Thoughts on book publishing, editing, contemporary poetry, dementia, administrative memos, and teaching by the editor of Tinfish Press.
Monday, December 28, 2009
"I do not / want to know": Elizabeth Soto's _Eulogies_
Elizabeth Soto's new Tinfish Press book, Eulogies, is significant for several reasons: it's a book about schizophrenia, the toll it takes on its sufferers and those who love them; it's about mapping minds, locations, and histories of affection; it's a contribution to Hawai`i's literature that is not "local" or "indigenous"; and its design (by Michelle Saoit) marks a first response to the writing. I'd like to address a more limited issue here, however. The long poem began in response to another poem; more precisely, perhaps, it began in response to a simple rhetorical move. The poem is Adrienne Rich's "Atlas of the Difficult World," and the move is that of stating what one knows, while claiming not to want to know it (is there a Latin name for this?). Rich's long poem contains the phrase "I do not want to hear/know" over and over, through several sections; I don't have the poem with me, as I'm on vacation and the book is in my office. But here's a scrap of the poem I find on-line:
I don't want to know how he tracked them along the Appalachian Trail, hid close by their tent, pitched as they thought in seclusion killing one woman, the other dragging herself into town his defense they had teased his loathing of what they were I don't want to know but this is not a bad dream of mine (ll. 45-51).
Rich's long poem participates in a long tradition of American epics, Leaves of Grass, The Bridge, and Paterson, among them. These poems map out an America that the writer and reader do want to know. But they also confront an America they do not want to know, one characterized by violence (actual and economic), -isms of many kinds, and the failure of individualism to guarantee happiness. "I do not want to hear/know," then, is at once certitude and concession. The writer knows, even as she expresses the desire not to know. Any words that follow the blunt statement testify to knowing: in this case, knowing that a man attacked a lesbian couple on the Appalachian Trail.
Elizabeth Soto's poem emerged in layers. The ways in which it emerged are fascinating to me, since I witnessed its growth from the beginning. Lyz began writing Eulogies in a "Poetry & Politics" class, where Adrienne Rich's book appeared on the syllabus along with books by Amiri Baraka, Jules Boykoff and Kaia Sand, Craig Santos Perez, Tinfish 18.5 writers, and others. Where most students were writing individual poems inspired by each of our writers, Lyz began writing a sequence about her late ex-husband whose schizophrenia led to his suicide. My recollection (always in doubt) was that her poem began with lines like these:
I do not want to know about sediment layers of substances found in your quiet veins, about spider scars coursing your thighs the undersides of your arms, about the awkward angled tilt of your head signaling the severed cord, about the blue smudged grey of your chilled skin when they found you | (17)
Lyz renders Rich's statement even more ambivalent with the enjambments after "I do not" and "want to know," which suggests that she both does and does not "want to know" about her late husband's drug use and the way in which he died. But Lyz also knows that knowledge requires both a speaker and a listener; "I do not want to know" is, in its way, too simple a statement, because it suggests the poet can know what she wishes to know. Lyz's corrective comes later on page 17:
I do not want to know if the unquiet lost breath if the unwanted visitors faded, if you knew oblivion was santuary, And they will not tell me |
The "unwanted visitors" brought by the illness will not tell her if they are gone, nor will the dead man speak to her. "I do not want to know" thus opens a passage whose very revelation is the impossibility of knowing certain things--about each other, about illness, about language, about love.
The lyric refrain that Soto adapts from Rich's poem is but one voice in her fugue-like poem. Other voices inhabit the poem's underworld, its footnotes, which point toward brutal facts like the one at the bottom of this page: " . . . the average life expectancy of people with schizophrenia is 10 to 12 years less than those without . . . " (17). Other footnotes inform the reader about anti-psychotic medications, the meaning of the word "map," quotations that "rhyme" with the poem. Some of these footnotes are themselves poems. Here is how Lyz lays out an OED definition on the bottom of page 18:
8) Translating fragments history [t-1. A relation of incidents (in early use, either true or imaginary; later only of those professedly true); a narrative, tale, story.
That this definition of history is "obsolete" does not prevent it from providing an abstract of what the poem does, although it is not "so long and full of detail, / as to resemble / a history in sense . . . ]" We read the fragments; we are left to intuit their history.
Like other recent and forthcoming Tinfish Press books, Eulogies is about mapping. At the book's center (and at the very center of the book) Michelle Soait has included a drawing of the human brain. In a previous draft, submitted by Lyz for the class, there was also a map of Belgium (where her late husband grew up). One of the poem's fragments is a love story that covers continents and ends on an island. Hence, a section added late in the process:
I have been dreaming of road map directions, and picture coded legends with a clear line towards sanity | The warehouses, holding inconvenient and untreatable, The factories, building chemical composites of maybe, have dissolved into myths |
where the "legends" of a map evaporate into the "myths" she dreams will be all that remains of mental hospitals. In this section the phrase "I do not want to know" transposes to an equally simple phrase: "I have been dreaming." Here the poem turns its cheek back toward its central sadness and looks toward a future where "dissolution" will be a marker of sanity rather than illness.
After I read from Dementia Blog at the University of Western Sydney in November, Ivor Indyk spoke eloquently about the elegy as a poetic form. I wish I could reconstruct his exact words, but he spoke of how poets are at once testing their craft in writing an elegy and also trying to remember (the word literalized!) one who has died. While the phrase "testing one's craft" (more mine than his, I fear) might seem to reduce the elegy to a test for the poet, not an expression of grief, there is a way in which they are linked. Lyz's writing away from Rich and into a place of her own grieving forms a significant subplot to the composition of Eulogies. Her re-discovery, to which she bears witness in her dedication of the book to "Erick, because there was also love," that there were layers beyond suffering, was aided (I suspect) by the many layers of composition of the poem. To compose the poem was also to compose a self who could meet the past not as its victim but as its envoy to us:
There is not that much between us small angles of separation | Look, there in the window reflected, we are almost the same | (43)