My friend, the writer Mardi Link, was riding the train all the way from Chicago to Texas. She said she had work to do, but ended up staring out the window at the varied and beautiful landscape. She wrote in her newspaper column, “I’m sometimes confused about what it means to be a Michigander, what it means to be an American, what it means to be present and active in the world.”
The Sunday Book Review of the New York Times has an exchange between writer Zoe Heller and Francine Prose, “Is the Writer’s Responsibility Only to His Art?” This issue rears its head often enough to make some of us yawn. Heller quotes Faulkner, who said, “If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate. . . .The ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies.” Yet, as both writers agree, many, maybe most of our best writers have been responsible citizens. Still, those of us who write also know the dis-ease of staring out a window, sitting at the computer all day while the country careens like a drunken sailor at the edge of the pier.
Some books are written with the express purpose of changing lives. My daughter gave me Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson for Christmas. It’s a true account of the author’s struggle to get fair trials for people on death row, and lifers who were convicted when they were 13 or 14. The disadvantaged, the damaged, the forgotten. The book did change me, made me see more and farther than I had before.
Poems are weirdly different, as we know.
As I read that book, I was thinking of the prisoner I write to regularly who’s studying Buddhist texts with me. Smart, deeply thoughtful, trying as hard as he can to meditate in the loud, abusive world he has to live in. He’s taking correspondence courses. He’s been in prison since he was very young (I ask no questions), over 17 years.
My prisoner writes poems. He writes them passionately. He gets them published by a prison magazine. I’ve read some of them. They’re not bad. I don’t comment because he doesn’t know I’m a poet. (Those of us who participate in this project keep our identities private.) What I want to say here is that the Buddhist study is crucial for him, but his poems are equally crucial.
His poetry is off the grid. The guards can’t touch it. It has no transactional value. The other prisoners won’t trade cigarettes for it. It is a bastion of individuality in a place where everyone wears the same thing, gets up at the same bell, stands in line for the same food. I would say that even when a poem is full of cliché, the intent is to write what the single heart knows. There is no such thing as a failed poem in this sense. Maybe there’s no such thing as a bad book, in general, in this sense.
We writers squabble over who gets published by the best press. We get embroiled in our jealousies, our bitterness over our failure to be “recognized.” We’re human. But the work itself, the raw work of sitting still, seeing as far into our lives as the keyboard can manage, we do know, although we don’t often say it to ourselves, that it’s—okay, I’ll use this word—sacred.
We can screw it up. We can launch into a Donald Trump-like ego-trip. And God knows, there are plenty of books that do just that. But from my experience, if I look closely enough at a word or phrase I’ve just written, if I go down into it, as far into it as etymology, maybe, its implications, eventually I’m led to something that seems closer to truth. The trip we intend to make is from ignorance to awareness. From fog to clarity. The air around us gets changed by accurate words. I would say that the confusion of our country that Mardi mentioned in her column is subtly clarified by her attention to words. They’re worth everything.
I don’t think about my brother often. He’s been dead for over 40 years. His grave is beside my mother’s in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, where none of us will ever live again. There is a rose, no, two, etched into his stone, and below his name, Mark Stephen Brown, is “Markie,” the name we actually used. When my sister visits, she puts artificial flowers on both. Otherwise, now that we’ve moved my father to Michigan, no one will visit except by accident. This seems no different from life. My mother’s life was lonely. My brother’s was barely there. For 23 years before he died.
The only essay I’ve written about him is tense, compact. It leaves you breathless, as if all my life had waited for the time I could write that much suffering, so I had to fiercely drive it out of me. Make you see. I described his halting walk (while he could still walk), his effort at speech, his damaged brain that remained basically unused. His handsome face bludgeoned by seizure after seizure. The blood. I wanted to rub your face in it so you would see. This is how it was. What I didn’t say before. Couldn’t. Didn’t know. Couldn’t see. My parents were unconscious, weren’t they? They just did what needed to be done. Taking care of.
He comes to me now as hurt I can’t fix. For years I thought I could fix things if I tried hard enough. Fix my marriage, and if that didn’t work, fix my life, clean up the residue of my childhood.
I’m on the fourth and final novel of Elena Ferrante’s brilliant Neopolitan series. The main character, Elena, studies her way out of her working class Naples life. She learns proper Italian, proper dress. She learns to modulate her voice, not scream curses. She becomes a writer. Her friend Lila, although also brilliant, remains in the crass and brutal neighborhood. She marries at 16, leaves her husband, has a passionate affair, and brazens her way into a successful career. Elena wonders in this fourth novel, whether her own life has remained too careful, too accommodating, too close. She tries to break out. But that life won’t leave her. It circles her like a tiger.
Ferrante’s novels are so intense, all of them, that you hold your breath. The speaker holds her breath. They are me, writing the story of my breaking out of the close confines, the dirty diapers, the seizures, the tears and yelling of my household. The money fears. I am Elena, the good girl, the one who sees herself as awkward, unlovely, studying her way to recognition. Writing her way.
What if I had been Lila? What if I had not married at 17? What if I hadn’t left my family behind as soon as possible? What happened to them after I left?
My brother finally couldn’t walk. Then he couldn’t sit up. My mother would sit on a tall stool beside his bed and feed him. My father would change his diapers. I left them in suspended animation as I drove off with my new husband, new clothes neatly folded in my suitcase. An organized life, with good grades. Excellent grades. A writer’s lfe.
I leave them there in that house because they remain there in my mind. Finally, Markie was impossible to manage, and they put him in a nursing home. He died there a couple of years later. He never died. He is a sadness, a vague desperation, at my core.
We don’t leave. We think we will, but we carry it all with us even when we think we haven’t. No, that implies a linear “journey.” It’s all inside us. The cadences of our Naples are right on our tongues, ready to be heard. It has always been inside us. You can see Ferrante’s Elena create her reality. What’s really true? Is she not beautiful? She hears others say yes she is. But from her perspective, we can’t tell. Is she brilliant? Or is her friend Lila the brilliant one? Do they compete, or do they fulfill each other?
Our lives wash over us and around us. Are we swimming? Are we winning the race? Was there a race? Then how come we’re back here, all the time back here?