Odd One Out: An Interview with Joan Houlihan

By Sawnie Morris
Reprinted with permission from the Boston Review

Joan Houlihan’s third book, The Us, is a fifty-one page sequence of poems recounting the story of an imagined pre-historical culture. The narrative focuses on one of the culture’s members in particular—in a sense, its first true individual—“ay.” Although the book is mythological in its scope, it is lyric rather than epic in its approach, proceeding not with heroic pomp and encyclopedic comprehensiveness but instead with lyric delicacy and attention to carefully chosen particulars. The Us is not monumental, nor is it meant to be.

The Us begins with a table of contents, an “Argument” (which is in fact a synopsis), and a list of the cast of characters. These three elements serve as guide to a vaguely familiar yet unnamed country and time where the living is primitive and the people’s speech is rendered in an English unlike any known before—a broken, thorny idiom that scrambles the linearity we associate with traditional heroic narratives. It is the hobbled tongue of an anti-hero, and with The Us, Houlihan has given us an anti-epic with a scrappy, rebellious underdog placed front and center.

The book’s “Argument” tells of migrations to and from an “Isle,” the encounter of a Primitive People (“us”) with an Advanced People (“thems”), a brief experience of life “in harmony amidst Horse & Geese,” followed by the kind of fall-out that has transpired repeatedly since Neanderthals encountered Homo sapiens. The cast of characters, “Kith & Kin,” includes “father, leader of the us,” the son of the father, “ay,” and five other human beings, among them a female conjurer, and “greb,” described as “one of the us who is sly & dangerous.” The story itself begins in the collective voice of the “us.” It alters to first person, with ay as speaker, when he commits an act of compassion—ay stays behind to care for his recently widowed and pregnant mother when the us emigrate, an act that literally and figuratively separates him from the collective. He begins to speak for himself at the end of Part I, implying that consciousness is in transition, evolving into the individualized ego (“ay” is a homonym, obviously, for “I”). In stepping away from the collective, ay steps into himself.

Readers will recognize in Houlihan’s “work of teeth and softening” echoes of Anglo-Saxon alliteration, “Brae, stay here, the branch and leaf / a shield of sun, moss, a bed / and every bird a guard.” The Us also contains the sharp-sounds Seamus Heaney reports of Ulster speech, along with an occasional foray into the sprung rhythms of Gerard Manley Hopkins: “Ice-taught, bit by sun’s low arc, / rock-tall, quiet as a smoke / ours father goes before us.” The language falters in moments (“Hail the kill and all it bring!”), but at her best Houlihan’s music is convincingly shaped and advanced by anaphora, word-play, and the making of compounds and coinages we associate with Anglo-Saxon literature, as in “green-held bud,” or “sea-talk,” or the description of the hair of the nurse bending over the child as “a gleam-fall over him.”

One of the pleasures of The Us is the way things unfold as in a dream, its uncanny fusion of the strange and the familiar. Archetypes and dynamics familiar in western mythology are in evidence throughout. For example, when ay leaves his baby brother amid “branch and leaf” in hopes the thems will find and provide the infant with needed sustenance, we think of the abandonment of Moses, the most recognizable instance of the lost-and-found archetype. More disturbing are the moments in which we recognize contemporary waking-life horrors. When ay becomes a slave to the thems,

Thems slide out a box
the size of lying down
and told with a hand –
here – go inside.
Ay fit to it, then on top
thems set a lid for sleep. (“At night a milk bowl” 6-11)

Forcing prisoners to sleep each night in a tightly confined space is a form of torture we have read about in literature (think Isabel Allende’s The House of Spirits, a fictional account of the U.S. backed coup in Chili in the 1970’s in which the narrator is violently assaulted and imprisoned in a closed box), as well as in today’s news media (think Guantánamo or Abu Ghraib). The brutality of such moments in The Us strikes us doubly because it is at once archetypal and of our own “advanced” time.

