Phoned-In is BOMB’s poetry reading by phone podcast. This episode features Frances Justine Post. You can download the podcast by subscribing to our feed.
Luke Degnan: In your poem “The Spectators,” there is this mystical, ghostly, post-world…
Frances Justine Post: I started writing “The Spectators” when my grandmother became very sick. She’s had dementia for a long time now, but a few years back she took a turn for the worse when she broke both her hips and got pneumonia. She’s been gone mentally for ten years, but suddenly her body was going too. The doctors all said she wouldn’t make it. She’d stopped eating and kept saying goodbye. It was very difficult to see this, and we were all preparing to let her go. The doctors weren’t giving her food or water anymore, but then suddenly she woke up, asked for a sandwich, and became her charming self again, shocking everyone.
Essentially, “The Spectators” concerns the idea of angels, which is why I used the Rilke quote from The Duino Elegies at the beginning: “there, before the spectators ringed round, the countless unmurmuring dead.” The quote comes from the “Fifth Duino Elegy.” It sounds sort of corny, but I was brought up to believe that the people you love who died before you come to usher you into the afterlife, whatever that might be. I think of them as sort of chaperones, coaxing you to leave your body. What do these spirits do if “you stop your dying / and go on living”?
LD: I noticed that although you’re looking towards the idea of an afterlife and the spectators who gaze out from there. What they see and what you focus on is the mortal world, the natural world.
FJP: Exactly. I started imaging everything a spirit could do if it had a reprieve, if it didn’t have to leave the world just yet. I imagined that while her body was still sick and broken, her spirit became revived and young and could move about freely like she no longer could. Basically the spirit (the “you” in the poem) leads the band of angels (the “we”) on a wild goose chase across all sorts of natural terrains and through memories. She’s in limbo while still on earth.
LD: Can you talk a little bit about why you chose the Rilke quote?
FJP: The Duino Elegies helped me understand something I was writing about but didn’t fully understand myself, as often happens when I am writing. It is my understanding that Rilke thought of the Angel as an example of perfect consciousness, a being who has transcended all the contractions, the faults, and messiness of human life. The Angel is an example of man’s deepest fears and deepest hopes, and his ultimate goal. For Rilke, passing over to death is the only time man is truly pure. While I’m not sure I totally agree with Rilke’s idea of the Angel, in “The Spectators” I am exploring this idea of passing over, what it would feel like to leave the world. And if you knew ahead of time that you were about to leave, what would you do?
I do give the angels human emotions. I make them a sneaky bunch, trying to trick the spirit and catch her. At times, they are also bereft, missing her, or in love with her, following her anywhere she goes. And she is a trickster, trying to outrun the angels, hiding from them. In the end, they all come to an understanding. They become “more clear” to her. I guess this is how I would like death to come to me.
LD: You seem to dwell a great deal on nature with the ducks, the horses, the corn at night. These animals and plants seem to represent not only the natural world but also the mortal world.
FJP: I guess for me the natural world is the most interesting thing about the mortal world. If I were about to leave this world, what I would most want to do is to see the places I knew over the course of my life. Before I left, I’d want to go roll around in the mud and smell the horses and jump off a waterfall and drift out to sea on an ice floe. What I love most about a poem is that it’s a world I can create and control entirely. It is a way of taking myself on an adventure, even if I am actually just sitting in my tiny New York apartment. A poem for me is most importantly an exploration of imagination.
Frances Justine Post is a recipient of the 2008 “Discovery” / The Boston Review Poetry Prize and is currently a Writer-in-Residence at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Kenyon Review, The Boston Review, The Massachusetts Review, Western Humanities Review, and others. She lives in Manhattan.
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