The Lyric Narrative

This afternoon, Thursday the 9th of February, at 3:00pm, I  was to participate on a panel entitled The Lyric Narrative. If you see this post in time, and happen to be at the Associated Writer’s Program Conference in Washington D.C., you may jog over the Marquis Salon 7 & 8 at the Marriott Marquis Hotel and attend the presentation. I am myself unable to attend, having succumbed to the flu, so I have remained in New England under the blanketing fury of a blizzard. Here is the Introduction I would have presented, if I could be there:

A Brief Apology for Narrative

It’s a simple truth that contemporary poetry is devoted to the personal lyric—one test of which might be to find a book of narrative poetry among the hundreds and hundreds of lyric volumes downstairs in the Book Fair. There won’t be many—because the personal lyric is what we have all been taught in our workshops to write: poems comprised by a momentary personal revelation, an individual truth spoken by a sole voice usually taken to be the voice of the poet. What is revealed can vary, the language of the revelation may differ from poet to poet, but that revelation nevertheless occurs to a private speaker inhabiting an individual moment.

But this poetics ignores a multitude of subjects that simply do not lend themselves to momentary expression. Important subjects that command our attention in other daily contexts. The present battles at Standing Rock, to choose just one example, cannot be fully appreciated unless the history of conflict and genocide of native American peoples is acknowledged. Here we again have armed white people invading the sacred territory of indigenous populations. More than one person is involved, and multiple events are elaborated over time. In short, the scope of this conflict is much larger than a personal response to it: the tragedies are not there for personal edification or the poet’s moral improvement. The complexities require narrative sequences to connect the parts, and to recognize characters other than the one lyric point of view

With this said by way of introduction, each of our panelists has written poetry that blends poetic intimacy and public discourse. The panelists each write about that interplay: how lesbian partnership invokes both private feeling and public comment, for instance, or how the public shame of political internment mixes with personal trauma. Such topics require extended emotional scope. Our five poets each have imagined hybrid solutions in long sustained poetic sequences. Two have written book-length chronicles; others write extended prose poems. Together the poets will discuss how they build sustained forms, and will read from their work to illustrate the shape of their thought.

You Are the Only Thing in My Life

So here’s a question: Do you know how old your soul is? Mine, evidently, is 28–which for obscure reasons I am glad to have learned. I have in fact been happy to learn the answers to other intriguing puzzles this summer, too, simply by going on Facebook and participating in the convenient quizzes offered there. For instance, What City Are You? (I’m Barcelona). Who Were You in a Past Life (Buddhist Monk). What 60’s Stereotype Are You? (Vietnam Protester). Which Mythical Creature Describes Your Personality? (Unicorn. Go figure).

It has occurred to me to wonder whether these quizzes are further instances of those unethical, sly manipulations the brainiacs at Facebook have introduced to learn secret things about those who participate. Accordingly I have been careful about the questions I have answered, and misleading about some of my responses. I think that I am much more likely to have been a Hippie in my past life than a Buddhist Monk, but I don’t necessarily want some unprincipled researcher to know that.

Nonetheless, I’m waiting for the quizzes to raise further important questions–or at least questions that I am in need of understanding. When Are You Going to Die? might be a good one, assuming the future is not irrevocably set, and I might therefore alter bad outcomes. The newest X-Men movie suggests the time ahead of us is indeed malleable and plastic, and since that vehicle is about as scientific as Facebook, I’ll consider the question settled. Fate can be changed, if you know what you’re doing.

I bring this up in part because the question of past events, and their potential to influence the future of things that matter most to us, are particular interests in Robin Becker’s new collection of poetry, Tiger Heron, which I want to spend some time praising. Becker has always been a poet interested in understanding intimacies, broadly conceived: why one person is erotically enticing, but not another; how to cultivate friendships and sustain them; how to appreciate the time spent with other people in all their variabilities. In this new collection she once again explores the ways in which past decisions continue to influence the future of her personal life, and how old patterns contribute to the scope of psychological change. What is now at stake for her, however, is whether redemption is possible, whether she can revisit the past–with parents, with friends and lovers–and alter outcomes. It’s the difference between reviewing your life with regret, or with hope.

The stakes are especially high because, as she admits in “The Middle Path,” she is now of a “certain age”:

all my friends had sons, of the sort
we couldn’t find to save our lives.
We saved ourselves instead.
Which brings me to
this certain age, this mortgage application,
this recycling bin, this ferry reservation.

The details to which she is brought at her age are selected here with particular resonance: the responsibilities of mortgaging one’s present to insure a future (You’d have to own a house to know what that feels like. Try reading V.S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas), a vision of being ‘recycled’ (She is in this poem “brooding about running out of time”), and my favorite: the ferry reservation. In this context, the ferry for which she is making reservations is as likely to be Charon’s as any other, waiting to convey her across the Styx, whether she likes it or not.

