The Topography of Tears

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December 21, 2019 by The Citron Review

by Denton Loving


As a boy, I cried despite my father’s warnings—I was too old, boys don’t cry, crying does no good, it solves no problems. Scientists categorize tears this way: basal tears to lubricate and nourish; reflex tears to protect from irritants like wind and smoke; and psychic tears produced as an emotional response. I wish I had known as a boy that hormones in psychic tears work as natural pain killers. An analgesic for what ails you.

I could never stop crying just because my father ordered it. Once the sluice opened, the water rushed through, became its own master, the mechanism easier to start than stop. The disappointment in his eyes made me cry harder.

I wish I’d understood then that we cry every time we blink, every moment of our lives; it’s the first act we perform when we’re born. As a species, humans had the ability to cry before we developed language skills. What better proof is there of the infinite sadness of the human condition?

My high school science teacher described water as sticky because it clings to everything it touches. Think of trees dashed by a downpour: the water doesn’t rush off the leaves. It lingers. Think how water clings to our bodies. Think how tears grip our skin, hanging on, drop by drop, until the weight becomes unbearable—enough to form a lake deep enough for drowning.

After my father died, I discovered Rose-Lynn Fisher’s microscopic slides of tears displayed like exhibits in a museum: Tears from Onions, Tears of Grief, Tears of Change, Tears of Ending & Beginning. Of all the slides, Tears of Grief forms the straightest lines, like fragments of roads in a city only half planned, an unfinished map, a cartographer’s abandoned plat.

When my father died, my uncles stood like sentries around his open casket, searching the stone face for something already departed. They cried when I could not. My eyes were two cracked millstones, too broken to grind grain, too fractured to kill pain. A microscopic slide of nothing must resemble a desert landscape with only barren flats on the horizon.

When I remembered how to cry, I returned to Fisher’s slides and learned they are art, not science, the tears manipulated: air-dried, compressed, even the volume of tears changing them the way a skiff in summer mist sails differently than in a squall. The artist blurred and sharpened, zooming in on a detail until something emerged from the chaos, mirroring the reasons we cry.

There’s little reliable science about how emotional tears might differ from person to person or from one passion to another. But I like the idea that no single tear is like any other.

I imagine hanging photos of my own tears on the walls of a gallery, naming each one: Tears of Connection Broken, Tears of Hindsight, Tears of Recollection, Tears of Reconstruction. My tears need labels, but each one is different. My favorite depicts a shoreline with a sturdy dock where brave boats embark into mapless, swirling seas.


Denton Loving is the author of the poetry collection Crimes Against Birds and editor of Seeking Its Own Level, an Anthology of Writings about Water. His writing has recently appeared in Iron Horse Literary Review, Kenyon Review, The Chattahoochee Review and The Threepenny Review. Follow him on Twitter @DentonLoving.



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Snow on brush in desert

IMAGE CREDIT: Jill Katherine Chmelko. Protest Road, Winter. 2019.

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