In my last post for Best American Poetry's blog, I compared confessional writing to snake handling and taxidermy. pointing out that taxidermy is like writing about the dead, while snake handling is like writing about the living. I left the topic of snake handling untouched, largely because I am not enthusiastic about writing about my living relatives and friends. But I recently received an email asking me to elaborate on the topic of snake handling. Really, Nin? Do you handle snakes? I was asked.
I thought I’d start by describing the day I first tried to hold a snake. My sister, D., had just returned from Nature Camp. It was a hot summer day, and I was so happy to see her when she announced, Snakes are really neato, Nin. (Neato was the word back then.) And they're a cinch to catch. Wanna try? I didn’t answer her. She went on to tell me about the herpetologist who was her camp counselor—how he had told her that we are never more than a few feet from a snake in Virginia. To prove his point, she reached out and grabbed a small Eastern Garter snake that was gliding into the Johnson grass by the car, and held it out to me. Grab him beneath the neck, she said. I didn’t point out that snakes don’t have necks. Instead I quickly dropped the snake and jumped back.
Are you scared of a little garter snake? she asked.
Not exactly, I wanted to say. But I don’t want to hold onto one. I just get this feeling . . .
That’s the feeling I have when I pick up my pen and think about trying to write about the secrets or revealing moments of someone I know, especially someone I love or once loved. I’m even feeling it a little bit now as I write about my sister.
The experience makes me think of those early writing classes when everyone was trying to follow the dictum, Write what you know. Our writing material, we were informed, is all around us. You don’t need or want to imitate Poe or Whitman to be a poet. Many of us were reading Ann Sexton and Sylvia Plath and using them as role models. The more distressing the material, the more applauded our poetry seemed to be. I felt as if I were trying to grab the creepy or unsavory moments from my days and hold them up for everyone to see. I remember wondering if Wordsworth had been a confessional poet, would he have defined poetry as creepiness recollected in tranquility? Or the spontaneous overflow of toxic feelings?
I will always remember one of my early poetry workshops in which a woman’s poems described her boyfriend’s sexual inadequacies, giving a detailed account of his penis and freckled ass. The poems were graphic to the point of pornographic, and they were hard to erase from my mind. I can’t tell you whether the poems were any good or not, but I can say that the boyfriend was in my philosophy class. I was never able to look at him without wondering if the poems were accurate.
But I don’t mean to suggest that all of our poems in those days were so deeply personal or potentially humiliating. No, many were as innocuous and commonplace as garden-variety black snakes, milk snakes, or the red bellied snakes. The appeal of the poems, I realized after a while, relied not on what they confessed, but rather on how much they could startle and entertain a reader. After a while, I became accustomed to the style of poetry, even if I never mastered it.
In this same way, I became accustomed as a girl to the many harmless snakes that cohabitated with us in our childhood home. I don’t know at what point it became commonplace to open a closet or look under the sink and discover a snake curled up in the corner behind a shoe or a bottle of dish soap. Those of you who have lived in the rural South might know how much snakes do like to come inside in the fall, along the field mice. As a girl, I would sometimes wake in the night and hear a distinct swishing sound of a blacksnake gliding across the attic floor overhead. When I complained to my parent, my mother insisted that the snakes were our friends. We should be happy they were living in our attic. They dined on the rodents that had also moved into the attic and, unlike the Orkin man, they left no chemical residue behind.
When I went into the attic in spring to find my summery clothes, I would often discover a few snake skins that were several feet long.
I suppose I am stating the obvious here to say that the older I grew, the more aware I became of just how peculiar my family was. How many odd little tales I could tell, as I am telling now. But often I chose not to.
There is something complicated about writing about your close friends and family, even if it is so done these days, and often done so well. I doubt I’m unique in my hesitations. I recently finished a collection of novels, the Neopolitan Novels, written by an Italian author whose pen name is Elena Ferrante. What fascinated me about the books was the vivid and exhaustive descriptions of a lifelong rivalry and love/hate relationship between two women, one of whom is a writer. The promise that is broken and that ultimately breaks up their friendship is the promise of the writer—not to write about her friend. I couldn’t help but think that Ferrante’s hidden identity allowed her a level of honesty and the freedom to describe I am in awe at her ability to delve so deeply into the female psyche.
