Sometimes, I think about this haunting sentence, from “On Erasure,” by Mary Ruefle:
…life is much, much more than is necessary, and much, much more than any of us can bear, so we erase it or it erases us, we ourselves are an erasure of everything we have forgotten or don’t know or haven’t experienced, and on our deathbed, even that limited and erased “whole” becomes further diminished, if you are lucky you will remember the one word water, all others having been erased.
Ruefle says that our lives are erasures because we cannot bear them in their entirety. I wonder about the conflicted life of the poet: simultaneously erasing and writing, erasing and writing, considering things she sometimes can’t bear to feel or remember; writing as an attempt to document, and then writing as an attempt purge.
Documenting and purging: there is a schism between the inner and outer world: between my private self and the one I make visible. And even this visible self is ruptured: I find myself intellectually, artistically, even ethically drawn toward & excited by the loss of composure—by the idea of refusing to accommodate the world’s demand of public poise—but I remain practically, viscerally scared of such a revelation. As a result, my motivation as a writer has been to creatively transpose the body into language, to alter my understanding of it via the expansion of words and, in doing so, (re)create my relationship to the body. In other words, to think and theorize my way through and around vulnerability, to walk closer toward it in words and then hope my body will follow. But what does it mean to take risks in writing that aren’t being taken in life? Where do I draw lines of responsibility and interest, of theory and practice, of personhood and poethood?
Before I came to articulate this motivation—before I’d even begun to recognize its preverbal form—I went to grad school. There are probably a lot of complicated reasons why I’ve erased almost all my memories from the composition theory course I took my first semester, but of the few that remain, I think of one almost weekly: I have no context leading up to this instance, nor any memory of what followed the moment when a professor said, with a slow deliberateness that almost revealed his southern drawl, “compose yourself.” Not to any one student in particular so much as to the room, calling attention to what the command is truly saying, compose yourself!, to make yourself readable and sensible and, as Butler might say, culturally intelligible. To be, especially if you are a woman, composed, as in emotionally contained. He didn’t say it directly to me but he might as well have, and that’s the first trick of language: to unlock a sense of self that previously wasn’t there. Suddenly, I heard the danger underlying those two superficially harmless words. And it is the loss of this composure, by which I mostly mean the appearance of composure—the revelation of the messy and complicated and uncontainable female self—which underlies the greatest form of risk I can imagine taking.
Hence the rupture: between word and body. I feel embarrassed and melodramatic making such statements, ones so clearly born of a privileged life, where risk has made few appearances. But what if this is the consequence of having confused my writing life with my real lived experiences one too many times? What does it even mean to associate risk with things like school, and poetry, and a kind of danger that is mostly visual, that is even theoretical, that hinges on the in/visibility of one’s most crafted and edited self? What do I mean when I say, “risk?” I tried mapping it out:
- potential for public failure and/or mistakes
- being seen as out of one’s “league” or “wheelhouse”
- being seen as trying too hard or as overly ambitious
- potential for confusion—either looking confused or confusing others
- “that’s not something I would do”
- potential for embarrassment and/or over-sharing
- to make oneself too accessible
- to make the invisible visible
- to lose control
- to inject emotion where it isn’t wanted
- to lose composure
- potential for discomfort
- potential for confrontation
There is no space for my body in this list, and yet it all wraps tightly, every single possibility, around my skin. Perhaps I say body and I’m really just addressing the signified thing: not the organism standing in front of you, but the whole and its parts envisioned in the clear space of one’s reading mind. I can spill the word “body” all over the poem, include it in every single title, without having invest(igat)ed a single bone, a single strand of hair. And while some of the things listed above have to do with gender or trying new things, all of them revolve around constructed notions of self and success: how I present my personhood to the outside world, how I make visible to you the things that will validate my life as a good one. Composed in the ways I mean to be, and unintelligible so long as I am in control of the mess—so long as it is relegated mostly to the page.
In other words, there are things we bear in our selves and there are things we bear in our writing, and these are sometimes very different things and why, what does that mean?
I don’t even know if this essay is true. Or the difference between body and word: what I think I am afraid of; what I claim to be doing, in one medium or another. If the divide is not really just a blanket.
A true thing: Last summer, I finished reading Maggie’s Nelson’s The Argonauts during the late hours of the night while sitting in a crowded terminal in O’Hare. I was waiting for my repeatedly delayed flight home after visiting my best friend in Lafayette, Indiana. The trip coincided with her 30th birthday; we drank Polish vodka and rode horses with little instruction. Why do I tell you this? Because I cannot unstitch the context of my life from my writing and questioning and thinking. Perhaps writing is the only space in which I have no ability to compartmentalize, where I can consider anything so long as it is all at once, all in the same room. Where I can un-compose and re-compose myself as language demands: where I might become suddenly brave enough to enact the things I’m driven toward. Or, to choose to write about myself as if my boundaries are clear: here is what I do, here is what I write.
I tell myself I am writing to get closer to the body, but aren’t I just keeping it at bay?
Once, when I was a young girl in middle school, I wanted to be Gwen Stefani, and sometimes I remember the sense of it so acutely: how desire can feel urgent and enthralling and inspiring and quite unrealistic; how it can keep you, in secret inner ways, reaching forward toward a self comprised of all the things. Who needs “poetry” or “theory” or “memoir,” categories of definitive composure, when you can do them all at once? Who needs a cohesive sense of style when you can wear a skirt on top of your jeans!
Does the self begin on the page, in word, and grow larger from there? Sometimes I feel like I’ve taken the longest route possible to achieve a short thing. Sometimes I feel like I’ve started a life backwards, relegating my achievements, my ideas, my best selves to language. As if I need to know the right words first before anything happens: as if words make up the vessel in which I’ll be caught. As if poetry ever had anything to do with the soul.
When I’m writing, I tell myself it is toward messiness and complexity. But I repeatedly run head first into an inherent disposition toward composure, toward control, engulfed in the fear of anything otherwise. Can fear be a habit? I tell myself that I figure out important personal things in writing, but perhaps I am making it all up, the words acting like a safe distance, like an arm’s reach I can keep myself at always. Sometimes, I’ll realize a mistake I’ve made in life, see something in the poem and chastise myself for not having recognized it sooner elsewhere. But with any instance of clarity, I’m never learning from my mistakes so much as finally catching up with them, out of breath, making space for myself slowly over long stretches of uneven time. Trying to un-contain and re-contain my body through language and yet remaining consistently frozen with my back against the wall, with my back against the page. A safe or habitual or made-up response to the world’s pervasive demand that I compose myself.
[Note: this essay also appeared in the Ottawa Poetry Newsletter]