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Weekly Poem: Charlotte Boulay writes ‘small moments of grace’

Fifteen years ago, Charlotte Boulay visited India. The experience profoundly changed the poet.

“It stayed with me, the feeling of being there … I just felt in love with the country. The things I saw there were such beautiful landscape and such horrific poverty,” Boulay told Art Beat.

That juxtaposition of “beauty and ugliness,” as Boulay described it, is a central theme in her debut collection, “Foxes on the Trampoline,” which plays with that idea beyond the context of India.

The title poem of the collection was inspired by home videos that people have posted on YouTube of foxes jumping on the trampolines in their backyards.

“It’s so gorgeous, I loved it. Just these wild animals discovering this trampoline and they are psyched about it. They are thrilled… But also, if you think about it for more than a second, it represents how much we’ve taken over their habitat that they’re wandering into people’s backyards, to be entertainment for us.”

The book took Boulay eight years to write as she struggled with questions of how to best represent these dichotomies. She was especially cautious about her many references to South Asia, concerned with painting a picture of otherness.

“Some of the early drafts I felt were exoticize-ing the Indian landscape. Our first instinct is to compare a different place than what we know and to think it’s strange. But, you can get over that with time, and I’ve learned it takes me a lot of time to process things, more than some people, which is fine. I was just trying to address (India and America) in ways that were not easy.”

In the opening poem, “Fruits of My Labor,” Boulay explores all of that simultaneously, acknowledging how difficult it was for her to compose the collection.

“It felt very hard putting the book together at certain points and at the point I’m writing this poem, I thought this is a kind of work, but work can be so many different things. I guess I was thinking about Phillip Levine’s poem ‘What Work Is’ and responding to that. But then this poem combines all imagery from other poems in the book, imagery from trips I’ve taken to India with a road trip in America and — the trailer hauling pigs — some American imagery. The book is moving between those two landscapes and thinking about how to process each of them.”

Listen to Charlotte Boulay read “Fruits of my Labor” from her debut collection, “Foxes on the Trampoline.”

Fruits of my Labor

I was working. Every time I dove into the pool,
or woke in the dark to hear a night bird
calling, or waited through the late afternoon heat

for the bell to ring for tea. Passing time was a job–
my white arms and legs leaden,

my hair limp with rain. I wanted affirmation.
I wanted other things too, but especially that.

Across the world, idle tractors soak their jaws
in oil. A jet plumbs the sun and a trailer

hauls pigs; one pink ear flaps between the slats. Once
I saw a musician play

Paganini on Paganini’s own violin. He stood, counting,
counting silently,

and when the orchestra reached his part he flipped
the instrument into the air and caught it under his chin.

At first, Boulay wanted her readers to understand the context for everything. She included a notes section at the end of the book to explain certain references. But, as the poet evolved in how she wrote about her experiences in India, her need for explanations changed as well.

“Early versions of the book had a lot more notes and then at a certain point I stopped worrying. People will get from the poems what they get from them … I hope that (the references) just interest people in learning more. I don’t feel the need to explain everything.”

In the end, images of India and the memories from a road trip in America, culminate in asking one central question.

“What’s enough when you desire something or want something? Is there an answer that you can come up with instead of that?” Boulay explained to Art Beat.

“The answer is that everything’s enough if you let it be in some ways. The musician catching his violin under his chin, the foxes on the trampoline — those small moments of, I guess what I would call, grace or beauty.”

“Fruits of my Labor” was excerpted from the book “Foxes on the Trampoline” by Charlotte Boulay. Copyright © 2014 by Charlotte Boulay. Reprinted courtesy of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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