blackbirdonline journalFall 2012 Vol. 11 No. 2
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Frauds and Doppelgängers: The Poet in Recent Fiction

In Douglas Adams’ classic comic science fiction novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Englishman Arthur Dent and his alien friend Ford Prefect find themselves accidentally stowed away in the ship of a “thoroughly vile” race of beings known as Vogons, who have just blown up the planet Earth. The eponymous guide describes them as “one of the most unpleasant races in the Galaxy—not actually evil, but bad-tempered, bureaucratic, officious, and callous.” Evolution, “when the Vogons had first crawled out of the sluggish primeval seas of Vogsphere . . . had simply given up on them there and then, had turned aside in disgust and written them off as an ugly and unfortunate mistake.” Yet despite these myriad shortcomings, the Vogons are possessed of one particular habit that truly sets them apart as a race for sheer disagreeableness: they are poets.

Not only are the Vogons poets, but they are famed for composing “the third worst [poetry] in the Universe,” necessitating—as in the case of the unlucky Arthur and Ford—the strapping-in of one’s audience into “Poetry Appreciation chairs” outfitted with “a battery of electronic equipment—imagery intensifiers, rhythmic modulators, alliterative residulators and simile dumpers—all designed to heighten the experience of the poem and make sure that not a single nuance of the poet’s thought was lost.” For regular attendees of poetry readings, such sadistic trappings of the Vogon literary enterprise may seem like a minor satirical embellishment at best.

Indeed, the perception of the poet as someone who is comically self-involved, morbidly long-winded, and tiresomely self-deluded is something of a commonplace. Try introducing yourself to non-literary folks as a poet, and you may find them suddenly beset with urgent text messages as they sidle towards the nearest exit. To depict Jake LaMotta at his nadir, an overweight caricature of a broken-down boxer, Martin Scorsese has Robert DeNiro in Raging Bull recite original poetry in a seedy dressing room. In “A Little Priest,” the great musical tribute to cannibalism in Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, one is actually discouraged from using poets as filling for meat pies: “the trouble with poet / Is, how do you know it’s / Deceased?” Even so, a surprising number of novels have appeared in the last few years which feature poets as their protagonists or as major characters; from 2009 to 2011, at least a dozen such books have been published.

I’ll admit that, as a poet, the thought of examining these books felt spectacularly, exhaustingly self-indulgent. My entire waking life is consumed by a poet’s inner monologue—why in the hell would I want to double up? And I certainly had a healthy dose of trepidation about whether or not the poet, as a character, could even stand a chance of being interesting: the “poetry” part of my own life would seem pretty boring to anyone but me: read, sit at keyboard, read, sit at keyboard, lather, rinse, repeat. The Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska, in her 1996 Nobel speech, makes a point of observing how “hopelessly unphotogenic” the work of the poet is:

Someone sits at a table or lies on a sofa while staring motionless at a wall or ceiling. Once in a while this person writes down seven lines only to cross out one of them fifteen minutes later, and then another hour passes, during which nothing happens . . . Who could stand to watch this kind of thing?

Or, for that matter, to read it? The anxieties I encountered were twofold—would I find, in these books, an illustration of the dullness that I’ve imagined myself to embody, or would I encounter an affirmation of the caricatures and self-parodies that poets are often suspected to be?

Within these novels, there are some commonalities, which one might expect given the also-familiar idea of the poet as mad and self-destructive. Incarceration and institutionalization for mental breakdowns and substance abuse abound: we see the miserable imprisonment of Paul Verlaine after drunkenly shooting Arthur Rimbaud, the protagonist of Bruce Duffy’s Disaster Was My God. In Peter Nathaniel Malae’s What We Are, poet Paul Tusifale’s difficulty in controlling his anger and propensity for violence has led to a stay at San Quentin State Prison in his past, as well as clashes with the law throughout the course of the narrative. Both nineteenth-century British poets Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and John Clare are connected—albeit with very different afflictions—with the same insane asylum in Adam Foulds’s The Quickening Maze. In Siri Hustvedt’s The Summer Without Men, the poet-protagonist Mia Fredrickson works to rebuild a sense of equilibrium and self after a brief psychotic break and hospitalization. And of course, there’s more philandering than you can shake a stick at, but that’s hardly out of the ordinary—as the poet-narrator of Leah Stewart’s Husband and Wife observes, a favorite book of her husband’s is “about an affair, but so is every third book on the planet.” But in truth, these correspondences amongst the stories are superficial at best, and within the contexts of their narratives, faithful to their characters as people, not just as poets.

I can’t speak to why the authors of these novels were attracted to the poet as a character without resorting to amateur armchair psychiatry. Each author is likely to have his or her own reason, one that’s highly specific to his or her own writerly DNA. To attempt to orchestrate some unifying motivation or cause seems disrespectful to the complexities inherent in the making of literature. These novels encompass a broad range of aesthetics and modes—comic, tragic, historical, postmodern, etc.—and have been written by authors who themselves are poets, as well as those who are not. The poets depicted run the gamut between success and failure, gay and straight, poverty and prosperity, academic and non-, writer’s-blocked and prolific. However, examining these works, two particular trends emerge in how the figure of the poet is represented. The first concerns the tendency of the poets to perceive themselves as frauds or liars, and the second concerns the tendency, in the narratives, for there to be a kind of double, shadow, mirror, second self, or doppelgänger for the character of the poet.


