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Essay

The True and Untrue Confessions of Olena Kalytiak Davis

How an audacious Alaskan poet has exploded lyric conventions.
Introduction
In the old days, Wordsworth could figure out his childhood. Readers believed in the fiction that the lyric speaker stood in for the poet; words came sincerely and directly from the poet’s heart, from some essential “core” self. In the last century, though, we’ve experienced the self as much less stable, more fragmentary and mutating, less decipherable. It’s not surprising; we’re more mobile, life has sped up, we’ve been through two world wars, and our faith in truth is much more provisional. Ira Sadoff discusses Olena Kalytiak Davis.
Olena Kalytiak Davis's Table
Photo courtesy of Olena Kalytiak Davis

In the old days, Wordsworth could figure out his childhood. Readers believed in the fiction that the lyric speaker stood in for the poet; words came sincerely and directly from the poet’s heart, from some essential “core” self. In the last century, though, we’ve experienced the self as much less stable, more fragmentary and mutating, less decipherable. It’s not surprising; we’re more mobile, life has sped up, we’ve been through two world wars, and our faith in truth is much more provisional. Our narratives about our childhoods differ greatly from age 20 to 50 and, for some of us, after we’ve had our own children. There’s no arrival point for that Wordsworthian Romantic revelation. Just when we’ve figured out “the truth,” the next rupture—a death, a divorce, a change in the presidency, a dreary afternoon, sometimes all four at once—forces us to reconceptualize that “self.”

Of course a poet orchestrates a reader’s experience, selects details, ignores others: a poem is a made thing, a thing made of words. And we don’t have one self, we have many selves—selves that multitask and splinter. The self that listens to King Sunny Ade also watches Bruce Willis movies, the self that’s Buddhist also loves to desire and be desired, the self that’s happy can also be tormented, worried, and detached (sometimes simultaneously). Much about the self remains veiled in drives, desires, and self-deceptions. How can we confess the truth when it’s not available to us? We don’t have a voice—we have many disparate voices. As Yeats famously said, “the center cannot hold.”

A Brief
History of “Confessional” Poems

1304-1374
Petrarch
If no love is, O God, what fele I so?

1633
John Donne
Hymn to God, my God, in my sickness

1633
George Herbert
The Collar

1848
John Clare
I Am!

1846
Emily Bronte
The night is darkening around me

1900
Walt Whitman
Whoever You Are Holding Me Now in Hand

1918
Gerald Manley Hopkins
I Wake and Feel the Fell of Dark

1921/28
DH Lawrence
Last Words to Miriam

1956
Allen Ginsberg
Howl

1959
Robert Lowell
Skunk Hour

1959
WD Snodgrass “Heart’s Needle

1965
Sylvia Plath
Lady Lazarus

1969
Anne Sexton
Ballad of the Lonely Masturbator

1971
John Berryman
Eleven Addresses to the Lord

1983
Lynn Emanuel
Frying Trout While Drunk

1985
Louise Glück
Mock Orange

1987
Sharon Olds
I Go Back to May 1937

1992
Susan Mitchell
Feeding the Ducks at the Howard Johnson Motel

1997
Marie Howe
The Gate

2003
Olena Kalytiak Davis
sweet reader, flanneled and tulled”

2004
DA Powell
[listen mother, he punched the air: I am not your son dying]”

Compiled by Hannah Brooks-Motl

We’re also more skeptical about where our words and thoughts come from. They seem less likely to come from some hermetic interior-self, as Romantic poets claimed. We might use terms like truth and beauty, but they’re not Keats’s and Rubens’s visions; we view beauty through the lens of Kate Moss and Marilyn Monroe, truth through Nietzsche and Oprah and Rush Limbaugh. Today’s alcoholic is not Edgar Allan Poe or the happy drunk of 1950s TV—we have 12 steps, we think of higher powers. I grew up before there was an “inner child,” but I did encounter the five stages of grief and thus later experienced them. Writers too are subjected to the accrual of history, to the history of literature. Alas and alack, we don’t frame our concerns the way John Donne once did (though some still try); we can’t write confessional poems like Plath and Lowell both because it’s not easy to conjure up the authority to say “what happened,” and because we make different assumptions now about mental illness. It takes chutzpah, too, to be the arbiter of experience as if it originated in “individual genius.” My point? Our language, our poems, and our selves are a montage of our histories, subjectivities, and drives, and a reflection of the culture at large.