The Us is essentially romantic in its distrust of the “advanced” and in its sympathy with the natural world, as well as in its hankering—in spite of all the trouble—after a more primal existence, and one result of Houlihan’s bending and twisting of syntax and her altering of pronouns and possessives (“Hims g’wen did not go / quiet to the floor but tore hers cloth and wept.”) is a rough-hewn sensuality that is seductive and refreshing in this the digital age.

I Skyped Joan Houlihan at her desk in Massachusetts from my desk in rural northern New Mexico one morning last fall. After some amused conversation regarding our digitalized selves, we began our conversation about The Us. (It was later edited.)

Sawnie Morris: What was the inspiration for The Us? How did you conceive of it?

Joan Houlihan: The Us came from what painters call a “happy accident” (a stray brush stroke that changes the course of the entire painting) in that I momentarily misread my own handwriting as “us” instead of “we” in the draft of an early poem. That poem (not in the book) was spoken by one person in a group of exiles on a ship. In that moment of misreading, a question—who are/were us?—took shape.

SM: Could you say something about the process of its making?

JH: I began each day wondering, as a novelist might wonder, about his or her characters: what are the us like? where do they live? where are they going and why? what will happen to them today? I needed to know, I was in the grip of a mystery, and the only way to find out was to write it. There was a strange correlation between my drive for more knowledge about these people and the continuing revelation of a world of which I had had no previous idea. It was both odd and thrilling to be in the service of this drive. As these people began from a word (“us”) the world they inhabited took shape from the way they talked. It seemed to me then as it seems to me now that the language itself both made and served the group. The us created the us and each time the us spoke as one, they confirmed themselves anew.

SM: Lucie Brock-Broido says of The Us that “the speaker manages . . . to communicate . . . in a language both syntactically inventive and radically simple . . . ”

JH: Because I wanted to portray the us as always at the threshold of language (and thus civilization), I felt their language needed to be as simple as possible, directly concerned with immediate surroundings, transactions of need, and without adornment. Since their concerns were basic—food, shelter, safety, belonging—their language was basic.

SM: It seems you took the theory that language is consciousness and reenacted and embodied the development of consciousness through language for the reader.

JH: If I did, I worked through a theory I didn’t have to begin with but came to as a result of writing. I wasn’t thinking about a world and how people might speak in that world. But, in speaking, the world was created. And that in itself led me to the theory that language creates the world, creates consciousness.

SM: The style of writing in The Us is quite distinct from your previous two books.

JH: I can see that there is a connection between the work I did before and this book, but it really is a departure. In between, I had been changed by certain catastrophic events in my personal life that swept away my previous ways of thinking and feeling, forced me to start again. I began trying to reach a way of expressing newly felt and perceived places. I identify with Helen Vendler’s theory in The Breaking of Style, that poets whose style changes radically in mid-career have experienced some kind of life change deeper than style.

Likewise, I stripped the us down so that they had to begin again. It was only later in the process of writing the book that I thought of the us as a group of ancient people. They don’t necessarily have to be ancient people, they could be any people, maybe post-apocalyptic people. I am not interested in historical reality. I am interested in origin.

SM: Ay is a hero in terms of risking his life. He is not a proud, vengeful Homeric hero or even a female hero on the order of Alice Notley’s Alette, for example, who must destroy that which destroys . . . . Rather, ay’s acts of heroism, that in effect make him an anti-hero, are in every case acts of nurturance as a result of imaginative sympathy with another—such that the urge toward empathetic consciousness provides the psychic drive of The Us.

JH: That’s very true. It is interesting to me that the act that is rebellious is the act that is compassionate. There is a drive in groups to conform, to ensure the survival of the whole. In the world of the us, an individual act that is compassionate is dangerous for the group. There is a hardness to the way the us live based exclusively on survival, but ay’s is the story of what the us will eventually go toward, which is a higher level of consciousness, which really has to do with being aware of, and empathic toward, others. The us are bound together by necessity and utility—the hunting, the sharing of heat—which is not a result of love or compassion but primal need. Ay’s is a bigger picture. He has a vision and the will to act on it. That’s what makes him a hero.

