In this interview, Ralph Sneeden traces his journey as a poet and essayist, avoiding the destructiveness of being pigeonholed, the inherent politicality of landscapes, and drawing from a pool of resources and poetic techniques to achieve a voice that is at once reflective, visceral, meditative, exploratory, and willing to uncover the veil of comfort and human complexity in an attempt to “testify, to lay bare the quirks, ironies and nuances of history in a way that suggests something new or different about them.”
Fugues, Evidence, and Arguments: A Poet Finds His Way
We thought it was just going to be a tour of the defunct coal mine’s aboveground facility, which was already troubling enough. The winding wheels and framework for the conveyor system at the “pit head” were like the superstructure of an abandoned carnival, like the one I’d read about near Chernobyl.
At the boarding school where I teach, my campus residence bears a plaque with the name of an English teacher who drowned after falling through ice. He had been skating on the river after the year’s first deep freeze, which had been followed by a snowstorm. I was told that once his pickup hockey game had ended and the players dispersed, he made the choice to remain behind, to skate upriver, enticed, perhaps, by the beauty of new snow, to explore the transformed hemlock-banked waterway alone. This happened the winter I was hired, before I started teaching the following fall. Our paths had crossed briefly during a fellowship in New York City and at a cookout in New Hampshire with friends we had in common. I didn’t know him well, but liked him immediately, and afterward I felt as if I’d lost a friend, a kindred spirit. I appreciate what he might have felt. The power that could have drawn him onward along that white, unblemished path until it betrayed him.
We’re taking this month to revisit books from our pasts, and find new ones that will stay with us. Some of these titles are old favorites, which have found their way back to their recommenders after years apart. Others are books long unread but known by reputation, “by proxy,” finally experienced. We are reading both echoes built on classics and violent shifts from the familiar. These are books both for everyone and specifically for you. They will linger with their recommenders—with all of us—long after reading, into “every possible future.”
Junior College by Gary Soto, Karate Chop by Dorthe Nors, Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, Remembering Babylon by David Malouf, Aeons by Max Rivto.
“And we went on living it, like a wave, that doesn’t know it is at every moment different water.” —Alan Williamson, from “A Childhood Around 1950”
In 1967 I almost drowned when I wandered from a sandbar and dropped into a deep cleft. That particular summer on the Jersey Shore, my older sisters had taken to riding what seemed to be kind, propellant waves with the rafts our mother had rented near the boardwalk, the industrial canvas sort you couldn’t buy in a store. I wasn’t a confident swimmer yet, so my mother wouldn’t even let me near one, which made no sense; the rafts were oversized life preservers, after all.
When a boat dies, you usually have two choices: pay hundreds of dollars to have it hauled away, or let it molder and sink into some secluded corner of the yard. A quick tour of my wife’s parents’ town on the South Shore of Massachusetts, where I moored my boat, would suggest that the latter is the norm: those husks and dark prows entombed in plain sight beside rotting cordwood, abandoned swing-sets. Last year, when I discovered that the oaken keel of my sailboat had rotted irreparably, I embarked on my first experiment with time-lapse photography. I rented for twenty dollars a “reciprocating saw”—the contractor’s principal instrument of demolition—known as a Sawzall. After positioning my iPad on a kitchen chair in the driveway of my in-laws’ home, then unraveling forty yards of extension cord from the garage, I plugged in the nasty tool—part torpedo, part robotic swordfish—and grimly laid into the carapace of the little boat over which I had worried and fussed for almost ten years.
Django: Elegies and Improvisations with Small Boats