Kyce Bello’s first book, Refugia (University of Nevada Press, 2019), was the inaugural winner of Interim’s Test Site Poetry Series. Her poems have appeared in Kenyon Review, Boston Review, About Place Journal, Anomalous Press, The Raven Chronicles, Taos Journal of International Poetry & Art, and Sonora Review. She holds an MFA in poetry from the Institute of American Indian Arts and lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Natalie Etheridge: Kyce, I had the pleasure of taking in Refugia over the holidays. To me, it was full of poems that are self-contained and exist in one dimension on the first bite and then unveil themselves further with each subsequent poem. These are poems that honor landscape while simultaneously dealing with topics of ancestry, remembrance, transformation, decay, and rebirth.
Because Refugia has the natural world at its center, I became aware of how many poems had academic titles seemingly plucked straight out of nature logs or guidebooks. Some examples: “Guide to Flowering Plants,” “Brief Guide to Epigenetic Memory with Burning Bosque,” “Notes for Future Botanists in Search of Conifers,” “Field Notes,” “Landscape with Santa Fe River Restored to Its Historic Channel After 100 Years,” “Archipelago of Ancestral Bodies and Unnamed Landmarks of the Present,” and “Origin of the Apple.” Were there any dog-eared sources you found invaluable when delving into the natural world?
Kyce Bello: Definitely the bioregional herb books by Michael Moore, Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West, Desert West, and so on, which are classics I recommend to anyone who lives or visits the region. I do have a whole library of field guides—mostly for plants—and they’re important to me, but at this point, it is the landscape itself that is my guide. In creating these poems, I worked with a lot of scientific papers on the subject of refugia, which was a new area of study for me. The term refers to places in which plant and animal species can survive climatic shifts. I had never even heard the word before it more or less knocked me on my head and took hold of my imagination, survival of beloved species being very much on my mind. I delved as deeply as I could into the research that I could find and the conversation among ecologists that was being had about the role of refugia in climate change. And I worked with that literature first by making erasures of their texts, which became launchpads into the poems that later became the title sequence.
NE: I think that homework shone through. I also found the use of religious motifs to be fascinating. Descriptions of the world involving reliquaries, pietas, Sabbath (and Shabbat), church bells, ashrams, and mandorlas were integrated seamlessly but had a substantial influence on the spirituality of nature even outside of religion. Ultimately, I was left with a sense of your reverence towards trees and the earth that is more akin to a spiritual appreciation than a praise of a higher power. What do you feel the role of these images is in Refugia?
KB: Very perceptive reading, and also one of the hardest questions for me to answer with any definitiveness. You probably also noticed that within the poems I am wrestling with questions about belief, questions that are generally left un-answered. As the speaker says in one poem, “I am sometimes religious, but I do not know if it is God I believe in or apples, or if there is any difference.” What I can say is that when I look around me, I see a God-soaked world. My experience of the earth is that it is saturated in the divine—that it is inherently holy. That holiness permeates the ground and everything upon it, including us. I do think that the idea of immanence, in which God is indwelling in the earth, is foundational for me. It is one thing I know I can believe in. Is God a higher power? I like to think of it as simply the power that animates life.
NE: In a bit of a different direction, one element that piqued my interest every time I saw it within Refugia was the importance placed on names, both in selecting the right names and in preserving them. I was engaged by the preciseness of the physical world each poem inhabits, and I couldn’t help but feel that the emphasis on remembering names had a great deal to do with this. Could you speak more to why names are so prevalent in poems like “Our Names Unfurl Across Winter” and how they tie into the idea of leaving a paper trail?
KB: You definitely have gotten right to what is probably my most totemic theme. It’s something so prevalent for me that I’ve been thinking I should strike it from my writing forever. Apparently I can’t yet, because it is still coming up all the time in new work. To answer this, I have to say that I was born in raised in an ashram in northern Virginia. When I was twelve, my family left the community, changed our Guru-given names, and moved to New Mexico. It was a dramatic year in which I no longer had the cultural and religious framework that I had defined myself by; my relationship to God was stripped away; and I no longer had my original name. It was both utterly unsettling and very exciting, a lot like the strange desert I now found myself in.
