My Life in Poetry: Narrative Poems
When I was in grad school for Creative Writing, 11-12 years ago now, the professors who taught in it were, on the poetry side, dismissive of narrative poetry, and would root out “hidden narrative” in poems that were ostensibly not so. However, I had had a number of years in which narrative was the central element in the poetry I read. Epic poems, such as the Aeneid by Vergil, the Odyssey and Iliad nominally assigned to “Homer,” Longfellow’s “Paul Revere’s Ride” – even Frost’s “Mending Wall” is about two neighbors doing the annual spring repair of the stone wall dividing their properties, a progressive narration of a shared activity and its implications.
Similarly, I have heard that “poetry is not therapy.” However, when I write my daily sonnet, I find that those which most satisfy me have unearthed some element from my past, or perhaps my unconscious, that in some way fills in the narrative of my life, and gives me some clue as to why I am currently driven, or empty, or ambivalent, or whatever. Here is an example:
Fourth House Thumbnail
That tiny bedroom, maybe ten by twelve,
is not just where I slept, but where my desk
and chair under the built-in bookcase sat.
I had a dictionary and a lamp –
harsh fluorescent white – a can of pencils,
pens, and a compass on my right, the window
also on my right but behind my back.
There I’d perch on weekday nights for six years,
when I would stay at school and walk home late
just in time for dinner, then climb upstairs
while the rest of the family watched TV.
Three closed doors kept most of the laughter out
of my ears. My consciousness was an ant
that slowly would meander across the page.
Those who work in the English and Philosophy department know that I am here in my office constantly – one colleague, in fact, asked me why I bothered to pay rent for an apartment – and I have not lived with a television since, well, since I was kicked out of a commune I lived in during my first stint in graduate school, thirty years ago.
The previous poem captures a typical evening from seventh through twelfth grades, at least during the school year. I did watch television with my family over the summers, as far as I can remember. I suppose that’s how I know the tune to the theme from Gilligan’s Island, can sing the “little girls have pretty curls but I love Oreos” jingle, and can hum the Jeopardy tune that indicates time’s passage while people are racking their brains for an answer – that drives my students crazy, by the way.
The following I wrote one morning when a brief flash of memory popped in my head, and I wanted to get it down while it was still on the conscious level:
I was a child when someone, a youth, came
to our front door, asked if he could come in.
He used to live here, could he see the house
from inside. Anything else I say he said
I’m not sure of, I must have invented.
The only thing I really do recall
is him standing in the upstairs hall
right at the top of the stair. He nodded –
that is the only “word” I remember ,
him looking at the wall, painted light blue,
the window that showed the Armstrongs’ next door,
deciding at that moment not to go
further, he’d seen what he had come to see,
or not, just knew he didn’t need any more.
Now, my mother was home, and she was the one to let in the young man, let’s call him Jimmy Williams for the sake of exemplification. I was maybe eight years old, if that, and I trailed along to observe this predecessor in our house go through his nostalgia trip. I’m still wondering why it was that one particular moment that sticks in my memory, or that at least was the one to emerge that morning, not too long ago.
The last poem of today’s narrative and therapeutic sequence – at least, poems that I write as an adjunct to my therapeutic process, which involves sudden emergences from the past – is the following:
I hadn’t talked to him in a decade,
but he penetrated the screen of my
voicemail and I picked up the phone. He had
had two dreams where something awful happened
to me, he didn’t recall what, but he
just wanted to check and make sure I was
okay. I said I had a cold, but that
was all. He still sounded concerned, as if
reluctant to let go of that omen.
His father’d died, no electricity
for a month, twice. He’d a census temp job,
but he said he doesn’t like to work. I
thanked him, didn’t mention I’d dealt myself
the Tower, Death, and the Hanged Man lately.
The person who called me is someone I had known from elementary school on, and who had appeared at times over the course of my life – my junior year of college, my final year in graduate school, my year of marginal employment right after I’d gotten my doctorate – to impact one transitional point or another. I told him the “me” that had appeared in his dreams probably represented whatever role I played in his own psyche, but you never know...sometimes, as Don Juan tells Carlos Castaneda while they’re driving late at night way out in the country, Death flashes his headlights in your rear-view mirror just to keep you aware of your mortality...
-- Don Riggs