I spent last week navigating my first AWP in Chicago. Over the course of those three days, while attending some fantastic panels on topics like “How to Keep Your Debut Book Alive” and “Barefoot, Pregnant, and at the Writer’s Desk: Managing Motherhood and the Writing Life” I met dozens of incredible people and publishers at the bookfair. A publication I suddenly find myself taken with, one that I had no idea existed until a few days ago, is Ruminate, and yesterday morning, in an effort to hold myself together before going off to teach (on very little sleep and having flown in from Chicago the night before), I found myself reading a creative nonfiction piece by James Silas Rogers called “Outside Metaphor.”
I was pulled into the essay by this opening line
I often find myself praying on airplanes…
I used to think that every time I got on a plane, I was going to die. Time has proven me wrong, and the older I get, the more I realize I’m just not that special, you know? When I step on a plane and buckle myself in my seat, the panic starts to creep in, and I channel my inner Amy Poehler and Seth Meyers, telling msyelf, “Really?! You think this plane’s gonna go down? Out of all the planes that are taking off and landing all over the country, this is the one that’s going to crash? Really?!” So I’m not as terrified as I used to be, but there is a prayer and an image that I cling to in that brief moment when the plane’s wheels leave the runway and I know that nothing but sheer power is what’s lifting that hunk of metal filled with people into the sky. The prayer is a variation on a Navajo prayer (go ahead and roll your eyes ya’ll, but I did grow up in New Mexico, so I’m allowed), and it goes something like this
Beauty before me, With it I wander.
Beauty behind me, With it I wander.
Beauty below me With it I wander.
Beauty above me, With it I wander.
Beauty all around me, With it I wander.
A very good friend passed the chant on to me, and it calms me when I say it in my mind as the plane rises. Along with my prayer, I always rely on a particular image to give me courage as the plane begins to ascend. I envision an army of angels running under each wing. Typical angels, they’ve got long, straggly hair and long white robes, but they’re all wearing Nike’s, yo! And they’re running beneath each wing, as fast as they can, lifting the plane up into the sky as we rise. I’ve been doing this for years, the ritual so ingrained in me, that the image of the angels always comes at the right moment now, whether I call on it or not.
I was enthralled then, when I saw this particular issue of Ruminate features the art of Micah Bloom, whose series, “Interventions” is filled with images of angels intervening just before some imminent disaster. Sounds cheesy, but the art is captivating.
So I felt called to James Silas Roger’s essay, “Outside Metaphor” because of the opening line about praying on planes, but what kept me reading was the fact that the essay had very little to do with a fear of flying (what I assumed the essay would be about), and so much to do with the act of memory, specifically, how our individual memories are shaped by metaphor, and how our metaphors shape our memories.
In the essay Silas Roger’s references this quote from Eavan Boland’s Object Lessons
We yield to our present but we choose our past
and throughout the essay, as he remembers his mother and his childhood (which, by the way, wasn’t a particularly unhappy one), he returns again to Eavan Boland, musing
Eavan Boland keeps reappearing in my thoughts. Her great project, as a poet and essayist, is to write the silence of women back into literature, and she titled and important collection Outside History. She insists that we make a distinction between history and the past, and that history-the stories that get told-is something different from what really happened. I want to make a comparable distinction in my own life. I want to cling to those moments not freighted with category and naming and interpretation. I want to hold my mother outside metaphor.
And that last sentence is the one that got me. I want to hold my mother outside metaphor.
I’ve been struggling with my writing lately, and part of the struggle is tied into the fact that I’m hyper-aware of the narrative I’ve chosen to shape my memories, and how that narrative is a construct, one that I fear grossly oversimplifies my mother and father and all the people who were an integral part of my childhood and adolescence.
We do tell ourselves the same stories about ourselves over and over, even as those stories are no longer relevant. And when we begin to understand that the stories we may’ve been telling ourselves thorough our writing (our poems our essays our fiction) are far more complicated than we thought, then what?
I’m a writer, and I operate in metaphor. I see everything in terms of metaphor, but I’m beginning to see how metaphor can be dangerous because it allows us to oversimplify.
When I was in college, it was the poetry of Sharon Olds and Sylvia Plath that captured my imagination. These women so artfully named their pain, so beautifully exposed the underside of their lives and the lives of those people with whom they were most intimate-their fathers, mothers, husbands, lovers.
