Jana Harris talks about her choice to become, what she calls, a confessional poet. Harris feels it has something to do with the fact that one of her parents was suffering from mental illness and substance abuse, and her other parent was in denial.
by Jana Harris, (Triquarterly, Winter 2000)
My conjecture is that if you come from a family that has a strong “denial gene,” and if you inherit only trace amounts of this genetic material, your chances are greater of developing the compulsion to become a writer of the genus poet, species confessional. This phenomenon holds particularly true if one parent is substance-addicted or mentally ill and the other parent is the guardian of the secret. In the beginning, you start out innocently enough harboring a growing obsession to document your side of the story, something to serve as a sort of testament as to what you perceive as the truth. You are still very young at this point, so you still imagine that there is a truth, or only one truth, at any rate. Besides that, you can’t-due to the weak denial gene-contradict what your eyes see. Like all children, you are taught never to bear false witness. But early on you figure out that you don’t get punished for lying to keep the secret. You only get swatted, sent to your room, or threatened with foster care if you tell your truth, which is labeled a tale. And when you persist, you are branded Dirty Little Liar. Thus, you learn the art of subterfuge.
Later in college when you take a freshman creative writing class, the assignments seem almost effortless, because you’re already an adept storyteller. Besides, it’s the late sixties and every bumper sticker yells at you to let it all hang out. This message cleaves to you like a religious text and becomes your mantra. Sophomore year you get a little lazy and don’t make anything up. Voila, you discover that you get points for your confessions, your depictions of altered states of reality, your dramatic moments which more and more often take the form of lines of uneven length scrawled across the page, unhampered by the restraints of punctuation. Unfortunately for you these narrative efforts aren’t entirely off the cuff sketches ripped from the pages of your diary. One problem is that you are told to include a lot of what feels like boring, insignificant detail. The other is that the story of your life and the people around you seems so mundane that it hardly feels interesting. Who would want to read something about a person whose life has been slightly southwest of normal? Then, during your junior year, it dawns on you that not everyone had a Joan Crawford or a Marie Antoinette or Joseph Stalin or Henry VIII as a parent. Okay, so you suspect one or two of your good friends did-which is probably why they’re your good friends-but not everyone sees their parents in a clear critical light and still fewer feel compelled to write about them. Better to call up what strength you can from the recessive denial gene, bury the past (or invent a new one), and move on.
But the truth-telling itch prevails. Like-mindedness jumps out at you from the lives of others. You learn to recognize the citizens of Planet Abuse. If not consciously, then unconsciously. The Mainstream Mind tells you that you’ve a skewed vision, a perverse sense of what’s important, that instead of forgetting the bad and remembering the good (as your parents promised would be the case), you have an affinity for the worst possible scenario if not the hideously bizarre. Society blames you for this wrong-thinking. But that’s okay, you’re used to being the scapegoat. Some call this state of mind Clinical Depression. You call it Reality and are bent on the world seeing your side of the story. Consulting the psychiatric world seems beside point. Under the microscope of your cynical eye, mental health practitioners appear more screwed up than you are and you suspect they sought out this branch of medicine to fix what was broken in their own heads. Besides, if you spent all your time bleeding across some shrink’s couch, you wouldn’t have any fluids left to ink your pen. By now typing out lines of uneven length describing the inclement weather of the heart seems more cathartic than talking to gray-beards excited about the prospect of buying pontoons for their Cessnas enabling them to tie their aircraft to the boat dock in front of their homes. Now, they tell you gleefully, they’ll get out from under the high price of renting airport hanger space, which they really need to do in order to catch up on those killer alimony payments.
Back in class, you and your narrative poems and stories shoot for a degree in English. But the study of literature is plagued by cultural prejudice, and the Powers That Be are bent on labeling you Little Miss Sick-o as a pseudonym. The red ink sniffs: Are rural and working women really valid subjects for literature as seen from this point of view? You switch your major to mathematics, a discipline where a correct answer is possible and even when not achieved, the method by which you arrive at the last line-the reassuring QED-is what’s important. However, unlike your comparative literature seminars where there’s at least safety in numbers, there are only three women in the entire department. The lack of camaraderie aside, the study of mathematics tells you that it’s always possible to find some order amid chaos and, further, that the truth is not only attainable, but remains true. What the Greeks proved four thousand years ago is still true today. Almost as importantly, Mathematics isn’t culture-based. It’s the faith you’ve been searching for. Besides, you only cover 45 pages of well defined symbols per semester as opposed to 400 pages of text which, according to your Twentieth-Century Literature professors, you never seem to be able to interpret correctly.
