The assemblage of the following thirteen texts, poems, and videos from contributors Kathleen Rooney, Elisa Gabbert, Tyler Mills, Liz Countryman, Kara Candito, Ashley David, Elizabeth Hildreth, Mary Biddinger, Brittany Cavallaro, myself, Jill Magi, and Nancy Reddy, was inspired by Paul Gauguin’s painting in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts entitled “D’ou Venons Nous/Que Sommes Nous/Ou Allons Nous” (“Where Do We Come From/ What Are We/ Where Are We Going?”), and also by Brigitte Schuster’s photo-documentary project objet d’ailleurs. In this project, Brigitte, a graphic designer specializing in typography and type design, asks émigrés about objects that recall them to their past or places of origin, and photographs the “subtle beyond” of what Roland Barthes calls, in Camera Lucida, the punctum.
Taking the Faulknerian idea that we live with our pasts in the present (“The past is never dead. It’s not even past”) as our starting point, the poets in this essay question, elliptically, the American rhetoric of self-invention in light of the forces (genealogical and narrative) that challenge our national amnesia toward “origins” and subsequent ahistoricity.
Two polarizing movements exist in contemporary culture today: the embrace of subject positions such as race, gender, and ethnicity as a means of self-definition as a response to multiculturalism, and the rejection of said subject positions under the neoliberal banner of no subject position really mattering except class. This project is a creative response to both extremes, and a quiet act of resistance to the ideological framing (and easy dispersal) of “history” writ large, for while we can choose the degree to which our self-concepts or self-presentation to the world are shaped by race, gender, and ethnicity, and the degree to which we literalize or take creative liberties with our ancestry or place(s) of origin, ultimately the word “genealogy” implies that we all have stories of origin: it remains our choice whether to see them as stories, myths, or incontrovertible “facts.”
Enjoy this ever-brightening window into the vast and miniature rooms of the ever-receding, and ever-present, past.
That is the NSN—the National Stock Number—of the Federal Supply Service “Memoranda” book issued to my dad, one of many he used over the course of his 26 years of service, first in the United States Air Force Reserves and then in the U.S. Army Reserves. Like my dad, I always like to have a notebook handy, and the one I happen to have at hand now is this one, which used to belong to him. He gave it to me on January 29, 2012 when I visited him and my mom at their home in the Chicago suburbs. Much to his—and my entire family’s—relief, Dad had retired from the Army in June of 2011, and that afternoon, a little over half a year later, he was cleaning out his office/gunroom in the basement. He had spent his last few years in the Army teaching classes—on war tactics and military history, among other subjects—and because I too work as a teacher, he was offering me supplies that he thought I could use: highlighters, binders, Post-it notes, sticky tabs.
He probably doesn’t know it, but this notebook is the best of all the items he gave me that day, maybe one of the best objects he’s ever given me, because he had used the notebook himself. On the white interior of the green cover, his handwriting says, in blue-black ink:
Aug 2006 at Ft. Dix
“CGSC” stands for “Command and General Staff College,” and my dad had filled in the first two pages of the notebook with jotted thoughts, all of which strike me with almost physical force as improbably touching. I won’t tell you what they are, or at least not most of them, because I want to keep them just for him and for me. But one of the last fragments at the bottom of the second page is the name of a fellow soldier with the reminder, “Notify Phil—home and alive,” my dad helping himself remember to let various friends know that he had made it back from his tour of duty in Iraq intact.
The first entry I wrote in the hand-me-down notebook was: “They are shocks, but they are not diminishing shocks.” That thought was unrelated to my dad, or to my country, or to the Army, or to the ongoing and little-remarked-upon state of constant war America has put itself in for the last eleven years and counting, but it could apply to all of them—the way it consistently shocks me when I think of these concepts. I have a dad and he is home and alive, but I will never know him as well as I’d like; our nation is “democratic,” but my ability to make it do anything, good or otherwise, is negligible; the Army and all the branches of the armed forces are out there right now, as I type this and as you read it, defending the interests of the aforementioned “America” abroad. These are shocks of continuity—I am part of all this, inseparable and complicit—and disconnect—I am also not really part.
In Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag says, “We don’t get it. We truly can’t imagine what it was like. We can’t imagine how dreadful, how terrifying war is; and how normal it becomes. Can’t understand, can’t imagine. That’s what every soldier, and every journalist and aid worker and independent observer who has put in time under fire, and had the luck to elude the death that struck down others nearby, stubbornly feels. And they are right.” My inability to comprehend much of what I want to is shocking.
We live in Sontag’s America, my dad and I. Sontag is no longer home or alive. My dad and I, for the moment, are. And when I use his notebook, NSN 7530-00-222-0078, I am simultaneously happy and something else, more melancholy. As I type this, on May 18, 2012, there are only two blank pages remaining. I have a gentle sadness at the passing of that kind of usefulness on the part of the notebook.
Like Sontag, Walt Whitman is neither home nor alive any longer. And while it might be excessively optimistic to use lines from his “America”—the America that I would prefer to reside in—to make myself feel better about war and incomprehensibility and the passage of time, I use them anyway as I think of Sontag and Whitman and my dad and our notebook labeled 7530-00-222-0078, just like all Army-issued notebooks of that particular kind, but different for being his and mine: “Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love […] Chair’d in the adamant seat of Time.”
Where I’ve Been Coming From
When I hear the word “genealogy,” I inevitably think of my mother, who has been a serial hobbyist for as long as I can remember, throwing herself quite fully into relatively obscure or complicated interests like weaving (an enormous loom still occupies one corner of my parents’ den in El Paso, Texas) and oil painting (somewhat informed by Bob Ross; her paintings still grace the walls of my father’s office, my grandmother’s apartment). The last phase she went through, after joint pain forced her to give up delicate handiwork and before going back to school to get a PhD in history, was genealogy. For years she would visit small libraries around the state, working backwards to build out our family tree. I remember there was much surprise and excitement over discovering we could trace a direct line back to William the Conqueror – though I now wonder if half the people I know aren’t related to William the Conqueror. I do know that, mathematically, if anyone alive is related to Jesus Chris, everyone is.
That is about the extent of the richness of meaning of the word “genealogy” for me – as a white mutt of mixed Western European heritage, neither especially rich nor especially poor, my family history, once you skip back a few generations, feels disconnected, arbitrary, of little interest to me. This may be a consequence of immaturity, the fact that I have no children of my own; I may, like my mother, become intrigued by the distant past in my 40s or 50s. I do, however, feel a powerful connection to my immediate family – my father, my mother, and my one older brother – and to our shared past.
