#9: Anne Carson and the Archive

#9: Anne Carson and Archive


11 February 2019

You remember too much, 
my mother said to me recently

Why hold onto all that? And I said,
Where can I put it down?
-Anne Carson, Glass Essay

If you haven't yet read "The Glass Essay," you should. It is both a poem and an essay, an attempt to put things down, and an attempt to hold onto it all.

Being home after Tijuana has been strange. I'm going to classes, making dinner, walking the dog, reading books, all of the usual things that make up my life. This is interrupted, sporadically, by remembering something suddenly. I cried in a coffee shop the other morning, holding hands with a friend, because I had remembered that we had watched some of the last people in the LGBTQ caravan cross, folks that had made family on the road and now were there at the wall, both jutting chins and rainbow flags and long, tear-stained goodbyes and shaky cigarettes, all of them being separated to head into their unknown new lives. It wasn't that I had forgotten, it was more that I hadn't spent time with it, and now, suddenly, I was.

I was talking to another friend about this recently, someone on the MDiv chaplaincy/pastoral track.

"We're given all these things," she said, "and then we have nowhere to put them, so all we can do is archive it, put it away somewhere safe."

I've been trying to write about bigger things in Tijuana, things that go beyond the edges of my own experiences of them, and I'm having trouble with it. Part of it is the ethical dimension--I don't want to tell anyone else's story, don't want to even hint at putting someone in danger, cause them harm, any of it, for the sake of a narrative. And so much about what my work was in Tijuana was encountering people in their own particularities, putting faces to a whole geopolitical mess. The other part is this: I also, to be totally honest, went to Tijuana for myself. I went because I wanted to see what was happening for myself, because I wanted to be the kind of person who had gone to help. At the same time, I knew that I, by myself, or any one of these other volunteers with me, wasn't going to really do anything, no amount of direct action, no amount of putting myself in the middle of it was going to fix the border, knock down the wall, change hearts and minds. The primary difference my going made, as far as I can tell, was within me. What I went for, then, was to hold things. Not for anyone, but just to see what it might mean to hold them.

And so here I am, a month later, hands full and not knowing what to do about it.

The Glass Essay isn't about human suffering on a geopolitical scale: it is about a breakup, and about Emily Bronte, and the pain of occupying a woman's life. And nevertheless, it's about whaching, and Emily Bronte's strange rage, and sorrow, and also this:

"When you see these horrible images why do you stay with them?
Why keep watching? Why not

go away? I was amazed
Go away where? I said.
This still seems to me a good question."

Because I know one far better than the other, I've been reading Judith Butler to think about the ways in which personal kinds of mourning move into political ones, the ways in which we lose the boundaries between each other and in so losing, are moved to grief and then to action, the ways, as she so memorably puts it, "we are undone by each other." This question, of the lines and boundaries between people, is one that interests Anne Carson as well. Eros the Bittersweet is all about the disappointment of this boundary, the frustration of it. It's a boundary I've been bumping up against lately too: when someone asks me how it was there, I've been trying to find the right combination of words that will dissolve these boundaries, that will let someone watch like I watched, grieve like I am grieving, find hope where I sometimes think I have found it, which is to say, in people showing up, and in so doing, show up themselves. Or something. Eros the Bittersweet is also about the total impossibility of that movement, of the gaps that show up whenever we try to say anything, do anything. The ways in which sometimes we're stuck just as individuals.

Part of the point of archives is to build them so others can delve. Historians often speak of the joy of the archive, finding the perfect, unexpected thing. The letters, the papers, the ephemera of the dead stay together as if by doing so, they might provide some answer, some silhouetted clue that would bring the person back to life. A close friend died a few years ago, a friend who loved books deeply, who lugged what I always pictured as steamer trunks full of them around the world, loved a good leather binding, a yellowed page. We got an email from her mother a few months later, letting us know that she was selling these steamer trunks of books to pay for a memorial video, and did we want to contribute. I kept thinking about these books, whose covers had been caressed, had been tucked under an arm I knew so well, in just such a way, being dispersed into stranger's hands, hands that wouldn't quite know how to hold them in the same way, and it felt like a separate kind of loss, or a second one. Archives prove a life, somehow. 

After her brother, estranged from her for years, died, Anne Carson wrote Nox, a book about a Catullus fragment mourning a brother and also about this stranger-brother. To do so, she delved into family history, archive, collage. This letter is Anne Carson's in part because of "Glass Essay," but also in part because her writing has always been the kind of sharp & ample blade I want to turn myself into. Her writing makes room for the past and the present to coexist, with room for you between, she goes pearldiving into history and finds the thing that will let you tell the present, let you live into the feeling of it just a little more. 

I don't know how to become the kind of archive I want to be, don't know how to keep the details together so that no one gets lost, don't know how to tell any of it so that I can convince anyone, keep anyone safe. I'm struggling with my own "I," and where it belongs, how it's been both irrevocably altered by bearing witness and still somehow untouched and safe from suffering. I also know it's important to be an archive, to be able to surface a story that will move people into action, that might change a mind, or turn it to contemplation, at least. Here's an attempt not to put things down, but to elide the boundaries so I'm not the only one carrying them.