“Because I have wanted to make you something beautiful”: Review of Carolina Ebeid’s You Ask Me to Talk About the Interior

Christian Bancroft

At the end of a workshop Carolina Ebeid and I took several years ago under the instruction of Mary Ruefle, Mary wrote a poem to our class, entitled “Stress Is Their Vocation.” In the poem, she had this to say about Ebeid’s poetry: “Carolina is obsessed with God.” In Ebeid’s debut collection, You Ask Me to Talk About the Interior, that same obsession occurs: “is it true what you thought, that god / is a snowed-in amphitheater?” But this preoccupation with the divine extends to language itself, to the machinations of language, meaning, and language’s relationship to the self. Ebeid explores these things in an interior space akin to Clarice Lispector or Simone Weil, and does so with an acute awareness of her reader, inviting us into the interior.

“Reader,” she asks in “Waiting Room,” “can we have a meaningful exchange without you knowing how I assemble heaven?” Ebeid opposes the prescriptions and transparencies of grammarians in the poem—a form of reductionism that would grant the reader access to the mysteries of Ebeid’s “heaven.” At the end of the poem, she reminds her reader that even the body is not “a junky steel contraption that can / be fixed.” The body is much more complex than a man-made machine. This isn’t to say that the poems in the collection address mere complexity; instead, Ebeid operates with more of a spontaneous order in mind, self-organizing structures and relationships out of the ostensibly chaotic. With “Professional Criers Inc.,” the speaker begins by announcing that they are a “lumbering mourner…a laughingstock / in black chiffon”; by the end of that poem, we have moved toward a more intimate space, while the speaker confesses that an insect with “veined oars” gleams “in the amber / ale” and that “sometimes a wild // a wild      pity sometimes / a wilder pity     rings me in.”

“Asher, the Other, at the Ear of God” finds Ebeid engaged in a revisionist act, in which she continually changes (revises) who the speaker is and who the listener is, which is something that she does throughout the book:

            I am the blind mute in my bedroom                                                                 & you are the curfew bell.                                                                                     I am the messenger en route                                                                                                                                                                                                                       & you are the heavy news                                                                                     I am spelling out the words into                                                                         the palm of the blind mute,                                                                                                                                                                                                                         & you are the palm.

Without culminating in a movement further and further out from the “I” and “you” in the poem, these revisions allow us to move closer and closer to a better understanding of both the first- and second-person. She does something similar in “In Lieu of Flowers”:

          A boy’s choir reaches glad falsetto heights                                                     where the angels cloister.                                                                                                                                          And by angels I mean                                       satellites, in their seraphic orbits, taking photographs                               of us.

By revising what the speaker means by angels, these revisionist acts also propel us forward in the poem and, simultaneously, bring us closer to the meaning to which Ebeid grants us access—almost as though she reels us in from the sky, nearer and nearer to the essence of the poem.

Ebeid’s poem, “Veronicas of a Matador,” is a series located about one-third through the book, and is arguably the collection’s finest set of poems. The series consists of interrelated poems about adulthood, theology, marriage, love, and an autistic son. “My son is autistic / My son has autism / I keep going back & forth,” she writes. It would be easy to treat these subjects with a flat emotional register, but Ebeid refuses ease, playing on a range of emotions in the series. In “homo ludens,” we encounter Ebeid—as the title suggests—finding amusement with rhymes: “The boy rhymes shadow to meadow. / What does fear rhyme with? Here.” While she takes pleasure in defining things only to dismantle them later, Ebeid does so as a way of revealing the parts of things—not just their whole—to show that these composites are just as beautiful, or that these deconstructed entities reveal a kind of ugliness even more beautiful than their original state. Even though the poem, “Lead,” isn’t a part of “Veronicas of a Matador,” it reads as a culmination of the latter. There we find the poet at her most personal: “because it is measured in micrograms of lead per deciliters of blood…because last words want to be hymns…because there is a seat here & you could join me for a while & drink with me.” Throughout the entire collection, Ebeid never loses track of her reader: if we aren’t in the poem, we are on its periphery, as she guides us through the interior.

In “Punctum / The Transom,” Ebeid self-reflexively claims that “[t]here is a quality about the rectangular shape of a stanza that is suggestive of a window pane,” which, given that the poem is written as a prose poem, in two stanzas with justified margins, makes her point even more convincing. In the second stanza, she tells us that “[t]here’s a tall window, & above it a second window facing heavenward,” asking “& what if you won’t give me heaven?” Even as Ebeid tries to assemble heaven, she acknowledges that she still hasn’t reached it. In the meantime, we have these windows qua poems, and we, the readers (“the beautiful friend”), are the souls of the poems, looking out into the world, into its heaven.