Friday, December 31, 2021

Socially Engaged Buddhism: essay for Upaya's course


Susan M. Schultz

Socially Engaged Teaching and Writing: Mental Health

I retired this past June. Since then, I have worked with NAMI support groups on zoom to extend the mental health work described below. But the year was mainly devoted to writing about the activism I did at UHM. In that sense, my engagement was both retrospective and prospective, as I’m looking for a direction to go with mental health activism. This essay links to two others I wrote during this past year, as well as to attention exercises I had my students do during my last decade of teaching.

I only walked out of two classes in my 31 years of teaching at the University of Hawai`i. The first time had to do with student nastiness, the second with apathy. In the second, as in all my creative writing classes, I assigned readings to discuss and then to use as models for poems and vignettes. I grew more frustrated as the semester wore on. One day I pointedly asked each students if they’d done the reading. Only one student had, a veteran, older than the others. I felt anger rising from my gut, said something about how I couldn’t teach if no one did the reading, and left the room.

And then I wondered why they weren’t reading. I wrote a brief questionnaire asking how many hours a week they worked, how many they studied, what else was going on in their lives. What I found was that most of them worked many more hours than they studied. I also discovered the following: one young man was caregiving his grandfather; a young woman’s father had died in California earlier in the semester; a young man who acted out a lot in class had tried to kill himself in his car. (He wrote an email to say he was going to miss class because he was feeling suicidal, but the email came after the fact.)

J. composed a song for our class, played it via zoom on her home keyboard. She was a gifted writer, as well, and kind to other students across the boundaries of zoom boxes. When she began to miss classes, I asked what was going on. Her roommate was drinking herself to death, she said, which was even more awful because J. was an addict and trying to stay clean. She wrote about a sexual assault she had suffered a few years ago.

The class I walked out of had been centered around “attention.” This was one of the first I devoted to seeing and hearing the world as it is. What to do when no one had the energy or the stillness to attend? And how could I guide them, when they were so tired and stressed out? How could I change my own way of being with them, taking into account this new world of overwork and overstimulation?

This class had come at around the same time I started doing mental health advocacy on my campus. In the classes that followed this one, I talked openly about mental health issues (I always had) and gave students “attention exercises” each week, along with a requirement that they do nothing for 10 minutes a day. (Hard one to judge, I know.) These exercises emphasized randomness, wandering, staring, eavesdropping, and other skills underutilized in college curriculums. Here are the first five exercises:

1. Look at a raisin for eight full minutes, then eat it very slowly.

2. Take your dog on a walk and notice what your dog notices.

3. Spend 15 minutes watching and listening to your cat. (Any animal is fine, including geckos, lizards, guinea pigs, and so on.)

4. Spend 15 minutes sitting in a public place (bus stop, mall, etc.). What do you hear and see?

5. Spend 15 minutes with a photograph or a still from the television. Describe exactly what you see. You might also draw what you see, if you wish. Then write about the process of drawing what you saw.

You can find the full list of these exercises on my blog: We also read Harryette Mullen’s Tanka Diary, and Bernadette Mayer’s Midwinter Day, as well as haiku translated from the Japanese. I set the stage for this deep immersion in nothing-in-particular on the first day of class, when we did a meditative walk on campus, slowly around a small pond. (“At first I hated it, then by the second time around, I was enjoying noticing things,” was a typical comment.) One student’s final project was a blow by blow record of what happened in class: who said what, what we wrote, how we walked with my dog Lilith in one of our class outings, noticing what she noticed.

R. was an older student from Canada. She’d lived in South Korea, where she spent time at a monastery. A bad car accident had left her with brain damage; an ex-husband had raped her; her family, which was far away, had not been kind, though she wanted to see her mother who was dying of cancer. She was living in a room in a house whose walls were paper thin. She had biofeedback treatment for her frequent headaches and trouble concentrating, but any more treatment than that was inaccessible to her. She made it through one of my classes with great effort, and with flying colors. She didn’t finish her second semester with me. I think she returned to Canada.

My academic career turned, finally, away from knowledge and toward wisdom. Rather than teach students about the rules that ordain a sonnet, I taught them how to think like a sonnet, based on their direct experience of the world. I also spent more and more time advocating for better mental health resources, suicide prevention, and openness about the deaths of students and faculty. I wrote an extended essay on my activism here: This essay gets at the unfortunate fact that improving mental health care at my university (and many others) has more to do with PR than with actual care. The university knows its audience is not its students, but their parents and especially the legislature. Arguments based on ethics or morality (students are dying of despair and we owe them our support!) fall flat. Only financial considerations matter, along with desperate attempts to avoid appearing in the local media or in court. I hear Roshi Joan quoting Roshi Bernie Glassman on getting up every day and doing one’s work, without expectations for “success.” This has been a difficult lesson.

A. was a lively, active student, alert to others and to the work we were doing. Her father, a veteran, had killed himself. Another woman in that class had a father who threatened to kill himself; my discussion of suicide prevention triggered her. A third woman’s father was a binge alcoholic; when he was drinking, she stayed home to watch over him, missing classes. She got a quick appointment at the Counseling Center (on my recommendation, I told her to say she was in crisis), was told she needed therapy they couldn’t offer, but that her situation was not a crisis.

Along with the essay I cited earlier, I wrote a long solicited post for the University of Pennsylvania blog, Psyche on Campus: In this short essay, which includes a poem, I write about a flyer UHM that advertised a “Love Yourself Workshop.” Among the many deep problems with the flyer, and the workshop it advertises, is the idea that loving oneself as an individual will bring you better mental health. It’s the mental health equivalent of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps when you have no straps, or boots. If you attend the workshop, however, you might get some balloons. (I hated the Counseling Center’s balloons, which they pulled out for their rare appearances in public spaces. But one such day I was taking the public bus home, when I saw a young man clutching his balloon; on it was a tag with mental health resources.)

