by Lauren Shapiro
This essay is part of Poetry Northwest‘s “On Failure” series.
I have never been interested in writing autobiographical narrative poetry. Stories are clunky. They take too long and drag into the mundane. They are often filled with unimportant detail. They pull me out of the visual-perceptive-emotive moment. They feel more descriptive than emotive, more short story than poem, more diary than art, more about the writer than the reader. Watching my daughter’s virtual kindergarten class fight for individual air time on Zoom, I am reminded of how early the need to share begins, how much we all want to be heard.
Of course there are narrative poems that I love, too many to list here. And much of my favorite absurdist writing is narrative in form. But I have never been drawn to telling truthful stories about myself through poetry. I don’t want to write about me. I want to write about the underpinnings of me, which might also be the underpinnings of you. I want to find connection in the cable that runs underneath our lives. I want to find beauty in the dirt around the cable, in the air pockets underground and in the strangeness of language and syntax. I want to write about me without writing about me. I want to find emotional truth and run.
But in writing my latest book, Arena, I struggled with the unavoidable tethers that bound those deep emotional moments to their real-life causes. Because ultimately, narrative matters. Real events shape feelings. And the events that happened in my own life over the span of a year resonated and continue to resonate in my psyche. Briefly: I had a baby, and we moved across the country to take jobs near my parents. Unfortunately, this turned out to be a time of intense depression and anxiety for my father, who tried several times to kill himself. The events of that year, which happened when I was just coming to define my own role as a parent, underpin much of my book. And yet, I struggled with how to write about them. The physical actions mattered, but I didn’t want to tell the story itself, as it really happened. That felt exploitative and self-involved. In one poem in the book, “Transition,” I attempted to explore a truthful narrative moment:
When my father went missing
a second time my brother
drove to the top of the vacant
parking garage, expecting
demolition, maybe loose
beams, December birds—
but there was a white car.
A single stone dropped
in his lungs. Running?
I imagine him running
to the rail where my father
clung, my brother grabbing
him in a bear hug and screaming
to the police who had gathered
below, unnecessary screws
in the punctured moment that
continued its expansion inward
at the pace of adrenaline, a second
existence opening, a different life,
two entirely different people.
But my father didn’t want saving,
he began to unzip his coat.
Just let go and I’ll come back
over the rail, he said to my
brother. That would be
a kind of ending, if you
wanted it. But everything
became cloudy after the police
put my father in the patrol car
and left my brother standing
there, blown into loss like living
nothing, breathing as if his body
were just his body.
I was unhappy with this poem and continue to feel unhappy with it. There is too much action, too much explanation, not enough art. In an effort to explore the moment differently, I then wrote the following poem:
In which the integrity of the scene was not compromised
In which the son drove to the roof of the parking garage
In which he saw his father’s white Toyota Avalon alone in a corner and he saw
his father standing on the other side of the guardrail looking down and he
ran up and bear-hugged him and started screaming
In which it was winter and the police were looking up from the street
In which the son’s father said Let go
In which the son’s father tried to unzip his own coat
In which the integrity of the scene was not compromised
When the son wrestled his father back over the rail and held him
to the ground until the police arrived
When the son held his father face down to the pavement to save him
When he saved him when the police arrived
and the integrity of the scene was not compromised
When the son relinquished his father to the police
When the son was relinquished when the police took his father into custody
When the son was left alone on the roof of the parking garage then and
when the son stood for a moment looking at the guardrail and at the white Toyota Avalon
and when the son got into his own car then and when the son drove away and
when he drove away and when he drove away
The poem still felt imperfect, though I liked it more than the original. I felt more comfortable nestled in its artfulness. However, the form of this poem felt familiar. There are other poems in my book that use a similar approach to repetition and listing. And ultimately it felt like running away from the story, a cowardly approach to a narrative moment that mattered. I left “Transition” in the book, though my body still instinctively clenches when I see it there. Maybe I just need more practice in the artfulness of narrative, or maybe sometimes a story is simply more important than art. Maybe the rest of the book, which explores ideas well beyond the personal, needed that stripped backbone.
As we find ourselves in a time of pandemic, of systemic state-sanctioned violence against people of color, of environmental disaster, of political and civic disintegration, I am reminded again and again how important action really is. And I wonder how poetry can make sense of it. But how to tell a story in a way that adds meaning to its telling? How to avoid the simple replication and perpetuation of trauma? How to use narrative to a new end, or to find one’s position in a larger time and place? This is something with which I continue to struggle.
Lauren Shapiro is the author of Easy Math (Sarabande, 2013), which was the winner of the Kathryn A. Morton Prize and the Debut-litzer Prize for Poetry, as well as Arena (CSU Poetry Center, 2020). With Kevin González, she co-edited The New Census: An Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry (Rescue Press, 2013). She has written a chapbook of poems, Yo-Yo Logic (DIAGRAM/New Michigan Press, 2011), and individual poems have appeared in jubilat, Boston Review, Copper Nickel, Beloit Poetry Journal, Bennington Review, Columbia Poetry Review, New Ohio Review, Mississippi Review, Drunken Boat, DIAGRAM, and Forklift, Ohio, among other places. She has translated creative work from Spanish, Italian, Vietnamese, and Arabic into English. She is an associate professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University.