Carolyn Guinzio is the author of seven collections. Her new collection A VERTIGO BOOK (The Word Works, 2021) was the 2020 winner of the Tenth Gate Prize. Her work has appeared in Poetry, The Nation, The New Yorker and many other journals. She lives in Fayetteville, AR. Visit her website to learn more.
Our Issue 28 Art Editor, Khanh Nguyen, wrote a few interview questions for Carolyn and this is her lovely response:
Carolyn Guinzio: I have found that I can reach places with visual poetry that I could not get to with text alone. It started somewhat accidentally, when I was with my son in a second hand store in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where we live and where he has grown up. Covered in dust in a corner we found a film reel. It was unwrapped, and it had no price on it. We held it to the light and realized it was a trailer for the movie Elizabethtown, which takes place and was shot in the town where my son was born. The strangeness of inexplicably finding it there was inspiring. We knew we could make something from it. I layered macro-photos of frames from the trailer over photographs of our current environs: our road, the hills, the windows of our house— and then layered micro-poems primarily about my son: his birth, his earliest years (we lived in Kentucky the first 18 months of his life). My hope was to get at something about time, memory, place, and loss. We lived on the eastern edge of the Central time zone, so we had to cross into Eastern time to get to the hospital: something I always found peculiar and a little disorienting. What time was my son born? How do places impact our sense of our own identities? Something about the layering of images with these ideas I felt helped me examine a complicated pursuit in a way that was more evocative and subtle than I was capable of through just text.
I was a total convert after that, particularly since place is so important to me in my work. The next thing I tried was about the experience of revisiting old haunts on Google Earth. There’s nothing like it to make one realize how limiting a virtual visit can be. I love these technologies, and having access to them is what makes so much of what I try to do possible, and yet, and yet— looking at an image of the street where I grew up does not feel like standing on the street where I grew up. A combination of media might get me closer to what fragments of memory actually feel like.
Often, a fleeting image or concept will pop into my head, and I’ll wonder: can I make that happen? The project Ozark Crows, which was excerpted here at Superstition Review, began with a single image in my mind, of two crows in the sky holding a ribbon of text between them in their beaks. The sky and trees around my home are filled with an extended family of crows, and I was already somewhat obsessed with them— their intelligence, their way of interacting with each other, ranging from the irritable to the tender. They interacted with us, too, leaving a piece of glass in the spot where we tossed out some stale cornbread, for instance. By then, I’d read so many books about crows that I was able to understand a lot of what I was observing, and this gave me so many ideas for the pieces in the book. It was incredibly difficult, and I don’t think I ever had more fun on a project. That Spuyten-Duyvil Press was able to make it into a book, and such a lovely one at that, is something I’ll always be so grateful for.
Because of my interest in place, most of the images I use are taken in places of personal significance, primarily where I live: the ground, water and sky where I’ve spent the last twenty years with my family, in the Ozark Mountains just outside Fayetteville. I think I’ve documented it to within a square inch of its life!
The project I’m currently finishing began the same way: with an image that appeared to me, and that I wondered if I could make. I love skeletonized, disintegrating leaves— I find them almost more beautiful than perfect, supple leaves. They themselves are like poems to me, a poignant memento mori. We are all trying to make something lasting and meaningful, something that can reach across time, and when I pick up a leaf with a beautiful pattern chewed into it by some infinitesimal worm, when I hold it to the sky and make a macro-photo of a tiny fragment of it, I feel like I’m participating in, acknowledging, a meaningful continuum. What if a fragment of a poem was visible through these holes? What if it was handwritten? Because I make things digitally, I want to mitigate the coldness of that form. I thought that the intimacy of the handwritten word— evidence of a human hand— coupled with the fact that the text in these pieces is so small that one has to lean in closely to glean even a fragment of meaning, I might succeed in making something that had a sense of warmth and life despite being created digitally. I am drawn to the idea that something as small as a hole in a leaf can contain a universe, or at least a poem. I’m also hopeful that, despite the crush of data we all experience, the isolation of the last year, the divisions and alienation, we can still reach other somehow.
All of this is not to say that I don’t also love writing. My newest collection, A Vertigo Book, is made entirely of words, and in fact, much of it was written during a period when taking photographs was difficult because I was suffering from a particularly terrible bout of vertigo. The words, the very shape of letters, felt like a way to hold onto the earth and keep it still, almost like bird feet clinging to a wire. And it’s probably no accident that, after months of looking up to photograph crows, the LEAF project requires me to, instead, keep my eyes on the ground.
Many would argue that poems do not matter in today’s world. Very few people read poems voluntarily, and even fewer buy books of poems. Probably 99.9% of poets can’t exist on writing poems; they must work at something or leech off others–parents, spouses, social services. Most people see no practical value in these short, broken lines on the page.
Yet it’s interesting to me that we turn to poetry at crucial times. For example, when we’re in love, suddenly the words, sentiments, emotions found in love poems matter to us. After 9-11, people wrote and read poems because poems often capture what we can’t express. At a recent funeral, three of the five people giving testimonies read poems. In these moments of deep feeling, we often turn to poetry, trying to capture some human essence in words and images.
I am a believer in poetry. Not just because I write poetry but because I read it. Through poems, I have been awakened, I have experienced, and I have imagined worlds that would never have been within my scope of knowledge. I am caught up in the idea that by putting little ink marks on paper, a writer can move a reader to tears, to joy, to feeling, to understanding, all by cobbling together words and images in a particular order.
Poetry matters because poems focus our attention. This modern life is busy and complex. We run and hurry from one obligation to another, often confused by the idea that the busier we are, the more we live. The opposite is probably true. As we rush from project to person to responsibility, we ignore the here and now, the clouds forming in the sky, the heron flying overhead, the kids jumping in leaf piles. Sometimes we ignore the fact that the world is falling apart around us—climate change, world hunger, ethnic cleansing—to name just a few, and poems can urge us to take action. Poems can focus our attention on what we need to do to survive in this world.
