Time is punctuated by motherhood, the pandemic, and a family rupture in poet Carmen Bugan’s new collection, "Time Being"

WRITTEN WORD INTERVIEW

Poet Carmen Bugan and her book Time Being

Carmen Bugan’s new poetry collection, Time Being, shows how the coronavirus has meant many different things to many people and also that it put us into our own bubbles. Bugan’s isolation includes her children, garden, home in New York, connection to Michigan, and eventual divorce. Her poems chronicle the months of isolation, motherhood, the excessive losses to the virus, and the ways that the pandemic, despite upending everything, was nevertheless not the only thing happening in 2020 and 2021. 

Bugan turns her outlook inward in Time Being. Part I serves as foreshadowing with the poem “Water ways” when the outcome of making footsteps on sand is that “the ocean erases them impatiently” as a parallel to the later repetitive, near-daily baking during the pandemic. In Part II when the pandemic strikes, the poems question, “But who could have imagined our / new lives six months ago?” and “Who would have known we’d be staying home / Nearly a year, the house growing around us / Like a shell, shutting out the life we knew?” The situation could not have been anticipated, as “Water ways” alludes:

A white hawk appears above us
held up by the warm breath of the earth, 

the tips of its wings recall silver lining
gliding out of view like a thought hard to hold.

Many of us can relate to thoughts, news, and circumstances becoming hard to bear in ways that we could not have fathomed, as Bugan aptly finds the words to describe that challenge. 

The seasons and garden make appearances in Time Being, too, not as much a conduit for understanding oneself in the way that Bugan’s earlier poetry involves nature but rather as a means of marking time and being fortified by the resilience and consistency of the natural world. The fall of 2020 brings “the autumn I have no words for.” In the poem “Aero garden,” herbs grow in an artificial environment much like the social interactions and school days that transitioned to simulations on screens, where people found themselves “forgetting our nature, / losing our senses, / like these herbs, real / and no herbs at all.” The calendar still turns, “But it is fraught, all is fraught this spring.” Amidst the continuation of some semblance of life, Bugan reminds us of what happened beyond the walls of isolation: 

The earth groans with the cadavers of those 
Who last year went about their worries
With notepads filled with things to do, 
Bills to pay, families to feed—
Just when the world came to a halt.

25 February 2021

The change of seasons and passage of time, even as it seemed to stand still, become marred by loss. 

There are hints of a fading marriage in Part III that solidify in Part IV, an upheaval that brings mixed experiences and bittersweetness. The poems poignantly consider aging and growing apart because, “I fear that what it was, was spent, / We can no longer find ourselves / Or space for each other.” The apprehension and adjustment are more things added to the list of that which one could not have previously imagined or known would happen. Yet, the poem “Pollen rains” finds the poet and children planning to leave home in early summer. 

The disbelief gives way to reality as the poems follow a journey through northern Michigan that corresponds with the poet’s coming to terms with the separation. The place and journey feed the spirits of the mother and children and grow into a way to make the transition, as:

I tell my children this is our passage to the next 
Part of our lives, I insist on a record of it so that
We will turn to it for what it is, not for what we will 
Remember through second thoughts, or fog of time.

Time helps to cope with change and also presents a challenge to arm oneself against going forward. 

Bugan is the author of five books of poetry, an essay collection, and a memoir. She earned degrees from the University of Michigan and Balliol College, Oxford University, and lives in Long Island, N.Y. I interviewed her about her new book, Time Being, following our earlier interviews on her essay collectionPoetry and the Language of Oppression, and poetry collectionLilies From America

Q: It is great to talk with you again. How have you been since we talked last year?
A: I am delighted to speak with you again, Martha. Last year saw the publication of my book of essays, Poetry and the Language of Oppression: Essays on Politics and Poetics, which was written in the sweltering heat of 2020, in the middle of the pandemic. That book was released in June 2021, when already the lockdown had taken its toll of my family. Time Being was the unintentional record of the fragility of marriage and family. I wrote the poems and dated them scrupulously in an instinctive way; I could not have known then that they would become markers on the road to another life, a life which still needs to be envisioned. So much can happen in one year.

Q: You wrote Time Being during the particularly difficult times of the pandemic and changes in your family. How is this collection similar to or different from your earlier books of poetry? 
A: I write my way through upheaval for reasons that are not simply expressive. There is a sense of curiosity about the various paths that come into view once life presents certain obstacles. Different kinds of loss bring about feelings that have been entirely unknown before. The soul asks different questions, the mind constantly rearranges the weight of things to keep at even keel. Life is a bit like the changing face of the sea: if you’re around long enough, you’ll see the white caps recede into stillness, and the sky will be so perfectly mirrored in the water, the two will seem to change places. Writing is an opportunity for reorientation.

Most of my poetry follows the life of the family in the context of large events. In the earlier collections, there was a focus on my parents and siblings through political upheaval, but this new collection focuses on the microcosm of my own family in the time of pandemic. The poems capture this sharpened awareness that the silence of the world outside brought about the noise of despair inside the house: a noise we either did not notice before, or which came to the surface because of the confusion and isolation. Memories of being under house arrest in Romania over 30 years ago surfaced as well, and I was explaining to my husband and the children the difference between this lockdown and the house arrest, trying to comfort them. For us, there was an opportunity in being safely huddled together with time for each other, finally, and I hoped to reinvigorate the marriage. But no encouragement brought comfort. The poems are in their own ways questions about what language can endure and what words can cure.

