The Minnesota State Arts Board recently rejected a grant proposal I wrote for the manuscript I’m finishing about the alligator attack that led to the death of a close friend of mine (I’ve written about this project here). The offensive yet illuminating thing about this rejection is that I got to hear an audio file of the judges discussing my work. I was offended not because the judges questioned my abilities as a poet. Aside from my ego suffering a few bruises, I could’ve probably handled a standard critique given that I’m a lowly MFA student still fresh from the workshop. What the judges mostly assessed, instead, was the moral status of my project. They objected to various aspects of the poetry—including its violence, melodrama, and “cartoonish[ness]”—and accused me of appropriating my friend’s death the way corporate media did. They wanted a “cooler treatment” of the subject matter.
What bothered the judges above all was my focus on the spectacular circumstances of my friend’s death, and the fact that the manuscript thematically orbits around the attack itself. One panelist called my “energetic” relationship with the gator outright “inappropriate.” Another suggested that the poems, by failing to adequately acquaint the reader with my friend, lacked a sense of grief:
It’s not just the science that’s lacking, the grief is lacking. And I think he’s being mastered a bit by his own subject. Maybe a little bit by ambition, although maybe that’s a dangerous supposition to make, but yeah, let’s hear about this woman, the relationship, and the grief, and then you can tell me about alligators.
At first I took this criticism to be simply another example of the extreme bias in US literary culture toward humanist authenticity and interiority; the judges made no mention of a “speaker” performed by the poet, as if there were no room in elegies for the use of a persona. I’ve been thinking, though, that the judges’ criticisms have broader implications. Without dwelling too much on my manuscript, I want to highlight the politics of grief that inform prescriptive comments like the ones above, a politics Judith Butler writes about beautifully in Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence :
What grief displays, in contrast, is the thrall in which our relations with others hold us, in ways that we cannot always recount or explain, in ways that often interrupt the self-conscious account of ourselves we might try to provide, in ways that challenge the very notion of ourselves as autonomous and in control. I might try to tell a story here about what I am feeling, but it would have to be a story in which the very “I” who seeks to tell the story is stopped in the midst of the telling; the very “I” is called into question by its relation to the Other, a relation that does not precisely reduce me to speechlessness, but does nevertheless clutter my speech with signs of its undoing. I tell a story about the relations I choose, only to expose, somewhere along the way, the way I am gripped and undone by these very relations. My narrative falters, as it must.
Let’s face it. We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something.
Butler’s words, I think, are just as much a description of writing from states of grief, desire, violence, and vulnerability as they are an account of grief. This is going to sound like Montevidayo 101, but I think it’s worth repeating that by writing, we lose control of our narratives, and inevitably end up thwarting not just our intentions for a poem, but also the way we conceive of ourselves and our bodies as bounded, autonomous entities shaped through free will. Butler elaborates: “Perhaps mourning has to do with agreeing to undergo a transformation (perhaps one should say submitting to a transformation) the full result of which one cannot know in advance. There is losing, as we know, but there is also the transformative effect of loss, and this latter cannot be charted or planned.”
To insist otherwise, in this sense, and refuse to be mastered by one’s subject (as per the judges’ diagnosis of me) would be to deny how “passion and grief and rage, all of which tear us from ourselves, bind us to others, transport us, undo us, implicate us in lives that are not are own, irreversibly, if not fatally.” Butler argues that such policing of grief determines not only whom we can grieve for, but also which lives are considered worth grieving for, which lives get to be called human. Americans are thus forbidden to mourn for Iraqi war victims in the media insofar as these victims are, and must be, considered expendably subhuman.
I want to stretch Butler’s point here because I think we should be allowed to grieve for whatever forms of life command our longing–including the nonhuman ecologies we’re killing and the species that inhabit them. I want to say that it’s unethical not to grieve for, and try to somehow access, any needless death. I want to create art in which even I, as the artist, can die and become something else in the midst of my obscene adornment. Like Candy Darling on her deathbed, or Alice Notley in all her unruly works of mourning, or David Wojnarowicz with his censored visuals, I want to create an art of dying that petals and bejewels the body threatened or in decay, that makes the body contiguous with the poem. An art of dying that does not restrain itself according to what falls within the slippery category of the human, much less what it is humans think is permissible to grieve or how “authentic” grieving is done. It is because I do not know what grief brings that it transforms me into a bird, into a bullet, into a tuberous root in the ground.