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Who Can Read It: Kate Jaeger in Conversation with Will Daddario
In the fall of 2016, Kate Jaeger engaged in an email exchange with UDP author Will Daddario. They discussed the grieving body, the negotiation between vulnerability to life and vulnerability to death, and the ideal audience for Daddario’s chapbook To Grieve.
KJ: I reread To Grieve last night and have a couple start questions for you. Thanks again for putting this work on paper, and into the hands of UDP.
It is work.To grieve. As well as to let go of life.
It is, to my mind, the most taxing of all human experiences. While wrapping our heads around loss, it takes all we can muster just to get through the day, and yet you were able to approach your grief with a distinct dedication and willingness.
You experienced multiple profound losses within a 15 month period: your father, grandmother, well loved cat, close friend, and newborn son. Grief can stifle and often stunt our development. It certainly changes our lives forever. Can you talk about how you were able to find the energy to delve into the grief and find a way to write about it?
In what way has vulnerability played a role in healing? Did these deaths, taken together, enable you to find more of a determination to write than they would have individually?
Also—if at any time you would rather not answer all or part of a question, just say so. I love directness.
WD: Your questions motivated me to write. Here’s my response, which takes the form of a two-part narrative:
A few hours after Finlay died I had a premonition. I could see Joanne and I at some point in the future. It was clear to me that we had overcome the worst of the pain and that we would, from that point on, be able to continue living, loving each other, and even thriving. All of this was so clear to me. The mysterious part was how we were supposed to get to that point, how we were going to chart a path through the present weight of the loss, how we were simply going to go to sleep and then wake up and live.
I wouldn’t say that I found any energy to delve into grief, neither in the morning when I woke up nor in the weeks that followed. Instead, I’d say that, following the premonition, I knew I had to use all my abilities to endure the present. I’m a reader, a writer, a creative thinking, a talker, a listener, a learner, a teacher. Those identities mark my abilities. So I understood that I’d have to read, write, and think my way through each day. I wouldn’t use those abilities to delve into grief; rather, I’d use those abilities to keep from drowning when grief besieged me.
Pretty quickly it became clear that Joanne and I were not the only ones working to keep from drowning. The invisible community of grievers—especially women who carry around the (sometimes-silent) memories of miscarriages, stillbirths, and other painful losses—revealed itself to us. I learned that I could establish connections not only with these people but also with others who, like myself, turned to writing to weather the storm. And so I looked for books. Joanne found Lorraine Ash and Elizabeth McCracken, eventually also Martin Prechtel, David Grossman, and countless others. I found Roland Barthes, Anne Carson, Karen Green. Actively working to establish this community of grievers and recognize myself as part of that community is what led me into the writing.
As for how to write about all this, that required listening to language in a new way. After my father died I started to revisit poetry, something which he loved. I rediscovered the ways in which poets conjured entire worlds through the most miniscule collection of words and plied language with various rhythms so as to coax new meanings from old phrases. Poetry, in this way, helped to disarm my scholarly voice, to ever-so-slightly adjust the angle of my analysis away from an academic pitch and toward a more familiar, second-person conversational mode. When I started talking to myself in that mode about the new reality in which Joanne and I found ourselves, I heard something like my future-self, maybe that person from the premonition, instructing me on how to move forward. This channeling of a future-self whose knowledge of grief has outpaced my present knowledge has turned out to be quite annoying because I frequently find myself despairing and wondering how I can continue to follow the instructions that I wrote for myself. What could I see then that I can’t see now? I suppose this wrestling with one’s various selves is both the difficulty and the benefit of actively grieving. It’s difficult because, through wrestling, I feel crazy, diffuse, and alienated. But I also see that I am more than I feel at any one given moment. Only poetry can transmit the truth of both these realizations, though poetry takes many forms, from the lyric to the concrete.
Vulnerability is the tilth of an active grieving process. I must have said these words a thousand times by now: when grief enters, you have two choices—either you open or you close. Closing feels safer. Get in bed. Turn off the lights. Refuse the world. But nothing will grow if you choose to close. Opening, by contrast, feels completely wrong. Yes, please hurt more. Please reveal more sadness in this world. And yet, opening oneself to the pain that is always there is the choice that allows something new to spring from loss. Vulnerability is the state of being that must accompany the choice to open. Indeed, vulnerability conditions openness.
Is the point to be vulnerable to death, to allow for the very real possibility that death will come calling again at any moment? Or is the point to be vulnerable to life, to open oneself to the vibrancy of the strings connecting living beings, matter, energy, and the unknown? Or are these two paths that lead to the same realization?
