Naturally writing only rises to the level of art if it radiates the craft and language we associate with literature.
But what then, does it cost the writer to drive for and sing the truth before her, as in, what degree of commitment of self—energy, focus, imagination, vulnerability– is required to bring something to life on the page? More to the point, what is required of the writer whose work is intimate, intense, arising from a combination of autobiographical impulses and the compulsion to universalize those impulses by making art of them?
Three years ago, I began writing the memoir of a series of events that took place thirty years earlier. It was instinctive to me to put myself “back there,” to inhabit the story. , naively, I had no idea that to write the memoir would mean to relive everything—or that the truths, the verities of the experience, would be so overwhelming..
But it did. The memoir took me over; it claimed and preoccupied me and occupied me until I was the story and the story retold itself through me. For a time we were one organism.
The story had a beautiful setting—the Italian city, Verona, and the rugged beauty of the southern regions of Italy. The narrative arc was the meeting of an Italian man and my traveling down the coast to be with him and the rest of what happened.
The personal cost to me of driving to portray facts and events was great. I had to return, in a number of respects, to something I wanted to forget—that on this journey, I was an agoraphobic, intensely fearful young poet whose friend had brought her to Europe to get over an affair.
Also rekindled in the writing: an overabundance of wistfulness and regret and that when I was actually living all of it, I was blind to much of it.
Not incidentally, that makes the case for the perspective only time can give a narrative. I was looking back, reconstructing and reviving what had been a present and experiencing the gamut of emotion in living it all again–and dumbfounded by revelations along the way.
I briefly posted a poem today that I believe to be a strong poem that to me, takes immense emotional risks, and whose emotional price is indubitably obvious. In order to write the poem, I had to be the voice of anguish in the moment—to let pain re-inhabit me. Here is that poem, unarguably confessional but one hopes, in so far as the I stands in for the whole, lyrical nevertheless:
Remember Me to Moonlight
I stand in the mirror and slit my head open and
pull out my brain. It wobbles in the basin like a jelly fish.
I can see the tendrils of desire, the veins of poetry. But
it is dark red with anger. I splash cold water over it.
Its teeth chatter and I am glad.
It thinks on in its husk of porcelain: without me: what sins
are unforgivable, that she a poet should have opened her
baby’s wrist. That one and then the girl who threw the puppies
into the river. I drowned puppies whose mother had no first milk, to spare them starvation, when I too was stranded and abandoned. This good enough for me on some nights, et tu?
Perhaps I did so to spare myself, what it would have cost me
to be enslaved to their cries, their need. That may
be forgivable, yet we know not the locus of the grande fleur of
forgiveness. God is not; God is unleavened, in the ashes: don’t look for Yahweh here. But to kill your own child.
I had thought to repair my cognition, my hypertexts
in the ice water bath but it seems I have failed: tonight
I excoriate you once more, calling you an idiot. You
bumble off to feed the kittens with an eyedropper. They cry
for the love of crying and I weep for the love of God.
O brain, o pulpy split pomegranate, cache of seeds:
I would fare better as a houri singing from a mosque
over the blue desert, my lover in the shadows.
We would commit the taboos there, dance unveiled
in the saccharin moonlight. O myth of Allah. O travesty
of Jesus. My eyes would blaze; I would envelope
my lover in red silk—that of woman, mortality. Tear
the lamb from my womb; cleanse me of my burdens.
Revive Aphrodite; fit her mouth to me and hear my
keening as I melt to sunrise, spreading break of day over
the war-ravaged villages. I will die for you; stretch me out
under the searing sun, then, with these tendons, string
the bone-violin. Yes. Make of me, a languid Orfea, a violin..
Have someone play me under the willow, late, in the depths
of the twilight. Someone whose blood runs with anguish
copyright Jenne’ R. Andrews 2012
I briefly shared this poem on a site full of writers, where I received a mix of comments, and then clutched, and took it down. I repost it here because I think it’s a tour d’force of language and image underpinned by intense emotion, and therefore, one of my strongest poems. I received several positive comments and a few somewhat concerning ones suggesting that it is an outburst.
But what makes one “outburst” successful and another one a failure, one poem a raving success and another something to forget one has bothered to read ? I would say power, intensity, honesty all governed by craft—and a willingness to pay the emotional and intellectual price to bring it into being. To be authentic, it must divulge, reveal, cry out—not as the statement of a mutated, sympathy-seeking victim, but brilliantly, as the voice-in-common, and ultimately, with stunning artistry.
Accordingly, much contemporary poetry is far afield from the Romantic grounding in “emotion recollected in tranquility.” I have collected poems written in this freeing and problematic vein into their own volume of my work—with utter trepidation, unsure of where I am standing.
Where the Voluble Dusk collection radiates light, Snafu cries out like a pair of gushing wrists, but the important issue is: I regard the work as poetry ..
Again, some might feel that the poem in question is not art. I would hope that it goes beyond that level of neo-confessionalism, however, by virtue of its overall beauty, intensity and power.
Here is the title poem of the collection—I feel a bit surer of this poem, perhaps because it feels more measured and controlled. It is clearly autobiographical/neo-confessional but I pray that it universalizes and makes relevant, the personal.
Jet said the family was angry—angry that Henrietta’s cells were
being sold for twenty-five dollars a vial, and angry that articles had
been published about the cells without their knowledge. It said,
“Pounding in the back of their heads was a gnawing feeling
that science and the press had taken advantage of them.”
