Excavating the Cyclops'
-Serifos Island, Cyclades, Greece
bats hang upside-down
asleep in what they do not need to see.
I feel cold air
over my face as I stare
into the place light vanishes,
where I imagine some deep source
keeps clear and holy water
in a bed of stone. Meanwhile,
in a green and shallow pool
of the Aegean, a sleepless eye
Severed from the mind,
the eye neglects
and though it notes
the slope of sand,
the boat-swelled waves,
the pull and sway of seaweed,
and the silver, black, and blue-
striped, leaf-like fish that shimmer
into the eye's periphery, it lets
I saw the eye from up above
while I was
swimming. I watched it track
the shadow of my shape.
Eye," I signed,
"How can you stand the sting,
this weighing sorrow?"
But the eye had survived many centuries,
and it didn't see the way I see.
Before Edison Invented Lights
if you stood outside at night
at a moonless hour
you could mark your place in the universe
among the field of stars.
The world was colder then,
and the distances between
one family and
were bigger by an exponent,
which meant people traveled more,
if they didn't go as far.
who watches a bird flying-
a small bird especially-
and sees it rise in full flight
like a voice shifting octaves,
that you can get anywhere
if you only imagine the connecting line
between where you are
you'd like to go.
A stone on a stone makes a wall,
an arch in a tower holds a bell,
the air in the bell catches
and the wind carries it
over the lake
where it fills the white sail.
You navigate by stars.
are more stars you can't see,
and between all stars is a dark silence
and the great pull
only understand as longing,
to which we're tuned like bells,
over which our eyes draw lines
between the bright
We give the blackness shapes
with names of gods.
In a fist-sized glass dome,
in a vacuum atmosphere
not unlike the universe,
Edison, after many trials, suspended
a filament of straight bamboo
whittled down to
then charred by heat
until it resembled the stuff of stars.
It burned for six hundred hours,
and the ceilings of our dreams
lost their dim flickerings,
to the steady glow of incandescence.
whole cities shine up
like planets, and most stars,
to our eyes, have gone out.
Unless you travel.
the North Cascades, on a ridge
overlooking a white volcano,
the only thing darker than the night
is the gliding
shadow of a great owl.
When you sleep with your face to the sky
the stars are not so much above
as around you.
Stare long enough
and you begin to feel
you could lift your body off the earth
and hover in the black night
on the web of your awe
at a billion suns
everything you're made of yearns.
The Glacier's Wake
Tooth-snout, blue eye, white-tongued as icy Jove
on a god-slow lay,
as alive as how I thought my grief should be-
a heaving ice field, an evaporating history
onto which, inside the crags of which,
I liked my mind to climb.
Down where the cold erases the weather's structure,
where ice eclipses
the too-wide sky, I waited in a
cell of air
for the year to melt each brittle inch
what's green-the growing sea,
the wind-scummed water mirror
with clouds I read as words from my loved dead.
By my own heat, I melted room to hold my body.
I made a god of birds out of the man.
-from The Glacier's
Poems - Bio - Reviews - Interviews - Reading
Katy Didden grew up
in Washington D.C., and has lived in many cities across the U.S., including Seattle, Chicago, and St. Louis. She holds
degrees from Washington University, the University of Maryland, and the University of Missouri, and she has taught courses
in creative writing, composition, literature, and film.
first book, The Glacier’s Wake, won the Lena-Miles Wever Todd Prize from Pleiades Press. Her poems and reviews
appear in journals such as Ecotone, Bat City Review, The Kenyon Review, Image, The Missouri Review, Smartish
Pace, Poetry, and the Best New Poets Anthology (2009). She won the Beulah Rose prize from Smartish
Pace, three Dorothy Sargent Awards, and an Academy of American Poets Prize, and her work has been featured on Verse
Daily and Poetry Daily.
She has received scholarships
and residencies from The Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Vermont Studio Center,
the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, the Ragdale Foundation, and the Hambidge Center. She recently completed a
Post-Doctoral Fellowship at St. Louis University, and she co-curated the 2012-2013 Observable Reading Series with
the poet Rickey Laurentiis for the St. Louis Poetry Center. She is currently a Hodder Fellow at Princeton University.
Poems - Bio - Reviews - Interviews - Reading
A Review of Katy Didden's The
Glacier's Wake by Greg Solano, first published by ZYZZYVA
Katy Didden’s first book of poetry, The Glacier’s Wake (Pleiades Press; 74 pages), is a densely
packed, lyric collection by a scientifically minded poet.
the kind who stands still / in front of awful things and squints / as though you could see into / the god chambers of every
atom in every / drop of water,” writes Didden in “Pleasure Milker.” It’s one of the opening poems
in the collection (which won the Lena-Miles Weaver Todd Poetry Prize) and a useful primer to Didden’s poetic mode.
