Some years ago, I taught a literature course in which, among other works, we read Montana 1948, a powerful novel by Larry Watson. The book sparked interesting class discussions over a period of several weeks, though none more intriguing — to me at least — than the one that took place after I found myself reminding students we were talking about a work of fiction, which meant the story, though written in the first person, was not true.
One student, a very quiet young man who always sat in the way back, seemed not to have understood that the book was entirely spun out of sugar and air until he heard my jolting reminder. When my words registered with him, he looked as though I had punched him low and hard. Because he had all along believed the story to be true, he said he felt betrayed — so much so that he told us he would never again read another novel. Other students said they also felt bamboozled, though no one else vowed to give up on fiction for good.
Even when I was a very young and inexperienced writer of fiction and poetry, I often got twisted around this idea of truth-telling and wondered what it actually meant for me to be an honest writer of made-up stories and poems. Over time, I have come to think that truth-telling is any writer’s true north and that sensitive readers will know an honest piece of writing, no matter the genre, by the way it makes them feel. Judging by the student responses in my class, I’d say Larry Watson’s compass needle was stuck on “N” all the while he was writing Montana 1948.
For many years I have been fascinated by the use of a technique in poetry known as the “dramatic monologue.” Though he certainly wasn’t the first to use this technique (or form), Victorian poet Robert Browning perfected it in such poems as “Porphyria’s Lover” (a favorite) and “My Last Duchess.” Later, T.S. Eliot used the form in his famous poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (another favorite), and John Berryman used it in his “Dream Songs.” Poems that incorporate dramatic monologue — also known as persona poems — typically make use of one “character” through whom the poem is spoken or delivered. Because a poem using this technique is often in the first person, it is tempting to conclude that the poem’s narrator and the poet are one and the same. But don’t be fooled! Writing this type of poem allows the writer to adopt the “voice” of the character and to inhabit him or her from the inside out (as an actor might). And, because there is no overt commentary about or analysis of the character given within the poem itself, it is left to the reader to decide the poem’s meaning and power by paying close attention to what the often “unreliable narrator” says — or doesn’t say. Of my recent poetry, “Tripping then falling” is a dramatic monologue — as is “and said,” along with “The Other Mary” — but other poems posted on this blog also make use of the technique. If you want to find all of my poems in one place, click here or on the “poems” tab at the top of the homepage.
Rose ave. is a collaboration between Alecia Moore (aka Pink) and Dallas Green (of City and Colour), and it is one of the most beautiful, and haunting, collections of songs I have ever heard. Singing of love and loss, Moore and Green — who call themselves you+me — showcase delicate, complex harmonies and an extraordinary vocal range. I especially like “Love Gone Wrong” for its simple but catchy “baby…baby” lyrics and for its use of point/counterpoint. And, hard as it might be to believe, they go Sade one better in their harrowing version of her “No Ordinary Love.” If you’d like to hear the full album, click here.
If you haven’t guessed it, I’m a big fan of Joss Stone, the 27-year-old English singer/songwriter whose music more than tips a hat to the likes of Aretha, Dusty, and Janis but whose bluesy soulfulness is uniquely her own. I’m mesmerized by her sound, which recalls the music of my childhood, and by the barefooted, flower-in-the-hair performances that take me back to my hippie youth, such as it was.
For a while, though, I didn’t even know Joss Stone was a singer because I first saw her in Showtime’s The Tudors, where, during seasons three and four, she was cast as Anne of Cleaves, the fourth wife of King Henry VIII — who cruelly contrived to get rid of her because he found her unattractive. (“I like her not!” bellows actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers’s King Henry to anyone who will listen.) Hers was such a poignant, understated performance that I couldn’t have even imagined such a sexy singer would be hiding beneath the dull, thick costumes.