Over the past decade, as my love life has stabilized, my writing has gravitated toward two subjects, two obsessions. One is the death of my mother. Forgive me – she is still very much alive and in fact successfully managing two careers, in addition to a thriving garden. But she will die someday. We’ll all die someday, but her death is more threatening. Her health is tenuous; I can’t be sure that she will live into her 90s or 80s or even 70s, and the knowledge of this haunts me, when I don’t suppress it entirely. The other obsession is my brother; we were once very close, but our relationship began to deteriorate in my mid-20s, and though we’re now in a place that is civil and mostly free of contention, we rarely speak or see each other, and the memory of our former friendship – or rather, a connection that was more than friendship, and is now less – haunts me too.
I think of these subjects as beginning to creep into and eventually subsume my poetry in my late 20s, after I had exhausted the well of pain fed by a major breakup I went through at 25. Almost exactly three years ago, a funny thing happened that challenged that idea. My friend Chad Reynolds, who got his MFA at Emerson College in Boston over the same period as me – we took the same first poetry workshop, an afternoon class with Bill Knott in fall of 2002 – contacted me with a request. He was moving to Oklahoma soon with his wife and son, and he wanted something from me first. I was moving too, from one apartment to another in Jamaica Plain. Here is our email exchange from that time:
|Wed, Jul 1, 2009 at 5:59 AM|
|Quick poem request|
Do you remember that poem you once wrote about riding your bicycle late at night through a deserted town? Do you still have it? Has it been published? Would you mind if I posted it on Oklachusetts and used it as an inspiration to ride my bike around Boston late at night and take a bunch of photos as a way of “saying goodbye”?
If this request is crazy, you can tell me to f-off. But I always loved that poem.
|Wed, Jul 1, 2009 at 2:34 PM|
|Re: Quick poem request|
hey, you mean the one from way back when in Bill Knott’s workshop?!! I’m sure I still have it somewhere, but I don’t know that I ever revised it. I definitely never published it. When I get my computer set up I’ll try to find it and if I do I’ll send it. A crazy request, but an awesome one; I hope I can find it. (We are moving today so everything is chaotic, but I’ll do this ASAP!)
|Wed, Jul 1, 2009 at 7:27 PM|
|Re: Quick poem request|
NICE. This is definitely going to be awesome. As soon as you dig it up and dust if off, send it to me and I’ll do something pretty cool with it (that is, if you’re sure you don’t mind).
Good luck with the move! You two can do it.
|Fri, Jul 3, 2009 at 11:56 AM|
|Re: Quick poem request|
Chad! I found the poem! It was dodgy there for a bit — I couldn’t find it in my old files on my current computer, and just last week I threw out all my hard copies of poems from college and grad school workshops! I was a little worried, but I found my old laptop (buried in the back of a closet and untouched for at least five years) and miraculously, I was able to turn it on and find the poem. Pasting it below and attaching it. It’s actually not as bad as I feared it would be. I didn’t make any changes — this is it, inscrutable line breaks and all. Funny how the experience it portrays is almost eight years old but doesn’t feel especially unfamiliar or distant. Anyway I hope you can do something worthwhile with this. I love that you remembered this poem! I certainly didn’t. Enjoy.
Missing you in advance,
Here is the poem:
Last Days Home
I feel like there’s something in my hands,
a present: I’m going all the places
that I’ve never been, and all at once. The other
end of America, and across a whole
ocean. Already this city (its disproportionate
dimensions, cranes like dinosaur skeletons)
feels temporary. I bike around the blocks
I know, saying hello and goodbye. It’s early
morning, and the air is still waving
from yesterday’s heat. A glitch in time.
Summer. I can almost see my brother,
in Prague at night, drunk, trying to find a place
that serves absinthe. In Venice, the first peach
he ever ate. Or walking Berlin in his long coat
and deep snow, grinning at the new adversity.
Being older, he did everything first. When
he was sixteen years old, he pressed two pennies
for me at the top of the Empire State. Does he
remember that? I still wear them at my neck,
and I remember everything. I saved every postcard,
though he never said enough. Just Having fun.
Amazing here. I miss you guys. Missing home.
Now that I’m leaving, maybe I will too.
This road, it wouldn’t be here in a year,
how it becomes the sidewalk, which
becomes the park. The light starts to edge
through the haze. No one thinks this place
is beautiful, but it’s close to that sometimes,
to something striking, like a good lie. The wind
blows the fountain all over my face
and the street. Coasting—the bottom of
my pedals scrape the grass, and the whole world
smells like sweet gardens, like California.
Chad did post the poem to his blog, on July 13, 2009. Here is a bit of what I wrote on my own blog at the time, about the experience of finding the poem again:
I apparently didn’t think enough of the poem to back it up when I switched computers, so I had to fire up my old laptop (it looked so small!) and search through the docs for the word “coasting,” since that’s the only word from the poem I could remember. I didn’t recall the title (and I don’t save my poem files by title anyway) or anything else about it really, aside from the occasion of biking wistfully around Houston. I was pretty sure I’d hate it, so I was pleasantly surprised to actually like it, and to realize my poetic stylings haven’t really changed all that much. It’s a little more sentimental than I’d permit myself to be now, and with more similes, and not as “wise-ass” as John put it, but I recognized a lot of “moves” I’d be as likely to pull now. Also, it was largely about my brother, which I didn’t remember at all. My brother has kind of been one of the two or three major subjects of my poetry. After love and death.
Clearly, my brother is entangled with my idea of myself, who I am and where I am from. We think our obsessions change, that we change, but the differences between who I was ten years ago and who I am now, all told, are slight. (The Russians, I heard yesterday, have no word for decade.) These subjects will surface again and again; they are my subjects and I can’t escape them.
On Genealogy: Design and Memory
A genealogy reminds me of sgraffito, where brush ends and knives scrape a layer off a surface. Here is a photograph I took of sgraffiti in Český Krumlov, the Czech Republic. The lace curtain had just moved, and I was peering up at the window to find a face—one I would at once recognize.
My grandfather’s family was from the Czech Republic and settled in North Jersey. In one story, my grandfather, in his older sister’s shoes, brought clothing to the post office for the relatives that stayed behind.
I suppose this story could be considered a trope. Why else would a man, too young to be the relation he claimed, appear at my grandfather’s door toward the end of his life? This person “remembered” the packages of blue jeans (an anachronistic detail) my grandfather mailed to the family when he was a young boy. My grandfather, in less than thirty seconds, believed in this cousin so-and-so from Bohemia. My grandfather cried. They hugged. The man slept in his house. In the middle of the night, my grandfather sat up in bed. It was all a lie. Who was this man? In the morning, the stranger wanted my grandfather to order sniper rifles “for hunting bears in the forest.” Frightened, my grandfather played the fool. Nothing was ordered, and the stranger left.
