July 22, 2020KR OnlineNonfiction

On Erasure

In 1909, Elinore Pruitt answered a newspaper ad for a housekeeper. Elinore was a single mother living in Denver; her prospective employer was a Scottish bachelor living on a ranch in Burnt Fork, Wyoming, near the Utah border. After she was hired, Elinore and her young daughter moved to Wyoming, where Elinore would eventually marry her employer—a choice, I thought, made when no other choices were available, a choice made in a place sixty miles from the railroad where the snow could be fifteen feet deep and linger until June.

I was no stranger to relationship choices deserving of scrutiny when I first read Letters of a Woman Homesteader (1914), a compilation of letters that Elinore wrote to a friend back in Denver during her first years of ranch life. In book form, the letters bear titles such as “A Charming Adventure” and “Christmas Tree Adventure” that would not be out of place in a child’s first chapter book. Their contents almost unequivocally express curiosity and joy and tell of meadowlarks, silvery trout, and dells of deep green grass. But I thought the letters elided a more discomfiting narrative and made it my purpose as a reader to uncover it. After all, I thought, how could a town named Burnt Fork not contain a supply of danger, and how could Elinore boast of having a “relic of the Mountain Meadow Massacre” without that relic haunting her? I read with bias, as every reader does, seeking language and imagery that consolidated that bias. And then, because I am a poet, I excised that language from the letters and rearranged it into fractured letter poems that evoke a barbed relationship to a beloved in a bewildering landscape of greasy water, snowstorms, and silence.

The letter poems, which appear in my first book, are examples of what is called erasure poetry. As a poetics, erasure removes parts of a text—by means that include strike-throughs, obfuscation, and excision—in order to generate a poem from the words that remain. The act of erasure rejects the permanence and authority of a source text in favor of fragmentation, re-appropriation, and, some might say, vandalism. The contemporary poet and erasure practitioner Mary Ruefle defines erasure as “the creation of a new text by disappearing the old text that surrounds it,” indicating the revitalizing potential of the poetics as well as the poet’s prerogative to make language new. In The Essential Poet’s Glossary, Edward Hirsch defines erasure as “a poetics of reduction and removal, of meaningful fragmentation” and taxonomizes it as a type of found poetry, language extricated from its cultural perch—a government document, the blackboard menu at a coffee shop, a voice-mail message—by an author who presents it as a poem. Notably, the most enduring and respected reference guide for scholars and writers of poetry, The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (2012), does not include an entry for erasure in its most recent edition and does not include erasure in its “Found Poetry” entry. The editors’ refusal to include the poetics in the book’s 1,639 pages represents a kind of cultural erasure itself, though it has not prevented the term and the poems it describes from circulating with increasing abundance in the twenty-first century.

The cultural erasures in and around the practice of erasure poetics that most interest me are the erasures of women’s intentional and unintentional involvement in the practice. The recovery efforts of late-twentieth and twenty-first century feminist literary scholarship strive to make visible the women poets who have been erased by curricula, publications, and other academic and artistic institutions. In the meantime, scholarly work on and theories of erasure have yet to productively trouble the intersection of erasure and women writers whom society has often expected or forced to disappear. Literary history is brimming with women writers who have not only disappeared but also made disappearance transitive, who have done what Ruefle calls the poetic act of disappearing, though the texts on which they’ve exerted this practice have been their own, and their poems have not been read as erasures.

The glancing scholarly treatment and, arguably, elision of what I think of as women’s compulsory and noncompulsory traditions of erasure is echoed by erasure poets’ silences on the subject of women’s practices and possible influences. Ubiquitous among the most prominent literary book-length erasures published in this century—including Jen Bervin’s Nets (2004), M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! (2008), Janet Holmes’s THE MS OF MY KIN (2009), Srikanth Reddy’s Voyager (2011), and Matthea Harvey’s Of Lamb (2011)—is an explanation of process. Only Harvey names a woman poet (Bervin) as an influence. Holmes is the only poet who works exclusively with woman-authored texts (Emily Dickinson’s poems). An outlier is Mary Ruefle’s A Little White Shadow (2006), which erases a woman-authored text and does not include an explanation of process. This essay addresses the absence of women from these procedural disclosures and from the inchoate history of erasure poetics, with the intention of laying the foundation for more nuanced conversations about erasures throughout the history of women’s lyric poetry.

