THE ACTUAL TO THE TRUE
In her essay “Against Sincerity,” Louise Glück precisely delineates the difference between actuality (which she says is “the world of event”) and truth, which she defines as “illumination, or enduring discovery which is the ideal of art.” So, she goes on, “The artist’s task...involves the transformation of the actual to the true.” We have tried to make art of our experience, our marriage, our family, our consciousness, and our events. Glück adds, “The secrets we choose to betray lose power over us.” But as we approach the publication of these books, our secrets still feel powerful, even frightening, and we also feel it is important that we expressed them, gave them the power of being spoken. We believe writing these poems makes our family stronger, we hope they may help others in similar situations, and we believe making art out of life is essential.
Brenda: There was a very secret place I went to in writing the long poem about Cal (the title poem in Our Andromeda). I wrote it at Yaddo, which is of course a well-known place, but it has a magic key that opens up the secret place in oneself. With that key I gave myself permission to fantasize about a parallel world in which my son was not injured at birth, a world in which he’d been allowed to live in his own body without the pain and restriction of cerebral palsy. In the safe space of Yaddo, I let myself give into yearning for his would-be path. I let my imagination get deep into the bargaining and begging every mother does for the safety of her child. I was beseeching the only gods I know how to talk to, the gods of poetry, to give Cal back his body intact. Cal’s would-be path: I had to imagine, construct, create it. I had to write it to make it exist. It was perhaps the most perverse act of longing I’d ever committed. I’ve written so many poems about sexual longing—oh if only that person would return my love, or my lover would come back to me—and yet just a few years later, I no longer wish for those people. That erotic longing for those old beloveds, gone.
This longing is different. I’d give my eyeballs, my organs, or steal someone else’s, for Cal. It’s an entirely new order of love. Nothing approaches the hunger I have for Cal’s well-being and his wholeness, and it turns out I can only express it or address it imaginatively. Not even the fiercest mother love can turn time back to undo or prevent the injury already incurred. I’d do anything to change it and I’m powerless to do so. All I can do is write my ass off about how angry I am on his behalf, how devastated I am, and how grateful I am that my beautiful son exists. How proud of him and in love with him I am. I can write that reality. It too exists in the boundless space of poetry. And I discovered in writing through my pain and my fear that any fantasy child, some other would-be Cal, disappears. That conjured being can’t compare to my son. The beauty of my actual boy becomes so starkly apparent that it collapses any imaginative construction of that other boy. My very real Cal is a hero to me just as he is. Writing this book allowed me to see him clearly.
Craig: When it comes to writing about Cal, I feel profoundly uneasy about the idea that I might be, we might be, exposing him. Is it hurtful or naive to inscribe his existence in a way that he cannot yet understand and certainly can’t control or make decisions about? But writing about Cal does help us see him. Because of our son’s injury, we are forever wrestling with the what-ifs. Poetry is the only safe place in our family where we can, as Brenda says, follow those would-be paths to find that they lead us to a son, a life, we don’t recognize or truly wish for. Poetry gives us a place to keep our pain—we don’t say much in these books about all the fun we have, and not because we don’t have it—so that we can keep more of our joy in our lives, in our home.
Brenda: What happened to our baby is one of the most heartbreaking things that can happen to a family, but we are determined to see Cal and to experience him as a great source of love and strength and delight, a force of beauty all his own. He’s not just a boy with a diagnosis; he’s a boy with a fierce loving family who adores him, and he is our Cal, who has a delightfully wily sense of humor and more resilience than any of us. I think all parents need to see and to see reflected the full range of emotions that having a special-needs kid brings. It’s not just doctors, therapists, and paperwork; it’s also poetry and emotion and transformation and joy. One of my greatest hopes for our books is for parents of differently abled or special-needs kids to find them and wrest some comfort and companionship out of reading them, that others will find here the kind of solace, challenge, and nourishment we have always sought—and found—in poetry.
Brenda Shaughnessy is the author of three books of poetry, most recently Our Andromeda (Copper Canyon Press, 2012). She teaches at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey.
Craig Morgan Teicher is the author of two books of poetry, including To Keep Love Blurry (BOA Editions, 2012), and one collection of stories. He works at Publishers Weekly and serves as a poetry editor for the Literary Review.