C., who was from out of state, suffered PTSD. The Counseling Center’s wait list was over 80 souls long. She reached out to a therapist back home (this was the pre-zoom days). In the same class, another young woman missed class because she had to pay her own rent and that of a roommate who wasn’t able to pay. Late in the class, she revealed that she’d only recently gotten out of an abusive relationship. I do not teach poetry as therapy, but there were tears at the end of that semester; not all of them were hers.

My anger at my non-reading students was matched by my rage against the university’s administration. More than once I performed my anger in front of an audience (twice in front of members of student government, another time in front of the college senate executive committee). I am half-Irish, after all, a bit of a pugilist. But there’s a limit to what rage can do, and there was a severe limit to what administration was willing to accomplish. What I discovered then, and was amplified greatly in my time with SEBT, was that real changes were made from “below.” My department began to have more conversations about our students’ mental health; connections were made by way of my Compassion Hui across campus; students came forward more to talk about their issues.

Talking about mental health issues doesn’t solve them, of course, nor does any number of “attention exercises.” But what I’m working toward now, during and after this course, is a consideration of how to create closer communities. As a wise friend of mine told me that “we all need to feel protected.” Expressions of care are a start. Students my last couple of zoomed semesters told me they were happy I checked in with them before every class. No one said a lot about their situations in front of the others, but a space was opened for them, and some spoke to me directly. In an odd sense, this past year has made me less ambitious in my activism, if “ambition” can be said to lead to structural changes. Instead, I’ve learned how difficult it is to change institutions, but how effective one can be in organizing small groups around care for themselves and their group.

One of my colleagues, who left UHM after four years, said he knew of graduate students who were homeless. UH has released information that 40% of its students suffer from food insecurity. My colleague organized talking sessions, where students shared their problems in turn, no one interrupting anyone else. I often wonder how students can learn anything, when they’re trying so hard simply to survive. My colleague said he’d talked to other young faculty who said they’d never seen such high levels of trauma in their students at other schools.

During the past year, I’ve sat in on support groups for people dealing with the illness of a family member, along with one peer group meeting. Participants talk about daughters and sons and partners with bipolar illness, personality disorder, schizoaffective disorder, schizophrenia, addictions to meth and/or alcohol. Pervasive anxiety and depression bring up the rear. Some hope that their family members will get arrested; it’s the only way for them to get care. Others wonder whether they should throw their son or daughter out of the house. They all suffer in the presence of so much suffering. It’s a lot to expect people so burdened to support one another. During one meeting a man whose son suffers schizoaffective disorder talked about how angry he used to get with his son. They fought constantly. He and his wife went to a therapist who told them never to get in fights with their son. “Approach only with love,” they were told. According to husband and wife, that advice has improved their situation immensely. He delivered the message of G.R.A.C.E. in a single sentence. This year has been filled with such connections for me, and I greatly appreciate the teachings and fellowship.

A year after the class I walked out of, I ran into one of the students parking on a street near campus. She hailed me. “I saw a shama thrush the other day,” she said, “and I watched it for a long time.”

Monday, December 27, 2021

Found wandering in Mililani


27 December 2021

Someone loved Murphy

Before he became Murphy

Dog, one-eyed gimpy

Legged flat-faced dog

Head half-shaved, white fur on nose

Two seniors discount

“I’m a free dog,” he

Might have said, like guy in grave-

Yard who wears no mask

When he sells flowers

“No need,” he told me; and he’s

The one foretold 1/

6 last December

Anne calls her dog Murphy Mouse

After her father

Marie Murphy my

Late friend, why not early friend

Who left before me?

Wanted his ashes

Put down the can at Dublin’s

Theater instead

Scattered on bar floor--

In Cork all stores had Irish

Names which surprised

Me oddly, town rich

From Viagra, one man tells

Me, another glad

An Englishman asked

Him for a job, that was years

Ago, irony

Is historical

Time, no fun in forever

It flattens us out

Less contour fewer

Potholes, her nephews wouldn’t

Get shots for father

With cancer, waited

Until restaurants opened

To those with vax cards

Family folded in

Self folded like bananas

Batter up this age

Of suicidal

Ideation in place of

Ideals which offer

No discounts no ad-

options reductio adds

And life cashes out.

Saturday, December 18, 2021

Neo-liberal warming


18 December 2021

Because I can’t cry

I might be immune from grief

Skinned knees and other

Suffering, unless

Expression fails to be cause

For my suffering

Fools gladly, includes

The man in elf hat on zoom

The youngest woman

Says she also lost

Husband, careened back

Such diagnoses

Campbell’s alphabet

Soup letters at the ready

To shift positions

Each letter a hurt

Egret hobbling in graveyard

Foot mangled by mower

White punctuation

Against Ko`olau green be-

fore corporate grave

Sites gentrified with

Fountains, there I saw marker

For a couple, still

Alive, epitaph

Sweet, dates incomplete, who now

Aren’t there; divorce is

Death before dying

Mortality prep, lettered

In unresolved con-

flict inflicted on

Denizens of hope (skeptics

Need apply) resume

Works until it’s re-

sume, rhyming with Calais

Callous professors

Unfamiliar with

New austerity measures

You provide the print

The paper, belief

In individual coping

Skills—what we market


Arts my major, graft my skill

Craft a tiny boat

Of clay and wattles

The allusive mud I learned

To spread on thick, no

Currency now that

Once future ice melt ensues

No trawler to cut

Its incipient

Absence, holes we do not grieve

Swallow us whole.

Saturday, December 4, 2021

Blog post at Psyche on Campus

I have a blog post up at Psyche on Campus, out of UPenn, edited by Max Cavitch. It's about mental health care at my university. If you're interested, please also read the essay I wrote; link in the post.

