by José Angel Araguz
We are never “at home”: we are always outside ourselves. Fear, desire, hope impel us toward the future; they rob us of feelings and concern for what now is, in order to spend time over what will be – even when we ourselves shall be no more.
These words serve as an epigraph into Danielle Cadena Deulen’s second collection, Our Emotions Get Carried Away Beyond Us, and lay down the framework for a set of poems whose emotional lexicon is able to navigate through narratives of personal experience as well as those drawn from literature and philosophy (the essays of Michel de Montaigne are referenced often; their titles serving as titles for a number of poems, including the title poem). Throughout this collection, the self becomes again and again a moment of awareness and interpolation. Poetry, Deulen’s book argues, is where those who are never ‘at home’ do their living.
Towards the end of the poem “Dirge with a Love Song in it,” dedicated to the poet’s grandmother, an example of what I mean by awareness and interpolation plays out in a scene of driving while thinking about the past:
…I am ashamed to say
I never thanked you for driving toward a future
into which I would someday be born. The radio plays
and I turn it up, a bridge blaring like the slow
explosions that fill my dreams: I run and run and turn
the corner of an unfamiliar hallway, an unclasped door
opening to an aisle. See how the light enters the dirge,
the stillness in the field beyond the sill? See how
your family standing on the hill beneath the pine
lines up to let the loose earth slip through
their fingers back to you? See the green, sorrowed air
where I’m not, where I couldn’t bear to be –
how I’ve driven so long thinking of you that you have
become the song, the mirror, the prayer, and the road
just past the reach of headlights.
The poem works through the momentum of voice and memory; the speaker’s act of driving and its implication of being in motion parallel the motion of memory and feeling. The urgency of the direct address is heightened by the command to “See” which is repeated three times until it is broken off as the speaker presents themselves “where I’m not.” The simultaneous narratives of the drive and funeral finally cascade into each other in the final lines, leaving the reader and speaker in motion, “carried away beyond” what there are words for.
This pointing towards “where I’m not” is one of the major themes explored in this collection. In “Winter Inversion,” a meditation on a winter in Salt Lake City plays out both in terms of landscape as well a relationship:
displaced from coastal
cities cry poison over
the desert plains. We
pretend not to live
where we do, that we
don’t turn away from
each other with regret.
I try to avoid breathing
in your scent…
This comment on displacement colors the admissions of regret that follow and points us back to the Montaigne epigraph, which here translates literally into deliberate not wanting to be ‘at home.’ The statement on breathing, however, places the speaker back in their body, their center of awareness and interpolation. Like poetry, which exists somewhere between the poem and the reader, one’s life is made up of acts of interpretation, reflection, and understanding, all of which occur in the mind and, thus, elsewhere.
Not every exploration of the “where I’m not” theme happens in terms of evasion or displacement, however. In “Revision,” the hands-on task of shelling crabs is pushed on for the memory it could be:
If I could reverse it and reassemble
the cracked bodies of the crabs – their shells
no longer a lovely, silent red – restore
their frantic language of clicks and gestures…
In these lines, the speaker is taking the hypotheticals of philosophy and applying them to physical actions and their family narrative. The fact that one can no easier put a crab back together as reverse one’s life seems obvious; it is where the speaker takes the reader through pushing on this scene and concept that transforms this meditation into compelling art. “If I could reverse” the fate of one creature, the speaker states:
then I don’t have to write about what
came after. We can all live here, in this day,
forward and backward, listening to
the cold-blue sea rock softly against
our metal hull, watch the gray world slowly
take on color, shadows separating
from form, the tide rushing in,
our father’s real smile like a white magnolia
opening over us as we cross the bight
vibrating with light so brilliant
I have to close my eyes against it.
In defining a memory through what it could have been – in this case, the mess the hands make and the mess one’s family feels like is revised into a whole creature and a whole, blinding memory – the speaker reaches after reconciliation. Yet, it is in this revision’s imagery that the poem points to the ongoing futility and struggle of reconciliation. We find the speaker revising, yes, but revising to blindness, a blindness that parallels the reality of knowing; when one knows the ugly truth, one closes eyes against it too, but is left with the work of reconciliation regardless. Here, “where I’m not” points back to where one is, which is the place where one is actively trying to understand better.
This is a searching kind of empathy played out here. If, as Montaigne’s epigraph notes, “Fear, desire, hope impel us toward the future [and] rob us of feelings and concern for what now is,” then poetry becomes a kind of anchor not for the poet but for the experiences and understanding of the poet. In the poem, “Remedy,” the story of a girl whose doctors
why her brain swelled, only that she’d brought
them to the end of their knowledge, … the only
course for keeping her alive: a hole in the head…
this searching empathy takes place via an anti-rite of passage. A girl’s medical condition, and her doctors’ bewilderment, leave her to work out her own knowledge and understanding:
Days stretch out now with nothing in them,
her adolescent summers like bleached sheets
hanging on the line. She wonders if this is
what it is to be a woman; her body mutinous,
burrowed into. Moths beat wildly at her smudged
window and she closes her eyes, too tired to
watch them suffer. She runs her fingers along
countertops, the edges of unopened books, slowly,
because she has nothing to hurry toward. She is
waiting, she thinks, for someone to heal her.
It makes her angry, but she doesn’t know why.
Her shoulders tighten. Sweat beads at her hairline,
rolls down her face. She imagines herself as
a flower deep in a swamp, which, once found,
will be ground into paste, rubbed into the body
of a fevered stranger, used as a cure for pain.
From the imagery tied to the girl’s “adolescent summers” to the imagined life of a swamp flower made into a paste, this particular arch of “where I’m not” evokes the territory of “what it is to be a woman” from the perspective of someone given no alternative but to carry on without answers. In the same way that the speaker of “Revision” sought after a method to restore the crab’s “frantic language of clicks and gestures,” the girl of this poem is deciphering her life via a troubled, persistent sense of reconciliation.
Ultimately, this being without answers becomes a central note rung throughout this collection. As these poems prove time and again, when one is without answers, one is left with questions and the emotions around questions. Even Sigmund Freud, a figure that can be seen as providing answers (at times unasked for) for society’s ills, is portrayed in the poem “Freud at the Laundromat” as just another human being lost in the cycle of their own cascading narratives:
a circle that turns within a box and slots
where the money goes and goes transparent
door that opens to anonymous red panties
oh if only undergarments could speak he’d
analyze the fuck out of them but suffices
with pressing his ear to each hot door…
…he dreams of his wife’s
younger sister Minna, Minna and their apartment
at 19 Berggasse – the lie they conceived that
also had to be cut out oh now he is too old
his penis alone in his grey, wrinkled slacks
he wants to take them off, throw them in with
a stranger’s clothes watch the legs wrap around
the other unfilled pants a psychosomatic twitch
controls his left wrist he clears his throat again
again what will it take to be rid of this constant
vertigo aching he imagines that death is like
a long dose of morphine but is still terrified
oh to awaken inside another body perhaps be
the child Minna canceled this time around kept
Freud’s cycling of narratives carries us back to the theme of “where I’m not.” Here, where Freud is not is a place of satisfaction or control, which is what Montaigne’s epigraph points to as being our constant and only condition. In Deulen’s poems, however, this condition is translated away from being defined by fear, and sees our lives as being carried by the momentum of hope and awareness.
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José Angel Araguz is a CantoMundo fellow. He is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Cincinnati. Author of six chapbooks as well as the recent collection, Everything We Think We Hear, he runs the poetry blog The Friday Influence. His second collection, Small Fires, is forthcoming in 2017 from FutureCycle Press.