An Interview with Elizabeth T. Gray Jr.

Thursday, July 9, 2020

We should begin with a poem:

War Magic [1]

Scaled up to the level of war magic, the violent repelling rites of the tantras became The Big Push, The Big Show, or a Schlieffen Plan.

Large numbers of ritual experts would assemble for performances that could last several days, if not weeks.

The requisite expert officiants and necessary materials had to be assembled and elaborate shrines constructed.

Legions of effigies (ling ga) of enemy soldiers would be fashioned from barley flour, butter, and paper, often accompanied by thousands more effigies of the enemy’s horses, so that the practitioners in effect recreated the battlefield within the confines of a ritual space.

Thus the resources required for a serious repelling rite were considerable.

455 tons of ammonal for the nineteen mines at Messines, for example, and 33 million shells.


In the last half of the female fire snake year of 1917 it was said that a great number of enemy were coming.

All the farmers and nomads were terrified.

Fifty divisions took part in the ritual performances, and in early November the signs emerged.

A great snowstorm fell.

After that, a gale rose up, and shreds of cloth, like prayer flags, froze in the craters.

They were buried beneath the snow, men along with their horses and pack animals.

Not even one escaped death.

When the snow melted, the Lower Hor-pa and Ser-myog came down out of the mountains and when they were done stripping the bodies there was nothing there.

In January, when I received advance proofs of Liz Gray’s long poem Salient, I was utterly taken by the uniqueness of the work. It offers the reader a kind of montage, not only as the reader moves through it, piece by piece, poem by poem, but also in how it juxtaposes two wholly different cultural realms and histories: the horrific British military offensives in Flanders fields in 1917, and medieval Tibetan tantric texts on protective magic. I wanted to know how Gray had found her way to writing this book, and wanted to understand the energies of such a seemingly improbable fusion. I was curious also about how the book evolved over time into its final and ingenious literary form. Over the course of several weeks, we conducted this interview by email, I in Evanston, Illinois, and she in New York City. The two complete poems in this interview and the quotations from other poems are included by permission of New Directions Publishing.

Elizabeth T. Gray Jr. is a poet, translator, and corporate consultant. She is the author of the poetic sequence Series | India (Four Way Books, 2015) and translations from classical and contemporary Persian, Wine & Prayer: Eighty Ghazals of Hafiz of Shiraz (White Cloud Press, 2019) and The Selected Poems of Forough Farrokhzad (New Directions, forthcoming). Sections of the Tibeto-Mongolian folk epic The Life of King Kesar of Ling, co-translated with Dr. Siddiq Wahid, appeared in Sources of Tibetan Tradition (Columbia University Press, 2013). She currently serves on the boards of Friends of Writers, Beloit Poetry Journal Foundation, and Human Rights and Democracy in Iran. She holds a BA and JD from Harvard University and an MFA from Warren Wilson College.

TQ: It’s a pleasure to be able to talk with you about your extraordinary new book, which is unlike anything else I’ve read. In your preface you provide a starting point in your inner life that seems, over decades, to have guided you finally into this project and to have matured into your remarkable sequencing of the parts of this book. To my mind, this book represents one of the hardest things for a writer to do—the gradual accumulation and intensification of long-running undercurrents in your thinking and feeling. I’ll quote the paragraph:

For me, the late 1960s were infused with Eastern religions. During the autumn in which I discovered the war in Flanders I also discovered W. Y. Evans-Wentz’s translations of The Tibetan Book of the Dead and of texts on Tibetan yogic practices, including the chöd rite. As I understood it at the time, the chöd rite required you to seek out a haunted place—a charnel ground, cemetery, or desolate place—and, once there, to visualize dismembering your own body and offering the pieces thereof, as food, to all the demons and other beings that seek to harm you. Once sated, they would vanish, and you would be safe. Forever. Here were my wrathful deities who, somehow, could be transformed into teachers and guardians.

How did you get from there to here?

