is a city.
~Afaa Michael Weaver
There’s this mansion recurrent in my nightmares. To my knowledge, if knowledge is a word I can apply here, every room of feigned Victorian elegance has been entered, the verdant and monstrous grounds walked a bit, but not completely for the pixilation that becomes their periphery. Some rooms in a stubbed wing of this construction are safe; others terrify me to wake screaming or wide-eyed in a cognizant paralysis of knowing that I should move toward a light switch but cannot. Night terrors borne since childhood: chill-tremor ghosts haunt these high-contrast framed nightmares. The attic is a place of violence and carnage that I’m unable to believe my mind has conjured. My uncertainty with the details of these dreams is mirrored with the uncertainty I have of my adolescence and young adulthood memories. The myriad blank moments a result of trauma and abuse—most mornings I doubt the details and “truth” of my waking existence.
Some summers ago after a stint teaching creative writing in Singapore and while traveling through South East Asia a second time, I taught an online World Literature course of The Early Modern period, 11th to around the 17th century, in which we read some selections of, and learned a bit about, Michel de Montaigne, considered to be The Fountainhead of the essay, the original man of colloquial introspection (to paraphrase Erich Auerbach), whose meandering language structures reflected his doubt regarding his own memory, especially as he grew older and after his post-dome-damage from falling off of a horse. His is, and how I’ve come to think of nonfiction, a process of wandering and discovering, resurrecting one’s memory. My students seemed fascinated with de Montaigne’s ideas, though it was perhaps due in part to their self-important age demographic and/or the course being online. They need only examine texts and look at themselves superficially in a “foreign” place and boom, realization and epiphany of one’s own cultural mores transposed over another’s. I need only realize the realization of myself and assess their essays and reading responses. There was no mirror only the idea of an idea of one.
The writing of reflective and personal essays is a distorted and dirty manner, akin to the early practitioners of black metal, I like to think, the precepts or criteria of which lie in the bleak coldness of black metal’s instrumentation and recording quality. In the beginning, the dirtier more distant and more analog-tape sounding the music, the better. Though as black metal has expanded this aspect has been put on the wayside for more produced, operatic qualities. The musicianship, the dexterity of the players, however, is a lasting and necessary criterion. You have to have stamina, no doubt, much as one needs stamina for any kind of writing and self-reflection. It’s one’s specific type of distortion that may begin to matter.
Memory is distorted. The crunch, fuzz, or compression of that distortion relies upon the writer the creator the distorter. Same as in any black metal, or any other genre, metal band. How unique is your cut? What about your sound and tone differentiates you from the hundreds of other bands? Mark Doty, in his essay “Return to Sender: Memory, Betrayal, and Memoir,” writes of his Memphis childhood experience as being, at best, a distortion. He returns to that city after some twenty years, if memory serves me correctly, with his partner en route to some other obligation and seeks to locate his childhood street and home. To his recollection the street name is Ramses Street, a distortion of his childhood resulted from his interest in Ancient Egypt and columns he remembers of his house, though the actual street name was McIlhenny Street. He eventually finds the location of where his house should be through a type of physical, visceral recollection, though it’s been torn down for a large apartment complex. He had stood before his elementary school and his body recalled its way home. Though, maybe his body had nothing to do with it and I’m projecting or imagining that. The point is that the “true” notes of his memory composition are distorted; however in line they are in regards to position and scale, the memory is blurred in regards to tone and register. He has created, or encountered, his own distortion.
Sometimes I think this way: poetry is akin to the making of a watch in all its components; fiction, countries and its constituents, characters who buy and trade, steal, discover, and yearn for those watches and their makers; nonfiction, why the watch is the watch that it thinks it is or wants to be based on its watchness. Afaa Michael Weaver is a factory worker turned poet who writes the personal, the political, and the spiritual. Since I’ve undertaken the necessary, for me, task of writing nonfiction I’ve been reading and returning to Weaver’s Plum Flower Trilogy, which is made up of the collections The Plum Flower Dance, The Government of Nature, and City of Eternal Spring. The trilogy is a poetic study of the self, race relations, and spiritual decay and growth. Weaver’s poems bring light to his experience with abuse and incest, racism, his fifteen years as a factory worker, the death of a son, madness, survival and recovery, the poet becoming the Poet. A significant and recurring image is that of the house: as place, safety, and understanding, perhaps. The poem, “Improbable Mecca,” is set in Weaver’s childhood house, a house that has the ability to record, see, and respond with laughter to the speaker’s recollections. The poem’s final line is one that resounds from the shadows of memory, one that stays with me:
This house stands before me
and in my memory, a monument
perfectly aligned to the stars,
luminescent and sentient,
a life in and of itself and ourselves,
as patient and kind and suffering
as anyone could ever hope a house
to be when chattering children
kick in its lap, men lie in it,
trying to accommodate their future,
when women paint it with song
from the old world of patriarchal law,
when death comes lusting after it
with sledgehammers and stillness—
I come to the front steps
and sit as I did when I was a child
and hope that I can hold to this
through life’s celebrations and calamities,
until I go shooting back
into the darkness of my origin
in some invisible speck
in an indeterminable brick
of this house, this remembering.
I first began to write, as many of us certainly have, in order find solace, some answers to the depression, anger, substance abuse, and disquiet I have lived and live with. I began writing shitty poems in high school, which continued into college and expanded into my pursuit of writing fiction, of which I’d eventually get an MFA. To be honest, I don’t completely understand my process of deciding which genre to pursue when writing. I might sum it up to intuition or whim, although every piece of nonfiction I’ve published has been solicited (lucky asshole). So, I’ve had to pull it all out of my ass with no real understanding of how and why. Reading a lot of nonfiction has certainly helped, has given me a blueprint for entering the house of my nightmares. Fiction and poetry haven’t really worked for me in regards to writing about trauma and memory. This is entirely untrue, though. It’s best if you believe it, too.
I’m continually in the process of thinking about this process. I wanted to write about empathy, boarding schools, Slayer and Sepultura (speed/thrash metal bands), and the affect that sexual and physical abuse has on an entire family when the abusers are extended family that were supposed to be trusted caretakers. And so far my only real entrance into those topics is Weaver’s poem “Against Forgiveness” from The Government of Nature:
In the moonlight the leaves telegraph
the night’s song, the way they brush against
us as we go under the wooden bridge
across from the Jesuit seminary, stepping
in streams, the horses tunnels of living flesh
that we trust. My faith in him is absolute.
We go into the woods where mad things
can turn the horses into monsters that maim
and crush, but he holds life up with hands
named by what nature tells the living.
I know it from the shadows of whispers
in my mind, from the earliest games in a space
a big brother should have had but was taken by him,
my uncle like a chocolate bear in the dark,
bear that I keep close to me, carving
a dark father from questions I do not know,
questions I have not the courage to ask
as one asks a question to step from shadow
and become the light that leads, shines
on the words carved in stone by water.
This process of shining light into the shadows is often dangerous for me. Many a therapist has told me that I’m only re-traumatizing myself and exacerbating bad behaviors. But, as is seen in Weaver’s collection, I’ll live with this trauma, these distorted memories, forever. So, you know, fuck it, I’ll continue to find sense, understanding, and “truth,” however aberrant / distorted the journey.