Carrie Olivia Adams is a poet as much of the line as what’s in-between them, and her newest book, Operating Theater, is no exception. A haunting drama of the liminality of the body, this dialogue-driven play-poem asks over and over one profound question: what is inside? Steeped in Victorian surgical manuals and medical X-rays, the voices here explore the tension between the mind and the body, between subject and other, asking how we can know, and from knowing, live together, in a house, or in a city.
I had a chance to ask Carrie a few questions about this book (and film her reading from a brief section). The book has just published with Noctuary Press and is available for purchase through Small Press Distribution and Amazon.
How is it that the past becomes invisible? After I leave the
You enter. And cannot see what I did there.
Forgetting is required.
Why aren’t you more forgetfulness?[One]
There is no choosing to forget or to remember.
I’ve heard they are threads. A fabric. A textile.
Some space might wrap me in its thinly woven blanket.
It’s still cold out there.
What if forgetting never starts?
The first thing people might notice about this work is its stage play format, the “Acts” and the dialogue between two characters. One thinks maybe of the witches of Macbeth or Beckett plays like Waiting for Godot or Endgame. Can you talk about your flirtations with the stage, particular the postmodern or post-apocalyptic stage? Have you thought about having this produced on the stage?
As much as I’ve always enjoyed experimenting with form (I seem incapable of just writing a poem-poem, some self-contained thing of a handful of stanzas and lines), I think I’ve always also been fascinated by the idea of the theater, not the idea of performance, which I think is the concept de rigueur, but very much the construction and conception of the theater itself. I love going to plays, and one of my favorite theater groups is in Chicago, The Hypocrites, and they not only do original plays but unusual (often quirky) adaptions for famous works—they are best known for The Seven Sicknesses, which reproduced all seven Sophocles tragedies in one whirlwind performance. What I love is the willingness of the theater audience to go along and play along with shows like this.
With a play, unlike something produced for television or film, you often see more of the apparatus of the production immediately before you—you can see the hardware holding up the construction (sometimes even the paint cans tucked in the corner), the sets change, characters run through the wings, and we just welcome the movement. There is a suspension of disbelief that is completely unique to the form and the idea of the stage. The stage is a space in and on which we say: Here, come into this particular world. I envy this physical space and love the idea of writing a play and watching my words come to life in the mouths of strangers. And most of all, that an audience would then welcome them—I think people come to the theater so much more open than they do the page, especially the poetry page. Maybe I want all poems to be dialogues even if they are not; to find a correspondent, a twinned voice that might echo the cries we shout into the void, to empathize with and expand upon them. I actually keep thinking about writing an actual play; but I also think about opening a taco stand or being a detective.
Tell me something I don’t know—
These clumsy hands
the way we cut
across the mattress, across
The see saw
the push pull.
That’s what it takes—
It’s not just the plunge in
but the courage to pull it
out and start again.
If one of the words in the title is “Theater,” then the other must be “Operating”—let’s talk about science. Over the course of your books science has seemed to play a more and more prominent role. Could you talk about how science—science writing, the history of science—folds into the lyric mode? Perhaps both are forms of inquiry?
I realize I should have ended the first question not only with opening a taco stand or being a detective, but also being a scientist. I am someone who spends an inordinate amount of time thinking about careers I might have had (even though I am very happy being a publicist/editor/poet). But, I think I’m envious of everyone’s expertise. The most dangerous thing a professor once said to me in college (and perhaps one of the most dangerous and influential statements ever uttered to these ears) was, “Milton was the last man who could know everything.” And here I am, this young, curious, extremely earnest student, and I realize that the world of knowledge is now too large for me to even scrape some cells off its skin.
I love the idea that once upon a time people could be experts in multiple disciplines. I miss the idea of the generalist versus the specialist. I should say that right now I am answering these questions from a hotel in DC, where I am traveling for work as a book publicist, a job that requires me to have cocktail party knowledge of economics one moment, evolutionary science the next, or the history of southern grains and agriculture—you name it. And I love this—being able to dip my toes into all sorts of new knowledge. When I first started seriously incorporating science into my poems, I was working in the Journals Division at the University of Chicago Press, which at that time published the Astrophysical Journal. Trying to find ways to combine my work and poetry lives, I inevitably couldn’t help but skim through the pages of the Astro journals squirreling away phrases or ideas that sounded interesting to me. It was a world I wished I could have known and understood, as it was later with mathematical theories and then anatomy and surgery. I think scientists and poets are both trying to do the same thing, which is why poetry has often looked to science in the last several decades (though I will admit that I came to science out of practicality–it was sitting on my desk already–and out of my general curiosity and only later came to realize I was participating in a tradition).
