If We’re Here Now: Movements Toward the Lyric Essay
by Anna Leahy
March 9, 2021
“Suppose you want to write, in prose, about a slippery subject that refuses definition. Something like water, or the color blue. Like the word ‘lyric,’ or the word ‘essay,’” posits fiction writer Amy Bonnaffons in an essay about essays for The Essay Review. Suppose I want to do just that, as others have wanted to do—and have done. The word essay is from Latin for driving something out; it sets in motion, or is the evidence of motion. The lyric essay is going somewhere.
Bonnaffons continues, “The term ‘lyric essay’ brings poetry—[t]he highest of the literary arts—into the realm of nonfiction. The term ingeniously takes advantage of lyric’s double valence: 1) it definitely means poetic and 2) nobody can agree on what else it might mean.”
Valence is a favorite word of mine because it means different things in different contexts. I’ve spun a poem around concepts of valence; it begins with an epigraph of definitions.
Valence: in chemistry, atomic affinity; in biology, capacity to interact, to bind, to unite; in graph theory, the number of edges incident to a node; in ancient medicine, an extract, a potion; in politics, voting according to party competence; in psychology, the emotional value of an experience; in linguistics, the bonds a verb controls.
Valence comes from Latin meaning to be strong; vale was used as a greeting. Welcome, listen, be strong.
When I headed to an MFA program and even still, the common assumption seems to be that one must apply in a single genre, take workshops only in that genre, and write a thesis in that same genre, as I did in poetry. Not everyone wants to write in more than one genre, but why not?
Beth Ann Fennelly has published three poetry collections and is Poet Laureate of Mississippi, but her latest book is a collection of micro-memoirs, and it’s not her first collection of nonfiction. Paisley Rekdal is the author of five poetry books and is Poet Laureate of Utah, but her newest book is an extended essay, and it’s not her first nonfiction book. All three of us went to MFA programs where nonfiction was not an option. So, we are poets in the position to bring the poetic to the realm of nonfiction.
Poet Carl Phillips writes in the introduction to Yanyi’s collection The Year of Blue Water, “for all of the questing for stability, the fact that the self is ever changing includes an instability that deserves its own respect.” We are a sequence, and the lyric essay depends on it. But Phillips is writing about poetry.
I name this kind of sequencing, this necessary human changeability: trajectory.
The word trajectory comes from Latin meaning something thrown. It indicates not only direction in space but elapse of time: past, present, and future. Trajectory is the changing of position in time; it has momentum and dimension. We can see it or hear it—we can measure movement— because of context: time and space. In discrete mathematics, trajectory is a sequence that can be mapped. In engineering it is a collection of states of being in an unending operation, an instability that deserves its own respect. Trajectory might be understood as where and when, which are tangled within this essay as I keep moving along. Trajectory is the context for the I.
While trajectory may look like a straight line, Earth’s gravity shapes the path of what is thrown through the air; the path is a curve. Trajectory may look like direction, but direction is the looking, and trajectory depends on motion, on momentum. The word momentum comes from Latin meaning the power to move. The word moment came later, when measuring instants of time became useful.
No, that’s not true. A moment is not an instant. A moment is a minute; it’s something that takes time. An instant is a point in time but takes no time at all. An instant is a way of talking about time as if it were space.
Physicist Werner Heisenberg thought a lot about the uncertainty of measuring both position and speed—space and time—at once. Trajectory cannot be fully known as it’s happening. The path can be seen in hindsight. Moreover, Heisenberg argued that when we conduct an experiment—like writing an essay?—some of the knowledge obtained by previous experiments is destroyed.
Poet Louise Glück, in Proofs & Theories, writes of the unsaid and the unseen, the ellipses and the ruins: “Such works inevitably allude to larger contexts; they haunt because they are not whole, though wholeness is implied: another time, a world in which they were whole, or were to have been whole, is implied.” The parts and the whole cannot be separated, according to Heisenberg. The whole is suggested by the shadow of parts, according to Glück.
And in the time it takes to discern where I am in this instant, I’ve moved on. An instant cannot be measured; it implies the time and space around it, or vice versa.
