Taking Flight: An AJB Interview with Kristin Robertson

AJB: In this collection, there’s a meshing, a mutation even, of two natural beings: humans and birds, hospitals and habitats. To what end can we no longer argue what constitutes as “natural”?

KR: Medicine can feel pretty unnatural. We try to survive in the natural world with techniques and technology. Patients are cut open and put back together. Everything the surgeon does is an attempt to cheat mortality. When you get sick, you accept medicine and even surgery as natural parts of life. But when you get really sick, the line between natural and unnatural, well and unwell, becomes murkier. The object of so many procedures, your body can become barely recognizable, and you want to transcend, transform, even transmogrify. At this point in the writing of the poems, the birds appeared.

AJB: People, of course, are complex beings, especially compared to many other animals. At what point, does physicality and spirituality mix? Can you perform surgeries on things that are more than skin deep?

KR: I do think the physical and the spiritual are often intertwined. This confluence is at the center of the “Clinical Trial: Human with Wings” poems introducing each section of the book. In an attempt to escape spiritually, the patient chooses to participate in the trial, has the wing surgery, and reports on the drastic physical transformation. Fairly early on the patient provides an answer: What’s it like? Not what you think. By the end of the series, we witness the experiment fail.

AJB: Birds often represent flight and freedom, yet we can feel burdened by things like illness, anxiety, depression, etcetera. What do you believe is the ultimate catharsis?

KR: The book is about chronic illness. It’s also a love story and some other things, but many of the poems were written after my experiences with emergency surgeries, a traumatic diagnosis, and the resulting daily struggles. I find that people naturally reach for something transcendent, especially when they are in pain, and that reaching can turn obsessive when they’re ill for long periods of time. The body tries to compensate, and the mind invents ways to cope. In the book, even the myth-making, the attempt to manufacture an ultimate catharsis, unravels. It fails to satisfy itself. Searching leads to more searching. The white wings turn to sails.

AJB: There’s an element of evolution in the poem “Hyoid Bone” that, once more, relates the nature of human beings and the nature of animals, this time fish. We feel connected to something as simple as a fish and by the end we’re connected to violence. Are there certain traits about people that you feel are inevitable, that no amount of selection, a person’s pedigree, or the passing of time can change?

KR: I’m interested in those deeply embedded human traits that seem dangerous and bizarre. In poems like “Audubon Ate His Birds” and, of course, “Hyoid Bone,” I try to tap into the destructive tendencies people have toward their objects of affection. We also inherit genes that are destructive to our own bodies. So many people disintegrate beneath nightmarish—and, I should add here, preexisting—medical conditions that are the result of genetics, not accident or injury. Whether these are because of evolution or something else, both kinds of violence are fascinating.

AJB: Throughout this collection we see the threads unraveling with images like: decapitation, affairs, guns, “lonely versus lonesome”, and yet we’re still surrounded by birds and what they represent. Would you say in this book we’re searching for a silver lining? Do we get one?

KR: The book searches for—and even attempts to conjure up—a silver lining. It tries its damnedest. The birds, even in all of their twisted manifestations here, do represent hope. Of course in the context of a world that is so troubling, the price of hope might be sanity (see “Loon,” “Ostrichland, “Crane Wife”). In the end, though, we are hopeful about hope. Despite the darkness, the loss, the sickness, and the death, there’s life and love and joy. As Jack Gilbert says in “A Brief for the Defense,” we must risk delight.


Surgical Wing by Kristin Robertson is now available from the AJB bookstore!