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19 February 2020

Heather Christle’s The Crying Book: a cultural history of tears

Like other poets who write non-fiction, Christle favours a fragmentary style in this history of crying.

Some people are made for tears. Cruelty, beauty, memory, innocence, loss, the loss of innocence, poems, war memorials, letters, the way sunlight slants at the window:  anything will set them off. “People can even cry about architecture,” says Heather Christle, a poet and self-confessed crier, who, in this searching and ultimately moving book, ticks off the myriad triggers of bittersweet release like so many stations on the Via Dolorosa.

Christle sheds tears over Bill, a former lover and fellow poet, lost to suicide; she weeps over a long-ago abortion and the unexpected deaths of a grandmother and a godparent. Violence and racial injustice cause her to crumple; pregnancy empties her waterworks entirely. She cries over poems, in writing workshops and at home, and in brilliant sunlight or driving rain (“If you cry in the car while it’s raining, it feels like the windshield wipers should tend too to your face”). She even admits: “most days I cry more than I write about crying”.

Like other poets who write non-fiction – Rachel Zucker, Alice Notley, Sarah Manguso, Maggie Nelson – Christle favours a fragmentary style, distilling her thoughts into tight, lyrical paragraphs that mostly punch above their weight. Mingling memoir with cultural criticism, and mining history, anthropology, science and poetry for diamond examples of teary interest, she spins the lot into a high-energy vortex. Sometimes your head is in a spin too, dizzy from all the clever ideas whirling. Other times, you wonder what it’s all for. Certainly, it’s interesting to learn of the differences between basal, irritant and psychogenic tears, or that fake-crying sometimes triggers the real thing. I was intrigued, too, by the student in the Netherlands who built a gun to collect and freeze her tears then shoot them out as icy bullets. She later presented it to a professor who’d made her cry.

But it is difficult to make fragments accrete, to infuse narrative purpose into thoughts that want to go their own way. Christle is strongest the closer she remains to confession, weakest when her associative connections refuse to cohere. A run of pages that left me a little dissatisfied trips from noting that tears fall, like rain, to observing that falling is itself “elementary, primal”. Christle quotes Anne Carson claiming that falling is our earliest motion (“A human is born by falling”) and our last (we drop down dead), before leaping to the moon, where tears still fall “but more slowly, like snow”. A person who cries for the moon wants too much, she says. But when the astronaut Alan Shepard cried on the moon, he shed homesick tears for Mother Earth.

Matters get more interesting when she touches on “hedonic reversal” – a perversion of the pleasure principle, whereby we delight in the things that cause us grief: such as pain or crying. Tears are never about just one thing. Besides, not all tears are equal. Weeping women elicit sympathy, and sometimes medical contempt, yet they also weaponise their tears, while crying men are valorised or shunned, depending on who’s watching. Christle’s own tears are incontinent: vain and indulgent one minute, streaming misery the next.

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Yet the narrative does come together in the end, quite by stealth. You begin to discern a thread of despair, frayed and volatile, running beneath the slightly manic cataloguing. Tentative at first, it hints at the cliff-edge danger of potential self-annihilation; then, as tension builds, it takes up more room. It’s unwieldy, this despair, and it lends the book a strange compulsion.

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Empathy, says Christle, is a trap – “a hole through which one falls into despair”.  “Imagining myself into the place of another’s suffering unnecessarily incapacitates me”, she writes. Yet she cannot help falling. Or feeling. And feeling is one of the poet’s chief credentials: brittle emotions crunched into lapidary words – a process so painful it can make stones weep, or eyes bleed.

There are beautifully realised moments of heart-stopping vulnerability when you think Christle will unravel. But then she staunches her tears and tends to her broken soul. Before he took his own life, Bill had her down as a survivor. But she wasn’t so sure. Would she drown in a saline swill? Or somehow find in her lachrymose nature a needful emotional prop?

There’s a tender section where she commiserates with the 19th-century author and physician Silas Weir Mitchell (a man famed for his disdain of weeping hysterics), when, as an aspiring poet himself, he pined for his dead daughter, in verse. Christle now has a daughter of her own to live and be strong for, and this toddler cries as well. She “cried because the lemon she wanted to eat did not remain whole. And because she was worried there would not be enough snow.”

This too is despair, because we cry at the end of possibility, when our hopes are dashed and our vulnerable natures are at their most naked. And because crying is physically transfiguring – we redden and swell, shudder, sniffle and rock – we cannot hide this truth from ourselves. Like consciousness, Christle contends, crying lies at the heart of being self-aware. 

Marina Benjamin’s most recent book is “Insomnia” (Scribe)

The Crying Book
Heather Christle
Corsair, 208pp, £14.99

This article appears in the 19 Feb 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The age of pandemics