Rilke, Cavafy, Hölderlin: Simeon Kronenberg Interviews Luke Fischer

By and | 1 August 2016

SK: Let’s unpack your idea about the poem exploring a ‘way of being’. What interests me is that poetry demands that we think (via sensation) through apprehensions of the world and this changes our perceptual reality – we are made to re-think our lives. Indeed, through poetry (music, art and so on) we are encouraged to expand a sense of ourselves and of the world we inhabit, and this seems to me to be the very point of all art. Does ‘Tübingen’ promulgate a sense of how we might (or should) live in and experience the world? Is there an implied imperative here perhaps to explore for ourselves a way of being?

LF: When I used the expression ‘way of being’, I was referring to my general sense that places enable distinctive possibilities for ways of life. You are, however, right to apply this expression to a more general view of what poetry can do. Poetry can expand our sensibilities and understanding, and thus our sense of ourselves and the world; while this does not need to involve a direct imperative such as the well-known ending of Rilke’s ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo’, ‘you must change your life’, an expanded sense of reality opens up new horizons for how we might live in the world. In this respect, one can perhaps say that poetry, in general, presents a latent imperative to expand our awareness (irrespective of how this might translate into our practical actions). I am deeply interested in poetry that makes us aware of subtle dimensions of experience, in poetry that says what seems unsayable. Poetry has, I think, an almost magical capacity to put into words what seems impossible to put into words. The aforementioned textile images in ‘Tübingen’ were my attempt to capture an experience of what in earlier times was regarded as the ‘spirit of a place’ or a ‘genius loci’; when I entered the town, for instance, I really did have this sudden sense of being embraced by the character of the place (in a way, of course, that was inflected by my biography). Perhaps an aspect of the latent imperative in ‘Tübingen’ is that we should foster an awareness of the inner dimension of places and environments, and of the dynamic interrelationships we form with others (which are also constitutive of the meaning of places). There is also a cosmopolitan spirit to the poem in its interweaving of the local and the global; perhaps this also contains a latent imperative: the poem celebrates, and thereby encourages, a cosmopolitanism that is at the same time attuned to the distinctiveness of the local. It recommends neither an abstract and amorphous internationalism nor a parochial localism or provincialism; rather, it marries the international and the local in concrete ways. For example, there is mention of the translation of ‘Ambrose Pratt’s book on the lyrebird’ into German (an international and specifically German-Australian connection) as well as the realisation that ‘the conversation’ with friends about ‘how one is imprinted – geprägt – by places’ couldn’t be ‘the same conversation’ if it took place ‘in English’ (this highlights the distinctiveness of the German language). The fact that the poem is predominantly in English (but includes some German) and yet refers to an understanding of place that cannot be perfectly translated from German into English offers a cross-cultural reflection on relations between languages and places.

Tübingen itself is evoked as a distinctive and personal nexus of dynamic factors. Perhaps what you referred to as a ‘liberating’ sense to the poem relates to its affirmation of wholeness (or interconnection) in a way that, because of the dynamism and open-endedness, does not restrict freedom; the poem at once affirms meaningful coherence and individual freedom.

‘Tübingen’ presents a rather harmonious experience of ‘emplacement’ (though there is a feeling of transience and a hint of nostalgia), but my personal relationship to Germany is more complex because my grandparents on my father’s side were holocaust survivors (the poem ‘Holocaust Survivor’ touches on this matter). Other poems in Paths of Flight present more dissonant experiences of place. In arranging the collection, I wanted the various poems to converse with each other so that together they give a more comprehensive view of the nature of place (some reviews of Paths of Flight, such as Megan Blake’s review in Plumwood Mountain and Lucy Van’s in Cordite Poetry Review, have discerned the complex integrity of the collection, others have unfortunately missed the interconnections). The title of the book Paths of Flight also alludes to the paths in life opened up by contemporary plane-travel (as well as being indicative of the many bird poems, and poems about walking or ‘paths’) and thereby to the theme of places.

