Reading for Writers: “The Laugh of the Medusa”

Birth Write:

The birth of the author, the reader, and the text in Hélène Cixous’s “The Laugh of the Medusa”

Part manifesto, part poetry, part call to action, part theoretical treatise, part psychoanalysis, Hélène Cixous’s “The Laugh of the Medusa” is a philosophical essay that defies genre and convention – and rightly so, because this is exactly what Cixous is writing about.  Around the same time that Roland Barthes is theorizing about the death of the author, Cixous is trumpeting the birth of the author.  Is this backwards and old-fashioned of her?  Were these two theories so at odds as to be opposites?  No. While Barthes is approaching the subject as an either/or binary distinction in which the interpretation and agency of the reader necessitates the fall and death of the author, Cixous sees the same rise of the reader, though it is not at the expense of the author because for her their differances are not in opposition.  For Cixous, it is possible for the reader and the writer to be born within a text.

Cixous’s work is difficult to summarize.  It is a call to arms, or if you will, a call to pens for women, who she defines as in an “inevitable struggle against conventional man” (1943).  This definition of woman includes not only those with female bodies, but all those who are engaged in this struggle against the traditional hegemony. Throughout the work, she uses images of the female body and motherhood to explicate a new kind of writing, one which is not bound by the hierarchical structures that are imposed on language.  Instead, she advocates for writing with and through the body.  In writing in this way, those whose voices and bodies have been repressed by the dominant establishment may come into their own and begin to realize their selfhood.  “Write your self. Your body must be heard” (1946), Cixous urges her readers.  She uses the biological functions of the female body to pinpoint that which is dictated by the laws of nature and that which is governed by culture.  Biologically, woman can think, write and speak.  It is the phallocentric culture which will not allow her to do these things.

But The Laugh of the Medusa” is more than a feminist manifesto.  It also goes into great depth about the theory of language and writing.  She calls for the birth of the author through the text: “Write! and your self-seeking text will know itself better than flesh and blood” (1956).  Cixous seeks to encourage those whose voices have been repressed to take back their words and their bodies through writing, allowing them to come fully into being. Unlike the rigid, structured language of Saussure and Lacan, the language of woman is not beholden to the rules of the signifier and the signified.  The language of woman is more fluid and immediate.  The distinctions of the symbolic order, the imaginary order, and the Real do not hold in this ecriture: “We are ourselves sea, sand, coral, seaweed, beaches, tides, swimmers, children waves… More or less wavily sea, earth, sky… We know how to speak them all” (1956) Cixous’s vision of ecriture feminine is a writing that surpasses the traditional binary opposition of I and Not-I, but instead leaves room for connection with the multitudes of Other.  Feminine writing is “a process of different subjects knowing one another and beginning one another anew… a multiple and inexhaustible course with millions of encounters and transformations of the same into the other and the in-between” (1948).  It is not a language based on the separation of parts and the creation of boundaries but instead tries to encompass the whole. Woman “has never ceased to hear the fore-language. She lets the other language speak… Her language does not contain, it carries; it does not hold back, it makes possible.” (1955)

Cixous seems to divert from many of her contemporaries by upholding the role of the author in a text. However, this is because ecriture feminine is not founded on the same assumptions as traditional writing.  Roland Barthes writes “Death of the Author” in critique of the writer as one who seeks to control and own his text.  Unlike Barthes, Cixous does not assume that the author is one who has had access to the modes of writing, speaking, and dissemination.  Cixous’s writer has a newfound voice and is creating her self through her writing. She does not fit the mold of the privileged “conventional man” and therefore must give wings to her own ways of meaning-making.  She has been silenced by the traditional conventions of writing and language as a form of self-expression.  Indeed, she has not had the opportunity for self at all. This is why Cixous sees writing as an empowering act for the writer.  The writers Cixous is writing to and of have agency precisely because they haven’t had it before.  These woman writers are engaging in revolutionary acts through writing.  Cixous writes, “We are at the beginning of a new history, or rather of a process of becoming in which several histories intersect with one another” (1955).  This writer must give birth to her writing because it is the only way that this multiplicity of voices and histories can come into being.  Cixous maintains that writing is an act of empowerment for the author.  She calls on woman to “Write! and your self-seeking text will know itself better than flesh and blood” (1955).  Here the author and the text come into being together.  This is not as far from Barthes’ argument as it would at first seem.  He writes, “the modern scriptor is born simultaneously with the text” (1324).  Cixous’s writer takes the same relationship with her text, coming into being as she is writing it.

