Thursday, January 5, 2023

Sarah Dowling : A Notation in Duration (for Pattie McCarthy

from Report from the McCarthy Society, Vol. 1 No. 1






In preparing to write this little piece on Pattie, I re-read a bunch of her books, looked at a list of individual poems, and then sat stumped. I didn’t know what to say or how to begin; I didn’t know if I would write a critical essay or a poetic response; I didn’t know what kind of tribute I wanted to offer. Something about looking after the dogs in South Philadelphia? Something about babysitting Emmett and Asher? But that wasn’t about Pattie’s poetry, which was—I mean, must have been—the whole point. So, maybe best to focus elsewhere.

But as I read the poems again, I couldn’t leave it out. Because there it all was—peeling apples for a child, a baby sleeping, all the things kids say, the dogs. Can’t omit what’s omnipresent. I read some interviews with Pattie, and something clicked into place: Pattie said, “I think my work is evolving in two main ways: to accommodate the many unexpected interruptions and selvages of mothering three small children and to welcome a wider range of research matter while focusing more tightly on whichever subject is at hand.”

The tension between these two directions struck me as particularly important. On the one hand is the dilation of the poem, its capacity to open itself to the inevitable “interruptions and selvages” of life. On the other is the impulse to focus “more tightly,” to stick with whatever it is that is being considered. Pattie’s poetry, working at the scale of the book as compositional unit, accrues over time—over a long time. In the duration of the book’s composition are the inevitable interruptions. In the duration of the book’s composition are the twists of life. But what the book’s composition is, is also the long-term dedication to an idea, a question, a kind of reading—Pattie’s poetry is the notation, the formalization of this simultaneity. It is the braiding of different ongoingnesses.

I don’t mean to juxtapose the momentary interruption and the endurance of research as if they are two completely different things. I have kids now too, so I know that the relationship between interruption and endurance is complex. I’m finding that it often isn’t clear what’s interrupting what. Is the long-term project these books I’m reading, or have I mistaken that interruption for the proliferation of life that has become my effort? This is why returning to Pattie’s poetry has been so helpful—the movement between these two impulses is less like a competition and more like the breathing of a single organism. The inhale and exhale are distinct, even opposing motions, but they aren’t separable from one another.  

Going back to poems of Pattie’s that I first read ten or fifteen years ago, and seeing anew how she combines the “shardy mess” of life with the dedicated project of reading and thinking, I’m struck by the depth of documentation that takes place across each of her books. Each of these books is about something, yes, but there is more to what they are doing than their ostensible subject matter. Each of these books is a notation in duration, a description of how a practice of research unfolds over a course of years—with every competitivity that that entails. Rather than trace a cordon sanitaire around what can be elevated as art, Pattie’s writing lets life in. It works like a body, expanding and tightening to accommodate the work of thinking in time.

Babies, dogs, a ball. A medieval manuscript. None of these should be beside the point. What Pattie’s work offers is a counterpointing, the relational density of a practice of writing in living.






Sarah Dowling is the author of three poetry collections: Security Posture, DOWN, and Entering Sappho, which was shortlisted for the Derek Walcott Poetry Prize. A literary critic as well as a poet, Sarah is also the author of Translingual Poetics: Writing Personhood under Settler Colonialism. Sarah teaches in the Centre for Comparative Literature and Victoria College at the University of Toronto.


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