I was born an adult. Serious, intimacy at arm’s length. Only able to make friends across wide gaps in age. So at five my best friend was 10, my vocabulary and disposition on point with hers. And at 10, 11 and 12 I was already babysitting the younger kids in the neighborhood. My eyes were meek and still behind glass at the time, always fixed on my charges or else the floor. One look at me and you knew this girl contained responsibilities, distant ones, probably born of the machine in her head. This girl was just bursting with safe interior spaces, ready to be put to good use. And even as a kid I was desperate to channel some prior, historical adolescence, struggling to unbury my capacity for play and fun, to uncover a carefree state that might appear as such to an outsider’s passing glance.
Tim, I may look like a baby, but I was born all grown up.”
– Boss Baby
As a biological adult, I’ve gotten better at the digging but also the burying. My body circles its own good feelings but never quite plants there, shadow of an accessory; like a cape made useless, tucked into the waist of my jeans. What’s the use in wearing a cape if you don’t intend to fly? I think of Robert Duncan and his eccentric dress codes, his conspicuous homosexuality, his insistence, as my partner and I discussed one evening, on keeping the children’s books of his youth on the nightstand near where he slept. What does it look like to be an adult, queer or otherwise, whose want is not filtered, restricted, or buried? What if I replace “he” with “she”? Or defend aging as a metaphor?
Though circling issues of privilege and normalization I am also talking about happiness, that fleeting state that even cis-white man-money can’t buy. “Happiness doesn’t grow on trees,” I once misspoke, in a dream. But also, “happiness can’t buy money” (Shark Tank). Mass production aside, happiness isn’t the fruit itself but the tree: deciduous, operating on scales beyond human control. Going dormant for stretches of time and worrying us too-serious adult types into thinking that it might be dead forever.
But children often get it, and sometimes that’s reflected in the art made directly for them. I watched Boss Baby soon after it came out on video and was overjoyed by how it examined the corporate culture of family, in all it’s terrifying and beautifully animated ways. Company success, in the world of the movie, hinges on the production of a “Forever Puppy,” a dog that never dies, that in fact never even ages. The puppy goes on being a puppy for weeks, months, years, lives well beyond, the implication whispers, your own discrete life. Though the appeal is obvious, the film quickly undoes one’s sense of desire by showing a baby turning into a boy turning into an adult, an old man, his gravestone…all while the puppy’s tongue hangs clumsily out of its cute small puppy mouth. The discrepancy is terrifying.
Through such exaggeration, Boss Baby sets up corporate culture in direct opposition to human connection, be it love, parenthood, or singular self-determined joy. In other words, happiness or success? When I was younger, the question manifested as a bedtime ritual: if I were a singer, would I rather be talented and ugly, or beautiful with a mediocre voice? I’d lay in bed night after night obsessing over the idea that to produce a certain kind of art you might need to look strange, that effort needed an invitation to show up plainly on your face, trying and contorted. I don’t need to confess which one I chose night after night as I spent those teenage girl years hiding in toxic analogies—I had ingested one too many television shows and magazine covers and middle school conversations, where value was conflated with romance and women with objects, all that media aimed directly at me. I’d never become a good singer, beautiful or otherwise, but I was practically born a very good audience.
When corporate success and family life are so directly opposed, love, intimacy, memories, photographs, and all the things that help establish social meaning and purpose exist mainly as alternatives to perpetual youth and immortality, a dichotomy summarized and symbolized by a pet that can live forever. As such, family bonds are necessarily born of and climb toward decay, death held in the arms of reproduction and vice versa. Perhaps one can’t be happy all the time in the same way that people are not immortal, and to want anything otherwise would be to exile yourself from your social circumstances, to undo your death as quickly as your birth. “I wasn’t born. I was hired,” says the eponymous baby himself, cleaving space between existence and work, between family values and company protocol. Each time I watch the movie I am reminded that what leads to financial success is not usually the same stuff that leads to intimacy and growth, shared vulnerability, to closeness and community and family and friends, whether chosen or assigned.
