Closure, Irresolution, and Cynthia Hogue’s “At Delphi”

Critical Essay / Lesley Wheeler


:: Closure, Irresolution, and Cynthia Hogue’s “At Delphi” ::

Class­room con­ver­sa­tions about what nobody under­stands can be joy­ful. After you wan­der around in the light of poetry’s uncer­tain­ty, though, you have to exit the room and face your com­plic­i­ty in a dam­aged and dam­ag­ing land­scape. This struck me hard­est dur­ing my first stint as Depart­ment Head at a small col­lege, begin­ning in 2007, right after I fell in love with Cyn­thia Hogue’s book The Incog­ni­to Body. No one else would take the posi­tion. I felt unpre­pared but called to help because I was caught up in a sto­ry about the impor­tance of the work. Heads or chairs—choose your favorite metaphor—manage the qual­i­ty of hun­dreds of stu­dents’ edu­ca­tions and the pro­fes­sion­al well-being of many teach­ers. Some of the teach­ers, giv­en academia’s two-tier sys­tem, lack job secu­ri­ty or basic ben­e­fits. I accept­ed the role, although it was offered grudg­ing­ly by a hyper­crit­i­cal boss who dis­liked me from the beginning. 

Before I began, col­leagues con­tact­ed me with upset­ting tales about the new Dean. He was unpre­pared for meet­ings, then blamed sub­or­di­nates. He mis­used his height and size, trap­ping women in their chairs when he talked to them. I saw him throw an arm over the back of an untenured woman’s seat even as he leaned in to dis­par­age anoth­er woman’s appear­ance. In doc­u­mentable sit­u­a­tions he stayed on the safe side of the law, bare­ly, but his bul­ly­ing was poisonous. 

I could have used advice in those first months but learned that con­sult­ing this Dean was unsafe. When a tenured white man I super­vised took his protest over my head—I had told him he need­ed to attend most depart­ment meetings—the Dean rep­ri­mand­ed me pub­licly with­out ask­ing me what hap­pened. He would obsess over small prob­lems, mak­ing it dan­ger­ous for the depart­ment to acknowl­edge that a tal­ent­ed new tenure-track col­league could use some men­tor­ing, espe­cial­ly if the assis­tant pro­fes­sor was a woman or a per­son of col­or. I respond­ed by striv­ing to do my work per­fect­ly, but if I sub­mit­ted a report ear­ly, he would mis­lay it, then chas­tise me for miss­ing the deadline. 

Every inter­ac­tion seemed minor in iso­la­tion, but the bat­tery wore me down. One day I dis­sent­ed from the Dean dur­ing a meet­ing of the tenure and pro­mo­tion com­mit­tee. He start­ed pok­ing my arm under the con­fer­ence table as he rebutted me. I fell silent. Then I start­ed shak­ing. I wish I had yelled, Stop touch­ing me! I hate that I respond­ed, instead, with down­cast eyes and the painful burn of con­cealed intim­i­da­tion. But I did, and no one else noticed. 

When I gath­ered courage and expressed dis­tress to the Provost, she told me that although I had recent­ly tes­ti­fied to lawyers in anoth­er professor’s case against this Dean, there were no records of com­plaint against the man. “You wouldn’t want the poor guy to lose his job over this, would you?” the Provost asked. So I read, wrote, taught, and chaired as best I could, pick­ing an obscure way among the rocks. I could still help peo­ple but in small­er ways than I once imagined.

After three years, I went on sab­bat­i­cal, then returned as an ordi­nary pro­fes­sor, shel­tered from the Dean by anoth­er chair, anoth­er lay­er in the hier­ar­chy. Then, just after my father died, as I began to trav­el through feel­ings that would take years to name, I opened a broad­cast email announc­ing that the Dean was step­ping down. Across social media, dozens of col­leagues rejoiced. He was, how­ev­er, being demot­ed to a full pro­fes­sor­ship in my depart­ment. No one with­in the uni­ver­si­ty admin­is­tra­tion acknowl­edged the harm done as they closed that chap­ter of life in the col­lege. Now came the sequel, as cheer­less as a Thomas Hardy nov­el. What route forward?

