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Diana Hamilton, Hyperintimate Poetry, & the Machine for Fighting Anxiety

Diana Hamilton, The Awful Truth, Some Shit Advice, book covers

Last year I had a strange set of experiences wherein three different, new-to-me people I brought home on separate occasions each started ruminating aloud, post-coitally, about how they’d been thinking of seeing a therapist again, and their various reasons for considering it. One person segued into it from talking about tension in their neck because of work; another segued from talking about some super intense family stuff. Etc. In each of the instances, I was alarmed and off-put by the sudden translation of physical intimacy into emotional intimacy. (Though for my part, I forever have the problem of longing for my back and arms to be lightly stroked, in a super intimate fashion, by anyone I sleep with, as though such touching were an expected and straightforward element of a hook-up. So I’m sympathetic.) At any rate: while part of me wants to complain about the unexpected emotional labor these various people seemed to want me to do, I’ve more come to the conclusion that we’re all jockeying for intimacy in our own awkward ways, and that, while I don’t think that this jockeying is unique to our moment, I do think it’s closely tied to the anxious mood that characterizes the present dystopia.  

Diana Hamilton writes poems mostly about everything that is intimate. The chapbook Some Shit Advice (The Physiocrats, 2014) for instance, is framed as an advice column about defecation and begins with the lines:

Nothing gets in the way of sex, or of shitting, so much as God. There are a few notable exceptions: mothers, or lack of reciprocity, or erectile disfunction, or yeast infections. (1)

Thus Hamilton checks off several intimate topics right off the bat, and later her speaker addresses advisees’ constipation and diarrhea. The poem also contains rather beautiful, writerly, graphic descriptions of an advisee’s shitting into a blue vase—the mustard color of the shit, how it matches part of the nearby rug, the streaking against the vase.

Similarly, Hamilton’s new book The Awful Truth (Golias Books, 2017) begins with dreams, the analysis of dreams, the writing process, and anxiety-induced IBS. For instance: in an email to her therapist, the speaker (who is constructed as a version of the author), describes a dream in which she makes a complicated dish to serve to older poets at a party, a dish that will accommodate her own IBS. Then, outside of the dream, she notes that the onions in the dream-dish are themselves a food she avoids due to her IBS. Hamilton then introduces a bit of meta-commentary: “Describing a dream is like reading the first draft / of a poem aloud to a friend who didn’t offer to listen / It’s rude…” (5).  Here and throughout the book, we’re presented with a compounding of intimate topics—the bodily intimacies of bowels and sometimes sex put together with the intimacy of dreams and therapy and, in repeated meta-commentary, the intimacy of the process of producing writing. For instance, amidst a description of a breakup: “You add details: you want the difficulty understood. / You remove them: you want ease” (21). In each of these cases we’re given access to scenes and information that are personal and that are often, for all of us, sites of anxiety. And such content largely makes up the book.

There is also a layered structure to the intimacy. In one fantasy-composed-of-dreams, the speaker imagines a lover who is a book, then dreams of another lover who has her own body, and finds that she is attracted precisely to the part of her body about which she is insecure:

...Specifically, I saw her belly fat

hang in the same way mine hangs: stretch marks

having loosened the skin such that, in any position

other than lying flat on my / her back, it sags

low, and, since neither me nor

this dream lover is so insecure that we would

avoid the kinds of sex where your belly hangs

for the sake of vanity, I watched her belly swing,

I thought, “I didn’t know she had the same body

as me, that’s surprising, from here, on her,

it’s hot, I want her even more than I would

if her belly were tight….” (6-7)

There’s an onion-layer structure here. We have dreaming and within that, a dream specifically about a lover. And then within that the intimacy of the lover being the speaker herself, so that we’re reading the speaker’s descriptions of her own body. And then within that, an admission of insecurity about the body, and then the uncanny attraction to self. What I mean to say is: while of course a lot of poetry deals with intimate topics—lyric poetry is classically about love, lust, the self, and so on—Hamilton’s Some Shit Advice and The Awful Truth actively thematize it and create a sort of hyperintimacy, the feeling that the reader is in the role of a close friend or lover or therapist. Except actually, since we’re often reading about close friends and lovers and therapists and their interactions with the speaker: the reader is somewhere even closer, communing with the speaker through the medium of the book.

