I was invited onto Tim Green’s Rattlecast, a livestreaming poetry reading and podcast series, to talk about my new book, Storm Swimmer. I appear from the 1:14 mark until 1:35. During the conversation with Tim, I read and discuss two poems, “Pelagic” and “Voltage Crackles at the Edge.” I provide a transcription below. Subscribe to Rattlecast and check out Storm Swimmer. Check it out.
Tim Green: Our bonus poet today is Ernest Hilbert, who I mentioned was on Rattlecast number 121, but it was the Halloween episode because Ernest has a book of spooky poems that we talked about back then. We talked about some of his other work too but he has a new book, Storm Swimmer, that’s just out. It won the, I’ll put it on the screen, or I’ll just hold it up I guess. It won the Vassar Miller Prize in Poetry. It’s right here, Storm Swimmer, and here is Ernest Hilbert. Hey, Ernest. How are you doing?
Ernest Hilbert: Hello. Hi, Tim.
Tim: Yeah. It’s great to see you again. It’s been a bit. It’s been like a year and a half almost, maybe almost two years since you were.
Ernest: Was it? I thought it was just this past . . .
Tim: No, that was episode 121 and we are on 202 now.
Ernest: Oh, my goodness.
Tim: Time’s fun when you’re having flies.
Ernest: Right, yeah. Right. [laughs]
Tim: You’re right. You have a kid. This book is a lot about being a dad and raising kids in this difficult world. Life itself is always going to have challenges, and that’s a lot of what this book is about. The dads or the kids would appreciate the dad joke there. Tell us what you’ve been up to in the last almost-two years. How have you been?
Ernest: I can’t believe it’s been that long. It’s so funny. Well, I just got the kiddo to bed. He lost a tooth, so he is pretty excited.
Tim: Oh, nice.
Ernest: It’s been a while since he’s lost one, so he wanted to look at it under a jeweler’s loop and under a magnifying glass and analyze it. He was excited about that, and it was his first day at camp at the Academy of Natural Sciences—which we call the Dinosaur Museum—down on Logan Circle here in Philadelphia, where I’m speaking to you from. Things have been okay. I’ve got this new book. It came out in April. People seem to like it, and I’m pretty happy with it. I’m keeping busy being a dad, going to work, and writing when I can.
Tim: That’s a good amount of work. You mentioned I could pick whatever poems we wanted to read, and I was looking at there’s an opening poem, “Storm Swimmer.” The title poem serves as a preface, but then “Pelagic” is the next poem. I think that sets up the book pretty well. Do you want to read that to start with and then we’ll talk more about the book as a whole?
Ernest: Sure. Which one? The prelude?
Tim: “Pelagic.” Page five.
Tim: I don’t know if I’m saying that right. That’s not a word I know.
Ernest: I believe it’s Pelagic. Pelagic sounds better. So I’m just going to say that.
Tim: There you go. I’m sure you’re right.
Ernest: It’s not a word you hear in common conversations.
Tim: No, that is the first time I’ve said that. That’s for sure.
Ernest: It’s a little bit of a clue of what’s to come in the poem, because although the scenario here is, of course, swimming right off the coast, the word “pelagic” refers to deep water, far from land. “Pelagic” is the first poem in the book proper. As Tim mentioned, “Storm Swimmer” is a short poem that serves as a prelude before the first chapter. This is “Pelagic” from Storm Swimmer.
I face an ocean, its lurid rush and pull The same as ever, though I have aged. I step in—small cool splashes on my calves— Then shoulder through hard linebacker waves. I dive beneath a breaker and surface In hissing warm swells, brine on my lips again. I swim a while, then break to breathe and float In foam. A clouded yellow butterfly Has trailed me out and veers nearby. It spins And banks above, my body its nearest ground. It lights on my chest, wings unhurriedly Closing like bellows. I strive to stay still. It’s off, fast as a blink, alive in the sun. I spin over, face down in the lapping Amber glass, the pelagic summer roll Of original sea, the sandy glint Of bubbles climbing in the goggle’s pane, My arm swiping down in time like a fluke, Mottled in swarming undersea light. The breakers roll in to hide the beach from me. I imagine I’m in a world only Ocean and sky, four billion years ago Or in a time to come, floating without The earth to save me, as long as I might.
Tim: Yeah, and that was “Pelagic.” I’ll say from now on from Storm Swimmer, one of the early poems in the book, and a surprising poem, to find a rare book dealer and a formal poet swimming out in the middle of storms deep into the ocean. It’s not something that I would’ve expected, especially here in Philadelphia. How long does that go back swimming in turbulent waters, and obviously a metaphor for more, but . . .
Ernest: You’re on the Pacific. I’m on the Atlantic. I grew up not too far from Philadelphia in South Jersey near the Pine Barrens, and on the other side of the Pine Barrens are the barrier islands and the Atlantic and the bays. I grew up going to those beaches my whole life, ever since I was very tiny. There’re pictures of me not even a year old on those beaches, and that’s pretty rough swimming. That’s not easy. I mean the bays are not very swimmable, and the ocean tends to throw up really big waves. You’re on the island facing out. There’s nothing between you and Europe or Africa. So that kind of swimming, you have to get out past the heavy waves to swim at all if you can and do that. I’ve just done it recently. We do it all the time. If you time it right, Philadelphia is an hour from the shore. We call it the shore, you don’t use the word shore in California. You call it the beach, right? Or the coast.