Here is the first poem in Hogue’s 2006 col­lec­tion, The Incog­ni­to Body

          At Delphi 
          The myth was all we had. That story, 
          but what was it? A path up a mountain, 
          and at the top, a rock, a tunnel 
          or entrance to an underground cave. 
          I could feel this . . . how to describe 
          a feeling that started like a vibration 
          or opening in the chest cavity, 
          then in the head and feet 
          even as I walked from the bottom 
          of the path and up, a winding 
          through thin pines lining the way? 
          The sun hailed us like song, 
          an old riming of light.  
          This was a road pilgrims 
          had traveled. We were walking it, 
          and my feet knew I walked here 
          before. They knew this way.  
          The feeling didn’t fade 
          but grew stronger as we came 
          into a great cleft in the cliffs. 
          A guide said, This was the sibyl’s rock, 
          and beside that precarious jut of boulder 
          was an opening into the ground.  
          I was vibrating like a divining rod. 
          There was nowhere to go 
          but through the ruins. My sister heard 
          a tone or tones,  A chord, she said, 
          warning of peril or sorrow. A future 
          we could see but not change.  
          The story is the path or way. 
          We happen upon it once or twice, 
          arrive in the lucid noon 
          to a place where we once came 
          to know what we do not know.  
          My body knew. Still. It felt 
          like a feeling. I called it a feeling. 


The sto­ry is the path or way,” Hogue writes, empha­siz­ing how lit­er­a­ture can cre­ate space for self-explo­ration. The speak­er and her sis­ter are quest­ing, although “At Del­phi” nev­er spec­i­fies their mis­sion. Oth­er poems in the book refer to debil­i­tat­ing pain, hint­ing that ill­ness is the source of the cri­sis. I start­ed cor­re­spond­ing with Hogue about poet­ry, schol­ar­ship, and chair­ing, and meet­ing her for tea or din­ner at con­fer­ences. She told me she had Adri­enne Rich’s dis­ease. I looked it up: rheuma­toid arthritis. 

Despite the mys­ter­ies at the heart of “At Del­phi,” it is less gram­mat­i­cal­ly exper­i­men­tal than oth­er poems in the book. Of par­tic­u­lar con­cern in The Incog­ni­to Body is the rela­tion­ship between lan­guage and pain: how the lat­ter dis­rupts the for­mer, iso­lat­ing a per­son, shut­ting down resources she dire­ly needs to heal into coher­ence again. “One is con­tained by the phys­i­cal sen­sa­tion of pain, which is inde­scrib­able, unsharable,” Hogue said to inter­view­er Sari Broner about the book’s title poem. 

The shared pil­grim­age described in “At Del­phi” is both lin­ear and recur­rent. The poem pro­ceeds in chrono­log­i­cal order, fol­low­ing women up a moun­tain­side as their sense of a pres­ence or an imma­nent mean­ing inten­si­fies. Rep­e­ti­tion and rhyme are irreg­u­lar, but cer­tain words and sounds loop: sto­ry, way, path, rock, know, feel­ing. Fur­ther, “At Del­phi” cir­cles back to re-envi­sion a more famous free verse poem of ver­ti­cal explo­ration, Rich’s “Div­ing into the Wreck.” “First hav­ing read the book of myths,” Rich’s poem begins, before plumb­ing dif­fi­cult ques­tions about gen­der and his­to­ry via a deep-sea div­ing metaphor. Hogue’s rocky climb inverts Rich’s sub­ma­rine excur­sion but res­onates with its aims. 

With yet anoth­er ref­er­ence to rep­e­ti­tion, the speak­er express­es a pow­er­ful sense of déjà vu. “My feet knew I walked here // before,” Hogue says. “They knew this way.” One impli­ca­tion, that she remem­bers being a sup­pli­cant to Del­phi in a pre­vi­ous incar­na­tion, turns inside out the idea that while our phys­i­cal selves die, our souls con­tin­ue. After all, Hogue isn’t argu­ing that she, old spir­it in a new body, remem­bers the way to the ora­cle. She says her feet do. The body has its own knowl­edge, maybe its own immor­tal­i­ty, while con­scious­ness is evanes­cent and unre­li­able. This empha­sis on the pow­er of phys­i­cal­i­ty res­onates through­out the col­lec­tion. The body is incog­ni­to, “unknown,” but its mys­ter­ies are worth plumbing. 