Frauds and Liars
     Now for the poet, he nothing affirmeth, and therefore never liet
          —Philip Sidney, “The Defense of Poesy”

The poets’ tendencies, in these novels, to see themselves as frauds brings to mind another passage from Szymborska’s Nobel speech: “Contemporary poets are skeptical and suspicious even, or perhaps especially, about themselves. They publicly confess to being poets only reluctantly, as if they were a little ashamed of it.” Compared with, say, the novelist, who at least is writing in a tradition generally perceived as morally instructive and financially remunerative, the poet today can often feel like the literary equivalent of a pair of tonsils or an appendix: a stubborn, vestigial presence that has long since outgrown its cultural usefulness.

It seems only right that a fictionalized version of Arthur Rimbaud should number among these self-skeptical poets, in the form of Bruce Duffy’s Disaster Was My God. Rimbaud may be the most famous case of poetic renunciation in modern history. After writing the groundbreaking works A Season in Hell, The Drunken Boat, and Illuminations all by the age of twenty, Rimbaud abruptly turned his back on poetry, leading a peripatetic existence and spending his later years as a gunrunner in Africa, before dying of cancer at the age of thirty-seven. It’s inaccurate, though, to consider the novel a “fictionalized biography,” in that Duffy, in a prefacing “Note to the Reader,” freely admits that he was obliged to “bend [Rimbaud’s] life in order to see it.” Disaster Was My God bounces around in time, depicting the last, disease-ridden period of Rimbaud’s life in Africa, his schoolboy years, and the beginning of his doomed, destructive affair with the poet Paul Verlaine. Threaded throughout is Rimbaud’s tortured relationship with his cold, suspicious harpy of a mother, who matches her son in calculated, Machiavellian self-interest.

Duffy’s novel is explicit in its depiction of Rimbaud’s post-poetic disgust, particularly as he speaks with his former booster and lover, Verlaine—and it is the specter of dishonesty that particularly clouds the young poet’s past achievement:

“Verlaine,” he said, “as I burned my past, did I neglect to say that art is stupid and lie and, above all, useless? Useless. Did you think I was just writing these things to create some poetic frisson? Some effect? . . . this will surprise you, but now I wish I had not given away all my poems. Honestly, if only I’d had the good sense to keep them! Had I only! Then I could burn them, all my little darlings, every last lying, stupid word.

. . . Trickery. Fakery. Vanity. That’s all it ever was.”

Even while he is producing the literary work of his youth, Rimbaud’s pursuits are not without a whiff of fraudulence, at least among the Parisian upper classes. In this world, the word “poet” is nearly synonymous with fraudulence and deceit, as evinced by the remarks of a friend of Verlaine’s mother-in-law: “‘Poetess,’ she continued, ‘this barbarism reminds me of that odious new title actress, with which the various tartlettes of the stage and the music halls now cloak their revolting nocturnal escapades.’”

We’re introduced to the “mature” Rimbaud in the deserts of Abyssinia at a particularly low point, suffering from a diseased leg he will eventually lose, planning to cross a dangerous wasteland route with the spoils of his trade. As privately self-loathing as the former poet may be about his work, outwardly he adopts a more careless pose of indifference and dismissal, insisting, repeatedly, that he cannot take responsibility for his poetry: “‘Slops,’ ‘frothings,’ ‘inanities’—Rimbaud utterly rejected his literary leftovers”. A particularly shrewd traveling companion, a missionary’s wife, observes that his refusal to take responsibility for his work is not unlike his refusal to accept the repercussions of his activities within the weapons trade in North Africa:

So, guns then, Mr. Rimbaud. So like your poems. Acts of God. Accidents for which you, being you, are to be held blameless. Heavens no! You are not their author. You, pure as snow. Certainly not—you did not force them to buy your wares. Do I not detect a theme, Mr. Rimbaud?

After coming across a particularly gruesome massacre for which the guns of Rimbaud’s trade are suspected to have been involved, she acidly inquires: “Are you not the author of this lovely poem we now see stretched out before us?” In one bloody tableau, the poet’s work is perverted to mass slaughter, and his refusal to admit to his own culpability for either his art or his corrupt trade is tantamount to profound moral decay.

