by Nadia Colburn
This essay is part of the series On Failure.
For a long time my first book The High Shelf, which was finally published in the fall of 2019, 13 years after I finished it, was a failure: the book failed to be published. It sat on my own high shelf, out of reach—
Most of the poems in the collection had been published in magazines; they’d been well received. The manuscript was a finalist more than fifteen times at some of the most competitive first book prizes. Certainly, I thought, the book would be accepted.
But it wasn’t. And then I stopped sending it out. I turned to writing prose instead.
Why I turned away from writing poetry and from sending my poems out is a long story, but the short version of it is that my failure to publish the book was too painful.
The rejections stung in a way that I couldn’t understand. They were out of proportion to the situation.
On a conscious level, I understood that my poems were not failures; I understood that publishing is a strange and fickle business; I understood that my publication record and status as a finalist were signs to keep going, that I just needed to be patient.
I even understood that on paper I looked like a success. But I didn’t feel like one.
The rejections piqued my own insecurities, piqued the shame behind the story the book was trying to tell but that I couldn’t, at that point, quite understand myself.
I stopped sending the book out for publication not because I couldn’t take the pain, but because I understood that the pain of rejection wasn’t about the outer story. It rarely is.
There was an inner story that I didn’t yet understand, and the publication problem served mainly as a distraction from it. I wanted to understand better what was really going on behind this feeling of failure—and that took me down a long, complicated path.
Let me back up:
In college, I wrote my undergraduate thesis on W. H. Auden’s early, beautifully cryptic poems about the failure of communication. I called my thesis “This Land, Cut Off, Will Not Communicate.”
Auden’s poems, I wrote, were so powerful because they were trying to communicate something that they could not communicate. They enacted this failure again and again in the fragmented landscapes of the poems, in the dead ends where the speaker found himself, in an overwhelming sense of frustration.
The thesis never quite came together, though.
Auden was a gay man writing when it was illegal to be gay, but there was something else going on in his poems that my thesis tried to name but never quite succeeded at doing. Auden writes in one of his early poems: “Doom is dark and deeper than any sea-dingle. / ”Upon what man it fall / In spring, day wishing flowers appearing.” What was that doom that the traveler cannot escape?
“Stranger, turn back again, frustrate and vexed: / This land, cut off, will not communicate,” Auden writes in another. The natural question to ask was, “What are the poems trying and failing to communicate?” But somehow my thesis advisor and I never addressed that basic question, and I kept on circling around a center I could not name.
I hadn’t yet been introduced to the forms that trauma speaks in, the ways trauma projects its own dark shadows, creates its own silences, repeats its own fractured inner landscapes that resist narration.
In a traumatic event, the brain attempts to protect itself, sequesters the traumatic experience, and isolates it from the narrative, language-making part of the brain. The synapses between the part of the brain where the traumatic memory is stored and the rest of the brain that makes sense of one’s world get severed. It’s like putting magical police tape around the scene of an accident that prevents people’s ability to approach for a closer look.
But the problem is that our experiences don’t just stay neatly behind the police tape, out of mind, out of view, end of the problem. They have a funny way of leaking out.
It was 1995. Judith Herman’s groundbreaking book Trauma and Recovery had been published just three years earlier. Annie Roger’s The Unsayable: The Hidden Language of Trauma wouldn’t come out until 2007; Bessel Van Der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score wouldn’t come out until 2014. The communication of the uncommunicable nature of traumatic experiences was something few of us understood.
In Auden’s early poems, I recognized without being able to name it the fragmentation of traumatic expression.
Years later, my own poems, in my manuscript The High Shelf, too, were trying to make a whole of what was fragmented, while also trying to communicate the fragmentation itself.
As a very young child, I’d been sexually assaulted by a neighbor who was babysitting for the evening. This early assault, which had never been named or processed, coupled with a family that carried its own secrets and threats—infidelity, resentment, and intergenerational trauma—helped form my inner landscape. That inner world was one of deep valleys and unexpected pits, dangers lurking, but unmapped.