For Barthes, the writer is in opposition to the reader and therefore must die so that the reader and text may be free.  He maintains that the author tries to dominate and restrict readings of his work and therefore must be separated from it.  However, the distinction between Barthes’ author and Cixous’s woman as writer is that woman is giving. The woman as writer is not trying to restrain or constrict the writing the way that Barthes imagines the traditional writing to do. Instead of being the traditional “father” of the work, who knows and restricts all its interpretations and intentions, Cixous’s writers are different: “They observe, they approach, they try to see the other woman, the child, the lover – not to strengthen their own narcissism or verify the solidity or weakness of the master, but to make love better, to invent” (1958).  Cixous envisions a writer who is not stingy with the text or its meaning in relation to the reader, but instead is moved to give.  Of course, the writer is present in the text, but because Cixous and woman writers are not working within a system of binary oppositions in which they see writer and not-writer, they are free to allow the writer to exist alongside the reader and the text.  When the world is not divided into I and Other, all these things can come to fruition together.  The act of writing not only gives voice to the writer, but also to the readers whose voices have also been stifled.  In this way, the author gives birth not only to herself but also to the text and the reader.

There are possible problems with Cixous’s text.  For one, its portrayal of woman in some ways is very one-dimensional, nearly mythological.  She speaks of the experience of women as if all feminine experiences are the same.  However, upon closer examination, Cixous mitigates these concerns at the outset of the essay.  She writes that there is “no general woman, no one typical woman” (1943).  She writes of the individual and multiple variations of woman’s experience.

When she speaks of woman in terms of body, she seems to be upholding traditional gender stereotypes of a binary, biological gender system.  However, in looking more closely, we can see that Cixous is aware of this when she defines woman as in conflict with “conventional man” and states that there is an “infinite richness of individual constitutions” which make up woman’s experience.  She asserts that “each body distributes in its own special way, without model or norm, the nonfinite and changing totality of its desires” (1957).  These passages are inclusive, calling all of the individuals who do not conform to society’s idea of “conventional man” to speak out.

One may see this style of writing and this essay as nonlogical, proof that women cannot write and theorize.  However, Cixous must write in this way in order to break free of the constraints of traditional writing.  There are inconsistencies and places where the essay are unclear, but these only serve to give Cixous’s writer an example, a possible way to break out of the conventions of language so that she might give herself voice.

The implications of this essay for literary theory are manifold.  For one, it is an encouragement for female writers.  It opens the door for a variety of voices, ways of making meaning, and interpretations.  It calls on us, as readers, writers, and citizens, to abandon the old system of binary oppositions, to understand that there are more useful interpretations of the world than A and not-A.  It allows for more room to play with language, embracing nontraditional grammatical forms.  It also calls on us as readers and writers to give.  Instead of holding on to our interpretations and view points as the only right way, we can become Cixous’s woman writer and act with “a love that rejoices in the exchange and that multiplies” (1959).

This essay is also calling on the literary establishment to understand the cultural and societal implications of writing.  Cixous writes that we “confuse the biological with the cultural” (1942), that we are upholding as natural a hierarchy which is completely constructed by society.  Cixous’s use of the body here represents, in part, a call to understand what is “natural” and what is imposed by tradition.  Her use of the body in this essay is on one hand to be taken literally, but functions even better as a metaphor.  Throughout the essay, Cixous uses metaphor and figurative language to make her points and add weight to her arguments.  She is direct about doing this: “The mother, too, is a metaphor” (1948). The body represents the self and the text of the person: “Text: my body” (1948).  She is not only talking about the biological flesh of the writer, but the writer’s very self.  It is only in this context, separate from the control of the imaginary and symbolic orders, that those whose voices have been marginalized can begin to write themselves.  Writing is a historical act.  It creates history and we, as writers and readers, must be cognizant of the history we are creating.  Cixous is asking us if we want to live in a world controlled by the master-slave dialectic, where the author must die so that the reader and the text may live.  Perhaps instead we can live in a world where the author, the reader, and the text may all be born through the act of writing.