The question is still irresistible: who are these ancestors that unwrapped bundles of our clothes in the old city?
“Your face is everywhere,” a family friend told my mother after his trip to Prague. When I was in Prague, I too glimpsed my long face, my mother’s long face, and my grandfather’s long face: on the tram one day, then for a moment on the Charles Bridge, and then one evening in a park.
But, if I am to speak of genealogy, I must not get lost in one memory.
My grandmother was a maker. I remember the basement workshop of the ranch house in Vermont where she built dollhouse furniture in exact replica of the tables, chairs, and clocks upstairs. I remember tucking a little doll into the same poster bed my sister and I were sharing.
On my father’s side of my genealogical tree, both grandparents were visual artists. They always shared a studio—and brushes, too, I think. They traveled the country with the family in a VW bus one summer and later fulfilled their dream of building a studio in Wellfleet, MA, where they had camped as a young family. My grandfather gave me one of his nature paintings when I was sixteen. Whenever I move, I hang it up as soon as I can. Then, the box-filled room truly feels like mine.
My grandmother tried to give me painting lessons a few times. Once, she scolded me. I had painted a rainy landscape in teardrop shapes.
“Come on, Tyler, does rain look like tears?” (An early lesson on the pathetic fallacy. Rain does not look like tears.)
And now, to move up the tree: because I spent a year in music school with my violin, how can I not mention my grandfather’s mother, who trained as a concert pianist? And how she supported the family by giving lessons? Her husband left for California the very night my grandfather was born.
And so I scratch and scratch with the end of my brush. The paint does come off—sometimes in flakes, sometimes in patches.
I look for the truth, my Ur-story, beneath the surface. But the more I try to uncover, the more I find myself regarding the designs—like the sgraffiti bricks in Český Krumlov—of making.
What is a genealogy?
The Greek root “logos”—knowledge—is the lie that it promises us.
But the marks of this lie are so human. We confront our sgraffiti wall. And, we can’t help but to glance up at it. There is a window, and it is real, and inside, a person is walking across the room.
Here is one of my poems that explores generational memory:
Across the street two Santa Clauses have been smoking for twenty minutes.
I am carrying a pound of hard green pears. I have nothing to say.
The community swimming pool, glittering in the ground, is covered by a tarp.
The underworld has been sealed. And all I have is my body
to carry and feed a pound of hard green pears—it is like having nothing,
draping the sheer curtains pulled lightly from a box over myself.
The underworld is sealed up and this is all I have, my body
to clothe and walk to the bank in under the black trees and sky
draping starkness, these pulled curtains, everywhere. In a box I will put my self:
we only live on in the memories of three generations, I’ve heard,
clothed and walking outside while we move in the wet black trees, the sky,
being within them as our selves, the way six people can step inside a sheet of cut paper.
We only live on in the memories of three generations—I heard this
from a filthy man lecturing the branches of an ash tree—
being in them, ourselves this way. When people exist in names marked on paper
all each person had was their own body and the trick itself: being.
A filthy man lectures the raining branches of an ash tree
while two Santa Clauses smoke. Twenty minutes pass.
All I can say I have is a body and the trick itself: being,
until the community’s swimming pool, glittering in the morning, opens.
(“Pool” first appeared in Prairie Schooner, Spring 2011)
I was in grad school when I first learned about parataxis. My teacher was John Matthias, an older gentleman who liked to tent his fingers and watch with amusement while we stumbled through each other’s work, occasionally stepping in to correct our course. Matthias taught from a Modernist playbook—we read Pound and David Jones, along with contemporary authors who seemed beautifully out of any common understanding of time, such as Geoffrey Hill.
It’s no surprise that parataxis came up in his class, or in the literature classes I was taking at the time, most of which skewed toward the experimental. This was a school where I heard Steve McCaffery read the first three letters of each name in a phone book (a strangely compelling performance), and a PhD student once whispered to me in reverent tones, “I just saw Marjorie Perloff in the bathroom!”
Parataxis means “to place side by side,” a definition I’ve gleaned from Wikipedia and not my notes from my MFA, if that tells you anything about how scholarly a student I was then. Paratactic poetry is often imagist, and without any of those handy prepositional phrases establishing time. Think of the aforementioned Ezra Pound versus Dante. Pound would like you to come away with some sense of the relationship between people in a metro tunnel and petals on a bough, but he’s not going to spell it out for you. After reading Dante, however, you could probably draw a map of hell and where you see yourself ending up.
As a student of poetry, this term for the delicious spark words and phrases made when they were placed side by side was revelatory. It was also the first time I had a word to describe how my own thoughts proceeded. There is a disparity between how we actually experience memory and how we talk about how we experience memory. We construct a sense of identity from our memory, and present that identity to others as if it is a logical conclusion (I am who I am because X, Y, and Z happened). Yet the memories we work from are suspect and fictionalized, our brains’ best reconstructions of events as they were, and perhaps even more often than we’d like to admit, how we wish things had happened. Furthermore, each of us experiences memory differently. Some of us are more narrative and linear, and some are not, and many of us range in between. So our creation of self is ongoing and fluid—it’s an unstable narrative.
My own thinking is highly associative, and my memories fall on the non-linear, particulate side of the spectrum. I tell people I have a bad memory, but in fact, it would be more honest to say that I at times feel I have no coherent memory at all, but a series of vignettes connected to each other via minor details. I think of my first date with my ex-husband and remember writing his initials on the paper tablecloth with a yellow crayon. I mentally zip over (and it does feel lateral) to the daffodils outside my teenaged home, the thin papery skins around each bud, then to a scene in the second to last season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer that I didn’t particularly like, which involved a yellow crayon, and finally, returning to the initials again, I see a map, which is the word his initials spelled. It’s not a country I know.
Now, at this point you may, understandably, have lost confidence in my credibility, and are wondering what my inability to remember a first date beyond a trivial detail has to do with parataxis. So, some disclaimers. I do not have an unusual brain. There is not, to my knowledge, anything medically odd about my grey matter, though arguably I’m a bit of a Chihuahua compared to other, less anxious people. There’s no particular difference in the way I think versus how other people think, which is to say, many of us think in a disorganized and seemingly chaotic way. By acknowledging that orderly disorder, and thinking about how we think, we can better understand about the various ways in which we write.
When I write a poem, I begin with one image and then shuffle through a series of related images, the connections ranging from tangential to direct. I choose the next image based not so much on words as I do emotional content, and how that content tonally moves the poem forward. The poems are not argumentative for the most part, and my hope is that the associative jumps are as much a pleasure for the reader as they are for me in finding them. This is writing via paratactic cloud versus linear progression, diffuse infusion versus immediate injection.
