Dear pink genital, you alone oblige me.
no one writes. This hand is tired,
I tell the sky. Where is the fleet, where
the horizon? I can hardly lift my
to see the small, sand-colored shapes
waving from their buggies like maggots.
It's a picture from childhood,
that faraway, that sweet.
Dear old friend, all this time it was you
calling my name in strange places.
Dear physic, I'm sicker than you are strong.
Bring word to your brothers and sisters:
the villagers are hostile
and inside me.
Somewhere in the distance there's fire.
Your green Arcadian hills do not
The bird-bright eyes of every bird cared for,
the way it is promised, the way it is written,
fat on their share of sun and seed.
But I don't see you
in the dark streak of a cat
crossing the street or the regal skunk in summer's heat
that strolls the sidewalk after
dark, stopping to look at me
before moving on to its home under a neighbor's porch,
pushing its black-white weight
through the latticework.
I don't see you in a head of
and wet at the grocery store, singing in Orphic dissonance.
I look at your trees and see the
night my mind rose up
and left the body's bed, the skin of the moon
in your teeth.
I begged you to make the mule of my mind
come back. Do you remember what you said?
Nothing. And in the
silence after that--
my head without my body, singing on the riverbed.
The Nihilist Takes a Bow
A rigged coin toss concludes.
Nero plays a happy tune
on his portable radio.
He keeps winking at me
from his wicker wheelchair, pointing to his lap.
Someone takes my photograph
from behind a potted plant
puts it on the Internet. Is this my fantasy?
It's so small and cross-eyed.
I press my face into the Astroturf.
The stage is strewn with my body.
From miles away I can still see
you--crowned and bloated, consulting a mirror
on the status of the future
of your hairline.
the Autopsy of Vaslav Nijinsky, selected by Guest Editor Phillip B. Williams
is the author of At the Autopsy of Vaslav Nijinsky (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2013). In a 2011
interview with The Collagist, Lowe expressed her interest in figures “who are rejected by the same social
groups for which they’re expected to perform.” Her poetry is accordingly concerned with those who feel they are both
looked at and invisible, who are exploited yet remain deeply unknown. She is the recipient of a "Discovery”/Boston
Review prize and received the 2011 Rona Jaffe Foundation Fellowship to attend the MacDowell Colony, and has been
a scholar and a fellow at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Since 2009, Lowe’s poems have appeared in American
Poetry Review, Ploughshares, Best American Poetry 2011, Boston Review, The New Republic, and Parnassus, among
other publications. She is a graduate of Syracuse University’s MFA Program and Beloit College, and currently lives
in Kansas City, Missouri, where she was born.
A Review of Bridget Lowe's At the
Autopsy of Vaslav Nijinsky by Lucy Biederman, first published at Kenyon Review
when Betty Draper shot at the neighbor’s birds, in the first season of Mad Men? With her cigarette hanging
out of her mouth, in her gauzy nightgown, she looked so maternal and sexual. She was horrible, glorious, and bored. The
episode ended to the music of her rifle shots, then a golden oldie started playing, the credits rolled, and of course no
one, not Don or anyone else, ever mentioned the incident.
scene takes place in the same neighborhood as Bridget Lowe’s poems. This neighborhood is far from the major, clearly
marked thoroughfares of what Yeats called “passionate intensity,” and it is in neighborhoods like these, knotty
and off-map, where, I imagine, most of us spend most of our days.
Lying awake after I first read At the Autopsy
of Vaslav Nijinksy, I kept hearing the poems in my mind’s ear, gross and pretty and weird. Lowe has zero interest
in weirdness for the sake of weirdness, but there is some weird shit in here: “God is a mathematician and in my dreams
/ I’m held down while my head is wrapped in netting / and strangers lick between my legs and laugh”; water trickling
out of the “stony baby dick” of the cherub in the fountain at the mall.
