Sunday, April 30, 2023

Q&A with Robert Lunday


Photo by Katy Anderson



Robert Lunday is the author of the new book Disequlibria: Meditations on Missingness. His other books include Mad Flights. He is a professor of English at Houston Community College, and he lives in Houston.


Q: What inspired you to write Disequilibria?


A: Disequilibria is in part an account of my stepfather’s 1982 disappearance. I have been writing about this mystery almost since it happened – first, simply to record the spare facts, and then, some years later, as a long poem that I hoped would allow me to connect deeper feelings about the experience.


The poem, which I published in a collection more than 20 years ago, is a synthesis of details about my stepfather, Jim Lewis, and his military experience; our family experience; and larger, almost-mythical reflections on the figure of disappearance overall.


In the closing of the poem, I tried to construct something slightly like a figure of a man in an orbit gone astray – partly to represent that powerful 20th-century emblem of adventure and its risks – and partly to find a poetic way to express the emotional complexity, or the inability I felt, and still feel, to properly express the meaning of someone’s disappearance.


It has taken me half a lifetime to figure out how to shape the experience in the right way (if Disequilibria is indeed the right way): as a continuum between one family’s case and the human experience of disappearance as a global, varied phenomenon.


Since I am a lover of books, stories, myths, and the mysteries of the cosmos, I can’t help but read symbolic meaning in everything. One irony of my efforts, though, is that Jim Lewis, a smart but disciplined and practical man, would likely disapprove of the way I’ve told his story!


Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: “Disequilibria” is a chapter title. Also, it’s one of the tropes developed in the work. By “trope” I mean a series of themes that recur throughout: metaphors, I suppose, that I think of as the parts of a symbolic structure that helps me understand “missingness” as the master trope. A “quest,” for example, is a common trope in art and literature; the “orbit” figure I mentioned above is a form of the quest-trope, perhaps.


One of the ways I have tried to come to terms with my family’s unusual tale of disappearance is to intellectualize and aestheticize it, perhaps excessively: to consider what deeper, more abstract, technical, scientific, symbolic, or philosophical meanings our story points to.


It seems to me that some events in the world are not easily explained in natural terms; they represent an imbalance, perhaps even a moral imbalance of some kind, but maybe even a violation of the laws of nature. So, “Disequilibria” is my admittedly abstract way of connecting the story of a man’s fate to the deeper laws of physics – that this imponderable puzzle is somehow connected to an imbalance in the universe.


I have found, while studying the ways people experience a disappearance, that most of us find it very difficult to express what it feels like when someone we love goes missing. So, I have experimented with the language of disappearance – hoping that if we can find new ways of defining it in language, we can find ways of dealing with irresolvable experiences like missingness, and learn how to cope with the trauma of unresolved grief that is a common experience of the left behind.  


Q: The author Rigoberto González said of the book, “Disequilibria captures what it’s like to become obsessed with a mystery, as well as what it feels like to get trapped in its labyrinth. But most compellingly, it teaches us that if the grief-stricken can’t find out the truth, they can attain solace in the still-present love for those who are gone.” What do you think of that description?


A: At this point, my stepfather has been missing for as long as he was alive. His disappearance has lasted far longer than he was my stepfather, longer than he was my mother’s husband. It is a strange feeling, sometimes – as if not only James Lewis, but all of us affected by his disappearance, are stuck in time.


Still, I feel that the “relationship” I have had with my stepfather has evolved over the years of his absence, because there is something about a human life, a human spirit, that not only never dies, but also continues in some ways to change and grow – or so I believe.


When I was a boy, I feared my stepfather, because he was a tough, strict soldier (he was also smart and funny, I have to say – and a caring, loving father and husband). After he came home from his last combat tour in Vietnam, in 1970, I was 11 – old enough to see the complexity of Jim Lewis’ character, to understand that even though he was a fearsome man, he was also a mortal being capable of suffering and error.


I clearly recall when he stepped through the door after returning from Vietnam that day; I remember thinking to myself that he looked very tired, and needed me to help him feel welcomed back home. I think that was the first time, really, I allowed myself to love him as my father – not to consider him an invader or a usurper. (Maybe it’s the opposite of the tale of Hamlet, in a way!)


In any case, even to this day, I have often considered what it means to love someone, even after they are gone. I think I needed to continue learning how to love Jim Lewis, not only as my stepfather, but as a man who had suffered, and for all we know, might be suffering somewhere in the world to this day. That is part of the horror of disappearance.


Q: Did you need to do much research to write the book, and if so, did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: Research has been a curse and a blessing in my creative work. I have been a poet for most of my writing life, and spent many years reading various topics of relevance to poetic projects: the history of the cinema, the art of memory, blindness, physiognomy and related depictions of the face in art; and with Disequilibria¸ missing persons.


The curse is that I become extremely obsessed, believing that I must explore every corner, every branching sub-topic, every source – and of course, there is no end to the exploration of any topic if one takes it on so absolutely.


The blessing, though, is that over time, I have constructed a vast realm of ideas and cultural understanding in those areas – and discovered wonderful intersections, as well. So, the research I did for Disequilibria has led me toward a desire to be an authority on disappearance as a global, multi-faceted crisis; and that has helped me see how my family’s experience is not unusual, but is in fact very meaningful in the ways it connects to the suffering of other families.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Even though I worked on Disequilibria, or versions of it, over many years, the book as it now exists is a pandemic project: the lockdown forced me to sit and write in marathon sessions, fortunately. However, after finishing the book, I realized that in its end was a beginning – that is, I saw room for much more writing on the topic.


I hope as well to organize a collaborative art exhibit in which visual artists and writers explore themes of disappearance. Also, I’m starting work on an anthology of writings about disappearance in varied forms – perhaps a collection that will cross the usual genre boundaries, including the words of people who have experienced missingness and sought to express the imponderable nature of it.


Disequilibria includes a lot of literary-critical discussion of works about missing persons. However, almost every week since I completed the manuscript, I have continued to discover other wonderful novels, poems, memoirs, and scholarly works relevant to the theme. So, I suppose I might attempt a second volume, though I don’t yet know what form it will take.


I’m an introvert, almost a shut-in, one might say. I hope, though, in my next endeavor, to go beyond books – to get out into the world and meet real people. That kind of learning provides a different knowledge and understanding from what we gain through books, after all.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: As I was constructing my family’s experience, and then researching the varied forms of disappearance in the world, I became humbled at the suffering and courage of so many people.


The next steps, for me, might be to argue for the ways art and other forms of imaginative response help us understand such intractable problems as human trafficking; enforced disappearances caused by war, by governments oppressing their own citizens, paramilitary groups, and criminal cartels; child abduction and abuse; missing and murdered Indigenous women; the inequities experience by missing people of color and their families; and borderland experiences that cause unnecessary suffering.


I invite other artists to communicate with me about these experiences, not only as sociological or political crises, but as sources of artistic and literary expression.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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