See here:

Friday, December 3, 2021

Found Adoption Essay

 I don't know how I forgot that I'd written this essay on adoption in the early 2000s. I believe it was for a project that never got off the ground, so I let it rest, and then it disappeared from memory. I found it a few months ago, then lost it again. Perhaps there's something psychological about all this, but I do want the essay to see the light of day, if only here. Feels outdated, but more interesting that I remembered (forgot!).

Now I remember that the essay was turned down by a poetry journal because the editor did not like Jackie Kay's poetry. Woo!


Susan M. Schultz

Adoption meditations : meditations on poetic influence

Is family learned
Or instinctual:
    --Craig Watson, “Ecuador”

This is an essay about what gets left out of stories.  In particular, I want to write about what gets left out of some narratives of family and, by extension, taxonomies of poetic influence.  

A spate of op-ed articles in late 2003 on Essie Mae Washington-Williams’s revelation that she is the biological daughter of Strom Thurmond concentrated on the explosive subject of race,   What these articles tell us about the American construction of family apart from race is just as telling.  Cynthia Williams writes in her syndicated column that the contrast between Washington-Williams’s protection of Thurmond and Thurmond’s hypocrsy “just goes to show you a child can rise above vile parentage” (Star-Bulletin 12/21/03, D3).  Thurmond’s hypocrisy was sealed by the secret he and his daughter kept for 78 years; as Colbert King writes in the Washington Post, “the legacy of the Thurmonds of America is more odious than the mere fact of having fathered but not publicly owned up to children they brought into this world” (WP, 12/20/03).  The missing father motif is not one that belongs solely to the world of segregationists and their mixed race children, however.  It also belongs to the world of adoption, where there has always  been a parent or two missing from the narratives told about children born to one set of parents and adopted by another.  In the old days, which live on in people adopted under a closed system, the missing parent (usually a mother) was the one who gave birth, so the parent of record was the one who adopted the child born into secrecy.  In more recent times, after the adoption rights movement of the 1980s and 1990s, publicized by activists like Betty Jean Lifton, represented by organizations like Bastard Nation (and its website,, the missing parent belongs to the adoptive family.  Consider any number of “reunion narratives” such as that of the New York Giants coach, his wife, and the son they relinquished for adoption over 30 years ago.  Their dramatic reunion story was published in the New York Times (5/16/2003) to much fanfare, replete with the usual descriptions of family resemblance between the coach’s family and their new-found son.  Photos confirm the statement that the son “shares a resemblance right down to the chin dimply inherited from their father,” if not necessarily the son’s claim that, “Finally, I can look around and say, ‘I fit in somewhere.’”  The conflation of physical and spiritual ties in biological families  becomes apparent the moment one enters into family relations that do not fit this pattern.  Almost completely hidden from this story, as from most other reunion stories covered by the media, was mention of the son’s adoptive family, who had provided a bridge between birth and “reunion” during a 30-year period   In one short paragraph we learn that Matthieson’s adoptive father is dead and that his adoptive mother wishes him well with his newfound relatives, saying a tad pointedly that “John is more or less getting something like an extended family.”  Barbara Melosh, among other recent commentators on adoption in America, has written about the “reunion narrative” as a prototypical, rather than a unique, story.  In some ways, that story provides an antidote to the hiddenness of the first family; in others, it merely replicates the disappearing of an entire family history.  And history is to adoptive families what DNA is to genetic ones.

So, to pose again the question put to us by Cynthia Tucker, how does a child like Essie Mae Washington-Williams “rise above vile parentage”?  Did Washington-Williams simply fall on the other side of the apple tree, as Jon Stewart of The Daily Show suggested?  In posing the question this way, I do not mean to disparage birthfamilies, most of whom are not vile, but to point to what is missing from Tucker’s and King’s and Stewart’s analyses of the Strom Thurmond story.  Because what is missing is any mention of the adoptive family that Washington-Williams thanked, however briefly, in a statement otherwise devoted to discussion of her “father.”  What is missing is, for the most part, the story of what happened between Thurmond’s abandonment of his daughter’s mother and that daughter’s announcement of her parentage.  To some extent this is a story of race.  If the South was full of segregationist white men who were the unacknowledged fathers of mixed race children, then the secret history of these unions contains within it the equally secret story of African American families who adopted the children of these unions.  In odd fashion, it aggrandizes the importance of the white father at the expense of black parents who perform the labor of parenthood aside from the initial labor of giving birth.  But this story is not exclusive to family narratives like Washington-Williams’s.

Birth is at once a “natural” and a “historical” marker; natural because it ties us to a genetic stream we as yet know nothing of, and may not ever if we were adopted, and historical because it signifies a moment in time when origin turned into onset, the spinning out of days and weeks and decades.  Yet often the natural and the historical are conflated, as if our histories, spinning forth as they do, are natural rather than constructed, however accidentally.  They are certainly twin nodes of something quite familiar (as it were) to adoptive parents, namely other people’s curiosity.  My son, by virtue of his mysterious beginnings, becomes the object of historical inquiry, where others’ children are permitted a future, not anchored to the past.  At a party shortly after the adoption of my son (at a year), I was quizzed by an acquaintance about my son’s orphanage, how he was cared for, all those past-tense questions that I’ve become awkwardly accustomed to.  From another room entered a woman who had recently given birth to a child.  My acquaintance turned to her and asked if she was going to have another child, telling her with emphasis that one of the best aspects of his life was his relationship with his brother.  It’s good to have a sibling, was his message to her.  It took me some time to realize precisely why that exchange made me so angry.  My son, still pre-toddler, was rhetorically denied the future that the other child was assumed to have.  Unlike the other child, my son would not enjoy the company of a sibling because siblings are “natural” companions, not historical ones.

One might think that motherhood could be as easily defined historically as naturally.  But Any biologist will tell you that your real father is the biological one, says one relative told us.  I do hope that he finds his mother someday, says another, of my son.  If language has its slips, then these are not slips, but internal scars where the meanings are, as Dickinson wrote of despair.  There are words for the kind of family that interests me, but these words are not often used, or not used in sequences I would recognize as true to my experience, historical and, by now, quite natural.  

