Mary Dineen: Iris
“The question of the self: ‘who am I’ not in the sense of ‘who am I’ but rather ‘who is this ‘I’ that can say ‘who’? What is the ‘I,’ and what becomes of responsibility once the identity of the ‘I’ trembles in secret?” ~ Jacques Derrida
All I’m willing to divulge is that certain events made the identity of my ‘I” tremble in secret. As did the reading about a dream I had a long time ago.
I browse through the journal I kept
in 1988. Boring, my witty remarks,
my vivid writerly details;
a student essay I quote,
“The Underclothes at Hawthorne
Disaster Wing Thriftstore, Inc.”
I flip the pages, find
my “Los Angeles airport dream”:
We stand at the window and wait
for the plane from New York.
It crashes into the terminal!
Woozy from the impact, I get up.
Robert is gone – vaporized.
Only his duffel bag is left.
I grope it, hoping it’s still warm
from his body. Moments later
I think, “I’ll call Andrew.”
In the journal I write,
What a marvelous dream!
Except I’d never exchange
Robert for Andrew. Never.
Now I shudder. No jets had yet
plunged into buildings. Ignorant
dream, how could it not know
that Andrew was to be
my Disaster Wing?
My long letters to him,
stormy knots of clouds,
signed: “Love always.”
I still can't believe it:
to Robert I said,
“Andrew is my prince –
you are my reality.”
Only the body knows.
Only the hands make love.
My songless Orpheus
The same autumn Robert
got married, a Catholic
convert, a metal crucifix
over his marriage bed.
I put away the journal.
One image lingers: in the void
of the demolished airport,
I touch my lover’s duffel bag.
I stroke the bag’s whole length,
seeking the last trace
of someone lost – a ghost even
of his body heat –
That’s the sole detail
I have saved –
it’s what remains for me
of that year, not of Our Lord,
but of our groping blindness.
~ Oriana © 2013
The poem describes my experience quite accurately. In my twenties and thirties, I kept a journal on and off, mostly off. Like a lot of people who journal, I never read it. One time I did try reading it, and found it boring -- all those forgotten, meaningless details that had nothing to do with my new “older and wiser” priorities! And all those attempts to be clever and funny -- who did I think I was writing for? Posterity?
And then it happened: browsing, I landed on the page that recorded my dream about a plane flying into the building of the Los Angeles airport. I was the sole survivor, touching my vaporized partner’s duffel bag all over, seeking some trace his body heat still clinging to the bag. I was thunder-struck. The dream came back as if I’d just had it, never mind the many years in between. How could I have forgotten one of the most powerful dreams I ever had?
Worse, how could I have made this cruel remark to the man who wasn’t my Prince, not the one I fantasized about every night? I still can’t believe it . . . except that the memory, once resurrected, would not go away. I can only plead that it was the innocent “cruelty of youth” -- not meaning to hurt another, but not having lived long enough to have acquired more compassion and understanding of life and love.
I’m horrified by what came out of my mouth in the guise of “honesty” -- back then honesty was on everyone’s lips, the highest value, far ahead of kindness. I plead I “wasn’t yet me”; that was my immature self, not my more enlightened later self, chastened by having experienced not only more personal suffering, but also by understanding how much others suffer.
Wiliam Blake: Job
THAT EMBARRASSING YOUNGER SELF
Ray Carver has a poem about this dilemma of having to own one’s younger self:
THE AUTHOR OF HER MISFORTUNE
I’m not the man she claims. But
this much is true: the past is
distant, a receding coastline,
and we’re all in the same boat,
a scrim of rain over the sea-lanes.
Still, I wish she wouldn’t keep on
saying those things about me!
Over the long course
everything but hope lets you go, then
even that loosens its grip.
There isn’t enough of anything
as long as we live. But at intervals
a sweetness appears and, given a chance,
prevails. It’s true I’m happy now.