Works Cited[1]

Cixous, Hélène. “The Laugh of the Medusa.” The Norton Anthology of Literary Theory and

Criticism, Second Edition. Ed. Leitch, Vincent B. New York: W.W. Norton and

 Company, 2010. 1938-1959. Print.

Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” The Norton Anthology of Literary Theory and

Criticism, Second Edition. Ed. Leitch, Vincent B. New York: W.W. Norton and

 Company, 2010. 1322-1326. Print.


[1] I understand that it is traditional MLA Format to alphabetize the works cited page by author’s last name, however, I feel that “Laugh of the Medusa” is so much more important to this critique that I have chosen to put it first.  Also, it’s my tiny nod to breaking out of the constraints of the literary establishment.

Inspiration: Writing that Escapes the Page

The Materiality of Meaning: the Format of Words on the Page

            It has long been the realm of poets to think about line breaks and format on the page.  There is a myth that for prose, the words should speak for themselves.  We have the idea that prose writers who manipulate how they put their words on the page somehow undermine the meaning of the words, as if calling attention to the fact that they are on a page takes away their power.  When poets think about the way they format their work on the page, they are being artful, purposeful, but when prose writers do it, it is a gimmick, a trick.  It’s as if readers of prose are meant to mind meld directly with the words.  We imagine that the way the prose is experienced does not matter.  This is not the case.  Whether we are reading words in straight lines on a page, in text boxes, with line breaks, wrapped around images, on an ebook reader or online, our physical experience of the words matter.  It is not true that we feel the words as completely separate from the physical medium through which they are presented to us.  Because of this, we, as writers, must be more cognizant of the ways in which we are offering our narratives.

            We are living in a time when the possible modes for storytelling are more numerous than ever before.  It used to be that recitation, handwritten manuscripts, and books off a printing press were the only media available to writers to disseminate their works.  The forms that these works took followed the physical limitations of these media.  Works meant to be recited were written with meter and rhyme, so as to be as easy as possible to remember.  Books from a printing press used uniform fonts and lines to conform to the constraints of the machine.  Straying from this form was expensive and difficult.  Even adding images or color consumed near impossible time and money.

            With the advent of the digital age, however, the possibilities for publishing and storytelling have exploded.  This explosion means there is also a myriad of ways that a reader can experience a text.  Audio books, Prezis, digital storytelling, hypertexts, and ebooks all offer new possibilities for narratives to be presented.  Because of these new technologies, we can see the fallacy of the direct experience of the word.  A book put in each of these formats takes on new meaning and affords the reader altered ways to encounter the text, even as the words stay the same.   It becomes apparent, then, that reading is an experience that is dictated, at least in part, by the physical choices that authors make concerning format and medium.  In this way, we can see the importance of the material medium that a writer chooses.  The writer can now be a painter, a sculptor, and a poet all in the same work.

            Even if our work remains in traditional ink and paper form, the options in terms of choices a writer can enact are plentiful.  We are no longer beholden to the constraints of traditional printing presses, but can now digitally format our words to be printed in a diverse array of forms.  Writers can choose varying fonts and font sizes.  We can include images or sculpt the ways our words look on the page.   We can choose the way that different ideas get juxtaposed or separated.  We can change color, font or style midsentence, or even midword.  Rather than being automatically a gimmick, these devices can be used to add a more dimension and new layers of meaning to texts.