There is  a stream of adoption literature that considers birth to be a natural marker, a necessary origin.  Sandra McPherson, a poet who found her birthparents, asks a question more rhetorical than not in the following stanza of “Wings and Seeds”::
    Separately our lives have passed from earthy passion
    To wilder highliving creatures with wings.
    With our early expectancies
    Did we come to think ourselves a flight of nature?  (Ghost  334)
The poet’s birthmother, who could not teach her child to read, can yet teach her daughter about nature (“To believe / The hummingbird mistrusts its feet”).  This poem, so saturated in natural imagery, ends with the poet’s statement of her need to return to her “natural” origins:
    I was a child of pleasure.
    The strong pleasurable seeds of life
    Found each other.
    And I was created by passion’s impatience
    For the long wait till our meeting. (334)
There is probably something to be made (in another essay) of two currents of adoption writing, the one to which McPherson belongs, which brings together nature and family to assert the necessary bond of birth, and another, whose landscape is more urban, more fascinated by the constructedness of family.  

Michael Davidson’s recent examination of Walt Whitman’s constructions of gender uses the term “adoption” in almost obsessive fashion.  The first meaning of adoption, if you look to the OED, is one of “adopting” ideas as one’s own; this is the meaning to which Davidson looks..  Davidson argues that Whitman’s “radical view of the self as ensemble” is borne out (to pun on the trope of birth) in his consideration of gender from more than one standpoint.  Listen to Davidson spin this argument out (the italics are mine): “The good gay poet, however, might hear in such lines not simply identity within difference but identity within identity, the adoption of one role to articulate another” (100); “If a poet like Emily Dickinson adopts, as she often does, the role of a male when she wants to describe conditions of power unavailable to women in the 1860s” (101); “In Whitman, the adoption of female personae signals the emergence of new emerging sexual categories in the postbellum period that were beginning to be defined” (102); “the poet adopts feminine position in order to participate erotically with other males” (102).  For Davidson’s Whitman, the poet’s “self-conscious reinvention of himself” is best described through the trope of adoption.  If identity is considered a central issue in adoption, then issues of identity are often expressed through metaphors of adoption.  

But Davidson falls short of abstracting his metaphor of adoption as a marker of identity-creation.  When he moves on to consider Whitman’s “influence” on later poets, he quotes Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s phrase, “Whitman’s wild children,” to describe his followers.  These “wild children,” Davidson makes clear, do not abide by Harold Bloom’s taxonomy of poetic influence.  What Davidson does not raise is the possibility that Bloom’s taxonomy of younger poets as the rejecting sons of their poetic fathers (Ashbery of Stevens, Stevens of Whitman, and so on) might instead be translated into a less tense, yet still familial, model of the son or daughter “adopting” his or her poetic for”bears.”  Such a model, among other things, releases the student of influence from a masculinist model of father and son, and admits a wider spectrum of possibility that includes (to follow Davidson’s main track) gay parenting.  More on this later . . . as it will become the crux of my argument about poetic influence.

British poet, Denise Riley, who was adopted, posits human identity as resulting from the movements of language, its performance about and by the speaker and poet.  “Self-named, I’m already more than halfway out of my dully private skin.  I am being lived” (Words 51).  Identity, as revealed in autobiography, comes from the outside, moving in, rather than the other way around; identity must be “performed” rather than lived, because in life, as in writing, there are prefabrications, not moments of originality.  Publication, then, means a literal death of the author into her text’s reading (and its inevitable misinterpretations by the critics, whose ears hear allusions where there are none, or original statements where there are allusions).  Riley plays on the usual trope of writing-as-birth thusly: “Maybe there is a moment, just before death via publication, when the organic connection between the author and her text isn’t quite severed—or in the old metaphor, when the umbilical cord hasn’t yet been cut, so that the work hasn’t quite come to birth as a text which will trot off on its own” (75).  No surprise, then, that this writer whose life is itself an act of “writing,” or a performance of and through language, should speak of “adopting an identity” (51).  (My emphasis.)  In her poem, “What I Do,” Riley writes:
        I am in several cupboards
        deep, and wish well out,
        with out from this
        dark air of china.
        Is my name ‘skeleton’
        or only ‘cup’?
        A crack of light falls round me.  (Selected 26).
Her name is whatever she gives herself, or is given.  But “Who anyone is or I am is nothing to the work” (“Dark Looks” 74).  Poetry is, then, an act of humility, as it forms as the result of the poet’s acknowledgment of her “inauthenticity” as a self, her “performance” as poet or as woman—better stated as “one who writes poetry” or “one who acts occasionally as women are seen to act.”  Riley, more than most writers, understands the intimate connection between “performance” and “adoption.”  Where a writer like Davidson “performs” that connection without interrogating it, Riley knows its truth and makes her own poetics of it.  

Digression (or not!) on family language: on our way to pick up Thanksgiving turkey from my husband’s high school imu (outdoor oven), our son asks if that means that we are going to ‘adopt” the turkey.  Several startled moments later, I realize that our adoption story often includes the phrase, “when we picked you up,” so he associates the verb “to pick up” with the concept of adoption.  “No,” my husband responds, “we are going  to eat the turkey.”  And then our rhetorical scramble really begins!