My interest in erasure is scholarly and creative. My poetic practice includes the erasures I described at the beginning of this essay and a larger project that I embarked on in the fall of 2016, an erasure of American botanical artist Anne Ophelia Dowden’s Wild Green Things in the City: A Book of Weeds (1972). An up-close chronicle of the unlikely underfoot life in Manhattan, where Dowden lived, the book follows spring into winter, pairing lush illustrations of seeds, roots, and plants like shepherd’s purse, burdock, and peppergrass with elegant descriptions of their growth and survival. The book concludes with the prediction that unless humans change their dependence on fossil fuels, “even the toughest weeds will no longer survive.” Perhaps the act of erasure could materialize the environmental foreboding at the end of the book, I thought, and make evident the fact that more than forty years after the publication of Dowden’s text, the disappearances that she predicts are taking place. Perhaps the act of erasure, I told myself, could render a lyric evocation of vanishing flora, fauna, and coastlines—a sad song of an imperiled earth.

• •

The history of lyric poetry and the history of erasure poetry, according to some scholars, have the same origin: Sappho. In his essay “A Brief  History of Erasure Poetics,” Travis Macdonald cites Sappho as a foremother of erasure; Sappho is also the only woman Hirsch cites in his entry for “erasure poetry” in The Essential Poet’s Glossary. Sappho’s poems from the seventh century BCE come to us, of course, in fragments of papyrus, a medium whose delicacy could not withstand the passage of more than two thousand years. In Anne Carson’s translation of Sappho, some pages resemble an Arctic expanse, such as the page containing the three words of fragment 38: “you burn me.” The fragment, as fragments often do, tempts the mind to build a context in the glacial white space around it, the three words evoking a devastating love note passed through two millennia’s worth of hands to a ferociously loved, loving, or spurning “you.” Along the way, the “you” gains more personalities, more meanings: the “you” remaining on the wrecked papyrus can now refer to the destroying force of time and, for the environmentally minded, the earth’s warming temperatures that melt the glaciers with which I made my metaphor above. This is the way to read Sappho in the twenty-first century: creatively. The experience of reading Sappho’s poems highlights how the reader of erasure poetry and the practitioner of erasure are collaborators, the reader mimicking the poet’s drive to, as Ruefle writes, “make compositions out of decompositions.”

While I agree that Sappho’s poems offer readers a primer on the meaningful effects of erasure poetics, there’s a catch, one that Macdonald and Hirsch downplay: Sappho didn’t choose to erase her own work. Time did. How would she reply if Sappho were asked if she would prefer to have her complete poems passed down through millennia or randomly selected bits and pieces of them, published in formats she could never imagine? Hazarding an educated guess, I say that Sappho, arguably the first poet to sing from the voice of a lyric “I,” a speaker created by the poet to express an intense personal emotion in an intimate voice, would have chosen the former. Furthermore, if we choose to read Sappho as an erasure poet, her breathtaking audacity of having something to say and saying it becomes subsumed by a poetics invested in silencing that voice. This reading of Sappho not only creates a fundamental misunderstanding about the procedural intentionality of erasure poetics but also undermines centuries’ worth of lyric poetry in which women have struggled to write from the position of a first-person-singular speaker. Or, looked at from a slightly different angle, this reading of Sappho as an erasure poet reveals how women lyric poets inherit Sappho’s bifurcated legacy of a woman-authored lyric subject to, and as a site for, erasure. These women’s erasures prefigure the practice of erasure poetry in the twentieth and twenty-first century and help trace a history of erasure as women have practiced it—initially as a culturally imperative poetics and then, finally, as a fully authored, though not unproblematic, choice.

A hasty overview of women poets engaged in the impossible struggle to simultaneously speak from the position of an “I” and erase what is spoken could include Anne Askew (1541–1546) who wrote, in prison, “The Ballad which Anne Askew Made and Sang When She Was in Newgate.” Acknowledging the novelty of writing from the position of an “I” in either prose or poetry, Askew writes:

Not oft use I to wright
In prose nor yet in rime,
Yet will I shew one sight
That I saw in my time.

