The Sunday Poem: Bridget Lowe’s At the Autopsy of Vaslav Nijinsky

Poet Bridget Lowe

Poet Bridget Lowe (Photo by Jennifer Wetzel courtesy the author)

 

The publication of Bridget Lowe’s debut collection, At the Autopsy of Vaslav Nijinsky (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2013), is a bit of a full-circle moment for Gwarlingo.

Bridget Lowe was one of the first Gwarlingo Sunday Poets, back in the early days when the Sunday Poem feature was limited to a single poem. Bridget’s “In My Study of Hysteria,” which is included in her new book, was a runaway success (for both Gwarlingo and poetry) and also my first hint that the audience for quality poetry might be bigger than suspected.

Lowe’s collection reminds me of why I decided to expand the Sunday Poem from a single poem to a single book (or group of poems by a single author). It’s only when reading a selection of poems by an author that we begin to get a sense of an author’s uniqueness—of his or her voice and preoccupations.

Eugène Druet. Photograph of Russian ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky in the Danse Siamoise in Les Orientales posed outside in Paris, 1910. Nijinksy's ability to perform seemingly gravity-defying leaps was legendary. (Photo: Roger Pryor Dodge Collection, Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts)

Eugène Druet. Photograph of Russian ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky in the Danse Siamoise in Les Orientales posed outside in Paris, 1910. Nijinksy’s ability to perform seemingly gravity-defying leaps was legendary. (Photo courtesy the Roger Pryor Dodge Collection, Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts)

I’ve never encountered poetry quite like this. The uniqueness of Lowe’s voice is in full evidence when At the Autopsy of Vaslav Nijinsky is read as a whole. Like poet Caitlin Doyle (another hugely popular Gwarlingo poet), Lowe has the ability to create an alternate reality of sorts through language, whimsy, and pure inventiveness. Her use of personae in these poems, combined with her audaciousness and empathy, is highly original. Reading the poems of both Lowe and Doyle is like watching Cocteau’s black and white classic Beauty and the Beast, or in their darker moments, perhaps a film by the Brothers Quay. The experience is strange, haunting, and not entirely comfortable.

Lowe creates lyrics and elegies from material as disparate as science, history, and pop culture. The poems in At the Autopsy of Vaslav Nijinsky  feel simultaneously contemporary and very 19th century. It is partly the references to Isadora Duncan, Russian ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinksy, and the Wild Boy of Aveyrona (a feral child discovered in Saint-Sernin-sur-Rance, France in 1800), that recall a distant era. But it is also the moving self-portraits that envision the poet as a pilgrim on a journey and the tension between science and imagination that feel steeped in an another time.

But Lowe never allows us to grow too comfortable with time or place. She is always ready to insert the knife, and to give it a twist: “She could fashion a noose from a hair bow,” she writes in the poem “State Line.” “In Missouri, where she / lived before, a man once told her that kindness was for dogs, not / girls. Then: roll over.” As Bruce Smith writes, these “poems remind me of Verlaine’s maxim to take eloquence and wring its neck.”

This was the characteristic I found most absorbing (and most disturbing) when I first read “In My Study of Hysteria“—the juxtaposition of sexuality, sticky “pleather,” and images of Vertigo, Spellbound, and every suspenseful train-ride an Alfred Hitchcock character ever took, all conjured with the simple, perfectly chosen word: “Hitchcockian.”

Lowe has an acute awareness of both mind and body, and her poems question the limitations of both. As Herbert Leibowitz says, “her poems conduct a forensic inquiry into ways to heal the rifts between mind and body, the traumatic wars between our animal and spiritual selves.” (This is another reason Beauty and the Beast seems like the perfect touchstone.)

As Lowe’s publisher states, “whether depicting The Wild Boy of Aveyron’s introduction to high society (a failed formal dinner arranged by his doctor), Nijinsky’s autopsy (his feet are opened in search of a mechanism that would explain his genius), or the actress Sean Young’s turn as Isadora Duncan in a Russian ballet (she is adored), these poems want to know more, to see beneath the costume to the essence of the individual.”

I have five poems from At the Autopsy of Vaslav Nijinsky to share with you today.

Congratulations to Bridget Lowe for the publication of this mature and memorable debut collection. And thanks to you, the reader, for allowing the Sunday Poem series to evolve and flourish.

 
 

At the Autopsy of Vaslav Nijinksy-Bridget Lowe

 
 

 

 

 

First Key Moments in the
Construction of the Master Narrative

 

Doing the doggy paddle to keep up.

Mistaking prerecorded operator voices for human beings.

Asking the voices over to your house.

Waiting on your front stoop with a plate of deviled eggs.

Loaning the voices money when they call again.

Handing over your first born gerbil.

Bobbing for an apple at a Halloween party.

Practically drowning.

Something repeatedly getting in the way of the apple.

Hair from your wig or a string from your cape.

You hold up the line and everyone hates you.

Someone asks, What are you anyway?

And you lie. You make something up.

 

 

 

 

 

Anti-Pastoral

 

Your green Arcadian hills do not interest me.
The bird-bright eyes of every bird cared for,
the way it is promised, the way it is written,
everyone fat on their share of sun and seed.