The results of Hogue’s poem-pil­grim­age are ambigu­ous. The speaker’s sis­ter hears “a tone or tones, A chord.” Per­haps this is lit­er­al. Some peo­ple claim to detect the earth’s back­ground hum, the voice of long ocean waves rolling across the sea floor, describ­ing the sound as a drone or chord (see Kathryn Miles). The sis­ter hes­i­tates among options: Does she detect one note or mul­ti­ple? While both women even­tu­al­ly arrive at “lucid noon,” a bright­ly lit space of clar­i­ty, Del­phi is a ruin, and the replies it pro­vid­ed to ancient peti­tion­ers weren’t so clear even when Del­phi was the most pow­er­ful ora­cle in Greece, the ompha­los, navel of Gaia. “My body knew. Still,” the poem fin­ish­es. “It felt / like a feel­ing. I called it a feel­ing.” Her vibrat­ing body under­stands the mes­sage, but the speak­er her­self can’t trans­late. Instead she repeats her­self, using a term of phys­i­cal sen­sa­tion or intu­ition. To name the inde­scrib­able, we only have words of strate­gic vagueness. 

Feel­ings are sup­posed to be women’s way of know­ing, yin to the intellect’s yang. The tem­ple at Del­phi is ded­i­cat­ed to Apol­lo, male god of music and heal­ing, but accord­ing to leg­end, it replaced an ear­li­er site of god­dess-wor­ship. And the Pythia, the priest­ess who leaned over a tri­pod and addressed the god, was always a woman over fifty. Per­haps she inhaled eth­yl­ene, a flow­ery-scent­ed petro­chem­i­cal ris­ing from a fault beneath cleft rocks. She chewed ole­an­der leaves to induce hal­lu­ci­na­tion or recep­tiv­i­ty, how­ev­er you pre­fer to think about those mes­sages. In any case, she trudged through her years of poten­tial child­bear­ing then kept on walk­ing, grown wis­er, empow­ered by feeling. 


When I returned to cam­pus after my father’s funer­al, my for­mer boss was in the process of hand­ing over files and explain­ing sys­tems to his suc­ces­sor. My office is on the third floor; the ex-Dean was mov­ing into a first-floor office in the same build­ing. Long before, I had start­ed skip­ping non-manda­to­ry uni­ver­si­ty events I thought he might attend because encoun­ter­ing him trig­gered waves of anger. After a chance meet­ing, I wouldn’t be able to sleep, rehears­ing argu­ments against dis­crim­i­na­to­ry remarks I’d heard him make or to peo­ple at the uni­ver­si­ty who shrugged off his pres­ence as an immutable fact of uni­ver­si­ty life. I won­dered how I would man­age, bump­ing into him sev­er­al times a day in the for­mer­ly safe space of my department.

The ora­cle said: Equip your­self with a minifridge and hun­ker down. I made one more expe­di­tion to the new Provost, plead­ing for a dif­fer­ent arrange­ment. He and oth­ers had told me so many times that my sac­ri­fices for the depart­ment and the col­lege were val­ued. This time, the high priests shrugged. My alien­ation was an accept­able price to pay for remov­ing a bad admin­is­tra­tor from his post with­out an expen­sive legal battle. 

I could see their log­ic, but it changed mine. For the first two years after the sum­mer of 2012, I avoid­ed the first floor in fear, shame at my fear, and fury at my shame. By the third year, repeat­ed expo­sure mut­ed these feel­ings. I was serv­ing an inter­im term as Depart­ment Head again. Chair­ing remained an intense assign­ment but was no longer demor­al­iz­ing. My com­pe­tent new Dean had a sense of humor and a habit of prais­ing peo­ple for work well done. 

Yet once upon a time, I was devot­ed to the suc­cess of my depart­ment, work­ing effec­tive­ly with its most eccen­tric mem­bers. Hir­ing and men­tor­ing a host of new peo­ple, drag­ging our­selves through var­i­ous over­hauls of the major and the insti­tu­tion of a Cre­ative Writ­ing minor—these com­mu­nal efforts deep­ened my invest­ment. My myths col­lapsed when the price of the job became dai­ly con­tact with some­one who had bul­lied me for years with­out con­se­quences. My col­leagues expect­ed me to resolve my anger pri­vate­ly, or pre­tend I had, as if that were pos­si­ble, as if rela­tion­ships hadn’t crum­bled into ruin. I fore­saw the dis­junc­tion vibrat­ing through my dai­ly life for decades unless I found a job else­where. Even though my chil­dren were final­ly on the verge of cash­ing in on a large tuition ben­e­fit, I was prepar­ing to go on the mar­ket. Maybe my hard-won admin­is­tra­tive skills would help me start again. 

