Cara Dees is the author of the debut collection, Exorcism Lessons in the Heartland (Barrow Street, October 2019), selected by Ada Limón for the 2018 Barrow Street Book Prize. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in journals such as The Adroit Journal, Beloit Poetry Journal, Best New Poets 2016, Crazyhorse, Gulf Coast, Harvard Review, The Journal, Poetry Daily, and The Southeast Review. An Editorial Assistant at Cincinnati Review, she has also served as a founding editor and former Managing Editor of The Arkansas International, as well as Poetry and Comics Editor of Nashville Review.
Visit Barrow Street or Amazon to order her collection Exorcism Lessons in the Heartland (Barrow Street, October 2019).
Cara Dees’s “Resurrected, a version of my mother dwells in silence” appears in issue 37.1 of The Southeast Review. Shortly before the poem’s publication in the journal, Cara Dees and I spoke first over the phone about the poem and then conducted the following interview via email. “Resurrected, a version of my mother dwells in silence” is an eight-part sequence and elegy for the poet’s mother, and this interview speaks to the poem’s engagement of elegy, grief, silence, gender, and what Cara Dees calls “the work of remembrance.”
An excerpt of the poem follows the interview.
Jayme Ringleb: First things first: congratulations on having your debut collection, Exorcism Lessons in the Heartland, selected by Ada Limón for the 2018 Barrow Street Book Prize! Would you tell us a little about that collection?
Cara Dees: Thanks so much, Jayme! Exorcism Lessons in the Heartland is coming out October 2019, and I have been so thrilled and grateful to have been chosen by Ada Limón, whom I deeply admire and who writes with such brilliance and luminosity. Her poems lift from the page.
In a nutshell, this collection is concerned with the body and trauma, with motherhood and daughterhood, with growing up in and surviving the rural midwest, with illness and death and how we define and gender it, try to keep it strictly in bounds and contained. Death, illness, the body, and trauma are, in a sense, unwritable—they can’t be fully contained by language, and so silence became a theme of the book, as well. It is that silence and silencing I came to write against and interrogate throughout the collection.
It opens with my experience caring for my mother when she was in hospice, moving into examinations of complicated grief (a term for grief that persists long after the loved one has died), which keeps the speaker and her family in a sort of positive feedback loop of grief and grieving. In its last two sections, the collection zooms out, speaking to my experiences working in agriculture and looking more closely at trauma from sexual violence, as well as at legislation aimed at containing women’s bodies, limiting their healthcare, and delineating what women are “allowed” to do or not do with their own bodies.
JR: One of the poems of Exorcism Lessons in the Heartland, “Resurrected, a version of my mother dwells in silence,” appears in issue 37.1 of The Southeast Review. The poem is an eight-part sequence and elegy for a mother, and it seems to thematize a lot of what you’re speaking to—complicated grief, gender and gendered suffering, trauma, sexual violence, rurality, and especially this idea of silence and silencing. I’d like to talk about these themes. Would you care to speak about silence and its role in “Resurrected, a version of my mother dwells in silence”?
CD: At times, I think of silence as a representation of suffering that can go deeper than our attempts to express it—language transforms what it touches, and writing about trauma is particularly slippery. Silence offered a harbor when language felt restricting or unsafe. And yet, I hungered to break silence, to give words to heartbreak.
When I sat down to write “Resurrected,” I was thinking about how much I ached to have a conversation with my mother, even a single word, but I could never really know what she would or would not have said back. To convey her as silent struck me as more truthful than any words I could use. The dead can’t talk back, so any elegy you write becomes an endless discussion with yourself or, if you believe in souls, with your soul. At the same time, humans have this incredible and irrational urge to transform silence and render it concrete in words, and the dead get caught up in that net, the same as anything else. So the resurrected mother becomes a “version” of herself, something other than my actual mother. She speaks in the poem, but her speech is an imitation of my memory of her, and it can’t last.
This poem also references silence after assault, and I believe it’s important to combat the idea that survivors of violence must be silent, as well as its flipside, that survivors have a supposed duty to always speak their trauma. For me, not using language often acted as a space to breathe and recover. It provided a mechanism for survival.
