After I'd finished writing a very autobiographical first book of poetry, I decided I wouldn't compose another poem about myself again. I'd been reading a lot of ancient history and, against that larger backdrop, the facts of my own life seemed pretty irrelevant.
My next book was called Fallen from a Chariot. I began that collection with a very simple, unexplored fascination with the history and literature of the Roman Empire. As I read and wrote, however, I became interested in the way the Roman Empire has been discussed over the ages, interpreted always through the lens of the historian's moment. I couldn't help but dwell, often elegiacally, on the irretrievability of what must have been a magnificent and complicated past-and on those superficial similarities and deep differences between that empire and our own.
When I write now, I'm more aware of our own fleeting and precarious historical moment, even as my subject matter has moved into the present. I've just completed another collection, National Anthem, in many ways a companion book to Fallen from a Chariot. It is similar in aesthetic and overall historical concerns, though it takes place in a different, more contemporary empire. And I'm at work on another book, this one set simultaneously in the distant past and an imagined, somewhat dystopian future.
Here's why I'm grateful to the NEA: I live in rural Missouri and teach at the University of Central Missouri. Between a full load of courses and committee work, I'm trying to edit Pleiades: A Journal of New Writing, direct the Pleiades Press, help administer The National Book Critics Circle, review books, and, with my good friend Wayne Miller, edit The New European Poetry, a survey of poems by the newest generation of Europeans. I have little time, these days, for anything else. With my NEA grant, I plan to take time off teaching and editing, to read as much history as possible, to travel a little bit, and to write. I expect another book or two will come of this.
"Burial, at Sea"
It is, perhaps, not empty. Inside
the dulled heart might still, in its package, quake.
The body is not like a shell
after the sea has rolled the dying flesh away,
it is not a shell washed in the surf or bleached
a helpless white. One cannot tell
what lives inside when the arms grow slack,
when the eyes won't wake. Someone
rolled it from the ship and into the sea
so the body turns in the waves and seems,
at times, to sink-- But who can say
what the head thinks? And the ship,
as it sails, the young girls throwing rose petals
from the stern so they trail in the sea--
And the mast that groans in its joists
as the ship retreats, the sailor's one-note
song-- They are, we say, only proper oblation
for a body that drifts
impossibly far from the rest of us.