Deconstruction of the Poet as a Young Stenographer

Bridget Benton, “Pollen: Self Portrait at the Tree of Knowledge.” Encaustic, 2013. Courtesy of the artist. For more of the artist’s work, visit

The Faithful

I went to hear the mystic speak.
He uttered desolation — and a gale began
that swept the landscape clean.
A tree with barbed-wire branches
laced its leaves together above a banquet table
built like stonehenge, set for eight hundred
with a dinner of dirt
and lemons.
The mystic stomped the ground twice with his gnarled staff
and stood, complete.

From the audience a storyteller rose to sing —
a drowning melody. Baobab trees grew tall
and filled with cockatoos and peacocks,
the air pungent with their color.
Vines crept across my face and toes.
More vines consumed the banquet
and the banquet table.
The storyteller’s final liquid notes fell in a shimmer,
and she stood, complete.


An old and wizened woman took the mystic’s staff
and planted it in a corner of her garden
where it bloomed into a quiet elm.

[written by alice isak in august, 1990]

* * *

A couple summers when I was in college, I worked as an intern in the PR department of a large insurance company. My assigned tasks were interesting enough (they certainly beat flipping burgers!) and also left me plenty of unstructured time to do my own thing, all while looking hard-at-work massaging the language of a brochure or low-priority press release.

My own thing generally consisted of banging out poems on a massive electric typewriter.

Astoundingly, a pack of those poems has survived. I came across them recently, in the process of looking for an old photo. “The Faithful” was always my favorite of the pieces, the one I thought about from time to time before I realized any of them were still in my possession. Even without remembering the specifics of its verses, I remembered the feeling I had writing it — a feeling I touched again, after many years without, when I wrote the first piece for this blog that seemed to capture my own voice, my true voice, and not some mere parroting to please another person.

Written just over two years ago, “The heart that I hold tightly within my chest, tightly holds me back” not only echoes the same inner writerly feeling for me, but also reflects a continuation of many of the same images and themes from this piece typewriter-clacked-out almost 25 years earlier: the fantastical landscapes; the conflicting world views of men (and their few female “helpmates”) and women, expressed through the incompatibility of their languages; storytelling as song, as abundance or perhaps overabundance, as a form of speaking incomprehensible to all but the select.

One key difference: the later piece does not share the earlier poem’s hopeful belief in a peaceful resolution to this conflict. If I were to write “The Faithful” today, I suspect my grizzled crone would plant the mystic’s staff right through his foot, later to be watered with his tears and his teeth. 

* * *

2016-04-18 09.41.20
Recent acquisition: ring imprinted with title line from “The heart I hold…”

While I don’t often look back over my own writing — I have carted old journals around with me since 1994 and rarely read a one of ’em — juvenalia carry a certain unique interest. Like poring over baby photos of a loved one, looking for any foreshadowing of the lines and curves we know so well in the adult’s weathered, elastic face.

Maintaining a blog over time invites a similar navel-gazing inquiry into one’s own tropes and obsessions, particularly because of the writing’s immediacy — each post crafted in speed and urgency, with rarely the lengthy revisions or outside editor’s eye that can bring such themes to the forefront of one’s attention. While I have only written here with regularity for the past two years, the fraughtness of this time in my personal life has made for lots of urgent writing and little in the way of forethought.

Not until after I had written and rewritten the same pattern countless times, for instance, did I notice all the doppelgangers and dead women:

The drowned woman with my face. The prisoner sealed in a windowless room who grants forgiveness to “the living.” The prophetess whose lover passes the screams of murder victims into her along with his ejaculate. The decayed-yet-reanimated corpse who goes by my name. Zombie Snow White. “I feel maggots moving in my cunt.” 

And on and on.

In the earliest blog appearance of this trope, I am myself the possibly-dead woman, and my shadow twin a fecund monster threatening to break out from her foetid cage in the basement to ravish me. (Which, at the time I wrote it, sounded like the best date I’d been invited on in years!)

Revisiting all those posts just now, I am prompted to wonder: if one of my narrative voices ever lives long enough to reach “grizzled crone” status, perhaps her best plan — instead of sticking around long enough to plant anything — would be to smash out as many of the mystic’s teeth as she can in one blow, then grab her toothy bounty and flee to someone else’s blog.

To someone else’s life story.

* * *

Oops, that sounded a bit dire, didn’t it — my apologies!

Really, everything is going fine. Compared to any other point in the past five years, it is going spectacularly. It’s going like life, is perhaps the best way I can put it: with good days and bad days, enjoying an abundance of Facebook and a modicum of pizza, in the company of many great friends and the occasional shitty boss.

