Essay

Poems From My Ex

After the love affair, there were poems.

by Lisa Catherine Harper
Poems From My Ex

Fifteen years after we broke up, my ex-boyfriend published a book of poetry.

I bought a copy, partly out of curiosity, partly out of loyalty to a fellow writer and former friend. I wondered not so much what had become of John (I had a vague idea about his family, his teaching job) but what had become of him as a poet. For months, the slim book sat on my shelf like an awkward houseguest. Then, one quiet night, something nudged me out of my inertia, or dread, and I settled into bed with his book.

And there I was.

* * *

I still remember the first time I saw him, in the middle of a path between McCosh and Murray-Dodge Halls at Princeton University. He had piercing blue eyes, black hair, and a genius for conversation. I was dating someone else, a philosopher who was friends with his philosopher friend, and our friends had stopped to talk. As the conversation dragged on (philosophy!), this new boy sank to the ground, lit a cigarette, and looked straight at me. “We might as well talk,” he said, and so began a conversation that lasted almost seven years.

John Hennessy and I were young together, and writers. All of my young ambitions about art, love, career, even family—all of that was tied up first with him. When we met, and during the long course of our affair, we wrote fiction, but we loved all of the ways that words formed beautiful, important things that seemed to us true (we read a lot of Keats and Yeats, but also H.D. and Djuna Barnes, Joyce and Woolf, William Gass and Clarence Major). We were part of a rich undergraduate community, surrounded by exceptional mentors and peers of untested but very real talent. Much of our social life was (predictably) inspired by the Left Bank writers and artists, the Bloomsbury circle, who were our clichéd objects of admiration. Like undergraduates everywhere, we exchanged drafts of work; visited each other’s studios; gifted stories, poems, and end-of-semester projects; wore too much black; organized readings; invited faculty to dinner; drank a lot of bad wine; stayed up all night debating aesthetics; and wrote semiautobiographical novels, Symbolist stories, and earnest poetry collections for our theses—some of them good enough to be published. So even though very many of our English major friends ended up on Wall Street, we could see a future as writers.

Our romantic relationship thrived through John’s thesis and graduation, then mine; through a protracted year in Europe, where I worked and wrote in London and Belfast while he taught and wrote in Amsterdam. We befriended new writers and artists, visited each other frequently, returned to New York, had a rocky year, broke up, got back together, and finally moved to Austin, Texas, so John could pursue his MA. A little over a year later, after I had started my own graduate program in California, we broke up for good. Right before it ended, our best friend confronted me: “You’d better be sure about this,” she said. “You have a long history together.” The fact was that I loved John. Everyone loved him. His infectious energy, his talent, his great generosity (in a burst of enthusiasm, he gave my beloved clothbound Collected Shakespeare to a student) had put him at the center of every group of friends we had ever known. I knew I would continue to love him for a long time. But we couldn’t stay together.

It was a heartbreaking breakup, and final. After, there was nothing to say. We spoke a few times on the phone, but the great conversation was over. John enrolled in an MFA program at the University of Arkansas, married a fiction writer, and started his family. Somewhere along the way, he became a poet. I finished my own MA and then went on to receive my PhD. I married a visual artist, left academia, had my own family, and emerged on the other side a nonfiction writer. Over the years, I heard sporadic reports from mutual friends, but our relationship seemed of another life entirely.

* * *

The woman in the poem, and then again, a page later, in another, that woman, she was me, too. In “Missing Carnival” and “Shaved Head” I saw myself as subject, object, muse, femme fatale. The poems were not flattering. Their subject was a flinty, bitchy, callous girl. She might be beautiful, but she was also mercurial, capricious, thoughtless, inauthentic, shallow, and downright cruel. Even the occasion for “Missing Carnival” left me feeling betrayed.

As soon as I read the lines “Soon she’d take bus / and ferry from London to Belfast, but first / the fire in her bed-sit,” I knew exactly the visit from which the poem had sprung, a deeply private, unexpected weekend, one that had been shadowed by terrible news, though not, exactly, the news in the poem. My memory was of a late winter weekend, just on the cusp of spring, with pale silver skies and a dampening chill that we warded off with layers of scarves. Morning blurred into afternoon under a pile of down comforters. John had dropped everything to take bus, then ferry, then bus to get from Amsterdam, where he lived in a cozy attic, to the northern London suburb where I had a light-filled bed-sit. It had been an intensely romantic, gratifying time, a union of bodies and souls, you might say, and I saw my nostalgia evoked in the poem’s almost Wordsworthian lines: “This time / her body made him think of countryside, / some figure from his childhood, sun on scythe, / wind blowing shadows across the shining barley.” This “she” (me?) is the rural life, sun-drenched fields, and dented milk pails, innocence, joy, and plenitude. This mood conjured exactly the weekend that I remembered, but it also felt like my memory. I didn’t want it out in the world.

