by Amy Wright
With the coronavirus vaccine rollout underway, it feels inevitable to read David Keplinger’s seventh collection of poetry, The World to Come (Conduit Books & Ephemera, $18), through the lens of anticipated post-pandemic change. Every world contains one to come, but the urgency of our current context raises the stakes for reading this winner of the 2020 Minds on Fire Prize.
If applications of the imagination design the future, is the role of poetry to suggest different trajectories, help us process the past as we move forward, or invent a new role for poetry altogether? Following a year of daily death counts, economic crisis, and lost loved ones, readers ask these and more age-old questions freshly and demand unexpected answers.
Keplinger’s poems venture from “The Classical Age” to “The Large Hadron Collider” with dozens of contexts between, in the company of a speaker sensitive to “how the water oddly suffers” when entered by a newt. Such a voice, hyper-attuned to the senses and privy to the secret knowledges Rainer Maria Rilke alludes to in the book’s epigraph, has much to offer us as we watch the end of one world and wait desperately for the next.
Keplinger’s previous collection, Another City (Milkweed Books, 2018) won the 2019 UNT Rilke Prize. In 2020 he was awarded the Emily Dickinson Prize from the Poetry Society of America, and his translation of Carsten René Nielsen’s poetry from the Danish, Forty-One Objects (Bitter Oleander Press, 2019) was a finalist for the National Translation Award. Keplinger teaches in the MFA Program at American University in Washington, D.C.
Amy Wright: Can we begin by positioning your goals for The World to Come with regard to the expectations and unknowns?
David Keplinger: There are two references to worlds to come in this collection. One reference occurs in the poem “The Age of Television,” which takes place in August of 1969. That summer, in a matter of three weeks, the moon landing happened and the Manson murders were committed. These two events marked the end and then the beginning of two periods in the American imagination. With the moon landing, a sedan-sized Eagle was guided to a heavenly body by a computer hundreds of times less sophisticated than the phone in my pocket. The world to come from that would be rife with such advancements and miraculous phenomena. With the Manson murders, the hippie movement, for all its beautiful idealism, was effectively brought to an end. It suggested a world to come in which the trance-face of Manson and his disciples felt more remote than the moon. So the world to come can bring either arrival or exile, intimacy or distance. My sense is that it will deliver both extremes.
The title poem suggests a decimated land of environmental collapse and human loneliness. But I found myself willing to embrace more than just a negative view of the future through the immensity of space—by literally thinking myself out of this atmosphere of negativity and decline. The book is divided into three sections: Possible Worlds, Impossible Worlds, and The World to Come. I wanted to leave the reader with an impression of largess and revelation propelled not only by a space module, but by the imagination.
AW: A number of cultural shifts are underway that will impact the future in significant ways, including not only the pandemic but also the Black Lives Matter protests and the #MeToo movement. What role do you see poetry and the poetry community serving to help process and enact social change?
DK: On January 6, while an attempted coup was unfolding here in Washington, D.C., where I live, I found myself in the middle of an essay about Emily Dickinson, whose writing in 1862 began in subtle ways to reflect the violence of the Civil War without directly referencing it. The world out there was on fire; it could not help but affect the world in here. Dickinson’s genius was that she was an ardent listener and observer—her world on fire transformed her language and subject matter in subtle and abiding ways. In August of that year she wrote of bees: “The Bravest – of the Host – / Surrendering – the last – / Nor even of Defeat – aware – / When cancelled by the Frost.” I imagine Dickinson, removed from the fighting, but moved by war; I hear the war in her description of bees, with this language of combat. I hear the language of cold institutions that instigate wars: “Host,” and “cancelled.” Witness can be mapped in the sounds of her words, associations, contradictions, and formal departures.
That’s the contemplative in me talking. I know that language and image and our formal containers are all being shaped by the events of 2016-2021, the same as—and this is a point that Drew Gilpin Faust makes in her book about the Civil War dead, This Republic of Suffering (Knopf, 2008)—the years of 1861-1865 shaped American consciousness from that moment forward. In the midst of all of that growth and progress, a devastating implosion occurred. The teacher and activist in me knows that what is happening now in this country will shape not only what we write and how we write but who will be writing it. And that is the most important, the most necessary shift. If the reckoning had happened in Dickinson’s era, she would not only be writing about the war, she would be celebrated for it in her own lifetime.
AW: What contemporary voices are you turning to for witness and reckoning?
DK: The last two years alone have initiated a new surge of excellence in American poetry. Jericho Brown, Ilya Kaminsky, Monica Sok, Carolyn Forché, Chet’la Sebree, Victoria Chang, Rick Barot, Wayne Miller, Juan Morales, Valzhyna Mort, Yusef Komunyakaa, Jenny Molberg. The list includes those of my generation and the younger, as well as the older. You find in these voices a different chronicle of reckoning not only for each generation, but for each individual life. By 2023 I suspect that the whole landscape will have changed. So much new and important work is on the way.