Riley turns the argument on its head, as she so often does—the argument that adoption disrupts identity-formation—by suggesting that adoption only reveals everyone’s lack of a stable identity: “to be brought up as the child of one set of parents, then much later to stumble upon the fact that these were not one’s original parents at all, might well be assumed to generate ‘a crisis of identity’.  Yet it can do the very opposite” (135), she writes.  What the suppression of adoption records does, according to Riley, is not to deny its “victims” their identity, but their history; in conversation with me, she said that she searched for her birthmother because she wanted to know her history.  For Riley, the discovery of a second family only confirms the “impossibility of having an identity” (136).  As Craig Watson writes in a long poem about adopting his daughter from Ecuador, “That which we inhabit / inhabits us” (55).  We cling to identities out of a sense of lack, she notes, and the danger to anyone who embraces the identity of a “victim” is that of not opening up to a future free of such an identification.  Lack is, indeed, a powerful thing: what I do not know about my son’s birthparents is a palpable presence in my life.  The story I was told of his relinquishment bore the mark of legend about it; I do not feel I can trust it, though it offers a root on which to hang my own story of his adoption.  What my son’s birthparents, if they are alive, know of his fate is a more difficult prospect.  One wants them to know everything.  What effect does this lack of knowing, combined with a desire to tell, have on my identity as a mother or as someone who writes about mothering?  Those are questions I’ve not seen asked, however familiar I am with the arguments about “unresolved infertility issues,” issues that were once unresolved, and now dissolve into the plenitude of adoption.  “Adoption” signifies my raising a son whose inclinations and temperament are presumed to be different from my own.  He is not my mirror, but the agent of joyful refractions, views I had not previously imagined.  I cannot spill myself into him, but am the rock in his waterfall (his favorite image), around which experience flows and is redirected.  If my identity is more than mother, is “adoptive mother,” then what it says about me and my relationship with my son is subject to perpetual conjecture.  On the one hand, adoption is seen as a chancy, iffy proposition, and I am the lucky participant in a lucky adoption.  On the other, adoption skirts the dangers of genetic dysfunctions as lived out in ordinary families.  But neither of these options really says much, does it?

Jackie Kay is a poet of the performative self, a poet whose The Adoption Papers (1991) is already a mainstay of the adoption community.  Her book is spoken in three voices, those of the adopted child and her two mothers; the mothers’ voices are typed in slightly different fonts, which my students were quick to point out to me are very easy to confuse with one another.  So the daughter’s head fills with mothers’ voices, both at once (the “real” and the “imagined”), and the reader cannot easily tell them apart.  Kay, whose identity was complicated by her being a biracial person in very white Scotland, the adopted half-African daughter of white parents, “adopted” models of her own, including Angela Davis.
    Maybe it’s really Bette Davis I want
    to be the good twin or even better the bad
    one or a nanny who drowns a baby in a bath.
    I’m not sure maybe I’d prefer Katharine
    Hepburn tossing my red hair, having a hot
    temper. I says to my teacher Can’t I be
    Elizabeth Taylor, drunk and fat and she
    just laughed, not much chance of that.
    I went for an audition for The Prime
    Of Miss Jean Brodie,  I didn’t get a part
    even though I’ve been acting longer
    than Beverley Innes. So I have. Honest. (26)
If Denise Riley persuades us that identity is formed in and through language, then certainly Jackie Kay’s work illustrates the idea well.  That written language is crucial for adoptive families is evident; there are the home studies, agency paperwork, certificates of birth and adoption (often conflated).  Kay’s origin is hidden away in paperwork; all she knows of her birthmother is a haiku-like statement on a piece of paper.  Her adoptive mother remembers that “I’m not a mother / until I’ve signed that piece of paper” (16).  Significantly, the book ends with writing about writing, the birthmother’s sister saying “she write me a letter,” as she awaits “the soft thud of words on the mat” and wonders if the writer will underline “First Class” “or have a large circle over her ‘i’s” (likely a marker of class as much as anything) (34).  This book is not, like so many coming-of-age stories, about the “birth” of the writer; rather, it concerns the “adoption” of the writer.  Later, we will see why Kay’s extensive use of quotation makes her a prime example of what I am calling the “poetics of adoption.”

Yet much of the rhetoric used to discuss adoption issues refuses the notion that identity is performed or, if it is, that such performances are creative, generative, even poetic enterprises.  The idea that there are identities, and that we “own” them, is strong in the adoption community, in part as a reaction against the notion that it “doesn’t matter” if your papers were switched and you were presented as someone else in order to be adopted, or against the feeling that it is, in fact, best if birthparents are not sought for or found (an idea that governed social workers’ constructions of adoption during the mid-part of the 20th century).  

To a literary critic who unlearned the notion of “organic form” as the false association of a construct (form) with nature, this plunge back into the language of firm origins was disturbing, if not unfamiliar after the re-learning of identity-politics in Hawai`i.  For, if the writers of The Empire Writes Back deploy the language of adoption to convey the ideas of cultural studies, they are doing so in a rather different fashion from Denise Riley’s use of the term, it seems to me.  Adoptions of colonial rhetoric, say, are simply not as desirable as the performances of the poet’s self.  Consider the backspin on the following phrases: “”post-colonial writers, whose traditions were by European definitions ‘childish’, ‘immature’, or ‘tributary’ (to adopt the most favoured metaphors of the period” or “the way in which New Criticism facilitated the ‘adoption’ of individual post-colonial authors by the ‘parent’ tradition” (160).  That book about postcolonial thinking came out of a society, namely that of Australia, where adoption was given a terrible name through its use by the government to “mainstream” half-aboriginal children—by kidnapping them, as any viewer of Rabbit Proof Fence can attest.  A headline in the local newspaper a couple of years back alluded to “suicide, imprisonment, and adoption of Hawaiians,” as if these three were equal instances.  In postcolonial societies, where “authenticity” is crucial, the rhetoric, or even the fact of adoption (especially if it is adoption out), can be problematic.   

