Lynn Emanuel's "My Life"

Thoughts on estrangement & living in the presence of reality.

My Life

Like Jonas by the fish was I received by it,
swung and swept in its dark waters,
driven to the deeps by it and beyond many rocks.
Without any touching of its teeth, I tumbled into it
with no more struggle than a mote of dust
entering the door of a cathedral, so muckle were its jaws.
How heel over head was I hurled down
the broad road of its throat, stopped inside
its chest wide as a hall, and like Jonas I stood up
asking where the beast was and finding it nowhere,
there in grease and sorrow I build my bower.

from The Nerve of It (U. Pitt Press, 2015)

The combination of this poem’s title and its first line is an unbelievable thing. Such a simple title — My Life — and then, as a reader, you are met with this awkward, inverted, passive line. Not: I was received by life, like Jonas was when he was swallowed by a whale. Not: Life swallowed me, just like a whale swallowed Jonas. Also, not the typical Jonah, but Jonas. Such a first line is an exercise in subversion, inversion, and the beauty of a mouthful of syntax. You have to sit with it. The subject — I — thrown all the way to the end. The verb: passive. All of it contrary to the experience of life. Or…not?

The first line, in combination with this poem’s title, introduces readers to the density of this poem’s subject: the dark passivity of life, the way — so often — we turn around and around, yelling, banging on the walls, saying: I didn’t ask for this. But instead of saying that, instead of leading with the normed activeness of life, Emanuel leads with the passive. Instead of I didn’t ask for life, it is I was received by it. Notice how that feels. To acknowledge one’s own passivity. To say it out loud. It’s a strange thing, isn’t it? It’s like becoming the air breathed into a body. Or a body swallowed by a whale.

This poem is a joy to read aloud, despite the severity of its subject. It is part of the delight in its sorrow to encounter some of these phrases:

swung and swept

touching of its teeth

so muckle were its jaws

heel over head was I hurled

the broad road of its throat

When you read Emanuel’s poem aloud, you notice the enactment of its alliteration and subversion, as if the poem is saying: it’s a strange thing, isn’t it, this life. And it is strange. Which is why this poem is dense with tongue twisters and slant rhymes and mouth fillers and subverted idioms (I bet when you encountered broad road, you maybe said broad rod — which is weird, isn’t it, how the words look like that and sound so different — and then had to double back and really enunciate the mouth-work that is a phrase like broad road). Each moment of syntactic play in this poem is a kind of delight, yes, but it is also a very real enactment of the very real metaphor at work within the poem: that of life swallowing you up the same way a biblical man was biblically swallowed by a whale (now is probably the time to link the story of the Cape Cod man literally swallowed by a whale not too long ago). Needless to say, such an experience wouldn’t just be frightening. It would also be strange. And dark. And full of reckless, heedless tumbling.

And what better way to enact that kind of strangeness than a line like:

How heel over head was I hurled down

Because, if the line was How head over heel I was hurled down, there’d be a moment of ordinariness to it. An idiom you could hold on to. Something to say: yes, yes, I know what this experience is — I know head over heel. A structured verb you could grasp. Not was I hurled, but I was hurled. Something for you to find your place and footing. But no, Emanuel subverts the idiom and inverts the verb, and because of this, you are nowhere you’ve been before. You are in a whale’s mouth and you are tumbling. You are lost at sea. You are in a dark place. You are reaching for something typical, something to check the time. No, no, no. It’s not that. You’re not just in those places. You’re not just experiencing such things. No. You’re in life. You’re in life itself.

And that’s the beauty and care and strange wonder of this poem by Lynn Emanuel. She doesn’t just say the feeling of being lost. She enacts it. She makes it sing and croak and double back. I think of one of my favorite poems of hers — “Frying Trout While Drunk” — this portrait of her mother and her lifelong struggle against her father, and the complex pain and love of it, all of which is conveyed in the final lines:

I have loved you all my life

she told him and it was true

in the same way that all her life

she drank, dedicated to the act itself,   

she stood at this stove

and with the care of the very drunk   

handed him the plate.

Those lines convey whole multitudes of feeling and narrative and pain and loss and love. And they do it with this almost refrain-like repetition, this play of life and life, of drank and drunk. Such lines enact the painful and mundane repetition that sometimes feels like love, and often feels like sorrow, and almost always feels like life.

Perhaps my favorite part of today’s poem are its final lines:

like Jonas I stood up
asking where the beast was and finding it nowhere,
there in grease and sorrow I build my bower.

