Today we are pleased to feature poet John-Michael Bloomquist as our Authors Talk series contributor. In this podcast, John-Michael discusses how living in Poland for the past year and a half has “influenced my understanding of poetry in general, as well as given me some perspective on a question…what is the soul of American poetry?”
While John-Michael admits that he “doesn’t think he knows the answer to this question,” or that “the answer is necessarily important,” he affirms that “the question is always worth thinking about.” From his recent experience of reading several works of Polish poetry, he concludes that, “I don’t think I can say what the soul of Polish poetry is, but I can say that it has really affected my soul”, and that “by immersing myself in the poetry and trying to learn some of the language…I have been able to feel more comfortable with the question, ‘What is the soul of American poetry?’ and what it means for me.”
Based on his experiences in Poland, and the high value that Polish society in general places on poetry as the “salt of language,” as William Butler Yeats puts it, John-Michael emphasizes that “Right now, in the age of the Internet…and these politically tumultuous times that we are living in, it is really important to write poetry that speaks to the soul and to the private life that we share and that connects us to our history; poetry that makes us loyal to the truth, not only of ourselves but to the world around us.”He concludes by saying that “I have felt a heightened sense of awareness that [these themes of] morality, loyalty to truth and history… and valuing the private life over the life of the state have brought me a lot of peace and joy.”
You can read two poems by John-Michael: “The Prodigal’s Return,” and “Vajra of the Octopus,” in Issue 19 of Superstition Review.
Editor’s note: This piece contains discussion of sexual assault and rape.
I’m interested in lies. I’m interested in truth. And in memory. How accurate are my memories? Do I trust that what I remember is true?
A few days ago I had coffee with a friend I see only every couple of years. Rebooting our conversation from when we last met, he wanted to know if he correctly remembered the story of the end of my marriage. “You were on a weekend get-away with your husband in San Diego,” he said. “He told you as you were unpacking your suitcases that the marriage was over, he was in love with someone from the office, she was pregnant, they were getting married, and he wanted to keep the house so he could raise his new family there.” Except for the weekend in San Diego and the pregnancy my friend’s memory had served him well.
It’s easy to explain the insertion of these two erroneous details. I had probably told my friend that only a month before our end-of-marriage conversation, my husband and I, and our children, and grandchildren had gone to San Diego for a family vacation. As for the pregnancy, in the fractured aftermath of learning that the life I knew was over, I concocted a scenario for my own survival. My husband didn’t want to end our marriage, but he was in a tough spot. Yes, he’d slept with her. Once. Maybe twice. She was on the pill, she’d told him, but that was a lie. Now she was pregnant. Or said she was. She wanted the baby, but her parents would be devastated that she was unmarried. They’d been saving and planning for her wedding since the day she was born. After much angst, my husband promised her that he’d leave me. They announced their engagement to her parents, and then she had a “miscarriage.” My husband had been duped, but he didn’t know it.
This tale helped me get out of bed in the morning. It was the story I told myself in the dark, alone. But as far as I recall, I hadn’t shared it with anyone. Then again, where did my friend come up with the idea of the pregnancy? Had I recounted my byzantine fake pregnancy, fake miscarriage theory to him? Was I so unhinged that I uttered it aloud? Maybe. And maybe, in the course of my ramblings, my friend was paying more attention to how I was negotiating the wreckage of my life than to the parsing of theory and fact. Regardless, the heart of the story as my friend remembered it was true.
Forty-two years ago I was raped by a business associate. I don’t remember his last name. I don’t remember if it happened in Indianapolis or South Bend. A couple of years earlier an acquaintance attacked me and nearly strangled me. I don’t remember his last name either. In fact, I don’t even remember his first name. What I remember is how swiftly he pinned me to the front seat of my car. What I remember is the pressure of his thumbs against my throat.
I write both nonfiction and fiction, and sometimes when there are details I don’t recall while writing an essay or memoir, I ask myself if it might be better to use my idea as a jumping off point for a short story. How can I write the piece as nonfiction when there are so many things I don’t remember? How do I flesh out the missing pieces of a true story? Is it even necessary to do that?
Since watching the Senate testimony of Christine Blasey Ford, I feel stronger than ever that the bones of a personal essay can stand on their own, sans padding. Those exposed bones, like a skeleton hanging from a porch on Halloween night, are more dramatic without additional detail. The bareness delivers commonality. My skeleton, in so many ways, looks just like yours.
There’s power in forgetting. Sometimes forgetting saves us. What we don’t remember is what we want to forget. The details that stay with us, in combination with the details that lay submerged beyond the access of memory, combine to render a story woven with complexity. There’s no need to embellish or invent. There’s a whole story lodged in our bones. Negative space is part of the picture. The erasure wrought by trauma tells its own part of the story. Just as sensory detail can engage the reader, the writer can draw the reader into the emptiness. I cannot recall a single feature of my attacker’s face. I can’t see his eyes, or whether or not he had a mustache, or freckles, or any type of a scar. He was quite pale, I think, or maybe just seemed so there on the dark street where he’d offered to walk me to my car.