One of the more egregious conflations of adoption with colonialism appeared in The New York Times on May 4, 2003 under the headline “Our New Baby.”  In his op-ed column, Thomas Friedman un-self-consciously employed the language of adoption to describe the United States’s relationship to Iraq.  After positing that the US must rebuild the nation of Iraq, Friedman turned to metaphor to elaborate, moving quickly from “state” to “adoption” tropes: “We now have a 51st state of 23 million people.  We just adopted a baby called Baghdad—and this is no time for the parents to get a divorce.  Because raising that baby, in the neighborhood it lives in, is going to be a mammoth task” (NYT op-ed).  I can hardly begin to explain the rhetorical over-reaching of this metaphor.  If Baghdad is “our baby,” then is adoption seen as the forcible capture of a “rogue nation” in the guise of an “innocent child”?  Are adoptive children, then, from “bad neighborhoods”?  Is the taking of a colony (not a state, which gets ratified) to be equated with the taking (in) of a child?  Kipling would be proud of such language, but that the New York Times is running it in 2003 strikes me as remarkable (or does it?)

International adoption is often conflated (with some justice, perhaps) with colonialism, that unnatural historical inclination of powerful countries to overtake, “adopt,” less powerful ones.  Reviews of the John Sayles film, Casa de los Babys, played up this aspect of his film while harping—extra-filmically, it often seemed—on the pathetic “nature” of adoptive mothers.  As is typical of treatments of women who do not “carry” but only want to “care” for children, their desire for motherhood is figured as more unnatural than not.  So, the question, according to Michael Wilmington of the Chicago Tribune is: “Can you make an interesting drama on the spectacle of women wanting babies and what happens as they wait to have them?”  His answer is yes, if you consider the 1958 Ingmar Bergman film, Brink of Life.  But, Wilmington continues, “that was about life in a maternity ward.  ‘Casa de los Babys’ is about adoption.  It has the added disadvantage of being about childless solitary women with little or no hope of actual motherhood” ( And yet reviewers are not beyond the “play on words” that links birth (which is desirable), to adoption (which is not).  Wesley Morris of the Boston Globe, writes: “The Americans are in labor to receive children in this south-of-the-border purgatory, this limbo, to borrow one of Sayles's old titles. The adoption procedure stipulates that they have to reside here indefinitely. This is something of a sick joke -- Sayles seems to enjoy these women's miseries -- with a loud political snap” (  The Honolulu Weekly’s headline over a review by Aarin Correa was more to this particular point: “Buying Motherhood” was all it said.  Thus the conflation of unnatural motherhood, bad politics, and money, is confirmed by reviewers who leave the scene of the film to scatter pre-existing stereotypes before them.  My husband and I watched the movie months after reading the reviews.  We were only astonished by the fact that Sayles’s portrayal of the women adopting children was so sympathetic.  No, they were not angels, with the possible exception of the Irish mother-to-be, but they were also not rank consumers of children, either.  They were pretty nearly human.

That there are deep ethical problems with international adoption is not to be denied.  Anyone who has read the Cambodia adoption email list over the past several years, as I have, and followed the news out of Cambodia, knows that the ethics of adoptions from that country were (they have since been halted, first by the Cambodian government, then by the INS) often dubious.  The facilitator of our adoption has been indicted on charges of visa fraud, among other things.  (More recently, she pleaded guilty to visa fraud.)  Mixing money and children may well be a match made in some version of ethical purgatory, if not hell.  Yet the method by which the reviewers of Sayles’s movie assail adoptive motherhood is not an ethical way to open a valid issue to the larger cultural conversation; instead, it enforces—on the one side—stereotypes based on ignorance and—on the other—defensiveness before everyone except others in your ethically challenged boat.  There have been eloquent statements of horror on the email list, as well as equally eloquent acknowledgements of ambivalence from parents thankful to have the very children they have, horrified that the way in which they became a family may have been polluted by greed and the peculiar globalization of adoption, among so many other aspects of our lives.  To replace one incomplete narrative with another is not to complete narration’s circuit; instead, it is to shift the angle of reproach.  And that is not a way to get at the real issues, which may or may not have answers or solutions.

Michael Davidson begins his chapter on Whitman by quoting Patrick Buchanan at the 1992 Republican convention.  Buchanan accused the Democrats of “cross-dressing,” thereby calling into question their gender identity (where Democratic men are women and women like Hillary Clinton become men, no doubt).  That the far-right is homophobic goes without saying, as does the perhaps lesser known fact that the far-right advocates adoption as a counterweight to abortion.  But mix homosexuality and adoption and you get reams of text in “defense” of the heterosexual family.  It seems no mistake that these two forms of parenting, gay and adoptive, should be such an explosive mix, as they both partake, for the dominant society, of “unnaturalness.”  If a gay (unnatural) couple is to provide a good home for their (unnatural) family, it should be in the guise of sainthood; consider Rosie O’Donnell’s defense of the Florida couple who adopted AIDS babies that no one else wanted.  As sainthood is a status much admired for its unnaturalness (the saint is celibate, or self-abnegating, or anorexic, usually), then saintly parents can be unnatural.  Rather as Joseph was, when he adopted Jesus as his son.  If one cares enough, perhaps one does not need to carry.  But of course many people find any form of gay parenting abhorrent, hence the hullabaloo about adoption.

Earlier, I quoted Michael Davidson’s discussion of Whitman at some length, and promised to return to the poetic implications of his references to “adoption,” which are then tellingly dropped when Davidson gets to the question of influence.  I’d like to look in that Bible of influence study, Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence, for the origins of the agonistics between father and son that becomes Bloom’s model for poets and their rejecting “sons.”  For, while Bloom’s model now seems more quaint than central to literary critical narratives, I have always felt that there is some truth to his model; certainly poets are influenced by earlier poets, and much of what they write can be heard as variation on themes already put into play.  “Battle between strong equals, father and son as mighty opposites, Laius and Oedipus at the crossroads; only this is my subject here, though some of the fathers, as will be seen, are composite figures,” he writes in the introduction to his study (11).  What Bloom does not say is that he is writing about unacknowledged (because unknown) biological fatherhood and sonship, not fatherhood per se.  The Oedipus complex depends upon Oedipus’s not knowing who his father actually is.  In the meantime, of course, another narrative is left out utterly, the narrative of Oedipus and his adopted father.  Read the Oedipus play and you find nothing about their relationship, the nurturing relationship of father and son; rather, you get the disastrous results of the non-nurturant relationship, which is perhaps bound to result in mis-communication, if not death.  Tragedy thrives always on not-knowing, and Bloom’s theory of poetry is tragic.  