Because “The Middle Path” situates the poet in the midst of a life that has started some time ago. Becker is not at the beginning of her journey, she is not verging at the innocent spring of miracle and discovery, but instead she has advanced some considerable distance in the temporal exploration of her vital, psychological landscapes. Accordingly, we as readers are dropped whole into the activity of her established circles: friends and their children, lovers past and present, parents. Like a good Greek tragedy, the subjects she writes about begin In Medias Res–in the midst of things–where events are already structured. The players are established, we know who everyone is: indeed, one out of every four poems in the book is dedicated to a specific, actual person in Becker’s life.

The web of interconnecting roles and relational identities is likewise well-known, which means that Becker’s reconnaissance of her affections is a matter of deepening insights, the pleasures of long affinity, and of established warmths. In “Listening to Bach on Rt. 89”, she celebrates the scope of her varied community of beloveds:

In a humidity of Baroque proportions
I compose the faces of my friends,
the interweaving themes of our lives.

Banked barn, borscht garden beets,
the dogs’ extravagant greetings
play in counterpoint

to highway berm, median strip, loosestrife–
classic elements of a summer’s drive
to visit. Such joyful improvisations!

‘Improvisations’ is a lovely concept here, a resonant metaphor that captures her range of responses to the histories of her variable pleasures and shifting intimacies. Her friends have independent themes, and interweave among themselves.

All that motion–the separations and realignments–requires a continued poise to negotiate the passions, as well as the comforts, of intimacy. We learn in “Threesome Interval” that her one-time lover now has “a new man,” but the poet nevertheless reports that together the three of them have kept their ‘composure’:

In Shelburne Falls, from the viewing platform
we admired the glacial potholes

ground from granite by snowmelt and gyrating
stone. Swirls marbled
the rock with a natural patina. We kept
our composure,

despite hundreds of millions of years’
of whirlpooling abrasions.
Arriving at the Walt Whitman party, in great spirits,
I wondered: might we try a trip to Rome?

There is a practical virtue in remaining composed, instead of sundering in the rash fire of disappointed possession. There are other communions to be shared, such as pilgrimages together to Rome, or a joint reading of “Song of Myself” at the July 4th Walt Whitman party each year, amid their membership in a thriving, supportive community.

Becker has other poems as well in her collection in which she examines her preference for composure over the risks taken in youth–in which there are terminal break-ups with lovers and partners, discomposed scenes and impassioned chaos, all because there remains the expanse of a lifetime to remedy mistakes, find alternative partners, or trade up for intensities if familiarity blunts erotic excitement. As Becker observes, this is a very privileged–and temporary–attitude in which to hazard everything of value. The poet observes in “Our Best Selves,” that there are other losses in life besides those relational subtractions and additions we choose to play with. The poem is dedicated to a friend, Miriam Goodman, just before her death:

Miriam hailed
and embraced summer
and winter people
in the annual

June convocation
at the beach, updates
and invitations

all around:
they could see
she was sick, bewigged,

but she was here,
now, steadying herself
against the piling,

going in slowly ,
the burning chill
on her thighs,

on her hips, her waist,
as she studied the familiar
lake,…the cabin’s manifest,

the list of essential linens
and batteries and cast iron
pots passed on each year

for her beloveds.

Miriam is not the only one immersed in the flux of elements. Everyone has assembled, not because Miriam is ill, but because this is the ecology of friends, the divine family that meets at the cabin every year to reconvene the holy rule of their society. Paula, we are told, plays Bach suites on her cello, fathers are off teaching sons how to cast for the lake trout, Leslie is swimming with “a rhythmic voluptuousness”, and when it is time to eat, the nine of them grill vegetables to go with the corn and beet soup, then sit around the last supper table playing Scrabble. Look off into the yard where

the boys undress,
and we see their limbs–
animated cave paintings

against the tent fabric.

The poet wants us to understand that this is the archetypal affiliation, the principle society illuminated here against a backdrop of lost time, life lived, irretrievable chances–all of which is both finite and precious.

The understory weaving through the individual poems in Tiger Heron is twofold: the poet is “running out of time” (“The Middle Path”), and she needs a vision to sustain her through the forthcoming poverty, the absolute loss of love and value. In her poetic tribute to Maxine Kumin (“To a Poet”), Becker imagines another supper, another illness, another friend recently deceased:

a gorgeous May

afternoon enters every window of the house
where someone is sick
and someone is reading to the sick

and someone makes supper using
every language available to say nourishment,                                                                                mystery, wisdom,

and I will sleep on the floor in your room.

Here is a compelling vision for a poet: we need every language available–all vocabularies, tones of voice, gestures and affective demonstrations to express the continuities of value. Becker does not find a sufficient range of speech among the abrasions of erotic irritability. It is not the climactic highs that sustain a person over her life, but the steady loving nourishment given daily, quietly in love for a long time.