Vaslav Nijinksy is Lowe’s first
book, but the authority she asserts as the driver of these poems is a fearful thing, all the more so for all the disguises
it wears. Here, for example, are the final lines of the poem “Prayer”:
I tear my garment in my
in my love, O, Lord, your name is like a bird
in me, your name is like a bird which imitates
but does not truly
In the space of these four lines, Lowe builds a monument to a Lord whose very existence she then tears apart, leaving
imitation—less than nothing—in its wake. Susan Sontag once said it was the easiest thing in the world for her
to pay attention; if anything, she said, she had “Attention Surplus Disorder.” Lowe is in no danger of such diagnosis.
In the lines above, she extinguishes the flame of her own rapture so economically that not even the smell of smoke remains.
Many of the poems in this volume do like “Prayer” and jolt you awake from the very spells they cast, continually
and insistently refusing a too-easy sense of beauty and wonder.
Like Plath, Lowe has a mind that seeks and finds
the chink in the china, the white lie in the master narrative. And so the book’s animating, recurring myths and characters—the
wild boy of Aveyron, the pilgrim, the forgotten actress—retain a certain unlikelihood, as if Lowe herself does not
believe in them as anything other than poem-making devices. Even the Internet, which holds our eyes steady all day, seems
boring in Lowe’s poems:
Someone takes my photograph
from behind a potted plant
it on the Internet. Is this my fantasy?
It’s so small and cross-eyed,
she writes in “The Nihilist Takes a Bow.”
This is not the Internet of brand-new lit journals and YouTube, with all its glittery possibilities for fame and its endless
new items of interest. The Internet seems, instead, as “small and cross-eyed” as the speaker’s fantasy,
just another mild wind extinguishing Lowe’s rapture.
The condition of girl- and womanhood is a fatal one—and
mortality and fatalism are never far from the minds and voices of Lowe’s female speakers. They efface themselves almost
literally, dressing up in confidence and, like the forgotten actress, smiling through a shame they find slightly delightful.
“She could fashion a noose from a hair bow,” Lowe writes in “State Line.” The poem titled “Whatever
You Thought Your Body to Be” implies, but never quite says, you were wrong. The body, like a lover, is untrustworthy:
“see it out walking, forgetting your name.” “Eat Not the Heart, Neither the Brain” ends with the
But listen to me when I tell you
the soul is best avoided.
Or don’t. Who am I
to warn you
of what you’ll suffer.
The poem offers an operatic conclusion, and then an equally dramatic reversal
of that conclusion that undermines the authority of the speaker who has taught us to trust her—or does it? “Who
am I,” the speaker asks, but the lack of question mark at the end of the sentence might be the real story. Under the
banner of that seeming self-effacement, the speaker asserts and withholds her knowledge “of what you’ll suffer,”
leaving it to hang like a knife.
The psychic space in which the speakers in these poems consider their relationships—and the intricate, surprising
sounds with which Lowe portrays those considerations—refuse to give up their mystery. The first poem in the book,
“Poem for Virginia as Joan of Arc,” is one of the book’s most phonically and lyrically enthralling, every
line like a shot arrow (or maybe one of Betty Draper’s rifle shots). Here is part of it:
Alone you stood and flickered in the
alone you stood on stage.
The dog stepped
the television throbbed
comfort, beacon for your bed-boat.
In the basement your father’s waders
Hung on a hook, and, even out of water,
Held the shape of a man
You held the shape of a windowpane,
And what sights it showed you, things it demanded!
is most easily readable here, familiarly suburban, only drives the strangeness deeper. The first couplet, for example, clearly
presents a pair of places in which the poem’s starring “you” has stood alone. But even in the inverted
syntax of “alone you stood,” Lowe begins to unmoor us; and by the end of that line, as the subject of the poem
“flickered in the kitchen,” she has called into question where—in what world—this poem takes place.
The vectors of slant rhyme and alliteration within and across nearly every line, beginning with flickered/kitchen, suggest
a secret meaning, some code or form imbedded but unknown. There is a horribly fathomless Something, an X, running through
the center of the book. That Something runs not against the grain of Lowe’s extreme precision of language,
but through it.
