Ladies Lazarus is a work of creative nonfiction that offers the experience of poetry to me. Language that transports you to a third space, a place where meanings are reconfigured, purged, exhausted, interrogated, mutated to show its multiplicities, where the written word is given new life. Ladies Lazarus has poet’s blood running through it.
“Poetry for me is a form superior to all others and I read it voraciously, even if I myself am incapable of writing it,” is Piper Daniels’ opening response to my inquiring about poetry’s influence on her prose, and what is offered by the lyric:
With poetry, every syllable, every line break, is intentional. Behind every word is the ghostly association of another word, so even what isn’t there needs to be considered. The focus, it seems to me, is to pack the most meaning, beauty, and possibility into the smallest possible space, which I appreciate. When a prose writer is not much for poetry, it’s obvious on a line level. Poetry should inform the other disciplines how to execute with concision, brevity, and velocity, and I think when there is such care to detail as well as possibility, it is harder to turn out a line that is selfish, indulgent, or downright boring. I was told all through undergrad and grad school that my work was too lyrical and that, for that reason, it would never be embraced by a larger audience. The truth turned out to be not that my writing was too lyrical, but that I hadn’t yet developed the skill set to convey meaning through lyricism. Poetry is often formally rigorous—there is so much to know—but that careful attention to language, its beauty and possibility, moves people in a way that plot, character, and setting could never do.
Poetic associations continue. The title of the collection is in reference to Sylvia Plath’s poem “Lady Lazarus”—Plath is ghosting throughout this collection, as the breath inhaled, as ancestor, as faith, as a shadow cast from her body past and present. In the essay “The Sylvia Plath Effect,” Daniels accounts being a devoted of the Church of Holy Intensity, reading Ariel and thinking “this is what it feels like to be penetrated. This is what it means to be consumed, to be in love”; but most importantly, the beautiful connection that Daniels has to Plath is
To know that not so far away and not so long ago, a woman with my diagnosis, familiar with the anguish and ugliness endemic to such a life, was able to use it also as a filter for beauty.
There are other poets mentioned throughout the collection, such as CD Wright, Pablo Neruda, Ocean Vuong, David Trinidad, Aziza Barnes, whose poems are excerpted, serve as epigraphs and citations, and in the essay “Asking For It”, cleverly used to describe the “girls with whom things went terribly wrong”. The ones Daniels wanted for “the way they kissed, the way they moved and sounded in the dark, that they smelled of rosehip and jasmine or Parliaments and Jameson, that beneath [her] tongue, they’d rise to the ceiling like steam.” Nice.
Eleven essays make up Ladies Lazarus, and after completing a Wikipedia search, I did recognize that this eleven invoked John 11:11: “After He had said this, He told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to wake him up” (biblehum.com). This collection doesn’t stop with its hints and echoes. In each essay, Daniels is doing wake work: honoring the dead; keeping watch; recovering from misogyny’s aftermath; she’s a state of emergence—revising herself from unconsciousness.
The opening lines of each each essay has the poetic affect of leaving the reader in suspense, suspended in wonder, reminds you of your innocence and desire to know. You come back to your senses.
In the beginning, there is no way to assess, or even to imagine, the danger. (“Sirens”)
When I was a girl, the thing I loved most was the game “Light as a Feather.” (“Asking For It”)
When I was a child, my father was a purveyor of meat. (“Holy Sacrament”)
Disordered eating was as much a part of my upbringing as arithmetic or prayer. (“The Return Of Hunger”)
Some things can only be understood through retrospective redefinition. (“The Twist”)
Japan, 2011. (“Phantom Fares”)
Mother’s eyes are different colors, one brown one green: heterochromia iridum. (“Ladies Lazarus”)
Between the lifeline and the mercury line, the pills are smooth and round. (“Epistle For Suicided Mothers”)
The romantic link between madness and genius is an ancient one that dates back at least as far as Aristotle’s musings on “melancholia”. (“The Sylvia Plath Effect”)
If the world was yours, the first thing you would do is make me disappear. (“The Moon, From the Bitter Cold of Outer Space, Croons to the Griddle of the Desert”)
I liked it there, in that room with you, when, through one small window comes the arcing flood of morning. (“Epistle for Love at the End of the World”)
Lady Lazarus languages with a biblical, occultic, lyrical, journalistic syntax; Daniels writes about manic breaks, suicidal attempts, growing up churched, the murder of two girls near to her hometown, rape culture, toxic masculinity, and the body sickness that comes from low dosages of self-contempt daily. Daniels isn’t afraid to disobey the expectations of standard paragraphs; she employs paratactic arrangements that require the reader to lean into that nothingness occupied by asterisks, to enter one’s body as the conjunctive meat.
