Interview with Mary Buchinger
Border Crossing: The metaphor of the heart is central to these poems and each builds to create a larger landscape. Could you talk about your different uses of this metaphor? Are these poems part of a larger project? If so, could you discuss how they fit into the themes of a larger narrative?
Mary Buchinger: These poems, taken from a collection called, Vagrancies, push on the boundaries of metaphor by describing transmigrations, or wanderings, of the ‘heart,’ a kind of stand-in for the self. In each of the poems, the heart is personified and animated. I’ve always been fascinated by the Gnostic notion of “homoousios,” an identity of substance between the generating and the generated and these poems come out of that fascination. I feel identification is a way of experiencing the world—that is, identifying in some complete way with what is radically different.
BC: Could you talk specifically about how one or more of the poems published in Border Crossing use this notion of “homoousios”?
MB: Essentially these are persona poems and what is given voice are non-human objects or creatures. In “Forked” the speaker is a dowsing rod, a tree branch used to detect underground water. I like the idea of a tree branch collaborating with the person holding it to divine some unseen essential source. Making the self/heart that branch of willow or witch hazel (the usual kinds of wood used) and inviting the physical encounter of calloused hand against bark suggests a particular kind of relationship—one of discovery born of trust and desire, heightened by an urgent quest. This kind of identification with an object opens up possibilities for describing relationships that would not have contained the subtleties that are evoked by this persona poem. Likewise, in the poem “Say I am a river” I explore the relationships between a river and a rock and a river and a tree. In entering into the dynamic world of a river and objects typically associated with it, I am able to explore meanings of other close and mutually defining relationships. River water courses around a rock; the rock is a kind of obstacle but also an opportunity for the river to move differently, yet the rock is gradually shaped by the movement of and contact with the river. The tree, which sways, grows, and changes seasonally, is faithfully reflected in the river surface. Ultimately, it is difficult to know what constructs what—tree, river, rock are existentially interdependent. On the other hand, the poem, “The heart is its own ocean,” is less about a relationship to another and explores a more internal landscape—the restless and forceful movement of tides that cleanse and pulse can be related to strong emotions. The ocean is also subject to outside forces (gravitational pull of the moon, storms, currents), which impact internal detritus, both bad and good—oil slicks and krill alike. The ocean gives me a way to consider how emotion and one’s sense of self are subject to both internal and external forces.
BC: Any landscape could have been created with this metaphor, but you chose to use a natural setting. What inspired you to associate images of trees, rivers, and meadows with the heart?
MB: I live in the city but have always been drawn to nature and find I do most of my composing of poetry on my walks in the woods and along rivers in Cambridge and Boston. In addition to images drawn from a natural setting, there are poems in this collection that portray the heart as a museum of small movements, a shape inside an oil painting, a devotee of a leviathan, and so on.
BC: What drew you to the other settings and subjects you mention, such as museums and devotees?
MB: Again, each othering or identification with another object/space/being affords new opportunities for discovery. For example, in the poem, “In heart’s museum” (published in Antiphon [UK]), I refer to the heart as a “museum of small movements”—“beat informs beat…repetition is key…but as in any linkage, flush with variation and gap”—which also takes me into the realm of biology “expression is a response that shapes what comes after”…and ultimately to a love relationship “each small movement is its own small movement resting in each other.” The abstraction of a relationship into a museum of small movements reveals meaning in the day-to-day accommodations that longstanding relationships (“constitutionally bound and liberated”) require of us.
BC: I like the idea of identifying with an object or subject that is, as you say, “radically different” from the subject at hand, which allows the reader to think of the world in a way he/she may not have before. Do you think it’s important that a poem do this for readers?
MB: Yes! I think poetry presents an opportunity to go both inside and outside oneself. The invitation to see something in a very different way—to enter into a sensibility utterly unlike your own—is an inherent invitation to experience your own reality differently. The self is challenged in encounters with others—poetry has the power to disturb default understandings of the self and others. In making the world strange we become strange to ourselves and this strangeness creates opportunities for growth and change. Poetry is a meaning-making enterprise for me—reading and writing poetry is critical to being fully human.
Mary Buchinger is the author of Aerialist (Gold Wake, 2015) and Roomful of Sparrows (Finishing Line, 2008). She is Associate Professor of English and Communication Studies at MCPHS University in Boston, Massachusetts. Visit her online: www.marybuchinger.com