Saturday, October 09, 2004

The Land of our Forefathers

(Please refer to the 10/8 post to read the poem).

Yesterday I couldn't get past the first stanza, but today the second stanza is practically screaming at me. I have learned this about Ashbery's work: don't be discouraged if at first a poem seems disconnected and confusing. Just let it sit with you a while, and certain words or images or ideas will begin to leap out from the page. One must be comfortable with non-linear thought and experience to read his work.

Having said that, it quite suddenly occured to me this morning how the second stanza reflects my experience in writing a memoir: "I'd have deserted the land of my forefathers / a dozen times before if I'd thought / I could get away with it." The speaker could be referring to the effort to abandon the carried anxiety, and learning it travels with us as we move about. Today, it reminds me of my effort to create a life free from the tremendous fear and pain my parents live with; the damage they suffered as children that they passed on the their children. In a sense, I have abandoned the "land of my forefathers" in that I no longer have a relationship with my parents; but that fact does not result in a dropping of anxiety and fear. So, as the speaker says, one can't "get away with" nullifying previous painful experiences and their consequences.

In writing my memoir, every memory I write seems to bring up memories long hidden. These will never disappear. But, I believe, I can create a life that includes these memories, and even some of the pain, while freeing myself from the damaging behaviors and fears of my parents. I have a "shadow" telling me "of my rights:" I have a right to tell my story; I have a right to create my own life. At the same time, the shadow warns me "of perjury, in some books the most serious crime of all." Along with my rights, I have a responsibilty to tell the truth. In a memoir, the most significant truth is the emotional truth of each experience and each scene, while also getting the facts as straight as possible. A memoir is not about revenge, or bitterness; it is not a place to rant or vent; no matter the painful subject, a memoir is for storytelling, reflection, and a record of growth. So I have a right to write it, and a responsibilty to write it with maturity and hope.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am struck by your interpretation of the "land of my forefathers" as your personal history, and in particular your parents. My initial thought was connected more with place, as if the author has a strong desire to leave his homeland never to return but is held back by a perceived "shadow" that watches over him and warns him of the "crime".

The line "And a triangular shadow whose apex is my toe" perplexed me the first two time I read through the poem. My initial attempt at visualizing the meaning lead me nowhere. However, reading your comments on the second stanza sparked a new meaning. The "shadow" is one's past, always there following us, in fact always connected to us at the seemingly insignficant "toe" of our being. Our past extends behind us, ever growing larger, as the base of a pyramid must be large enough and strong enough to support the "apex" of the present.

Reflecting back to the first stanze, "She shouts" might even be this past, constantly commenting on our present actions, trying to keep us in line. It reminds me of a book I am reading "Taming Your Gremlin" about the critical voice(s) in our head that keep us from achieving what we want. Here I can see the author struggling to make a new life different from the weight of his past, much as you describe abandoning "the land of my forefathers" and the pain and anxiety that results.

Christopher J. White