Names Have Been Changed to Protect

It’s bound to happen sometime. Someone is going tohate one of your poems. I’m not talking about a reader, just any reader. (Though that will happen, too. You may feel rejection, but you’ll get over it. Chances are you’ll never see that person again.) I’m talking about someone you love. Someone you care about. Someone who, by virtue of being in your life, is going to, at some time or another, get a poem written about them. Sometimes the people who rotate around the nexus of the poet’s inner circle, who, by their sheer existence in the poet’s universe are highly at risk for being immortalized in the written word, are going to be unhappy with their sudden, unauthorized appearance in the poet’s work. In many cases, we can change the names of those involved, or minimize the impact our words may have on their fragile psyche. Sometimes, we can even change what they did. But sometimes, it’s going to be impossible. The friends of a poet have a certain kind of bravery. Every day, they lay their lives bare to someone who may later betray them. Whether it is a betrayal of confidence, a betrayal of trust, or whether it’s something the person may not know we believe to be true, eventually, someone close to you, who expects you to never cause them grief, will hate what you write. It will challenge their beliefs about who they are. Worse, it will challenge their belief about who they thinkyouare.


The sun has laid the bird's bones bare.

I once wrote a poem called, “My Father’s Affair.” I remember it well, because my mother and I had a particularly vicious and hurtful argument about it. She claimed I had no right to write about something that happened to her. My life didn’t belong to her. But, is that really true? If I see something happening, does free speech allow me to elaborate on it, even if it happened near me, not to me? I happen to think that I do have that right. But what about those I’m writing about? What is my responsibility to their feelings? I can write about this now because the wound isn’t fresh. My mother forgave me (or she forgot what I had done). My parents are still together. My father’s infidelity strengthened their relationship. But, I don’t know if she now approves of the poem because I never mentioned it again. (I also lied. I promised the poem would never be seen by anyone. But I read it aloud at a reading and published it in an online mag. It was very well received.) Originally, she proposed a compromise. If I changed the title of the poem to “The Affair” instead of the particular “My Father’s Affair,” the poem would be more acceptable to her. If I made the words my mother and my father magically disappear from the stanzas of the poem, my parents could continue to live out their lives in relative obscurity, with no one knowing of the deed. She could hold her head up high at family functions. (She was then, as she may be now, under the impression that my family actually reads poetry.)  I tried to acquiesce to her demands. Honestly, I tried. But, that poem is like my child. It was born with ten perfect little fingers and ten perfect little toes. It had a shock of outrageous black hair. Its skin was covered with peach fuzz lanugo. When I tried to change the words of the title, it didn’t feel right. It was like cutting off one of those perfect fingers. Maybe even an arm. Without it, it just didn’t work.  But… the poem wasn’t what you might think. It didn’t have any sex in it. It didn’t make judgments about my father’s actions, or my mother’s response to it. It talked about something else I remembered, something that had nothing to do with the actual affair at all. The main subject of the poem was a plant my mother used to care for fastidiously, that simply never would bloom. After having later read the poem, my mother stated that if she hadn’t known it was about her and if it hadn’t been for the title, she would have actually liked the poem. The poem’s only fault was questioning her public image. It made her fear what other people would think of her. Maybe questions about her failure to keep my father from straying. Maybe questions about why she stayed. The point was, she didn’t want anyone to see her in that light: a woman whose husband, for whatever reason, wasn’t satisfied. As if that was somehow solely her failing. Or at the very heart of it was the fear that her family would see it that way. Was I wrong?

As a poet, I have a duty to tell you things. I have a duty to be honest. Not an honesty of facts and observations, but an honesty of feeling. I need to tell you the Capital T Truth about something, not necessarily what happened. So, thinking of my mother’s surprise and alarm in finding that my father, who seldom speaks, would seek out a woman in which to bury his words like so many seeds; and in witnessing her complete shock that she could give my father so much attention, begging for him to say what he truly felt only to discover he was telling his feelings to someone else, I immediately saw that same look I had seen in my mother’s face when, after watering the plant religiously and grooming its leaves and giving it sunlight, it simply failed to bloom. That is the truth I’m talking about. She yelled at me. And I yelled back. Perhaps I yelled first. It doesn’t matter. To her, what I wrote was only a poem. She was the living being. She should be more important to me than those words. She was the one who would be humiliated, after all. But why must we be humiliated for being human? Why should she bear the shame of an act that happens so often for a million different reasons? Being human is the one failure we all share. Why should we avoid talking about it?

But that’s not really why I wrote this blog. Tonight, I was there for a friend. A friend whose decent humanity showed through like the frayed spot on an Oriental rug. A friend who has no reason to be ashamed. I want to write about the moment, about the shame, about what it means. But I can’t. Because I witnessed something beautiful. Something true. And something secret. So for now, I’ll hold it hidden in my fist. But, if one day, when the images are no longer fresh, when they aren’t so painful, when I’ve gotten some perspective, when I know what to say and how to say it…the question is: should I?



~ by ImaginaryCanary on February 17, 2012.

One Response to “Names Have Been Changed to Protect”

  1. I think that you should share it. Like you said, maybe not right now, but someday. I believe that if you can share something, not as a narrator, but from your perspective, then it is part of your experience not just you relaying information.

    I also think that your poetry is… the word “oblique” comes to mind. (And after looking up the definition, I think it fits to an extent.) You don’t write biographies or dissertations. You write your impressions using imagery and metaphor. (Please don’t take any of this as an insult. If it doesn’t come across correctly, just blame my limited vocabulary. I mean this as a compliment.)

    My first thought as I was reading this post was that I wonder if situations like this are why some authors choose to use a pseudonym. In your case, though, it’s probably unnecessary. I’m sure that you’ll handle it tactfully, and, again, you’re not writing a biography.

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