Taije Silvermans’s poems “Ways to Say Luck” and “Who the Letters Were From” appear in the autumn 2017 issue of The Southern Review. Hear Silverman read the poems in our audio gallery here; read more about the inspiration behind the poems, as well as Silverman’s thoughts on the randomness of love, the language of self and distance, and her current projects, below.
Kathleen Boland: What inspired “Ways to Say Luck” and “Who the Letters Were From”?
Taije Silverman: “Ways to Say Luck” was inspired by the man on the street who opens the poem. The vacant cathedral against which the woman sleeps is actually on Broad Street in South Philly. I’d gone out for a bike ride one night, and I stopped to ask if they wanted food. The man was totally coherent when we first spoke, but when I came back with burgers he had become too absorbed in a discussion with the moon to acknowledge me. He didn’t seem angry at it, exactly; it was as if either he or the moon had done something truly outrageous and together they were trying to understand why.
Ten years earlier I had fallen in love with someone, but we hadn’t spoken to each other for a decade. That night, I rode home from Broad Street wondering if what we had felt for each other back then would still hold, or if it wouldn’t be any more real now than a talking moon. When I reached my house, I found he’d written to me. The line “Who knows how many moons of distance / separate us by now” is from his e-mail. Instead of writing him back, I started this poem.
“Who the Letters Were From” has a sillier backstory. I’d been visiting a close friend when I wrote this poem. She had begun to tell me about something that happened to her by describing “This guy I used to know . . . a friend of mine . . . my ex-husband . . .” I started laughing too hard to let her finish. We were with another friend who had just learned her husband was having an affair with a pregnant woman. He was a great baker, and he did love Jaw Breakers. I had also just come back from a Fulbright in Italy, teaching at a poetry center whose director was pathologically addicted to seduction. He was similarly passionate about abortion, and he sometimes introduced poetry readings by explaining that the word embrione leads to the murder of unborn children. Neither the legitimate drama nor the absurdity in our relationships seem to give an inch to each other, and the belligerence between them probably sparked this poem.
KB: Both poems are meditations on how language controls perspective, memory, and relationships. There’s also a theme of dislocation, both literally and structurally; “Ways to Say Luck” travels across geography and generations, while “Who the Letters Were From” roams among different attributes and vignettes. How do you believe dislocation interacts with language, especially in these poems?
TS: I think dislocation is the source for language. The sensation of being uprooted—whether physically or emotionally—prompts us to speak. Longing, too, is a dislocation that inspires the language we use to express it. Time dislocates longing further. The dislocations in my friend’s description of “this guy I used to know—a friend of mine—my ex-husband” reflect the trajectory of their relationship.
KB: In “Ways to Say Luck,” the poem explores the meaning of symbols: “I have tried to explain to my students / that we share only symbols and how / the word symbol is also a symbol.” There is particular focus on the moon, and what moon means to both the speaker and her family. What would be the poem’s definition of this symbol? Yours?
TS: The mention of symbols came from a class I had taught that week on Randall Jarrell’s wondrous poem, “Seele im Raum.” Its title is taken from Rilke, and it translates as “soul in space.” Jarrell’s narrator describes this huge esoteric animal (an eland, which is a kind of antelope) who politely eats at the dining table with the narrator’s family and has “been there always.” The eland’s presence is at once dream-bound and quotidian, as the narrator doubts the animal’s existence yet doubts the existence of everything but the animal. So the eland comes to symbolize the impossibility of the other in relation to the self, and the resulting uncertainty of the self: “that raw thing, the being inside it / That has neither a wife, a husband, nor a child.” When I wrote that “any heavily breathing / and darkly warm beast is a symbol,” I was thinking of Jarrell’s eland, but I wanted the reference to be a loose one, not referring back to his poem but toward the homeless couple’s version of family and toward my own.
The moon is a symbol for so many things—it’s even a symbol for what a common symbol it is. The poet’s go-to. But it’s “that raw thing” too—a cluster of rocks that is 239,000 miles from Earth, reflecting sunlight. I think we use the moon to express how we come together and pull apart because of its constancy, and because of its changeability, and because of its roundness. Maybe we want it to represent that dichotomy between self and other because it reflects something so much stronger.
KB: In “Who the Letters Were From,” the speaker discusses Gaelic rhyme schemes, stating, “changing the placement / of any one word means reducing / the poem to nonsense.” The poem also features heavy use of disjunctions: em dashes, “or,” and interline contradictions. Could you discuss the relationship, if any, between these word choices and the theme of nonsense, or instability?
TS: To me, so much of romantic attraction seems nonsensical. I combined the details of a few romantic histories to imply how random they seem in hindsight—the syntactic disjunctions evoke the preposterously specific and unpredictable turns that lead us to what we’ll love and what we’ll stop loving. The fiction that there’s one person in some way fated for us overlaps, I think, with the broader fiction of narrative: that there is a beginning, middle, and end to experience. No life or love affair really fits the shape of a singular story; they’re interrupted by the em dash and the “or,” which are the actual substance of how we interact with and how we feel about people.
Mostly I was just having fun with sounds. “Baby” and “maybe” are a sweetly troubling rhyme—troubling because those two words shouldn’t have anything to do with each other, and yet they do. Most of us came into existence accidentally.
KB: You do a lot of translation work, particularly with Italian. How does this influence your work in English, or your understanding of language as an artistic medium?
TS: Actually, the title “Ways to Say Luck” references translation. I began to learn Italian after my mother was diagnosed with a brain tumor. That man “I loved once” had written to wish us luck at the biopsy, and he used a particular Italian idiom: “in bocca al lupo.” I had never heard it before. Colloquially the expression means “good luck,” as he explained to me, but literally it translates as “in the mouth of the wolf.” And instead of saying thank you, you respond with “crepi il lupo,” which means “may the wolf be killed.” This was a new kind of luck for me, the fearless and decimating kind that makes a weapon out of resilience. I have since experienced other kinds of luck.
At the time, learning Italian felt lifesaving. I couldn’t say “my mother died,” but I could say “mia madre non c’è.” The distance engendered by the translated version of the statement gave me a moment to breathe, before its meaning arrived. In the mother tongue, no space exists between meaning and sound: you understand language instantly and within the body. And the body isn’t large enough to understand all that it experiences.
The lack of equivalency between languages demands that language expand, and the meaning it articulates expands with it. “Mia madre non c’è” doesn’t translate into “my mother died” but rather “my mother isn’t.” So the word “died” develops into something broader and perhaps more amenable to the mysterious.
KB: What are you working on now?
TS: I’ve just finished translating a book of poetry by an Italian poet, and I am organizing my own second book of poems. I’ve also been scribbling notes about Charlottesville, where I grew up. My imaginary border between the personal and political got zapped beyond imaginary recovery this year. I think I’m writing about that conflation, and about the terrible difference between safety and the feeling of being safe. Maybe I’m just working on a reassuring theory for how we’ll get through this . . . presidency? This reckoning with our white supremacist foundation? This psychopathic approach to global warming? I’m working on changing my understanding of endings.
Taije Silverman’s first book of poetry is Houses Are Fields. Recent work appears in Ploughshares, the 2016 Pushcart Prize anthology, and the 2016 and 2017 editions of Best American Poetry. She lives in Philadelphia.
Kathleen Boland is a recent graduate of LSU’s MFA program, where she served as the 2016-2017 editorial assistant of The Southern Review and received the 2017 Robert Penn Warren Thesis Award. Her work has appeared in Paper Darts, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and Tin House online. She now lives in Portland, Oregon, and works for Counterpoint Press and Catapult Books.
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