The emptiness unites writer and reader. We struggle together to make out that pale face in the dark car. You are with me, clawing back your own memories just as I am with Dr. Basey Ford, running down the stairs and out the door of a house on a street with no name—a street that led us back home without knowing how we got there. Our memories can fail us. That failure is part of the story.
Today we have some very exciting news to share about past contributor Roxane Gay. Roxane was recently featured in an interview with Trevor Noah on “The Daily Show.” In the interview, Roxane speaks of her newest book Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body. The interview is powerfully honest and shows her experience with obesity in the modern world.
You can read our interview with Roxane in issue 13 of Superstition Reviewhere.
Today we are pleased to feature author Denise Emanuel Clemen as our Authors Talk series contributor. In her podcast, Denise discusses memoir and personal essay in this current era of “alternative facts.” Specifically, she talks about this in the context of “The Marriage Essay,” published in Issue 18.
Denise notes the difference between “truth” and “Truth,” and she reveals that memoir and personal essay must have both. She also discusses how “memoir writers are obligated to the facts, the unenhanced, unembellished facts,” though they do still have access to imagery, metaphor and reportage (like writers of fiction and poetry).
She ends her podcast by explaining how she hopes that readers will be “caught and lovingly held in the safety net of true stories,” as she is when she writes them.
“All of my stories are true, but this one really happened.”
I’ve been spending a fair amount of time in the dementia ward of late. To get to where I’m going, I pass through the large common room, where some two dozen men and women sit at long tables, all alone, every single one of them, many slumped over, foreheads nearly grazing the formica. The sight makes me marvel at humans’ capacity to curve inward, forming thereby something infinite.
High up on the wall, images flicker. Something mid-century is playing on mute, starring a woman with broad shoulders and marcelled hair who is bantering, apparently, with some square-jawed man of few words. They’re in a dim, cramped office, playing at being reporters, probably, or maybe he’s a hard-boiled private investigator and she’s his glamorous, distraught client. They wave their cigarettes around. It is a scene—smoking indoors, for heaven’s sake—that is now the purest fiction.
In the room, a man points at me and says, “Hey, look, a muchacha!”
“A girl!” he then explains, though no one is paying attention. (I’m past 50, but if a man likes muchachas, he will see them everywhere.)
In the corner, a woman, her head crowned with white braids, calls out over and over, “Pomogeetye!” which is Russian for “Help!”
My knowledge of languages, which got me hired as a translator at a large international organization, is useful in this place, too. Each time I hear the woman with the braided crown—which is often, because she’s always calling out, every single time I come here, her powers of speech worn down to this nub of a single word that succinctly expresses all she has left to say—I think that I should go over and address her in her language, which I also speak, briefly breaking her isolation, or joining her in it. I see no sign that there is anyone else on the ward, resident, staff or visitor, who could do that.
I think now of a character in Un roman russe by Emmanuel Carrère. (In the English edition, three words have been added at the beginning of the title for some reason, expanding it to My Life is a Russian Novel.) The story is a true one, so the character is a person as well as a character, but the French are nonchalant about the non/fiction distinction, and so in France, Carrère is a novelist.
I don’t have the book at hand, and it’s been a while, so I’ll just recount it as I recall it. Feel free to fact-check, should the urge strike.
As World War II is coming to a close, a Hungarian prisoner of war washes up in a remote Soviet town. Because he speaks a language that no one in the vicinity can identify, let alone understand, and the townspeople conclude, not unreasonably, that he’s speaking gibberish, it follows that he ends up in an insane asylum. Where he remains for about half a century.
And maybe he actually is a touch insane, because during all of those decades surrounded by the Russian language, completely immersed, he learns not one single word, not one single expression—not ‘hello,’ not ‘thank you’ and not even ‘fuck your mother.’
I mention ‘fuck your mother’ because it’s nearly as frequent—in Russian, I mean—as ‘hello’ and ‘thank you,’ especially in god-forsaken provincial towns soaked in vodka and despair. You will say that this cannot be true, that no Chekhov character ever says “fuck your mother,” no matter how much despair is swirling about, but the reason for this omission should be blindingly clear: Chekhov wrote fiction.
At last the error somehow emerges, and our Magyar protagonist, no longer a prisoner of war, but of something else, is returned to what remains of his family, in Buda, or Pest, or perhaps further afield. Fanfare greets the prodigal son. Through an interpreter, an official Russian delegation that has traveled to Hungary to attend the welcome-home event proffers apologies for the lost decades.
The mayor gives a speech—in Hungarian, of course, which everyone there understands, not counting the Russians. It’s remarkable what a change of scene will do; restored to his native surroundings, the man is no longer a lunatic.