It’s that sense of choice that Boss Baby highlights so well, expanding traditional family arrangements. An off-camera explanation of where babies really come from is framed as a gross joke, but rather than stigmatizing the body’s natural processes it contributes to the understanding that families are chosen as often as they are produced by blood, that in so many ways even the people who just show up in your life are kept there only through active, repeated choice. Families are like environments and benefit from biodiversity, from the gathering of different purposes and desires, different motivations and origins, all in the same place.
“You can’t miss what you never had.” In the movie, it is spoken as poorly disguised grief, precursor to a toxic male defense. But you also can’t have what you don’t see. Like so many girls, I learned that part of being a woman is keeping yourself desired and sought after by keeping yourself missed, and this is how presence can be dictated by absence. No wonder I always chose beauty over talent, I was practically inventing my own form of female invisibility; I wanted a flatness and a blankness, pure beauty that didn’t rely on ability. And I wanted, more than anything else, to be missed and thought of and worried about, to hum in the minds of those who couldn’t see me. When your constitution is held between your absence and your appearance, it’s easy to be confused about where you exist, to misunderstand invisibility as really quite appealing.
If happiness were easy, would it remain desirable? If men lived forever, little puppy dogs of strength, would women fall happily into old age? Do men seek women for the same reasons that adults seek puppies and bloodlines and babies: to locate a part of yourself outside yourself, to pretend there’s some piece of you that remains visible even when you go away? Or to present yourself, confidently, in the space of another’s absence.
The gender of happiness, but also: the gender of the pursuit. Of searching and of filling out and of looking, looking, looking. A child’s gaze is often scattered and surreptitious, until adulthood forces it to hover in one spot. When you perform adulthood for long enough you begin to confuse it with instinct, that below-sea-level murmuring that predates even the most imaginative internal monologues, the you that is both hidden and remembered. See how easy it is to make invisibility sound tangible, to forgive gender problems as problems of age?
The corporate machine, with mechanical arms that read and interpret each newborn, doesn’t recognize Boss Baby’s “tickle zones”—a metaphor for basic human need, disguised as armpits, tummies, ticklish feet—and sends him off to management. Don’t we all live some version of this story? Some of us have unrecognizable desires, or bodies that do not act the way others expect them to, or brains that don’t perform well what we’ve learned, or personalities that try too hard, or that don’t try at all. Misrecognition suggests limited abilities and expectations, rendering certain purposes (and in some cases, people) obsolete.
The turn comes when Tim, Boss Baby’s kid brother, discovers that love is not finite, that sharing is not a neighbor of lack. Though we attribute such qualities to monetary wealth, it is love, after all, that remains chaseable and pursuable, that grows without restriction, that sustains and is sustained by equity. Love, which climbs perpetually upward no matter its point of origin, for there is just always room for more.
Boss Baby disentangles the knot made of capitalism and the American family unit: nuclear, built on consumption, wherein things (babies) can be returned and products (love) are finite and tempered by demand. “If there isn’t enough love for the two of us then I wanna give you all of mine,” says Tim. It is the ungendering of love, boys and men giving everything they have, a quantity not counted by numbers, the multifaceted beating heart: full of mass though you can’t weigh it; how it’s right there in front of you, visible and saying hello, how you want it so much.
The camera conjures as much as it contains, photography being an always-pointing medium. In this way, cameras and words are actually quite similar.
I’m only two sentences in and I’ve already messed up, conflating tool with outcome. A camera makes photos but they remain two separate things, machine and picture. Words, on the other hand, make more words, vehicle and product all wrapped up in the same gesture. Words are not pens, pieces of paper, typewriters, laptops. How to compare words to cameras with any hope for sense by the end of this? You don’t even really need any of those objects to make a poem. I can make a poem in my head and you simply have to trust me that it’s there. In this way, poems are like relationships: easily built of things you may never have access to.