The poem’s high romance is rapidly punctured: the woman is leaving, their union is full of small deceptions. The speaker has lied to her about the origin of his scars; she is some kind of well-intentioned colonial activist, “smuggling / French social theory into Ulster.” Both aspire to an idealism they don’t possess, and they don’t talk about the most important fact between them: the death of her ex-lover.

Carnival (the Dutch equivalent of Mardi Gras) becomes the signifier for childhood, joy, plenitude. Missing “it” defines the central quality of both characters: there is something hollow about both of them. I had no idea what the poem’s Dutch refrain meant: O Venlo, Venlo, stedje van pleseer (I still don’t), and in this way I am exactly like the woman in the poem. She listens, “her back to him,” as her lover sings to her “in a language she didn’t speak.” Their intimacy is haunted by a fundamental (and final) failure of language: she cannot—will never—understand him. Nor, her posture suggests, is she willing to try. “Missing Carnival” is not a romantic poem about the fecundity of “leaf-mulch / and leather in the tack room”—it’s about the loss of all of that. The lovers meet not in a field of daffodils, but in Eliot’s hollow valley. “Missing Carnival” is a lament for lost worlds, for everything we fail at, even though its final image is an attempt to return to a heart-pounding, celebratory joy:

He thought of himself as the sun, kissing
her neck at the hairline, turning grey cobblestones
of the town-square silver, marshaling parades.

But, of course, turning cobblestones to silver is an impossible alchemy.

It’s a beautiful poem. The problem was that its profound loss was not part of the weekend I remembered. Was my memory really so wrong? Was I that shallow? Had we, like these lovers, never really spoken the same language?

As I reckoned what was and was not true in the poem, I had to admit that, yes, there were many similarities between life and art. But there were significant differences, too: my ex-lover was not dead. It was an imaginative act by the poet that made him so. (Even if that act was wishful thinking.) Other crucial details were “wrong,” too: nationality, occupation, physical facts. My spinning mind slowed. The speaker was not exactly John. Perhaps I was not exactly that woman, and perhaps this poem not exactly “our” history. I began to see the poem for what it was: not just a transformation of fact but a transfiguration of reality.

I understood, reluctantly, that the poem told the more interesting story. “Missing Carnival” is an anti-romantic lyric about loss. Why do we long for the (dead) lover/the rural childhood/sunshine/carnival? “Missing Carnival” answers: we want to move out of the Shadow into the sun. We want out of the twilight kingdom. If John’s poem made my memory meaner, he also made it mean something more.

“Shaved Head” is a tougher poem. Reading its compressed, aggressive, even militant opening lines, I knew I was in trouble: “Forget contingencies of weather and wind, / my Helen’s head was shaved.” This woman will be hated and blamed. I read, breathless, as she paraded in “jet patent-leather trench and high-heeled boots”; marched in callous if superhuman fashion “right through human waste / and Bowery puddles, stretched her legs over the last / old-fashioned hobos.” She’s desirable, all right, a femme fatale with “darkened arching / black eye-brows, Betty-Blue mouth penciled red.” (How I hated that image, with its art-house connotations of the insane, insatiable woman!) Even in his admiration, the speaker’s voice is brittle and clipped: “Simply and grudgingly put, / her talk was action.”

The poem lurches after its subject as she bicycles through Manhattan’s downtown (John’s and my old stomping ground), marches in protests, counsels noncombatants, and defends conscientious objectors. In the poem’s opening stanzas, she’s passionate, powerful, and a little bit scary. But as her extreme self-fashioning suggests, she’s also unpredictable, dangerous, probably unstable. She makes no sense:

Her precedents
I knew lurched out of focus: photos from France
after the Vichy fell, Jeannes and Sylvianes
who’d made Nazi moll; those Belfast girls

last ditched by soldier boys or peelers; two-
toned Bergen-Belsen, bald sister to Fort Santiago.
Then Squeaky Fromm, the other Manson moms,
at Charlie’s trial. Extremes of Joan of Arc,

Or even Buddhist nuns.