JR: When we spoke before this interview, we briefly talked about consolation in elegy, particularly in terms of how some elegies can either seem to produce or reject consolation. The way you’re speaking about silence now—particularly as a harbor or, in terms of assault, as a space for breath and recovery—reminds me of our conversation about consolation. Is silence, in “Resurrected,” consolatory? Or is it something more ambivalent about consolation and the language acts that generate it, maybe—or maybe something that doesn’t have to do with consolation at all?
CD: I don’t know if I’d use the word “consolatory,” which might imply that silence (or perhaps language-lessness) can diminish or get rid of pain or grief. It can at times offer some form of solace, perhaps, but as a whole, I think this poem resists consolation. Both language and silence can help the speaker process her grief, but neither one is enough to outright heal her pain in the poem. Her grief continues and reinvents itself each time the poem circles back to the title, to the image of the ghost-mother.
The scene at the end of the poem, in which the sisters are alone and attempt to talk to the mother, to carve sentences that can reach through to her, makes it ambiguous as to whether their words will ever hit home. They can’t know if she understands, or even hears, anything they say, and so speaking itself becomes a kind of erasure. I think this poem focuses more on that contradiction—the speaker is drawn to both silence and language as a means of expression, but that expression constantly undermines itself. Love drives you back to rewriting it, over and over. I’m not sure if that can be called consolation, but it perhaps speaks to the work of remembrance and how poetry fits, or tries to fit, in that uneasy space.
JR: I love the way you put that—“the work of remembrance”—especially given the formal feature you mention, where each section of the sequence returns to and then continues from the title. I’d like to move back a little, if I could, to representations of women and gender in the poem. You mentioned earlier how we define and gender death and illness. Would you speak more to that, particularly in the context of this elegy for your mother?
CD: I mean that our culture speaks about women in death and illness differently than it speaks about men. Women’s illnesses are often portrayed as symbolic, mysterious, and unmentionable, while the elegies that are canonized or quoted the most often tend to be by male writers writing about the deaths of other men. When male writers do write about women, traditionally those women are defined by their roles in relation to men—wife, mother, daughter, lover. These elegies tend toward idealizing or romanticizing the woman according to those traditional gender roles.
Soon after my mother died, I yearned for elegies written by women about women, and which showed women to be people, with strengths and flaws and personalities, likes and dislikes, religious doubt and mistakes. I wanted poetry with the grand scope and formal experimentation I saw in Hamlet, E.E. Cummings’s “my father moved through dooms of love,” or Tennyson’s In Memoriam. These are works I love that have influenced my book and my understanding of elegiac form, but they only went so far for my writing about my mother. When I first searched for elegies written by children about their parents, they were overwhelmingly by sons writing about fathers.
Eventually, I discovered or returned to works like Brenda Hillman’s Death Tractates, which mourns the loss of a female mentor, and the elegies and poems of mourning by female writers like Aracelis Girmay, Anne Sexton, Anna Akhmatova, Anne Carson, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, and others. Although some of those women writers’ elegies are for male figures or even animals, they helped me envision how to integrate grief into the lyric poem and how to write women suffering or dying in a more nuanced and encompassing manner, beyond just their social definitions as family members or muses.
JR: Paired with this “work of remembrance” in “Resurrected” is the work of the imagination. How did you arrive at the decision to incorporate these imagined and fantastical elements into your poem, and how did they affect the process of your writing?
CD: This was the last poem I wrote for my book, and its images had been tumbling around in my mind and tugging at me for years. I kept wanting a poem that combined all the things I wish I had told my mother, including the things I am grateful I did not say to her.
The ghost version of her became a kind of conduit for those unspoken words, allowing me to address my thoughts and worries to her directly. And by keeping her a “version” of herself, it helped keep the poem from achieving an emotional closure (or consolation, as we spoke about earlier) that I knew I couldn’t relate to.
I needed a figure of my mother that could stand in for her, while also acknowledging her gone-ness. I needed something both present and absent at the same time, like the past, like language. It made sense to me to turn toward the fantastic, infusing the everyday with the unbelievable or supernatural. It kept her, my memory of her, real and unreal at the same time.
JR: Thank you so much for giving us your time, Cara. This conversation has been an absolute pleasure. What’s next for you? What work are you focusing on now?