Rumi has a poem—I think it’s called “The Private Banquet”—in which he tells the story of a conversation between Muhammad and the Angel Gabriel. Muhammad asks Gabriel to show his true self in Angel form, not to hide in earthly wear. But Gabriel declines because, he says, “you could not endure it.” Muhammad persists until, finally, Gabriel discloses a single feather. Rumi says that the feather spanned from East to West, that its size and scope caused Muhammad to stagger backward. Gabriel hides the feather and embraces Muhammad who slowly recovers from the experience, which, we must remember, he himself invited.
My son’s death was like the revelation of this feather. I didn’t feel the pain of his loss at first. Instead, I felt the overwhelming hugeness of his short life and the potential of that life, a potential that will never actualize itself but will persist through reality like a great fictional story written by a world-class novelist. Would I want to close to this feeling? Absolutely not. I’d like to open myself to such a degree that I can feel it again.
It is possible that this “revelation of the feather” was made possible by not only Finlay’s death but also the aggregate of deaths I have experienced. Or maybe that’s just what love is. I don’t know. I can say that now, as we approach what would be Finlay’s second birthday and await the labor that will lead to the birth our second child, I believe that these deaths, taken all together, have helped me learn what care is, what is required to care for oneself and for someone else, and what living open really feels like. It’s not a happy feeling. I mean, I could use that hug from Angel Gabriel. But, in the absence of such a thing, at least we have Rumi.
KJ: Thank you for such an in depth response.
Have you read or listened to Robert Creeley’s poem “The Plan is The Body?”
It keeps coming to mind while reading your responses and in looking back at To Grieve.
It can be listened to at PennSound.
From the book Away.
And I am pasting it below:
The Plan is the Body
The plan is the body.
There is each moment a pattern,
There is each time something
The plan is the body.
The mind is in the head.
It’s a moment in time,
an instant, second.
The rhythm of one
and one, and one, and one.
The two, the three.
The plan is in the body.
Hold it an instant,
in the mind – hold it.
What was said you
said. The two, the three,
times in the body,
hands, feet, you remember –
I. I remember, I
speak it, speak it.
The plan is in the body.
Times you didn’t want to,
times you can’t think
you want to, you.
Me, me, remember, me
here, me wants to, me
am thinking of you.
The plan is the body.
The plan is the body,
The sky is the sky.
The mother, the father –
the plan is the body.
Who can read it.
Plan is the body. The mind
is the plan. I –
Speaking. The memory
gathers like memory, plan,
I thought to remember,
thinking again, thinking.
The mind is the plan of the mind.
The plan is the body.
The plan is the body.
The plan is the body.
The plan is the body.
KJ: Can you speak to how you experienced grief in the body? And did the shape of grief in the body influence your shaping of the body of the essay?
In To Grieve, poetry and prose intersect throughout the text, along with diary notes from both you and your wife. Can you speak to what occurs within these transitions, the emotional laid bare alongside an investigation into the dissection and building of language? And how does that relate to your discussion of "grieving alone together and grieving together alone?”
Lastly were you able to listen to Creeley’s “The Plan is the Body” on PennSound?
As a palliative care nurse, I often come to an awareness, when with patients as they are dying, that love and death are one in the same thing. At least the two feel very similar as the moments pass, the pull in the chest is remarkably akin to one another. Love is death, death is love? I don’t know. They certainly are related, yin and yang maybe.
Robert Creeley touched on something about death in his poem, and perhaps in grief when he asks:
Who can read it.
I find myself recalling it and rereading it when with patients and families grieving. Plain yet playful, true and uncertain at the same time; a semblance in fog and clarity.
WD: The Creeley recording is really great. Something about his tone and insistence and repetition is really necessary for that poem. Thanks for sending it. Here’s my response to this round of questions:
Writing about the body is one thing. Writing of the body is another. With the latter, wordsstart lookinglike this andfeelingseemingwrongstrangelyinadequate. Language is, of course, embodied, but the body knows things that the mind cannot (yet) express in words. Robert Creeley names this phenomenon with the question “Who can read it?” in his poem “The Plan is the Body.” That is, not only is writing the body’s plan a fraught task, but, once one manages to do it, who can read it?
