One of my best friends and I share a special understanding of and appreciation for Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry. “Your voice is kind of like hers,” he said to me once—about my poems, but also how I speak generally, my tendency to describe things ad nauseam. In particular, I often become fixated on describing my memories, revisiting past experiences near-compulsively, trying to make them come alive again with excruciating detail. I miss painting for this reason; it gives me a vocabulary to express, not just render, light; to linger over the emotion and tone a simple object can communicate; to express the fact that looking at the East River on a cold, spring evening illuminated by bright sun can send you deep into devastation.
Bishop understands that something deep is communicated when you describe the spars of ships as “burnt match-sticks,” as she does in the identifiably early work, “Large Bad Picture,” from her first collection North & South. Bishop may be retrained in directly expressing her own emotions in her poetry, but she makes her descriptions come alive like a painting does, all of the feeling in each stroke.
After many years of admiring Bishop —calling her my “favorite poet”—my best friend and I finally admitted to one another that we think some of her poetry sucks. It felt like a really intimate disclosure at the time, today less so. But I guess I often feel afraid to admit that people I admire have aspects of themselves that don’t ring true to me in some way—whether it be their work, personal choices, how their habits interact with their politics, etcetera. It’s not dissimilar to the way you might feel when you read in Us Weekly that a child celeb you loved is now actually a coke head. Anyway.
Sometimes, Bishop’s emotional guardedness falters and the poems’ defenses feel kind of off-putting; in “Large Bad Picture,” Bishop describes the (large and evidently bad) painting’s row of “scribbled… black birds” as “hanging in n’s”—n’s as in the letter. The way kids draw the contours of birds flying in the distance, sloped arches resembling m’s more than n’s to me. The irony of the poem—that it’s Bishop’s own aestheticization of, or at least affection for an image she thinks is “bad”—becomes less sharp as a result of descriptions like these. There’s something too clever in the bird contours being likened to n’s. It’s almost too self-aware, too conscious of the effect of its guardedness. Bishop’s smart descriptions keep her at a distance. Sometimes it works better than other times.
Once, in a college paper (this sounds sort of like one but I am trying this new mode of writing about poetry in a more “personal” way—hence blogging!), I referred to Bishop’s primary “mode”— her poetics, if you will—as being characterized by disposession, which I guess is not unlike disavowal. Scrupulous description of something—an experience, an object—in a way seems more like an attempt to possess, to capture, rather than dispossess. But Bishop’s constant resistances in emotional register and perspective indicate something more radical than representation. Poetry is perfect for Bishop because she considers language an autonomous subject in and of itself, one in which she can invent her own experiential and imaginative epistemology. Description can be a way to question, rather than state, what an experience is actually like.
This afternoon, I found myself reading Bishop’s poem “The Bight,” which bears the italicized subtitle “On my birthday.” It’s always been an important poem for me, especially around this time of year—just before my birthday, which inevitably always occurs during “a cold spring” (the title of my favorite Bishop collection). I returned to the poem today because I was writing a birthday party invitation for myself, and wanted to include a quotation; I was also considering the fact that today would’ve been my grandfather’s 84th birthday. He died recently, in August 2016.
In “The Bight,” Bishop doesn’t directly probe what she is feeling on her birthday (always a weird feeling re: mortality, IMHO), but instead renders the “awful but cheerful” scene of a bight, the harbor-like space between two headlands: we sense the dredge’s “dripping jawful of marl,” pelicans “like pickaxes / rarely coming up with everything..” The water is “absorbing, rather than being absorbed.” The bight, Bishop tells us, is “littered with old correspondences” and filled with “untidy activity / Awful but cheerful.”
Bishop takes the time to ask whether the water is absorbing or being absorbed. In this world, it’s not surprising that there is emotional guardedness. All of her emotion comes out in the act of description—in regarding and effortfully describing the contradictory, “awful but cheerful,” signs of chaos, entropy, and aging in this natural element that is both teeming with life and decay.
I wonder, often, to what extent I rely on using a heightened vocabulary to express my observations as a defense mechanism. If I am constantly seeking to describe what’s happening around me, am I ossifying my experiences into narratives rather than living experientially? Am I keeping myself at arm’s length from real intimacy? Or am I indicating my own vulnerability by expressing my resistance to it? A resistance communicated by trying to “possess” experiences in language. A clinging. A fear of letting go.
I’m not sure what the answer is, and I seek to explore these questions all the time, on my own, in therapy, with friends. But today I leave you with this question: is there any better way to express how you feel on your birthday than “awful but cheerful”? I doubt it.
