My Name Is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout

lucybarton

My library puts a slip of paper in books where people who’ve checked out the book can rate it. When I took out this book, I saw that three gave it top marks and one hated it. Me, I loved it.

Obviously, this quiet story is not for everyone. Lucy herself is the narrator, telling us about a time in the 1980s when she was in the hospital for nine weeks and her mother came to stay with her for five days. From the start we wonder what is wrong with her that she must be in the hospital for so long and why this is the first time Lucy has seen her mother in years, since Lucy and William’s marriage in fact.

Over the course of the five days, Lucy’s mother relates gossip from home, mostly of marriages that did not end well. Lucy’s thoughts wander over the years, touching on her brutal childhood when the family’s poverty was so great that they lived in an unheated garage with no running water and she was locked in her father’s truck while her parents were at work. She tells us about her life in New York City with her husband and daughters, though not—she insists—about her marriage.

It’s Lucy’s voice that made me fall in love with this book. Like her mother, whose voice Lucy describes as “shy, but urgent”, Lucy tells us of these things calmly, leaving us to infer the desperation underneath. Telling details—a memory of her father’s hand on the back of her head, hiding a magazine from the doctor for fear it makes her seem “trashy”, her near-envy of people with AIDS because they seem part of a community—reveal what lies beneath her surface calm.

Even the title reflects Lucy’s calm, matter-of-fact tone.

Lucy tells us how happy she is to see her mother and reassures us that she loves her mother, but the two of them shy away from anything too personal. Their relationship is at the core of the book. As in Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle, Lucy’s love for her mother and apparent lack of self-pity make the book glow. She recognises that their love for each is an “imperfect love”, as Sarah Payne says. Payne is an author who, in occasional encounters, gives Lucy advice on writing that become life lessons.

In addition to the voice, what I admire most as a writer is the way Strout releases information. Among the themes of imperfect love and family is the theme of reticence. There is so much that Lucy does not say. Sarah Payne, too, is criticised as a writer who shies away from telling everything, from digging too deeply.

The story seems to ramble haphazardly, but when I went back and looked more closely, I could see how well crafted it is. The seeming randomness actually follows traditional narrative structure.

Also, things are mentioned without explanation, such as Lucy’s fear of snakes or her friend telling her to be ruthless. Then, later, we learn a bit more, and then perhaps another bit. We are never told everything, but we are told enough. As one person in my book club said, every single thing in this book has to be there.

Recently, I was thinking that I had lived in my most recent home for 17 years—which seemed like no time at all—when I was surprised to realise that 17 years was the length of my childhood. When I left for college at 17, I shook off my family and began to create my life, just as Lucy did when she married and left home. Yet those few childhood years exert a power as great as that of all the decades that followed.

In the end, though, what I treasure most in this story is the perception that it’s not so much a matter of forgiving parents, but rather a recognition that the love is there, an imperfect love, but love nonetheless.

Have you read a quiet book that turned out to be unexpectedly powerful?

A Muriel Rukeyser Reader, ed. by Jan Heller Levi, Part 2

Rukeyse

Last week I examined some of the techniques Rukeyser used to write so powerfully about social concerns by looking at a single poem. This week I want to look at some additional aspects of her craft. In doing so, I’m indebted to the participants in my Poetry Discussion Group for their insights.

Born a few months before the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo, Rukeyser’s life was clouded by the wars of the twentieth century. She was in Barcelona at the start of the Spanish Civil War, and traveled to Hanoi in opposition to the Vietnam war near the end of her life. In “Poem”, she writes:

I lived in the first century of world wars.

Most mornings I would be more or less insane,
The newspapers would arrive with their careless stories,
The news would pour out of various devices
Interrupted by attempts to sell products to the unseen.
I would call my friends on other devices;
They would be more or less mad for similar reasons.

This opening is remarkable for a couple of reasons. One is the ambivalent tone of the first line. Is she being melodramatic, self-pitying, or merely stating a fact? Our curiosity is aroused—or mine was, at least. The next few lines, with their wryly humorous, matter-of-fact description of her morning, confirm the latter.

The other rather remarkable aspect is how contemporary these details seem. “More or less insane” is a good description of how I feel ingesting the news these days. And “devices”? Of course, she couldn’t know what that term would come to mean fifty years after the poem was published, but it is an inspired choice.

At this point in the poem, having made us chuckle and pay attention, Rukeyser changes the focus. Using two lines as a transition, she creates a hinge in the poem. We leave the news, the friends, the morning behind and plunge into why she is writing poetry and what poetry can do to heal our horribly damaged world.

Slowly I would get to pen and paper,
Make my poems for others unseen and unborn.
In the day I would be reminded of those men and women,
Brave, setting up signals across vast distances,
Considering a nameless way of living, of almost unimagined values.
As the lights darkened, as the lights of night brightened,
We would try to imagine them, try to find each other,
To construct peace, to make love, to reconcile
Waking with sleeping, ourselves with each other,
Ourselves with ourselves. We would try by any means
To reach the limits of ourselves, to reach beyond ourselves,
To let go the means, to wake.

