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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.

PHOTO: MARCO MUNOZ

When I was young, I wanted to stain the world with my permanence which is why, I suppose, I became a poet.

This is no longer the case. Old Four seasons songs from the early Sixties are more canonical than the vast majority of poems. In point of fact, a good poetry trivia question would be “name four poems from the 1960’s not written by Ginsberg, Bly, Merwin, Plath, Sexton, or Creeley.” Hell, most students could not name four poets prominent in the sixties other than these poets, much less poems. They probably could name five or six rock bands. I am as guilty as anyone. Although I can name perhaps thirty poets who became well-known in the sixties, and perhaps 20 poems (I know more, but have a terrible memory for titles). But I can name at least two hundred pop songs, dozens of televisions shows, and movies. Poetry is not even close in terms of having pride of place in my long term memory. It’s not as enjoyable as “Surfer Girl” for most people, and you can slow dance to “Surfer Girl.”

So what? What’s my point? I guess my point is there’s no point to writing poems except to write them. Being published, even winning major awards, are activities quickly swallowed up by the youth obsessed, pop culture obsessed amnesia of our so called “civilization.”

This past summer, I refused to write. I turned down three readings, none of which paid, because after thirty years of doing this shit, spending money, even gas money just to get in front of people’s faces (usually familiar) does not have the same glamor it once did. I understand poets who are just starting out wanting to read anywhere, even if they have to pay for the privilege. When I was 24 or 25, taking a thirty minute car ride, or hour train ride to read in an open (not feature, open) was something I enjoyed. First, gas was a lot cheaper. Second, the poetry scene seemed full of promise. It had that indefinable whiff of possibility–almost sexual. Now I don’t catch the scent and gas is always hovering near 4 bucks a gallon, and it seems every poet out there has taken the same fucking workshop, or is writing the same brand of spoken word. When I first got on the scene, I met poets who were avid readers–and they read some amazing poets, poets you would not consider par for the course of bar readings: Oppen, Olson, Reznikoff, Creeley, Ignatow, Paul Blackburn, Louis Zukovski, Levertov, Kathleen Frazier, Robert kelly, Larry Levis, Charles Wright, etc, etc, and we would go to diners after readings and actually talk poets and poems, and music, and art–not grants, not who is winning what or teaching where. I loved the poets I knew and they varied widely in age and background. This has vanished. This is how the scene now goes:

1. It’s all open readings, and one I heard about where the host begins and ends the open with a ten to fifteen minute recitation of his own work–which means he is the featured poet every month.
2. Slams where it’s as much about acting chops and looks as poetry and in which nothing truly different ever wins–just like academic poetry
3. Closed readings where the feature is not followed by an open and he or she has credentials that qualify him or her as a “noteworthy” poet.

Other trends:
– Features no longer stay for the open readers.
– Open readers show up late in order to miss the feature and read, or show up, do the open and split before the feature.

In my home state of Jersey, there are still a good amount of readings, but no one seems to go out to the diner anymore. It’s pretty business-like. I remember in 1991/92 I sometimes had as many as twenty poets go out the diner after a Poets Wednesday reading, and Edie Eustice, when she ran the series with Sofran Mcbride in the late 70s, early 80s had ten to twenty poets come back to her house. People would drink, eat, talk, play the piano and stay sometimes until the wee small hours–not anymore. There is less friendship on the poetry scene, and yet more scolding of me for not seeing it as a “social” event. Well, where the fuck is the social event if people don’t break bread together, eat, drink, flirt, fall in love, sit around a piano? Spare me. Social my ass. I was raised better than that. That’s what the Irish call a teetotaler’s orgy–six pieces of watercress, one cracker, and not a smile cracked to compete with the sticks up their arses. The aesthetic is BORING. Even when I helped the students run the Belmar reading here in Binghamton, we’d go to Kennedy Fried Chicken after a reading and get chicken and coco bread, or we’d do something. If no one is getting paid, then it ought to have a festive atmosphere. Someone ought to puke, or fall in love, or stare gloomily at the bushes and pee on the azaleas. Forget it. We are all so “functional” but is it functional to be this lacking in spirit? If so, why do it?

So now I do things to stain the world with my impermanence. Yesterday I made a fence completely out of tree limbs that had fallen in a storm. I used a potato peeler to take off the bark, and made one rule: no nails, or rope, everything done by the force of gravity and placement. The fence pleases me. It is about a hundred feet around, and rises and falls in height. I loved peeling the bark, fitting the limbs just so, knowing a really good wind storm or a drunk friend will send the whole thing crashing. I made mirror fish out of pieces of broken mirror. I did everything except write poems. My wife writes a poem everyday. I don’t want to write. Two years ago, it was all slammers at the Belmar, and I felt an ugliness I can’t explain. I paid people out of my own pocket at the Belmar (to the tune of about four thousand dollars over three years), helped the students, and, in the end, all it did was get me a bad reputation as a “drinker.” Hell, half the time I was not drinking–just having fun, but having fun in this modern bung hole we call the arts is deemed dysfunctional. In the end, no one was grateful for what I did. Instead, I had to listen to them act like Puritan Burgomeisters. I was thinking: Put all these snob ass, hypocritical purists on a cigar box!” Freedom and the arts? Horse shit. I know when its time to leave.