Sunday, July 22, 2007

Saying too much: private moments in public poems

I've been thinking about this subject since I first started writing the poems that eventually were published in Survivable World: how much narrative detail is too much? After the book came out--after, in fact, I'd read one poem in particular in DC--, I realized that I'd gone too far with one line.

The poem is about the trips that I made to and from the hospital in D's last days, with and without his family. The phrase "everyone strained, polite" pushes right at the edge (I think now) of what's publicly acceptable: these are his family; they were under terrible stress, and I was only able to see them through my own lens of grief.

Which is acceptable in such circumstances, but for the fact that I wrote it down, fully intending to use it. I published it, thinking I had written an honest narrative of the experience. The thing I said next, and how I strained against the boundaries of privacy and propriety in order to accomplish the telling, is what shames me still. I want to say that I didn't mean it ("after ten years you'd think we'd know whether we liked one another"), that of course I liked them ("But you're just like any other married couple!" his mother said to D in her kitchen on one of our early visits), but they unnerved me, too.

The Pod People, I called them, that Christmas holiday our Honda's transmission failed on the long drive home to Houston. We were trying to push the car in terrible snow, and a beat-up white truck full of ominously quiet men picked us up, took us to a gas station miles down the road, where we phoned D's parents. Oh, the men were fine; it was just D's prissiness at the dirty truck--or maybe that they'd caught on that we were queers--or some undefined sense of difference that I'll never figure out which caused them to grow silent as we bumped along, but I couldn't help feeling that D was betraying a sense of disdain. I couldn't put my finger on it, but there was a palpable shift in the cab of that truck (why did I blame D for it?) and I remember thinking They could kill us, shove us down an embankment, go back for the car (absolutely loaded with gifts and camera equipment). It was days later, when D hadn't yet phoned to have the Honda towed, that I lost my patience with our extended visit, with living among his too-polite, blandly nice family, and launched into that explosive argument. I wanted to go home: I needed space to write, to read. I didn't trust their goodness and felt it had to be a facade; worse, I was sure they secretly disapproved of me.

And so the poem contains a kind of lie, though even as I write this I am back in that awkward shuttling to the hospital, the oppressibly religious funeral which I permitted because I knew it would comfort his parents. And yet, when his father, back at the house, said what a nice service it had been, didn't F murmur I thought it was awful, and didn't I realize that she, too, was somehow an outsider?

* * * * *

I made a fiction of my love,
and fell in love with that.


RJGibson said...

I think this is one of the most poignant and well-stated posts I've read on a blog.

There is a fine line regarding details that I've been considering for the last year or so...thanks for this perspective.

Ron Mohring said...

Thanks, RJ . . . I guess that it has (finally) come down to the "line" (zone, really) between being "truthful" (how many times am I reminded by someone: "But that's not how it happened!") and doing *harm* . . .