Poems require us to stop, slow down, narrow our view on the particular, the specific. Poems may even require multiple readings. This focus hones our ability to perceive and pay attention in our own lives. James Tate, Pulitzer prize winner in poetry, touches on this ability of poetry to capture life’s essence: “While most prose is a kind of continuous chatter, describing, naming, explaining, poetry speaks against an essential backdrop of silence. It is almost reluctant to speak at all…there is a prayerful haunted silence between words, between phrases, between images, ideas, and lines. The reader, perhaps without knowing it, instinctively desires to peer between the cracks into the other world.” Tate implies a sacredness, a holiness, here. There is more to the poem than the words. Something exists between the words and phrases, inside the body of writing, that we sense when we read a good poem. Another modern poet, E.A. Robinson, said, “Poetry tells us, through more or less an emotional reaction, something that cannot be said,” highlighting that impossible nature of true art.
Since experience matters, poems matter. In poems (as in stories, novels, and plays), we imaginatively experience the lives of other people. We see the world from different perspectives and viewpoints. We get a chance to live out experiences we might never have in our own lives. Billy Collins, a former poet laureate of the United States, says, “When we read a poem, we enter the consciousness of another. It requires that we loosen some of our fixed notions in order to accommodate another point of view.” In this manner, we broaden our understanding of the world.
Poems inform us that there are other perspectives, viewpoints, emotions. They enlighten us with other people’s take on life, most likely different from ours. These “voices” coming in affect us, expand us, strengthen and weaken us. Most importantly, they force us to re-think our own narrow perspective and re-examine our ideas.
Poems touch each reader uniquely; they make us feel reassured about our humanity and remind us that we are part of the human family. Readers bring their own experiences, past, emotions, even dreams into the understanding of poems. In his Nobel prize speech, Pablo Neruda puts it so eloquently: “All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are.” Every poem is an attempt to translate human experience, to explain the unexplainable. We all want to connect with others, and poems are exercises in sharing–an image, a thought or idea, a loss, a hope, a memory. The more we share, the more we grow, understand, and are understood. And the more we share, as readers or writers, the larger we become, more compassionate, more humane, more real.
If the imagination matters, then poems matter. Poems stretch our minds beyond their normal limits, and that, of course, builds and strengthens our imaginations. We all know that original inventions and solutions to problems come from people who think creatively, who can imagine worlds beyond the one we live in. Novelist Tom Robbins puts our goal as writers so clearly: “To achieve the marvelous, it is precisely the unthinkable that must be thought.” Writing involves risk-taking. Writing demands the lowering or eliminating of censors inside, and it allows the imagination to play wherever it wants to.
When we read imaginative poems, we exercise our mental muscles; we picture images unknown to us, therefore allowing us to make new and innovative connections that we might not have made previously. Absurd, silly, humorous and surreal poems not only bring pleasure and delight, even confusion at times, but they force us to see and imagine impossible worlds. Combining the impossible with the real nurtures original thought.
Finally, poetry matters because life matters. Gwendolyn Brooks says, “Poetry is life distilled.” All art, in one way or another, shines a spotlight on the here and now, the routine, the miraculous, the mundane, pleading with us to see, to hear, to smell, to feel, to taste the world at our fingertips. Each day is a miracle, and that’s what poems say in that “prayerful haunted silence between words,” as James Tate writes. Every poem I’ve read or written has focused my imagination deeper into life. Each poem adds to the warehouse of my experience.
This is all we have in the end: this precious moment alive. We can plod blindly through each minute and hour and day, living a life of worry and dread and busyness, or we can realize, like poems do, that every experience and feeling, every event and moment, good or bad, conveys the seed of joy and wonder and the miraculous.
Those who live the best are alive the most. And poems help us to live, calling to us like mythical sirens on the ocean of life: Stay awake. Look around. Take the world in. Be alive!
I wasn’t ready for delight when Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights came out in February 2019. It may seem surprising then (if unpopular) that on the anniversary of the end of life as we knew it—March 2021—I felt mostly gratitude. And delight.
When Delights was published, I was descending into burnout, though I didn’t know it. My symptoms—anxiety, irritability, migraines, insomnia, memory loss, exhaustion, inability to focus, hopelessness, crying randomly—didn’t seem indicative of anything beyond aging or my own bodily weakness. Wasn’t everyone stressed out, overworked, and glued to their phones? Didn’t everyone feel looming dread on Sunday afternoons?
One morning on the train to work, an ache spread across my chest. It was like someone tightened a belt around my lungs—I couldn’t breathe. My heart pounded like I was running though I was just sitting there, cringing at the day ahead. After a few hours, the feeling subsided into tingly coolness. My doctor ran a bunch of tests, but she couldn’t find anything wrong. I believed the problem was me—my inability to handle the grind. My husband, Michael, urged me to take a break from what had always been a stressful job. He had a heart attack at my age and didn’t want the same to happen to me.
“I don’t know if I can afford to leave,” I said.
“I don’t know if you can’t.”
That winter, I was forced to agree when the panic attacks and tachycardia recurred with increasing frequency. Nearly a year to the day after Delights was published, I quit my job with nothing lined up—I simply couldn’t work anymore. I told colleagues that 2020 was my gap year. I’d rest and reconnect with Michael, then I’d edit my novel and rethink my relationship to work. Some congratulated me for prioritizing my mental and physical health and my marriage. Others cocked their heads. I was giving up a well-paying job with benefits and a lofty title at a prestigious firm others would “kill” to work for. Quitting indicated I was weak. I’d lost my edge. My career, meaning my life, was over at forty-five.
Secretly, I feared they were right.
What if I was washed up? Had I made a huge mistake?
Of course, I couldn’t imagine we were headed for a global pandemic. Nor could I foresee that, two days before my last at work, we would discover Michael needed a five-way bypass and a new aortic valve. For us, quarantine began on March 1, 2020, to keep Michael healthy for open-heart surgery, scheduled for March 12—the day the hospital closed to visitors.