Poems do not rely on tools, machines. “A poem is a small (or large) machine made of words,” said William Carlos Williams, in the 40s. I am only one person in a long history of people conflating tool with outcome for the sake of the writing. Just give me a rock and a stone and I’ll show you a poem. A rock and a heart and a thinking mind, full of memory. A rock and a hard place. Poems are everywhere! I can make one out of anything—this shampoo bottle, this sleeping cat—and so, too, with the photograph. I could photograph anything I might possibly hope to contain. And there it exists: contained! Frame, sprocket hole, negative. Or else I put it in the poem, let it seed.
Do poems have sprocket holes? What’s the relationship between film negative and white space? And what of duplication, cropping, or auto enhance?
With words in my hands, I make more words. They self-reproduce—parthenogenesis, if you want to be technical about it. On the heels of these other words I produce more and newer ones, turning one thought into many, contradicting my meaning as if the act itself is how I pump oxygen directly into my brain. My body functions through contradiction, through conjuring and containment. I take a picture of myself and then I age beyond it. “Every picture is of you when you were younger” (Mitch Hedberg). I conjure my self in the poem. I contain my thoughts in words and the white space in between. I look at my negatives and translate them, miraculously, into positives.
The linear progression of time is an inherent factor. But on the page, I sometimes feel the true feeling of being young forever, that I am writing directly into the future from a body that remains, as if language were a vehicle that could opt out of time directly, could simply just go in another direction. Words can always go in another direction!
Once, I had a film camera with a built-in fisheye lens. This camera took all manner of pictures: the sun peeking out from behind a fire hydrant, double exposures of street signs and random fences, poorly lit indoor shots of my cats. I would soon expand to include other film cameras, cross-processing, self-development, scanning at home, exploring things like texture and expired film. But the Fisheye was where it started, taking precious selfies before the word was a category, blurry shots of someone’s leg, a car driving by a little too slowly for a slow shutter. Always get closer to the object, or whatever they say. So I, the subject, would try, regardless of circumstance.
I used my Fisheye camera to make photos, sometimes with a lot of intention, sometimes without. I would line up the lens directly in front of a brick wall, click the shutter, flip a manual switch and take another photo, creating the illusion that flowers could grow not just before the wall but inside its top layer. With this camera I became a surgeon. Aren’t all artists trying to infiltrate our organs, working from the inside out, disrupting the safety of forms?
Then again, form gives you something to bounce off of, containers sometimes providing a method for setting aside dedicated space in which to invent. In a truly free, formless space, it would be very difficult to get close to anything. You would just float, pained and unsure of yourself, unsure of where you’re going or why.
With that Fisheye camera I became a doctor. Sometimes, I was so overwhelmed with my power to create that I did not even think twice—click, click—just walked around my town, my neighborhood, my place of employment—click, click—as if I couldn’t be bothered with details, lighting, angles, outcomes. I was in love with the process. I was in love as if I’d made a baby. Every word that came out of her mouth, every new shaking of her chubby little baby arms, every diaper change was enough to blow my heart wide open: this didn’t exist, and now it does. I built albums and albums of photos, including the bad ones, made scrapbooks, the occasional larger print. It was the act of making that I couldn’t get enough of, the dynamic relationship between tool and product, this little machine nestled in my hearthands. Creation transforming into nourishment. In parental terms it was a total disaster, me wanting and needing my babe so much more than it could ever need me. But when your baby is art, it’s okay to not be careful.
The surgeries grew more and more laborious, and I soon switched tools. I took less photos and I wrote and wrote and wrote instead, filling up my time with my language, forcing the two to meet in the middle. Aren’t all poets folding language into time, creating the sense that you’ve aged, that you’ve transported, that you’ve grown shorter or taller in the space of a few lines, a space in which it is difficult to take change for granted? Poems, too, can shift organs, can induce electric shock, can resuscitate the sick, unwell, starving body that reads them.
For a long time, I made my poems in the same vigorous way that I made my photos. Have I stopped? Have I grown satiated, tired, burned out? Have I found new ways to perpetuate abandonment? Conjured and then contained so much of me that I no longer recognize myself beyond the page, no longer have anything to write about, no life to translate into words and empty spaces. Am I living all the white space already, the occasional Oh and metaphor shaping my small life, getting smaller? And what about my own organs? Do I need medical help?
