Language Does Not Need to Be Hopeful to Provide Hope: A Conversation Between John James and Christopher Kondrich




THIS CONVERSATION BEGAN over email and continued on a sweltering August evening in Washington, DC. Along with the poet Elizabeth Arnold, Christopher and I read from our collections, Valuing and The Milk Hours, at Bridge Street Books in Georgetown. The space was small, but full. The shootings in El Paso and Dayton had just transpired, so each poet began by reading a poem about gun violence — Christopher read “Common Things,” while I chose Kyle Dargan’s “Natural Causes.” After the reading, the conversation continued, each of us asking the other questions about his book, which is presented here in two parts.

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I. 

JOHN JAMES: Christopher Kondrich’s Valuing is as smart as it is dexterous. Kondrich’s syntax subverts established meaning within the course of a line, time and again defying his readers’ expectations. These are poems that ask fundamentally what it means to mean, but also, what it is to be a mind, to be singular or plural, to live as an individual within the aggregate of history. What’s more, Kondrich interrogates the possibility of agency within such aggregate experience: what it means to exert passivity in the face of violence — to think of peace as active, epic. In an age of political upheaval, Valuing is a nuanced look at the competing systems of appraisal that constitute our perilous present.

Let’s start with what might be obvious: your book explores the notion of “value” from a variety of vantage points, considering how value is systematized, manipulated, internalized, and inscribed. Yet as you suggest in the opening poem, “Asylum,” value is intricately tied to agency. You write, “I choose / to value,” as if one could choose not to. How is value related to agency or action in your book?

CHRISTOPHER KONDRICH: One of the earliest influences on these poems is Allen Grossman, who, in the essay “Hard Problems in Poetry, Especially Valuing,” writes that “[t]he action of loving expresses the intention to value anything. So I must in order to think about valuing think about love.” Say what you will about the loftiness and opacity of Grossman’s various philosophies, but I find much of it really moving, and the notion of loving, appreciating, cherishing, and stewarding something or someone as intrinsic to writing poems struck a chord with me. It still does. I want to send as much love as I can into the world while I’m alive. I want to be a good person, but how do I sustain this while also navigating the complex systems of violence, oppression, inequality, and environmental degradation I am complicit in — whether I like it or not, whether I’m aware of it or not — as a citizen of this country. Or, as I write in “Black Paintings,” which meditates on and spirals out from Goya’s infamous works: “person, what are you but your ration for today / of things happening without your knowledge, in your name?”

Being a loving or good person, though, isn’t something you suddenly are one day and never have to do anything about ever again. Nor is it, given the many avenues of hate and neglect and damage our social and political systems present us with on a daily basis, something you can just stumble into, hoping for the best. It requires “the volitional autonomy of the person,” as Grossman writes in that same essay, or at least the illusion (or is it delusion) that such “volitional autonomy” exists.

The book thinks interestingly about objects: sometimes they’re conduits for action; other times they’re receptacles for it. I’m thinking of a line in “Division of Labor,” where a single boat is imagined as “one of many boats attributing to the dock / what they learned from the ocean.” What they learn is that “anything bobbing / bobs because of anything else.” That is to say, the apparent action committed by one object is often a ripple effect precipitated by another, whether we realize it or not. How does Valuing think about objects and their relationships to other objects or networks of objects?

I can’t answer this question without bringing up Paul Simon. There’s this part of “Obvious Child” near the end, when — and I seriously can’t think about this without tearing up — the song’s character Sonny is thumbing through the pages of an old yearbook, looking at photos of classmates who’ve died, “fled from themselves” or “struggled from here to get there,” all while wandering “beyond his interior walls” and running “his hands through his thinning brown hair.” First of all, time is fucking terrifying. I can’t handle it. I mean, my god — it passes! Second, the old yearbook, which may not have sparked such sadness yesterday, sparks it today. Why? Surely the yearbook hasn’t changed. And yet, in that moment, it moves him. Literally. It moves him onto a different path, a path by which, whether realized or not, other objects are altered as a result. “The inner circle has to touch the outer to widen stone,” as I write in “Peace Epic.”

And yet, despite this dynamic, objecthood evokes the negation of humanness, as is described by Simone Weil in her essay “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force.”

Your intellectual relationship to Weil seems pivotal to the book. You begin with an epigraph from her essay “Gravity and Grace,” which acknowledges the inevitability of debts to any form of value production, including non-monetary or non-material forms of value. Can you talk about your relationship to Weil? To the infinite regress of debt and exchange she articulates? To her essay on the Iliad?

I read the Iliad essay in a workshop with Eleni Sikelianos alongside several translations of the epic. It’s a visionary characterization of the dehumanizing effects of war, how the “force” of violence turns both perpetrator and victim into things, but, within it, I also found language that articulated the effects of intractable depression on my own body. I had been going about my days feeling like “a thing in the most literal sense,” feeling “this petrifactive quality.”