But if reading good books is supposed to make you a bigger, better person, then in my case it has failed; in the dementia ward, I do not cast off my disguise as a monolingual person—I do not step forward to speak Russian. If I were to approach the pomogeetye lady and address a few Russian words to her, she would surely cling to me and make impossible demands—I’ve experienced this with Russians who are not in dementia wards—taking me away from my mother, who I have come to see.
Next, I pick my way through the jetsam piled up near the far end of the hall: a bed frame, a scale with a platform for weighing the wheelchair-bound, a stack of walkers, a few chairs, and I see now that there is a wheelchair stranded amidst the debris, and in it, a woman, who must have miscalculated the width of passage she needed to get through.
With some words intended to soothe, I pry her loose, turn her chair around and set her on another path I think should satisfy her equally well.
“Bastard!” she howls after me.
But I’m leaving the hallway now, and entering my mother’s room. Velcro screeches as I pull away the cloth barrier stretched across the doorframe. Placed there by the staff, the barrier has a big red stop sign on it, to deter those residents who have a tendency to wander.
The woman I freed from the debris is still cursing as I step inside.
I used to own a tattered paperback by Elie Wiesel called Legends of Our Time. Held together with a rubber band, it continually shed small scraps. The book had come to me in that state, I don’t remember how. When it became too dilapidated to keep, I relegated it to recycling, saving a single page from the introduction, a page that I sensed I would someday need.
On that page, which I keep attached to the refrigerator with a magnet, Wiesel refers to an old rabbi he’d known in the little Romanian town where they both lived, a town that was wiped off the map during World War II. Decades after the war, Wiesel, a New Yorker now, calls on the rabbi, who is ensconced in Tel Aviv. Nearly as old as time, and a man of God to boot, he is of course served up as some kind of sage.
Wiesel tells the old man that he’s become a writer.
“Is that all?” says the rabbi in reproachful disbelief.
Wiesel adds that he writes stories, true ones.
The rebbe asks, “About people you knew?”
Yes, about people he might have known.
“About things that happened?”
Yes, about things that happened or could have happened.
“But they did not?” presses the rebbe.
No, says Wiesel, not all of them did. In fact, some were invented from almost the beginning to almost the end.
“That means you’re writing lies!” says the rebbe.
Things aren’t so simple, says Wiesel. Some events do take place but are not true; others are true—although they never occurred.
She’s in palliative care, which is like hospice for people who aren’t dying yet. ‘Palliative care’ means they don’t make her do anything she doesn’t want to, so she gets to spend most of her time in her room, in bed, instead of at one of the formica tables by the TV, and when she’s not up to the ordeal of being put into clothes, she passes the day in a hospital gown.
She can no longer walk, or even stand. She has to be lifted into bed from the wheelchair and back again, and she sleeps almost all the time. She regularly forgets what a fork is for and that food is meant to be swallowed.
On her nightstand are a few books I brought in when she landed here, months ago: a volume of Thackeray, pages uncut, from the matched set she kept on top of her wardrobe, a spy novel about the French Resistance and a book on modern dance, with a chapter about a choreographer, largely forgotten now, who was her teacher and friend. She doesn’t dip into the books at all.
The drawer of the nightstand is crammed with chocolate—bags, boxes and bars. The chocolates get unwrapped and popped into her mouth by whoever happens to be at her bedside at any given time.
The large window frames a stunning view of the Hudson and, on the other side, the Palisades, but she’s largely unaware. She has some vision left, but she never turns to the window—she’s always been averse to the sunlight—and she’s probably lost some ability to process shapes and colors into recognizable objects and landscapes.
In fact, when I put my face close to hers, smack in the middle of what ought to be her field of vision, I’m never sure she knows it’s me. It’s my voice she responds to, and my name.
“Hello, Ma! It’s Laura.”
Her face softens. A smile dawns.
“Hi there, baby girl,” she says to me.
Wiesel wrote something we call fiction, and he called it true. I write things that I remember, have seen or lived—I think. I’m not making it up, but I cannot swear that it all happened.
From opposite sides of the divide, Wiesel and I agree: stories live according to their own logic. They are ungovernable and uncategorizable, like schools of fish that sometimes unwittingly straddle international borders as they swim about, swishing their tails to and fro—to whom do they belong, those tranquil creatures of the sea? Turgid international treaties have been negotiated in the attempt to pin this down. Stories are also this way: blithely unaware, as they navigate the depths, of transgressing the boundaries that humans draw.
I am not a reporter, and I am not a chronicler, and I am not beholden to the facts, which are merely raw materials in a random heap. I am beholden to story, which is sculpted, intentional. I fashion aesthetic objects from found materials, not reports that say: here is what happened. In fact, the nature of what I write may depend on not being fact-checked. It may depend, to an extent, on the vagaries of memory, on misremembrance. The refractions of memory are part of the story.