It is hard, in case you haven’t noticed, for me to think about my relationship to tools and making without also thinking about my relationship to myself. I’m talking about an attention that is pre-selfcare industry, just a girl and her body, not getting along. Wishing each other were different, trying so hard to synchronize tool with result. Trying to conjure the most photogenic parts. To contain, to write past, all the overdeveloped stuff.
The space between taking a photo and developing the film, seeing the result—there is this period of time in which you are forced to not know. You are allowed to not know. What relief! Like the space right after the interview, the submission, the attempt: that momentary feeling of having nothing to do because you’ve already done it. A contentedness born despite, or is it precisely through, unknowing.
I will tell you a secret: this is the same content found in writing. No matter how the words grow and double on the page before you, the poet learns to be comfortable with the act of seeing words and still not knowing. Writing is itself a gesture of reaching, whether in panic or to pass the time, to make sense of things but never so much that you bypass all waiting, all development. There is always more, and you have to continue writing regardless. You have to get used to not knowing ahead of time, as they say, even when “ahead of time” really just means you’re in the muck of writing writing writing, when ahead is entirely in the middle and the only way out is through.
It does not always come out correctly from the start. You don’t always get the shot on the first click. You wouldn’t blame the camera—so, too, you must bring a spirit of generosity to language, acknowledging the downside of such expansiveness, its ability to contain nonsense without shame.
I could just as easily be suspicious of words instead of pouring all this time into defending them. Often enough I’ve held a light up to their shiny scared faces, wondering where they’ve really been; wanting desperately, as if I could solve the heartache of the world, to just get to the bottom of their intentions.
I began taking less photos not through some active decision or profound refusal. I just became less interested in that kind of building. Through words, one directly discovers, in a way that simultaneously suggests invention. Was it there or did I make it? I began to search for some greater form of equity through the bypassing of visual consumption. I had become exhausted by visual consumption, having grown so accustomed to certain public discourses, to common descriptions of my own female trajectories, visual-based value, misogyny seeping out of all the cracks and corners, in fact I still sometimes struggle to recognize myself at all. This is an image of me when I was younger, except I’m still there now, waving at the camera, hoping my eyes aren’t closed when I swore I had them open. This is me on the page, happily confusing my body with something else. Say it enough and the thing becomes true, or at least becomes history.
In the kitchen the other night, I peeled and roasted beet after beet, in the mess of it and without a proper vegetable peeler, only to come away slightly deflated when I saw the purple-red wash off my hands instantly and entirely. I wanted to come away stained. I’d already started imagining how money would look being passed from my hands, though first I’d have to get some. This is what I’m talking about: I am exhausted! By looking and by paying for things. Some days I just want to write a poem, the body within it, gendered or not, seen but mostly through metaphor. Metaphor is a lovely way to give your eyes a much-needed rest. Metaphor is like a hammock. It represents so much more than what it is, just string and netting and some available trees. Some days I want to close my eyes and write until my hands hurt. Some days I want to push the lens directly onto the paper, trace its perfect roundness with a pen, spend the afternoon looking at the world one page at a time while the trees hold me up. It is the thinnest of filters, poetry. It is a good method for getting close.
[Note: a revised, slightly expanded version of this essay can be found in ASAP/J.]
It’s been on my mind much longer than it has lived in my mouth as an articulated idea. Usually, it takes the visceral shape of, How do I get what I’m here for? or How can my all-the-time needs be fulfilled while on-the-clock? Or, most simply, How do I make this my thing? From waiting tables to performing cheap university labor to working at small disorganized non-profits, I cannot deny the years-long existence of this tendency in me, practically from the moment I entered the workforce, to infiltrate. I’ve done it for selfish purposes (finishing a task early and sneakily writing a poem). I’ve done it in socially agreed upon capacities (no customers = no better time to get some reading done). And I’ve done it toward political, by which I mean personal, ends (if I’ve already got these teens making collage postcards, I might as well leave our Senators’ mailing addresses in an encouraging location, might as well teach them about the wage gap).
