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confessional

51320826
Abnormal Repetitive Behaviors
by Leslie Heywood, Red Hen Press, ISBN 9781597097307
 
About ten years back I put a very good poet into a panic by putting the word confessional next to her work. It wasn’t being labeled that bothered her as much as that particular label.  Seems the word had accrued a largely pejorative meaning, as if poets ought to avoid writing from their own lives at all cost (of course the MFA students who gave the confessional a bad name wanted to avoid writing from their lives at all costs  because they hadn’t lived any lives to speak of except those of  privilege and mostly male avoidance of feeling)“Confessional is a dirty world.” She said.” You can’t use it.” The word, as I was employing it, was accurate: confession or the poetry of witness, not in the Plath, Sexton, Lowell, Snodgrass, and next generation Sharon Olds sense, but in the sense of St. Augustine and Rousseau  and Wordsworth’s Preludes (modeled on Roseau to some extent) and the poetics of those who have been othered or cut out of the normative discourse. Confessional in this respect combines narrative, conversational lyric and introspection with larger social and ontological implications. It is both more ambitious in scope and more scrupulous in detail than the personal self-indulgence of which the confessional poet is often accused (note that it became considered self-indulgent only when it was no longer controlled by men). This is witness poetry rather than memoir and more ferocious and lyrical and its mode is conversion in the full Latin sense: con (with) and vert (a turn): “With a turn.” This “confession” is often a conversion narrative: one begins at point A and then turns, becomes turned and is transformed. Sometimes this conversion narrative takes place over a single life time. Often it is generational (as in the novel Wuthering Heights which might be seen as thesis, antithesis, synthesis—the joining of the natural and social realms through a great storm over three generations.  Faulkner’s novels are often generational, but, being 20th century works, they can be rather pessimistic (like Spengler) and might represent the inter-generational descent as a sort of historical pathology, a series of vicious circles rather than any hope of healing. In this respect, Emily Bronte’s take on the generational novel of dysfunction was way ahead of the curve and might, for all its gothic flights, be more well-grounded in what neurologists are started to know about the traumatized brain. Leslie Heywood’s new book of poems, Abnormal Repetitive Behaviors, is, to a great extent, a conversion narrative of witness under those terms: lyrical and full of turns away from the social determinism of family trauma stretched out over generations to the possibility of healing (though not in a new age or self-help way) and toward an end to the pathological “(the viscous cycle) of violence, alcoholism, and the ghosts that not only haunt, but which reconfigure the map of the brain itself. The first poem in the prologue clarifies the title, and the title actually bleeds directly into the poem:
 
Abnormal Repetitive Behaviors
Or “stereotypies,” as animal behavioral
Researchers sometimes call them, are seen
Especially in research animals who live
Their lives in tiny cages or who live                                                                                                                               
 In larger cages in zoos, anywhere there is
A sense of conflict and panic and feeling trapped
 
This is the base line for the repetitive behaviors of loss, anger, and being trapped in behavioral patterns   these are threaded with such clarity and compassion through the book. At some points “repetitive behaviors” becomes a metaphor for how we keep reenacting our damage even when the cage has been torn down,  the bars long taken off, even when  there is nothing to stop us from walking to freedom. Just as the neurology of base line emotions are first at the scene of any trauma, they are also likely the last to get on line with new circumstances. Heywood privileges no human emotion over the base line emotions we share with most mammals: RAGE, FEAR, LUST. CARE, PANIC/GRIEF, and PLAY. Our ability to cover these up as it were with social appearance and the decorative aspects of secondary feelings and rationales often causes more problems than it solves. At best,  such secondary affects are constantly making the present prologue to the past. She writes in “Night Ranger, Don’t Tell me you Love me:
it is four decades later, but my body                                                                                                           
behaves as if it does not know this,                                                                                                                      
As if everything now is the same                                                                                                              
As it was then and it is on guard,
this body on guard before it thinks.
 