While I do not think that my life story holds exceptional interest, I am more drawn to the lived than to the made up; more drawn to observing and shaping than to imagining and concocting; and more drawn to speaking in an authentic first person voice than in an imagined third that I myself don’t really believe.
On the one hand, an opera production with ruffled costumes, powdered wigs, abundant avoirdupois, scrims sliding on tracks at the flip of a switch, smoke machines, choruses, a corps de ballet, a pit orchestra and a plot that involves interlocking love triangles, multiple suicide pacts, cross-dressing, pilfered letters, goblets of poison and a masquerade ball followed by a duel at midnight. On the other hand, a lone chanteuse in a small circle of light surrounded by a larger circle of darkness, confiding ballads of heartbreak to a rapt room.
Oh, those made-up characters with lines of dialogue distributed among them and placed in their mouths, like coins under the tongues of dead Greeks, to pay their passage to the far shore; the creaking scenery and mechanisms of plot; the godlike omniscient third, godlike, alas, only within the confines of a single, small story—I just cannot work with these materials any more. As the world skids further and further off into the unbelievable, they are less and less convincing.
She never, ever talked about her life before motherhood. When I was a child, my attempts to find out about her past were efficiently shut down. I knew her as morose yet playful, and slashingly witty, so that on her lips, bile often blurred into hilarity, so long as it was not discharged in my direction. And then sometimes she was more slashing than witty (‘gasbag’ her preferred epithet for the longwinded professors who dominated my parents’ dinner parties).
She was a rigorous housekeeper, upholder of etiquette and reader of Virginia Woolf, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Nabokov, Mrs. Gaskell and both Trollopes, especially Frances. She never wore makeup, only lipstick (and that on rare occasions), but she was the Imelda Marcos of sweaters. An aficionado of the afternoon nap, upon rising she would quaff a tumbler of something grapey sloshed from a jug, then tap dance nimbly about the kitchen in little canvas shoes, a shirtwaist and a striped butcher’s apron—she had studied under Martha Graham, that I had gleaned, and she was a mean dancer, no matter the style—accompanied by the drone of Huntley and Brinkley and the sizzle of onions on the stove, crooning a ditty of her own invention—“Twinkletoes,” she called it.
Of her previous life I knew only the barest outlines. Now, though, she lives more in that past, gets lost in it, stuck amidst the clutter at the far end of the hall.
She often asks now about people long dead. Where is my mother? she demands. Why can’t I talk to her? she wants to know, her voice trembling slightly.
I remind her that my maternal grandmother—who we always thought she didn’t particularly care for, so why is she calling for her now?—departed this world in 1970.
“Of course!” She slaps her forehead. “I get mixed up about who’s alive and who’s dead.”
Then, “And what about my sisters? Are they alive?”
Dead, I tell her sadly.
“They died in a car accident, didn’t they?”
They died in bed, ten years apart.
She hesitates. But her need to know is greater than her embarrassment.
“And … what year is it now?”
As I get her unstuck and set her on another path, I see that barriers have fallen; I wander into rooms previously closed to me. I ask questions. It is my first opportunity to do so. Also, my last.
On this particular day, we’re talking about my Aunt Bea and her boyfriend Ed, who were an item in high school, during the Great Depression. (Bea was the oldest of the three sisters, my mother the youngest by many years, and, for a long, long time now, the only one still alive.)
“He was called Ed, but his real name was Isidore,” recalls my mother. “I mean, you can give your child a Jewish name, but does it have to be that Jewish?”
“The whole family loved Ed; he charmed us all. And, oh! He and his brothers were so handsome, they could all have gone straight to Hollywood.”
“Why did Aunt Bea break up with him?”
She looks at me in astonishment. This all happened decades before I was born, but it’s clear what she’s thinking: you mean you don’t know?
“Oh, she dumped him when she met Paul.” That would be my Uncle Paul, whom Aunt Bea later married.
“And then she went back and forth between them for a while. Whenever she was on the outs with Paul, she’d take up with Ed again, and then she’d go back to Paul. She used poor Ed terribly. Oh, the sweet young men who got mixed up with my sister Bea!”
Mirth bursts out of her again.
“Ed eventually married Viola, who was the director of a puppet theater.”
I’m trying to memorize every word, but she’s going very fast. I can’t retain it all.
“And then, years later, after Ed and Viola split, Ed got pally with Esther…”
Esther was the middle sister, glamorous yet earthy, a divorcée when that was still a pretty louche thing to be. Her I do remember—this was long, long ago—waving a cigarette around: outdoors, indoors, in bed, at all hours, in the shower, her back to the spray as she reached around the curtain to where an ashtray teetered on the edge of the sink.
“Ed used to drop by and visit Esther sometimes, in her apartment. Remember that view of Lake Michigan from the balcony?”
I do remember, very well. I used to strap on my roller skates, tighten them with the key, skate to the end of the block, then let the wind off the lake push me back up the street to where the liveried doorman stood, smiling benevolently.