Infiltration implies resistance, that one cannot accomplish one’s needs or desires through a purely transparent or accepted method. Or else it implies a disconnect between what two different people determine as valuable. I would be hard pressed to try and convince my boss that if I can just get these last few lines written down, these last few pages read, I would be in a much better capacity to take that family’s order.
Perhaps this makes me a bad employee. Perhaps I merely have yet to find a job that will let me feel truly fulfilled, holistically present, one that won’t demand that I compartmentalize these diverse capacities so presumably at odds within me. Poet. Care worker. Has-to-pay-rent-monthly person. Add to this the fact that I swing wildly between manic motivation and a sluggishness that any grown woman should be ashamed of, and it’s no surprise that my obligations and my intentions can sometimes feel slippery and interchangeable. But the fact is that I’ve found myself, repeatedly, in situations where I’ve felt driven to infiltrate, either to accomplish what I see as most beneficial and responsible or, less glamorously, to try and remain a somewhat sane person, one whose time could be used in a manner reflective of the value of such finite resources.
This situation is nothing new or rare, my insights entirely standard ones. But this is the context that shaped my reception of “In Defense of Imagination,” a conversation recently published in Guernica between Ada Limón and Matthew Zapruder, on the occasion of the latter’s newest book of prose. It’s a sweet interaction, one that veers from poetry’s distilled powers to Dickinson’s feminist trailblazing to descriptions of classroom teaching that give Dead Poets Society a run for its money, and I found it both useful and inspiring, these two accomplished writers paying such genuine attention to all the different ways a word can hold things like acceptance, or grief. Zapruder’s new book, Why Poetry, sounds like a thoughtful, well-researched and self-reflexive read, and the excerpts popping up online prove this. Every time I write that title down, I have to backspace and delete the question mark that I automatically insert at the end, and this seems important: though Zapruder seems wholly invested in the way that questions can shape and deepen one’s love of a thing, his aim with this book is also to give readers some justification, some support, an expansive explanation: not why poetry? but here’s why poetry.
I like Limón’s distinctions between useful and necessary, and I like the way Zapruder says “neat” to show admiration. And I’m most certainly always happier to read this type of exchange, an optimistic and sweeping battle cry on behalf of the generic Poetry world, than to read the clever and pointless attacks and insults—poetry is dead!—that seem to pop up with embarrassing regularity.
I can always manage to quickly forget about those harsh, self-serving criticisms, usually after a brief period of rowdy commiseration and beer drinking. And yet it’s the optimistic defenses—Limón and Zapruder’s conversation, the love letters, the impassioned and straight up happy appraisals of the poet’s life and purpose—that sometimes keep me up at night, leave me feeling as if I’m doing something wrong, as if I must have misunderstood some key component of success somewhere along the way. As if maybe my own version of public rallying would not revolve around a wholly committed defense of Poetry and Poetics. Feelings are feelings, but where in the world does this one come from? Me, a poet, wanting to infiltrate my own love of a thing with suspicion and privacy, with the cold truth of its actual limitations and perhaps even a healthy dose of believing that, at the end of the day, poemdoing is utterly not the same thing as any other form of doing. An awareness that I stubbornly insist on voicing even when contexts are made clear: poetry is simply a space for a certain kind of thinking—“anarchic,” even, as Zapruder describes it at one point—and nobody here is trying to claim that it prevents oppression, or that it campaigns, or that it legislates.
It is an awareness of purpose—the actual vulnerable heart of these kinds of discussions, I suspect—that felt uncomfortably poked as I read through Limón and Zapruder’s conversation. Almost immediately, Limón points out the invigoration that can be felt at belonging to an occupation so regularly misunderstood or deemed pointless and therefore requiring defense; after all, she cites, nobody questions lawyers and their practice of law, or waiters and the validity or usefulness or reasoning behind why they do what they do.
I am also a poet, though I would not call it my vocation, not in the sense that it’s connected to how I pay my bills, and neither does it provide me with even a small source of bonus income. I have been paid a couple of times for things I have written that were not commissioned, things truly born of the soul or whatever else in me, the purpose of writing them having been a deeply and entirely personal one (which, to be clear, does not automatically apply to the content itself). How many people are truly making a living from their poems, not in the poetic sense but the IRL one: making enough money from appearances and publications and other writerly accoutrements that I don’t even have access to imagining, that they’re able to confuse their job with their passion? How many people can strictly give one answer to the infamous question, “so, what do you do?”