In one of his poems, Yanyi describes Maggie Nelson’s book The Argonauts, which is what Nelson’s publisher calls “a genre-bending memoir,” which seems to be a way of saying lyric nonfiction in language that sells books. In an interview with The Atlas Review, Nelson describes her book as “an experiment with anecdote and lived theory.” I take this to mean that the writing rests on the experience of thinking as well as on thinking about experience. Or in the words of Bonnaffons,
“The lyric essay, with its associative logic and openness to visuality as a tool of meaning-making, may in fact be more suitable than other form for expressing embodied truths.” Associative logic— juxtaposition—is a habit of mind that bridges self and world. It embodies.
Nelson also points to this associative quality: “I was trying to smoosh things together that aren’t always smooshed.” Yanyi writes of The Argonauts,“It reads like time, powered by adjacency, auras burned with other auras, each making the other another center.”
Time and adjacency is trajectory—then, there, now, here. The next-to, the brush-up-against, the smoosh. The Latin word for throw is iacere, which is also the root for both trajectory and adjacent.
Adjacency and momentum define each other; they create a multiplicity of centers.
In another poem, Yanyi writes, “I walked because I liked the companionship in going nowhere together, the endlessness of being with another person.” Pico Iyer writes something similar in The Art of Stillness: “Writers, of course, are obliged by our professions to spend much of our time going nowhere.” Yanyi likes adjacency; he likes timelessness. So does Iyer. Adjacency— surroundings, context, connection—allows for trajectory without going anywhere at all. Like spinning, like orbiting.
Iyer is writing essays. Yanyi is not writing essays. Yanyi’s pieces are poems; the book won the Yale Younger Poets Prize. But how exactly are these writings not lyrics essays? Does each not take or fill enough space or time?
Claudia Rankine is a poet. In college, she studied with Glück, an adjacency in the history of poetry. Rankine’s book Citizen is subtitled An American Lyric and was a finalist for the National Book
Critics Circle Award in two categories: poetry and criticism. It won in criticism. As poetry, it won the PEN Center USA and Los Angeles Times book awards. A review in The Guardian explained this confusion over whether Citizen is poetry or essay: “The power of Citizen is such that questions of literary form tend to be set aside. It’s described as a prose poem, but it’s not quite what Rimbaud or Francis Ponge might have understood by that. Where Symbolist and Modernist prose poems often exhibit an almost-intolerable density of suggestion, Rankine works by impeccable timing within the paragraph, with an even tone enforcing an implacable verbal economy and exactitude.” The paragraph is space and time, position and momentum, but verbal economy and exactitude sound like poetry.
The word exactitude is from Latin referring precision or accuracy, as with measurement; it’s related to the Latin word for forcing something out. Citizen forces out a lot, personally and politically, emotionally and intellectually.
In her memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion writes, “Life changes fast. Life changes in an instant.” That’s how Rankine appeared to change the lyric essay: in an instant. But this was not her first American lyric.
Rankine’s point is about patterns of racism and patterns of privilege. Citizen is about accumulation over time—the trajectory of instances.
In Rankine’s first book, Nothing in Nature Is Private, the length and shape of each piece—the space it takes or fills on the page and time on the breath—is what is generally considered contemporary American poetry. She’s doing something different now, something that looks like an essay, that uses space and time like an essay. She has brought poetry to nonfiction. Is she a poet or an essayist?
In an online symposium at Copper Nickel, three poets discussed their movement toward creative nonfiction. Shamala Gallagher opens by saying, “I began to write nonfiction out of frustration with my poetry.” While I have not faced what I would call frustration with my poetry, one of the benefits of working in both forms is that the range of possibilities limits the risk of writer’s block. There always exists another sort of thing to write.
Not every idea fits every form. The lyric essay offers additional spaces—shapes, sizes, syntaxes—for a poet’s ideas.
In that same conversation, James Allan Hall talks of being drawn to the essay’s capaciousness in contrast to the condensation of poetry. Don Bogen agrees, saying that essays give him “more room.” The poem and the essay are different kinds of room, and size—the amount of space—is part of that difference. Perhaps, writing poetry cultivates a particular awareness of and appreciation for the space of the lyric essay: dimensions, edges, room to breathe without catching the breath with a line break.
