Speaking from Fracture
Let me start with a confession, something personal. Last winter, my father was diagnosed with liver cancer. We were estranged at the time. I hadn't seen him in nearly a decade when I visited him in the foothills of Tennessee. It was Christmas Eve day. He was in a hospital bed in the living room of his sister's house. He died ten days after I saw him.
I discovered Sharon Olds' poetry over a decade ago when I was a first-year student at James Madison University. Thank god I found that copy of The Dead and the Living when I did. I was eighteen years old and had just left home – an ex-railroad town in rural Virginia with a crippled economy and a bedrock of racism.
I was an avid keeper of notebooks and gatherer of fragments, an accidental poet in the making. Besides trying to simultaneously come to terms with and shake a family history of alcoholism, poverty, and trauma, I was lonely. This was not because I needed someone (that would come a few years later) but because I craved, without knowing it, a more ardent exploration of a sense of self.
The occasion of Sharon Olds' poem "I Go Back to May 1937" is the speaker imagining what might have happened if she had been able to prevent her parents' marriage.
The first time I encountered this poem, I recognized the parents as my mother's parents. I recognized the speaker as both my mother and myself. I recognized the family that would be made and unmade.
Olds' poetry is personal and visceral. She often writes of the body and its fluids and processes – birthing, shitting, fucking, eating, dying. In a 2011 interview with The Independent, Olds describes figures and images that frequented her early work: "Poems started pouring out of me and Satan was in a lot of them. Also, toilets. An emphasis on the earth being shit, the body being shit, the human being being worthless shit unless they're one of the elect."
The situation with my father, our estrangement and his death, was as fucked up and awful and real as you might imagine. When we saw each other that Christmas Eve day, neither he nor I could do anything to resolve it. We had both waited too long.
After he died, I wrote about it and wrote about it until I couldn't see outside of it. I published some of that writing. I won contests, paid my rent, and made a living with that writing. I have no apologies to offer for this. I don't know what is appropriate to think, feel, write, and publish and when. Appropriateness has never been a skill or an interest of mine.
I am my experience and my perception of that experience. He is my experience (as was I for him, however seldom we saw each other). My work is my experience.
I know this is not true for every poet, nor do I think it should be. But this essay is a defense of the confessional and post-confessional modes and their capacities for complexity. This is simultaneously a call for directness and openness.
I was recently in a graduate workshop with the talented poet, essayist, and editor Carmen Giménez Smith. Much like her writing, Giménez Smith's workshop style was precise, intuitive, and to the throat. After nearly seven years of graduate school, I know the conventions and limitations of a writing workshop. Sometimes the atmosphere in these classes can turn hostile as aesthetic camps and personalities clash and divide, but what I've more commonly found to be true is the opposite: sometimes we're just too nice.
Yes, we're afraid of offending the poet, but I think we're more often afraid of inhabiting poems – spending actual time and mental and physical energy with the complex thing before us, figuring out its parts, how it works, and what it is trying to do.
Giménez Smith was neither nice nor hostile, but she had inhabited the poems we'd submitted for workshop that day. She held us accountable to them. Why did you make this choice? How is this title more than a placeholder? What is the purpose of this list, this fragment, or this rhetorical move? How can the entire poem rise to the occasion of its best line? Simply put: she wasn't afraid of stating things clearly or asking questions directly.
We exist in a culture that openly mistakes female directness for aggression. What I want to stress is this: the same willful cultural misunderstanding and aversion to female directness is reflected in attitudes toward confessional and post-confessional poetry. The root of the problem is the same, especially when it comes to the intelligent, articulate, and unapologetic female voice. Especially when that voice is interrogating the personal: sex, violence, the body, motherhood, desire, categories of identity, shame and the interconnectedness of all of these. When she is speaking of the interior workings of the home and the family that should be kept under wraps. (As you probably know, Olds' work has often been criticized and resisted for its content and directness.)
Under wraps: literally the veiling of the body and its processes. To cover up.
But doesn't the thing still exist beneath what hides it? The body continues to pulse, the life ticks on in days and kitchens and bedrooms. Still we strive for this constriction of the body, of language, of transparency. (Let me be clear: I'm not talking about truth or authenticity; these notions are problematic enough for me.)
For the workshop with Giménez Smith, I'd written a poem about my grandfather. More specifically, my poem was about nightmares I've had of him since I was a child, and how these dreams can bleed over and shape the surreal landscape of day. From what I have gathered, he molested most of the women in my immediate family. This wasn't in the poem, but the poem revolved around the fact.
"This poem has a lot of secrets," Giménez Smith said. "We get a lot of the effects but not the causes. You need to just stay what happened, what's going on. Name it."
Naming can be horrifying. To name a thing can risk giving it authority as well as taking it away. I've written this before in another essay: When we talk about a thing, name a thing, do we increase or reduce its power? When I say a word over and over does or gain or lose momentum?
In October, I attended a lecture by Carolyn Forché at Marquette University. As a poet of witness and a curator of poetry of witness, she acknowledged (and I am paraphrasing here) the potential problems associated with "political poetry" – how poetry that is ideological cannot succeed because meaning (the message) is decided before the poem is written.
But things can come into being in and through language. Meaning making, according to Forché, can come from an openness to accident, to a state of not-knowing.
