Jan 3rd, 2013 by John Gregory Brown
Here are two pieces of McArdle’s work. She is one of my favorite bloggers for many reasons, one of which is that she thinks very clearly about each issue that she writes about and presents the reader with prose that is engaging and sometimes a little witty. Sometimes I don’t exactly agree with some of the points that she makes, but I always enjoy her writing. One piece is from The Atlantic and the other is from her blog “Asymmetrical Information,” which is featured on The Daily Beast. Feel free to peruse her blog if you would like, she has some really interesting columns! See you all on Tuesday!
My first creative writing workshop class was First Person Fiction. I remember truly loving it, and it was in that class that I first read Denis Johnson. His book of short stories, Jesus’ Son, was the first collection in which I studied the technique of the writing instead of the work’s literary agenda. I still read those stories from time to time and remember how excited I was to read the collection for class. Last year when I was in the memoir workshop class, I wrote about my best friend and his heroin addiction. I was living the memoir as I wrote it because I didn’t know how else to deal with its reality. One day I opened Jesus’ Son for inspiration while working on my memoir; I figured there could be no better author to read than one who had been an addict himself. The page I flipped to was the story of a young man who happened to be an addict leaving the hospital for a bar; it sounded too familiar. It was one of those goosebump moments that stuck with me. From the beginning I felt a connection with Johnson’s work even if I didn’t personally understand it. Johnson has a talent for using words to make his particular lifestyle of alcohol abuse, women, and narcotics sound beautiful, which is why I admire his work.
Here’s a link to the NYTimes review of Jesus’ Son.
Lucie Brock-Broido gave a really great interview with the Poetry Foundation regarding this particular poem (poem below), as well as on her structural style at a larger scale. I wanted to include or post this poem, mostly because I think it’s a really great exploration of how a seemingly non-related topic can becoming the platform for grief and sorrow in a way the reader may not originally anticipate. But also due to the fact that Brock did provide an interview on the construction of the poem itself, which is just a great resource in general! Link to that article here.
What is attempted in this poem is something that I try to do in my own work, although admittedly unsuccessful at times, which is to use the white space and unspoken as the real content of the poem, not necessarily what is easily discernible upon the first reading. I think poetry, while often blunt, has the luxury of asking the reader to work for meaning. Often times in formal narrations the reader wants the sort of detail and exploration that poetry cannot always give due to space. In many ways poetry simply encompasses an idea, not the entire story. Which, brings me back to why I like this poem: Brock plays upon this assumed relationship in a way that I think is very successful. In moving forward with my own work, I like to look to look at poetry such as this to better help me formulate how I can improve my own writing.
By Lucie Brock-Broido
The article titled “Combat Friends: The Man of Easy Company” was moving, but not as much because of the writing as because of the subject matter itself. However, even though it wasn’t a favorite of mine, I do think that there are still things that can be learned from the article. The first is how to write simply for a general audience. Ambrose is definitely an easy read, and the stories about his combat brothers were page-turners. I wanted to know what happened to these men that formed such unexpected friendships with one another after the war.
It was challenging for me to get into the article in the beginning because Ambrose automatically put up a barrier for me. He started the article with, “There is a form of friendship that I’ve never experienced, though I have spent a lot of time wondering about it and talking and writing about it.” Starting off the article with these words characterizes him as an outsider to the world of combat. A couple of sentences later, he states, “Today I know how utterly false that is. It [football] is not like combat. Nothing is. Combat requires all the nerves, all the physical attributes, and every bit of training. It is only in combat, nowhere else, where time is measured in other ways than by clocks or calendars.” Because of his opening statement, I don’t trust his knowledge of combat in this following section. Even though it is implied that he talked to many men who were in combat, such a strong statement comes off as overwhelming.
Another issue that I had with this article was that it seemed a little redundant. With every new person that was introduced, Ambrose explained how they were the best at what they did and different from everyone else, but the friendship they developed with these men with whom they served disregarded these differences. Instead of making each individual person stand out, this generalization made them all blend together. Also, it is repeated in various forms that the group of men became like a family, and that despite their geographical distance they managed to stay in touch. This is a point that really only needs to be made once.