Yanyi says something along these lines: “Form gives space for something to exist. You have to dig in yourself to find what you’ll put in it. Places you don’t know appear.” He is talking about poems in his poem that reads like a tiny essay. A space is a space is a space.
I studied Latin—beginning Latin—over and over, from high school through doctoral work. Only classics professors have conversations in Latin. It’s a dead language. But it’s here now, in trajectory, momentum, adjacent, syntax.
By 2010, I had moved for a new job and still felt disoriented in my sunny surroundings with avant garde colleagues on one side and genre-fiction colleagues on the other. I started reading Joan Didion, in part because I hoped she would help me understand what it meant to be a woman writer in California. Though Didion’s style isn’t much like my own, I began writing what I thought of as responses to her work because, at the time, I wasn’t sure how to start an essay on a blank page. After all, I am a poet.
I wrote my own versions of Didion’s “In Bed,” which is about her experience of migraine; “John Wayne: A Love Song,” which is about the actor; and “Marrying Absurd,” which is about a Las Vegas wedding she observes. I didn’t hide the influence; I highlighted the juxtaposition with Didion’s work. In hindsight, what I attempted was not imitation at all—I’m no Didion. Instead, these essays grapple with adjacency—my adjacency to Didion and her work’s adjacency to New Journalism, but also a variety of internal adjacencies in subject matter.
In Bonnaffons’s terms, Didion’s work was my side entrance: “Maybe lyric slips through the side entrance; maybe it tunnels into the basement; maybe it parachutes onto the rook and slides down the chimney. Perhaps the lyric doesn’t enter, just presses its face against the window and longingly observes.” Didion’s essays were windows I pressed my face against to observe both my own thoughts and the world all at once.
In a review of the recent documentary about Joan Didion, Brigid Delaney argues, Didion’s “fragmentary style […] renders an event closer to a form of poetry than the blunt instrument that is the inverted pyramid of news or even more conversational-style features.” The form is paragraphs, and the voice is journalistic, but Delaney seems to suggest that Didion makes her way through an essay’s paragraphs lyrically.
In his essay “The Opposite of Cool,” Joshua Wolf Shenk says of Didion’s writing, “She darts onto it [the stage], and says the most stunning thing, and then darts off.” Is the lyric essay a space into which I can dart, say something, and then dart out again, perhaps leaving a section break if I want to dart back in? “It is not the weight of her disclosures that stuns the audience,” Shenk writes, “but the lightness of attention as it hovers between there and not there, between her enticing proximity and her blunt distance.” The place between enticing proximity and blunt distance is the adjacent. It’s why the whole is stunning.
Importantly, Shenk also points out that, though Didion writes in the first person, The Year of Magical Thinking is “not a memoir of grief. It is, quite explicitly, an essay about alienation from grief.” In hindsight, I realize this un-memoir way to write a personal essay was what attracted me to Didion’s writing. “On the page, Didion is the epitome of control, mastery, and clarity,” Shenk writes. “But this order seems to proceed from a chronic sense of meaninglessness, detachment, and distress.” Surrounded by an un-ordered world, control of form and language attracted me to poetry and then to the essay to create order in the mind and on the page.
In “John Wayne: A Love Song,” Didion writes, “I tell you this neither in a spirit of self- revelation nor as an exercise in total recall, but simply to demonstrate that when John Wayne rode through my childhood, and perhaps through yours, he determined forever the shape of certain of our dreams.” Perhaps through yours—yes, mine! The first John Wayne movie I saw was Sands of Iwo Jima, and I remember the buzz when he went public with his cancer diagnosis. Before reading Didion, I’d never considered writing about John Wayne, but it turned out that I had plenty to say, and Didion’s essay invited me to say it, not as self-revelation (even as I revealed myself) nor as total recall (even as I wove through researched detail) but, rather, to figure something out about the relationship between the parts and the whole of what’s happened—the where and when of the I. My essay is called “Strange Attraction: John Wayne and Me,” and it’s about John Wayne to some extent and also about the nuclear age and my father’s cancer. When I finished this essay in July 2010, I sent it in response to a call for an Americana issue at The Southern Review and nowhere else. Less than six weeks later, editor Jeanne Leiby accepted this piece.