“Before it thinks’ is an important qualification. The emotions (not feelings) in Abnormal Repetitive Behaviors precede thought, as do the emotions in Wallace Stevens The Irish cliffs of Moher where the poet addresses the cliffs and asks where is my  father… “before thought, before speech?”
The central relationship in the first part of this book, the author’s “Heathcliff’ is her father. The poet does not learn that her paternal grandparents were a murder/suicide until she is an adult. (Imagine a father keeping that bit of news secret). She doesn’t know he was a concert level pianist until her mother spills the beans. In one respect, this is the Mary Gordon narrative of the secret father reversed since every new revelation helps shed light and understanding and empathy on the father– but without white washing him. The narrator of the poems loves her father fiercely (ferocity is an ongoing theme), and yet she fights him with her fists. He is often drunk and beats her. Her mother uses her as a human shield. Only her dogs (she shares a love of dogs with her father) and a friend named Lucille remain true and constant, and yet the narrator loves her father– even when she is estranged from him, even when they do not speak almost to the moment of his death. The great triumph of this book is that, as Toni Morrison makes the good reader sympathetic to a father guilty of incest in The Bluest Eye, Leslie Heywood makes the reader see this man whole, gives the reader not a sense of his worthlessness, but, rather of his broken majesty. This is not a book for the knee jerk, for those who love the easy judgement of the politically correct.. It’s not a book for people who would read “My Papa’s Waltz” as merely an abuse narrative. Abnormal Repetitive Behaviors is for those who know life is complicated enough so that the greatest pain is that we cannot unlove those who leave us misshapen because they themselves were misshapen and, at the core, the wounded animal cries to those who have been equally wounded. It is truly in the tradition of generational forgiveness (As O’Neill said, “In the end, there is only forgiveness. There is only forgiveness, or there is nothing” )In that respect, Abnormal Repetitive Behaviors has the scope of drama and novel rather than being simply a collection of poems. It grounds itself in the new neuroscience that proves through experiment what poets and writers have always shown at the highest levels of their art: that the animal cry in us informs the spirit and the spirit is never far from that cry; we cannot be divorced from the body or the brain by any cognitive trickery, or metaphysical disowning of the base emotions.
Sometimes, the smallest things in the midst of a great storm may calm us, help us to live another day. Abnormal Repetitive Behaviors is also full of such temporary reprieves and comforts, as in the poem “Tea cart” where the poet remembers her maternal grandparents:
My grandparents were beautiful like the glass
and their voices were always kind
and now the tea cart sits in my living room,
sunlight twinkling across the long-necked bottles.
 Note the “like the glass” and take that at its full connotation. Glass is beautiful, but easily broken and must be handled with care. Not just beloved objects tied to kindness help us heal, but also the reprieves adding up to a real change in the next generation. This change, as in Paul’s “conversion” is not into a new creation, but is a transformation that takes the genetic and neurological elements already there and turns them towards their original purpose and light.  The last poem of the collection “Caelan at Thirteen” might be perceived as the full conversion, the turn of fortunes that allow both the family and the synapse of generations to heal. The author depicts her daughter on the cusp of adulthood, stable, with a realistic view of things, not tormented by the same level of suffering visited upon the poet and her father. She is like the characters at the end of Wuthering Heights when the next generation is able to enjoy the deepening companionship and love Cathy and Heathcliff were denied:
My daughter, at thirteen, this unicorn, all legs
and brains and speed, now winning
All her cross-country meets and reassuring
Herself when she too melts down,
Caelan its only hormones. what
you are feeling isn’t real.
My daughter, who knows at thirteen
Things it has taken me
four decades to start sorting out,
what my grandmother, my father’s mother Annie,
could never sort through with all those
emotions running through her like flame,
making her dangerous, the one you can’t stand
to be around; never for Annie, four decades for me,
what my daughter knows now
at thirteen.
 As the poet, Maria Maziotti Gillan says in her blurb:
 
Terror still lives within these poems and sorrow for the cruelty and chaos of a world in which humans cannot seem to exist without destroying as much as they create, but the vision of a new world is there. What an amazing and powerful book.

