Gracing our Winter 2014 issue of jmww are three poems from Sara Burnett that contemplate volcanic disaster and its aftermath: “Woman Picking Olives in Catania,” “At the Mercato di Porto Nolana,” and “Empedocles’ Shoe.” In this ORIGINS post, she describes more specifically for us how the first two of these emerged.
Full disclosure: I have never been to Sicily. I have had to imagine it all in these poems.
And I had to do a lot of research for these “volcano” poems (and even more sexy than a lot of research, I had to stare at portraits and sift through pictures of vases hoping that if I looked long enough I might be pulled into one of their stories, which to some extent happened). What initially drew me to writing a series of poems about Etna, and to a lesser extent Vesuvius, was a fascination with the idea of consciously living so close to impending natural disaster. Safe at my desk seemed as good a way as any to explore it for me unless someone offers me a paycheck to write in Sicily (please consider it). The towering figures of Etna and Vesuvius are literally and figuratively hard to ignore (although Vesuvius is quite a bit smaller at just over 4,000 feet). Having lived under the gaze of these volcanoes for centuries, I wanted to know how the landscape and the people were affected. Even if Etna never erupted during one’s lifetime, a person would still live with the culture of Etna—her historical and mythological presence. At the heart of my inquiry and my poems was the question: What is the human relationship to volcanic disaster? From there, there are three smaller questions that I sought to understand in the poems: What it is like to live with impending doom? What is the fascination with volcanoes and why does it exist? How does the human imagination in myth, art, song, and poetry interpret the volcano?
In total, I wrote more than a dozen poems about this topic. Many of the poems I wrote seem to be written at that safe distance of the observer looking at the disaster. It is my hope that “Woman Picking Olives in Catania” and “At the Mercato di Porto Nolana” are closer to the experience of what it is like to live closer to the volcano. They were the most fun to write. “Woman Picking Olives” felt very near to me in the sense that I felt that the poem conveyed how it might feel if the volcano had never erupted in one’s lifetime and then suddenly it did. I wanted the poem to have a timeless, mythic quality to it, so I omitted historical references. I also thought about how things are always happening in the world and within the earth that we are unaware of as we go about our daily lives, and this notion seemed applicable to how it might seem to witness a disaster. The incomplete, trailing thoughts as well as the long dashes and ellipses I used emulate how one might experience the disaster even in the act of recounting it after. The blending of night into day seamlessly and without suspicion of the volcano’s eruption seemed appropriate because day and night temporally speaking are a human construction. Nature’s sense of time is much different. The image of the stone pine tree, which the poem hinges on (“that heavy cloud—like a stone pine tree rising and spreading its branches”), I recollected from Pliny’s letters when he viewed Etna erupting from a distance. It refers to a specific type of conifer found in the Mediterranean. The poem “Magdalene” by Marie Howe served as a model for me for trying to hold simultaneous temporalities while conveying the magnitude and quickness of disaster. In that poem, the disaster is her brother’s death from AIDS and her writing helped me quite a bit in shaping the poem and I give her credit for it in the epigraph.
In “At the Mercato di Porto Nolana,” I wanted to write a poem that took place in a modern moment, which seemed important to balance the collection that was forming. I thought of how people in an urban area are buffeted by changes in nature. What might it be like to live in a thriving city even though there is a volcano well within view? Naples seemed an obvious choice. From there I thought first about writing about a fisherman’s perspective, but once I began taking notes and researching, I realized I was more interested in the fish and in fish selling in an open market in particular. The frenetic energy of business and exchange in Naples shows our oblivious disconnected state from the natural world. The real chaos may not be in Vesuvius but in the marketplace. The packaging and repurposing of objects such as a kitschy T-shirt of the naked torso of Michelangelo’s David or a pile of dead fish freshly caught from the sea and beautifully arranged on display are distractions from Vesuvius. I used tourist accounts, guides, and also my experiences of being in other Italian markets to create the setting. The piles of dead fish in the poem became a central image not only because I find something beautiful and morbid in those glistening silver stacks, but also because fishing is one of the most ancient trades where man was intimately connected to the whims of nature. Fish, moreover, precede humans as a species. If we were to think of them as collective beings (which of course we normally do not), fish have seen and experienced more than us. I thought also there was a parallel between how the fish experience disaster and us. For as much as humans like to think themselves superior, impervious to nature, if a disaster strikes, many of us would be “still and stunned” like the fish caught at sea at the end of the poem. Or perhaps that’s just how I would be.