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How an Antihero Learns to Die: Living as Poet and Librarian
Each month we feature a guest post from a contributor to Poetry’s current issue. Alison C. Rollins’s poems “The Beastangel” and “What the Lyric Be” appear in the April 2017 issue. Previous posts in this series can be found on the Editors’ Blog.
As I work on my first manuscript I am keenly aware of the sort of grappling with death this effort requires. Hélène Cixous states in Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing, “It can happen that an author will kill himself or herself writing. The only book that is worth writing is the one we don’t have the courage or strength to write … It is combat against ourselves, the author; one of us must be vanquished or die.” It is through this lens that I have held a 1960s hardbound copy of Sylvia Plath’s Ariel close as I work on my manuscript. At times I get goose bumps thinking of how Robert Lowell, in his introduction to Ariel, uses the same language as Cixous to describe Plath’s final work: “In these poems, written in the last months of her life and often rushed out at the rate of two or three a day, Sylvia Plath becomes herself … Yet it is too much; her art’s immortality is life’s disintegration.” I have ruminated over how Lowell asserts that Plath has “become herself” in the last months of being alive, a life that ended at just thirty years old. It is terrifying as a young black poet to process a connection between the immortality of your art and the disintegration of your life. Moreover, as a poet and librarian, much of my daily work is shrouded in the cultivating, curating, and archiving of our cultural memory. We could think of the library as a conduit for the work of writers, if not the writers themselves, to cheat death. In other words, in the field of library and information science I am hyperaware of a writer’s desire for the text to live on in perpetuity and the limitations that make this virtually impossible. In some ways, the librarian decides how long the poet will live. Of course, this has been further complicated by technology, the internet, and self-publishing; however, I still very much consider the actual book an important and significant cultural artifact.
Perhaps it is because I am a poet and librarian that my poetry seems to vacillate between this world (or life) and the next (the afterlife). The trajectory the poem or collection of poems takes once expelled from the writer is a curious one. The interconnectedness of the poem to the public creates fascinating relationships between private and public, creator and consumer, birth and death. As a librarian I purchase, organize, store, provide, unearth, and discard information. Each of these acts involves making decisions steeped in certain levels of power, authority, and control. As a young black woman the opportunities to shape the fabric of our cultural memory are few and far between. Thus, while I relish the ability to give language to my thoughts and then have them published for a larger reading audience, I am also very aware of the instability of object permanence. As a librarian I have witnessed firsthand the violence that is done to marginalized writers. I have watched such writers’ work, and by extension their personhood, fall into relative obscurity. There is a long history of the destruction of societies’ libraries and the calculated burning of books. Yet science and technology are now pushing us towards a post-human reality in terms of the production of information and its storage. I think this reality manifests itself in my poetry’s use of surreal imagery.
In general, I find it vexing when we attempt to describe poetry as being surreal. I hesitate to rely on such descriptors because I think they make assumptions about a supposed distinction between sense and nonsense, truth and falsehood, nonfiction and fiction, science fiction and fiction, fantasy and reality. Despite the fact that all poetry is attributed a nonfiction cataloging designation in libraries, some of it complicates language in ways that appear surreal on the surface level but function more deeply to trouble the lived reality of the poet.
When one’s human body and lived experience is marked by subjection and instability there is no choice but to operate in the surreal. In other words, the apocalypse and post-apocalypse have and continue to take place at different times for different people. For those who have the audacity to write poetry in the midst of chaos, a border is crossed into the realm of the unreal or unknown. For example, in Lowell’s introduction to Ariel, he states that Plath becomes “something imaginary … hardly a person at all … but one of those super-real, hypnotic, great classical heroines.” This notion of a heroine really struck me because I think my work is more interested in understanding what it means to be an “antihero.” In an interview that I did with Phillip B. Williams for Vinyl, he remarked that my work “is a phantasmagoric, surrealistic feast,” saying that the “worlds” I create “straddle between reality and some post-apocalyptic terrain … inhabit[ed by] the strangest demons and antiheroes.” I am working towards moving closer to what Lowell describes as the “super-real” while straddling what Williams separates into a “reality” and “post-apocalyptic terrain.” In the process, I am attempting to complicate the distinction between a “great classical heroine” and an “antihero.”
My poem “The Beastangel” in this month’s Poetry is written in response to Robert Hayden’s “Bone-Flower Elegy,” which was published posthumously by Hayden’s request. Here again, we are discussing the poetry’s life after the death of the poet. Hayden’s “Bone-Flower Elegy” is a homoerotic poem that ends with the speaker bidding the “beastangel” and the “angelbeast” to “rend” and to “redeem.” Hayden’s private struggle with his sexuality is perhaps made clear in the tension between rend and redeem. As a black woman, my own struggle with society’s constraining definitions of sexuality is something I wrestle with. I am trying to give language to what it means to be a “Beastangel.” As lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel reflects, “I suppose that a lifetime spent hiding one’s erotic truth could have a cumulative renunciatory effect. Sexual shame is in itself a kind of death.” As a writer I find myself in a chronic state of grieving; my body a vessel for a certain type of living death. The fear, shame, and guilt that we all carry are examples of deaths. This kind of death perhaps on the social or societal level is also present in my poem “What the Lyric Be,” which is written in response to Sara Nicholson’s “What the Lyric Is.” Nicholson and I both trouble what she terms “the death and life of weeds,” as well as the supposed distinctions between what is real and what is as artificial as “silk flowers.” I like to think I embody the antihero; that I create distressing worlds where flowers are “edible men”; troubling worlds where lies told often enough “surely turn to truth.”
For me, the very acts of writing and speaking are political in their beckoning of death. As a fellow librarian poet Audre Lorde asserted in her essay “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action”: “To question or speak as I believed could have meant pain, or death … Death, on the other hand, is the final silence … Your silence will not protect you.” Like Lorde, I live in a world defined by a very limited understanding of protection or safety and so it is a daily challenge to shed the fear that enables me to survive. In the decision to speak and write there is a constant confrontation with death. More directly, Cixous argues, “Writing or saying the truth is equivalent to death.” As Cixous suggests, “We have to lie to live. But we must try to unlie. Something renders going in the direction of truth and dying almost synonymous.” With the understanding that writing in the direction of truth means death, but that silence offers no protection from this death, there is no choice as a poet but to face one’s fear of the afterlife. Drawing on Montaigne, Cixous posits, “Writing is learning to die. It’s learning not to be afraid, in other words to live at the extremity of life, which is what the dead, death, give us.” The extremity of life is a context that requires utter bravery for me to inhabit. As a black woman, the act of writing is continuously steeped in a complicated brew of risk. This danger is saddled with a fear of what it means to unlie and the death that this truth telling beckons. Each day I press on in survival. As a poet and librarian I am “Lady Lazarus,” an antihero still learning how to die.