Helene Cixous’ Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing
Let us go to the school of writing, where we’ll spend three school days initiating ourselves in the strange science of writing, which is a science of farewells. Of reunitings.
I will begin with:
This is what writing is.
I’m not sure how I came across the book. Maybe I saw it displayed in a small bookshop in the city and fell in love with the cover. I’m not sure. It is as if, by magic, or, more probably, as though my own terrible need for guidance, for a mentor, conjured the book into my life. However it appeared, it appeared in my life around ten years ago, perhaps longer. In any case, Cixous’ voice, her words, the power of her intellect fused with her passion drew me in immediately. I began teaching from the book as soon as I found it.
When I write, I am speaking. I am saying, “I exist. I am alive. I am not dead yet.” When I write, I am neither here nor there, I have vanished into a dead zone, a crawlspace all my own. I am speaking into a long tunnel. Each word I write is a mark, is a weight. I am saying, “I have a voice. It was not smudged out.”
After I licked clean the saucers
Of Schlag and ceiling-high cream cakes,
I ran twelve miles in my ballet leotard
Through the German forest of snow.
How do I feel about my botched suicide?
Lacing up my skating boots, I
Vanish, silvery paste of vapor on the ice.
If I could I would ask you to close your eyes as someone close to you—no, a stranger would be better—whispers these poems into your ear. If you could find someone on the subway, if you could step outside yourself long enough to simply ask, it should only take four minutes or so. Why the subway? Because it is closest to the experience of these poems, moving through a tunnel of light, fully contained in the pressure of the moment.
I was locked in the linen closet, lost In ruffles of gingham tatters and my sky Bleached hair. I wore the Paper crown. I wore the flimsy red Tiara. I let them Pin them wings on me. The palace, I say, is burning. And snipers masked in mandarin felt masks. In my room, I can hear them Breaking off of daddy’s ancient CB: One day she’ll be a looker. Someday, a knockout. But all I see when I look in the mirror Is a bright blue sky filling with F16s.
I have a fairy rosary called Silver who answers
Questions when I dangle her in the sun at the window.
So I’ve asked her if I have a big ego and she swings
From side to side to say no.
We have other children for friends.
We don’t understand why we are here in the world.
Our childhood was a science lab, A brackish, incubating underworld. An all-night pharmacy of bright pink Pills. And the military doctor with his Throne of medicine, an ossuary of bones. That dead room of books and sun-bleached Skulls. No one could protect us. Death Lurked around the corner, a wild white Pulse. Incessant drone, sweet hum Of the animal. Compass with no needle, We grew old on that waste riddled junk, With no pilot, no anchor, no map. Just the warm current of death Steering us nowhere.
There has been talk, of late, of a new breed of poetry—what has been coined variously “Post-post modernism,” and “the new new sincerity,” a lyric poetry that, though neither confessional nor narrative, does not shy away from revealing that the poems are, in fact, written by a person, a poetry that utilizes the “I,” but ventures into a new room of writing, one that plays with language and does not shirk from beauty. Not surprisingly, I find this work to be exhilarating, a breath of fresh air in a large room of poetry that often trumps sterility and smarts.
On Saturdays when I was a young girl, my mother would drive me downtown to the Santa Cruz Public Library. Often, she would drop me off; leave me there for hours. And I was completely content to wander aimlessly, pulling books from the endless shelves. I would get myself into a small spell, walking and gathering books. Then, I’d find myself a quiet corner to sit and there, I would lose myself inside the portal of a book.
Years later, I am, again, in the library, this time, the Aptos Public Library. I am in the children’s reading room kneeling before a round wooden table upon which sits a fake board game, The Phantom Tollbooth. Here is how the game goes: I pick up a card, and whichever book is listed on its backside, that is the book I will read. I spend a week inside the kingdom of this book and then, when my mother returns me to the library, the next Saturday, I tell the librarian which books I’ve read, and she takes me by the hand and escorts me back to the magic round table, back to the board game. She disappears for a moment and then returns with a form with my name on the top. She adds the books I read that week to the long list, instructs me to spin the spinner and then I pick up a new card, and flip it over.
The pretty librarian takes my hand and leads me across the room to a shelf where she pauses, leans into the books and pulls out a beautiful red book with a black horse’s face on it. Black Beauty.
She hands me the book, the key, and I open it, and then I drop under as I enter the beautiful kingdom again.