How then can we write intimately to more authentically reflect our experience, our changes of mind, our suspiciousness of the truth?


Olena Kalytiak Davis presents the reader with seemingly unmediated and uncensored, almost diary-like details of daily life side by side with the willful theater of a presentation self: the poet writing, the poet constructing and choosing what she wants us to see. Thus the “I” (which she often places in quotation marks) is always at stake and on view; at the same time, she acknowledges that identity as a necessary socially and artistically constructed fiction. These complex and conflicting notions of self (I’m spontaneously making myself available, I’m making this up, and I’m figuring this out in the act of writing) are inextricably entangled: the poet and the person, the public and the private, are impossible to stabilize. Negotiating these overlapping arenas—what’s literally true, what’s metaphorically true, what’s imagined—has always been one of poetry’s many tasks, but Davis’s poems implicitly and explicitly bring to the forefront both the function of writing and wide-ranging emotional exploration. Her poems ask questions. For whom do we write? How do we represent ourselves authentically given what words can and cannot provide, when self-knowledge is incomplete, transient, driven by mystery, desire and need, repression and wish-fulfillment fantasy?

One of Davis’s strategies is engaging and manipulating the reader’s discomfort: she is simultaneously “confessional” and “postmodern.” Romantically drawn to the self while proposing it as elusive and fragile, she brings the reader closer to the lyric voice of the poet; at the same time we can’t locate exactly what is true, who is addressed, or whose truth it is. At a time when the culture is in a tizzy about fact and memoir, when everyone is confessing everything, Davis’s vulnerability draws the reader into the empathic, while at the same time she employs and satirizes the voyeuristic pleasures of the poet “exposing” herself. So her interrogation of those truths becomes both her own obsession and one hot-button signpost of our age.

Davis has received considerable attention, having been labeled a “postconfessional” poet. The imprecise term doesn’t really suit her work, and it seems to have different meanings for everyone who uses it. James Rother refers to the movement simply as a new generation of confessional writers (Rich, Olds, and Forché). Ellen Davis, in a review of a Rebecca Wolff collection, identifies it as “[c]onfessional writing using experimental technique,” which could very well describe Lowell’s and Plath’s poetry in the late 1950s, when both poets abandoned their more traditional subjects and styles to make public what was formerly private, to say “what happened” in colloquial diction. Davis’s entertaining the reader’s voyeuristic pleasure (while meeting it with her own often self-conscious narcissistic display) might tempt some to emphasize the unorganized autobiographical details in her work; but as she said in her Harriet posts from 2006 [“my kids, augustyn 6 (augie, gobi, gogobee, goose, deck) and olyana 41/2 (lyana, lyalya, lyalyabee, little bean, lulu, lyali, lollipop) yes, hi! i really am a mother, (and/but/so IS NOTHING SACRED TO YOU? IS EVERYTHING BLOGABLE????)], Davis, like Lowell and Plath before her, sculpts these details, structurally and otherwise, for her art. In the above passage, as in many passages in her poems, she has it both ways: she transgresses socially acceptable boundaries for her art. Is she exempt from the capitalist urge for acquisition? Is she willing to use herself as an example of the consequential damage that appropriating experience does to oneself and others? As discomfiting as the above passage may be, and as much as a reader may judge it, the answer is yes: Olena Kalytiak Davis self-consciously uses experience to make her art; it’s the danger and pleasure of confession, heightened in an age where confession has so much currency, from TV talk shows to celebrity blogs to magazines at the supermarket checkout to poets who confess in Poetry magazine that they’ve become practicing Catholics. One difference between Davis and a number of other confessional writers is that she also critiques the practice, making her use of the personal (and to quote Alice Notley from her poem “Experience,” “who knows what’s really true?”) illuminating, elusive, and disconcerting all at once. It implicates the reader in the corruption. We ask: Who’s the author? Who’s the person? Why are we seduced into the latter when it is the interchange between the two that makes the artist’s work live? Isn’t there an element of appropriation in all art, and where does one draw the line about what can be used and what can’t?

