Cynthia Hogue

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"An Element Of Blank": On Pain And Experimentation

I know of no more accurate representations of pain than are found in Emily Dickinson. In Poem 650 (Johnson Edition), for example, Dickinson writes of the self's infinitely narrowed horizons:

Pain - has an Element of Blank -
It cannot recollect
When it begun - or if there were
A time when it was not -

It has no Future - but itself -
It's Infinite contain
It's Past - enlightened to perceive
New Periods - of Pain.


(JP 650)

Any distinction we might want to draw between emotional and physical pain is rendered impossibly superfluous by that reifying pronoun, It. Pain is a thing having a life of its own: it is. Pain posits us in an infinity of present tense that has no future but itself, containing a past it cannot remember, and containing us in a body of pain.

Of physical pain (of both torture and illness) Elaine Scarry has said that "Physical suffering destroys language" (201). Suffering silences us. As Harold Schweizer asks in a recent study of suffering and art,

But if suffering is in the unbearable, silent body rather than in the sharable, disembodied language of its narratives, how then can suffering speak? How can one hear the unspeakable? How can one listen without assuming one has understood? Indeed, how can one begin to understand? (12-13)

The answer Schweizer suggests, that literature "might echo the mysterius occurrence of suffering" (13), is itself anticipated by Dickinson's poem. Adrienne Rich, suffering from an excruciatingly painful and often disfiguring chronic illness, rheumatoid arthritis, agrees: "For that is one property of poetic language: to engage with states that themselves would deprive us of language and reduce us to passive sufferers" (What Is Found There 10).

Diagnosed four years ago with the same illness that Rich has, I had the uncanny experience of having studied her work closely for some years for a book chapter and subsequent critical essays, without ever having concentrated on her representations of illness and pain. In fact, I did not even notice them. Rich's project in the 1980s and more recently has been persistently to learn "from the edges that blur" between "the body's pain and the pain on the streets," as she writes in the serial poem "Contradictions: Tracking Poems."1 Although she exhorts readers of that poem "who love clear edges" to "watch the edges that blur," I never heard her.

I wrote much of my critical work on Rich before becoming ill, and it was, as I say, uncanny to realize how in that work, I routinely elided all references to a specific, localized "body's pain," tracking instead the tormented, historically situated syntax of the body politic. I was remarkably blind to any chronically ill body's specificity. Among others, I mapped Rich's search for a language honest and accurate enough to express her evolving, feminist vision, which I argued produced formal innovations--dialogic contra/dictions.2 I sailed past images of "wrecked cartilage" and "elective surgery," consistently casting anchor at the broad picture's harbor: if a speaker "came out of the hospital," I focused on how she emerged "like a woman/ who'd watched a massacre" (Your Native Land 93;111). Thus, even as I sought passages emblematic of a divided, "contra/dictory" subject, I could not "see to see," to adapt Dickinson's well-known phrase that imaginatively tracks the process of dying. Critically, epistemologically, experientially, Rich's references to personal physical pain didn't exist for me.

But this blindspot is, as it turns out, the norm not the exception. Bodies not in pain, who cannot physically feel the suffering, often stop at that imaginative chasm between them and the body in pain, unable to make the projective leap of empathy. For those bodies only "hearing about pain," suffering remains alien, opaque, closed to epistemological inquiry--to wit, clinically, scientifically unconfirmed. "Pain comes unsharably into our midst," Scarry writes, "as at once that which cannot be denied and that which cannot be confirmed" (4). For bodies in pain, Schweizer recounts, physical suffering is irreducible and unrepresentable, a dis/figuring inaccessibility to figuration: "Here at wit's end, at the point of a veritable episemological crisis, is the moment of artistic, hermeneutical, or narrative beginning, the beginning of reading and writing" (16). And so, reader, I began, although admittedly not with an empathetic, revelatory epiphany, but from my own experience of chronic illness. For over two years, I reached "wit's end" in concrete if imperceptible ways to all but my closest friends and family. I lost the ability to write poetry and to read with any focus, because of neurological symptoms not commonly associated with rheumatoid arthritis. It got extremely difficult to teach--I routinely forgot lesson plans, or what I had intended to say or had already said (stopping dead mid-sentence). As the pain of my physical symptoms worsened, I also manifested personality changes from these clinically-unconfirmed and medically undiagnosable symptoms (for the many doctors I consulted, my neuropathy simply did not exist).

