“I identify with the sky, because its vastness represents the kind of freedom and tranquility that I long to experience daily.”
Psalm for Chrysanthemums (Akashic Books, 2020)
Adalae Beam, Braden Dyk, and Hannah Roberts: Is the speaker in Psalm for Chrysanthemums the same person all the way through, or are there multiple speakers? The poems flow into each other, each seeming to build on the one before. Could you discuss this?
The speaker is the same person throughout the chapbook, but each poem is a depiction of her in a different mental state; so, what may appear to be another person at first glance is actually a new manifestation of her multiple dissociations from reality. I wanted to demonstrate that being treated for a mental illness is not a linear path with recovery as a stable end state, but rather a cycle with several relapses and regressions along the way. My intention with the flow of the poems was to gradually leave clues about the speaker’s condition so that her regression would be a segue rather than an abrupt interruption. The poems do not tell the speaker’s story chronologically, but they are ordered in such a way that every event, be it a recollection or real-time incident, is crucial to the revelation of her final condition.
Why did you choose Psalm for Chrysanthemums for the book’s title?
While writing these poems, I was constantly confronted with images alluding to the speaker’s suicidal ideation and insatiable desire for men. She cannot stop herself from pursuing either of these, so her happiest moments are when she is with a new man or when she is newly reincarnated. The titular poem in the chapbook recounts the speaker praying for rain to restore dying flowers, and then trying to reincarnate a failed relationship using a spell. I felt that this poem exposed the speaker’s vulnerability and desperate need for love, so Psalm for Chrysanthemums became the title of the book. I wanted to show that, although the speaker romanticizes death, it is because she wants an escape from pain; that is why she returns each time, to give love another chance. In the preface of the chapbook, Shara McCallum says that the title “prepares us for a song in praise of death,” but what I really wanted to praise was love, not death. We give people flowers as a declaration of our love for them, despite the fact that they will wilt and die. We try to immortalize our lovers in songs. Through the title, I wanted to give credence to the speaker’s desire for immortality and everlasting love.
“Venus Fly Trap” and “Amaechi” both feature a man named Amaechi. Could you discuss the significance of this character and his name?
Amaechi represents the narrator’s attempts at finding love, and as a consequence of her failure to do so, the fragmented memories of all her past relationships. In “Venus Fly Trap,” she consumes the object of her affection; in “Amaechi,” she cautiously chooses him as a partner, and he leaves her even though she is carrying his child. By presenting these contradictory recollections of the truth behind his absence, she is trying to find a version of this love-and-loss story that she can live with. In one version, she is a literal maneater who devoured Amaechi without remorse, but in another version, he left of his own accord. In one version, she is confident that her belly will not “spit him out,” and in another, her protruding belly is evidence of his existence. She is left not only with a child to raise, but religious rebuke from her mother. Amaechi is an Igbo name meaning, “Who knows tomorrow?” I chose it to represent the uncertainty that accompanies romantic love.
In “Catharsis,” you write, “Under our bed, / I find a greying photograph of the woman you loved” and then, later, “the knife the knife-wielder / held against her frame / …was you /… yet I was the one who bled.” Are the speaker and the woman in the photograph the same person? Is the one his ideal of what she is or what she should be like?
The woman in the photograph is the speaker’s nemesis. In the final poem of the chapbook, they “brawl for her body” and the speaker’s soul enters this body and lives again. So, yes, technically they are the same person at the end, in the sense that the speaker steals the woman’s body after relinquishing her own. In “Catharsis”, the speaker realises that her husband is still in love with someone else, and he is keeping a photograph of the other woman under their bed. She recognises the woman as the knife-wielder from her dreams, and she finally realises that the knife she was being stabbed with every night was actually her husband. I think your interpretation that the woman in the photograph is an idealised version of the speaker is fair; her husband was keeping this other woman’s picture under the bed, which is clearly not the best hiding place for a secret lover’s photograph, so perhaps she has been her own nemesis all along. Perhaps it is a younger, saner version of the speaker that is taunting her every night during her marriage.
In “Inpatient,” the state of being held seems to parallel the idea of erosion. The poem suggests a desire to erode, to slowly (or not so slowly) fade; however, just as trees hold loose dirt (with their roots, which grow, “breaking entering tearing” into the ground), so the speaker feels that she is being held by “the bodies of others.” Could you discuss how erosion connects to the narrator’s destructive tendencies?
The narrator is mentally ill and under hospital observation, so the image of being held refers in the literal sense to being admitted involuntarily to the hospital but also to her body being violated by lovers and caregivers throughout her life. The “breaking entering tearing” refers to physical abuse and her loss of body autonomy, which are the causes of her mental dissociation. The desire to erode is an extension of the speaker’s suicidality, and since she is unable to plan an attempt in the hospital, she realises and accepts that the hands and bodies of other people are equally capable of fatally harming her. I used the highveld and lowveld to broadly illustrate mania and depression, and although I did not initially think about the body as a single tree held down to the ground, I really like that interpretation; I am now looking at the poem differently as a result of your analysis.
In “My Lover Pulls Me off the Train Tracks,” the drive back to the house reminds the narrator of her home and the wars there: “We drive home in silence, the dogs barking restlessly at the gate/ as if knowing I almost did not make it back./ The sky has readied itself in a coat of grey./ The wind is howling. My lover is sobbing.” Why does this experience remind her of trying to get away from home?
The narrator and her husband are driving home after an incredibly traumatic event, so her brain immediately latches onto past trauma as a reference point. She recalls arriving in the U.S and how the sound of fireworks on July 4th was reminiscent of gunshots from her country of birth, proving to her that noise would continue to follow her wherever she went. She is thinking the same thing after her first failed suicide attempt. She realises that she has a life with this man; they have pets and a home, but she cannot seem to shake the desire to leave because no matter how beautiful her life is, the world is still too loud and the only way to silence it is by dying. The narrator is not trying to get away from home in the geographical sense of the word, she just wants peace, and she is realising that she will not find it on earth.
In “My Lover Pulls Me Off the Train Tracks, Again,” you write, “My mother taught me to carry an extra ticket/ in case I lose one. I sharpen my knife, my spare.” Train tickets might be a method of escape—of transport to another destination. How does the spare knife connect to escape?
The knife represents the narrator’s backup plan to leave the world. She realises that her husband will not stop attempting to rescue her from the train tracks, so she devises a method that does not involve the train at all. However, giving her husband a warning seems to be a cry for help, and it is obvious that he will try to stop her again. The image of a knife returns after the fallout in “Catharsis”, and this time the narrator is the knife-wielder and not her nemesis, which almost confirms the idea that she is her own enemy. In the same way that the knife tormented her while she slept, it will not offer her the escape or peace she so desperately desires in real life.
Among comparisons you make to elements of nature—rain, veldt, sky, wind, or other elements—which do you identify with most?
I identify with the sky, because its vastness represents the kind of freedom and tranquility that I long to experience daily. The speaker in Psalm for Chrysanthemums is an extension of me in that sense; I too have a desire to move away from the constant noise and busyness of the world.
Nkateko Masinga is an award-winning South African poet and 2019 Fellow of the Ebedi International Writers Residency. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2018 and her work has received support from Pro Helvetia Johannesburg and the Swiss Arts Council. Nkateko is the director of the Internship Program at Africa In Dialogue, an online interview magazine that archives creative and critical insights with Africa’s leading storytellers. Her latest chapbook, Psalm for Chrysanthemums, is published in the 2020 New Generation African Poets chapbook box set by the African Poetry Book Fund and Akashic Books.