What is memoir in poetry? We read prose memoirs and see how lives are stretched taut around themes: a chronology of water, a debilitating illness, a drug addiction, a nomadic childhood, a strange religion, insomnia-driven thinking. Themes become umbrella girding; living, the fabric that fills it out. But where does poetry fit into memoir? We could think about the confessional in poetry and say, yes this is the place where poetry and memoir meet. Plath on suicide attempts: “I have done it again. / One year in every ten / I manage it–” or Lowell, “My mind’s not right…I myself am hell.” Depression and mania are easily encapsulated states of being, but all poets write their lives, confessional or not. When Simic writes, “My mother was a braid of black smoke,” we assume he’s not writing fact-truth. Maybe he’s writing dream truth or metaphor truth. Maybe he’s just writing, and I’m extrapolating.
I started thinking about this when a poem of mine called “Man Builds a Guitar” went up online recently. It’s basically a persona poem in Jack White’s voice. I wrote it after watching the documentary It Might Get Loud and not being able to shake Jack White’s weird tinkering and instrument making from my head. So, it’s a persona poem, but it embodies themes and emotions I was thinking about at that particular moment in time. When I say, “I heard everything disappearing” what I meant was that my marriage was over and life as I knew it was evaporating in front of my eyes. I’m using the imagery of my childhood in the South and the sounds that take me back there to get at the particulars of silence-after-a-storm. This is a memoir poem even though it’s a persona poem. I mean, I don’t know Jack White, but I know me.
Matt Hart has a poem called “Sailing the Gut Boat,” that begins, “I made you a thing with no tongue / and gallons of new-fangled fog. I made you / a thing with nothing and nobody—not even / a surrealist screaming into an atlas….” Hart reminds us that you can fashion people and events into whatever you want (a nothing, even) on the page, but the truth of them still remains behind that fashioning.
Or take a short couplet poem, “Future,” by Emily Kendal Frey:
There’s an actual world and the world I’m a part of.
When the lake burns, I’m looking down on it from the thinnest branches of a tree.
I’m not sitting here at my desk assuming that Frey’s up in the tree (though I bet she climbs trees!), but I do think that when the flames ignite, she’s there to record them. The fact-world and the poem-world, the day-to-day and the imaginary: there’s a very fine line between the two.
Look at the second paragraph of Sandy Florian’s prose poem “Centerpiece”:
I was birthed by a beheading. Your bulls wash up from water. Birthed to the task of weaning myself from myself. This sorrow, too, is not mine. Brick body born from bone. So leave your light. Fire up your engines now. The hunt is up and I am all uncoupled. I paint you through a telephone. With flight or with fancy. Stuck in the muck and done. And between your fists, two beastly drums go hammer.
Or Rick Bursky’s “Surface of the Tongue,” in which he writes, “While standing with my tongue in the light socket / I discovered a rip in my heart.”
As a reader, I’m not interested in autobiographical fact here; rather, I’m interested in how Florian and Bursky use their language to get at a tumultuous relationship, how violence shapes these experiences.
Locating the “I” within the space of real or imagined experience is the task of poem-as-memoir. Taking facts and making them new, turning language on edge—whatever you want to call it, the truth remains that language becomes the memoir. Someone wrote me a letter recently about the poems in my first book, in which he said that sometimes he got lost in the words, that my syntax and rhythm occasionally overrides my content. I’m glad to hear this! The mad rush I feel from poeming exists within the play and interplay of words/lines/stanzas. Hell, I’ll write a poem and then re-write it backwards. Nine times out of ten the poem is better for the mucking around. I’m not always successful—hallelujah! there’s room to grow!—but I’d rather be doing the hard work of tinkering than telling you straight what I ate for breakfast. Or maybe I want to do both…