More questions project:
Since it finally felt like spring on Monday I revisited Louise Glück's “Adorno” for train reading— particularly for the poems about Persephone. Her coming and going between here and the underworld is the cause of the seasons, so it seemed appropriate. Her coming and going is caused by a kidnapping, a violation, and finally a deal she made with Hades. ("Persephone is having sex in hell/ Unlike the rest of us, she doesn’t know what winter is, only that/ she is what causes it.")
All week I wanted to write something about Glück’s questions, and then all week I was running out of time. I wrote notes down only when it felt good to, not when it was time to work out an idea. It was always on the train. The week grew to be difficult, and this exercise turned into an exercise in calming myself down.
I am looking for questions that feel necessary. Glück does this well. She pushes and answers and questions the answers until she can only land on a question. Here are a few. (I am tempted to list them with even less context than I’ve given here.)
Some are only curious. She pushes analysis along by imploring the reader to ask with her:
"What does the ‘harp’ suggest?"
"Who is the ‘you’ in ‘Are you tired of invisible pain?’"
"To what would you lose a year of your life?"
"I am not certain I will/ keep this word: is earth/ "home" to Persephone? Is she at/ home, conceivably in the bed of the god? Is she at home nowhere?"
And then some are so urgent they give me the chills:
(From Demeter, Persephone’s mother:) “What are you doing outside my body?
"Why is the mother’s body safe?"
"You hear this voice?"
"What will you do when it is your turn in the field with the god?"
"Doesn’t everyone want love?"
"Why can’t I cry out?"
The question that wins the prize for feeling the most necessary here is Doesn’t everyone want love? from "A Myth of Devotion." It’s written in a close third point of view so that we are simultaneously watching Hades ask, asking with him, and also judging him for his violation. Doesn’t everyone want love? Of course everyone wants love! But not everyone wants love from the god of the underworld. He doesn’t know how much he’s hurt her, only how much he wants to please her. This poem has always moved me and confused me because I’m not sure whether to pity Hades or condemn him.
Doesn’t everyone want to feel in the night
the beloved body, compass, polestar,
to hear the quiet breathing that says
I am alive, that means also
you are alive, because you hear me,
you are here with me. And when one turns,
the other turns—
Here’s Kate McGarrigle’s song about Demeter searching for Persephone:
"It makes me angry that how we live in our bed—full of connected/ loving and full of isolated sleep and dreaming also—has no/ relevance to the rest of the world./How can the power of our combination of intimacy and isolation/ have so little power outside the space of our bed?
I’m watching only the heartwarming parts of heartwarming 90s movies. I’m reading poems, and I’m not sure what good that will do me but I’m also cleaning my cluttered desktop and looking through an old file called “Women in Clothes” which I was using for inspiration in a diary/essay last year. Here’s what I was happy to rediscover:
Klingon Women Warriors:
Coco’s clothing line:
Frida Kahlo’s prosthesis:
BEYONCE’s high school portrait:
Linda Montano in monocrome:
Me trying to be Linda Evangelista:
Another cool outfit:
Prada or something:
Balenciaga (I don’t know why I love this. I guess it’s the colors but wait it’s everything):
because I’m having trouble arriving at answers that I’m satisfied with and I spend all day every day asking questions and imploring people who are mostly younger than I am, to ask questions and to use different levels of questioning.
Good questions feel necessary. You can tell when the questioner needsto know the answer.
Here is a question I would call necessary, which I read in Jennifer Doyle’s book about difficulty in art today on the train:
"Apparently I couldn’t inhabit the structure of that encounter without being overwhelmed—by what though?"
Here are questions from a George Saunders essay my students read in class today:
"What are the factors that might affect the quality of his imagining? what factors affect his ability to imagine the next-door house as it actually is?
Here is a wondering from that essay:
"I’m wondering if [a man from the year 1200]’s mental experience of life is different in any essential way from mine."
Which leads to a question. “Is this difference between us and Mr. or Ms. 1200 a good thing or a bad thing?”