SK: ‘Tübingen’ is a rather delicate poem about place and ’emplacement’ (and more), and expresses its own kind of harmonic reverberations. ‘The Schuylkill River’ however, opens up other apprehensions of ‘place’ (while remaining very specific) and it presents an altogether different mood − one of moral outrage to do with the ecological threats to a particular river. As such it seems to stand for a much wider concern about global degradation, addressing indeed, the enormity of human desecration of the natural environment. In fact, I read it as an angry poem (or remorseful perhaps?). Would you comment on that and talk about the kind of moral urgency that seems to be expressed here and how this relates to your understanding about nature?

LF: That is a very interesting observation about ‘The Schuylkill River’; I’m glad that you see ecological threats to the river as part of its content, as I myself was uncertain whether the poem made a clear environmentalist point (such a point is clearer to me, for instance, in the ending of ‘After days of rain’, which alludes to plane travel). The reason this observation pleases me lies in the fact that this poem emerged out of a strong aesthetic experience of dissonance, and a sense of connection between the aesthetic and the environmental is a key aspect of my general thoughts about the human relationship to nature (even though there are cases in which the aesthetic and the ecological are at odds with one another – people absurdly rejecting wind farms, including Tony Abbott, through appealing to a dislike of their appearance or failing to recognise the ecological significance of wetlands or swamps because of shallow aesthetic judgments about them). You are also right to recognise the strong emotional tone. The poem was my attempt to address a visceral abhorrence for the way in which the Schuylkill river, as it runs through the city of Philadelphia, USA (where I lived for three years) is dominated by the roads and traffic. This appeared to me as both a complete disregard for this inherently beautiful natural environment and more generally as a symbol for the sick relationship of the modern industrial world to the natural world. Architecture and city-planning can foster an appreciative relationship to the natural environment (this theme is also explored in poems such as ‘Epidaurus’ and ‘Why are you wearing black?’) and even enhance the experience of the natural environment. In Sydney, for instance, there are many places where we can genuinely appreciate the harbour and the beaches; and a few buildings, such as the Opera House, enhance the sense of place (as an integration of the human and the natural). Another clear example of this enhancement for me was the experience of walking across the bridge (Puente Nuevo) in Ronda, Spain, which joins the two sides of the town; the view from the bridge and the way it is embedded in a canyon accentuate the height of the canyon and the magnificent mountainous landscape that stretches to the horizon. While this kind of integration of architecture and the natural environment will not necessarily lead to ecological awareness and action, it can certainly foster an appreciation of the natural environment that can be an important step in the development of an ecological conscience. Moreover, I think that certain works of art (including poetry) and architecture can embody a deep relationship to the natural order, which bears the promise of a future culture that is not as at odds with the environment as our current one. So, getting back to ‘The Schuylkill River’: I was so appalled by how certain parts of the built environment dominate the river that this struck me as an almost traumatic relationship. Writing the poem was for me a way of bearing witness to the river that has been aesthetically or anti-aesthetically colonised by roads and cars. As you put it, a kind of ‘moral outrage’ is expressed in the poem, in an analogous manner to the more common expression of ‘moral outrage’ in response to human injustices (such as our current government’s appalling treatment of asylum seekers). I did not feel like I could do anything to improve the built environment of Philadelphia, but I could attest to the disregard of the river and thereby acknowledge its presence (which seemed like more than doing nothing).

SK: When reading your poetry, I am struck by its gentle imperatives in relation to the natural world. It is as if I am being asked to become more engaged with nature, but in a very particular way. In ‘Walking Instructions’ for example you seem keen to prod us towards nature as a repository of wisdom. And further, you suggest that we think more about the natural world so that we might better understand our own relationship to it and dependence on it. And, there seems to be a kind of spiritual sense to much of this, to do with letting go and trusting that nature will provide a path at least:

… Let a pair / of birds braiding air over the stream show you the way …

and again:

… look and speculate a little / work with what you don’t know if it helps convert to Zen …

Is the above comment a fair reading of the poems? Do you see nature as the progenitor of a kind of spiritual experience or indeed awakening? Is there a moral imperative implied here (which brings us back to the political)?