Admittedly, I do this on a weekly basis (at least), and I certainly was among the 200,000+ people who deleted the Uber app after the company tweeted that it would be eliminating surge pricing during the taxi strike that resulted from Trump’s immigration ban on January 28. The #DeleteUber “movement” quickly swept over social media, and it felt like I had to oblige: it was a small way that I could politicize my personal actions and make some sort of a difference. That was my rationale.
I probably sound ignorant and solipsistic, which maybe I am, but I know that I am not alone in feeling confused about how to handle living in Trump’s America—in big and small ways alike. Do you just go along with the ebbs and flows of what your Facebook friends are telling you to do (calling representatives, deleting Uber, meeting up for peaceful protests)? Do you sit paralyzed in terror because that is all you feel capable of, and allow yourself to take the time you need to step the fuck up? Do you devote yourself to one thing, such as consistently acting as best you can as an outspoken ally for trans folks, POCs, Muslim Americans, and immigrants—and recognize that as an important contribution? What actions or lack thereof are problematic—and what is going to make you feel policed by your friends who are way more into activism than you? This is the first time in my life where I am not sure how to navigate my politics in a personal context, and feel that “the personal” is more under scrutiny for how it can be understood in a political framework.
Of course, here, I am decontextualizing slash butchering the idea of “the personal is political,” a second-wave feminist adage that hails from Carol Hanisch’s 1969 essay “The Personal is Political,” and later from revised theories on the subject by intersectional feminists like Audre Lorde, who wanted to bring race, class, and other markers of identity into the conversation. Hanisch wrote the essay in response to critics of “consciousness raising” groups, who asserted that women were insisting that what was effectively therapy was somehow relevant in the political arena. “We have not done much trying to solve immediate personal problems of women in the group,” Hanisch wrote. “In a small group it is possible for us to take turns bringing questions to the meeting…like, What happens to your relationship if your man makes more money than you? Less than you? Then we go around the room answering the questions from our personal experiences.”
Granted, second-wave feminism had and has its very large problems, as it was a movement dominated by affluent, white women who mostly sought their own liberation according to an upper-middle class framework without recognizing their relative privilege, and the ways that class, race, gender expression, sexuality (etcetera) played into the social hierarchies. But the foundational idea was and is important: there are political implications to our personal lives. The two are inextricably linked.
So how do you make sense of those times when your personal actions (or, again, lack thereof) feel at odds with your political ideologies? Do you denounce the authenticity of your politics until you can get your shit together personally to reflect what you believe? Do you accept that paradoxes are inevitable? Do you write blog posts about it to try and develop a vocabulary for this conflict? Thus far, I have tried all three of these methods. I’ll tell you a bit about what I’ve learned. TW: the following content engages with issues of eating disorders and sexual assault.
2015 was the first year I ever felt comfortable enough uttering the sentence, “I used to have an eating disorder.” In my own interior world, and sometimes in the world of my therapist’s office, I knew and was able to articulate that I had been struggling on and off with anorexia since 2005. During those years, I was an adroit practitioner of denial and semi-fictitious storytelling about my own life: I had allegedly dealt with numerous parasites, Lyme disease and its complications on my metabolism, chronic yeast issues which rendered me unable to eat anything.
For better or for worse, talking about my chronic health issues (some real, some less real) wasn’t as embarrassing as admitting to my self-hatred—at least that’s what I thought at the time. Unsurprisingly, when I was finally ready to admit what had really been going on, I felt an acute sense of shame.
When I joined an eating disorder therapy group in 2015, the year of my “going public” with anorexia, I couldn’t stomach the idea of being on the same level of self-abuse with the other participants. The potential for solidarity made me want to contract into myself. Every time I showed up for the group meeting, I wanted confirmation that I was more empowered than the other women in the group. Of course, that was my own vulnerability and shame talking. As it happens, I also simply don’t think the group therapy dynamic was for me, but my reactions to it—especially that of shame, which I was less willing to “own”—were worth probing.
Where did the shame come from? For one, I felt that I was going to disappoint people. I was someone who “put myself out there” as an empowered feminist. I identified as someone who “loved food” (I did, and do—but so do lots of people with eating disorders). I talked the talk of a self-acceptance, and had been going to therapy and meditating for longer than I wanted to admit. What would people think if they knew what a fraud I was? That was the question nagging at me constantly, and that cajoled me into denial for so long.
