George Balanchine once described dancers as "poets of gesture." With that evocative line in mind for our 19-20 Season, we invited a group of poets to explore the ways in which the stage and the page unite in a series of commissioned poems, including this piece inspired by Justin Peck's Everywhere We Go, from poet Cate Marvin.
I Am In The House And I Have The Key
—after Justin Peck’s ballet Everywhere We Go
As one passes a yolk between the cups of halved
shells, dropping its gold back and forth gingerly
to let the sac of it fall whole into a bowl – is it not
like how these bodies that once seemed pieces
of cutlery divided inside a drawer into which we
reach for the tools that allow our hands their
measured arc to lift this food to our mouths?
Or are these bodies cutlery in unison and sync?
For how they make me see the use of us in unison,
wonder at how all our bodies lie through nights
silent across nations, that these bodies could be
lifted as if by strings to become a joyous machine:
joy at seeing a body that falls along a body that falls
along a body as a fan opens to reveal tremendous
green-gray plates like wings. Its silvers bewilder,
as does this gift: to sit on an achingly gracious seat,
allowed to imagine I could reach into my own legs
as if they were balloons, fill my lungs with stars
and oxygen and love – bubblegum, tobacco, pipes,
rollercoaster rides inside a frame that’s hung in
a museum – and I am the only person in the room.
Or is it like being young again, which I do not miss,
having beaten its notion back with my indifference,
until I forgot it so hard I can’t think it up the way
I used to as I smoked my own brain into the dawn
in an attic apartment, and the man I was in love
with for years was plain as a bowl of canned soup
warmed up on a homey stove that now sits in some
junkyard rusting its brilliance. But even that dull
man still breathes, and his eyes are beautiful. I can
admit that I like colorful stones. But these bodies
that open and close like fans complicate everything
in the same way a pie just out of the oven suggests
through its scent just because there’s only one of me
doesn’t mean you can’t make more! Because it tastes
like the fruit that grows behind your eyes, and licks
the plumage plaited around your neck, that feathered
collar of iridescence you were gifted at birth: beauty.
And that is whole point, really. Forgive me the words
I once uttered. It is the only point in being alive.
Cate Marvin is a 2015 Guggenheim Fellow who has published three books of poetry, including her most recent, 2015’s Oracle. Her second book, Fragment of the Head of a Queen, received a Whiting Award. She’s a Professor of English at the College of Staten Island and teaches poetry at the University of Southern Maine. Learn more about Cate's creative process in our exclusive Q&A with the poet, below.
What exposure have you had to ballet in the past? If you haven’t attended a ballet before, what did you know about the art form?
My mother is a huge fan. When she was in her early twenties and living in New York City, she would attend matinees on her own. She also took me to see Baryshnikov when I was five and remains angry with me to this day that I fell asleep during the performance. (This was due to the fact that I fell asleep whenever the lights went out when I was little.) Other than this early exposure, I knew next to nothing. You could even say I was a little intimidated.
Beyond later structuring the ballet you saw into a poem — into language — what was your immediate visceral reaction to it?
I was astonished. I don’t think I’ve ever sat up so straight in a chair! I would liken that dance to a feast for the eyes, or an enormous, elaborate confection for the imagination. Ideally, there would exist a portal through which I could pass to watch Justin Peck’s Everywhere We Go any time I wanted. I felt an intimate proximately to beauty. It was truly a gift.
What was your process for this particular assignment? Was there anything different or surprising about that process?
I took on this assignment because I knew that writing about dance would be extremely difficult for me. I had many false starts and spent a good deal of time creating an extremely long poem about my relationship to my mother. Although this poem was a digression, I learned a lot from writing it, and it helped me work through some of the messiness that comes with being a woman/mother and an artist. I believe I spent four fairly grueling months getting to the point by which I felt I’d created the poem that reflected my experience, which was ultimately one of joy.
Balanchine described dancers as “poets of gesture.” How does that line resonate with you given this assignment?
There is an assumption that art is somehow free for its maker, or that there is liberty in expression. Writing poetry is, however, an extremely disciplined undertaking, and it strikes me as the same for dance. They share aspects of lengthy training, acute attention to the rigors of craft, and an ongoing obsession with the smallest of gestures. Both are steeped in a lengthy tradition. But I would go further than Balanchine: after watching these dancers, I would conclude that they are magicians of articulation.