Finding Poems in My Own Labyrinth
Emily Carr on the Minotaur That Broke Her Heart
1: Y Incision
It just so happens that the gestation period for my Minotaur corresponds precisely with the lifespan of American hope: eight years, give or take.
In 2008 when I’m first writing my Minotaur poems as part of my dissertation, I’m studying critical theory, the avant garde, and conceptual Canadian poetics at the University of Calgary and I live with my husband in a long, thin, low house in an unfashionable neighborhood. The television is in the living room and I write in the back, in the only sunny spot in an otherwise dark and unhappy house, characterized primarily by a dirt cellar that serves as a haven for honey bees, who issue forth every spring as some kind of reverse, inside-out manna. We have this television about the size of my forehead that plays four channels, mostly static, and all winter while I’m trying to write my way home to the lyric I’m listening to this new, inexplicable phenomenon that is American hope arriving across several time zones through the tiny television, itself several worlds away in the bowels of my dark thin house.
I don’t—in the wilderness of my self-imposed Canadian exile, in 2008—know who these people are, these hopeful Americans. My husband and I fled when George Bush was reelected and we didn’t look back, we only looked forward to our frigid and generous Canadian future. So I am: immediately suspicious.
The first thing you should know is that I’m writing about happiness—at least, I think I’m writing about happiness but in fact I’m writing myself out of my marriage but I won’t know that until much, much later. The second thing you should know is that I don’t, as a general rule [and much to my mother’s dismay] follow politics and to the extent that my writing is political [it is—even I can’t escape that incontrovertible fact] it is political with a lower-case “p” meaning I am interested in answers in need of questions rather than the other way round. My work is relevant to the world as I experience it and not according to the five o’clock news report or the latest internet sensation. It’s news if I say it is, and mostly it’s not.
The third thing you should know is that I like background noise when I work—Agatha Christie or Dorothy L. Sayers or Daphne du Maurier: murder mysteries and romances and the occasional space opera. So it’s a happy accident that while I’m writing the Minotaur poems in 2008 I’m listening to Obama’s inauguration speech and unlike most Americans I haven’t been following this new rhetoric of hope as it grows from the grass roots in Illinois [which, paradoxically, is where I’m from]. I’m witnessing it for the first time fully formed [like a Minotaur]: elected into office, putting on a business suit and making claims on an oath or two. In my self-imposed exile I’m equal parts offended and intrigued. It’s like this exotic parade—with trumpets and promises and patriotic poets—is passing by my little black and white winter wonderland and I’m complicit by proxy, or at least according to my passport.
I move back to the States—ok, I run away from my husband and home to the States—two years later, and I end up at the Jack Kerouac House in Orlando, Florida. Like the Minotaur, I have this habit of ending up where I don’t belong: North Carolina; Calgary, Alberta; Florida. I forget about these Minotaur poems, I forget about hope, I forget about ambition and critical theory and making it, I start studying the Tarot, I take a lot of road trips, I get super skinny, I shed my skin and I live what will be the freest summer of my life.
What I mean is: I am a stranger here. White nunca, red meat.
Like all of my creations, Minotaur is a hybrid: birthed prematurely, and abandoned until I was ready to care for it. My beautiful, impossible, hopeful monster, born out of desperation not love. Irish poet David Whyte says that “the deeper discipline of poetry is overhearing yourself say things you didn’t want to know about the world.” My Minotaur is like that: saying things I don’t want to know about myself, or the world, or how I’m going to connect the dots, and call it a life.
2: Removal of the Organs
In 2012 I get a fellowship at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and I decide it’s time to revise the Minotaur poems. They’re a mess. This is what happens when you leave the Minotaur to his own devices for almost half a decade. Think about it: what’s the Minotaur doing when he isn’t devouring some classical heroes? What does he get up to in his free time, when he’s wandering around that beautiful labyrinth in the neverending twilight of Greek myth?
Likewise: what does the poet do in her free time, when she isn’t studying critical theory, the avant garde, or conceptual Canadian poetics and running away from her husband? What happens when, by a happy accident of fate and coincidence, she’s just living?
What happens in rural Virginia in 2012 is I end up turning my Minotaur poems into ransom notes. I don’t like my studio—it’s too moldy, too dark, too smelly, too depressing—so I stay up all night and work in the library. I’m as lost in my Minotaur poems as a hero in the labyrinth as I decide I’m going to distill them into ransom notes, which means I have to extract the essence of each poem in six or seven words, small enough that I can cut and paste each individual letter into a vintage copy of Emily Dickinson’s love poems that I’ve just found and Wited out.
