Lise Goett tunes her ear to the cadences of an inner voice. A poet by calling and vocation, Goett is a practicing Roman Catholic. Her new book of poems, “Leprosarium,” receives inspiration from a story of Saint Francis.
Goett reads from “Leprosarium” for her free Taos book launch Saturday (March 24), 6:30 p.m., at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House Yoga Room, 240 Morada Lane. She will be joined by poet Mark Wunderlich, director of the Bennington Writing Seminars at Bennington College and the author of three books of poetry. Wunderlich will read from his work-in-progress, “God of Nothing.”
Leprosy (now known as Hansen’s disease), is a contagious infection which causes disfiguring skin sores and nerve damage. In biblical times, those with the disease were shunned as social outcasts, and called lepers. A leprosarium is a hospital for those with leprosy.
“The story underlying ‘Leprosarium’ is that of Saint Francis,” said Goett in an interview in her home. “He’s speaking about his aversion to lepers. He said the disease does not reside in the leper but in the human heart. Ergo, the heart is the leprosarium.”
Goett brings the point into focus in “Carville Leprosarium,” “Oh, so you thought/that you were going to cure the leper/that the leper wasn’t you?”
Simply stated, Goett’s poems ask us to consider our hearts — what are we drawn towards, who do we take in, why do we cast out, at what expense?
An early manuscript of “Leprosarium” was recognized by renowned poet Toi Derricotte, who chose it for the Poetry Society of America’s 2012 Robert H. Winner Memorial Award. “This is dangerous art, as serious as a heart attack … as intensely rewarding as it is unsettling,” Derricotte said of Goett’s poetry.
“Leprosarium,” was one of two manuscripts selected for publication during the July 2015 open reading period by Tupelo Press. It was published by the Massachusetts-based press in February 2018.
Other awards Goett has received include The Paris Review Discovery Award, The Pen Southwest Book Award in Poetry, the Capricorn Prize from the West Side Y, the James D. Phelan Award, and the Barnard New Women Poets Prize for her first poetry collection, “Waiting for the Paraclete” (Beacon).
Unlike many contemporary poetry books, “Leprosarium” is not divided into sections. Its 38 poems appear one after another without pause or interruption.
“It’s a single arc and so the problem became how to support that arc in a way that sustained it and kept it from falling down,” said Goett. “The ‘Symphonies’ became the supporting beams in the book over which I was able to drape my architecture.”
By ‘Symphonies’ Goett is referring to a series of ekphrastic poems, each of which is titled for a different symphony and color and references an artistic work. The book starts with the first of these, “Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl” after James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s painting.
“Many of the paintings that are springboards for poems in ‘Leprosarium’ were paintings that I encountered as a seven-year-old at the National Gallery of Art,” said Goett. “I can even show you prints that I have kept from those fieldtrips to the National Gallery. So, these images have been with me for a very long time.”
Goett also plucks from the images and stories that have seared themselves into the national heart. One poem is for Matthew Shepard, the young gay man who was murdered in a homophobic hate crime in Laramie, Wyoming. Another centers around Phan Thi Kim Phuc, known in popular jargon as the “Napalm Girl” for the Pulitzer-prize winning photograph taken when she was a child, sprayed by napalm, running naked on a road in South Vietnam.
The fineness of her poems is a testament to Goett’s dedication to the art of her craft. Many of the poems are written in rhymed couplets. “Molest the Dead” is a crown of sonnets. “I like the game of rhyme and all the different kinds of rhyme that exist,” Goett said.
No matter the form used, Goett articulates with a fierce grace, masterfully using the pull and play of poetry to ignite the page.
Wunderlich is a former student of Lise Goett, and a scholar of German literature as well as poetry. While he is in Taos, he will be teaching a one-day workshop on the poetry of Paul Celan.
“In 1989, I had the pleasure, the miracle really, of having Mark Wunderlich as a student in my Intro to Creative Writing class,” Goett commented. “It was something on the order of finding a unicorn in my garden.”
Goett describes Wunderlich’s new manuscript as “a book of existential crisis” whose poems “possess a kind of rigor combined with a storyteller’s mastery.”
Since 2000, Goett has lived in Taos. She offers poetry workshops and seminars to the public, both in Santa Fe and Taos. Upcoming topics include prosody and the muses of Eugenio Montale. On May 19, Goett plans to read in Santa Fe with Taos poet Joan Ryan. For more information, contact Goett by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.