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Journal, Day Three

By Richard Siken

Weakness, Truth, Swearing, Precision, More Lies, and the Social Contract

My favorite kind of pie is cake. I have a giant umbrella that protects no one. My father is a sadist and I am my father’s son. These statements are not lies but perhaps they lack a certain clarity. When one lies, one undermines trust in society—which is not my intention—but if there is a Truth out there, to be had clearly and definitively, I’m not sure I’m the kind that can get to it; and if I can get to it I’m not sure I should be the one entrusted with it. I’m a doubter. I’m suspicious of context. I have enough trouble figuring out where to put the punctuation and I type like a hundred monkeys stuck in taffy, putting the commas where I breathe and the periods where I breathe more. Most of the time I feel like I’m barking and pointing, but one of the tricks to making decent art is to address your weaknesses. If I bark, I might as well bark pretty. If I point, I might as well point whole-heartedly.

In my town some people use the f-word. In public. As an adjective. Which is wrong. Not just because it’s a verb but because it’s boring, it shows a weakness not being addressed. It’s worse than lying, much much worse, this muddy self-erasing noise. Jorie Graham came to Tucson a few years ago. She gave a reading and a Q&A where she was quite brilliant. No matter what stupid questions we asked, she took 20 minutes to answer each one, swerving from literary theory to art history to pop culture and tying it all up with connections we had always felt but only now could see. In one of her answers she told a story about her daughter. I want to share it here, even though it’s not my story twice removed.

The daughter is sad. I’m so sad says the daughter. Why are you sad? asks the mother. The daughter doesn’t know. The days go by. The daughter isn’t getting better and the mother worries, frets, paces. The mother isn’t a doctor, she’s a poet, so she brings home a book. I’m too sad to read says the daughter but it’s not for reading, it’s for figuring: it’s a thesaurus. You can be as sad as you need to be says the mother but you must know what kind of sad you are. Are you sad-lonely, sad-desperate, sad-lacking-in-faith? The daughter sits at her desk and looks at the words she has written on the sheet of paper. It’s not that the words are any less true than she imagined, it’s not that they’re smaller than she thought, but they’re limited, they have boundaries, they’re finite, and she’s bigger than they are, surprisingly bigger and more vast than these words on the page, written in her own hand. Go figure. She starts to feel better.

What I love about this story is the idea that truth is something you can creep up on, one word at a time; that there’s some sort of alchemical math you can perform to ratchet the lens into focus. I’m not saying I do it well—and I’m certainly not claiming I’m doing it here—but that I might be able to do it eventually, practice my weak hand, mean what I mean instead of barking into the void . . . well . . . it’s encouraging. Of course, there’s the other camp, the one that insists that naming a thing invokes it, gives it power. I don’t just mean the superstitious among us; I mean, even more inclusively, the socially smooth, the polite. Kafka (or was it Rilke) said that poetry was the axe that breaks the frozen river of the soul, but we walk on the ice as we go through out day, thin ice more often than not, and no one no one no one wants to see the rushing icy river of your soul when you’re standing in line at the bank.

How are you? Fine, and you? It’s not that we don’t care, it’s that we’re terrified that someone will actually break down and tell us. Everyone I know is in some kind of pain. Everyone. How do you like them apples? And so, another reason to lie, because we’ve all agreed not to tell the truth to each other, not about that. Someone put their hand in my heart and they didn’t take it back out. If I died tonight, no one would notice for weeks. My father is a sadist and I am my father’s son. I learned it well. Do I have the stomach for it? Do you really want to know?


Posted in Uncategorized on Wednesday, May 3rd, 2006 by Richard Siken.