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Dear Blake B.,
I recently read a book of poems that reminded me a little of your writing, and that I think you might really like. And who knows—maybe you do already like it! It’s by Robyn Schiff and it’s called A Woman of Property. I’d known about the book for many years—my friend Paul, whom you met at the Big Big Wednesday party in Portland, read and really appreciated it, and shared a poem with a group of our Bard friends years ago. But I was moved to buy it only recently when I read another book, Eula Biss’s Having and Being Had, in which Biss, in her notes at the end of the book describing the constraints and methods she used in writing it, notes that the title of her book is actually taken from a blurb that she wrote several years back for Schiff’s book. Biss then says:
A Woman of Property was written after Schiff bought her first house. Having and Being Had was written after I bought my first house, in response to Schiff’s work and in conversation with Schiff herself. The title is an acknowledgment of our close collaboration and our shared trespasses.
I really liked Having and Being Had, although some of our shared UMass pals were less enthusiastic about it, I hear tell (and more to say on Biss’s book in a second). And I was also just really intrigued by—and appreciative of!—the “acknowledgement,” to use Biss’s word, that her quote above makes of something that’s probably always true for books, but is certainly not always discussed: they are written in response, conversation, “shared trespasses.” This idea of writing as conversation is, as you may know by now, one that always lights me up! So I figured I should read Schiff’s book, both because I was interested in it (and always want to be reading more poetry), and to have a chance to watch that collaboration Biss mentions play out, even if in reverse order of when the books were written.
I’m excited and also a little scared to try to tell you—a poet!—what I liked about A Woman of Property. Always it feels to me like I am grasping at something ineffable, reaching up and pawing at quick-moving clouds, when I try to talk about poetry! But it’s good to try, or feels good to me at least. I remember, in Peter Gizzi’s reading class that we both took, feeling appreciative of his required weekly responses to each book, which forced a space for me to try to name something I’d seen and liked in each collection. I feel like I do that kind of analysis in my head reflexively while reading fiction, but I’m still such an amateur when it comes to articulating anything about poems! But I like being an amateur (the etymology of the word, after all, makes it kin to love), and I’m happy—nervous-happy—to play around with telling you what I loved in Schiff’s collection.
So here I go! A Woman of Property! If I try to name what made me think of Schiff’s poems in relation to your own, I want to call the common trait a kind of angularity—some sharp geometry in both the language and the lineation. But Schiff’s work is definitely more narrative than what I’ve read of your writing (and P.S. would love to read more!). Often the poems begin or orient themselves around a domestic scene. They take place in and around the house, and they feature characters: Schiff’s son, a neighbor, an old friend from childhood. But it’s all bent a little bit away from what we boring prose writers call “realism”—I’m thinking of a poem called “Nursery Furniture” that I especially liked, and which seems like a good example of how narrative works in these poems. It begins:
Today I am expecting a new chair.
I returned four this year
already. They were all Sand
with Sand piping and come from
a shop called the Land of Nod, where Alison,
the manager who deals with me,
gave me a gift certificate I am afraid
to redeem. Wary of what dream?
And though the poem swerves to unexpected places, it comes back several times to this oneiric conversation:
…Are you still
there, Alison? Alison: I talk to
a lot of new mothers.
Me: So? Alison: There is
something you can take for that,
but you cannot get it here. Me: I just want
return without replacement. When
the lyric makes me sing what I did not even
want said, to get to stop having
to keep thinking
Besides this kind of domestic—what is bought, improved, maintained in the speaking “I”’s life—the book circles a bunch of other things, its own lexicon of Greek tragedy, wild animals, parasentient actors like viruses and artificial intelligence. I love its rangingness, which also becomes a kind of coherence. But I think what I love best about this book—and here is where I find it most difficult to know how to say what I mean—is something in these poems’ tone, or their narrator’s voice, something that is also inextricable from the book’s interest in the weirdness of owning things. So much of the collection is attentive to what it means to settle in somewhere, establish your domain (the animals that appear in the poems are often doing this violently, establishing hierarchies of predation and prey)—and yet the book itself feels committed to a kind of unsettledness.
