Can the act of empathy, learned from literature and poetry, become an act of appropriation when we take it to our lived lives? This is a question I haven’t been able to answer. Each of us is not a sun around which others revolve; we cannot, like black holes, pull everything into us without risking erasure, of others, of ourselves. Perhaps more than the practice of empathy, poetry offers us the opportunity to listen, and not just in the way that it appeals to the same areas of the brain music stimulates, and not just in the way that we can hear the cadence and rhythm and sounds of poetry. Perhaps poetry offers us the opportunity to hear its many speakers, to not so much as internalize each of their voices and experiences as to confirm them, to say, you are you, you are a voice, I hear you.
The plastic surgeon had thumbed three syringes of lidocaine into my cheek and made his first incision when he asked me what I teach. It was late spring 2013, and this was the first of several surgeries I’d have in the coming year and a half to remove melanoma, expand margins, and later reconstruct what another doctor called my architecture. “Oh-eh-ree,” I said, drooling-numb, but he didn’t—or pretended not to—understand. He squinted at his work, like a copyeditor examining a comma, and warbled, “Come again?”
My lips refused the consonants, especially that p, but after several gos, a few tugs on my cheek, and the doc’s distracted grafts of discernible words onto my guttural sounds (chemistry? herbology?), he gasped into a full belly laugh, the scalpel bobbing above my right eye.
I’m not sure how I would’ve made an expression then, or what it would’ve conveyed, but he caught it. “Ohh, you’re serious. Sorry, ” he switchbacked. “I just didn’t know that anyone reads that anymore, must less teaches it!”
That cosmetic surgeon, more anti-Muse than Jacob Marley, wraiths into my mind every time I encounter and attempt to answer the question Is poetry relevant?, a favorite wheelspinner among cosmopolitan op-eds. Although the doc’s latex-pinched fingers anviled my head against the exam table as he excised the mole, my shoulder devil still swaggered—Tell him, “Hey, buddy, I deal in real beauty”—but even that defense seemed to helium up the misconception that the work of poetry is delicate—lace doily stuff.
Prior to going back to clinical surgery, I’d spent thirty minutes or more with patients who were open—even loud—about their Botox and lipo treatments at the receptionist’s window. The waiting room had felt more like that of a salon or spa than a doctor’s office: all gossip, emery boards, beauty magazines, and cell phones. I’d passively protested by re-reading Ovid’s Metamorphosis. And the irony wasn’t lost on me.
Later that day, I wrote a poem that exemplifies the essential connections I’d like to make between my work as a poet and as a teacher, and, in its discussion, offers one of my student’s rebuttal to the doctor’s dismissal of poetry.
I’d like to share the poem for you now, and then I’ll illustrate some of the practical and conceptual ways teaching has nuanced my writing and clarified my feelings about poetry’s relevancy. The poem is called “Reading Ovid at the Plastic Surgeon’s” and it begins with an epigraph from Elizabeth Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room.”
Reading Ovid at the Plastic Surgeon’s
I scarcely dared to look
to see what it was I was.
No one else with a book, the slick
weeklies gossip amongst
themselves on the side
tables as the ticker rolls the Dow
Jones downdowndown under
a profile of the marathon
bombers (the older, a boxer). Jove
argues for the removal of a race
of peoples that do not please
him: What is past
remedy calls for the surgeon’s knife. He will take a hunk of my
cheek (cancer) and though I can’t
see mid-procedure, I imagine
the site as an apricot, bitten.
This, a survival mechanism—
romanticism. David says, If you’re out
in public and you don’t want anyone to talk to you, bring a book
of poetry. Even as I enter the confidence
of the room, I avoid my
reflection in the window, for there,
most of all, I see myself as only I can,
as only the eye will have me—
as light, as light alone.
I chose that Bishop quote not only because of its situational associations—she’s looking at a National Geographic while waiting on her Aunt Consuela at the dentist—but because of its implied self-assessment: if she scarcely dared to look to see what it was she was then, then we might assume she does look to see what she was, and therefore is, in the poem.
In my poem, I wind up on the notion that all we see of ourselves is really just light, something untenable and transcendent. In this way, all our memories of self and personal experience are memories of light. It makes what we witness—violence, racism, greed, the degradation of our own bodies—both less threatening (it’s just light) and more so: What are we dealing with if we’re not dealing with something that we can trap, contain?