And it’d nice if she
could hold her tongue. Stop
hating me for being happy.
Blaming me for her life. I’m afraid
I’m mixed up in her mind
with someone else. A young man
of no character, living on dreams,
who swore he’d love her forever.
One who gave her a ring, and a bracelet.
Who said, Come with me. You can trust me.
Things to that effect. I’m not that man.
She has me confused, as I said,
with someone else.
~ Ray Carver
I discussed this poem with my students. Half of them said, No, he is no longer that man. The other half kept saying, Yes he is. What a cad.
We concluded that he both is and isn’t the same person. Legal cases regularly bring up this paradox: Your Honor, yes, twenty years ago my client did commit a crime, but he is now a “changed man,” a pillar of the community, president of an important charity, a loving husband, father of three fine boys. What good would it serve to put him in prison?
I still don’t have an answer to that question.
TO BELIEVE AS THE HANDS BELIEVE
As for my poem, written the same day I found the dream in my journal, it too provoked a debate. Or rather, not so much a debate as a round of condemnation from friends, with me as the sole defense attorney. Now, my friends were not saying, Your younger self is morally despicable. They were saying that this is a bad poem. It’s badly written: the two men create confusion. “Why don’t you remove the other man from the poem and make it a beautiful love poem?” my most romantic friend suggested. Others seconded that.
It would have been easy to transform this darkly realistic poem into an idealistic one: my one true love, even beyond death. I knew that from a purely esthetic point of view, a shorter poem would have worked: I browse through the journal, find the dream but omit any mention of the idolized “Andrew,” leave out further developments concerning Robert and Andrew, and quickly proceed to the ending. Everyone praised the ending.
But I wanted to retain the duality. For me the poem was about that duality, including the duality of past and present, and the older self’s new understanding of the dream in the light of a more mature understanding of love. No, I was no longer that ruthlessly “honest” young woman, and could now say with Tony Hoagland:
What we’ve learned is mostly
not to be so smart --
as the hands believe,
in only what they hold.
The other matter that interests me is the strangeness of memory. If I hadn’t written down the dream, and then rediscovered the description years later, the dream, which I now see as one of the most powerful dreams I’ve ever had, would be forgotten with the rest of the details. The poem would not exist. The unexpected vehement condemnation that the poem drew further burned it into my memory. “This is the worst poem of yours that I’ve seen,” one person said.
On a dare, I decided to read the poem in public the next chance I got. But in the last minute I lost my nerve. In any case, “you have the right to remain silent.” But the emotional storm assured that I’d never forget the once-forgotten dream or the circumstances in which the “bad” poem was born.
I’ve often reflected that I wrote my “Polish poems” just in time, when my childhood memories were still relatively fresh, and those full-throated Carpathian roosters were crowing, casting splendid echoes. The negative side of communing with the past through poetry was that this selective recall perhaps became more important than it should be. Accused of having created an unreal and folkloric Poland, I could not deny the charge. The Polish countryside had become a holy land to me. Any lost homeland becomes that.
I had poems about Warsaw as well, presenting it as a magical city. When I was in my teens, it really was a magical city to me, but I also knew the other side that my older self fully remembered as well. My most perceptive readers picked up the darker undertones anyway (not to mention that the darkness was at times in full view, since my maternal grandmother was an Auschwitz survivor). They also assured me that the poems “go beyond the country”: those rooster-crowed villages, the wheat fields and the old farmer turning into an oracle, telling me I’d never go crazy, had an element of the eternal.
But there was yet another aspect to having written those poems: sometimes I felt I carried too much of the past with me. Because of the poems, I wasn’t able to forget, and forgetting may be memory’s wisest gift. We daily step into Lethe so we may be free of the old life and ready for the new. Or, as another dream told me, “Every three years I burn my diaries / to make room for new books.”