To state it simply, both poets and scientists are trying to find/make language to understand the world; taxonomy and poetry are siblings. Indeed, they are modes of inquiry, of ordering, structuring, and understanding. I, perhaps in part, gravitate towards the authority that science gives to ideas (a weight the lyric mode, which exists in worlds real and unreal, does not carry). I am attracted to logic, even the syntactic structure of proofs. And I like to find ways to balance my inclination toward intuition with reason.
If it must be seen with the naked eye, we are already too late.
Science is also a form of research: can you discuss your source texts (largely Victorian surgical texts), where you discovered them, what first piqued your interest about them, and how they helped lead to this project?
It was in fact very random. One day I was browsing in an antique store in Chicago, which specialized in industrial and professional antiques—like dentist chairs and stage lighting—and amid those large items were a few boxes of black and white slides, which I was drawn to open. Inside I discovered pictures of lungs and brains, diseased and dissected. They were meant for teaching the diagnosis of illnesses at different stages. I have a morbid streak, and I always had a thing for proving how tough I was with a scalpel in biology class, and I knew I could do something with these images, but I wasn’t sure what. So, after I bought the slides, I started to dig around on Google Books for texts that were in the public domain (the practicality of being able to quote them an original driving factor). But the best feature of early medical books is that they are not as much written for experts. And the early language of science is based in metaphor, in description; they are not only approachable, but evocative. I knew that I had immediately found something I could work with.
I wanted to give my life back,
so I decided to cut it into pieces.
For you, a limb. For you, some marrow.
Is it easier to grasp?
At the same time this work suggests performance in physical space, and of course deals directly with issues of the body (you even go so far as to list the definitions of “body”), the characters feel powerfully disembodied, to exist in liminal space. I’m curious if this sense of haunting was your intention at the outset, or in any case how you came to associate this with surgery? The use of the X-rays as section breaks is particularly effective in helping establish this feel.
What immediately began to intrigue me when reading the source material was the focus on domestic space; they literally teach you how to make an operating room in a dining room, using a raincoat to cover the table. Before the modern hospital, often the most sterile environment was your own home. Once the idea of surgery and the actual theater of the operation became domestic in my mind, the liminality of the body came next. The body at home is the body in a relationship; it is the barrier between one and other; it is the egress the other is always trying to cross, not just in a physically intimate way, but in an empathetic way. The futile desire to know the other completely is unstoppable; but the metaphorical notion of surgery—of cutting open the other to peer inside—offers a solution. Yet, at the same time, what intrigued me when looking at the slides was that in their images the body, the most personal, individual piece, was unidentifiable. Would you know your lungs or your brain by looking at them in an X-ray? Would you say, “Oh look there, that wrinkle in the left lobe, that’s so me?” Though I want to look inside you, the deeper inside you I look, the more anonymous you become.
You can cut open my mind
and see its figure traced there,
the patterns of those memories, a forest.
You can cut open my chest
and out of it
into those surgical lights
the seed will grow.
It’s not as random as it might seem—
That a body becomes something to climb upon
That a body becomes something by which to date your life—
Something that you saw off, carve into, hack at
when you need to build a fire,
when you need to write it down,
when you need to remember.
Going along with that question—can you talk about the relationship between the mind and the body as it is articulated in this work? Do you view this as a dichotomy, or more like a hierarchy (we seem to arrive at the brain as a final destination)? What about memory and forgetting?
Descartes and I go way back; I think I’ve been kicking at the mind/body problem for as long as I can remember. Often, it’s been about a desire to shed or lose the body. I think to some extent it’s a gendered desire. It’s this woman’s body that gets between the world and the person. It’s this body that causes, without invitation, conclusions to be drawn about its owner. The body dictates how the body’s wearer is treated. So the speakers of many of my poems have often been trying to reject their own bodies, and yet, at the same time, the speakers are reliant on the body; it’s tactile, concrete connection to the world and what’s immediately real and present. There are no poems without the senses. For me, in the end, it’s less about a hierarchy of the mind over the body, but a constant conflict. They are enemies and best friends; they are both the mediums for taking in and making sense. And they are both where the memories are stored.