To attempt to communicate the uncommunicable puts one in a double bind, and to some extent that double bind mimics the experience of trauma: if the poems could properly name the trauma, they’d no longer signal the essential break-down of meaning-making that trauma elicits; if they specify the danger spots, they no longer express what it’s like to walk through uncharted territory.
Trauma references itself not through naming itself but rather through to itself through its own uncertainties, its own untraversable chasms, its own failures.
But of course, I didn’t really know that at the time. And when my poems were rejected, the experience that I was trying to communicate through the poems kept failing to be understood or recognized—not just externally, by others, but also internally, by myself. The bridges I was trying to rebuild stayed broken, the failure of communication reiterated.
The parts of myself that were cut off, that had become fragmented by the trauma of my experience, were given the message that they should stay cut off.
At the same time, my poems were doing the work that my conscious mind did not yet understand. This was the problem and also the power of the poems. My poems had insights— into both the effects of trauma and the search for wholeness—that my conscious mind did not yet have. But the poems also kept on running into the same walls, the same dead ends.
I had an intuitive sense that my poems were setting themselves up for failure. And I felt that I needed to understand better my own story; perhaps writing in a more narrative way might help. I stopped writing poetry and started to write prose.
I wrote a memoir about becoming a mother.
Pregnancy and motherhood had broken open my shell; they broke open the reliable space of my intellect. They broke open the safe world of what I thought I knew.
After all, my body had created new life with no help at all from my intellect. My body had created people that I loved with a largeness far outside the realm of the intellect.
And in becoming a mother, I was forced to confront the question not only of how to integrate myself—body, mind, and spirit—but also of how to navigate between the wonder and the horror of the world into which I was ushering new life: how could both such wonder and such horror exist at once?
How could I come to expand my vision enough to hold it all—the combinations and the contradictions? How could I come into a more grounded place for my children so that the world wouldn’t knock me off my center—or knock them off their center? And how could I, despite it all, create for my children safe spaces full of appreciation and joy?
I turned these questions over first in the poems in The High Shelf and then more systematically in the memoir that I wrote during the years that I wasn’t writing poems.
It was only after I wrote my memoir about pregnancy and early motherhood that I began consciously to recall the early childhood sexual assault that my body had remembered but my mind had not.
Remembering was like standing over an electric shock.
I pulled the memoir from my agent. I felt I didn’t yet have the tools to tell the story it pointed towards.
I did a lot of intensive crisis and healing work. And look: that sentence—the one prior to this—is an example of the power of narrative, and also its limitation. It points to the idea of the work I did, but it gives you no sense of the intensity of that work; the simplicity of the sentence belies the complexity of the experience it’s trying (and failing) to communicate, an experience which in many ways resists language.
Inside the intensity of remembering the assault, I stopped writing altogether. I wrote only fragments on a locked part of my computer.
I turned to other modalities: spiritual practices and embodied practices like yoga, meditation, therapy, EMDR.
Then gradually, I came back to writing. I began to put my writing together in more coherent ways. I began to write poetry again alongside prose. Many years passed. I began to publish and teach writing again, now in more holistic ways.
Very occasionally, I’d send out The High Shelf, unchanged, to a contest. Nothing happened.
But I continued to submit the manuscript because I saw how carefully I’d worked the language, and how well, in their own ways, the poems enacted the experience of trauma and the longing for wholeness, despite it all, and how well, in that sense, those poems reflected the larger world.
The subject of the poems—how to integrate traumatic experiences with the wonder and beauty of the world—speaks not only of my personal experience, but also of what it’s like for so many of us to live in the 21st century. In America more than fifty percent of our population will experience acute trauma in their lifetime and eleven percent will be diagnosed with PTSD. One-third of the North American bird population has been lost since my birth. 200,000 acres of rainforest are destroyed every day. We are living in an age of climate crisis and mass extinction. Trauma is not a personal issue but a public issue that affects all of us and the very landscape that makes up the background of our lives.
