Elisa Gonzalez

The poet on sisterhood and grief

Maggie Millner

In 2021, The Yale Review published two biting poems on love and capitalism by the poet Elisa Gonzalez. I had first encountered her work years earlier and been immediately struck by the unlikely combination of feeling and self-possession I found there. To read one of her elegies, for example, is to watch despair and rage be drawn, with white-knuckled precision, under grammar’s superintending spell. Syntax, in a Gonzalez poem, is a skin pulled taut over the roil of otherwise unmanageable moods: a daughter’s righteous ire, a bereft sister’s grief, a lover’s dazed wonder at the body beside her. In the end, the poem is less a document of the feeling itself—though that feeling remains keenly present—than a self-conscious exercise in coaxing it into something that could be called beautiful. As she writes in her poem “Roman Triptych”: “Reader—I want you to know you are reading a poem.”

This balance between formal control, affective intensity, and imagistic beauty animates Gonzalez’s debut collection, Grand Tour, out this week from Farrar, Straus & Giroux. The poems’ settings (including Cyprus, Ohio, and Poland) and themes (including adultery, poverty, and survivorship) are dizzyingly various, giving the impression of a life made up of many disparate eras and selves. Yet a single set of preoccupations and methods propels the whole book, shuttling it nimbly between “untrammeled feelings” and the “engineer’s logic” that has formed them into poetry.

Gonzalez and I corresponded over email earlier this month. Our conversation touched on perfectionism, sex, and the ways that storytelling and sisterhood interrelate in her work.

Maggie Millner, senior editor

Maggie Millner The poems in Grand Tour tend to vault from sensory imagery to philosophical musing, and references to thinkers such as Aristotle and Augustine recur. (There’s also a memorable moment when the speaker declares, “Death to philosophers!”) How do you think about the relationship between the disciplines of poetry and philosophy?

Elisa Gonzalez In a college poetry workshop, that fabled space of reverberating wisdom, someone told me that I “couldn’t fit Galileo and Aristotle” in the same poem—i.e., a poem couldn’t bear the weight of two such august thinkers. As with many things I have been told not to do, my reaction was defiance. Why not? I am certainly no philosopher, nor particularly well read in philosophy, but I believe that poems can hold as much as we can imagine housing in them, and I believe that poems can—I stop short of “should”—think deeply and boldly. It would be a shame to leave that to the non-lyric disciplines.

MM Your poems are preoccupied with borders: the militarized frontiers between nations; the partitions between class positions, enforced from above; the one-way boundary between the living and the dead. Does poetry as a form lend itself to discussions of enclosure and separation, do you think?

EG I suspect I explore those preoccupations in prose as well, but a poem—especially if it’s relatively short, as the poems in Grand Tour are—does lend itself to meditating on exclusion, distance, division, etc. So much has to be removed to create a poem. So much has to be sacrificed. Because I revise a lot and tend to cut a lot in the revising, I think most, if not all, of my poems are haunted, but I’m the only one who can see the ghosts hanging around the edges.

Poems also often seem like shapeshifters to me, in that the leaps they make can transform what you thought you were reading, or writing, several times between a beginning and an end—and in that way they challenge their own borders.

It’s funny that you use the word enclosure specifically, because when I was going through copyedits for the book, I realized that I’d used the word enclose too many times (I think three or four, but I felt only one could probably survive). I wondered what it was about that word, especially applied figuratively (a word “encloses,” I said in one place) that seemed to exercise some draw for me. I don’t know if it was echoing the larger preoccupation or if there’s still something left to puzzle out regarding enclosure specifically.

The gap between the dreamed-of poem and the real poem is painful.

MM The poems in this book depict a speaker moving between love affairs and marriages with women and men, including an amazing verse-treatise on desire called “Epistemology of the Shower.” How do sexuality and self-knowledge inform one another in your work?

EG “Verse-treatise” is a beautiful coinage. For a few years, I forbade myself from writing about love or desire, because I kept stepping into conventions like mud puddles, and I was bored by everything I made. Eventually, I realized that walling that section of my life up, or out, was inconsistent with my wish to at least try to make my poems address as much as possible. Sex is everywhere, and I do have it. Hence my poetry about it. I think I worked my way back into writing on desire, sexuality, etc. by trying to examine the situation, and the self in the situation, as closely as possible. In “Epistemology of the Shower,” for instance, every time I thought I’d reached a conclusion, I asked, What else? If you didn’t end here, what would you say?

