Revelations

by Maria Terrone

I grew up in a family and culture where we lived by the dictum, “Never tell anyone your business.” The assumption behind this warning was that to share confidences was to make yourself vulnerable to people who might use the information against you. Basically, very few human beings could be trusted, and so as a general rule it was wise to avoid discussing personal matters and one’s deepest thoughts and feelings.

It’s no surprise, then, that even as an adult, I gravitate to physical spaces that help protect me and my privacy. In our enclosed co-op garden, I seek out the bench that’s nearly encircled by shrubbery. Riding the subway, I’ll gravitate to a seat against a wall at the far end of the car. From these vantage points, I can look out and observe others without being seen or at least, remain inconspicuous.

Not being seen? Not sharing life in all its agonies, ecstasies and minutiae with 1,500 “friends”? In a world dominated by social media, my inclinations conflict with cultural expectations. Even so, I have a Facebook account that I use sparingly for practical purposes, and even a Twitter handle, but please don’t ask me what that is—I’ll have to look it up! I suppose this is my way of not isolating myself from 21st century communication but “sharing” on my own terms.

Where things get sticky is in my life as a poet. When I began to get serious decades ago about my then-uncirculated writing, the confessional poetry of Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath was the much-admired norm. Given my upbringing, my initial reaction was to cringe in the face of naked self-revelation, to feel uneasy on the receiving end of the authors’ fury, pain, and trauma. At the same time, I had to acknowledge the honesty and courage of poets who brought the hidden and forbidden into full view.

Getting used to writing my own confessional poetry, though, didn’t come easily. When the leader of my first poetry workshop repeatedly urged me to “go deeper,” I understood her to mean that I should plumb my emotions and experiences no matter where that brought me. It’s not that I avoided the first person in my poems, but I wasn’t allowing myself to go far below the surface.

My learned and, I believe, natural reserve was being tested. But how could I write poetry that truly mattered, that touched readers on their deepest levels if I stayed with “safe” content The answer was, I couldn’t.

Like a new swimmer tentatively advancing one baby step at a time into a vast, sometimes frightening, sometimes exhilarating ocean, I began to write more self-revealing poetry. I’ve always had an aversion to poems that were too raw, as if thrown together in the heat of unrestrained emotion. A counterbalance to deal with difficult content, I discovered, was to focus on the poem’s form. What had moved me from mere acceptance of the confessional writers to admiration was that the best of them used their finely honed poetic skills to communicate the strongest emotions, transforming what could have been overwhelming for a reader into powerful, refined works of art.

In my own work, I found that using formal techniques to frame my poems was liberating. One example that comes to mind from my first collection, The Bodies We Were Loaned, is “Flesh That’s Signed,” a three-part, sonnet-like poem employing rhyme that deals with my childhood insecurities in my relationship with my mother. As a 16-year-old, I was profoundly affected by my summer job typing up psychiatrists’ reports and group sessions with veterans wounded physically and emotionally. I turned again to the sonnet form to grapple with the remembered feelings “of a girl who hadn’t yet known sorrow, men or war.”

I still get a visceral thrill from writing persona poems, probably because they allow me to employ the first person point of view while imagining and inhabiting another’s psyche (I’ve had fun being a queen in ancient Egypt, a ghost in a lighthouse, and a 19th-century teenager employed by a glass factory, to mention a few). I also like to write about historical subjects—a recent example is a poem imagining a meeting between Edgar Allan Poe and Thomas Jefferson during the brief time that Poe attended Jefferson’s University of Charlottesville. But I recognize that some of my strongest work emerges in times of great duress, such as my beloved father’s deterioration from Alzheimer’s and his death.

Over the last few years, I’ve found myself reaching into my past and re-experiencing formative events from a new perspective through my poetry and, increasingly, creative nonfiction. When the Me Too movement opened its floodgates, memories resurfaced. Although the incident that I describe in the poem “Erased” had occurred a long time ago, I remembered it vividly. The fact that so many women had bravely disclosed physical violations far more egregious and traumatic than what I’d experienced on the street was empowering. Instead of keeping the subject buried, I knew the time had come to bring it into the light through my writing.

Once I made that leap, I realized that the form of the poem could reinforce my sense of being eradicated. And so, before the assault is introduced, the “I” is repeated and prominent. This is the self-affirming “I” in all its youth, innocence, and optimism. Then “he” enters the scene and only needs to be cited once because “he” dominates through violence. After the assault, the “I” has been replaced by a column of negatives—”not, no, nil, nada,” ending with the ultimate erasure: “no-thing.” The woman, the person—me—has been reduced not just to an object, but to nothing.

Ironically, by writing this poem and seeing it published—thank you, Cream City Review editors!—I feel that I’ve reclaimed a lost part of myself. As that poet advised in her workshop, I’ve “dug deeper” in my writing, and the result has been a breakthrough.