There’s so much at work here, beginning with that first line. The Bible never mentions Jonas/Jonah standing up; rather, he simply exists within the whale’s belly for three days, and then he prays to God, he renews his faith in God, he promises himself to God — and then God commands the whale to throw the poor soul up. And so, Emanuel’s speaker is both like Jonas and unlike him at all. Yes, she performs her form of prayer — asking where the beast was — but when she finds it nowhere, it shows that such a prayer was directed only at herself. She exists fully inside her own interiority. She accepts her life. It reminds me of a passage in Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own:

What is meant by ‘reality’? It would seem to be something very erratic, very undependable—now to be found in a dusty road, now in a scrap of newspaper in the street, now a daffodil in the sun. It lights up a group in a room and stamps some casual saying. It overwhelms one walking home beneath the stars and makes the silent world more real than the world of speech—and then there it is again in an omnibus in the uproar of Piccadilly. Sometimes, too, it seems to dwell in shapes too far away for us to discern what their nature is. But whatever it touches, it fixes and makes permanent.

Later in that same paragraph, Woolf writes:

I am asking you to live in the presence of reality, an invigorating life, it would appear, whether one can impart it or not.

I feel that need to live in the presence of reality so deeply when I encounter the speaker in Emanuel’s poem. The moment she understands that this is her life, that whether she is inside the beast or outside the beast or whether there is a beast at all, Emanuel writes:

there in grease and sorrow I build my bower.

I love this moment. In grease and sorrow. Yes. I build my bower. Yes. What an image. Though the poem begins in passivity, in ends in activity. The I is the subject. There is a kind of reclamation. And the use of the word bower. I immediately thought of bowerbirds, and the beautiful nests they make out of twigs and bits of whatever they can find in the natural (and unnatural world) — which I remember watching about in Planet Earth or some David Attenborough-narrated show where a bowerbird pulled little toys and bits of yarn out of the wild and often mutilated world that is our natural world in order to build their unbelievable and absolutely awesome nest.

But bower didn’t originate with bowerbird. It began as a word to designate a part of a house, a kind of chamber. And, more notably, a place for women. Think of Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. Think of the French word boudoir. Which is why, perhaps, this poem isn’t titled “A Life” or “The Life,” but rather, “My Life.” There is a statement on womanhood in this poem, a way that Emanuel seems to be saying: the ways in which I am like Jonas end with my being a woman. The way she seems to be saying: I am a woman, so I was not saved. The way she seems to be saying: I am a woman, so I did what I could: I built my house where I found myself.

I recently read Susan Taubes’ surreal, evincing novel Divorcing. In it, she writes:

There is always that part which remains, continues, captive in its moment, and another that escapes.

I think of that line because, in some universe, this poem still exists, and continues existing, and its speaker is still held in the confines of the whale. That part carries on in the metaphorical universe, where so much that has moved and changed us carries on. But the poem itself has escaped. It is here with us now. And maybe that’s part of the beauty of poetry, of any art — how it escapes its lived moment and then lives on, in many lives, in many different ways, for many different versions of forever. And what art reveals escapes along with it, too. Just like loneliness escapes an Edward Hopper painting, and makes one feel less alone. Just like the actions and consequences of desire escape a Nan Goldin photograph, and connect one desire to another across the years. Through a lens. And the estrangement of today’s poem. The solitude. Such things escape, too. And they say it doesn’t have to be this way, even though it so often is. Or they say maybe it is this way, because maybe you didn’t think it was, and maybe you needed someone to tell you. And then it is. It is this way. And you are changed.

And maybe this is why I love the passivity of today’s poem, in the same way I love when Hamm — a character in Beckett’s Endgame, which I only just recently read for the first time — laments:

To think perhaps it won’t all have been for nothing!

So often, I find myself wanting more from this life, even though it offers so much, and even though the so-much it offers is complex and full of beauty and sorrow and pain and want and nothing and everything at once. Who hasn’t slammed their fists on the boundaries of the life they have and screamed and cried and poured their heart into the desire of wanting more? Who hasn’t prayed for an answer while knowing there might not be one?

I am drawn to today’s poem because it wonders aloud about the possibility of nothingness. Not in some dreary, existential way, but in a way that, like Woolf asks, lives in the presence of reality. The poem asks something of the world. It wants to know if it lives inside a beast. It finds no answer, and so it goes on living. Like so many of us do. Asking and finding no answer. Or asking and finding the answer we did not want. Or asking and finding the answer we were not looking for. And yet still we build our homes, our nests, our side rooms, our small segments of time, our bowers. Just like bowerbirds, who rummage around the walled beasts of their purview and build what they can from what they can find. Maybe the answer is not that we aren’t as special as we think. Maybe the answer is, in part, that we are more alike to what we so often separate ourselves from than we think. Each of us, in sorrow and grease, building our bowers. Funny. I’m wondering about the hallways between these homes. The walls. I hope, at least, there are windows. Maybe even a door.