Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Truth Be Told

I have a terrible memory when it comes to my own life. Ask me where you've seen that actor before, and I'll troll around my brain until I find the answer. Make an inquiry into the state of Scott Weiland's career, and I'll have your back. But the moment you mention that one night we discussed possible solutions to my smoke detector problem--the incessant beeping, a sharp trill every forty-five seconds, bothered me so much I ripped the whole thing off the wall, and I won't remember I've removed the offending equipment, let alone recall the conclusion to which we came, or even that I floated the idea of hammering it into submission, though that certainly sounds like a suggestion I'd make.

Therefore, personal essays present a problem. How can you trust that my story is accurate? How, for that matter, can I trust it?

I suppose we never know for sure. Fact checkers can come in behind us and do some sleuthing, making every attempt to verify details presented in the work. However, that will never be enough. Someone will always come forward and say, "It didn't happen that way at all." In the case of James Frey, we may realize as a reading public that the author has duped us.

My advice is to take the following approach: acknowledge that you're presenting the truth as you know it, that things may be missing or condensed, that someone is bound to disagree. Be as honest as possible, not only with your readers, but with yourself. Lying won't get you anywhere. 

And in the event that you find yourself veering into untruthful territory, perhaps you should stop and start over with the intention of crafting a piece of fiction. You'll save yourself and everyone else a great deal of strife.


Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Review: If It We

Lisa Zaran
Lummox Press, 2012
75 pp/59 poems

Lisa Zaran’s collection If It We serves largely as a meditation on her son’s addiction to heroin. Perhaps because she dwells on the subject a great deal, Zaran never gives the reader a sunny look at an addict’s life. In “Non Action,” she describes what I imagine any hostile drug to feel like: “Leave no capillary standing. No nerve unharmed. / Find the nothing that is. The no more.” Brutal, all-consuming, and dark.” In this way, she envisions her son’s pain. More heart-rending, though, is how Zaran approaches his physical deterioration. “Scene, You Are” describes the physical characteristics of a heroin addict in a way that sounds familiar to those who have seen such drug-fueled films as Trainspotting and Requiem for a Dream--“skinny as a rake, sallow / complexion”--as does “Path of Affection”: “and your lips / are chapped as if / you passed out // during a mid-afternoon / ice storm.” But these verbal pictures hit you with renewed impact because the words are coming from someone who has been forced to watch the decline of this young junkie; the images Zaran has seen end up haunting the reader, as well.

Throughout the course of this collection, we feel Zaran’s desperation, such as when she writes, in “Morning,” that “The sky inside my mind can’t hold much more.” We also learn that she herself is an addict, though a different type than her son: one consumed with the state in which her son lives (or, more accurately, exists), preoccupied with his obsession, unwilling to detach herself from him no matter the emotional cost. This is not a criticism; rather, it is an observer learning second-hand what a mother’s love does to her, unable to look away and tumbling down with parent and child, an unintended third wheel.

In general, Zaran seems to be searching for answers more than she tries to place blame. “Can You Tell Me” lists a few of her questions, including, “Can you tell me, my little frame / of devotion, what white water / has come along, unexpectedly, / and covered you from me?” She also remembers, in “God Bless,” that “my father once said, we’re all damned darling,” which is an unfortunate but accurate response to her inquiries.

In spite of this, Zaran is blessed with glimmers of hope here and there. In “Reason,” the opening poem, she writes of her son, Soon he will outlive the birds, outlive the limbs supporting the birds, outlive me, his mother, a storm-worn dove;” though it is more a statement of fact than a wishful thought, it conveys a sense of how much she loves her son even after the trials she’s suffered at his hands, and a certain amount of faith in his ability to recover.

My personal favorite moment in If It We, however, is the poem “Ointment.” It is a departure from other pieces in the book, because Zaran takes time to focus on herself rather than those around her (particularly her son). It is a wonderful little pep talk, coming at just the right time for the reader--and, I think, the poet: when the heaviness of addiction and self-doubt begins to settle around you.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

When Readers Respond

There's a cool thing that happens when you read a novel or poem: interpretation. 

We all do it. It's a natural reaction; our brains, after all, are processors at the core. And when we interpret a piece of writing, we interact with it. We bring our experiences, preferences, prejudices, and desires to the text. Reading, in some cases, can help us learn to articulate these things, or else show us that we are not alone in the world, no matter our baggage.

But the neat aspect of this is that two people could read the same poem and have completely different reactions to it. A great example is the way readers tend to give two responses to Robert Frost's poem "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening": either that it is about death (possibly suicide) or that it is about duty. I happen to subscribe to the latter view; for me, the poem is about a man who would like nothing more than to take a few moments for himself but cannot because he has "promises to keep." However, that doesn't mean the opposite view is incorrect. Without any commentary from the poet himself, we may never have a definitive answer.

