Mari L’Esperance (Photo by Martin Takigawa)
“My hope is that my readers approach a poem – any poem – in order to be transformed in some way,” says Sunday Poet Mari L’Esperance. “Not dramatically, but to feel by the end of the poem as though something has shifted for them internally so that they then perceive themselves and the world a bit differently. That’s what I want as a reader: to be changed by a poem.”
Mari’s most recent collection, The Darkened Temple, was awarded a Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry. The collection explores a landscape of loss—loss that is both personal and political. There is war, displacement, illness, imprisonment, violence, and a mother who has disappeared without a trace, but there is also redemption in these straightforward, lyric poems.
“I’m essentially a lyric poet,” L’Esperance explained in an interview with Ashlie Kauffman, and it’s the form that most appeals to me in the work of others. The form allows for an intense concentration of sense, sound, and image, as well as the ability to make leaps in the same that don’t feel as possible in other, more expansive forms.”
L’Esperance’s mother vanished in 1995 leaving no clues to her whereabouts. Some of the strongest poems in The Darkened Temple explore the mourning and trauma of losing a loved one under such strange and mysterious circumstances.
“The central theme, which I believe is fairly obvious, is the disappearance of my mother (when I was 33 and a student at NYU),” L’Esperance told Kauffman. “But my hope is that the manuscript as a whole, even individual poems, manage to transcend mere autobiography, as reducing it to the fact of my mother’s disappearance would be just that—reductive. I have also concluded (and I’m going to get archetypal here) that the book says something about the devaluation of the feminine in our culture—that the ‘disappeared mother’ also represents the feminine that has been exiled or subsumed in favor of the masculine ethos (in both men and women).”
The Darkened Temple is divided into three sections, which Mari describes in her interview with Kauffman:
“The first is a circling or gathering, featuring poems that address traumatic loss from personal, cultural, and historic perspectives. The poems in the second section take the reader down into the depths of the speaker’s experience of traumatic loss and focus on the central theme. Finally, the third section relieves the intensity and pressure of the second section with poems that embody a sense of emergence and release. Taking the manuscript as a whole, there’s (to me) a sense of having descended into the underworld and then returned to some semblance of hope by book’s end.”
Mari’s influences are wide-ranging. Brenda Hillman, Stanley Kunitz, Jean Valentine, Philip Levine, and William Stafford are among the poets she most admires, but as she explained to Kauffman, her Japanese heritage has also impacted her writing:
“My mother was Japanese (born and raised) and taught me much about Japanese culture and the arts. I visit Japan as often as I’m able—every other year or so—and it’s a place that is very close to my heart… The Japanese value sadness—in fact, beauty and sadness go hand in hand. Films and stories have indeterminate, often sad endings, which can frustrate many Westerners. I think this intrinsic valuing of sadness and beauty, combined, is what fuels many of the poems in my book. And the Japanese are also stoic and value endurance, accepting what life has handed to them…which, on a collective level, has been a hindrance to them as a nation. But this endurance and acceptance are part of my poetic sensibility.”
“I do believe in inspiration,” L’Esperance told How A Poem Happens, “but that rarefied and somewhat altered state can only sustain itself for so long; it must be corralled, brought down to earth, and channeled into language. I’m a slow and undisciplined writer and often allow long periods of time to pass between poems, so perhaps I rely too much on inspiration and not enough on ‘pot scrubbing,’ as my friend Sage Cohen has called the largely messy, unglamor