For this installment of the Lyric Essentials series, we’re welcoming poet Georgia Pearle, who reads work from francine j. harris. Georgia shares why she appreciates the ambiguity in harris’ work as well as the joy that comes in seeing the different ways that poetry can resonate with each of us. Thanks for reading!
Riley Steiner: Why did you choose this poem for your Lyric Essentials reading?
Georgia Pearle: Simply: because I love it. That sound. Those rhymes. Good god, that perfect staccato.
Also: because I meant to review the book that this poem came from, I loved it so dearly, it ached with me in such a way, and I got that review accepted by more than one publication but couldn’t deliver my edits in time. I couldn’t deliver my edits in time because I was spending far too much time on a bus (five or so hours a day), single parenting, trying not to get kicked out of a Ph.D. program, overworked, and very broke, so I suppose this feels like a small token of penance to “play dead” because, damn, I loved that book and wanted to champion it, but I couldn’t pull it off at the time.
Georgia Pearle reads “in case” by francine j. harris
RS: What do you admire about francine j. harris’ work in general? How did your relationship with her work begin?
GP: I love her syntactic ambiguity and her refusals, especially. Her work seems unafraid to drop her readers into her own world of poem and let them squirm there, let them deal with it. How often in workshops did I hear people demand a particular sort of explanation from poems—“I can’t tell who this speaker/this figure/this person is” or “I can’t tell where/why we are in this place,” or “what is (blank) supposed to mean,” as if a poem, even a storied poem, should provide that sort of obvious spelling out over its own music.
I love her line breaks, how they make meaning hover and shape-shift. They remind me of those paint jobs I used to see on so many cars back home in ‘Bama—you know the ones that look green from this angle, purple from that, and some shimmering something else when you watch them dead-on? It’s a particularly purposeful slipperiness, a way of being many thoughts at once. Similarly, I love her punctuation, those periods that halt the reader and keep them moving simultaneously. And the way she pushes enjambment to its limit, breaking lines mid-word until meaning splits into so many multiplicities.
I love her fracturing of narrative. I found her when I was attempting to work out these narrative poems that were still also fractured, dealing with violence and trauma and sexuality in the Deep South, that were attached to place and yet trying to detach from place, and I kept hearing people ask me to clarify the poems. Her work helped me consider clarity in other ways: sonic clarity makes its own sort of meaning, doesn’t it? And, too, the juxtaposition of certain images, the repetition of those images, don’t they accrue to something explicit and exacting, even when that thing is difficult to paraphrase? They do. Of course they do.
RS: Could you talk about your interpretation of the relationship between the three sections of this poem? Why do you think harris chose to group them in this way?
GP: Well, to start there’s that gesture to the corona, that gesture to the crown, in the linkage between the three. The end and the beginning of each section mirror each other, but shift each other, a reflective trinity that begins with this justification of pleasure and joy and this reaching toward cleansing spaces and community/communion then pauses at otherness and whiteness before moving on to more we-ness in blackness.
In the first section, clit, of course, carries its usual meaning, that small bud of desire (which we now know is much larger than the visible tip), that source of pleasure and desire and agency, but there’s the sonic similarity to “clip,” too, as in clip of a gun, this gesture toward protection/female weaponry, just as the repetition of the phrase “in case” gives us this sense of both containment and hope.
In the second section, it’s impossible for me not to pick up the resonances of all these white images—the supposed preciousness of whiteness, historically, the ways in which our country has historically protected white citizens in idea and in actuality through legalities and through military force and through the supposed rightness of peace and the means of which that “peace” has been bought. There’s no mistaking the violence of the whiteness in this stanza, or its conflation with quietude and silence.
And in the third section, the loudness of repetition: “our mouths,” again and again, and “our shut up. our / shut up. our shut up.” What resounding refusal to silence. If this poem felt necessary when I first encountered it a few years ago, it has only gotten more necessary in the interim.
RS: Throughout the poem, but especially in the third section, listening to the words out loud brought harris’ use of rhyme and rhythm to my attention in a way that I think was much more striking than reading the poem on a page would’ve been. What was your experience like of reading this poem out loud versus reading it in print?
GP: What I found reading it was that I actually hated feeling like I had to choose its emphasis. It’s better on the page, more complicated than I think I made it as I read it aloud. I recorded it a few times, trying each time to get more of the lost ambiguity, or rather the many-ways-of-meaning, back into it. Of course, I don’t trust that my reading struck in the same ways or the same places that harris would have struck it in her own reading of it. But maybe that’s the pleasure of reading someone else’s work, once they’ve released it into your hands. Seeing all the varied ways it can strike you each time you approach the thing, that’s part of the joy.
RS: Has harris’s work influenced your own? If so, how?
GP: Honestly, I wish her work would influence me more. I find her poems unmooring in the best possible way, breaking from polemics, willing to procure the profane for us and reclaim it, and willing to do the same with the supposedly holy. In preparing for this, I reread her poem “how to take down an altar.” Everyone should read that one, too. Who doesn’t need the reminder to “Move / the Angels by their buttocks, not their wings”?
francine j. harris grew up in Detroit, Michigan. She graduated with an MFA in Poetry from the University of Michigan in 2011 and published her first book, allegiance, the following year. Her second book, play dead, was published in 2016. Her work has appeared in literary magazines including Ploughshares, Poetry, Rattle, Boston Review, and many others. harris received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2015 and currently the writer in residence at Washington University in St. Louis.
Born and raised in the Gulf South, Georgia Pearle is an alumna of Smith College and holds an MFA in Poetry from Lesley University. She has been a coordinator of the VIDA Count, a senior editor for Gulf Coast: A Journal of Literature and Fine Arts, and her poems been published with Women’s Studies Quarterly, Kenyon Review Online, and Ninth Letter, among others. She recently finished a Ph.D. in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Houston.
Riley Steiner is a recent graduate of Miami University, where she studied Creative Writing and Media & Culture. Originally from Columbus, Ohio, she enjoys baking, cheering for the Green Bay Packers, and spending way too much money at Half Price Books. Her creative work has recently appeared in the Oakland Arts Review and Collision.