By Lauren Gordon
“It is easy to be brave from a safe distance.” – Aesop
1. Different Ways of Seeing
I get asked on occasion if my husband and I will ever have another child, to which we laugh and say “hell no.” Or if we are feeling particularly generous, we say we lucked out with the first one – how could we possibly get this lucky twice? There was a brief moment, though, when we toyed with the idea of having another child.
“I feel like the first year was just so easy,” I said to my sister in-law. “It was nothing but cuddling and snuggling.” I wish there was an accurate way to describe the look on my sister in-law’s face as I said this … basically like she was looking around for the bullshit fountain I had been drinking from.
Time does that. You get enough distance from something and it skews your perception of reality. And my sister in-law was right. I forgot what the first few months of being a new parent was like. I forgot about the constant feedings and showing up everywhere (when I could leave the house) in slippers and spit-up. I had forgotten about the constant anxiety and fear that shrouded our house every time the baby slept on her stomach, or when she wasn’t gaining weight fast enough, or too fast. Once I forgot how to use words because I was so tired. I even forgot how my life revolved around the baby’s excrement: Was it too much? Too little? Too runny? Not runny enough? And the crying, oh my God, the crying.
I cried all the time.
2. If I Knew Then
One of my favorite things in Poets & Writers magazine (aside from author caricatures; I just want to publish enough to one day be caricatured) is when they ask a poet or writer how long it took them to publish or create a certain work, because I’ll read the words “15 years” and secretly feel thrilled and validated.
A friend said to me recently that she felt I produced work in huge spurts, that I could sit down and come up with a manuscript a few days later. She was sort of right. Once in awhile something will take me and I produce and produce, but the process of editing and submitting is what takes much longer. Years longer. And to my detriment, it seems the more distance I get from my work, the more I want nothing to do with it. Yet at the same time, I see the value in shelving something and returning to it with a different head space.
The concept of time in the poetry world is a weird one. It’s like being a goose flying in a vee of other geese and then the wind shifts and all of a sudden you’re in a new formation with geese you don’t recognize but you’re all still geese and – don’t let this analogy reprise you of my poetic work. It’s not that we’re only as good as the last thing we published. We’re in the market of permanence, to a degree, and it makes me feel as simultaneously tenuous and as certain as a mountain goat. I need to get away from these animal analogies.
When I left my MFA program, confident and armed with a finished manuscript, I was certain publishing was just a matter of time. The work was done and ready to go and I knew my Ed McMahon knock would come any day. How can you not love a hopeful idiot?
Well that manuscript is crap and surprise, the work is never done. The poetry in that small, sad manuscript is sometimes so self-serving and naive that I feel I ought to write personal apology letters to each wonderful and esteemed poet who was forced to handle that manure. I am always reading about MFA vs. School of Hard Knocks and to that I can only offer that for me, it happened how it needed to happen. Though to paraphrase what a friend from the program once said to me, I wish I could go back now that I know what is involved in actually getting that degree.
And it was great for what it was. I was able to get my MFA in a low-residency while going through a messy divorce, so in some respects, it was even therapeutic – and who doesn’t want to publish manuscript after manuscript of therapeutic divorce poems? This isn’t about the degree though, it’s just about the window of time I spent immersed in reading and writing and being in love with poetry – because here is my understatement of a lifetime: time changes everything.
Not an unheard of concept. I think Darwin had something to say about that once. “Sleep on it,” we say. Things look different in the morning sunshine. That harrowed, heartbroken person suffering through a dissolving marriage did not imagine waking up in Wisconsin to the sound of a toddler calling for her from another room. What once felt like insufferable drowning now feels like forging through fire.
What once looked like a great poem, now looks like the inside of a Diaper Genie. And so on. What I would give to have that time again. But what I do with the time I did have there? What does one do with file after file of unpublished, unremarkable poetry?
3. Absence Makes the Heart
This morning when I woke my daughter up, she rolled over in her crib and looked me in the eye expressionlessly before saying, “No thank you.”
“No thank you? Don’t you want to get up and have breakfast and play?”
“I want mama go away.” As an afterthought, she added, “Leave light on.”
Well, OK, then. I left the light on and went into my bedroom across the hall where I made the bed before sitting on it and nursing my rejected feelings. This is normal stuff, a child’s desire for independence, the need for distancing, and I’m careful to give it to her, especially when she verbalizes it.
But damn if it doesn’t sting a little.
4. Very, Very Dreadfully Nervous I had been and am
While cleaning out a closet, I came across a journal I kept when I was sixteen or seventeen years old. It’s simultaneously horrifying and amusing. You should see some of the poems in there. Lots of stuff about broken hearts and angst. Obviously they’re not good. How could they be? Is The Paris Review suddenly publishing poems about unloved, overweight, Boones-Farm-drunk, clove-smoking sad girls?
So it would seem some measure of maturity and experience are necessary for the evolution and elevation of art. At the same time, I don’t want to make the argument that the best work I’m producing is what I produce in the now. Distance makes that line of being and doing blurred. That MFA manuscript is mostly terrible, but it’s still mine-able. (This teenaged journal, however, is best left regarded as youthful artifact not worth combing for anything salvageable).
The older I get, the more I like the idea of plucking flotsam from my past to make art for the future. And I find this to be really strange. I have always been a “burn it down and never look back” person, but the combination of time passing and being a parent and almost middle-aged brings mortality to the poetry I write now and how I see the world in general. I used to long for the sword of Damocles to drop just for the drama of it. Now I never stop hearing the ticking of clocks. Which is, you know, also pretty dramatic.
You can take the teenaged goth girl out of the club, but you can’t etc.
5. Strength in what Remains Behind
It is terrible to be both simultaneously justified and apologetic. I say this as an estranged daughter and sister and as a mother- as someone whose mind is always circling around the limits of responsibility one has to one’s family, and then to one’s art, and to one’s community. There is a difference between creating your own distances as opposed to being forced into one.
I’ve been ruminating on this quote from Tom’s last soul-crushing soliloquy in Glass Menagerie: “I didn’t go to the moon, I went much further – for time is the longest distance between two places.”
Grief opens chasms of emptiness and leaves you on the side of a cliff holding tight. Then identity is just sand in your hands, something small and loose to cling to. What will the poetry I write ten years from now look like, I wonder. Will I search the manuscripts I write now for carrion lines here and there? Or even if something is published, is it finished? (Whitman would say “hell no.”) Will my mother still be living ten years from now? Will my daughter continue to send me away when I come for her? Will the MFA become a PhD? This current marriage another divorce?
I don’t know. My life is the perpetual Fool card, one foot into the unknown. The only thing I think I know with certainty is that there will be poetry and more poetry – to be written and read and cherished and reviled and forgotten about and found again. There will be time and distance and growth and regression, but always poetry. There is that, at least, this one thing that stays the same and changes within the context of time.