And I’m going to find my way from poetry to story this way: one word, one letter at a time. Like the hero, trying to trace his footsteps into the labyrinth so, assuming he defeats the monster, he can escape, which is a maneuver borrowed from Proust: the freedom to escape the story you are telling, and return to it…
I call these ransom poems [in which I am, quite literally, kidnapping my own work, which turns out is a necessary strategy for revision] footnote to forfeit, and they are intended to be a stand-alone project. I work on them from just after dinner to just before breakfast for fourteen days, and I watch all of Goldie Hawn’s movies while I’m at work.
In truth, it is possible that decomposed [i.e. “ruined”] memories take on a meaningfulness or presence more compelling than the original; just as in a person’s material archive [notebooks, letters, photographs, teacups, porcelain cars] take on a supra-personal aura.
I tell you: footnote to forfeit [or my Minotaur, for that matter] is just such an object. Rather than scoring a perception or a performance occurring somewhere else, the text is the experience.
Consider the narrative drift and disruption that every day produces by chance: you participate in the reconstruction of the story not by filling in the gaps and elisions, but by [as a detective] appropriating whatever fragment is “useful” to you.
It is not painless. It cannot be paraphrased. “Accidents” happen and Fate tends toward a non-narratable excess that has enough momentum to overwhelm that safe space you have commandeered between stability and insanity, between the story that made you and the mistakes that name you.
The husband for example lives on and we will never know quite how the story ends [if it happens at all].
footnote to forfeit is ransom notes on top of love poetry on top of rumors. The two particular adaptive techniques I used in its composition are Wite Out and collage. I used Wite Out to obliterate Dickinson’s poems. Then, [like the author of a ransom note] I collaged short lyrics over the Wite Out by cutting and pasting individual letters from a variety of vintage media.
Why do I feel the need to work in this kind of form?
What historical evolution in artistic sensibility leads up to it and which factors in modern culture reinforce it?
Initially perhaps towards an understanding that we must find ways to demythologize ourselves [before we can attempt to demythologize theory, or politics].
[The memories hatch up as if they had been knives. Demand a complex syntactical form to articulate my peculiar irresponsibilities to the man I loved who, for all he loved me, didn’t know how to love me.]
[The layering—like sediment—of texts foregrounds the processes of intervention and interpretation involved in any reading: of self, of sex, of history, of memory. The tension between what can be read and what can’t, what survives and what has been erased, absence and presence, underscores any story’s participation in history’s larger conversation on who, as feminist biologist Ruth Hubbard writes, has the social sanction to define the larger reality into which everyone’s everyday experiences and perceptions must fit “in order that one can be reckoned sane and responsible” as well as why certain ways of learning about nature [both human nature and Nature] and using that knowledge are acknowledged as authoritative and others not.
The combination of Wite Out and collage [or open-ended parenthesis and white-space) is also, as I practice it, a particularly powerful way of accounting for life’s essential incoherence: the way our experiences misstep or mistake, mishear and get lost in what might have happened or what never happened or even what should have happened.
3: Stomach Contents
I love the Minotaur because he’s proof that personhood inhabits non-human bodies, because he’s monstrous and forgotten, because he’s a punishment for wayward women and upstart heroes, because he lives on the periphery of the story, and the world, inside a maze that isn’t in fact a maze, because the point of the labyrinth is the journey, not the destination, because the labyrinth, as the ultimate refuge from the society of spectacle, is a strategy for organizing silence without conflict and the rest: is architecture and speculation.
The Minotaur is perpetually: on the ship of his longing. Wide-awake and writing a letter to the next hero who will suffer an untimely demise. His heart trembles a little, the afternoon takes on a difficult tempo. Go there: if not with your body then at least with your mind.
Myth gestures towards an animistic and animated universe in which subjectivity might, for example, be housed in a Minotaur, or a maiden trapped inside a tree, or a philandering swan. The drama of creation enters sideways, via the hypothetical possibility of a supernatural world that doesn’t love us back.
I’m not sorry it’s difficult; any easier/ would be a lie.
Did I read that the gods freely forgive the Minotaur but the Minotaur cannot freely forgive himself.
Grammar is also a judgment, assigning us to a divided state.
4: Sample Collection
There is no story in which my failure to love my husband is not background. Everything I write comes out of this history.