To me that unsettledness is a form of refusal—refusal to rest in the certainty of the property alluded to in the book’s title, refusal to look away from something troubling. (I think now as I write this about another poem I love, this one by Robert Creeley, called “For Love,” which asks, regarding the subject its title names:
Today, what is it that
is finally so helpless,
different, despairs of its own
statement, wants to
turn away, endlessly
to turn away.
Of course by virtue of the poem’s existence, Creeley’s speaker isn’t turning away; that’s part of what makes the lines so great.) There’s something about this tension between restlessness and the reality of “having and being had,” to use Biss’s phrase—the things we cling to even if we can’t or don’t want to explain why—that manifests beautifully in the voice of Schiff’s poems as well as in their contents, and it’s something I’ve been really interested in as of late. I’ve mostly been thinking about that tension as a part of class privilege, as Schiff and Biss both do, but perhaps—who knows, I’ll try it out here!—it seems powerful to me in a broader sense, too.
Although I haven’t bought a house or anything like that, a lot of the questions about ownership, wealth, etc. that Biss and Schiff are asking (especially Biss, whose book is explicitly about the weird binds of valuing things outside of capitalism while also living in it and wanting what securities one can access)—a lot of those questions have felt much more relevant to me since moving to Seattle. I think that’s both because my social milieu here includes folks who have just bought houses, and also just because of the nature of Seattle at the moment. It’s impossible to live here and not think about money: certain things that had seemed like distant eventualities, like owning a home, are suddenly firmly inaccessible and thus covetable, and everyone who lives here, myself included, hustles in one way or another just to afford to stay. It’s strange and troubling, as I have said before in other letters, to walk around our neighborhood, which is filled with a mix of beautiful craftsman houses, new townhouses that look like printer cartridges jammed into the ground, and construction sites—and troubling too to walk around the fancier neighborhoods, as I do sometimes, and see the enormous gorgeous homes that all cost over a million dollars. Heck, there’s an old house falling to pieces on a big lot a few blocks away, and even that is selling for over a million!
The extremity of the housing market here is intense and endlessly easy to marvel at, but part of the effect of living in the middle of it is, at least for me, just to remind me how crazy and strange all of our systems of money exchange are. Why are houses sold for so many thousands of dollars that most people have to borrow and borrow and borrow? Why do we accept the stock exchange as reasonable when it doesn’t benefit the vast majority of people? Why is owning a house even as important and exciting as it feels to most Americans? Obviously I know that these questions have answers that make sense on certain levels and which I myself have accepted, too. And I also know, more troublingly, that although I perceive myself, especially here, as excluded from some of it (nothing like living in an expensive city to give you the privilege of minimizing your own privilege!), I am actually not really excluded, or only so by choice. I could certainly elect to throw myself into a different world and use the many things I have that are advantages to—well, more advantage, maybe? And too, I’m not exempt from fetishizing wealth—I’m on Zillow longingly looking at listings along with the rest of them (or us?), feeling sad when I walk by a house with especially big windows or a nice backyard (or, in the ultimate combo/apotheosis of my real estate consumer dreams, a small shed IN the yard that has big windows and would be great to write in!). I feel sad, and I feel skeptical of my own sadness. I don’t even know if or why I want to own a house! Like many other things in my life, it feels like a desire that’s in me, but perhaps planted by forces beyond my individual interest or volition. But then I want to say—what desire comes only from myself? What’s a self without its context? (As I write that last part, I think it gives me some insight into preoccupation with houses—Biss’s, Schiff’s, my own: a house is, of course, a literal context for the self, a kind of snailshell, and it’s never felt more that way to me than this past year.)
I’ve been trying to talk more explicitly with students about privilege and how it’s present in reading and writing, and what I often end up saying is that privilege erases itself—that, to use the word obsessed over (rightly, I think!) by the UMass composition program, and the word I already just deployed, privilege strips away our awareness both of its context—how did you come to be where you are?—and of it as context—how does that affect what you’re doing and how you’re interpreted by others? Both Biss and Schiff seem interested in restoring some of that context in their own narratives, and to setting down the consequent uneasiness that comes with seeing it. Biss, in the notes to her book, explains her process like this:
I began keeping a new kind of diary shortly after I moved into my house in 2014. I had very little time to write then. But I had a garage where I kept my bike, so I no longer had to carry it up and down stairs. And I had a new sense of security, a feeling of solidity… I was highly aware, in those first years, of my comfort. I knew from past experiences that the discomfort would fade and that my extraordinary new life would become ordinary with time. To stave off that loss, I kept a diary in which I recorded moments of discomfort from my life, usually moments in which I was also enjoying some sort of comfort or pleasure. I wanted to hold on to the discomfort and I wanted to hold onto the comfort, too. This book is what came of that contradiction.