My book is not only about personal trauma, but also about our 21st century traumatized natural world and landscape, and about how to listen, still, to the voices that have been cut off—whether they are the voices of the countless extinct birds or the voices of the oppressed.
And in listening to that silence, we also get to listen to the wonder of the world—for as poetry helps us slow down and listen more carefully, we remember, too, that despite all of this, to quote Gerard Manley Hopkins, writing in response to the environmental destruction in 19th century Industrial England, “nature is never spent.” There still lives “the dearest freshness deep down things.” The world remains full of meaning, beauty, important relationships, and the potential to rejuvenate and create new life, and poetry is a way to point to the wonder and the horror at once.
I saw that in turning from my poetry, I’d abandoned part of myself.
Then one day I sent the manuscript to The Word Works, who had published two of my friend’s books. I thought the press might understand the project and aesthetics of The High Shelf, and to my surprise the book was accepted.
Was it just a matter of persistence? Was it the right fit (though I think I had sent the same manuscript to that press years earlier and it had been a finalist)?
Had the times in some ways caught up with the manuscript? Are readers now in the #metoo era more able to read and understand themes of trauma than they were thirteen years ago. Are readers more able to take seriously the theme of motherhood? And are readers more attuned to the environmental crisis? Did the changing times help my book get accepted? I don’t know.
There is a strange poetic justice in publishing the book more than thirteen years after I finished it.
By the time the book was accepted, I understood my own poems better.
I tried to keep the manuscript much as it was when I wrote it, but I also revised some of the poems and wrote a few new poems to highlight the themes of the book and to make clearer the book’s central concerns. I also added an afterword in which I talk a bit more explicitly about the themes and suggest to readers that there’s a way to heal from trauma.
I started this essay by saying that for a long time The High Shelf was a failure, but that is using the word failure in a limited way. There isn’t a simple one-to-one correspondence between publication and failure/success, between outward reception and failure/success.
When I first wrote the book, I was a young woman, a young mother, part of the world of Ivy League go-getters, and I made a mistake equating outward and inner success.
Though the title image of The High Shelf is a shelf suspended in the firmaments without supports, I wanted its publication to support me, to tell me that my voice was heard. But publication can’t really do that; I was looking for support in the wrong places.
I had yet to understand or tell my own story—to myself or to others. After all, in 2006 when I finished the manuscript, the theme of sexual abuse still seemed taboo to the culture as a whole.
My parents hadn’t been able to hear parts of my story as a child, and they remained unable to hear me when I came to understand and tell my own story better as an adult. This failure of communication was also something that I wanted that I wasn’t able to make happen.
In the end, I can now see that my long failure to publish The High Shelf also taught me things that I wouldn’t have learned otherwise: how to be my own best witness—with the support of others who could understand; how to keep at things; how to see things from different angles; how to continue to try to share myself, my voice, my vision, with the world, even if it isn’t easy. It also brought me to do the professional work I now do, which is to help others share their own unique voices and visions with the world.
And yet it is also true that a part of me is still frustrated, angry, sad that trauma can make us doubt ourselves, can silence our voices.
I’m so grateful I’ve had the opportunity and time and support to heal from my own experience, to re-open; I’m also aware of how many voices are continually lost to violence of all kinds.
In the time I failed to publish The High Shelf, what other, greater, more serious failures have also occurred?
Close to 60,000 children are sexually abused in the US every year. At least 500 species have gone extinct in the past decade, though in a healthy state of nature, only one species would be expected to go extinct per year. From 2007, roughly when I finished the book, to 2019, the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen from 383 parts per million to 410. We are failing to take account of the crisis and to respond properly.
To me, these failures are all related: they’re all products of not being able to present for one another or for ourself or our earth; they’re all products of not being able to listen and respond.
At any time, any of us can tumble into the traumatic unsayable; we can be pushed into the space of not knowing and of not being understood. That is why it’s so important for those of us not in that space to understand, to be compassionate, and to use our voices when we can.
Our voices are needed. We must stay open, speak out. We must be heard.