            Take, for example, Kamau Brathwaite’s essay “Trench Town Rock.”  In his introduction, to the essay, John D’Agata writes:

 I don’t know if there’s such a thing as a ‘performative essay,’ but I know that there are texts that are more profound because of the arguments they try to demonstrate rather than merely state … that simultaneously enact the concepts they represent… Brathwaite therefore emphasizes the experience of reading his texts, encouraging us to find alternative paths into their meanings: visually, aurally, authentically participatory (D’Agata, 599).

 Brathwaite uses an array of devices in his essay to make the reading more experiential.  He uses images, changes the sizes and fonts of his texts, uses varying margins, italics, and bold type.  It is clear that he was purposeful in his choices.  The some sections of the essay are scattered and disjointed, while others read like traditional poems, news reports, or transcripts. The format of each of these sections visibly shows the differences. The effects of these choices on the reader are palpable.   Instead of reading an account of the deaths, the reader can feel the chaotic, disjointed feeling that being in Jamaica at the time must have been.  The reader’s sense of the order of things is disrupted, leaving her with the feeling of lawlessness and turmoil that mirrored Brathwaite’s Jamaica. In this way, the reader experiences the feelings more directly than words following a traditional format would have allowed.

            The ways that a reader encounters words on a page will change the experience of those words.  Different fonts can be used to show different voices.  The words telling the story of a journey can show the journey in addition to telling it, following the route along the page.  Two versions of similar stories can be juxtaposed to show the differences in perspectives.  Different colors or fonts could be used to give the reader different feelings.  Text that is askew on the page can be used to literally show a skewed point of view.   Rather than being interesting effects and ways to play with words or experiment, current technologies make it possible for these new layers of meaning to be the norm.

            It is indeed true that form follows function.  Thus far, writing has taken a very specific form, following the function of the technologies available to us.  But is it true that linear, left-to-right, uniform font on sequential pages should be the default form in which narratives are experienced?  In a postmodern world, where texts are becoming ever more disjointed, we must ask the question if it serves the purposes of the individual text to be written in a linear manner.  It may be true that this form is useful and logical for narratives that follow a traditional linear structure.  However, for works that do not follow this narrative structure, the form of linear font on sequential pages does not follow the function.  As the technology to shape the experience of the reader becomes more and more accessible, writers have more of an obligation to take these possibilities into account when making decisions about their work.  It should not be assumed that all, or even most works are best suited for traditional formats.  Not all narratives or experiences or essays follow traditional, linear structures, and their formats should adapt to the experience.  Now that we are released from the technological constraints of traditional printing, writers need to let go of the constraints in format that came along with that.

              It is not the case, of course, that all writing from here on out should be in non-traditional formats.  Rather, writers should make conscious decisions about how their work looks on the page and take into consideration the effects of those decisions on the reader. We should let go of the myth of the spiritual, non physical power of our words and understand that they are experienced through the choices we make about format and medium.  More and more, the decisions about such things fall into the hands of writers.  Rather than buying into the idea that the power and meaning of our words lies only in putting one letter after another, we should allow ourselves to utilize the full potential available to us by making thoughtful, conscious decisions not only about the words we chose, but also how we chose to send those words out into the world.

Work Cited

Brathwaite, Kamau. “Trench Town Rock.” The Lost Origins of the Essay. Ed. John D’Agata. St.Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 2009. Print.

Call for Submissions: The Minetta Review

The Minetta Review is now accepting submissions!  Check them out.

Submit to the Minetta Review

We are now accepting submissions for the Spring 2014 issue, for which the deadline is March 15th, 2014.

While the Minetta Review is a student-run publication at New York University, we consider writing and artwork from all over the country, and we have even published international submissions in the past. If you are a poet, proser, prose-poet, playwright, painter, sculptor, photographer, digital illustrator—otherwise an experimenter of combining word and visual art—we encourage you to submit your creations for consideration into the Review.

You are welcome to send up to three poems, up to two prose pieces that unfold in fewer than 1500 words each, and up to ten artwork pieces per reading period. Simultaneous submissions are allowed, but kindly notify us if accepted elsewhere. Submissions received after the deadline will be considered for the Fall 2014 issue.