Even if Frost told me, "I intended this poem to mean [x]," I would likely disregard his words, unless it became important in a critical, academic sense. Because I prefer, even in my own poetry, to allow the individual to shape his or her own response to the work. My prevailing attitude is this: as long as the reader gets SOMETHING out of my work, I have done my job as a poet, even if what the reader takes away is not the vision I had.

Far too many lower-level English teachers insist that there is only one way to read any given text. This is why I tended to rebel against my instructors until college, where they allowed me to draw my own conclusions, so long as I could articulate the reasons why I felt a certain way. If students were given the opportunity to voice their opinions about the things they've read in a classroom setting, we may find that more people would grow up to be active readers who support the written word. Just a thought.


Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Review: Elegy for Trains

Benjamin Myers
Village Books Press, 2010
82 pp/68 poems

From the opening line, Benjamin Myers’ verse in Elegy for Trains appealed to me because some of it reminds me of my own: short lines, short poems. But Myers is a far greater poet than I, and this collection is filled with lines I love as well as ones that blind me with jealousy over the level of craft, which is the greatest indicator that I will adore a given writer’s work forever; for example, I still cannot read Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” without dying a bit inside--the beauty of it is that overwhelming--and as it happens, Myers has his own Whitman moments.

Myers pays homage to the Earth in “Song,” which imagines what nature does when we humans are not looking; in his view, nature is its own lover, running an adoring hand over all its representatives (the trees, the rain), much as Whitman found joy in himself. And since the quickest way to this girl’s heart is through a well-executed Whitman reference, I found “Manhattan” to be especially compelling. Though Myers’ name-dropping could have come off as juvenile (poets addressing other poets often feels sophomoric), his swift transition into lines that invoke Whitman’s own without being blatantly Whitman-esque proves he has the chops to forge his own path without forgetting his roots. Myers manages a third moment of reference in “Fragments After the 51st Psalm,” when he writes, “How will I speak after you have spoken? / How will I speak after you have not?” The answer, I think, is that he has found a way.

Moving out of the realm of poets’ poetry, Myers takes a clear-eyed approach to personal history, whether his own or the speaker’s, as seen in the minutiae of “Genealogy”: “passed from bucket to bone-white / bowl to tin cup, / tasting of clover and of rock, / tasting of Oklahoma and, beyond that, / Ireland.” In other words, Myers is able to focus on the details your standard human being is likely to remember: not a panoramic view, but the earthy essence on one’s tongue, the beloved household items inherited through the generations. Yet he also acknowledges the possibility that some of us might not have such immediately discernible attachments, as when he writes, in “The Parting,” that “He cannot say in truth that this land / is his body-- / the slick red clay is not the flat of his thigh, / the muddy lake not the pool behind his iris-- / and yet the parting / was like the breaking / of one stone / into two.”

Myers’ specialty, though, seems to be ripping my heart out. “Terrapin,” “Rail Arrives in Rock Island, IL., Feb. 22, 1854,” “The Tribute Money,” and “Linguistics” each felt like a gut punch, such was their emotional impact. I was even moved to the edge of tears when I came to the final line of “For My Daughter”: “Every period leaves behind it a space for the coming word.” Not only has Myers made a wonderful statement about parenthood, but he has also--perhaps unwittingly--given all writers some words by which to live.

While Myers has these strengths, he does have one noticeable weakness: rhyme. His rhymed poems do not come off as well for me as his unrhymed ones, due in part to the weakness of his end-word choices. There are many instances of simplistic rhymes--fall/call, day/say, go/so, too/you--which can serve to deter readers who have seen these combinations repeated often.

The poet recovers when exploring traditional verse forms, however. I have nothing but respect for writers who are able to successfully construct sestinas, villanelles, and haiku, and Myers has managed to produce all three, in “Adults,” “The Writing Process,” and “Three Haiku.” That final piece is effective largely because each section is so similar to Myers’ generally compact structure, and the succinctness of the lines even hearkens back to the opening poem of the collection.

My favorite lines in all of Elegy for Trains are in “Mid-Winter: Clarksville, Arkansas.” Myers writes, “It is too cold now / for philosophy, too cold for consolation.” I enjoy them on a surface level because they remind me of the bitterly cold winters I faced as a child in the Midwest. But more than that, they stick with me because what the poet offers, in the end, is philosophy and consolation: the philosophy of creating well-written verse, the consolation of knowing that someone out in the world is capable of giving you a moment--or two, or ten--of catharsis.