The mix of modesty (“Not oft use I to wright”) and boldness (“Yet will I”) in this stanza exemplify the rhetorical savvy required of a woman poet who dared to create a first-person-singular speaker who spoke and sang. Askew, who had preached Protestantism in London, was punished for the act of speaking and imprisoned as a heretic when she wrote the poem. She would be tortured in the Tower of London and eventually burned at the stake; a Wikipedia entry of dubious origin says she did not scream until the flames reached her chest.

Across the Atlantic a century later, Anne Bradstreet (1612–1672) created a speaker who carries on a silent nocturnal discourse with God in the poem “By Night When Others Soundly Slept.” The poem presents a speaker awake in her home in the Massachusetts Bay Colony who can only address God through silent crying. “With tears I sought him earnestly[,]” she writes. This is a rhetorical contortion, for the poem documents a written recounting of the experience and shows how a woman could have used words to question her God. In the poem the speaker performs a pious womanly silence instead, a requirement representative of not only the author’s role as wife of a husband and mother to several children who slept in the same room she did and whom she did not want to wake, but also her poetics, which performs silence even as it unfolds in words on the page. In other poems, Bradstreet obfuscates the speaking woman daring to use the pronoun “I” through the use of persona. The speaker is a mother hen addressing her chicks in “In Reference to Her Children, 23 June 1659.” In “The Author to Her Book” the speaker emerges, not as the title suggests, as a poet addressing her book, but rather as a mother addressing a disappointing child, speaking from a position that seventeenth-century society could better accept, and therefore see, her in.

In England a little over a century later, in 1798, Dorothy Wordsworth kept a notebook that reveals a predilection for avoiding the pronoun “I”:

“Walked on the hill-tops—a warm day. Sate under the firs in the park.”
“Walked through the wood to Holford.”
“Bright sunshine, went out at 3 o’clock.”
“Went to Poole’s after tea.”

I think of the lyric entries in her notebooks as pieces of poems because they gave her brother William material for his poems. In places when Dorothy dares to think of herself, her heart frequently melts away, or threatens to:

“I lay upon the steep of Loughrigg my heart dissolved.”
“Grasmere looked so beautiful that my heart was almost melted away.”
“When we passed thro’ the village of Wensly my heart was melted away.”

These moments of disintegration suggest that Dorothy might be integrated into the scenes she observes by voiding her heart of blood (reading literally) or desire (reading metaphorically), forgoing life or love in favor of decomposition. So devoted to her brother William was Dorothy that all night before his wedding, she wore the ring with which he would wed his bride, Mary Hutchinson. On the morning of the wedding she gave the ring to him but could not bring herself to attend the ceremony. She writes: “At a little after 8 o’clock, I saw them go down the avenue towards the church. . . . I kept myself as quiet as I could, but when I saw the two men coming up the walk coming to tell me it was over, I could bear it no longer and threw myself on the bed, where I lay in stillness, neither hearing, nor seeing anything.” Dorothy’s self-erasure, the systematic shutting down of her ability to move, followed by the shutting down of her senses so that she cannot speak, hear, or see, dramatizes the literary history of women contorting themselves off and on the page to avoid or justify speaking from the position of the “I,” to avoid or justify having something to say.

While Askew, Bradstreet, and Dorothy’s self-erasures bear little resemblance to the erasure poetics of the twentieth and twenty-first century, their poems contain acts of self-directed erasure enforced by the culture in which they wrote. Broadly speaking, these authors were in positions of privilege: they were white, they were educated. They did not experience the vulnerabilities of women of color and the pressures of, say, enslaved African poet Phillis Wheatley (1758–1784), who wrote poems for the master who owned her, including one that praises the “mercy” of her being taken from West Africa to the United States. While there are no explanations of the procedures that yielded these women’s writing, it’s not hard to imagine the omissions in their work shadowed by various erasures the authors enacted during the drafting process off and on the page. Such imagining would allow readers to encounter Askew, Bradstreet, Dorothy, and Wheatley’s writing in the way they encounter Sappho’s—as excerpts of a larger project, fragments of a human, intellectual, and emotional whole.