By contrast I feel a lack of courage, though once or twice, I have written about my father who was, among other things, a gay man who was kicked out of the Navy for having an affair with an officer, and who underwent counseling to be “cured.” I don’t know what his counseling entailed, and I have often wondered. My mother married him, knowing he was gay, and never expected him to be otherwise. I know of several books about the suffering caused by the gay/straight marriage, but the books don’t describe my parents. My mother, a pragmatist, was very open about her belief that homosexuality is genetic, and she quite eagerly looked at each of her six children to see which of us had inherited the gay gene. Once, after asking one of my sisters if she was a lesbian, my mother speculated that the gene might skip generations, sort of like red hair. My father, however, was not forthcoming about his sexuality, though he kept photos and letters from an ex-lover in his sock drawer and always had gay friends. To write about his sexuality used to feel like a violation, but nowadays, the topic is so much tamer than it once was, I don’t feel as if I am trespassing when I write about him.
Maybe part of the problem I have hadwith confessional poetry is that it so often involves confessing another’s secrets, not my own. I have one poet-friend who wrote a lot of very revealing poems about her family and then informed her siblings and parents that her poems had nothing to do with them. Any unflattering resemblance to reality was not intentional. But she was lying, and no one was fooled. As a result, she is still not particularly welcome or comfortable at family functions. She says her family keeps asking her why she cast them in such an unflattering light. How can I tell them—they’re just poems, she asked me, meaning, What did they expect? Hallmark cards? She added, Why can’t they just chill?
Her use of the word, chill, reminds me of the day my sister decided to catch a few copperheads and photograph them. She wanted the snakes to remain still or move slowly, so she put the copperheads in the deep freeze so they would cool down and slow for her photo shoot. Imagine me, reaching unsuspecting into the freezer for a Nutty Buddy and finding a few half-frozen snakes.
Generally, I think, families like those snakes do chill out. They get used to their poet-sibling, parents, or children. They learn to tolerate a certain amount of exposure with grace. Maybe they realize that the slim volumes of poetry are rarely read. Perhaps it is that anonymity that makes us poets brave. Most of us know that the chances of our getting a decent audience are minimal. I think I, for one, could have written entire volumes about my family, and they would never know, much less read them.
All the same, I still think of reasons to hesitate. I had a student in a workshop once who asked me if she could get sued for a poem she wrote about her abusive yet ultra-wealthy ex-lover. I don’t know the answer, but I suppose it might be possible. I don’t think that’s happened, or has it? This woman said that she’d always felt like a mouse in a lion den, something vulnerable and small. She also admitted she wanted revenge. Even if it were just in a poem. And she added, There is something magical about the power of words.
To keep pushing the snake analogy, I was reminded by her of the winter my sister bought a boa constrictor at the pet store. Her boa had a short and tragic life. A few weeks later, the snake’s dinner, a small white mouse, ate it, crunching into its long body while the snake lay motionless in a glass aquarium on our living room table. When I pointed out the mouse-eating snake, my mother looked up from her newspaper and sighed. To think, I thought someone was eating Triscuits in here. Nature is just full of surprises, isn’t it? My mother, an Ancient Greek scholar, then alluded to the Spartan women who beat up any men who failed to perform their studly duties. Exactly what the Spartan ladies had to do with snake-eating mice, I wasn't certain, though the image has stuck with me.
This same poet who talked of seeking revenge through poetry also claimed that writing about her suffering was healing, which surprised me—I who am so squeamish. I am reminded me of the day I told my mother I didn’t want to handle a snake, that I was afraid of them. She said how stupid I was, adding, snakes are among the most valuable citizens of the natural world. Why do you think snakes were a symbol of healing in Ancient Greece?
I asked if they were also a healing symbol of Sparta, but she didn’t answer. Some people just have a way with snakes, she continued. They know their secret language, just as bird lovers know bird songs. Her friend, Polly Buxton, she informed me, could pick up rattle snakes with her walking stick. All she had to do was plant her stick on the ground, and they'd wrap around it like ribbons around a Maypole. I didn’t point out that Polly also talked to ghosts and said she had met Abraham Lincoln more than once, adding God rest his soul.
My mother then lectured me on how I should learn to love all of nature, snakes included. She told me again and again her favorite snake tale about our distant relative, Mr. Frick, who often visited an island in the Caribbean and brought snakes back home with him on the planes (decades before the movie). In order to sneak his Caribbean snake collection through customs, he dressed his three little daughters up like Little Bo Peeps, complete with bonnets and baskets. The snakes he hid in the bottom of their baskets. The snakes, Mom claimed, slept through the entire plane ride and were never discovered by U.S. customs agents. Those little Frick girls kept them so happy. Why they must have been snake enchantresses.
She told this story many times as if she were telling one of the miracles of Jesus. Only she added, This really happened. And: Imagine being that much in love with snakes. I know she wished I were more like my sister and those little Fricks. She hoped one day I too might grow up and learn to hold onto a snake. As she put it, snake-handling is a life skill. Sort of like riding a bike, only much more useful. Once you learn it, you never forget. I’m still thinking about that, and I am still thinking about how to write a good confessional poem.