Compared with the mercurial and charismatic Rimbaud in Duffy’s novel, Harry Quirk, the poet-narrator of Kate Christensen’s The Astral, is the quintessence of a sadsack. Unemployed in middle age and the author of formal poems that “fell out of favor,” the engine that drives his story is a deception he’s accused of, but of which he is not guilty: his wife of thirty years, Luz, throws him out of their apartment and destroys the manuscript for his next book because she is convinced he and his best friend, Marion, are having an affair. Ironically, Harry had cheated on Luz twelve years ago, was found out and, after the obligatory Sturm und Drang, was ostensibly forgiven, and yet it is the nonexistent adultery that costs him his marriage and his home. Even though he’s innocent of this particular transgression, he cannot help but feel as though he’s still guilty of betrayal: “she knows what I’m capable of . . . I might as well be guilty.” “She was justified in thinking I was lying, based on the affection I’d showed her in recent years”). After desperately trying, and repeatedly failing, to earn his way back in to Luz’s good graces, Quirk’s real liberation comes when he realizes that the truth of his faithfulness to his wife no longer matters:

It didn’t matter, really, whether I was innocent or guilty, true or adulterous, a genius or a retard. Nothing I could say or do would change her mind, because for once, her mind hadn’t made the decision, her heart had, and that was beyond argument. The marriage was over.

Not only does this revelation mark an emotional breakthrough for Harry, but there’s an indication that this changed relationship he has with “the truth” will lead to an artistic breakthrough as well. In describing to a friend his fruitless efforts to write another book after the breakup of his marriage, Harry laments that he’s lost the “egomaniacal steam that powered the whole enterprise.” The shock of having the transience of his marriage, his home, and his relationships exposed has led him to ruminate that his lifelong adherence to traditional, formal verse is simply yet another blind investment in a flawed system he’s come to take for granted as inviolate.

Nothing has objective value; the only realities I’ve acknowledged are perception and experience, and they’re subjective and shifting and up for grabs. There is no sun, so to speak, there is no ultimate, verifiable, central truth. . . . When I was younger . . . I wrote in formal verse, I hewed to the traditional structures, but I did not accept the common notion that poetry has to involve transcendence.

Harry’s friend suggests that this, in fact, should be his new subject—the admission that “there are wild mysteries out there.” Though there’s no decisive sounding of trumpets, there’s a hint of optimism that great poetic work ahead for Harry may be the exploration of truth as a meandering path through unmapped climes, rather than the clean, clearly-bounded road he’d imagined it to be.

In Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist, Paul Chowder, only marginally more employed than Harry Quirk, describes his eponymous job as that of “a lost soul who turned in despair to the publishing of other people’s work.” Even more unfortunately for Paul, not only is he incapable—so he thinks—of writing decent poetry anymore, but he’s in the midst of a nasty period of anthologist’s block, wherein he’s unable to write the necessary introduction to the anthology of rhyming poems he’s assembled, Only Rhyme. In his distress about his circumstances, he resorts to self-accusations of fraudulence: “My life is a lie. My career is a joke. I’m a study in failure.” When he speaks of his poetry, it’s as though it’s a kind of unexposed scam he’s perpetuated: “these days when I try to write rhyming poetry it’s terrible. I mean it’s just really embarrassing—it sucks. So I write [unrhymed poems]. Chopped garbage. I’ve gotten away with it for years.” Not only is Chowder full of doubt about his ability to write good poetry ever again, he’s also convinced that all of his previous work is suspect at best: “I’ve made some acceptable poems—poems that have been accepted in a literal sense. But not one single really good poem.” Even when describing his short-lived teaching career, the specter of dishonesty appears once again:

I was being paid to lie. My job was to lie very gently to these trusting, sleepy, easily wounded students, over and over again, by saying in all sorts of different ways that their poems were interesting and powerful and sharply etched and nicely turned and worth giving collective thought to. Which they unfortunately were not . . . 

So I was a professional teller of lies. And if I kept teaching, I would be telling more and more lies to more and more of these students, year after year.

However, Baker’s Chowder, even in his unhappiness, is allowed a certain degree of comfort, in that he still manages to be buoyed by the art itself, if not his own contributions to it.

We [poets] all love the busy ferment, and we all know it’s nonsense. Getting together for conferences of international poetry. Hah! A joke. Reading our poems. Our little moment. Physical presence. In the same room with. A community. Forget it. It’s a joke.

But then one day you open up a book to a certain page . . . And you see why it’s all necessary, the whole enterprise. . . . My life is necessary because I sustain the idea of poetry through thick and thin. That’s my job.

It is this faith, in the end, that allows Chowder to emerge from his funk, finish the introduction to his anthology, and begin writing poems he cares about again—as well as acknowledging that, just perhaps, his own past work wasn’t entirely deplorable. He accepts the despair and feeling of uselessness as part of the job description, part of the natural cycle of one’s work:

You know what? I could write forever. This is me. This is me you’re getting. Nobody else but me.

You may not want me. I don’t care. I want you to have me. That’s the way it works. I’m here giving and you’re there taking. If you are there.