But I’m trying not to breathe or make a sound. Keep going, Ma, I think. Just keep going.
“And one day, Ed and Esther fell into bed!”
My mother, talking about sex? About someone she was close to, having sex? Talking about it in a light-hearted tone? What is happening in the world?
“Afterward,” she presses forward, and it occurs to me that she’s racing to entrust the story to me before she loses it forever, “Ed came stumbling out of the bedroom, tucking in his shirttails and exclaiming, ‘I fell in love with the wrong sister!’”
I can see Ed, whom I never actually met, gorgeous in a fortyish way. So clearly do I see Ed, in fact, that at first I think my mother must have been sitting right there in Esther’s living room when he emerged from the bedroom, bowled over by midlife sexual revelation. Otherwise, how could she tell it so vividly?
Eventually, I will realize that no, she’s simply repeating the story as she heard it from Esther. Esther would never have seduced her older sister’s old boyfriend, or anyone else, with her younger sister, or anyone else, sitting in the next room. Of course not. But she wasn’t above bragging about taking a man to bed and making his toes curl with delight, especially if said man was her big sister’s old flame and the audience for her story was her baby sister, who was by then, I’m guessing, a grown-up, married lady.
I rush home to broadcast the tale of Ed and Esther. Family and close friends are delighted. My father claims a vague memory of it, but no one else in the family has ever heard the story.
To think that this might have been lost. As so much is.
Once upon a time, before Oprah, recall, nobody got all worked up about the whole fact/fiction distinction—except maybe ancient, very literal-minded rabbis.
Take Marcel Proust, a novelist who named his first-person narrator Marcel and based the eponymous Swann on an actual art connoisseur and collector, the scion of a Jewish merchant dynasty with branches in Paris, Vienna and Odessa.
Or novelist Thomas Wolfe, largely forgotten now, except as a character in a movie starring a fearsomely miscast Nicole Kidman as his zaftig, dark-haired mistress. Wolfe changed all the names, but still he couldn’t go home again, because the folks back home were personally acquainted with and recognized the characters who peopled his books, each and every one: the alcoholic doctor; the grasping woman speculating in real estate; her semi-estranged husband the semi-crazed stonecutter, also alcoholic; the stonecutter’s stone angel; the idlers at the soda fountain; the part-time prostitutes of Niggertown, as the wrong side of the tracks was then known.
Decades ago, I knew a woman who was from the same town as Wolfe. When Look Homeward, Angel came out, she told me, her parents penciled in the real names in the margins of their copy. Then someone borrowed the book and didn’t return it, so you can add that to the list of things that never made it home again.
Anyone who knows me (and many who do not) can identify my writing as sculpted from the unadulterated raw stuff of my biography, but the end product is actually more like that game Three Truths and a Lie: most of it’s true, I mean, ‘true’ as in ‘happened’ (pace Wiesel), but there’s some other stuff that creeps in, and after a while, I’m not always sure which is which.
I don’t quite know how that other stuff gets in, because it occurs in the white heat of creation, and little of what goes on in there survives in conscious memory. I start describing, in great detail, something I don’t remember all that well, and I go on, and on, losing track of time, growing short of breath—I get whipped up, the scene becomes overlaid with more and more detail that surges up from god knows where, and this is some of the best writing that I do.
That said, the section above, about the dementia ward, contains not a grain of the invented. It’s all real. Oh, except that the muchacha incident and the woman getting caught in the debris in her wheelchair did not in fact happen on the same day—I combined them, for maximum narrative density. Does that minor change make it fiction? Or is it still nonfiction, but a kind of unethical nonfiction?
It’s a mosaic; it’s a medley; it’s a mash-up.
I don’t worry too much. It’s writing; it’s a story, not reportage; not news, fake or otherwise. It’s mine; I wrote it; call it what you like, as long as reading it lifts you, however briefly, above the quotidian—or plunges you into it more deeply.
(Filmmaker Chantal Ackerman, who made both documentaries and feature films and believed that each genre contains elements of the other, said, “Once you frame the shot, it’s fiction.” This from a documentary about her work.)
The part about the pomogeetye lady is real, though, because that happens every single time. It happened on the muchacha day, and it happened on the wheelchair-getting-stuck day, and it happens on every other day as well. But lots of other things happened on all of those days, some that I cut or omitted, and many that simply washed through the memory sieve, floated downstream into increasingly murky waters and came gently to rest in the silt.
The following week, my mission is to find out more.
“Mom, remember that story you told me about Ed? In Esther’s apartment?”
I remind her about Isidore, known as Ed; his movie-star handsome brothers; Viola and the puppet theatre; Esther; the view of the lake; Ed stumbling out of the bedroom tucking in his shirt.
She looks at me blankly.
