The Power of Story, the Spirit of Questioning
and the Risks of Remembrance:


Ann Elizbeth Carson with one of her sculptures

Annual TPS PoetryTALK

February 12, 2011

Two principal themes of Ann Elizabeth Carson's life and writing have been the importance of story, and a pattern of broad-based and intense questioning developed in a childhood where family problems were dealt with in silence. Her poems are filled with questions. She perceptively observes, “there are no one-answer questions.”

Central to Ann Elizabeth’s personal life story has been the story of her grandmother's hair. This particular story reflects her culture and times, and also has a more universal resonance. Harvesting its lessons has yielded a rich set of prose writings and poems, including three published books: Shadows Light, My Grandmother's Hair and The Risks of Remembrance. In this way Ms. Carson's writing life has been about creating community.

Here, in her own words, is Ann Elizabeth Carson's story:

I have chosen to read a series of poems, and briefly comment on them, that I wrote about a family story that impacted every aspect of my life—although I certainly did not realize that it had, or the ways that it had done so, when I began to think about the story and to write about the process of discovering it, and its importance in my life. These poems speak about my life—and my writing life, because they are inseparable.

We tell stories to find out about ourselves. In general, there are two ways to tell and explore stories. In those societies where the interests of the group trump those of the individual, stories are told about groups of people (Cultural Anthropology). For example the Odyssey is about a nations interests. In Gilgamesh, the oldest recorded story, the interests of his kingdom eventually trump his own.

Most western cultures, especially North American, are oriented to the individual. Take for instance, Don Quixote and his struggle to find his way. Or the work of Freud, Jung and others who focused on the innerness of the individual journey.

As a child of my culture, and trained as a psychotherapist before post-modernism became widely popular in psychology circles, my journey began as an inner, individual one, and grew outward to become a group story as well.

A family story and its echoes:

All families have stories. I never really heard the family story I am going to read about “in so many words” as the saying goes, until I was an adult. I didn’t pay any attention to it—at least I thought I wasn’t—until my life’s circumstances and an awareness of repeating patterns in my responses to them, almost forced me to think about it. The layers of the story, and the way it fanned out to include the culture I grew up in, emerged, over many years, in a reciprocal dance among my at first dominant mind, and my physical, emotional, spiritual and social selves.

How to cohere what at first seemed like so many separate and often conflicting aspects of me and my many contexts? Writing, especially poetry, had been a passion of mine since childhood and so finding “not in the usual words” began with poems. Then came movement (Tai chi, Yoga, Dance) and finally art work, which broke one cultural spell and cast another.

I carried quite a lot on this journey, some jettisoned along the way, others kept, and still others acquired. One of the kept ones is this quote from Adrienne Rich: “The detail outside ourselves that brings us to ourselves, was here before us, knew we would come, and sees beyond us.”


My grandfather made my grandmother
cut off her long chestnut hair
and throw it in the garbage,
"because it was unseemly in a married woman."
My mother heard her cry
through the closed door
– the only time she ever heard her cry.

Our family was never the same.

I don't know
how old my mother was,
or how she happened to be near
when she heard her mother cry.
I don't know how she knew
what her father had done,
for her mother to cry to loud that
she was heard that one time.

Or how she knew
– there was no speaking –
that it wasn't the only time,
just the heard time
– was it the new length of her hair?

But she heard and she knew.
That much is certain.

There was no speaking,
but from a child I knew
that my grandmother's never the same
was not to answer the call
her husband heard to minister in Cleveland.
She refused to follow him. Against the grain,
she left him, came to live
with one of her unmarried daughters.
Opened a space for speaking.

I don't remember when
my mother told me her mother's story,

except that I was a woman then,
with her own first daughter,
my grandmother long dead. Was my mother
the first to speak?

Did she tell me
because I was the oldest daughter?
Or because I now had children and should hear it?
Did she speak out
because she needed to pass it on
to the next generation of women?

Why do I think she would think I should hear it?

I don't know whether my sister heard
our grandmother's story.
We never talked about it.
Until now my children know her story
only in the ways I have lived my life
– just as my mother knew her mother's story –
in daily no-word ways which always tell,
and re-tell, our stories.

from The Risks of Remembrance

Although I grew up in what was seen and assumed to be—by me as well—a happy, “normal” middle class family there was always a sense of something underneath.

My voice moves from silence to silence,
in between bird
sounds, children's noises,
machines humming,
the traffic of everyday.
But the window waits
to be broken
The door flaps open,
to be locked
to hold the heat
of blazing autumn
dying into winter.

from My Grandmother's Hair

A Habit of Questioning:

My mother was a voracious reader and a natural academic and researcher at heart. She instilled in us the importance of questioning. I began asking questions, even about family matters, early in my life and have never stopped –as my now middle-aged children remind me. I looked for answers in familiar places, challenging the ground rules in academia.

