From the Archives | A Fine Contrivance by Susanna J. Mishler

I re-listened to a
recording last week of poet and electrician Susanna J. Mishler’s lecture, “A Fine Contrivance: How Can a Poem Be a Machine?” She presented the
talk originally in 49 Writers’ Reading and Craft Talk Series, a response to the
famous William Carlos Williams assertion that “A poem is a machine made out of
words.” A few after I listened to the recording, I happened to get a call from Susanna, who’s out
working a long construction stint on Kodiak. Listening to her impressions of
the land and seascapes there and stories from the jobsite, a missile launch facility,
I thought again of her many ideas, questions, and images from the talk and her poems woven into it.  

While the craft talk
recording won’t be available on our website until it’s adapted for the page and
published, we do have a smattering of other recorded events. I anticipate the archive growing more
regularly in the future, particularly next fall when we’ll have a new website.
For now, enjoy this Mishler post from the blog archive, once a preview in advance of her craft talk, and now
a bit of a reminiscence. — Jeremy 

Susanna J. Mishler presents a 49 Writers Reading and Craft Talk, October 2014
A poem is a machine made of words.
– William Carlos Williams
As poet and electrician, I wonder how this statement might be true. The objects of machine and poem seem contrary. But if a poem is a machine made of words, and the idea of a poem as machine seems contradictory, then what are we missing?

Power Outage in a Northern Neighborhood

Night stretches over us like plum skin.
Every winter I learn constellations,
forget them. The Big Dipper is a bear
with a long tail. This made sense to someone,
this confusion of flashing points.
We run fingers in the black dog’s coat;
they spark. We zip wool and down coats
(stolen from other animals) over our cooling skins.
I press to her shoulder under points
that wink like knife-tips. Each constellation
is indulgence – lines drawn between fires by someone
who found a vacuum unbearable.
Suppose it’s a vault of eyes bearing
on our windows, on our coat-backs.
That sense of watching. That sense of Someone.
There’s this theory of innate fire in our skins
but it isn’t right. More like rubbing sticks. Constellations
pass over indifferently, whirring about their central point.
The dog stands outside with ears pointed,
nose pressed to a window. Our cats bare
teeth, yowl, break glass into constellations
on hardwood, skid around the coatrack.
All over a glimpse of stranger. As if they’ll be starved skinny
or given away to someone
who knits cat sweaters. Someone
might peek into this darkness and feel disappointed.
Creations sharpen inside our skins
yet when the lights get snuffed we’re bare.
Separate. Ill-equipped. Dependant on the coats
of others. “How are we intended?” we ask the constellations.
“One soul is sometimes worth a whole constellation,”
she says, thinking Karamazov. The dog’s ears flick to someone’s
footsteps, and he sniffs, searches the air, face coated
in frost. She presses into my shoulder and points
to Ursa Minor, the boy who became a bear,
after his mother did, ever chasing her familiar skin.
A skinned bear looks human, like someone
coatless and red curled on leaves. The points
of constellations are hard. And we are insufferably soft.
I wrote “Power Outage In A Northern Neighborhood” (from Termination Dust, 2014) using a formal principle that I imagine like a Newton’s Cradle. A Newton’s Cradle transfers kinetic energy via a set of spheres on strings. When a sphere on one end is lifted and released, it strikes the stationary spheres; its force is transmitted through the stationary spheres and knocks the last sphere up.
In a sestina, this poem’s form, the words that end the lines of the first stanza are repeated as the words ending the lines of every stanza – the same end-words recur throughout the poem. The same six words (constellation, someone, coat, point, bear, skin) recur and re-transmit the poem’s energy. The repetition of these words both joins and extends the thoughts within each line. It makes a regular pattern – a form – made of words. But is it a machine? 

Susanna J. Mishler’s poems have appeared in Alaska Quarterly
Review, The Iowa Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Mid-American Review, Kenyon
Review Online, and elsewhere. Her first collection of poems, Termination Dust,
was published by Red Hen Press/Boreal Books in 2014.
Susanna holds an MFA in Poetry from The University of
Arizona in Tucson, where she served as a poetry editor for
Sonora Review. She’s
the recipient of a Peter Taylor Fellowship in Poetry from the Kenyon Review
Writer’s Workshop, and the Bill Waller Writing Award from the University of
Among other things, Susanna has worked as a dock hand,
science educator, and sled dog handler. She currently lives in Anchorage and earns her living as an electrician.
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