AW: Along with lives lost to police violence and the pandemic, we will be left with lingering griefs and remorse over what we could have done differently. Is part of poetry’s role to imagine new constructs for social evolution?
DK: We have all heard what Shelley said: “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Often the world-to-come the poet imagines is not legislated for hundreds of years after, if ever. Blake writes about orphans sold into servitude as chimney sweeps, bound for certain death, and the rights of children don’t come to be protected by the law for another century or more. But I don’t suppose that poetry is necessarily a platform for social evolution in the way you’re describing. I suppose that poetry is a mode of talking about experience that is unusually direct in its clarity and design. Following the thread of a poem deep into the psyche, Charles Simic said in an interview, you begin to meet everyone else. By being willing to change our minds—every poem has a volta—we are constantly evolving; we are coming to a reckoning. I sense that no one poet is responsible for change; it may be that these shifts in awareness are already in the air. An important poem marks the best of us; yet to be realized, but on the verge. Poets also complain. They praise. They lament. They imagine. They write fairy tales. They tell mysteries. They hold court. They disrupt the court and disturb the power structure. They can’t help it. “The eye altering altars all,” Blake said.
AW: Part of the world-to-come’s challenge, it seems to me, is comprehending the magnitude of compassion and patience and responsibility that is being asked of us. Can anything written or read truly prepare us to meet the demands of racial justice, ecological equity, or global empathy?
DK: I think it can if we are willing to be small. There’s a book from the ’70s that’s important to me, called Small is Beautiful by E.F. Schumaker (Harper, 1973). Schumaker was an economist and the book is mostly about how to create a compassionate workplace, beginning with the fact that the smaller the community, the better chance it has of holding true to its original values. But the book is quite a masterpiece. He uses examples from spiritual gurus like Ghandi and others to support his claims. While Ghandi moved millions, billions of lives, his own life held true to his original values because he stayed humble, almost invisible. He stayed small. Ghandi was so small he was nearly a walking emptiness. The more weight we carry around us, ideas about what poetry is for and what it should do for the world, in fact might sometimes get in the way of writing a poem that is true to the original values of your work. Writers often begin not with a message but with this raging curiosity. What is this body I find myself in? The writing reveals with deepening clarity what’s really down there, for better or worse. From there it emanates outward. Are we interested in social change? Are we interested in the eternal questions? Contradiction? Liminality? The writing teaches us who we are, and we spend the rest of our lives just following that thread.
AW: Your poem “The Vocative Case” suggests a root issue underlying a number of social ills. The speaker is in a sauna when their name is whispered. Giving voice to name is not the issue. The problem arises when the speaker assumes their name indicates “you’re special, you’re the one.” It is no easy fix to stop constructing ourselves by paradigms of distinction and separation, but do you think to do so is to draw toward the better angels of our nature?
DK: That’s a lovely reading of that piece and I think it applies to the previous question, too. You might have noticed that I use my own name in this book, my first name in “The Vocative Case” and my full name in “Angels and Wounds.” The latter poem is about repeating the drama set forth by my parents and about codependence. “The Vocative Case” is about being charmed into a trance of specialness, which begins with having a name. Names are necessary, of course. How would we get anything done without them? But names, like all words, categorize and create this illusion of dividedness. Everyone falls for that, like I do in the poem. Here, the devil is a belief—a belief that I am special, that it will be different for me than it was for anyone else. My case will be different. The cure is thinking small, being empty even of a name. This isn’t practical 24/7 but it is vital that we “make nothing of ourselves” every once in a while—that is the holiest aspect of one’s calling. Joni Mitchell says, “I love you when I forget about me.” In fact, the book ends in that same puff of smoke—the speaker becomes completely invisible.
AW: Your poem “Chekhov” opens with the line, “The snap of a harp string can signal the end of a society.” I am struck now by how grave the phrase “end of a society” sounds against a global pandemic. Does this book read differently now to you than when you drafted the poems?
DK: I finished the first draft of this book in 2019. I had submitted it before the pandemic occurred. As I go back and read these pieces, I’m a little shocked at the heaviness. The word we have been using is reckoning. The society I reference in “Chekhov” was his society, a decade or so before the Russian Revolution. But I’m always talking about this world in some regard. During the Trump administration I was working through my grief. I was painfully waking up to the U.S. I had always lived in, long before Trump, but which I had only blurrily apprehended—its misogyny and white supremacy, its structural racism, its legacy of enslavement, and the consequences of its imperialist policies. I’m writing about the fall of Rome here or the hippie movement there, but I’m really describing the only world I know, which is my own.