Aside from my dating experiences, I have been thinking about intimacy lately in part because closeness of all sorts is an amazing antidote to the general political despondence I described earlier this month. It might also address another political affect: anxiety. The Institute for Precarious Studies has an incredibly useful post about anxiety from a few years back. To summarize, they argue that anxiety (produced in part by precarity) is the dominant affect and dominant mode of social control right now. In their account, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the dominant affect was misery. Activists fought the misery with tactics like strikes, and Fordism was a sort of deal that arose from the victories of social movements. In Fordism, the dominant affect switched to boredom. That is, Fordism provided security for many workers if you were willing to conform to social norms and live out your life doing mundane tasks. The social movements of the 60s were calibrated to fight against the monotony of this life, and capitalism coopted that particular goal, so that now everything is “disruptive” and “entrepreneurial,” and we all must act like work is play, and so on. But currently, precarity is the economic standard, and everyone is kept consistently anxious via work, communication, surveillance, and repressive techniques used against activists. The Institute writes:

Today’s public secret is that everyone is anxious. Anxiety has spread from its previous localised locations (such as sexuality) to the whole of the social field. All forms of intensity, self-expression, emotional connection, immediacy, and enjoyment are now laced with anxiety. It has become the linchpin of subordination.

Hamilton’s work explicitly thematizes anxiety, in particular anxiety and its symptoms as a response within politicized contexts. One of the advisee characters in Some Shit Advice writes of first meeting the woman with whom he would be boarding while studying abroad: “In addition to being racist, her comment [“‘O lo lo, I didn’t know I was getting brothers!’”] perpetuated the inexplicable comparison of homosexuality to incest. I already needed to shit.”

Hamilton’s work offers a sort of antidote to anxiety by 1) explicitly describing something that is often a public secret and 2) creating a utopian vision in which we all have plenty of people to whom to confess our dreams, our weird shits, our desires, our self-consciousnesses. This is, I think, why there is so much emphasis on documents of various sorts, and why both books are presented as gatherings of other texts (advice column, found manuscript, email, etc.). The books aren’t self-expressive projections of these intimacies into an implicit public sphere of readers. Instead, through doubling personae and through the use of multiple, expanding framing devices, they create scenes in which the reader is a participant. The expanding framing and reframing devices cause us to consider the actual publication of the book as the biggest frame, a frame that includes the reader. Better still, Diana mentioned to me in conversation that when she gives readings from Some Shit Advice, audience members often come up and tell her their own stories about unusual shitting experiences afterward. Listeners really do become part of the frame.

If, as the Institute suggests, anxiety stayed localized to particular sites like sexuality in earlier eras, whereas now it is omnipresent, then Hamilton’s emphasis on the classical sites of anxiety acts as a sort of addressing and doubling-down on anxiety as a topic. At the end of their manifesto, the Institute calls for both the naming of emotions and the construction of non-alienated, socially nurturing spaces as early steps to resisting the dominance of anxiety and creating new strategies and tactics to fight it. We need, they say, “a machine for fighting anxiety” that would allow us to act out of desire rather than fear. Hamilton’s book is a utopia of sharing and listening that exceeds social norms—that reorients our fears about the world into desire for our friends and for our lovers and for a better world for us all.

Originally Published: January 17th, 2018

Marie Buck is the author of three collections of poetry: Life & Style (Patrick Lovelace Editions, 2009), Portrait of Doom (Krupskaya, 2015), and Goodnight, Marie, May God Have Mercy on Your Soul (Roof, 2017). She also recently completed a dissertation, Weird Propaganda: Texts of the Black Power and Women’s Liberation Movements. She is managing editor of...