Underneath This is pleased to feature the writing of D. Allen, a talented creative person.
D. Allen is a poet, musician, and artist currently living in southern Ohio, but their heart belongs to Madison, Wisconsin, Durham, North Carolina, and the entire state of Vermont. You can read more of D.’s work on their website, thebodyconnected.com .
At a job interview at a university, three men sitting across from me at a table. On my CV it says that I am currently working on a book about the color blue. I have been saying this for years without writing a word. It is, perhaps, my way of making my life feel “in progress” rather than a sleeve of ash falling off a lit cigarette. One of the men asks, Why blue? People ask me this question often. I never know how to respond. We don’t get to choose what or whom we love, I want to say. We just don’t get to choose.
Maggie Nelson, Bluets
I’m re-reading Maggie Nelson because I have started and stopped this essay three times, and I keep resisting the very thing I have been trying to write about. I keep drifting away like a college kid seduced by Buzzfeed the night before turning in a big paper. The page is blank, and I am elsewhere. But Bluets feels like a good place to start; it is familiar, comfortable, a book I have read many times. Like Nelson, I have also been working on a book of poems for a couple of years, invoking its name when people ask, but most of the work of creating it has not involved writing at all. My blue, and the center of my book, is my body, and my body is the very thing I will do almost anything to ignore.
A few years ago I was diagnosed with a genetic connective tissue condition. All of the physical quirks I had become used to—hypermobile joints, easy bruising, chronic joint pain, constant exhaustion, a heart murmur—suddenly had a name, and things I thought were normal about my embodied experience took on new meaning.
Collagen, the organic glue that holds our muscles, tendons, bones, and cartilage together, is not always made perfectly. The word defective gets tossed around in this diagnosis, but I’d rather say that there’s just not enough collagen to go around. Connective tissue cushions parts of the body that would otherwise rub together, and it is the rubbing together of these unprotected parts that causes me pain. Just as we don’t get to choose what or whom we love, we don’t get to choose our bodies. But I am trying—I am learning—well, I want to learn—to claim mine. And writing is part of that.
My identities as a poet and a queer and gender non-conforming person have profoundly impacted my relationship with my body. I started writing about the diagnosis when it happened, and for a year or more, I put words down on the page because I needed them; they helped me process my grief, anger, uncertainty, and pain, and they were not for anyone else.
I began talking with close friends and family about my disability, sharing pieces of new writing with the group of queer writer-activists I met with twice a month, but it was painful. For every word I spoke aloud, there were twenty more that I couldn’t bring myself to say. As with any disability that remains largely invisible, I was struck both by how much talking I had to do when my disability was made visible, and by the silence I clung to when my disability wasn’t readily apparent. Talking about my disability meant explaining my wrist braces and tiger balm and limited hand mobility to friends, co-workers, customers, or employers, but telling—telling was another story. I told very few people that my body felt like an old car rattling apart at every turn. I could not find the words to describe what it felt to inhabit a creaky, achy, worn, 25-year-old body. Telling made it real. Telling still makes it real.
The problem is, I am a writer. I can spend endless amounts of time avoiding writing like the best of them—and once I sit down to write it takes more work and presence than seems possible—but I am not at ease unless I’m working a piece over in my mind or on the page. And my mind, oh, how it loves a challenge. A year after my diagnosis, after researching my condition and trying to make sense of it, the concept of a lack of connective tissue started to feel really interesting.
I was (and am) still feeling deep grief, loss, anger, but a piece of me—the piece that steps back and watches things happen—was curious. As a poet, I’m interested in liminal spaces; I like my work to exist in the shadows between poem and essay, between truth and possibility, between reality and imagination. What would happen if I started writing poems that re-created in language what my body lacks in material? If I tried to reflect the loss of connective tissue in the structure of my poems as well as in the content, could I make a body of work that did more than tell a personal story? I believe that telling stories about our difficult experiences can transform the world, and I also believe that the vessel we make to contain a story is just as important as the narrative itself, that it can and should be compelling, well-crafted, innovative, and moving.
With those questions and curiosities as guides, I have followed my slow writing process through drafts of poems that involve armadillos and other friends’ illnesses and my fear of loss, poems that feel only tangentially related to the material of my body. Every time the writing starts to feel too personal, I walk away. Literally. I find myself in the kitchen making a snack, turning on Netflix, drawing a bath. But when people ask, I tell them I am working on a book of poems about connective tissue. I have used an elaborate version of this description to apply to six residencies and three graduate schools in the past nine months. When I went to my first residency last fall, I spent three weeks sitting with this book. I did write poems there, poems that I now refer to as my “manuscript in progress,” but saying that still doesn’t feel quite right.
I’m not sure these are the poems I set out to write. I like them, and I believe in them, but I still can’t fully articulate what it is that I want these poems to achieve. I am still afraid of what’s at the center of it all, that unshakable, unstoppable truth: I feel broken. Ours is an ableist society, yes, and I have internalized messages about what it means to be disabled, but I also cannot yet bring myself to accept that I will be in pain nearly every day of my life, and that there is no cure. That is the plain truth that I cannot approach in writing. I am looking for meaning in between bones and muscles, but the only presence there is absence. How does a writer write about this?
This is why I’m turning to Bluets today. I feel a kinship with Maggie Nelson when she writes
I have enjoyed telling people that I am writing a book about blue without actually doing it. Mostly what happens in such cases is that people give you stories or leads or gifts, and then you can play with these things instead of with words.
When do we make the switch from “playing with these things” to writing about blue? Her book is about blue, yes, but it is also about heartbreak and longing and profound pain. Incredibly, blue stretches to encompass all of those things. Her subject is blue, and it is not blue.
I remember watching the night sky as a child, standing on the dewy grass, pushing my glasses up on my nose, squinting to bring the constellations into focus. Only when I shifted my gaze a little to the left could I see a particular star enough to make sense of its brightness. Maybe collecting objects and ideas was the only way that Bluets could have begun. Maybe writing poems about armadillos is the only way I can write about my body right now. Maybe the feeling of being “in progress” can only come after we’ve told ourselves and others that we are.
*Quoted material is from Bluets, by Maggie Nelson, sections 13. and 14