Chowder’s revelation shares a remarkably similar attitude to that of Bruce Duffy’s “Parnassians”—the elder statesmen of the Parisian literary circles to whom Rimbaud is introduced by Verlaine in Disaster Was My God:

Whatever posterity’s harsh judgments, these Parnassians were not the silly poseurs and mediocrities . . . These were able and committed craftsmen—decent men, amusing and intelligent. Most, too, were realists, relieved finally of the sad, wearying burden of kidding themselves about one day standing among the Pantheon. Failure, pain, rejection: the dawning, then resolute certainty that ceaseless effort and passion, or even talent, were not enough—that, all kidding aside, one was, after all, unexceptional. They knew the writer’s lot. They did the work. They did it the best they could—was that not enough?

The mark of wisdom for a poet, it would seem, is not to reject the fear of failure, fraudulence, or inconsequence, but to surrender to their likelihood with grace. To preserve one’s idealism for the art itself, while remaining pragmatic about one’s own fallible humanity.

But of course, pragmatic poets aren’t much fun, are they? We’d prefer them messy and drunk and promiscuous and howling at the moon. Ostensibly, this is exactly what Peter Nathaniel Malae’s What We Are delivers: the young poet here ricochets between fistfights, arrest, drinking binges, dysfunctional sex, and any number of other personal fiascoes. But these disruptions, rather than being the product of some kind of sad self-indulgence supposedly inherent to the writer, are the product of a genuine crisis of identity on the part of Paul Tusifale, “a half-breed American man who can claim the brown pride of Polynesia or the white wisdom of western culture.” Paul is pure contradiction, driven by an almost painful sense of empathy, as well as barely-controlled hostility, ill at ease in both the Samoan community of San Jose and the largely white culture of privilege that dominates the city. He ricochets from one experience to the next, longing for a sense of authenticity, while simultaneously convinced that authenticity within American culture is impossible.

Despite being a poet, Paul has nothing but contempt for his so-called fellow writers, exemplified by a reception for recently-graduated MFAs he attends. These academic poets are basically parodies of themselves, nearly suffocated by their own pompousness, suffering from their own maladies of inauthenticity:

I hear tales of paper cuts told in weighty tones of limb severance, and this seems to me to be something of a story in itself, a bad vaudeville, where the characters are all by choice forcing themselves on one another. Everyone in great pain, everyone trying to be clever. The vibe of these people makes me worry about the arts.

Paul dryly observes that “I used to believe in the sanctity of poetry—before I met anyone associated with it,” expressing his disappointment in the chasm between the “greats” who buoyed him during his time in prison and “these future Pulitzers, more interested in playacting and sipping wine spritzers than getting down in the pit with their demons.” His feelings about poetry and poets are an expression of the larger ambivalence he struggles with throughout the novel about his own sense of self, and how he fits within his fractured experience of contemporary American culture. Like Rimbaud and Chowder, Paul also rejects his own written work as suspect. He disavows his anonymously published book of love poems, Beatrice: “Fuck that book. I officially disown it as a fraud. It was built on stilts. Toothpicks. I should have called it Against Virtue or On Phoniness.” He vacillates between artistic abnegation and acceptance, reasoning that his art may be the one thing in this world that he can authentically claim as his own:

There is nothing stranger in the world than the feeling of detesting, and therefore privately denying, a book you’ve in fact written. . . . I feel like a brand-new father whose secret gut reaction at seeing the infant for the first time is: Whoa there! That is one ugly baby! But I have to own something in this world, goddammit, and I guess it may as well be this allegedly award-winning book of poems that everyone, especially women, seems to love.

Later, at a library where he used to work, he tosses their copy of his book in the men’s room toilet. He appears to reconsider this juvenile gesture, though, when he boards a plane at the novel’s end to “leave America for good,” carrying no baggage but a copy of his own book in his back pocket. One wonders if Paul’s gravitation toward his literary genre—reluctant as it is—actually comes from a sense of kinship, in that he recognizes that poetry has a similar uncomfortable and insecure place in the contemporary American landscape, simultaneously ubiquitous and inessential.

Despite Paul’s supposed “escape” from America, the narrator of Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station illustrates that the dilemmas of poetry and authenticity are unavoidable, no matter how far one travels. Adam Gordon is a young American abroad in Madrid on a Fulbright-esque fellowship; besides writing poetry, perhaps Adam’s most remarkable talent is his mendacity. He’s guilty of little lies—claiming to be from New York, rather than Providence by way of Topeka, claiming to have seen photographs or movies he hasn’t, lying about appointments he must run off to keep—and big ones, the most damning of these being that his mother is either dead or dying, and that his father, “the gentlest and most generous man” he knows is “basically a fascist.” He initially lies about his mother’s death in order to seem profound and thoughtful, and his “self-disgust [gave] way in turn to the fear that somehow this lie would have material effects, would kill her.” Perversely, this very thought causes him to cry, making his lie only that much more believable to the young woman who is its audience. But even more than the explicit lies he tells, Adam is relentlessly aware of every aspect of his public self as a kind of calculated performance. Hardly any remark, gesture, cigarette, or raised eyebrow is without pose or calculation, which accounts for some of the most deft humor of the book:

[Upon entering the party], I was acutely aware of not being attractive enough for my surroundings; luckily I had a strategy for such situations . . . a look that communicated incredulity cut with familiarity, a boredom arrested only by a vaguely anthropological interest in my surroundings, a look that contained a dose of contempt I hoped could be read as political, as insinuating that, after a frivolous night, I would be returning to the front lines of some struggle that would render whatever I experienced in such company null.