Layers of reality and illusion swarm around each other in Vaslav Nijinksy, but where other poets might
slip out the back door during the confusion, Lowe locates moral centers and beating hearts. In “The Forgotten Actress
as Contestant on Dancing With the Stars,” Lowe uses waltzing tercets to depict the actress’s “sublime”
experience performing in front of an audience and judges. The final lines unsettle each other, one after the other. The
judges deliver a low score and “Cruelty came / like a surreal joke. The audience cheered / for more. You liked it.”
The great surprise here is not the low score, not the “surreal joke” of the audience’s excitement at the
actress’s failure, but, in a jolt that is all the more jarring for its complexity, that the actress “liked it.”
“It” meaning the whole shebang—the dancing, the cruelty, the joke of it all, the audience celebrating her
failure, the spectacle. Lowe’s expertly controlled language conveys the emotional perversion of this scene; the actress
didn’t love it, which might suggest an ability to subvert or control the role she’d been given. The
poem doesn’t even give her that. She merely liked it. There is bravery in Lowe’s focus on emotions besides love
and hate, in the rigor and ruthlessness with which she describes, instead, disappointment, disgust, humiliation, and mild
surprise (“eating a candy bar while staring at the moon”). We waste our days on those feelings, too.
of the poems in the book take place in settings that recalls those of poets like Lucie Brock-Broido and Karen Volkman, whom
Stephen Burt has categorized as elliptical. Lowe uses phonic invention and association to create an otherworldly, romantic
effect. For example, here is the first stanza of “Leitmotif”:
I was devoted, I sat at your feet.
I called a photograph of a telephone
twenty times a day asking for you, for you, for you.
space of this poem, Lowe, as Broido and Volkman tend to do in their poems, creates an airtight dreamscape in which pure devotion
is possible. Instead of a telephone, there is “a photograph of a telephone.” Only at such a far distance from
the recognizable social world can one devote oneself like a saint. Calling someone twenty times a day in real life is creepy;
in the hothouse world of this poem, it is a symbol of devotion, and devotion is love. But the poem has a hard core of emotional
resonance—responsibility, even. “Leitmotif” ends with the lines,
When I awoke, I met a statue with
It was as if no time had passed at all.
I bowed. I began
a polite conversation about weather.
The lush romanticism of the poem’s first stanza (for
you, for you, for you) contrasts with the ascetic simplicity of its final moments, particularly that quotidian final
line. In these last lines, Lowe vanishes the dreamscape she has built. In the world of awkward humans, “a polite conversation
about weather” disappointingly, tragically, replaces the beautifully desperate adoration in which the speaker, and
the reader, too, had indulged.
Lowe is a magician in reverse—no, not quite that: she is an anti-magician. Instead of sawing the woman in
half at the end of the show, Lowe shows the audience the secret panel. In the title poem, an undefined “they”
look for some explanation in the great dancer’s feet for his extraordinary abilities. They “searched inside the
gristle / for a machine, / a motor and spring, the wheel,” but find, of course, a regular foot. As the poet at the
autopsy, it is Lowe’s self-appointed task to say out
loud that there is no magic in that foot. The poems in this book impart that terrible knowledge. They go deep, beyond the
beauty and the ugliness, as T.S. Eliot instructs, to “the boredom, and the horror, and the glory.”
Click here to
read an interview with Bridget Lowe at 32 Poems
An Interview with Bridget Lowe by Peter Mishlet, first published at Parnassus: Poetry in Review
Peter Mishler: In your first collection of poems At the Autopsy of Valsav Nijinsky you
write from the perspective of a number of public figures. How did you choose these subjects?