Unlike the first article, “Faithful Friends: Lewis and Clark” was very enjoyable. The story was even more riveting, focusing on two famous historical people that every American is familiar with. Ambrose’s detailed description of the adoration that these men had for one another would fit under the modern term “bromance.” This was also an easy read, but what made it successful was the incorporation of history into the story of their friendship. While being historically correct, Ambrose jazzes up the familiar story adding letters written between the two men and occasional spicy comments. One of my favorites happened when Lewis broke the news to Clark about their unequal rank, and suggested that that stay a secret between the two of them. Ambrose writes, “This was satisfactory to his friend Clark who like most Virginia gentleman was rank-conscious.” Comments like those added a little humor and reliability to the story.
The opening of the article titled “Faithful Friends: Lewis and Clark” was much stronger than the opening of the previous article. Ambrose praised Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on the uniqueness of their friendship, pointing out the incomparable experiences that the two of them shared together. The relation to the author’s friendship with Nick worked well in this, making Ambrose relatable, and therefore trustworthy to the reader.
There were a couple of sections, however, that bothered me. Ambrose has a habit of overpraisal, and this can come off as cheesy at times. Towards the beginning, he states “But what I envy Lewis and Clark for the most is not the experiences I can never have, but their friendship with each other, an experience we can all of us hope to have in our own way in our own time.” I feel like that statement is a little extreme, and not quite believable. I personally envy their lifestyle more than their friendship, seeing as most people have a best friend in life, but no one will ever be able to experience what they experienced.
The exaggeration seems present again when Ambrose is talking about the complete lack of fighting between Lewis and Clark on their expedition. I find it a little hard to believe that they didn’t fight over anything serious for the whole voyage, however he does successfully put emphasis on how well their friendship worked together. Even though it isn’t completely believable, there has to be some validity in his claim since it was never reported that they got into a serious fight. I did like how Ambrose displayed their professional relationship as being positive and important to their friendship. In my experience, that can be one of the biggest issues with friendship, separating professional life from friendly banter. It helps me believe the friendship as a reader.
Fighting habits aside, Ambrose still paints the two men in a flawless light, which is another thing I’m not quick to believe. In a section that discusses the relationship with all of the men on board he says, “No matter how cold they were, how exhausted, how dangerous their situation, how miserable their existence, or how hungry and worried and frightened, they never spoke sharply to one another.” This is then repeated later in the article towards the end. The redundancy is not beneficial to proving his point, and the light that he paints them in is borderline saintly. He does redeem himself slightly with the destruction of Lewis, showing that the friendship is powerful, but not without flaws.
The end of the article simultaneously annoys me and gains my approval. The story lost some of its strength when Ambrose decided to give it a general moral. “What they had done, first of all, was to demonstrate that there is nothing that men cannot do if they get themselves together and act as a team.” It makes the story lose some of its meaning, and it’s simply cheesy. He then continues by defining what friends do and do not do, and that lathered on the cheddar. The redeeming quality in the ending was the reminder of the flaws of their friendship, and I liked leaving on a note of how humanity is a part of friendship.
To See The Queen
In Allison Seay’s collection of poems titled To See The Queen, there are so many different dark, yet beautiful elements to found in her work that really left a strong impression on me. This is not a book that one would read if one was looking for a lift in spirits, however her work has an interesting way of calling to question one’s own identity, and the process through which one develops it. There are three sections in this collection, and each section focuses on a different perspective of the writer’s life. The first section, “Liliana,” is very reflective of past experiences and thought processes. There are lots of references to younger memories.
As the title of the section suggests, the first part of the collection focuses on Liliana. The first poem, “The Figment,” brings to attention the fact that Liliana is not an individual who is still alive, technically speaking, and she may not even be real. The first line of the poem says, “If I am still enough I see Liliana, a figment.” She is described in varying forms throughout the collection, such as God, a man, the queen, and even an extension of the writer herself. Understanding the meaning of Liliana is extremely complex, and that’s what makes the brilliance of Seay’s poetry. Although who and what Liliana is isn’t clear, the reader easily accepts all forms of her, and is able to relate to them. She does not represent a specific character, but a collection of concepts: grief, imagination, identity, etc. Liliana is used to describe different stages of thought that the writer presents.