Then the depart­ment hired my adjunct-pro­fes­sor spouse onto the tenure track. My accom­plished hus­band deserved it and was deliri­ous­ly hap­py. I was hap­py for him, but I was also stuck. 

A bleak feel­ing about the future was exac­er­bat­ed by oth­er trans­for­ma­tions. After my par­ents’ abrupt divorce and my father’s death, my moth­er was cop­ing on dras­ti­cal­ly reduced means. My spouse was dri­ving six hours roundtrip once a month to vis­it his moth­er, whose Alzheimer’s was wors­en­ing. Our daugh­ter start­ed col­lege nine hours away. My iden­ti­fi­ca­tion as a moth­er was approach­ing obso­les­cence. Per­i­menopause hit and I hot-flashed all night. It was hard to keep quest­ing or even remem­ber why I set out in the first place. 


Becom­ing absorbed in a poem changes a per­son in small ways and occa­sion­al­ly in big ones: you cre­ate a mem­o­ry of read­ing; your heartrate and res­pi­ra­tion alter as you expe­ri­ence immer­sion; and, once in a while, a line sticks in your head and affects how you see the world. Cog­ni­tive sci­en­tists and nar­ra­tive the­o­rists includ­ing Richard J. Ger­rig, Melanie C. Green, Dan R. John­son, Suzanne Keen, Vic­tor Nell, and many oth­ers have report­ed on the phys­i­o­log­i­cal con­se­quences of “lit­er­ary trans­porta­tion,” how it can affect prej­u­dice, and the ways it does or does not pro­mote social rev­o­lu­tions. Yet change isn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly poetry’s goal, and read­ers don’t approach the page expect­ing con­ver­sion. The nature and results of any poet­ic encounter are more uncer­tain. Per­haps more than any oth­er art made out of words and set down in print, poet­ry has a fugi­tive qual­i­ty. Even when meter is smooth and rhymes chime pre­dictably, there’s inde­ter­mi­na­cy or per­haps per­sis­tence. Pat­terns assem­ble and mean­ings pro­lif­er­ate, but there’s no clo­sure. Just an end­ing, one day. 

Against this uncer­tain­ty, or through it, there is trust or per­haps opti­mism. You head out into a lit­er­ary land­scape with at least a lit­tle hope, or you wouldn’t read. That doesn’t mean you enter­tain no skep­ti­cism, or even prej­u­dice, about the book in your hands. But many oth­er pil­grims have trudged up this moun­tain­side to con­sult the ora­cle, so, twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry tourist, you try. You know even leg­endary archae­o­log­i­cal sites can be crowd­ed and dis­ap­point­ing. Maybe the sun is too hot or your shoes pinch, but you fol­low the path. Sup­pli­cants were pre­pared by priests before they put their ques­tions to the Pythia; you cul­ti­vate your own recep­tiv­i­ty to a work’s pos­si­ble world. Deep breaths. Look around. It is pos­si­ble to have a mean­ing­ful expe­ri­ence at the tem­ple, although the priest­ess speaks cryp­ti­cal­ly. You couldn’t call her words an answer, exact­ly.  


A cou­ple of steps past “At Del­phi” in The Incog­ni­to Body is a poem called “Rad­i­cal Opti­mism.” Hogue’s notes define this Bud­dhist term as “the capac­i­ty to live with inde­ter­mi­na­cy.” “Rad­i­cal Opti­mism” includes cryp­tic notes “dashed” at a party: 

          Can you be with not knowing, 
          living the separation, cult. 
          of grief (culture or cultivation)? 
          A broken heart is a whole 


The poem pre­serves a flash of insight while acknowl­edg­ing the frac­tured qual­i­ty of the light. Of course the world breaks our hearts. We can pon­der hints inside words end­less­ly with­out solv­ing the puz­zle of how to live. For instance, the words cult, cul­ture, and cul­ti­va­tion link human work in an aura of sacred­ness, while the antonyms whole and hole para­dox­i­cal­ly join forces through iden­ti­cal sounds. Those echoes are won­der­ful, but they don’t help me arrive at a coher­ent phi­los­o­phy. When I do expe­ri­ence whole­ness, the pieces of my life click­ing into sense, I can’t car­ry away that mean­ing in words. 

