Fear and now

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.

On composure

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 suddenly realize a mistake I’ve made in life, see something I wrote long ago in a poem and then chastise myself for not having recognized it sooner, the awareness of the mistake having been there, tucked in the writing, all along. But with each 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]