Tim: Yeah. We do, we definitely. We go to the beach.
Ernest: We call it the shore. As in, are you going to go down the shore? When you’re at the shore, the thing you go onto made of sand is called the beach, but you go to the shore. I love wild swimming, like up in Maine, even in really cold waters. Park the car and just go in the water as long as you can. It’s a little hypothermic. You reach a point where you’re almost euphoric because the cold is reaching a point where you really need to get out, but it feels so good. My wife well, and son, they don’t want to get in water that cold, but I love it. I swim as much as I can. I swim almost every day and here in the city. We swim in the city pools, which is not wild swimming. Well, it’s a little wild because it gets a little crowded.
Tim: You get an elbow in the face. Yeah.
Ernest: Everybody’s invited and especially on these hot days, you just have everybody in the city in these pools. Swimming is a really important thing for me, and I spend a lot of time doing it. The reason it’s been turning up in my books, the last few books actually, is because I use it as an analogy for understanding life, if that’s not too grand. You’re in an element that is much more powerful than you are and vastly larger and more ancient, and you can control yourself up to a point, using discipline, exertion, a struggle for survival, or you may do it for joy and happiness, whatever reason, but you still are only able to control yourself within the whims of this larger thing. Swimming against the tide, or against the current of a river is impossible, and you can’t do it. Waves can throw you up on the beach or drown you, and so it is sort of like we do what we can in our lives within the larger element in which we are sustained. That could be the family, the city you live in, the political system you’re in, the economic system you’re in within the larger flow of history. You can only do so much. You do have some control, but only within the limits of what you can do within that much more powerful medium in which you are suspended.
Then beyond all that there’s just something almost magic. I don’t know if you do much swimming, but it really is a magical thing. I mean you feel almost like you’re returned to a primordial state if you’re in the water long enough. It’s always captured me in that way and so I wanted to do it and the first poem, “Storm Swimmer,” is really just about a stoic approach to things, and expecting nothing, and preparing yourself and diving into whatever it is and facing it, whether it’s a fear or even a preparation for aging and death. That poem ends in the imperative mood, which is “dive,” which is a command, because it’s also written in the second person. I hope that answers some of your questions.
Tim: No, it definitely did and my follow up too. How did the book come together? Because we have, how does a book do that? Last time we saw you, you had a book that was out not too long ago, and then you were working on poems. How do you know that you have a book and how do you know that was going to be the central metaphor? It’s such a great metaphor for the book. Did you know that going in, did you pull together poems, no pun intended, that fit that, or you just found yourself always writing about these sorts of same themes, and then you realized you had a book once you had them all written? How did the book come together?
Ernest: Well, when I went on the show, now that you point it out, it was nearly a year and a half ago, so we decided to do my 2015 book for the Halloween episode because that’s a little bit darker book. That’s Caligulan, and those water poems started appearing in that and then Last One Out is the book that came out after that in 2019, where there are more of those. That book also is the first time that I have poems in the final chapter of that book, anticipating my son’s arrival, where my wife is pregnant in one of the poems, and then when he’s an infant and he’s very small in those poems. He’s very tiny. By the time 2023 rolled, I’d been writing poems where he’s actually moving around, and he’s developing a personality, and I’m starting to feel that fleeting sensation of time getting away from me, where sometimes it feels like, oh, that was another lifetime ago when that happened but also in a blink of an eye. It seems like everything’s just going past me so fast, like it just happened, or it was also a century ago, and time is completely out of joint. COVID didn’t help, because I feel like that was a huge fissure in the way we understand ourselves and society and history, this big break, partly, a break in the sense of everyone just having a chance to stop or having to stop but also a break with all the history that came before.
Tim: Yeah, parenting is a kind of quickening, that’s for sure. I think about when I moved to LA, there were no seasons because it’s LA, it rains for a day and they call it the rainy season and that’s all you get and it played a weird thing in my head where I didn’t feel like time was passing because it was like always the same season and there’s no way to anchor but when you have kids, all of a sudden, so much stuff is happening. They’re changing so fast that it just feels like time is like a rocket launcher and suddenly, you’re 43 and your kids are teenagers and you’re like what’s going on?
Ernest: Yeah, it’s crazy.
Tim: Yeah, and so the book definitely captures some of that feeling too.
Ernest: Good. I’m glad because it was a sense of being sort of out of control. I’m a sentimental person, to begin with. Once you become a parent, you see pictures from a few years ago and it almost brings a tear to your eye when you see the kid just a few years younger. Oh, do you remember that time we did this? And then the whole thing is like we got through COVID together as a family, and it was a scary time, and it put you through that as well. There was a lot of emotion, and most of my poems begin from a place of emotion. They don’t come from ideas. I might get a notion for a technique or something like that or a sound or something I want to explore.