Through these poets, I began to view my world through a lens of pain and tragedy, and while this angst is what initially brings most young people to the page, there comes a time when one begins to see the angst as a construct. The reality of my childhood is much more complicated than I’d ever imagined, and now that I’m a mother to two small girls, I have a much deeper appreciation for what my own mother went through as she struggled to raise two children on her own.
I recently wrote a poem titled Genealogy, and it scared the hell out of me. I’d just finished reading Yusef Komunyakaa’s “My Father’s Love Letters” and this is what came spilling out (pardon the form-I can’t get the cut and paste to format the thing correctly)
For my daughter
Genetic factors appear to play a significant role in alcoholism and may account for about half of the total risk for alcoholism.-The New York Times, July 9, 2011
You are an heiress to drunks.
The statues of your forefathers stagger,
memorialized by gravity, their faces
half-lit eternally, as they reach into refrigerators
for another something
to keep away the cold empty.
I am sorry for the stories
unfolding in your blood, especially
the ones that could end with you, 16
18, 20, 40, stranded
in your body, looking for messages
in bottles of Heineken, Pabst, Blue Moon,
or Jack Daniels. By the time
I figured out that whiskey made me angry,
I was overseas, away,
kicking my fallen best friend in the ribs,
pleading in the dark, screaming street,
Why can’t you just be a man? That was my first
real lesson in addition and subtraction.
I vowed afterward
to only drink the clear stuff, to stay
away from anything amber—no more bourbon, rum,
marigolds, Wurlitzers, Monarch butterflies, Raymond Carver.
No more sunrises, or sunsets, no more Tom Waits or slow burning
fires. No more long walks in November. Sorrow
is when you’re afraid to love anything that glows,
is when you believe that any kindness is a sniff
of raw meat, a dab of honey baiting
the trap. Before your father was your father,
he came to my front door with flowers, and my heart sank,
I sneered, What do you want from me? that fragrance,
an anchor, dropping me right back
into my mother’s kitchen
her eyes fixed on the vase stuffed with lilies, a plea
for her to keep quiet about last night, last week,
and all the ones before it. Mom’s taste
in men, her love for all things broken
taught me metaphor. Around our house,
poems wrote themselves
Love is a busted dead bolt on the front door.
is the next morning, those same hands shaking
as he mends the broken chain on your blue bicycle.
Or maybe it’s the other way around. Maybe
regret is the busted dead bolt, and it’s love,
that’s the shaking hands. I can never seem to keep it
straight. And this is why, Daughter,
I am writing to you from all these years away,
to tell you I am glad I learned to take flowers
from your dad, that no gesture
is empty, and that, while my father waltzed with his guilt
and my mother, her fear, the two of them
spinning and spinning,
I held my breath, a bright penny,
tight in my fist, my hands at my side,
which is why, sweet daughter, now
that I’ve arrived decades later, with my life still
intact, I am giving you
This poem is going to be published in SDR’s upcoming issue, so it will be out in the world soon, but I must say, this poem makes me feel very, very uncomfortable. And it’s not just because of the deeply personal nature of the subject matter, but more because of how limited the poem is. The reality is so much more complicated. And just because I’m a writer, does that give me permission to render these people (who appear in the poem) in a certain light, viewing them only through the pain and confusion of my childhood? And if I view them this way, that’s one thing, but I’m putting them out into the world (perhaps even against their will), and that raises a lot of other issues/questions.
I don’t know the answer, but the question is killing me: As writers, can we write outside metaphor? Is it necessary? Is it possible? And if we do in fact “yield to our present” and “choose our past” what right do we have to write about the lives of others through the narrow lens of how we perceive them?
My colleague, Todd Robinson, just came out with his first poetry collection Note At Heart Rock, and when I told him which poems were my favorite in the collection (one of which was about his cousin), he said something like, “Yea, I wonder if my cousin would feel the same way.” I was heartbroken and relieved to hear that a fellow writer felt the same ambivalence about writing his family into his work. I’d assumed this worry about what others might think about the work had to do with being a woman writer and wanting to be all things to all people, trying to please everyone. As it turns out, this ambivalence about how we choose to remember and render certain people, events, and places in our lives is more common than I thought. Which is both heartening and terrifying.