To compare the poet defending her work to the lawyer, the waitress, the librarian, or the barista is to suggest that the poet’s skills might be quantifiable to begin with, that one can simply decide to become a poet in a socially recognizable way and then proceed forward in the manner of their choosing: open a poem shop, or start publishing in exchange for immediate money, perhaps even become a celebrity poet in public. I’m moved and engaged by Limón and Zapruder’s discussion of what poetry is for, in a philosophical and, well, a poetic sense, but I’m made sad by the misleading comparison of jobs. I cannot support myself through my love of reading and writing poetry, not even through my skill (arguable as it may be). And though I live a sheltered life in a small town, one that affords/restricts me to my own situated perspective, I insist on claiming with full confidence that not many people are making rent through their poems. To imply anything otherwise seems ungrounded, or silly, or oblivious.
Perhaps when the job of the poet is discussed with so few footnotes, what is really being talked about is teaching. I get it: you love poetry, you obtain a degree in English or Creative Writing, and then you pursue professorship and Academia all the way. But now I’d like to make another confident claim: poetry is not, no matter what they tell you, the purview of higher education alone. It is a bastard child, or maybe an adopted one? Perhaps it’s just righteously immature. The point is that while I do understand the poet who aims to teach, whose goal is to pursue their Poethood as one stemming from or revolving around the classroom, I lament the lack of imagination that suggests there’s no other way to do it. It is, I suppose, a grief born of fact: there isn’t really any other clear way to be a poet, not professionally. You can write and publish and read and submit, enter contests and attend AWPs, network, do the obligatory social dances of recognition and branding, and maybe one day you will publish a book, maybe even a few. But you will probably, even then, still have a day job.
It would be remiss of me not to acknowledge this comment from Zapruder, occurring about a third of the way into the conversation:
Some people have seen [prior remarks about the definition of poetry] as the mark of privilege, as if only someone who is magically free of all societal and personal pressures (oh, how I wish!) could ‘afford’ to think in such a way…I hope anyone who reads the book will see that if freedom in the imagination is a privilege, it’s one I believe everyone should have, as a basic human right.”
I love this: the acknowledgment, the advocacy, the sincerity. I’d just like to call a spade a spade, a poem a poem. Necessary and useless. Placing “Poet” amongst other occupations is like positioning this baby doll as my offspring. We’re all just playing around! That’s why we’re good at poems. We shouldn’t stop writing them, but maybe we should think twice about calling it our job?
What we call things matters (see: whatever Trump recently said on Twitter), as they direct our sense-making. Some people look around and say, biology, psychology, accident. Others, magic, meant-to-be, or perfection. Most of us, all of us, fly back and forth between such poles, our reason and our desire and our imagination all sharing the same bed regardless of their different or competing sleep schedules. And some people choose, in the face of harsh realities and limited abilities, in the face of explanation and fact, to leave a little space open in them for optimism and hope, for the birth of a spirit animal, for the way providence sheds a slightly different light on the object before you than does coincidence. It is, undoubtedly, the poet’s choice: you infiltrate reality with meaning. You write the poem regardless.
Here are some things I do want: more generosity stemming from deep within myself, more confidence in how and when and for whom I define my boundaries, more play, more money, more stability, more responsibility in tandem with the constantly growing amounts of more complicity; to write more poems, to read more poems, to vary when and where and for whom I write those poems; to sneak more creativity into boring jobs, to sneak more political engagement into daily activities, to sneak more vegetables into my boyfriend’s food, to sneak more gratitude and acceptance into my engagements with difference, with poets unlike me, with people who do different jobs than me or even the same jobs but to different ends. To sneak some vulnerability into every single engagement between myself and the page. To sneak the poem into the essay and vice versa.
