Susan Sink recently interviewed poet Marjorie Stelmach about Falter, her fifth collection of poems (Cascade Books, 2017). Previous volumes include Bent upon Light, A History of Disappearance, and Without Angels. Her first book, Night Drawings, received the Marianne Moore Prize from Helicon Nine Editions. She was recently awarded the 2016 Chad Walsh Poetry Prize from The Beloit Poetry Journal and her work has appeared in Arts & Letters, Boulevard, Image, The Iowa Review, among others. Marjorie was a participant in the summer 2011 writing workshop “Believing in Writing: A Week with Michael Dennis Browne” at the Collegeville Institute.
These poems seem to be linked from beginning to end, not a random group on different topics. How did this manuscript come together?
The subject of faith and doubt has followed me throughout my work. Back when my first volume of poems, Night Drawings (1994), was chosen by David Ignatow to receive the Marianne Moore Prize, I was stunned to learn from his introduction that I had written “a prayerful book.”
Wait! My poems were prayerful? I was, at that point in my life, after a childhood of faithful Sunday attendance punctuated by loss after loss of people I loved, a full-throated doubter. I had given up on prayer. Had I, unbeknownst to myself, begun talking to God through my poems? And did I want that? Could faith and doubt co-exist in me without invalidating my intelligence or my honesty?
It turns out that they can and do, and yes, I’m still writing prayers, often against my will because I know that prayer is a dangerous material to work with—in or out of poems. But, after all these years, I also know I’m not fully in charge of where my poems take me. I may start writing about a childhood game or horses in a field or gingko trees, but soon I find myself drawing on the vocabulary of the faith I was raised in, and I end up with a psalm or a lament or a parable.
In putting together the manuscript, two forces guided me: the title poem, “Falter,” which I worked on for several years, maybe longer, and the epigraph from Kierkegaard with its claim that the task of seeking is, first of all a task, and secondly, adequate for a lifetime. I had written poems in a variety of voices, my own voice among them, each one deeply conflicted. The voices were variously responding to a divine mystery that is somehow the most real thing in their lives. I’m wise enough now to know, without David Ignatow’s prodding, that these voices proclaiming their various dodges and doubts qualify as prayer. So Falter, it seems, is a book of prayers, flawed and faltering and figuring out their way as they go. It was my intent that they become more settled, more self-accepting, and maybe even wiser as the pages turn.
I’m so interested in what feels like a tension between living in the physical world and seeking a “transcendent” faith. That seems like a dark tension throughout the book, with sometimes both the physical world and faith losing. What are your thoughts about the ability for us to connect to God in and through the world?
First, you’ve stated the tension well. So many paths. First, for me, was love of the One who created the natural world. Later, Via Negativa had great appeal to me and still does. So does contemplative prayer. I’m a ravenous and rather undisciplined reader, and I’ve brought that hunger to the books of God: creation and the holy word. Also what’s written in the heart. Finally, the community of the well-intentioned. I give total allegiance to each of these paths.
This physical world breaks my heart with beauty and horror pretty equally and I try to look well and honestly at both. Too often, though, I fail to attend to the beauty or find myself shutting out the horror, seeking instead a transcendent God. And you’re right, it’s a “dark tension.” This motley world is what we’ve got, so we try out our various grips—our senses and emotions and intellects and intuitions and in the end, our lives run out, as Kierkegaard promised, without arriving at a conclusion. Not a bad way, though, to spend a life.
And maybe it works this way because the connection is God’s to accomplish, which doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. See? Another irreconcilable duality I nevertheless stubbornly insist upon.
In the title poem, “Falter,” which makes up the central section of the book, you ask the question the desert fathers asked: “What should we do to please God?” You say your answer is: “align yourself with whatever remnant falters forward/ pronounce it good, keep pace.” Can you tell me a bit more about this “faltering”?
Yes, that question asked by the desert fathers (desert mothers, too) seems the same question you asked above: how do we connect with God or with God’s purpose.
My answers are always tentative. My answer in that poem is alignment with a path — which is, as the poem goes on to say, probably “too easy” an answer. But if you believe that there is Purpose in the universe, as I do, and that your part is very small, then simply to keep faltering forward is sometimes all a person can manage. I was raised a Christian, and I believe that the remnants of our faith have stumbled through this world for a long time. Sometimes, all I can do is trust them. That’s the “align yourself” part.
