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Andrew Feld


Andrew Feld

The Boxers

Here, in the middle of all this Houston heat, the two
sixteen-year-old featherweights step-by-stepping around
a center which should be large enough to hold them both

are working out, with painful, close attention, a number
of terrible ideas. The heat in here is an idea: it has a purpose
and a taste: it tastes like mile after mile of train passing

by the chicken-wired windows, the endless linked cars
full of what you don't know. The idea is that suffering
teaches you to suffer well, as though the end result

of dehydration isn't the skin & kidneys closing up
until what the body holds turns toxic, but the appearance
of something new willed into the blood, made of pain,

which you can then direct at the only person in the building
as beautiful as you are. Although of course there's nothing
sexual about this, the brief embrace of two boys, wet

with the same water you'd find at the bottom of any ocean.
And from the benches their plain-faced girlfriends watch, deep
in their impenetrable adolescence. As if all this were on TV,

as normal as the newsman saying a train carrying industrial
waste has derailed and is burning outside the city,
and the simple
precautions: Stay indoors. Close your windows. Don't breathe.

But these two boys are in it, the sweat washing down
their stomachs and backs rinsing the black air off their skin,
turning the absurd abstractions of last night's news

into visible concentric rings around the waistbands
of their nylon Everlast shorts, as if all this was designed
to be a further test of their endurance, or show us

how even while you sleep your body can be making
serious mistakes, taking in lungful after lungful
of other people's errors. The soaked fabric sticks

to their thighs so closely you can see the hairs
underneath and the moving weave of muscle and almost
the tight string stitched through the overlapping plates

of stomach muscle and cinched tight between them,
drawing them closer until the old men outside the ring
begin to shout they didn't come here to see lovers

and another man comes in to pull them apart.


             But words came halting forth...

He came from there not red and howling his one note
like all the rest. And so we had to worry. For years
he didn't cry. Or speak. Until, with such strange fears
and panic-quickened hearts, our senses finally woke
to what he meant. So long unheard he'd spoken in
the thirty-seven different dialects of rain
and all the languages of frost, shrinking in sun
or growing scratch by scratch upon the windowpane.

We'll wait. And when he finds the fragile hiss of mist
no longer answers to his growing needs, we'll tell
him what to say, instead of the thing itself. We'll twist
his tongue around or consonants and syllables.
We'll force our language down his throat until he spits
it back at us. He'll have to take our words for it.

-from Citizen, selected by Contributing Editor, Anna Knowles
Poems - Bio - Reviews - Interview
Andrew Feld the author of two collections of poetry, Raptor (University of Chicago Press), and Citizen (National Poetry Series), holds an MFA in poetry from the University of Houston and has received a Wallace Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University. His other honors include a Michener Foundation grant and a "Discovery" / The Nation award. A widely published poet, his work has appeared in Agni, The Nation, New England Review, The Paris Review, Poetry, Triquarterly, The Virginia Quarterly Review, The Yale Review and many other journals. Feld is editor in chief of Seattle Review.
Poems - Bio - Reviews - Interview
A Review of Andrew Feld's Raptor  by Lisa Russ Spaar, first published by the Los Angeles Review of Books

Andrew Feld’s Raptor comes nearly a decade after the publication of his 2003 National Poetry Series award-winning first book, Citizen, appeared in 2004. Feld is an exacting poet whose poems are capable of holding at once the most intense, objective sensory detail and the most elusive and ethically ambivalent mental exercise, and Raptor has been worth the wait. The pitch of formal verge and the float of personal and political trespass in Feld’s inaugural text finds renewed ardor in his second, a passionately pent meditation on wild(er)ness and restraint.

The matrix of Feld’s second book is a series of poems about raptors — birds of prey — and, in particular, about falconry, an ancient art in which humans hunt quarry with the aid of carefully trained birds. Detail and language from medieval and other falconry texts and from what would appear to be first-hand experience working at a raptor rehabilitation center mix with concerns about relationships, history, violence, and “the auto-da-fé we’re making of our / Planet,” as in this passage from “Visitant”:

The falcon is the world. If the saint views his prayer
Books’ open pages through half-shut, heavy-lidded eyes,
As one trembling for touch shuts down one sense to make
Another more acute, the bird on his hand has the disked
Pupils of a predator waiting for an error, the pause or
Extra wing-beat as a quail hesitates between escape routes,
Any of the little lapses of attention the falcon preys
On. Once, driving too fast to Vermont to visit a girl-
Friend, my car spun out on a corner of the interstate’s
Iced-over mountain roads, pinballing between guardrails
At 60 mph instinct and thought whirled uselessly around
The abyss between my abdomen and lungs until I pillowed
Into a snowbank. So the young aristocrat surrenders to
Historical drift and under the eagle standard of empires
Lets slip the falcon’s jess, choosing instead the quail
Life and fate. 

