Divided in So Many Ways: A Discussion with Karen Hays

Thibault Raoult: “Auto-Duet” is heartbreaking, illuminating work, which, while possessing airtight transitions, nonetheless leaves me, as reader, bouncing around in the ideational echo chamber you so seamlessly build. Rather than continue to bounce around (poignant as that may be), I’ll begin with the end of your essay, where you are in the hospital post-surgery: “Baby’s just fine,” says the doctor, who in a bit will leave you there, walking away with a “receding click of his heels, whose rise and fall lift light like sparks from the dazzlingly bright hospital floor.” Now, “sparks” are earlier associated (in one of my favorite two-sentence paragraphs that I’ve come across) with such concepts as “[l]ove, invention, discovery, and conception.” As much as “Auto-Duet” seeks to chart human experience as a whole in terms of the dialectics of sound and body, in this passage the doctor’s obliviousness to the sparks argues in my mind for a privileging of female experience. Am I wrong in reading a radical (in the best sense) aspect into this otherwise measured ending?

Karen Hays: Far be it from me to tell you that your reading is wrong! Certainly the concept of otherness is at play in the essay—as are prescribed gender roles. If by drawing attention to the doctor’s obliviousness I suggest female privilege, I do so unawares. To me the more insurmountable divide is the brick and mortar between doctor and patient.

No, I would say that if I’m consciously arguing anything here, it’s the primacy of sensation and the singularity of perspective. The sparks in this passage are uniquely mine to behold, because the conveyed moment is inalienable from all the weird stuff that came before it and all the weird stuff that is sure to follow. Not only am I swimming out of anesthesia here, but I’m also scared out of my wits that something went awry while I was under. I’m listening so hard for my son’s heartbeat that all I can hear is the interference of my own attentiveness. The failure becomes a kind of nightmare version of the estrangement Steven Connor describes (and which I refer to in earlier sections) wherein “the self-emptying of listening” prevents me from hearing what should literally be inside myself. Because my body is numb but my hearing acute, I am “all ears” and I perceive the heartbeat as originating from the Doppler monitor and not my son. The sound arrives less like a ventriloquist’s voice than as the evidence of a theft, and I am “in every sense, beside myself.” It doesn’t matter that I understand how Doppler works—in the end my Haeckel-like fervor dooms me; I submit to fantastical thinking once again.

Sparks knit to fervor automatically. There’s something magical that goes on in emotionally saturated moments like these, when we’re under the influence of adrenaline. A very primal part of the brain springs into action, gloms onto something in the environment, and then keys the whole experience to that observation. Sometimes the observation is relevant and truly helpful, such as when we learn to associate a shicka-shicka with the possibility of getting a lethal dose of snake venom. Sometimes the observation is tangential but so load-bearing we force it into relevance and servitude by making a metaphor out of it. At least that’s what I do. . . .

When the backlit doctor lifts a foot, the light dazzles. When he lowers a foot, it blinks off. He’s walking away though I’m practically begging him to stay and give me reassurance. The effect is somewhat stroboscopic. Sounds soak in, but my comprehension of them is hit-or-miss. I understand the clipboard and shoe racket, but not my son’s heartbeat. The doctor’s rejection of me clues me in; his inability to hear my plea is akin to my inability to comprehend the fetal heartbeat. The sparks are an easy metaphor, epiphanic as elsewhere in the essay, and I automatically map them to my realization that our inability to hear is in large part a refusal, and that I am divided in so many ways.

TR: Midway through the essay you “learn that a cervix could be so much more than a sphincter. It could be a whole different species.” I love how a moment like this, powerful as it is, pairs with an earlier, quite funny statement on your part (which also doubles as a kind of manifesto) that you “want to invent a line of greeting cards for people who find themselves in existential crises and wonder not only if they’re doing the right things with their lives, but also what the value of right things even is—in short, for people who grapple with context.” You add that “Such cards would celebrate the infinitude of guileless inner fishes in all of us.” How do you manage the relationship between epiphanic and aspirational impulses in your writing—between wanting insight to come to you unwilled and wanting to make it come?

KH: Epiphanies are skittish, yes, like certain cats. You can’t go clomping after them or you’ll scare them off. To me, that doesn’t mean epiphanies are at odds with aspirations, it just means you have to lure epiphanies instead of chasing them—you have to shut up and sit still for a bit. Epiphanies tend to rise to the surface of my mind when the fretful parts of my brain go quiet with intellectual or artistic endeavor—when I am “in the zone.” I think of epiphanies as the products of covert operations, ones that take place deep in the subconscious while the fidgety chatterbox of us is busy making sense of things that do lend themselves to inquiry—things like, say, piezoelectricity and the evolution of fish, or sentence structure and essay arrangement. Epiphanies are drawn toward joyful abstraction, I think, and they provide the answers to the really big questions.

