Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Carol Ann Davis: On Surrender—"Eva Hesse #1: (Blank as Faces)"

I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of surrender. I even wrote a long essay on it recently that took me from Rumi to the ocean shelf I swam out to and back from as a child to the bus-stop surrender I experience routinely as I wait with my sons (increasingly shivering with them while we wait in the near-dark and cold). A quick I love you and a few steps up and their bus takes them around the curve and down the hill to school where I can’t see them anymore or protect. 

For poets, surrender is everything. At first, like the closing of the bus door and its pulling away, surrender hurts a little. It’s terrifying. But it’s the name of the game to let the language control you, to begin to move, willingly or unwilling, in its current, to float on its surface, the ultimate water-bug. Writing is like so many other aspects of life: fight it and it fights you back. Let it take you and it bears you toward all kinds of unexpected wonders.

My three poems in this issue of the BPJ are examples of the difficulty of surrender and its rewards; they enact in their fashion the push/pull struggle of each and every letting go. I found Eva Hesse in the dark days after a terrible tragedy struck very close to my home: 20 children and 6 adults, all gunned down in a school a mile from where I live. By the time I began reading about Eva Hesse, in January, 2013, she had been dead forty years, but I responded the story of her childhood trek from Nazi Germany to Washington Heights and her earlier time on the kindertransport (Eva Hesse #1), her process-heavy, complaint-filled journals written at mid-life (Eva Hesse #6) and her later paintings (Eva Hesse #7). Perhaps I read about her in order to disengage from the immediate shock of more recent events, but somewhere in the deluge of detail about Hesse I indulged in I began to find a way through the immediate trauma of Sandy Hook and back to who I was as a poet and a mother. Surrendering to the poems, I found my way back to the bus stop.

Something might need to be said about the form of the poems, but I’m cagey about saying it, partly because I can’t offer much insight. I like not to know why I do the things I do in a poem, and so the forms of these poems are not planned, or explicable in any significant way. The form of #1 and #7 is one I’ve used for several years now; it helps me to compress language and to follow the language where it feels as if it wants to go. The form of #6 was improvised to accommodate Hesse’s own words along the left-hand margin. Where there are two voices I tried to show that with italics, though the voices bleed and talk to each other in ways I found pleasing in the writing. I think all the lines can be read across, and where the poems become unusually opaque or difficult to parse in linear terms, hopefully there’s some sign from me that I know that and have made it as easy as I could for the reader while still riding that current in the language that bears all things along.

Still, currents are treacherous. Sometimes they hide rocks, deep wells, underwater canyons.  Language holds within it all past experience and offers that history to us inside the present moment; we’re left with the wreckage of limited comprehension that such accrual creates. In the end, Eva’s words, drawings, and the reality of her life crash and break (think of my childhood waves or of Nicelle Davis’s lovely plates in the December blog essay) inside the present moment of the poems in ways that refract history, childhood, crime, and sacrifice—the better to get through this instant, the better to feel it. And this instant. And now this one.  

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