CD: Thank you so much, Jayme! I’ve enjoyed our talk immensely. I’ve been devoting a lot of time to the upcoming publication of Exorcism Lessons in the Heartland, of course, and I’ve worked on that project for so many years that I’m really excited to experiment with new forms and subjects.
Lately, I’ve been working in hybrid forms like essay-poetry, as well as fiction and nonfiction. I don’t know if these projects will be successful yet, but they’re making me think differently about lyric poetry, about what is possible in form and how I can push it further, how I can play more with voice and rhythm and syntax.
I keep returning to the same themes, though, especially violence, gender, and the rural midwest, and my mother keeps cropping up in this new work, too. At first, I was concerned that she kept showing up. I spent so long writing about her and hungered—ached—to write about something, anything, else.
But recently I had a meeting with Mary Ruefle, who was a visiting writer at my program, and I told her I was afraid about constantly writing elegies and elegiac poems. She told me something I’m definitely going to steal when my students arrive at that same worry: “You could write about a teacup, and your mother will still be there.” So, I’ve decided to embrace that when I can, so that when the poem turns back toward her, as many of them will, I will be there ready to include her again. I think she’s a presence and an absence that will always inform my work, even if I don’t always know how.
I’m also thinking a lot about climate change and how it’s impacted the land where I grew up, as well as the constant violence and misogyny of the current U.S. regime, and how these themes are all tangled up together. I’d like to see more poetry not only concerned with rurality, but also with how rural environments reflect back, push against, or contribute to rising fascism. I’d like to produce art that pushes back against that violence, that refuses to soften its edges.
From “Resurrected, a version of my mother dwells in silence”
(sections one, four, and eight)
, surveys the pasture in retrograde, the autumn-
blasted grass, near the down fence
the heirloom tomatoes shrouded in fuzz,
dwindling on threads. As she remains
no friend to forced speech or any forced rupture
of stillness, she mirrors the budding
permafrost, the flattened stems. That is to say,
any words she sheltered have already
surrendered themselves to homesickness.
I speak so as to speak, selecting
calm and calming topics: new hybridities
of apple, my longer hair. For days
she has realmed the garden, accumulating
mist and bone as I dream her answering.
A poet once told me that dreams are boring
and it’s true, but my want for her voice
drills my sleep. If she talks of time, then time. If money,
money. I’m not picky. My mother loved
counting money, which she understood to be a transaction
between beautiful and necessary things.
So I dream her counting silver // one, two // heaping
clear gold for faster surgeries she couldn’t buy.
, comes home again to the bonfire we light
in the garden, stares at her fire-rivered hands.
If she still loves me in the style she lived in,
true blue and jealous, I can
take her pain for me for granted, like
good health, but as I think this she drifts
above the fire, returns briefly to ash,
then glass, her body fluent only
with the dusk salting the hickory. Years ago,
while driving to church, my father
promised her he’d kill himself
after she died. My sister and I
in the backseat, not speaking,
our parents steadily blooming terror
before us. We couldn’t figure out
how to un-hurt them. Tonight
the same caesura settles down again to write
its chapters, publishing them between us.
, holds vigil over the page I give her,
pen in hand. In a blaze
she could make or un-make the poem, set a line
to rights, strikethrough unkempt
ephemera. But if she dwells inside
this blue ash of a door of a soul, it means
she lies low in a cold room we can only reach
through a high window. I take the page
from her, turn it against the light.
Hover it over the stove. No strikethrough.
No message. A poet once told me not to write
in the voices of the dead; they won’t correct you
if you get it wrong and you will get it wrong.
They are always only memory run wild.
That is to say, the dead have no sides to them,
no fixed container, like silence. Reader,
you know by now as you knew before
she does not visit the poem. Should
her mouth burst into whole languages
it will be inside another unspeakable radius.
I speak so as to speak: women are written either
as pomegranates (once opened
the juice lacking jurisdiction) or
as human. Left alone, the mind will either
torch its own bridges or dovetail its own
lovely grooves. What kind of silence
is a blown coil, what kind a correct gift
floating the ill current. Days before my mother died
my sister read to her from a book
in which young girls cut their hair for money.
I read her the only poem she heard me read.
We were trying. We were trying to build windows
through to her, over the body’s softening architecture, into
the smudge of mist she worked inside, counting.