blackbird online journal spring 2002 vol.1 no. 1


Tracking the Muse
Dan O’Brien
Ron Smith
Camille Zakharia


The Unreliable Prism

When first asked to write a piece on my “process” I thought, “Who gives a damn about my poetic process?” One friend suggested I write an essay on just that question. I demurred. So, I can offer—to steal the words of another good friend—only folk wisdom and received truths, combined with armchair psychoanalysis and autobiographical tidbits. I say this with no disrespect, and hope that someone will find these words, despite everything, somehow usefully complicating for their own process.  
I wrote “Arriving in Gdansk” during my time as a graduate student at New York University, and before ever having encountered the work of Larry Levis. Yet that poem’s concern with fractured narrative seems to have anticipated my later interaction with Levis’ poetry. The poem also seems to be a product of my study and teaching of essay writing—though I doubt it has the complexity or analytical merit of a good essay. Regardless, there is something more true to life (“post-modern” or otherwise) about a non-linear narrative, or at least a narrative that is fractured in its linearity. 

I know relatively little of my parents’ and grandparents’ lives before I came along, so that what I do know stands out quite prominently in my mind. In the face of all this, of course, is the knowledge of how unreliable memory is: one’s own memories, much less those that have been passed down through a generation or two, like a child’s game. And yet again, in the face of all of that, one wonders: if we are doomed to repeat, are we then, perhaps, doomed to repeat our grandparents’ and parents’ mistakes as well as our own? And so, are we half the men and women they were before us?  Not exactly a new question, but one that nags.

So through the unreliable prism of memory I say that my father’s father was a Methodist preacher in Louisville, Kentucky, who had an affair with a patient at a TB hospital where he was a chaplain. My father’s mother kicked him out of the parsonage, divorced him, and worked so much that my father spent a great deal of time alone since his sisters, being older, were dating or at work. In turn, my grandfather was defrocked and left his children’s lives. When my mother began dating my father, she would find him at home, watching TV alone in the dark, eating a meager meal, or working on a car. And I found myself sailing from Stockholm to Gdansk one day perhaps thinking about all of this, perhaps not. And though the poem’s subtitle is “The Women We Have Left,” it is, in many ways, clearly far more about the men who have done the leaving. Like Falstaff the men of the poem are “confused, flawed, and mortal.” The women are, in some sense, simply better than their men – take that how you will. This is not intended to be an indictment of one sex, or the placing upon a pedestal of another, but to speak only to these particular men. 

In turn remembering sometimes feels like an inherently political act. As children, we spent years memorizing dates, names, and events for history classes, but as adults we know that there are very few “facts” when it comes to history. History is the remembrance—it is the narrative of a remembrance—of one person or group of persons, and one can hardly remember—one can hardly tell a story—without an agenda, even if it is a subconscious or “benevolent” agenda. It is said that when Edmund Wilson and his wife Mary McCarthy fought, he would retreat to his study and lock himself in, and she would set piles of paper on fire and try to push them under the study door. How different things must have seemed depending on the side of the door you were on. 

If Peter Schjeldahl is right—speaking on Giacommetti—that, “Love is, among other things, the experience of wholly identifying with another person’s sincerity,” then what lingers around the poem is fidelity to this kind of identification, or lack thereof. And beneath that, an unconscious wondering about how many of us feel we’re worthy of what (love) we most desire, and what we do—what cycles we create and repeat—in reaction to that wondering.

All of this goes toward saying that the poem is not enough.  end of text

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