In his characteristically measured, even stately lines, which often barely reign in the blunt animus of his content (in “The Game,” Feld writes: “when the candidate explained / dressing up on weekends as an SS officer as / ‘a father/son bonding thing,’ I wanted to kill him”), Feld stirs the “pages” of the hunting ground, the playing field, the delicate mess of artifice, precedent, volition, and instinct by with we negotiate our lives. In the passage above, for instance, especially provocative is the alignment of prey and pray, of the reasons we might shut down certain senses (mysticism and mystery derive from myein, to initiate, and also to obscure), in the hunt — in violence, in erotic play, in spiritual devotion — in order to hone and heighten other awarenesses.

In a trinity of poems riffing on the notion and condition of there-ness (“There,” “There: An Epistle,” and “Epilogue to ‘There’”), the speaker embarks on his own falcon flight, fugue-interstate road trip, a sojourn complicated by chasers of guilt, American excoriations, and self-doubt (“Inside my green Civic the air- / Conditioner blows a cold wind / From November 2004, post-election. / I get good mileage out of my despair”). His odyssey takes him through a nadir of pit stops, indicting along the way an America that seems to have relinquished its responsibilities to its children and its natural inhabitants:

The mise-en-scène of our indigenous holocaust
To the Trail of Tears Rest Area parking lot,
            Through the Badlands’ Brazil-waxed hills
            Where the country’s all passed out on pills
And peppermint schnapps, ready for some black-out sex
We’d totally deny if it wasn’t on the internet
With captions and disclaimers in four languages,
Les femmes de motards deviennent sauvages! 

It’s hard not to see the eagle that the speaker comes upon devouring an antelope on the side of the road as a parody of America’s national bird, a national “story” that the end-rhymes of the last four lines (here, stare, mirror, disappear) makes all the more appalling:

                                    I felt the death
Blow on my neck, transfixed into the here
And now by what possessively returned my stare,
As the brown bird shrank in my rearview mirror
(I had to move), watching me watch it disappear. 

Feld neither romanticizes nor demonizes any of his players, human or animal. But in the “trap of narrative the falcon labors in” he means us to see ourselves as well. The danger, these poems suggest, arises when we neglect to know what we are and to respect what we aren’t, a condition in which “fellow-feeling” can become “aggression, / [rendering] all questions of wild or tame / specious.” Raptors, we learn in the poems, cannot sing — they can only shriek and cry. Surely these are primal sounds that stalk all poetry. What to offer such radical otherness, barely tamable and only so with loss? Feld writes in “Guide”:

To soothe the hawk I sang the lullaby
we use at feeding times to call our birds
to glove. The song is archaic but it works
as a point of contact between us and allows
an allotment of freedom like the length
of jess between swivel and anklet, 

Is song, poetry, recompense for the raptor , or for us? Or for the raptor in us, from which are always, if we are lucky, at a distance? A distance, Feld writes in his concluding poem, also called “Raptor”:

[w]hich is absolute, and which if we tried to cross
He would escape into, taking with him the hunger
He is instrument and of air, the song, the measure.

           Click here read a review of Raptor at Zyzzyva
Poems - Bio - Reviews - Interview
An Interview with Andrew Feld by Anna Knowles

Anna Knowles: How important is narrative within your body of work? I'm thinking of the poem "Best and Only" and especially as editor-in-chief the Seattle Review, what do you find that narrative, perhaps longer forms can do that shorter, more lyrical forms do not? How do you work between those forms?

Andrew Feld: Narrative is a loaded term (more in the sense of dice than of shotguns), generally meaning the devices and techniques associated with story-telling: plot, characters, development, the whole gun-over-the-mantle piece type of thing. My longer poems focus on or arrive out of a series of discrete images linked together by association/juxtaposition or discourse, using narrative according to Coleridge's use of the word, as in "the common end of all narrative, nay of all, Poems is to convert a series into a Whole." The first section of "Best and Only" starts with what is essentially a snap-shot of Richard Nixon and his "Official Best Friend," the Cuban banker and money-launderer Bebe Rebozo urinating off the stern of the Presidential Yacht. That Nixon and Rebozo cruised up and down the Potomac River at night, drinking heavily, during the Watergate crisis is an established part of a historical narrative: the poem takes frames out of the reel/"real" documentary footage and uses them, as it uses the various kinds of language (presidential obfuscation, journalism, poetic dictions) we use to speak or think about this particular event, for its own particular, peculiar ends.