SM: So you are saying that authentic empathy is only possible when individual consciousness is able to emerge from collective consciousness?

JH: Yes, and a paradox exists, because ay’s separation is fraught with isolation. He is able to help others because he is aware of them as separate beings, but that awareness forces him into a position of being alienated from the group.

SM: The us say that the size of a deer “put in mind / the reach of what us were and came to be / and how us were the smaller.” The animal, rather than being objectified or commodified, humbles the human.

JH: Animals are important in many ways to the us. On the island, when they become one with the horses and geese, the killing of animals—which is what they are used to doing—is mitigated. I see that as a moment of evolution for the us as a group. One that is humbling but also strengthening—a step up.

SM: Later in the book, it is in relation to a red horse that trust between humans and animals is broken. Horse meat is part of the culinary tradition in some European countries, and elsewhere. Are you a vegetarian?

JH: I just recently started being a vegetarian, but not philosophically. I’m not a big activist for animal rights. I don’t have that political agenda.

In the book, the animals in many ways represent a more spiritual life. The horse, especially. After I had completed writing The Us, I saw a PBS special about early Ireland and I found out that there once were small red horses, ponies, on the island. There was talk about the spirit of the horse and that the Celts worshipped the horse. I thought: Wow! That’s great! It was backward research, fitting things together.

The killing and the eating of the horse is a real taboo for the us; it really is a crossing of the line. That killing becomes akin to the killing of the albatross. It haunts and damns them.

SM: There is much in The Us that is archetypal in nature, including its themes of death and regeneration. The line that describes the death of the father, for example, calls to mind Osiris and the ancient Egyptian belief that at death one becomes the god.

JH: I love it that echoes of mythology occur in the book. Throughout working on it and now with the sequel manuscript, Ay, I have been immersed in the idea that people project a god onto a vacancy. When ay is rendered silent by his head injury, he is viewed as a god by the us because of the mystery of non-response as well as his lineage as son of their dead leader. It’s very Bergmanesque, in a way—I’m thinking of his film The Silence, and his idea of “negative imprint,” as well as the psychology of projection and transference. When there is no response it creates a vacuum into which people can posit their own imaginative wishes and fears. Ay becomes something much bigger than he is through being silent. It is the same when the father dies and creates his silence, although he is a very large figure in the tribe, so once he dies, the honor of being a god makes sense on another level, too. They can attribute something large to him in death because he was large in life.

SM: Tommy Archuleta, who introduced you at a recent reading in Sante Fe, mentioned that there are practices described in The Us that are similar to his people’s traditions, but he wasn’t offended in the way he is sometimes offended by people attempting to write about his culture. Rather, he said, The Us was “reeking of authenticity.” Did you conduct research in preparation for writing this book?

JH: I did not do research. However, writing the poem—where I misread my handwriting, as I mentioned earlier—occurred around the same time I had been looking online at a tale about an early Celtic voyage to the Isle of Man. I did look up some Anglo-Saxon root words in the American Heritage Dictionary and developed the names “gwen” and “brae” and “sen.” Other than that, I did not do any research about people or groups of people. I wanted the book to be more allegorical than that and to stand for all such groups.

SM: Has anyone challenged you about issues of appropriation?

JH: When I recorded poems from the book for the audio archives at Harvard’s Woodberry Poetry Room, the curator invited questions from the audience and someone asked if I had worried about appropriation, assuming I was taking on the voice of an actual group of people. I responded that it hadn’t occurred to me, because the group and world they inhabited were entirely imaginary. And, she said: “Oh, so this is all made up?” And I said: “Well yeah, this is all made up.” I didn’t really try to compare it or draw from or read about any ancient people, or any groups of people, or any tribe of people or any current so-called primitive people existing now. That is all of interest, of course, but it isn’t what I was doing.

