Danielle Cadena Deulen is a poet and essayist. She is the author Lovely Asunder, winner of the Miller Williams Arkansas Poetry Prize (University of Arkansas Press, 2011), and The Riots, winner of the AWP Prize in Creative Nonfiction and the 2012 GLCA New Writers Award (University of Georgia Press, 2011). Formerly, she was a Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She has received three Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry prizes (2007, 2008, 2010) and a Virginia Center for Creative Arts fellowship. Her poetry and essays have appeared most recently in The Missouri Review, The Iowa Review, Smartish Pace, and The Indiana Review. She received her MFA from George Mason University and her PhD from the University of Utah. She currently lives in Ohio where she is an Assistant Professor at the University of Cincinnati.
LACAN AT THE CAROUSEL
Horses reined with iron bits in their mouths
and gold poles through their bodies,
shine silent and in mid-stride, their pink manes,
their flowered saddles, and the inanimate
gaze of their eyes. The center of the carousel
is ringed with mirrors to make the spectacle
of lights multiply, and the archaic music
brighter. He sits on a giraffe with his six-months
daughter. They go up and down in the illusion
of a gallop, though, of course, they go nowhere.
Other children squeal, but his Judith is silent,
watchful the way all bastard children are.
She is constructing the memory that will
split her. Beneath the lacquered floor of the ride
is an unconscious machine, a labyrinth of gears
churning everything forward toward nothing.
At the top of the poles is consciousness.
At the root of the poles is desire. Everyone
must ride until their desire is extinguished,
or until someone intervenes. Beyond the scarlet
awning, an intricate broil of clouds, like language.
Soon, they’ll all be drenched. When he moves
to take his girl off the ride, he finds her watching
herself in the mirrors—the seams of the mirrors
interrupting her view, and she is alternately
jubilant and confused—the subject and the image,
the subject and the image. When she turns her
tea-rose of a face toward him, he looks elsewhere.
In his periphery, an elephant with a rope in his teeth—
a minotaur lounging with a book—all the figures
impaled with gold, like the flash of light
from that first, ideal self—how it stabs,
repeatedly, through the center with its lie.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
This poem was composed during the fall of 2009. To ward off anxiety about my first book not getting published, I abandoned what at that time was the Lovely Asunder manuscript and began writing what I believed then would be a new manuscript. This poem was, originally, the fourth in a series of seven poems, each focusing on a large figure from the early era of psychology. I had written “Charcot at the Opera,” “Freud at the Laundromat” and “Jung at the Harbor,” before it. So, by the time I sat down to write this one I’d had a bit of practice in the form I found myself repeating: all in tercets, using language from the featured psychologist’s critical work, and focusing on an imagined everyday moment in the person’s life. I re-read Lacan’s writing on the Mirror-stage, read a few brief, overly-general, probably spurious Lacan biographies online, and then imagined him at a carousel with his illegitimate daughter. I decided on a carousel because I liked the consonant rhymes with Lacan’s name, and decided it would be amusing to describe the carousel in Lacanian terms, so my attempt began there—with amusing myself.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
Other than two spelling errors, the poem was never revised. It’s more or less a first draft. But as I mentioned before, I’d been inadvertently practicing the form I created for this series by writing the three previous poems, so this one seemed almost to write itself. I wrote it very quickly—straight through—and when I arrived at the last line it seemed done. I found this suspicious—thought perhaps I was being overly proud of getting some work done and it would probably look like a disaster to me in the morning (the way much of my work does). But in the morning, it didn’t seem like a disaster, and in the months after it also didn’t strike me as disastrous.
After several months of eyeing it suspiciously, I decided that perhaps it was one of those rare cases of “first idea, best idea.”
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
Well, there was no sweating or crying with this particular draft, but I don’t believe in “inspiration,” so I’ll explain it this way: When you learn a new instrument, you practice the scales so that you can eventually learn to forget them and just play. This poem came quickly, but after much practice in similar poems and in generally writing poetry. So, I believe this was the reward of previous hard work. In other words, the sweating and crying came years before, so that when it came to the moment of writing this poem, I could just sit down and play.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
I’ve probably already covered this; I had a loose, modal form in mind, but moved through it rather unconsciously.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?