But what if influence were not a tragic process, but the ordinary interaction between a child and his or her adopted parents?  What might be the implications of a theory of poetry based on “adoption” (more as concept than as fact, like Bloom’s use of parenthood) rather than on biology?  What of the poet whose parent is seen as the rescuer of an abandoned child, to continue with the Oedipus story for a moment?  Then Kierkegaard might be rephrased this way: “He who is willing to work [adopts] his own father” (26).  Then Riley’s nearly contented admission that poetry is never, can never be, original, takes the place of Bloom’s proposition that poetry ought to be original and—quite tragically—is not.  Consider the difference in tone between my hypothetical statement and that of  Bloom: “In departing from the unitary aspiration of his own youth Milton may be said to have fathered the poetry that we call post-Enlightenment or Romantic, the poetry that takes as its obsessive theme the power of the mind over the universe of death, or as Wordsworth phrased it, to what extent the mind is lord and master, outward sense the servant of her will” (34-35).  Substitute the word “adopted” for “fathered” and a world of difference emerges.  “Fathered” and “mastered” and “lorded” suggest raw power, while “adopted” implies a kind of gathering in, a joining together rather than the separation Bloom always imagines for his poets.  Likewise, when Bloom discusses the “begetting” of poets: “To beget here means to usurp,” he adds (37).  

This is not to say, however, that we are replacing a natural model, albeit one mediated by Freud’s intellections, with one that is not natural except insofar as nature is borrowed.  Adoption, an adoptive parent would argue, is as “natural” as “giving birth,” even if the “giving” is another kind of activity all together.  “Giving birth,” to follow Bloom’s model, casts away; “adopting,” we might say in a moment of adoption chauvinism, takes in, makes a community of what is otherwise perceived as lack.  In place of Bloom’s emphasis on power, we might (if alls works well) set one of power-sharing.  The violence of Bloom’s birthing is met by a less violent impulse to heal what has been rent.  But I wax sentimental now, and that is not my intention here.  Instead, I would like to look at some of the possibilities that lurk in the notion that poetic influence is related more to adoption than to fathering and sonning.  

Adoption, then, is also at once an “historical” and a “natural” marker.  Nature hardly exists in a vacuum, but bends to the shape of circumstance, so we can speak of the “nature” of adoption, as well as its marker of a certain kind of history.  We might assume, then, that any theory of poetic influence based on adoption would be open to discussions of both ways of reading and writing.  On the model of an “open adoption,” whether it be in the contemporary of sense of extended family or the more belated sense of honesty in adoption, the poet would be influenced not by a single, “genetic,” thread, but by many strands, and more than one “family” of writers.  This would mitigate the secrecy of Bloom’s Oedipus, for whom the central mystery is not inheritance per se, but origin.  And there would be fascinating twists along the way, such as the one experienced by my husband’s birthfather, who becomes the “grandfather by birth” of my son, even though there is no biological link between them.  What might we then expect from an adoptive poetics?  Let’s for a moment play with some of Bloom’s adopted Greek terminology and deliberately misread it as an incomplete view of the family of poetry:

Tessara, the second of Bloom’s “revisionary ratios”: “A poet antithetically ‘completes’ his precursor, by so reading the parent-poem as to retain its terms but to mean them in another sense, as though the precursor had failed to go far enough” (14).  The model of lack and completion tends to rest on the family model of continuity, that generations somehow “complete” each other, moving ineluctably from the issues of the parent to those of the child.  What if we assume that such completion is simply not necessary, or possible, and argue that poetry does something else, indeed, that it “adds” rather than “completes”?  Then we might be getting at an adoptive model.

Kenosis, the third of Bloom’s terms, “is a movement towards discontinuity with the precursor.”  In the narcissistic model that Bloom sets forth, discontinuity is above all difficult, requires breaking of vessels, agonistics, other models of rejection.  In an adoptive poetics discontinuity is always already assumed.  Such discontinuity is not so much desired as arrived at before the fact of the poem itself.  At issue, then, is more of a binding of voices than a break of them.  Jackie Kay’s Adoption Papers could not be composed under the rule of “originality” that Bloom proposes, for Kay needs to compose three voices, her own (as adopted person), and those of her mothers, birth and adoptive.  What is important in this sequence is not discontinuity, but the communication that crosses the discontinuities, that explains the break to the poet in such a way that she can live inside the ambiguities that have created her.

Askesis involves the state of solitude that is necessary for Bloom’s poets to write, indeed for any traditional lyric poet to compose.  Many critics and poets have written in opposition to this Romantic notion of the poet—I hardly need make the argument myself, except to say that an adoptive poetics creates a new framework within which to contain (or not) the notion of poetry as multivocal.  Such a theory does not depend on theorists who are otherwise most interested in the workings of prose, whose theories are then “transposed” onto poetry as if it played second fiddle.  Bloom’s obsession with “separation” is based on the ironic model of Oedipus, who was separated from his birthparents, without knowing it, but whose actual family ties get lost in the mythology to whose flaws Bloom is blinded.

