A woman leaning against a sign on a city sidewalk

When I visit the poet Nuar Alsadir ’92 at her 12-foot-wide row house in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, one of the first things she tells me is that before she moved in, it had been the home of four nuns, who’d left it largely unchanged from the 19th century. We enter a space marked by another era’s time capsules: Elegant carved-wood screens divide rooms, and a back hall holds a beautiful, still functioning dumbwaiter that once accessed a basement kitchen. A mezuzah (which Alsadir has learned was once gifted in friendship to the nuns) hangs not on the front door, but on a wall in the dining room, where the nuns must have admired it. “I love imagining the nuns,” says Alsadir, who now shares the space with her two daughters, Sabine and Isadora, and their Italian greyhounds, Siggy and Miro. “I like that we can feel their presence.”

This is fitting, because in addition to being a poet whose work is celebrated in the United States and in England, Alsadir is a practicing psychoanalyst and psychotherapist. She’s invested in making sense of the traces others offer up, and in decoding ways our traces belie us. As we talk, her love of analysis creeps in right away. Even before we get to poetry, we’re discussing Alsadir’s own phobia of rodents. (It’s Brooklyn, after all: they’re never far off). “This is the way a phobia works,” says Alsadir: “you split something outside yourself, and it’s as if what’s externalized becomes a container for something that’s actually terrifying inside you.” She adds: “You’re keeping away from yourself the part of yourself you’ve made the container for.” After a pause, she muses: “I’ve found this really helpful in thinking about parts of race theory in describing how ‘the other’ functions.”

We’ve spun from nuns to rats to race theory in two seconds flat, and yet this feels like a typical conversation with Alsadir, who is even now preparing a talk on literature and psychoanalysis that she’s giving in London, in which she’ll examine self-control and addiction in Anna Karenina, using ideas from the theorist Donald Winnicott. Over our time talking through poetry on my visit (as well as on the phone and by email afterward) we discuss topics as varied as Freudian theory, cephalopod intelligence and the structure of the voice.

Alsadir works to make sense of the traces others offer up, and to decode ways our traces belie us.

As wide-ranging as our conversations were, their rangy scope might not surprise people who knew Alsadir at Amherst in the early ’90s.

Arriving from Chicago, where she’d grown up as the daughter of two doctors, both of whom had emigrated from Iraq, she thought of herself as neither an emergent poet nor an emergent psychoanalyst. “I wanted to study dance and neuroscience,” she says, remembering her days in Wendy Woodson’s dance classes.

In fact, she attended Amherst precisely because it would allow her to do both. Yet by graduation, she’d decided to explore the ways both body and mind could play in language. During a summer at Oxford after junior year, she fell in love with Ulysses, and came back wanting to write a thesis on contemporary poetry, which she did under English professor Bill Pritchard ’53. She also began memorizing poems and writing poetry. Now this evolution seems natural: neuroscience and dance read as early cognates of her later vocations, ways of delighting in the kinetic jump. When I point this out, Alsadir agrees. “My ultimate joy is to associate—to jump from thing to thing to thing—that kind of leaping is my favorite pleasure; it’s my play,” she says. Alsadir went to New York University for an M.A. in creative writing and spent a year at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Mass. Back at NYU for a Ph.D. in English literature, she examined how the modern lyric evolved from the epistle. Then she trained at the Institute for Psychoanalytic Training and Research. She is now a practicing psychoanalyst.

Her first book, More Shadow Than Bird (Salt Publishing, 2012), came together slowly—“I was busy with my kids,” she says. “I don’t even think I did a single U.S. reading.” Alsadir’s second book, Fourth Person Singular, published by Liverpool University Press in 2017, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Epigrammatic and essayistic, it uses sharp, theoretical shards to examine who is speaking inside the lyric poem, and to explore a discontinuous personhood. It invents a new pronoun position—the grammatically impossible but theoretically tantalizing “fourth person singular,” which is Alsadir’s attempt to excavate the origins of the lyric voice.

To discuss this book, and writing generally, Alsadir and I met for dinner in Fort Greene, and then corresponded between my home in California and her home in New York.


A woman in front of a window in a brightly lit apartment
Alsadir’s second book was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. It invents a new pronoun—the grammatically impossible but theoretically tantalizing “fourth person singular.”

Just now, as we were speaking, you discussed dance, and poetry, and the brain, and consciousness. Your many interests. You even said you thought of your book as choreographed! Tell me, do you think of these things as cognates? Poetry and dance, for instance? Poetry and psychoanalysis?

