Brittany Perham on "DP.f.30"
Everyone's writing poems for the dead,
those who have gone
missing, those who have gone.
Everyone's writing poems for the dead
even without meaning to, even unwillingly
we crack the brain's back door
for children, for lovers, who set their door
swinging, who come back, even unwillingly,
to tell us something we think we hear
in her singular smoker's voice,
when lately we believed in no voice
but our own. We think we hear
her beside us in the kitchen
lifting our hair—see how we've brought
her home! see how she's brought
her cigarette. We breathe in. The kitchen
after this is predictably dark.
Already the visitation is a memory,
already we suspect visitation is only memory
lighting the film in the chamber's dark.
It's certainly a flash in our particular brain
that captures our particular other,
her hippocampal Polaroid exposed, no other
way to certainly find her. Our painbrain
recalled her, momentarily, exactly.
For a second she was more ours
than she ever really was, entirely ours.
We go on recalling her consciously, inexactly,
to keep her from going again, she who was
(we'd like to believe it) telling us to say
what we came to say:
Don't go, you who've gone. You, who were.
"DP.f.30" is one of the first poems I wrote for the book called Double Portrait. All the things that I am going to tell you about this poem, and about all the Double Portraits, are things I didn't know as I was writing. The only thing I knew then was to do what I had always done: listen for the language, try to find the pattern, move toward whatever it was that was trying to reveal itself. But now I can see some things about the Double Portraits that I couldn't when I set out. It seems to me that I wrote these poems because I had two things I wanted to investigate—"wanted" in the way that the subconscious brain can want. The first investigation had to do with the ways obsessive thought might be formalized in a poem; the second had to do with my ideas about the fundamental situation of lyric poetry. Of course it turned out—as if it needed to be proven again—that the formal and content investigations were really the same all along. And it was this double investigation that I followed out in the four series of Double Portraits that make up the book.
Let me begin by talking about content, and the idea of the fundamental situation of the lyric, which as I see it is created out of the tension that exists between a self and an other. In a poem, the other might be represented as a "you," which we might conceptualize as a beloved (as in, one who is primary). But the other need not be a beloved or even a person; it need not take the "you" pronoun at all. It can just as easily be a facet of the self, an abstract idea, or something else entirely. But whatever it is, it is the thing that the self turns toward. The self, meanwhile, may be represented as an "I" or it may appear as a consciousness, voice, or eye. And it need not be in every way aligned with the poet. But the "I" turns toward the "you"—in whatever pronouns or guises—and it is that act that defines and creates the self. It is that act that gives the self dimension, that lets the self be seen. After the "I" turns toward the "you," the two stand in relation. And when they stand in relation, a tension is created that ultimately makes the poem. "Standing in relation" is a term I stole from the philosopher Martin Buber. He puts it this way: "Whoever says You does not have something; he has nothing. But he stands in relation."
I thought about this phrase all the time as I wrote "DP.f.30" and as I made the book. It appears in all of the notebooks I kept during that time; I wrote it on a Post-it and stuck it to my computer. All of the Double Portraits enact this idea of standing in relation in one way or another. They do this by placing a self in particular circumstances with particular kinds of others, and then asking questions about this experience. Some of the broad questions sound like this: What does it mean for us as humans (and as writers) to "stand in relation"? What does it mean that the lyric carries a long history of selves "standing in relation" and how does each new poem carry and transmit that history? In what ways can a self turn toward an other? And finally, in what ways can language represent this turning? This is where you can see the formal questions begin to overlay the content questions. Once I started thinking about the self and the other, the "I" and the "you," I started thinking about the idea of the address. And once I started thinking about the address, I started thinking about why we address someone or something in the first place. Why (and how) do we turn toward? Why (and how) do we place ourselves in relation? And these questions got me thinking about obsession and obsessive thought.