Bridget Lowe: I honestly don’t
feel like I did choose these subjects. It always seems to happen naturally for me. It was at the thrift store where I found
the case study called The Wild Boy of Aveyron, and at a yard sale where I found the diaries of Nijinsky. I have
been going to the thrift store my whole life, and I am a big believer in its powers to deliver me what I need. And even
after finding the books, I didn’t think of how I could use them exactly. I just became a bit obsessed with each book
and wrote in response to what I was reading. But once it becomes clear to me that I am writing a lot about a particular person,
I do make the conscious choice to try to maintain a balance of just enough information with not enough information. I don’t
want to quantify these figures––I want to understand them. I don’t believe information always leads
to knowing. And I think because it is me writing and not them, the poems are more about me than them. I don’t
think I could deny that, even if I’ve wanted to sometimes.
PM: What voices or experiences are you drawn to in your reading?
BL: I’m drawn to voices
that feel authentic and idiosyncratic, some of my favorite writers being Montaigne, Girolamo Cardano, and Sir Thomas Browne.
I’m attracted to the voices of those who insist on their humanness, sometimes in spite of people or forces around them
trying to deny them that. I love reading firsthand accounts of saints, people who have come close to or encountered the
ecstatic and want to describe it to you, as an individual reader—I love being directly addressed on the page. On the
other hand, I love the clinical text or voice, the doctor’s assessment. I am drawn to both the subject of assessment
as well the assessor, which I think is clear when reading the book.
Something else that comes to mind is a song I
remember my dad singing when I was growing up called ‘Danny Farrell.’ The song is a catalogue of this particular
man’s failings, a portrait of an alcoholic and all the damage he’s done. But the chorus of the song, after going
through all of his failures, concludes with ‘but Danny Farrell, he’s a man.’ I think the book is concerned
with similar questions about what makes someone a person and not something else. And I’m interested in these questions
because I don’t know what that something is; no one does. I’m also aware of how naïve this sounds—but
I’m stuck on it and so tend to read accordingly.
PM: In your poem ‘Antoine-Laurent
Lavoisier and Wife, Posing with Scientific Instruments Just Before He is Beheaded,’ you write from the perspective
of Lavoisier’s wife. Why did you choose to write about her?
BL: I didn’t begin the poem with a particular interest in her, actually; I was drawn to her
through reading about her husband’s work on oxygen in the blood. The book, which was part of a set of vintage reference
books on the human body, illustrated Lavoisier’s work with the painting by Jacques-Louis David that’s in the
Met, ‘Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier and His Wife.’ They look very happy together, very unified. in a mutual tenderness
and creativity. She is sort of flanking him from behind and he looks pensive and distracted. But the moment portrays,
to me, a genuine intimacy between them. I was drawn most of all to this intimacy. This poem is a love poem, plain and simple.
I wondered, what if all of his work was really just to impress her, or for her in some way? In that ‘schoolyard love’
PM: Your book includes several
poems in which you return to specific subjects (Nijinsky the Wild Boy, The Pilgrim, Sean Young). Do you see this poem
as part of a series that a reader can follow throughout the collection?
BL: Yes and no. While, yes, there are several figures in the book who recur, Lavoisier and his
wife only appear in this single poem, so in that sense this poem isn’t part of a series. But the book works as a collection
of ideas, and I see this poem as belonging to a series in that sense. To be specific, as I was working on the poem, I read
that Lavoisier’s wife [Marie-Anne-Pierrette Paulze] is believed to have been his pupil, and it’s known that
she assisted him quite a bit in his research and illustrated his work. So I was curious about what kind of power she had,
the same way I wonder about the Wild Boy living a life in which he was a constant pupil and patient. They both fit into a
model based on one’s assumed wholeness and the other’s lack, and there’s just so much potential indignity
in that. At the same time, Mme. Lavoisier and the Wild Boy, while both of the same period, had remarkably different amounts
of agency in their respective relationships, so they can’t be just lumped together.
PM: I notice that your poems seem to create new, imaginative spaces for the subjects you are writing
about. For instance, in ‘Proof,’ Pythagoras has had multiple reincarnations, and your poem ‘Achilles and
Penthesilea’ includes Penthesilea’s afterlife.