There’s a pause. Then, she stretches luxuriously as after a long nap and says, “I really must pull myself together one of these days and get over to the library.” It’s six months since she was last off the ward, one halcyon October afternoon when she allowed me to wheel her down to the river’s edge.
Why the library, why now?
“I need to lay my hands on a copy of Tales from Shakespeare, by Charles Lamb,” she says.
“I’ve been trying and trying,” she says with a weary air, “to remember the story lines of Two Gentlemen of Verona and The Merry Wives of Windsor. Can you tell me what happens in those plays?”
I regard her blankly.
Romeo and Juliet I could recount, maybe. Hamlet, in a pinch. But there would definitely be some gaps.
Today we are pleased to feature author Sherril Jaffe as our Authors Talk series contributor. Sherril discusses her opinions on art and its relationship to character. In particular, she explains the multifaceted purpose of art and how it is interested in the truth, which is currently under assault.
She also discusses the nature of the short story as an art form, referring to her piece in Issue 18, “During the Republican Convention.” She reveals that short stories are powerful because they can break all the rules, and she emphasizes that “a short story should crack something open in us.”
In December 2002, a justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was castigated by his colleagues for delivering a legal opinion in quatrains.*
The case involved a woman who sought damages from her estranged, much older fiancé because he had lied to her about the nature of her engagement ring (not to mention its value). The majority of the court denied her claim, declaring that she, given the difference in their ages, had relied foolishly on his assurances.
But the poetic justice dissented. And thus sangeth:
A groom must expect matrimonial pandemonium
When his spouse finds he’s given her cubic zirconium.
Given their history and Pygmalion relation
I find her reliance was with justification.
One of the justice’s colleagues observed that “every jurist has the right to express him or herself in a manner the jurist deems appropriate,” but he was concerned about “the perception that litigants and the public at large might form when an opinion of the court is reduced to rhyme.”
Reduced to rhyme.
Perhaps the offending justice is merely a bad poet (though he defended his work, accurately, I think, by declaring: “You have an obligation to be right, but you have no obligation to be dull.”)
His critics, however, seem to be suggesting that the musical properties of verse are insufficiently serious for the task at hand; and that the characteristic virtue of poetry—to condense and transmute whatever it wishes into memorable, indestructible language—somehow harms the facts, stripping them of the gravitas appropriate, in this instance, to an instrument of law.
Yet there is a venerable legacy of serious nonfiction in verse. For instance, Lucretius in his treatise On the Nature of Things, from the first century B.C., presents in hexameters a full-scale exposition of the Greek Philosopher Epicurus and the atomic theory of Democritus. There is also Ovid’s satirical but no less serious handbook of seduction, The Art of Love.
So maybe poetry, or even merely verse, is not the problem here. Maybe the justice’s quatrains—his creative nonfiction, if you will—are unsuitably creative because they employ the wrong poetic techniques. If he had written his dissent in a less galloping meter or even in verse libre, if he had chosen fewer polysyllabic rhymes, or had used slant rhymes, or had dispensed with rhyme altogether, perhaps his colleagues, and the guffawing public they imagine, would not think his verse a diminishment.
Poetry, in its official get-up, is a matter of lines and line breaks, of course, and the interplay of these with sentences draped down the page, through the stanzas, across the pauses. It’s a spectacular confinement, and at its best, a delicious, necessary unsettling of the language.
But we also know that poetry appears in prose, as prose, perhaps as often as it appears in verse, as verse. It’s something other than just lines. So we might assert, for the sake of argument, that verse is to poetry as nonfiction is to creative nonfiction.
Nonfiction prides itself on trafficking in facts. But many poets assert that poems should be factually accurate, even when fictive. So what happens to the status of a fact once it is introduced into a poem? Is there such a thing as a poetic fact? If there is, can it be introduced into nonfiction? How is its status changed by doing so? And how does it alter the status of nonfiction?
Poetic writing consorts with a lyric consciousness, of course, and with the metaphoric—saying one thing by saying another, saying one thing in terms of another but in a more controlled and sharpened way than the metaphoric slip-slop of ordinary speech. A poetic fact—not a fact made poetic—embodies more than one kind of perception. It registers more than one kind of measurement. And it inspires in us a devoted restlessness among those perceptions and measurements, because it also welcomes the possibility of discovery at its edges. It presents—and verges on presenting something more.
Let me give just one example of a poetic fact, though they abound, of course—a line from “Chimes” by the wonderful poet Robert Dana:
Every day I live I live forever.
The statement is true, undeniably factual in several ways but not like My heart beats sixty times a minute now.
Both lines might be verse, since they both scan, but only the first is poetic, or poetry.
We might wonder how, then, a poet would rewrite the versifying justice’s opinion in order to include poetic fact and whether the law would still be the law if that were to happen. We nod yes when Ezra Pound says poetry is news that stays news. But if the newspaper were poetry, we certainly wouldn’t need a daily edition. (And can you imagine the 11 o’clock news as a poetry reading?)
