“I get it: I keep trying to build cathedrals when I should be building yurts.” This comment from an advisee, about her struggle to get annotations down to more manageable dimensions, has stuck with me for years as a witty image for one of the perennial dilemmas of critical writing. In a complex text, there’s so much you could address. Do you try to tackle it all, at the risk of spending an outrageous amount of time getting just the major structural supports in place—let alone the stained glass windows and those gargoyles up high where most people will never see them? Do you invest in a lavish outpouring of effort that will consume large chunks of your life? Or do you aim for something simpler, to serve the needs of the moment?
No matter what the writing assignment, I tend to build cathedrals. And I’ve had occasion to ask myself why many times recently, as I’ve struggled with a book review that’s been weeks in the writing. Actually, when you factor in how long I’ve been reading and refining my ideas, it’s taken almost six months, which is simply not a rational amount of time to devote to this project. (Shouldn’t I be focused exclusively on my novel, or incubating new poems, instead?)
The piece is for The Women’s Review of Books, where I’ve been publishing occasional reviews for over 30 years. This time around, I’m tackling two new books about Audre Lorde, both with “legacy” in the title. Because both are anthologies, with contributions touching on many facets of Lorde’s activism and writing, I’m faced with a delicate balancing act: I have to do a lot of triage yet somehow manage to accurately represent the range of offerings in each. Further complicating my job, I have significant reservations about aspects of both volumes, so I need to find a way to convey my appreciation for what I view as their actual strengths while being honest and specific about my criticisms. And I must be sure to meet the needs of prospective readers, who deserve to get a clear overview of the books’ scope, form, and content.
In addition, I plan to slip in some of my own ideas about the significance of Lorde’s work in this historical moment. I want to remind readers how urgently she speaks to us, in words written decades ago that feel like commentary on today’s headlines:
“this is not some other cities’ trial/your locks are no protection/hate chips at your front doors like flint/…you are drowning in my children’s blood/without metaphor.”*
And—let’s face it—I need to cover my ass. I must be seen as fair, and more than fair; as a white feminist writing about this African-descended, Caribbean-rooted prophet of creative Difference, I need to be crystal clear about how deeply I cherish her work, even as I argue that the needed critical engagement with her legacy has barely begun; that too much gauzy language about her inspiring presence (or a “greatest hits” approach to sampling her wisdom) will get in the way of what we really need to do, which is wrestle with the details of what she wrote, did, and said. Although the books I’m reviewing focus mostly on her activism, I’m going to argue for re-centering her primary identity as Poet—while acknowledging that for her, those two sides of her work were always intimately connected.
My effort to do all this follows a familiar pattern: leisurely reading and undisciplined note taking, as I repress my incipient revulsion at the thought of the effort the next stage is going to take. Denial and procrastination, as I start to get down a kind of draft, full of disconnected ideas and clumsy language. (For every sentence written at this stage, there’s a lot of fidgeting, drinking tea and coffee, random Internet reading, and scolding myself for evidently being incapable of mature concentration. There’s also magical thinking: why won’t the thing just write itself?) As I draft, questions occur to me, necessitating research—a trip to the library for a copy of Alexis De Veaux’s excellent 2004 biography of Lorde, which I read when it came out and need a refresher on; a detour into WorldCat to see if I’m right that there’s next to no book-length critical work specifically on her poetry.
By this point, my worst suspicions are confirmed: I’m building the cathedral, all right. But the great thing is that by now I don’t care so much, because I’m thoroughly immersed. I’m thinking about the project even when not at the computer, improving my sentences on my daily walk. Once I have a few pages of halfway coherent text, it becomes compelling (I’m using this word on purpose, for from here on out it’s actually a compulsive and quite pleasurable endeavor) to sit still for hours, solving problems on the page. I’m still refining my ideas, but with basic decisions made, I can focus on shape and flow. I will strive to have word choice and phrasing convey as much through connotation and resonance as they do through literal informational content.
In the end, if I’m lucky, I’ll come out with a yurt—a small, comely, functional object—after all, there’s no way that a text of 1800 words (the space I’ve been allotted) can amount to a cathedral! However, it will have taken a cathedral’s worth of effort. I’ll receive 14 cents per printed word for my trouble. My other satisfactions, like most to be had from serious writing, will be boundless, and absurd: that of doing my own intimate wrestling with Lorde’s legacies—this poet so important to me; that of making my best effort for a guaranteed if small feminist audience; that of having contributed my drop to the river of Literature.
Yurts aren’t so simple, after all. They just look that way.
*Quoted lines are from “Za Ki Tan Kay Parlay Lot” in Chosen Poems—Old and New
Photo of St. John the Divine Cathedral by Susan Portnoy