I’m dodging the question. Upon receiving news of my father’s death from my cousin Parker on the phone, I felt my body freeze, as though my heart’s temperature dropped to the Kelvin register and sent out a tundral shockwave through the rest of my body. I sat down on the couch and had the presence of mind to say, “I’m in shock. I’m going into shock.” My skin remembers precisely where I was in the living room of our apartment in the Seward neighborhood of Minneapolis, as though it recorded the global remanences of the moment. I was facing north. Ivonne’s death struck me in the chest, too, but it wasn’t a freezing sensation. My core vacated itself and I felt like someone had just said something extremely insolent. That news was mediated by email. Joanne and I were in Guildford, England. I don’t know which direction I was facing. Each death sparked a slightly different physical sensation, but all of them were located near my heart. In the grieving process that followed (and that still continues) I experienced panic attacks that would manifest as numbness in my right arm. I’ve also had shooting pains in the elbow of my left arm, as though I pinched a nerve. Reiki practitioners might say that these pains equate to a hesitance to embrace life. There have also been surges of heat up my neck into the base of my brain – and while that’s common for many people suffering from panic attacks, I think there is something about my brain stem that has been affected by grief. The part of my body connecting the body’s automatic systems and the rational center of myself has hypertrophied and now permits an excess of information to travel along its corridors. I also feel like the porosity of my skin has permitted more energy to enter me while actively grieving, leading to a kind of spiritual-material bloating. If grief truly ebbs and flows (as it seems to do), then that would explain the intermittent feeling of the bloat giving-way to an existential emaciation before re-bloating, etc., etc.
The shared experience of “grieving alone together and grieving together alone” unfurls from the frustrating fact Joanne and I can’t truly experience each other’s grief as each of us experiences it in our respective bodies. Language becomes helpful here because it acts like a contact zone where we can meet and share our experiences. But it’s important for me to remember that “language” includes silences, much like a musical score includes rests that function not as absences of musical expression but as present pauses necessary to the rhythm of the piece as a whole. So when we’re sitting in silence, when our bodies are wordlessly expressing their plans, we are still engaged in the contact zone of language’s rests. In these silent moments, the nonrational world of emotions merges with the rational world of language and these two worlds, frequently perceived as separate, begin to collaborate.
There are some concepts and phenomena that I think of as horizon events. The typical distinction between emotions (nonrationality) and analytical processes (rationality) begins to dissolve if we think of each one as a viewpoint. Standing on one shore, gazing at the horizon, we have the emotional and bodily experience of grief. Standing across the ocean on another shore and staring out at the horizon, we have the analytical process of grief’s language. Both viewpoints assess the same horizon, though from a different angle. The horizon, a kind of actual nonspace formed by the limit of vision, absorbs the knowledge of both the nonrational and the rational. By moving back and forth between affective poetic language and descriptive prose language in To Grieve, I tried to conjure that horizon and put myself (and all readers) in that space. My hope in writing To Grieve is that it will occupy that polysemous, superrational horizon space.
Poetry and prose also share a horizon event. Ian Hamilton Finlay thought that concrete poetry could siphon the materiality of that shared horizon. In a letter he wrote to Creeley, who was a friend of his, he described this siphoning in his own words by talking about the “moral” aspect of poems. “As for moral, I mean like Tolstoy is moral, not when he is moralizing, but when he does that amazing thing of presenting a moral statement as a physical sensation.” The materiality of concrete poetry’s moral-statement-as-physical-sensation manifests the horizon shared by poetry and prose, which is the space where the poem’s meaning—in its irreducible complexity—resides.
Finlay—and here I guess I mean both I.H. Finlay and my son—might also help us to think about the relationship between love and death that you have experienced as a pull in the chest. I.H. Finlay wrote one-word poems and also sent instructions on how to write them to his fellow poets. Basically, the poem consists of the word and a title. For example,
THE BOAT’S BLUEPRINT
In his own words: “Metaphorically speaking [the one word and title] are two straight lines. Being somehow connected, they form a corner in language…a corner which is mysteriously open on all sides.” Maybe love and death form a similar corner, one that is mysteriously open on all sides. Only this corner is not a corner in language; rather, it is a corner in space-time.
LOVE TO/IN DEATH
KJ: Open on all sides.
The description brings to mind, the underwater images of the partially decommissioned oil rigs along the pacific coast that have become coral reefs: http://nyti.ms/1TlMTqh
The politics of the reefs are complicated. The environmental impact (historically and at present) has become a contentious issue for lawmakers and environmental protectors. Issues of loss, grief, growth, and risk all become intertwined within the arguments.
I view the images from the article and subtext to be reminiscent of the “communicating thruway” you speak of in To Grieve, in regards to rebuilt homes after Hurricane Sandy. Do you see any similarities yourself and any at all to the love/death space, open on all sides?