At her best, Didden’s poetic voice relates to the reader as a kind of guide and teacher, a fellow traveler who points
out the sights and provides the proper scope for what is seen. The poems of The Glacier’s Wake are often
set in Arctic regions that few call home, and one of the enduring themes of the work is geologic time and how we might construct
a personal, Romantic appreciation of it. “You’re slick / with rain and heat and lift your feet / into the
fragile air,” ends “Pleasure Milker,” “But there’s a record here, / under the white veils
of the river.”
For a first book, there’s a remarkable evenness to The Glacier’s
Wake and a sense that the poems, quite formal and meticulously crafted, have been long smoothed over. It’s
quite a feat when you consider what Didden is juggling, combining geologic, historic, or mythic re-telling with scientific
insight and lyric awe. Take “String Theory: Pyramus and Thisbe,” which, despite its prohibitively ambitious
title, finds its spine in love and loss. The speaker searches for “A place where it’s still not strange for
me to rest / against the length of you, say on the dunes of a slow- / paced oasis in the mirror of whose water moves the
sky.” Didden’s poems are lush with descriptive imagery to where the interjection of cold, scientific diction
can at times be jarring. But it’s a necessary polar plunge for where her poems try to take us.
The shorter poems in the collection seem a bit weaker—without Didden’s
slow, guiding voice, the claims they make can be too easy, pat. There are a series of poems where the speaker is a wasp
(“The Wasp on Kierkegaard,” “The Wasp on the Golden Section,”) that, rather than seducing with
strangeness, seem arbitrary. The exception is “The Wasp on Archangels,” where the juxtaposition makes just enough
sense to be arresting.
My favorite poem in the collection
is “Before Edison Invented Lights.” Unlike many of her other poems, Didden here keeps a thin, uneven line.
“if you stood outside at night,” begins the poem, “at a moonless hour / you could mark your place in
the universe / by how you fit / among the field of stars.” Didden’s breaks in the poem are less in the service
of a static rhythm and serve more for surprise. The images she supplies swiftly exceed description. They’re physically
and visually acute but also unstable, riffing, reaching out toward significance. “between all stars is a dark silence,”
she writes, “and the great pull / we only understand as longing, / to which we’re tuned like bells, / over
which our eyes draw lines, / between the bright places.” In the end, the poem, in its movement, staccato rhythm,
and peppering of bright, explosive images, forms a kind of constellation itself. At bottom, the poem, a sparkling example
of Didden’s work, is a gifted elegy for the stars that “to our eyes, have gone out.” Ever the guide,
the poet offers a way of seeing them again.
Click here to read a review of The Glacier's Wake at Blurbed
Poems - Bio - Reviews - Interviews - Reading
An Interview with Katy Didden
by Jenna Bazzel and Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum
Jenna Bazzell and Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: Formally, your poem "Excavating the Cyclops' Eyesocket,"
is ten stanzas comprised of only eight sentences in which one sentence extends the length of three stanzas. Can you talk
about what went into these decisions, especially the sentence that extends over three stanzas (stanzas 5-7)?
Katy Didden: I just went through my notebooks to remind
myself how this poem evolved. At an early stage, it only had two stanzas, and the lines were slightly longer. The syntax
in the first stanza was very regular, and then things loosened up in the second stanza-this makes sense, because there are
two main elements in the poem: stone, and water. The Cyclops' skull is stony; the (imaginary) eye is watery. Part of why
that middle sentence is so long, then, is because it had a different, longer shape in the block stanzas-there was more room
in the old room, as it were. Still, I prefer the version in tercets, since tercets flow better, and it seems to make the
stone/ water contrast less definite. Consider how stone used to flow. I was in touch with the poet Liz Arnold around the
time I was revising this poem, and she mentioned, not in relation to this poem but in relation to her own work, that the
Cyclops was not just in a volcano, it was the volcano.
& AMK: Previously I noted the sentence that extends over three stanzas which seems to be the "eye"
of the poem, and this is also the place where the "eye's periphery" is indicated. What is the importance of this
sentence and its function for the rest of the poem?
KD: While I've whittled out a lot of words from the poem since the original draft, the sentence you mentioned, that
extends over stanzas 5-7, didn't change. I think the extension that happens there is central to the poem, somehow. If
it were a song, that would be the bridge. At least one friend suggested I pare down that line, which might have worked,
but I couldn't get that long sound pattern out of my head-it felt necessary to push the sentence really far. I think this
was because it was concerned with creatures in current, and with the eye's unfathomable endurance.
JB & AMK: In the poem "Excavating the Cyclops' Eyesocket," all of your stanzas are
end-stopped. What effect does end-stopping the stanzas have on the poem as opposed to enjambing the stanzas?
KD: To me, those doubly-emphatic pauses are part of
the music of the poem, so the cadence I was hearing in my head dictated those choices. Looking at it now, I see the breaks
come after short runs of iambs. There is a companion poem to this poem that I never published, which is more overtly an
elegy for my father, and this poem is also an elegy. I should say, it is a poem concerned with grief, and how to grieve,
and how to endure sorrow. I guess those attempts at extension, and then the blunt end-stops, are a kind of sonic figure
for mourning, or for the first steps of moving forward beyond grief-there is still a heaviness in that movement.
