Essay: Lorri Neilsen Glenn

What keeps me coming back to the page is the state of being lost in words. That immersion is humbling in its capacity to remind me my flesh is ordinary, common, fleeting, and wonderfully part of something larger and more enduring than I am. Paradoxically, its commonness – its thresholdness — is its treasure.

Yet, as humans, we have an impulse toward objectivism, fundamentalism, gate-keeping, standard-bearing, and a whole host of other means of fixing and organizing, laying claim to rules or precepts that are meant to tell our fellow creatures what to do and how to think or to reassure us that the cosmic ducks are in a row.

This impulse for organization is responsible for some helpful and necessary order in the world: we have to comply with decisions about how to set our clocks, run institutions, treat others, pay taxes. And it is true that when I read an insightful review of a book written by a skilled and compassionate reader, I can come away with a new way of organizing my ideas.

But the impulse to analysis, order, and judgement can go too far, or be applied at the wrong time or place. Iain McGilchrist’s brilliant exploration of the brain, The Master and his Emissary, makes a compelling case for the ways in the Western world that the left brain has hijacked the right, “ironising the soul,” and doing away with the power of art and notions of beauty and the spirit. While McGilchrist deplores the self-help and commercially-driven exploitations of right brain (ditzy, impressionistic, creative, often characterized as female) and left brain (dull, ordered, rational) stereotyping, he claims that the emissary, our left, language-based brain, has taken over from the master—the source of our sense of wholeness, of the spirit, of inspiration and the “unbounded nature” of our primary reality. Imagery, reason, emotion, language are, he claims, served by both hemispheres, but each hemisphere works differently, and in humans, societies, and cultures it can happen that one hemisphere’s way of working can dominate. In the case of the Western World, left-brain domination does not always serve us well. Among the many problems it engenders is our continued craning toward fixity, to make claims about the knowable, and our continual dismissal and disregard of mystery and unknowing. Metaphorical thinking, as Jan Zwicky points out, is the leap that can be an antidote to such fixity: “when meaning holds still long enough to get its picture taken,” she says, “it is dead.”

Heraclitus is among those who understood the union of the opposites, McGilchrist says; humans must recognize the value of both our preconceived ideas about experience and experience itself. “He who does not expect will not find out the unexpected,” Heraclitus wrote, “for it is trackless and unexplored.”

Parker Palmer, an educator, suggests that forms of objectivism are born out of fear, fear of subjectivities and of the demands that being in relation with others might make on us. In the writing community, I think of critics who lay waste to others’ work in reviews, who seem to revel in the art of the skewer, the well-wrought zinger. Such an approach can create an inner circle of a sort for that writer in the short term, but it ultimately erodes the climate of respect and generosity of spirit that I appreciate in thriving communities. Dissension and productive differences can be generative, I believe, and push our art: so much depends upon tone, trust, and openheartedness.

It is difficult for us all to be our whole selves on and off the page. It is easy, sometimes cowardly, to reduce a work or a person to an Other. A poet once remarked after encountering his critic after a reading: “He eviscerated my work, but follows me around like a puppy wanting approval and friendship. Go figure.”

Writing and reading can create as much distance as intimacy: when I toss an unsatisfying book back into the library bin, I wonder how much more attention I might have paid to it if I knew the writer, broke bread with her, or if I knew the personal cost to him of bringing the work into the world. When we meet another in person we are confronted with the sensing body in relation; the intimacy of eye-lock and gesture, and the awareness of each other’s humanity. This is where fear can set in – to truly see, as Weil says, the one who is hungry—and where it becomes easier to objectify the other than to be present, open, vulnerable. In Paul Ricoeur’s notion of narrative hospitality we take responsibility in “imagination and in sympathy for the story of the other.”


From Threading Light: Explorations in Loss and Poetry (Hagios Press, 2011), Lorri Neilsen Glenn’s most recent book. She is the author of Lost Gospels (Brick Books, 2010), and an anthology about 1950s mothers is forthcoming from Guernica Editions. Former Halifax Poet Laureate (2005- 2009), Glenn has taught poetry and creative nonfiction in Ireland, Australia, Chile, Greece, and most provinces of Canada.



Comments are closed.