I’m just tired of feeling split, is all. I’m tired of dragging these two selves around with me through every decision, like babysitting a pair of strong-willed twins hellbent on killing each other.

It’s hard to say when the split happened. Set in motion as a child — a strategy to survive in my parents’ house — and splintered completely apart during the summer of the rapes. Then those fractures ossified during the 25 years the trauma lingered before I could name it and someone finally helped me recover.

I am recovering still, though I do not wish to underplay the huge progress represented by my ability to remain aware of both parts simultaneously. Even if I still struggle to remain both/and and no longer either/or. Even if deciding between their interests each day often makes me feel heavy, like my chest has filled with water and my bones turned into lead.

And what are the two halves I feel split between? One feels her feelings deeply, listens hard to her friends with compassion and empathy, and believes her calling in the world is as a storyteller and healer. The other focuses on her professional choices, always pays her bills on time, would eat a dinner of dirt and lemons without blinking an eye — and thinks writing, while a charming hobby, is perhaps not worth her time. (I’ll give you three guesses who’s been most ascendant since last December. If you have been following my blog for any length of time, you shouldn’t need more than one.)

Of course, I really am both. Or perhaps I mean, both parts really are made from me.

I’d like to feel whole now, please.

* * *

When I came across the packet of poems that included “The Faithful,” I was looking for old photos of myself. Pictures of the child who was such a fearless Peaceful Warrior before I split. “Clean code,” if you will — a template source for rebuilding my present self.

Going backwards is the best strategy for healing I have yet found: reaching back to meet myself as I was before this or that event occurred.

The poems were not the only unexpected piece of writing I found. I also uncovered an essay written in tribute to my father at roughly the same point in time, in which I praise him for “curing me of the disease of my lofty ideas,” all of which turned out to be only so much “nonsense.”

Apparently the mystic was blowing his desolation pretty darn hard, back in 1990.

Alice as a young’un.


* * *

I sometimes find it easier to see the themes in a friend’s work than those that keep presenting themselves so insistently in my own. One of the perks of knowing an artist over most of your lifetime is that you get to watch the tropes in their work grow, evolve, repeat, expand over decades — and yet somehow remain true to the same voice.

Now, did you happen to pause on the image that I opened this post with? Bridget Benton’s massive encaustic piece titled, “Pollen: Self Portrait at the Tree of Knowledge”? If you didn’t look closely, now might be a good time to scroll back up.

[Don’t worry about rushing — I’ll wait until you’re back.]

. . .

. . .

[Okay, everybody with me again? Alrighty then, let’s wrap this up with a bang…or perhaps a hopeful whisper.] 

Benton’s work† often involves houses, birds, matchsticks, found objects — and also (as in “Pollen”) bodies, self-portraiture, the act of writing. Ideas resonant within my own work as well. What I particularly love about this piece (in addition to the whimsical placement of the typewriter!) — what I particularly love is the construction of the work itself.

Lemme show you what I mean through these two shots of the work in progress:

Bridget Benton, “Pollen: Self Portrait at the Tree of Knowledge.” Details of work in progress. Encaustic, 2013. Courtesy of the artist.

“Pollen” is fully modular, each slat a piece created separately but with an eye to the whole yet to come. The top arrangement reflects how the work was hung in exhibition, while the bottom shows another possible path, one in which the woman becomes split and the second typewriter and the hands at work come together at the center.

As I take this artwork in — as I see in it both what the artist has put in and what meaning I have brought myself — I see baobab trees, raucous with color, and growing vines framing a storyteller’s voluptuous and unashamed body. I see the mechanisms of language and logic with her too, tools for an utterance both clear and embodied.

I see hope for a maiden’s passion, for a crone’s planted tree. For a female form that owns its flesh and its voice entire.

A woman simultaneously split and made whole. In her words and in her body, complete.

I see reason to keep writing.

# # #

 What recurring images and ideas do you find in your own work? Anything that has surprised you, taught you? What ghosts haunts your writing? 


“Deconstruction of the Poet as a Young Stenographer” is part of an ongoing memory project.
Additional installments can be found here.

† If you’re interested, you can find more of Bridget Benton’s artwork represented on this blog, often accompanying posts I found very difficult — or very exciting! — to publish. Or, yknow, you can go straight to the source and check out her website.  

20 thoughts on “Deconstruction of the Poet as a Young Stenographer

  1. Love the young’un take-no-prisoners you (last young alice picture) and “The Faithful” imagery of planting the mystic’s staff and imagining you as reclaiming yourself and staking a claim on a space to grow.