The term that has always most appealed to me is that of apophrades, which results in the earlier poet sounding as if he or she had written after the later one.  Denise Riley has profound meditations on looking backward, and I would say that this aspect of looking backward as if it were forward is what makes the reading of poetry such a wonderful chamber of echoes.  But Bloom’s attempt to dramatize a reconciliation between son and father through this last term is not necessary (as synthesis) unless there has been a previous breaking.  Why maintain the need for a dialectical narrative of breaking and synthesis, when synthesis is the presumed beginning of the poem that follows the adoptive model?  This is what the adoptive model offers: an explanation for the manic synthesis of poems that bring together traditions otherwise at odds with one another.  Bloom’s own favorite poet, Hart Crane, can be read more as a synthetic poet than one who breaks from his precursors; in fact, it is the burden of bringing together so many parents that threatens Crane’s work, more than the need to break from the precursor.  In addition, the way in which Crane, in The Bridge, uses marginalia, not only to explain his poem, but also to acknowledge an affinity with Coleridge, suggests another aspect of adoptive poetics.

It seems no accident that the poets who fit into Bloom’s taxonomy of influence are those who refuse to quote other poets, except obliquely.  Following Emerson’s edict about not refusing to quote, Stevens and Ashbery ingest previous poets into their own linguistic brew, making the hunt for allusions more of a challenge, something on which a critic might stake his career.  The poets who do not fit Bloom’s program, and here I’m thinking in particular of the modernists T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, are poets who use quotation liberally, who even, in the case of Eliot, footnote other writers, for whom quotation is indeed a poetics.  Denise Riley again helps us, caught as she so often is, in the middle of the conversation.  Riley sometimes tries to avoid quotation, but her use of popular song lyrics in particular alert us to the conscious way in which she incorporates language outside the poem, outside her own head.  She writes about the phenomenon of having allusions attributed to one’s work that are not there, even as one tries hard to acknowledge the author’s death.  
    To allude brings up the risks of impenetrably private reference.  Footnoting
    might cover this, although it lays you open to charges of being pedantic.
    But the case of misattributed allusions will perplex anyone who can get
    haunted by sound-echoes, aural ghosts of lines from, say, Wordsworth
    or Auden.  (75)
Then, she continues, the critic either credits her with inventing phrases she borrowed, or borrowing phrases she invented.  For Riley what is at stake is identity, and the ambivalent regard she has for that concept.  For me, what resonates is the way quotation can itself be construed as part of an adoptive poetics.  The poets who claim originality, or for whom originality is claimed by a critics like Bloom, are staking their claim to an “organic” use of language, where those for whom originality is a red herring write “poems including history,” as did Ezra Pound.  Pound’s sense of language was multiple and historical, as was Eliot’s.  To expand upon Riley’s notion, then, is to suggest that the poem whose “identity” is most permeable, open to the voices of others, is one most likely to fit into the poetics of adoption.  It is the openness of it that matters, not the fact of there being quotation in the first place.  (Adoption simply raises into full consciousness issues of family and identity that already exist for each and all of us; so too does an adoptive poetics address issues in poetry of which we are aware, but perhaps do not yet have the conceptual framework for.)

Let me conclude with but a single test case for my adoptive poetics, suggested by the poet himself when I ran my general idea by him over breakfast in Honolulu months ago.  That is the case of Hank Lazer and his book, Days.  Lazer was not adopted, though he does have a stepdaughter, hence knows the dynamics of family apart from blood relationship.  There are two aspects of Days that interest me in terms of an adoptive poetics.  The first is Lazer’s fascination with history, his own poem’s history.  Each of the 233 poems in this book begins from a date.  That date is not typeset but printed (I assume in the poet’s hand).  The poems are then arranged in chronological order.  This fact would not be crucial to my reading were it not also the case that Lazer places citations for his poems in the margins, again in hand-written notes.  Thus we find links to Thelonius Monk, Norman Fischer, Louis Zukofsky, Jackson MacLow,  Robert Duncan, Lyn Hejinian, and other poets in Lazer’s “family.”  The notes point to differences inside the text: once pointed to, a citation is no longer incorporated into the body of the text, but set beside it.  The text no longer resembles itself as an entity entire, but reveals its own differences, the various voices out of which the poem is constructed.  Thus the dates are revealed as important because they suggest historical links, not simply between the poet’s ideas and the day on which he wrote the poems, but also between the poet and members of his family.  Their relationship is not organic, hidden within the very resemblance of a text to itself (where quotation is suppressed), but it is adoptive.  Lazer’s family photos do not show us individuals who share biological, but historical, traits.  To my mind, that way of looking at influence is more compelling than Bloom’s, which suppresses history in favor of a metaphorical genetics.  I believe that this model holds true not only for other poets who make their quotations conscious to themselves and their readers, but also to those for whom the genetic model drowns out the adoptive one.  When these connections are brought forward, what emerges is the central place of history in family creation, whether families are “actual” or “poetic.”  No longer is there a missing parent, rather there are a plenitude of them.

Works Cited

Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths, Helen Tiffin, Eds.  The Empire Writes
    Back.  NY: Routledge, 1990.
Bloom, Harold.  The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry. 2nd Edition.  NY: Oxford,

Davidson, Michael.  Guys Like Us: Citing Masculinity in Cold War Poetics.  Berkeley:
    U of California P, 2003.

Friedman, Thomas.  “Our New Baby.”  The New York Times.  May 4, 2003.  

Kay, Jackie.  The Adoption Papers.  London: Bloodaxe, 1992.

King, Colbert.  “A Story Much Older Than Ol’ Strom.”  Washington Post.
    December 20, 2003: A21.
Lazer, Hank.  Days.  New Orleans: Lavendar Ink, 2002.
McPherson, Sandra.  “Wings and Seeds.”  In A Ghost at Heart’s Edge:
    Stories and Poems of Adoption.  Eds. Susan Ito and Tina Cervin.
    Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 1999.  334
Riley, Denise.  Selected Poems.  London: Reality Street Editions, 2000.
---.  The Words of Selves: identification, Solidarity, Irony.  Stanford: Stanford UP, 2000.
Tucker, Cynthia.  “Thurmond didn’t deserve such a good daughter.”  
    Honolulu Star-Bulletin.  December 21, 2003.  D3.
Watson, Craig.  True News.  2002.  Santa Cruz: Instance Press, 2002.