That afternoon, while Michael recovered in ICU, his surgeon noted copious fluids draining from his chest. It seemed Michael was bleeding internally. They’d have to open him up again. That evening, I spent five awful hours reckoning with the possibility of his death just when life was supposed to get better. When the call came after nine p.m.—Michael survived—I couldn’t believe the news. For me, March 12, 2021, wasn’t the anniversary of losing everything.
It was the anniversary of keeping it.
When Michael went back to work from home last May, I dared to relax. Strangely, quarantine felt like the safest place to be. I wasn’t ready to edit my novel yet, so I asked poet Arianne True for reading recommendations.
“When anyone asks, I always say, Ross Gay,” she said. “No matter what. If you’re happy, read Ross Gay; if you’re sad, same thing.”
I ordered The Book of Delights hoping it wasn’t Pollyanna philosophy or “magical” thinking. It was, in fact, the opposite. In one hundred and two essays, Gay expanded the notion of delight by layering observations of nature, music, and people with reflections on racism, death, and loss. In Gay’s hands, delight wasn’t the opposite of pain: it was inherently interwoven with it. His gaze deepened my understanding of delight as “a human madness,” echoing Zadie Smith’s essay on Joy.
Amidst the gloom of 2020, Ross (note: Gay becomes Ross here) led me to unexpected light-filled places. His delectable asides, his poetic language—Assonance! Consonance! Alliteration!—his sprinkling of profanity, flirtatiousness, frankness—Ross the Boss the King of Applesauce—oh, his tender heart! His emotional intelligence! His ability to write urine and hand job and not be gross! Hey look—Ross and I are the same age! (I’m a month older.) I peered shyly into his eyes via Zoom during a Vermont Studio Center reading of his new book-length poem, Be Holding, feeling faint with fandom.
His observations also helped me examine my own stalled writing.
After finishing Delights, I reread the essays I wrote in 2019 to discover they were miserable. Naturally, they had all been rejected. I started new work, this time scribbling Where’s the delight? on drafts until I found it: often, a single golden thread buried deep. I found that even small glimmers of delight leant range to my work. Acceptances began to arrive. This practice and application of delight—both observing and reflecting on it—was life-changing.
Then came my “brilliant” idea: I’d turn Ross’s process of observing a delight a day into a guide for rediscovering delight in one’s writing. I proposed a generative course with his book as a companion text to Hugo House, a creative writing center in Seattle where I live.
My grand aspirations were dashed in the first fifteen minutes of class.
I was expecting to attract writers closer to my skill level looking for inspiration. One was writing-curious; three journaled a little; two said they wrote stories; one wrote poems. None self-identified as writers. Uh-oh. They signed up because they were sad, they said; they hoped my class might make them feel happier.
My guts made a squelch I hoped wasn’t audible on Zoom.
This wasn’t going to be a crackling discussion where I could rely on my students to dog-pile insights. These people were looking to me—a person clawing out of her own black hole—to help them find actual delight.
I shifted my lesson plans and looked for ways to meet my students where they were. We listened to podcasts of Ross (delight) and I compiled a delight mixtape of their favorite songs. The problem was, I wasn’t prepared to lead a class of students who didn’t want to talk. They were too shy to share more than a few words, even in the chat. The only time my students spoke in sentences was when we took turns reading sections of the book aloud. Everyone agreed Ross’s voice was medicine. He buoyed us. His words were the sun, and we followed them.
I kept asking my students to share their work, but they stonewalled me. I tried to be patient, knowing we were approaching the one-year anniversary of lockdown. The few observations they did share were touching and insightful; I wanted them to take a risk and find something good from it. That was a lot to ask.
The week I said we’d start class by everyone reading a paragraph of their writing, two students dropped out and never returned. Only one dared to share because I asked her to. (She sent me a draft over the weekend. It was fantastic.) The rest were silent.
Why did I think I could teach this class?
What did I know about delight, anyway?
In the ensuing weeks, a familiar sense of dread arose, this time on Saturday mornings before class. I wallowed in glumness until the camera light turned green, then I slapped on a smile. I stopped asking my students to share their work. Instead, we did “delight swaps” in the chat. There was always a stand-out beyond the regular appearances of birds, cats, and flowers, like the mail carrier singing a cappella as she walked down the empty street. Mainly, we read Ross’s essays and we wrote and wrote and wrote.
“I’m a bad teacher,” I sighed after class, face in hands.
“You must be giving them something,” Michael said. “Five keep showing up.”
It felt brutal, though, to pose questions and sit in silence. Sometimes, it was a struggle to get them to read. I gritted my teeth during the long pauses, having learned that if I held back, someone would eventually speak. Along the way I received a couple of notes—Thanks for the inspiring class!—but it didn’t feel inspiring to me. My delight experiment was a failure. Not only the class, but what it represented: my new life, a thing I could point to when former colleagues asked what I was doing with my “free” time.
We began the last session by looking back at the first during which we had drafted a collective definition of delight. My students had been nervous about being pinned down to words, but I assured them our definition could change and grow. After we made a starting list, I pasted Merriam-Webster’s version into the chat. Everyone agreed it was flat in comparison. Ours was messy, but it had depth.
That moment was the glimmering thread I had clung to for six weeks.
At the end of the final class, I asked my students to write—one last time—their personal definitions of delight. I asked them to paste a sentence or two in the chat, and I waited until each had a turn. It took less than five minutes and more than two of silence for them to share what they wrote. After the Zoom boxes went dark, I sat alone in cyberspace rereading their lines.
Tears sprung to my eyes. In our six weeks together, something in them had changed.
My students hadn’t only redefined delight, they had made a collaborative poem, line by line. I thought I’d failed them and myself, but their definitions were alive with vulnerability and nuance. Hope. Fear. Risk. Delight.
As it happened, choreographing twelve hours of prompts also forced me to probe how delight lived (or didn’t) in my life. The class was over; my practice had only begun.
Delight is not “nice to have” nor is it a luxury. It’s not all sunshine and unicorns. It’s a portal into the gloriously labyrinthine human experience that’s right in front of us, inside us, every day—one we turn away from because delight isn’t easy. Instead, we swipe, we like, we click purchase, we dumb things down into zeroes and ones until we, ourselves, become algorithms that other algorithms measure. A practice of delight requires attention that we’re breeding out of ourselves, and I don’t want to go back inside the Matrix.
