On the Insistence of Poetry + the Persistence of Memoir
When my wife and I were just married we traveled to Trinidad and took a wildlife boat trip into the Caroni Swamp, a wild estuary just south of Port of Spain. It was late afternoon and the sky was heavy with clouds and the boat sped through the mangroves and the palms and the low, blooming rainforest thick as buildings all around us. It was hard to see any wildlife at all. The boat too fast, the trees too thick. It was trees and trees and palms and vines and the black water unspooling before us as the boat sped through the channel. But after an hour we broke through the dense undergrowth and came into a wide lagoon with a lone clump of mangroves floating in the middle. The sun began to set and the sky and the water took each other’s colors like mirrors—dark above and light below. And then it happened.
Scarlet ibis began to descend from the skies, red as blood. One bird at first and then two or three, and then the sky was chattering with them and they filled up that little island of mangrove and mud. Bird after bird—red, so red—with their black-tipped wings and scythe-like bills. Drop by drop, the birds filled the sky and then the trees, that island of mangrove that floated solitary in water that held the last light of day.
A book of stories, a book of near misses, a meditation, and a tribute to the ever-receding beauty of and sublimity of the world that is occasionally caught and held in the loose netting of language, fragile is an intelligently eclectic rumination from a well-traveled and well-read storyteller. From the lush tropics of Costa Rica, through the rivers and deserts of the American and Alaskan West, and ultimately into the cities of old Europe, Jeffrey Thomson’s memoir offers a meditation on place, poetry, and mortality that becomes at once beautiful and nearly tragic.
Some years later, I was teaching an environmental writing course in Costa Rica. I was out with my students in the field, in another boat through another estuary. This time the swamp was Tortuguero National Park on the Caribbean. Broad and flat and crisscrossed with rivers and canals. We were out early, the day only newly begun, and the clouds were heavy. Soon a rain began, a hard tropical rain off the hot Caribbean Sea. The drops fell fat and heavy and pounded down upon us in the little metal boat. The water turned to pocked asphalt and the boat filled with rain. The students quickly donned the rain ponchos that the guide passed out—thick and heavy yellow rubber with hoods—and we kept moving into the park. Hoods up, heads down, we looked like a boatload of convicts.
But then the sun tore apart the clouds as it rose and heated the day and the rain spattered to a halt. The deep, tannin black of the water reflected the warm sunlight. The boat made a turn around the corner of a narrow canal lined with raffia and palm. There on a snag that leaned out over the water we saw a bare-throated tiger heron. A big, meaty bird. Buff and speckled black with a pale throat. In the fresh light washed clean by the weight of that storm, it stood there on a dead tree and opened its wings wide, to dry them. It looked majestic. Like the crest of an Egyptian god.
Several years later, still with my son and our naturalist guide, we were hiking through a different patch of rainforest near Sarapiqui, Costa Rica. It was January 2003 and the United States was about to go to war in Iraq—that disastrous quagmire of hubris and deceit that would leave a long trail of wreckage across the American experience. In the tall, distant crown of an wild almond tree we found a flock of great green macaws, chewing the fruit and spitting the seeds down to the broad, leaf-littered apron of the forest floor. These are rare birds, even in Costa Rica, and so we thrilled to see them. They flustered their huge wings and hopped about on the crown of the tree, gregarious and rowdy. Their calls were raucous and rough, and their wings when folded carried red chevrons like the insignia of soldiers. We watched them a long time through the spotting scope. When we were done, our guide folded the scope’s tripod legs and swung it back over his shoulder like a rifle. He marched off talking of the coming rain.
Now I tell you these three stories for a particular reason. In the war years that followed, I began to work on a book of poems focused particularly on the landscapes of the American neotropics—poems that explored how we think about, read about, understand, and participate in place in the face of such violence. The title poem of this book—Birdwatching in Wartime (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2009)—used these three particular moments of avian grace and the corresponding menace and distress of the Iraq War to try and articulate the interconnectedness of place and language and how each can be changed and even damaged by the other.
But in some ways, that poem is a lie. As you can tell, these three events happened in different worlds and at different times. And yet in the poem I blended them together as if they were all one and the same—focusing on the regal heron, the blood-red ibises, and the “little soldiers” of the macaws. The images I wove together became part of a larger, emblematic moment that defined itself by its own truth. Each bird, each place became a part of the larger metaphor of war that I wanted the poem to define.
And I am not apologizing for that. The poem is what it is and my experiences are what they are and they are not equivalent. Poetry is allowed that latitude, I think. I am not lying in the poem, per se. But I am not telling The Truth either. Or rather I am telling a different kind of truth that supersedes the factual truth, what Tracy K. Smith calls the insistent vision of poetry.
