A conversation between Cynthia Hogue and Sari Broner on “The Incognito Body”

"The Incognito Body" by Cynthia Hogue

SB: How does a work partly about the bearing of pain elicit such pleasure? Your close, close attention to language is certainly part of it.You have been able to speak of unspeakable physical pain and yet the reader does not flinch away, but rather is educated. In reading “2. Much that I don't remember,” the letter “O” is capped repeatedly and you speak about “a decreasing capacity/to find wORDs.” “O”s keep breaking through the words’ construction. I read it as a calling out—Oh!—interrupting your thoughts, as pain does. You seem to be tracking your perception of pain and speak of the loss of language. Also, in  “3. The Nerves like Tombs,” you write: “As if an island under fog, memory's/outline blurs in fall and disappears/in spring.” Could you say something about the loss of language in relation to experiencing pain—the present tense of it (you speak of “present perfect,” in no. 11); the relation of language to memory, and the tracking of language’s loss through language itself?

CH: Much of the poem is taken from the journal I kept during that time. Because I had trouble writing and concentrating for about a year from neurological impairment, I used the journal to track the disease’s progress—literally to track the loss of language IN language. So I had a record of cognitive and linguistic loss, and for a writer, this is an incredible experience. The typographical experiments in some of the sections—like the recurring “O”s and other words and sounds, morphemes (which I thought of as Virginia Woolf’s “ords, scraps, fragments” from Between the Acts, written just before the suicide that she described in her journal as “the one experience I will not write about”) nested in the longer words—began to emerge first as lament, and then as discovery. I began slowly, hesitatingly, to work on the poem as my cognitive capacities returned. The actual experience happened five years ago, and the process of writing the poem, which is the process of writing through the disturbing isolation that disease produces, has taken all these five years to make a kind of sense of. As one’s identity disappears into disease (I was “nobody” even as, when physical pain was at its height, I was also not “no body” but something more like “only body”), one becomes impossibly aware of the world’s bodies-in-pain, about which one can DO nothing. One realizes that very quickly, one comes to—if not identify, then—empathize: what I’ve come to think of as a capacity to feel with, not feel for (as in sympathy) others. But one can do nothing for others, but, perhaps, listen from that awakening consciousness to others whom one knows or meets. So, in other words, very little. Or nothing. It all becomes a kind of spiritual process as well as poetic process one goes through. The experience of this particular disease, rheumatoid arthritis, was, as I have said, in the present perfect—a perfect presence and present (in both senses of the word), a constant, of physical pain. Physical (and of course intense mental) pain is—or perhaps I should say feels like—an infinity. It is so present, so inescapable, that one can no longer remember what life was like before the pain began or imagine life resuming without it in the future. One is contained by the physical sensation of pain, which is indescribable, unsharable, as Elaine Scarry has written in The Body in Pain. There is that central irony in the poem: that the tense one uses to convey that sense is the present perfect (as if the condition were perfect), that the poem is “about”—attempts to track in language—something that is beyond language and in fact, has taken language away. So both like memory (because the experience itself was beyond language) and as memory (because the experience is now in the past perfect of “was having pain”), the experience of disease is a reconstruction in and through language. Why do that?, I guess has been my question over the years.

SB: I’d like go back for a moment to the morphemes. I was moved by words that had embedded in them (in bed with them) other meanings or their opposites, serious-minded puns. “Take it, beLIEve that it’s/not in your control.” (from “4, Green surrounds the mind of summer). The word “lie,” lying within “belief,” parallels how one feels the body has betrayed. (Is illness a lie the body believes or is health?) Later, “de-/tachMEnt from ambI-/shuns—wORld-…”(from “8. Since I cannot think”) I did not expect to find “ME” in detachment, though “I” is at home in ambition, and while ambition butts into the world, it doesn’t shun the world. And later in that section, you write “tendering the tENDer/pARTs.” The word “end” opposes “tender” and also evokes “art’s end.” Or, “not my wILL” that ill should be part of will and “here” part of “there,” and “all” in “small.” I somehow feel the truth most in these kinds of opposites, just as death plays counterpoint to life. Or language’s needle pokes through experience to create some kind of garment.

CH: These words-within-words began, as I recall, first as lament—perhaps a bit as prayer or invocation, in that tradition (the “OM”s that form part of pattern). I started by emphasizing the “O’s” because I wanted a sort of long, low undertone to be raised to the level of consciousness, through a cumulative visual effect. But then I began to discover little words within words that supplemented the linear meaning, and created a tension within it. That tension of the shattered “I” that I was exploring thematically and, at the level of the text, typographically and spatially.  That strain of “opposites” you note wasn’t really conscious at all. Well, yes, the irony of the “ME” straining against an experience of inexorable detachment from a unified sense of self (Me being the objective case), the “I” in “ambition” (subjective). But the “lie” one discovers, as one threads one’s way through the medical establishment, is that there’s no mind/body relationship, as Kathy Acker has written about in “The Gift of Disease.” The quotation from The Duchess of Malfi about the body caging the soul is precisely descriptive of the experience of illness. So the text oscillates between awarenesses.