Consider now Norman Maclean’s masterpiece Young Men and Fire. It is a book of nonfiction fact, relating the story of the death of a dozen smokejumpers—and the unlikely survival of three others—in a forest fire blow-up at Mann Gulch, Montana, in 1949. Maclean meticulously replays, rethinks, re-imagines and researches the last thirty minutes of the doomed men’s lives—setting this quest for comprehension against the backdrop of what was known about fire at the time of the disaster and what has been learned in the 38 years afterward. The book brims with historical documentation and scientific data about fire fighting, about burn rates and the effects of wind; it contains maps and photographs, diagrams, transcripts and mathematical equations; and it also draws on his and others’ intimate knowledge of the local landscape, gleaned from lifetimes spent in the Montana woods.
As he writes: “In a modern tragedy you have to look out for the little details rather than big flaws.”
The word “tragedy” should cue us here. Maclean is also drawing on a lifetime of teaching Shakespeare and the Romantic poets, and this is where the poetry comes in. His book is haunted by the search for compassion and understanding about the earth and our place on it. While acting as a factual detective, Maclean is also confronting the problem of identity, which, even as he faces old age and his own mortality, remains unsolved for him—unsolvable for us all.
It is probably not surprising, then, that the book was left unfinished at his death, though it is, most assuredly, complete.
Maclean’s task lay beyond the power of nonfiction facts alone, so he turned to poetic facts, of which the book contains many. Consider, for instance, this passage from the concluding pages, which illustrates how he extends nonfiction fact with poetic fact. About the doomed men running up the steep mountainside from the fire that will consume them, he writes:
The evidence, then, is that at the very end beyond thought and beyond fear and beyond even self-compassion and divine bewilderment there remains some firm intention to continue doing forever and ever what we last hoped to do on earth. By this final act they had come about as close as body and spirit can to establishing a unity of themselves with earth, fire, and perhaps the sky.
This is as far as we are able to accompany them. When the fire struck their bodies, it blew their watches away. The two hands of a recovered watch had melted together at about four minutes to six. For them, that may be taken as the end of time.
If this were not enough, a few sentences later, Maclean writes, in what is the concluding passage of the book:
I, an old man, have written this fire report. Among other things, it was important to me, as an exercise for old age, to enlarge my knowledge and spirit so I could accompany young men whose lives I might have lived on their way to death. I have climbed where they climbed, and in my time I have fought fire and inquired into its nature. In addition, I have lived to get a better understanding of myself and those close to me, many of them now dead. Perhaps it is not odd, at the end of this tragedy where nothing much was left of the elite who came from the sky but courage struggling for oxygen, that I have often found myself thinking of my wife on her brave and lonely way to death.
It is a thematic coda, of course, but at the very end of it something wholly unexpected flares up. Maclean has mentioned his wife only once before, briefly, telling us of her death from lung cancer, and that there is a valley near Mann Gulch named for her. (Another place where fire can make its strange appearance.)
These few details become supreme poetic facts because they allow the nonfiction facts about the nature of fire—and the facts about the smokejumpers’ deaths, the strange solitude of their deaths—to also stand metaphorically for the obscure solitude of Maclean’s grief at his wife’s lonely death. These poetic facts revise our understanding of the book by suddenly multiplying the dimensions of its assumed subject. The nonfiction book of nonfiction facts is called Young Men and Fire. But the poem it also becomes by virtue of that final passage could be called Old Man and Ashes.
Thus, we might assert that creative nonfiction—if we can now think of it as a form of poetry—is the most impure, and thus capacious, of poetic forms because it allows the broadest range of rhythms and “content.” It honors the nonfiction fact, reveres and seeks the clarity of definition that nonfiction fact aspires to, but, like Maclean’s fire, it knows and submits to the earthly reality that, in a moment, a fact of that sort can become quite something else.
Usually I write novels, not short ones either. I’ve been committing novels half my life. (I write “committing” because sometimes my novels feel like crimes: of self-indulgence, because what they earn doesn’t support my family; of hubris, because they create complex worlds that live on their own and surely piss off the gods, if there are gods).
What I’ve learned in writing is that a novel’s story-world, and the characters that live in it, have no respect for the world I live in. Of course I start off wanting, even needing to put in people and places I know, but the places and people in novel X have their own logistics, needs, and requirements; they have discrete hopes and angers and systems of measurement; and inevitably these take over. I have written about Africa, and France, and my native Cape Cod (Mass.,) and while I know well the places I describe, the characters live their way and rejigger their environments to match.
If you try to find your way to the villages in the novels I’ve written about the Cape, for example, you will get lost. Guaranteed. The characters insisted on a street in Hyannis, a bar in Chatham, a patch of woods in Wellfleet, a smell from a house in Cotuit. And while they might have started off as a fisherman I worked for, a woman I lived with, they soon chose their own paths, and became someone significantly different.