Poetry is its own form of infiltration: it breaks into language and steals meaning, steals utility, lays bare a wealth of behind-the-scenes linguistic functioning and inserts all manner of happenstance and coincidence and prank where none existed before. Could it ever truly be an occupation when it revolves around infiltrating the means of production themselves? It is always about getting away with something, and often some form of robbery. Though most people choose a better getaway vehicle than words.
Pure infiltration. What other medium, what other linguistic shape or form of communication could allow its own angst to intrude upon its defenses, could allow or even encourage the subordinate to both betray her responsibilities and question the enterprise itself? Perhaps the real job of the poet is to write regardless of circumstance, to pretend for once in this capitalist-centric world that money might be what it actually is: beside the point. As Dickinson might say, the prose in which we are all shut up.
Can you be at the very edges of your selfhood while writing from the center of yourself? Can writing be a dangerous edge that the body refuses? Or is my writing the edge with which I touch things, a fingertip?”
Essay published in So to Speak.
“There is a way in which the silent body, at the request of those receiving it, threatens to become the invisible body. As if spoken language alone can constitute our reception, our method of meaning. What does it mean to be a quiet girl in a room full of people? If my own experiences are to be trusted, not much.”
Full essay in Cosmonauts Avenue.
Madness, Rack, and Honey has been sitting on my desk for weeks now, waiting to be revisited. The other day, I started flipping through and reading, out of context, the marginalia from my first and second encounters with the book, until I stopped at Ruefle’s essay, “On Fear.” I thought I could study my two sets of margin notes and come up with a working definition of fear, some easy way to explain what I mean when I consider my own relationship to it.
My first note from my first reading of the essay came from one of those mechanical pencils that resemble the classic non-mechanical archetype (yellow handle, pink gum eraser, wood texture near the tip). It was a subtle mark: two soft bendy lines surrounding the paragraphs where Mary talks about being “a fool on a fool’s errand.” I guess I wanted to cushion this moment in the essay by putting loose almost-parentheses around the general area, leading my eyes to pay special attention upon a second reading as opposed to, say, pulling out and isolating one specific sentence.
My first note from my second reading is much more aggressive, written in black pen, not only on the first page or first paragraph but resting on the right-hand side of the first two sentences: I simply wrote, “vs. listening, pg. 77.” I guess I wanted to highlight some juxtaposition between two ideas, the first being that words could be “unnecessary and superfluous and thereby unintentionally cruel,” and the second being from Mary’s essay, “On Secrets,” where she says that she writes “because I have not yet heard what I have been listening to.” Perhaps this moment in “Fear” made me remember that moment in “Secrets” because I subconsciously wanted to opt for a more justifying and inclusive definition of what constitutes writing: that to be open to learning and change, we must keep writing so as to keep listening, and so how could there be room for such a thing as superfluous words? There has to be more than six degrees of separation between listening and unintentional cruelty! How else can I justify all these words words words while also feeling like a good listener and a compassionate, cruelty-free citizen?
Upon writing all of this out I’m struck by how, context aside, secrets and fear have so much to do with each other: the fear of the consequences of divulging something private, or perhaps the fear that leads one to keep something private to begin with. And so maybe this honorable act of listening/writing is still one motivated by that cognitive four-letter feeling: I must write because I must listen because I must know what I don’t know, I must discover the secrets that I don’t even know are being kept from me. A fear-induced kind of learning, so to say.
And now I am struck by how I’ve fallen in line with Mary’s very first example of fear: I began by claiming I was going to define the word “fear” and here I am instead trying to justify why I write, trying at all costs to avoid the revelation that I may have “consecrated my life to an imbecility.”
Perhaps I should have said, do we write toward fear or away from it?, and left it at that.
Here’s what I think: “fear is like a hangover,” and I do agree with Ruefle. Fear is memory based—whether we wake up the next morning and feel embarrassed or fuzzy or leaning into regret—and has to do with consequences, with the body, with repetition or the avoidance of such. Ruefle claims that fear does in fact drive us but I wonder too if it’s the thing that blocks us, the thing that prevents me from writing as much as it forces me to. I read her description of lying in a hammock and being overcome with fear and I think that’s not just fear but anxiety; how it is anxiety that makes me want to know with certainty all the things I may at various times claim to need to know, and how it is also anxiety that makes me, the older I get, see the value in clichés, like “ignorance is bliss”—both the words and the sentiment, how there comes a time and place for the need to convey much through very little effort, and quickly, please.
