An Interview with Eleni Sikelianos

By Melissa Buckheit


Melissa Buckheit: Hello, Eleni. It is lovely to have the opportunity to talk with you about Body Clock, your newest book, its influences, and the intersection in your poetry and life with science, nature, the ecology of all living things. I always feel in a way that it is strange to speak of ‘nature’ in poetry or art, as if nature were this thing outside of humans—separate, sometimes exotic—in the way Americans might visit the Grand Canyon for a vacation. We are nature and nature is most things. Nature has become an ‘other’ within the course of Western thought in particular, which accounts for the way it is so often framed. I feel history has both followed and enacted this relationship. What are your thoughts on this and on nature vis-à-vis your writing? Your poetry lives and speaks within an ecosystem of all beings, rather than outside of one. I think the gaze is very different.

Eleni Sikelianos: Well, I’ve said this elsewhere, but I do tend to think in terms of ecosystems, be it in my experience of the language of a poem, the roots of a word, or the group of people in a classroom or in my home. I suppose it comes from my brief study of population dynamics in zoology.

It’s true that we have been trained to have a tourist’s view of nature, which can manifest itself in a limited “representation” of nature in poetry, with nature as a kind of ideal, feminized form to be worshipped from a distance (the distance from the viewer/speaker to the world). I’m more interested in a poetry that participates in the system, which recognizes language and the imagination as parts of the wild / tamed spaces. Ideally, this active participation in connectedness can raise consciousness. But I suppose it’s better to have tourist-nature as a national psyche than to have no regard for the natural world whatsoever. The aim would be to translate this into better stewardship. We are in the midst of such a grand disaster.

Melissa: Yes, we are. In our last interview on Exchanges on Light by Jacques Roubaud, you talked about the influence of science on your poetry. You studied biology and other sciences when you were an undergraduate and had originally considered pursuing a career in that field. What led you to focus on writing, rather than a career as a scientist? How did your relationship with living things influence this decision?

Eleni: The math requirements! I do regret being such a math wimp, and often threaten to go back for a Bachelors of Science. But really, I had wanted to write from a very young age, since I was about seven. During a long trip, that included seven or so months of hitchhiking across Africa, I came back to that original passion of writing, which I had been secretly doing all along anyway. Writing wasn’t really a choice (who would choose to be a poet?!), but perhaps I’d have even more science in my work had I continued. Another piece in my decision was this really fabulous biology teacher I had, John Matsui, who is now Assistant Dean of Biological Sciences at Berkeley. He had a broad-spectrum approach to the discipline, bringing in literature to illuminate biological principles. I gained from him a sense of continuity between the fields.

Melissa: The inquiry essential to both poetry and science, that curiosity and willingness to create and then look beyond postulated ideas and theories, and the knowledge that nothing is ever fully known–how do these ideas manifest themselves in your poetry?

Eleni: Writing is a much more solipsistic activity, but both require a focused, deep observation of entities, objects, motion, symmetry and asymmetry, analogous forms, function, and interaction. How does the endomembrane system function? How do all the parts of the poem carry energy? These questions seem related. The unknown that surrounds the known is the major playing field of both science and poetry.

Melissa: All of your other books—in particular I think of Earliest Worlds and The California Poem, have engaged with science and the natural world, albeit in different voices and within different experiential themes. Fragments and whole organisms become a part of your vocabulary, “school buses line up, yellow metacarpal/ matchboxes with no momentary children,” not as some evidenced part of a whole accumulated roadside, but instead as embodied and entered by the self, like the shadow of night we move into through the portals of our homes. It is a beautiful and living relationship. Can you speak about your experience of science and ‘nature’ in and between these individual books?

Eleni: Hmm. That might take a long time. But I’ll dip in briefly.

During the writing of Blue Guide, the first book in Earliest Worlds, I was trying to read [the French mathematician] Poincaré in French, which was pretty ridiculous. The notion of reading The Book of Nature as a math or science book (which was a radical rewriting of the religious notion of reading Nature as God’s book) fascinated me. I was also reading Stephen Hawking, and thinking a lot about light, since I was living in Paris, with its short days and long nights, during much of the writing.

In The California Poem, I’m contending with the notions of catalogue, Linnean systems of naming and recording that have permeated our worldview, as well as intertidal, riparian and other ecosystems. I was doing specific research, and had a lot of fun incorporating things from my old zoology textbook, as well as the University of California Press field guides I grew up with (they were always hanging around the bathroom or living room shelves), like Field Guide to the Beetles of California. I loved those—they had these fabulous drawings and improbable “keys.” They suggested a specific way of knowing and interacting with one’s environment. Those were a fairly big influence on The California Poem. I was also reading Ed Rickett’s Between Pacific Tides, and Steinbeck’s and Rickett’s Log from the Sea of Cortez. (Ricketts was a groundbreaking marine biologist who was also the model for Doc in Cannery Row, and many other Steinbeck characters.)