I definitely see them as cognates, and I’d say their common root is the unconscious. When I’m working as a psychoanalyst, I listen not only to what is being conveyed in language but also what is communicated outside of language, unconsciously, and communications from the unconscious are often received as bodily sensations. The same goes for poetry. Why write in poetry if the goal is merely to communicate rational meaning? A poetic communication targets not only the intellect but the body. It moves you. Feeling moved is a bodily sensation that occurs when we witness another person’s genuine feeling, which then triggers our mirror neurons to fire, so that we feel their feeling inside ourselves as our own.

So good poetry provokes a kind of unconscious motion?

Yes. It connects us to others through a kind of internal mirroring. If you see someone slip on ice, your mirror neurons will fire, causing the slipping sensation to be mirrored within, as though it had originated within your own body. Because the same mirror neurons fire when we witness an emotion or action as when we feel or act ourselves, we are able to experience what happens outside of us as part of our own subjective experience, as though it belonged to us. Empathy, in German, is articulated as feeling into the shape of another. In dance we quite literally feel into the shapes of others—not only when someone else has choreographed the moves, but when we are willing to follow the unconscious. You feel into the shape of your unconscious when you follow your free-associative impulses, which is the precept in psychoanalysis. This can sometimes seem alien to how you think of yourself.

How does this thinking shape Fourth Person Singular?

The book opens with the line, “The door to my interior was propped open and a fly buzzed in.” I wanted the reader to feel as though they were entering an art installation representing the internal world of another person. If they were moved, they would then feel the installation’s feelings within their own bodies, as though they were their own. The book would become something to be experienced rather than just understood. Free association and improvisation help you figure out how your mind or body is wired. Eventually certain gestures stand out and become the material that gets choreographed in the making of the final work (in my case, book).

Free association and improvisation help you figure out how your mind or body is wired.”

The book cover for Fourth Person Singular by Nuar Alsadir

I love how much we’re talking about the body, about the signals the body gives us about the shapes we might find in our mind. How did Fourth Person Singular start in your body? Your mind? What was its process of emergence?

On the first day of biology class at Amherst, the professor told us that what we think of as our interior is really part of the external world. He used the example of our digestive system, which, replete with bacteria, is arguably the external environment housed within our bodies with two openings at either end. I later became fixated on a parallel metaphoric boundary that we place around the mind. There is no region in the body you can point to containing it—the mind is within our bodies and relational, encompasses our perception of experiences and those experiences themselves, what we feel and what fires when we perceive the feeling of others. The mind spreads across our bodies and beyond.

This kind of expansive subjectivity occupies a position I think of as the fourth person singular, which is simultaneously individual and collective, conscious and unconscious, quantumly entangled with the universe around it. The book emerged from trying to place myself in the position of the fourth person singular and then listen—to my interior voices, the voices around me, the universe, whatever surrounded or passed through me at any given moment.

Can you tell me a little about your writing practice—as it takes place in physical space and lived time? I am remembering that William Carlos Williams scribbled between patients. When do you get your writing done? In a particular place or time?

My writing is often dislodged when my body is in motion. Some of my best work—thinking and composing—comes to me while walking my dogs. The lack of destination is helpful. I also write a lot on the subway. In fact, I have a long poem in Granta this summer that is set on the Q train: it takes the same amount of time to read the poem as it does for the Q train to cross the Manhattan Bridge (if there are no delays).

What rituals or even lack of rituals do you observe when writing?

I have to keep changing my rituals, because even the most useful will stop working after a while. I went through a phase, while writing Fourth Person Singular, of setting my alarm for 3:15 a.m., then waking to write whatever was at the top of my mind. In mining those, what I termed, “night fragments,” I was after syntax, images, not dreams. The process gave me a way of unstopping a valve to my unconscious, getting at my primordial rhythms and concerns. After a time, however, I began to convince myself that what was in my mind wasn’t worth waking up for, that I should go back to sleep. The method stopped working and I had to turn to different ones instead.

What are you working on now?

I’m writing a prose book about laughter that will be published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, and another book of poetry.


Two Poets, Two Poems

A black and white photo of a woman sitting on a couch

Tess Taylor

Tess Taylor: We each shared a poem for this article. Tell me about why you chose the one you did [see below], with its wonderful discontinuous numbers.