Questions are perhaps the essence of my poetry—and of sexuality—for better or worse. I am glad that this is a book in which the love affairs don’t really have a sequence or a hierarchy. Sometimes the speaker’s married to a man. Sometimes she’s very much not. It feels true to the anarchic core of poetry to throw sex in like that.

MM In one of my favorite poems in the book, “To My Thirty-Year-Old Self,” the speaker admits, with a dash of irony, that she has sometimes felt that her life’s “great project” is to write not just “well” but “perfectly.” I’m reminded of Ben Lerner’s argument that a poem is “always a record of failure,” in some sense. Can you speak about the relationship between perfectionism and poetry in your own writing?

EG There’s a biographical answer and a poetic answer, I think. The biographical answer is that I wrote poems for many years without really working toward a book in any serious way. I wrote poems, and I tried to make those poems better. I probably did think “perfect,” though I have enough sense not to say it to myself, except inside a poem. But I believed that the book would present itself to me as a kind of perfect object, nothing like all these flawed poems I had lying around. And then, in the summer of 2021, my youngest brother was shot to death, and I thought, I will either make something, or I will make nothing. Both seemed equally possible and equally fine. It didn’t matter to me whether it was perfect anymore, because he was dead, I was alive, and the poems seemed both more important and less important, somehow.

The other answer is that the gap between the dreamed-of poem and the real poem is painful. It is also, sometimes anyway, a gorgeous private thing, which no one else can ever touch. But the pain usually feels more present.

MM “To My Thirty-Year-Old Self” is one of three poems in the collection that directly address a younger version of the writing self. What occasioned this sequence of “To My X-Year-Old Self” poems?

EG Early in my writing life, I wrote long sagas in installments—Dickens style—for my siblings, which I read aloud, and then incorporated or responded to their feedback. To write I often have to trick myself back into a playfulness in which nothing matters. Later, writing poetry became a place to speak secret thoughts that couldn’t be stated openly in my family. The play and the secrecy connect in that they require an imagined reader who will accept anything. A blank who loves me, I guess, which isn’t how any real person is.

To write I often have to trick myself back into a playfulness in which nothing matters.

The series of “To My Younger Self” poems were specifically occasioned by rereading Brenda Shaughnessy’s magnificent Our Andromeda in early 2021. I was stunned, on this read, by the speaker’s addresses to a self at various ages, including in the future, and it made me think about the specific conditions under which I might want to talk to another version of myself. What would be the point? What would you ask, what would you tell? It seemed like the easy thing to do—which Shaughnessy does not do—would be to simply tell the future or console someone about the past. It could end up very maudlin. So in mine I wanted to complicate the relationship between past and present, give the past at least a chance to talk back, give the speaker a reason to pick those ages, those selves. Time travel should make your head spin a little.

MM Grand Tour contains a few elegies, including the opening poem, “Notes Toward an Elegy,” which might operate as a kind of foreword. Can you speak about your relationship to the elegy as a form? As a frame?

EG I do think of that poem as a presiding spirit, a kind of ghost proem or secret foreword. (In an earlier draft of the manuscript, it preceded the table of contents.)

In late 2020, a friend in Cyprus died of cancer, and the following summer, my brother was killed. Facing these deaths and the extra-loud presence of death in the world, I have found myself resisting any version of elegy as consolation or reconciliation. A teacher once told me that an elegy had to return the living speaker to life by the end. Fortunately, the genre as practiced is much less proscriptive and much more discontented with death. For instance, I would call “corpse poems” (in which a corpse, human or animal, ostensibly speaks) elegies. A living speaker is ventriloquizing someone or something dead, perhaps themselves, though sometimes without explicit grief or any expression of mourning. But the engagement with the fact of death seems to me the useful and salient aspect of “elegy.” It’s a naked thing. In the presence of elegy, we can’t pretend anyone will live forever.

Maggie Millner is a poet and a senior editor at The Yale Review.
Originally published:
September 20, 2023


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