• A Camera into the Wilderness of Our Souls: Nick Ripatrazone and Aviya Kushner in Conversation

    Nick Ripatrazone talks with Aviya Kushner about locating prophetic inspiration in poetry. Ripatrazone’s recent Wild Belief: Poets and Prophets in the Wilderness published on May 18, 2021 by Broadleaf Books, and Kushner’s book of poetry Wolf Lamb Bomb published on June 1, 2021 with Orison Books.


    NICK RIPATRAZONE: I’m happy to discover a mutual admirer of the poetic beauty and resonance of Isaiah, whom you’ve described as “the best writer I had ever encountered.” How did you initially arrive at your reading and appreciation of the prophet Isaiah?

    AVIYA KUSHNER: I’m thrilled to have the chance to discuss my favorite writer of all time. I first became fascinated by Isaiah when one of my brothers was preparing for his bar mitzvah; his haftarah portion happened to be Isaiah 40. As he sang it over and over again, I was mesmerized by Isaiah’s masterful use of repetition, his comfort with the imperative, and the tremendous poetic power of that chapter. It’s both thundering and intimate. No matter how many times I heard those verses, the lines moved me. What was your first encounter with Isaiah?

    “Thundering and intimate” is a great way to capture the haunting, paradoxical cadence of Isaiah. Growing up, I first encountered Isaiah through frequent references to him during Mass readings and homilies. Of particular importance was Isaiah 7:14: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign; the young woman, pregnant and about to bear a son, shall name him Emmanuel.” I first understood Isaiah as a prophet; an essential one for Catholics, but that identity tends to place his text within the realm of its typological vision for Christians. Later, I went back to Isaiah himself and, like you, recognized the power of the poetry.

    In Wolf Lamb Bomb, your new book of poems, you begin with an epigraph from the chapter that you previously mentioned, rendered in H.L. Ginsberg’s translation as beginning “A voice rings out: ‘Proclaim!’” How do you envision proclamation as a mode, in the way it relates to poetry in general, and perhaps Isaiah specifically?

    Proclamation as a mode came up in a conversation recently with a poet friend of mine who always has hundreds of poems in his head. He mentioned Stuart Dischell’s wonderful and very concise “Proclamation,” just nine short lines in its entirety:

    The governor will give

    Homeless people sleeping bags,

    Let them stay the night

    On windswept porticos

    Outside his buildings

    Instead of your doorstep.

    I am talking to myself

    With empty rooms

    I cannot bear to live in.

    I also hear proclamation in Paul Celan’s “Count the Almonds,” here in a translation by Pierre Joris:

    Count the almonds,

    count what was bitter and kept you awake,

    count me among them

    These lines also make me think about the line between proclamation and simply using the imperative. Here, Celan is issuing a command — “count the almonds” — but he is also including himself in “count me.” That is in some ways similar to Isaiah saying “Proclaim!” and then shortly afterward, “What shall I proclaim?”

    What I have always loved about these iconic lines is that Isaiah is proclaiming — talking to us, to the future, to eternity — but also talking back to himself. I know Isaiah was important to Celan, and I was moved to read, in John Felstiner’s seminal biography Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew, about snippets of Isaiah written in Hebrew, in Celan’s handwriting, which Felstiner came across in Celan’s papers. I can definitely hear Isaiah’s cadences in Celan.

    I also hear the proclamation tradition in contemporary American poems that begin with some version of the imperative. But to me, that command to oneself to proclaim, to speak, and to have that proclamation set in the wilderness — or in the desert — comes from the prophetic tradition. Speaking of, I was intrigued by how you discuss the wilderness at length in Wild Belief: Poets and Prophets in the Wilderness, and how you acknowledge early on, in the preface, that “the wilderness is arid and it is lush. It is forest and desert.” Why is that contradiction important? Do you think that innate contradiction — arid and lush, forest and desert — is what draws poets to the wilderness, as location and as idea?

    I’m drawn to Raymond Williams’s observation that “All at once nature is innocent, is unprovided, is sure, is unsure, is fruitful, is destructive, is a pure force and is tainted and cursed.” He finds within that tension “the precise moment of the dramatic impulse,” which feels like either the genesis of a poem, or where its core energy resides. In writing the book, I tried to move between writers for whom the wilderness was a place of discord and transcendence, and realized that for some writers, like Gerard Manley Hopkins, it was simultaneously both.

