Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Notes on the confessional: Lynn Crosbie’s Liar: A Poem

I am a liar also, will not tell the truth about what transpired
between us. I can only allude to the most grotesque

articles, the spikes of the fever.
November, 2010: After years, I’ve finally opened my copy of Lynn Crosbie’s Liar: A Poem (Toronto ON: Anansi, 2006), a work that felt cruel to me when it appeared, especially for its Valentine’s Day release, with an excerpt of the poem published that morning in The National Post. How does one consider the confessional against such deeply personal information? I kept my copy closed, out of respect for her ex-partner. A far-too public relationship for her (in my mind) to be producing such a particular work. At the time it felt as though her poem was airing the couple’s dirty laundry, and still does. Knowing her subject had no choice but to remain silent, no matter what brought forth, or what may or may not have been true. Do such details need to be publicly spread? Is there a difference in how tabloid fodder is read if it’s constructed as art? I step over them, distractions. Deliberately, stepping out, around and through my own heartbreak, my own breaks, and consider the emotions Crosbie’s lines bring up bare to the surface.
I want to finish this, to break the jar, to scale this obstacle,
no matter what I feel,

that you killed me, that I have experienced everything since
like something starving, hardly sentient.

That I want to return to your unmade bed, and watch the moon
invent you, latching us together.

Or tell you, No. This will end badly, I am capable of being alone.

The accusations that can never be responded to. The poem moves out into blame and then returns, reflects back, learning to acknowledge the narratives and reasons of failure itself, as I must do as well; is this the time to open this poem, finally, and properly address? There was a time when Crosbie could be compared to the late London, Ontario artist Greg Curnoe: we watched, in part because we didn’t know exactly what they would do next. From the documentary novel Paul's Case (Toronto ON: Insomniac Press, 1998) to the poem “Alphabet City” from Queen Rat: New and Selected Poems (Toronto ON: Anansi, 1998). Had the rules for the Governor General’s Award for Poetry not changed to no longer consider selected poems (a rule that allowed Leonard Cohen, Patrick Lane and plenty of others the prize), she would have easily won for the collection. Beginning in the mid to late 1990s, Crosbie was the rarest of those, such as Michael Turner and Douglas Coupland, who were watched for their fearlessness, raw talent and experimentation, the unexpected movements that permeated their works. We could say the same now of Christian Bök, Sheila Heti, Lisa Robertson. What happened? Is her fearlessness still there, but less reckless, perhaps?

There was something in the way Montreal poet Leonard Cohen wrote through the confessional, moving so deeply personal that it became universal, and yet, gave nothing away. Pillow talk makes for lousy poetry, I'd say. Perhaps the information is simply too close, colouring the reading of the piece? Would this collection have read the same had it been released years down the road? Certainly the raw emotion would survive, less overshadowed by the aspect of tabloid. Still, is the so-called “confessional” there for the sake of the confession, for the purpose of the big reveal? I think back to Robert Creeley's poetry, revealing small moments of his marriage, his marriages. Beth Bachmann, writing poems on the murder of her sister at the hands of their father. As far as the poems themselves, it shouldn't matter if the information is true. As New York poet Rachel Zucker wrote in her “Confessionalography: A GNAT (Grossly Non-Academic Talk) on ‘I’ in Poetry”:
Being “confessional” had something to do with breaking taboos, suffering, and claiming that the “self” of the poem was not “a speaker” but was actually the poet. It was a catchy name—“confessional poetry”—and it also meant that high school students didn’t have to spend as much time looking for symbols in poems and could, with no training at all, write really bad poems that helped them “express” themselves. Of course, there were a few problems. For one, was this poetry really radically new? A century earlier, Emily Dickinson had written searingly personal poems—poems in which the discourse of self is so raw and painful you can almost feel her skin come off—and Allen Ginsberg’s “I” sounds a whole lot like Walt Whitman’s “I.” Yet, people felt that these “confessional” poems were unlike anything ever written before, though no one could say exactly how they were different, and the poets themselves made this more difficult because no one wanted to be counted in or left out.
As I write this, my collection of love poems, Poems for Lainna, composed across the summer of 2008, has finally been accepted for publication, barely two months after my own break, the book acceptance wrapped up in mixed emotion, a mess of. There is something about airing I am uncomfortable with, see too many instances; Crosbie’s ex-partner firm in my mind, a friend. The devil is in the details. Am I supposed to simply ignored them and read on? Can you write any part of the good without writing out the bad as well? Simply another fragment of what writing should be built out of, but equally buried, presenting information as straightforward as an ellipsis. Is it simply a matter of balance, something that might actually be missing in Crosbie's emotionally-charged poem? It's almost as though too much detail detracts from her piece. Distracts. In an interview I did with Zucker a couple of years back:
rm: The piece at (“Confessionalography: A GNAT (Grossly Non-Academic Talk) – Rachel Zucker on ‘I’ in Poetry: Fiction or Nonfiction”) is pretty entertaining. I wonder if all the 70s “confessional” poets accomplished was to turn the word “confessional” into a dirty word, tainting the idea of the “confessional poem” into an airing of the authors’ “feelings” and dirty laundry. You seem very good at keeping the personal aspect of the “I” in your poems without turning it into anything tawdry or overly-sentimental. How are you able to find a balance?

RZ: Well, thanks for the compliment; I’m glad to hear you don’t find my work tawdry or overly-sentimental. As for the Confessionals (there should be a rock group called the Confessionals, if there isn’t already), I’m not sure I agree with you. I think they did more than air dirty laundry. And, I think that airing dirty laundry and “feelings” is pretty important. (More on your use of quotation marks around the word “feelings” in a minute.) Say, for instance, your house has been quarantined and finally, after a long and painful month, the affected have died. Or perhaps they made it through. In either case airing the dirty laundry becomes a kind of holy rite. Or say you are doing the once-a-year ritual cleaning for passover and airing out all the linens and things. Or say that it is just regular old dirty laundry, the kind that everyone has. Everyone. The stuff that we all have because we are human and have body fluids and smells and messes; even this dirty laundry has a sacred.
I have nothing, specifically, to confess. I wish to instead use biography as something written around and through, and not directly; biography is simply information to use, after all. The poem, in the end, is the thing. Creative non-fiction is an entirely different machine. Back around 2008, I worked to explore the more obvious love poem, the lyric sensibility and the use of the sentence, working to express without giving too much, or overloading into sentiment. Nothing more boring than a boy in love, Snailhouse sang. I worked to explore the love poem, and how to bring the rest of the world in as well. More recently, I work the same with new information, exploring how the whole business went straight to hell, wrapping personal information up in so much other. The language, always, must propel; must be the engine. I'll end with a poem from my recently-completed poetry manuscript, “Miss Canada.”

Become undone, a line

because I needed; precisely
why you left,

weather daylight holds, a drift,
capacity for dialogues,

emblematic noise,

    soft sidearm
    made of larger purpose

to lie appropriately
is to maintain balance; to let

the future fold, unfold, retreat
headlong into ruin

    a better kisser, now
    no longer disguising desire

    as meeker sister, hope

and you, whom I no longer need,
erased from these equations,

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