Memory is a difficult and important idea for me. I have long prided myself on having a very, very good memory (though I fear it’s starting to slip in middle age), but it’s not a visual memory. I do not have a visual mind; I cannot hold pictures; I remember by impressions, by intuition—my memories are grounded in emotion. Which is understandably hard for me to explain or to make someone else understand—that I can remember a place or a face even if I can’t see it in my mind’s eye. For me, my memory exemplifies that conflict between the physical (the eye) and the intellectual (the mind’s eye).
She came home and another window was broken.
She came home one step faster than yesterday. To say
that the threshold is creeping towards the sidewalk—
The foundation has threshed the threshold.
They kept walking in circles on one soft spot on the floor.
“Do you feel how it sinks here, here?”
She mistook an earthquake for the roof collapsing, sliding off
under the weight of the snow.
She can’t keep the outside from coming in—
The blizzard that built an avalanche in the anteroom. The
ants that colonized the window sill.
To say that she riddled and had been riddled and felt the
riddling wither and winter.
There is so much here that is concerned with space, especially interiority, that when we get to “A Willing Hostage”—it is startling. The poet seems to step outside of her subject, to speak more personally. We feel as if the preceding sections have taken place inside of her, and yet this new section also feels enclosed, that she is captive. Can you talk about this layering and, especially, how you feel this section communicates with the other sections (for instance, it feels as though you wrote this section either first or last—this material feels separate)?
Each of the acts was envisioned to mirror a stage in the operating process. There is first a dialogue about the decision to undertake the operation; then there is the operating room itself with the preparations and materials for the work; and then there is the dream-like state of the patient under ether. The fourth act, “A Willing Hostage,” is indeed outside the patient, who is discussed in third person. Though I don’t argue for any particular reading of my work, for me it is perhaps best understood as the surgeon looking upon the patient. I was actually in DC on another work trip, and I was at a speakeasy-style bar called The Gibson, where I saw a drink on the menu called “A Willing Hostage,” which I couldn’t help but order (I have a history with drink and poem names). This consensual hostage-taking immediately struck me as a perfect description of the etherized patient in an operation, so I immediately jotted it down in my tiny notebook in the dim light. If I recall, I wrote the sections approximately in the order in which they appear; though I often take so many notes and piece them together like patchwork over a long time. I am so undisciplined that the process for me is always a slow stitching together, and I lose track of what came where and when. But, I think you’re right that it is separate in some way, with the hope to convey literally another perspective, even another stage set.
How lungs can look like wings.
We make cautious, careful arrangements.
Come into this chamber of blood.
Leave a chamber of water.
In the final section, “Post-Op,” we must believe that a transformation has taken place, images of the city more fully infiltrating the liminal space of the two speakers, images of wings (escape), and of course the startling closing line, whose water/blood dichotomy flirts with Christian symbolism. Can you illuminate this transformation, or discuss your thinking in the structure of this text and what you borrow from the tradition—for instance, the archetype of descending into the earth and returning to the surface.
You’re an optimistic reader; or at least I read the word “transformation” with an optimistic tone. Which I absolutely welcome. But for me, I think there’s a desperation, a sadness, a helplessness (crying on the subway), a futility, which circles back to the original desire for operation—one driven out of a impulse for empathy, compassion for an other, the desire to know an other. To live in a city is to be constantly surrounded by a humanity I want desperately to understand, to listen to, to help. Add to the list of careers I think of for myself—humanitarian, aid worker. I struggle with the value of putting words on paper/screen compared to putting rice in a bowl and putting it someone’s hungry hands. To be born, to be alive in the world, is to be in a chamber of a blood, and it makes the blood-pumping chambers of my heart hurt—to find a way to connect, to offer something that might be of need. I want to believe that poems can do this.
Carrie Olivia Adams lives in Chicago, where she is a book publicist for the University of Chicago Press, the poetry editor for Black Ocean, and a biscuit maker and whiskey drinker. She is the author of Operating Theater (Noctuary Press, 2015), Forty-One Jane Doe’s (book and companion DVD, Ahsahta, 2013) and Intervening Absence (Ahsahta, 2009) as well as the chapbooks Overture in the Key of F (above/ground press 2013) and A Useless Window (Black Ocean, 2006).