    It fascinates me that “wilderness” is such a pliable word, and the forest and desert duality feels like it offers poets ways to anchor emotions and encounters. In my own perception, I have associated the desert more with prophets — of course Isaiah, but also those like St. Anthony, who almost becomes a prophet in the sense that he has generated so much lore, from biographies to hagiographies to novel-plays, like Gustave Flaubert’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony. He has become an ascetic prototype, the soul tested and perfected in the desert wilderness.

    Maybe it is because I live with the woods behind my house, but I feel the forest wild to be more insular, internal, claustrophobic, and aural, whereas the desert is a dizzying area of horizon, peaks, wind — a place more for the eyes than the ears. Again, this is the power of nature and the wilderness: it bends toward our mortal vision, but it also transcends us.

    That sense of play between the eternal and the ephemeral is something I see you do in several sequences within your book, including “Talking Back to Isaiah,” in which the narrator begins “Oh man, let me be—” and explains to the prophet “I have heard the throaty prophecy. / Your words have snaked across centuries, / crossed canyons and chasms, / have gone from man to girl to woman; / your roar has reached its destination. / Lie back now, lie back.” In addition to the crisp imagery and voice, there’s a sense of play and participation here between you, the narrator, and the prophet. How was this experience of being in conversation with such a grand, transcendent poetic (and prophetic) voice?

    I was consumed by Isaiah for years. I read Isaiah all the time, and eventually I found myself “talking back” to Isaiah casually, writing down riffs in a Panera Bread in Iowa City on yellow legal pads, or considering a response while mowing the lawn, or chopping vegetables. I would almost forget just how powerful Isaiah was as a poet, and then I would come across a line or a phrase that would jolt me back into that realization. And I would feel intimidated, and then I wrote through that feeling.

    I have to say that Isaiah felt very close, nearby. Isaiah felt contemporary. But sometimes, I returned to some passage in the original Hebrew, and I would notice something I hadn’t noticed, even if I had read a chapter a hundred times before. I would encounter an ancient phrase that wowed me. And then, in those moments, I felt the eternal nature of Isaiah, the grandeur, the magnificence, and yes, that ability to transcend time.

    Sometimes the encounter with Isaiah felt like hand-to-hand combat, a struggle for the right to write. I also thought a lot about being a woman as I read and reread Isaiah, and as I talked back. Isaiah is male, and in the synagogues I grew up in, only men chanted the prophetic portions aloud. I asked myself who has the right to say what, and in what way. I thought about loudness, anger, and silence. And then I sort of included Isaiah in that conversation, in that questioning. Recently, my mother pointed out that every prophet has some moment of “accepting” the mantle of prophecy–and so perhaps Isaiah was the perfect conversation partner for the question of whether poetry was possible, whether I could do it.

    But at other times, it was fun — and I felt that I was laughing with Isaiah, my old friend. I was trying to figure out how to become a writer, and for years, I was surrounded by people who were reading contemporary literature all the time. I felt that some of the stakes were too low; that poetry was life and death, that it had to engage with the very depths of human experience — and also with its heights. I remember thinking of just how far Iowa was from Jerusalem, not just in terms of physical distance but in terms of what I had seen, what humans were actually capable of. The Midwest felt safe, but deceptively safe; I already knew that a bomb could end me, in an instant. I had seen violence, and its aftermath.

    In Isaiah, the stakes are high. The landscape is vast, and it evokes eternity. It is both beautiful and terrifying. Both the “wilderness” and the “desert” appear in Isaiah, sometimes in the same verse — as in Isaiah 40:3, here in H.L. Ginsberg’s translation:

    A voice rings out:

    Clear in the desert

    A road for the Lord!

    Level in the wilderness

    A highway for our God!

    But perhaps what is most fascinating about that verse is its ambition, its strength, its sense of something larger than the speaker. Those are the qualities that drew me to Isaiah, and that always brought me back. I wanted to learn how to do that. Throughout Wild Belief, I sense a similar interest in what is larger than the individual. I especially loved the quote you chose from Thomas McGuane: “An important part of life, maybe the most important part, is the quest by each of us to discover something we believe to be more worthy and permanent than we are individually.”

    You note there that “it is possible that he is speaking not only of family and of writing but also of wilderness.” I wonder if you could say more about that, about the quest for something “more worthy and permanent than we are individually.” Do you see that quest for something larger as the common denominator between poetry, prophecy, and wilderness? And perhaps, something that can never be conquered completely?