Among his Spanish friends and love interests, Adam anxiously tries to capitalize upon their shared language barrier by rarely speaking in English, hoping that they will ascribe to his pauses, shrugs, and unfinished sentences a greater profundity than he actually feels he’s capable of. In the case of one woman he’s involved with, Isabel, he even becomes convinced that her attraction to him resides in his mysterious silences, and that with actual language to join them, he’ll cease to be of interest to her.

Adam’s self-loathing isn’t confined only to the shortcomings of his own character, though—it also expresses itself as a deep cynicism for the very art he’s taken up:

No matter what I did, no matter what any poet did, the poems would constitute screens in which the readings could project their own desperate belief in the possibility of poetic experience . . . or afford them the opportunity to mourn its impossibility. . . . 

. . . I tried hard to imagine my poems or any poems as machines that could make things happen . . . but I could not imagine this, could not even imagine imagining it.

Even in a moment when Adam feels himself the subject of inspiration, and opens his notebook, he suddenly reproves himself:

Why would I take notes when Isabel wasn’t around to see me take them? I’d never taken notes before; I carried around my bag because of my drugs, not because I intended to work . . . the idea of actually being one of those poets who was constantly subject to fits of inspiration repelled me; I was unashamed to pretend to be inspired in front of Isabel, but that I had just believed myself inspired shamed me.

One of the book’s sharpest revelations, for Adam, occurs when Teresa, a translator of his poetry and almost-lover, grows impatient with his equivocations and bluntly asks him, “When are you going to stop pretending that you’re only pretending to be a poet?” Her question-cum-accusation exposes the biggest lie Adam has been perpetuating: that he isn’t taking what he does seriously. That underneath his self-consciousness, his embarrassment, his self-loathing, and his skepticism lives a true and real desire to be an artist. “Maybe only my fraudulence was fraudulent.”

Among all of these connections between poet-characters and fraudulence, though, it is in Lerner’s novel that we find the most explicit connections between lying and poetry-making—the lying poet as a natural fact. When Adam shamefully and weepily confesses his lie about his mother’s “death” to his lover and her aunt, “Isabel . . . said something to comfort me that included the word ‘poet.’” Later, in repeating the same “confession” to Teresa, she is unsurprised: “You have a poetic license.” It would seem that even the people to whom Adam admits deception assume that his deception is the result of him being a poet, rather than any profoundly troubling emotional or psychological condition. Adam, too, relates his poetry-making to his compulsion to lie, suggesting that the supposed uselessness and pointlessness of poetry makes it a natural haven for charlatans like him:

that I was a fraud had never been in question . . . who wasn’t a bit player in a looped infomercial for the damaged life? If I was a poet, I had become one because poetry, more intensely than any other practice, could not evade its anachronism and marginality and so constituted a kind of acknowledgment of my own preposterousness, admitting my bad faith in good faith, so to speak.

Even more revealingly, Adam later comes to the conclusion that his lying and his poetry are the same thing: in an optimistic moment when he resolves to remain in Spain after his fellowship ends, he decides that:

I would become the poet I pretended to be . . . my research had taught me that the tissue of contradictions that was my personality was itself, at best, a poem, where “poem” is understood as referring to a failure of language to be equal to the possibilities it figures; only then could my fraudulence be a project and not merely a pathology.

Adam’s condition suggests a larger reason why so many of the poets in these novels are convinced of their own fraudulence: it speaks to their creeping fear that poetry itself is a fraud. One might consider these characters’ anxieties about their own perceived dishonesty to be the literary equivalent of the “Does/Can Poetry Matter?” plaint that is recycled through journals, trade magazines, conferences, and blogs year after year. But this, of course, is simply an extension of the “Defense of Poetry” that has been in existence at least since Plato banished poets from his ideal republic. Perhaps we must return to Szymborska, again, for the answer to this plague of self-doubt, both real and fictionalized:

Poets, if they’re genuine, must . . . keep repeating “I don’t know.” Each poem marks an effort to answer this statement, but as soon as the final period hits the page, the poet begins to hesitate, starts to realize that this particular answer was pure makeshift, absolutely inadequate to boot. So the poets keep on trying, and sooner or later the consecutive results of their self-dissatisfaction are clipped together with a giant paperclip by literary historians and called their oeuvre . . . 

Could it be that the fear of fraudulence, both for myself, my fellow poets, and for the characters discussed above, might be the engine for our work, rather than the obstacle? It’s a vision of art as a kind of perpetual motion machine, in which constant doubt, failure, and self-excoriation not only drive us forward, but actually make us what we are. It’s worth noting that none of the poet-characters come to a place of contentment about themselves or their work—at best, they may arrive at a grudging détente about their own weaknesses as writers and human beings. It’s a sad, yet oddly satisfying lesson to take from these novels—to see dissatisfaction and self-doubt not as my enemies, but my boon companions in poetry.


