I wonder how many people out there grasp what it is like to be broken, to have been the child of broken parents, to have inherited things one would not wish on one’s worst enemy so that one lives in a constant state of overcoming and transcending in order to survive.
Because despite how often those of us who are broken are condemned by those who think we can just move on, those who stigmatize us with labels and diagnoses of expediency, being a trauma survivor is beyond hard and it takes courage to live one hour to the next.
I raise this issue again because I realized that my issues around feedback from an editorial assistant on my beautiful collection Voluble Dusk, Stubborn Love arose because I was shamed, i.e. devalued, my self-confidence and belief in my work stripped away.
To be told that my book was “rife with loss” and needed to be revised, for acceptance for publication to be conditional on making the book a happier one, really, really sucks. It is uninformed and wrong-headed, cold, patronizing and cruel.
But the hardest part of it has been that it flipped the shame switch– that it is somehow and in some way shameful to produce a poetry of grief if indeed I have, which I dispute! In our heads, we poets who certainly as a class and kind of people aren’t strangers to suffering, want to deliver ourselves of our pain. Yet we cannot; we write of the human experience, from experience; we are moved to give voice by what we feel, see, taste, smell, remember and dream. We do staple ourselves to the Cross for the sake of our art. We celebrate, we weep.
Somewhere I mentioned a review of Tess Gallagher’s work in The Guardian of Dear Ghosts, a collection of poems written in a state of grief.
These poems are brilliant. It is not only their cathartic value, that we empathize and can be delivered of our own grief through the medium of the poem, but that they turn on Gallagher’s mastery of the craft. Her language is exquisite and her attention is never trained on anything insignificant.
The collection I am currently reviewing and hoping to complete and post this week — Sky Thick with Fireflies, Salmon Press, 2011–could be said from a certain perspective to be weighted with loss. Or, one can focus on and take delight in the poet Ethna McKiernan’s voice, intensity and beauty of image, linguistic power that renders life so indelibly, bringing into relief what loss is, what beauty is, the notion of “beautiful sadness” referenced by so many writers and thinkers.
What do we want from poetry? Don’t we want to be moved, enriched, caught up, delivered from the ordinariness of daily life, shown that the moments defining our existence are anything but banal?
I personally find it impossible to function when I am in a state of shame– when I have bought back in to the idea that what I have done or said or been has been “inappropriate,” that I have committed some massive faux pas.
I have had to battle the old shame tapes that begin with “See what a fuck-up you are? See how weird you are, how unlovable, unworthy…” over the situation with my neighbors– for trying to get us into mediation only to be told by the landlord that my “behavior” was “weird.” What a jerk.
I have recently had to battle it all over this assessment on the part of a woman I have never met and whose expertise I question, over the idea that something is wrong with my creative work, that it is somehow skewed and unpleasant and intolerable, too demanding of the reader.
I am well aware that some of my work makes demands on the reader– try living what led to the work!– but my deepest-looking poems that address my mother’s madness, our relationship, my own efforts to resolve trauma, are not in this book. They are in a second manuscript I look forward to beginning to pull together and thankfully, today I came out of the cloud-cover of shame with a vengeance:
who is any fucking-body to tell me it’s wrong to write about loss, to sing grief, to lament, to keen, to rage?
My own estimation of my work is that it is a far cry from mere rant with line breaks. As I said re the Gallagher collection, and have said in reviews:
A poem is art; it is not life. When the poet speaks, art is made. The poem may reflect and refract the human experience, or indicate autobiographical impulse, but it is something other than life; it is an artifact of an instant in the consciousness, the imagination of its creator.
I love realistic baby dolls; I have several with hand-rooted human hair, so beautifully sculpted they are breathtaking. But no matter how realistic, they are not human infants, of course. To hold one is comforting; to see one in the course of moving from room to room is to take delight in a work of art. If you are a woman whom motherhood has passed by, they are comforting, although you run the risk of being labeled crazy if you take one out in public. Except for mentioning this habit/hobby in this instance, this is a private pleasure.
There were two poems in particular I pulled from the newly revised manuscript I am not sending on to the press in question so that I could “leaven” the book a bit. At that level I am responding to editorial feedback– but that is different than having one’s shame triggered–, the idea that there is something wrong not just with what you have said or done, but with you, that you are an aberration, Other, unappealing, unwanted and so on.
Here is one of the poems I excised, replacing with more celebratory work. This is still a draft of sorts, needing some tightening, and written in a more conversational and relaxed style than much of my work. Feel free to weigh in. xj
One night when I was star-watching, fathoming
the Dipper in its clockwise course over the north
pasture, a neighbor shot a pig out on the edge
of the dark. He had taken her behind his barn;
from far off I heard her squealing, a rifle’s crack,
then silence. The stars wept some of their fire,
flickering in hesitation, their power shorting out
for a second as the lights do in ice storms, when
the glossy poplar boughs hang so heavily over
the kennel and the ghost of my bereft bitch
who bore fifteen and had no milk ranges in
the frozen trees, keening again for her lost
young. That is what I think, anyway, because
of how I got my bones, putting a calf to sleep,
her head in my lap, letting those fading whelps
go on down to Jordan in a shallow pan of water.
I hope that the air smothers me gently like that
water when I die, and that I see the great wheel
of the stars overhead, the hemispheric sky clock
tolling the hour, someone calling to me from afar–
a te deum, an absolution. Because I loved
my calf, I rocked her, holding an ethered cloth
to her mouth, as a vet had shown me and she thanked
me with her eyes; I had wanted to do the same
for my father with his blistered lungs, all the years’
running out of air yet keeping on to tend us,
but I wasn’t brave enough. Not long after
my heifer was taken away by the carretera
de muerte, new pups slid like small creek trout
into my lap; I broke them from their sacs and they
gasped into life as I put my thumbs on the back
of each one’s head, swinging it down to clear its
airway. More than enough of it was like this—
death, then a mote of life coming into being,
something new flickering on the Milky Way’s
perimeter, then out there, the dying back
of the light, the receding of the caress, the
aversion of the eyes– the phenomenon of things
absenting themselves from your life before you–
as when you’re speaking what your heart holds
to one who then recedes like smoke into all
the untallied and star-crossed years.
copyright Jenne’ R. Andrews 2012