    That’s a lovely quote from McGuane, and I think it is present in his fiction and essays, especially the further he gets from his sclerotic and sarcastic early work. You’re right that this search for something larger is the link between poetry, prophecy, and wilderness. I think poetry is language at its most ambitious, both in terms of resonance and economy of language (poets tend to do more with less). Prophecy is ambitious by nature; there are few things less compelling than a measured prophet. The wilderness is radically present: expansive, multiplying, capable of creating its own atmosphere.

    I’m especially drawn to McGuane’s framing of the wilderness as “more worthy” than us. That feels like a challenge to me; it doesn’t take much thought to acknowledge that the mountains and the rivers will outlast me, but the reminder that those wild spaces are more worthy and essential than me is the beautifully humbling truth.

    Here we have a few wildlife cameras set up in the woods to capture glances at passing foxes, bears, deer, bobcats, and coyotes. I follow a foot-worn path back there, cross a narrow piece of wood that spans across a brook, and check the camera a few times a week. The other day I was there after a heavy rain, and the forest blared green. The brook churned, the birds sang, the deer rustled in the distance. One side of the brook is marshy, and littered with skunk cabbage — curled red-brown, they pushed through a late snow, and now have given way to their wide, long green leaves that curl back to the ground.

    I leaned against the tree where the camera is tied to the trunk and tried to take in as many of the plants as possible, but it was overwhelming. It felt like a reverent fear of sorts; my eyes and my mind couldn’t handle it, and I felt so insignificant. Rain still dripped from the trees, and the brook continued on its steady route. I was an uninvited guest.

    That type of distortion and pleasant confusion gets me on trail runs in the woods, or if I head off a state forest path and drift through the brush for a while. In those moments, I always think the same thing: why would I want to experience anything else than this? In a related way, what are the secrets of the wild that the domestic world — beautiful in its own way — inevitably must pale in grandeur?

    Perhaps that is the space of poetry. Maybe poets of the wilderness seek to capture, however imperfectly, that distorted self. After spending time with the poets and storytellers of the wild in writing this book, I’m more convinced than ever that we need them — and, maybe the wilderness benefits from their songs. It makes me think of a poem late in your collection, when the narrator writes of a man “who had his tongue cut out / of his mouth at Auschwitz, which sent // him into a life without sound, a sentence / of being misunderstood.” The poem ends with a prayer of sorts: “God, take it all, control the land / rule over me all my life, but don’t take / that, no, no, don’t cut my tongue out, not that.”

    Reflecting now on the journey of your book, where has your poetic tongue brought you?

    Poetry has brought me comfort. It has taught me what I didn’t know, what I didn’t suspect, what I didn’t realize that I believed. That learning is often very slow, happening word by word over years and decades. I always feel that poems know more than I do — that they see in a way that is only accessible in poetry. That sight is rooted in something about the way lines are arranged on a page, about the interplay between words and silence, language and breath.

    I love the idea of a wildlife camera. I think poetry can be a sort of camera into the wilderness of our souls. I find this is especially true on rereading, whether it is a great poem I know well or a draft of a poem of my own that I have abandoned. I reread a poem and realize something I never would have realized without it.

    Sometimes that realization is terrifying.

    I knew the man with his tongue cut out all my life — I used to see him in the playground when I was growing up, trying to communicate with the neighborhood children by waving his arms and making sounds, but only in poetry was I able to talk about him directly. I think that the space between Hebrew and English, and my hard-won comfort with it, let me write that poem. “Tongue” in Hebrew is lashon — a literal tongue but also a language, and only by moving back and forth across languages was I able to feel what not having any language might mean.

    That idea is present in English as well, with the idea of a “mother tongue”. It acknowledges that language lives in us, that it is a kind of body — that it is as physical as a body part. And to answer your beautiful question, I think “poetic tongue” has given me a language — a space, a wilderness that I do and don’t understand. It has let me speak about the unspeakable, and what I could not even acknowledge was unspeakable.

    “Poetic tongue” is a way of talking about the world in all its wilderness — physical and figurative. It is a tongue that is often freed from the responsibility of clarity that comes with prose. Instead, poetry is a way of being. It is a way of claiming your own tongue, even if it has been cut out, literally or figuratively. And it is a way for the small child who tried to communicate with a kind, waving, tongueless man near the swings and the monkey bars to find a way to describe him, and to allow herself to face what he meant.