• •

The historical timeline of erasure poetry put forward by Macdonald, Hirsch, and others jumps from Sappho to the American mid-twentieth century, and one artwork in particular: Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953). Rauschenberg’s choice to ask an admired, successful, and well-known contemporary to provide him with an artwork to erase reveals just how many choices were available to the artist at the time of the erasure’s execution. It is said that de Kooning begrudgingly obliged Rauschenberg; de Kooning’s reluctance, among other things, reveals how upsetting it can be to have one’s work erased. I remember the first time I saw Erased de Kooning Drawing, on a slide in a darkened classroom where I took art history classes as an undergraduate. I must have leaned forward in my seat to try to make out the traces of the original drawing that Rauschenberg’s forty rubber erasers’ worth of erasing had left behind. I didn’t consider the wherewithal required to obliterate the work of another living artist, nor how Rauschenberg’s piece, by pronouncing that erasing the work of others constituted creativity, implied that erasing oneself did not.

What if the literary history of erasure swerved away from Rauschenberg and toward the recently recovered artist Doris Cross, who began painting over Webster’s Secondary School Dictionary, in 1965? Her erasures appear in the book Columns (1982) and demonstrate a woman artist pushing back against one of the most powerful patriarchal texts in our culture. In a statement at the beginning of the book, Cross writes: “My process consists of leaving ‘found words’ precisely where they exist in the columns of Webster’s Secondary School Dictionary, c1913 edition. The ‘found words’ then comprise the statement. Words as objects, textures, movements, spaces, sounds: words supporting words, even as a column is built of mortar and stones.” Cross’s focus on the materiality of words is painterly and also, as it envisions words “supporting words” like “mortar and stones,” architectural. Her practice of crossing out, drawing over, and painting over the dictionary leaves holes for the buttressing material of her choosing, where meaning, to quote Cross’s page titled “Renderer,” is a “collision . . . RENDING . . . into parts.” Cross’s practice is no less effacing than, say, Rauschenberg’s, and has a similar goal: to dismantle the mark of another. What makes Cross arguably more radical, and definitively more connected to erasure poetics, is that she finds art in what can be left behind. By tackling the English language’s most commanding text, Cross is not only remaking the columns of the temple of language, she is also reinterpreting the alphabet’s Bible, a connection she makes in an etymologically oriented footnote to her note on process, writing: “Byblos (the oldest port in Phoenicia)—Biblion—the Alphabet—the Bible—the book.” Her choice to erase the secondary school edition of Webster’s indicates, I think, an awareness of how teaching and language are intertwined in service of the patriarchal institutions—the school and the dictionary—that house them. Her erasures constitute a radical, political, and feminist confrontation between a woman artist and the forces that dictate the terms of her production.

• •

When I took a sharpened pencil to my copy of Wild Green Things in the City, I staved off the feeling that I was committing a transgression by reminding myself of the blend of artistic and political urgency that guided my process, the ways in which I would dismantle the text to deliver a darker message about environmental crisis. I drew my pencil through word after word. Other poets who practice erasure must feel this conflict between destruction and creation, too—a conflict implicit, and implicitly resolved, in their explanations of process, places in their projects where they can, freed from the semantic constraints of erasure, articulate their relationship to their source text and explain why they’ve decomposed it. The foregrounding of process can be traced back to “A Note and a Dedication” at the opening of what is widely cited as the first book-length poetic erasure, Ronald Johnson’s Radi Os (1976), an excision of the first four books of Milton’s Paradise Lost. Tom Phillips’s A Humument (1972), a pioneering work of erasure whose sixth and final edition was published in 2016, contains a note at the back that speaks to the fifty years Phillips spent painting over and repainting over W. H. Mallock’s A Human Document (1892). Though Cross’s individual erasures appear to predate Radi Os and A Humument by at least a decade, her book Columns (1982) contains a note on process as well, perhaps a concession to the publication format or the trappings of the poetics of erasure as Johnson modeled them.

