The Glad Hand of God Points Backwards: Poems (Walt McDonald First-Book Series)

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Shifty I’s, ‘Ariel,’ and Fandom

In one of my teenage notebooks I wrote the phrase delicious doom just over a hundred times, filling the unlined page with black 0.5mm Pilot Rollerball ink. I later dubbed this particular notebook the Anxiety Notebook, though I hadn’t intended to theme it when I first unwrapped the paper from its plastic and etched my landline number in the inner cover’s top left corner.

I can’t remember for certain, but the consistency of the ink and spacing makes me think I’d completed the dense, unpunctuated litany in one sitting:

deLICIOUS doOM

D E L I C I O U S  d o o m

deliciousdoomdeliciousdoom

Delicious doom remains the pet name I first gave in high school to the startling, awareness-granting electricity that extends from my feet to my brain when my anxiety flares—worse during an attack but crackling even on a good day. The jolt arrives without warning, the way I imagine the Talmudic God once spoke to men: thunderous and certain, nobody else able to hear a word.

When the speaker in Sylvia Plath’s “Poppies in October,” a poem of hers I first read as a teenager, cries out “Oh my god, what am I / that these late mouths should cry open / in a forest of frosts”—this I embodies the delicious doom feeling. The I feels the anxious panic of a certain but unseeable death. The I also marvels at the stunningly real body who must greet it. Despite my frequent desire to reject it, the body—the delicious doom body—is singular, perhaps even perfectly so: “a gift, a love gift / utterly unasked for / by a sky.”

I remember reading Plath for the first time, but I don’t remember how I learned that she killed herself. I considered her suicide as, in 10th grade, I read each page of Ariel, then her Unabridged Journals immediately next. My distinction, back then, between Plath’s life and her poetry was as thin as a sheet of paper.

That same academic year, visiting Boston University on a campus tour, I stood in the brownstone on Bay State Road that houses the English Department and its creative writing program. “Here,” the tour guide told us, “in this very classroom, Robert Lowell taught Anne Sexton.” I stared down at the thick carpet shagging underneath my sneakers, its rusted reds and mossy greens echoing the fall leaves changing outside, the grassy hill beside the Charles River that churned just outside the classroom’s trifold windows.

As Sexton wrote in her poem “Just Once”: “I knew what life was for. / In Boston, quite suddenly, I understood.” I filled out the application and scholarship paperwork after taking the train back home to the Philadelphia suburbs. I matriculated the following year.

Little about the way I came to love Plath distinguishes me from her other readers. I hail from a broad-based, devout legion of her fans: those readers who saw themselves in her life before, or alongside, encountering her craft. I saw in her poetry—or I thought I did, when I was younger—the confessional poet’s willingness to share her life, not just her art, with her reader. As an anxious teenager questioning my sexuality and filling page after page with my unrevised fears, I thought back then that writing about my life might somehow liberate me from it. I thought Plath the platonic ideal of this fraught version of liberation.

Before Plath—before poetry—I’d already devoted myself to music. My friends and I idolized together, the CD-RW our talisman. Tim kept a tower of them in his basement next to his family’s boxy PC. We’d head to his mother’s house after saving up our after-school jobs money, a pile of jewel-cased CDs sandwiched between us, and we’d burn one album after another. I drove around the suburbs in my mom’s green Dodge Ram 1500 van with a fat shared-disc library perched on my lap, half of which bore Tim’s loopy, hurried scrawl: Young Liars. This Island. Pinkerton. The book’s plastic cover would stick to my legs when I changed CDs fast at a red light, tugging the shining disc from its deliberately ordered sleeve, careful not to disrupt the album-cover ephemera organized behind.

Brian took me to my first concerts in Philadelphia (Sonic Youth! The Decemberists!). He belted bars from The Mikado in a deep bass vibrato on command and introduced me to Nina Simone; his sister, like me, often played guitar as he sang. One night in 2003 six of us took the van to see The Dismemberment Plan play at Haverford College in some large common university space. Halfway through the show, I hopped onto the platform where they played inches from the college-kid crowd and danced to each track from A Life of Possibilities and screamed lyrics—“THE CITY’S BEEN DEAD/SINCE YOU’VE BEEN GONE”—as loud as a 17-year-old girl can scream (louder, I’d thought, than the guitars, louder than the drums). My banged-up calves the next morning served as proof I’d weathered the tiny leap onto the stage.

Musician and writer Carrie Brownstein—like Plath, a centerpiece of both my adolescent and adult fandom—notes that fandom is both “contextual and experiential: it’s not that it happened,” she writes in her memoir Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, “it’s that you were there.” Today I repeat the speaker’s not the poet in my classrooms, in workshops, to my students—to myself, bent over my desk in the labor of making—but for those of us writing poetry in confessional modes, this instruction inadequately considers what we complicate directly: that we were there. Our bruises. Our liner notes.

