July/August 2012 Discussion Guide

Of Two Minds

Identity Crises in the July 2012 Poetry

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The July 2012 issue of Poetry magazine takes us on a brief tour of Salem, Massachusetts, the setting for Days of Our Lives. In her essay about the soap opera, Robyn Schiff focuses on a character named Hope:

She’s been kidnapped, forced to marry, dipped in a vat of toxic waste, brainwashed, and has confused her own identity with a deeply suppressed angry personality within that resides in the trauma of the early loss of her mother who was killed when she stepped between Hope and an oncoming car.

Appropriately for a Salem native, Hope seems to haunt this issue, whose artwork and poems show figures splitting into multiple personalities.

A portfolio of paintings by Lawrence Ferlinghetti includes “Lovely Her,” which features a woman embracing herself, legs clenched together, expression obscured by a smear of charcoal. As if to counter her seclusion, two men’s heads sprout out of her shoulders, one dark and the other light, one with mouth closed and the other with mouth open. Are two people standing behind her, or are those heads outgrowths of her personality? Fittingly, we could feel of two minds about that question.

“Oh Pocahontas, Pocahontas!” shows—in an echo of the doubled name—two figures, both washes of reds and purples, looking in opposite directions. One wears traditional Native American garb while the other, who gazes at a city, appears more modern. The streaks of paint connecting these bodies—which we might understand as visions of Pocahontas before and after she became Westernized—both separate and connect them, suggesting the complexity of our relationships with our various selves.

In the prose selections following the images, Ferlinghetti confirms that the painting captures two versions of Pocahontas, and explains that he based charcoal images such as “Lovely Her” on “one-minute poses by studio models.” Then, “to the original drawing, in each case, I later added another face or body, in an attempt to give it a bit of ambiguity or mystery. Not that there isn’t mystery enough in any nude body, male or female.” In Ferlinghetti’s images, as in Whitman’s poetry, each person contains multitudes.

In Steve Gehrke’s poetry, too. “The New Self” catches a speaker addressing an audience within:

Are you housed in me or not? The tenant
or the landlord of my skin? Am I your
avatar? Are you my East Berlin? Are we an I
or each other’s synonym?

Gehrke’s speaker converses with a second self, a “you” who may be a “me.” Just as the two images of Pocahontas—and, in “Lovely Her,” the two extra heads—echo and contrast with one another, so do these dual identities. Meanwhile, Gehrke’s rhymes (“me”/”we”, “skin”/“Berlin”/“synonym”) add literal echo, and his eclectic metaphors—which draw from the vocabularies of housing, religion, politics, and language—suggest a disunity to match the speaker’s inner schism.

In “New Rooms,” Kay Ryan explores our need to invent fresh selves for fresh moments, all the while deploring that disunity:

The mind must
set itself up
wherever it goes
and it would be
most convenient
to impose its
old rooms — just
tack them up
like an interior
tent. Oh but
the new holes
aren’t where
the windows

Ryan imagines a mind that, literally wandering, needs to find new homes. Punning on “interior”—a word often applied to mental space—she wishes for a mind as portable, sturdy, and reconstructible as an “interior tent.” Yet ours are none of those things: each new moment presents the specter of loss; our windows have a way of turning into holes, forcing us to remake our minds. Within the poem, words remake themselves too, popping up every few lines in slightly altered forms: “must” turns into “most” and then “just”; “tent” into “went.”

Yet for Schiff, the developing mind confronts not grief but growth. In addition to elucidating “Days of Our Lives,” she describes Lyn Hejinian’s poem “My Life.” The other poet wrote that work, which comprises 37 stanzas of 37 lines each, at age 37. Eight years later, however, Hejinian revised it,

adding eight new sections, and eight lines to each previous stanza to recalibrate the work. But here’s the thrilling part: the new lines are not always at the end of the sections. Encountering this manner of revision feels like stepping into time itself with a toolkit. An integration of present perceptions of the past into a record that’s already standing! It makes me woozy.

Each year requires another section and another line per stanza, all of which integrate seamlessly into the preexisting work. Rather than finding holes where windows once went, Hejinian is building new wings to her home.

Do you identify with this issue’s explorations of identity? Do you sense several selves beneath your skin? Do they coexist, like the selves in Ferlinghetti’s art and Gehrke’s poem? Or do they succeed one another, as in Ryan’s poem? Does the passage of time grow or shrink you, or both?

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