By Leslie Lindsay
Pensive but inquisitive, THE MILK HOURS is a debut poetry collection about loss, the intimacy of art and dreams, and the vulnerable space of new life.
What does it mean to live in a state of loss, when the two are nearly imcompatible? That’s the overarching question in THE MILK HOURS: Poems, a debut collection from John James (Milkweed Editions, June 2019). Populated with living, grieving things, THE MILK HOURS is scattered with roots, bodies, and concealed histories. There are cemeteries and the milky breath of babies. We taste art and geography, and crunch on gravel, and are moved through dream sequences and religious myth and story.
James takes science and nature and cleaves it into something new, something at once beautiful, but destructive. How do we make meaning in this world–to whom do we turn? Each other? Can those boundaries collapse?
THE MILK HOURS is sparsely, yet densely written. It’s at once lush and stark, full of metaphor and unsettled-ness. James has such a fabulous and unique grasp of language, a shifting perspective on nature, fecundity, and decay. This collection will move you, but it might also generate more questions than answers, which I think might be the point.
Please join me in welcoming John James, winner of the Max Ritvo Poetry Prize to the author interview series.
John, it’s a great pleasure. I am always intrigued about the ‘why now’ moment for a writer. I think that can be applied to poetry as well. What propelled this collection? Was there a theme or image or something else you wanted to explore?
There was a kind of inevitability to the subject matter. By the time I wrote the title poem, I was learning more about my father’s death, caring for a nursing infant—his granddaughter—and living across the street from the cemetery where he is buried. That last part sounds a bit morbid, but it wasn’t. I’d been writing poems around his death, or rather, around how he died, for years, without ever admitting that his death was a suicide to myself or to the reader. When I wrote “The Milk Hours,” it opened up what I’d been trying to say for some time. Other poems in the book follow the same sort of grief logic, but do so more obliquely, and I tried to strike a balance between those poems and the more overtly elegiac pieces over the course of the collection. “History (n.),” for instance, thinks about time: how we reconstruct the past, how we preserve it, and how, in that process, we forge historical blind spots. You can see how this poetic theorization of how we (re)construct the past bears heavily on the work of elegy. In any case, it was that confluence of events that urged me to write the title poem, and that less directly inspired many other pieces in the book.
It’s ironic, in some ways, that much of writing is inspired by people. And yet the act of working on a piece is solitary. Can you talk about that, please?
I don’t think we ever really escape childhood. The people around us during those vulnerable years when we’re so innocuously soaking up the world—they do so much to shape us into who we are, and they loom large in the imagination. We never stop picturing our mothers and fathers as giants, as invincible, even when we become adults and grow critical of them. Even then, they remain as significant archetypes: symbolic figures that influence everything, even when we’re battling against them. In an essential way, I’m always writing about childhood, even when I don’t want to be—even when I’m “solitary,” as you say, deep in my morning hush and absorbed in the act of writing. In that way, I’m never alone.
“‘Home is a question,’ writes John James in The Milk Hours, a remarkable debut in which sorrow leads to an astonishing intimacy with the world. The speaker is pensive but inquisitive, bewildered by the loss of a father and renewed by love and parenthood. Art, science, and travel, like mortality, become tethers to the elegant and chaotic truths of our world. The Milk Hours is a moving and urgently crafted testament to resilience and to beauty.”
—Eduardo C. Corral
In many ways, THE MILK HOURS is about life and death. Your father’s death, your daughter’s birth, your transformation from son to father. And much of this is juxtaposed with elements within nature. Is that the way you see it? What might I be missing?
I see it less as a juxtaposition than as a kind of modeling. I always fall back on this word, “modeling,” when I’m talking about my work, but I see strong parallels between the cycles of the natural world and the ones we experience throughout our lives. I think writing can mimic those cycles. As humans, we often forget that we ourselves are a part of that cycle—as much a node in the ecological networks that sustain us as the grasses, the trees, the butterflies, and the wolves, though we account for an even larger impact, when you factor for climate change. But also, in a fundamental way, I’m a Romantic: I grew up around lakes and ponds, wandering through forests that I watched convert into suburban developments, and so an appreciation for the natural world and a recognition of our role in it—as stewards of it, sure, but also as subjects to its cycles of destruction—has continued to shape my view of things.
Related to nature a bit is this sense that some of your work is a bit like a dream sequence. Are any of these collected poems a result of your dreamworld?
None of them came from actual dreams, necessarily. I mean, every once and a while something comes to you in the night, and you hope you’re fast enough to write it down, but usually by the time I look over those notes in the morning, I realize they’re not any good. But there is a kind of Jungian symbolic dreamscape that I sometimes find myself working in, one where objects become totems and accrue meaning through association, sometimes as ostensible non-sequiturs—that is, by their placement alongside seemingly unrelated images within the space of a poem. There is of course the explicit language of dreaming in “History (n.),” but that’s excerpted from Plato. It’s more a way of threading together these disparate strands of language. And then, there are the many images of sleeping and waking in the final third of the book, though I think of those as largely metaphorical, as a waking into the critical consciousness of adulthood. This consciousness allows us not just to observe our world but to assess it: to rethink its racial, ethnic, or gender biases, for instance, or to acknowledge and narrativize traumatic events in a way that grants us agency—and perhaps leads to healing. For me, the process of “awakening” into the knowledge of my father’s suicide allowed me to put that trauma to rest, as much as I think I’ll ever be able to do. I imagine others experience similar awakenings.