In some of her most recent work, including “The Lyric ‘I’ Drives to Pick Up Her Children from School: A Poem in the Postconfessional Mode,” which appeared in Fence, Davis parodies the postmodern tenet that the “I” is socially constructed, that there is no identity or writing self; at the same time she employs modernist and postmodernist strategies to expose process, including Freudian slips, crossings out, and notes for the poem. She creates wide-ranging dictions both to satirize and to appropriate high art. In responding to a comment that poet Cate Marvin made about her work, Davis writes on Harriet, “. . . which leads me to cate’s remark about everyone having to have ‘a’ tradition, and thinking my work based on not really being able to find a one. . . . but maybe, the anxiety of influence, that there must be a profound and complex act of misreading (but does it have to be of poetry texts?) and that ‘that reading is likely to be idiosyncratic and it is almost certain to be AMBIVALENT.’” Her declaration, finding an ambivalent place in relation to any tradition, is crucial because it leads her to parse strategies from a variety of sources and movements, while never—even in a single poem—forming an allegiance to one. Her ambivalence seems less an expression of exile than one of fragmentation and—in Freudian terms—the infantile oral desire to absorb the world and not differentiate between self and other. So while she finds correspondences with the self everywhere and nowhere, her ambivalence also underlines the dilemma of the value and limit of history and traditions (other people’s stories) in instructing us how to live.

Later in the “The Lyric ‘I,’” using dada techniques, aping the random, she glosses the poem’s conflict at the same time as she enacts it. The “I”—in quotation marks because the lyric speaker experiences no unity but a set of contradictions—seeks to plait meanings for her sexuality, her intellect versus her intuition, her love of language as a vehicle of exploration and distraction. While the confessional poem appears to detail many experiences, the speaker also points out to us that the “‘autobiographical poem’ . . .  mythologizes the poet’s life in accordance with the conventions of this time. It relates not what has occurred but what should have occurred, presenting an idealized image of the poet as representative of his literary school.”

i lost my sex /poem!
how did it go?
i know it was called

SEX

something about my bosky acres,
my unshrubb’d down
‘bout all being tight and yare

(bring in tiresias?)
did you say soothe?
tiresias, who lies fucking more?
whoops.

who likes fucking more?

(“bring in // the old thought //(allen grossman doing yeats)
that life prepares us for//what never happens”)

She interrupts the middle of the poem, declaring a dailiness that might or might not be true: picking up her kids from school, being looked at by men in a truck, looking at a mountain range (which changes depending on the mood of the “I,” the quality of light and perception, and so on), fantasizing about her ambivalent relationship to her own sexuality and gender (sometimes female-identified, sometimes male-identified).