Nuar Alsadir: It’s difficult to pull an excerpt from Fourth Person Singular, because it’s less a collection of poems than a book of poetry with no table of contents, each piece part of a larger whole. The book feels to me like a body, difficult to take apart, which is why we discussed so much what I might include. These are a few night fragments, lines I wrote from sleep, setting my alarm for 3:15 a.m. and waking to jot down what was at the top of my mind before descending back into sleep. You can see by the image of the notebook page beside “30” how difficult it can sometimes be to make out the words, much as it can sometimes be difficult to make out what we really think or feel without taking a vertical perspective, a cross-section of a thought or emotion that reveals multiple levels of meaning.

Throughout the book I try to include reverberations from beneath the surface that are generally cast out as thinking and writing get cleaned up. This layered approach also reflects our experience of the world: Washington Square Park in New York has a burial field beneath it with something like 20,000 corpses. Without knowing this, as you cross the park, you may receive a transmission from that other level that you feel without necessarily being conscious of what you’re feeling.

I numbered the fragments chronologically but reordered them when making the book. Freud said there’s no sense of time in the unconscious—a belief from childhood and adulthood, a serious thought and a trivial one, float side by side. I wanted to retain that unweighted quality.

Taylor: I love your layerings. Maybe that’s why I wanted to share this poem from my new book with you [on page 47].

Alsadir: What a beautiful poem! How did you come to the form?

Taylor: This is from my forthcoming book Rift Zone, which uses the figure of the fault line—the one I live on in California—to explore some instabilities of our moment. The poem began as an exercise in thinking through what the words fault and line really mean. When you’ve been using a term easily for a long time, it is useful to look it up in a dictionary, hear its older resonances, or map its prehistory. A poem emerged out of this. I’d been writing about fissured spaces in terms of this moment’s violence. But I also discovered that I’d been thinking about geology as a way of making sense of deep creativity, the idea that things can grow fertile in the tear. The list-form gains rhythm where disparate things heap on top of one another.

Alsadir: I love the idea of a sudden upthrust being a figure for creativity. Do upthrusts in your life operate in a similar way for you? What are you working on now?

Taylor: Right now I am finishing Rift Zone! So a lot of smoothing down. But I do think that a lot of writing at any phase is partly allowing yourself to notice the things the mind does turn up, listening to its compelling songs. It’s important to take dictation, nonjudgmentally, from these little shards of imagination. I try to stay open to that strange, occasionally insistent voice that shows up saying, “Here I am, a little squib, a little rhythm. Write me down!”


By Nuar Alsadir ’92, from her book Fourth Person Singular

A page from a notebook with cursive writing on it 41.

The moment will be shaken
like a snow globe, a sand globe,
world in eye.

30.

All messy may
All messy maybe.
So messy it can’t stay on the page.
A plane flying too low.
An idea like a plane flying
too low.
A person. Like a plane.
Too low flying.
too. loud and louder before
the crash.
It is always Sept 11 in NY.

31.

Sadness folds the chair I would have sat on—

69.

Jeans carry the shape of the person who inhabits them;
if you pick up another person’s jeans
you both hold that person and erase them—

16.

Take place out of context & you have time and character.
Being.

20.

At the core of mischief is panic.

16.

The sheet won’t stay on the corner of this moment,
keeps pulling up to reveal the blankness beneath.
Elastic gives a false sense of resonance,
like eating grapes.

53.

You think you’re going deeper
into the whole,
but are merely skirting the surface
of smaller internal parts—

14.

I lose time trying to figure out
what I already knew,
trying to unsee.

Alsadir and Taylor used these poems as a conversation starter.

By Tess Taylor ’00, “Etymology with Tectonic Plates”

i

Fault line we say & what is this but mapping tendril

to fault to foul a falling short a failing

to blame  to blemish

e.g. a damaged place

the word also making visible   

at least in part the unimaginable

moving plate: Earthskull

where it buckles

to trip to falter err or blunder:

Boundary

in continuity

or stone—

Fault we say hiking chert and basalt,

cracked seafloor

under fog.

 

ii

Later I

rework these lines, chart
lost pangeas, worlds

emerging at the brink                                   or try

 

to trace the crevices of mind
to sort

what rubble                                                       all the shift

made visible

 

linen thread or cord

e.g. also the spool or snarethe mark or stroke or way of making bare

the stave                                                                                                           to order

to trace esp. a band or furrow
the measure of a verse or hymn

to bound

to limn

to lineate                                             a song
                                                                                     in a harsh climate

to crack           

to realign