Nowhere to go but through the ruins


It’s been a hell of a week, for reasons I’ll describe in some future post, when I’m not so desperate. For now: an essay of mine on a poem by Cynthia Hogue was just published by The Account. Called “Closure, Irresolution, and Cynthia Hogue’s ‘At Delphi,’” it interweaves meditations on a beautiful poem–contained in Hogue’s brilliant book about chronic pain, The Incognito Body–with narrative about a different kind of pain and crisis, involving harassment and bullying at work while I was serving a difficult term as department chair. Pain alienates you from other people and makes it difficult to speak at all. This essay appears many years after the incidents it describes. It’s gratifying, if maybe slightly alarming, to see it published and slowly receive responses, mostly from women who have experienced similar things. I struggled with how to portray my then-boss’s behavior without aggrandizement or melodrama–and then received brilliant edits from nonfiction editor Jennifer Hawe, very very gently pressing me to be more direct about the stakes. It’s useful, to the writer and often to readers, to be exact about the damage, insofar as that’s possible. My life wasn’t “ruined,” but I sustained a lot of harm, and no one involved will ever apologize or make amends. How to walk through and past it?

Poetry helps. See the poem “At Delphi” here (scroll down a bit). It’s also quoted in full in the essay. You’ll have different touchstone poems, ones that consoled you or gave you company at a bad time. This is one of mine.

One cool thing about this cool magazine is that it asks each writer to provide an “account” of the writing experience. The editors asked me for one, and then decided (fairly) that my hybrid essay is more criticism than nonfiction, and their criticism doesn’t include accounts. Below is what got cut.

I was trained as a scholar of twentieth-century poetry in the nineties, but I pursued my PhD in English out of crazy love for the experience of getting lost in a literary work. This means I’m fascinated by mechanisms of absorption and the genres and stylistic choices that affect it, but less so by distanced modes of critique. As I became a better poet and nonfiction writer, I realized I no longer wanted to write academic books that are skimmable. I have great respect for traditional scholarship, especially for the ways it documents long textual conversations and lays groundwork for new explorations. It just seems like an egregious amount of work when you know that most of your readers are scanning for bullet points they are required to quote in turn.

I spent years searching for effective hybrid or experimental approaches to the pleasure of writing about poems. At the same time, out of curiosity triggered by a colleague’s research, I was reading narrative theory and cognitive science about the process of “literary transportation,” or becoming so intently focused on a book that you lose track of your environment. I realized I bring that practice to poetry and could argue that poetry is underrepresented in studies of immersive reading. Those interests and arguments converge in my forthcoming essay collection.

Because I think contemporary writers deserve lots of attention, I focused Poetry’s Possible Worlds on recent poems, included in full, one for each of twelve chapters. I cited sources but without footnotes so I could honor influences without dream-disrupting superscripts. I braided critical and theoretical discussions with personal narrative to make the criticism more absorbing and to demonstrate how poems affect a real person during a period of crisis. Although I started reading queer theory and essays about “postcritique” after much of this book was drafted, I find them validating of what feels like a risky enterprise. This essay is adapted from the book’s final chapter (although there is a coda–I couldn’t just end the book on “irresolution,” right?).

To be continued.


2 responses to “Nowhere to go but through the ruins”

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