Ex-Spousal Hire

By Emily Bowles

An Erasure of an Academic Paper, a Short Essay, and a Poem

“Texts rearrange our lives,” I wrote (not in that order, exactly, in a paper that was published in the Aphra Behn Society’s online journal before I left academic work. The paper wasn’t about my life; however, returning to it years later as a poet rather than a professor, I found myself inside it, underneath so much jargon and such a persistent attempt to be professional about what, at its base, was personal: my love for Aphra Behn, her writing, and her presence in the book that had, in so many ways, made me the woman I was and am, Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own.

At poetry readings, I have described myself as a recovered or recovering academic. I don’t use the language of addiction lightly: my academic background has pulled me in ways that have been at times compulsive, destructive, most often in my sense of having failed to live up to a measurable standard.

The trajectory we were expected to follow in graduate school was presented as difficult and competitive yet orderly and measurable—exactly the sort of challenge I’ve always liked.

For example, I am a runner. Races have defined me with their emphasis on accuracy: go this far, at this pace, cross the finish line. Follow the right plan, and even if you don’t win, you’ll accomplish your goal.

I thought that was true

until I learned
that some races are not accurately measured, that my personal bests at the 5K and 10K distance were both garnered on short courses, and that some plans don’t work for everyone, even if a runner follows them without deviation.

The course the Dean of Graduate Studies delineated for us seemed similarly straightforward

until I learned
that sometimes a graduate student decides to
get married,
change names,
study subjects on the edges of her husband’s research interest instead of maintaining her autonomous personal and professional identity,
find out while in Egypt for his research that she’s pregnant,
go home without him to avoid second-hand smoke and feral cats,
become a trailing spouse,
overhear colleagues when they sound surprised to learn she has the same degree and a
more extensive publication history than her husband,
change names again,
file for divorce,
return to her former research interests,
not be selected for a tenure-track position at his school,
start working as an adjunct at a two-year college,
experience sexism and thinly-veiled sexual harassment (the second positioned as
support/consolation based on her experience of the first),
transition into a non-academic career,
stop writing,
try writing without access to subscription-based databases,
stop writing again,
start writing for a popular magazine,
go to yoga classes and try to open the throat chakra,
start writing poetry after years of writer’s block,
fall in love again,
take a new job,
tell her daughter that she doesn’t regret anything.

I write for her now, and for me, and for the writers I studied. Margaret Cavendish, Jane Cavendish, Elizabeth Egerton, Sarah Cole, Aphra Behn, Anne Finch, Sarah Fielding, Sarah Scott, Hester Lynch Thrale Piozzi, Elizabeth Carter, Frances Sheridan, Frances Brooke, Frances Burney, Elizabeth Inchbald, Mary Hays, Mary Wollstonecraft. They left behind bodies that have been forgotten, rendered disposable, and I know how that feels, so I write them and right them as I remind myself that power is multiplicity, circulating in voices, in words unintelligible until unless we listen and find the support we need in, on the page.

Unsupported

I am unsupported–my browser,
my breasts, my books.

I lost
my dissertation title–Empire Lost–now reads as foreshadowing
all support
when I told
him I didn’t
love him.

unsupported, raving,
mad
words from one of my papers,
published

Who would have thought that
heteronormative love was
the price I would have to pay
to perform
academic research
on unruly bodies,
social construction,
feminist epistemologies,
cross-dressing,
the spectacle of the gendered body,
and premature ejaculation
poetry?

Some databases are free–Perdita, Emory’s Women Writer site.
Brown excludes.  ECCO and EBOO too.
From a research institute to a small liberal arts college
to a two-year college, I have seen
how much access privilege grants.
Virginia Woolf on the edges of Oxford
understood, to a degree,
what it means–pedigree.

Women are treated like dogs,
bitches
when they stop trailing a spouse,
sniffing around their husbands’ research
and start pissing on their own
territory.

Heel.  Heal.