One of my talisman poems is section 6 from H.D.’s “The Walls Do Not Fall.” The poet imagines herself as a worm, emblem of lowly persistence, among mist-jeweled grass blades. Her mantra: “I profit/ by every calamity;/ I eat my way out of it.” The calamity for H.D. was living in London during the Blitz.
The apocalyptic trilogy of my summer 2012 is on a much smaller scale: the death of my father; workplace disaster (more to come on that subject); and, just for fun, that derecho last weekend tearing open a beautiful four-story maple and dumping half on our roof and porch. Damage from the latter wasn’t terrible, but I’ve already had enough of insurance, repairs, and power outages. And the dark green canopy I once faced from my desk is stripped away in favor of a long, jagged wound of pale wood.
So, yes, I’ve been eating my way through psychic debris—that’s a family tradition. Wheelers don’t waste away from anxiety and grief; we gird our loins against it with peach pie. But so far, I’m also having a good writing summer. Some of the pages I’m churning out are just letters, though I’m enjoying even the promotion reviews. I just wrote a supporting document for a project to digitize Columbia’s modernist-era audio holdings: some of those strange metal disks can only be played from the inside out, or by the application of a cactus needle to the grooves! I’m drafting poems, revising slightly fermented ones, and working on essays. I expected to descend into brain fog, but I’m not. Writing is consoling me. It reminds me of what I care about, what I’m good at, what I have some modicum of control over.
I also just finished the galleys for The Receptionist and Other Tales, my forthcoming speculative feminist academic novella in terza rima. This stage involved a little re-writing but mostly careful reading, with the help of wonderful Aqueduct editor Kath Wilham: are the italics and capitalization consistent? How often may I use the word “moron”?
Drafting “The Receptionist,” though, was an act of survival. I was a new department head, never an easy gig, but a few factors made it harder—bureaucracy ramped up sharply in those years and many systems needed reinvention. Easily the worst aspect of the job, though, was having a lousy relationship with the dean, a person I wanted to look to for strategic advice and moral support. I was a friend of his predecessor, a woman treated badly by university administration, and while I wrote to him immediately that I in no way held him responsible for that debacle and looked forward to working with him, he clearly didn’t like me for having objected to those events. The years immediately following his arrival were also terrible for women on this campus and this time he was partly responsible. He had inherited an associate dean from his precursor, another smart and industrious woman, and I watched him undercut her at meetings, listened to her accounts of physical intimidation, and tried to be her ally when he nudged her out of the position before her term was up. I saw him put his arm around other female professors and staff and watched them shrink back. I talked to colleagues from various departments who felt impotently furious about his ominous or badgering notes. He spoke to people in derogatory ways more often than any administrator I have ever worked with. A lot of these incidents were trivial, in isolation. Further, I’m not saying everything this dean touched was poison; he actually gave me better raises than other deans, and even the new red tape isn’t all bad. Better bureaucracy than back-room deals. And some people worked well with him, a few of them women. He was sometimes pleasant, even to me.
Even having received so many anguished confidences about this dean’s behavior, I was still somehow shocked to be on the receiving end as chair. I would be chastised for missing reports handed in weeks earlier (organization was not his strong suit), or told I was in the wrong in a conflict before he learned the details. The dean seemed to be scanning for weaknesses to pounce on while my achievements were invisible. Then, during a tenure and promotions meeting, when I was making a point he disagreed with, he started poking me under the table, jabbing me in the arm. I wish I’d yelled, “Stop touching me!” Instead, I shut up, pulled back. You know the story. I told his supervisor, the provost. She said no one had ever complained about such behavior from him before, and I wouldn’t want her to fire the guy for that, would I?
So, I invented a campus and a set of oddball academics. The main character, an administrative assistant and mother of two young boys, is obsessed with fantasy tropes, so when the dean at her campus commits some very different kinds of malfeasance (the kind you do get fired for), she starts thinking of him as the Dark Lord and wondering if she can be a Hero. On Tuesdays and Thursday mornings, I stayed home until I’d drafted a canto and mapped out the next; around ten o’clock I’d head in to triage demoralizing emails. The craziness of the project, a brilliant secret joke, sustained me until I could create a buffer against toxic interactions by becoming an ordinary professor again.
In early June, about a week after my father died, one of those real-life time-for-a-change-of-leadership emails came through. The dean would be relieved of his responsibilities as of July 1 and join my department (he was a literature professor elsewhere before he began deaning around). It’s like a big storm that clears the air but leaves a hunk of deadwood on your house.
So how do I write my way out of it? I’m working on it.
The work wants to be made
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