Poetry and the truth of it

My mother died a year ago April 30th, so I’ve felt haunted these past few weeks. Many kind friends have been checking in with me; for now I’m just saying “okay” and wondering afterward what I meant. Truly, I’ve watched people go through life-rocking grief that lasts years, and that’s not me. My mother died sooner and with more suffering than I wished, but she was 81 and in pain and ready to go. I unpredictably have bad days during which I can’t concentrate and have a hard time being around other people–I call them “grief days.” I suspect this time of year will often conjure her difficult final weeks. Yet most of the time my memories and dreams focus more happily on earlier parts of her life. She feels near.

A friend recently said that she can’t mourn her mother even a few years later; there was too much trauma there. My father, ten years gone this May 30th, wasn’t someone I could grieve, either. From my twenties on I was aware of mourning the father I didn’t have–feeling sorrow even more acutely as I watched how loved and supported my kids felt by their dad–but my father was a storm of a person whom we were relieved to see pass. That’s the main personal narrative of my new book, Poetry’s Possible Worlds: learning the extent of his lies, watching the damage he did as he flamed out, and coming to see the ways his life and death reverberated in me, my understanding guided by poems.

The thing is, my mother was, of course, implicated in my father’s violence. I’ve just published a pair of poems about those times in Couplet, an exposure that would have been difficult when my mother was alive and still feels surprisingly risky. Even calling my father “violent” has been a struggle. My mother occasionally slapped us, but to me it felt fundamentally different, just what temporarily angry parents sometimes did in an age when spanking wasn’t taboo. My father’s violence came from a different place; sometimes it was cool, strategic. We never sustained the visible injuries a social worker would have recognized (or rarely? I’m not positive), but it was clear he wanted to hurt us and approached that line too often. His unpredictable temper, so difficult to read, helped wire my brain. I’m still more likely than some friends to sense dishonesty and possible physical threat from others. I trust those instincts.

It hurt me, growing up, that my mother tried to protect my little brother but left my sister and me to fend for ourselves. At this age, though, I am full of forgiveness, because I understand that she was a hurt person, too, also afraid and making the best she could of bad circumstances. I understand more acutely the difference in social power between a man with a masters in engineering from Dartmouth, with his well-paying job, and a woman who grew up in a tenement and who, like everyone else in her family, never had the remotest chance of getting to university. That was one reason I was determined to always have a well-paying job of my own. I saw early that money gives you the freedom to walk away from abusive people, and damned if I was going to live like that again.

I guess I’m speaking ill of the dead. Some family members, if they see these new poems, will be unhappy with me. I have another worry: that in trying to make the shorter poem, “The Underworld,” less cryptic or idiosyncratic (in the original version, some readers struggled with the syntax), I made my father sound too mythic. I believe that all poetry has aspects of fiction, but I really, really don’t want to mislead anyone about the facts behind this one.

Yet a parent is a sort of god to a child, right? It feels like honoring part of my experience to describe how mixed and impossible to capture and important the truth is. Ambiguity and complexity: there’s poetry for you. You could write a book about it.

6 responses to “Poetry and the truth of it”

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