At first, every moment I recorded was excruciating to me, but it was also beautiful. I was sure that my discomfort had something to teach me, and that I would lose some essential knowledge if I let go of the discomfort. I wanted to “stay with the trouble.” But I knew that my trouble didn’t look like trouble. It looked like what is commonly called “success.” This success was the result of having played a particular game, with all the advantages my position afforded. So I regarded my own success and accomplishment with new suspicion.
As I look at that passage again, my attention snags on two things. First, the word that ends it, “suspicion,” seems potentially like a word to touch the tone I was trying to name in Schiff’s work. It’s not usually a word I think of as positive. It’s a kind of sharp observing, though, which is maybe a tool one needs—or one that’s good to have—in the world we live in. I think Biss and Schiff both use it well!
The second thing that stands out is the sentence “I knew from past experiences that this discomfort would fade and that my extraordinary new life would become ordinary with time.” I read this and think: yes! This happens all the time, and the examples to the contrary are so rare that they stick out for their unusualness. (One example that comes to mind is having Hans around—I feel like I marvel at him and his antics every day, and also frequently exclaim over how weird and lovely it is to have a little nonhuman creature just living alongside us in the house. Maybe you feel the same about Arlo?)
So yes, I recognize this experience, and it’s maybe a universal one—but it seems especially apt in terms of privilege, or what Biss’s title calls “having” and Schiff’s calls “property.” Part of privilege is forgetting that you have it, or forgetting at least its degree. I’m trying to address this in some fiction I’m writing now, and as part of my thinking/research on the subject I’ve been reading a book called Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence that’s by this cool sociologist Rachel Sherman, whom I discovered (of course) on a podcast. Her book is basically about the ways in which discomfort (to use Biss’s word) surfaces and gets buried in the lives of super-wealthy people (her subjects are all in the top two percent of income/wealth in the US), and how as a result of that discomfort (which is in and of itself constructed by our culture, which both lionizes and derides rich people), a lot of affluent people try to narrate their lives as both not that extraordinary (other people have even more!) and as extraordinary but morally “good”; they “give back,” work hard, and don’t consume extravagantly, at least in their telling. Sherman’s larger point, which I think is a great one, is that if we as a culture deal with the discomfort of wealth inequality via this bifurcation—the splitting of rich people into good/deserving and spoiled/undeserving—we are all missing the larger point, which is that the level of inequality in our country is outrageous and harmful, and that no one “should” have as much money as the people to whom she talks while other people don’t have housing or food.
Naming and countenancing discomfort is definitely a form of resistance to the kinds of narratives—or erasures—that justify that inequality. But there’s a part of me (and a part of Biss, too, who acknowledges that her discomfort will fade) that doesn’t feel that that’s sufficient. (Schiff, in the poem “Siren Test”:
Sometimes I am thankless
and sometimes I am so full
of aimless gratitude it
is a curse some call love, some rumination,
when I just sit here all day all
night counting my unaccountables…)
One of the most memorable moments to me in Having and Being Had is a section called “Bartleby,” in which Biss meets with a financial adviser about her retirement account: “Is there a reason, he asks me, why non of it has been invested in the stock market for the past decade?” Immediately after introducing us to this scene, Biss pivots to talking about Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener,” which, she reminds us, has the subtitle “A Tale of Wall-Street.” She writes, in a way that to me feels characteristic of the book (and maybe this is part of what Matt and Kate didn’t love about it? I can see it as both a weakness and a strength!), each sentence leaving lots of ambiguous room between itself and its neighbors:
Bartleby was a passive resister… His resistance had no end, and he didn’t seem to be trying to accomplish anything except resistance. I remind myself that Bartleby starved to death in prison, because somehow his story still reads to me as a triumph. Jane Desmarais writes, “Bartleby’s freedoms are incompatible with life.”