After that, the piece underwent fact-checking by Cara Blue Adams, which was an experience I hadn’t had as a poet and one that forced me to look at how the minutia of my essay mattered and fit together. Fact-checking seems about parts but is about the whole and its shadows.
Accuracy refers to how close a measurement is to an existing value. The less margin for error, the more accurate. It’s hitting the mark. Accuracy comes from Latin meaning to do something carefully, so the word refers to the rightness, to the trueness, of what’s observed.
Precision is different than accuracy. Precision refers to the reliability of the measurement. It means that if you measure the same phenomenon again, the value will be the same. It’s hitting the same mark again and again, but it might not be what you’re aiming for. If the result is not what you expected, that’s racked up to random error. Something done or said over and over isn’t necessarily right or true. But it can seem as real as anything else.
Precision, then, might be considered internal consistency, a way to make one’s way through the essay or, for that matter, memoir. Accuracy allows the lyric essay to accept the value of facts—its connection to the world—even as it takes leaps that appear chaotic, even as it smooshes. These leaps leave room room for juxtaposition and the adjacent.
Factual accuracy is a constraint I welcome as part and parcel to the essay form, just as I welcome constraints of syntax and grammar. Out of constraints, opportunities emerge. As soon as we write the first word, form the first paragraph, we are choosing constraints.
In a group interview at Electric Lit, Edwidge Danticat expresses appreciation for fact- checkers: “Someone will always question your interpretation of things, but I like to get the factual things as right as possible and I feel a bit crushed—and somewhat ashamed—when I don’t.” I share Danticat’s stance, not out of moral certitude so much as out of aesthetic possibility. I lie or imagine something into being only if I am honest about it being a lie or a supposition. Writing is a process of selecting, including, and interpreting; there’s more outside the paragraphs. Honesty, then, is often more complicated than trickery. Honesty can be scarier and more fun when the reader is in on it too.
The word honest comes from Latin meaning respected or decent, which is a way one can be perceived. The word trickery comes from Latin meaning a shuffling in order to be evasive, which is a shaping of others’ perception.
Accuracy is a kind of protection. I have double-checked my records, for instance, to be sure of the submission and acceptance dates and numbers for the essays I’m discussing here. I didn’t remember timeframes accurately; I had told myself a different story of my trajectory by erasing lag times in my memory. When I look back, I can see that, when “Strange Attraction” was published, I stopped submitting the other two essays I’d written.
Vulnerable comes from the Latin word for wounding, plucking, stretching.
For a while, I told myself I had beginner’s luck. Or I happened to find the right editor or judge for a particular piece. Or I timed it right, when content matched a particular editorial hole, though I did not think, at the time, how the editors where my work appeared over the next several years were white. The word particular comes from Latin meaning something so tiny that it is even less significant than an actual part of something.
And of course, I told myself that it must be easier to publish nonfiction than poetry—and why hadn’t anyone told me this before?
In 2010, the year I sent out my John Wayne essay, I also sent “Half-Skull Days” (about my experience of migraine) and “Marrying Absurd: An Update” (about my own Las Vegas wedding). A big fell swoop, and then I stopped submitting them.
All six outlets passed on “Half-Skull Days,” but I didn’t send it right back out after each rejection. More than a year later, I saw that an editor at The Pinch was looking for an essay to fill out an issue, so I sent it there and only there, where it was published and then listed as a Notable in The Best American Essays 2013. My point isn’t about success.
Why did I let this essay lie fallow right after another essay had been published? Did I not trust the lyric essay as a thing to do—that I could do? And then, why did I bother sending it out again? What if I hadn’t seen that side entrance call for essays? And who is most likely to find the way in through the side door?
From my initial round of submissions in 2010, my take on Didion’s “Marrying Absurd” was a finalist in a contest, which is the most encouraging form of rejection a writer can receive. And then I didn’t submit that piece again for five years, when I submitted it once at a time to seven outlets over eight months. And then “Marrying Absurd” won the creative nonfiction award from Ninth Letter, which feels like bragging to say. Confidence—or at least resilience and a good game face —was something I didn’t think I lacked until I looked back at my records.