One of the other things that Liliana is constantly associated with is death. There is definitely the element of physical death, as is pointed out in “The Queen,” “but also Liliana. I want to ask her/which is worse: dying/ or being dead. And then I can see her floating away.” This makes the reader aware of the possibility that Liliana might have been a person at one point, who passed away. The death of Liliana helps explain the grief that the writer continually deals with, and it helps show the thought process that one goes through in grief.
These poems actually reminded me of Joan Didion’s memoir A Year Of Magical Thinking. In that book, Didion explains the year after her husband died, and the way that her mind worked during that year. It covered the stages of grief, showing how one goes through denial, anger, regret, self-loathing, and isolated thought. Memories were revisited with a twinge of pain attached to them, as seen in “The Sisters’ Incident With the Figment At The Bus Stop, 1985”, and “Her Hair, Before It Is Pinned.” These poems focused on life before loss, and how much regret the writer had for not appreciating these moments. The writer constantly wants to change her actions, in hopes of a different outcome, and Didion also explains this phenomena.
Another part of this section focuses on the mind. As mentioned earlier, it is probable that Liliana is currently a figment of the writers’ imagination. It is also pointed out, specifically in “Sick Room,” that Liliana could be an extension of the writer herself, a portrayal of part of her identity that is projected onto this other persona. The poem states, “It is too simple to say the figment is inside me or is myself, /or whichever of my selves, in some thick air.” This admission shows a couple of things: firstly that there is some truth in saying that Liliana is a part of the writer, secondly that the writer is aware of this, and thirdly that Liliana is not only a part of the writer, but still validly defined by many other things. However, focusing on the admission of Liliana being a part of the writer’s mind, some of the poems are no longer dealing with reality, but with imagination. This realization then puts into question all of her previous poems in terms of reality. Is what she writing about fact, or just another “figment?”
There is a shift in the second section of the collection, titled “Geography of God’s Undoing.” This is a different, later part of the writer’s life that does not focus around Liliana. The focus of this section is the relationship that the writer has with a man, how that relationship plays out, and the changes and realizations that the writer has leading up to, during, and following this relationship. The relationship starts on a positive note. The poems talk about love and no longer being alone. In “Town of Unspeakable Things,” the writer says, “Then there was the time I looked directly into the face/ of the life I thought I was missing. / Of love. I used to think to be not alone meant/ never having to walk through the high wheat.” This shows hopefulness, however there are hints to the failure of this relationship mentioned early in the section. In the poem, “My Husband, The Roe,” there is a repetition of the word before. The first stanza says, “before the joy there was the end before the end/the ugliest before the worst before I said no/ before he asked me to marry him” This poem foreshadows a couple of things in the writers life: firstly that there is a sense of joy after this relationship, and secondly that there is an end to it. The repetition helps put emphasis on the chronology of events, and ties into the theme of life in general and the process through which individuals are shaped. This poem is similar to the poem “Ultima Thule,” which also uses repetition to show chronology.
I came to a couple of realizations in this section. The first is that I think it safe to say that, although sometimes mixed with imaginative properties, the writer does talk about specific events that happened in her life. For instance, it is safe to say that there was at least a relationship (if not a marriage) that failed. It is also safe to say that Liliana probably did exist at some point as an actual person. There is a relationship between this man and Liliana that I was informed of in the poem “Uneven Love” in the first section. It says, “Once did I see the figment as a man. / One man in particular/and the most unusual I have known. / I knew him in a different city.” The man, who is a figment like Liliana, is the man that is described in the second section. What makes them similar, if not the same, is that they are now figments of the writers’ imagination. They are no longer a part of the writers’ life, but they are two pivotal people who impacted her and made her suffer and eventually come define part of her identity involving them. As she pointed out in the end of the first section, Liliana is more complex than the extension of the writers’ self, and this is why.