The Other Self
     “Je est une autre.”
          —Arthur Rimbaud

I is someone else? In 1871, this was gibberish.” In the 21st century though, in the long aftermath of psychoanalysis, modernism, postmoderism, and cyberspace, Rimbaud’s famous dictum of alienation reads as frighteningly prescient. And so, too, for the poet-characters in these recent novels, does the self appear to manifest as some odd appendage—a phantom limb, foreign to the body, and yet indisputably of it.

In both Lan Samantha Chang’s All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost and Adam Foulds’ The Quickening Maze, the reader is presented with a pair of poets who represent antipodean values of the craft. Chang’s novel follows the life of poet Roman Morris in three periods: creative writing graduate school, mid-career success, and late-career canonization. Bernard Sauvet, his friend from graduate school, lives a life in direct contrast to Roman—where Roman is ambitious, Bernard is indifferent to the idea of success. While Roman lives the life of the “professional” poet with a traditional career trajectory—fellowships, publication in literary journals, book publication and prizes, academic teaching—Bernard maintains a monastic existence, barely eking out a living, devoting himself to a single epic poem and a correspondence project with “the writers of our time.” When Bernard first tells Roman of his correspondence in graduate school, Roman asks if he sends the writers his own work, or plans to use the correspondence for future writing, and is baffled when Bernard says no, and admits that there is no “purpose” to the many correspondences he maintains: “he was puzzled by the pointlessness of the pursuits to which Bernard devoted all of his spare time apart from his own writing, rather than applying for jobs or fellowship, or sending out his poems.” While Roman’s goal, as he says, is “to become a great poet,” one could argue that his true goal is to become a great success, and that the mistake he makes is conflating the two. His success, then, becomes his tragedy, when he realizes, late in life, that his fortune has come without any real risk or artistic revelation: “Something he had been waiting for, some powerful transcendence for which he had held his breath, would not take place.”

In his friendship with Bernard, he moves from bemused admiration to impatience, envy, and contempt, and finally, genuine appreciation and regret. Innocence is the quality he most associates with Bernard, who does not plan for the future in his fifties any more than he did as a young man, who does not believe that writing can be taught, or that anyone really improves as a writer, and that to live a life devoted to literary art is a reward unto itself. Even after a falling out with Bernard during his mid-career period, his other-self continues to be “a constant presence, a living voice in Roman’s mind,” reprimanding him in moments in his life when schmoozing and speechifying elbow out the literary. “Bernard’s presence was, at first, troubling; then, annoying; but after a few years, Roman came to accept it, welcome it, even to yearn for it at times.” As an internalized voice, Bernard’s transformation to Roman’s literary conscience is complete; his odd opposite, his strange and estranged double, has come to represent the forces that divide him.

Doubling and splitting feature significantly in the introductions of the two historical poet characters in Adam Foulds’s The Quickening Maze. When Tennyson first appears with his brother at High Beach, Dr. Matthew Allen’s “thoroughly respectable establishment of lunatics,” the two men are indistinguishable: “The two Tennysons were tall, clean-shaven, and darkly similar. . . . they both stood blinking, shifting on their feet after the confinement of the carriage. Both began lighting pipes.” By contrast, when John Clare first appears in the narrative in the section immediately following, he’s described as waking in the asylum “without any feeling down one side.” His urges, too, are split, “immediately [wanting] to lie back down again and not lie back down again and go and not go anywhere and not be there and be home.”

Like Roman and Bernard, Tennyson and the “peasant poet” Clare seem to represent opposed models of the poet—the former is cerebral, mournful, and withdrawn, while the latter is primal, restless, and aggressive. Just when we’re given our first taste of “boxer John,” Clare’s amateur pugilist alter ego, the section immediately following presents us with the image of Tennyson meditatively ice-skating in solitude across a frozen pond. The poets are opposed in physical type as well, with Tennyson described as “tall and dark with lengthy limbs,” and Clare as “little and plump.” Even Dr. Allen, in meditating upon the unusual phenomenon of having two recognized poets on his premises, notes that “[Tennyson] was very different in appearance to poor little Clare, but the forehead was reminiscent.”

While Tennyson spends much of his time grieving over the loss of Arthur Hallam, unconsciously preparing himself for his great elegy In Memoriam, Clare is a man who spends much of the novel literally and figuratively divided against himself. He spends much of the book negotiating the tenuous connection between external reality and his disordered inner life. His breaks with reality are intensified by his conviction that he has two wives: his actual wife, Patty, and his other wife, Mary, a childhood sweetheart. Clare’s split consciousness between the real world and his disordered inner life is often represented by various couples or pairs he passes on his walks through the forest primeval nearby the asylum:

he’d seen two charcoal burners on the road ahead, round-shouldered and dirty, their faces blackened and featureless. . . . 

He passed a bird-catcher with two cages swinging from his pole, on his way to London where song was needed. . . . 