When someone asks me about my childhood, I will say it was fine. Then I mention I had a mentally ill mother, and tell a series of anecdotes about that experience that I try to pass off as funny, because funny is easier to hear and to recount than heartbreaking. These are not necessarily the best examples, but they are the ones I have access to most immediately. Quirky stuff, like my mother’s desire to cover our hallway in corkboard so that we would never forget anything, how she made pizza with carrots on top, or how, over-medicated, she fell asleep at the wheel one day while we were driving to Wal-Mart and I wouldn’t ride in a car with her for two years. If I am feeling expansive, I might talk about how growing up with someone who had deliriously inverted syntax probably impacted my idea of the poetic line, or how in the presence of intense emotion I grow cold and clinical. There’s not much for me to say beyond these initial anecdotes. I do remember thinking once, as a child, “I’m going to forget this” and thinking so with a sense of will, of purpose. And for the most part, I have. I look at photographs of myself as a child and I have to trust that it’s me, because there’s rarely a memory linked to the image. I don’t have much in the way of memories before my teenaged years, before I was able to define myself outside of my parents. I build a story out of what I have. Mostly there’s just blankness. Miles and miles of snow.
In my experience, my way of thinking and existing in the world, specifically my way of constructing the past, is at odds with the normative model. When we tell stories, we tell them linearly, a progression of cause and effect. I do this too, of course, or I would never have learned that hot kettles burn skin and no one would talk to me at parties. I wouldn’t advocate for telling anecdotes out of order (unless they benefit from the disruption), and I don’t think giving someone directions to the emergency room in an associative way will win you any friends. But the sense that linear is best, that logical is best, may not be the best model for how many people actually think. Our brains are these amazing organs that have developed in a reactionary way to thousands of years of stimuli. That development has often privileged survival, expedience, and results over careful planning, which is why we still have a rudimentary “lizard” brain that hijacks our higher thinking when we are in a dangerous situation (or when it thinks we are in a dangerous situation, which really could just be that you are very nervous before a job interview).
In writing classes, we exhort our students to write what they know. And in philosophy and self-help and religion, we advocate the importance of knowing yourself. I would like to suggest we listen a little more to how we know what we know, that is, how we think, and listen a little less to how we believe we should think. It might open us up to the poetry that comes from surprise connections, and to not rationalizing away those jumps. In recognizing that there is not one right way to think but a variety of different responses to the world, and a variety of ways of making meaning for ourselves and of ourselves, we open up to a greater empathy with others.
I tell myself that my conscious and unconscious attempts to forget my past have made me a better poet because I’m used to jumping over huge swaths of thought in order to avoid the things I can’t look at directly, which means I come at them sideways, which means metaphor, simile, investigating, and testing. I wouldn’t argue for a moment that it makes me a better person to know or to love. But it might not be a bad way to write.
Knowing him made her
want to organize
because organized movement
like a storm system’s is
So the counters
in the story
and his bags
The grey den wanted to be opened
to light, the light
in his bedroom
couldn’t reach even
The man the woman
I can’t see
or tell the speed
or has the road’s
Each: I am both
painting of plains
a house, she was
could be driven.
And the mattress
around their minds was
Who needs freedom—
The trees want
the wind laid
down on them like a heavy hand
to be relaxed
my own mind,
on my head?
Look at this
look at all
They lived. From then on,
dust. He dragged
She was a helicopter
over their story.
(“Story Arc” originally appeared in H_NGM_N)
Liz Countryman is Writer in Residence at the University of South Carolina. Her poems have appeared in H_NGM_N, Handsome, Hayden’s Ferry, Washington Square, Forklift, Ohio, Court Green, and others.
Conversation During a Blackout
Until recently, I thought of my genealogy as an accumulation of the cultures, languages and places that comprise my family history. Having traveled a lot in the last year, to China and to Mexico, I’ve begun to question this narrative, as the stories I tell others and myself about my origins take on new valences in new places. The Roman Catholicism of my grandparents sounds and feels stranger and more magical when I explain it to students in Wuhan, China; and the way I’ve always described myself—short, “ethnic looking,” olive skinned—doesn’t seem to apply in Mexico City, where I am almost tall and fair.
Composed during a recent visit to Mexico City and Puebla, “Conversation During a Blackout” attempts to harness this emerging sense of genealogy as a relative and dynamic act. The blackout is the impetus for an intimate performance that seeks to reveal fragments of the speaker’s history. However, the poem’s context, as place captured in a series of disjunctive black and white images, prevents the speaker from embarking on the traditional narrative path. Instead, the language becomes fascinated with the texture of the present in a way that is informed by the past.
In the course of this project, a surer, albeit constantly shifting literary genealogy emerged. It entered into desperate conversation with Browning’s precise rhetorical psychology and James Schulyer’s itchy, intimate interiority. It insisted upon a zebra that is, like Browning’s chessboard, both black and white. It became a question of perspective, a question of context.
A Ritual History
Who are your people, sugar? is the question folks where I’m from ask in order to place a person. It’s invoked to figure out whether you are us or them, for or against, with or otherwise aligned, and the kind of folks we might associate with or the ones we wouldn’t be caught dead with. I use “we” loosely. Although I was born in south Georgia and raised partially in the state, I’ve spent most of my life away. I am for all intents and purposes a foreigner in my own homeland.
Take me down to the Fish Camp.
Serve up hushpuppies, frog legs,
catfish the size of your hand.
Let me eat my weight in fish.
We’ll drink sweet tea in the main room.
No need for the rooms with doors.
Save those for the good Baptist preacher
sipping whiskey. A Co’-cola for the digestion.
For shame, for shame, the Methodists cluck
brown bags tucked under their arms,
while the Episcopalians take note—
make toasts, make jokes.
Wine is a mocker, strong drink is raging.
Let’s laugh at spells that bind me,
tang of damp pine and Spanish moss,
chiggers cozy between waistband and skin.
My father’s side of the family settled in north Georgia before the Revolutionary War, and my mother’s side settled in south Georgia mid-19th century. The one side, landed, came in search of religious freedom, while the other, poor and hungry, came to survive. Within my own family, we are many variations of us and them, incompatibly aligned, then realigned. Narratives rescinded and re-mixed to suit the rules of reality have shaped my family’s answers to the people question. Their narrative strategies are not unique. Many southerners, both historical and contemporary, go to great lengths to frame their lives appropriately vis a vis a history of conquest, the shifting sands of poverty and affluence, and complicated relationships of power and domination.