ETG: Okay, that’s a broad question! As a child I always felt the world was unsafe, that malevolence was imminent but camouflaged, biding its time. Family dynamics, spending much of my free time hanging out in the seventeenth-century cemetery across the street, easily scared by nightmares and spooky stories. Anything that offered guidance, a way of understanding whatever was terrifying, or outright protection, was of desperate interest. I mean, literally: I was convinced that if I arranged my stuffed animals correctly, and said my prayers perfectly, evil demons would not come while I was asleep and kill me. So Books of the Dead were attractive. Amulets, too. I wanted whatever would placate or avert, or better yet enlist, those dark powers.

I think this mindset led me, in turn and in the decades since, to study those historical moments in which the world delaminated. When how things seemed to be turned out to be an illusion, with a vengeance. Alexander’s campaigns, Chinggis Khan, World War I, the Russian and French Revolutions, the Holocaust, nuclear war, 9/11. How did one live in that time? How could one be? The campaigns of 1917 in Flanders seemed to me the most baffling.

I am also fascinated with mysticism, love, and transcendence. You know: love, gods, and death—the usual suspects—and how and where they intersect in time and space. Maybe this book is, as you suggest, a mature fusion of these obsessions.

But in terms of literally “getting from there to here,” until I began the work that ended up as this book, I had never connected the war in Flanders with chöd, or any other Tibetan practice. I didn’t know how to approach the 1917 material, nor how to approach the chöd material, so I just placed these “two poles of obsession in proximity to one another” to see what happened.

But I also needed some kind of formal mechanism, a way in, a way to access, explore, and process the material. The formal approaches that (in retrospect) were most important had to do with collage (Heidi Lynn Staples’s poem “Waves Fly Back” in Noise Event, Rosmarie Waldrop’s work), also with the peculiar diction of instruction manuals (military, meditation, visualization), and with expansive syntax (Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge’s Empathy and subsequent works). I stole formal approaches that interested me from the work of a number of writers—there are poems modeled on poems by Jorie Graham and Ann Lauterbach in the book, for example—and drew into them material I had found in my reading. Such processes generated the 280-plus draft poems from which Salient was formed.

TQ: What do you think made you, in particular, the one in whom such a work could find its way into form?

ETG: I have no idea. The work feels as if obsessions, accidents, and poetic craft finally came into alignment.

If your question goes to what capacities do I have that enabled this material to come together, well, I’m a traveler and a sailor: familiar with maps, charts, stars and sextants, and triangulating one’s position using whatever’s available. And given the neighborly burial ground of my youth, the dead have always been good companions. And I’m interested in history by core sample (deep and granular stratigraphic understanding) rather than by broad brush. (Although one must have both.)

If past-life work matters, it suggests that I was a member of some British army survey corps in 1916, scouting out where to put all the infrastructure (ammunition dumps, field hospitals, trench railways) for Haig’s long-planned offensive in Flanders. Do with that what you will.

Also, I’m a lawyer, a translator, and a poet. All of these have to do with how one mines and manages language for purpose, creating configurations of words that have agency. Another reason why I’m always interested in the apotropaic—amulets and talismans—and in what charms or spells a sorcerer might use to summon lightning or hailstorms.

TQ: What about the religious and spiritual dimension of the work? That is, clearly the making of this book was sustained not only by curiosity and artistic engagement, but also by a sense of it as a true given in your psyche?

ETG: I have always been interested in mysticism, in the direct experience of the divine. A quest to be able to see.

In third grade I fell in love with the Egyptian Book of the Dead. A manual for navigating the world after death! For a girl with terrifying nightmares and a graveyard across the street, this is just what you want for Christmas, right? I asked who else had such manuals and was told the Tibetans had one, too.

By 1967 one could buy copies of the Tibetan Book of the Dead in bookstores. I bought it, and read it, and carried it around, and it made sense to me. I see, now, that at the time I didn’t understand a word. What I took from the texts back then was what I needed—learning that the cause of pain is attachment, that tutelary and guardian deities come in peaceful and wrathful forms, that there’s a chain of lives and your job is to learn to avoid another one. Buddhism in all its forms has been a presence in my life since the 1960s, although I do not practice it—I don’t sit, or worship, as a Buddhist. Buddhism, not Hinduism, was what took me across Asia—I wanted Nepal, which was as close as you could get to Tibet in 1972.