Confidence, from the Latin for trust. I had a sense of my path, but I’d misremembered the pace. Am I a poet or an essayist now? What determines the shape and speed of our writerly dreams?
“I moved into nonfiction because that’s how things shook out,” Mary Mann tells E.B. Bartels in a multi-author interview at Electric Lit. Mann admits, “Maybe it was just the examples I had.” When I finally turned to nonfiction, I became absorbed intellectually by more types of essays, as had been the case with poetry years earlier. Bartels writes of Mann and others, “Almost every writer I interviewed told me that she first thought she was going to be a novelist. […] Instead, as you grow as a writer, nonfiction seems to choose you.” Bartels’s point is that those of us who write nonfiction don’t perceive it as a choice so much as necessary movement.
This statement also reveals assumptions between what G. Thomas Couser, in Memoir: An Introduction, calls “the two sibling genres” of fiction and life-writing that “share a good deal in the way of technique.” Poetry seems left out of these shifts and comparisons. Yet Couser asserts, too, that “all literature is sometimes divided among these modes: lyric (expressive), narrative (storytelling), and dramatic (presentation through enactment).” When I headed to my MFA, I chose poetry (expressive) over fiction (narrative) because I was more fascinated by form than plot, not because I valued expression (or self-revelation) over storytelling. Form offers ways to shape space and time. That’s what drew me to poetry and then to the lyric essay.
“Nonfiction feels like the only genre,” Elizabeth Greenwood tells Bartels. “I wish it were more of a decision!” Had I forced myself or been forced to pursue poetry? Was I really a nonfiction writer all along? Or was this path from poetry to an adjacent nonfiction the inevitable surprise?
Greenwood surmises that nonfiction is an especially good fit for her because “I lived equally in my head as in the world.” Both poetry and nonfiction are equally in my head and in the world. To echo Greenwood’s words further, both poems and lyric essays offer “the luxury of following my curiosities.” Several years ago, an editor said of a short piece I’d written, “Any essay that can juggle both [the scientist Enrico] Fermi and [the childhood game] Mystery Date wins me over right away.” I enjoy seeing how many disparate somethings I can smoosh into a single essay—that is my way through. Adjacency enacted, in response to and as fuel for curiosity.
[lyric essay = mind world]
Curiosity comes from two related Latin words, one meaning inquisitiveness and the other meaning careful, or diligent.
Couser sees another distinctive quality of memoir that, to my mind, points to a similarity between poems and lyric essays: “memoir may also be structured entirely without reference to the passage of time.” Sven Birkerts, in The Art of Time in Memoir, puts it another way: “Memoir begins not with event but with the intuition of meaning—with the mysterious fact that life can sometimes step free from the chaos of contingency.” Memoir—and I would argue the personal lyric essay too, as memoir-adjacent—can depend on the relationship between the mind and the world, on the interplay between what’s considered subjective and objective.
While the craft of the personal lyric essay and memoir overlap, and while the range of creative nonfiction and the essay is wider and more varied than I’m discussing here, there’s something un-memoir about the lyric essay, too, something that undercuts or overshadows its I about-ness. something other than or in addition to self-revelation—an about-ness that is multiple. The lyric essay does not necessarily make the self the primary subject even when the self’s presence moves through the paragraphs.
“The route is often associative,” the second paragraph of Citizen begins.
In her book that is poetry and memoir and cultural criticism, Rankine uses the second person: you.
Shawn Wen’s A Twenty Minute Silence Followed by Applause: An Essay is a lyric biography of mime Marcel Marceau. Wen is not the subject; there exists no authorial I. Wen writes, “Time passes. It sputters and stretches. What matters is not the speed of light, but the speed of thought.” She describes Marcaeu’s power as a mime as a manipulation of time that’s akin to that of the lyric essayist: “The mime refashions time, sculpting it with a precision instrument. He can suspend or hasten it at will. He marches in place for three minutes and a lifetime has passed.”
[lyric paragraph = space time]
[lyric essay = paragraph || paragraph || paragraph]
The lyric essay prioritizes connection among this and this and this—then, there, now, here. Then, there, now, here—these are existing values for the lyric essay. Time and space serve as context for the self.