One of the reasons we turn toward is because we can't turn away. We are obsessed by someone or something; we think about that person or idea or fear all the time. If, like me, you have ever had obsessive thoughts about someone or something, you know what I mean. Obsessive thinking feels very particular. It does not feel like other kinds of thought, like rational thought. But then again, obsessive thought is rational in its own way—it comes with its own kind of logic, its own kind of patterning. So how could a poem formalize this kind of thought? This is what the poems were trying to figure out and they began to teach me things as I wrote. One of the things I learned was that in order to create the experience—in order to make it enterable for myself or for a reader—I had to start by working with the kind of patternings I heard in my own obsessive thoughts. This involved listening to the ways repetition, return, eddying, mirror-imaging, doubling, and refrain worked in my own obsessing brain.
Luckily, because other poets have long been thinking about how to do this, I had many models. Some of our most familiar poetic forms use repetition to express kinds of obsession—a thought-cycle that cannot be broken or cannot move forward in a single direction. Think, for example, of the triolet or the pantoum, both of which I've used in this collection. Linked forms use repetition as a means of delay and a means of connection. Repeated lines or phrases (or words or sounds) can work like eddies in a river that pull us back upstream just as we expect to move downstream. These repetitions divert us from our original path as they connect us to a different path, or they return us to an earlier path that we have no choice but to follow out again. Obsessive thinking moves in just these ways. Many of the poetic forms we have express this kind of movement beautifully—writers continue to use these forms for a reason. But there are also kinds of movement that cannot be expressed in existing forms.
"DP.f.30" is one of the poems that necessitated a new form. No form that existed could have brought it onto the page. I imagine this poem found its form, and therefore found what it had to say, when a couple of thoughts connected in my mind. The moment of connection is the real magic moment, the thing that creation requires, the thing I'm always waiting for. First, I had been spending a lot of time investigating refrain and repetition in pantoums and other linked forms (and here I think of Pasteur's famous quote, "chance favors the prepared mind"). Then, I started to hear the line "everyone's writing poems for the dead" in my head in what can only be described as an obsessive way. When these two thoughts connected, and the first stanza of the poem appeared, I could perceive the pattern. And once I saw that the poem could sustain the envelope structure as a way to both move forward and revolve backward, the situation—that is, the way this particular self stands in relation to this particular other—began to emerge.
I don't think that I need to say much about this poem's situation. I hope it's all there on the page. But I will tell you a bit about the title. The numbered title is a way to situate this poem, and each of the Double Portraits, in one of four series in the book. While the numbering system itself came as I put the manuscript together, the idea that the poems worked in series was something I understood very quickly. One Double Portrait would suggest the next, usually in terms of conceptual question, tonal alliance, or formal strategy. I began to think about the way visual artists work in series—particularly Picasso, Bacon, Hockney, Sherman, and Still, whose work is of particular importance to me. Francis Bacon says this: "Ideally, I'd like to paint rooms of pictures with different subject matter but treated serially. I see rooms full of paintings; they just fall in like slides…Of course, what in a curious way one's always hoping to do is to paint the one picture which will annihilate all the other ones, to concentrate everything into one painting." In true Bacon fashion, I kept trying to write the poem that would capture and concentrate whatever it was I was after. At the same time, I knew that one poem would never be capable of such a thing.
A series reveals what the single poem cannot. While a single poem reveals the working of a particular brain in an act of creation at a particular moment in time, the series reveals the working of a particular brain in an ongoing act of creation that extends over time. Picasso says this: "You can only truly understand the act of creation through the series of all variations." Maybe that is what I was trying to understand by writing the four series of Double Portraits. If I could write enough of them, and see them side by side, written together on the walls of a single room, what would they tell me? A series has no beginning and end; it has no inherent direction. When we experience a series, we are the thing that connects each piece to any other, and each piece to the whole. Our particular brain at a particular moment in time becomes the means of connection. So as we interact with a series, we reveal something else about what it means to stand in relation.