When everything is falling apart personally it helps to write a book that is not coherent but inevitable on an emotional level.
It’s quite possible that the Minotaur poems are a moment of hope before the first and final infidelity that will destroy my hope of a marriage that will survive.
I want: a narrator who is woundable.
I want: a wound so deep you can’t not feel it.
I hope: there is a third term between intelligent despair and berserk rage. Because If I could not put my finger on what was wrong it would go wrong a second time.
I hope: there is a third term between beauty [agency] versus the beautiful [object] and it is love.
I hope: there is a flipover moment and we create it via engagement with the material world.
5: Head and Brain
Adorno says that in its time the Minotaur was dreadful because he reminded man of the frailty of his identity. I prefer to think of the Minotaur as hopeful—he creates an entry into a curious, wondrous and outlandish universe that ignores the most basic ground rules of existence and opens up the possibility of other, hybrid intelligences: vampires, witches, dwarves, centaurs, mermaids, angels…
frightened of the wolf
at the window, were
asked what did it
want to do, the little
boy replied, ‘Gobble
me up.’ The little
girl said, ‘Let’s ask
What matters to me is an inspired relation to being—the activity of listening to other intelligences [my husband’s, my aborted child’s, the Minotaur’s] is more important than anything else.
Mostly this involves attempts to understand the nature of love, and whether this corresponds with sexual desire and/or living well.
Poesis as I practice it involves acts of reciprocity [what can I give], which by necessity exist on the precipice [who are you and what can you know].
Did the Minotaur ever fall in love? Was he ever intimate? Was his bachelorhood a deliberate decision or a caprice of fate? We will never know. The Minotaur will never be quite as we would like to imagine him. At best: we can footnote our suppositions about a creature myth intentionally chose to obfuscate.
In particular, I am interested in what continues to be, despite decades of liberation, the subject-defining choice for women: to have or not to have children. As science and technology studies scholar Donna Haraway writes in “Ecce Homo: Ain’t (Ar’n’t) I a Woman, and Inappropriate/d Others: The Human in a Post-Humanist Landscape,” for American women “the property of one’s self and the ownership of one’s body continues to focus on the field of events around conception, pregnancy, abortion, and birth.”
I want to understand that fertility [or: the decision not to capitalize on one’s fertility] is what’s under the surface, that the ostensible facts of a woman’s life are only the consonants of memory. As with language, one needs vowels to be able to speak intelligibly. Vowels meaning the empty spaces of the silences in the words and the human body that makes the memories, the spiritual strain and the simple, quotidian moments underneath the wild flourishes of sentiment and grand gesticulations into silence that history prefers to preserve.
A woman’s real experiences [love without self loss] is both un-readable and un-writeable. We must be content with but a fraction of the story.
Rain is making a beautiful film on the memories while I sit in my nightgown, watching the creamy balloon of moon through rafters.
Every time I want to settle down to myself, our child gets in between.
I look at her like a bird: I am always afraid she will fly away, and I don’t dare touch her.
Sometimes I believe I made her up. Other times I wonder if she will continue to pop in at every crisis in my life to remind me of what I have been, and what I am not, and carry on her own separate but similar crisis under my nose.
Honestly: I am terrified. I am so accustomed to failure; the romantic figure with the alive sprouting all about it is there no longer but only that shell of a person seen by other people: bipolar, depressed, disorganized, not enough sleep, irregular business hours, the meals aren’t on time, too little definition: what’s sick, what’s well?
Understanding and—as a consequence—forgiveness, takes place in large part through the composition of the poems: owning up to what happened, all the ways I did and did not act as I should have, and finding a way to reconcile my decision to kill my husband’s child in a way that does not make me feel ashamed.
(You don’t have to be brave but it helps to be unashamed.)
(Not for him. The beauty of that.)
It can’t ever be eased: I must have loved the husband and run away from him and killed his child too. Everything inside and out shouts guilt is not a matter of moments but of years, and no one can ever tell you when it’s accomplished.
No matter who you have been. No matter how many times you have tried before. She stands: green, next to the ruins.
Remembering (i.e. being truthful to) our missteps is like making cat.
(So long accustomed to velveteen.)
It is, as Emily Dickinson writes, the hunger of persons outside windows that entering takes away.
Life after all is what happens between wanting and having.
(Like a lover or the mother witnessing the beloved or the child for the first time and turning back.)
You learn to accept you will never understand even your own intent; life will never be quite as you imagined it; you never know whose side you are on, and what are the consequences.