JB & AMK: In the poem, there is a direct address to
the eye from the speaker "I." Additionally, the very end of the poem ends abruptly and does not continue with
the metaphor of seeing, but instead ends on "see"-the way in which one "sees." Why end the poem after
the speaker "I" directly addresses Cyclops' eye?
KD: To be honest, I never thought about that! I followed my intuition when
I wrote this poem. I do know that I wanted the first person in this poem, again because it is an elegy, and the key feature,
for me, is the speaker's need for guidance-an assurance of survival, a sign that strength returns after mourning. But the
speaker doesn't get what she is looking for, and that is key to the experience as well. There is no clear path through
the grieving process, in my experience. You have to figure it out, to some extent, in your own terms, your own language.
JB & AMK: In the poem, "Before Edison Invented
Lights," you use the second person "you" and then shift to the usage of "we" and "our."
KD: In Twyla Tharp's The Creative Habit, she discusses a fascinating concept about an artist's
"focal length," and she argues that some artists tend to observe the world from a panoramic perspective, some
from a middle distance, and some from close-up. In this book, and perhaps in general, I am the panorama sort of person (I
just learned recently that my eyes are slightly slow to focus on what's immediately in front of me, so maybe this explains
it?). All this is to say, that extension into second person and first-person plural might come from my desire to get into
a more infinite sense of time and space. I wanted to be able to move across vast distances and I think the second person
helps the reader to stay anchored in the scene somehow, while all the travel happens.
JB & AMK: What I enjoy most about "Before
Edison Invented Lights" is that the poem is a void of poem-before this technological thing happened, this was how the
world existed and it was beautiful.
KD: I've thought
about this a lot, actually-electricity is such a recent development. It's mind-boggling. I love going camping, and I'm
always amazed at how quickly I switch into the diurnal rhythm, waking at dawn and sleeping pretty soon after the sunset.
I'm always amazed, too, to see stars, and like this poem suggests, I like to think about how it was to live when in most
places you could see lots of stars all the time.
JB & AMK: Why did you choose to mention
Edison's name in the poem when it is mentioned in the title? I wonder how necessary sentences 7-8 about Edison are since
these sentences are expository of the title itself.
KD: At that point, I felt that the speaker had traveled back in time and across space
so much that I needed to return to the beginning, and re-ground the poem (grounding the current, ha!). I also wanted to
show how the process of creating the lights that would outshine the stars was itself related to the stars. I have a love/
hate relationship with exposition, and I think I always will. I come from a long line of teachers. My struggle learning
how to handle exposition has also been the single greatest teacher to me in my writing life-sometimes I get the balance
right, and sometimes I don't.
JB & AMK:
You begin the last sentence with an imperative: "stare." This is a move you have not previously utilized in the
poem. What effect does the imperative have as the opening of the last sentence?
KD: Ha! You are such incredible close readers! Again,
I'd never noticed that. I think part of the point of this poem is to lead the reader through the distant past, but in the
immediate present. It plays with a cinematic reveal. But that last move is much more overtly insistent, and maybe it happens
there because I've been leading the "you" all along. Maybe whatever intuition led me to do that was banking on
the reader's willingness to go along with it, since a reader who stuck with the poem until the end would seem amenable.
Maybe I sensed that I needed to ramp up the energy too, since it was building toward a conclusion.
& AMK: I love making up and using hyphenated words. In your poem, "The Glacier's Wake," your first
line consists of three hyphenated words. How do you think you are able to accomplish such a feat?
KD: I'm writing about a weird, Grendel-ish, ancient entity-a powerful, awesome,
creaturely glacier. I think the hyphenated words give the sound structure a spiky pattern that fits the scaly and brittle
topography. It is supposed to sound slow, torturous, and strange. Maybe the hyphenated words suggest the possibility of
breakage? Maybe they suggest ice and land slamming together? It just seemed like the right way to get at that glacial
JB & AMK: You write, "the growing sea, / the wind-scummed water mirror."
Water being metamorphosed into a mirror sets off cliché alarms, yet this feels different. How do you think you are
able to transform this otherwise cliché metaphor?
reason is that I am negating the image-it is not the pristine mirror that the speaker wants it to be, actually. If ideals
of water promise reflective properties, in this poem the surface's imperfections, and its susceptibility to wind-scumming,
make it hard for the speaker to decode the words or message she wants to receive there. This brings us back to the first
poem we talked about, "Excavating the Cyclops' Eyesocket." This is another figure for turning to some kind of
archetypal image, and failing to find clarity. The poem resolves with the speaker choosing to transform grief into myth.
JB & AMK: Thank you.
KD: Thank you both
for all of your insights, and for your attention to details! It has been a pleasure to answer these questions.
Click here to read an interview with Katy Didden at Kenyon Review
Poems - Bio - Reviews - Interviews - Reading
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