Through fear, do we seek order or do we seek chaos? Which is better? Anyone who has read Mary Ruefle knows she only pretends to give a solid stance on anything, and I’m not going to try to sort out such a complex dichotomy either. But I will say this: I was listening to a comedy podcast a while back, and the guest told a short anecdote about Jerry Seinfeld. He said that while the eponymous show was still actively on air, Jerry had hung up, in the writer’s room, one of those posters showing what the entire galaxy looks like from far away. Jerry found this to be a humbling and helpful reminder, especially during the stressful, pressure-filled job of writing episodes: to remember how gigantic the universe is and how small one episode of a sitcom is, to gain a comforting though incomprehensible (or perhaps comforting through being incomprehensible) perspective. And the guest went on to explain how some of the other writers experienced the exact opposite of this: how they were filled with dread at the insignificance of life, of writing, of TV…what does any of that even amount to in the face of all existence? And I bring this up because since hearing this anecdote, months ago, I still haven’t made up my mind: does the galaxy poster soothe me or incite me? Do I fear the vastness, or my own singular weight?
In the very last margin notes, at the very end of my last reading of “On Fear,” I wrote: can fear, like me, contradict itself? Can I be scared enough to want to know everything and nothing, in terrified and rotating intervals?
Sometimes I think I’ll have a better grasp on my life, my writerhood, if only I could say something definitive: no!, the galaxy poster terrifies me and distracts from my ability to maintain motivation. Or yes!, it hangs above my desk so as to instill repeatedly a sense of the beautiful vastness of the world and my ability to take risks in it, because eventually I’ll be smaller and smaller than I am even now, I’ll be dead, and I’m already so much smaller than the stars.
I guess you could say that fear is causing me to seek out definitive knowledge, which promises to secure me. As if I could possibly justify my desire for shape, separate from the content it holds—how I care less about the decision itself and more about my certainty of it. Knowledge, to me: “Eventually you will know things, Sarah, and then you will be safe.” But Mary also says, in another essay, that you cannot know and learn at the same time, and this I certainly agree with, because the more I learn, the more I realize how very little I know, how ignorance sometimes really is blissful; how, should I ever own a galaxy poster, it will live on the bedroom wall, in the kitchen, rolled up in the spare room, back on the bedroom wall but near a window this time, below the desk, above the desk, folded up beneath a pile of textbooks, torn along the lowest accessible corners by one or more of the cats, ripped endlessly from being moved and taken down so many times.
Contemplation, strictly speaking, entails self-forgetfulness on the part of the spectator: an object worthy of contemplation is one which, in effect, annihilates the perceiving subject…In principle, the audience may not even add its thought. All objects, rightly perceived, are already full.” -Susan Sontag
A proposition: to be honest about the changing of one’s mind. Even when it comes to a stupid poster and where it belongs and how I feel about it from one day to the next; regardless of my ignorance and my mutability, to remain focused, to stare directly at the thing: to consider, I mean fully apprehend, the usefulness of the poster when it is hung before me, until I wake up and need to experience it otherwise. And then to fully contemplate otherwise.
To know that my mind will change doesn’t necessarily require dismissal of its current state—though what a very scary thing to do, trusting yourself and your work even as you come to recognize, intimately, your own evolutions. Claudia Rankine brilliantly observes that she works in book-length projects because she cannot trust the authenticity of any given moment. I think I work in similar forms—projects, sustained inquiries, Truth understood as a series of contradictions—through less graceful means: an over-trusting of, a stubborn adhering to, whatever’s in front of me. Presence guided by panic.
I guess my proposition is one of self-trust, and the necessary act of making it public—the life of the poet.
A poet learning TRUST is essential learning.” -CA Conrad
What a terrifying risk, life; not the living but the knowing about it.