Hogue’s poem earns its final ambi­gu­i­ty, suf­fus­ing lan­guage with joy. Beyond tran­scen­dent moments, how­ev­er, irres­o­lu­tion is not com­fort­able. The pos­i­tive uncer­tain­ty of poet­ry is hard to rec­on­cile with the neg­a­tive uncer­tain­ty of liv­ing. Writ­ing a hybrid kind of criticism—blending mem­oir and cog­ni­tive stud­ies, the­o­ry and close-reading—is an effort at rec­on­cil­i­a­tion and self-inte­gra­tion, a quest and the quest’s ful­fill­ment. The exe­ge­sis of poems and my own state of mind, pars­ing pat­terns and try­ing to com­mu­ni­cate what orders I per­ceive, brings con­so­la­tion. Yet order is tem­po­rary. I find poet­ry more appeal­ing than oth­er kinds of puz­zles because when all the let­ters and spaces join in a charmed way, they exceed my abil­i­ty to expli­cate them. 

Long after glimpses of bet­ter mean­ings, I keep think­ing about how many peo­ple around me car­ry bur­dens more intense and com­plex than my expe­ri­ences of assault and dis­crim­i­na­tion. Pain is most­ly invis­i­ble to those who haven’t expe­ri­enced it, unless it erupts through word and ges­ture. I learned that my small self-protections—shirking depart­ment par­ties, mak­ing a point of sit­ting out of pok­ing range, and most of all speak­ing up—read to oth­ers as me being dif­fi­cult, behav­ing in a way anoth­er Dean called “unbe­com­ing.” I would not for­give and for­get. I cul­ti­vat­ed mem­o­ry. Mean­while, “[t]here was nowhere to go / but through the ruins.” Ahead, a “warn­ing of per­il or sor­row. A future // we could see but not change.” 

Can hon­or­ing the truth of the past coex­ist with opti­mism and access to joy? I hope so. I don’t know. Yet poetry’s frag­men­tary myths and unre­solved sto­ries show me the only way that seems worth tak­ing, a trail toward an open­ing, a fault. Archae­ol­o­gists can’t agree on exact­ly what hap­pened there, although some pil­grims, at least, received what seemed like help. With luck, there will be more chords ahead, moments when dif­fer­ent tones sound at once and some­how harmonize. 

At Del­phi” by Cyn­thia Hogue appears in The Incog­ni­to Body, pub­lished by Red Hen Press in 2006. It is reprint­ed here with per­mis­sion of the publisher. 



 Ger­rig, Richard J. Expe­ri­enc­ing Nar­ra­tive Worlds: On the Psy­cho­log­i­cal Activ­i­ties of Read­ing. New Haven: Yale Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1993. 

Green, Melanie C., Christo­pher Chatham, and Marc A. Ses­tir. “Emo­tion and Trans­porta­tion into Fact and Fic­tion.” Sci­en­tif­ic Study of Lit­er­a­ture 2, no. 1 (2012), 37–59. 

Hogue, Cyn­thia. “A con­ver­sa­tion between Cyn­thia Hogue and Sari Broner on “The Incog­ni­to Body.” How2 1, num­ber 5 (2001), 

—. The Incog­ni­to Body. Pasade­na: Red Hen Press, 2006. 

John­son, Dan R. “Trans­porta­tion into lit­er­ary fic­tion reduces prej­u­dice against and increas­es empa­thy for Arab-Mus­lims.” Sci­en­tif­ic Study of Lit­er­a­ture 3:1 (2013), 77–92. 

Keen, Suzanne. Empa­thy and the Nov­el. New York: Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2007. 

Miles, Kathryn. “Map­ping the Bot­tom of the World.” Eco­tone 20 (2015), 93–103.  

Nell, Vic­tor. Lost in a Book: The Psy­chol­o­gy of Read­ing for Plea­sure. New Haven: Yale Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1988. 

Wheel­er, Les­ley. Voic­ing Amer­i­can Poet­ry: Sound and Per­for­mance from the 1920s to the Present. Itha­ca: Cor­nell Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2008. 


Les­ley Wheel­er’s lat­est books are The State She’s In (Tin­der­box Edi­tions, 2020), her fifth poet­ry col­lec­tion, and Unbe­com­ing (Aque­duct Press, 2020), her first nov­el. Her essay col­lec­tion Poetry’s Pos­si­ble Worlds will appear this win­ter from Tin­der­box Edi­tions. Her poems and essays appear in Keny­on Review, Eco­tone, Amer­i­can Poet­ry Review, and else­where. She is Poet­ry Edi­tor of Shenan­doah.