The Silver Service
The story of their iced tea spoon, sterling
with a C engraved on it,
complicated by a death in the family, an adoption, the Depression:
the two who would be doodlebugs one day. You see
she was a Carson before she married John,
who was also a Carson, but
she was an Anderson before her daddy gave her away
because after her mama passed, he couldn’t care for the little one alone. Years later
John married the little one he called Bird Legs
because she knew fish and how
to put socks on over her good shoes when she walked to work in winter slush
and even to save pennies for Panama City where
the mynah bird said they’re going upstairs, they’re going upstairs
when they checked in as Mr. and Mrs.
After the service in the preacher’s parlor
the preacher’s wife played the march. And then
until times weren’t so hard anymore, John hid
new silver, one piece at a time, in places his Bird Legs would chance upon
when she wasn’t thinking dinner for twelve
but biscuits and collard greens, enough for two.
Such strategies create a confused and confusing reality, one that relies on rigorous maintenance of appearances and stringent protection of sanctioned versions of the truth. They encourage authoritarian leadership and obedient followers. They discourage critical thinking and transparent discourse. They feed fear—of exposure, of falling, of alternative interpretations, of change. They do not leave much room for deviation. They require a carefully cultivated amnesia.
The Difference Between Left and Right
Jack never wanted daughters.
He wanted mules. Gee. Haw.
Men before and later sons
could hold the land, the name, the reins.
Jack said Gee and mules turned right
in piedmont fields.
He said Haw and girls
left to be buried under headstones
with different names.
He said Boys, let’s have a drink.
True, daughters know
a shotgun is for birds,
a rifle is for deer,
and the slap tap whir plunk of the nymph
beats a dry fly any day
with the browns in the creek way back.
Whiskey blurs the difference.
Despite fraught foundations that undergird the strategies for answering it, the people question is supposed to be answered easily. Not intended to reveal, the question is meant to place and to do so definitively. An easy answer reifies the established order, and nuance is resisted personally, within families, institutionally, and culturally. Those, like myself, who challenge the easy answer are coaxed back into the fold. If we do not come readily, then we can be rooted out, silenced, and even disowned.
Free on Board
On a veranda between Mobile and New Iberia
Vivian sits struggling with the idea,
a reflecting pool for the garden.
Old Jim says she’ll have to uproot
Great Uncle Edward’s prize camellia:
Lady Hume’s Blush, the palest pink ivory
so large Edward called it his black pearl
before he left to travel the world
with the dining room door in a crate.
A Hong Kong bill-of-sale, terms f.o.b.,
turned up in a London trade house
but not Great Uncle Edward nor the door.
And now Vivian wants a reflecting pool
to showcase roses she’ll plant for a May wedding.
Spirits rustle duty when old Jim tells her
The end of respect, Miss Vivi,
that lets relations die, now you know,
it ain’t yet come to pass.
My personal history makes me both us and them, self and other, in and out, and I choose not to reconcile myself to an easy answer to the people question. Instead, I have spent most of my life traveling and investigating—both formally and informally—various answers to it in order to (re)construct versions of truth and history that I can live with, versions that create room for me to live fully as myself and to allow others to do the same. Such a trajectory has tended to limit my audience to them. It has required me to relinquish we in favor of I/eye. My lyric, like my history, becomes therefore a ritual. And like my history, it is often dispossessed.
Talking to Snakes
Miriam danced in front of the sarcophagus,
antsy in starched crinolines and mary janes.
This was before she learned human hair
and ivory soap will keep deer out of the pears
and after the fall line emerged, sandy loam from liquid salt.
Before she knew Fish Boy and Quail Boy and Miss Peanut
and after family began to melt, ooze and slip over the edge.
She counted one two spin, one two spin
and imagined Mama’s nights, laudanum bliss.
Are these my people? She asked
the copperhead at the artesian spring.
Sweet water of rhododendron and sassafras cooling her throat.
Interview with an Expert
When first starting to write about genealogy, I did what I usually do when I have no idea how I feel or what I know about any given subject. I asked my daughter. Her name is Zara. She’s 7. She is the opposite of me in nearly every way.
|Math science||Reading writing|
|Motto: Those who break these rules should and will be punished to the greatest extent of the law.||Motto: I don’t really think the sign means “no” as in “no.”|
Here are her answers—short and precise.
L: Okay . . . so genealogy means “a line of descent traced continuously from an ancestor.” Who are your ancestors?
Z: You’re my ancestor.
L: Anybody else?
Z: Amira and Daddy. Grandma, Grandpa. Aunt Coco and Aunt Sarah . . . uh . . . my great-grandma, grandma Eliza . . . and great-grandpa John.
L: What’s the best way to remember people?
Z: By writing notes or thinking a thing about them that starts with the letter of their name.
L: Like what?
Z: Like for Billy, banana. Oh, wait…for example, for Zara and Liz? Lily and zebra.
L: Do you feel like there are some people who shouldn’t be remembered?
Z: No. We should remember everyone because they’re nice people even though they’re mean. We still want to remember them.
L: What’s the most important object to you in this house?
L: What do you think you’ll be remembered for?
Z: Computers and typing.
L: Really? Why do you say that?
Z: Because I’m really good at computers and I always write in notebooks.
L: What do you write?
Z: Books and stuff.
L: What do you think I’ll be remembered for?
Z: Computers, typing, writing, having children, having fun, being beautiful . . . and going to my school.
L: What about dad? What will he be remembered for?
Z: Being a dad, being a dad, uh . . . being a dad.
L: Anything else? That’s it?
Z: Being a painter. And he’s nice. Mmm …your arm is soft.
L: What will Amira be remembered for?
Z: I don’t know. You think about it.
L: If you only got to say one thing to me before we said goodbye to each other, what would you say?
Z: What about two things?
Z: How about “Goodbye.” And “I will miss you.”
L: What would you want me to say to you?
Z: “I love you.” “I will miss you.”
L: How would you describe an American?
L: Like people who live in America.
Z: They have white skin [pinches arm] and some have dark skin. And some are girls and some are boys and some wear dresses and boys wear pants or shorts and tops.
L: If you could live in another country, where would you live?
L: Why’s that?
Z: Because that’s the only part on the globe that’s actually red. And it’s filled with China people and I can learn five new languages.
L: What makes a person different from an animal?
Z: Some have four legs. And people only have two.
L: Is that the only difference?
Z: No . . um . . . dogs kind of drool.
L: If you could change one thing about where you came from what would you change?
L: If you could change one thing about the world, what would you change?
L: Do you think the world is perfect?
L: Why is that?
Z: Because it has so many countries. And my favorite state is Illinois and my favorite country is America.
L: If you had to draw your family tree, what would it look like?