SB: In “7. The Hour of Lead,” I read a soft, short breath in the lineation that embodies illness or pain. In a note from Kathleen Fraser, regarding “The Incognito Body,” she asks “What has changed (if anything) in your pleasure in/understanding of the poem’s “making”—its possibilities—during this lengthy (5 years) revision process, i.e. what has shifted in your structuring of the poem/the line as you worked to uncover or take apart this difficult subject, issues of ‘personal lyric’ vs. distancing devices, etc.” I realize you have spoken to this in part, but I wonder if you describe the line of movement from one kind of poetry into another. Perhaps related is fluctuating rhythm between a kind of lyrical prose/rhythm/reference and the investigative gesture of the morphemes—a magnifying glass held to a word.

CH: At first, I had the experience of ‘disappearing’—being a no-longer-self, and the lines and spaces around the morphemes, words, and lines tried to track the hesitancy, the long silences around, thoughts and spoken words. Then, as the poem began to take shape, I experimented with collaging in other ‘languages’—of medical anthropology, for example, which I eventually came upon framing (as the self is “framed” by examination, as well as by the identity of having a disease). I had been fascinated with the way Marianne Moore, for example, uses unpoetic language—languages from many sources (advertisements, guidebooks, prose studies of all sorts like magazine articles and Biblical exegesis)—to create the texture of her poems. It has always seemed to me to argue against Bakhtin’s writing off poetry as monological (unlike novels)—that the layering of languages (what he calls heteroglossia) is not just found in the novel, but also in modern and postmodern poetry (it’s so obviously there in performance art, for example). So in the beginning, of necessity to some extent, I was structuring the poem through collage and pastiche, playing with the buried linguistic puns and the spatial arrangements to interrupt and disrupt what was, after all, a very straightforward description of personal trauma. In the last year or so, as I wrote the final sections, my sense of self had literally re-coalesced, and so had the poem’s sections, formally. At this point, the poem emerged more clearly to me as an arena of possibility as well as limitation. The sections that most literally describe physical pain are “contained” within the sonnet form (conventionally a “little song” about love and very asymmetrically gendered). The style of the personal lyric is perhaps most evident in section 9, “Body Scans,” but there the voice is in the second person “you”—both to convey the sense of self as observed and to evoke a kind of identifying activity within the reader. Both sonnets allude to and even quote directly from one of Dickinson’s poems about pain, so at moments in the poem that are most autobiographical, another voice enters in. The sonnet you mention, “The Hour of Lead,” also uses repetition a lot (“dream” is repeated three times, for example)—and the sounds themselves are not so much rhymed as repeated—to suggest a paucity of language, its loss, that stumbling.  I had also become interested in the possibilities of abstract language as a component of the poem and the linguistic experimentation with language in the poem. So in the last sections, though in conventional stanzaic forms, the language is actually very abstract—a kind of epistemological and ontological inquiry.  About the poem’s structure and rhythms, I can only say that they emerged intuitively, through trial and error, except of course in the sonnets. I’ve disrupted the narrative chronology, although it’s there, embedded in the arrangement of the sections. There’s a lot of interruption (even in the sonnets, by parenthetical lines and phrases)—of one language by another, of one style by another, of words by space, and within words by typographical shifts. One could say that such interruption is a structural principle, a signifying on “normal” life being interrupted by some trauma, like an illness, and on the memorializing, conceptualizing processes of the mind being interrupted by incapacitation, forgetting. The changes in the writing over the years that this poem took shape have to do with the aesthetic pleasures of shaping a series tracking something that happened “to” me, which I survived well and luckily, rather than one that I conceived of as a planned project (like saying “for my next project, I’m working on…”). My relationship to language, even to poetry, as well as to self had changed. I returned to the poem and its ideas as to an originary scene. The poem then unfolds with the urgency of a repetition compulsion, a reconstruction around a memory (which now seems more like dream) of trauma. In its seeking to find a language that could approximate lived experience, it was more ecstatic (out of the body) or revisionary, though, than pleasurable in the writing. 


"The Incognito Body" by Cynthia Hogue


Bio: Sari Broner works with combinations of poetry, copy arts, and photography. She co-edits ROOMS, a biannual journal of experimental poetry, art, and scholarship by women. Her book, Bodies of Water, will be published by Potes and Poets Press in the fall.

Bio: Cynthia Hogue has published three collections of poetry, most recently The Never Wife (Mammoth Press, 1999). She is working on a fourth collection entitled The Incognito Body. She currently lives in Pennsylvania, where she directs the Stadler Center for Poetry and teaches English at Bucknell University.



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