“My hope is that my readers approach a poem – any poem – in order to be transformed in some way,” says Sunday Poet Mari L’Esperance. “Not dramatically, but to feel by the end of the poem as though something has shifted for them internally so that they then perceive themselves and the world a bit differently. That’s what I want as a reader: to be changed by a poem.”
Mari’s most recent collection, The Darkened Temple, was awarded a Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry. The collection explores a landscape of loss—loss that is both personal and political. There is war, displacement, illness, imprisonment, violence, and a mother who has disappeared without a trace, but there is also redemption in these straightforward, lyric poems.
“I’m essentially a lyric poet,” L’Esperance explained in an interview with Ashlie Kauffman, and it’s the form that most appeals to me in the work of others. The form allows for an intense concentration of sense, sound, and image, as well as the ability to make leaps in the same that don’t feel as possible in other, more expansive forms.”
L’Esperance’s mother vanished in 1995 leaving no clues to her whereabouts. Some of the strongest poems in The Darkened Temple explore the mourning and trauma of losing a loved one under such strange and mysterious circumstances.
“The central theme, which I believe is fairly obvious, is the disappearance of my mother (when I was 33 and a student at NYU),” L’Esperance told Kauffman. “But my hope is that the manuscript as a whole, even individual poems, manage to transcend mere autobiography, as reducing it to the fact of my mother’s disappearance would be just that—reductive. I have also concluded (and I’m going to get archetypal here) that the book says something about the devaluation of the feminine in our culture—that the ‘disappeared mother’ also represents the feminine that has been exiled or subsumed in favor of the masculine ethos (in both men and women).”
The Darkened Temple is divided into three sections, which Mari describes in her interview with Kauffman:
“The first is a circling or gathering, featuring poems that address traumatic loss from personal, cultural, and historic perspectives. The poems in the second section take the reader down into the depths of the speaker’s experience of traumatic loss and focus on the central theme. Finally, the third section relieves the intensity and pressure of the second section with poems that embody a sense of emergence and release. Taking the manuscript as a whole, there’s (to me) a sense of having descended into the underworld and then returned to some semblance of hope by book’s end.”
Mari’s influences are wide-ranging. Brenda Hillman, Stanley Kunitz, Jean Valentine, Philip Levine, and William Stafford are among the poets she most admires, but as she explained to Kauffman, her Japanese heritage has also impacted her writing:
“My mother was Japanese (born and raised) and taught me much about Japanese culture and the arts. I visit Japan as often as I’m able—every other year or so—and it’s a place that is very close to my heart… The Japanese value sadness—in fact, beauty and sadness go hand in hand. Films and stories have indeterminate, often sad endings, which can frustrate many Westerners. I think this intrinsic valuing of sadness and beauty, combined, is what fuels many of the poems in my book. And the Japanese are also stoic and value endurance, accepting what life has handed to them…which, on a collective level, has been a hindrance to them as a nation. But this endurance and acceptance are part of my poetic sensibility.”
“I do believe in inspiration,” L’Esperance told How A Poem Happens, “but that rarefied and somewhat altered state can only sustain itself for so long; it must be corralled, brought down to earth, and channeled into language. I’m a slow and undisciplined writer and often allow long periods of time to pass between poems, so perhaps I rely too much on inspiration and not enough on ‘pot scrubbing,’ as my friend Sage Cohen has called the largely messy, unglamorous, and plain old hard work of writing.”
I have five poems from The Darkened Temple to share with you today. If you enjoy Mari’s work, please consider sharing it through email, Facebook, Twitter, etc.
Enjoy your Sunday!
Returning to Earth
When Emperor Hirohito announced
Japan’s defeat over national radio,
his divinity was broken, fell away
and settled in fine gold dust at his feet.
His people understood the gravity
of the occasion—a god does not speak
over the airwaves with a human voice,
ordinary and flecked with static. A god
does not speak in the common voice
of the earthbound, thick with shame.
At the station, my mother, a schoolgirl,
looked on as men in uniform lurched
from the platform into the path
of incoming trains, their slack bodies
landing on the tracks without sound.
Bring it up from the dark, bring it all up,
the spiny fish with their needle teeth
and wands of phosphorescent light,
all that is waterlogged, heavy with its own
unbearable weight, all that is strange,
malformed, lying in shadow—that
crawls and humps and drags itself
along the muddy bottom, making
guttural sounds no human can imagine.