And on the way to Nepal, of course, I encountered Iran, its poets, and Sufism, which has remained a spiritual and poetic interest for me. And, well, then there was India. I knew nothing about India, but when I crossed the border at Wagha, I felt as if I had come home. From that Journey to the East came, decades later, Series | India.

As an aside, I should add that I consciously brought the Hindu pantheon into my earlier book, Series | India—to inhabit the book and interact with the characters. That was not the case in Flanders. The goddesses and teachers were already in theatre, waiting, and they had my back.

TQ: It seems you came home to a more capacious and even more deeply compelling home in Salient. I think that Series | India is a marvelous book, filled with scenes and moments that, if I can put it this way, create meaningful gaps that the reader is invited to cross or fill in an active way. In Salient, you have brought together in an extraordinary montage such a variety of texts, and even within one piece—such as the very first composition in the book—you somehow integrate great reaches of thought and feeling, history and religion. In that first piece, “War Magic,” you begin with prose details about the World War I battle, and you move to a visualization of the battle dead as if they were in an episode of Tibetan ritual. The book seems to be about juxtaposition in ways that carry the reader by leaps. Yet these leaps themselves seem to be a way of bringing very diverse thoughts, feeling, perceptions, beliefs, a mass of documentary materials, military practices (like the painstaking, but alas often wrong, and in any case utterly barbaric, calculations of gunners aiming their enormous cannon), voices together into new configurations. You honor the sheer horror and absurdity of the inconceivable scenes of battle, and also bring to them some spiritual logic, if one can call it that, drawn from Tibetan Buddhism, that somehow allows compassion, and some kind of pardon, to enter, without either sanctifying or trivializing the suffering and death.

ETG: I hope that’s the case. Facing such inaccessible and irreparable devastation, bodhisattva-strength compassion seems all there is.

TQ: You have been, in one way or another, working on this material for decades. How did the poem itself, as we have it, cohere?

ETG: I began the poems in the fall of 2013. I have notes from early 2014 that suggest an arc or purpose, but by early 2015 I had lost my way. No map or spell worked: The Missing couldn’t be found or summoned. What the soldiers went through was no longer accessible to us, or to our imagination—at least if the “we” is civilian. And nothing, absolutely nothing, could ensure one’s safety on that ground.

At that bleak, aimless, and disoriented moment I had a single, stark, important dream and spoke with John Peck about it. He drew an analogy to Jung’s conversations with the Dead at the end of The Red Book (which, as you might imagine, scared the living daylights out of me). The most important thing he said was that, whatever it was that connected me with The Missing, that connection had been forty years in the making, and I could not walk away from them. “So what am I to do?” I asked. “Keep reading, keep writing, keep walking the ground. It will come to you,” he said.

He was correct. In April 2017, after two weeks in Flanders, I woke one morning in Paris and realized that even though (a) The Missing could not be found or summoned, and (b) no words (e.g., a manual or amulet) could keep them safe, I knew that while the poem(s) were happening in language, while The Missing were spoken of in the moment of space-time that lyric creates, The Missing were both present and safe.

TQ: To me, that’s a profound, illuminating, and moving idea. And one that confirms for me that there are powers of poetry that are both explicable and beyond explanation, and persuasive even to a secular mind (such as mine). Somehow this idea also is embodied, but too subtly for me to be able to analyze, even in the sequencing of the materials of the book. The book as The Poem. How did you work out that sequencing?

ETG: For a long time, I didn’t know what to do with the pieces of Salient that I had composed. Temporally and geographically, most of the poems were “set” in 1917, in Belgian Flanders, but many fell outside those temporal or geographical markers. Some were set on the Somme or elsewhere in France, some were set in 1914 or 1915, some were set between 2014 and 2017. Some were tied to precise locations, some not. There didn’t seem to be an obvious narrative arc.

I eventually decided to locate all the poems in the Ypres Salient, indicating in the notes where I had taken that liberty. And I decided to create two kinds of progression. One moves toward embodiment in some way: actual people enter the work, and they have physical bodies. The other progression is both temporal and geographic: the latter part of the book tracks the British forces, especially the Canadians, as they move through October and early November, and also as they move uphill out of the mud to take the two Passchendaele ridges and then the village itself.