On this anniversary of the time everything changed, I, too, recommend reading Ross Gay whether you’re happy or sad. His work can help you grapple with the incongruity: joy, happiness, pleasure—yes, and—heartbreak, pain, suffering. Sadness is not a sign you’ve failed, nor is happiness its opposite or even the point. You’ll learn how pain holds hands with delight, how they enrich each other. You’ll learn that practicing delight doesn’t mean shutting your eyes to darkness but opening them to unavoidable loss.
Delight is the confounding truth that humans become more complete by asking questions, by pondering. Delight is having nowhere to go except inside existential discomfort; it’s curiosity of the unpleasant and the unknown. As Mary Ruefle says in her essay On Fear, I’d rather wonder than know, and I do keep wondering: about fear, about death, about the marvelous intricacies of nature whose designs we grapple to understand and whose complexity we mimic bluntly—or destroy, despite what we know.
Delight isn’t binaries or absolutes; it’s depth, scale, range.
A year after quitting my job, my life isn’t free from worry or suffering, nor was quitting an end: it was a volta. If we’re counting, I spend as many hours writing, editing, and teaching as I did at my corporate job, but I feel different. My panic attacks have subsided, though my heart feels permanently changed. I mostly sleep through the night. I can remember things again. The mental fog is lifting. My sense of delight doesn’t arise from not working, but from working with meaningful questions and helping others explore theirs. What does it mean to be human? To be embodied and part of this earth in an inequitable society that prizes individualism, detachment, and distraction? How dare we love anything in a world where everything dies? How do we contemplate mortality beyond misery? Ross taught me it’s never delight or pain, but both, a negative capability—a human madness. For what could be more infuriating than our capacity to be grateful and desirous of more, always more?
Since my mother’s death in my teens, I’ve run from delight. Better to deny myself even small joys than face their inevitable loss. Better to lean in, to achieve, to climb—meet goals, make to-do lists, buy things. I was afraid to feel pleasure, thinking happiness was a lightning rod for catastrophe. Better to keep my eyes down, work hard, earn money; I believed my job would somehow save me. That’s how my capitalist burnout took hold, strangling me as it used my body to propagate itself, like the face-hugger xenomorph in Aliens, a movie I find unsettlingly delightful. Which is to say, The Book of Delights showed me how delight is a technology of rebellion against despair and denial. Sitting, if uncomfortably, in silence asking seemingly unanswerable questions does indeed yield insights. Asking doesn’t solve, it illuminates.
From Ross I learned to turn and face delight. Nothing can prevent Michael’s death or my own, but I can pour my attention into the imperfect time we share—a window of highs and lows whose duration is uncertain, whose quality carries no assurances—before it’s gone.
A study of mortality can be a study of aliveness, if you let it.
At seven years old, I was dinosaur-obsessed. I watched educational dinosaur specials on VHS, and I knew all their names. I visited their bones and models at the Milwaukee Public Museum. I loved their gruesome display of a T-Rex eating a ceratopsian, guts and all.
But I had never actually seen a dinosaur, you know, eat a person.
Not until one glorious summer night in 1993 when, in his infinite wisdom, my father decided to bring pint-sized, pigtailed me to see one of the first theatrical showings of Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park. The film was based on Michael Crichton’s novel of the same name.
The lights went down, and thrilling carnage ensued. I was transfixed, terrified, and fascinated. When we stopped at the gas station to fill up on our way home after the show, I was still shaking. I also begged to see the movie again as soon as possible.
That summer, I wanted to be Dr. Ellie Sattler more than anything in life. Like my idol, I had an intense curiosity about the world around me. I wanted to touch it. I wanted to study it. But I also feared it and knew it could hurt me. Not only were my beloved cinematic velociraptors unbelievably awesome, they were also hideous and deadly. They were the manifestation of the unique awe that comes from an acknowledgement of human frailty. A shrieking animatronic memento mori, if you will.
After Jurassic Park broke my brain, I developed an all-consuming love for creatures that I feared. In literature and film, I looked for them wherever I could. The monster could assume so many different forms, from killer sharks to city-smashing gorillas, to the mutants and aliens of science fiction. Monsters could even be humans who had become monstrous through their curiosity (like Dr. Jekyll or The Hulk) or through no fault of their own (like Frankenstein’s monster or Grendel). Speaking skeletons and murderous squids danced in my daydreams. They still do. In my fiction, they always find their way forward. And I’m not alone. It delights me how every year I inevitably get a new infusion of monster-centric fiction to read and films to see. These genre titles are often billed as less serious literature, but I couldn’t disagree more.
When I think about monsters, I think about the magic of fear. As we learn to navigate the world, most of us stop looking for fairies beneath toadstools and give up on the hope that we might stumble into a portal to a fantasy realm. But fear is something that we all believe in. It comes from outside of us and inside of us, no matter how old we get. That’s part of the human condition, and it’s an invisible wraith that haunts our worries. But when we can entertain fear in the form of a monster, it’s a terror laden with relief.
The monster allows human imagination to give fear a shape. It’s a way to see threat in detail, with its teeth and beauty and power and scales. It demands a certain kind of reverence and reminds us that, yes, sometimes we have to reach our hands out to touch our fears on their terrible snouts. And while that can be frightening, it can also be life-affirming. Strangeness, self-discovery, transformation: these things require facing the demons that we all have. The only difference in a monster story is that they are actual demons.
Not all monsters are bad, and that’s one of my favorite things about them. At the end of the story, as much as we cheer for the efforts to fire arrows at the monster or evade their snapping teeth, we really don’t want to see the monster die, because we know that the monster is a part of us, too. By othering it we deny that truth.
We see the monster as the threat of the possible, the danger of the unknown. Sometimes monsters are monstrous merely because they are strange: bizarre, unnatural, unholy. Monster stories have the courage to ask, What happens when we meet our fears?Where does the real danger lie? What’s the real difference between the monster and ourselves? Whether organic, robotic, or supernatural, all monsters are interlopers, crossing into the field of human interaction without permission or sometimes even definition.