When you’re ready, send your work as attachments to minettasubmit@gmail.com. Please send each type of submission—poetry, prose, artwork, etc.—as a separate email, and help us out with a subject line: Poetry, Prose, Artwork, etc.. Thank you!

The Selection Process

Our managing editors monitor our inboxes and put together weekly submission packets that we read, discuss, at times passionately argue over—all author-blind—before casting anonymous votes that ultimately determine the semester’s selection of writing. Artwork is currently decided in a manner responsive to the issue’s finalized writing, as well as to the content and contributions solicited by the Artwork Editor and Editor-in-Chief outside of the general submissions process.

Responses are typically released 8 – 10 weeks after the submissions deadline. Accepted pieces will be featured in print and electronically. At this time, no monetary compensation is provided to contributors. Upon publication all rights revert to the contributor, whose authorization is required for reprints, and we kindly ask that reprints made elsewhere credit the Minetta Review as the original printer.

Print editions are made available free-of-charge to the NYU student body, to bookshops in Greenwich Village, and to certain locations throughout Manhattan. Recent selections are viewable on the newly renovated Minetta WordPress, and the Spring 2013 edition is now accessible free-of-charge through the Issuu service.

Contributors receive no monetary compensation for publication; we mail copies at no charge to the contributor. All rights revert to the submitting writers and artists upon publication.

ISSN 1065-9196

 

Sharing: Natural Disaster by Nika Ann Rasco

Here’s another wordpress find that was just too good not to share, and a perfect Valentine’s Day treat.  It’s written by Nika Ann Rasco, who writes over at Chasing Rabbits.  Make sure you head over and check it out!

 

Natural Disaster

tangled up from the twist
of tornado, all the best
parts of your disaster
rest, stone upon stone.

we curled ourselves into one.
limp bodies piled into hills
of the dead, I couldn’t
unwrap all your thoughts of
me as quickly as you shake
the keys of untuned piano.

your eyes are still watching
for an unnamed god, your chin
held determined to the upcoming
wind. I got you on my back

watching moves and licking lips.
You sing the chimes from too
sore lips, cracked and chapped
my words blown out of portion.

(c) Nika Ann Rasco

Call for Submissions: New Orleans Review

The good people over at the New Orleans Review are now accepting submissions. See below for details.

 

Submit

PRINT ISSUE

Fiction
For our next print issue, we are looking for “long” short stories or even “short” novellas. Send pieces up to 12,000 words. No previously published work. Simultaneous submissions are okay.

Nonfiction
For our next print issue, we are looking for longer-form nonfiction pieces (essay, memoir, experimental). Send pieces up to 12,000 words. No previously published work. Simultaneous submissions are okay.

Poetry
For our next print issue, we are looking for a set or series of poems totaling 16-32 pages. No previously published work. Simultaneous submissions are okay.

WEB FEATURES

Fiction
Submit fiction pieces up to 2,500 words. Flash fiction welcome. No previously published work (online or in print). Simultaneous submissions are okay.

Nonfiction
Submit nonfiction pieces up to 2,500 words. Flash nonfiction welcome. No previously published work (online or in print). Simultaneous submissions are okay.

Poetry
Submit up to five pages of poems. No previously published work (online or in print). Simultaneous submissions are okay.

Book Reviews
We are looking for reviews of books (all genres) forthcoming or published in the last year. We are also interested in reviews of books that have been largely neglected (often publications from small/independent presses) in the past 5, 10, 15, or even 20 years. Reviews should be between 500 and 1500 words. We publish book reviews online and prefer to keep them anonymous.

Interviews
Query us (noreview at loyno dot edu) if you’d like to submit or propose an interview.

 CLICK HERE TO ACCESS OUR SUBMISSIONS SYSTEM

NOTE

We use an online submission system exclusively. This system reduces our carbon footprint, decreases our response time, and makes tracking submissions for you and for us most accurate and efficient. Submissions require a $3 fee (except for book reviews): $1 is split between the credit card company and the submissions manager service; and, $2 goes toward New Orleans Review, helping us to publish both online and in print.