SM: Ultimately we all descend from a tribal people somewhere.

JH: Well, yes we do—though I’m more enamored of the collective unconscious idea than the idea of finding a particular tribe and using that as a basis.

SM: In terms of process, Berryman talks about having written a stanza a day when writing Mistress Bradstreet and not allowing himself to continue on to writing the next stanza until the following day. Did you have any similar agreements with yourself?

JH: That’s a great question. I wrote in a rush, pretty much everyday—and I don’t usually do that, but at the time it seemed to me that each poem was so connected to the next that I needed to follow that connection.

SM: Did you have anyone in particular to whom you showed the work, especially in the early stages?

JH: My husband is not a poet, but he is an astute, insightful reader. I would show him the poems as I went along to get a sense of whether or not he could even understand them. He thought the language was strange but completely apprehensible, and he was excited by it, which helped me to continue.

SM: I have wondered whether the marginal glosses in The Us served initially as a plot outline or came later. It sounds like it must have come later.

JH: When I went back to revise, I started to think about the narrative and whether or not the plot should be spelled out. I didn’t want to talk down to the reader, but I did want the reader to be in the experience, not hung up on plot points or who was who. I wanted the lyricism to come through and the psychic thread to be apparent, as it was for you. I also liked the faux-ancient look of the marginalia.

SM: Was Dream Songs an influence?

JH: Dream Songs? No. Though I love Berryman. My major literary influences in poetry are Hopkins, Dickinson, Roethke, Thomas, and Plath. In prose, they are Kafka, Beckett, Joyce and Trevor. Nabokov’s poetic allegory, Invitation to a Beheading, was a huge influence when I was in my twenties.

SM: Of particular interest in the language of The Us is word play. For example, the pronoun “I” becomes like a seed inside the name “ay,” and you draw attention to this in lines where “ay” appears twice in close proximity: “Ay could not tell. / Ay came back simple, milded, felled.”

JH: You are absolutely right, the seed of the “I” is there, and the sound of it. I saw “ay” as a precursor to the pronoun “I.”

SM: How did you come up with the name “ay”?

JH: Coming up with “ay” was more deliberate because once the us existed, there needed to be another pronoun that represented the split or limbo state in the evolution of self-awareness. That which was to become ay wasn’t ready yet to be the modern “I.” I thought about the letter “Y,” but it sounded too much like “why.” It was my husband who came up with “ay” in one of our brainstorming sessions.

SM: When g’wen is giving birth, ay says: “Hers head went side to side and groans / went round the wood, more / and hard against / what would be born.” This provides a description of a woman giving birth that in a marvelously oblique way conjures a coffin. It also stands in contrast and echoes later when ay is forced by the thems to sleep in a lidded box.

JH: I like the idea of encompassing life and death in one image. And, I was thinking of the woods, the forest. “Hard-against” was a description of labor, not wanting the pain, but having to go through it. Which is what happens in the book: the us are repeatedly put to the test, to the cruel rigors of weather and starvation that they are against but have to go through in order to get to a birth, in order to get to something that keeps them alive.

SM: In a desperate effort to feed and care for his infant brother and himself, ay ventures into the them’s territory. Trouble—for ay—ensues. This brings to mind the immigration debate in our own country, our own “U.S.”

JH: There are different possible ends to the development of a self, and not all of those results are good. The thems exemplify an attitude that is contrary to the qualities of empathy and nurturing, which is: let’s use what we can, including people. They are “advanced” but only in their ability to plan, organize, get food efficiently, conscript laborers, but there is no equivalent to ay in the thems, no variation in the group consciousness that presages awareness, though the nursemaid who leaves with ay could be seen as a precursor to compassion.

SM: Alice Walker speaks about hearing the voices of her ancestors or feeling that they speak through her. Did you have any sense of that when writing The Us?

