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The physicality of language

Chris Dombrowski talks sex, fishing, poetry, parataxis and the West



Missoula has a well-earned reputation for its high density of successful prose writers, but it's not too shabby in the per-capita poet department, either. That certainly has something to do with our thriving arts culture, and perhaps also the fact that most careers in this town are as difficult to monetize as that of the poet elsewhere–so there comes a built-in, community-wide wellspring of empathy. Still, and with apologies to the many fine working local poets, past and present, it can be argued that Missoula hasn't had a transcendent poet of place since the immortal Richard Hugo passed away in 1982.

That may be changing. Chris Dombrowski, a Michigan-born poet who fell in love with Missoula upon moving here in 1999, has just released Earth Again, his second full-length book of poetry. It's a stunning work, rife with gorgeous images of Western lives and landscapes, imbued with a hardscrabble perception that will be instantly recognized by those who have committed their lives and families to this most demanding of paradises.

Dombrowski and his family currently split their time between Michigan, where he teaches poetry and nonfiction at the renowned Interlochen Center for the Arts, and Missoula, where as a guide he teaches clients the finer points of fly fishing. The Indy recently caught up with Dombrowski at his winter residence in Traverse City, Mich.

You've noted that it was Maclean's A River Runs Through It that set you on course to be a writer. Reading your stuff, it seems that Jim Harrison is a big influence as well.

Chris Dombrowski: One never truly knows who one's influences are. But when I think of Harrison I think of a kind of voraciousness for the physical world and all its incarnations, and the desire to write poems that encompass both the sacred and the profane. If you see that influence there, I'm humbled by it and appreciate it.

How did your association with Harrison come about?

CD: A mutual friend arranged a meeting, and I was quite nervous to meet him. We had exchanged a few letters over the years, but when you're meeting your literary hero there's always the horror story about the guy being a total dud or, worse yet, a total asshole. But the great thing about Jim is he's one of the few "outdoorsy" writers I've ever met who doesn't disappoint as an angler. I mean, most of us are phonies as far as that's concerned, but he's absolutely not. And then as a person he's been incredibly generous to me, and honest, and warm. We had a great three-day trip on the Big Hole, and have been friends ever since.

You're not afraid of pushing boundaries with your images, particularly when it comes to sexuality. The narrator of "Not Knowledge," for example, remembers catching a glimpse of his naked mother: "full shot: hair and all. Do our eyes meet? Does / my look of recognition belie my innocence, / reveal I've seen similar in the porn-mag Von keeps / under stacked cinder blocks? No. Not that I remember. / What nourishment, though. What indelible residue." That's pretty bold stuff.

CD: I'm interested in memory, and what lasts. The philosopher Bachelard called it "the sudden salience on the psyche"what is it in life that cuts through and makes something a moment, as opposed to being lost in the unrelenting horizontal rush of time? The first section of the book, as you picked up on, is very sexual, decidedly so. In a sense, the feminine becomes more than just the human feminine, or at least I hope it does. I also qualify that by saying there's plenty of myth-making going on in that first section, and I often think of all my poems as fictions. I don't think of them as autobiographical truths because I am pointedly following the music of the language into the truths, not the autobiographical accuracy. For whatever it's worth, I trust the language of the poem to lead me to truth.

Missoula poet Chris Dombrowski recently released his second full-length book of poetry, Earth Again.
  • Missoula poet Chris Dombrowski recently released his second full-length book of poetry, Earth Again.

You're obviously a student of literature and literary form, but you frequently pair fairly high-brow literary references with distinctly physical images.

CD: I believe in a physicality of language, you know? I believe that words are things. We come to love language in the same ways we come to love the world. We love the way a certain phrase sounds in our mouths, and feels in our chest, the same way we love to follow the traits of, say, the line of a mountain with our eye. And I think when you're following language and words as your guide, you end up hearing yourself say things that surprise you. That's a pleasing thing and I would say a necessary thing for me as a writer. Frost said, "No tears for the writer, no tears for the reader," and I would assert that if I'm not surprising myself with language as a writer, then more than likely the reader won't be surprised either.

You surprised the hell out of me—in the best way—with a couple lines from "Or A Woman": "The parataxis of her ass, / slight swale of nothing between two hills." Considering that one definition of parataxis is a poetry technique involving the juxtaposition of starkly dissimilar images, you nailed that on a couple of levels.

CD: Getting back to Harrison, I remember having this conversation with him at the Hitching Post in Melrose. We were talking about cleavage and why it is that the nothing, or the nada, between two masses of muscle and skin and tissue is what enamors people to that area. There's this nothingness that makes this something attractive, right? Without that nothingness, you don't have it. Look at a canyon, or a range of mountains, and it's the same thing. Poet George Oppen talks about "The hugeness of that which is missing." All that philosophical gobbledy-gook kinda rolled around in my head for a long time and then hearing the kind of assonance—pun intended—in that phrase, that's the music of the language.

You seem to be a poet of place, and that place seems to be the American West.

CD: It all goes back to that physicality for me. You mentioned in that first section of the book, the sexual imagery. As cheesy as it sounds, I think of the landscape as the body of the beloved, if you will. Beyond that I don't know what to say without going over the edge into woo-woo land.

Missoula in particular has grabbed your fancy. What is it about this town for you?

CD: Someone asked me a while ago what gets me up in the morning to write, and I said, you know, this community, the people I know and love in Missoula—they're carpenters, they're boat builders, they're artists, they're writers, they're teachers, they're gardeners, and they are all living with serious passion about what they do. That's what gets me up in the morning. I'd like to write something that speaks praise of this community, as well as of the landscape. To me it's a sacred place, it really is.

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