THE LIGHT OF IS IS: ON ANGER
The “recalibration theory of anger” posits that anger is developed through the process of natural selection as an effective bargaining tool
Or, anger is simply an alternate way out of difficulty “when all other ways are blocked”
Or, “we were trying to master our fear to calm our anger to restrain our weeping”
When thinking about anger, I see my mother. Is this true of you?
I’m stuck in a font, my “compass.” Can’t get around that bouquet, delicate tendrils and shoots
Was told many times as a child, “It’s OK to be angry!”
Lilies lose their verve; that crack in the cup lets nothing out. Glass and tin, sequins and drill bits, mixed drinks and sexologies directed by teens: this is my garden of earthly delay. My gigs my lap my luster
We are trying to raise a son raise a daughter raise a garden raise a son a daughter a daughter a garden trying to raise a son a daughter a garden
Studies show stronger men and more attractive women are more anger-prone, feel more entitled to better treatment, and prevail more in conflicts of interest
The president is derided for not being “angry enough”
“When we turn from anger, we turn from insight” says Audre Lorde
Or maybe, “the creation of an ‘enemy’ is a loss”
Such a thought undermines theories that attribute anger and aggression primarily to frustration, a history of negative treatment, or a desire for equity
Strength and beauty are not unique: anything that increases the social bargaining power of an individual should increase her or his anger-proneness and feeling of entitlement
Then there’s the “State-trait anger scale”
Entirely contingent, the body of a little girl, hanging around the house with not much breathing space
In the margin to my left is a butcher and a noose forever muffled like winter trees: labiacal
My mother was neither tall nor beautiful
In the jargon of the eighties she was a “rage addict”
My adolescent son grips his head at the table and then, quite literally, screams
Still others say that anger in its “legitimate form” has its roots in feelings of injustice
If hereby I drill into the earth a hole big enough to deposit myself and my children, what dictionary could define us then? What camera record us?
In the jargon of the seventies she was a “strong woman” (not necessarily a positive thing)
“Aristotle’s term for the in-irascible person is ‘slave’ or ‘fool,’ persons who do not become angry when we expect them to are, in our day, more likely to be described as ‘repressed’”
One might have said, and I did say (to myself) that my mother’s anger had everything to do with the holocaust and so was genetic
“In the social foreclosure of grief we might find what fuels…violence”
(As to my left, a butcher, muffled)
I began to keep a “headache notebook” in which I wrote down everything I ate or drank and the time of eating or drinking, then whether I had a headache or not, and the level from 1-10 of that pain
One might have said, and I did say (to myself) that my mother’s anger had everything to do with her feminism and so was justified
One might have said, and I did say (to myself) that my mother’s anger had everything to do with her father’s anger and so was inherited
At the same time, I began to keep a “race diary” in which I wrote down every social encounter I had during every day, the name or occupation of the person I was encountering, the level of intimacy between us on a scale of 1-10, and the race of that person
One might have said, and I did say (to myself) that my mother’s anger had everything to do with my father’s supposed infidelity and so was retributive
One might have said, and I did say (to myself) that my mother’s anger was only the flip side of her great capacity for joy and so was necessary
One might have said, and I did say (to myself) that my mother’s anger was not “about me” and so was bearable
To my left, winter trees
One might have said, and I did say (to myself) that my mother’s anger was a motive cause of her activism and so was heroic
One might have said, and I did say (to myself) that my mother’s anger was an expression of her fear and so was forgivable
Sometimes on approaching our front door, my heart would begin to race
My husband asked me whether the “headache journal” and the “race diary” were connected, since I’d started them on the same day and whenever I wrote in one, I also wrote in the other
A common belief is that children who experience high levels of rage in the home repeat these patterns in their own homes as adults
The rain falling now for seven days with one pause for sun
The rain falling now for seven days with one pause
Anger is an “object” mood, whereas depression is not
I had to admit that the two journals were connected, but I wasn’t sure how
I thought I might discover in what way they were connected once I had completed the one-month cycle I had committed to
The failure of the Jews to “resist” or “rebel” is often attributed to a failure of anger or simply to too much trust: “We were German!”
But the Jews I grew up with subsequently were anything but trusting
Chatter of something eating in the heating vent. The cold outside is unfathomable and stuck.
