I think often about one Christmas Eve in childhood when my father came down the stairs, looking for my mother. He was drunk, as usual, and calling for her. She had fled into the living room and was hiding behind the Christmas tree, near where my sister and I were sitting. Normally we were careful not to risk annoying our father, but my mother’s legs were so clearly in plain sight that both of us started laughing. Then my mother started laughing, too, and the tree began to shake. I figured this was trouble, but my father, staring at the tree, simply asked, “Why is it moving?” Then he shrugged and headed back up the stairs, still calling for our mother.
I return frequently to this memory, I suspect, because it says something central about the history of my family. But I am also aware that memories are a kind of story, and stories are created. They shift and change over time and as we repeat them in our thoughts, until their connection to any permanent sense of truth is pretty tenuous.
This was something I thought about a good deal while writing Black Flowers. I hoped that the poems would convey the long sweep of a life, the sense of the years floating out on their great raft. But I also knew that the stories I was telling were a complex marriage of fiction and memory, distortion and memory, and entirely fabricated events. And the more I wrote, the more I began assigning to the project the strange term “fictional memory.”
So why base any of the book on actual experiences? Well, when my daughter was a child, she often said, “Look at me, look at me!” She might be doing cartwheels across the lawn, and it seemed crucial to her to know that she had an audience. Writing, of course, is partly about that, our desire to call attention to our own existence. But I am convinced that there is something far more significant at play. When I read stories that I enjoy, in an odd way they feel like my own fictional memories. It seems as though the writer is writing about both of our lives, as though we share these experiences in common. I suppose that this is what I am hoping for when I write . . . to join the storytelling community.
One early poem in Black Flowers describes a father giving his wife an unusual anniversary present. The gift is a woodchuck skull that he found while he was on one of his walks. He washed it with a hose and wrapped in a box. This marks the beginning of the end of the marriage. Whenever I think of this story, I think, too, about how my mother once packed my father’s suitcase when he was leaving on a trip to be with the woman he would later marry. My mother didn’t want him to go, didn’t want to lose him (not yet, at least), but she packed his bag anyway. Why? Because she always did.
Only that second story actually “happened,” though I’m not sure which of the two feels more real to me. In some ways the first one does, though for reasons I’m not sure I can explain. This, again, is what I hope to discover when I read the stories of other writers. Regardless of the truth of things, I hope the narratives will feel real to me, and even more so on rereading, as though I, too, remember the events. Here are five collections I find particularly engaging in this regard:
Larry Levis, The Selected Levis (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000). This is the poetry I return to the most often when I long to be inspired by the potential of poetic storytelling, and when I am willing to feel stricken with envy. These discursive and elaborate narratives veer wildly in disparate directions, heading out on stream-of-consciousness excursions, yet the poems always feel focused and moving.
Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Song (BOA Editions, 1995). The title poem, published originally in The Southern Review, begins this way: “There was a goat’s head hanging by ropes in a tree. / All night it hung there and sang.” I remember thinking when I read the poem for the first time that I had never come across anything quite like it, certainly not in any poem, and I was mesmerized. The book’s poetic stories about nature and the mystical are truly original and vivid on the page.
Claudia Emerson, Late Wife (Louisiana State University Press, 2005). This Pulitzer Prize winning collection contains poem after poem about estrangement and loss, and yet the writing is inspiring in a way that makes the turning of the pages a wonder and a joy. It is a fully engaging book.
Jack Gilbert, The Great Fires (Alfred A. Knopf, 1994). I first became aware of Jack Gilbert some years ago after seeing a few of his poems in The New Yorker. These spare and contemplative stories remind me of some of the most poetic narrative sections of Ernest Hemingway and Cormac McCarthy, and share the power of their carefully-crafted lines.
Henri Cole, Middle Earth (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003). Often these poems begin with the small beauty of the pedestrian: “My heart and body were separate, / when I got off my bike, soaked with sweat, / and put my face in the river . . . .” But the speakers use these commonplace moments to connect the small things of the world with something far larger, more emotional, and profound.
Doug Ramspeck is associate professor of English at The Ohio State University at Lima and the author of six collections of poetry and one collection of short stories. His prize-winning work has been published in a range of journals, including The Southern Review, Kenyon Review, The Georgia Review, storySouth, and The American Literary Review.