Daniels citations are inventive too. Experiments with fading the text then bolding phrases and fragments to create her own message, similar to erasure poetry. Slightly different, with Daniels’ style, the “mother source” remains visible, creating a palimpsest effect. A voice erupts, bolder, if not emboldened by the text from which it came. Although Daniels is describing, in the opening essay “Sirens,” how her mental illness presented as cutting, this description speaks to how this palimpsestic form is first embodied then textually enacted:
[Cutting] wasn’t something I learned to do. It was something that rose up out of me, as though just beneath the skin a crucial text was making its way to the surface and in order to read it, I had to trace it from the outside. Avid reader that I was, the scars soon zebra-ed across my body.
Feeling the emotional and technical rigor in these essays, I asked Daniels, What was the most challenging piece to write? Which piece grew you?
The piece through which I experienced the most personal growth was definitely “Sirens,” which is an essay about living with bipolar disorder and my resulting attempts at suicide. It took me six years and thousands of drafts before I felt like I was saying what I needed to say, and not only on the level of form and content. In order to publish an essay in which I claimed to move beyond suicidality, I had to be able to back up that claim with total honesty. That was a major moral and ethical concern for me.
The piece that was the hardest to write actually turned out to be “The Twist,” which explores the murder of two twelve-year-old girls who lived one town over the summer I myself was twelve. Because the story wasn’t mine to tell, and because the details of the murders were so gruesome, I felt a strong responsibility to defend the girls, to communicate their experience in a meaningful way, and to introduce certain concepts of societal injustice and violence without sensationalizing the murderers or their crimes. I was also aware that I was writing about the deaths of two white girls, and that the greater service would be to address the murder of women and girls of color. But how to convey those experiences without co-opting, speaking out of turn, or getting it wrong altogether?
It was also extremely difficult for me, in the essays in which I describe being raped, to figure out what needed to be said and what should remain unsaid. That felt like a big responsibility, even if it turned out that no one ever read a word of it.
This sense of responsibility is an act of beauty, and these essays are staging that care. There’s an edge in this work; yes, that sense of danger from the outside world, but the danger one must risk when they commit an idea to page, when they choose to bring voice to abjection and shame. Daniels voice at times is a call-to-action: “Let god and the devil move through you in equal measures”; it’s a reflective critical-compassionate gaze upon an addicted mother: “You are facing the fact that Mother is unknowable, that parts of Mother which rocked shut will never be open to you again”; it’s sentimental bravery that we often shun in literary work, because we are attempting to excise our feminine knowing: “I want to extend a hand into the moonless dark where countless girls were swallowed up and never seen again, and swear to them, every one of them, your sacrifice matters.” Indeed.
During the time I read Ladies Lazarus, I was also reading, Beauty: The Value of Values, by Frederick Turner, who works to develop a theory of beauty that takes into account the “inner dynamic and not just its outer appearance.” Of the many definitions of beauty that appear throughout the book, Turner says that “the beautiful can exist at the edge precisely because it has nothing to lose and everything to give away.” There is a generosity of self that Daniels gives, way of writing that “acknowledges our own shame and breaks through the anguished tears of recognition” to arrive at the joy of full presence. This is the beauty that makes life worth living, says Turner. Having noticed that the words “beauty” or “beautiful” appear in just about every essay in Ladies Lazarus, I asked Daniels, What is beauty?
