I Am Not There

One of the most common mistakes I see among new writers is their tendency to believe that the speaker, or the “I”, being used in a poem or story refers to the author. With the exception of memoir and other autobiographical—sometimes called “confessional”—writing, this is almost never the case. Skilled writers understand that the use of “I” is only a tool, a narrative technique, to help them convey meaning. And although a skilled writer may draw from personal experience, and even add their own personality traits to a first-person narrator, we must never confuse the author with the speaker.

This misconception can lead to another mistake whenever new writers use “I” in a poem or story and assume that they must, in effect, talk about themselves. Although this practice can be therapeutic in a personal diary or journal, and even result in effective writing in the hands of a skilled memoirist, it should be avoided most of the time, especially for new writers. The reason for this is because most readers, to put it bluntly, do not particularly care about you—your sufferings, your dreams, your cuddly cats, etc.—and why should they?—they only care about how well you can express yourself in writing. Ironically enough, the more you can detach from your own ego and focus on better writing, the more people will take interest in you!

Take the following poem by Mary Elizabeth Frye in which she imagines herself as a dead person who consoles her loved ones by assuring them that she lives on in nature. The use of the first-person narrative technique is powerful here because it lends a voice to the dead person, reminding the reader that she is, in fact, not dead; it creates intimacy and authority by addressing the reader directly from the source; and it allows for all kinds of free play with personification as she identifies with specific aspects of nature.

Do not stand at my grave and weep

Do not stand at my grave and weep;
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there. I did not die.

by Mary Elizabeth Frye (1905-2004)

Two Poems in The Rockford Review

Many thanks to The Rockford Review for publishing my poems “Elegy for Ian” and “Lyndon Station.”

Elegy for Ian

At your memorial
I am reminded of religion
by the stiffened rows
of pews, bowls
of holy water, Saints
in stained glass.
It never worked for me
and it won’t now.

I see their wooden Jesus
on a wooden cross
hanging over an altar:
cheap red paint
on his head, his ribs,
his hands and feet–
fake, all fake.

But you, my friend,
here you are a jar of ash.
You, who shook my hand
in the flesh, now dust.

Let the gods
die on crosses
and starve
under trees
with their resurrections
and reincarnations.

It is you
who is not
coming back.

 

by Ryan Dowling

 

Lyndon Station

The frost splintered your windshield like a snowflake
that wanted in. We pitched a tent beside the firepit
and bent the stakes on frozen ground. There was enough dead
cedar to build a barn, enough matches for two packs
of cigarettes, but we only succeeded in blowing the ashes
of our incompetence into snow. The three of us–you, myself
and the Cold–entered the tent and butted heads.
The bottle of Jager went quick. I whittled a dead stick
sharper than my knife; you wrote a poem and read it,
a polemic against my face: fat-lipped, lazy-eyed, my hair
a nest of straw and wire wrapped up in a skullcap.
You wanted inflammation, so I picked your brain
for details. That’s the stuff. The Cold waited for us to sleep,
to creep into our sleeping bags. By dawn, even the heat
we’d hidden under our armpits and testicles had been stolen.
We drove home without saying a word to each other,
no longer friends but almost brothers.

 

by Ryan Dowling

Revisiting Spoon River Anthology

Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology (1915) is a collection of poems, each written from the perspective of a dead inhabitant of the fictitious town Spoon River (based on Lewistown, IL). The inhabitants reflect on their lives, the bitter twists of fate and fortune, the ironies, the regrets, even the nature of the tombstones and burial plots beneath which they now rest.

Part of the appeal is that the dead, who took their darkest secrets to the grave, now speak with complete candor, treating the reader as a post-mortem confidant. By turns, they confess to crimes gone unpunished, reminisce over unrequited loves, and caution the reader against the wrong turns they took in life.

Although no speaker is reliable, many of them share the gems of wisdom they wish they’d known in life, and they often ring true:

George Gray

I have studied many times
The marble which was chiseled for me—
A boat with a furled sail at rest in a harbor.
In truth it pictures not my destination
But my life.
For love was offered me and I shrank from its disillusionment;
Sorrow knocked at my door, but I was afraid;
Ambition called to me, but I dreaded the chances.
Yet all the while I hungered for meaning in my life.
And now I know that we must lift the sail
And catch the winds of destiny
Wherever they drive the boat.
To put meaning in one’s life may end in madness,
But life without meaning is the torture
Of restlessness and vague desire—
It is a boat longing for the sea and yet afraid.