The litany was tough to read. I didn’t blame the speaker for clearing out.

The facts: I had shaved my head, worked for the War Resisters League, and wore combat boots; one of my middle names is Helen. But certainly: Manson moms, Nazi molls, peelers’ girls—these things had never occurred to me. I had never, even vicariously, associated myself with them, and even now I wanted no part of them—not even in a poem. Who in their right mind would want to be associated—in any context—with genocide, murderers, and assassins? Reading this version of myself, I was humiliated. “Shaved Head” is a violent poem, and full of hate. This Helen is not H.D.’s, is not even Maud Gonne. There is nothing redemptive or aspirational about her. Mostly, she’s scary, and it’s impossible to ignore the speaker’s devastating final indictment: his Helen is a fraud.

                                             Shaved head,
her slender neck, dark shoulders—that was half—
or less—her most convincing argument.

My first thought: “Shaved Head” was a revenge poem. It expressed exactly how John felt about me. It seemed to me cruel to use the facts of my life in service of . . . what, exactly? To create an image of a callous, confused, unpredictable woman who mocks an illusion of strength and beauty? Who drew promiscuously from historical and pop-cultural reference for her own self-aggrandizement? Who used and abused her lover? I didn’t know.

Then, after some time—a day, a week?—the disconnect between the poem’s opaque intentions and my own grew. A wedge slipped between John’s meaning and my feeling, loosening my knot of fear. If the Nazi moll, the Manson mom, was not me, who was she?

The art of “Shaved Head” is deliberate. Like many of the poems in Bridge and Tunnel, it engages formal questions and poetic tradition. It puts pressure on language. The poem’s extreme compression, its violent juxtaposition of (violent) images, complicated the poem’s precedent—a gesture that was for me a simple gesture of sartorial defiance. Clearly, this woman had her roots in me, but she had morphed, under the pressure of image, under the compression of language, across the controlled span of line, the form of the quatrain, even the interruptive power of the dash that made John’s lines hurtle toward meaning. “Shaved Head” was a linguistic construction as much as a narrative one, a poetic investigation as much as a personal confession. She was not a real person. She lived in the realm of myth, mysterious as Shakespeare’s Dark Lady or Emily Dickinson’s Master. She was so unfamiliar, in fact, that I realized she belonged not to my past, but to the poet and his imagination, and, by extension, to his readers. I read the poem again, schizophrenically, confronting myself, severed from myself. I understood the speaker’s victory: in the end, he kills the muse. This is a good thing, I think, in poetry, and probably (metaphorically, of course) in life. Certainly, it freed this speaker. Maybe it freed John. It definitely freed me to understand that this woman wasn’t a real person. She was an image, something made (and made true) by the poem. Maybe John would still call “Shaved Head” a revenge poem . . . but I let it go. The poems could have their own life in the world—with and without me. They had to. What was I going to do—call him up and yell at him?

I was left with the fact of the poems, the book, and a quiet, surprising happiness. Yes, he had used me to create a poem—but it was a poem. Even if I hated the girl in the poems, I loved the poems themselves, their beautiful, hard-earned truths. We had found our way to writing lives, though not in the way we first imagined. We had been right about that most important thing, but the road had been harder, longer, and considerably less romantic than I, at least, had ever imagined. Clearly, our conversation hadn’t really ended. It had gone on—with ourselves and with other people—one conflicted, searching word at a time. Like us, it grew up.

Originally Published: February 9, 2011

COMMENTS (24)

On February 9, 2011 at 3:46pm David Robie wrote:
As an aspiring poet, I appreciate the
recognition of the separation of the
muse/inspiration and the final piece. One
is moved to write by the lash of reality, but
the poem soon becomes it's own reality,
and given the choice between the real and
the poem, it's gratifying to hear that the
poet not only chose the poem, but that the
muse did, as well.

On February 10, 2011 at 9:47am Wouter wrote:
the Dutch refrain "O Venlo, Venlo, stedje
van pleseer" means "Oh Venlo, Venlo, little
town of pleasantries" written in (possibly
older) dialect

On February 10, 2011 at 10:07am Maf wrote:
"My Helen" is obviously a classical
reference to Helen of Troy, not your
middle name.