“i” also likes “human drama”.
“i” really enjoyed “i heart huckabees”.
“i” thought sex was overrated for a long time, then not for a year and a half, and now, again.
“i” gives, well, has given, good head.
“i” takes it like a man.
“i” thinks there should be a new “new sexualized and radicalized poetry of the self”,
“i” knows the “single-minded frenzy of a raving madman” but,
“i” mostly keeps her head.
“i” remembers that “as long ago as 1925, boris tomashevsky, a leading russian formalist critic, observed that the “autobiographical poem” is one that mythologizes the poet’s life in accordance with the conventions of his time. it relates not what has occurred but what should have occurred, presenting an idealized image of the poet as representative of his literary school”
“i” wants to be a man like marjorie perloff, helen hennessy vendler, boris tomashevsky.
“i” thinks, on the other hand, “i mean i like in art when the artist doesn’t know what he knows in general; he only knows what he knows specifically”.
“i” thinks: “that mantel piece is clean enough or my name isn’t bob rauschenberg”.
“i” just wishes “i” could talk more smarter theory, no
“i” just wishes “i” could write more smarter poems, no
“i” thinks “WHY I AM A POET AND NOT A...”
“i” thinks “KALYTIAK DAVIS PAINTS A PICTURE”.
“i” wants to include the word “coruscate” in it, and, possibly, a quote from rudolf steiner.
“i” wishes she could remember abrams definition of the structure of the greater romantic lyric, but that it presents “ a determinate speaker in a particularized, and usually localized outdoor setting, whom we overhear as he carries on, in a fluent vernacular which rises easily to a more formal speech, a sustained colloquy, sometimes with himself or with the outer scene, but more frequently with a silent human auditor, present or absent.” and that “he speaker begins with a description of the landscape;’ and that “an aspect or change of aspect in the landscape evokes a varied but integral process of memory, thought anticipation, and feeling which remains closely involved with the outer scene.” and that  “in the course of this meditation the lyric speaker achieves an insight, faces up to a tragic loss, comes to a moral decision or resolves an emotional problem.” and that “often the poem rounds upon itself to end where it began, at the outer scene, but with an altered mood and deepened  understanding which is the result of the intervening meditation” evades her.
  

All this is heady stuff, but it is funny too, making use of techniques made famous by Ashbery (among others), structurally imitating the mind in action, so while the process of the poem might seem random, these lines accrue and contribute to her poetic argument, the probe of the poem. And while one might see limits to these stylistic devices, in terms of both effacing the social world and repeating a particular poetic strategy, Davis’s poems are not intended to be merely clever. She is deadly serious in her inquiries and in her desire to authentically express the full range of her convictions, qualifications, contradictions, failures, and desires. In the process, while she structures her poems associatively, she almost always accounts for the structure of a poem, and rarely loses sight of a central conflict. Her work is often dizzying, even breathtaking, all the more so because of her self-effacing playfulness, her conversational change of expressions, and her probing emotional intelligence; and in the mode of Frank O’Hara’s poems, she is frankly sometimes a laugh riot.

Toward the end of “The Lyric ‘I’” all the threads return: the plot, picking up her daughter from school, her gender and sexuality worries, her parallel search for correspondence (including a quote from Bob Dylan), her wrestling with what is knowable about the self and other:

“i” loves “everything passes, everything changes, just do what you think you should do.”
“i” thinks dylan is singing to “i” .
“i” thinks he means now, and now, and now; daily.
“i” is almost there.
“i” wonders if “i’s” meditation is too long, has gotten away from “i”.
“i” thinks it should take precisely as long as the ride: 15 minutes tops; well, 30  in a snowstorm.
“i” knows it is not snowing.
“i wonders if “i” should at this point even refer to “i’s” meditation.
“i” thinks “man can embody truth but he cannot know it”.
“i” thinks “especially under stress of psychological crisis”.
“i” thinks what’s worse, anaphora or anaphrodesia?
“i” thinks of the diaphragm still inside her.
“i” shutters at the audacity of her sex.

Just as the reader might shudder at the audacity of her poems. “I” is almost there, but always arriving.

 

This article first appeared in significantly different form in American Poetry Review, July/August 2006. It has been adapted from History Matters (University of Iowa Press, 2009). http://uipress.uiowa.edu/books/2009-spring/sadoff.htm

Related

  • Ira Sadoff is the author of seven collections of poetry, including Barter, and Grazing (U. of Illinois), a novel, O. Henry prize-winning short stories, and The Ira Sadoff Reader (a collection of stories, poems, and essays about contemporary poetry). He is the recipient of a Creative Arts Fellowship from the...

Essay

The True and Untrue Confessions of Olena Kalytiak Davis

How an audacious Alaskan poet has exploded lyric conventions.

Related

  • Ira Sadoff is the author of seven collections of poetry, including Barter, and Grazing (U. of Illinois), a novel, O. Henry prize-winning short stories, and The Ira Sadoff Reader (a collection of stories, poems, and essays about contemporary poetry). He is the recipient of a Creative Arts Fellowship from the...

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