Looking for understanding, I also shared my story with other women:


I cried when I told them. They did too.

"Oh, oh in the garbage!" wailed the women,
"surely not in the garbage.
There was some saved wasn't there?
Oh there must have been,
in a drawer?"

I dared tell more. How handsome he was with his white hair
and piercing blue eyes, how I would forget and be excited about his
Christmas visit . . . and then remember to be polite about the
religious tract he (always) gave me. I told them the family story
about how he auditioned at the Metropolitan Opera, but, as a good
Presbyterian Scot, turned down the opportunity (or was he turned
down?) and chose to be a minister in an even more fundamentailist
sect than the one in which he was raised.

And then they were sorry for him!

"How that man must have suffered,
eaten up inside,
who could have sung opera
and chose to be a rural preacher,
his only salary in the collection place
on Sunday mornings."
– They knew all about fundamentalist church practices.

When my grandmother's pain had shocked them I was sure the
story was drawing us closer, but that was not to be. In looking for
reasons and excuses for my grandfather's act, they forgot that he
had forced her to cut her hair, forgot my grandmother's crying out
at his demand, and her acquiescence. I kept on trying to get them to
understand. I told them all the ways the children were never
presentable to God, or to my grandfather. I told them how all but
the two who died in childhood left home as soon as they could. I
told them –

But in foregrounding him,
her cry faded, her story
died away.
We spoke no more of her pain.

Her hair stayed in the garbage.

from The Risks of Remembrance

The women’s orientation to “looking after” men, to deferring to them, drew my attention to how I had/and still can. I realized how that perspective sidelined my feelings and my thinking, drove them underground- again and again. Slowly and relentlessly I could not avoid or deny this, and this understanding had profound and wide-ranging effects on my academic and professional lives.

The effects of silence are not just in mind and social memory but in body memory as well. As I explored the ways in which I was enmeshed in our family story, memory held in the body became obvious:


I remember Tai Chi in early morning,
washed in fog lifting through trees,
blissful, moving as if in dream.
Suddenly I stumble on a twisted andle.
Jolted awake, gasping for breath as if struck,
nausea fills me, tears wash my face.
Drifting in fantasy I was not there

in my body. Forgetting her,
I hurt her. Horrified, I knew I always had.

from The Risks of Remembrance

Experiences like this highlighted the taboo about all references to the body that I grew up with. In my family and social milieu—no body, or, for that matter emotions. Nor, were woman of my generation thought to have much in the way of a mind—they were dominated by unruly emotions which made their thinking unreliable.


Death is nosing around, sliding in and out
of dreams, perched on the edge of wakefulness.
Turning to the obituary page and half composing
my own. Buying a do-it-yourself will kit,
a grave site so they won't have to bother,
and a membership in the local hospice assotiation.
Tidying up. A little insurance for who knows what end.

Now, I can go back behind what I think I know.
Excavate life's long fact-fiction dance in images that speak of
quelled rebellions, forbidden pleasures and other
buried herstories cracking through now – that consume
survival in the fear arising from the pain of unaware
ripped open. Can I inhavit the risks of remembrance?
Find out what I have forgotten in order to continue this far?

As long as I can still hear waves curling in on themselves,
see the sun glinting on whitecaps tossing the spray
that fills the wind, stirs my hair and enlivens
my skin; watch leaf shadows dance on the grass in gardens
as my warmed bare feet wriggle and stretch to both worlds.
More visceral than language, speechlessness collides
with wanting to tell you.

title poem from The Risks of Remembrance


Ms. Carson discussed different ways of seeking, first quoting Abu Yazid al-Bistami:
"This thing we tell of can never be found by seeking, yet only seekers find it"

The last three stanzas from HER STORY IN MINE reflect a more intellectual way of thinking about the process of remembering:

. . .
what is under forgetting insists, peels layer after layer
until remembering, wrapped around re-remembered stories,
loosens the long numbness, lifts impoverished spirit.

Maybe remembered solidly, maybe not all by tomorrow,
a cycling and recycling of remembering a story
that had to be forgotten just to continue living, and of forgetting
at least some of the shuddering details seared in flesh,
– this time just for a little while? – to take a breath, to eat, to sleep

until I can believe, somewhere in grateful muscles and eased mind,
what must be forgotten again in order to keep on remembering.
So that I can recast how my body daily relives our story the way
clay mutates in my making hands.

from The Risks of Remembrance (excerpt)

I began to dance with a Sacred Circle Dance Group when I was recuperating from a long illness, and found memory in the dance:


So like an eagle she sits,
a young eagle, restless
eyes barely hooded.
Invited to dance in the circle,
she enters, gliding,
head high and tilted.
she moves to the sound of the drums.
Joyous in sound she moves,
feet rising and falling
to the sound of the drumming, to the sound
of pounding
feet thudding in rhythm.
Arms lifted slowly, like wings,
arms lift slow,
like a dreaming river below. Arms like
of an eagle
majestic, she dances.
She moves wordless, deep
in the dance,
eyes deep in the distance,
eyes deep
beyond feet, beyond arms, beyond clay.

her wings now, ragged and crumpled.
Feet crippled with years
in the dance.
Head bent, shoulders hunch to the memory
of drums. Slowed heart
pulses the rhythm,
heart pulses
a taste, prey in the mouth, tastes
of drums, tastes dancing,
tastes memories of moving
like the woman she was once moved
in the dance.

Now she sits, an old eagle,
sits quiet and still,
eyes closed and brooding the dance
in the distance
an eagle. Still.

from Shadows Light

Painting, working with colour, helps me with my seemingly ceaseless questioning because it gets to the root of the questions—emotions. In Rudolph Steiner’s philosophy and practice it is colour that holds our emotions. Exploring colour means exploring ones emotions, seeing how different colours evoke different emotions. I was brought up never to talk about emotions. That meant that somehow I was not “allowed” to feel them. It also meant that I would accept—at first without question—that emotions were irrelevant to serious academic inquiry. And I certainly wanted to be taken seriously in that world.


Before words, before layered stories,
living imprisoned so deep
in body tissue
there's no way to see or say
than play (the serious play of a child)
in paint and shape, in dance and singing,
the clay of me. Making and moving loops
through times and spaces,
down to bone marrow holding clues
to "what is built into me."

Here are singing veils sweeping in green grief,
nourishing baked-dry cracking
cracked-up heart,
earning her purple. Blue peace moves
through red earth-life,
to shouting yellow and orange swelling
expanding, converging. Returning –
with another voice! Painting my forgetting
and my remembering.

Finding what is hidden – Do I use all my fears?
Setting the figure free – Do I move towards speaking?
Mending what is broken.

One fierce question at a time.

from The Risks of Remembrance

Painting helped me to SEE my emotions—in front of my eyes on the canvas—and so to acknowledge their right to exist “in the open”. Of course that got me into trouble when I began to question the “dominant” academic discourse that outlawed emotions. Such “impertinent” questioning had disastrous consequences for several years and later became one of those “it changed my life” moments.

And now, a poem to express the importance of "staying with it":


Naked in the sun
I am chilled to the bone,
absences glimmer
like ice in the dark
as my heart would like to be

from The Risks of Remembrance

For me clay is about the body, is about immediacy. You cannot sculpt something that isn't you. Clay slows me down, gets me through the stuck places:

. . .
I want the answer that is always – something hidden
that's been hanging around for too long,
like unpaid bills, or the cancer in my nose.

Not yet. I talk to people – on and on. Until
the glazed look in eyes that wander across the room
for someone who will listen to them
stops my mouth. I turn
to books or read online until my gritty eyes ache
looking for clues in other people's here and now.
Or next. Anything that will suggest an answer.

Why do I keep putting it off until I start to ache
or limp, and my gut churns? These are the sensations
that alert me, tell me I'm at least having a feeling.
That's when I pick up a piece of clay.
Bang it around for a while until I can hold it quietly
feel the cool living weight of it. Let it sink into me.
I'm sinking into it. Bulges and hollows – seen and shadowed,

thick and thin, pinched and curling over (I have been cut),
splayed out, angular (I will be cut again), circling.
Imprisoned shapes inside this grey lump become.
Become noses. Pinched nose of the snake goddess
of healing and death, beaked owl wisdom nose,
frog woman nose — the oldest recorded human face.
My body twangs — a hundred strings played all at once.

Questions roll out of me like a cash register slip
for a big grocery order: What is recorded here . . . has been . . . is being?
How much can I hold in my hand, can I mold?
How much weight can be tolerated? What can be added
or taken away — here, in my nose, on my face, and how?
What fits where and when — for this piece? For me? For others?
How much can I ask? How far can I go and still have a core?
So many questions are an answer? There are no one-answer questions.

Questions ground me in my clay body where all the answers
start out as answers before the shuddering doubts come. . . .

CLAY ANSWERS (excerpts) from The Risks of Remembrance


Curled petals edging veiled overlapping layers of yellow
round inward over a dark orange hollow,
crinkle thinkly, close at the touch of the noon-day sun.
The bees pass by, waiting
for shade and openings.

Just so, my hovering shell politely shields me
from burning up
in the lure of endlessly enticing possibilities
while I listen
for the miracle of quiet that will sustain me
in the intensity of living now.

from The Risks of Remembrance

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