PAYMENT

For print issues, contributors receive two copies of the issue in which their work appears.

Call for Submissions: Wigleaf

Wigleaf is now open for submissions.  They publish (very) short fiction.  Check them out!

SUBMISSIONS

We feature stories under 1000 words.

Submissions are welcomed via our SUBMITTABLE page.

(We’re open during the final week of each academic month,
with the exception of December. So: the final weeks of August,
September, October, November, January, February, March and April.)

For all other correspondence: wigleaf.fiction@gmail.com.

PUBLISHING SCHEDULE

We post new stories at least twice a week for nine months
of the year. Our summer break runs from early May until mid August.
Over the break we put up our annual, The Wigleaf Top 50 (Very) Short
Fictions of the year.

Reading for Writers: Eva Saulitis’ into great silence

Toward Larger Truths:

Using Poetry in Creative Nonfiction

“Alaska. As a college student, a dream for me of blue-white tundra, wolves, caribou, moose, indigenous hunters: wilderness. A dream of emptiness, silence” (3).  With this first line in her first chapter of into great silence, Eva Saulitis presents her reader with an idealized, poetic view of the place she is about to bring us.  With these images and sentence fragments, she paints us a lyrical picture of the place we will come to know and study through her.  Though she writes about scientific research and the imminent extinction of a group of transient killer whales, Saulitis uses poetry and poetic language throughout her account to allow her reader to feel her connection to Prince William Sound and to experience that same level of connection and loss.

Throughout into great silence, Saulitis weaves poetry and lyrical language throughout the text.  She begins her book with an epigraph of poetry by Dylan Thomas.  She also begins her prologue with lines of poetry by W.S. Merwin.  With these two epigraphs, Saulitis sets the stage for a book about science which the reader knows will not be a typical research book.  Though into great silence recounts her days as a field biologist studying whales and includes much of her research, she chooses to begin her book and her prologue with poetry.  This shows her reader that she will be narrating this story not only through the lens of a scientist, but also through the lens of a poet.

Saulitis continues to use epigraphs to insert poetry into her narrative throughout the book.  In particular, she uses the epigraphs to frame points of especially poignant emotion. For example, she begins Chapter 18, “Beast and Beauty,” with two lines of poetry by Cyrus Cassells.  This is a small cue to the reader that this chapter will be one of the most evocative in the book.  In this chapter, Eva slowly realizes the true effects of the Valdez oil spill.  As she says, “Every zooming skiff, every blackened beach, every harassment of whales triggered ire, until it seemed the oil was inside me” (92).  She goes on to compare the scene to a “war zone” (92).  This realization that some of the worst fears of the researchers are becoming reality is one of the most emotional moments in the book and Saulitis uses Cassells’ poetry to highlight that.

Saulitis uses a poetic epigraph again to begin the last section of the book, titled, like the book itself, “Into Great Silence.”  On page 179, Saulitis begins Part 4 of her book with a poetic quote from Li-Young Lee.  This section of the book is by far the most emotional.  Saulitis begins to leave her day-to-day accounts of research behind and allows herself to ruminate on the emotions and repercussions connected to the loss that she is witnessing and the grief that she is feeling.  She becomes more introspective and more speculative, trading in scientific research for meditations on death, loss, and ultimately hope.

Saulitis also chooses to begin her second to last chapter with poetry by Peggy Shumaker.  In this chapter, Chapter 47, Saulitis begins to write in present tense.  This is a chapter in which she uses some of the most introspective, reflective language.  It is in this chapter that she revisits her battle with cancer and relates it back to the story of the whales.  She reflects on the process of writing the book.  At the very end of the chapter we see Saulitis as the author who began the book  meeting herself as present author directly and telling us how her views have changed.  Not only does she begin the chapter with poetry, she rewrites the poetry as the title of the chapter.  The poem that she uses ends with the line, “In a language lost to us/god is singing” (239).  She chooses to name this chapter “In a Language Lost to Us, Eyak Is Singing.”  These poetic devices set her reader up for a very poignant ending.