Arguably, the explanation of process allays the fear of being misunderstood. Revelations of process can focus on artistry, or can contain a mix of the political and personal (as in the case of Voyager and Zong!), or can place a work of erasure in a tradition of erasure (as in the case of Of Lamb), or can more broadly reference the ongoing work of poets to find new ways to use the language they’ve inherited (as in the case of Nets). Sometimes references to the complexities of the process appear in the poems themselves. In the middle of Voyager, Reddy includes a lyric description of erasing Kurt Waldheim’s In the Eye of the Storm, a memoir by the secretary general to the United Nations from 1972–1981:

                              As a child, spelling out world was to open a world in myself, private and byzantine, with mountains by a pale, fragile sea, the coast stretching southwards in the curtained evening hours. Now, to cross line after line out   of his work seemed to me a slow and difficult process that verged on the ridiculous. (23)

Reddy’s evocation of the power of language, even a single word, to build a world will feel relevant to most writers. Why, then, take words—take worlds—away, destroy them, Reddy asks. Why endanger the “pale, fragile sea”? His erasure confronts the power of Waldheim’s text, specifically the world it builds around the omission of the author’s participation in Nazi atrocities. Reddy’s erasure reveals what Waldheim’s memoir erased and implies an ethical imperative to obliterate the world of Waldheim’s text—because it is a façade, a stage set obscuring a nasty history. Another dissection of history made possible by erasure emerges in Philip’s Zong!, an erasure of Gregson v. Gilbert, the legal decision regarding the case of the slave ship Zong, whose crew, after mismanaging the ship’s course and supplies, purposefully massacred the enslaved people in its hold by throwing them, in their chains, overboard. In her essay on the writing of Zong! at the back of the book, Philip refers to the story as one that “might be told by not telling,” a phrase that not only acknowledges the abject horror of a history that no words will ever accurately account for but also justifies the erasure that allows Philip to excavate a rendition of it. Voyager and Zong! reveal how deftly erasure can be put to political ends; for readers who may quarrel with the ethics of damaging another author’s work, books like Voyager and Zong! tilt the scales of ethics in the erasurist’s favor and register as meaningful, urgent, and necessary. Implicit in them is the sense that the male-authored, powerful texts that the poets have chosen to erase, are, like Webster’s Secondary School Dictionary, temples erected to serve gods no longer believed in.

• •

My copy of Wild Green Things in the City is a discard from the Children’s Department of the Iowa City Public Library. Though various sources describe Dowden as one of America’s leading and most popular botanical artists, Wild Green Things in the City remains out of print. One reviewer in the 1970s concludes: “[O]ne must hope that Mrs. Dowden, who has done so much with her art to popularize botany, will also be in a position to contribute further to the professional literature.” What first struck me was the obligation to hope—hope being perhaps the most feminine aspiration: consider the hope chest, or the fact that Hope, along with Faith and Love, is personified as one of the three heavenly female graces. What next struck me was the reviewer’s speculation that the author should not rest on the laurels of popularity but rather focus on transcending the popular to become professional. Why was a book for adults cataloged as a children’s book, a designation subtly disqualifying it from adult, professional readership? Why did publishing her drawings in magazines such as Life and House Beautiful not qualify Dowden’s work as professional, or adult? The red DISCARDED stamp marks the book’s wrongness for a readership of children.

I carved out more than thirty poems from the text, along the way excising purslane, beggar’s ticks, milkweed, and orchard grass. On the last page of the book, Dowden writes: “It is a terrifying prospect—that a world which has been evolving for more than three hundred million years may be destroyed in one or two generations.” I crossed out those lines, too.

