The Lyric Essay, Mixed Genre, and the Mother

The essay form is once again on everyone’s mind, as John D’Agata came out with another genre-excavating collection, The Making of the American Essay (2016), the third in a series from Graywolf Press. Defining the lyric essay in particular is a slippery project; just ask its spokesperson, D’Agata, who has drifted towards and away from this designation himself over the years. In the 2015 Seneca Review anthology D’Agata edited, We Might as Well Call it the Lyric Essay, he says he savors “the challenge of writing in-between the two worlds of poetry and essay,” and that he enjoys how these writings “eschew the story-driven ambitions of fiction and nonfiction for the associative inquiry of poems.”

Yet, even though the term’s a shifty one, I felt something about my writing style, and maybe even myself, could at last be located when I came across the concept of the lyric essay, this mixture of memoir, poetry, essay, and theory. Because of the challenges of categorization, I’ll just say in this piece I’m looking at women’s prose works that straddle these four different forms.

As I read essay after essay, some book-length, a striking theme emerged. I saw these women writers trying to both find their own mothers and find themselves as mothers again and again. I understood this impulse. When I got pregnant, I suddenly wanted to learn everything there was to know about these mythical creatures called “mothers.” I needed to understand what I was in the process of becoming, and in this process I started to understand what my own mother had become all those years ago. As Theresa Cha writes in her unclassifiable and brilliant 1982 book Dictee (D’Agata includes an excerpt in his Seneca lyric essay anthology), “Let the one who is diseuse, one who is mother who waits nine days and nine nights be found. Restore memory.” Fittingly, the diseuse is a monologist or storyteller who often delivers her tales in poetic form.

I’m not going to tiptoe around it, becoming a mother was no piece of cake for me, but it was profoundly transformative. I basically made my head explode, but it was somehow a more generous head afterward. It was plumb tired all the time, but also more capacious, could fit any number of complex and often contradictory things inside that would have once had to wait by the door. Indeed, Carleen Tibbetts writes beautifully for Drunken Boat on the topic of motherhood’s queering of the body in Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts (often identified as falling in the lyric essay family). Tibbetts chronicles how pregnancy and its aftermath produces a body that is “recurrent, eddying, troublant,” in the terms of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s definition of “queer.”

Still another question hit me while reading these works by women: what happens when the mother, so often treated as the object of men’s writing, is both the object of discussion and the writer herself? Nelson examines this question, too, in The Argonauts. She writes of Jane Gallop’s presentation of the photographs her husband took of her and her son: “She was taking on Barthes’s Camera Lucida, and the way in which even in Barthes — delectable Barthes! — the mother remains the (photographed) object; the son, the (writing) subject. ‘The writer is someone who plays with his mother’s body,’ Barthes wrote. But sometimes the writer is also the mother (Möbius strip).”

Paradoxically, right after birth, I felt more creative and writerly than ever, just as I was on some level kept from my craft by the endless needs of my new baby. As Rivka Galchen puts it in her lyrical book on being both writer and mother, the 2016 Little Labors, soon after her baby was born, “The world seemed ludicrously, suspiciously, adverbially sodden with meaning. Which is to say that the puma [baby] made me again more like a writer (or at least a certain kind of writer) precisely as she was making me into someone who was, enduringly, not writing.”

Alison Bechdel’s 2013 graphic novel Are You My Mother? articulates perfectly the Catch-22 of striving to write about your mom. Bechdel subtitles her book, “A Comic Drama,” and I subtitle it a lyric essay because it intersperses the personal with the poetic and critical. The writings of psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott, for instance, are central to the book, and really cathected, rubbed up against even. The Catch-22 comes about when, on the subject of her mother, the Bechdel character tells her therapist, “The only thing is, I can’t write this book until I get her out of my head. But the only way to get her out of my head is by writing the book!” I know a little something about this myself, seeing as how I can’t seem to write a single thing without a cartoon thought bubble with my mother in it hovering around me.

It struck me that there was some strange symmetry between biological creation and literary creation, these two parallel projects of bringing the internal outward, that was asking to be examined as I read these maternal writings. As Jenny Boully puts it in her gorgeous essay, “Too Many Spirits who Begged to be Let In,” in We Might as Well Call it the Lyric Essay, “Some things happen from the inside out: existence, for instance; or, forcing into a little body then being born…or the intense compression of thought before the expansion of the essay…or, the holding in of something for a very long time before letting it live outside of you; writing, for instance” (26).

What’s more, as I read these lyric essays on mothers and motherhood, I started having this surreal, borderline-creepy sensation of form being linked to content in some chilling way. Then it hit me that here I was writing a monthly column on the mixing of genres, and what could be more of a mixed genre than a person with another person growing inside her? Like birth and sex, mixed forms, such as the lyric essay and the essay film, or what Lopate calls a “centaur,” try to merge two distinct “bodies,” two distinct genres.

The essay film to which Lopate refers is the cinematic sibling of the lyric essay in its poetic connotations and refusal to fit neatly within the confines of category. In his book The Essay Film, Timothy Corrigan writes, “Often with the look of a documentary filtered through a more or less personal perspective, these sometimes perplexing movies have always been difficult to classify,” and he suggests “part of the reason for the lack of attention to these films…is the more general suspicion about the essay itself. More often than not, essays have been considered ‘eccentric,’ ‘a degenerate, impossible genre, not very serious and even dangerous.’”

And so I started thinking of certain films I saw as lyric essays or essay films, even though these terms could of course never do justice to the works themselves. One film I conceived of in this way was Sarah Polley’s 2012 Stories We Tell, in which we see Polley striving to assemble a film that pieces together the story of her mother, and hence her own origins. Lyric essays and essay films are almost always stories of their own becoming. “What I’ve always appreciated about the essay,” writes D’Agata in a recent Electric Literature interview, “is the feeling that it gives me that it’s capturing that activity of human thought in real time.” Polley’s storytelling and shots aim to express the impossibility of capturing the mother or the past — even revealing that Polley’s been tricking us in some sense all along mid-way through, just as memory does to us all (I won’t spoil it for you here; it’s too good).

Then it occurred me the way Polley puts the impossibility of nailing down the mother mirrors the impossibility of nailing down genre. In that same Electric Literature interview, D’Agata asks, “Can we call the essay its own genre if it’s so promiscuously versatile? Can we call any genre a ‘genre’ if, when we read it from different angles and under different shades of light, the differences between it and something else start becoming indistinguishable?”

As Polley struggles to journey back in narrative time and find her mother, she could just as easily be talking about genre when she muses, “Have I totally lost my mind trying to reconstruct the past from other people’s words? Trying to form her? Is this the tsunami she unleashed when she went? And all of us still flailing in her wake, trying to put her together in the wreckage, and her slipping away from us over and over again just as we begin to see her face?”

The closest I can come to expressing this mind-boggling experience of being both writer and mother is to say that now that I’m a mom I’m playing all the roles here — the role of Polley, or writer and daughter in search of some understanding of her mother, her origin, but also the role of the mother, slipping away just as I begin to see my own face.