In an early section of the poem, I point out that the desert fathers themselves offer answers that contradict themselves, as if they were saying: “Try this. It might work for you. And if not, well, maybe this.” That’s the faltering part.
People who are certain frighten me; they have shut too many doors, maybe one I’ll need, or one God might need. There are not a lot of doors in a desert, which makes it a good place to learn to stop being quite so certain and pick up again the task of seeking.
The narrator comes face to face with mortality as the first section draws to a close. She argues with her very literal heart, which will one day (maybe sooner rather than later) fail. Later she speaks to that heart again in “Coin for the Crossing.” How does faith answer or speak to mortality? How does poetry answer?
Yes, in those poems, the dark is growing. If you live a while in this world, you can’t help but realize we lose everything we love, everyone we love, even our selves. When we begin to know this—dimly, off and on—our relationship with our embodied self changes. We feel imperiled. We are imperiled. For me, this consciousness of brevity—and the terrified ardor for all that will be lost—sets me to talking to my heart.
My current work is more and more involved with this dialogue of self and soul. The word soul, though, I’m not sure of. So: my Heart. I take a reasoned, seasoned tone with this heart, but more and more as these new poems progress, the heart does seem to have her reasons, too. I’m still working on these, but what seems to be true in this book and in the new work is that when I speak to my heart I try to be honest, try to be faithful.
My mother died when I was ten and I’m told her final words were, “I feel so awake.” Later in my only dream of her in which she spoke, in a scene of some peril in which I could cause great damage to us both, she said, “Nothing you do could be wrong.” I’ve been wrestling with how to make these two nearly mythic statements function in my life. I want to be conscious; I want to be brave. I don’t want to be wrong. I don’t want to look foolish. I don’t want to hurt anyone. But I have to do something. What?
I’m working on it. Through poems, through caregiving for my stepmother who has Alzheimer’s, through my reading, through living daily with my husband of almost half a century, I’m working on it. But I’m still going to die. Faith isn’t going to ease the sorrow of leaving, I don’t imagine. My stepmother is a faithful believer, and she’s deeply sad for much of the time. So faith doesn’t seem an antidote to fear or sorrow. What it seems to be is a truth that I’ve built into my heart and my mind over years. Or that I was born with.
Your lines are spare and it feels to me like you always say just enough. What is your revision process like?
What a very generous comment. The fact is that I always say far too much because I keep writing, waiting to say what I mean. And that makes brutal revision essential. I once figured out from a file drawer of sequential drafts that my poems take, on average, a little over two years of pretty constant working and reworking before they are completed. It was my intention back then to get more efficient. I’ve gotten less efficient, of course. Even poems that have been published often change dramatically before they appear in a collection.
I have many poems “in the works” at the same time and work through the stack, editing in pencil, transferring the changes to computer, printing the new version, then placing it on the bottom of the stack. Next poem. And on and on. I love revising. I learn so much. Sometimes I even learn what it was I was trying to get at. I also have a few dear, trusted readers (Barbara Crooker, Jane O. Wayne, Allison Funk) with whom I exchange work as we near “final” drafts. They are invaluable.
You end the book with candles burning down—and gratitude. It’s a very tenuous place to end after everything that comes before. How do you feel about that ending? Where are you now?
That final poem’s final line refers to “the sacred reduction of matter to gratitude.” And I’m talking about a tree. Someday we’ll understand that the trees have their own consciousness and, I think, their own worship, just as limited and lovely and poignant as ours. They breathe without knowing they are sustaining our lives. We breathe mostly without knowing we are sustaining theirs. When I do stop to think about this “reciprocal” flame we create and about the incredibly fragile and intricate web of giving and receiving that we are living out here on Earth, it seems that gratitude is in order.
We are mostly not awake to these exchanges. We sleep, too, through most of the ongoing awfulness creatures here endure. Maybe we’ll get more aware, but in terms of that poem’s ending, I can only bear it because it is part of my faith to know that it isn’t the ending.
Kierkegaard assures me that my personal faith journey will last out my lifetime, which is great, but my personal faith journey is hardly the point. I believe that this is an unimaginably long journey we are on. And I insist that it is—for our species, our Earth, our universe, our multi-verse perhaps—a spiritual journey, although we are matter. Matter reduced, in the end, to gratitude? That would be, I believe, a beautiful ending.