Depending on the character of the inhabitant, Masters’ style shifts between the poetic and the plainspoken. Artists and thinkers, for instance, tend to reflect on their lives in metaphor and heightened language, whereas the laymen may only give straightforward accounts of the fatal mistakes that snuffed out their lives.

One of my favorite things about this collection is the way it functions as a collection. Many of the poems are interwoven, giving a complex portrait of the social fabric of Spoon River as a whole. A wife and husband give conflicting accounts of their failed marriage. Murderer, victim and judge all view the same incident in a different light. Unresolved accusations and misunderstandings between the inhabitants hover over their graves, and it is the reader who is left with the puzzle pieces.

Here, two suicides fail to see that their downfalls were brought about by the same reason: they compared themselves too closely to their own children.

Albert Schirding

Jonas Keene thought his lot a hard one
Because his children were all failures.
But I know of a fate more trying than that:
It is to be a failure while your children are successes.
For I raised a brood of eagles
Who flew away at last, leaving me
A crow on the abandoned bough.
Then, with the ambition to prefix Honorable to my name,
And thus to win my children’s admiration,
I ran for County Superintendent of Schools,
Spending my accumulations to win—and lost.
That fall my daughter received first prize in Paris
For her picture, entitled, “The Old Mill”—
(It was of the water mill before Henry Wilkin put in steam.)
The feeling that I was not worthy of her finished me.

Jonas Keene

Why did Albert Schirding kill himself
Trying to be County Superintendent of Schools,
Blest as he was with the means of life
And wonderful children, bringing him honor
Ere he was sixty?
If even one of my boys could have run a news-stand,
Or one of my girls could have married a decent man,
I should have not walked in the rain
And jumped into bed with clothes all wet,
Refusing medical aid.

I think Masters’ poetry is well-crafted and worthy of study by the practicing poet, but the real reason I enjoy this book is simply because it’s entertaining and a pleasure to read. And isn’t that what poetry ought to be?

The Father-Son Continuum

The Father-Son Continuum

In all that is the father
there is the longing for death in the birth of the son:
a dying man on a frightened horse.

My father on his manstalk
burned like a scarecrow just before the snow falls
when the snow falls in only one field.

When it proved useless, he put his mind for sale.
Though the moon paid in amnesia,
he traded it to the lower dark for a way out.

He built a stairwell with his bare feet,
and with his nailed-together hands he built a clock
the way nothing is built to last.

At the oak tree where he buried his father’s ashes,
his prayer with a rake in his hands
was the pile of dead leaves at his feet.

In all that is the son
there is the longing for life in the death of the father:
a frightened man on a dying horse.

— Ryan Dowling

Wolfsbane (Aconitum)

Wolfsbane (Aconitum)

On our stroll back from the estuary,
we rested beside a riverbank
and tugged these hooded flowers
from the edge of the foam.
I told you that they were violets,
but—what did I know?—
I couldn’t tell a lily from a lilac.

I wove them into your curls
until your hair was as heavy with purple
as dusk upon the rollicking waters,
slow-motion in the quickening breeze.

When I leaned my lips into yours,
yours had begun to quiver and sweat.
You grew rigid
and heavy
as petrified wood.
At first I was embarrassed
I’d overstepped
the boundaries that boys often risk
when faced with beautiful girls.
But later, I learned that the stems
of those flowers
had leaked into your scalp—
though it was hardly anything,
hardly anything at all—
this I learned
only after the paramedics
gave up on you.

by Ryan Dowling

Suicide by Federico Garcia Lorca

Suicide (translation by Alan S. Trueblood)

(Maybe it was because you hadn’t
mastered your geometry)

The lad was going blank.
It was ten in the morning.

His heart was growing full
of broken wings and rag flowers.

He noticed there remained
just one word on his lips.

And when he took off his gloves
a soft ash fell from his hands.

A tower showed through the balcony door.
He felt he was balcony and tower.

No doubt he saw how the clock,
stopped in its case, surveyed him.

He saw his shadow quiet and prone
on the white silk divan.

And the stiff, geometrical youth
smashed the mirror with a hatchet.

When it broke, a great burst of shadow
flooded the illusory room.

by Federico Garcia Lorca (1898-1936)