Writing the Self-Elegy: The Past is Not Disappearing Ink (ed. Kara Dorris)

Reviewed by Michael Northen

As a poetic form, the elegy has been around for hundreds of years. In her 2006 anthology, Invention of Farewell: A Book of Elegies, Sandra M. Gilbert notes that among the many ways that human beings have created to mourn loss the elegy is the one persistent form that poetry has to offer. Gilbert offers readers a look at the wide variety of elegies that English language poets have written, ranging from Milton’s “Lycidas” and Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed” to the work of such contemporary poets as Yusef Komunyakaa and Marilyn Hacker. With the publication of Writing the Self-Elegy, Kara Dorris provides a new twist on a venerable form. 

For over a decade, Dorris has been staking her claim as a disabled poet both through her writing and her work as an educator. In Writing the Self-Elegy, she mines these experiences to create an anthology of contemporary poetry that examines the loss of self. Unlike many anthologies that simply serve as a “greatest hits” or provide a panoply of writing from a particular cultural position, Dorris’ anthology invites readers and writers to grapple with one of our slipperiest concepts, the persistence of self. Dorris is particularly well-suited to investigating the loss of self. In the anthology’s “Introduction,” she describes the many changes her own body has had to go through surgically since childhood as a result of an inherited disability. She asks who she would be today if she had not experienced those changes and who she might have been if she had a body that did not heed them in the first place. Writing the Self-Elegy is a result of her invitation to other poets to explore their own relationships to past and present selves.

In inviting writers to submit their work, Dorris provided writers with some examples of self-elegy and asked them to submit relevant poems along with a short essay or commentary. Anticipating that the anthology might be used in educational settings, she also asked writers to provide an accompanying prompt or prompts that might help encourage students’ and teachers’ writing. One of the challenging and rewarding tasks for anthologists is the arrangement of the work they have selected into cohesive sections. Dorris has divided Writing the Self-Elegy into three parts that logically follow each other, each viewing self-elegy from a different angle: agency, multiplicity, and other (external forces). Within every section, each poet is represented by poems, commentary on their concept of self-elegy, and at least one writing prompt. Frequent readers of disability poetry will recognize a number of the writers included,  but even for those of us who have spent years in the field there are some welcome surprises as well.

Dorris has encouraged poets to view the elegy as a mode of poetic exploration, but as TC Tolbert reminds us, “The thing about elegies people often forget is the turn towards praise – lament cannot exist without love.”  (p. 203) How does this turn toward the loss of self with love work? Carol Berg offers, “When I am creating a poem about something that has been lost within me, whether my childhood or a love, I am trying to achieve more complexity – an insight into the me that was part of that loss, and which will bring more understanding to the self that is in the moment of writing the poem.” (p. 97) But what happens when that lost self is suicidal (Stephanie Heit), attached to a deadname (TC Tolbert), inaccessible due to stroke (Juliet Cook), or mourning for the loss of a body that never existed (Anne Kaier)?

Moreover, not all poets view this process of self-elegy as an act of sincerity, as the deep dive into the psyche that Berg describes. In remarks that reflect Dorris’ concern about modern presentations of self on social media, Bruce Bond asserts that “writing is a social act” and that all attempts at self-elegy are really social constructions. Bond puts the problem squarely this way, “Identity can never align with the self as the fundamentally unrepresentable field of subjectivity by which personae emerge as relatively phony or not. The two notions of self – as a construct and as that which defies construction…”  (p. 134) In this age where the assertion of identity has taken such a central political and social stage, this tension is important to keep in mind while reading through the poems in the three sections of the anthology.

As noted, section one focuses on agency and its role in the formation of self. Agency implies the ability to control how one is perceived in the world, but even within that framework the self as conceived is not static. In the book’s introduction, Dorris asks us to picture ourselves when we first decided to draw a portrait of that self or claim an identity. What contributed to that image? What parts have we tried to retain and what have we elected to discard? The anthology’s first section explores the choices that some poets made.

Two of the first poets the reader encounters in the anthology, Jennifer Martiza McCauley and John Chávez, provide different interpretations of how self-elegy might function. McCauley writes, “I see the form [self-elegy] as a celebratory form of mourning – of the cyclical deaths of the self, of those who have passed, of the many versions of ourselves living within our loved ones.” (p. 25) For McCauley, the form provides a means of connection with others, “When I’m looking for myself within, I’m looking also outside of myself.”

By contrast, Chávez states:

My poetics: a form of elegy, always.
My poetics 2: an exploration of a country hell-bent on erasing Latinix identities.
My poetics 3: a study of part of myself that never existed.
My poetics: an act of recovery.

Elegy, as I understand it, allows one to mourn, for a collective to mourn. (p. 33)

Despite the almost meditative quality of Chávez poems, like many others in this volume, they have some heavy political work to do.

