In October of 2017, I started a series of interviews about how poets put together their collections. I began with this interview: How Do Poets Choose a Title For Their Books? That was followed by How Do Poets Choose A Collection Opener? After that, in the penultimate installment, there was How Do Poets Organize a Collection? And now, here is the finale that I had always imagined—an interview focusing on how a poet decides what the final poem in their collection should be.
The final poem has a large task—it has to make the book feel finished. It will, by its position, speak to every other poem in the book. It will inevitably turn the reader somewhere; the author decides where that will be. And the final poem will beg feelings of satisfaction for the reader. It’s a lot to ask of a single poem.
These four new books of poetry are astonishing, and I was thrilled to ask these authors about the decisions they made in finding that final note for their books.
Kimberly Quiogue Andrews’ A Brief History of Fruit we moves back and forth between America and the Philippines, exploring the worlds of central Pennsylvania and Manila, tackling the complications of having varied histories, and voicing what it’s like to think about race and racialization from within a body that oftentimes passes for white.
Leah Huizar’s Inland Empire captures Southern California—its smells, its food, its sounds, its languages, its landscape, its people—all through a Latina lens, grounded through the speaker and her family. When we talk about poetry about place, this is the book we’ve been desperate for.
Su Hwang’s Bodega captures the speaker’s childhood and the unspoken traumas of fractured identities, assimilation, and immigrant labor. Through formal experimentation, this collection explores the stories of the many lives that the bodega brings together—touching and devastating all at once.
Natalie Diaz’s Postcolonial Love Poem is indeed about love, an amazing, scorching love. It’s also about all kinds of things that create bonds between us—like basketball and community—and about those things that destroy bonds—like violence and drugs and colonialism. In reading this book, I was so grateful for poetry’s capacity to hold everything that we need spoken.
Here are their thoughts on how to choose the right poems to close their books.
Kimberly Quiogue Andrews on “Mango Mouth”
from A Brief History of Fruit
I hold to the general view that books of poems should make arguments, which means that the closing poem of a book should in some senses do what the closing of an argument would do: reiterate some of the main points and then add something very slightly new to take away. This may sound formulaic, but that small newness can do a lot of work. I think of the last long poem in Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s Song, the one in which she describes cows doing a form of bizarre ritual circling. The last stanza goes like this:
The moon high up and small. High up and small.
Perfect like a flower. Or an oracle. Something
Completely understood. But unspeakable.
Her entire aesthetic is contained in here—the repetition of detail as a kind of futile invocation, the nod to “unspeakable” violence—but the end is also literally unspeakable. That admission undermines, in a sense, everything the book has been up until that point, but it also and paradoxically reiterates its major concerns.
“Mango Mouth” was in fact one of the last poems I wrote for A Brief History of Fruit, after having taken a long hiatus from the material. I didn’t have any sense as I was writing it that I was writing a closing poem, though there’s a way in which that effect was maybe inevitable, given the fact that I was writing my way back into a collection the major contours of which I already had in view. I have that common condition wherein you get mild dermatitis from residual sap on mango skins, and I found that out by eating too many mangoes in the Philippines and wondering why my lips were all bumpy and itchy. It felt, to me, that something I loved was pushing me away. And it was that note, rather than any soggy note of “I reclaimed my heritage and it was fine,” on which I wanted to end the book. What we lay claim to does not always seem to want us. Sometimes that refusal inheres in the body, in its misguided attempts to protect itself from something. From what? From the possibility of ever being refused? These, indirectly, are the questions the book ends upon, and they remain in many ways unanswered.
When soft appears,
and I mistake the purple rot of the hydrangeas on the counter for their sweetness—
O yellow ear, o fortitude, o urushiol.
Toxicodendron radicans sounds like a superhero name,
Mangifera indica more like what it is, the manhandled feral,
and something on the skin of my face cannot tell the difference
and the magic works and its inverse
and I break out into the tiniest hives.
What speaks like the skin of its own geography?
The organ that we leave everywhere,
that hunches and furrows dries and slicks
makes us human, or less so—
the calculus of touch, the causality of reaction. That burns and prickles,
that renders invisible
In the story where my hands push the fruit
from its peel, where there’s no water at the tap and the stickiness
sings like the blown-down reeds of the authentic,
contact dermatitis serves as a book about indulgence,
about the taking and taking until you’re a swollen mass
of the sun that is not yours
of the leaf that is not yours
of the sap
that you insist, I, that I insist I can avoid by opening wider around the spoon—
I count them on the bones beneath my limbs:
things I love that cannot touch my lips.
Leah Huizar on “To Explain California Geography”
from Inland Empire:
Closing a collection is a way of reopening it. I was once told that after reading a poetry collection one should return to its first and last poems to see how they speak to each other. To read this way is to venture that there is often a kind of dialogue between these poles. More specifically, the movement from the final poem back into the book’s first poem enacts a recursive transformation of meaning and perspective.
In this view, the final poem might gather into itself the sum labor and language of the collection. Whatever was initiated in the first poem might be satisfied in the last poem, and the reader is given a new vantage point from which to see the preoccupations of the collection. I don’t know that this must always be the case. However, I did take it for my task in writing Inland Empire.
I ended up writing its last poem in the middle of composing the manuscript. It came at the right time, too, as I had struggled to articulate to myself how each of my subjects cohered—California landscapes, the history of colonization and belief on that coast, contemporary life as a Mexican-American, the labor of women—except as threads from the intersecting identities that I wear in the world. The body then became my answer. The imagery of the final poem acted as a guide through the rest of the work and counterpart to the first poem. I see “To Explain California Geography” as its fulfillment and inflection point.
