The Bookshelf: Poet Marie Harris and 'Desire Lines'

Dec 6, 2019

Poet Marie Harris, author of the new book Desire Lines.
Credit Charter Weeks

If you've ever been on a college campus or a public park, you may have seen desire lines. Those are those well-worn paths carved by travelers who, for whatever reason, preferred a route that diverged from the ones carefully cured in concrete by city or campus planners.

Such a metaphor proved irresistible to Marie Harris. The Barrington, New Hampshire poet's new collection, Desire Lines, keeps these paths in mind as it explores aspects of her own life. Harris, a former New Hampshire poet laureate, sat down with NHPR's Peter Biello discuss her new book.

Read Marie Harris's Top 5 Reading Recommendations:

1.   A Handbook of Birds of North America by Frank M. Chapman. "A non-fiction masterpiece. The descriptions are hard to do justice. You just have to read them." 

2.   My Seneca Village by Marilyn Nelson. "Anything that Marilyn Nelson has written, who often writes in the voices of historical characters. Marilyn was a poet laureate of Connecticut for a number of years."

3.   Amy Beach, Passionate Victorian: The Life and Work of an American Composer, 1867-1944 by Adrieene Fried Block. "Amy Beach was the first female composer in America and born in Henniker, New Hampshire. So I've got this passion about her."

4.   A Cast-Iron Aeroplane That Can Actually Fly: Commentaries from 80 Contemporary American Poets on Their Prose Poetry by Peter Johnson. "It's a collection of prose poetry and the poet's own commentary on the poems that they submitted. It's really fun and fascinating and a great look at what prose poetry is."

5.   Rage Baking: The Transformative Power of Flour, Fury, and Women's Voices by Katherine Alford and Kathy Gunst. "It's a series of baking recipes and essays that all have to do with what one can do with one's rage at a political reality."

The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity. 

Let's start by talking about a section of this book called "Bruised Hearts." It's a long poem about a car accident that your son was in. Can you talk a little bit about what happened?

Well, the accident was horrible and ended up with my son in an I.C.U. in North Carolina, and his wife in a different hospital. We got down there the morning after it happened. So the "Bruised Hearts" saga is on one level the story of the accident and the beginning of recovery. But on another level, it's also about how that accident and my tending to him during that first week or 10 days of touch-and-go brought up a lot of memories of my life as a single mother and a lot of regret of the kinds of things that I perceived myself as not having done properly.

So I'm nursing an adult son and thinking very hard about two very young sons. One of the conceits of this poem is a section that runs through it called "Dear Scorpio." And I'll back up to say that my son Sebastian Matthews is a poet as well. And he wrote his version of the accident and his responses to it.

At first we were going to make one book out of that and for various reasons decided not to. So his version has been published by Red Hen Press and it's called A Beginner's Guide to a Head On Collision. One of the things he did was he talked to himself in bits of short lines called "Dear Virgo." He talked to his Virgo self. I thought that was an interesting idea. And so I have a whole section called Dear Scorpio running through "Bruised Hearts" where I the young single mother, I'm talking to myself as an adult.

o you have not only this mother-son relationship with him, but you also have this writer-to-writer relationship with him. And that comes across in this poem, in "Bruised Hearts."

You think so?

Yeah. Well, I mean, you talk a little bit about, right? He writes a poem of some kind as far as I remember in the poem? And then you talk to him about it?

Mm-hmm.

So poetry is in some way... I don't want to say it's the center of your relationship with him, but it is a part of it. And I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that? 

Well, I think in a funny way, it is the center of our relationship or writing now because he's an adult. And so though we began to share our work when he was only 14, it's been so much a part, so much woven into our relationship that I would say that it's one of the central threads of how we are with each other. And it's a fascinating relationship because you have to step back from being mother and son in order to be two writers talking about the craft. I think it might be a bit unusual. I'm not sure, but it's great fun.

And when you talk about being a single mother and worrying about whether or not you have done the right things, I think as all mothers, all parents do, whether they're single or not, do you talk about that with him and does he respond to your concerns?

He and his brother, Will, have listened to me speak about my regrets. And I don't know about you, but if I think about my own parents and think about them doing that to me, I would not feel comfortable. I would I would feel, "No, no, no, no. You're wonderful. You did your best," etc. And that was their reaction.

Meaning as a child, you would want to reassure your parents?

Not just a child, but even more so as an adult. If they did to me what I have sort of done to Will and Sebastian by way of saying, you know, "Mea culpa." Their response, of course, has been, "No, no. You're our mother. You're perfect." So it's never been an actual back and forth discussion because they don't buy it.

Sebastian Matthews has written about his father at length in a memoir. He paints a complex portrait of his father.

