels—in the ecstatic art of Marc Chagall. There, surrealism is not an outré intellectual assertion in order to shock the bourgeoisie, it comes out of everyday contact with truly Byzantine bureaucracy à la Franz Kafka, or out of connection with sensibilities that tap deep into cultural roots imbedded in pre-Christian Slavic folk tales. Here is an excerpt from “Family Myth,” by Polish poet Rafal Wojaczek, translated by Frank Kujawinski and published in the Spring 1981 issue of Artful Dodge:
That is a sausage.
That is my edible mother.
She hangs on a nickel hook
And smells of smoke. . .
So, would I have ever written many of the poems in Talking Back to the Exterminator without this experience? I doubt it. Here is the opening to “Contact:”
For days the plates waited, little ghosts in the dark,
their tightly packed bodies.
Then the fingers came, and one by one each
was taken away, but never
was the curved edge of the survivors
imagined to be a smile…
The poems in “Talking Back to the Exterminator” certainly show the results of an Illinois farm boy ending up in Poland, and then returning to the American Midwest. But also evident, at least I hope so, is an increasing awareness about environmental concerns. I wished that I could claim this awareness since childhood, but I can’t. Experience, yes, but analysis and interrogation of farming and its interaction—and all of our interactions—with the natural world has not come to me until relatively recently, when I settled into what I call the southwest corner of the northeast corner of Ohio, living with my wife Margaret and son Carter in a renovated brick country school house built in 1895 just outside of the town of Wooster. Here, I must confess that although Ohio doesn’t do mountains or oceans, it is really good at swamps. In fact, my house is located on one of the small upland ridges between the Funk Bottoms and the Killbuck Marsh, two important bird migration wetland stop-overs along the east/central Ohio corridor.
More and more I come to be invested in being able to name the plants and birds around me rather than to worry about the various taxonomies of literature. As a result, I think I’m on my way to writing that long-poem involving sharpening Thoreau’s pencils, and several of my ruminations about human connection and disconnection with nature are present here in Talking Back to the Exterminator. I’ve indeed been so fortunate to teach in the English Department at The College of Wooster, to keep working with numerous young writers and readers in their own literary journeys, but I also was fortunate to be able to participate in the College’s environmental studies program, and to have the opportunity to tag along with colleagues such as Greg Wiles (from Geology) to work on tree-boring (for dendrochronology studies involving climate change) on the steep spruce-covered slopes above a remote lake in the Kenai Peninsula (complete with a sighting of a wolverine and our use of several grazing black bears on a far mountain slope as our evening “television viewing”) and Lyn Loveless (from Biology) on her work with the Erythrina flabelliformis plant in the Chiricahua Mountains in southeastern Arizona and also in the Sonoran Desert in Mexico. In fact, along with my poetry, I’m working on a collection of essays centered on the Henry Mountains of Utah and the surrounding Colorado Plateau titled “The Last Mountains Named,” a reference to the fact that the Henrys were the last mountain range to be “named” in the continental United States, first spied and then christened by John Wesley Powell (after the first Secretary of the newly instituted Smithsonian Institution) on Powell’s second trip of exploration down the Colorado River. Essays from this series have appeared in Slippery Elm and in Canary. I’ve even connected my interests in the environment with my work going on in Poland (though much of this work is destined for my next collection of poetry). Some of my more, shall we say urban friends have been a bit puzzled by my shifting interests, but many others are also increasingly thinking in environmental terms as well, especially my artist friend Wojciech Kołyszko.
Yet, no matter where I’m living, I believe in poetry as a form of interrogation of both myself and the world around me. Or, to put it a little less harshly, these poems are ruminations and reveries on connection and disconnection to place—be it my rural upbringing in southern Illinois or the various homes I have come to know as an adult, living in Ohio, in Poland, and in the American Southwest. This connection to place certainly involves a sense of celebration, but also of anxiety and tension in realizing the fragility and impermanence of both self and place. I also realize that there are limitations to language, as well as power, and some of my poems try to express this lack. Indeed, despite the opportunity as well as the challenge of memory (the way it is continually erased yet also continues to scribble in the brain) I hope to bear witness to the experience of others as well as to investigate and develop a personal mythology of my own. As I write in the opening poem of the collection, “Close Neighbors,” “the yelling coming from their windows / is our yelling too.”
I also want to note these poems have indeed been brewing and brooding for a long time. For example, the first section of the collection ends with “The First of October, We,” a poem written in the direct aftermath of the September 11 attack, but one that looks forward with anxiety to the future: “We want the version of the fable / where we have still survived.” I remember this poem coming to me the moment I had gotten in my car to drive home from work. I was looking in the rear view mirror to back out of my parking spot, and I suddenly realized that this particular day was no longer in September of 2001. It was the first of October, and the trauma that had just happened was no longer just happening now, but would always be a part of our past and our future.
I’m certainly no prophet, but I think the last poem in the collection, “Ant Farm, Ohio,” also prefigures to some degree the reality that would hit our world just a year after it appeared in the Boxcar Poetry Review in 2019. Based on a story from my childhood about a farmer in the early 20th century needing to store in a hillside catacomb until Spring his young children who had died from diphtheria, as I read it now I think it also speaks to our ongoing worries in the recent pandemic—about survival, about contamination, about the dangers of connection: “Each day the community brings to the surface / a crumpled little gift.” Indeed, after seeing the latest loss of life in the ant colony, the couple’s son utters the final words of the collection:
… Which way
will they take him, he says.
Will the ones who touch him
also start to die?
Yet, I always like to remember that Martin Luther once said that even if he knew the world would end tomorrow, he would still plant his apple tree. Likewise, and as the title poem suggests, Talking Back to the Exterminator involves not only a recognition of all the ways we might feel under threat from the world we find ourselves immersed in (for both substantial as well as petty and neurotic reasons), it is also a pushing back—an attempt to confront or cope. There are indeed so many ways the world as we know it can end, but we still might at least struggle to choose the nature of our resignation, and to try as long as possible to taste the sweetness of our world. –Daniel Bourne
Some passages in this autobiographical account first appeared in Poet’s Bookshelf II: Contemporary Poets on Books That Shaped Their Art, Peter Davis and Tom Koontz, Eds., Barnwood Press, Seattle, WA, 2008 (Includes essays by a number of poets, including Robert Bly, Katha Pollitt, Andrei Codrescu, Alicia Ostriker, Alberto Rios, Ted Kooser, and Anselm Hollo.)