My perspective was experiential, and therefore the symptoms did exist. The diminishment of cognitive skills was real--and for me, really problematic! I began to think I had Alzheimer's or perhaps early menopauses. My short term memory grew so bad that I forgot a poetry reading I was to give, brought the wrong student's Masters thesis to a defense, drove across the Mississippi (when living in New Orleans) because I forgot to get off at my exit (in fact, could no longer remember why I had gotten into the car), became very dyslexic, and grew eerily obsessive. Here is what I wrote at the time, since shaped into a sonnet, with a title from Dickinson that was, for the first time, concretized in my mind by my body's experience:


All fall I waited (in a high tide
of pain, neck, toes, knees, fingers
stiffen and do not move) for
joint damage, climbing one stair
at a time. Pain I tried to ignore
became fact; bearing it made
the days "good" or "bad." Sometimes
with shooting pain and sometimes
with a dream I could not dream
of sleep. This body I did
not know or want was not a dream,
nor a trapped-inside-of fate
that leaves as it came, rolling back,
a tide going out when one wakes.

Whatever it was took "me," my identity as a writer and teacher, away. There was no "one" left, just some "body," and Dickinson's words again haunt the experience as I fumbled for the words to say it:


Almost comforting, cradling &
claustrophobic, the metal tube
surrounds you with driving sound,
your head strapped in
so you won't move.
The technician's voice floats
through the little mike: "All
right in there? Are you still
all right?" You're told half
an hour but it's fifty minutes.
You get cold, pretend you're
in space, hurtling toward Mars,
you chant though you know
they can hear you
as they scan your brain
deeper than the sea
& differing from God
as syllable from sound.
Later, when you huddle
on a metal table, they
position your feet, your hands,
so they can take a picture
& see you through & through,
light cast from above
the machine marks you
first with a cross, then
a slanted star, at last a stained
glass window of a church.
"Don't breathe," they call,
               & you don't.

As this poem suggests, I recall this time in my life with a still-symptomatic disassociation: a Dickinsonian, "element of blank," and once the rheumatoid arthritis grew pronounced, an eternal present and presence of physical pain, "itself--/ Its Infinite contain."

In the following poem, as I tried (long after the worst pain had thankfully receded) to "contain" that sense of its infinity within the space of a sonnet, Dickinson's words returned to me (I might say at this point, inhabited me) in both the poem's title and closing:


As if an island under fog, memory's
outline blurs in fall and disappears
in spring. A broken chrysalis, the soul
dries up, self-emptied. When I try
to drive through town, I do not see
a stop light that I hurtle (deadly)
past to find myself crossing the river
out of town. I don't know why I stutter,
or sentences stop, words like crows
wheeling, cawing, away. One fears
for a self, but I have no fears
for this no-more being, this body-shell
with nothing-left to say. First--Chill-
then Stupor--then the letting go.

Susan Sontag writes in Illness as Metaphor that "illness is not a metaphor, and . . . the most truthful way of regarding illness--and the healthiest way of being ill--is one most purified of, most resistant to, metaphoric thinking"3 Like my own poems, Rich's work, arguably "purified" of metaphoric thinking about pain, has, however, caused critics to ask of such imagistically-spare, yet detailed accounts of the "medicalized body" whether it is even poetry at all. On the other hand, Rich herself acknowledges the risks of "offering up her body as a metaphorical vehicle for the 'body's world'" (Bundzten 339). So what's a writer to do when her body is, as Rich writes, "signified by pain?"4

Rich, like Dickinson before her, has answered this haunting question by bearing witness to it.5 Her testimonial poetry constitutes an action, as I have argued elsewhere,6 albeit a verbal one--in the sense of a "performative speech act," as Shoshana Felman characterizes such action.7 The act of bearing witness (an at times excruciatingly solitary responsibility) forces the witness to address someone, to seek out and sometimes to be possessed by, a responsive "you."8 The final poem in Dark Fields of the Republic, "Edgelit," for example, inhabits the point of view of the Northern Irish poet, Medbh McGuckian, as well her voice, as it collages in a portion of a letter Medbh has written to Rich:

               one's poetry seems aimless
covered in the blood and lies
               oozing corrupt & artificial
but of course one will continue . . .