Z: It would kind of look like a circle, a big circle, like as big as the world because my family is huge.
—Liz Hildreth and Zara Abed
Liz Hildreth’s poems, translations, and essays have been published in Hayden’s Ferry Review, McSweeney’s, Parthenon West, Michigan Quarterly Review, and Forklift, Ohio, among other places. She lives in Chicago, works as a writer for an education company, and is a frequent interviewer at Bookslut.
A Coin-Operated City of the Past
1: The Anxiety of Widowness
Sunday is the day of the widow. There’s Dorcas across the street, washing her Buick with a dishtowel and metal baking pan full of suds. At the corner, Mildred positions her folding chair (which she hasn’t been able to fold for years) beneath the only elm left on our street. The widows share a wardrobe reminiscent of the 50s doll clothes I once discovered in a trunk in the attic. Ruth wears a kerchief that may have been a striped blouse decades ago. The collective pallor is universal paperwhite narcissus. Suddenly I have a tremendous awareness of veins as something public.
At Mass the widows speak to me in Spanish and German. They will never stop attempting to genuflect. The church has no air conditioning, but fans at every other station of the cross, which seems horribly modern. I wear my dowdiest clothes to church because Sunday is the day of the widow, and I am superstitious. My skin is no longer used to polyester. How did I ever work a cash register for hours in a rigid smock? Every other widow has someone at the church steps to hold her elbow and walk her home. I double up on holy water, even if it’s wrong.
2: Cities in Dust
The cartoon heroine flees a burning town, with every flaming brick and inch of thatch chasing her heels. She passes a well which surges its water into the air, until that catches fire, too. At a certain point she stops looking back, because she knows what is happening behind her. Once the store manager handed her a mop and a pail, and she painted herself into a corner with shimmering ammonia, floor tiles animated by croissant crumbs and milk droplets. The past either traps us or dismantles itself behind us, or both.
There are maps to places, but not of bodies, unless you count diagrams in textbooks. We never painted my Visible Woman doll, but her alternate pregnant belly turned up in strange places, such as the toe of dress shoes, or cupping my gray putty eraser for art class. Twenty years later I would have a dream so transformational that I believed I was in a different city. Where did I leave my purse? Who left teacups so carelessly perched on a windowsill?
3: Das Unheimlich
The viewing of satellite photographs is strictly forbidden, except to alleviate anxiety regarding lanes of highways or available parking spaces. Read: no more. If experiencing the urge to take a casual jog of 388 miles, just to see if your former chives are still as vibrant as they were in 2004, resist. Do not perform late night internet searches of the theatre company that now inhabits the upper floor of your previous home. Didn’t you know back then, somehow, that it would eventually be filled with headless bears, children pasting googly eyes on unpeeled carrots?
In sleep-away camp (horse camp, of course) you are charged with describing your place of origin to a friend who is blindfolded and slipping her hands alternately into a shoebox filled with overcooked spaghetti and a milk carton of peeled grapes. This is what it is like trying to describe your earliest memories of a Chicago that is now gone. You even recall it in black and white. You cannot help making it sound like some kind of Dickens apocrypha, even when speaking of how the corner of Clark and Diversey was like a man with one leg, camped in a doorway with a radio the size of a loaf of rye bread.
4. You Belong to Me
My son begs me to let him wash the face of a tiny clock. He isn’t just suggesting we wipe it down with a tissue and set it back in its place. He wants to spray it with bleach, and then scrub it with a wire brush. Normally I like activities such as this, destructive and metaphorical. But this clock is from a former student, a timid Indian girl in my remedial composition class ten years ago. It never kept time well, but it is packed with sentiment. Just looking at it places me back in that classroom, where on Mondays we often found shell casings on the desktops and new holes in the (few) windows. In 2005, I packed up my office and brought the clock from Chicago to Akron. Now it lives at home, instead of at work. I wonder if my son will ask to wash another clock instead.
I grew up far from my grandparents and other extended family, and at times far from the places where my ancestors entered the country. At one point my father had a job transfer to England. Our first house over there was something you could find in an American suburb, aside from the small appliances. Our second house over there was a cottage hundreds of years old. I would stand in the yard and feel oppressed by the velvet nature of true sky. Which direction was Chicago? Had my British ancestors ever stood in a yard like this? What were the sheep looking for in the dark?
5: A Sunny Place with Adequate Water
Project Description: A Book on Nostalgia. Project Description: Wherein the Author Uses the Increasing Obsolescence of Coin-Operated Machinery as Vehicle for Exploring Forgotten Past, Gentrification, and Sexuality. Project Description: Is There Such Thing as a Post-Post-Post Confessional Poem? Project Description: Perhaps. Project Description: Here’s Where it All Comes Together. Project Description: Books Can’t Bring Anything Back.
In the midst of this project I learn that an important friend from the past has died. I flash back to an argument we had, regarding the lost key to our laundry room (we shared an apartment years ago). After the argument I carried a huge canvas bag of clothes to the Laundromat and read Tim O’Brien for class. I recall the two of us in a graffiti-covered taxi in Detroit, waiting outside a White Castle. There was one day where I braided her hair so she looked like the Swiss Miss girl. Perhaps we would eventually visit Switzerland together! We were living entirely in the present. When we put our dollar bills in the machine, quarters tumbled out, as expected.
A Coin-Operated City of the Past
Eventually the circus lost its power. After all,
your father made it with nothing but scrap
and gutted battery shells. That tiger was no tiger,
and the lady just ten bristles from a toothbrush
he’d saved from your elementary days.
Back before I knew your mouth. Back when
every building they made was gray, on purpose.
An objective analysis of our home terrain
would note the squat vigilance of mine, lack
of real Bolivians in yours, on most days. Hush,
you said, somebody will hear us coming.
All of these creatures in tin face, and not an eye
to give testimony. There was a grasshopper
in the rafters, or a ghost firecracker.
So many times you almost burned this place,
or were those my matches that I planted
between your mattress and sheet,
the strands of my hair that I would drape
across your throat, a friendly knife-slash.
We did not know each other, but had
the same Polish neighbor. If you chose red
she would give me the blue. Once I dove
into the ocean at the exact moment
you stopped your car in a mall parking lot
and examined a girl’s purple jacket snagged
across a length of chain link. You made
me, didn’t you? And all of this time I’ve been
standing beside the electric rail line, without
a crossing, surveying the electricity.
Nothing knows how to move without you.
This is a poem from the collection referenced above, A Sunny Place with Adequate Water (Black Lawrence Press, 2014).