Later, one on one with a student, we looked at a Kathleen Ossip poem that asked, "Why does the mind punish the body?" And another poem, this one by Amy Gerstler that asked, "How was it you became holy to me?" In this one I am convinced she wants to know how this indeed happened. I do too. She has more to ask: "Must I pretend not to love/ you (in your present bloom,/ your present perfection — soul/ encased in fleshly relevance)/ so you won’t believe me/ just another seabed denizen/ vying for your blessed attention?" Later: "Should I resist furiously?"
We read a Kim Addonizio poem in which she declares, doesn’t ask, “This/is how it feels to lose it—not sanity, I mean, but whatever it is.” I like that she leads me to wonder what I’m referring to when I say I’m losing it. Losing what? I don’t think I ever was aware enough of my sanity for the act of losing it to be available to me.
She makes me wonder what I mean when I say “freaking out.” I freaked out— Out of what? Myself? Fade out. Black out. Turn on______(a radio) (my body)?
What should someone do with an out-of-context collage of questions? The only thing the questions share is the day, and me, their reader. But I think someone else could put the questions together. Think about the mental experience of a day in which you wonder about a man from hundreds of years ago. You ask about factors which contribute to imagining. What are the factors? What structure do you inhabit that overwhelms you? What’s the difference between your mental experience and his? Why does the mind punish the body? How was it she became holy to you? Must you pretend not to love? Must you resist furiously?
I don’t want to ask questions I already know the answer to. It’s usually only a matter of thinking a little harder and I can find the answers. The real unanswerable questions tell more about why I want to know than what. The point isn’t to ask, it’s to show how badly I want to know. I told myself some time ago to try to push the questions forward, actually answer them. Leaving a question on the page started to look lazy.
One edit I recently made to an essay that had already been published was changing “What happens when you change the substance of a memory?" to "I want to know what happens when you change the substance of a memory.” I realized the difference mattered to me, because I don’t want to pretend to even want to lead the reader to ask herself this question. I just want her to know that I asked. It’s not the question that’s important but who wants to know. I don’t need you to ask yourself. I need you to watch me ask.
"Think, for example, of Leonard Cohen’s “famous blue raincoat,” whose principal attribute is that it is “torn at the shoulder.” Perhaps it is even the tear that makes it famous. The song features Cohen at his most lugubrious and opaque, which is saying a lot, but I have always loved its final line—“Sincerely, L. Cohen”—as it makes me feel less alone in composing almost everything I write as a letter. I would even go so far as to say I do not know how to compose otherwise, which makes writing in a prism of solitude, as I am here, a somewhat novel and painful experiment."
Maggie Nelson, Bluets
Lately I don’t care as much about the life of a writer as I care about what a writer is looking at. I want to read the reviews and cultural criticism first, (without actually seeking out the thing that they are reviewing) then the personal essays, then the poetry, then okay, maybe the fiction.
After I read Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams in The Believer, I wanted to know her tastes. She made me want to look at everything that she was looking at. She made me want to see a movie with her review for the LA Review of Books, Short Term Feelings: What Hurts About “Short Term 12” not mainly because of the qualities of the film that she praised, but for the way she monitored how it moved her. (How does anything move anyone? How should a moving thing be?) “Every time I cried, or almost-cried, was a little different, though each contained a similar parfait of feelings: a layer of sadness (for the unreal character); a layer of hope (for the unreal character); a layer of skepticism (what does it mean to feel sadness or hope for an unreal character?); a layer of curiosity, both emotional and artistic (how have I come to feel this sadness/hope for an unreal character?); a layer of pride (I feel things so deeply I can even feel sadness/hope for an unreal character); a layer of shame (I feel more for this unreal character than I did for the homeless man I just passed in the street); another layer of shame, this one more specifically inflected by my role as a consumer (how have my emotional responses been so easily manipulated?) but also — it cannot be denied — a layer of consumer satisfaction: I am having a powerful experience, which is part of the implicit contract made between a film and its watchers.”The review is effective not only because of the depth with which she describes the elements of the film, but in how thoughtfully she describes her own reaction.
