Once a young woman asked Rose Berger, out of the blue, to baptize her. I watched as right then and there, Rose summoned sacramental power and beauty pouring water and speaking holy poetry. So, when Rose publishes a book of poetry, I pay attention and call upon all of you to heed her cry. -Lydia Wylie-Kellermann
Bending the Arch, By Rose Marie Berger
RD: It is a heavily annotated poem, can you talk about the relationship between the poetry and the history and information in the back?
RMB: It’s a good question. I just finished reading Micheal O’Siadhail’s The Five Quintets, a 350-page poem examining the Modern era with no endnotes or explanations. It’s a stunning, ground-breaking work. But it requires a lot of work by the reader. Bending the Arch requires a lot from the reader also, but I wanted to lower the bar a little. Make it a little easier and more accessible. There are themes in Bending the Arch that I want readers to explore more on their own. My hope is that the endnotes will encourage readers to dig into the suppressed historical narratives in their own families and regions.
RD:What was the process like for writing the book?
RMB: I wrote the earliest version of “Confessions of a Westward Expansionist” (or what was then titled “Saarinen’s Arch”) in 1994, a quarter-century ago, in response to my own sense of cultural dislocation. I am a cultural Californian, a West Coaster, and Catholic who has lived for more than half my life in the culture of the Anglo-Protestant urban East and in neighborly relations with people who mostly migrated from the rural South to Washington, D.C. Since I migrated East from the Sacramento valley, I’ve been trying to get my footing, find my standing ground.
On a trip to St. Louis in the mid-1990s during one of the great spring floods, I dreamed that I was looking west through the Gateway Arch, designed by architect Eero Saarinen in 1947. Instead of seeing the Mississippi River, I saw the Pacific Ocean, two thousand miles away. In an instant, something ignited in me: I wanted to know about the spiritual powers in operation between St. Louis and the Pacific in the age of expansion and extermination, an age which my Irish Catholic and German Mennonite immigrant family took part only three generations ago.
“Confessions of a Westward Expansionist” also became my masters thesis for my MFA in poetry at the Stonecoast at the University of Southern Maine. My mentor Dennis Nurkse (Love in the Last Days: After Tristan and Iseult) never shirked from the expansiveness of my vision for the work and helped me learn the technical skills I needed to pull it off.
RD: As a Catholic, do you see poetry as a spiritual practice?
RMB: Because of my Catholic-ness, I see the world liturgically and sacramentally. The world is a holy place. Time moves in liturgical seasons. Poetry is an ancient form of speech for speaking about God and beauty, for witnessing and praising, for calling to account, for reanimating mystery. So yes, while not all poets write from a spiritual lens and not all poetry, even my own, needs to reflect spirituality, I do see poetry as part of my spiritual practice.
RD: Would you call Bending the Arch “religious” poetry?
Yes and no. Most so-called religious language heard in the U.S. today is profane propaganda uttered by the modern version of “palace priests.” Those who use religious language and imagery for partisan political or social ends. But the word “religion” comes from “re-ligare,” to bind again, like a ligament to bone. The poems in Bending the Arch are offered to rebind humans to Mother Earth, shattered communities to one another, and the past to the future.
RD:Where did the title and the cover art come from?
RMB: Ah, that’s a great story! In 2005, The Washington Post Magazine featured local artist Brett Busang. Formerly from Richmond, Va., Brett has relocated to the District and set up a studio. I was immediately attracted to his art. He has spent much of his career creating paintings of neglected structures, old buildings being dismantled, 19th-century architecture in abandoned neighborhoods that was prey to gentrification. He began portraying the boarded-up buildings, their piece-by-piece demolition and the gaps they left behind. His paintings are what I, in my ignorance, would call “urban impressionist.” After reading the article, I looked Brett up and went to his studio. We became friends. I actually bought a painting of the famous D.C. alleys from him that I paid off on installment. When it came time to decide on a cover for Bending the Arch, I emailed Brett and asked if he had any paintings in his collection of the St. Louis Arch. He didn’t but said if I’d give him a few days, he’d see if he could mock something up. I sent him the manuscript and a few days later he asked me to drop by and see what he’d created. I absolutely loved it. He reflects the mighty rivers, the ancient Cahokia, and the settler city of St. Louis with beautiful, rough genius. The original painting sits beside my desk at work. I was thrilled when we were able to use Brett’s work as the cover art for Bending the Arch.
RD:What is your hope for what readers come away with?
RMB: I don’t really have a preconceived hope for the reader’s reaction. I recognize that Bending the Arch is not an “easy read.” But I think it sets a table for significant conversations and invites readers to take seriously their own family histories and the histories of places their families have lived. The poems allow readers to “enter the stories” of others, as Sofia Samatar puts it, in a way that is gentle yet definite. I want this book to be studied in book groups, classrooms, seminaries, churches, anyplace where people gather to tell stories together and ask what these stories mean for our lives today and the lives of our descendants.
RD:Is this a particularly important historical moment for book to come out?
RMB: History is a cunning trickster. It reads us, we don’t read it. So I can’t quite answer this question. I will say that I would not have published this collection without the permissions of native mentors and elders, such as Gabrielle Tayac, Marcia Rincon-Gallardo, Julie Tumamait-Stenslie, Monique Sonoquie, and others. who read the manuscript and encouraged changes and corrected my mistakes. The rise of Indigenous voices, power, organizing, and land defense offering leadership in this age of climate collapse is part of the historical moment. I hope Bending the Arch finds a place in this movement.
RD:Tell us a little about the power of poetry. What can it do that other writing mediums cannot?
RMB: Poetry is my first language. Liturgical imagery is probably my second. But I spend much of my time and creative energy as a editor and writer of prose. In “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” William Carlos Williams wrote: “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.” This thought guides me in my prose writing, as well as my poetry. Prose writing can convey lots of things–emotions, information, historical continuity. It can prompt intellectual insights and shifts. But long before prose was invented, birds sang poetry to small human communities and those communities learned to sing it back. Poetry is what makes us human animals in the creation. It’s the language God uses to speak worlds into existence — and out of existence. Poetry is elemental, like earth, fire, water, and air.
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