TQ: Your answer about adjusting materials temporally and geographically in your book heightens my awareness of the artistic freedom that one needs in order to fulfill the inner imperatives of a book as a whole. Inner imperatives, which themselves can be very difficult to get hold of with one’s conscious thinking (but which may become clear as compositional choices, because of one’s intuitive and unconscious thinking). And this suggests to me that this aspect of poetic decision making, this kind of artistic choice, is itself one of your motives in the sequencing of the parts of Salient in order to shape the complex whole. Somehow these lines from “What She Told Me” (p. 27) seem relevant here—a kind of self-address? Or an address to the self by a power temporarily offering itself to you on that well-mapped battlefield?

Girl, keep to these haunted places.
Carry what you dare not.

Cut your fetters. Give up attachments.
Find what here says inside you.

You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, inform curiosity,

Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where fear has been valid.

Even this poem, with its intensity, does not need a “lyric voice” to lead the reader to a striking insight: the validity of fear (on such an unimaginable scale of suffering) humbles the one who deliberately rather than involuntarily remembers it. In other passages, you imagine amulets that can protect the soldiers in various ways. How did you come to merge in those both the historical suffering of the battles and the Tibetan beliefs in protection?

ETG: Yes, I definitely felt as if the “inner imperatives” were opaque for the longest time. The drafting and arranging, drafting and arranging, were how the poem thought (to steal a phrase of yours).

The “What She Told Me” poems didn’t (and don’t) feel like self-address, although they may more appropriately be read that way. I didn’t question them, or their voice, until I was asked about them in a graduate seminar at Yale Divinity School. The seminar was on the modern literature of trauma. Someone asked, “Was there really a goddess speaking to you in Wieltje Farm Cemetery?” My first answer was, “Well, of course not! How crazy would that be? There were guys mowing the grass, but no goddesses!” In fact, months after visiting the cemetery, while I was working with some lines from the Machik Labdrön biography, the poem came together. The slightly altered lines from Little Gidding slipped into place. And then it was clear that these lines had been spoken by a divinity, and that it had all gone down at that little cemetery near where Wieltje Farm had been.

Like anyone facing an overwhelming force, mortal risk, and uncertainty, soldiers, like sailors, are prone to magical thinking. Rituals and amulets were everywhere in the trenches. There was a firm belief that if a third man tried to light his cigarette off a single match, he would be killed immediately. Anyone going for that third light would be ferociously pushed away. The Buddhist and Bön religions of the Himalaya have a rich tradition of magic, charms, spells, and amulets.

TQ: “Before the Attack on Poelcappelle” evokes what might or should have been the case if the battle was to succeed. Speaking as the voice, the mind, of the book, you write, “This […] is what I want to have changed.”

ETG: It’s a desperate and despairing attempt to create a counterfactual reality, to rewrite history, to save those thousand and thousands of young men. The battle was scheduled for October 9. The weather went to pieces. Masses of rain. The artillery couldn’t be moved forward across the glutinous ground, so the infantry would lack that protection when they went over the top. Field Marshal Douglas Haig refused to postpone the attack. The ANZAC troops that had succeeded so brilliantly on October 4, in the Battle of Broodseinde, walked into the morass and were slaughtered.

TQ: Then, a few pages later, “The Battle of Poelcappelle,” in which you combine facts of the battle, later analysis (“a theory of what happened”), and resonating images from the present moment of your standing on that ground hallowed by futile death, and images from the past, reminded me of the great English poet Keith Douglas, killed at the age of twenty-four during World War II. Have you read any of those?

ETG: In fact, fifteen years ago you yourself sent me to Keith Douglas’s work! And I can see why this poem triggered the analogy. In fact, now that I think of it, a pair of poems in the book are lateral descendants of a poem of his. You may recall his “Vergissmeinnicht”? The speaker revisits the site of a battle that ended weeks before, in which a German gun had driven a shell into his tank. The German gunner’s body is still there, rotting in the sun. In his pocket is a photo of his girlfriend, whose note says “Forget me not!” In that moment the lover and the dead soldier fuse, although she may not know he has died. I would not have made the connection without your question, but my two “Night” poems, “Night: Shell-Hole” and “Night: Bedroom,” the soldier in the shell hole and his beloved back in London, I think carry an echo of Douglas’s poem.

