THE SECOND PERSON
Brenda is a recurrent theme in Craig’s poems; Craig appears very rarely, and only glancingly in Brenda’s work, even though both books describe the same home life. That got us thinking about why we each transform essentially the same material into such different kinds of poems.
Brenda: I wrote a lot of love poems in my first book. Most of them were only possible because my relation to those objects of desire was already a thing of the past. The love poems in Interior With Sudden Joy were grief-stricken celebrations of love lost. Some of the love poems in my second book, Human Dark With Sugar, were swan songs to exes. I don’t feel the same compulsion to render Craig in text and metaphor because he hasn’t disappeared. He’s there day in and day out. There is no anguished longing, no poetical need to conjure the lost love, no “tonight I can write the saddest lines,” because my relationship with Craig is one in which we communicate and touch and laugh and experience so much together. Why would I write about Craig? My occasions to write are when I am trying to catch something fleeting. If a lover has fled me, that situation yields so much for me. If an emotion eludes me—a dream, a yearning for my child’s good health, certainty, adventure, and all the possibilities—I write about those things precisely because I can’t have them. Barthes, Freud, and others say that desire is predicated on lack, we must lack the things we desire. We cannot desire that which we already have. There must be some distance between wanting and getting, and that distance is called desire. I am not saying I don’t desire my husband. I do. He’s utterly adorable to me. I’m saying I don’t have to bridge the gap between him and me in poetry.
I don’t “not have” Craig, so he doesn’t show up in my poems, that place I’ve always thought of as a sacred new world, a place where I could make real what isn’t. Poetry is a place where I can be a gust of wind and a spark and the scene that turns them into a fire, and I can also be the firefighter who saves the sleeping people from the conflagration, and the voice that tells the reader why the whole scenario exists at all, and then I can disappear. I can disappear in what never happened, what only happened because I wrote it. Poetry is where I write my wishes and fears and alternate existences. My husband is, to my delight, true and real and of this plane of existence, and so I am free to imagine other realities.
Craig: I want to say that in this book Brenda is a character and Cal is a character and my dad and my mom are characters. And, of course, that is absolutely true. Yet I also use their real names. I use Brenda’s name a lot. I describe events that actually happened. In one long poem, there’s an episode in which, while assembling a coatrack from Ikea, I drop a piece inside another piece, losing it, and Brenda blows up at me and I respond in kind. That actually happened, and it seems to me a fairly accurate portrayal of how things are with us when we get stressed out.
However, the versions of Brenda, of Cal, of anyone in this book are not so much characters as caricatures. They are exaggerated, overblown, and inaccurate in meaningful ways. I wrote about real people so that I could see how I felt about them, how I felt not all the time but sometimes. But writing about real people makes the poem feel alive to me. I’m aware that I risk offending or hurting the people I write about—for instance, please don’t tell my dad about this book. He would not find my portrayals flattering.
Brenda: Perhaps. But more likely it’s not for you to predict or know.
Craig: What I mean is that one of the reasons the stakes in these poems feel high is because they risk intruding on my real life. That gives them a sense of urgency. People may be led to think that Brenda and I fight a lot more than we do. People may think I have a lot less fun with my kids than I do. People are going to think, if they take this book as autobiography, that I am an obnoxious self-aggrandizing jerk. I’m not, I swear! I’m a dad who has written a funky version of Old MacDonald to play for his son and daughter over and over and over. It’s hardly the stuff of poetry, which isn’t supposed to be happy! Poetry is not the forum for problems with solutions! For that, we have television.
Robert Lowell was the patron saint of my book. There’s no better exemplar of how experience can be made meaningful, even metaphoric, through poetry than he. He understood, deeply, that a powerful kind of drama arises when a poem seems to be reporting from life while in fact it reports from the imagination. He was often very cruel in his poems—look at “To Speak of the Woe That Is in Marriage,” an extraordinary sonnet that is recklessly self-critical and aggrandizing at the same time—but he was really using the material of his lived life as a point from which to extrapolate, from which to exaggerate. He did some violence with his art that I’m not willing to do. When I write about Brenda or Cal, it’s not them, but feelings about them (perhaps not even feelings I really feel) at one particular moment—most often an imagined moment—that I’m describing. And yet those imaginary feelings help me see my real feelings clearer. Poetry is also the place where I let my demons graze: In a poem, my worst selves can act out all they want.
Of course, my poems are also a kind of perpetual valentine to Brenda. She has become, in a very practical sense, my muse: It’s through imagining her that I get to my best poetry. I call that a lucky marriage.
Brenda: It’s funny. Even though Craig wrote that poem about the Ikea coatrack, and of course I’ve read the poem and was also there for the actual event, I never noticed the symbolic meaning of what happened. You dropped one piece inside the other, losing it. We were moving apartments, if you recall, in complete upheaval, recombining our lives and all our belongings, renegotiating space. Remember how stressful it was to feel we were dropping ourselves inside the other, losing ourselves in the other person. The purchase of the coatrack was supposed to provide a solution to the entryway space problem, and instead it exposed nerves.
And then you say I “blow up,” or another way of putting that is I exploded or exposed that pent-up anxiety, releasing that unexpressed fear. But isn’t that just how it is: We need writing, a re-vision, to see what happened. It’s not enough to just live it, or to write it even once. Only now, upon revisiting that scene, is it clear what the stakes had been. Amazing. How do nonwriters know what happens? Or are things more obvious to them? Do we poets use our poetry to explain our lives and our feelings to ourselves? Or do we use it to avoid having to know these things in real life?