I wanted to explore the concept of beauty from a few different angles, the first being language itself. On a sentence level, I wanted to be certain that every syllable was given the careful consideration usually afforded to poetry, because I strongly believed that the only way the dark content of this book could be carried forward in a way that was embraced and understood would be through beautiful language.
Beyond the line level, I addressed the concept of the beauty myth directly in the essay, “The Return Of Hunger.” I wanted to state explicitly that traditional notions of beauty are exclusionary and harmful even to the most enlightened among us, but I also wanted to explore how women, queer folks, and people of color can work together to banish those notions that are used against us as a form of societal control.
Most of all, I wanted to say that the dark things, the ugly things, the scars, rapes, suicide attempts and unhealthy love affairs that form and deform us are beautiful too. I wanted to echo Rumi’s sentiment that “the wound is the place where the light enters you” and I wanted to communicate that in my experience, the greatest beauty is to be found in the work of personal and societal redemption. It wasn’t enough for me to meditate on this concept; I really wanted to be solutions-oriented, and I wanted to describe how I moved through my darkest moments, believing if it were possible for me, it would be possible for anyone.
Intrigued by the usage of the narrative I as both personal and critical, “The Return Of Hunger” performs the “personal is political” as it argues for us to dismantle standardized notions of beauty. In this essay, which I intend to teach in a writing composition class, themed “On Beauty,” where students explore writing with their “I” from different rhetorical standpoints, I love how Daniels broadens her voice in conversation with such writers as Roxane Gay, Toni Morrison, Noami Wolf, and still maintains stylized prose and literary poise. Piqued by the gear-shifting nature of her I, I inquired with Daniels about the function of it in Ladies Lazarus:
As a young girl obsessed with literature, I studied canonical precedent for what comprises a successful, meaningful text. My overwhelming impression was that my voice (in particular, my queer, female, psychologically atypical voice, the “I” specific to me) was not a valid or acceptable vessel for meaning, which sent me down an impossible path of imitation and inauthenticity. When I was thirteen, I read Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar for the first time, in which she famously writes, “I took a deep breath and listened to the old brey of my heart: I am I am I am.” Just like that, the canonical spell was broken. I’d been granted permission to be who I was. So in that sense, the “I” is homage to and a continuation of the assertion of the power of the female voice.
All that said, I have a strongly held belief about the use of the “I” in nonfiction: the “I” MUST be used as a lens through which to perceive and explore the larger world. I despise the memoiristic “I,” used to tunnel ever inward. The recitation of narrative specific to and thus interesting only to the writer is maddening to me. I wanted to attempt to use the queer female “I” in a way that would represent that perspective while still encompassing the human experience at large.
Ladies Lazarus is an unapologetic work, so bitch and bad-ass, in the ways it uses beauty as a creative principle and transgressive force. It is the beauty that allows us to transform our shames into something usable, necessary to our now, that welcomes another way to hold ourselves with love and forgiveness. Daniels makes me proud to be a poet during these times, knowing there are other queer women out there doing lazarus work for girls and women everywhere. #I too “want move into the terror and awe of this rare and beautiful thing between us, and hold there until we forget who we are, or how we might ruin one another, for as close and as long as she’ll let me.”
Cave Canem graduate fellow Arisa White’s most recent collection You’re the Most Beautiful Thing That Happened was a nominee for the 29th Lambda Literary Award and the chapbook “Fishing Walking” & Other Bedtime Stories for My Wife won Daniel Handler’s inaugural Per Diem Poetry Prize. Forthcoming in 2019 from Heyday Books is the middle-grade biography Biddy Mason Speaks Up, coauthored with Laura Atkins, and Augury Books will publish her poetic memoir Who’s Your Daddy?. Arisa serves on the board of directors for Nomadic Press and is an assistant professor at Colby College. arisawhite.com