He does.

And I was wondering what your take on that was, because that's part of your history, too. And having it talked about such a public forum, I don't know how that feels. How does that feel?

I have chosen not to go back there myself in my own work, whether it's memoir or poetry, except perhaps tangentially. The fact that he's chose to he chose to do that I think was probably very cathartic for him. He made a work of art. It's called In My Father's Footsteps. He made a work of art out of what was a, to some extent, history of pain and confusion.

Well, I do want to steer us back to Desire Lines, your work of art here, the occasion of this interview. Although worth talking about what happened with your son because it's part of this book. But the book is called Desire Lines. And that's a concept that that you tried to explore here thematically. Can you talk a little bit about the idea of "desire lines"?

Well, first of all, it's a concept that everybody knows, even though they don't know that they know. Anyone who's ever walked on a college campus or in a public park knows that though there are paths from here to there, that are paved usually, there are also paths from here to there that people have preferred and therefore taken the shorter route perhaps or the prettier route or whichever. And that's how many many people have gotten from here to there, creating a new path. And that has an actual name called "desire lines." It's also true of animals who make their paths from point to point. And so it became kind of a theme, an organizing theme for the book, because I realized looking back over what's essentially 20 years of new poems, that I have followed my own desire lines. And sometimes, often, they haven't been paved.

For example?

Some of the choices I've made in, for instance, my living situation. When I met and married my husband Charter Weeks, he brought me to a, what we now call, "shack in the woods." It had no running water. It was only just beginning to be built. And I kind of turned away from a much more privileged way of life that I had been living to embrace this one. So that's one desire line that I took, and in fact, is kind of the subject of the poem "Desire Lines", which gave which gave the book its title.

[Marie Harris gives a reading of 'Desire Lines' which you can read here.]

One of the things that struck me about this, the first time I read it, was just the vivid imagery, especially "the snow troweled thick as plaster." You can feel that, or at least I could while I was reading it.

I go back when I'm thinking about writing to something I read a number of years ago by a French poet and scientist named Paul Valéry. And he wrote... loosely translated he wrote, "A work of art should always teach us that we haven't seen what we've been looking at." And I think that if I can make you go out into the woods this afternoon or on a moonless night and see the snow and imagine its troweled thick as plaster, I've done my job.

So that's a guiding aesthetic principle for you?

It is. Yeah.

Can you talk a little bit about all the birds and the boats here?

I began birding when I was in my early 20s, and it was a direct result of a disastrous turn in my relationship. And my then grandmother-in-law introduced me to that, sensing that I was absolutely miserable and she was trying to distract me. And it became an absolute passion. So birds have woven through my life. I don't want to say that they're metaphors because they're birds, but they do remind me to think about things in a different way or to see things that I had been looking at but haven't seen properly. And boats, well, we've got a small sailboat, which we named sensei, because it was going to be our teacher, about 25 years ago. So sailing the bounding main, which I often referred to as our weekend brushes with death, gave me a another metaphor, a vehicle, as it were, for thinking about relationships and thinking about my past and other people's histories with the sea in the boat as a metaphor.

So it seems like a lot of your poetry is autobiographical in some way.

It's probably all autobiographical, but it's not confessional. I begin with my own experience as a jumping off place, and so to that extent you could call it autobiographical. Yeah.

When you're giving readings or sharing your poems with the world in other settings, what do you hope audiences take away from it?

Something happened to me the other day at Gibson's when I was doing one of the first readings from this book that is exactly what I hope happens. I read a poem to do with one's loved one, one's mate or whatever, dying and looking at my at my flock of chickens and realizing that once all of them were wiped out by a raccoon or a skunk or something except one, and she was just puttering around as if nothing had happened. And I wondered in the poem whether or not that might be me ever, that I could lose the love of my life and just go on. A lady came up to me after that reading and she said, "I just wanted to tell you, I am that chicken." And I just went cold. She said, "My husband is in the last throes of Alzheimer's and here I am puttering around as if nothing had happened. And I've and I've lost him." And I thought, "Wow." I've given her a way to think about it. And she's given me a way to think about what I wrote.

Well, maybe we should hear that poem.

Valentine.

Familiar enemies have wiped out the flock of Barred Rocks, rooster and all, save one. She carries on, fussing about in shavings and snow, falling upon the ordinary kernel or cracked corn as if it were a prize grub. She putters all day and settles on the empty perch at dusk. Has she gone mad? Doesn’t she realize she is alone in her chicken world? Is it possible that I would continue without you, mumble on, still hearing answering noises? That the weak sun would rise and set as usual on my busy days; that I might scarcely notice the silence, the cold?