Means of Transport, Medieval Mind: Dialogue with Angie Estes

Angie Estes
(Rome, Italy)
BY Kathy Fagan

ANGIE ESTES‘ poems often portray a consistently refined vision of history, the arts and other subjects with rapid maneuvers, a sure hand, and an artistry that can, to quote Stephen Burt, “evidence unsettling claims while still having fun…”

Her four poetry collections are Tryst (2009); Chez Nous (2005); and Voice-Over (2002), which won the 2001 FIELD Poetry Prize as well as the Poetry Society of America’s 2001 Alice Fay di Castagnola Award (all from Oberlin College Press), and The Uses of Passion (Gibbs Smith, 1995), which won the Peregrine Smith Poetry Prize.

A recipient of fellowships, grants, and residencies from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, the American Academy in Rome, and the MacDowell Colony, among others, Estes is currently on the faculty of Ashland University’s low-residency MFA program. She is also a contributing editor for the literary magazine The Journal. Visit her website at www.angieestes.com.

“For the medieval mind, everything bristles
with meaning — nothing is static.
And the active, engaged mind is the mind
that can be, and is, transported.”

— Angie Estes

Several of your poems concern words as visual artifacts, drawing from illuminated manuscripts or typography. How did you discover this reverence for beauty and workmanship, for the “divine detail”?

For as long as I can remember I’ve had a very strong sense of what you term “divine detail” in the world — beginning perhaps with my realization that the butter my grandmother made in the mountains of Virginia tasted incredibly different than the store-bought butter I ate at home in suburban Maryland. And the ham. And the potatoes. In my Uncle Osie’s chair factory, I watched unremarkable lengths of walnut turned on lathes to become the legs and rungs and backs of chairs, and I followed my Aunt Evelyn out in the dark at 5 a.m. to milk the cows in the muddy barn, then watched her pour the milk through a dish towel clothes-pinned over the top of the separator as the milk and cream went their separate ways. Those, too, tasted like things from another world, a world I could partake of by means of those things. Above all, my sense was always that there was a connection between who these people were, the lives they lived, and the “divine details” that made up those lives. But even though I experienced all of this and carried it inside me, I could never take it with me, transport it to and evoke those experiences in any other place.

And then there was the Baptist church — the hymns, the prayers, the communion, the scripture, the hellfire and damnation sermons, and the revivals: the insistent belief in metaphor and symbol and language, and the insistent conviction that there is a connection between this world and some “other.” All of this, too, made clear that the “divine details” — of a life, of the world, of language — were in fact a means of transport or, more precisely, that to partake of those “divine details” was to be already in the process of transport and translation.

Much later I encountered Goethe and his belief that nature is the living visible garment of God, along with the British and American Romantics — especially Blake, with his inexhaustible attempts to make language and imagination and visual art into a more profound inhabitation of experience, and Emerson’s essay “Nature,” too, with its amazing image of the “transparent eyeball” one could become while out in nature, where the currents of the human and the universe could mingle and inform each other.


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