It varies from poem to poem. I might send off a poem a week after I’ve written it if I think it’s good enough. Some poems I’ve waited years to send out. This particular poem went out pretty quickly once I stopped accusing it of trying to make a fool of me—that took about six months.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
I like this question. I always like this question, though I believe it sets up a false binary between “fact” and “fiction.” The word “fiction” gets a bad rap as somehow actively false, when it’s clear that living within an expected narrative structure is essential for living. What are expectations but our expectations of the imagined narrative structures we wish our lives to take?
But to answer the question regarding this specific poem: I used Lacan’s biographical details and language, but twisted both to render this scene. The “facts” of someone’s life is not often very interesting—the fiction of their constructed self is always more interesting to me, and that’s what I wanted to explore in Lacan’s case here. The early giants of psychology always seem to me to present themselves as invulnerable—believing themselves to be distant, like gods, commenting on the structures and narratives of the human mind so much so that they couldn’t see how their thinking and lives unraveled beneath their own theories. I suppose this was especially true of Freud. His case study of Dora is, for me, far more intriguing as a case study of Freud’s narcissism than anything else. That said, my attempt in the series and certainly my attempt in this poem was to collapse the intellectual distance between the subject and the reader by peering into a quiet, intimate moment in the subject’s mind—showing how their paradigmatic theories might apply in their own specific circumstances. In this way, it is an exploration of the actual critical work of Lacan, which is itself a kind of fiction.
Is this a narrative poem?
I think this poem has some narrative aspects in that it attempts to capture a scene in Lacan’s life. Specifically, I focus on an imagined conflation of the intellectual and emotional lives of Lacan, which could be seen as a kind of spiritual climax in the larger narrative structure of his life. The poem hints at antecedent scenarios—an affair has taken place, and Lacan has already written his earlier works—but here he sees his Mirror Stage working on the face of his daughter and begins to wonder what it will mean for her.
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
I was reading Hopkins during the time I wrote this poem. But I’m always reading Hopkins…he’s one of my favorite poets—an influence that probably no one would suspect by reading my work.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
I don’t imagine any kind of reader while I’m writing. I don’t really begin to consider an audience until the editing process, and then it’s just to try to image the poem making sense to a wide variety of people—hoping the poem gives enough on the first read, but opens enough for the reader to consider coming back to it again.
Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?
I believe you saw this draft, Brian, but we were both too busy to actually workshop the poem. Perhaps you could have allayed my fears much earlier.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
Well, it doesn’t have any autobiographical elements to it and it confronts—in a rather tongue-and-cheek way—Lacan’s theories. Both of these aspects make it different from other poems of mine.
What is American about this poem?
The writer. This may seem a pithy statement, but in the year before writing this poem, I’d been chewing on Lacan’s theories and thinking of how they might apply to a national consciousness: if people can spend their entire lives in an asymptotic trajectory toward an idealized self that never really existed, nations might do the same thing. And I’d argue that America, in its very conscious attempt to form an identity separate from Europe, found its Ideal-I in the figure of the cowboy. Well, I’d argue this along with many other people—Richard Slotkin, namely.
Somehow, the carousel, in its commodified and synthetic reenactment of horse riding, reminded me of America’s nostalgia for a “natural” national consciousness that never existed: “They go up and down in the illusion / of a gallop, though, of course, they go nowhere.” Although, I certainly don’t expect anyone to think of such a thing when reading this poem. That’s one of those aspects of the work that, I realize, would only occur to me and only because I wrote it. So, this poem is American in my own preoccupation with the fiction of American identity which I saw as being utterly applicable even to Lacan’s notions of the self, and this preoccupation with constructing identity (both personal and national) is very American.
Was this poem finished or abandoned?
Neither. I never worked on it enough to abandon it, and “finished” I take to mean polished which in my mind requires time and care and attention. This poem, strangely enough, existed on its own without my having to do much to it. A terrible metaphor to explain: it was one of those woodland, four-legged creatures who stand up with the amnion still wet on its back.