The section ends with Biss accepting the financial adviser’s pressure to “invest aggressively,” mostly because she wants to retire “as soon as possible.” The last paragraph reads:
Now my money is out there, being aggressive. I keep thinking about it, wondering what it’s doing. I consider calling the financial adviser to tell him that I would prefer not to be aggressive. I decide I will, and then I don’t.
This story, with all its knowledge and complicity, puts me in my own state of discomfort. It’s familiar. Biss is older than I am—than we are—but I see this in myself and in people around me, a kind of resignation. Biss refers to Bartleby’s resistance as passive, but there’s a counterpoint passivity in her story, too, the sense that most people, Bartleby excepted, can only refuse for so long before they throw up their hands and give in. My favorite poem in A Woman of Property is called “Gardening,” and all the time writing this letter to you it’s felt like, alas, that one was not relevant to share—it’s about, to reduce it ridiculously, happening upon bugs while gardening and thinking of the creepiness of certain animals. But now I’m seeing a connection, hurrah! “Gardening” ends with the “I” of the poem, who at the start has “lift[ed] the brick that’s nothing’s cornerstone/and unearth[ed] swarms of living dirt,” countenancing eggs and “shining mandible/face hooks” and dropping the brick. It’s an act of concealment, of deciding not to look at something gross or troubling anymore, and it’s also an act, however small it seems, of violence.
But how do we do otherwise? What else is there to do? It sometimes really does feel like picking up the brick and then dropping it is an inevitability. You don’t want to look at the bugs anymore because they’re kind of sinister, you have something else to do, your arms get tired. But I’ve also been wondering a little bit if that inevitability is, like the constructed narratives around wealth and property themselves, “real truth” or a story. Yet another book I read a while back has been at the center of my questioning re: all this: Strangers Drowning, by the New Yorker writer Larissa MacFarquhar. I’ve always liked her articles, and picked up the book on the recommendation of one of my very fave students from the past year. (It’s a recommendation that holds a particular trace of exuberance because it was also the first book I requested from the library last summer after months of it being completely closed—H., my student who recommended it to me, told me at the same time that curbside pickup was now available, and I rejoiced!)
Strangers Drowning is about what I often call, in talking about the book, “extreme altruists”—people who give, or give away, their resources to a degree that goes beyond what their cultural context considers average or normal. But the book is also about the ways that that kind of giving unsettles everyone around the givers, and about how narratives have been crafted over time to check and pathologize that kind of generosity—everything from Adam Smith-type explanations of how capitalism “optimizes” when people look out for themselves first to the ways in which people who want to donate a kidney to a stranger are forced to undergo rigorous psychological evaluation. I had originally designated this book, after happily waiting in a long line for it at the local branch of the library here, a “before-bed book,” which is my name for those books that I only read right before sleep, and which thus are not annotated or read too deeply. MacFarquhar’s book initially seemed to be a great before-bed book—it was absorbing!—but, after a few nights of me lying in the dark for a long time after turning off the light, mind whirring and emotions agitated, it got kicked out of the bedroom and I read it elsewhere. It was maybe too interesting, but more than that I was pretty convinced by the rationale of the altruists (who, in MacFarquhar’s case studies, perform all sorts of “good deeds,” ranging from giving away money to adopting 20 foster kids to caring for lepers). Why shouldn’t we all give as much as these people are giving? Where had I learned to rationalize a sense of giving this much being kind of nuts? (Uneasy Street asks questions about this too, albeit from a different angle—there are a million stories that the ultra-wealthy tell themselves about precarity, deservingness, etc., that allow them to see their wealth as not only justified but a resource to be guarded with ferocity. And where do those stories come from? How do they stick around?)
Despite being moved and disturbed in equal measure by all this reading and mulling-over, I haven’t really done much as of yet to act on any of my feelings. And, too, I know as I write this, that so many of the questions that I am recounting and raising shouldn’t be relegated to the domain of individual choice—we (communities and countries) should have collective structures that are actively supporting those who are in need, rather than relying just on person-by-person altruism or action. But this is just to say that yes, I have in this letter perhaps been holding up the brick—and yes, I will probably drop it over and over again in the coming weeks and days and months and years.
