Issue 51 Contributor Sasha West blogs about thought experiments.
I strongly remember my experience of first reading Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red in the way that the mind marks anything new: a rupture in understanding that allows discovery.
Carson’s “novel in verse” takes as its ur-text the story of the red-winged monster, Geryon, who tends magical red cattle and is killed for his herd by Hercules (Herakles) in one of his labors. Carson’s approach to Geryon maps out a exercise familiar to most writing teachers: inhabit a known story from a minor character’s perspective. The formula seems basic, but the result is unpredictable. Carson’s 20th century red-winged Geryon teeters between the epic and the domestic romance. Seduced and abandoned by Herakles, Geryon is hurt into photography the way Ireland hurt Yeats into poetry. He travels to Peru, meets up with Herakles and his new lover who are recording volcanoes and finally recognizes himself in a local myth about winged beings who can travel into volcanoes and return.
Carson roots the project—name-brand mythological characters, a scholarly essay and sources to frame the text, sections starting with moral aphorisms—so you’d think the reading experience would be fully placed. But she makes something wholly new—personal and haunted by the mythic. The books keeps circling the idea of the “inside” implicit in autobiography—that which we keep from others, that which we continue to be despite the violence others enact.
The excitement of following the pushing narrative felt like following the burn through Carson’s mind. It felt like an awakening, a new way of being in poetry as large as Eliot’s idea that things could become the objective correlative, holding all the emotional and tonal weight of the poem in their crab legs and etherized fog.
Of course, like so many discoveries, it wasn’t that I had found something wholly new so much as I had learned to see something quite old. After all, Paradise Lost is a thought experiment—even though the pattern of plot and characters are given (making it a sonnet-like structure) the poetry occurs in what the writer’s mind makes of them, the leaps he takes inside the stricture. Milton’s brilliant Satan comes of a willingness to follow the imagination out, to inhabit the uninhabitable through what thought can make in form.
Once I saw how the creation of a hypothesis can push the mind, it became something I hungered for as a reader: Ben Marcus’s The Age of Wire and String, Matthea Harvey’s Sad Little Breathing Machine, Sabrina Orah Mark’s The Babies, Jess Stoner’s I Have Blinded Myself Writing This, Darcie Dennigan’s Madame X all create worlds that shift something fundamental for the reader to live inside. There’s something so pure about the delivery of the imagination in thought experiments, in the mind laid bare and twisting. In these efforts, writers find the equivalent of true alchemy: transformation beyond what is recognizable. The hypothesis is only the beginning.
Like all experiments, these poems can go horribly awry, particularly when they become too enchanted with their conceit. Thought experiments live when they leap the tracks—and, to mix metaphors again, when they are so fully explored as to become strange to the writer and thus the reader. At their worst, they are precious things, ceramic kittens with cardigans romping in flowers above a fireplace. For thought experiments to live, they must be daring, and they must wrench something loose. As a writer, the process may lay bare where one is trying to get the cleverness of a good idea to substitute for a poem, but at its best, it can be exhilarating in its pure discovery.
Sasha West’s work has appeared in Ninth Letter, Forklift, OH, Callaloo, Born, American Poet, Penned: Poems in Zoos, and elsewhere. West has received the Houston Arts Alliance Grant, Rice University’s Parks Fellowship, scholarships to Bread Loaf Writers Conference, and is the former editor of Gulf Coast. One of her manuscripts is currently a finalist for the National Poetry Series.