Although “Reading Ovid at the Plastic Surgeon’s” doesn’t take on teaching as its dramatic situation, the way that Philip Levine’s “M. Degas Teaches Art and Science at Durfee Intermediate School, Detroit 1942” or Claudia Emerson’s “Student Conference” do, the poem outright invokes advice from one of my own teachers and teaching mentors—David Wojahn, whom I assisted in two classes and who served as my thesis adviser in grad school—as well as exemplifies both practical and conceptual effects on my writing of teaching, namely a shift toward musical plainspokenness and the realignment of empathy’s presence and function in my poems.
Shift in Diction
Back when I was in graduate school and my primary job was to write, David suggested that I read texts that were in, what he called, “English that isn’t English.” This meant Scots-language poets like Hugh MacDiarmid and Kathleen Jamie; the Matthew’s 1537 Bible; and early translations of the Malleus Maleficarum, a 15th-century Germanic witch prosecution manual, and the Turba Philosophorum, an early alchemical text from the 10th century. The texts’ language and, in some cases, their content reinvigorated language’s inherent mystery, that alchemical reaction between sound and meaning, and re-formed the traditional bridge between poetry and incantations, spells, etc. The effect was not unlike that of repeating a word over and over again—banana, banana, banana, banana, or, for you Tennessee Williams fans out there, “Stella! Stella!” It gestures toward the effacement of meaning and the solidification of the word into thingness apart from what it signifies. I want my poems to retain mystery, and to be both about the words and what the words convey, but many of the poems I wrote in graduate school, that later landed in my first book Signaletics, absorbed archaic, obscure, and esoteric language from my reading. Here’s a short passage from another poem that takes reading as its subject matter, titled “Reading Joyce on U.S. Flight 2309.” And, as an aside, I can’t help but wonder how much of a co-conspirator Joyce was in this dictional antiquarianism . . .
Behind you, encorona, the sun,
& I in the grass, looking up, saw a plane
insectile (without my glasses)
fly through your head
in one ear & out the other.
An illusion. The first love poems I knew were
prayers. What then of free fall’s
rash grace, wings sheared & released
into other trajectories? (Daedalus winds
the alleys, gathered as wreckage
in the arms of a harlot.)
“Encorona”: in a crown of sunlight! that nearly scientific “insectile”! These dense linguistic renderings forfeited the attention of some readers, particularly casual ones who value the kind of poetry that penetrates the blood-brain barrier of emotion in seconds flat. (My book’s emotion has more of a extended release effect, and often manifests itself as anxiety about violence in the Middle East and, closer to home, against the body and identity.) In an ultimately positive review of Signaletics, one reviewer suggested the missteps in the book were those places when I used “five-dollar words.”
I still believe this dictional maneuvering was appropriate for the project, as many of the book’s poems situate forensics or, at the very least, the body as its subject matter. The use of such diction mimicked the effect of coming to an obscure piece of “evidence” and having to make sense of it from its context. Additionally, it insists on language’s sovereign thingness—a body itself with tandem mysteries.
Although I wouldn’t go back and change a thing about that first book, I don’t think I could ever write the same poems again. Perhaps it was the death of my half brother in April 2012 followed by my diagnosis of stage-4 melanoma—really misdiagnosis, at least of its severity—in May 2013. Around the same time, however, I also began teaching with regularity, first at VCU and later as the Emerging Writer Lecturer at Gettysburg College.
In the classroom, I found myself realigning my linguistic tendencies in order to make the theory and craft of writing accessible and relevant to my students. I began to value and the teachability of and to spend more time with poems my own post-gradschoolian tastes splashed the “dull as bathwater” judgment on. Suddenly plainspokenness, especially the way it subverted my students’ feelings of inferiority and gave them access to an art form that they’d previously thought archaic in and of itself, became as rich as the elaborate linguistic confections of poets like Hart Crane or H.D. I found that plainspokenness also, in its way, taught students how to read more labyrinthine sentences with totemic diction, at least in how it increased students confidence in their abilities to read poetry. One poem that I teach often—which was also taught to me—is by Belle Waring, who passed away earlier this year, that begins its first sentence in the title:
It Was My First Nursing Job
and I was stupid in it. I thought a doctor wouldn’t be unkind.
One wouldn’t wait for a laboring woman to dilate ten cm.
