Responses to two questions posed by Raylene Hinz-Penner

Jean, so many of your poems are grateful to artwork that you love. In Tasting the Dust, the Vermeer works serve you to divide the four sections (Window Facing South, Window Facing North, Window Facing East, Window Facing West) — and the entire book of poems seems always looking at art, always noticing and being influenced by visual art and artists. Do you paint? Describe this lifelong love affair with art and artists and the joy you receive from finding poetic words for the drama which comes to you through visual art. How does it work for you?

Yes, I suppose that my poems seem always to look at art, even though I deliberately try to curb my passion of writing about paintings. But then, I see it too. References abound, and my way of looking probably echoes paintings.

No, I don’t paint, although I play with watercolors now and then. And our son paints. My love for visual art began in Chicago when my husband was in medical school there, the Art Institute becoming our open gate. We became hooked. And is it surprising that the Dutch painters became our favorites? Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Van Gogh continue to be sources for nourishment. And all painting — the medievalists, Italian Renaissance painters, and the twentieth century work.

Perhaps it is the power of the captured moment, even as that too keeps moving. Maybe it is the calm space in Vermeer, which can be either comforting or frightening because it is so utterly still. Or the daring of Van Gogh.

The Vermeer windows were once one poem in four parts, and when I considered them as division poems, they fell rather naturally into place — listening to the landscape, doing the work (of language especially), reading the landscape of history and art, and acknowledging the light of the body.

I believe that when we look at art with full attention, we are inevitably moved toward response. Rilke writes at the end of Archaic Torso of Apollo, there is no place / that does not see you. You must change your life. It is the sculpture looking at the one looking. That is the power of art. And one way to begin is to try to find words.

Often, it seems, in Tasting the Dust as well as in your previous books, and certainly in the unpublished poem you sent us, End of Prohibition, 1933, we see the beautiful intertwine of the sensual and the spiritual. Is this lush sensuality that shows up so often in your poems at all related to the concept of prohibition - the forbidden in its forbidden-ness all the more tantalizing, secret, and attractive to the poet (as it was to Eve)? Can you talk about your own sense of the spiritual and the sensual intertwined?

The sensual and spiritual are inevitably intertwined. It is with our senses that we know, and it is through my sensual experiences that I finally understood more fully my desire for God, for unity, and the gifts of the body. The power of the forbidden is a mystery to me, and I haven’t tried to analyze my response to that. Maybe I am afraid to! Perhaps the colors are sharper when one is deprived. Certainly the dark side of overindulgence seems to me a reality. But to recognize desire, the erotic, as central to spiritual experience is important to me, and a theme in Snake in the Parsonage. It seems that this theme isn’t exhausted for me.

It is interesting to me to see my two poems celebrating God in our skin or wanting to touch our skin, side by side, in Tasting the Dust. The position of the poems was somewhat accidentally placed, and now I see how they (Noli me Tangere and Window Facing West) touch each other and press the reference. How did that happen?

See also the review of Tasting the Dust in our Book Reviews section of this issue.

End of Prohibition, 1933

The day I was born the sun rose
on weak December wings, spilling
only thimblefuls of light
at a time. But after its noontime
giddy height, all of this country
was uncorking in celebration.

In Canada where I, seventh child,
slipped out without public notice,
my parents didn’t hear the news,
winter’s glare and work
blinding headlines for days.
And yet they knew about prohibition—
the church’s ban on sex until
the wedding vows, that sudden end.
Then, one taste of her mouth,
his hands sliding over the hot
curve of hip and breast
in a snowy bed of linens.

God made the recipe too strong,
my mother sighed after swollen Agnes
confessed before the entire congregation.
And here it comes again, the flush
like summer dawn, and my father’s wet lips,
which she will carry as in a hidden,
silver flask across every border.

Claiming the Dust

Like nomads we come
to this subtropical valley,
our borrowed space
under the sun. Once
an ancient lakebed,
the July ground powders
under our feet, lifts
in puffs to welcome us.
The children rise, then
run out to pound acorns
under the oaks, calling
to each other from
their rings of stones.
Pale bird-of-paradise leans
out of its gravelly bed.
It takes dynamite to plant
an orange tree, our neighbor sighs.

This is our new home,
this valley’s layered clay
which offers its sunbaked surface
to the scuffing of our feet,
as if our fragile lives
are enough to rouse the ages.
The slightest breeze, and the dust
becomes skittish, whirls
to settle in the next yard.
But mostly, stillness,
so that the beige siftings
are almost imperceptible.
Fig leaves in a talcum haze.

It is the night we finally learn
to claim. At dusk the children
float their sheets like flattened tents
and sprawl face-up into the warm
darkness, and we join them
in this rehearsal — a summer
night travel, the sky’s black
curtains pinned back with stars.
That open stage.
This hard earth not our final holding
place after all, but the air
into which we sail,
breath by dusty breath,
toward a different shore.

from Tasting the Dust (Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 2000)


Gold and white, the angels cruised
the far spaces until your brush
dipped into thick acrylic and stopped them.
And from the water, a school
of dolphins leaps and stays —
the way you want your constant
body jerks to stop for the held
gesture, the control.
You turn your face to the wall;
your limbs lash out.
You have stopped nothing,
not the surf’s roar, not
the black sunflowers in their dance,
or even these angels.
They keep drifting off, you say.

My hand writing this is steadier
than yours, but in the end
all is motion gathering.
And what is held is vibrating
like the winter finches in their
scarlet quarrel, and the amaryllis
which leans toward them from the other
side of the glass, huge throats open.
These vowels I fasten down
want to fly, as if these shapes
we give to sense, these shades
of blue and gold, make their own paths,
and you and I can only gaze
at what flashes by.

for Chad

From Tasting the Dust (Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 2000)

Tasting the Dust

The way he brings it in,
leaves falling from his hair,
then kisses me, you would think

that gardening is pleasure,
which he says it is, digging deep
to kill bermuda roots, piercing

his hands on roses.
Sweat drips into my eyes
from his forehead, physician

curing himself with soil.
Sometimes I join him, raking
the pages of leaves, but the garden

is his, the place which gathers
struggles from his hands
and returns its own —

the story of dust, an origin
so deep and dense, it rose
like fire to make the mountain,

a narrative of tumble
and breakage from its sides
the wet roar of ages

under the slow beat of the sun.
The mountain offering itself
in mud, sticks and stones

for his space, his touch,
to make of it a shape and fragrance,
to taste the center of this earth.

from Tasting the Dust (Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 2000)