• •

Erasure poetics pushed to its furthest extreme might lead to the choice not to publish, as in the case of Emily Dickinson, the final example in my overview of women poets who practiced erasures that have not been read as erasure poetry. In her lifetime, ten of Dickinson’s poems were published without attribution and, most likely, without her permission. Anchoritic, eccentric, dressed in white for no earthly marriage, Dickinson was famously—and captivatingly, to many readers—reclusive in her daily life, though perhaps elusive is the better adjective to describe the poet who carried on an intimate correspondence with her sister-in-law, wrote impassioned letters addressed to a “Master” whose identity has been subject to conjecture for over a century, and responded, when asked to explain the “I” who appeared in her poems:  “When I state myself, as the Representative of the Verse—it does not mean—me—but a supposed person.” Her response offers a crisp definition of the lyric speaker in poetry, whose difference from the author readers have found it easy to un-see, especially in the work of women writers. The fact that Dickinson was asked, by the editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson, to address this subject, exemplifies how scrutinized women poets writing from the perspective of the first-person singular have been. In the same way that the speakers in Askew, Bradstreet, and Dorothy’s work had to perform various erasures to evade first-person-singular selfhood, Dickinson has to assure Higginson that “I” is not “me.” I’m not saying she’s wrong about the performance of self that happens in a poem written from the perspective of an “I”; I’m more interested in the fact that Higginson’s question required her to clarify, even reassure him, that the speaker of her poems is not an actual person, not a woman poet speaking as herself on a range of subjects with startling imagery, intelligence, and invention. Higginson’s fascination with Dickinson’s “I,” its unknowability in particular, would become an obsession. In a letter after he returned from serving in the Civil War, Higginson wrote: “I have the greatest desire to see you, always feeling that perhaps if I could once take you by the hand I might be something to you; but till then you only enshroud yourself in this fiery mist & I cannot reach you, but only rejoice in the rare sparkles of light.” When he wrote the introduction to Dickinson’s posthumously published collection of poems, Higginson assumed that the woman who didn’t make herself visible to him didn’t make herself visible to anyone. He had met Dickinson only once, yet he described her as “a recluse by temperament and habit,” thereby codifying an enduring and marketable image of the poet who, despite carrying on a lively and lengthy correspondence with him, he could not see.

In an act of ultimate erasure, Dickinson asked that her poems be burned when she died. If you believe that Dickinson’s effacements were a noncompulsory, though not uncomplicated, choice, then the fact that her request was not granted—the poems were published—can seem like a further effacement, an excision made with a very sharp blade.

• •

I was able to visit the Morgan Library & Museum exhibition of Emily Dickinson’s work on a rainy day in New York in 2017. In the gallery I overheard two men speculating about Dickinson’s private life, and in particular wondering aloud what the poet would have thought about an exhibition at a major institution dedicated to her work. She would have hated this, one said. Or maybe he said, She would turn over in her grave. Or maybe each of the men said one of these things. The title of the exhibit, drawn from one of Dickinson’s well-known poems, was I’m Nobody! Who Are You? The exhibit was designed to reveal that Dickinson was, to the contrary, somebody, something the men I overheard, I think, found ironic. It seemed within the realm of possibility that they were voicing their own inclinations to preserve Dickinson’s reclusiveness, even obscurity, by imaginatively ventriloquizing hers.

My preoccupation with Dickinson’s obscurity, specifically with the question of whether Dickinson’s obscurity was something she chose or something that was impressed upon her, resurfaced when I recently read Janet Holmes’s THE MS OF MY KIN (2009), an erasure of poems that Dickinson wrote during the outbreak of the Civil War. (The title is an erasure of The Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by R. W. Franklin.) What is gained by erasing an author who has been the agent or subject of so many kinds of erasures? At least one review of Holmes’s work disqualifies it as an act of homage, declaring: “Whether or not Holmes’s erasure is necessary or not to the larger project of keeping Dickinson in conversation with today’s troubles, or rescuing her from critical tyranny, is irrelevant[.]” Holmes’s project excavates Dickinson’s Civil War–era poems for language to comment on 9/11 and the US military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as language that the poet asks us to imagine spoken by various people involved in these endeavors, including President George W. Bush, Osama Bin Ladin, and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. In the erasures, readers glimpse Pfc. Lynndie England’s abuse of prisoners in Abu Ghraib, where “[s]he tied Hoods to / every shoulder” (47). Another poem memorializes slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl:

One life
                                        Would pay—



By using Dickinson to disrupt the violence of the state, Holmes restores a voice to, among others, Daniel Pearl and the prisoners at Abu Ghraib, but not Dickinson herself. Dickinson has disappeared. In the same way that we remember Rauschenberg for erasing a drawing of deKooning’s—and not deKooning for providing the drawing—it seems within possibility that a day might come when we privilege erasures more than the work they’ve erased, when readers will read Radi Os, Nets, and THE MS OF MY KIN before they read Paradise Lost, William Shakespeare’s sonnets, and Dickinson’s poems, if they read those older texts at all.