On February 10, 2011 at 10:22am joe wrote:
God, this sounds like horrible poetry. Glad you made it out alive!

On February 10, 2011 at 11:03am SP wrote:
Wonderful! I will compile mails by my ex
using this http://www.memeoirs.com/ - and
give a copy to her.

On February 10, 2011 at 11:23am Finn Nigel Purce wrote:

As someone who has had the experience of becoming an writer's object of vengeful meditation, and as a poet who has stepped away from that kind of creative act over the years, I'd like to say, respectfully, that there is no disentangling yourself by reference to aesthetic distances. You can talk of Emily Dickinson's master letters, and you can talk of Shakespeare's Dark Lady. However, you are the person in question. The artwork is forever directly linked to you. Sometimes an insult directed your way is so artful that you can appreciate the art. However, you still must be brave enough to contemplate the insult. Was it fair? Was it the right choice? Is this the best way to speak to an audience with art and language? I wish you good luck in your contemplations.

On February 10, 2011 at 11:59am Chip wrote:
my ex gf was an author, and since the breakup I've avoided reading anything she's published. I can't handle seeing myself portrayed through her rather twisted lens. Not for many years anyway. I feel for you.

On February 10, 2011 at 4:33pm jshootingstars wrote:
Excellent piece! Well-thought-out, well
done. I was once the subject of a small
book of poems and found that to be
disturbing. Strangely enough, the poet
handed me the book and watched me as a
read it. I stopped after a short while,
returned the poems to him and scarcely
saw him again after that. I was very
young and felt violated in some way.

On February 10, 2011 at 4:45pm Lisa Catherine Harper wrote:
Wouter: thank you!
Maf: yes, of course (thus the HD reference), but still ironic for me.
Finn: I have confronted at length. You are right, of course, about the entanglement. In this case, I am okay with it.
Thank you, all.

On February 10, 2011 at 5:01pm Hollie wrote:

As poets and writers we use our experiences to portray our visions of the world. We portray a version. In Lisa's confessional essay, we hear the voice of a woman who got her feelings hurt because her ex-lover’s poems don't exactly match her memories, or her ideas of herself, or how she'd like people to see her. I wonder, are there any two people sharing a single moment, having the exact same experience? No. I offer an example: In the middle of a 2005 reading with Eileen Myles and Brent Cunningham in San Francisco, Brent stopped and asked the audience to check under their seats for a little tape recorder. Maybe ten lucky people raised a hand and received a mysterious cassette tape containing a private confession. The rest of us listened to his poems as planned. The experiment was a hyperbolic illustration of every reading, of every experience. Each person in the audience has a unique experience. In the car, on the way home, perhaps you realize that while you loved the reading, your lover was distracted by the day's politics or some such. Whose version of the evening is truer? More fair? We bring our entire histories to our perception of a moment. A year or two later, we have changed, and so has the memory of the moment. It changes again in the rendering, becomes its own entity. So I agree: None of these poems are about Lisa. All of them are about John. About the way he sees the world, or saw it in the act of creation way back then. Part imagination, part emotional truth. Isn't that the right, the obligation of the poet? Without that freedom is there any sense in writing?

On February 10, 2011 at 5:17pm Je wrote:
I did write about my ex in one of my books- he played a role in the encrypted script. No sure he'll care to be so devastated if he stumbles upon it. Hopefully not.

On February 10, 2011 at 7:26pm Amy Ponomarev wrote:

John Hennessey's poems are exquisite and surprising. You are very lucky to live on in such works. A great poet, now passed away, told me he'd been thinking of me when he wrote several poems, and I treasure them. "Do what you will. I must live forever." --Frank O'Hara I liked what you wrote about the conversation between the two of you going on after you'd parted, and the poems manifesting that. I haven't been able to find the full version of Shaved Head, but for what it's worth the woman you describe sounds a bit like Maud Gonne -- in hating her don't you think you're being a bit too hard on yourself and John? It's my hope you wrote this piece to draw attention to John's poems, as well as your own work. Omnia mutantur, nihil interit. (Everything changes, nothing perishes - for those of you who don't feel like looking it up). Re those of you above, who find it so upsetting to be the subject of literature: obviously your lives have been . Get over it. It's always an honor. Are we the muse, or does the muse assume us?

On February 11, 2011 at 5:30am Heidi wrote:
Wouter: I would disagree slightly with the translation of the Dutch line above. It's more Oh Venlo Venlo little town of pleasures - implying something more suspect than 'pleasantries', though I haven't read the poem.