THE CLOUDS ARE NOT ALONE
Yet just recently I had an experience that confirmed that not even writing a poem is guaranteed to preserve an experience or insight: it’s perfectly common to forget having written a particular poem, even a good one. Some poets say that it’s best to put away a new poem until you no longer remember it, so a year later you can read it, astonished: This is good! I wrote this? Me of little worth and no account? (the Book of Job has a way of coming to my mind when poetry and po-biz intrude on my field of being)
I’ve learned to look at the “used” side of my recycled paper: now and then I find a poem I entirely forgot I ever wrote, and decide to keep it. But the last time I did that, I knew the striking and beautiful poem was not my own. The author’s name wasn’t on the page. I instantly emailed the poem to my Salon, with the question, “Does anyone know who wrote this poem?”
The same night, the author was found. It was one of the members of the Salon. She emailed me: “OMG, this is my poem!” She was astonished, and admitted to having recognized the piece not right away, but only half-way through it. She had entirely forgotten having written it, just as I had forgotten having read it. Here it is:
THE CLOUDS ARE NOT ALONE
A Navaho man said the rain is our ancestors
Our bodies, with so much water when we die
evaporate generation after generation
into clouds made of ancestors raining down
all those evaporating beings farther and farther back
through the dinosaurs and more
Everyone who came before rains on me
The tides from the moon are in all of us
with our waters pulling each other closer and farther
while the stars smash away, create worlds
Poems travel at the speed of light
from the page to my eye
from scraps of language written down
Sappho’s love pulses across centuries
~ Janet Baker © 2013
How could she forget having written such a fine poem? How could I forget having read it?
It’s not that mysterious. Apparently neither of us took the time to properly encode the memory. Not reinforced through deep attention, strong emotion, and/or repetition, the memory became inaccessible. Life rushes on, and both of us simply . . . forgot. The poem would be lost utterly if not for the lucky accident of the recycler rescue.
The chance nature of this incident creates a sense of both adventure and peril. Hooray, a poem that deserves to live is now resurrected. But how many excellent pieces have gotten lost? Legion.
Here was a poem that celebrated the idea that the ancestors are still linked to us, nourishing us. I remembered Rabbi Steve at the Interfaith Panel on the Afterlife (http://oriana-poetry.blogspot.com/2011/12/immortality-of-influence.html), saying that before life ends, a person needs to shed all the love s/he has received so it can be recycled. But the same could be claimed for knowledge and wisdom. All, all must be recycled. As Janet’s poem claims, “Everyone who came before rains on me.”
Jaded reader, you may shrug and say that this has no doubt been said before in some other way; aren’t there too many poems out there already? The sites that offer a “poem of the day” choke with unending material; the Internet overflows with hundreds of thousands of poems. True, but how many of those poems are worth reading? Let’s be generous: maybe ten percent. At the same time, for various reasons, many truly excellent poems never find an audience. They slide into oblivion without a sigh, sometimes forgotten even by their author.
This is sad because poetry can be more powerful than any other kind of writing. I wouldn’t have this belief if not for the repeated experience of someone from the audience approaching me after a reading, deeply moved, thanking me for having made him or her see something in their life in a new light. All good poets seem to have those tales of being thanked by tearful strangers; it’s what keeps poets from feeling useless.
Whenever I do a reading, I imagine that in the audience there is one person for whom a certain poem is meant. I can’t predict which poem and which listener, but experience has tended to confirm my belief that at least one person will be touched in a special way. And that’s also what makes the fickleness of memory and the loss of good poems so sad: the gift is not given, and the person who’d be ready to receive it remains untouched.
Not long ago I happened to be that person in need of a gift. Browsing at random through a book I received from a stranger, I came across these famous lines:
Loafe with me on the grass . . . Loose the stop from your throat,
Not words, not music or rhyme I want . . . not custom
or lecture, not even the best,
Only the lull I like, the hum of your valved voice.
This was not trendy in Whitman’s time, and he had to self-publish. Imagine if it had been lost.