One of the ways in which I began to come to terms with the new landscape and this new life in which my certainties had been stripped away, was through the study of plants. I didn’t attend high school, and instead apprenticed with a fabulous herbalist before attending herb school at age sixteen. Medicinal plants became my allies, my way of placing myself, of re-grounding. In learning their names, I was able to transform a landscape that was strange to the point of being invisible—you can’t see what you don’t understand—and in learning their names, began to re-learn my own name. There’s a whole religious motif in there, too, when I think about it.
When I am in unfamiliar places—say I was back visiting Virginia—I look at the gorgeous woods and all I see is a roar of green noise. Green trees, green bushes, green leaves. I lack the specificity and knowledge of their individuality, and so would not really see them. I’m like that with birds—because I know so few of them, the rest are just generic smudges in the sky or tree. But when I do know them, I find I can really see them. They come into focus. The name opens the door of identity which leads to a deeper identification that is the formation of a connection.
And of course, names are not the whole truth of a person or a plant or place. There’s a lot of problems with names, including their use as a colonial construct, and I think I am constantly exploring and probing that mis-identification as well. There is much more to knowing something than knowing a name. When I am invoking those plant names in poems, it’s not just a plant I’m referencing, it’s also a story I’m recounting to myself, a story that includes the layers of ethnobotany, history, ecology, and my own biography existing together in the landscape.
NE: All of those layers were so interesting and played very well together. Another point on names that I would like to ask you about is your reference to the mythological River Lethe in the underworld. The River Lethe, which caused all to drink from it to forget their past, appeared to me to provide some insight into the necessity of holding on to what is known of the past even in a world that is departing from itself. Additionally, many of the deadliest images in Refugia seemed to revolve around rivers. What does the Lethe signify to you?
KB: Rivers are not as central in my book as, say, trees, but they have been central in my life. One river in particular is very important to me. The Santa Fe River runs a block from my house. And when I say runs, I mean that for most of the year it is a dry riverbed. The water is impounded because it provides our drinking water. In 2007, it was named the most endangered river in America by the organization, American Rivers. I was shocked by the designation, not because it wasn’t obviously in very degraded condition, but because it was considered a river. My ignorance showed the extent of its erasure in the collective imagination of our community, an erasure that was completed in the span of just one generation. I’d always thought, Well, we’re in the desert, there’s no water, this is just how rivers are. That anyone would suggest differently snapped me awake. I began my study of the Santa Fe River’s history, as well as what kind of ecological potential it had and what it might mean to restore it. Learning the river’s story, and becoming a participant in its recovery, was my first-hand introduction to the ways in which erasure takes place, and how collective forgetting shapes not just our cultural landscape, but the physical one, too. That was when I came across Gary Paul Nabhan’s reminder that in order to restore the earth, we must first “re-story” it. To bring it back to life in our imaginations. That idea has animated me ever since.
Forgetting permeates our lives. How far back can any of us remember in a given family lineage? You know, maybe you have a couple of grandmothers’ names, right? Say those names actually mean something, you hold onto them and follow them back as far as you can, but at some point, even that is going to disappear. Paper trails grows very thin. Your question about the River Lethe makes me wonder about the purpose of forgetting. Why is it so easy to do? The River Lethe caused those who crossed it—the dead—to forget everything from their last life in order to prepare them for their next life. So, I’m trying to think of the forgetting as not just a tragic act but something that contains within it a seed of rebirth. As a ground for new growth from which we can reclaim something later on.
There are countless ways that forgetting takes place every day in our lives: ecological amnesia, cultural/historical amnesia, familial and personal amnesia. But the amazing thing about rivers and memory both is their resilience. Their ability to pool, to flood, to go underground, to flow when conditions allow, and to emerge in unexpected ways. The Santa Fe River is diverted from its bed to become our drinking water and thus, in a way, we who live here become walking riverbeds. We become the bearers of its memory, and its future. And its potential for renewal is born from that place, which was also its site of destruction.
NE: It seems like such a bold choice to celebrate a river that wipes memories, but it also seems like the only reasonable response to unchangeable conditions. There were other mythological threads that I followed in Refugia, and they were some of my favorite parts. I especially enjoyed how these myths brought up relationships between mothers and daughters. There was a terrific parallel between the struggles of the natural world and the godly realm both by the inclusion of the Greek myth of Persephone and Demeter and by an allusion to Hestia, the goddess of the hearth, which coincides with the discussion of home and refuge. Could you speak more about these references?