This realization made me further look into the writers’ thoughts on self, and her self-development. Speaking in terms of Erik Erikson’s theory of development, people in a state of crisis are going through what is called moratorium. During moratorium, they reanalyze their thoughts on the self, and research and reevaluate many aspects of their lives. They leave moratorium when they come to a new definition of self that has been reached through their own findings. The writer goes through moratorium at a young age, when she is faced with the reality of mortality. It is made clear that she is out of this phase and has become self-defined again before she goes into this relationship. During the relationship she is at a stagnant state because life is simple and happy, however there are hints of unhappiness with the lifestyle. She recognizes these hints and starts to realize the falsity of her happiness as they worsen. When the relationship is close to an end, she has to reevaluate again and goes into another stage of moratorium. This can be seen through metaphor in the poems. Nature is something that is referenced constantly, from animals to seasons. Nature is associated with the younger phase of life, and a sense of aloneness. Also, since these poems seem to focus on stages of life, this is also reflected in the reference to seasons. The first section talked about winter, relating it to death and loneliness. This section is spring, and spring is a rebirth of the earth. However, there are also lots of references to leaves falling in this section, and that is associated with fall. Even the colors referenced, and the food discussed, show the importance of the seasons. White is a color often mentioned in the first section, while green is a color often mentioned in the second. As the seasons reflect the natural circle of life, the monumental moments that are described in these poems mimic that circle.
Also, there seems to be a focus in reflected in the poems. The first section talks about nature as a whole often, the second section references a town, and later a house. This is further supported by the titles of the poems in the third section, “Room of the Queen’s Dreams,” which focus on a specific room and eventually a single bed. The slow focus onto this bed is explained in the last lines of the last poem “None Such As She,” which say, “Not exactly not if time/ is what we have a world of/ not if the world/ is a bed I have made” By claiming that she has made this bed, she has finally gained control of herself and her happiness.
The self is explored once again in this section, but the writer is no longer in a stage of moratorium. She is leaving this stage and coming to an informed opinion of herself. Although Liliana is once again the focus of her poems, the writer is no longer painfully attached to her, but slowly separating herself from her. One example of this is in the poem, “Lily Briscoe, Painting.” The poem’s last stanza says, “Lily, paint winter. It is December/and the wind sounds like a woman and the skeleton/ of the oak tree moves like her body dancing.” This stanza is important because Lilly, or Liliana, is what the writer believed ruined the perfect image of life that she had before. The figment of Liliana is a support, but it is also a restraint because it doesn’t comprehend the importance and beauty of pain. The writer realizes that her past experiences shape her, and have made her into a stronger person with a seasoned outlook on life. She no longer wishes to have not experienced the painful parts that have helped her reach this outlook.
The writer also seems to finally emerge with society in the third section. They are no longer alone or associating with things that are imagined. There is an obvious association and appreciation for people. This is different from the other two sections because her happiness was based around an individual, and now the individual is herself. How this emergence happened is made clear in the poem “Room of Resignation” through allusions to a suicide attempt. This is also the poem where Liliana supposedly “leaves” the writer, and the writer comes to the realization that she can survive without her.
One important part of these poems that I forgot to mention earlier was the importance of silence. Silence is something that is feared; yet appreciated in the first section, because silence allows the writer to be alone with her thoughts and not be brought back into the painful reality of life. In the second section, silence becomes specifically associated with aloneness, and the recognition of it is still painful, but less often. By the third section, silence is no longer negative, as it is no longer painful. By silencing Liliana, the writer is free from the sadness that came with her from the realization of the “happier” life one could be living.
As I said previously, To See the Queen really moved me. It made me think about the complexity of past, and it reminded me of how pain can be beneficial. Life isn’t supposed to be this perfect, happy story that doesn’t involve some sort of suffering, because suffering, loss, and grief are invaluable to a person’s development and self-identity. Seay was able to make a person appreciate the realness of their life.
I don’t know how representative of the rest of Ambrose’s work these two chapters are but I found them incredibly cheesy and not very well written. The part in the first chapter, “and what the men thought was what counted. / That, and their friendship.” Reminded me of a bad joke from a preteen movie. The fact that this was a transition into a new paragraph and in no way ironic was worrisome. Then the second chapter was the equivalent of a summary of a group of friends facebook interactions with each other. There were some moments I felt were well written but over all I found these two chapters over dramatic and generally boring.