Melissa: I feel like Body Clock is another arrival and dynamic within the ecosystem of living things, but one which looks at the self, the maternal female body and the growing baby inside, as a place of exploration, of origin; the body is a world unto itself not separate from the myriad visible and invisible, but parallel, a shifting site of accumulation and transaction. The book begins inside the maternal body, your body when you were pregnant with your daughter, Eva Grace, with an uncluttered and clear eye. Even within this, there is the chaos of experience, the cacophony of details in the world, of pregnancy and the family—a beautiful chaos.

Eleni: Chaos is a good word here. I suppose one thing poems do is respond to the world’s and the self’s chaos—by simply representing it or trying to make sense of it. It is a kind of prima material—the void (or unknown) out of which matter or language issues. The book engages with the highly sensitive dynamic systems that are flickering out in the world and inside the body—systems susceptible to chaos. In Greek, chaos means to be wide open (to gape), and Chaos, one of the originary elements, is a kind of womb out of which the world falls.

Melissa: Body Clock opens with the first section, "Sweet City." It reminds me of some earlier parts in The Monster Lives of Girls and Boys, in so much that the setting is a city at some last moment before or during an ultimate destruction due to human action. "Sweet City" is different—there is an intersection of the beauty in moments of time and perception. There seems the awareness of the baby who will be charted in the Body Clock sections, and the voice is one which lives in a world where loss or destruction, whether to the environment, human relationship, or a literal destruction, has already occurred, is a consciousness of daily life. What did you feel when you were beginning Body Clock, writing the poems in ‘Sweet City’? What was your intention in beginning the book in this locale?

Eleni: You are right to make that connection.

"The Sweet City" the longish poem for which the section is named, is what we might tentatively call a 9/11 poem. Some of the pieces in The Monster Lives touch on that event less directly. Laird and I lived just a few miles from the Towers for five years, and were still living there when the planes hit. I wrote "The Sweet City" in the months ensuing, but didn’t know that I’d ever publish it. I had a strong reaction to the various exploitive responses to the event, the way people tend to claim or own tragedy, and I didn’t want to participate in that. And there were the compounded tragedies of our bombing Afghanistan and invading Iraq.

I wrote the poem long before I ever dreamed of having a child, four years before Eva was born. In pregnancy and the first year of motherhood, I was in the middle of a very interior experience, and the most exterior experience one might imagine are the "politics" of the world. I happened to be pregnant five years deep into one of the worst, if not the worst, American administrations in history. As this amazing thing was being constructed inside my body, and then constructing consciousness outside my body, the world around us was in various throes of destruction. When I was putting together the manuscript, I was trying to figure out the shape of these experiences, and the notion of alternating "home" and "world" sections seemed to make the most sense.

It also made sense to begin with a poem that responds to a series of events that have effected a profound shift in consciousness. We are still involved in the wars begun at that time, and in some ways the war is scarier than ever, with the use of artificial intelligence (drones) to kill people, and the spread of various forms of devaluing human life.

Each of the alternating sections deals with the world in some way. One of the projects in those poems is to take politically charged words or objects (like Niger yellowcake or a barrel of sweet light crude) and appropriate them for the lyric contingency of the poem, thereby claiming a different kind of possibility and ownership.

Melissa: The voice in this section seems aware, but not didactic, cautious in her consciousness but also ecstatic in small moments. I also feel there is a sense of warning.

Eleni: Yes, I suppose there is. The world is a dangerous place for many living things.

Melissa: So many moments throughout the book are deeply sweet—in the heart sense. There is the sweetness of the baby, toward the baby—the sweet play in the self. The playfulness in the voice of the narrator / your voice seems to move forward in the section "Body Clock," and continue deeply in "Love Book." There is a safety in this play, it seems to be a self-space we are often not allowed or encouraged to exist in, an instinctual and pre-verbal mind of the child. In that space, a belief in the possibilities of time, perception, and being are available to us as readers (and to the speaker), outside of the confines of linear thought. You say, “What about this/ luminous ether, these bumping/ atoms, ultraviolet light knocking electrons/ off the surface of/ a piece of metal?/ The numbers and circles with perfect existence/ outside the mind?/ Gravity’s shape on which depends/ the flow of time?/ Where did the baby come from?”

Eleni: I like the way you describe this place as both private / for the poet, and safe for the reader.

Melissa:These things—the instinctual self and exploration of perception, time and worlds beyond those visible to the naked eye—seem to be linked to the drawings in Body Clock, from the "egg or meat minute exercises," the "body clock" or baby inside you, and other "experiments of an hour," to the manipulated image of your own chromosomes. Where did the drawings arrive from and what made you include them in the book?

Eleni: The drawings began as visual notes in my notebook, attempts to clarify perception. I drew a first portrait of a minute, and soon decided to do a series of them, as an embodied thought experiment. I soon realized that they were as much a part of the "poems" as anything else. Later, after Eva’s birth, I extended that experiment into visual and linguistic portraits of hours. When I began to have the luxury of a full hour to myself, when Eva was perhaps a year old, my mind was still entirely empty of its own thoughts. The simple gestures of drawing an hour, within the framework of an hour, and tracking what language arose, was a meditative way to engage that time.

