by Emily Bowles
In graduate school, one of my professors scandalously broke from critical theory and wrote a book titled Literary Criticism: An Autopsy. When I took his class, he was fashionably iconoclastic: a Berkley grad who, romantic rumor had it, was an up- and-coming theoretical thinker whose professor died, leaving him his papers—papers that somehow transformed him from a poststructuralist into a conservative thinker, someone as acrimoniously divorced from critical theory as he had been wedded to it as a student.
At Emory, very few students shared his viewpoints, but there was something deeply tragic, almost hypnotic in how he taught us the historical trajectory of literary theory, a wistfulness, as if he had lived alongside Plato and was hurt that his dear friend had been betrayed by Cixous, Derrida, Foucault, and Irigaray.
I hadn’t thought of him in years. In fact, I haven’t thought much about literary theory and the battles of the books intellectuals have waged since Jonathan Swift’s text of that name, because my academic trajectory veered off course, and I learned that while it is interesting to think about Foucault’s docile bodies or the panopticon in light of recent political events, the theoretical concepts of corporeal inscription and policing can only go so far in helping us make sense of our world and the works comprising them.
His book title has returned to me, recently, as I think about art, action, and identity in the broader context of COVID-19. What words have we mangled, murdered in our efforts to understand the “new normal” and creatives’ place in it?
I have been imagining my own creative work as an autopsy of sorts, an examination of bodies that matter—bodies I know, bodies I don’t know, bodies of work, bodies of water.
Mostly, I have been murdering mermaids in order to find out what makes them breathe.
Instead of explain what I mean, exactly, by that, I am putting together three mermaid bodies here: quotations that merge and submerge in my ideas of mermaids, the knit and embroidered mermaids that I’ve busied my hands with, and a poem, in which I play with the word siren as it seduces while communicating fear, danger, and emergencies.
I have struggled for decades with periods of profound writer’s block and impostor syndrome, normally after reading something (or a series of somethings) so brilliant that I have questioned my own ability to add anything to a collective imagination. After reading Virginia Woolf and H.D. (and more recently, Lucy Ellmann), I have had to convince myself of something I do believe: our voices matter, and when we speak—in whatever form that takes on—we add meaning, for ourselves and others.
During quarantine, I’ve let old voices back into my life, in part because social distancing has made me crave the intimacy I found in them, and I have invited new ones in before tangling up the writers’ words into my own interpretations.
- T.S. Eliot, “I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.”
- Tori Amos, “What if I’m a mermaid in these jeans of his with her name still on them?”
- Alix E. Harrow, “To a world of sea creatures, your ability to breathe air is stunning.”
Bethany C. Morrow, “I can’t decide whether I’m glad they’re listening or whether I’m annoyed that the conversation’s gone unheard for so many years. I think probably both.”
I have pulled quotations out from T.S. Eliot, Tori Amos, Alix E. Harrow, and Bethany C. Morrow as if with a scalpel, and cut through them until I find what I want, and from these bodies, I build a mermaid in my mind whose voice is a cry against patriarchal standards of beauty, a cry against rape culture, a cry against self-silencing and socially or institutionally-sanctioned silencings. I build a mermaid who does not sun herself on rocks but lurches, as ugly as she needs to be to survive, which might in fact mean she is more beautiful, stronger, and stranger than she knows.
With fragments of quotations like these and fictions/facts competing for space, I have found myself creating objects that are simultaneously domestic and impractical: they require patience and a knack for mending or re-purposing things, but they do not exactly fill a need.
When I work with my hands, it is meditative: I use the repetition to still my mind when I need to and also to work through ideas, ranging from the practical to the poetic. Mermaid blankets require so little mental attention from me that, as I work through the scales, I weave in and out of discourses—conversations with my daughter, podcasts, books, Netflix binges, and moments of quiet, along with hours of zoom meetings for work.
Seeing a body (or half of a mythical body) take shape as I watch and listen to people speaking from frames on my computer screen makes me feel like I am literalizing my own metaphors, making the magic I wish I could find—a magic, as the quotation from Harrow suggests, that could be as simple as being able to breathe without fear.
Rather than attempt to segment my writing or separate it from these practices, I have started blurring the boundaries and seeing that in each act, I am making/have made personal and political choices that become intelligible in different modes, with different amounts of opacity.
Once a body has been broken (into), I weave these stories into mine.
I started this poem while I was running on a stretch of trail by the Fox River, an environment not exactly amenable to mermaids, and am continuing to think about how I can create living, breathing meaning in the ugliness we all see—algae on the river, rotting fish, and the larger violences we are collectively witnessing.
Emily Bowles has a PhD in English from Emory University. Her first chapbook (His Journal, My Stella) attempts to make invisible women visible and intelligible.