But I don’t see you in the dark streak of a cat
crossing the street or the regal skunk in summer’s heat
that strolls the sidewalk after dark, stopping to look at me
before moving on to its home under a neighbor’s porch,
pushing its black-white weight through the latticework.

I don’t see you in a head of lettuce, decapitated
and wet at the grocery store, singing in Orphic dissonance.
I look at your trees and see the night my mind rose up
and left the body’s bed, the skin of the moon
in your teeth.

I begged you to make the mule of my mind
come back. Do you remember what you said?
Nothing. And in the silence after that—
my head without my body, singing on the riverbed.

 

 

 

 

 

At the Autopsy of Vaslav Nijinsky

 

They sliced the soles of his feet
open, lengthwise then crosswise

to see if there was some trick,
an explanation

for the man who could fly,
the man who saw the godhead

with his naked eye.
They pinned the flaps of skin

open like wings
and searched inside the gristle

for a machine,
a motor and spring, the wheel

inside the bone, the reason
why.

He must have been playing
a trick on them

all this time,
the wool pulled tight

over the collective cyclopic eye,
flashbulb-bright—

he must have, he must
have lied.

But the foot was that
of a normal man

after all, after all that
and they sewed the foot together again.

 

 

 

 

 

Whatever You Thought Your Body to Be

 

Whatever you thought your body to be,
vessel for hubris, trapdoor to the soul,
sight for sore eyes or heavenly vision,
rack of flesh with nothing to offer at all.
A temple of the holy ghost, a ghost,
black hole for dogs to bury their bones.
The dog in heat who offers herself,
the offering itself or the heat alone.
Place for men to lay their heads and die,
plank of wood that leads to the sea.
Whatever you thought your body to be,
see it out walking, forgetting your name
and the presents you gave it for all its birthdays
and the ways that you loved it and didn’t.

 

 

 

 

 

How the Pilgrim Was Transformed

 

Not by a vision, not by a task.
Not by a voice from above.
Not by crying out.
Not by a horse riding fast.
Not by death or desire.
Not by the desire for death.
Not by getting slit from belly to throat.
Not by stealing the breath of an infant child as it sleeps.
Not by telling a loved one a dream.
Maybe by a vision.
Maybe by the completion of a very difficult task.
But what is the vision? What is the task?
All I know is this:
I thought love would save me.
No—I really thought that.
By grief, always by great grief.

 

 

 

 

 

Bridget Lowe-Bio Photo-Final-1

About Bridget Lowe

Bridget Lowe is the author of the book of poetry At the Autopsy of Vaslav Nijinsky (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2013). Her poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, Ploughshares, Best American Poetry 2011, Boston Review, The New Republic, Parnassus, and Denver Quarterly, among other publications.

She is the recipient of a “Discovery”/Boston Review prize and fellowships to The MacDowell Colony and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. She is a graduate of Syracuse University’s MFA Program, and currently lives in Kansas City, where she was born.

For more information about Bridget and her work, please visit her website.

 

 

 

 

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All poems © Bridget Lowe. All Rights Reserved. These poems appear in At the Autopsy of Vaslav Nijinsky (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2013) and were reprinted with permission from the author.
 

By | 2016-11-11T21:49:34+00:00 10.19.13|The Sunday Poem, Words|Comments Off on The Sunday Poem: Bridget Lowe’s At the Autopsy of Vaslav Nijinsky

About the Author:

I’ve spent almost 20 years helping thousands of successful artists of all disciplines and working to make the arts more accessible. (One friend likes to call me “the arts enabler.”) From 1999-2012 I worked at The MacDowell Colony, the nation’s oldest artist colony, but I've also done time at an arts magazine, a library, an art museum, and a raptor rehabilitation center. In May of 2012 I left MacDowell to pursue writing, speaking, curating, and creative projects full-time. In 2015 I was named a “Top 100 Artist, Innovator, Creative” by Origin magazine. I've appeared as an arts and culture commentator on New Hampshire Public Radio, and in 2017 I was the recipient of the Wampler Art Professorship at James Madison University. I am the founder of the Gwarlingo Salon series, which connects artists like DJ Spooky with rural audiences in the Monadnock region. In 2017 my collaborator Corwin Levi and I will publish our first book, Mirror Mirrored, which combines Grimms’ fairy tales with vintage illustration remixes and the work of contemporary artists like Kiki Smith, Carrie Mae Weems, and Amy Cutler. I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, but have called New Hampshire home since 1999. My studio is located in the historic, mill village of Harrisville. I miss fried okra, the early southern spring, and restaurants that stay open past 9:00 p.m., but rural life agrees with me. In New Hampshire I can see the stars, go kayaking or snowshoeing, watch bald eagles fish in the lake, and focus on my creative work in silence. I no longer have to worry about traffic jams; deer, wild turkeys, and frost heaves are the primary road hazards here. Although I live in the country, I’m fortunate enough to be part of a vibrant arts community that extends beyond this small New England village. The quiet days are punctuated by regular travel and frequent visits to museums, theaters, readings, arts events, lectures, and open studios around the country. (You can read my full CV here.) Thanks for visiting Gwarlingo. I hope you'll be in touch.