To be human is to fear. To be a monster is to be the thing that is feared. At our most powerful and pure, we can recognize our own monstrosity and allow it to companion with virtue. The Romantics knew this well. For them, the most divine of emotions was sublimity–witnessing something peerless in beauty and unbounded force. It’s the reverence that compelled Shelley to write Frankenstein and play her part in the invention of science fiction.
That’s why, in one of the final frames of Jurassic Park, the scene that still pricks me with chills is this: as the humans get helicoptered to safety, the massive T-Rex raises her jaw and lets out a bone-rattling roar. With the manmade remnants of the Visitor’s Center crushed to smithereens around her, she emanates sheer joy in her power, and something strange happens. After hoping so fervently that the characters escape her deadly mouth for the majority of the film, we smile at her triumph. Yes, we think. Because somewhere deep down, we know that monsters deserve to be free.
As a writer, I’ve found a calling in my fascination with fear. I owe much of it to 1993, dinosaurs made of metal and rubber, and the vision of genre writers everywhere who know how much we will always need their monsters.
Then, I wanted to know what it was like to be nowhere. I had always lived somewhere before, rooted to cities by work, school, friends, family, and relationships. I wanted to be adrift.
I moved to Ohio to begin a doctoral program in English. I wanted to lose myself in the unfamiliar familiarity of books and find freedom in whatever that could mean. That fall in Ohio found me jumping through countless bureaucratic and administrative hoops, which would be a key component of my time there. I resisted and resented the impositions. My non-obedience opened up a class-shaped hole in my schedule; it was too late for me to fill it with another course. I resolved to cram it with books. On a whim, I began Book One of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s series, My Struggle, which had only recently been translated into English.
In the first pages of that first book, read during my first semester of study, young Karl, age eight, watches the news on TV. He watches a segment about a fishing boat that has sunk: I stare at the surface of the sea…and suddenly the outline of a face emerges. I don’t know how long it stays there…The moment the face disappears I get up to find someone I can tell. The boy seeks verification of his experience: proof, and the communion that’ll follow. His family refuses to satisfy his need; they don’t entertain his vision, which is akin to seeing a face in the clouds or the man on the moon.
But of course the face existed. He saw it. I just wanted to find out if they could see what I had seen. To write is to confirm our sight, while forcing others to look to us—at us—even as we stay hidden beneath the water. As I sit at my desk writing, the waves swallow what once formed on the surface; the afterimage remains, along with the impression it made. Knausgaard wrote five more books to go along with the first. All of them are of a piece. They are, according to him, one novel. Following their publication, everyone looked at him, to him.
I moved to a rural university town in Ohio without ever seeing it. When I arrived, it certainly felt like nowhere, but I felt compelled, drawn to the place by that exact quality. Was it an act of faith, or the result of a lack for it? I didn’t need to tour rentals to figure out which to choose—I didn’t care about any of that. I didn’t need to see the place I would live. I wanted to not want anything. I didn’t succeed.
Almost four years have passed since then. I finished reading Book Six of My Struggle on the balcony of my apartment overseas, thousands of miles from where I began the first. It took me these years to read all 3,600 pages of the novel.
When I was sixteen, I thought life was without end, the number of people in it inexhaustible…The people who had been there then would become even more important, infinitely significant in as much as they had not only been shaping my perception of who I was, had not only been the people through which my own face emerged and became visible, but embodied the very understanding of how this particular life turned out the way it did.
This is from early in Book Six, in which the author tries to close the loop around the years of his life depicted in the pages of the novel. In the last book, he writes about the wild success of the first in the series. The response of readers, of the public, feeds into his writing.
Youth hides the lines that are manifest in the face, revealing the life that’s been lived: success, failure, and criticism are all parts of it. People intimately and vaguely involved in that life are part of it too. Perhaps the slow revelation of the face, its emergence, is more acute for the writer. I see what Knausgaard saw: the face and its lines. The other result is the novel, and words, which unlock time, heaving us outside it. That’s why we read, and why I write.
Abrade—yes. That’s the word. That’s what time does. We try to tie a bow and close the loop around time, our lives, but the text frays and unwinds it.
I recently began to experience tinnitus. For me, it’s a distant high-pitched ringing in my ears. For others, the sound is different, like a roar or drone. My experience is the literal effect of time; the aftermath of the life I’ve lived. I only notice it in the morning or evening, when it’s most quiet. I can hear it now, and I can pinpoint some of the concerts that damaged my hearing, all those years ago. The noise from then is still with me. No one else can hear it.
A note from SR: before you go, check out Derek’s contribution to Issue 22.
Praise be to Encircle Publications for selecting my friend Muriel Nelson’s Please Hold as the winner of their 11th annual chapbook competition. Any and all lovers of poetry currently suffering frustration, blahs, even despair, over lineated topical prosaics may take heart. These twenty-five poems bind together actual poetry: musical-magic words. Deployed from within the courteous, indefatigably sunny suburban disposition I remember from my own childhood, they flick quirts & quips of vocabulary at the thorniest issues in Christianity’s crown: the suffering and death of innocents, ripping as usual through the here and now, while a good-enough god’s vital creation flourishes, for instance, its novel & ingeniously variable virus. Nelson (sometimes assisted by a stone-faced sidekick gargoyle) rubs dry sticks together, flint-striking among them worrisome sparks of prayer over nature, beloveds and the commons, such as they (and we) may seem-or-not to get along these days. Or ever? Organ of vox humana, ”That ultra-low purr,/ is it your scary business? Your pleasure?” (God Deafness).
Nelson’s work, full of noises and mouth feel, craves and rewards reading aloud: “words like worms wriggle out” (A Few Words from a Haystack with Facehole); “gold leaf down brown water, brown spot down gold leaf” (Up to You) as “radios amplify hubbubs” (Nap). “Rather than dazzle, please mail juncos”, a speaker requests. (You There). “Sanctus,” via violin, “rises/ over orange machines and trills through diesel” (Hold Sway). Wanton, irresistible frolicking language made of everyday diction we already know by heart.