Q: Your new poetry collection is called Time Being. How did you settle on this title? 
A: Time Being is a meditation on time in the ordinary sense, as the stream of hours and days, but also time in the larger, spiritual sense, during the pandemic lockdown. Silence and isolation affected how we perceived the passing of time. I have become very interested in the notion of time: how we measure it, how we sense it, how we look at it spiritually—as a gift. There was the contrapuntal sense of eternity (because of the absence of artificial noise, the booming song of birds, the soothing sound of wind) against the fleeting sense of life itself (wailing ambulances, the makeshift morgues). Time was at once slow and palpable, and utterly illusory. My children and I were happy to be together, to walk around the garden and the neighborhood; we had time to bake and play games, so for us it became a “time out of time.” But then we were aware of life being cut short for so many. In addition, my husband’s nervous breakdown made the ground shift from under our feet, and time itself took a sinister meaning.

When I considered the title, I first thought about calling the book For the Time Being, which is a direct translation of the Romanian word “deocamdata.” My parents used the word in every phone call to reassure us that they were “fine, for the time being,” and in fact, the poem “For the Time Being” borrows many of their phrases. But “For the Time Being” is also the title of a poem by Auden, and various people kept bringing him up. A wonderful friend, Christopher Ricks, then said “Time Being” will be right: closer to how I meant it, and that settled the matter.

Q: Tell us about the four parts of the book. How do you see each of them as distinct? 
A: The four sections suggested themselves, as they follow the course of the family from its arrival to the U.S., making a home here, breaking under the lockdown pressure, and separating. Certainly, the sections follow a chronological sense. But there is another movement, which is coterminous with the emergence from lockdown: it’s the release from pain into the expectancy of freedom. This is the subject of the poems in parts III and IV. 

All this happens, of course under two presidencies and their attendant implications on the life of the family: there is the cultural shock of the “lockdown drill” first experienced by the children when we moved from France, there is the awful presidency of Trump, the January storming of the Capitol, and the return to some form of political sanity, which is tested by the pandemic. Each section has an epigraph: we begin with love and end with survival. 

Q: The poem “Morning hours” observes, “Seasons crumble into months / filled with loved faces stranded other-where.” Many authors and artists commented on the difficulty of being creative amidst the early days of the pandemic. What was your writing practice like for the poems in this book? What inspired you to keep writing? 
A: The poems came unbidden, unforced, as necessary acts of staying aware, noticing, giving shape to feelings. It was surprising even for my 14-year-old son and my 9-year-old daughter to see that I assembled a collection of such private utterings and was going to publish them: they looked at the poems as “theirs” and as “ours.” I looked at the poems as a means to put order in my life, and despite their very painful, private expressions, I wanted them out there as a permanent record of the moment of transformation. I know my children and I will revisit this time, for it has changed all of us. I never published anything as personal as this collection. I had no routine of writing, but I read many of the poems to my children as a way to talk ourselves out of pain.

Q: In previous interviews, we spoke about the role of nature in your poems. This time, I would like to talk about how prominently these poems center on place—whether New York, Michigan, or elsewhere—and how you see place threading through these poems. Do you think the pandemic had something to do with how central the location is in these poems? 
A: The pandemic made even the idea of seeking a place of comfort—such as the home of loved ones or a favorite vacation place—utterly inaccessible. It was mind-bending. It also transformed the house into a different kind of place. My husband referred to our house as a prison. I referred to it as a haven, a shelter during a terrible time. As time passed, I saw New York as a place of trauma, where my marriage fell apart, where the children lost their sense of trust in family. On the other hand, from the simple “grandparents’” place, Michigan became a locus of sanity, well-being, love, and hope for the children and for me. I regained my strength there over the summer, the children recovered theirs: the Sleeping Bear Dunes, the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Mackinac, my parents’ house became symbols of feeling rooted. We kept an audio and photo journal, to which we returned in the past few months. The pandemic transformed the perception of place as much as it transformed the sense of time, and ultimately of the self.

Q: Likewise, the poems are inextricably tied to the seasons. How do the seasons inform this collection? 
A: Though changes of seasons have been important rhythms of my creative life, I never felt them deeper, or observed them more closely, than during the lockdown. They were the only reassuring aspect of existence, a source of strength. Everything gained much more power and gravity during the silence of the isolation, and I took comfort and joy with my children in noticing the tiniest changes. Even this spring, we are going around the garden touching buds, chasing the first butterflies, excited to see the forsythia drenching everything in yellow. But the seasons in this collection merge over the years so that there is a palimpsest of springs, one of winters, another of summers, and so on. Nature follows its rhythms, yet new meanings come into view because of so much loss. These new experiences inscribe themselves into each season: the first summer without my husband, the second spring waiting for hearts to change, etc.

Q: The last poem, “The hook,” contains such a powerful image. Does releasing this poem into the world feel freeing? 
A: It feels empowering. The fish was a mysterious thing. I have a picture of it in my daughter’s lilac-colored T-shirt: its serious, trusting eyes. And in my mind’s eyes, I still see it moving ahead of me, disappearing, like a thought hard to hold, or like the soul that was snagged and then released into its unknowable element. 

Q: What is on your reading pile now?
A: I am reading several books on literature and medicine, and philosophy and medicine, to explore the relationship between illness and imagination, our perception of memory and time, the relationship between language and thought … and I am also reading a novel for the first time in a very long time. So: Isabel Allende’s The House of Spirits, Martin Heidegger’s Poetry, Language, Thought, G. E. R. Lloyd’s In the Grip of Disease, Frances Yates’ The Art of Memory, Susan Sontag’s Illness As Metaphor

Q: What is next on the horizon for you and your writing? 
A: A book of poems on hope and making a new life. Philosophical stuff. A book of essays on the language of well-being, or maybe the language and being. And I still have my memoir, Life Without a Country, and the book of poems, FOG, somewhere on the hard drive of the last crashed computer: I hope to resurrect these manuscripts and find a publisher.


Martha Stuit is a former reporter and current librarian.