As a confessional poet, I appear and leave over and over in my poems. I never tell you—because I do not have to—where the biographical I enters into a poem, or where the I disappears. And the I, too, wears slippery faces. You might see I as a different creature than I see I, or my next reader sees I, or the beloved or feared you in a particular poem, recognizing (she thinks) herself there, might see I. The confessional poet Toi Derricotte captures this slim, necessary separation in her poem “Speculations about ‘I’”: “I am not the ‘I’ /in my poems,” she writes. “‘I’ / is the net I try to pull me in with.” I becomes a writerly construction, not documentary footage. Brownstein considers this fraught distinction an inevitable byproduct of fandom: that the self loses possession of herself, of that I, when she steps onto the stage. The I now belongs to those fans in front of whom the self stands—those who already know, in Brownstein’s case, all of the words to her songs.

When the confessional poet appears before their readers, then, they must reckon with an audience who elides within that I—to varying degrees and with varying accuracy—their self and their persona. The poet becomes, as Plath once became for me, both author and speaker at once. Yet while confessional poets may write deliberately from truth, or while readers and critics may constrain confessional poets’ art within their biographies, it is nevertheless not a truth or biography owed. We take no oaths of journalism; like a singer on a stage, we put a single face on a hundred different I’s, or a hundred different faces on just one.

And if fans claim possession of the confessional I, they must steward this (understandable, necessary) belonging responsibly. As recounted by Paula M. Salvio in her book Anne Sexton: Teacher of Weird Abundance, Sexton once noted, in response to a critic who called her poetry “clearly related intimately and painfully to the author’s biography,” that she encouraged her readers to think her work was autobiographical even if this perception wasn’t consistently accurate. “It is true that I am an autobiographical poet most of the time,” she said, “or at least so I lead my readers to believe. However, many times I use the personal when I am applying a mask to my face.” I see Sexton’s “mask” as one that grants her both concealment—wishing for privacy in the midst of so much personal—and artistry—changing or shifting the biographical truth (its “face”) to fit the story of the poem, which may or may not be the story of the poet. Engaging with confessional poetry therefore requires a fan’s understanding of the confessional mode’s contract: a fan’s assumption about the truth of a poet’s life, as gleaned from their poetry, remain just that—an assumption. Only the poet can remove their poems’ masks.

The embodied danger in bringing those private relationships and assumptions into public view, of snaring the poet unpermitted in the net of their I, recalls an incident retold to me by the confessional poet Robin Becker—or, as the fliers plastered all over Penn State’s campus in 1993 announcing her reading stated, “Jewish Lesbian Poet Robin Becker.” In ’93, Becker (my mentor) taught at PSU as a newly appointed, untenured faculty member who was “out on her job application” but not to the broader community beyond the subject matter of her poems. The flier-making students had sourced her biography from her poetry and not her actual biography. “I felt suddenly exposed and outed on several fronts,” she remembers. “I felt stunned to see the [poster’s] words representing the ‘person’ behind the poems.” This flier’s messaging illustrates a peril of conflating confessional poet and speaker—not because the students got it wrong, per se, about Becker herself (who is Jewish, lesbian, and a poet), but because they could not imagine Becker’s oeuvre beyond the selves to which her poems confess or invoke, and enclosed her poetry by her identity as a result. And the risks of this conflation, for Becker, were real: as a result of being outed, “I feared homophobia” she recounted, “on the part of colleagues and administration.”

If the search for biographical truth, however slippery or risky, often shapes a reader’s experience of the confessional, the search for necessary connection drives fandom. Back in high school, when I’d get out of the car, I always took the pleather CD folio with me into the house and slid it in its designated shelf-space next to the volumes of art notebooks I kept in my bedroom. In these pages lived my first commonplace books, built from photocopied scraps of poetry chapbooks and anthologies, literary magazine clippings, junk mail and newspapers, and rubber cement. I remember the glue’s fumed-out grit when I rubbed it dry against the paper. Scissors at the ready, I committed other early errors of confessional elision beyond just my frequent re-readings of Plath—errors that I fostered like crushes. Obsessed with the poet Allen Ginsberg, I repeatedly cross-checked his collections with the writing of Kerouac and Burroughs to determine, Tiger Beat-style, if they “were friends in real life.” (Soon, my curiosity evolving, that question became if they “fucked in real life.”)

Almost a decade later, I wrote my first book of confessional poems, The Glad Hand of God Points Backwards. I began my research by messaging Tim, whom I hadn’t seen in a couple of years.

“Can you make me a playlist from our high-school stuff?” I asked, and at 1:33 that morning, a hundred songs arrived in my Spotify inbox. “Hey Rach,” he wrote. “I hope this gets you where you’re going. I only put one song by each band as a ‘seed’; I’m eager to see what I missed. Sure was fun time traveling all evening.”