But if there isn’t an emotional spark that forces me to do it, I don’t do it. There’s no demand for my poetry out there, where people are saying, come on, let’s go. Let’s go, get that assembly line working. We’re going to pay you millions of dollars. I think it has to mean something to me in order to do it. I think it was Robert Frost who said “no tears in the poet, no tears in the reader,” and Allen Ginsburg said that he always wept while writing his best poems, that he was always weeping. That’s a bit of an exaggeration, I’m sure, but I have to have an emotional impulse, and having a child really, really spurred that. At any given moment, I’d suddenly freeze it and think I want to create a monument to this moment and find a way to capture it and share it with other people. Make it as universal as possible, whether you have kids or not, it doesn’t matter because everyone was a kid at some point, and to try to make it as universal as possible, and so those are the two themes in the book, and they come together in the final poem, “Sole Unquiet Thing,” where the water, and the storm metaphor of being out of control, combine with the thoughts about having a child and the child growing and growing away from you. The two are intertwined, and they wind up in that final poem. You’re right. It is both of those things. It’s water imagery, and there’s a lot of other things in there, which is just about how scary the world can be or how beautiful it can be. There are other things in there. It’s not just family and swimming, because that almost sounds boring. That sounds like . . . “big deal.”
Tim: It definitely feels like you’re going along for the ride inside Ernie’s heart or something. That’s how it feels. We got to move on to the open lines in a bit, but let’s do one more poem. I don’t know if you want to do that last poem, “Sole Unquiet Thing,” or do you want to do something different.
Ernest: I was going to do, how about this, “Voltage Crackles at the Edge?”
Tim: Okay. Which page is that?
Ernest: That is on page 17.
Ernest: That’s one of the childhood ones, that one chapter. I mean, they are interspersed throughout the book, but there is that one solid chapter, chapter two, is all about this sort of thing. This is a poem that was difficult to write. I just couldn’t finish it, and I couldn’t get it published either because I couldn’t get it to feel like it was finished, because it was too emotional for me and in any form I tried to read it I would get choked up. It was too much, and finally, Gerry Cambridge helped. He’s the editor of The Dark Horse, a Scottish transatlantic magazine of poetry and criticism.
He’s a great editor, and he accepted two things. He said, “I was thinking of accepting that, but it’s not right.” I’m suggested, why don’t you take it in hand and show me what you would do? Really finish it with me? Help me get it where I want it to be, and that’s how it happened. I couldn’t finish it. The material was too close, too hot for me. I didn’t want to be sentimental. You never want to do that, but you want to be honest and tender too and so even since then . . . I read it at the Westchester Poetry Conference in June, and I had to stop for a moment because I was getting a little . . . so I didn’t literally cry, but you could hear it in my voice. I won’t do that tonight. I’m going to be a pro. But after that reading, an actor came up and he said, look, as a writer, if you cry, it denies the audience the chance to do it.
Tim: Oh, that’s a good point. Yeah, that’s interesting.
Ernest: And then Mark Jarman, the keynote speaker for the festival, came up, and he said, listen, my wife is a singer, and whenever she feels overwhelmed emotionally, she thinks of doing laundry as a way to keep the precision and the focus on the performance and not let the emotion over. How do you let the two come together just right? That’s a question for another day. But here I’m going to read this. “Voltage Crackles at the Edge.” The Washington Post Book Club used this. They reprinted it with a little endorsement. They have 220,000 members. So that was a nice jump, and I was so glad that they chose this. It really redeemed my belief that this poem was worth spending years and years working on. I spent years working on it. I hope it holds up to the expectations I have now set up for it. It’s called “Voltage Crackles at the Edge.”
There’s thunder in the sun. So says My son. He says a lot of things He knows must not be true But wishes that they were, And so do I—dragons ride in the dump truck, The cat is wearing my coat, the sky Is filled with cottage cheese, The doggies row a boat, the baby bear Is in the bath, that we’ll live forever And always be in love, right here, like this, With waves that fly out Ninety million miles to light Up the book we read together. My son’s eyes are big. He says we have To whisper or monsters might come in. He’s not afraid of ghosts. For him, They’re only things that can’t be seen. And what is to be feared in that? He thinks that he’s a ghost when hiding Behind the window curtain, though He cannot resist the giggling fits That give him away and back to us again. We’re ghosts. We are. You’re right, My little one. We’re ghosts, But filled with spirit fire That floats from somewhere else And keeps us here for now And when we’re only ghosts I know we’ll stay in love, like now, Because we lived by love, And took from love our magic lives— Objects bending time and space, Alone with what we love.
Tim Green: You can feel the meter. Is there a form in that? It felt like free verse that is actually free verse.
Ernest Hilbert: You’re right. It is free verse. It uses verse technique freely. It is not regular.
Tim Green: Exactly. The whole book, as your work always is, has that strong metrical ear for poetry the whole way through. A pleasure to read. It’s a pleasure to have you as a guest, it always is. Glad to have you back to see what you’ve been up to.
Ernest Hilbert: It is a pleasure to be here.
Tim Green: Well, take care. We hope to hear from you again with the next book.