Sexy, indeed! … “but not slutty,” as one man pointed out in a comment he posted on YouTube — a comment that has me thinking about what it means for a woman to be just enough sexy. It’s that Virgin Mary/Mary Magdalene thing, the angel/whore split that dogs our collective unconscious and confuses even the best of men.
but the best encounter
I’ve ever had
the best one
I was tracking a jaguar
in the jungle
which I usually don’t do
I saw these big male tracks of a jaguar
I’d never seen before and
I just took off thinking okay
I’ll track it a little while but
I shouldn’t be alone but
I ended up tracking it for hours and
it was getting dark and
I didn’t have a flashlight and
I can’t be alone in the jungle without a flashlight so
I turn around and
there’s the jaguar
in back of me
(Excerpt from an 8.18.14 interview between NPR’s Diane Rehm and zoologist/wildlife ecologist Alan Rabinowitz )
in those fields
the grasses were very high
wheat fields sunflower fields and
you would come upon the bodies
in their strange shapes and
it felt so deeply sad that
no one was coming to help them that
they were alone
there was a little girl
who had a little
pink T-shirt on and
she was in this distant area near a pond
totally thrown clear
not near anything at all
they stay with you
the faces of the people and
how they lay in the grass and
they come into your mind and
it’s hard to get them out
(Excerpt from an 8.6.14 interview between NY Times reporter Sabrina Tavernise and NPR’s Fresh Air host Terry Gross)
On a long walk today I thought about how difficult it is to develop a genuine conscience. It comes unbidden but only after we have worked long and deeply on ourselves — perhaps with a spiritual teacher to guide us — and only after we have been made to suffer the truth of what we are and what we are not.
When I think back on my own feelings of remorse, I am reminded of one event in particular, when I behaved very badly with a college roommate — a kind, gentle, and unassuming soul if ever there was one. Sometime after we had gone our separate ways, she appeared at my door with a man she met while traveling in France; he was, I have to say, on the very other side of beyond sexy, and throughout the evening I flirted shamelessly, outrageously, with him — all the while pretending, as I must have done, that she wasn’t even in the room, my friend.
When I remember this misadventure, I am pained more than anything else by what my behavior said about how little I valued her and about how unwilling I was to see her as a woman who could be desired by such a handsome man. In fact, I remember feeling something of a shock when the two of them bade goodnight and went off to bed together.
Over the years I have thought to contact her so I could apologize, but I have been stopped by my sense that the truest apology would be more hurtful than the original trespass because I would have to acknowledge how I must have had to diminish her sufficiently in my own mind to do what I had done.
We do this all the time: diminish and dismiss others in order to justify our own vast cruelties, which is murder bit by bit.
Jonathan Glazer’s sci-fi horror film Under the Skin is not for everyone, but, once seen, it seeps and settles.
The film stars Scarlett Johansson as the alien femme fatale who is somehow birthed onto the west coast of Scotland for the apparent sole purpose of hunting down lonely men in her white Ford Transit and luring them back to her dark, oozy flat. What she does with them once there we cannot know for sure, but evisceration seems to be a part of it.
Yet trying to understand its precise meaning is a fool’s errand because the power of the movie is in the evocative: in the dark, rainy streetscapes; in the dialogue that sounds sieved through gauze; in the menacing soundtrack that is like “a locust plague of dry tremolos, the strings pressing down until the sound has reached a roar.”
Or in a startling erection, a hand pierced by a rose thorn, a vacant stare above blood-red lips, a rapist gone silent and scared.
What is most potent about Under the Skin, though, is its insistence on showing us at every turn the terrible and terrifying power of sex — a power we little understand, and one that awakens in us that which is at once alien and deeply human.
The other day, as I was walking out of a nearby CVS, where I had gone to purchase dish soap and aspirin, an employee called out after me, “Be safe!”
“You, too,” I tossed back absently over my shoulder.
But, what did she mean, I later wondered. Did she somehow know that, in a few days’ time, I would open myself again to heartache? And, what could I have done to prevent it? Turn right instead of left?
Or steer clear altogether.