Then I began, years later still, to work on a memoir—fragile (Red Mountain Press, 2015)—about my experiences with place and death and narrative and beauty. It was not surprising that I would go back to my notebooks and revisit these stories, among many others. I wrote an early draft of the book—well, many early drafts, but who’s counting—and in each of these drafts of the memoir I conflated these three bird stories the way I had with the poem. And these three moments were not the only examples of this—there were a number of other instances across the memoir in which I conflated events or condensed time. I was connecting pieces of my life by image and association the way I had done for years in my poetry. I was toiling with metaphor rather than through the labor of representation and factual narrative. And to some extent it worked, just as it had with my poetry.
And yet something about it felt wrong. I mean I could have gotten away with it, most likely. There’s no real way for a reader to check these stories and I am no James Frey—I am not claiming jail time or crack addictions I never faced. I was not making up abuse or violence whole cloth, or demanding some kind of personal empathy from the reader. That, to me, no matter the genre, feels like the line that cannot be crossed. Quite the opposite, all these events had happened to me. I saw and thought and felt all of these things. I was merely shifting time and place, connecting real events in my life by juxtaposition and the omission of telling details. I could have gotten away with it. But it didn’t feel right.
In my memoir I write quite a bit about the falsification of landscape and the commodification of place. I say, quite clearly, that such distortions damage our relationship with the world and interfere with what might be a more healthy relationship with the land. And yet I was doing the same thing I accused others of. That couldn’t stand. And yet the coherence of the narrative worked better when I was lying.
Life is like that, isn’t it? Life is messy and wild and doesn’t submit too easily to narrative unity. Our stories are not our lives. From the raw and untidy world we fashion our selves, but in messy chunks and multitudinous threads, not in discrete and unified scenes.
So I did the only thing I could. I admitted my crimes. I plead guilty in the pages of the memoir. But I didn’t change the structure. I kept the pieces where they were—connected by association and image—but I did admit my transgressions. I threw myself, as it were, on the mercy of the reader, hoping that she will, having read that far already, agree with me that the benefit to the narrative coherence created by my changes far outweighs the damage done by such falsehoods. Hopefully, she will want a coherent story as much as I do. I am counting on her self-interest to serve mine.
I kept the process of the narrative alive by these admissions, because I wasn’t defining a truth as much as I was uncovering it—for the reader but also for me. Coming to understand this this process, this slow unraveling of the larger themes of my memoir, is what Tracy K. Smith, again, calls the persistent vision of memoir. Memoir, good memoir, comes from a deep investigation of liminal moments. It comes from a continued and sustained attention to the world and the self and the moments of time that cry out for our attention. That persistence is what called me, again and again, to return to those moments of life in the garden of the world and to think and explore what they were saying to me. That persistence was also what demanded that I admit to what I had done.
In my poems, I felt no need for such admissions. Much less such agonized self-flagellation over my choices. In poetry, the imagination is king and the world submits to it. But in prose—or in memoir, at least—the world and its truth have a greater claim. It demands fealty as well and any violence done to it must at least be acknowledged if we are going to have a healthy relationship with that world and our place in it. And not just that, but a healthy relationship with the selves that inhabit our places.
In each of the three stories I told, the landscapes I inhabited were similar, perhaps, but similar is not the same. They were all wet rainforest, all set in the American neotropics. The self that inhabited them was similar, too—it was always me—but I am not the always the same either. And so I could not completely blur the lines between these moments under the persistence of my prosaic gaze. Difference matters. Those differences matter if we are not going to turn place and experience into simple products designed for consumption in our own private mockup of late-model capitalism. (Perhaps, because poetry stands aloof from marketing and the commercial mode of our contemporary life in fact as well as by inclination, perhaps poetry remains freer of such constraints—or maybe this is just me justifying my crimes again in retrospect. It’s hard to tell.) The complexity of place and of our experience within it: these demand this persistence of our attention
The material of the story matters, of course, as does its setting. From the same material—the raw storehouse of my experience in world—I have now written the same story many ways. Because it really is just one story. The story of my life in the wild. But each time it is told, and in each manner of telling, the story changes. The difference in outcome lies in the power of the eye that imagines and returns to that source, again and again. Each version represents a different kind of vision, a different manifestation of that original material and in some important sense the “true” story remains out there in the world, untamable and unfinished, raw and wild. Like the birds, it lives and flocks and flies. It raises its wings to the sun that tears open the clouds. It fills the sunset with its raucous cries.
Jeffrey Thomson is the author of fragile, his new memoir, as well as four books of poems, including Birdwatching in Wartime, winner of the 2010 Maine Book Award and 2011 ASLE Award in Environmental Creative Writing. Birdwatching in Wartime is currently being translated into Spanish and Russian. His translations of the The Poems of Catullus is just out and two new books of poetry are forthcoming: Five Satans and The Belfast Notebooks. In 2012 he was the Fulbright Distinguished Scholar in Creative Writing at the Seamus Heaney Poetry Centre at Queen’s University Belfast, and in 2015 he was the Hodson Trust-John Carter Brown Fellow at Brown University and the C.V. Starr Center at Washington College. He is currently professor of creative writing at the University of Maine Farmington.