Windows become violent, and foreign. I feel afraid
The first and most noticeable thing about my “race diary” is that I very rarely rate my intimacy level to be higher than a four
The second most noticeable thing about my “race diary” is that I often do not know how to classify a person’s race
But what would I do about your anger? said one boyfriend upon breaking up with me
In an attempt to be “not angry” I hit my head against the bathroom wall
“I only knew three means to employ, which are always useless and frequently ruinous to children: argument, sentiment, anger” confessed Rousseau
The first most noticeable thing about my headache diary is that my head hurts every single day
Often when I am angry I wonder how my face looks and figure it does not look good.
Do men ever figure that?
Rousseau: “All women possess the art of concealing their anger, especially when it is strong”
The third most noticeable thing about my “race diary” is that I do not know what constitutes a social encounter
“I finally stopped being angry when I realized,” begins the memoir, begins the memoir, begins the memoir
The second most noticeable thing about my “headache diary” is that I do not know how to rate pain
She “finally stopped being angry” only a few years before she got sick
A terribly brief “reprise”
Ruinous children undo themselves in the harsh light of what is
She had “calmed her anger” only to find fear the master, and weeping unrestrained
Trying to raise a son, raise a daughter, a daughter, a garden. And in the margins branches heave
That’s not me: a coda*
Dear F and all:
Yesterday afternoon it poured for ten minutes flat. Then on and off all evening long. Capricious sky. Three friends performed Wallace Shawn’s The Designated Mourner in our living room. “Frank” murdered himself. This thing called the self, he strangled it, choked it, destroyed it. After that, he was free to experience pleasure. Pleasure came in the form of pornography first, and then later, the bloods and oozes of fall and an evening breeze. The audience was mostly under twenty. What did they think of murdering the self (but keeping the body around)? One of them is interning at the Governor’s office. He’s working on Homelessness Initiatives but he didn’t know about Denver’s camping ban. Or, he’d heard of it, but he thought it was just a way to move people off the 16th street mall (like pieces in a game of checkers, just slide them off the board). The camping ban criminalizes sleeping outside. If, that is, you are covered. If you want to just go ahead and fall asleep, like a baby in a stroller or a person at a picnic, you can do that. But if you cover yourself up with a blanket or any other kind of covering (cardboard, tarp), well, you can’t do that.
Linda didn’t watch the play. She sat out on the porch in the rain as it softened to mist. Just the day before I’d said to another friend, “Linda knows what she wants and what she needs better than I do. Sometimes it’s a bit disconcerting.” My other friend said, “Well, then you don’t have to waste time trying to guess.” That’s true, but I’d wished she’d watched the play so we could have talked about it after, for she’s the one I always want to boil tea with. (As her friends at Holy Cross taught her, and as she taught me, “boiling tea” is slang for after-party gossip). One of the actors, the one who played Frank, has written a book about his brother who has schizophrenia, diagnosed when he, the actor, was just a boy. This manuscript is heartbreaking. But he doesn’t try to publish it. Now he’s writing about poetry’s revolutionary dreams. He comes from a family in rural Colorado with very few books. He’s been married and divorced and his new girlfriend has a kid, so, like everyone in graduate school, he needs a job. Linda, sitting alone in the rain on the porch, also has a brother who suffers. And she also grew up in a home with very few books. And she’s also been divorced. Maybe if she’d known about my friend’s real life she would have come inside to listen to Frank, whose been assigned to grieve.
The other actor has a condition with his ears. All the time he’s hearing things. Sounds like a vacuum cleaner going on directly into his ears, or like the whine of a car engine unable to start. He’s hearing horrible sounds directly into his ears all day and all night and no one else can hear them. Over these sounds he can sometimes hear you speak, sometimes not. As he’s speaking in the play, I’m wondering if he’s trying to out-sound the horrible sounds that are coming from nowhere, coming from the atmosphere inside his head, that are torturing him day and night so that he can’t sleep and can’t work, sometimes can’t even read or write. He’s a teacher by day. He’s had to take a lot of time off. What will he do? So in the play he plays Howard, a pedantic, cruel old man. Maybe he is this pedantic, cruel old man for a time, for how can a person escape his own ears?
This week we spoke about sound and intimacy, which made me think about whispering or the sound of someone kissing you, or breathing into your ear at night. It also made me think of languages we invent as children hiding in closets or as poets in our partnerships, our gatherings. We wanted a new word for intimacy, just like we wanted a new word for “self,” and we got “impetus.” “Impetus” is a Latin word and it means, or meant, assault, violent impulse, onslaught. Perhaps this is not really what we wanted. In the middle of the 17th century, the age of John Donne, it comes to mean directional force. Sound too can be a violence. As can intimacy, as you said.