Many young poets can not accept that telling a story, or relating some sort of narrative arc is conducive to the highest aims of poetry. Of course this is a confusion between story telling and narrative. They are not the same. Narrative is the pulse and rhythm of being. Whitman is an intensely narrative poet, as is Emily Dickinson. Stories stay in touch with this pulse of being in the most obvious ways. The great triumph of Chekhov is that he muted the obviousness of story, blurred the distinctions between plot and character, and took prose into territories of consciousness previously known only to the most subjective and simple of lyrical poems. Story may be destroyed, but never narrative. If I write

Oy vey! The sun is batting its eye lashes
and I am a tired tree

I am, for all my pretensions to surrealism, still in the arms of narrative. The sun is doing something (batting its eye lashes)i This is the action at the scene. Oy vey is an ejaculation that means, roughly: “Oh brother,” or “For crying out loud,” or “Oh my God” so it implies an attitude. If I say I am a tired tree, then I am implying a state of being, and the reader will connect the dots. The batting of eye lashes is an age old signifier of vanity or flirting. I may not follow this line consciously, but it is there. So lets continue:

Oy vey! The sun is batting its eye lashes
and I am a tired tree.
Strange omens creep forth from Canada.
The sky is dressed in drag.
How shall I desist from wandering the earth
in search of pomegranates?
Death to stars and cardboard!
Death to the wan smile of the lost.
Forgive me my trespasses.
I am a tired tree
half in love with sudden lightning
and the vagrant grin of years.

There is no story told here, but there is narrative arc. The poem might seem nonsensical, especially if you insist on logical exposition or a concrete point (which is journalism and information–not narrative). If you meet the poem on its own terms line for line, you may notice a strange lament. The tree is tired. It is half in love with lightning (death wish) and the vagrant grin of years. The voice is vehement in what it wants to die: stars, cardboard, the wan smile of the lost. This is an arbitrary list, but have you ever listened to a cranky sick person complain:? To quote my Aunt Mary two weeks before she died: “No soup! The hell with soup and styrofoam. Where is my bone china? You’re killing me!”

The problem students have with narrative is its mundanity. It is not the narrative, but the absence of verbal surprise they are missing. Verbal surprise is always overrated by young poets. They mistake confusion and flash for lyricism. Lyricism breaks forth when the narrative arc, the interior laws organic to the poem are compelled, even forced to sing and this singing is so close to insanity or sheer ecstasy as to risk the loss of sense. Take this snippet from Hart Crane that baffles many a sensible soul:

The mustard scansions of the eyes.

It is, indeed, a strange phrase, but let’s consider (beyond Cleanth Brooks) where Hart Crane lived. He lived in the same apartment that had been occupied by the builder of the Brooklyn Bridge. He knew scansions (bridge abutments) like no one else. They could have been painted a mustard brown or yellow–in keeping with hazel eyes. When I first read this line I was in awe of his accuracy, a precision so intense it blighted the sense and construct of the actual thing described. Of course I was reading my own life into the poem. I once loved a girl who stood at dusk under the El, and she had yellow or mustard specks in her eyes, and the scansions were reflected in her irises. When I read this line, I thought Hart Crane had hovered like a ghost over my experience. I was reading into the poem which leads me to another point: even if you provide no story or narrative, the reader will provide one, and if not, then the reader is immured in a construct of non-narrative so pure as to be pissant.

John Ashbery, the darling of many poets opposed to story telling and narrative, is an intensely narrative poet. His narratives shift from line to line, moment to moment, disappearing and dissolving in the current of the poem. He is the master of the story that “Almost” happens. He makes a gesture towards story and betrays it, but he does not betray narrative.

Many poets try to escape narrative by destroying syntax. Lets try it:

Orion of graves
graves of the discontent
watermelons in the breeze
breeze absolving the moon
and the hermit
and the celebrity
and the soul survivor of the war
and the judiciary
and the past-enormous–lopsided tits
Pray! Pray for the thigh I am licking.
Pray for Betty Crocker!
And the and and the and and the and
loose cowboys
suspended adorations.

OK, only a couple of sentences. Why pray for Betty Crocker? Yet the poem obeys its own immutable laws of disconnection. That in itself is a ceremony and a narrative. ask: How do we make narrative beyond mere story telling? I tell you, no good story obeys story telling. It obeys narrative–the arc of being.