If one poem summarizes the poetry in this final part of the anthology at its most basic, it might be Adam Crittenden’s “Elegy for the Young Me”:

You’ve already died
but your phantom hangs around
like the smell of barbecue
or stale garbage…

You sit next to me while I Netflix
and solidify into gooey rock.

I turn to you and you to me
And we both want to laugh
but we both know it wouldn’t matter. (p. 52)

While agency implies the formation of a particular self-identity, it is also fair to ask whether several identities can exist within a person at the same time. This is the question that the book’s second section, “Multiplicities: Multiple Timelines and Selves,” considers. Dorris proposes a Schrödinger’s cat scenario: perhaps all of those selves are in contention until one actually opens the box. And for a poet, it may be the poem that opens the lid. Even then, she adds, it is hard not to consider what effects those other selves have on the one that we choose to go with. Ironically, aside from the author’s own work, not many of the poems in this section actually seem to explore the topic suggested in the section’s title or in the scenario Dorris proposes. Perhaps one that comes close is Kevin Prufer’s “Churches”:

There ought to be a word
                         that suggests
how we’re balanced at the very tip of history
and behind us
              everything speeds irretrievably away.

“It’s called impermanence,”
                              the little girl said
looking at the mess of postcards on the floor
“It’s called transience,” she said,
                                  gently touching the broken window.

“It’s called dying,” she said.  (p. 142)

Needless to say, our own sense of agency only takes us so far in the creation of self. Dorris reminds us, “Even as we write and create, trying to exert Agency and control, even as the term self-identity implies ownership, we shape ourselves based upon other external influences. “ (p. 152) This is true even when we consider that we may be multiple selves and not fixed identities.  

In the final section of the anthology, “Defining Through the External,” the author provides space for poets to enlarge the definition of the self-elegy by incorporating the influences of other factors that are “always tethered to us.” It is also in this section that Dorris’ personal experience and background in work with disabled writers really come into the fore.

Like Dorris, a number of the other poets in this section of Writing the Self-Elegy identify as disabled, including Sheila Black, Rusty Morrison, Anne Kaier, Raymond Luczak, and Stephanie Heit.   

As much as any traditionally marginalized group, disabled writers have had themselves defined by others. At times this definition and the sense of elegy it produces reflect the larger values of society, as in the opening words of Kaier’s first poem, “How my body mourns for might/ have been, should be.” (p. 189)

More frequently, however, it is the disabled self as created and reflected in the viewpoint of the medical establishment that is the source of the problem. As Sheila Black puts it in “Vivisection”:

How you bisected me –
the elegance of the scars.
The disease? it was not chemical.
You could not cure it.

I cling to this chill.
Watch how I unfurl
before it, flag of myself,
a distorted mirror. (p. 170)

This disabling of self may reach its extreme in the hybrid memoir poems of Stephanie Heit taken from her book Psych Murders where extreme bipolar states are blended with the aftermath of electroshock therapy.

Dorris makes a felicitous choice in ending the collection with the work of Tanaya Winder. Winder’s poems, essay, and suggestions for writing the self-elegy all coalesce into the whole that leaves the reader with the sense that someone else has experienced all of these transitional selves just as we have with their accumulating loss and yet also left us with a sense of hope.  

While it is true that poetry has no obligation to educate, as someone who taught for over forty years, I’m always heartened when anthologists have the vision to consider how their work might be used in a classroom. As mentioned above, Dorris asked the contributing poets to extend their own poetic explorations by providing prompts that might be used in a classroom. Admittedly, some of the prompts provided feel perfunctory and, if there is a weakness in the anthology, this is it, but, most of the writers have taken the task to heart and, despite a good deal of overlap, the resulting suggestions should provide creative tinder for classroom teachers and their students – as well as for readers themselves.

In creating Writing the Self-Elegy, Kara Dorris has not only taken a traditional form and brought it into the era of the selfie, she has provided the impetus for readers to think seriously about the trajectories of our own lives and the entire concept of self.  Moreover, she has compiled an exciting and diverse collection of poetry that adds fuel to the continuing development of disability poetry. The volume is subtitled, “The Past is not Disappearing Ink.” Let’s hope Dorris’ words presage the success of her anthology.   

Title: Writing the Self-Elegy
Editor: Kara Dorris
Publisher: Southern Illinois University Press
Date: 2023

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About the Reviewer

Michael Northen was the facilitator of the Inglis House Poetry Workshop from 1997-2010 and the editor of Wordgathering from 2007-2019. He was also an editor of the anthology, Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability and the anthology of disability short fiction, The Right Way to Be Crippled and Naked (both from Cinco Puntos Press).  He is currently working on an anthology of disability poetry to be published by Northwestern University Press in 2025.