That September I was a wet-eyed, nervous fifteen. I played
the same sonata for hours, indiscriminate of tempo
or tone. Our neighborhood lights were all out
like a story. I wanted the quiet but played louder. I ate
what was given. I made and arranged my future like cards
laid out in the dark: the pentacles grew like fruit. I drew
a bath, and when the streetlights blinked on,
I stepped out. My mother called me into her room.
She sat me on her floor, combed me out, my hair not hers
but almost; my body not hers, but I dreamed it was,
and when I woke, I was remade by a chignon.
I wanted nothing—but that night all the world’s houses
were porous, and their rooms fought to escape,
and the men inside them died; someday, she would be
in an airless box, safe in my love
and I would be outside, screaming to be let back in,
my hands as useless as when I was born.
The Jewel of Central Europe: Starting-Point of my Journey “Home”
The word Krakow comes from the Proto-Slavic word Krak, meaning “oak,” a sacred tree long associated with the concept of genealogy. This etymological root inspired a reflective journey in my life that continues to resonate in my work, today.
During the Winter of 2009, I traveled to Krakow, Poland, motivated by a desire to learn more about the culture in which my Polish grandmother, Mildred, had grown up, albeit in Warsaw, a larger and more industrial version of the cosmopolitan Krakow. I spent two weeks traveling within and outside of the city to surrounding villages and historical sites, including Auschwitz. Though Polish is a very difficult language to learn (ranked level four by the Foreign Services Institute on a difficulty scale from one to five), the ex-pat community in Krakow was alive and well, with many 20- and 30-somethings from the U.S., the UK, and elsewhere living in the city and studying the language at Jagiellonian University or privately.
My genealogical research aims were more personal than scholarly. I wanted an impetus for a new series of poems, and to get to know a little bit more about the country that shaped my grandmother, a first-generation émigré to Cleveland, OH, in the early 20th century, where she met my Slovenian grandfather in the densely-populated neighborhood of Old Brooklyn, home to a thriving Polish-American community and the nation’s largest Slovene immigrant population in the U.S.
Upon arriving I sought out books by Czeslaw Milosz, Wislawa Szymborska and Adam Zagajewski. I created a map of the city’s 28 museums and 120 places of worship. I befriended a few Anglophones living there who promised to teach me a little Polish. And I began an impromptu photo-journalism project documenting the city’s hidden treasures, from the former Jewish district of Kazimierz, to Wawel Castle, to the innumerable effigies and monuments to Pope John Paul II, to the beautiful Secession style architecture, reverentially “capturing” elderly but spry street vendors selling paczki, traditional polish doughnuts, Main Market Square at daybreak and dusk, and Da Vinci’s “Lady with an Ermine” at the Czartoryski Museum, as well as paintings by well- and lesser known Polish artists such as Jozef Chelmonski and Jan Matejko.
I wrote a good deal of poems—not about my grandmother or my family ancestry, but about the enormous weight I felt in the atmosphere of the city, after the devastations of WWII, and the slow work of cultural and economic reconstruction.
I didn’t find levity, humor, or irony in Krakow, but, rather, dolorous beauty, exquisite craftsmanship, and the joys of engaging with people of warmth and sincerity. Evenings were passed in subterranean bars with new friends, or at classical music concerts, often featuring Chopin. The dining and entertainment scene in Krakow was literally underground: many were the nights when, after a day of grappling with the tormented history and incredible perseverance of these people, I would enter a steel door, descend a staircase or two, and pass the evening buried in Milosz’s ABC’s while friendly bartenders kept my glass of Zywiec refreshed. When I returned home, I visited with my grandmother, sharing stories from my travels to Poland and listened to her reminisce about how she experienced the country 75 years prior, watching light play on but not through her heavy curtains that kept the outside world, which had not been easy on her in her lifetime, at bay.
I saw her basement apartment with new eyes, as if my eyes were now adjusted to see her, her home, and her history, after having visited the country from which she hailed. I saw a rosary on the table, and another, hanging on a nail from the wall. I saw a stack of Polish newspapers next to her armchair, and heard the faint sound of Polish music playing from her old-fashioned Crosley Companion Radio. I glanced at her dining room table and saw a loaf of freshly baked Makowiec (poppy seed bread) and angel wings (Faworki aka chrust). Lavender sachets and the lingering aroma of quince from my grandma’s tiny tumbler of nalewka (fruit liqueur) mingled and dissolved in the air.
To sum up my grandmother’s continual presence in my life (she passed away in 2008) and the city of Krakow in two words: beauty and necessity. What little I know of Polish art, literature, language, and culture resists a capitalistic frame. Furthermore, it takes real effort to attribute appreciable aesthetic value to cultures with little secular artistic production. Like the light that filtered weakly through my grandmother Mildred’s opaque green curtains, it is often in a literally or figuratively “dim” atmosphere that we first begin our training in the art of perception: what it means to truly see.
Hometown of Marie Curie
To your right a clay pit: to your left,
an Aeolian sand dune. Have we reached
the end of the world of the infinitely small,
here, where the Vistula River flows and flows?
I pluck a leaf from Maidenhair and Black Walnut
trees. Marie, Marie, Marie: your work is done.
Now you are in heaven with Joe DiMaggio
and the victims of polio and Iron Lung.
Ambassador to Poland and France,
winner of the Nobel Prize twofold,
we have memorized your leitmotif:
radium is more than a hundred
times more precious than gold.
9 Cuts from the Cloth: Sketches for a Work In-progress
Color comes from my mother’s body.
I scaffold around yardage folded over
a river. A midnight blue I used to inherit.
Standing with one foot raised to cross her body, this is more father.
A leap would be sister.
A dream rides in on tissue paper as I sew three to the present.
Her blouse, as I lift my mother and walk.
I hold two feathers and topple, naked, finding
not-when and two rocks in the river to step.
My decision: a perimeter and cuts.
Who counts the frays on the edge of forgiveness?
To a pre-garment stage. I loop back.
Suggest generosity over witness, she. A folder fades,
a pen carves, and tense threads buckle. I remember, a little bloodied,
my hands against silk, brushing and sinking in.
A tactile catalogue of possibility, made by we. Out of what I do not know.
There are no original cells left in my print, pushing a return.
I come to his war and her polio. First mark, now go.
I stand on green.
Color intersected by memory easily absorbs another.
Does anything pivot on brothers? Our steel difficulty, a border of clouds.
She dies back together producing fathers,
feathers and skirts,
producing when. As cleaving.
Or material claims until
the slash grabs a shadow and I unfold. As helix,
—text and images by Jill Magi
(“9 Cuts from the Cloth” is a text-image work in-progress and absorbs the writings of Louise Bourgeois in Louise Bourgeois: The Fabric Works, Germano Celant’s essay “Dressing Louis Bourgeois,” Paul Connerton’s The Spirit of Mourning: History, Memory, and the Body, articles of Jean Magi’s clothing, language from Jai Arun Ravine’s chapbook Is This January.)