TO EXPLAIN CALIFORNIA GEOGRAPHY
I sign the cross, a compass over my body:
My open hand lifts to heavenly Los
Angeles, drops south near my belly,
San Diegan in origin. I sweep west-east
across my chest from Orange County’s seaside
carnal cities, then over the divide of Santa Ana
Mountains toward the Inland,
where I end this empire; in the interior—
paused, my hand marks
where desert meets valley in the high,
hard heat that yields, year after year,
a landscape of wine, vineyards of dark fruit.
Su Hwang on “Sunchoke” from Bodega:
I wish I could take credit for how my collection opens and ends, but if it weren’t for poet Rick Barot’s genius, I’m not sure how the book would have turned out. Throughout the writing and submissions process, I went through countless versions. I tried everything––eventually bloating to about 90 pages, shifting from three sections to five sections then ultimately back to three. In some earlier versions for example, I started the manuscript with the sonnet sequence that’s now the third poem in the second section, and ended with “Cancer,” which I now realize was a terribly sentimental choice (fifth poem in the third section).
During our hour-long phone conversation, Rick likened the manuscript to a house and asked what if I used different doors to enter and exit the collection, and advised I begin with “Instant Scratch Off” and close with “Sunchoke.” My first instinct was to bristle since I considered them both to be among my weaker poems (buried in the fourth and fifth sections, respectively at the time), but he helped me visualize how the poems needed to work spatially rather than in a rigid, two-dimensional fashion. I imagined each poem to be a room or a hallway to another series of rooms and hallways, then back again, and this relational way of seeing the poems really set into motion the big, final edit.
Once I bookended the two poems and cut about 25 pages, like he suggested, something just clicked into place and in a kind of inspired dark night of the soul, I reshuffled the poems in one sitting and intuitively knew I was finally done. To fully extend this metaphor, if I ended the collection with “Cancer,” it would’ve been like exiting the house through the attic filled with dusty boxes, but with “Sunchoke,” the reader leaves through a sun-drenched kitchen with sliding doors. I’m forever grateful to Rick Barot (whose fourth marvel of a book The Galleons is out now with Milkweed Editions) for his generous mentorship, offering the key to unlock the doors to my first book.
Never a green thumb I can kill
perennials without much guilt
allow them to wilt slowly twist
into desiccated rinds along sooty sills
Certain plants can be grown
in a cup of water no need to pit into
soil exert any human will So I cut
the ends of wens their transections
a tableau of latticed histories like centuries
scribed into rings of gargantuan trees
I stare absently at family portraits old
frames resting on the mantle & wait
for an echo but ivy has grown over
unfamiliar faces braided through
eyes ears & noses like flowering
weeds We each suffer alone in
tandem maybe I read this somewhere
on an engraved placard on a bench
lost in the woods I don’t know
what else to say about life & love
& guilt & dying & loss & time
Maybe it’ll come to me soon
As I linger in my Lilliputian kitchen
whiffs of rosemary sumac & thyme
emerge like a smattering of rain
Golden rivulets break through the late
haze of morning a sudden invitation
Before suspending root into liquid
tomb womb (phantasmagoric starburst
on my palm) the southerly prism
shone a galaxy I trace the eye within
an eye within an eye in perfect concentric
circles & await its succulent growth
Natalie Diaz on “Grief Work” from Postcolonial Love Poem:
The book is not meant to be reconciled, and is instead happening, then, now, yet. The way I intended to end the book Postcolonial Love Poem, a poem titled “Grief Work,” tends to be the way I end singular poems—each is another beginning, one of many vertices of image or emotion, an energy. I wanted the end to be a disruption that is not disruptive because disruption is the condition. As grief is a condition—of my people, my land, my river, my language, my country.
My current relationship to grief is learning to not wait for it to still or subside—that I let it yet be subversive. I want to stop asking my grief to go away and let it enter—then enter it and open all its doors, wander it the way it has wandered me for so long. I am relearning my grief as companion, as watcher, as enemy, as prophecy, as lover, as a word to walk through to another side where grief is still waiting but different. It was important to me that the last poem didn’t let us leave the book—I needed the last poem to return us to the book, to whatever the book has meant for any of us. Grief work, like any work, is a thing that wears you down, a labor for sure, but also a practice, a ritual, a way of building, a way of caretaking.
Through grief I have learned and continue to learn desire. Through grief I have learned there is no such thing as goodness only the way grief can make me new, can make me possible for what comes next—clean not as in unmarred, rather, clean as in ready to be marred again.
Why not now go toward the things I love?
I have walked slow in the garden
of her—: gazed the black flower
dilating her animal-
I give up my sorrows
the way a bull gives it horns—: astonished,
and wishing there is rest
in the body’s softest parts.
Like Jacob’s angel, I touched the garnet
of her hip,
and she knew my name,
and I knew hers—:
it was Auxocromo, it was Cromóforo,
it was Eliza.
When the eyes and lips are brushed with honey
what is seen and said will never be the same,
so why not take the apple
in your mouth—:
in flames, in pieces, straight
from the knife’s sharp edge?
Achilles chased Hektor around the walls
of Ilium three times—: how long must I circle
the high gate
between her hip and knee
to solve the red-gold geometry
of her thigh?
Again the gods put their large hands in me,
move me, break my heart
like a clay jug of wine, loosen a beast
from some darklong depth.
My melancholy is hoofed.
I, the terrible beautiful
Lampon, a shining devour-horse tethered
at the bronze manger of her collarbones.
I do my grief work
with her body—:
labor to make the emerald tigers
in her throat leap,
lead them burning green to drink
from the deep-violet jetting her breast.
We go where there is love,
to the river, on our knees beneath the sweet
water. I pull her under four times,
until we are rivered.
We are rearranged.
I wash the silk and silt of her from my hands—:
now who I come to, I come clean to,
I come good to.