But nevertheless I have been feeling compelled and energized by thinking about what various forms refusal might take—refusal to leave the brick undisturbed, to enjoy only the extravagant flowers and forget about insects, refusal to stop at the threshold of what seems “reasonable” to give away. And along with the word ‘refusal,’ the word ‘generosity’ has been on my mind a lot as of late. Talking about generosity feels a bit scary, in part because I worry that it sounds childish—but, as I have written about in other Ear Mountains, sometimes I feel like that too is a story we tell ourselves—that youthful idealism is foolish! But I guess that I just keep thinking that if everyone could up their generosity a bit, could think of sacrificing something of their own in a way that would ultimately benefit the collective good—I think that could be a hinge for change on all sorts of levels, from the interpersonal to the political and economic. Obviously this would require a lot on all sorts of levels, though, and one big thing would be that we (and I guess I speak from a limited and privileged first-person plural here) would all have to broaden our sense of whose lives we want to feel connected to and who we care about. That is a steep hill to climb! But it doesn’t seem entirely impossible.
I read a really interesting essay recently about, among other things, the distinction between empathy and love, and it speaks to the difficulties and possibilities of all this from an angle I found compelling. The author, Matthew Salesses, writes that the fundamental difference between the two is that
[l]ove, writes philosopher Byung-chul Han, feels so agonizing at times precisely because it requires relinquishing the desire to see yourself in the other. The lover must “be able to not be able” to understand the beloved. We must love the other as Other, as a separate person with a separate perspective that we cannot, and should not, inhabit.
And a bit later in the piece he goes on to say:
In love, as in protest, one gains nothing individually. Love means loving the other’s otherness, not their likeness to the self or the feeling of “doing good.”
One of Salesses’s larger points in the essay is that it’s specious at best to read about characters from a different background than yours and to expect that the resulting empathy—which, he emphasizes, is an imagined feeling of bringing someone closer to your context—is transformative and will lead to change. Empathy is passive, and action—like protest—is what’s needed. And this seems a little analogous to what I was saying earlier: that naming and examining privilege is not nearly “enough.” But as I reread Salesses’s essay, I did feel a little bit of a compromise arise (at least for me) between all the binaries: I guess I feel like one of the things in my own life that has taught me something about how to “be able to not be able” to understand something outside myself is reading. The students in a class that I just finished teaching asked me during one class to tell them how I picked the books for the class and for my courses in general—I think because they were sort of confused by how strange some of the choices were! And in talking to them about it, I realized that one main factor for me is that I only want to teach books that are still somewhat mysterious to me—that feel slippery, strange, or even a little daunting. And I also almost never teach a book I don’t really love. Those categories are 100% overlapping! I agree with Salesses that the idea of making the Other “relatable” is a deeply fucked-up one, and I too am super-skeptical of the narrative that “reading fiction makes you a better person.” But I do think that there is a generosity in writing that comes from strangeness, a closeness that also always acknowledges unbridgeable distance, and that kind of generosity seems to me exemplary, a spark for further giving and refusal. I felt this in your poetry at UMass, and feel it still, looking back at Big Big Wednesday:
What is this that we body?
That we box? You said
pretend you’re dead then dance
into your questions. I said
but when and what besides? You said
I’m sick of tabulation. Where
is chaos? Tenderness thus?
You flowered through the bilge
and made yourself a friend.
A jar of hurt for June. I said
the spirits, though they prod,
are only in your head.
I love these lines, and I love what eludes me in them, too! That’s part of their music and my joy.
Alright—this has gone on a long time! And perhaps it will feel strange and unbridgeable to you too—hopefully in a semi-good way. I’m crossing my fingers that we will be hanging out with you and Ellen and all your family and friends (and Arlo?!? canine ringbearer?) in October—getting a sense of the details of that ASAP! In the meantime, here’s a parting set of lines from Robyn Schiff:
There was a wild particle.
It was glorified by my distance.
your pal, from afar,