JH: I did feel that I heard the voices of my ancestors. It happened suddenly and in a lasting way. It’s like finding a road that goes somewhere, not by looking for it, but you happened upon it when you were lost and it went somewhere great and now you can go there. I wasn’t even aware that such a place existed before this book. That’s been a great gift to me. I don’t want to sound self-aggrandizing or to set myself up as hearing things from the divine or anything like that. I feel like what I’m describing is an experience available to anyone.

I feel, as I get older, that I am in much closer touch with those who are dead: my parents and my brother, for example. And I have a sense of continuity that I did not have when I was younger.

SM: Did you read the article about Neanderthal DNA that was in The New Yorker last summer? Does that bear relationship to The Us?

JH: Yes, in terms of the collective unconscious and the repetition in the DNA of language structures. All of those ideas of Chomsky’s and ideas of the innerness of grammar are relevant to DNA. Language is from the body; it is not just a construction from the head. We carry ancient voices.

SM: What, if anything, has surprised you about the book’s reception?

JH: No question, it was the wildly off-the-mark, hostile reaction in a review that appeared in Poetry. The review was completely baffling to me and it was disheartening at the time because I had been wondering if maybe the book wasn’t as clear as I thought, maybe it wouldn’t be apprehended the way I wanted. But then, when the reviewer mentioned bad grammar . . .
(laughter)

You have to wonder why Poetry initially published poems from The Us only a year before. The sound team came to my house and did a recording of my reading, then [Christian] Wiman and [Don] Share did a podcast that intelligently discussed, and clearly appreciated, the poems. We had a lovely interaction. So, while I was surprised by the review itself, I was more surprised by its appearance in that particular magazine.
On the other hand, I was happily surprised by the number of random readers who were genuinely affected by the book and moved to tell me so. I received many spontaneous and appreciative emails. And later, several reviewers surprised me with their willingness to enter, and appreciate, an imagined world of language. Overall, since so many poetry books receive no reviews at all, or very sketchy ones, I was grateful for the thoughtful responses The Us did receive.

SM: You recently completed writing a sequel to The Us. The Us ends with ay wounded and existentially alone. You mentioned earlier the effect of his silence.

JH: As someone who has lost the ability to speak and as “son of the father,” ay is propped at an altar and used as a divine figure. The sequel, Ay, revolves around his thoughts about that and his increasing need to escape the projection of the us and discover his own identity as a separate being.

SM: Are the two books structured in the same way?

JH: The Us is plot driven. Ay is composed mainly of lyrical monologues. It’s a much more internal book and the language is a tad more sophisticated. Ay’s seeking enacts Joseph Campbell’s hero archetype, his need to discover who he is now that he knows he is. Ay depicts a building towards the modern conception of self as an identity made up of thoughts and memories that only the individual self constructs and that are different from and separate from any group.

SM: How does that modern conception square with your instincts about the unconscious?

JH: In the process of this journey, ay meets many of the dead. He meets family and he meets some others of the us who have died. They are part of his world, they are doing things in parallel. While he’s making a camp-fire, they are also making a campfire. They are not copying him, but they are going on with their lives as if they are alive. He is part of a continuity of life/death, consciousness/unconsciousness.
The other aspect of the book has to do with meeting the greb again and reencountering that pivotal, violent event in a different way.

SM: How so?

JH: I was influenced by a documentary, The Quality of Mercy, (taken from a line in The Merchant of Venice) narrated by one of two children who had witnessed their mother being killed by an intruder. The murderer was convicted and imprisoned. The children had a very hard time in life and, in his forties, the son decided to confront the murderer. As soon as he saw the murderer face to face, instead of saying what he had planned to say, instead of reviling him, he said “I forgive you.” He had no idea he was going to say that. The murderer cried. The sister was angry. It was a remarkable story, especially because of the mysterious, wholly illogical origin of that forgiving impulse.

So I asked myself, how was ay going to deal with greb’s action, which was completely inexplicable and drastically damaged ay’s life? They have to meet. That’s the plot. The rest is in the language.