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:
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.
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.