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), http://www.asu.edu/pipercwcenter/how2journal/archive/online_archive/v1_5_2001/current/workbook/broner.html
—. 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.