In Thick, Tressie McMillan Cottom discusses some external measures of her essays: “Editors want me to be a journalist. Journalists want me to stay as far away from their beat as possible.” She asserts, “I am an academic,” which comes with certain assumptions about what she is supposed to write and where she is supposed to publish. She points to “a fundamental misunderstanding of what I do.” The result is that her “ethnographies have too much structure and [her] sociology is a bit too loose with voice. A bit slutty it all is, really, jumping between forms and disciplines and audiences.” One value is ethnography, another is sociology, and she’s off the mark for each. She’s hitting a mark of her own making, the one she’s aiming for as “a black woman who thinks for a living.”
Cottom goes on to say, “The essays in this volume dance along the line of the dreaded ‘first- person essay’.” But she isn’t trying to figure out how everything in the world is about her. Oh, the dreaded lyric essay, then. Her work is un-memoired and un-academic, and all the better for that double un-about-ness.
All these constraints about who is supposed to write what—and how we label a piece of writing based on who’s written it—add up: “We [black women] have shoehorned political analysis and economic policy and social movement theory and queer ideologies into public discourse by bleeding our personal lives into the genre afforded us.” Not everyone takes the same path, and the same path doesn’t treat everyone the same way. Of the mind and of the world, Cottom describes herself as “few people’s idea of an intellectual, public or otherwise, and showing up anyway” to write essays.
Maggie Nelson of The Argonauts talks of a similar issue in The Atlas Review, but her position is quite different than Cottom’s: “I’ve always written what I need and want to write, without thinking all that much about whether it’s personal or scholarly or esoteric or provocative or prose or poetry or whatever.” Such freedom of thought, of language! “I write about things that are typically coded as personal—the experience of having a body; of having sex, of having feelings, including ugly ones; anecdotes from my daily life; details about people I know and often love; and so on.” But she also says, “I don’t valorize the personal over the impersonal or the theoretical.” The self is not her only or primary subject matter.
The personal and the theoretical, the subjective and the objective, memoir and research, biography and philosophy, emotion and intellect—it’s all possible in the lyric essay. Perhaps, it’s all necessary too.
Birkerts suggests intuition of meaning emerged, for him, when “events and feelings […] arranged themselves into a perspective,” but he finds the word perspective, which is from Latin meaning to see through, too “fixed, even static.” Movement is necessary for lyric.
The lyric essay occurs when the writer, in words borrowed from Birkerts, has “discerned the possibility of hidden patterns.” Likewise, in The Book of Delights, Ross Gay writes, “Because I was writing these essayettes pretty much daily (confession: I skipped some days), patterns and themes and concerns show up.” Shortly thereafter, he writes of the route he walks home: “What compels us into such grooves, such patterns?” Wen (and Marceau) uses—sees, creates—patterns; scene descriptions recur, as do lists of items in various collections. Cottom’s ideas and conclusions emerge from patterns.
Race is part of Cottom’s perspective, and the way events and feelings arrange themselves for her as a black woman. She always starts “by interrogating why me and not my grandmother?” Race is part of Gay’s perspective too: “Racism is often on my mind. Kindness is often on my mind.
Politics. Pop music. Books. Dreams. Public space. My garden is often on my mind.” Like Nelson and Cottom, he writes of things typically coded as personal and plenty that’s of the world too. But each of us comes to the essay differently and are coded differently; position and speed vary.
Race is part of Birkerts’s, Nelson’s, and Didion’s perspectives too—and mine as well. But as white writers, we are not often expected to acknowledge this. We should acknowledge it anyway.
Patterns are iterations in and through space and time. They are instances; there exist things adjacent and implicit. The word pattern comes from the word patron, from Latin meaning defender, advocate, or model. Because the lyric essay discerns the possibility of hidden patterns, it is a model, a map of movement, a mockup of a trajectory of thought. It can be a way to defend, to advocate.
Why me? is not enough. Why me and not someone else? is a beginning.
Braid: to draw a sword, to throw to the ground, to knit.
Prism: something sawed into pieces, something that throws light at angles.
Mosaic: the work of the muses.
Web: something woven, like fabric.
Collage: something glued together. Both the parts and whole discernible.
Hermit crab: a crustacean that uses an empty seashell for protection.