From The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot.
I once imagined I had saved a few of your brain cells.
For many years I was afraid to have them unlocked.
How much of your coding is mine.
How much of you am I—
I would have shaken off this heavy
coat of self-doubt but long after you died
I scared myself mad and thought the stars
flashed on the ceiling of my brain;
I lay beneath a table in an abandoned house, weeping.
Someone shouted at me “You are not your mother”
but it was too late; I had taken you in,
cannibalized you, dissected
What I did not consume. Finally I put on my white coat
and took the vial from the refrigerator. I spread you on the slide
and scrutinized you like a miner looking
for a vein of silver.
Your cells blinked at me like eyes, accusatory:
You grave robber. I am in the service of science
I told you. Open your eyes.
I hid from your madness in my room. I was ashamed
and I broke a pencil writing you a letter you never saw.
Milton’s God made man from Himself. Not from dust,
earth, but from God’s own celestial rib. God wrought code
And built the cell’s housing by starlight. The scripts
are infinite—this one for a jellyfish, that one for an adder.
And this one for a mentally ill mother.
This hieroglyphic, this gone mad dysplastic helix, mutations
Like warped dimes glittering on a glass slide. A sideshow
for research; they put you in mice and the mice
hallucinated: they caught glimpses of themselves
in a mirror and consumed each other. We devoured
Each other in this manner. I ate your DNA and you ate mine.
I had the blood of the water moccasin and you
the chronic fever of a poet. I tried to hand back to you
the inherited darkness. The scripted faithlessness.
If we had indeed harvested a slice of your brain we would perhaps
know of a He-An cell as we know of He-la and Henrietta Lack.
Yours I believe, would have lived in a vial back in the depths
of a lab in unwilling oblivion, until someone thought to examine
Your brand of madness under a microscope. In that interlude
you would have seen to it that someone heard your mourning,
your cursing at ghosts. This is what your brain thought
it should do: sing out against inner perpetrators.
What became of the code when electrons were fired into it?
Those shock treatments. Did it fragment or implode like
an over-turned scrabble board. O my mother. My one they
stretched out into a coma and violated with suppositions.
God is, you would mouth, on your knees. But not-God ruled
our years: you taunted angels at full voice, at 3 a.m.
My own genetic sheet music, dark with rebellion, shared with Lucifer,
returned fire, enveloped you like a hawk’s wings.
We sat at a small table, looking at each other. I could not believe
I was pulled from you wet and writhing, that I began within you.
You wanted a girly girl, an angel, but everything is foreordained
in the cell– except that in the blink of an eye the code
Misses a step: then cells grow wildly where they should not.
Wanton malaise comes over the body; Huns in the kidneys, Cossacks
in the liver, infinitesimal materiel multiplying like junkyard dogs
in my cerebellum and yours.
I made something like a mistake. Ill, I put myself in a nursing home
where you had been, where I saw you alive last. A woman
on the other side of the wall babbled to herself the night long
No one came to her and I could not, so great was the reminding.
I often see you sitting there in a metal chair dressed for church
waiting for me. I would revive you in some other way, for answers.
But this is impossible. I write in the wind doing the next thing
and then the next– the soul’s stained laundry. A casserole of blackbirds
calling to the hands, your faux religious fervor au gratin–
I did not mean to refer to you as a pair of eyes. When I last saw you
they were mercifully closed, tears at the corners. Forgiveness
is slow to leach into my heart from wherever it comes.
Copyright Jenne’ R. Andrews
Regarding then, the price of making this piece, to write this poem was like waking a wolverine from the shadows of the psyche and going mano a mano with it. It delves and probes grief and rage in ways that would make those who want only a certain kind of beauty to emanate from a poem go immediately off their feed.
Therefore, if it costs the writer, it also taxes and claims a tariff from the reader. A compelling poem takes us on a journey through terrain we might wish to avoid. Yet, suddenly there it is before us.
The reader can close the book, the window on the computer, turn away. But the writer? She has unburdened herself of her meaning, perhaps feels she has created what she attempted to create, but in the aftermath, must touch back down in the ordinary present where one does not continually think, dream and converse in poetry or about intense subjects.
All of the modern age in writing, it seems to me, has generated a mandate to be “real”—authentic—truth-telling without fear– in one’s work. Do we not admire the authenticity of a Hemingway and of a Plath? Do their works not eviscerate us and make us short of breath? Read Hemingway’s description of the wounded lion in Macomber. It takes a brave heart to speak the reality of a gut-shot lion. And Plath’s suicidal poems are indelibly lyrical, showing forth her mastery and genius.
The force that through the green fuse drives the poem is indeed the destroyer, to take great liberties with Thomas’s lines. It costs to reach deep into the psyche and the arsenals of craft and language to write powerfully.
This is the writer’s cross to bear. In a very real sense, creating means walking to Golgotha, martyred to one’s art. Rilke’s immense suffering gave rise to transcendent, exquisite poems that would not otherwise exist. Brahms’ Requiem Mass which documents our journey to and through death itself could only have been created by someone with the breadth and depth of emotion and intelligence to “receive” the immensely lyrical cries of the heart that make up each section of the work.
In a real sense, then, we write what we know; we incarnate what we live in our work as the lyrical statement, and then must do the ultimate brave thing: share what we have made with the world, not knowing if we will be lauded or crucified.
Jenne’ R. Andrews
April 14, 2012