It’s no coincidence that Joanna Penn Cooper’s hybrid collection, What Is a Domicile, is the precise size and shape of a sleuth’s notebook. In fact, I found myself thinking of Harriet Welsch as I turned these supple pages and admired the range of enjambments, wrap-around lines, numbered fragments, and assorted jottings that comprise this surprising and provocative series of proems. (No, it isn’t a typo—proems!) I also admired how slyly the book could be dropped into a handbag or pliant pocket, how smoothly withdrawn again at a moment’s notice. No matter where you enter this text, I promise you will find Cooper’s musings and revelations engrossing.
Who here remembers Harriet Welsch, the precocious eleven-year-old protagonist of Louise Fitzhugh’s iconic 1964 novel, Harriet the Spy? An aspiring writer, Harriet lives in New York City and spends her time spying on others while meticulously documenting her observations. She is witty and poignant, a preadolescent cultural critic and an early hero of mine. Harriet was also the reason I first began to carry a notebook and is one of the reasons I have done so for more than twenty years.
From time to time, I’ve wondered who that intelligent and unconventional girl might have grown up to be, and in Cooper’s speaker, I’ve found a plausible prototype. This sounds a bit like full-grown Harriet in the twenty-first century, don’t you think?:
You are falling asleep
and chuckling sweetly to yourself when you think of me;
I am taking photos of you sleeping and posting them online.
I know you don’t mind […]”
Of course in the novel, that’s precisely the problem. Harriet’s companions do mind—in fact, they are horrified—when they find Harriet’s notebook and read her honest opinions of them. That Harriet and this one are “always learning/ it all the freaking time: How to lose how to lose how to lose.” But the difference is, Cooper’s speaker is sleuthing through the curious corridors of self, too, turning the witty and poignant corners of her own mind. Her investigation and the questions it raises are deeply self-reflexive: “What have I manifested here?” “Who am I trying to please? What am I bracing for?” Then, watch how they begin to open outwards, to become inclusive, suggestive of empathy and forgiveness: “Are we all sad walking mistake-filled balloons?” “What if we could/ / step into each other’s lives?”
It’s not until the forty-page mark that Cooper explicitly addresses her title: “The seminar is called ‘What Is a Domicile?’ I will absorb the history of the dwelling place and develop the ability to infuse place with ritual significance. A structure in which to reside. An atmosphere both fluid and contained, which grounds and fades the ghosts.” Now I’m picturing one of those speckled composition books with the wide-ruled pages, an earnest student sketching WHAT IS A DOMICILE on the cover as a reminder that her investigation has a focus, a goal. She is seeking answers to a particular question.
To this end, our speaker must begin by staying present, mindful, discriminating in what she decides to record. She must accept that “Many days you find it hard to love/ the common and uncommon faces on the street, search/ them though you might for signs of light. For four days,/you walk around eavesdropping, hoping to hear something/piquant worth writing down.”
Beyond merely observing and documenting now, our speaker tasks herself with postulating, hypothesizing:
“I will be the theorist and I will call it effleurage, which actually means a ‘delicate stroking motion.’ In my theory, it means that and it also means ‘the mind and body’s flagrant disregard for notions of the consistent forward movement of time.’ A delicate and non-delicate motion.”
Where is the evidence of this erratic and flexible nature of time, this effleurage? A good sleuth and a good student have this in common. They are trained to seek illustrative examples:
“Sometimes you’re almost a year later in a room in Brooklyn waiting for a blizzard, when just a second ago you were almost a year earlier in a different room in Vermont sitting on a bed with a Vanity Fair, a pregnancy test, and an empty bag of M&Ms you don’t remember eating.”
And now, beyond observing, documenting, and theorizing, what else can our speaker do? She makes resolutions: “[F]rom now on I’m telling the truth.” Then, she revises those resolutions to make them reasonable: “From now on, I’m telling some version of the truth.”
At times, beyond even observing, documenting, theorizing, and resolving, our speaker offers some hard-won words of advice: “This year/ let your eyes focus/ then let them go wild// Eat the air.” I believe her and want to do as she bids. I believe she is telling me some version of the truth.
So this is a sleuth’s notebook, and a student’s notebook, but it is also a handbook of sorts for those inclined to sleuth and study and ultimately for those inclined to write. Early on, Cooper’s speaker tells us, “I’ve cured myself of being/ so meta, or else I’ve embraced it.” She isn’t sure which, but the reader soon discovers it is the latter. “All of us curators in private museums of loss,” she writes. Then: “Wait,/ see? Even there. I meant sloth and wrote loss.”
I remember once in high school, Mr. Boyle lifting the Wite-Out brush right out of my hand. It was junior theology class, and I couldn’t stop editing my journal entries. “Leave them,” he said. “Sometimes the cross-outs say more than the clean lines.” I didn’t understand what he meant then, but I do now. I like glimpsing the Freudian slips, the honest disclosures: “I meant sloth and wrote loss.” On its own, the image of human beings as “curators in private museums of loss” is powerful. But the alternative version—“the private museums of sloth”—opens a new door of narrative potential, not to mention a second window into this speaker’s heart.
And what about this one, where Cooper’s speaker returns to an abandoned entry and fills in the gaps, the what-she-meant-to-say:
“On the afternoon of St. Patrick’s Day even, the baby
[That’s all I have in my notebook, but I remember it now: On the afternoon of St. Patrick’s Day eve, the baby sits in his rocker by the window and watches the snow.]”
Some might call this a “common book,” which many writers keep—a collection of meaningful quotes gleaned from observation and study. There are plenty of these in What Is a Domicile:
“Certain days I feel it// A certain/ lush/ expectancy”
“I’ve been off coffee, and much of my life is a slow movie on an art gallery wall.”
What common book doesn’t include a series of Notes to Self, the inevitable reminders and suggested improvements?:
“I should put more beautiful words to this. I should say, the near October light through blinds. Or just, I have a proto-human growing in my abdomen. He weighs a little more than a can of Coke.”
The pregnant woman is a domicile. And the mother herself is a domicile:
“So, that’s what mothers do:// Teach human strength and frailty. That impossible confluence.// I’d find a less direct way to say this, but the baby’s awake.”
Cooper’s speaker is learning as she goes, just as we all are, and she has found a way to capture moments, not just milestones. Like the rest of us, she is sometimes looking forward and sometimes looking back, “mourning the twentieth century/ Kids these days/ know nothing of luminous clock faces/ slowly going dark by the twin bed.” Her heritage is our heritage, is Harriet’s heritage, too. She remembers the analog world of old, with its “luminous clock faces,” its Steno-pads and pencils stashed in ponytails, its lost art of writing by hand.
Perusing the old-fashioned, sticky-paper-and-laminate-covering photo album perhaps:
In this photograph, I am a girl child.
My thoughts come out in my hands
and my hair. If only I could realize it.
Be just the person I just am.
That “girl child” knows what Harriet Welsch knew about the writing life and about life itself. Of the former, Cooper’s speaker offers this astute self-assessment:
“I am compelled/ to travel up and down the reality scale, playing whatever/ notes create ambience and distract from the lack of plot.”
There’s a wink and a nod here to every experimental, hybrid, multi-genre, proeming (rhymes with “roaming”!) writer out there, for whom a linear narrative account couldn’t begin to cover the essential fragments, the labyrinthine tangents, the profound etceteras of the lyric life-record.
Of the latter—the matter of life itself—Cooper’s speaker says it best, and in the process, offers an implicit defense of her own masterful meanderings: “The simplest explanation is always/ the most clearly boring.” Take that, Ockham’s Razor! she might have said. And I believe her. I believe she is telling me some version of the truth.