Assistant Tragedies (part 1 of 2)
I look back through my notebook, stare at the screen of my laptop, and skim through the poetry books that are my current talismans. Nothing helps. I’ve let more than a week pass. Be honest: more than two weeks. The sentences that were becoming a series of poems (when I last sat down to write) are now all finitude: they are fixed in stasis; no infinity filters in to me through them.
Since I work in series, and most series take a long time to settle into any coherent sequence of meanings, I depend upon a resonance to carry from one writing session to the next. I think of it as an accent on the chaos as it comes to me—something in it that I recognize, even though no clear or translatable direction to the meaning has yet arrived.
“Thus does Chaos maintain her secret, from which I now speak.”—Alice Notley
Form, too, comes slowly to a series of my poems: in the early stages, my sentences or sentence pieces edge together and away from each other, breaking apart as much as building up.
“To empty the glass means to gather it up as the container it is…”—David Farrell Krell
And, the subject of the work, for a long time, is nothing I can call content—only a gathering of energies, and I explore the edges that are its current containment. Sometimes the next sentence’s best work is to allow me to see how it empties what occurred in the last.
But there remains, from one writing session to the next, a subtle, recurring accent upon all this chaos. It will keep suggesting some mutuality, only if I return to the work soon enough. But, today, I have not returned soon enough.
I’ve turned to writing this Harriet post instead. Even typing this now, I feel again the realization—that the new poems are lost to me. It’s a realization filled with panic.
“The border makes up the homeland. It prohibits and gives passage in the same stroke.”—Helene Cixous
There have been times when I’ve lost the accent, and tried to write the work forward with pure logic—tried to make the accent come back. But then the writing becomes all intellect. It doesn’t work.
Instead of writing forward, I have to give up what the work was becoming—let it be silent. I still can use some of the phrases, some of the sentences—but I have to break them up, write inside them, write below them, and listen for something else to come. If I find something, it won’t be the accent I had. I have to face that it died of my neglect.
Interesting, how hard it is to hear myself admit that word: neglect. Something I felt so keenly as a child.
“Have guts until the guts / Come through the margins / Clear and pure like love is.”—Jack Spicer
Recently, I was giving a talk to a very thoughtful and perceptive class of graduate students studying poetry, and I mentioned to those poets how essential it is for me to be consistent in my practice when I’m beginning a new series of poems. I said that I have to return every few days to the work or the plenitude that is its as-yet-unfilled emptiness thickens over like concrete. I was thinking, as I spoke, that the accent I listen for is the sounding of the shape of that emptiness.
And then I said to them, without intending to, that when I fail myself—fail to return to the work in time—that such self-inflicted suffering is a tragedy.
I winced when I heard myself say the word “tragedy,” as it seemed trite to use it this way—so much terrible suffering occurs in the world that deserves the word. After the word slipped out, I immediately thought of the phrase “tragic flaw” or “moral weakness,” says the dictionary.
However, I see now that the worst error I made was not that I called this tragic, but that I immediately went on to tell those poets that I wasn’t going to let myself do this again. I said that I was becoming much more consistent, that I was now more responsible about my work.
It wasn’t true. I’d not written that morning, or the morning before, or before that. I was in the midst of failing myself, even as I said it.
I imagine it would have been more useful to them, and to myself, if I’d been able to admit that had indeed failed to return to my work. And, that there had to be more to this than just getting busy again… Could I understand what else was stopping me—where did the real panic lie?.
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...