The Double Image
Like many writers, I spent much of my childhood indoors. While my sisters ran shrieking through the sprinkler on my grandfather’s sloping, manicured lawn, I tucked myself away among the boxes full of old yearbooks, newspaper clippings, and ephemera in the dusty third floor of the Main Line Philadelphia house where my father and his brother had grown up. Those boxes were the only record of my grandmother’s life. Though I had been named after her, my family rarely spoke of her.
She’d died young, of cirrhosis of the liver, and an oil painting of her hung at the top of the stairs. In the portrait she wore an elegant off the shoulder evening gown and a ruby necklace that my grandfather gave to another woman shortly after her death. In the portrait she was in her 30s, already melancholy in a glamorous backdrop, but in the clippings she was only a few years older than I was. In one box she was a student at a private girls’ school, famous among her classmates for her perfectly polished red nails; then she was a debutante, written about in the social pages of the Philadelphia Inquirer. Her senior yearbook listed as her ambition to “get married and have a happy family.”
Years later, finally old enough to drive, I was tasked with driving my sister to soccer practice each Wednesday. After dropping her off, I’d drive to the public library, and during the hour my sister ran drills and perfected her free throw, I combed the meager stacks of poetry. I was taking my first writing workshop that semester, and once a month I drove from my suburban high school to a tiny classroom on Pitt’s campus where our instructor, an MFA student, covered our poems in a sprawling red script. Diligent student that I was, I found his sharp and plentiful criticism thrilling. He’d read us Rilke’s “The Panther,” and when I searched for more Rilke at the library, I stumbled instead upon Anne Sexton’s Love Poems. That year I asked for Sexton’s Collected Poems for Christmas, and I carried it everywhere with me like a talisman, to school and in my duffle bag for weekends at my father’s, until the cover peeled off and the spine split so the book always opened to a particularly well-loved poem.
Those two women – the dead Nancy whose elliptical smile was illuminated in the portrait now hanging in my father’s upstairs hallway, and the Sexton whose voice came roaring and brave out of those thin pages – became the central figures of my inner life. A few years ago, reading Sexton’s Collected Letters, I came across a photograph of Sexton sunbathing on the snow-covered roof of her home, a fur coat spread behind her and a silver-plated serving dish held to her face to gather and reflect the midwinter Boston sun. I realized with surprise that all the years I’d pictured my grandmother, I’d actually been seeing Sexton’s face; I’d created a hybrid fairy godmother from the two, and this invented lineage helped me find my voice.
Though my family no longer had the money that paid for the stuccoed house with oriental rugs, bridal monogrammed silver, servants’ quarters, and a carriage house, I was raised to be ladylike, to sit up straight at the dinner table and hew close to polite topics of conversation. We discussed school and current events. My father, a history teacher, took us to Gettysburg and Valley Forge, pointed out birds he identified from an Audubon Field Guide. Silences surrounded all the things I most wanted to know and say. Appropriate conversation had bright boundaries, and when I was asked to speak about anything that mattered, I was struck mute.
I had facts. I knew, though I couldn’t remember ever having been told, how my grandmother had died young of alcoholism, my father at the time finishing his military service in Germany, my uncle still in high school. I knew that at the end my father couldn’t get home fast enough, and I pictured him, twenty-something and shaggy-haired, freshly mustached in rebellion against Army protocol, suspended over the Atlantic as his mother lay dying. It was too horrible for words, but the image I’d created stuck. I couldn’t ask him what that felt like, but I desperately wanted to know. I wanted the details that would allow me to understand that life more fully, to enter into that grief with him.
In fact, I couldn’t ever get what I wanted. I wanted the whole story, the lives behind the silence. I wanted to know the world as it had then existed, ladies in cocktail dresses, the men mixing strong drinks, everyone smoking and stubbing out their cigarettes into the silver-plated ashtrays that dotted the end tables beside the settees and armchairs in the long formal parlor. It was a lost world, and its survivors spoke of it only indirectly.
Those fragmentary stories taught me about the heat that surrounds silence and absence, and Sexton’s work taught me how words – metaphor, image, sound – could build a world, and I began to make poems from those modest raw materials. I hoarded scraps of stories – the Nancy who loved animals and nursed crows back to health, who allowed my father to keep ducks as pets; the raucous parties for which my father, years before getting his license, served as a valet – and supplemented them with details or images invented or pilfered from elsewhere. I learned that metaphor could make words do work they wouldn’t do for me through ordinary speech. Though the prose narrative was unsatisfying and ordinary spoken words seemed entirely too thin for the task at hand, the poems I began to write satisfied an urge to enter into a world I could only know partially. Spoken words might be fleeting and prose incomplete, but written down, given life through metaphor, image, and sound, they could make a world.
I understand better now the lure Confessionalism has for girls like I was, raised to behave
appropriately, to count our sins and say confession to priests, to say penance and ask for absolution. As a teenager I was drawn to the Love Poems for how they pushed against the sentimentality that phrase suggested. They were angry and graphic, riddled with infidelity and despair, as well as a measure of tenderness. I’m sure the references to masturbation and menstruation embarrassed me.
But what I remember most is how those poems rubbed right up against the edge of what seemed sayable. Sexton may have been outwardly a lady – raised Boston Brahmin, hair coiffed, always dressed in the latest style – but underneath that surface she had rages and sorrow, a sharp and ironic wit. Her example allowed me to believe that I too might have more beneath my surface. And my grandmother – what secrets did she keep beneath that tight-lipped smile? What did she think of, in the early middle age she would not survive, when she looked back on her high school self, full of plans and promise?
As I think back now on my teenage poet-self, meticulously revising poems while pretending to conjugate verbs in the back of French class, that image of Sexton from the Collected Letters seems like a metonymy for the life I wanted, inspired by the glamour and the audacity of Sexton’s life and work. Her poems had dazzling, ornate surfaces. They were patterned with intricate rhyme and rich imagery. But the voice inside the poems operated in a register of vulnerability and candor I’d never heard aloud. I wanted to be both the good girl who knew her dessert fork from her dinner fork and also the woman who lived a wild and secret life through words. I wanted to be the fur coat and the snowy roof and the words that rattled inside her skull and onto the page. I was full of words I couldn’t speak. But I could write.
Nancy Reddy’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Linebreak, Anti-, Memorious, Best New Poets 2011, and Best of the Net. She holds an MFA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she is currently a doctoral student in composition and rhetoric.