AW: Another line in the same poem says, “Life becomes a succession of instructive monologues performed in dim light.” You’re illustrating Chekhov, but the line conjures the question of whether art has its ultimate application in life, or if life’s primary ends are artistic. How do you usually reckon with that question?
DK: I think art’s primary ends are to disturb and stir dissent, on the one extreme, and to inspire gratitude on the other. I have always trusted that the best work will move others, eventually. Sometimes the movement doesn’t occur until after you’re gone. I tend to focus less (in my own thinking about art and in my teaching) on its ends than I do on its beginnings (curiosity) and its means (craft).
AW: “Danse Macabre” opens with the line: “Someone is holding out a globe of the world as it might look in the far future, and everything is already all right, there are just no people on this globe.” How can poetry as a genre help us better think about the past, future, and present?
DK: I imagine that poem being set in the Globe Theater. The theater is empty in the poem, and so is the globe of the world. And everything is all right. This is an example of my trying to find some largess, not in space this time, but in thinking about what this world might look like in a million years, after our harmful effects on it have been resolved. To answer your question, I am reminded of the mechanical golden bird in Yeats’s poem, “Sailing to Byzantium.” The speaker would come back as this golden bird—I equate it with the poem itself—unalive, mechanically perfect, eternal—which is set in motion to keep a drowsy Emperor awake. The reader is that drowsy monarch. Wake up, wake up, the poems say to us. The poem ends, and I think it’s so lovely for this discussion, “Or set upon a golden bough to sing / To lords and ladies of Byzantium / Of what is past, or passing, or to come.”
AW: The poem “The World to Come” opens by announcing “The warming has started.” Later the speaker says, “In the East, no more flying violinists,” making clear that global warming is not being addressed explicitly, nor is it the only loss to come. How would you hope such poems respond to present and future issues like the environmental crisis?
DK: As I wrote each of these, and there were many more I didn’t include, I knew that if I followed the logical connections, the poems would be less interesting. The flying violinists of Chagall, which to me represent a kind of spiritual revery and freedom, will disappear like an endangered bird and another creature will take their place; in that poem it is the lonely woman at the automat in the famous picture by Edward Hopper. By looking at changes in the environment through the lens of these recognizable figures, I hope the reader will be alerted to imminent dangers. Or perhaps I just want to name a particular kind of grief in ways that journalism may not be able to do.
AW: Time operates in unexpected ways in these poems, as in “The Color Green,” when a child speaker climbs to his parents’ attic room and finds them “younger than before I was born.” Will you describe how time moves in The World to Come and your goals for its movement?
DK: Well, there is time and no time in The World to Come like there is time and no time in a dream. By releasing myself from the confines of time, I am making a distinction between poetry and memoir. All of this is me and it is not me. All of this is happening in time and it is happening outside of time. Dante travels through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise, the first and third of which are timeless, but he makes it back to Florence on Easter Sunday. He’s traveling over the course of the weekend, but he’s moving also in these timeless realms. I love that. Begin straight off with a disruption of routine, a disorientation, a fully unapologetic embrace of what seems impossible, get it all out of the way the way the old storyteller does: “There was an old woman who lived in a shoe.” “The Color Green,” which has me visiting my parents upon the moment of my conception (and getting in the way, interrupting), comes right at the beginning of the book. It seeks to prepare the reader: such things are possible here.
AW: This collection consists entirely of prose poems, which appear as justified blocks of text on the page that create an illusion of order the content often disrupts. How does this form shape your material and the inquiry embedded in it?
DK: I write differently when I’m making prose poems. I operate according to a different code. The prose poem, without lines or other constructs of form, begs the reader not to take it seriously. The first prose poets in English, I argue in this book, were the gravediggers in Hamlet. They were small by profession. They lived outside of the court, and so they could see things inside more clearly. They had nothing to lose, so they were totally free. They spoke in puns, riddles, and jokes. I love prose poems because they embody this idea of being empty, being small. Through such a vehicle, so much more content, so much more of my smartest self, is given permission to enter the picture.
AW: How did The World to Come prepare you for the writing you’re doing now?
DK: What I’ve learned from writing in prose again, as I say, is that it allows me much freedom. It’s too easy for me to fall in love with a poem when it’s broken into lines. So I’ll often, in my revisions, put the verse back into prose, then back into lines, then back into prose, and so on. In its prose form, I see it without its duds and good shoes. I make it small again. Now that I’ve begun that practice, I can embrace the other benefits of breaking lines and writing in received forms. Joseph Brodsky said that forms carry spiritual magnitudes, essences, and I believe him. I just want to write poems that feel necessary, that feel like they could not have been written any other way, though the secret is, there are a thousand ways.