Haul it up into the light as the rusted
pulleys and frayed ropes creak and groan
with their burden—crates of skulls, broken
cars and bodies, sacks of stones, their
horrible tonnage, the lost and discarded, all
that we would rather forget: our angers
and fears, the lives we betrayed, the souls
we abandoned while we looked after
our own comfort and gain. Let’s see them all,
here in the open, unbound and pulsing
with that which was never extinguished,
which survives even death itself, brave
flicker at the black gate of our oblivion.
As Told by Three Rivers
Eight a.m., up too late the night before
learning the nose and throat, the bones
of the hand. Rounding a corner
on the seventh floor of Eye & Ear, the view
from the window takes you by surprise:
the city of Pittsburgh fanned out before you,
its verdant wedge of land softened
by the arms of three rivers, their names alone
like music—Monongahela, Allegheny, Ohio—
threading their slow eternal way home,
knowing. You think of Naipaul’s book, how
that distant mythic river in that distant
unnamed place reminds you somehow
of these three rivers meeting, the purpose
in their joined ambition as it should be,
how their journey tells the same story,
a story of becoming, of knowing one’s place
in the world. Standing there at the window
you see how everything that’s come before
has brought you here, how it all makes sense,
these three timeless rivers moving forward,
deliberate and without question, telling the story
of the life you have chosen, of the life
you could not help but choose.
The Choices Not Made
They breathe in the seam between
the stove and refrigerator, in the muck
and detritus of years of cooking meals.
They clamor in the corners of closets,
from between garment bags smelling
of mothballs and another year spent.
They call to you from under the bed,
nearly overcome by dirty socks
and abandoned newspapers. On fair days
they fairly scream at you from the kitchen sill,
where they’ve set up camp among
the potted plants and the spice mills.
Some night, late, nearly asleep in a chair,
you may feel a familiar pull—something,
you don’t know what—and then it passes
as you rouse yourself, move through rooms
turning out lights, trying to step lightly
so as not to wake the house,
and maybe they watch you from under
the stairs, and maybe they sing a little song,
soft and low, inaudible under the rasp
of windblown eucalyptus against the shingles,
and you pause there for a moment
as if you’ve just remembered something:
a scrap of melody, dusk light on the river,
a field you can almost picture but cannot name.
Grief Is Deep Green
In the season of roubai, nothing answers.
New leaves sprout along the sapling’s
wet branches, tiny wings of hope—
Two spades make a hole for planting.
We bury the roots with a poem folded twice
and ladle water over tamped earth.
The garden fills with rain and distances.
Perhaps this is how it ends—little ceremony,
the lost mother permitted to return home.
Grief is deep green and carries a sharp scent.
Memory and rain are like nothing that keeps.
She disappeared in the season of roubai.
Crows drift above the darkened temple,
their ragged cries and the falling off after—
It is the falling off that I want to hold on to,
yet the notes smear and fade, so I reach
for something that might choose to stay.
The missing are restless. They wander
between two worlds and belong to neither.
In the season of roubai, she does not answer.
How does it begin and where does it end?
What I mean to say is: There is
no fathomable point of entry—
What I mean to say is: she was of this world
and then was not.
About Mari L’Esperance
Mari L’Esperance was born in Kobe, Japan, to a Japanese mother and a French Canadian-American father and was raised in Southern California, Micronesia, and Japan. Her full-length collection The Darkened Temple was awarded a Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry (2008 University of Nebraska Press). An earlier collection, Begin Here, was awarded a Sarasota Poetry Theatre Press Chapbook Prize. With Tomás Q. Morín, she’s edited the essay collection Coming Close: Forty Essays on Philip Levine (2013 Prairie Lights Books, an imprint of the University of Iowa Press).
L’Esperance’s poems and prose have appeared in Beloit Poetry Journal, Connotation Press: An Online Artifact, Many Mountains Moving, Poetry Kanto, Prairie Schooner, Salamander, Zocalo Public Square, The Prairie Schooner Book Prize Tenth Anniversary Reader, and elsewhere, and her poems have been nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize.
A graduate of the Creative Writing Program at New York University and a recipient of awards from the New York Times, New York University, Prairie Schooner, Hedgebrook, and Dorland Mountain Arts Colony, L’Esperance lives in Los Angeles.
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All poems © Mari L’Esperance. All Rights Reserved. These poems appear in The Darkened Temple (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and were reprinted with permission from the author.