Working Through What Is Left


Robert Yerachmiel Snyderman is a Classes & Workshops instructor currently teaching a class on Outsider Literature at the Poetry Center. The below essay exceprt explores writing from the urgent edges, and the full version can be read at Jacket2.

I approach these things through telling of an archive that for many years lived between readership and trash; between the carpentry of an author’s husband and Southern humidity and the teeth of rodents; between a daughter’s body and indifference. When I found the poem, “The Origin,” Besmilr Brigham’s archive became a law. Handwritten in blue ink, dated precisely in the upper right corner “Feb. 5.88/11 am,” I was sitting in the dust yard of the daughter Heloise’s home, Las Cruces, New Mexico, cataloguing everything because I thought she was dying. Heloise had just returned from the hospital diagnosed with bladder cancer. Besmilr’s boxed papers surrounded the bed I slept in and once I woke to see three little people sitting on top of them, looking at me. Heloise limped her tall, thick body outside, and read loud the scrawl, at the edge of her voice, while I typed. 

I am an old woman writing.


it began

in a gully of fright, bare red earth—

a yard of graves, hill-land and

delta; a child rocking in a chair

learning to read; it began, a recurring

in silence, with fingers on letters

 feeling out the words. a young

woman’s songs, singing in the night


“The Origin” was evidence that she was still writing then. The late work is all in notebooks, handwritten; most of it dated precisely, with the time. She was hard in Alzheimer’s by the early 90’s when CD found her in backwoods Arkansas, having dropped out of a brief period of belated literary recognition some fifteen years before. At this time, Besmilr could not always identify with her own work, questioning, for instance, in a video Forrest Gander recorded, from where “in the world” the poem she was reading out of the binder in her hands had come. When I saw (or should I say read, or witnessed?) “The Origin” I felt I was being addressed as an instrument of the archive, that it was employing me, making me it. A pulse emanated through all the papers and the house where her husband died before her in her lostness, and Heloise’s cancer. The word “writing” in the poem’s first line is subject and verb. “I am an old woman writing” is a stilled state of active being, continuing to perform in a combustion. It is old writing that irrupts the archive, adamantly and always resettling, unsettling, giving writing to I am not. She instrumentalizes her life’s work in its total precarity with a base statement of self-witness that cannot really be eradicated by any other. In this simple gesture, Jacques Derrida’s Archive Fever, which deconstructs the “codetermination” of “archivable meaning,” is undermined by a diffident speech-act of self- witnessing and -protection. To re-appropriate Roland Barthes’ term, Brigham’s poem-object is the punctum to her papers; stripped of and stripping ready association, piercing for an other axis of perceiving and meaning-making.What if the specific poverty of a specific lyric’s tendency to ferment, foments past the archival superstructure into its own ante-archival persistence? What if this persistence is what saves it?

The noise before archive calls for an embodied research that might underlie recuperative urgencies as much as it reckons the extent of influence. In the noise: poems, blood-urine, photographs, voices, boxes, sleep, defunct mines, logging woods, cats, a bed the author’s husband died in, intuition, ghosts of the scholar, and income tax records, or the smell of paper rot that is the smell of accumulated backwoods shames and the exact disintegration of memory break down upon each other to formulate shapeshifting trace of authorial power. The exciting problem of this need is that it is pushed out and pushes out of bounds for immunity. This pushing is interrogative and instructional. I have asked myself the following questions, because the living and dying of my subject (and the living and dying of how there I arrived) instructs it. Where does Besmilr begin and the young, working with what she left, end? Where do Besmilr’s intentions begin and the archive’s own end? Where does Besmilr’s lyrical force begin and the decisions Heloise makes about its shelter end? Lyric fermentation, the dangerous abolition of boundaries these questions inaugurates, designates the mortal field. Fruits and drought of my intuition, hallucinations, illnesses, experience, and thought are given import to meet Besmilr in a mutual and dark noise. As when Robertson writes, “Noise doesn’t cohere with the figural self-identity of meaning,” that it “exceeds its own identity,” the lyric force of a woman’s materials teaches and so reforms, deforms “us” into untracked elsewhere. We join, so to speak, such a force of things to be closer to each other than our names can be. “Noise is moving survival.” The point is there is no evacuation of the subject’s momentum. There is no purification process for the caretaker and the dead to decisively separate themselves, in working through what is left.