When I think back on what exactly made me ready to finally confirm to myself, and to others, that I had an eating disorder, I think it had to do with my ability to finally understand, experientially, the notion that “the personal is political.” Namely, I realized that there was actually going to be something empowering in naming the defensive behavior I had developed for years in response to a slew of factors—ranging from idiosyncratic family dynamics around food to patriarchal pressures to be emaciated and a perennial exemplar of the “bikini bod.” I was certainly not alone—I knew that too—and it was not as though I had “decided” to be anorexic so as to bolster fucked up value systems. Probing my mechanism of denial, I realized that I didn’t want to alienate myself from the mythical monolith of feminism I had conjured in my mind—a kind of feminism that would judge my anorexia as a signifier of being too normative, too vulnerable to patriarchal values.
My internal conflict about “the personal and the political”—whether my personal life reflects my politics, especially gender politics—emerges for me constantly. For example, when I first described a traumatic sexual experience I once had as “rape, I think” to an ex-boyfriend, I became instantly ashamed and wanted to stop talking about it. We were on a road trip when I suddenly had access to a fuzzy memory that I had blocked out, and it dawned on me then and there, for the very first time, that I had been taken advantage of. But my realization sent me deep into the pits of victim guilt, as well as a whole range of other complicated emotions both about the traumatic experience and the subsequent talking about it. My ex-boyfriend honored my discomfort, and we changed the subject.
The next day, I started hating on myself for being too cowardly to deal with the experience in a head-on way. Empowered feminists, I told myself, would scream about their rape from the rooftops. They would make performance art about it, write manifestos, raise legal cases with the involvement of their college administrations, wear their anger on their sleeve. And here I was: not wanting to talk about it. Brushing sexual assault under the rug because I was too uncomfortable to go there.
Honoring your own response to trauma is complicated and painful, and it likely won’t ever stop being this way. Today, despite my rumination, I think it’s OK that I don’t really want to engage with other people about the experience I had that may or may not have been “rape.” Of course, my intellect wants to intervene to make sure that everyone is clear that the experience was definitely rape, ambiguous as it may have been (not in the mood to share details). But the emotional part of myself wants to respond, “OK, fine. But I still don’t want to talk about it.”
For me in particular (and I cannot speak to the experience of others), naming my trauma “rape” hasn’t helped me process it. I have, however, adjusted my behaviors: I drink a lot less alcohol than I used to, and I prioritize direct communication in interpersonal relationships, and work in therapy—and in life—on asserting my needs, uncomfortable as it makes me. And yet even through this work, I have still had experiences of neglecting myself, of resisting my own politics because of personal discomfort. Weeks after teaching a workshop on self-love about a year ago, I met and started dating a guy who made me feel like shit and coerced me (repeatedly) into sleeping with him without a condom. Once, while we were dating, I had a urinary tract infection (UTI), and he manipulated me into believing that sex wouldn’t hurt or mess up my antibiotic treatment. I obliged, even though I have written two 2,000 word+ pieces on UTIs, rife with statistics, cutting-edge information about alternative therapies and prevention, personal anecdotes and medical expertise. Sex during a UTI feels HORRIBLE and, indeed, fucks up your antibiotic treatment. I almost got a kidney infection, and promptly ended things with the pseudo-abusive dude in question. Thankfully.
One of the most difficult revelations I have had in the past few years is that, for me, there is no “right” way to respond to traumatic experiences like eating disorders or sexual assault. I feel how I am going to feel, act like I am going to act, and try my best to bring intention and compassion to the table when I take action—which includes my processes of thinking and reflecting. There is a tremendous, expansive sense of freedom and reassurance in simply recognizing that, and the potential paradoxes.
No matter how much you accept, intellectually, the impossibility of always aligning your thoughts and actions, there will be an itch to try and make yourself feel more “authentic,” “cohesive,” “whole.” But unfortunately, any sense of wholeness and authenticity simply comes from how you are relating to your paradoxes, not from some magical erasure of them.
Virginia Woolf wrote, “It is far harder to kill a phantom than a reality,” which, to me, aptly describes the hamster wheel-like attitude of self-improvement. There will always be a phantom part of yourself you want to eradicate so as to reach some more “perfect” idea of who you should be, how you should identify, to what groups you should belong, and so forth. But life would be so boring if we all neatly fit into archetypal boxes. Archetypes are there for us to use as reference points, against which we can apply resistance and define ourselves independently. The word “should” tries to strip you of that resistance, a tactic we’ve all tried—probably unsuccessfully. Vague as it is, the verb “to be” works pretty well. There is immense clarity in beginning a sentence with the phrase, “I am…” Whether or not you like it, that’s the reality, and it seems easier to live with that simple truth than trying to push away the phantoms of paradox that actually define who we are.