Death of the Little Self

I love the I,
frail between its flitches, its hard ground
and hard sky, it soars between them
like the soul that rushes, back and forth

Sharon Olds, “Take the I Out”


Over the course of writing, I have learned: the I lives in my stomach. It rumbles and pitches and flitters its nervous wings. My I doesn’t want to drive. It can’t help but holler from the passenger seat.




Did we all feel a little scorched from our MFA experiences? Our I’s were meant to fuck but not spawn. They were meant to be jagged little occurrences and confessional became a spitty word.


My navel was so obvious in those days, pregnant, flattened, silky-soft as it began to fold out. I led with my navel. It brushed against podium, against chair back. My I was a fat O, a dumpy U, a b or p slid like a jigsaw puzzle.




I am writing a book about my father-in-law’s death.


My father-in-law’s death does not belong to me. Truly, it does not belong to anyone, or only to him, or only to his widow. I did not grow up with my father-in-law, though sometimes my mother-in-law would mistakenly call him so when telling me a story: “Your father—oop!, I mean your father-in-law…”




I count the I’s and find I can build a trestle. My daughter pushes her wooden trains across. I pocket the engine, spin its wheels at long last.




I try to write the poem that examines his moment of passing. I begin by writing, “I could tell you how it happened, but I wasn’t there. This isn’t my story to tell.”




To give me relief from all the mortality, I also work on a sequence of poems about women’s lives: the day Hillary Clinton met Aung San Suu Kyi, mothers in the Horn of Africa, a woman publicly accusing her rapists in Libya, a woman accused of being a witch and burned in Papua New Guinea.


There are no I’s in these poems / there are only eyes in these poems. My gaze is exact, though my reliance is on another layer, another fold—I take these stories from the evening news, from the digital newspaper reports. My images come through a glass lens, the distance of mechanics complete: camera’s wandering eye, the flattened landscape of a monitor. I think, over and over: This isn’t my story to tell.




The letter I, it feels so small, so insubstantial. How could it possibly contain multitudes?




The most obviously fraught of my profile poems is “Hela” which was published in The Fiddlehead and evokes the plight of Henrietta Lacks, a woman whose cervical cancer cells have been studied on the grandest of scales.


Not only are Lacks’ famous cells used by scientists without permission and in perpetuity, but the fact of her life’s story is on shaky ground with Rebecca Skloot’s award-winning book. She often mentions the difficulties with Henrietta Lacks’ daughter, who felt protective of her mother and her mother’s narrative. Stripped of her mother’s body, the story was all her daughter had left.




This year, an Oscar selfie went viral. An athlete’s selfie with the affable president changed interactive policy: No self-photographs. Let the media do this for you.


I cannot help but think of masturbation when I see the word “selfie.” I think of men being able to bend over, into an alphabet.




It is said that poems of the self can be “done to death.” i




When my father-in-law was sick, he sunk in on himself. The cancer runneled up his throat, halted his desire for food.


It is said at the moment of death, we lose 21 grams as the soul escapes.ii What, then, is smaller than the soul?




Recently, the poet Erin Belieu spoke out against using the adjective “little” in reference to poetry by women. Her example was from a review or a blurb: “little sonic moments.” I had thought the phrase nice; I thought of beautiful bursts of sound. Birdsong. But little is a word that diminishes, that disempowers. Women are not meant to take up space, after all.

Perhaps the little I is an uncertain one, an I lacking in verve or confidence. Perhaps the little I only peeps from the back seat.




La petite mort is French for “the little death.” It’s a euphemism for ejaculation, the release of oxytocin during orgasm.iii


Ejaculation is said to measure in the teaspoon-range.iv


Roland Barthes is said to call la petite mort the chief objective for reading literature.




At a writing marathon, one fellow-poet looks up to an iPhone aimed at him by another poet, asks in mock resignation, “Are you going to selfie me?”


I wonder, at that moment, if poets who are friends with other poets sigh in resignation when they realize they are apt to become material too.




We have submitting marathons. The lonely act of poet’ing becomes social. In looking, we find submission guidelines to journals forbidding the I:


… we love poems that don’t rely on a central subject (I!) to do their work

… is not interested in: poems about family members; poems about the poet; the poem; or writing a poem; or poems with an overabundant “I”.





My children’s navels are my favorites. They are the stubs from which they lived, inside me, for nine months. They were tethered to me this way, fully reliant, incapable of existence without. I toted them by the navel. They poked and prodded mine.


Last night, in the bath, my daughter wiggled up and down, proclaimed, “Look, my belly button is drinking the wah-ter!” She slurped the air like a dog.




Poet Kathleen Flenniken said, “I feel defensive about one genre of poems that still speaks to me—the first person lyric grounded in everyday experience. It’s unfashionable, but it’s what brought me to writing.”v


I hiss at my I: Stop wearing those yoga pants every day. You have a peanut butter smear on your thigh. We are trying to be taken seriously. We are Serious Poets.




I am writing a book about my father-in-law’s death. I want to answer the question, “What do we tell our children about death? About after-death?”


I am firmly in the center of the manuscript, looking outward, the you-are-here of a map. There is no lack of the self in these poems. My I is not meek, nor is it eager. It is, it is. Even poems about other cultures, about rituals and established norms have the ghost-I. I am storytelling, I am gathering on the rug and telling. I am funneling and sieving and traveling. I am the chug of every engine.


Molly Sutton Kiefer is the author of the lyric essay Nestuary (Ricochet Editions), and two poetry chapbooks.  She has poems in The Collagist, Fiddlehead Review, Tupelo Quarterly, Women’s Studies Quarterly, and The Southampton Review, among others. Her essays and reviews have appeared in journals such as The Rumpus and PANK. She runs Balancing the Tide: Motherhood and the Arts | an Interview Project and is co-founder and editor of Tinderbox Poetry Journal, and, in 2016, will launch Tinderbox Editions, a poetry and essays press. More can be found at

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