At that time, I was, of course, reading with depression’s blinders on, giving little regard to historical context, but it was a transformative reading experience. I actually felt transformed by reading it. Its language animated me. I was shaken out of intractability by her extraordinary articulation of force’s effects, in part because it made me believe in language again. That it actually can describe indescribable feelings. That words can actually be put to that which leaves you wordless. So I found hope in Weil’s essay. It’s such a mournful text, but language does not need to be hopeful to provide hope.

You’ve expressed that, in writing the book, your use of syntax changed, especially after the birth of your daughter. I experienced a similar stylistic shift when my daughter was born. What changed, and why do you think this was the case?

In the year leading up to the birth of my daughter Thalia, I was reading Susan Howe, and hers is a poetics in which the past is eating away at the present, and the text that remains is continuously dissolving. So I was thinking about how absence is made present in That This and Souls of the Labadie Tract. And this was also when Geoffrey G. O’Brien’s People on Sunday was published. I love how the language of O’Brien’s poems seems to delay their own realization, as though their language was getting in their own way: “Is it your fault you don’t yet / Use your time, all of it, to defend // Weather against those wishing / To control it, if only by letting it / Be amplified in its present effects?”

So when my daughter was born and I was dizzy with love and fatigue, I had to reorient myself to start writing again. I did so by going back to these extraordinary poets and their aesthetics of absence and delay.

One of my favorite poems in the book is “Layer of Ash.” For me, it moves differently than the others. The tone is a little lighter. It’s not quite as dense. It’s more frenetic. Can you talk about the form of this poem, or others, in relation to value-creation or disruption?

“Layer of Ash” was written after a run through Cheesman Park in Denver where, as I write in the poem, the leaves brushed the top of my head as I passed beneath their branches, and where squirrels were loping their half-moons on either side of the dirt path. I went home and dashed these lines into my notebook. So I felt as though what would eventually become the final version of the poem had this energy from the start. And, as the four years it took to write Valuing progressed and the intractable depression I was struggling with intensified, making the poems increasingly more dense, more collapsed inward, which is one of the main effects of depression, I wanted to keep that poem, that energy in the collection so I could feel myself in motion again, if only on the page.

II.

CHRISTOPHER KONDRICH: Johns James’s The Milk Hours is as ruminative and tender as the collection’s title suggests. But the poems also look unflinchingly at a world ravaged by environmental degradation, at memories ravaged by pain and grief, and at one’s own place within the violence of history. These poems care deeply, and they give the reader the language to do so.

I found moments in The Milk Hours in which you long to express language tangibly: “I wanted something // to say : the ocean / scraped his insides clean,” in “Metamorphoses,” for example, or “I wanted to make this vivid, so vivid. To say / a passerine flits in the wind,” in “Erosion.” How do you see this longing in relation to grief?

JOHN JAMES: I think of speech as a kind of sonic activation that revives past experience in the mind. There’s a material component to speech that we often forget about. It begins in the body — in the throat and in the lungs — and reverberates in the air that surrounds and sustains us. It’s actually quite physical. And yet, its ability to signify something intangible — meaning — places it somewhere between material and metaphysical realities. Language, then, can “make vivid” what was once experienced in a physical manner, but now exists only in the mind. It strives to bridge the gap between memory and a very real material present — and it ultimately, always fails. But if, like me, you think of language as a technology for thought, then it’s the closest art gets to bridging that ontological gap. This is the work of elegy, to be sure — but in some sense, I think it’s what all poems do, maybe what all art, even nonverbal art, strives for.

Absolutely. And this notion of speech existing “between material and metaphysical realities” reminds me of the collages you include in The Milk Hours and their betweenness. In “Botany,” a collage in three blocks, you position an image of a factory line or industrial contraption in between the images of flora, suggesting the commodification of the natural world.

I didn’t think too much about the placement of the image, aside from making something that would be aesthetically pleasing, but you’re totally right. It’s smack dab in the center. Yet the first ones I created actually feature an interruption. “Roots | Tumble,” for instance, uses one of those floral blocks to cut right through the primary image — here another industrial contraption, overlaid with a lily pad. I wanted to demonstrate the fusion of so-called “natural” and “cultural” entities, to think about the ways they intersect, and how that combination characterizes our current geological epoch, which scientists and scholars are now calling the Anthropocene. The term is problematic, I think, but the fusion of particulate carbon with breathable air is very real — more tangible than we might realize.

Certainly moments of interruption and fusion happen in the poems when you incorporate language from, say, Hegel and Anne Carson and Haruki Murakami in “History (n.),” and language from others, including Virginia Woolf and Hopkins, in other poems. Can you speak about this aspect of the book, perhaps as a way of practicing a similar aesthetics as the visual work? And how did these collisions — between your voice and the voices of others — come about?