Secondly, where do you hope this text might land? Into whose hands, onto whose shelves and how do you envision we might together reach those individuals and institutions?
I have at least a dozen or so individuals I want to send copies. Those individuals range from palliative care doctors and fellow nurses, chronic disease patients who deal with a gradual loss daily, bereaved families, siblings, in-laws. The list goes on.
I also recognize the reach of this book doesn’t only tap into the needs of palliative care or only of those experiencing grief, it extends to a parenting text, to a living text, to one that is a foothold.
WD: The oil rig coral reefs remind me that human beings rarely imagine the range of possible outcomes stemming from their thought and actions. In the present moment, the rig ruins offer an opportunity for two sides usually occupying opposing political positions (oil companies and environmental activists) to form a coalition of sorts, and from there maybe the two sides will learn something new from each other and from the situation. But I wonder what precise aspects of their thinking prevented the two sides from imagining this outcome from the start? The recalcitrance of each group put limits in place where no limits were necessary. Nature is showing us that it does not abide by our limits. This is not to say that I don’t favor the side of the environmentalists over that of the oil companies. What I mean is that our history has brought us to this point where we need to think much more dynamically about the complexity of the world that we all help to produce on a daily basis. I am reminded here of Slavoj Žižek’s contribution to the movie Examined Life when he’s walking around a garbage dump (maybe in Staten Island) and imploring us to think this world, not a world free of litter and unriddled by the complexities of environmental politics, not a utopia, but this world in which garbage is piled up. What are we going to do with this world that we live in? We’ll have to be creative like the folks from the Oikos Theatre Festival who made a temporary Jellyfish Theatre out of junk (http://www.koebberlingkaltwasser.de/jellyfish.html).
The comparison I see between these issues and the love/death space is this: if we can recognize the extent to which we are all always already grieving, then perhaps we can form a coalition with death in the present so as to live a more creative life, one in which love and death are fused together in a similar way as grief and praise are fused together in Martín Prechtel’s The Smell of Rain on Dust. In that book, Prechtel argues that unless we recognize grief as a channel to praise, indeed as the flipside of praise, then we will continue to squash grief out of our lives and, as a result, suppress the pulsating energy provided by our finitude.
One day recently I was running on a treadmill and I thought, “What if I have a seizure or a stroke and end up like Dominique Bauby in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly? What would I do? I guess I would be okay because Joanne loves me and would take care of me. She’d figure out a way to communicate with me, and I’d just have to give myself over to life.” And then I quickly realized: “Why would I wait until I was paralyzed to give myself over to life??? Why not give myself over to life right now and stop parceling out the positive from the negative, death from life?” That’s the trick: live in the present as though I was actually my future self who had already discovered the secret to living without undue anxiety and depression through trial and error. By the time I got off the treadmill I had lost the path to this new, liberated present, almost like waking up and forgetting the meaning of life that just appeared so vividly in a dream. Surely, though, the path to liberation leads through a renewed understanding of grief in our lives.
As for whom I want to read To Grieve, I have a growing list. I want doctors and nurses to read it, for two reasons. First, I want them to be able to add the work to their database of grief resources, a database that contains a lot of practical “how to” guides but few philosophical approaches to grieving. I think that philosophy should play a bigger part in everyone’s life. Second, I know that doctors and nurses face life and death decisions daily, and as such they can become inured to the experiences like I’ve been through. My hope is that by reading To Grieve they will re-discover the visceral impact of encountering death and therefore enrich the emotional intelligence that they will need to help their patients.
I also want the piece to sit on shelves in places like Faith’s Lodge (faithslodge.org) across the country so that parents might stumble upon it during their hour of need.
I’d like academics to read it because I believe that personal reflections need not be banished from the realm of scholarship. There are many authors who work hard to blend first-person experience with analysis, and I am proud to add my name to that list.
Word of mouth and pro-active gifting are two ways that we might circulate the work. Friends of ours who have read electronic versions have requested .pdfs for others. If Joanne or I come across an institution that helps grieving people, we will send them a copy. I will send a copy to Faith’s Lodge. I would be more than happy to speak to groups of people that do grief work, either individually or at conferences, with the knowledge that some people respond more to spoken words than to written words. I am fairly confident each individual who comes across the piece will know someone else who might benefit from it, and in that way the (seemingly) invisible community of grieving people will slowly pass the work along.
For more on To Grieve, and to order a copy, click here.
Will Daddario works as a scholar and teacher. He researches the interplay between theatre, performance, philosophy, and everyday life in historical and contemporary environments. He actively participates in the international research network Performance Philosophy, for which he is also a founding member.