Anxieties addressed in addition to pandemic include other illnesses and infirmities, clear air turbulence in aviation (Nelson’s own son the pilot at risk); hair overgrowing unruly in lockdown, nearby Mt. St. Helens’ volcanic eruption and forest fires, plus whatever else may fill in any of our blanks. Why is our local nit picked of the universe such a mess-in-plain-sight? Because this world of oops is God’s mirror-image shattered in a truck mishap. (Nap) Image-recognitions like this, more persuasive and quicker-to-the-pinch than rational proofs, are why/how we get to make sense of things, even as sense may go on to make and unmake the best efforts of artists, fans and rationalists. Because seeing is believing, the gardener –reluctantly conceding that god obviously prefers weeds– can’t really mind. Don’t look there. Look over here instead.
More ‘Notes’ than just one on hummingbird arithmetic would be nice: Vox humana, gargoyle, worm moon, clear air turbulence, retrograde, ankyloglossia, A440. I do like reading notes before I begin a book, getting that initial feel for what’s in store. And, what with everything zapping all around the world’s diverisities all the time, a particular writer’s cultural tropes are not so much common knowledge as used to be.
The sheer antic fun of Nelson’s wordplay, nimble, precise and outlandish enough never to get caught out in bourgeois complacency, wins us over and wins. Goofy poem “Hug,” for instance, declares its own title a word too ugly to be tolerated, and so (um, ‘embrace’?) substitutes (why not?) “waffle,” enumerating the latter’s superior fluff and sugary qualities and ending up (neverminding stiffly-posed ancestor portraits) in the very waffle that created us descendants. Or, “A woman with a hole in her brain the size of a lemon says”/ I find repetition soothing. Really?” The poem’s skeptical speaker attempts a few irritatant repetitions in rebuttal, but soon concedes the issue utterly.
Atheist Zweig engages these glories in awe for quite a while, as the music tickles and soothes. Gradually, though, an inner Richard Wilbur begins to notice the gigantic absence here of any human (and systemic) depravity in the world. If we can’t blame God (busy puttering light and music among the weeds), who gets held to account, and how? One poem, after ee cummings, seems to indict Mister Death, but this, sez I, is mere Manichaean heresy: did superpower Death create Itself? “Second Story Window” acknowledges a “God, who contours love with dark // who forsakes even Christ,” yet ends beguiled hearing bells and a shadow singing. In these poems music and wit (soothing, satisfying) never accuse. “Nap” comes closest: “God of great pain, lone, // self-bombing, bloody-crossed God… whom no one hugs, you untouchable, sharp, broken One.” Christianity, though, is obliged to address deliberate human sin— which the crucified god, (as we’re told by numerous authorities), forgives in advance and for all time. Wow! Thanks a bunch! Let’s sin again, maybe more so this time! Did I miss the parts where the moneybaggers get bounced out of the temple and barred from the heavenly kingdom even as some lumpy beast slicks through the needle’s eye?
Approaching the end, Please Hold arrives at “doting,” three times: a word I resist because doting is foolish. Am I supposed to be foolish for having indulged in delight among these poems? Must I, must other readers and Nelson herself, commit to holy foolery for Jesus and Saint Paul? After some research I reread “A woman with a hole in her brain the size of a lemon says” –increasingly my favorite. We cultured folk know perfectly well that art and all its witness entail willing suspension of disbelief; likely you and I can entertain Holy Foolishness without becoming wholly foolish. My atheistic smarts briefly snooze right over there, safe-&-sound.
Revisit the commodious mischief of this robocroon title, perpetrated, surely, by the gargoyle sidekick: Your prayer is very important to us. Our only-one god is busy hearing other supplicants and will respond to you in the order of your prayer received. You are currently number four trillion and eighty-two, please hold, or pray again later. (music) Organ, please hold that vox humana note. Dike against the sea, please hold; my place in the soup line; wall against the dark hordes, shutters against the storm, please hold. Hug me a little longer, (urgently/politely) don’t let go. Endure, don’t disintegrate, don’t die. And so on, let me count the ways. Please Hold your horses, your fire, your tongue, that thought, this book.
Congratulations are in order for past contributor E.J. Levy, whose newest book, The Cape Doctor, was released this summer. E.J. was kind enough to send us her own description of the book, found below.
I’m delighted to have had my debut novel, The Cape Doctor, out from Little Brown on June 15th, after nearly a decade of work. The book is inspired by the life of Dr. James Miranda Barry–born Margaret Ann Bulkley circa 1795 in Cork, Ireland–a brilliant, irascible, dandified, army surgeon who advocated for the rights of the marginalized and was the first person known to perform a successful caesarian in Africa; Barry was caught in a sodomy scandal with the aristocratic governor of Cape Town (then the Cape Colony) in 1824, and eventually rose to the level of Inspector General, only to be discovered after death to have been “a perfect female” and to have carried a pregnancy late to term.
In the 150 years since Barry died, the doctor has been celebrated as both a feminist icon (as the first female-born person to receive a medical degree in the UK, 50 years before Elizabeth Garrett Anderson would, and 35 years before Elizabeth Blackwell would earn her degree in the US) and more recently as a trans icon. Both are valid interpretations in my view. I agree with biographer Jeremy Dronfield (author of Dr. James Barry: A Woman Ahead of Her Time) who has said that he sees validity in both a feminist and a trans reading of Barry’s life, but he rejects any effort to impose one interpretation to the exclusion of the other or to present one as definitive. Mine is one reading of a richly ambiguous historical record of the fascinating and courageous life of Margaret Bulkley and James Barry. In writing the book, I was aiming for something like Virginia Woolf’s Orlando–in which the protagonist changes sex over centuries–but I think I’ve ended up with something closer to Charles Dicken’s David Copperfield.
I have changed Barry’s name to be clear that mine is a work of fiction. But it has felt at times more like a seance. I first learned of Barry on a trip to Cape Town; as we traveled around the city and into the countryside, I felt a little possessed by that spirit, as if Dr. Barry was whispering in my ear; I’m delighted that others have a chance to hear that same voice now.