KB: I’ve been carrying the story of Persephone and Demeter with me for the past twenty years, maybe more. Those two have walked with me on the journey of leaving girlhood to become a woman and mother. My daughter Cora is named, among other things, for Kore, which was Persephone’s original name. For me, figures from the realm of myth and fairy tales serve as antidotes to my anxieties because they return me to the ways in which stories record how culture survives and transforms across time and generations. We have versions of the old stories, the myths and so on, but they are surface layers, re-creations from much older stories and peoples. Stories are a trail leading into the misty origins of our imaginations, into the realm of what has been forgotten. They are the thread connecting us to the other side of the Lethe, and also to the realm beyond our temporal, material existence. The ones that we have a hold of today are remnants from older stories that have been snapped up by the River Lethe and are reborn in our imaginations today. As for Hestia, she is my patron deity.
NE: There also seemed to be an ongoing discussion of ancestors and descendants and the personal responsibility of maintaining the health of the earth for descendants. What do you think Refugia has to say about parents instructing children on their roles in an ever-changing world that is, in a sense, their own inheritance?
KB: For a long time, it felt strange to have a book that was half about apocalyptic ecological concerns and the other half about family and lineage. They are interwoven throughout. Poems about dying trees and changing landscapes are run through with references to past and future generations, and the domestic poems are similarly infused with the natural world.
While writing Refugia, I often returned to an image of an expansive family tree, maybe even a family forest—an aspen forest—in which we are a dense network of interconnected kin overlapping briefly in terms of our lifespans. There’s an aspen forest in Utah that’s 80,000 years old—not the trees themselves, but the interconnected entity they belong to. Me, my daughters, my mother and grandmother, we’re all here together, growing in the forest right now. Of all the lives that came before us and will come after, it’s our turn to stand under the sun. We spring up, we reproduce (in some way or other), and we die back. That’s my family forest. You all belong to it, also.
The actual forest that surrounds me here in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains teaches me new ways to understand my family, and our inheritance of trauma and loss, as well as our resilience. And without the presence of my ancestors being invoked and summoned, I’m not sure I could face the loss I witness occurring to species and ecosystems in the natural world, as well as human communities. The past instructs me every day, and I also trust that the future ones are in some way helping us. They are the wise ones that will inhabit a much-changed world that those of us alive today can’t fathom. Which let’s me off the hook, a little, when it comes to pretending I have answers for my kids about what is coming. But I do want them to know and love the earth, and to feel a sense of belonging to it. I want to teach them to know the plants, know the animals, know the history of the people who inhabit this place we call home, and how all of these things are interconnected and have been transformed together, over time.
In claiming and passing on that knowledge they can be part of the resistance against the deadly forgetting taking place.
NE: Despite the subject matter of a declining wonderland, there is a hope to Refugia that I haven’t seen in other works dealing with climate change. This was compassion and positivity that I found unexpectedly refreshing. Why did you choose this route?
KB: Our world is a spectrum that holds sadness and grief equally. Look at the mountains moving from fall into winter, the moon rising over the city, our hearts so ready to love no matter the risk. I don’t see hopelessness or despair as an option for me—it dishonors those who came before and will come after us, as well as the gift of our own lives. I set out, more or less, to record my inner and outer landscapes, with their corresponding cycles of loss and renewal.
I don’t know that the book is exactly optimistic, but it’s not entirely devastating. Sure, it is witnessing the die off of western conifers, and a rapidly changing landscape. But even in that die-off there are possible seeds for renewal, for balancing. There are projections that say there will be no more conifers in New Mexico by the end of the century, projections which could paralyze me, which do paralyze me. But then I try to remember that these radical, seemingly devastating changes could also be the forest’s way of trying to restore harmony, to regain ecological integrity in ways that is beyond my ability to know. I am attached to the forests I know and don’t want them to change beyond recognition. What if I didn’t know the names of things anymore? Who would I be? We all know that the earth will survive us. But, as Chase Twichell says, “I love this one.” To ease the pain of it, what I can do is bear witness to the changes. Something is going to come next and I want to be attentive as much to that as to what is being lost.
NE: Kyce, thank you so much for talking with me and shedding some more light on Refugia. I hope to see more books from you in the future.