Sharon Dolin on the Shattering of a Shared Language

H. L. Hix: No doubt my general attraction to anaphora participates in my developing an interest, as I read through Whirlwind, in the number of poems that are structured as lists: “The Tip,” “Unpairing: Proofreading My Marriage,” “Smudging: A Recipe,” and so on.  But my question is not about the form of listing, per se; it’s about the form of the list in relation to the themes/content of this book.  What is it about life-changing events (especially the grief-causing kind, such as divorce) that occasions an urge for lists?  Or, to turn the question around, what does the list allow you to feel/think/say about the matters in this book, that you wouldn’t be able to otherwise?


Sharon Dolin: That’s a fascinating insight masquerading as a question, which I’ll attempt to answer anyway. There’s something dispassionate about the list. In the midst of writing narrative confessional poems (I did have a story/stories to tell), as well as poems of reflection, I thought, give them (my readers) the facts. Nothing but the facts. Because facts do speak as much as story soaked in grief and rage. So if I could just focus on an object (as in “The Tip”), and just dispassionately list the facts, then, through the accretion of these details, a damning portrait of a husband and his betrayal (I think) accrues. Also, it is the most economical way to slip in narrative details without telling the story. The same is true with “Unpairing: Proofreading My Marriage.” I’m able to get humor in there in the guise of correcting the record. Also, I was looking for a way to get at the hypocrisy of my ex through the shifting language. The catalogue became a strategy for me to deal with the emotional turbulence of my world coming apart. Why not indicate it through the minute shifts in words and phrases, which is where it first showed itself anyway. Relationships are, after all, built upon a shared language and the lists bring out the shattering of that language more starkly. Stating it outright would have taken me only so far. Again, what could be more detached than a proofreader’s notes, though the ones I write are anything but detached and objective.


Late in the book is the poem “Knot His to S[t]ay” that is a mock trial: “as call me plaintiff (placemark) on the grounds of.” That too, is a kind of list. I hadn’t thought about it in that way, but indeed it is, with its insistent “as” clauses. So I guess the inventory, the catalogue, was a way for me to build a case, bit by bit, inch by inch: my Niagara Falls. Of course, these lists are obsessive, even monomaniacal, as anyone who’s been through a trauma knows one becomes. The writing of them was also cathartic, but this time a controlled catharsis, unlike the narrative hyperbole in, for example, “To the Furies Who Visited Me in the Basement of Duane Reade.” The list says: Here are, nonetheless, irrefutable details. It also lends itself to the fragment, and often a collection of fragments (isn’t that how we remember things anyway?) can be just as powerful as a story. As I wrote the catalogue, it felt a bit like I was slamming down line after line until I’d built up a metamorphic record composed of these tiny schists of details and fragments.


I should add that there are poems in the latter half of the book that are lists that have nothing to do with the divorce, though in the context of this book, everything takes on the valence of the book’s emotional storm center, the breakup of a marriage and its aftermath. “Should Have” actually predates the breakup as does “For I Will Consider the Overlooked Dragonfly,” with its obvious reference to Christopher Smart, as well as “From the Cricket Cage.” In these examples, the list is a way of structuring a poem that is anti-narrative, yet it’s possible to sneak a narrative in there, as I do with “Smudging: A Recipe” and some of the others.


The more you look, the more list poems you’ll find. Even one of the love poems toward the end of the book, “Now that,” with its anaphoric pile-up of dependent clauses promising but not delivering the main clause, is a list whose purpose is meant to describe the sad futility of this particular love affair, held in suspended clauses that never quite complete themselves. In this way, I’d say that the best of forms—catalogues, sonnets, ghazals—are mercurial and can change timbre, depending upon the particular poem’s subject matter.


Finally, returning to your final question, when emotional trauma hits, I try to use my entire arsenal of forms and approaches. While I often felt like the Ancient Mariner stopping the reader with my “glittering eye” in the narrative poems and those of discursive reflection, I was equally compelled to write the lists, which were a relief and gave me another way in to the subject matter that obsessed me by allowing me to coolly pile on detail, bit by bit, step by step . . . .



Sharon Dolin.  Whirlwind.  Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, 2012.

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