Saturday, October 30, 2010

Rainer Marie Jerkweed: A Cautionary Tale?

One of the greatest struggles I have is finding the balance between having a writing life and just living a human one. Discipline is a necessary tool in the writer’s shed—and yet so many times I have come home, determined to write, only to find nothing was happening, and that I had skipped something enjoyable in the futile hope I might spend the evening deep in the current. If you write, you know what I mean: when you are in the zone, it is one of the best possible feelings. When the work is going well, it’s worth trading for.

But the other side of that—skipping pleasurable, important, joyful moments of existence to write, only to find the writing simply will not come—is almost as painful and frustrating as the other is blissful. Then I’m stuck at home, uninspired, and doubly annoyed to be stuck there while somewhere not far away, friends are drinking good beer, saying droll and affectionate things, and bonding in ways that might actually inspire future writing.

Being a hermit has its advantages; god knows you have to set some boundaries. But sequestering yourself for your art—if your art hopes to be human—seems potentially misguided. Yes, I know the Belle of Amherst hid away in her room, feeding her genius and communing only with friendly mice and Jesus (it’s hyperbole, Dickinson scholars; don’t send angry letters). But were she around today she would likely have succumbed to social pressures. She would be Tweeting and Facebooking (Emily Dickinson is nobody. Who are you?”) and perhaps desperate, as I occasionally feel, for silence.

Finding balance—has anyone nailed this one? Just recently, I almost skipped a reunion of old friends from high school for the sake of going home and writing. Instead, I went, and not only caught up with dear erstwhile companions, but met new ones. Good ones. And if I had just gone home, instead? I would likely have been frustrated and ended up sitting on the couch, staring through a Law & Order episode and brooding.

One of the best stories I’ve ever heard on this conflict—it may be apocryphal, but is referenced in at least two biographies—was about the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who reportedly skipped his own daughter’s wedding because he thought a poem might come, and that the wedding might break his concentration.

The first thing I thought when I heard this tale was “What a dick.”

And the second thing was, “You know where your precious poem was, dude? It was at your daughter’s wedding.”

But who am I to think Rainer Maria Rilke was doing anything wrong? Maybe he was skipping a wedding when he wrote "An Archaic Torso of Apollo."

This poem is for Deb, Warren, Jordan, Justin, and Ben. Also for Angela, who is also—like so many of us—struggling to find the space for a writing life that does not eclipse actual living.


This draft flew away.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Poetry for the Sadder (Wiser?) 50 Percent: Loren Graham's The Ring Scar

Anyone who has been through a divorce knows certain truths: Looking back on the time before the decision was made, you can identify a moment when you knew there was no turning back from that precipice. And yet the moments that led to that single awful point in time are too many to count. You also know the way certain objects—or dates, or songs, or foods—will never again be experienced without their accompanying baggage. To this day, for example, I cannot hear Led Zeppelin’s "Bron Y Aur Stomp" without thinking—with fondness, more than six years out of the marriage—of my ex, an intense and talented musician who used to spend hours sprawled on the floor of our apartment perfecting the finger-work on the guitar part.

For a while after we split, I often joked that my newly acquired affection for Zeppelin was the one positive thing to come out of our marriage. As time has passed, I’ve been able to identify others, most especially a changed perspective on relationships, one that perspective will not allow me to call wisdom. If any wisdom came out of the whole chaotic experience, it is only the knowledge that my current ideas will change; five more years could bring something entirely new. Back then, my ideas about love and commitment—and how much work could go into a relationship before it became nothing but—seemed entirely fixed and immutable. I knew what I knew.

I met my first husband in graduate school in late 1998. He was a student in the same writing program I was in, the same writing program that had had the good sense, the year before, to bring in Loren Graham as a visiting writer and lecturer.

Graham had one book of poetry out at the time. I hadn’t read it. I took his creative writing class because he was one of the few teachers in the English department I hadn’t yet worked with. It seemed like the thing to do.

He proved to be an excellent teacher, and in my spare time (back in those sublime grad school days when I often read five or six books a week) I went on to read the astonishing Mose, which taught me more about the potential of form than any book of poetry I’d read before. The book is a series of letters from a convict in a Texas prison to the woman he loves; it has the imagery, sonics, and precision of the best poetry and the momentum and narrative arc of a thriller.

We also became friends, and it was through that friendship that I became aware of his current project: he was writing a series of poems that he often referred to as “the divorce sonnets.” He read a few of them at the annual Writer’s Harvest event, and it was clear that he was onto something enormously powerful. Over time, the project—now published as The Ring Scar—evolved from a one-sided conversation into a back-and-forth, the husband’s words in sonnets, the wife’s in free verse, each revealing their thoughts and doubts in an imagined conversation that, I often thought as I read them, might have saved the marriage if they had only been capable of having it directly.

The poems cross paths; the speakers are often in agreement, but seldom at the same time and place; they can describe their estrangement, their failure to connect, without being able to fix it. Even the forms reflect a failure to connect, a fundamental difference and the attraction of it. It is an astonishing sequence of poems and I am so pleased to see that it is finally in print.

Anyone who has ever struggled with a long-term romantic relationship will recognize pieces of their own experience here, in ideas and in images—a stray hair wound around a button, a cold motor turning over in the driveway, an escaped pet bird, or the central image of the book: the ring scar itself.

It’s a circle one can step out of but never fully escape (even when you're lucky enough to move on to happier, healthier things). And this book makes that seem only right.

(And what a metaphor on the cover: perfect little houses with no doors.)

I'm posting the title poem, but you shouldn't deprive yourself of reading the rest.

The Ring Scar

By Loren Graham

It should have disappeared by now, this faint
line of pale skin where my ring used to ride,
but it persists. It faded overnight
from my palm, but on the back of my hand,
part of me most familiar, it has remained
for months: indented, obvious, a fine
shadow, a delicate burn never quite
healed. Nothing will erase that little brand:
I’ve stretched it, flexed it, held it in the sun,
but it will not be exorcised. It hangs
on like an old unwelcome ghost, a crank
spirit biding its time, making mortals wait
until the day when, for reasons unknown,
it leaves off haunting and suddenly is gone.