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Assistant Tragedies continued (part 2 of 2)


I’ve thought often about the value I find in poems that elicit panic in me when I read them (Pleiades, “Poems and Panic”). And, related to that, is the panic of a new idea that presses me beyond my normal process or conventions.

But I’ve never considered the value of the panic that will arise if I realize that I’ve done everything I can, been as diligent as I can, and yet I’ve lost the direction of my writing. I think I’ve avoided this subject entirely. I think of myself as someone who doesn’t experience writing blocks. I can always find words to bring to a page. But writing words is very different from moving the work forward.

In my last Harriet post, I admitted to myself that there’s a panic I feel when I return to writing after having left my work for too long, for too many days, and the energy of the work is lost to me. But I’m seeing a deeper panic that this panic is actually protecting me from.

If I let the pressures of my day-job steal me from my writing, then, when I do return to it, I can blame a behavior that’s controllable. I can blame my neglect of the work for my failure in moving forward on a series of poems. Of course, I feel panic, but it’s guilt as much as it is panic. And guilt always suggests that I could have acted in some way to forestall the crisis, which means that I might have control, and that in the future there’s a remedy.

But I’m seeing that this panic may be a mask. If I’d returned responsibly, on the very next day, it’s still possible that the work may have become fixity and finitude. I have to wonder if I don’t avoid returning to my poems so as to not have to face that I actually have no control over the chaos that is the mainstay of my process.

“Thus does Chaos maintain her secret, from which I now speak.”—Alice Notley

How frightening it is to simply face that Chaos maintains her secret, and sometimes I may speak from that secret, and sometimes I am mute. I suppose it has been easier to step away from the work, and then blame my "neglect" of the work for my loss of it. Much harder to accept that even when I return the next day, there will be times when Chaos has already silenced herself—and in silencing herself, has silenced me.

The panic that comes from facing Chaos in her silence, what can that panic be a lens for?

“A sense of timing. As Picasso remarked, ‘It’s always something else in the end,’ to reach that”—Barbara Guest

Maybe losing the writing is as much a part of my poetry as succeeding to put words on a page. In Giorgio Agamben’s essay, “The Assistants,” he describes “representatives of the forgotten” who “lay claim to the aspect of oblivion that resides in everything.”

Maybe I can find in myself, each day, the courage to return to a work, accepting that it already may have silenced its chaos, and thus be lost to me. And, though this will panic me, I can appreciate panic as the appropriate emotion to use to greet the company of that assistant, which Agamben calls a “formless chaos of the forgotten that accompanies us like a silent golem,” which “can’t be measured in terms of consciousness but insistently governs the hierarchy of all knowledge.”

An uneasy sense of kinship with the forgotten is perhaps what such assistants offer. A familiarity with those assistants may come from allowing the essential dose of panic to be a regular assistant, too, in my practice, and always near at hand. Of course, there is no trust to be developed, no truce to be had with panic or with oblivion. But to acknowledge the task more openly, this will be my strategy.

All of the poetry sequences I’ve ever finished are layered losses; within each I can see so many remnants of silenced chaos. They are haunted by all that was absented into oblivion. I’ve blamed myself for those losses, as though such losses were not assistants to the final work. I’ve not seen how those layered hauntings are resonant echoes of silenced chaos, soundings of the forgotten. Now, I might call them death sentences—their language is mute witness to the presence of oblivion in them.

To face this challenge more directly might help me find the courage that comes of understanding one’s undertaking. I might return more easily to the work each morning, if I accept that it’s inevitable that sometimes I will feel panic. Sometimes, the energy I’d been following will have been replaced by the formless, the already forgotten. What to do next? Break up what words I have, add in what comes, let what comes shift everything I thought I’d heard within the work, and keep listening to the silence. To use Agamben’s word, let the arrival of “oblivion” change entirely the shape of the containment that had been the work. To consider this loss as my assistant, this will be my task.

“our finitude as human beings is encompassed by the infinity of language”—Hans-Georg Gadamer

After I wrote the first part of this Harriet post, I dreamed about my first real friend, my next door neighbor Stacy Cohn. My mother, at the outset of her second serious mental breakdown, when I was about 8, forbade me from spending time with Stacy, even though Stacy and I had been friends for years. She was my only friend. To say “forbade,” seems archly dramatic, nearly anachronistic, as I type it. I remember how I felt a sense of disbelief in the abruptness of this “decree” and how inexorably a sense of loneliness consumed me.

Did I start writing then? Yes. It was at about that time in my life.

Amazingly, I’ve never put these two events together until now, though it seems so simple to make the conjecture that writing came to me as a way to dispel the loneliness I felt. I had so much time alone. The pieces I wrote were nothing I’d call poems—strangely errant, nearly subject-less, obsessive, line after line, filling notebooks that I’d show no one.

In the dream last night, I was an adult walking through what seemed to be the grounds of a university, strangely designed—lawns in hallways, busses idling between classrooms, buildings under their own power of construction or demolition. But then I realized that I was somehow thinking them into appearance and disappearance. As the dream ends I see Stacy as an adult, talking with a group of people I imagine are her friends. As our eyes meet, I sense a building rising up between us, I don’t try to stop it.

“The border makes up the homeland. It prohibits and gives passage in the same stroke.”—Helene Cixous

Originally Published: April 29th, 2014

Poet, critic, and publisher Rusty Morrison was a teacher for 19 years before earning her MFA from Saint Mary’s College of California. Her first book, Whethering (2004), won the Colorado Prize for Poetry; her second, the true keeps calm biding its story (2008), won a Sawtooth Poetry Prize, a James...