I was recently at a writing conference; we were chatting about the idea of writing—either stories or poetry—about truth and fiction and how the two intersect. There’s a good deal of overlap here. Some truths—and yet, observations the writer might not know for sure. How do you reconcile the ‘knowing’ and the ‘imagination?’
There’s a difference between the truth you allude to here and autobiographical truth. I’ve never felt the need, in my poetry, to stick to the truth of biography. As autobiographical as they may seem, and sometimes partially are, I always think of the voices in my poems as those of a “speaker,” and not as the “poet.” I think that divide often gets collapsed, under the assumption that the speaker or narrator of a poem must be the poet him or herself. But the lyric makes a space for invention, for language play, that becomes stifled when beholden to autobiographical truth. So when the poem urges me to depart from that “truth,” I do. You’re right, though, that there’s another kind of truth at work in these poems, a more philosophical one that seeks to understand humanity’s relationship to natural cycles, to death and decay, to creation, to being, etc. These are big truths, which I don’t think we can ever fully understand, and so they are—and remain—partial, riddled with doubt, more questions than truths per se. But I think the act of questioning is the point. I hope my poems urge readers to question all kinds of things.
What do you find yourself thinking about when avoiding the page?
I love this question! I’m an avid gardener, so the first thing I do in the morning, after making a pot of coffee, is go poke around my plants and see what’s new. And often, it’s a lot! It’s amazing how quickly things change, if you pay attention. Overnight, a blossom opens. There’s a new squash or tomato on the vine. New sprouts have sprung. Or, sometimes caterpillars have arrived and they’re ravaging your cabbages. For the patient observer, it’s endlessly fascinating. I’m also really good at answering emails and cleaning the house, so if you’ve received a quick response from me—or, if you’re my partner, and you’ve come home to a newly vacuumed floor—you know I haven’t been writing. Unfortunately, writing requires me to virtually ignore everything else—which, when I can manage it, I do with pleasure.
Whom—or what—inspires you? It doesn’t have to be literary.
My garden. My daughter. Cooking. Our two cats, who’ve been having it out on the table as I type this out. I have a pretty full domestic life! But also, I do get a lot of inspiration from reading and from engaging with other writers. I mean, in my day job, I’m a scholar, so I’m always engaging with other people’s writing—convening with the minds of others, through their language on the page. Sometimes it’s across oceans—of water and of time. There’s something quite beautiful in that notion to me, and my poems are always seeking to model a similar intellectual convergence.
John, thank you for taking the time. Is there anything I should have asked, but may have forgotten?
Thank you. I don’t think there’s anything you should have asked, but while I have the space, perhaps I’ll talk a little bit about the images. They were the final addition to the book, and I think they’re a lot of fun. To me, it wouldn’t quite have been the same book without them. I was interested—as I’m always interested—in thinking about the ways humanity is ensconced in the natural world, but more importantly, how our technologies—from the plough to the pen to the steam engine—have sought to manipulate natural resources in ways that exploit land and the bodies that inhabit it. What I did with certain images, then, was to adjust the opacity so that images of flora and fauna become mapped over, diagrammed, in ways that suggest their potential for exploitation. At the same time, I wanted to reveal how fundamentally similar machines are to the mechanics of the natural world. I mean, they take in energy, produce waste; they consume. An engine isn’t so different from the body of a living organism. The difference is that organisms have evolved to live ecologically within natural cycles, while machines have been developed to maximize output, profit. We need to recognize that difference, and do something about it, before it’s too late.
For more information, to connect with John James via social media, or to purchase a copy of THE MILK HOURS, please visit:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: John James is the author of The Milk Hours, selected by Henri Cole for the Max Ritvo Poetry Prize and published in June 2019 by Milkweed Editions. His poems appear in Boston Review, Kenyon Review, Gulf Coast, Poetry Northwest, Best American Poetry 2017, and elsewhere. His work has been supported by fellowships and awards from the Bread Loaf Environmental Writers’ Conference, the Academy of American Poets, and the Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice at Georgetown University. He splits his time between Kentucky and California, where he is pursuing a PhD in English and Critical Theory at the University of California, Berkeley.
You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites:
- Facebook: LeslieLindsayWriter
- Twitter: @LeslieLindsay1
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Instagram: @LeslieLindsay1
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[Cover and author image courtesy of J. James and Milkweed Editions and used with permission. Sue Le Terrain image from THE MILK HOURS retrieved from the poet’s website on 8.21.19. Artistic photo of book cover designed and photographed by L.Lindsay. Follow on Instagram for more like this].