It electrocutes me in the best possible way to watch the thoughts marching from afar like a terrifying army.
What’s this sick compulsion to shatter the celluloid that encases me, write my way out with a lyric essay, pervade, project light through light, wrap my head around what I am: a movie in the shape of a woman, seeing and being seen, writer-mother, a mixed genre, a person with another person growing inside her?
And what will happen if I can’t? Will my skin curl, crack, and harden till I’m mummified, bundled beetle-like in my own ambition? If only someone had told me early on, “You will never get the orange peel off in one clean spiral, but more haunting shapes will come out of it in the end.”
Experimental filmmaker Maya Deren used what she called a “cubism of time” to accomplish what I was after in her 1943 film Meshes of the afternoon, where she watches her own montaged body maneuver from the window, or when there are three of her at the table and suddenly one of them’s holding a knife.
Deren traced her technique to haiku, that poetic form with its juxtaposition of two images cut down the middle by a third, a threesome. Her method bends time and space to make a place for women outside the male eye. And I was chasing just this sort of genre-bending fusion that would allow me to express what I’d been waiting to say since I was my son’s age, which at the time was three, or maybe even my daughter’s age, which at the time was a fetus.
And I was in luck seeing as I had one kid and was making another. Not everyone knows this, but children are experts at bending space and time. This works out quite well since fragmented space-time is my favorite kind. Time travels differently when I’m with my son Max; it’s at once accelerated and elongated beyond recognition. Kids also help with hybrid genres. My son just pointed to a man’s crotch on the bus and asked, “that your poetry?” He’d confused his two favorite “p” words.
I was writing a dissertation called Women Who Like to Watch on female poets writing on and revising male filmmakers when I started wanting to do my own written version of what Deren had done with film—to write a montaged book on my experience of womanhood, writerhood, motherhood, but only so far as Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation was a film about Susan Orlean.
Adaptation addresses the unwieldy topic of the writer’s longing to know and tell. This hunger is at work in Charlie Kaufman’s struggle to translate his own writing process and Orlean’s book The Orchid Thief into film language.
This desire also lurks in the gap-toothed John Laroche’s encyclopedic erudition on all things orchid, and in the Orlean character’s willingness to follow Laroche to the ends of the earth for a glimpse of the Ghost Orchid. In fact, with its promise to catalyze our inventions and make us whole, writerly yearning is at the core of this elusive flower.
It blows my mind that we’re just bundles of science that somehow gained consciousness. When I feel overcome by my post-birth transformation, I imagine my body as a written form and try to guess its genre. I decide it’s an essay—but probably a lyric essay. I want to be able to catalogue it so I can keep it ideologically under control. I think this still involves the Dewey Decimal system, but I’ll have to ask my local librarian.
It’s easy to picture the structure of my essay body as following a linear pattern, so that either my head is the introduction or conclusion. But what of other ways of imagining the body’s structure?
Imagining the lyric essay in particular is a slippery project; just ask its spokesperson, John D’Agata, who has drifted towards and away from this designation himself over the years. He says he savors the provocation of composing between the lands of poetry and essay. Yet, even though the term’s a shifty one, I felt something about my writing, and maybe even myself, could be located at last when I came across this mixture of memoir, poetry, essay, and theory. Or maybe I simply thought, “Yeah, I’m a lyric essay, that’s it.”
Clearly I needed to do a lot of detective work on “women.” I decided film noir might be a good place to start. It always is. I’d have to learn the gumshoe trade, but first I’d have to learn how to be a woman. I thought my topic might be too broad, but I figured everything would sort itself out in the end. Who am I? Don’t worry about it. You see, I’m getting the hang of this mystery thing already.
I started wanting to use “I” in the dissertation where it didn’t belong. On every page, Caroline kept popping up—making lewd gestures behind a footnote, mooning me from behind a piece of particularly dry text.
More tricky still, I needed to figure out how to look at women but also how to look back as a woman. In 1970 a group of feminists armed with stink bombs, bags of flour, and water-pistols descended on the Miss World Contest. In an article entitled “The Spectacle is Vulnerable,” feminist film critic Laura Mulvey, who participated in the uprising, attributed its power to the fact that the spectacle isn’t expecting active viewers. I started amassing stink bombs, bags of flour, water pistols.