I’m gratified that Booklist has given The Cape Doctor a Starred Review, calling it “Remarkable…Absolutely superb… beautifully written…In sum, an unforgettable work of art that deserves raves.” The book was also named among Barnes & Noble’s “Best 100 Books of Summer” and was a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice.
I hope The Cape Doctor helps bring wider attention to and awareness of the remarkable life of both Margaret and James.
On March 15, past contributor, author of nine books (poetry, fiction, and nonfiction), Daniel Olivas, was invited on to the Beckett’s Babies podcast. Within the podcast, the group discussed topics such as Daniel’s play, Waiting for Godínez, being selected for the Playwrights’ Arena 2020 Summer Reading Series, Daniel’s first memory, how he has been selected for Circle X Theatre Co.’s inaugural Evolving Playwrights Group where he is adapting his 2011 novel, The Book of Want, with a planned Zoom reading in 2021, among a variety of other matters.
The interesting thing about getting old is watching it unfold. This is applied science: biology in action, psychology and sociology revealed in real time as I experience the changes in my body and brain. I can react to others’ responses or my own, or I can step back and withhold all judgment. I’m both participant and observer.
I’ve written about aging, about post-seventy tattoos and half-marathons, physical decline in spite of excellent health, dwindling opportunities and increased invisibility, a thicker skin and fuck ‘em attitude about things that used to bother me. The challenge, though, as a writer, is to make this process and my experiences appealing to readers young and old. The former may be inclined to glaze over and think, what has this to do with me? B-o-r-i-n-g. The latter might appreciate commonality, feel less isolated in their own experience, or they might choose to avert their eyes, say I’ve got my own shit to deal with, she doesn’t know the half of it.
Since Baby Boomers entered their seventies they’re writing about aging too, as if they discovered it, expressing the indignity of it all, their painful joints or purported joys, or just plain denial as they grasp at perpetual youth, pronounce seventy to be the new fifty. But I got there first by a few years, and I intend to stay in the conversation. If all else fails, I’ll beat them to eighty and have new stories to tell before they catch up again.
There is a fish in the mirror, this very first line in the “This Mournable Body,” a novel by Tsitsi Dangarembga, distorts the reality that what you see out there, probably and/or actually, is not what it is; and opens up the truth that the “coolest cruising” of our expectations and the arrival of our promised land are always either suspended or ebbing.
This Mournable Body (Graywolf, 2018 & Faber & Faber, 2020), one of the shortlisted fiction for the 2020 Booker Prize, is the last installment of her trilogy, Nervous Conditions (1988), which was enlisted in the list of BBC’s top 100 books that shaped the world, which she wrote at the advent of Zimbabwean independence but its narrative line was set during the colonial Rhodesia in the early 1960s when the nation and the land were going through the identity crisis, a story of Zimbabwean girl’s, Tambudzai Sigauke, enlightenment with that “it’s bad enough . . . when a country gets colonized, but when the people do as well! That’s the end, really, that’s the end” and she started her struggle in pursuit of hope to liberate herself, at first, from the circle of poverty, darkness of ignorance and injustice of patriarchy; then to explore her identity as a colonized black African, in a broader sense, “the crisis of personhood” as Ms. Tsitsi Dangarembga said in an interview with Madeleine Thien, author of Do Not Say We Have Nothing.
As a very practical woman and properly conscious about the reality of the world Dangarembga had changed her territory of creative endeavor from literature – a psychologically charged and solitary work process for which she needed 400 dollar and a room of her own as Virginia Woolf prescribed – to film which requires a more physically engaged schedule, and took her eighteen years of seclusion, subsequently, to publish the second part “The Book of Not” (2006), set in the turbulent times of the Zimbabwe’s war of emancipation in the late 1970s when Tambu had gone through a feeling of indignant displeasure of the image of her sister Netsai’s dismembered leg and the encounter of uncle Babamukuru’s twinge spinal cord encamped with bullet “so to the scars of war were added the complications of Independence” in her life.
As Nervous Conditions, the title was scrounged from the preface to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth (1961)- a refutation of colonization and an anatomy of dehumanization – written by Jean-Paul Sartre, is an archetype of Old Colonialism, “This Mournable Body” is the kaleidoscope of New Colonialism, the title is also sprung from the essay “Unmournable Bodies” (2015), a subjective reaction to the Occidental lamentation over the slaughtered journalists of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical Parisian journal, by Teju Cole who commented in conclusion “that incontestability, that unmournability, just as much as the massacre in Paris, is the clear and present danger to our collective liberté.”
Tambu, in Nervous Condition, equated education as the emancipation from poverty but when she was in Sacred school she saw the hidden perpetrator- her blackness as a source of her wretchedness whereas, in This Mournable Body, she equates the independence or decolonization as the flowerbed of personhood but at the different stages of her career she experiences tones of “fresh humiliations” of old bondage and gets the taste of “losing hope” of new freedom as an effect she realizes that the rejection of the dignity of personhood, in the political logic, is the root of her domestication and dejection.
The novel represents the ceaseless conflict between our expectations and reality both in an individual and the national level either parallel or reciprocally. In childhood Tambu thought her high achievement lay in the sacrifice of Shona, her indigenous language, in the name of imperialist language and education would give her prosperity and lofty social status. But her education seems to be a raucous failure when she writes a letter, in chapter 6″ to her cousin Nyasha, a film maker in Germany as a fictionalization of Dangarembga’s real life, “to break away from the implacable terror of every day” in Zimbabwe and tears it up thinking that “if you cannot build a life in your own country, how will you do so in another ” and she submerged into a more screeching misery that “the vegetables become too disgusting to eat, as first cooking oil then salt fall off your shopping list… Every minute of each twenty -four hours taunts you with what you are reduced to.” Surprisingly, Tambu, in chapter 11, sets her foot on the “new realm of impossibility” when her cousin returns Zimbabwe “in spite of her degree, in Europe” radiating the failure of continental dreams with such “liminal complexity.”