In each of these poems the mind and the body are completely separated. It’s both a horrific thought and a pleasant
fantasy, that the mind could survive without the body and vice versa. This is a dilemma that all of the poems in the collection
are engaging in some way, some more obviously than others. But Penthesilea, for example: her body is being defiled in the
most grotesque way, but her mind is not only somewhere else but in her childhood specifically, where a particular sense
of power is restored to her. I think people in psychic pain naturally dream of other worlds, one of my favorite examples
of this being The Land of Cockaigne––the fantasy of being filled, completely and totally sated. I’ve always
been interested in the people that get pushed to the margins, and I think the role that imagination plays in the lives of
the marginalized is one of necessity, as if they would die without it. When I write a poem for or about someone, which is
what I’m usually doing when I write, I am trying to give that person a new space to exist in, as a gift. I want to
bring them some comfort for a minute, offer them a little cloud to sit on before things get hard again.
it seems to me now, seeing the book completed, that the people I write about are often trying to figure out why they feel
so far away from their own bodies. But Pythagoras, in ‘Proof,’ he’s just going with it. He’s been
living in so many different bodies and forms that he’s comfortable with a kind of disconnection that the people of
the period he’s visiting are not. I would also identify him as pure imagination in this poem, a space both inside
and outside of the world. He’s very happy too. I imagine him as sort of settled with life, like the kind of older
man you occasionally meet who has just decided to always have a good time.
PM: You began this interview by stating that the subjects you’ve chosen have allowed
for an entrance into personal expression, that a poem that begins with a particular subject becomes more about you.
In what ways do you think these poems are personal?
I like that you say the subjects I’ve chosen have ‘allowed for an entrance into personal expression.’ I
definitely prefer to think of it that way, but this is very tricky, and I struggled with this quite a bit, because I recognized
that writing on behalf of others, about their experience, was very problematic. The appropriation of the weak by the powerful
for their own gain is something I was dwelling critically on throughout the book, and I wondered how using someone as the
subject of a poem was different from making someone the subject of a scientific experiment, such as the Wild Boy. I didn’t
see how I could write in the voice of someone else or even use a real person as a catalyst without enacting the very thing
I’m mourning in the poems.
But while working on
the Wild Boy poems, I ended up writing a series from the point of view of Dr. Jean-Marc Gaspard Itard, the doctor who wrote
the case study I was using as a guide. Only one of these poems ended up in the book (‘The Doctor, Drunk, Gives the
Wild Boy of Aveyron Advice on Women and Sex’) but that was a surprising time for me. Up to that point I had been thinking
in terms of the emotional experience of the Wild Boy—the patient, the subject, who I easily felt a tenderness toward
that I could access on the page. But I found that I really liked writing from the point of view of the doctor as well—he
embodied a belief system that deeply frightened me, especially because of his good intentions and his tenderness toward
his subject. I think that was a necessary element to making the poems appropriately complicated. And I do believe that I
write partially in order to try to integrate things that frighten me into my conception of the world, to fit it all together
in one space.
These poems are also incredibly personal in the sense that I have always used poems to better understand what I
believe, and I don’t mean that in a self-help kind of way. I don’t care about understanding myself nearly as
much as I care about understanding how my ‘self’ has been formed by the environment or culture in which I exist.
That’s the same concern I express in regards to the Wild Boy, or Nijinsky, or my loved ones for that matter. We believe
our ideas are personal to us but mostly they’re not. It makes me sad because it was a belief that used to bring me
comfort as a younger person, that all of my ideas were mine and mine alone. I thought of my ideas as my soul, and the imagination
as a refuge, as a pure place, but I don’t believe that anymore. Because our very fantasy lives belong to the storylines
we consume, in my poems I have probably tried to depart from some of those storylines, to see if there was a place beyond
or outside of the narratives we’re offered. I think there is, I really do.
Poems - Bio - Reviews - Interview