Then she ends by repeating—with a slight variation—the first line. No longer ambivalent, it now is filled with emotion which overflows in our own hearts.

I lived in the first century of these wars.

We see these techniques—repetition, hinges, humor—in many of her poems. We also see her use of imagery. In some poems she throws out images with seemingly reckless abandon, with a cascade of images that in a literal sense seem unrelated, yet placed with precision yield a thrilling experience. In an interview, she said she needed “a language that was not static, that did not see life as a series of points, but more as a language of water.”

Her poem “Reading Time: 1 Minute 26 Seconds” is an example of this cascade of images, as well as the use of repetition and vowel sounds to drive the emotional content of the poem. If you actually read it aloud—rapidly, in order to match the designated reading time—the power will come through even more intensely.

The fear of poetry is the
fear : mystery and fury of a midnight street
of windows whose low voluptuous voice
issues, and after that there is not peace.

The round waiting moment in the
theatre : curtain rises, dies into the ceiling
and here is played the scene with the mother
bandaging a revealed son’s head. The bandage is torn off.
Curtain goes down. And here is the moment of proof.

That climax when the brain acknowledges the world,
all values extended into the blood awake.
Moment of proof. And as they say Brancusi did,
building his bird to extend through soaring air,
as Kafka planned stories that draw to eternity
through time extended. And the climax strikes.

Love touches so, that months after the look of
blue stare of love, the footbeat on the heart
is translated into the pure cry of birds
following air-cries, or poems, the new scene.
Moment of proof. That strikes long after act.

They fear it. They turn away, hand up, palm out
fending off moment of proof, the straight look, poem.
The prolonged wound-consciousness after the bullet’s shot.
The prolonged love after the look is dead,
the yellow joy after the song of the sun.

Rukeyser’s work is so rich I could devote many more weeks to talking about aspects of her craft, such as her use of colons and tabs. I mentioned last week her interest in science and the intersection of science with poetry. I especially like the use she makes of James Clerk Matthews’s discussion of the mathematical concept of “singular points” as a “moment of great height, of infinite depth.”

In The Life of Poetry, Rukeyser talks of the influence of Melville and Whitman, one “the poet of outrage”, the other “the poet of possibility”, and we can see both of these influences in the poems we’ve looked at this week and last. She also speaks of different sorts of unity: unity of imagination, of images, and so on. She embraces the possibility of our coming together, of our finally bringing an end to war.

Do you have a favorite poem by Muriel Rukeyser?

A Muriel Rukeyser Reader, ed. by Jan Heller Levi, Part 1

Rukeyse

Rukeyser has been one of my favorite poets since I first stumbled across her work while in my early 20s. I was drawn to her initially by her commitment to social justice. She spoke out against poverty and racism in poems that didn’t need to preach. Instead, they make you yourself feel what it is like to suffer such injustice.

While still a young woman, she traveled to Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, where scores of people were dying of a new disease: silicosis. It caused by breathing the silicate dust that coated the town, while the mine’s owners refused to admit the connection or provide any protection. They simply fired anyone who was too ill to work.

When the blast went off the boss would call out, Come, let’s go back,
when that heavy loaded blast went white, Come, let’s go back,
telling us hurry, hurry, into the falling rocks and muck.

That poem, “George Robinson: Blues”, is a good example of how Rukeyser worked her magic. It is a persona poem, in the voice of George Robinson (his real name was Robison). It starts off gently:

Gauley Bridge is a good town for Negroes, they let us stand around, they let us stand
around on the sidewalks if we’re black or brown.
Vanetta’s over the trestle, and that’s our town.

Then it begins to turn:

The hill makes breathing slow, slow breathing after you row the river,
and the graveyard’s on the hill, cold in the springtime blow,
the graveyard’s up on high, and the town is down below.

Did you ever bury thirty-five men in a place in back of your house,
thirty-five tunnel workers the doctors didn’t attend,
died in the tunnel camps, under rocks, everywhere, world without end.

We are taken deeper into the anguish, anger buried under the simple facts. Finally Robinson’s voice comes back to a hopeless stoicism and wry humor.

Looked like somebody sprinkled flour all over the parks and groves,
it stayed and the rain couldn’t wash it away and it twinkled
that white dust really looked pretty down around our ankles.

As dark as I am, when I came out at morning after the tunnel at night,
with a white man, nobody could have told which man was white.
The dust had covered us both, and the dust was white.

Deeply interested in science, Rukeyser believed that poetry is “an exchange of energy, a system of relationships.” Energy is exchanged between poet and reader. Connections are made between images, images and words, but most of all between the poet and the reader. The poem asks the reader to feel something. In her extraordinary book The Life of Poetry, Rukeyser says, “One of the invitations of poetry is to come to the emotional meanings at every moment.”

To be continued next week when we’ll look more closely at some elements of Rukeyser’s craft.

What poems of social commentary stand out for you?