She made me want to read Rebecca Solnit’s new The Faraway Nearby and Michelle Orange’s This is Running Your Life in her review from The New Republic, What Should an Essay Do? which is more like an essay about essays (just like the review of Short Term 12 was more like an essay about HOW TEARJERKERS WORK—What Should a Tearjerker Do?) and which only made me want to search the internet for more of her reviews (and of course order her collection of essays. I mean—of course). She writes, “As a genre grounded in productive uncertainty—collage rather than argument, exploration rather than assertion—the essay is constantly posing the conundrum of its own existence: What should an essay do? What should it offer? It finds its etymological roots in the old French essai: to attempt. It blends inquiry and confession into a hybrid weave that deepens each. It draws personal material into public mattering.”
I wrote my MFA thesis as a series of personal essays on my grief as it responded to art. That is not accidental phrasing. I intend to express how my grief responded to things in the world in a way that I didn’t. (It did feel separate from me, like it was something that I was watching rather than experiencing.) I wanted to show how I managed to consume that grief rather than let it consume me and I wanted that to be true. I wrote something about this after a professor asked me why I wasn’t just writing about my mother. She asked: Why did I have to distract myself? Why couldn’t I look directly at it? She mentioned irresponsibility. It was irresponsible to not investigate a topic to its end, to look away. I was upset about her reaction, because I couldn’t really explain myself, but I knew I was right to chase these things. I was looking around, trying to get outside of myself (into the territory of an essayist rather than a memoirist, which I prefer) and trying to trust myself when I saw something glowing. To attempt. Personal material, public mattering. I didn’t think investigating to an “end” was an option. I couldn’t move along a straight line, had to think and write in a radial shape. I know how this sounds, but I HAD to.
When I saw a piece of art, or a strange performance, I’d think, “I don’t understand this, but it has something to do with this other thing which I don’t understand, which I can hardly name. When my students are stuck, I tell them to write down key terms. I can attempt it: death, loss, grief, cancer, youth, decay, depression.” These were what shadowed everything I looked at. (I kept using the word “shadow” and then finally when the thesis was done, one of my readers described the disparate subjects as things that were “glowing.” I chased the glows.) I wrote, in an untitled word document full of other half digested ideas: “I am not writing about my mother dying. I am not writing about her living either. I am writing about how my mind moved around a devastating event. I am not writing about an event that causes peoples’ hearts and minds to break everyday, but about how loss does this and how exactly it broke my mind and my heart. This is the story of how mind and heart struggle now, and ultimately how they work now. They don’t work like they used to, but that doesn’t mean they are broken.” Back to Jamison, in answer to her central question she writes, “Instead of telling the straight story of memoir, they say: This is the story of how my mind moves.”
The last few lines have been stuck in my head this week.
I’ve been diligently recording my dreams because lately they’ve been more striking and vivid than normal. I get excited to stay inside of them when I’m writing them down.
But never did Henry, as he thought he did,
end anyone and hacks her body up
and hide the pieces, where they may be found.
He knows: he went over everyone, & nobody’s missing.
Often he reckons, in the dawn, them up.
Nobody is ever missing.
"Yes, indeed, one could not take this author of three novels seriously, because she wore a pretty dress and two shades of eye shadow."
The Empathy Exams: A Medical Actor Writes Her Own Script, Leslie Jamison
Such a great premise and such a stunning essay. In the world of teaching literature it’s easy to just jump to this weird empty worship of “empathy.” like, this is why we read—enough said. I hear it so much I’m forgetting that I had once built my own definition. This essay tears empathy apart and reminds me of other terms that have sort of lost their impact on me. I also appreciate how Jamison interrogates and then implicates herself for wanting others to feel what she feels, and then implicates others for not trying, and then forgives others, and finally herself. Instead of feeling the experience of another, sometimes just believing in it, or witnessing it can be even more supportive. (Seriously: “I believe in intention and I believe in work.”)
"…To say “going through the motions”—this isn’t reduction so much as acknowledgment of the effort—the labor, the motions, the dance—of getting inside another person’s state of heart or mind.
This confession of effort chafes against the notion that empathy should always arise unbidden, that genuine means the same thing as unwilled, that intentionality is the enemy of love. But I believe in intention and I believe in work. I believe in waking up in the middle of the night and packing our bags and leaving our worst selves for our better ones.”