    It feels like a never ending process some times. But maybe it should. Maybe having it all together is a farce…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Having it “all together” was certainly my dream as a young person! Or, as I kept wanting to say then: “I have NOW finally CRYSTALLIZED as a PERSON.”

      Ahh, the ambitions of youth… 😉

      It seems to me today that attending to the [neverending, without a doubt!] process is both healthier — and the only truly sustainable option.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. A lot of beautiful art in this piece — Visual and written.

    I found the poem mesmerizing…

    I went to hear the mystic speak.
    He uttered desolation — and a gale began
    that swept the landscape clean…


  3. As a child my writing had much anger, blood, despair, and bravery in story style poetry. As a teenager it was filled with tension and longing in short freeform. As an adult it became very unemotional, journalistic. I never write any fiction nowadays, and so have no themes. I cannot remember the last fiction I might have written. Maybe at 24. I feel somehow this observation might be of great importance, but I fear I will not confront it. Thanks for making me think.
    Your poem, though mentioning that the characters were complete in their roles did not seem to me to be complete, not ended. It gave me a sense of more to come. Perhaps because it ended with growth rather than the ending roles of the characters. There are stories in that poem, I guess I want to say. I am not terribly good at explaining emotional things, so I hope you know what I mean.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think I do know what you mean — and I agree. I wrote that poem when I was 19, and what I see in it now is less a conclusion and more an attempt to assert stability and control. (As you point out, neither character feels “complete,” despite all their posturing. There are clearly stories still untold.)

      The way I read it today, the poem describes a conflict held in an almost unbearable stasis — immoveable object and irresistible force — and an attempt to skip from tension straight to resolution. To find a peace without ever allowing for the ugly, messy, angry parts in the middle. It is a fairy tale that wants to avoid naming anyone as the villain.

      I understand too what you are saying about the absence of fiction in your writing today; even if you no longer wish to craft imaginary characters and settings, it’s nice to have the space for your writing to breathe. If it feels significant to you — if it feels like a loss — then maybe someday you will also feel safe enough to explore that. What I have noticed about myself as an adult is how rarely I seem to dream. And I miss that. I miss knowing that my mind feels free enough within itself to imagine, to tell itself stories in the dark….

      It is nice to “hear” your voice again, by the way. Thank you for stopping by and sharing!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Oh, Alice. There’s so much juice and beauty here. I read it over and over.

    In your description of “The Faithful” you spoke of the Storyteller (I think) as a co-conspirator and “speaking incomprehensible to all but the select” (which I took to be The Masculine).
    Maybe I misread all that. Because later on, The Storyteller seems to be the symbol of full integration. But, I wonder…

    Why didn’t the old woman in the poem deal with the Storyteller, too? Take her pruning shears to the overgrowth and create her own tidy garden out of the chaos (or some other act of usurping Her power like she took the Mystic’s staff)? It seems like a balance (or other state) between the Mystic’s desolation and the Storyteller’s drowning excess is called for. But only the Mystic gets his comeuppance. And the fact that She’s not addressed at all is fascinating and beautiful in and of itself.

    So, I wonder where The Storyteller is in the split. Is She part of it? A result of it? A backlash of reclaimed power? A Hope? A Dream?

    I have too many questions.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, please note that I wrote “The Faithful” when I was only 19. 🙂 Present-day me is far less interested in making peace with the menz-folk who would have me believe that women are inherently too emotional, too dramatic, too nurturing, too mad (in both senses of the word), too irrational, etc. In short, too much of a muchness to be valued.

      Present-day me is far less willing to agree that I am myself the problem than teenage me was. And that’s the only answer I can offer to any of your (very provocative!) questions…

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I am glad you see a reason to keep writing. I am many people, and as time goes on, they become more integrated. Recently the irresponsible, very tired person has taken the wheel and I am getting nothing done. She likes to do the driving when I am overwhelmed. And she can’t be bothered with writing, blogging, editing, but she does dig some social media. At the next rest stop, I’m going to take the driver’s seat. I just don’t know when that will be.

    You are not alone. I cannot emphasize that enough.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Ignore that last question. I thought I wasn’t following because I hadn’t found this post yet. Then I scrolled down a couple of emails in my inbox and discovered that, yes, I am still following you. So ignore me, I’m basically incompetent.


  7. I find it oddly uncomfortable to notice what images recur in my own writing. I’m better off not noticing for fear of avoiding them.

    And I’m not even going to try explaining that.

    Why can’t I find the follow button on our blog?

    Liked by 1 person

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