TQ: Yes—to me, “Vergissmeinnicht” is one of his best and most haunting poems. And in a way, the whole of Salient is, among other things, a plea not only from a voice to one side—yours, in this book—but also from the dead soldiers themselves, not to be forgotten. In fact, as your book progresses, it seems closer and closer to the voices and lived experience of soldiers and others. Those two poems, certainly, “Night: Shell-Hole” and “Night: Bedroom,” but also “The Guts of It.”

ETG: I think that’s right—as I said earlier, as the poem moves forward it feels as if individuals appear and become embodied. In addition to the voice of the pilgrim or seeker (or whatever she is), there are voices that seem to belong to individuals, or at least to human beings!

And I did feel, as Peck so astutely saw, that there was something The Missing wanted from me. When the book found its form, when it decided it was done, I felt suddenly freed (if psychically exhausted). And when I went back to Flanders shortly thereafter, it felt as if the land had gone flat, gone from color to black and white, as if it had relinquished its intense grip on me. It now felt like a familiar and welcoming home, as if I belonged. Whatever it was I had been needed to do, it would seem I had delivered.

TQ: In the piece “In the Soft Parts of the Body,” which follows soon after “The Battle of Poelcappelle,” you unite coldly descriptive medical analysis of horrific injury, and what I take to be a Tibetan charm to cure such damage to the body, and then, as if the procedure of the charm must be insufficient to save a life, you return to the medical description of local treatment for the wound. It’s almost as if the two realms were standing side by side, or even superimposed, at the same imagined moment, having hastened to the wounded soldier.

In the Soft Parts of the Body

wounds from large fragments or entire projectiles
show extensive and deep contusions, crushing, a tearing
away of tissue. They are vast
erosions, deep furrows, large lesions often with significant
pieces of flesh hanging, fimbriated,
ecchymotic, contused, and frequently, in their deep parts, complicated
by metallic foreign bodies, by earth, by fragments
of clothing and thus doomed to suppuration and grave
complications, gangrene and
tetanus, for example.
                                   For such wounds use a simple mda’ dar
fletched with crow, with a slender point of polished copper,
and its shaft painted red. To its feathered end
attach five narrow lengths of silk—yellow, white, red, blue and green—
and three sheep-bone dice. Move a mirror
along the patient’s body until it reaches the source of his pain.
At this exact location set the arrow with its point
touching the wound and begin
to suck at the other end of the shaft.
                                                           In this way, clots of blood,
free splinters of shrapnel, and all tissue that has lost its vitality
are removed. Wipe the wound surface with a pad soaked
in permanganate of potassium and then apply an ointment
containing corrosive sublimate, salol, antipyrine, carbolic acid,
and iodoform, with Vaseline as an excipient. [2]

ETG: Yes, that’s how it felt to me. A fusion of scientific and magical procedure. The Himalayan traditions encompass a vast written and oral corpus on healing, and the poem brings expertise in both realms to heal catastrophic injury—probably to no avail. The effort to repair the body is as ineffectual—under the circumstances—as the effort to avert rain.

Science. Magic. Engineering. Geomancy. Whatever can be done in a desperate attempt to change what was. So much of the book feels like Threnody-Meets-Counterfactual.

TQ: To follow up, I can’t resist quoting a short piece/poem here. In this one, which comes a bit later than the poems I’ve just mentioned, the scene is marked as what I take to be perhaps a triage medical station, but the initial four lines are ambiguous; they might well apply to any place at all in which dreaming, the horse, the west, and the shade of trees evoke deep resonances of premodern investment of meaning. What I might call the everyday-symbolic. The middle lines lead us implicitly back to your World War I scene of battle, but then you suggest at the end a fusion of the two scenes, making this poem seem like a miniature formulary of the major psychical state into which the book invites the reader:

