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Mining the Mysterious, One Poem at a Time

Fall 2013 | By Melissa Fraterrigo. Photo by Will Dunlap..

Photo of Marianne Boruch
“I call the poems in The Book of Hours—with affection, and only half-jokingly—‘my little hair shirts.’ All were aware of themselves as something other.” -Marianne Boruch

Marianne Boruch’s poetry embodies mystery, but even she was puzzled by her most recent collection. “I call the poems in The Book of Hours—with affection, and only half-jokingly—‘my little hair shirts.’ All were aware of themselves as something other.” While other poets might have shirked from such unruly creatures, Boruch used this quality to offer readers a glimpse into her writing process. Even the collection’s title served more than one purpose. It was inspired by prayer books from the Middle Ages, but it also defined the book’s organization. This spring the book won the prestigious Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. At $100,000, it is one of the country’s largest annual poetry prizes. 

“To write poems at all is to leave the world behind. You go empty to make those occasions, and have hope something will turn up. It takes time, courting such solitude.” Boruch’s poetry, much of which explores the natural world, feels like deep sea diving. It embraces stillness and space. Boruch, who has taught in the Creative Writing program at Purdue since 1987, considers the poem to be a way of knowing and is not afraid to mine the unfamiliar. “The discovery when you write is word by word—and you keep fiddling that way, into the gears and faulty wires, in revision.”

With eight books of poetry, poems in The New Yorker and the Paris Review, among other publications, and fellowships from Fulbright, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Guggenheim Foundation, Boruch’s ideas seem endless. “My guiding notion for a while has been to put myself in situations about which I know nothing and have zero expectations, to do that out of simple curiosity, just to see what I might notice, how I might react.”

Such an experiment triggered Boruch’s forthcoming collection—Cadaver, Speak. During a Faculty Fellowship for Study in a Second Discipline, Boruch participated in a life drawing class while also attending courses in gross human anatomy at IU Medical School’s Purdue campus. While Boruch is grateful that the Kingsley Tufts award may offer more readers access to her poetry, her impulse to affect readers extends beyond external affirmation. “These little hair shirts have their own life, and keep defending themselves, even against me. They are more than happy to be left to their own devices. Meanwhile, these days I’m finding other poems, such as they are. Or more accurately, they are finding me.”

My mother’s body to wires, to tubes

My mother’s body to wires, to tubes
and their liquid, days she turned toward me
or away, winter but so much sun
from car to door. I followed it past nurses

at their station talking movies, who’s good
in one and not the other. Gown tied
at the back and neck, she slept beside
a window. I wedged my chair there, reading,

looking up, reading,—who knows what
I read—her legs bruised, thin, arms battered
by the doctor’s needle. Her face. Can I
say this plainly now? There was light

as she grew less. She drifted to it.
I’m not hungry, not religious, I’m in a spot,
she told me one afternoon then
closed her eyes to that radiance again.
In addition to the so-called “voice” poems, the god poems, and pieces about the natural world, there is a thread of work in The Book of Hours that concerns my mother’s death, and this is the first of that small series that may be the most grounding layer in this collection, certainly the most narrative, moving toward its inevitable dark end. I had to listen very hard to hear these poems under their static of sorrow.
– Marianne Boruch
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