John Donne played an important part in The Designated Mourner. Though the actors never read or quoted from a John Donne poem, they spoke about him a lot as a stand-in for “culture,” this thing that would be lost once all the “Power” was destroyed. The story going on behind the scenes is one of revolution in which the poor (the “dirt eaters” as the play calls them) rise up and murder the rich—systematically shoot them or slash their throats. And what is lost when this happens is a population of people who appreciate Rembrandt and read John Donne. This is all very Matthew Arnold—meaning this is exactly what Matthew Arnold feared—that the poor would, in gaining power, destroy “culture.” But you played us Richard Burton reading Donne’s “St Lucie’s Day” not in order to preserve their cultures exactly, but in order, maybe like Shawn, to allow us to consider that poetry is always interested in the murder of the self.
Which is one way a poem might help us to reimagine what is common.
In that poem Donne names the earth “hydroptic,” a word transforming during his time, a malleable term. As an earlier form of “dropsical” (so it seems), it means waterlogged, though what he’s getting at in the poem is “insatiably thirsty”—dropsical’s other meaning—as he describes the Earth on winter solstice. Beginning with metaphors of light, Donne moves quickly to metaphors of thirst: the setting sun empties its flask (shakes it out in the form of rays), and now the world, having drunk, thirsts for light in darkness.
But the poem is not about the Earth, or not only. Donne describes this dying sun and this dry earth in order to say that he is more nothing than they are. He is “every dead thing,” first ruined, then “re-begot” “of absence, darkness, death: things which are not.” Having lost his lover, Donne negates himself, makes of himself a grave for death, a hole for a hole.
Confessions like this one in Donne, those confessions of self-negation, self-effusion, and self-evacuation that so abound in poetry, might serve a cathartic urge, but they could serve a political purpose too, as you suggested, cutting us loose, even momentarily, from our steadfast attachment to being selves that the law names, granted the equivocal privilege of ownership, the uneven privilege of “rights.”
But I want to come at this poem another way, to look at the immediate cause of Donne’s self-disavowal. For it is love, this force that’s clearly stronger than sun or earth, which has “ruin’d” him, unmade him in order to remake him as a hole, as its hole. He retains then a kind of self, maybe a kind self—a self as a space for the other to reside, even in her absence. A self possessed, not self-possessed. It’s what I’ve wanted to be.
It’s what I was trying to say about the mother/child: that there is not, in that relation, any singularity in a simple sense. I don’t want to speak for the child side, but for the one who holds, carries, bears, and releases without ever really losing, though never fully having, the other. So rather than turning to the familiar claim that my self is multiple, I’d say in some moments I’ve know myself as a passage through which others move. Maybe this is a way of thinking through the problem of the self that my sex makes available to me, but I know you were right there too when you talked about why you don’t want your sons running out into the street: because to lose one would be to lose yourself. As Butler puts it: “It’s not as if an ‘I’ exists independently over here and then simply loses a ‘you’ over there, especially if the attachment to ‘you’ composes part of what ‘I’ am.”
That motherhood is a release of self would be one way to say it, or I could just say less heroically that it sometimes reminds me that I was never whole to begin with, but am passage and a passing. But then I believe motherhood to belong to you too, and to everyone who could say, like Donne says, love killed me and then it remade me out of the nothing I had become.
I wondered if the kids in the room that day, kids who are still someone’s child, no one’s parent, knew what the fuck we were talking about. Maybe it takes a while to know what a hole you are. You don’t have to lose a child or beloved to know it; you just have to know that you can lose one. Which you know the minute you have one.
““I, by Love’s limbec, am the grave / Of all, that’s nothing,” writes Donne. “Limbec” is the still used in the alchemical process. Love’s limbec, then, is the method or tool love uses to transform the liquid in the lover’s body into something else, or nothing else, to, in fact, vaporize the liquid in the lover’s body so that he can become that emptied-out hole. What makes poets in particular want to have or be or perform this “nothing” so badly? “I am nobody, who are you?” I read when I was eight and kept it by the bed. “I nothing am” says Edgar, hiding in the body of another. Sometimes I’ve thought it’s the freedom that comes with language, language’s vapor-like qualities, how it’s nothing and can be everything, that we start to identify with, want to not just use but be—like Keats climbing up to his muse Moneta, and begging to peer into her hollow brain, to see through her eyes that see nothing, or like Plath on Ariel becoming foam. But right now I think it’ s more than that. It’s a spiritual longing, but it’s a political longing too. As you said, or as I think you said, in emptying out the self, in alchemizing it into vapor, we get to that complicated word: empathy. But you’ve said a lot more than you did that day about nothingness and blackness: “If the slave is, in the end and in essence, nothing, what remains is the necessity of an investigation of that nothingness. What is the nothingness, which is to say the blackness, of the slave that is not reducible to what they did, though what they did is irreducible in it?” Forgive me for circling this nothingness in your work not knowing if ever there is a way in and knowing too that I am already in it, not only because of the complexity, the unwinding, of your sentences, from which I find myself unable to turn, but also because blackness is the term in your work I can’t and don’t want to move off of. How can I get in, asked the very young white woman in our class and you said, come with me. I thought that was generous then, a kind of empathy, a kindness, and now I think it was also inevitable: as in, unavoidable. Already in it.