To answer the other part of your question: when Romanticism, starting with Lyrical Ballads with its heavily freighted first word, entered the (industrialized) landscape, a number of previously thriving poetic modes and genres died off or went into hiding: the poetic dialogue, the long philosophical or mock-philosophical essay poem, the epistolary poem, and many others. These forms seem to be happily rebounding, which makes this a particularly wonderful time to be the editor of a journal devoted to long poems and novellas. As a poet, I can't overstate the importance of knowing that the lyric is only one of many modes available to work in.

AK: What is the effect of having a poem like "The Boxers" in tercets? Was it written this way initially?

AF: "The Boxers" was one of those poems that seemed to write itself. It arrived with the initial image in tercets. I suppose that hovering somewhere in my subconscious was the ghost of a poem I've loved for decades, James Merrill's "The Charioteer of Delphi" (another poem in tercets with a single line final stanza) and the sculptural solidity and classical grace the tercets seem to retain, even when their usage is purely typographical. We still shake hands, even though very few of us carry weapons.

AK: The lines "even while you sleep your body can be making serious mistakes, taking in lungful after lungful of other people's mistakes" introduces a social and ethical intelligence. How does subject matter influence the way you write a poem?

AF: In odd ways. That particular line came from my then-girlfriend/now-wife, poet Pimone Triplett, who answered one morning, when I asked her if she'd slept well, "well, I don't think I made any mistakes." That stuck in my head for a long time: what kind of mistakes can you make while you're asleep? The answer became an organic part of "The Boxers," in the way poems incorporate diverse materials into a new whole, as in my previous Coleridge quote. When I started the poem I had no idea that idea would be a part of it. Subject matter (the two kids sparring in the gym where I worked out) provides the central axis, which supports the range of thought, tones and concerns the poem needs to include in the logic of its argument.

AK: The last line of "The Boxers" is "and another man comes in to pull them apart." What better orchestration on citizenship and its retraction can there be? This seems to be what you're trying to get at the end of the poem. What do you think of this reading?

AF: I like it very much. In their embrace, the boys achieve a respite from the violence they are economically and socially required to inflict on each other. In this eroticized moment they understand their commonality and its significance. The old man pulls them apart so that they can go back to fighting each other.

AK: "Late-Breather" begins with an epigraph: "And words came halting forth," from the first sonnet of Sir Philip Sidney's Astrophil and Stella. Why did you select that epigraph and why was the form of a sonnet important to you in writing this poem?

AF: For a long time I wrote a poem every year on my birthday (Citizen includes two more of these birthday sonnets, "Talking with My Father About God" and "Personal"). The rules I set up for myself, drawing on Frank Bidart's "Self-Portrait, 1969" and some other self-portrait sonnets, were that the poem had to include my age, some elements of my state of mind at the time, and follow the rules of the form. By the time I wrote "Late-Breather"-the last of this series-the self-portrait part had become almost entirely oblique and the age inclusion ("the thirty-seven different dialects of rain") completely arbitrary, which explains why this sonnet was my last effort at that exercise. I suppose it's worth pointing out that the Sir Philip Sidney poem, which provides the epigraph, and "Late-Breather," are both hexameter sonnets.

AK: Do you think being an editor makes you respond differently to poems?

AF: I love being the editor-in-chief of a literary journal: it is a great privilege. If I read a poem and I love it, I can publish it! It's an amazing feeling that never gets old. The challenge, and another gift it affords, is the necessity of keeping my mind open. Like all poetry editors, I am haunted by the spectral figure of Thomas Wentworth Higginson. If someone sends in a poem I don't understand or which challenges me in unfamiliar ways, it is my duty-my job-to work at it until the poem has imparted some aspects of its significance, meaning-making and pleasures to me. The work requires me to differentiate between the new and the only new-seeming. I hope that some this informs the poetry I write.

AK: What does the revision process look like for you?

AF: The revision process for me varies tremendously from poem to poem-it's a matter of finding the shape and cadence the poem needs. Some poems happily fall immediately into form and only really need editing. Other times I'm pushing the words around for days until something clicks and I have a stanza which sets the pattern for the rest of the poem.

AK: What do you think makes poetry a significant player in today's world? What does it mean to be a contemporary citizen in our republic?

AF: To be a contemporary citizen in our republic is to feel a constant sense of hopelessness and impotent rage at the vile Capitalists who are destroying our planet for short-term profit. Poetry reminds you that the world does not have to be the way it is, that community is possible and necessary.

AK: Are you working on anything right now you can comment on?

AF: After finishing a long unified poetry project (my last book, Raptor, published by the University of Chicago Press), I'm happy to just write poems as they come to me, with no fixed themes or central unifying concerns. I'm not sure what the poems I'm writing now are building towards, which is one of the pleasures of writing them.

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Andrew Feld

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