Later still, as I was putting the manuscript together, I started to see all the other various poorly done drawings in my notebooks as part of the text. Including drawings, something at which I am completely untrained, was part of my gesture toward the unfinished or unprofessional possibilities in the creative act, a bit of a protest to the professionally-regimented field we have become. (I don’t mean that poets shouldn’t be highly trained makers; but I lament the institutional take-over, even as I am a part of it.)

It wasn’t until after the book was published that I realized that my portraits of minutes and hours probably come from having to draw sketches of specimens and their parts during dissection labs, and from looking at diagrams in the aforementioned field guides.

Melissa: I love that you included the drawings. They do feel like meditations when we arrive at them in the book; in a wholly unconstructed way, they are interior, private, unfinished, not made for an exterior eye. As the drawings emerge through the pages of Body Clock, I feel as though I am afforded the opportunity to sit beside the poet at her desk, on that particular day, for a minute or an hour. I feel the sun, the dry, white, Colorado air, sensations of the body—the pieces of the minute.

What really is the body-minute or (meat-minute)? I’m thinking of your lines “By June, we move in/ perfect symmetry” and “You’re in the minute, and it’s not/ history, then you’re on the other side, and/ it is. What happened to/ what happened there?” There is a transaction there—with the birth of Eva? It feels like some shift in time/worlds, and also a revealed disparity in realities between the body inside and outside.

Eleni: The book begins with a quote from D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, from his great book On Growth and Form, in which he meditates on the relationship between physical and mechanical laws and the construction of all kinds of living bodies. What most interested me there at the time was the correlation between the temporal and the physical. What is the relationship between a minute and the creation of a fly’s morphology? A minute and a human body? It’s an idea I come to again and again in the book: the creation (and destruction) of the living body within time. How long does it take a group of cells to create a human finger? This temporal embodiment is beautiful and fascinating to me—minutes have meat.

Melissa: There seems to be some letting go into the spiraling intelligence of form and a wholeness of being—of the baby and in the universe—in ‘Township of Cause of Trouble”. You reveal,

(to no longer be worried for)
(what one doesn’t know)

(to no longer feel) 
(responsible for it)

the body, often at odds
with us, tense
in its own disbelief of itself

a fly flying in
to meet its shadow on the ceiling

the letter is transient, the hand
is permanent, spell the vowels
in a palm …

What is this pile of 
darkness in the room? …

the study of hands in the light, of touch
in the dark

a child having always the Book
of her hands open before her eyes

some radiant history

some restless meat I feel.

Yet, the violence (outside) is real and present, not dramatized. The shadows or edges between light seem to mark these transitions. And later, the baby and speaker together are vulnerable, in a beauty and a terror. What is the relationship between this “radiant history” and another history of suffering, these private and public spaces (can they be separated) as you carry them through the rest of the poem?

Eleni: I think the suffering is also part of the radiant history, as in Blake’s lines:

Some are born to sweet delight
Some are born to endless night

The light and radiance of "sweet delight" illuminate the darkness of the line below it, just as the darkness reflects, and darkens, the light above it. Likewise, in a fragment from Praxilla, in which Adonis answers the question, from the underworld, of what he misses of his life on Earth:

Most beautiful of what I leave behind is the sunlight
And the light of the stars and the moon,
And also cucumbers that are ripe, and apples and pears

(This is my memory, anyway, of how the Richmond Lattimore translation goes.) Praxilla illuminates objects that have no light of their own, through first the daytime sky, but also through the radiance of the night heavens. There is simultaneously the bright / dark mirror between the speaker, Adonis, whose beauty was so glowing that Aphrodite fell in love with him, and the dark place from which he now speaks, among the shades. There is also, in "Township of Cause of Trouble," the ghost of "rads," the fallout from nuclear testing in the Nevada desert (which have made much of our soil toxic), and the relationship between “rads,” a unit of absorbed radiation dose, and “radiant.”

The home and world sections of the book begin to infect each other, to slip into one another the further in the book we go, just as do our cross-illuminating and intra-darkening histories of radiance and suffering.

Melissa: My last thought is of the hours, "what derives of the desiring heart, blinking in the dark/ I guess I’d say plurality bleeds in," and of Eva knitting herself into muscle and body, into baby and being, from the plurality, the desire, “from the inside/ how deep does the eye look in in/ sleep/ or through years, self’s / eating centuries there.”

Eleni: Time accrues in the book, from minutes to hours, as the body accrues, from a clump of cells, to a speaking body—the body becomes abstract as it teleologises, if I can make a verb of that—as it reaches its yearned-for state. Which also means that it moves toward death, in the fold of centuries. In the last section of the book, sleep, or dream, might be the meeting point—the point at which the cells reach their apotheosis—I don’t know if I could say where there’s neither growth nor death, but perhaps where these states coexist.

Melissa: Thank you, Eleni.

All quoted text is from Body Clock by Eleni Sikelianos (2008, Coffee House Press).