Thank goodness I didn’t stop with Didion. I’d have gone only so far and not far enough.
In “The School of Roots,” Hélène Cixous traces origins of and connections among words:
clean in English, immonde in French, immondus in Latin. She is considering about what is edible and what is abominable. A few pages later, she writes, “If I gather these beings to talk about them in the same way, if I am worried by the fate of birds and women, it is because I have learned that not many people—unfortunately—or perhaps fortunately—can really love, tolerate, or understand a certain kind of writing; I am using women and birds as synonyms.” She is talking about hidden patterns and how she is not writing as others expect her to write—or to think.
Her writing is a model of her thinking; it is of the mind. She is a philosopher, not a poet.
No, that’s not quite right. In an interview with Kathleen O’Grady, Cixous calls her own work “philosophico-poetical,” adding, “my theoretical texts are carried off by poetical rhythm.” The word lyric is Latin referring to words sung to the music of a lyre, but I haven’t talked much about sound because others have written much about sound and lyric, especially in the context of poetry. I am talking about trajectory and patterns.
Terry Tempest Williams wrote a book that opens with the story of her mother leaving her all her personal journals. The journals turn out to be blank. The title of this book is When Women Were Birds, so Cixous is not the only one to connect—somewhat arbitrarily, it turns out for both Cixous and Williams—the two creatures, women and birds. Ross Gay refers to Williams’s book in The Book of Delights, and I’ve referred to him in this essay. Cixous, Williams, and Gay are connected in my mind and now on the page. Is this enough adjacency?
Those journals were white space. Of white space in essays, Bonnaffons says, “The white space might be read as the necessary separations between nodes of a network, or as intervals between distinct voices that together form a chord.” In an essay, meaning made of white spaces depends on the adjacent—the paragraphs—not on the blankness itself.
In a different section of her essay, Bonnaffons points out, “Rankine’s book reminds us that whiteness is more like willful ignorance, disavowed knowledge. […] Citizen’s spare blocks of prose on blinding-white paper serve to underline this notion: to force the reader to confront whiteness as a part of the text.” She also points to the “absence of writers of color” in a recent anthology of essays. The adjacent matters to the essay, and absence does not suffice in its place.
On the next page of “The School of Roots,” Cixous is on to Ghandi. I’m not sure where she is or is going, but I know she’s somewhere and going somewhere. And soon she announces, “That is my theme for today: to be ‘imund,’ to be unclean with joy,” by which she means, “You no longer belong to the world.” You’re in the head. The un-ordered falls into place because she’s come back to those words for clean. She’s created an echo, a pattern.
Writing, Cixous says, “is deep in my body, further down, behind thought. […] This does not mean that it does not think, but it thinks differently than our thinking and speech.” The lyric essay resists what Cixous calls “a huge concatenation of clichés,” yet works by a different concatenation, which is a word drawn from Latin meaning chained together. As Jane Hirshfield says in Nine Gates, though she is talking about a poem not an essay, it “begins in language awake to its own connections […]. It begins, that is, in the body and mind of concentration.” In the physical and in the mental, in the world and in the head, in space and time.
Hirshfield looks at origins and meanings, somewhat as Cixious does and as I have:
“Concentration’s essence is kinetic, and the dictionary shows the verb as moving in three directions,” namely toward a center, inward toward one’s own attention, and toward strength. Again, everything is moving, even if we’re not sure where it will end up or how long it will last.
And yet concentration feels like stillness.
“Sitting still,” Iyer suggests in The Art of Stillness, “as a way of falling in love with the world and everything it.” He posits, “Our job, you could say, is to turn, through stillness, a life of movement into art.” The lyric essay depends on the world and the mind, on movement and paragraphs.
Iyer also says, “So much of our lives takes place in our heads—in memory or imagination, in speculation or interpretation—that sometimes I feel that I can best change my life by changing the way I look at it.” Putting the world into words changes the thing I write about. And the thing itself changes the writing that embodies it.
We’re going somewhere from here, from now, I’m sure of it. The trajectory of the lyric essay is the logic of movement and adjacency. We have a sense of where we are, but we can’t be sure until we’re somewhere else—and we don’t know exactly when we’ll get there.