Café of Unintelligible Desire, by Julia Caroline Knowlton
Review and Interview by Jeri Frederickson
Julia Caroline Knowlton’s Café of Unintelligible Desire (Alice Greene & Co., 2018), draws you in like the gentle beauty of a side street café. You might find you’ve spent hours there over a cup of tea, having the entire range of human emotions swirl around you in this charming and delicate place. Knowlton begins the collection with a poem titled “Invitation,” and dares us to:
Tell me what is more sacred—blood
or wet ink? Tell & I will
press your voice into the wind.
I was drawn in by this “Invitation” and the lyricism of her words. Café of Unintelligible Desire fills me with a sense of affirmation and calm, as if Knowlton was reaching across a café table and speaking to me honestly, with commanding clarity. Her poems show how the most complex events and relationships in our lives often go unspoken, and yet, those are the events and relationships that often shape our lives the most. In the title poem, Knowlton writes,
. . . Lately in the café
we realize we owe each other nothing,
only two irises & twenty tiny crescents.
Outside, it is quite a different story.
Knowlton holds our attention with lyrical words that give meaning to the events and people in our own lives. Then she releases us from any obligation to continue holding onto those events or relationships and to continue living our lives.
In “Bad Mother,” Knowlton begins,
I gaslit you twice. Once at the fancy pool
when I told you that the chardonnay
in my Coke can wasn’t really chardonnay.
Your furrowed brow after tasting it,
wet strands of hair striping your face,
adorable swimsuit with blue Hawaiian flowers.
The frank openness of the speaker stands in direct opposition to the deceptive events in the poem. As someone who frequently wishes for the power to read minds, I love that Knowlton gives her readers this power throughout the collection. We get to see what is underneath the narratives we knew weren’t quite what they seemed on the surface, and this honesty brings about a catharsis.
Julia Caroline Knowlton is a poet to look for at readings and in print. I’ve had the privilege of hearing Knowlton read her work. Her poems flow just as beautifully in a public reading as on the page. A new full length collection of poems, One Clean Feather, is available for pre-order now at Finishing Line Press.
I was able to ask Knowlton a few questions regarding The Café of Unintelligible Desire:
Jeri: The chapbook opens with the quote from Baudelaire’s L’Invitation au Voyage, “Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté; / Luxe, calme et volupté.” What is your preferred English translation of this passage, and what can you share with us about it?
Julia: The best translation I can offer is “There, everything is order and beauty; / Luxury, calm, and sensuality.” I could write quite a lot about this epigraph, since it sums up Baudelaire’s entire poetics. His poem is an invitation for the reader to leave (flee?) reality and go to a more comforting place of beauty. It was also a love letter to one of his beloveds. For Baudelaire, the space of the poem is an ideal, almost sublime place. The complication, though, is that although we may access an ideal poetic space through reading and writing and contemplation, we have to live our everyday lives in the broken space of reality.
Jeri: Your writing seems to remove all that is unnecessary, revealing only what must be said. And yet, the words themselves are so full that I don’t wish for more lines or more words in any of the poems. How did these poems come about? Did you go through many drafts to get to the sleek versions or did some of them come out as they appear in the chapbook?
Julia: I was greatly influenced by the Parnassian school of French poetry when I did my PhD in French literature back in the 1990s. That school developed in the 19th century, and its main aesthetic was restraint and precision. The poet Théophile Gautier urged poets to approach the poem like a sculpture that would be sculpted out of the “block of marble” that is language. I care very much about the economy of word and image, and I am, indeed, relentless in my own work about stripping away every single word that is not crucial to the poem. As far as revisions, most of my poems only go through two or three versions. They are already pretty spare when they “hit the page” for the first time. The titular poem, “Café of Unintelligible Desire,” however, went through dozens of revisions, interestingly. I wrestled with that one for two years.
Jeri: “Café of Unintelligible Desire,” is possibly my favorite poem in this collection. Somehow, as your reader, I get to feel smart and playful and my heart breaks and is made stronger all in these twelve lines. How did this poem come to be the title of the chapbook? Can you tell us about the “we”?
Julia: Great question! I recently shared the story of this poem at two readings I gave this summer. The poem was “inspired,” if I can say that, from a bad date! I met a man for coffee in a café where I go frequently to read and revise and grade papers. This was about four years ago. It went badly; it was obvious that there was no potential connection, despite the attempt. Leaving the setting, I thought about how complicated intimacy is for most of us—we want it, but it is elusive, or fragile, or fleeting. This applies to emotional intimacy (friends, family) as well as romantic intimacy. A thunderstorm rose up in the sky as I left. That is evoked in the last lines of the poem, to contrast the interior of the café with the outdoors.
Jeri: Throughout the chapbook, Mary Shea’s illustrations serve as almost an epilogue to some of your poems. How did the pairing of poems and illustrations come about? How does this add to your own experience of reading the chapbook?
Julia: Another great question! My wonderful editor in Ann Arbor, Jill Peek, solicited the cover art. The story of the cover art is memorable. Mary Shea had produced her painting, a study of Bonnard, but was dissatisfied with it. Consequently, she tore it into pieces. After she read my manuscript, including my poem entitled “La Femme de Bonnard,” she pieced & taped it back together! She told my editor: “ruining it saved it.” I love that statement: sometimes we have to “ruin” something in our creative process in order to move forward. Sometimes we have to break down some kind of form in order to create new form. Regarding her illustrations, my editor gave her the freedom to create what she wanted to create for the interior illustrations.
Jeri: Finally, based on the poems in this chapbook, I’d love to know, do you write in cafes? What is your favorite time and place to write?
Julia: I do not compose new poems in cafés, because I need to be alone to compose. However, I do revise in cafés. I like the “beehive” of activity in my favorite café—the scent of coffee and pastries, music, people working and talking. I grade papers for my teaching job and read and revise poems in my favorite café, which is located near Agnes Scott College in Atlanta, where I teach.
Julia Caroline Knowlton is Professor of French at Agnes Scott College in Atlanta. She holds MA and PhD degrees in French Literature and an MFA from Antioch in Los Angeles. The recipient of an Academy of American Poets College Prize, her poems have appeared in numerous literary journals, including Raw Art Review and The Roanoke Review. She is the author of the memoir Body Story and the poetry chapbook Café of Unintelligible Desire. Julia was a finalist in the 2018 NYC Center for Book Arts chapbook contest and a 2019 nominee for Georgia Author of the Year. Her first full-length collection of poems, One Clean Feather, is available for pre-order from Finishing Line Press. She is available for interviews and readings: firstname.lastname@example.org
Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.
She is a co-founder and editor at Headmistress Press and has published three full length collections of poetry, most recently, “slight faith” (MoonPath Press, 2018).