This poem manages to capture both a sense of lushness and conciseness. The language itself feels like an animal stalking prey, and there’s the feeling that one step too many could ruin the whole endeavour. Maybe the lack of punctuation is supposed to reflect some natural impulse. Or maybe it’s just the writer’s “house style” for her poetry. (Either way, poets tend to get away with a lot when it comes to punctuation.)
I like how the grotesque is hinted at in phrases such as “long bottom jaws”. Combined with the mention of animals, it makes me think of the circus. And that “wet library” could be the most colourful image of them all.
For all its imagery, though, this poem is concerned with sounds. These sounds are tangled with human nature. At first, we see human nature on the personal level, how a person’s sounds change in relation to place. Later, human nature intervenes on a more exterior level – other people evaluate our sounds, just as we evaluate them ourselves. This is a poem that really demands to be read aloud, so it’s well worth checking out the video of Bridget reciting the poem at the bottom of the page.
a lot changes
in one’s mouth
Some people have short tongues
very short tongues
Others have long bottom jaws
Each of us has a most comfortable batch of sounds
a wet library of favourites
caged birds in the garden
My mouth wants to split itself apart, lips yes but also the hinges of my jaw as though looking for a tight corner to bark
People like to ask
where did you grow up
They want to decide which of my sounds belong
My poems and stories have appeared in The Quarryman, The Stinging Fly, Surge: New Writing from Ireland, The Belleville Park Pages, Scrivener Creative Review, and elsewhere. I currently live in New Jersey and teach writing at Richard Stockton University.
Judging by this poem, you are very engaged with language and sounds. Could you tell us a little about how this relates to your writing? Specifically, do you read work aloud while writing it?
You’re right – I’ve always been sensitive to the tone of spoken language. The inflection of one’s voice has a enormous effect on how the particular words will come across, and I think, especially in something as emotionally driven as poetry, that rhythm becomes an element of tone. Although we often read poems before hearing them, that imagined echoing in the back of our skulls as our eyes scan lines is just as loud, if not as dramatic, as a live oration. We remember words as units of sound, not simply as units of visually encoded meaning. When the sounds represented on the page agree, through rhythms of stress and rhythms of colour, it gives the writing a life and integrity of its own. Robots do not (at least not yet) employ tone. Most of the recorded voices of actual persons used for automated telephone menus fail to convince us, to sound in any way sincere or genuine. Note: I was recently hired to record an entire automated system for a medical center in Trenton, New Jersey, and as I sat with a number of different scripts in a rather cozy examination room with wooden pantries and paintings of trees, my challenge remained to pace the words according to the time they needed, for clarity’s sake, but also to suggest the kind of dynamic equilibrium one hopes to regain by consulting with physicians. Of course, tone involves intonation as well, and now I’m remembering one of the most successfully humanized robots of all time – that being C3P0, whose use of intonation while speaking convinced audiences of his being extremely neurotic in addition to “…fluent in over six million forms of communication.” But, taking a step back, we can all imagine the monotone voice of your run-of-the-mill robot, speaking without variation in pitch, without giving emphasis to the right syllables, perhaps without stressing any at all. Now imagine this same robot accenting words so that a certain rhythm emerges and begins to evolve. The voice of this thing remains flat, but the articulation is lent a palpitation, a wild heart beat. The words become instantly more relatable, more trustworthy, more human.
For now at least, I write my first drafts mouthlessly, striving for the most part to capture and follow a certain mood back to its camp. On revising, I modify this trek to make it as sure-footed as possible.
I find the fragmented form of this poem very interesting, with its short verses and mix of different line lengths. Was there a particular thematic purpose behind the form of the poem, or is this simply "how the sounds came out", so to speak?
Thank you, Trevor! There are so many ways that one can justify what feels right. I suppose I stretch certain moments with the hope that the reader takes this extra room to attach personal meaning to the words. Also, why not acknowledge that all forms of stimulation – intellectual, visual, aural – can be shaped into truly sensual experiences through the use of timing and intensity.
The one lengthy line in “Mouth” represents a break from the careful distribution of sound and thought (the portion control of communication). When we can’t not say a thing any longer, it tends to explode out of us, for better or worse. Here, the irrepressibility of the ideas matters more than the words used to express them.
There are quite obvious connections between travelling and language in general. Would you say there are any connections between travelling and writing for you?
Many people talk about traveling as though different geographical areas and cultures, with their unique and countless layers of relationship between the people, plants, and animals, subject to certain shafts of sunlight and frequencies of rainfall, could be collected. I’ve inhabited and absorbed a lot of spaces. But to be honest, I think I would write even if trapped indefinitely in this room with its butter yellow walls, a glass cabinet of Hindu idols, and those thuds of tiny feet running across the upstairs apartment (I’m currently visiting a friend in Little India, Jersey City). Recently, I read an interview with Paul Muldoon in which he said, “This is a fairly spare room, but one could write about this room for the rest of one’s life.” Traveling has made me uncomfortable at times – physically, economically, socially, psychologically. But the one common denominator between these places and experiences has been me. One can make herself sick and lonely wherever she goes, and that has been an especially important lesson for me. Sure, exploring other cultures and landscapes has been an absolute privilege. It’s given me perspective and grown my compassion. It’s also taught me that no one can take full enjoyment or be fully present when loaded down with fears about the future or a bunch of other abstract junk. By traveling, I’ve been forced to accept the mind as primary author of personal adversity and to recognize the burden of my demons. Now I’m able to drop these devils off at demon daycare and get on with the beauty of existence.
I get a sense of resentment at the end, resentment at being judged for how a person speaks, as if we can't escape expectations based on where we're from. I'm wondering whether this is a personal thing you've experienced yourself, and whether it's connected with your writing.
In this particular poem, I am reacting to people’s knee-jerk need to typecast and to label. Curiosity is only natural, but being asked the same question at the start of every conversation (“Where are you from?”) can start to grate one’s nerves after the umpteenth time. People who emigrate to other countries, even to other states, had best accept that questions of this sort will stalk after them, forever. Accents are agreed upon, but some we are predisposed to. Most speech impediments or disorders derive from the physical arrangement of palate, tongue, and teeth, but what about the way my Cliftonian mother says “Cawfee” and the way my best friends from Canada say “aboot”? A person with a foreign accent, especially a layered accent, is often treated as handicapped or deviant, with the background thought being, “How annoying, I actually have to listen to understand!” or “Why can’t they accept themselves as they really are?” What ever happened to variety being the spice of life? It’s all a big masquerade anyway.
If you had one piece of advice for a writer of poetry, what would it be?
Be generous. Get to know local poets and let them get to know you. Invest yourself in others’ work. If you enjoy a poem, let that poet know. Magnanimity is a skill, like cooking or long distance running. It comes more naturally with practice. The wonderful thing is that none of this energy ever goes to waste.