Why are writers obsessed with certain themes and images? As someone who both reads and writes a lot, this is a question that often keeps coming back to my mind. When reading other people’s work, I like to try to spot recurring motifs and ideas. It’s like a puzzle where the reader never gets all of the pieces to fill in the picture, but can still see the border, the lines that shape and create a worldview. However, looking at one’s own work and seeing those same patterns of obsession can be a startling thing.
When I was putting together the poems for my chapbook, The Science of Unvanishing Objects, I knew the surface level themes well—women’s bodies, violence, ghosts, illusion. What I found though as I revised the work, moved poems around, thought about them more and more, was the hidden themes that were slipped into the fabric of these poems.
One of those themes was loss beyond the physical—how we all must carry some losses with us. Not just the extremes of this spectrum, but the smaller ones that eat us up without us realizing. And often that’s a loss that goes beyond the page for the writer, when I remember the things that inspired me to write some of these poems, I’ll realize the elements that I no longer have from those times—maybe a friendship, maybe just the feeling I had when I wrote it. One of the things I know I’m obsessed with in writing is nostalgia—not in the sentimental way we think about it, but rather in a way closer to melancholy, how many of us aren’t seeking to return to some moment before something in our lives changed irrevocably. This feeling ricochets through my chapbook, and it was something I didn’t realize until I read over the poems one last time as I was preparing the final corrections on my galley.
Another element was the fragility of bodies. I knew on some level, the poems would be about women’s bodies and their (mis)treatments by the world. However, I was surprised to find just how much this informed the poems—from the career injuries of basketball players to the erosion of the physical form after death. This theme fit into the previous one in ways I hadn’t quite expected, I think it’s easy to forget how easily our bodies can be broken until they are. As someone who has consistently hurt herself and seen others harmed, my relationship with my body and the untrustworthiness of my surroundings certainly informs my work. It’s a relationship we take for granted—the trust that we’ll be fine.
Finally, one additional element that surprised me was the theme of the things we can’t find. This is one I discovered while I was figuring out the title for the collection and rereading the poems to do so. The things out of reach, the things we can’t put our finger on. This is represented in the literal sense of the missing women themselves, but it’s also there in the feelings we can’t quite name to ourselves, the memories that fade, the dreams we’ve put behind us.
Ultimately, exploring my own obsessions within my writing was an illuminating, if sometimes uncomfortable process, and one that I think all writers should consider for themselves. What haunts you and why?
From The Science of Unvanishing Objects
I used to sleep with this guy who studied Japanese ghosts in literature. He’d talk about them while I was trying to go to sleep and the names stuck in my head long after I’d forgotten his. Shogo, Yokai, Yurei. And his dog was named Lafcadio, I do remember that. The guy’s name was something easy, one syllable, started with an L or a J.
I have an ex whose own ex before me attempted suicide. He said that she cut along the horizon rather than up the mountain. I asked what led her to it and he couldn’t remember, but he thought that it might have been because she lost the ability to dream after a car accident. I took this metaphorically, but he corrected, said literally. Said she closed her eyes and nothing came. I was terrified for years afterwards that every bump on the head might sever my dreams from my body.
My best friend and I, when we were children, would chase ghosts down by the valley stream. We’d pass their names between us in the form of stories. There were so many tales we had memorized. Most were cannibalized, stolen from the memories of other towns. The Dead Bride, The White Woman, The Lost Girl. When we tired of the dead, we would catch tadpoles in cupped palms, just for a second before releasing them. Years later when the bodies of birds were found, I tried to imagine them back to life and I would always get as far as their lives inside eggs.
I had a cousin who sold her soul, or that’s what she told me. She said the devil met her at a game of cards. She said the devil was a beautiful woman. She said the devil spoke in French and she didn’t speak the language, so she thought she was merely selling the memory of a man she once knew. And what does it feel like to have no soul, I asked. Like every night is the night before Christmas but you never wake up on Christmas morning, she told me.
There was a woman who I knew. She had a scar that perfectly circled her body, as if she had once been sawed in half. I’ve never liked that magic trick, she told me once in confidence. I never saw the scar, though, she told me about it as if one day I would and she didn’t want me to be surprised.
My friend reads the shapes of people’s skulls. She brushes out my hair, takes bobby pins, and begins to pull it all into swoops. Her fingertips on my scalp map out the secrets of my fortune. When I lean backwards and rest fully into her hands, she says that she knows my future. You will carry such heavy things. I laugh, thinking the voice she has adopted is merely theatrical until she continues. You will carry so many other people’s ghosts.
- Chloe N. Clark, The Apparitionist
Chloe N. Clark's poems and fiction appear in Booth, Glass, Hobart, Little Fiction, Uncanny, and more. She is co-EIC of Cotton Xenomorph, writes for Nerds of a Feather, and teaches at Iowa State University. Her debut chapbook, The Science of Unvanishing Objects, is out from Finishing Line Press and she can be found on Twitter @PintsNCupcakes