The other day I was reading posts on Facebook by the many poets who admire Mary Oliver’s poem, “Wild Geese.” So I read the poem over, stopping at those lines: Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
I began to wonder. Do you really want to know about my despair? Do I want to know yours?
Because honestly, I’m not sure I like confessing. Or that I like confessional poetry. But I’ve been struggling to write it lately, studying the how, the why. (If I am critical of a kind of poetry, I make myself try it on for size.)
It seems that many confessional poets start with their parents, describing the terrible things parents did to them: the betrayals, the abuse. So that’s where I wanted to begin, too.
I started with my mother who was totally in love with nature. She also admired Mary Oliver. I consider that a serious betrayal.
Once after hearing that same poem, “Wild Geese” on NPR, she asked me why I didn’t write nature poetry. You should write a poem about wild geese, she said. (The truth is she would have liked me to write about anything besides orgasms.)
My mother could name every bird, plant, and tree, and when I was a girl, she tried to teach me to do the same. I was a lost cause. I never learned the names of any birds or trees or flowers beyond sparrow and spruce and tulip. Discouraged, my mother begged me go to a nature camp, but I refused. She had sent my older sister, D, the year before, and when D returned, she had two new skills: snake handling and taxidermy.
These two skills are my metaphors for confessional poetry. Snake handling is writing about the living. Taxidermy—writing about the dead. Today, I’d like to expand on the taxidermy metaphor.
Because after her stint at nature camp, D spent our vacation in Maine staring out the car window, looking for a dead animal to stuff. We’d be driving along the freeway when suddenly she would shout STOP at the top of her lungs. My mother would screech to a halt, and D would climb out of the car to inspect a dead deer or dog. My mother called these stops road kill sightings.
Usually D would decide the animals weren’t fresh enough. It’s kind of like selecting vegetables and fruit, she explained. You want the dead to be just right.
Isn’t that just like writing poems about the dead? So often we don’t really do them justice. And something begins to smell bad, at least to us. Or anyone who actually knew the person we are writing about.
Also, a memory can come so quickly, like an image seen from a speeding car. Often it arrives at an inopportune time, maybe when you are swimming or having a drink with friends or drifting off to sleep. And you don’t write it down. By the time you are sitting down at a desk, you can’t recapture the scene, the mood, the excitement.
I remember how once, in frustration, my sister, D, went searching for dead animals along Route 1, and when she returned, she was carrying what she said her teacher from Nature Camp would have called a real fine carcass. (We poets have a few of our own Route 1’s, I think—those places we go again and again for well-traveled sources of inspiration.)
This raccoon hasn’t been dead that long, she assured me before dumping it onto the kitchen counter. Slicing neatly and sliding the raccoon out of its fur, she explained that skinning an animal is as simple as taking off his jacket. See? she said. The insides stay together, just like they’re in a Glad baggy. She held up a shiny sack of entrails up to the light for me to admire.
I suppose I don’t need to explain the analogy here to the experience of writing about those we love, discovering and exposing those choice, glistening moments. But let me expand a little more . . .
Because sadly, D’s raccoon’s head was a bit squished. And my sister wanted to make him look really alive. She dabbed his face with black paint where the fur was missing, and replaced his eye balls with yellow marbles. Then she named him Buddy Boy before posing him on a stand. One front leg was bent, and the other was stretched forward as if he were in full stride. Buddy Boy looked as if he were racing off the platform, still trying to escape an oncoming car.
How many poems have I dabbed and painted over again and again? How many look back at me with yellow marble eyes?
After she’d finished, D wasn’t sure she wanted to sleep in the same room with a dead animal. Neither was I. Buddy Boy was beginning to stink. D stuck Buddy Boy on the flat roof outside her window. Soon a sickly sweet scent wafted through the bedroom. In a few days buzzards circled overhead.
I couldn’t help thinking that maybe we should have left the dead well enough alone. Let its spirit fly away like Oliver’s wild geese.
I picture the dead parents of confessional poets in their afterlife, seeing us still coming after them like an oncoming car.