Letters Never Sent

Earth, receive an honored guest

I once attended a talk on elegy given by a fellow graduate student, one of the true scholars of our pack. He spoke of elegy as an act of resurrection. To speak of the dead, he insisted, is to animate their spirit.


Spirare. Spiritus.

To breathe. Breath.

To inspire is to breathe a truth into another.

To be inspired is to accept that truth.

We live only by another’s breath.

This is the truth I accepted from a man who no longer lives.

But in this truth, for me, he breathes.




Dear Carolyn (A Sort-of-Response to Mary Miller)

Dear Carolyn,

Aside from the occasional contact regarding the Colgate gig, we haven’t really communicated at all over the past several years. This, despite all the various means of communication available. It’s not as if I have to kill a goose and squeeze a squid to reach-out, after all, but I fail to do it all the same.

I know via FB that you have accomplished a great deal over the last few years, including your PHD at Tennessee. This does not come as a surprise, but I do congratulate you all the same.

But though my congratulations is long overdue, I do not write now for this reason (I’m sure you guessed as much, since I could easily write an email and achieve this purpose). I write this to thank you. I could also do this through email. But I wish to do this publicly.

For what I am thanking you is a little difficult to put into a single phrase, so I’ll share two moments in hope that they might clarify things a little.

Way back in graduate school, Eric Heine solicited the opinions of graduate students on how he might frame his American Modernism course. He had two options: one would discuss class/money, the other would focus on women writers of the time. To his surprise, I told him I “wanted to read good authors, not just authors who happened to be women.” I was very proud of myself for responding this way, for not being that kind of woman. The kind, I guess I thought, who wanted what I viewed as special treatment.

You learned of my response and came over to my cubicle and stated how disappointed you were. You pointed-out the dearth of women writers in most of the graduate courses. You made some sort of brilliant statement about American Modernism being a particularly great class in which to focus on women writers because of the historical intersection of the Women’s Rights Movement.

I, in my stubborn and dull-witted way, repeated my “good writers, regardless of gender” statement, and you left the topic alone, certain, I’m sure, that I was incapable of hearing the ignorance in my own words.

The class, as we both know, was titled “Money in the American Imagination.” I believe we read two women authors.

Another time—

Someone, I believe Carrie, organized a camping trip for the women of the English Department. Nothing strenuous, just a few days in a cabin. When invited, I said something like “I am not comfortable in large groups of women.”

You overheard and, once again, came over to my cubicle to discuss how disturbed you were by this comment by me. You tried to tell me things about women and community and cultural misogyny. In my awful, terrible, too-cocky-by-a-thousand-percent way, I believe I explained that I had zero interest in giggling discussions of movie stars, and fashion, and diets, and orgasms. I said being stuck doing so for two days seemed about as much fun as plucking the eyelashes from my face and then sewing each one back onto my eyelids with a rusty harpoon.

Actually, I doubt I made that analogy; it seems far too well-thought-out for the kind of response I had—a gut-response pulled from a gut full of sexism and self-hatred and, this having been grad school, probably the previous night’s Jameson.

These are two very small moments. I doubt you remember either of them.

I remember them as embarrassing/heart-breaking times when I dismissed other women, specifically women in the literary community, out of my own ignorance and prejudices. Your response to this dismissal was intelligent and compassionate and personal and private. And even if those conversations we had did not immediately cause a complete transformation in my horrid little worldview, I know now that they did open a possibility for this change to occur.

These conversations we had, however brief, are important to me because I have been working hard these last few years to recognize, understand, and overcome my own misogyny.It has taken, and continues to take, both public and private conversations for me to do this.

Having read the Mary Miller post, I can see where I was ten years ago in where she is now. And for all the articulate, intelligent public responses she has received, I also hope she has someone like you in her life. Someone with whom to also have a personal and private conversation. It seems to take both for change to occur. It has for me, at any rate.

So whether you remember these moments or not, thank you.

Thank you for understanding misogyny as a cultural force to which women are also susceptible.

Thank you for recognizing misogyny’s hold on me, and for trying to help me see my way out of it.

Thank you for speaking-up.


Amanda Bales


The image is by artist Marina Graham.