I used to think poetry had more in common with creative non-fiction rather than fiction. Poems, I thought, were supposed to be about the author. Or, if not the author, then about something within the author’s life – a friend, a spouse, the apple tree he fell out of when he was ten. The “truth” in a poem, I believed, was supposed to be an autobiographical truth.
I wasn’t completely wrong. There are a lot of great autobiographical poets out there. Sharon Olds comes to mind. In fact, I’d be willing to bet every poet since Whitman has written his or her share of autobiographical poems. But poems don’t have to always be about the author’s life and experiences. Poems don’t have to be “true” to be True.
I think the larger population already understands this. Fiction is the most popular form of literature today. People love a good novel. We understand that the characters are fictitious, that the events never happened, but at the end of the book we recognize the truth of the story. A story doesn’t have to have literally happened, it doesn’t have to be factually true, in order to be True. The same goes for poetry.
I started trying to write fictitious poems last spring. I’m a graduate student at Pacific University, and my advisor suggested I buy a thing called “The Art Box,” which is a box of postcards with pictures of famous paintings. He wanted me to use the postcards as prompts for poems. My first instinct was to try and think of how these paintings related to my own life, but this didn’t always work out well. So, instead of trying to make the painting say something about me, I tried to write as a character within the painting itself. In the painting “The Baptism of Christ,” for example, I wrote from the perspective of John the Baptist. I didn’t write about him – I wrote AS him. I also wrote as St. Peter, and Joseph. But the most important figure I wrote about didn’t have a name. I found her in Camille Pissarro’s painting “Landscape at Chaponval.” The painting depicts a warm summer landscape, with a woman in black standing in a clearing in the shade of a tall birch-like tree. A cow grazes beside her. In the near distance the blue and red roofs of Chaponval spread at at the foot of a green hill. When I looked at the painting I felt unusually bothered by something. I felt sad for some reason. Then I noticed that the woman in the picture has been hidden away in the shadows. Although she stands in a prominent place in the foreground, and although she is the only person in the painting, the artist has covered her in shadow. She is even wearing a completely black dress, her head slightly downturned. The landscape of the painting isn’t sad. It’s the woman. I felt she was morning a loss of some kind. I decided her husband had died, and I started writing a series of poems I’ve come to call my “widow poems.” The following is my latest attempt:
THE WIDOW’S HUSBAND
I like to watch you in the morning
brushing your hair at the bedroom mirror
under the yellow lamp light,
your eyes like clamshells,
washed up and broken.
Your shadow waits beside you on the carpet
as you drag the snags from your hair.
You wince and grip your hair with one hand
while forcing the brush through with the other.
Sometimes you hum a song,
a warm vibration in your throat,
your lips pursed together
as if ready to kiss your reflection.
I wonder if you ever imagine
I’m watching from the bed
our old stomping ground
admiring your shoulders
your uneven hips
your right hand working the brush through the snarls.
You’re probably thinking
it’s time for a trim,
time to snip off the split ends
maybe bring it up over the ears.
If you are, I hope
you reconsider. Don’t do it.
No matter how frayed
no matter how damaged.
Let your hair grow.
What else, in the grave,
do we have but our hair.
And I love to watch you
at the bedroom mirror in the morning,
humming and working the brush through the knots
while your shadow lies at your feet
like a lover
begging you not to go.