On February 11, 2011 at 9:12am Alizah Salario wrote:
Thanks for such an articulate and poignant piece! You really capture the tricky relationship between factual truth and emotional truth, and the strange alchemy of turning experience into art. I love that the conversation continue even if no one is speaking directly.

On February 11, 2011 at 10:13am ed wrote:
my ex gf is an author and i avoid reading her work because I'm afraid I will not see a trace of me there.

On February 11, 2011 at 11:03am hipstercrite wrote:
Found this story on Huffington Post a bit ago and was enthralled. How epically beautiful and romantic. What a ride it must have been digging into your past through words written by your former lover. I'm sure it gave some insight that would have been nice to have at the time. I think we all secretly wish a former lover would write about us. Thank you for sharing your story.

On February 11, 2011 at 1:50pm Lisa Catherine Harper wrote:
Amy: yes, I do hope this brings people to John's poems, too. And yes,to yo u& all, I do find the experience an honor, and humbling.
Holly: yes, too. My husband, a visual artist, and I were talking about this exactly last night. We create in part, sometimes, to work through things, at which point they become our things, not the other person's and, one hopes, art.

On February 12, 2011 at 6:08am Max Brecher wrote:
Venlo is a city in The Netherlands (look it up on the map). In cute, low key Dutch, he is calling a city of pleasure. But he's deliberately spelled plezier wrong.

On February 13, 2011 at 9:00am Holly Wren wrote:
Thank you for this piece. It's a fascinating examination of an important subject. I'm especially interested in your thoughts about "the transfiguration of fact" as well as the "transfiguration of reality." Of course we draw from our own lives when we write. Many different versions come of this art and in the Making, we need to feel absolutely free to let the poem take over, let the truth remake itself or gain traction; be utterly faithful to our imagination if not to the historical record. I think we all want the room to write in such a way--unfettered by "what really happened" and liberated from anxieties about who will read it and what the consequences of that "recognition" might be. The poem is a made thing.

On February 13, 2011 at 12:54pm rushmc wrote:
What self-important, self-indulgent poems! And I can't say I care for your attitude either. I'm rubbed entirely the wrong way by this whole piece, I guess. I'd think that someone with your life experience would see past the dross of living to something more meaningful.

On February 14, 2011 at 2:36pm Claire wrote:
It's a little embarrassing, to me, that this woman would publish this highly-personal revelation. Before the Internet we never would have to know these things.

It's embarrassing, too, that the PF would publish it, but it's all about the "hits" even here I guess.

I hope the poet himself is honorable enough to let the "cheese" stand alone and keeps a gentlemanly silence reverberate across this ether.

On February 24, 2011 at 8:01am Nicole Kukuchka wrote:

On the contrary, I don't see anything embarrassing about truths, small and large and not wholly understood. The article resonates, and the author chronicles well her journey through involuntary emotional response and the choice of intellectual rigor and investigation. I like the way she explains the alchemy of process, how truths become distorted and discovered as they are shoved into the girdle of art, or, alternatively, stretched out over a frame. I agree. Which is why I have to offer, when sharing work with non-poet friends and family, that a confessional poem exists in a tone or tones, but a poet lives in many tones. No apologies! Wonderful work, and still nice eyebrows.

On March 1, 2011 at 7:04pm Clouser, Hermine wrote:
Michael Dransfield an Australian poet died in 1974. When we were "just 17" I (Hermine de Jong) was one of his early muses. Another muse will open her letters to the public in 2020. You can read about it in the biography of Michael by Patricia Dobrez.

On March 24, 2011 at 9:26am Janelle wrote:
Fascinating, Lisa. I have often thought about what you said about not understanding one another as being one of the ends of a relationship. It's so clear in your interpretations over his words that there was a disconnect, but I love how there is hope in how your conversation lives on. It's as if it were a part of everyone, and not just a microcosm of relationship. I admire your courage.

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Biography

Lisa Catherine Harper’s first book, A Double Life, Discovering Motherhood, won the 2010 River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize and has just been published by U Nebraska/Bison Books. Her writing has been published by Glimmer Train, Babble, Literary Mama, Offsprung, Mama, PhD, Gastronomica, The Emily Dickinson Journal and other books and journals. She teaches in the MFA program at the University of San Francisco and lives in the . . .

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