He’d brace one hand up his patient’s vagina,
clamp the other on her pregnant belly, and force the fetus
through an eight-centimer cervix.
She tore, of course. Bled.
Of course, I worried that content here would dispel the immersive attentions of students who find the words “vagina” and “cervix” still funny, but, on the other hand, when I include this poem in a packet, my students always say its among their favorite poems they’ve ever read. They gravitate toward its candid exposition of narrative and the speaker’s fear, not to mention the conversational asides like “of course” that make the speaking feel authentic and, arguably, intimate, as if she’s telling the story to them herself. The poem later notes with some irony that the doctor was an elder in his church and that, upon delivering a stillborn baby, he “flipped open” the blanket . . .
to let the mother view the body, according to custom.
The baby lay beside her.
He lay stretched out and still.
What a pity, the doctor said.
He seized the baby’s penis between his own forefinger and thumb.
. . .
Look, said the doctor. A little boy. Just what we wanted.
His hand, huge on the child, held the penis as if he’d found
a lovecharm hidden in his grandmother’s linen.
And then he dropped it.
The doctor leaves without telling the baby’s father, forcing the speaker, inexperienced and in shock, to deliver the news. With mostly long, end-stopped lines in couplets, the poem doesn’t look like the whittled poetic miniatures my students read in high school, and while it does use literary devices like simile, nothing feels ornamental.
This exposure to and engagement with uncoded diction and plainspokenness—that means what it says and says what it means—particularly influenced my poems about my half-brother’s death and my cancer, including “Reading Ovid at the Plastic Surgeon’s.” Too much poeticizing didn’t seem appropriate for the subject matter, and I found myself—appropriately, as my students had pushed me in this direction—wanting to tell these poems to an audience not unlike my students, who desired vulnerability in both emotion and language. Because of teaching, my relationship to language has pangeacally realigned, away from the interior and intuitive to the conversational and exploratory.
If I had written “Reading Ovid at the Plastic Surgeon’s” prior to this shift, I would’ve likely landed on a revelation of an image delivered so that the image felt estranged from the reader through a dictional obscurity, as a means to mimic the speaker’s own feelings of estrangement from her own image. Now, however, I can produce this effect without obscure diction, so that the reader doesn’t have to extrapolate what the speaker is thinking from the image but receives this information from the speaker herself: “I see myself as only I can, // as only the eye will have me— / as light, as light alone.” This, of course, means that the reader doesn’t only have to connect to the speaker intellectually but is actively acting upon an empathetic response.
Empathy and Relevancy
Teaching hasn’t only engineered technical shifts in my writing, it’s also influenced my the function of empathy in my poems.
I once had a student who balked at a short story called “Section 8” by Jaquira Díaz, a fierce rendering of a Latina girl’s struggle with juvie and her sexuality. “This isn’t relatable,” my student scoffed, “I don’t know why we’re reading it.”
At that moment, I banned the word “relatable” from my classroom, as it presupposes that all literature must appeal to all readers’ personal experiences and rejects the possibility that it’s the reader’s job to do that relating. (And it is the reader’s job!) I likewise vowed that all of my class texts would expose students to a variety of voices and backgrounds, as a means to honor Mark Doty’s notion that “Literature makes other people more real to us.”
As I’ve read more diverse texts with my students, our conversations include both craft issues and social concerns. In my fall Writing Poetry class, my students and I looked at poems that were in conversation with the events in Ferguson, poems like Jake Adam York’s “Postscript,” Lucille Clifton’s “Jasper Texas, 1998,” and Danez Smith’s “Alternate Names for Black Boys.” When one student, whose primary class persona was charismatic Devil’s Advocate, then said that he felt that poetry wasn’t relevant and couldn’t enact any change, several other students, all young women, jumped in before I could propose a counter-argument. “If poetry can help one person understand someone else a little bit better, it matters. It’s relevant,” my student N. insisted.
It’s with this in mind that I take to the classroom and the page, with the hope that I demonstrate empathy and generosity in my own work, bridging the gap with my poems rather than delineating the distance, just as my students have done so in our classroom discussions. I believe that my newest poems, those in my forthcoming second collection Groundspeed and my in-progress hybrid book Bluff, make the personal political, after my student’s idea and with the hope that, like one poem teaching us how to read another, knowing me through my poems will help readers know one another.