Tambu used to think that breaking the colonial servitude and racial segregation would give her the possibilities to devour her personhood, however, in her antique age after leaving a stagnant job at the advertising agency and taking an unbalanced refuge, constantly in the fear of deportation, in a hostel for young women in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, then she rents an economical cottage “to live” from a white widow. There she comes to learn (in chapter 7) that “the moon shadows have edges sharp as knives” in a close conversion with Christine (the niece of the white widow) that the independence she had got through her “fruitless war” with “full of lairs” is shining with “false hope” as like Tambu’s “worthless education intensifying” her ludicrous miseries and distresses. In chapter 12 where Tambu hears Mainini, her war veteran aunt’s testimonies of disappointments and violence that have been popped up from colonial war and domestic riots:
“Yes, sometimes we wondered why we went to war when we came back and everyone was shocked and began to hate us. … Mainini pauses, remembering her little son whom she had left to fight in conviction that her risk was the down payment on a better life for both of them. … When the Rhodesian soldiers came, the young boy ran back to kraal… in order to prevent the Rhodesian butchering the entire herd. Instead, the soldiers drove bullets through the boy’s back… ripped his stomach open and spread his intensities on the sand that was mixed with cow dung.”
Tracey Stevenson, her previous employer, appoints Tambu in her ecotourism enterprise named Green Jacaranda Getaway Safaris in the farmland targeting the European audiences and prospects. In the thriving time of their tourism venture, then President Robert Mugabe’s “government at independence transformed much of the settlement into a home-ownership area” and “the trouble with the inheritance laws in the country” pushes them to find a new spot in the Tambu’s homestead and again she hears a hyena’s laughing sound of the downfall of her economic security and mental discomfort in her head on; and the narrator says to Tambu: “The tourist brochures you composed said your country’s village women rub their cow pat floors until they shine like the cement floor. The brochure lied. There are no shines in your memory. Your mother’s floors are never shown with anything. Nothing ever glittered or sparkled.” These lines utterly open up the very naked lies of history that the liberators assured her the Promised Land but Tambu feels there is no true freedom she ever gets, only she has just transferred from colonial captivity to democratic domestication.
This “uneasy conscience,” Sartre commented in the preface, in “the system which depends on overexploitation, as you know, would be ruined.” You will see the similar kind of reverse colonization or the revenge of the past in J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace in the post-apartheid South Africa. Who to blame elite settlers or “colonized minds?” The undisputable answer is not near to get.
Tambu falls into the crisis of personhood, as like an assessment test, in the chapter 8 & 9, she becomes the person she was not and “exhaustion propels [her] over the border of the wakefulness into a sleep from which [she] half hope [she] will not wake.” She feels an agony at her biology class at A level towards the older students who “were toddlers at independence” but have the privileges of manicures at the luxurious saloons and this tardiness make her to punish immorally and almost kills Elizabeth and she falls into a mental breakdown. At the clinic she expresses her embarrassment to Dr. Winton said: “I don’t have the things that make me better. I want to be better. I want the things that make me.” In an “anguished composition” of shame and sorrow Tambu feels a “weakness of contrition,” consequently, to deplete her tormentation, she seeks retribution from Elizabeth’s family by paying her medical bill to recover in chapter 17. But shockingly in chapter 18, Tambu deceives her sense of personhood spending all the savings for Elizabeth to her long cherished manicures and pedicures, to the cinema complex on Robert Mugabe Avenue, for enjoying the weekends in Harare Gardens and for “occult and spiritual divining” at Queen Victoria library. The reader will taste another intense degree of downslide of Tambu’s morality in chapter 19 where she makes a transaction with her mother by promising a leg for Netsai, her sister, “as a kind of barter for the programme” of the finest organic tourism spot for the Westerns as if Tambu “bloated tongues spill onto the earth” where her “umbilical cord is buried.”
From the ebbing, the first part, to the arrival, the last part, most of the pronounced characters either young/old, black/white or central/peripheral are women and their contributions to creating and developing a nation and branding and uplifting the spirits of the traditions and cultures of a country which are very much unique in recent literary landscapes. Dangarembga shows us how Zimbabwean war-women like Christine, Netsai and Mailini have been bearing all the sufferings and the nightmares in their lives as the narrator says:
The women from war are like that, a new kind of being that no one knew before… it is rumored the blood stopped flowing to their wombs the first time they killed a person. … so that the ancestors tied up the nation’s prosperity in repugnance at the awfulness of it, just they had done to the women’s wombs.”
As like the representation of the spirit of Zimbabwean women, as Tambu boastfully says, they “shriek with grief and throw themselves around. They go to war. They drug patients in order to go ahead.” The reader will gradually come to feel the psychological tenacity a woman can go through in a life. To visualize these coarse episodes of women psyche, Dangaremga flares up some motifs of an army of crawling and creeping ants and spiders over her neck and across her skull; a growling and laughing hyena into her head and her flowing womb down her hip bones.
This Mournable Body was a title of a fiction until 28th of July 2020 but it is not a fiction anymore after 31st of July 2020 the day she has been arrested by Zimbabwean security forces only because she has violated the law against anti-corruption demonstration in protest of detainment of the Zimbabwean journalists who are reporting, gathering and protesting the President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government policies that pushing the fledgling country in the full destitution; and the authority has called the demonstration a ‘planned insurrection.’ The novel is real now like her own life when she has, on the same day, tweeted: “Friends, here is a principle. If you want your suffering to end, you have to act. Action comes from hope. This the principle of faith and action.” And the tweet notifies us that literature is a political act itself as well as an artful product; and journalism is not a crime. The trilogy is a perfect blending of facts and fiction, Dangarembga has been carrying Tambu on her shoulder for thirty years, correspondingly, Tambu has been growing with her woes in pace with Zimbabwe’s cry of despair. Moreover, the narrative view of the second person merges the characters and readers with such a dexterity that will push you to feel as if it is your own private story. This Mournable Body is a phenomenal tour de force of human freedom and dignity, of women solidarity, of reality and its desperation, is a canonical and sublime knowledge of Zimbabwean history.
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