LF: The poem ‘Walking Instructions’ is quite peculiar in its style, but perhaps not in its mood (as you indicate). A number of the poems in Paths of Flight could be broadly described as concentrated imagist poems; these poems seek to get at an invisible depth of the natural world through a close attentiveness to individual things (‘Grasshopper in a Field’ or ‘Band of Cockatoos’, for instance). This invisible (or spiritual) depth is thus not the opposite of the sensuous or sensible – it is not otherworldly or abstract; rather, it is found through an attentiveness to the sensible appearances of nature (among others, Goethe and Rilke are important influences here). ‘Walking Instructions’ is also attentive (for similar reasons) to the world of the senses but it is a long meandering poem with no punctuation (excluding a quoted excerpt from Seneca) that freely moves from one focal point of observation to another. The image and metaphor of water play an important role in the poem and I like to think of the way the text unfolds as resembling the flow of a stream.

‘Walking Instructions’ thematises a distinctive way of walking and a distinctive mode of attentiveness that are interrelated. I wrote the first drafts of the poem on the Greek island of Samothrace (where I also wrote ‘Augury?’). At this time I read Mark Tredinnick’s Fire Diary, which includes the poem ‘Rules for Walking’. In the Notes to Paths of Flight I acknowledge Tredinnick’s poem as a stimulus for my poem, which owes a debt to his poem in a positive and a negative (in the philosophical sense of ‘opposing’) sense. On the one hand, I had the thought that I could accommodate various impressions from my walks on the island through a similar underlying idea to Tredinnick’s poem. On the other hand, while I value Tredinnick’s poem, I wanted to get at what I perceived as a different kind of attentiveness to the natural world, or at least a different kind of emphasis. Tredinnick describes an experience of hiking (stages on the way to a clear destination) and at certain points the poetic self speaks on behalf of the natural environment. Speaking for the environment is obviously an important gesture – think of environmental and animal rights, and the need for legal representation of the environment – but I was after an emphasis that contrasts with the self-confident tone of this manner of speaking. I wanted to write a poem in which the environment draws the subject in many different directions, in which attentiveness is like a stream that is drawn along diverging grooves by the topography. I think of this as a centrifugal or expansive awareness; rather than the subject absorbing the environment into itself, the environment, so to speak, absorbs the subject into itself. The speaker is, in a way, self-effacing in his attentiveness to the surroundings, which he allows to direct him. This is how I see the line you quoted (and other similar lines): ‘… Let a pair / of birds braiding air over the stream show you the way…’ Your second quotation above alludes to the fresh attentiveness that is central to the poem; it playfully invokes the Zen Buddhist notion of ‘beginner’s mind’ and encourages a related open attentiveness. As I did not know much about the flora, fauna and geology of Samothrace, this directive was also a way for me actively to embrace this unknowingness (which makes learning possible).

The walking (and I also see the poem as a metaphor for the process of writing poetry) is a process of discovery, which does not begin with a clear goal (destination) but an open attentiveness. It encourages the reader to do the same (though the ‘you’ in the poem can also be seen as a form of self-address). I do think there is wisdom in nature but, to quote Goethe, ‘nature’ is an ‘open secret’ or ‘revealed mystery’ (‘offenbares Geheimnis’). This wisdom, in other words, is not immediately accessible. Nature displays itself everywhere but it is also a mystery that we can only decipher through an adequate attentiveness. I don’t think that we can simply will this insight (nor does it come to us if we remain passive); we need to work for it but it arrives as a kind of gift.

Goethe’s approach to studying nature, in which perception is schooled and deepened, is also an influence on the structure of the poem and what you nicely put as its ‘gentle imperatives’. Firstly, it mostly consists of fairly precise observations of things encountered along a walk and the gentle imperative here is to be observant and openly attentive. Secondly, about two-thirds of the way through the poem a grove is discovered, which makes an especially deep impression on the speaker (but this gift of deeper insight is dependent on the speaker having fostered the open and detailed attentiveness). This impression stirs the speaker to study the grove in greater depth and the evocation of this grove thus becomes, for a while, the focus of the poem; it is, as it were, a fortuitous destination. The speaker returns to this ‘destination’ the next day to further his understanding. However, like a stream that slows and gathers for a while in a wide pool but flows on again, the poem moves on. A great deal more could be said about this poem (I have not said anything about the significance of the allusions to antiquity) but these are some of its key features according to my interpretation. In short, I see the poem as thematising a distinctive way of walking, of attending to the natural world, and of writing poetry – and all of these aspects are closely intertwined (and conveyed as ‘gentle imperatives’).

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