As I listened and wrote, I built a commonplace book—just like I did in my childhood anxiety notebooks, this time on the computer. In particular, I read and saved poems from Ginsberg, Plath, Derricotte, and Sharon Olds iteratively. These poets, besides being writers I revered, also engaged with (differing) subjects of the book directly: immigrant Judaism; mental illness; and a young woman’s fraught, bodied sexuality. They also wielded I in ways I wished to learn from: sometimes as a lamp in a dark room, other times as a shield. That all four write in confessional modes shows me my fandom-driven hunger for connection leaps indiscriminately between poetry and music. It’s my need to bear witness that draws me both to Sharon Olds and Sleater-Kinney.

Rachel, my I, appeared before me often as I worked on this manuscript, with more to say each time I thought I’d finished speaking to her. I longed for her and I apologized to her. I sang about her, sometimes loudly, like I used to sing in the car. I also kept her—and others in my family who appear in the collection—partially to myself. Like Sexton, I “use[d] the personal”: I cut specific, discrete shapes from my life with my own hands, revealing from them the art I wished to show to my theoretical readers and obscuring or secreting away the rest. And yet: even when I return to Ariel today, I still see Plath’s face hovering over each disparate, shifting I. I choose to keep seeing her, or my idea of her. I imagine the poet sanctioning me like I used to, even as I know what I long for collapses her biography messily into her poetry. I return, slippery and yearning and misreading, as her fan: seeking catharsis, needing to know someone else was there.

The summer of 2014, The Glad Hand of God Points Backwards newly published, I stood on the bimah at Temple Keneseth Israel in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, my book open before me. Next to the rabbi sat my grandmother, who’d organized the reading and signing as a member of the congregation. She’d dressed up for the event in what I think of as her uniform: a gray long-sleeved tunic and pressed black trousers, black patent loafers, and large, round glasses. I watched her eyes move and shift through those glasses as I shared poems about her, and as I shared poems about me, before her gathered community. “Practical,” I read, “we take the names of our dead / because the dead are sturdy.” In that same poem, “For Rose,” I list names of our family’s living—our “Rachels, Rivkas, Renates, Richards, Ronalds”—and that day, seated near my grandmother, many of them were present too, and they nodded along.

Returning to my childhood bedroom that night as an overnight guest, I again opened the book, this time in repentance. I read to myself the poems I’d been too cowardly, or too kind, to read in that echoing synagogue sanctuary, because the I (and, importantly, also the you) felt too powerful to wield in front of those who partially or entirely embodied it. “I can tell no more,” a line from the collection ends, “because the truth stops here, rests only / with our God, the / collector of stories / and bodies.”

Today, I answer some questions about the collection’s “truths” for readers, and other requests I don’t—or won’t—respond to. And sometimes I simply cannot answer them, either emotionally or to the degree of accuracy required of the petitioner. “It is true,” as Sexton said, “that I am an autobiographical poet most of the time.” But I do not begrudge the questioning, with the exception of questions that direct harm (“does your spouse like you to read him your sex poems before bedtime?” an older man once asked me at an event). I enjoy most of the questions because I recognize myself in the petitioner.

When I asked Becker what else she remembered about that flier, she noted that, as years passed from the initial incident, her feelings about the billing shifted from fear to pride. “I came to embrace that poster,” she told me, “and all it stood for: educating a sheltered group of college students and standing in solidarity with others.” The students who outed her also created, for Becker, an opportunity to communicate with a reader like her, one who needed her: “I understood,” she told me, “that the innocence, inexperience, and sheltered lives of those sponsoring the event needed me to be PROUD and OUT [emphasis hers]! My guess is that a Jewish lesbian was a total rarity at Penn State in 1993.”

As fans, what sanctions us should never come at the expense of an artist’s safety, and these students pushed Becker’s sexuality across the art-life threshold entirely without her consent. She owes her readers none of her changed feelings. In the 25-year wake of this incident, though, I remain moved by the shift in how Becker approaches it, and part of what moves me feels admittedly selfish: I know firsthand that what she’s survived, and what she’s written, has made my own survival both possible and easier. “I am preparing my teenage escape from Philadelphia,” she writes in the poem “A History of Sexual Preference”: a poem that I once had photocopied and tacked to my bedroom wall.

I didn’t meet Becker until 2008, when I matriculated to Penn State as her graduate student, but I know that if the “Jewish Lesbian Poet” flier had hung on the bulletin board at my high school five years before that, I’d have sat in the front row of her reading. I’d have brought my friends along in the big green van, and we’d have purchased copies of her book ahead of time and discussed the poems heatedly late into the night, and we’d have asked her to sign our dog-eared copies, even if it meant waiting in a long line (a skill every fan hones early on).

Afterwards, I’d have used the empowered, anxious electricity collecting at the base of my spine to return to my childhood bedroom, open a notebook, and uncap a pen.

Surprise Me!

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