One of the aspects of this poetry collection that I am interested in is how the volume works as a whole. The first section, Liliana, seems to focus on the youth and childhood of the narrator with its commonality being the presence of “the figment,” God, and a character titles “Liliana.” In the section Geography of Gods Undoing the topic of the poems changes, the style remains confessional but there is a shift in the poems. Nature becomes more apparent and we see the narrator in more settings outside of her head. It seems that the poems begin to become more centered in a reality, while the first section seemed to live very close to the subconscious and the distant past. Then in the third and final section, Room of the Queens Dreams, the images of the figment and Liliana return. It seems to me as if this section seems to represent the narrators return to, if not happiness, some sort of appeasement or satisfaction.
In “Room of Curved Spines” she writes “I read one way to become yourself again/ is to repeat the stories so I sit still/ and tell once more about the spines” I think that in this line we get at the purpose for this collection and its set up. In the first section we get the happy childhood and the beginnings of its downfall, then the middle section gives us the time without Liliana, when the figment and the narrators happiness, is less visible. Then in the last section Liliana returns and it is as if the narrator has moved through her depression and is ready to start again and through this Liliana is able to return. In the second section in the poem Town of My Return she writes “I had not died, though/ I had tried to.” and then in this last section in Train Dream Recovery she writes “so the train would run under/ instead of over me” which I think might mean that the narrator no longer wants to die. Although I admit to having read few full collections of poetry as a whole I still find it interesting that this one has such a particular set up. Each section is committed to a specific goal and the poems within work to create the narrative that will get the reader to that.
I am not exactly a poetry connoisseur, but I have to say that Allison Seay’s work is really amazing to me. As a philosophy guru, I can really appreciate the metaphysical feel of her poems. She has an ability to pack different meanings, into one line or words in her poems, that convey a debate within the reader. She could present one word in a poem, but the words could have multiple meanings or places in the overall feel of the poem. One of the more prominent examples of this is the use of the word “figment” in her poems. There is no question that Seay wants the reader to see the figment in many different forms. I believe that this “figment” that she keeps talking about is another version or side of herself. In many of the poems, i feel as though the figment is a side of her younger self, or what she used to be. But at the same time I believe that this “figment” could be her own previous thoughts, not just her soul. “Once I did see the figment as a man. One man in particular/ and the most unusual I have known.” I wonder if this was a state of mind that she was in previously, or if she was talking about her mindset with the presence of another person. This is the one thing about poetry that I believe is so beautiful, is that there is enough meaning to write a paper, but it is all packed into a few, beautifully portrayed lines.
I was taken back after reading the very first poem of Seay’s collection. It was something I hadn’t expected, but the lines, “I will tell her next I think that is one way of living: slipping off into some indistinguishable state of more and more snow,” connected with a personal feeling that I could never put into words until I read this poem. I continued through her poems and noticed several other beautifully described emotions that were both hopeful and painful. Seay has made such black and white emotions into several colorful works of art, while also telling the story of a woman who has experienced the highs and lows of life.
In her poems about “the town,” Seay made a town that her readers had no connection to or knowledge of, into a place where we saw all the nitty gritty as though we had seen everything ourselves. Which made me enjoy her poems that much more because her ability to create a picture for her readers is very well done. I also found that the poem’s inner struggles were relatable for many of her readers.
Poetry has always been a dreaded subject of mine but after reading Allison Seay’s collection of poems, To See the Queen, I have never been more inspired. ‘Room of Held Breath’ was one of the many poems I could not help but read again and again. I must have read the collection in its entirety over two or three times and each time I found myself stunned by her words. Sometimes I even found my jaw embarrassingly dropped, having to take my locked eyes off the page to close my mouth and see who might have been watching.
Seay has a true gift of twisting one’s interpersonal sadness into beauty. In ‘Room of Held Breath’ she writes eleven lines to conjure a lifetime’s coming of age, pinpointing the first step out of innocence and into awareness (although we are completely unaware of this beautiful curse at the time). “It was the last summer we were young–artless, afloat,/ our eyes like opals./And then the world’s beautiful torture began–/ the resurface, the sting, the coming/ back gasping, mouth-high in love.” The thing I think is most beautiful, yet devastating, is that this event is provoked by a young girl’s first love. That first love is just the beginning of a lifetime full of relationships, but it is the end of so much more, because once you have felt what is it like to be in love, you are forever doomed with that unexplainable feeling.