Through positioning herself as addressee in the poem, Rich is able not only to posit herself as listener-witness, but as speaker-respondent, pronouncing into being poetry as an alternative to, outside the concerns of, the death drive: "Medbh, poetry means refusing/ the choice to kill or die" (Dark Fields 71). If chronic physical pain has rarely allowed Rich another site from which to speak, she has tried to solve that problem of the self's absorption into it by being imaginatively "possessed" and haunted by others' pain.

Unlike Rich and Dickinson, I lost much of my cognitive capacity as well as, like them, my physical well-being at the same time as I became despairingly aware of the greater pain of others in the world, about which I could do nothing at the time. The following poem tracks that formal feeling:



For the body possibly to have gone through,
of the minutest and crucial sensations,
each having its purpose, or configuration:
In the mind everything goes, larger than sky
or God, the heft of all being in perception,


the weight of weight, of sense the same
only through feelings everyone shares: Well,
oh, very well, one might say and I suppose
one has at one time or another actually said,
I do not seem unbelievable nor events improbable.


Pain bleeds through imagination, unimaginative:
it just is. One wishes to do something, go somewhere,
but everywhere the sensation remains,
the body in pain. Its eyes still look out
on fuchsia and lilac overtaking the back fence,


one still bleeds, blows one's nose,
but I do not know this body
that cannot rise from its chair,
that never weeps,
in earth's house/hold of pain.


My mind scrolls through a list of disappeared,
decimated beings. If there is no escape,
no separation, there are also no lies.
Sun shines on the arid soil of this garden.
Pain blooms in a body, blossoming without water.

As all the orienting markers by which I knew myself dissolved, moreover, and I no longer had any sense of myself except through a few labels (which had once seemed so internalized but were revealed to me as external labels only--"teacher," "writer"), I found myself changed and humbled. As I had to let go of all hopes of normative action, I also had to release that old and vanished self. The process became for me, in the way of other traumatizing experiences, transformative:


Questions rail along the field
where winter wheat lies hidden in snow.
(We lie to justify
indefensible behavior, to protect
unprotectable innocence, inhaling
and exhaling with an evenness
of spirit to which we aspire.)
Who calls the sky gray?
or the seasons unsurvivable?


I visit doctors because
my body drives me to them,
beyond my dictates. Practical
to a fault, I am healing
before my mind understands
that the phenomenology of pain
harbors words which refuse
syntax and order,
predictability, inevitability.


Until I grasp
that "eventual inevitability" eludes
even the best of us, dissipating
like a wall of fog we can drive through,
frugal of speed, spendthrifts of time.
To feel alone is merely
the mind's last defense-
a physiological white-out-
from the spirit's largesse.

Call it a spiritual or ethical journey--or perhaps, Julia Kristeva's notion of "herethics" is most apt, since in order to write at all, I had to find new ways of writing (for there was no longer a "self" to express). Of the "herethical" function of art, Kristeva writes: "a[n artistic] practice is ethical when it dissolves those narcissistic fixations (ones that are narrowly confined to the subject) to which the signifying process succumbs in its socio-symbolic realization." For Kristeva, this "practice" of "dissolving . . . the unity of the subject" is ethical because it resists an other-denying self-absorption that some would argue is exemplified by the unified and monologic subject which dominates lyric tradition. 10

I was finally able to begin to write again by adopting the methodologies of "inhabiting" the words of others, as I've tried to illustrate -- that is, for example, of employing the methods of quotation and collage that Rich and another poet whose work I'd studied critically, Marianne Moore, had used to formally radical effects. Moore, I had argued in my critical book, creatively recontextualizes the "found language" she quotes (often without attribution, and usually from non-canonical sources).11 A poetic bricolage of sorts, as Margaret Holley aptly describes her methodology,12 her "hybrid method" produces not a different sort of poem, but a hybrid -- a cross between two generic boundaries.