• •

When I contacted the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation at Carnegie Mellon, which manages Anne Ophelia Dowden’s archive, my query included a brief description of erasure. I wrote: “Since Wild Green Things in the City is out of print, my hope is to draw contemporary readers to Dowden’s work and show how it anticipates and contributes to contemporary ecological discourse.” The curator wrote back, “Dear Ms. Parks: Thank you for introducing us to the concept of erasure poetry and sharing more information about your project.” She granted me permission to use and erase the text in a variety of ways. I could even print my erasure, in a small-print run, if I paid the Hunt Institute ninety dollars.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when my project began to trouble me. Was it when the ninety-dollar fee’s paltriness surprised, and then, not long after, saddened me? Was it when I visited the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, only to learn that Dowden’s papers there were so few and so mixed in with her husband’s that I felt stupid for having spent the morning spinning through rolls of microfilm? Was it when I created from one page of Dowden’s book a four-word poem that reads “La / La / La / La,” as if to evoke a carefree song? Was it when, late in Wild Green Things in the City, I came upon this sentence: “We still depend on the green world, and yet we are steadily destroying it”? Erasure may materialize the disappearances that have come to define environmental history, but the disappearance I felt most complicit in was the disappearance of Anne Ophelia Dowden.

Poet Solmaz Sharif writes: “The first time I confronted erasure as an aesthetic tactic I was horrified[.]” Her thinking derives from her understanding of erasure “as what a state does”; her poetics exhibit a desire to highlight, without perpetrating, those state-authored obliterations. Her debut collection of poems, Look (2016), contains seven epistles in the imagined voice of the wife of a Guatánamo detainee, epistles that Sharif both wrote and redacted, “so that the only words she would obliterate were her own.” The resulting poems are haunted by the threat of violence, posing perforated questions such as: “Love, are you well? Do they                    you?” Electing to write in the voice of another woman and erase parts of what she has written, Sharif is an inheritor of the self-deprecations of Askew, the persona-driven poetics of Bradstreet, and the deferrals of Dorothy and Dickinson. Unlike her predecessors, Sharif makes explicit the acts of self- and institutionally driven erasure that have taken place in the women’s lyric when women have written for an audience that includes men. When, in an essay, Sharif writes: “Poetic erasure has yet to advance historically,” she is not speaking about women’s traditions per se, though she might as well be. The recursive nature of her project reveals the particular burdens that erasure has placed on women lyric poets, burdens that they have yet to write themselves out of.

I shelved my erasure project because I have not made peace with the process of erasure, the ways in which it has, ultimately, disenfranchised women artists and writers. I am no longer confident that erasure provides a gateway to reading and recovering the erased writer’s work, though I once was, or thought I was. I have not found a way to make my erasure of Dowden’s work feel like a necessary destruction of the world of her book, a world where common knotweed and white clover grow in abandoned lots or out of the cracks of grimy sidewalks, where I can encounter “a milkweed shoot breaking through an asphalt driveway by its sheer urge to be alive[.]”

In hindsight, I know that my interest in erasure, specifically the erasures of a woman homesteader’s letters in my first poetry collection, emerged from an interest in erasure as a choice I made in my personal life in lieu of telling someone I was angry, sad, or lonely, in lieu of asking for what I needed and giving that person a way to meet my needs. Erasure was a method of abdicating responsibility for my desire and ability to voice it. I was younger; I was dating a man whose parents lived on a picturesque nonworking farm surrounded by fields that rolled down gentle hills into the maple woods. On visits, when I felt uncomfortable and needed something that I could not bring myself to articulate, I sometimes strayed from the farmhouse and the people there. “Why are you hiding behind the lilac bush?” the man asked me during a Fourth of July picnic. On another visit I left the house without telling anyone and walked down the road for almost a mile. Eventually I sat on the rock remnant of an old wall bordering a field. I felt that I was asserting myself by looking for spaces to obscure me in the abandoned cow pastures and remnants of apple orchards. The man found me when I was hiding behind the lilac bush, but he never came to look for me when I was hiding in the field. He may not have even noticed that I was missing.