Recognizing the Signs of Death
44th Casualty Clearing Station, Poperinghe

dreaming of being led by a man on foot
or on a horse, toward the west

in the shade of trees, where one cannot
be escorted by others, and once there

hearing someone crying behind one

then the rustle of stiff cloth, light breaking,
the muffled sound of metal on metal

a woman nearby carries burning twigs of juniper
and a mirror

But then, in “Recognizing the Signs that an Amulet Has Failed,” you make sure that readers do not conclude that, together, the soul-chilling folly of those unredeemable battles and the presence of powerful but insufficient gods and spirits can entirely encompass the violence and suffering of that moment and place. You write of “secret signs or indication of the gyalpo” (in “Instructions for Working With the Gyalpo”), and you propose that “all sentient beings of the three realms / have been your parents,” and you imply that they can comfort, perhaps, even if they cannot save, their dying and dead sons, and then you disclose the only moment of what we might call detachment of which the Christian ferocity of war is capable (in “That One Time, in December 1914”):

All needs and desires fell away like rain
and the suffering of all sentient beings
stopped, went silent, and across the frozen ground
between us you could hear the carols.

ETG: Yes, I think your reading of the movement in “Recognizing the Signs of Death” is just right, and that it might serve as a fractal for the larger work. Everything except the third and fourth stanzas comes from a seventeenth-century Tibetan text on dream interpretation. That middle piece felt like what one would hear in a CCS or Base Hospital. A diagnostic manual, but it’s unclear whether this is dream, hallucination, or what’s happening.

The poem you mention, about the gyalpo, is a good example of how these textual layers fused in creating the poem. “Instructions for Working With the Gyalpo” arose one afternoon when I was reading a section of Machik Lapdrön’s text that listed—for several pages—the various terrifying signs that indicate the presence of these evil beings. I was stunned to see that it could also be read as a reasonably precise description of the Flanders battlefield in October 1917.

That said, the medical expertise, like the field engineering, the cartography, the food, the aerial reconnaissance, all did get better over the course of the war. Soldiers were safer in 1918. But it all still remains unfathomable to me. Nothing can encompass the suffering and the violence and the loss that has leached into the ground in what the Belgian government called, after the war, “The Devastated Region.”

There are many places on the earth with similar catastrophic histories. The official “sister city” of Ypres is Hiroshima. Its cousins are places like Dresden and Coventry. Maybe there are pauses in real time, like the Christmas Truce, which took place on December 24–25, 1914 on sections of the Front in France and Belgium, when some kind of peace enters. Or moments in lyric time that decide to let you in, where blessings are possible.

TQ: And most of all, as you arrive at the last pieces of the book, I feel the power of witness, even at a remove of more than a hundred years, and of the gesture of “standing watch” even for a few hours (in “What She Told Me”), over long-buried soldiers and the thousands whose bodies were never found, and of offering even a merely human blessing of the dead. It produces a surprising moral and mournful intimacy.

ETG: And thank you, my friend, for sharing your responses to the book, and for your illuminating questions! It’s been a challenging pleasure, the best kind.


1. [“War Magic” draws on A History of How the Mongols Were Repelled, by Lodrö Gyelsten (1552–1624), known simply as “Sodokpa,” in Jacob B. Dalton, The Taming of the Demons: Violence and Liberation in Tibetan Buddhism (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011, 133–36). The shell numbers were found in Peter H. Liddle, Passchendaele in Perspective: The Third Battle of Ypres (Barnsley, South Yorkshire, UK: Leo Cooper, 1997). The Battle of the Somme was known to soldiers as “The Big Push”; the Battle of the Meuse-Argonne was known as “The Big Show”; the Schlieffen Plan was a battle plan, developed in 1905 by Alfred Graf von Schlieffen, chief of the German General Staff at the time, that would enable Germany to fight a two-front war. It entailed a quick strike west through Belgium, and the subsequent encirclement of Paris. As modified by Helmuth von Moltke, Schlieffen’s successor, it formed the basis of the German assault against France and Belgium in August 1914.]

2. [“In the Soft Parts of the Body” draws on Dr. Edmond Delorme, Military Surgery (London: H. K. Lewis, 1915), chap. 10),; and also from de Nebesky-Wojkowitz, Oracles and Demons of Tibet: The Cult and Iconography of the Tibetan Protective Deities (The Hague: Mouton, 1956; Kathmandu: Book Faith India, 1993), 365–68).]