Her method of collage and assemblage liberated me to write at a time when I had no "person" either to express or to impersonalize, to appropriate Eliot's phrase. Without my work in criticism, I would not have happened to have made the in-depth study necessary for creating out of my own incapacitation a way to write again. And so, (if you'll allow me a moment's return to an ego-centered self), I want to close with a poem from my new collection, The Never Wife (Mammoth Press, 1999), which both employs collage (quotations from Vaclav Havel and Marianne Moore) and tries to articulate that dissociated self capable empathetically of "blur[ring] the edges," as Rich says, between my own and others' pain:



     (after lines by Vaclav Havel)


The sun drops scarlet among clouds
into a sea of green hills.
The sky darkens and we do not know,
we cannot, where before nightfall
and near-rape, the burgled
body discarded,
a scar now upon the once
smooth surface of the face--
facing the walk home, alone.
     "We have done this and that,"
     you say, and I, "If we
     hadn't, we could not
     live with ourselves."
Oh to live
with one
self sometimes
slowly even
the violent
have dreams
of self but how
restore to
whole? Temples
burned. Burning
incense scents
the ruins. At the river,
a prayer: "Either
we have hope
     within us or
     we don't."
Like suppliants whose gait
has slowed, we're tired,
"hope not being hope
until all ground for hope
has vanished." This is strength,
"not to live without meaning,
without, finally, love
even in conditions


as hopeless as ours
that gives us hope
here and now."


Here. Now.

Read more from Cynthia Hogue


1. For a discussion of this aspect of the poem, see Bundtzen 337-42, passim.

2. "Contra/dictions," as Meese denotes the oppositions Rich puts into play and undoes, characterize her attempts to work through the perceptions assimilation has affected. For Rich, Meese suggests, "the separation from the other is a separation within the self, requiring us to undertake multiple, unending negotiations with the logic of identity" (172, 173).

3. Qtd. in Schweizer 185.

4. Qtd. in Bundtzen 340.

5. A voluntary or involuntary (or conscious or unconscious) "appointment to bear witness" is how Shoshana Felman describes the subject position of the contemporary, testimonial writer. See Felman and Laub, Testimonial, 3; Felman's emphasis.

6. See Hogue, "Adrienne Rich's Political, Ecstatic Subject," passim.

7. Of the dynamic of testimony, Felman asserts, that to "produce one's own speech as material evidence for truth . . . is to accomplish a speech act, rather than to simply formulate a [poetic] statement": "As a performative speech act, testimony in effect addresses what in history is action that exceeds any substantialized significance, and what in happenings is impact that dynamically explodes any conceptual reifications and any constative delimitations." See Felman and Laub, Testimony, 5.

8. See Felman on Paul Celan: "By virtue of the fact that the testimony is addressed to others, the witness, from within the solitude of [her] own stance, is the vehicle of an occurrence, a reality, a stance or dimension beyond [herself]" (3; Felman's emphasis).

9. Rich, Dark Fields of the Republic, 70; Rich's lineation, italics, and ellipsis. I take this opportunity to thank my colleague, the Joyce scholar John Rickard, whom I consulted on Irish women's poetry when writing this section, for whose expertise on Irish poetry in general and Irish women's poetry in particular I was most grateful.

10. See Kristeva, Revolution in Poetic Language 232-33.

11. See Hogue, Scheming Women 73-116, passim.

12. See Holley, Voice and Value 38.


Bundtzen, Lynda K. "Adrienne Rich's Identity Poetics: a Partly Common Language. Women's Studies 27.4 (1998): 331-45.

Dickinson, Emily. The Poems of Emily Dickinson. 3 vols. Edited by Thomas H. Johnson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1955.

Felman, Shoshana, and Dori Laub, M.D. Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Hogue, Cynthia. "Adrienne Rich's Politics, Ecstatic Subject." Women's Studies 27.4 (1998): 413-29.

---. Scheming Women: Poetry, Privilege, and the Politics of Subjectivity. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995.

Holley, Margaret. The Poetry of Marianne Moore: A Study in Voice and Value. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Kristeva, Julia. Revolution in Poetic Language. Translated by Margaret Waller. New York: Columbia University Press, 1987.

Meese, Elizabeth A. (Ex)tensions: Re-Figuring Feminist Criticism. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1990.

Rich, Adrienne. Dark Fields of the Republic: Poems 1991-1995. New York: Norton, 1995.

---. What is Found There. New York: Norton, 1993.

---. Your Native Land, Your Life. New York and London: Norton, 1986.

---. Adrienne Rich's Poetry. Edited by Albert and Barbara Charlesworth Gelpi. New York: Norton, 1975.

Scarry, Elaine. The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Schweizer, Harold. Suffering and the Remedy of Art. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997.