And so I should start today talking about Trayvon Martin, his name in a hard spot in a whole lot of minds, even more now that we’ve heard him screaming. Did you read Charles Blow’s devastating essay? “Now what will I say to my sons?” he writes. I was sitting in the airport as my daughters were boarding a plane to fly to New York without me, and when I read this plaintive line, I looked up.
A man nearby was watching his two sons board that same plane. I could tell by his face that it was the end of the “Daddy visit” and he was devastated. But he was white like me, so that I was thinking in his direction, “but we don’t have to ask today, ‘Now what will I say to my sons?’” He was devastated watching that plane take off, but he wouldn’t even look at me for commiseration—though I would have been miserable with him if he’d tried. Maybe he was ashamed, ashamed of devastation, as am I.
“What appears in shame is precisely the fact of being riveted to oneself,” writes Levinas. Though that riveting is perhaps not a fact but a fear. Just at these moments of division when who you are is so clearly distinct from who someone else is, when your son walks free and her son is shot, there’s a necessary shame in that, in being riveted, just sitting there in a plastic chair with it, your body, what it is or isn’t.
To say like Donne says that you’re a space for another, the hole that can hold someone, not just in arms, but in the belly, or the ass—this shame-infused space of desire that can’t really ever be met is what I’d call the fantasy of motherhood. Which I continue to choose.
Once a long time ago I’d had my heart broken. I was walking along a little bridge with one of my teachers, a woman named Nancy with a braid down her back that reached all the way to her ass. Walking along behind her with marshy grasses on either side of the bridge, I watched the braid gracing her ass like the bridge winding through the grasses. Without turning around she said, having your heart broken is just like falling in love. In both instances, something breaks and you’re in the world more fully. It almost doesn’t matter, she said, whether you’ve just fallen in love or just had your heart broken. Either way, split, you’re alive.
My face was broke before they came, held by what I didn’t hold
before they got here and tried to take me. “Is this you?” they said.
“Naw,” I said, “that’s not me.”
That’s you in the poem “Modern Language Day,” where you also say, “The clear-eyed want to take my shit.”
That being broken, that broken heart or face, it hurts and it makes you “not you,” or not recognizable, not available to be taken—a vapor. And being that broken thing, which you are when you know what you have to lose, or what you have already lost, makes you love what’s bad—that tent city in your poem, the irregular of everybody. Then the shame of being riveted must also be the failure to recognize how you are already broken. Turn that shame around and it’s its own kind of broken. Or, said another way, shame marks the hole.
What you wrote in an interview I read, quoting Baraka, is that “art is a sliding away from the proposed,” and you connect that to Adorno’s phrase: “art’s immigrant law of motion.” Maybe what you’re getting at is that poetry or art or music lights up that space of not belonging, of not belonging to a self we could ever call one. Art’s sliding immigrant status shows us where the holes are, or shows us the holes we are.
Recently a friend of mine curated an art-exhibit about homelessness and home and he called it Not Exactly. I kept thinking this was not such a great title. It doesn’t exactly say much, Not Exactly, not exactly letting people know what the show is about. The show featured art by people who have homes and people who don’t, by people who have shelter but no home (like prison inmates), and people who have home but no shelter, like some un-housed people who don’t want to go to the shelters, who don’t “exactly” feel homeless. Not Exactly, now I realize, is a really good name for the show, refusing, as it does, the force and the freeze of definition. It’s like
“`Is this you?’ they said / ‘Naw,’ I said, ‘that’s not me.’”
“That’s not me: a coda” began as a letter to Fred Moten, written in August of 2013. Fred had just taught a workshop at The University of Naropa’s Summer Writing Program, which I attended. The letter was a direct response, or outpouring, to our class. Also attending: Linda Norton, Derrick Mund, Richard Froude, Mathias Svalina, and others.
Julie Carr from Objects from a Borrowed Confession, Ashata Press, 2017. Used with permission from the author.