The two horses stood nose to rump beside each other with blankets over their backs, a little ice in their coarse eyelashes. They blinked with effort over their downcast, convex eyes as John passed, patting them, and headed on to the silent camp. . . . 

With the new snow flattening sounds he felt almost deaf or dreaming . . . Two crows cranked past with their slow labouring stroke when a wind caught them and swept them round like a finger turning a clock hand.

Even one of Clare’s many terrible breaks with sanity is engendered by his vision of a pair—in this case, a pair of hands, remembered as belonging to an acquaintance. The imagined hands suddenly become entwined in the roots of a tree, and then swiftly replace Clare’s own. Clare and the forest become one as he imagines himself, Daphne-like, transforming into a tree: “He raises his arms. They crack and split and reach into the light. The bark covers his lips, covers his eyes.”                     

Clare’s halved self becomes most painfully apparent in one of his most extreme, yet tender, hallucinations, in which he’s visited by both of his wives. In the gloom and solitude of his asylum cell, they remind him of his twin sister, who died in infancy, and Mary presents him with the sleeping baby: “Closed purple eyes, curled fingers, a blunt, breathing nose, a soft swirl of hair. The warm weight of her head lay in his left palm.” The child immediately transforms into a nest holding four eggs—two sets of twins representing wives, sister, and John, all in the poet’s two hands.

Though separated from John Clare by the Atlantic Ocean and nearly two centuries, the split/second self of the poet-narrator of Leah Stewart’s Husband and Wife similarly emerges in a period of extreme crisis. Sarah Price is a former poet (or so she considers herself), working as a business manager in Duke University’s Department of Neurobiology, while supporting her husband, Nathan, a successful novelist. The novel begins with his admission to Sarah of his infidelity with another writer at a conference. The confession becomes the catalyst for Sarah’s crisis of identity, in which she struggles to reconcile her current sense of self with the lost self she feels she’s put aside for the sake of her marriage, her children, and her family’s financial security:

I looked fat in my dress, and I wasn’t a poet anymore. I had a role in the world, OK, sure, but not in the writing world, not anymore, not like in grad school when it didn’t matter that a fiction writer might make money someday and a poet never would, when we were all writers and that was what mattered, we were the same. Now I was Nathan’s wife. His betrayed, blinkered, stretched-out wife.

Even more devastating is Sarah’s conviction that her husband betrayed her with a woman who represented the self she’d been when she’d been committed to art and the life of the mind:

What if she was a poet and she looked like me but a skinnier, pre-pregnancy me, and she had the time to go around railing passionately against the prose of Gertrude Stein, and in every way she replaced the me I was now with some version of my earlier self? . . . 

Nathan wanted to be with the sort of woman I’d be if I hadn’t been married to him. . . . 

She was me. That was why he’d done it. She was me, and I was gone. . . . 

The narrative is rife with references to other selves and other lives. For Sarah, her former graduate school life in Austin is the lost paradise which she tries to regain, most tangibly through reuniting with Rajiv, an old and unconsummated flame. After recalling a romantic moment with him during an earlier visit back to Austin, before her marriage, Sarah wonders: “It didn’t seem possible that I could have been that girl . . . Had all my cells replaced themselves since then? What could I say, what could I do, to go back there now and be that girl again?” Even when she does see Rajiv again, she worries that “maybe he looked at me with pity, a copy of a copy of someone he once knew.” And later, when debating whether or not to sleep with Rajiv: “If I slept with him—if I really slept with him—would that make me the person I used to be?”

The emotional trajectory of the novel, then, is Sarah’s challenge to see her self as whole, rather than split—to accept artist and mother/wife as integrated parts of her self, rather than simply mutually exclusive personalities that represent a before and after. In a revealing scene of pretend, her three year-old daughter declares, “You’re not my mother.”

“Who am I?”
“You’re a writer who came to see the movie.”
I was not her mother, I was a writer. See—even she knew it was impossible to be both.

A moving observation Sarah makes as she approaches a rapprochement with her artist-self occurs when she compares the feeling of her need to write with that of an Olympic runner: “She is the distillation of herself, the embodiment of speed. . . . She flew out of her body and yet stayed in it. She has never been more perfectly what she is.” The writing writer, it would seem, embodies the paradox of being both completely in and completely outside the self. And it is in negotiating this paradox that Sarah truly begins to embrace the writerly side of herself, to accept the blur of contradictions that constitutes the identity of the artist.

There are shades of Sarah Price in Mia Fredrickson, the poet-protagonist in Siri Hustvedt’s The Summer Without Men. When the story begins, Mia, 55, is recovering from a period of hospitalization from “Brief Reactive Psychosis” after the revelation of her neuroscientist husband’s affair, disassociatively referring to herself at this time as “the madwoman.” Like Sarah, Mia had struggled with the balance between motherhood and art earlier in her life,

a scribbler of the stolen interval. I had worked at the kitchen table in the early days and run to [my daughter] when she woke up from her nap. Teaching and the poetry of my students—poems without urgency, poems dressed up in ‘literary’ curlicues and ribbons—had run away with countless hours. But then, I hadn’t fought for myself or, rather, hadn’t fought in the right way.