That said, I don’t exactly aspire to have epiphanies, relieving as they can be. When I sit down to write, I mostly just want to limn the complexity of an experience. I typically only become aware of aspirations when I feel I’m doomed to fail, when I’m overwrought and emotionally tumid, and my need to share a feeling with the reader has reached such a fever pitch that I sense I’m pressing against the lid of my ideational echo chamber, to borrow your phrase. The writing starts to feel a little futile to me then, in a way that is usually more funny than depressing. I want to get the words up off the page, make the whole enterprise more bodily. I want to dance or to slap my knee in laughter. I want to poke fun at my own zeal—as with the greeting cards I propose for would-be nihilists—and thereby blow off some steam. I imagine this phase to be a bit like punching down dough in the middle of the leavening process—a necessary humbling. I tend to get pretty carried away with myself, if that’s not obvious. . . .

TR: One section in your essay highlights a cardiologist’s diagnostic listening test for distinguishing the trumpet in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. I am moved by your discovery that “the original score calls for two” trumpets, in fact. Here, I sense a metaphorical dimension, i.e., that what we try so hard to hear isn’t even what we should be listening for—which offers a kind of damning revelation of both the body’s limits and our mind’s rigidity. John Cage’s notion that “try as we may to make a silence, we cannot” comes to mind as I grapple with your investigation of acoustics and track your evolutions. I’m wondering, in the end, how competent you find the human body? Or should I be silent on the matter?

KH: Metaphors, John Cage, and competence—three times, yes! Our inner voices impinge on our ability to listen to the world outside ourselves. Our questions get in the way of our answers. Our thoughts intrude on our knowledge, and our knowledge on our wisdom. Yes. We are walking antennae and, nice as it would be to do so, we cannot imagine let alone create an absence of sensation.

I hold that our bodies are fiercely competent—not only because of the things we can train them to do, like hold our breaths for deepwater dives or diagnose heart conditions by watching veins throb at shirt collars, but also because of our bodies’ uncanny abilities to speak for us. Strongly allied as they are with our fears and desires, our bodies sometimes tattle and say things we’d rather not admit to ourselves.

The unheard trumpet in Beethoven’s Ninth is closely tied to the disclosure I make late in the essay about my son’s lost twin. The ghost twin is as through-going in the essay as it was in my pregnancy—unacknowledged, but haunting and gracing it by turns from beginning to end. This inseparability of form and story is part of what I find so enchanting about Haeckel’s recapitulation theory and Shubin’s inner fish discussions; in some ways we physiologically incorporate our heritage. How fantastic is that? Did my body, for a time, also literally embody my duality of mind? Did my ambivalence cause the miscarriage? Or was my body simply tending to an unfortunate genetic arrangement? In any case, my doctor’s use of “incompetent” was wrong and offensive. (Because your first question is still on my mind, I’ll go ahead and confess that the first time I heard the objectionable term for my diagnosis—”incompetent cervix”—I was pretty confident it had been coined a very long time ago—or so I hoped—by a person who was in all probability a man.)

In terms of its own form, ”Auto-Duet” is kind of a love letter to Darwin and his overzealous disciples of past and present. Structurally, I guess you could say it reflects the geological sense of competence. When a current begins to slow down, as in a flood or a delta, the larger, weightier material is the first to fall out of suspension. Finer grains settle out as the speed dwindles and time wears on. Finally, clay and silt sift into the interstices of the coarse sediment, gluing the works into a record of a process or event.

The essay embodies its heritage by reading a bit like a stratigraphic column; the big revelations happen at the end. Here I feel tempted to sketch with a stick in the dirt of my garden (it has just begun to rain here and the trees are newly budded), a clue that I might be pressing against the lid of the echo chamber again. I’ll end here—but not in silence.


Thibault Raoult was an assistant editor at The Georgia Review from 2015 to 2017. He now teaches at University of Maryland. Raoult holds a PhD from University of Georgia and an MFA in Literary Arts from Brown University; he has published two books of poems—Person Hour (2011) and Disposable Epics (2014)—and the cross-genre text «Pro(m)bois(e)» (2016).