It’s definitely a similar aesthetic. I’d written a handful of poems that spoke in two voices, intersplicing language from another text with words of my own — a technique I’d seen in, among other places, Timothy Donnelly’s The Cloud Corporation. I was also writing centos and other poems that use language from other poems as a kind of formal constraint. At the same time, I was interested in the notion of hypertextuality, of texts linked to other texts. I wondered what it would look like to create a web-like, polyphonic poem that reaches out to grasp many voices, languages, and ideas — one that would mimic the ecologies I was thinking about, both in my poems and in my scholarly work. It’s a maximalist concept, to be sure, but I think any solution to our current era of connectivity and climate collapse is going to have to be maximalist, systemic. I don’t think poetry has the answers, but maybe it can mime the kind of thinking we so desperately need. 

In a recent essay for Literary Hub, you talk about learning that your father committed suicide through a poem your grandmother had written. You describe sitting across the street from the cemetery where he is buried and thinking about how you’re the connective tissue between his life and your daughter’s. The title poem of the book emerges out of this moment, but it also seems to reverberate across the collection. There’s very much a concern with history, temporality, perspective, as well as a concern with ownership, or maybe a sense of responsibility. I found myself repeating that first line to myself — about how you “lived overlooking the walls overlooking the cemetery” — as I read the rest of the book. Can you talk a bit about how you see this kind of thematic reverberation playing out in The Milk Hours, or about how you approached its ordering?

Many people have made that same observation — that the title poem reverberates throughout the book. It’s definitely true. My first preoccupation in ordering the poems was formal: I wanted to balance those maximalist poems with more conventionally organized pieces, like “Kentucky, September” or “At Assateague.” But there was also a way in which the title poem announces or even admits something to the reader — the fact of my father’s suicide — that the other pieces don’t announce, and that I had a hard time admitting to myself. It provides an important key to some of the later poems in the collection, such as “Clock Elegy” or “Years I’ve Slept Right Through,” that acknowledge the fact of his death but dance around how it happened.

But also, the essayist Kyoko Mori describes a kind of “ground zero” that defines us as writers and thinkers, usually a traumatic event in childhood. This event is obviously my ground zero, and in that sense, I think it prompted my interests in history, perspective, time, et cetera. The authors I was drawn to early on — Faulkner, Morrison, Joyce — all deal with history’s ability to reach into and impact the present. As a scholar, I’ve worked a great deal on William Blake and Walter Benjamin, both of whom offer recursive models of time that really interest me. It’s hard to say, but I think my interest in these things is ultimately elegiac, in the sense that all of them collapse the past with the present in ways that allow their characters or speakers a kind of access to lost material objects. Perspective has a way of doing this, as does ownership, though the latter has a particularly ecological valence.

So if you’re considering these recursive models of time, as you say, in Blake and Benjamin, do you think of the poem, or, more specifically, your poems, as an attempt to break through this recursivity? I ask this because of the link from the epigraph of the first poem in the first section, the quote by Plato, the one in which dreams are referred to as “repeatedly commanding me to make this music,” and the title of the final poem “Forget the Song.” Does this link, from the beginning of The Milk Hours to the end, imply that breaking through isn’t possible?

I think the ultimate answer is that time is a construct, and that nothing we do can break its endless cycles, because we’re the ones forging them in the first place. We make time. I don’t know if that’s how Blake or Benjamin think about these things, but it’s definitely a very Blakean sentiment. Formally speaking, though, “Forget the Song” is similar to earlier poems in the book, like “History (n.)” or “Klee’s Painting,” so it throws the reader back into the beginning, a move that mimics the repetition and circularity you’ve noted in the title poem. I thought of it as a gesture that says, Hey, you know all this shit I just said? Like, throughout this entire book you just read? Well, forget about it. It’s totally useless. Of course, if I really believed that, I wouldn’t have written the book, so there’s something deliberately insincere in that gesture, but it helped me to close the door on what seemed like an otherwise incessant inquiry. I guess it’s a way of saying that the work of elegy is complete, or as complete as it’s ever going to be, so it’s time to give grief a rest. That’s what I’m trying to do now, in my life and in my poems — which is its own kind of breakthrough, I suppose. 

Maybe as close to a breakthrough as you may ever get. Or, “If approximations are the best / We can do — fine then, let’s approximate,” as you write in “Driving Arizona,” which is a moment of solace and acceptance.

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John James is the author of The Milk Hours (Milkweed, 2019), selected by Henri Cole for the Max Ritvo Poetry Prize.

Christopher Kondrich is the author of Valuing (University of Georgia Press, 2019), selected by Jericho Brown as a winner of the National Poetry Series, and Contrapuntal (Free Verse Editions, 2013).


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