To further her recovery, Mia temporarily moves from Manhattan to the small Minnesota town in which she grew up to spend time with her mother, who’s residing in an assisted living facility, and to teach a writing class to a small group of adolescent girls.

In Hustvedt’s novel, the poet’s other-self first presents itself as an almost supernatural force. Early in the narrative, when Mia is returning to her subleased house, she feels “a presence on the other side of the door, a heavy, threatening being, palpable, alive, there, standing just as I stood, its hand raised. . . . I had felt the same weighted body years ago at the bottom of the stairs at home, a waiting Echo. . . . This thing that was not a superstition or a vague apprehension, but a felt conviction. Why had it returned? Ghosts, devils, and doubles.” Not long after this incident, the other-self appears in the form of two emails received from an unfamiliar address:

        I know all about you. You’re Insane, Crazy, Bonkers.

        Mr. Nobody


        Mr. Somebody.

Mia, suspecting a fellow patient from her short stay in the hospital, initially decides to shrug these messages off: “He was no more threatening than the presence behind the door—nothing but a felt absence.” The next message becomes even nastier, attacking Mia’s poetry: “Now the words on the screen, the words of Nobody, had taken the place of the accusing voices in my head.” Mia comes to think of the emails as an expression of the “presence behind the door,” and when the tone of the emails shift from “harassing mean guy to borderline philosopher” Mia is finally compelled to reply, and eventually “entered into a correspondence” out of “aching mental loneliness.” Nobody identifies himself as “any one of your voices, . . . an oracular voice, a plebian voice, a orator-for-the-ages voice, a girls’ voice, a boy’s voice, a woof, a howl, a tweet. Hurtful, coddling, angry, kind, I am the voice from Nowhere come to speak to you.” She describes their exchanges as a kind of amusing philosophical jousting: “An intellectual omnivore who seemed to have pressed himself to the limits of his own whirling brain, he wasn’t well, but he was fun.”

Of all the ways in these novels in which the other-self manifests in the poet’s story, it is Hustvedt’s work that examines the purpose and necessity of such manifestations the most explicitly, and in a neat metaphysical move, the poet-protagonist does this through direct discussions with her other-self. When Mia and Nobody discuss the problem of consciousness, her anonymous interlocutor becomes angry, raging against the scientific idea of a tangible, biologically-determined self perpetuated by, among others, Mia’s husband: “A utopian nihilist is what [Nobody] was, a utopian nihilist in a manic phase. . . . And yet, I did say to myself, When I was mad, was I myself or not myself? When does one person become an other?” Later, in discussing “play,” Mia refers to a passage from Freud “in which the esteemed doctor tells us that transference, the spooky place between analyst and patient, is . . . a playground, a terrain somewhere between illness and real life, where one can become the other.” When Nobody comforts Mia on the loss of her elderly friend who’d led a secret life through her private embroidery projects, he asserts that “there is nothing to do except embrace the secret pleasures of our sublimations, . . . there must be some sound and fury from us, some clashing cymbals in the void.” Mia acknowledges that Nobody’s “bleakness” is reassuring: “[Nobody] was my voice from Neverland, from neverness, from Why, not Where, and I liked it that way.” In her long summer’s recovery from her break with sanity, Mia’s Mr. Nobody becomes a bizarre, yet necessary form of therapy.

In describing an exercise in which her young students are obliged to take on each other’s voice in writing a story based on recent cruelties they’ve perpetuated against one another, Mia observes: “Being the other is the dance of the imagination.” Perhaps the other selves, the doppelgängers that appear in these novels are not reprimands or pathology, but expressions of the condition of being a poet. After all, what we poets call “the Muse” is simply a personification of our own inner imaginary capabilities. Perhaps we cannot help but externalize that part of ourselves, to turn it into an other-self, a figure hovering just outside the periphery of our consciousness. Perhaps we do this to make those moments of its silence all the easier to bear, to make it seem as though it is one outside of ourselves who refuses to participate in the conversation, rather than to face the possibility that a part within us can stubbornly, spitefully refuse to answer ourselves. A silent room is much more bearable than a silent mind.


I’d said that I wasn’t interested in finding some unifying cause as to why so many authors have been recently attracted to the poet-character, and yet I cannot help but be fascinated by the utter perversity of this choice. After all, if the average person is actively repelled by the idea of reading poetry, the chance that the average reader would voluntarily read an entire novel about a poet seems absolutely infinitesimal. Imagine the Gap trying to sell sweaters knitted from cat hair, or McDonald’s making Happy Meals with offal—the yuck factor seems tremendously difficult to overcome. But perhaps I’m underestimating the instincts of these novelists—if this trend continues, the poet in fiction may one day stand a fighting chance of supplanting the vampire and the zombie as the literary darling du jour. At the very least, many of us are suspected of actually having pulses.  end

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