Confessional and post-confessional poems that fail do so for the same reasons as didactic political poems: if the goals, expectations, or motivations are overtly predetermined, if the representations are simplistic or binary, and the poem is self-interested only.
Navel-gazing, proselytizing, lecturing, masturbating, self-pleasingness.
You've heard all this before. These points have been made. I don't know that I am breaking ground here, but I've learned that some questions are worth constantly revisiting.
What are we overlooking in regards to confessionalism and post-confessionalism? In his essay “Confessional Poetry: My Eyes Have Seen What My Hand Did," Regan Good claims, "Certainly, we all weary of sentimental poems lacking in craft. But to reject the confessional mode as passé or reductive would be to reject a kind of poem that has a great capacity to humanize.”
To look at a thing directly or to speak about a thing directly or dare to give it a name does not mean we are decided. I do not aim to foreclose uncertainty. Forché centered on the importance of inspiration being born from the words (the disposition) "I don't know."
She referenced Wisława Szymborska's perpetual wonder at the accident of being: "And why am I here? / On a day that’s a Tuesday? In a house not a nest? / In skin not in scales? With a face not a leaf?"
Forché spoke of how each answer (poem) will be makeshift, never complete, and done with necessary humility. This reminded me of something the Alaskan poet Joan Naviyuk Kane said when she gave a reading here in Milwaukee in September. Kane had recently taken a small group of Inupiaq women elders to visit King Island (Ugiuvak in Inupiaq) – a small, rocky island in the Bering Sea where a group of Inupiat people lived until they were relocated to the Alaskan mainland in the mid-1900s. At the reading, someone in the audience asked Kane what she had learned from the trip and if she was going to write about the experience.
I think we all expected some tidy nugget of wisdom but Kane, fortunately, refused to sum it up. She said (again, I'm paraphrasing from my notes), "What I learned from that trip is how little I actually knew in the first place, how much there still is to understand." I thought, yes, that is poetry: the more we learn, the more we write, the more we realize how little we know.
Poetry, Forché said, should move toward rupture, fragment, and lock picking. Regarding confessionalism, Good writes: "Only by ruthless scrutiny of personal weaknesses–and the relinquishing of one’s reason to associative thinking–are clear, moving, necessarily fleeting portraits of the self possible. The brevity of these insights – the slipperiness of them – fills the analyst’s hour (and great confessional poetry) with its exquisite pathos. There is no absolution, no purification, no easy answer to the searching lyric “I” of true confessional poems."
"Poetry is born out of insecurity," Chris Marker, Sans Soleil.
The central mistake is when we believe poetry written in the confessional or post-confessional mode cannot be multivalent, that these poems can't be borne of the "I don't know" disposition. We misstep when we assume these poets are only interested and invested in their own experience, when we assume that their concerns, the concerns of the work, do not reach beyond the personal, the individual. Of course there are self-indulgent and self-centered people and poems, but the real majority of powerful writing being done in the personal realm is neither self-indulgent nor self-centered.
Olds in her interview with The Independent: "I've never said that the poems don't draw on personal experience, but I've never said that they do. The dialogue that I'm comfortable having about them is one to the side of that actual subject. Art is so different from life. It's just so different."
We write about ourselves and our experiences to purge the self, to write through the self, and see her from the outside, yet still stand on the inside (ultimately, we cannot escape this position, at least not while alive). To meet or speak to other people, other women, there who can relate to our experiences, our suffering, our hunger. We write of the self to be a person in a world among other selves. Is this not the human project in one of its most obvious forms? Not that we can explain ourselves to each other or solve, but that we acknowledge.
When contemplating post-confessionalism on Harriet, The Poetry Foundation's blog, Jeffrey McDaniel writes: “I guess for me, ‘post-confessional’ would apply to poems that enter into a place of psychic fracture, often involving family, and elaborate on or develop techniques used by the confessional poets.”
In her lecture, Forché said the ethos of poetry constitutes a response to these things. She was referring specifically to poetry written after state-sanctioned trauma. I'm interested in writing in the midst and the aftermath of private, domestic trauma.
After his death, I discovered all these photographs of my father I hadn't seen before or had forgotten about. In many of these photos, our smile (grimacy, wide, apologetic, hopeful) is the same: finally something of myself reflected back to me in the world. This is a form of following, haunting, an acknowledgment in retrospect. All these poems, simply: I'm sorry I was so late.
Despite her desire to prevent the harm they will cause each other, the speaker in "I Go Back to May 1937" decides against intervention: "I want to live. I / take them up like the male and female / paper dolls and bang them together / at the hips, like chips of flint, as if to / strike sparks from them, I say / Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it."
She chooses existence and experience, to be made and unmade, to seek out a sense of self, however shifting. To speak from a place of psychic fracture.
Forché: "Poems can be ghosted language."
Giménez Smith: "Haunting can be active."
Link to "I Go Back to may 1937" by Sharon Olds: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/176442
Caitlin Scarano is a poet in the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee PhD creative writing program. She was a finalist for the 2014 Best of the Net Anthology and the winner of the 2015 Indiana Review Poetry Prize, judged by Eduardo Corral. She has two poetry chapbooks: The White Dog Year (dancing girl press, 2015) and The Salt and Shadow Coiled (Zoo Cake Press, 2015). This winter, she will be an artist in residence at the Hinge Arts Residency program in Fergus Falls and the Artsmith's 2016 Artist Residency on Orcas Island.