Of late, however, I’ve been writing short-short fiction, a lot of it based on things that happened in my real life. The stories are so short that the characters come roaring onto the page as themselves, the original Maddy, Pedro, Kurt, in all their ballgowns or sweatclothes, their valiance or lazy cowardice.
This raises issues. Some of the stories involve people who don’t behave well. Some of them are family members. They are racked by obsession or drink, they make fools of themselves over women (or men). They don’t have time to alter the narrative, or dress themselves as other than who they are in real life. And if the people involved read the story, they will recognize themselves, and be hurt.
Is it worth hurting someone in the interests of literature? On some level, I believe it is, or should be. When I think of what a writer is supposed to do, I always remember Tony Montana’s line from Scarface: “Me, I always tell the truth–even when I lie.” In fiction as in non-fiction, a good writer will always paint a perspective of how the world truly works and how people function. That perspective illuminates, explains, and most importantly of all, makes us feel the impact of those mechanics. The writer will paint this way no matter what the cost.
If that means putting someone real in the cast of characters, and person “A” is hurt by his inclusion, “A” should know that his pride or trust have been violated in the interests of a higher truth, a finer Art than people normally practice in daily life.
And, yet–I don’t buy it.
I suppose, if one of my short but hurtful pieces could provably, immediately save the lives of people dying of thirst in Somalia, one could make a case that the ends justified the means. But justifying deliberate harm for whatever reason is always a risky argument because such arguments will inevitably be turned around to justify goals that are not cut and dried.
And it’s more likely that the sky will turn green or that Fox News will report objectively than that my writing should save the life of anyone. Bring insight, maybe. Cause pleasure, I hope. But save lives–nope.
In those circumstances, I can only say that if I have to make the decision, I’ll opt not to hurt. Or at least, I’ll fudge the names and identities of characters to the point where they can’t be recognized. Is that a cheap compromise? Maybe. But it’s what I do.
I don’t think Tony Montana uttered words to illustrate this position, so I’ll refer instead to the artist Alberto Giacometti, who once said, “In a fire, between a Rembrandt and a cat, I would choose the cat.” Art, and writing, should value life above all else. And they should demonize hurt, not cause it.
There is a primal urge in our muscles, housed in ligaments, tendons, cells. For a wrapper around us: the shell of an egg, nest, hut. To sit reading by a fire in a house with sturdy walls: one remembers the pleasure.
I want to advocate for a dedicated space—for each of you, each of us, as writers—and if possible a writing space separate from your living space. As I write the sentence I lament that it took me years to know I needed such a space and then years to have the means to build one. Mine is small enough a white pine hides it from view, and yet it’s ample. How much does a writer need?
A desk, a chair, a lamp, heat, a ceiling fan for when it’s too hot. A shelf for books. A notebook, a writing implement. Windows, with some that open wide.
What shall it be called? I reject shack, but wish that the word studio had fewer syllables. I prefer the word hut. A friend recommended a longer title, suggesting cursive words burned into a plaque I nail up: “Pavilion for the Gathering of Harmonious Intent.” I resisted that, too. I refuse a sign, a name. I have a knocker in the shape of a trowel next to the door. “Please don’t knock unless it’s an emergency.” This is what I’ve told my husband.
I step outside, hiking up on my shoulder a bookbag with notebook and binoculars; in my other hand a thermos of coffee, a cup. Once I step into my writing hut, I breathe new air. I look out on a ravine behind our house, a creek, deciduous trees. All is forgotten: teaching schedule, chores, dinner menu, dentist appointment. I am riding the crest of a wave, alone. It’s thrilling. It’s where I need to be.
Depending on your writing methods, you can leave technology behind—though wireless does extend out this far. I write longhand in a notebook, ones I buy in bulk quantities. I buy the same ones: lined, thick paper, with a colorful front and back and an elastic closure. I write with a pen. Eventually I will put the poem on my computer (in the house), print it out, work on revision (on paper), and repeat the process. But I love writing by hand. It slows the words down for me; there is time to think, reflect, stop and start again. Recursive, reflective, slow. It is “slow food,” this writing. Here’s a pat of butter sliding across the page, or a piece of ice melting, moving. Mixed metaphors. I think of Robert Frost’s words, “Like a piece of ice on a hot stove a poem must ride on its own melting.”
One also leaves behind the whole writing profession, its worries, publishing, frets, envies, niggling doubts. Here one is up against writing itself, by itself. One grapples, struggles. The opponent? Oneself. There is no other here. Get it right; tell the truth, give the right, specific detail.
I like it quiet, like it with the windows open to birdsong, and I like it with music. Either way, find your space. Have it reflect the unique self that is you, and relish it.
Writing as practice, the hand caressing the page, the wet ink lapping at the dry paper. Each poem is a walk, a journey, and the mind wants to rove. Let us go a’maying, let us venture out.
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