ORIGINS: Elizabeth Hazen’s “Thanatosis”

liz hazen

In today’s ORIGINS, poet Elizabeth Hazen talks about the inspiration for her poem “Thanatosis, ” which appears in the just-released 2013 Best American Poetry (and originally was published in the Southwest Review). You can access the poem online here at The Baltimore Fishbowl).

 In the past few years, my writing process has involved transforming found text about scientific principles into verse. Many of my recent poems have actually originated in passages from science books or websites; I highlight paragraphs from these texts and lift phrases I like. By the time I have meaning in the scientific explanations that resonates with me both intellectually and emotionally, and by the time I have instituted meter (which I use in much of my work), the original text has disappeared completely. The principles and their metaphorical significance, I hope, remain. My understanding of the “hard” science may remain tenuous, but nonetheless I do find a great deal of content in the laws, principles, razors, and biological realities that I read about.

When I wrote “Thanatosis” I was reading about the principle of fight or flight – not in order to understand that concept in the wild, but rather because I was thinking about my own impulses toward action and escape.  When I came across a third defense in my obsessive reading of science-related websites – tonic immobility, or the state of paralysis animals enter when threatened – I had the first line of the poem. Having long been intrigued by the idea that silence and invisibility are forms of power, I thought about the idea of playing dead. This exploration triggered memories of childhood games of hide and seek. The form of the poem evolved on its own, though I do frequently work within the confines of meter and rhyme, and a strict form seemed fitting for the content.

Elizabeth Hazen is a poet and essayist whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in Best American Poetry 2013, The Normal School, Southwest Review, The Threepenny Review, and other journals. She teaches English at Calvert School in Baltimore, Maryland. 


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