Our personal traumas, though they can keep us caught in their web for longer than we wish, are not just personal
They’re part of a continuum, a larger picture. The traumas that we experience in our individual bodies—often female bodies, black bodies, poor bodies (what happens to our bodies crosses all social categories), are also happening all around us to other species and to the land itself. Human mistreatment and disrespect for the sanctity of life has led to so much suffering and to unprecedented environmental collapse.
And human love, too, is also part of the equation and can show us our capacity for regeneration. Our personal experiences alone cannot change our larger world, but I have seen it is possible to heal on a personal level, and I believe that healing is possible on a collective level, too, if we can only allow ourselves to bear to look at and feel the real problems, if we can only come back to ourselves and to right relation with the world around us.
It’s my hope that, despite all our failures, we can still understand our situation, speak authentically from it, and act.
Perhaps this book’s story can offer some encouragement to others—to keep going with what you experience, with what you feel, even if you don’t fully understand it, with what you believe in and with what you love. Perhaps this book’s story can offer some encouragement, in the face of despair or confusion, to stay open to it all.
This poem, “The Open Page,” the second to last in The High Shelf, is about supports and where we find them—internally or externally. It’s about the role of art and perception; about the fragmentation and also the unity of ourselves; and about the beauty and fragility of our world that is at once sour and sweet.
The Open Page
Imagine three lemons.
Paint the lemons as many times as you can.
Lemon one: the body. Lemon two: the soul. Lemon three: the intellect.
Lemon one: the soul. Lemon two: the intellect. Lemon three: the body.
Lemon one: the body. Lemon two: the body. Lemon three—
And yet, the lemons are as they are:
on a table,
on a chair,
or rolling, one after another,
to the dirt-covered floor, where a dog comes in and smells them.
What, then, is the limit?
Perhaps one lemon is slightly smaller than the others.
Or one looks a bit like a lime.
(The tender green at its swollen center.)
And one, perhaps the same, with a piece of its stem attached to itself:
a little dark knob pointing out
Then the fruitbearing tree. And I, reaching up to pluck the lemons
from the fruitbearing tree.
Where is my youth? What, when I reach up, am I forgetting, this time?
The wind in the grass behind me? The bearing, omnipotent sun?
And the urgency (the taste
that makes the mouth pucker and then crave more).
To have said that the self is multiple and complete.
To paint as I might sit down beneath a tree:
to see the self as distinct,
a series of finite solutions to a problem.
a) Bring the brush to the page:
b) Take the physical world
Or any citrus: an orange, a grapefruit.
Or three smooth, white eggs.
The slight variation in the color of white:
what is added to the absence.
From such abundance, three objects small enough to hold: touch:
carry them, alone, up the mountainside, and rest by the rocks, by the goats,
feeling in your hand their own warmth.
Yet, how to show, with this borrowed brush,
this foreign viscous paint,
the vigor? On the branch, alive, growing
and then: the object, fully other, like a stone,
carrying only the heat
of something other, borrowed, not its own.
I, trying to piece together some story, placing one lemon here, another:
Until it gets easier:
I look away: everything is distinct:
the self falls out of the picture––
and the lemon, suspended, in mid-air, with the hand elsewhere,
and no floor and nothing to rest upon. Only from a distance,
from far off, the scent of the lemon tree in bloom now,
the small white blossoms, so many,
one by one, opening to the bees.
Nadia Colburn is the author of The High Shelf (Word Works 2019) and has published poetry and prose in over eighty national publications including The New Yorker, The Yale Review, American Poetry Review, The Kenyon Review, and Conjunctions. She holds a PhD in English from Columbia and a BA from Harvard and has taught at MIT, Lesley, Stonehill College, and in workshops around New England. Nadia is also a student of Thich Nhat Hanh, a yoga teacher, a member of Extinction Rebellion, and the founder of Align Your Story teaching and coaching. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her husband and two children. See more and get free meditations, writing prompts, and resources for writers at https://nadiacolburn.com/
Cover image: “Cloud Study (Distant Storm),” Simon Denis, Met Open Access