Saulitis does not only use the poetry of others in her account of her whale research and the loss of the pod.  She also brings her own poetry into the retelling.  This happens most often in Saulitis’ use of letters to her parents and her own journal entries from the time.  These things give the reader a penetrating look into the narrator’s relationship with the world around her.  Her letters are often strikingly evocative.  Saulitis makes a real effort to pull those around her into her world.  For example, in her letter to her parents, she writes, “The hemlocks, gray-barked and bearded with lichen, remind me of ancient men in Tai Chi poses.  Gnarled, wind-scoured, half alive, they seem to hold each cry, each gasp of the Sound under oil, under boats, under trash, under storms, like memory given form.  When I lean my body against one, I’m dizzy from their knowledge” (80).  This kind of lyrical language does not just describe the place to the reader, but makes the reader also feel the connection and emotion attached to this place as if we are there with Saulitis and feeling the same sense of connection and attachment.

The emotion and passion with which she writes to her parents also comes through in her journal entries.  Amid a myriad of observations about wildlife, one journal entry muses, “If I sat here all day, what would fill these pages?  Out of nowhere, a helicopter.  Clouds sink and rise, wind rises and stills, the air becomes moister and cooler.  It’s impossible to predict what will happen next” (135).  This kind of imagery and introspection is incredibly effective.  It is clear in both her journal and in many of her correspondences that she is of that place.  There’s an immediacy about those passages that brings the reader into the experience.  In these instances, the reader can feel the place and Saulitis’ connection to it in a very powerful way.  Additionally, the speculation that she engages in here allows the reader to feel the possibility that the place holds.

This kind of lyrical language is juxtaposed with more straightforward accounts of her scientific studies.  She gives not only detached scientific explanations, but also an emotional sense of loss.  This juxtaposition comes to bear on both the factual portions and the poetic portions of Saulitis’ writing.  The lyrical portions are given a sense of authority when they are seen next to the research of a scientist who has been studying the place and the whales for years.  The scientific portions are made much more poignant and the reader connects with them much more when they are placed alongside poetic accounts.  Saulitis gives us not only facts on a page, but these facts are given meaning and weight through her use of poetry and poetic language.  Rather than undermining the validity of the scientific research that Saulitis did, it intensifies it.  The poetry and the science both become more authentic and more true.

Saulitis becomes most lyrical and introspective at the very end of her book.  She begins her last chapter writing:

Fine mist falling, fog down to the decks of boats in the harbor. On the breakwater, shags and herons cluster, hunch-shouldered against gusts.  I see them through the spaces in his ribs.  I stare down into the cradle of his rib cage, basket of bones, hoop of barrel staves, empty frame… I want to crawl inside, huddle at his skull’s base, a dark, secret place, to listen (241).

The strength of this writing is in the way it plays with images and lyricism.  We can feel the sense of longing and loss inherent in the way Saulitis talks about the space between ribs and wanting to crawl inside.  But we can also feel the sense of hope and connection in the resiliency of the hunch-shouldered herons and listening.  This echoes the feelings and imagery that she uses at the very end of the book in which she writes, “That what’s broken can be mended. That what’s shattered can be made whole.  That what’s damaged can be repaired. That the end of the story is ‘and then –‘  And then there was Eyak. Always and forever. Amen” (245).  In this, she closes the book much in the same way she began it, through the lens of a poet, someone who felt on a very special level a connection to a group of whales and a place and wants to bring that connection to the reader.

As writers of nonfiction, we can use these devices in our own writing as well.  Like Saulitis, we can include poetic epigraphs to heighten the poignancy of our nonfiction stories.  We can also use poetic language, such as metaphors, to share not only the factual details of our experiences but also the emotional facets.  We can juxtapose the lyrical, emotional language of our areas of expertise or personal experience to give our readers a fuller, more true picture of the events.  The use of poetic language in nonfiction can serve to enhance the experiences we are sharing with our readers.  Evocative, lyrical language can help take stories off the page and make them more visceral and relatable for our readers.

into great silence is also available on amazon.com.