Confessions ooze from your pen like serum from a septic wound. In your senior year at Overcrowded U of State, you sneak into Honors English, which because you’re a math major is verboten, discovering Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton and Jack Kerouac. Fuel for your fire. But back in those dark days, academia had not yet allowed domestic complainers into the canon of modern poetry. Unthinkable that Jack, Sylvia, and Annie might rub elbows with the likes of Ezra and T.S. The words needlessly self-indulgent glow in red ink in the margins of your poems. You try writing nature poetry-projecting human courage and foibles onto plants and lower invertebrates and vice-versa-but your perverse vision is deemed unacceptable. In a huff, you switch from honors poetry writing to honors short story workshop and in amongst all the Fitzgeralds and Hemingways, you discover Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers. You write stories about the mill town where you attended high school and assign your pain to others, then consider taking on a man’s name as a pseudonym. In the spring, the English Department invites William Stafford to read at the library. You, and the thirty other students who attend, learn that sane, average-seeming people also write lines of uneven length and that road kill is a valid subject for poetry. Just after the Senior Prom, Allen Ginsberg tours your campus. He is not invited by the English Department and he does not read at the library, but in the gym which is filled with patchouli incense and a thousand students with tie-dyed hair. From Allen you learn that non words can be used in poems along with those snippets of language that play over and over inside your head.
With eyes glazed the color of Ginsberg’s saffron robes, you graduate into the real world and head for the Haight-Ashbury. By now it’s the 70s. Women have been liberated. Fewer and fewer graybeards tell you that it’s not okay to write about the female inhabitants of Northwest mill towns. Nobody bothers to change the names to protect the innocent. As one of your new found contemporary West Coast writer friends, Mary Mackey, puts it: the guilty don’t deserve it and the innocent don’t need it. Besides Mary, you bond with other members of your planet, Valerie Miner, Faye Kicknosway, Jack Marshall. You attend local poetry readings and discover Susan Griffin, Adrienne Rich, Pat Parker, Ishmael Reed, Simon Ortiz, Judy Grahn, June Jordan, Alta and her Shameless Hussy Press. You get a job through the University of California teaching algebra to people who are called “culturally deprived” and live in “transitioning” neighborhoods. Some of your students are interested in learning about set theory, binary number systems, and the associative and commutative laws of multiplication, though all have more pressing concerns, such as: Is my bike getting stole? Has you got a knife? Or, what do that cross between the number three and the number two mean? Their inner landscape feels oddly familiar. You keep your well-paying, part-time job and moonlight on Fridays teaching through the Poetry in the Schools Program in the same neighborhood. Now you can drop the pretense of numbers and symbols and get down to the brass tacks of your students’ “Has You Got a Knife?” stories. At least you think you can until their regular teacher informs you that real poetry rhymes. Monday, when you return to teach the same students algebra, you notice that the teacher never lectures you about the Real Number System. While she is out of the classroom you run with the idea of surreal story problems and the logic of Salvador Dali: What Do You Get When You Cross a Gynecologist and a Xerox Machine?
The endless sunshine and long California days give you and your feminist poets’ army time to march the streets of Berkeley in high top, waffle sole, hiking boots. Somewhere along the line you move from a bad parent-child relationship to abusive love relationships. After all, what’s intimacy without mistreatment? At about the same time you drop the pretense of the second person plural and embrace the first person singular. I become proficient in writing about the underbelly of things, the sow-bug-and-maggot-egg undersoul of life. A reviewer calls the tone of my work menacing. This word exudes power, inducing a high even more intense than the peyote buttons Allen prescribed.
By now it’s the late 70s and the 60s are almost over. I consider myself a feminist confessional poet par excellence. My literary compadres tell it like it is in print. We have our own bookstores, bars, radio programs, and New York magazine. This truth-telling centers more around what has been done unto us and less of what we have done unto others. What we do unto others is a thread that will be taken up all too soon by the next generation. I enter into an “alternative marriage,” because, He tells me, conventional marriage is demeaning to women. My partner in crime edits my work, thriving on its nastiness and the fact that He is the wellspring of my “Daddy” and “Viciousness in the kitchen!” poems. He even lends one of his buddies the money to start a press to publish my first book, which to this day is still “forthcoming.” On a Poetry Circus Sideshow Tour, I meet some of the world’s “five-star poetry pigs,” Bukowski and Hughes among them, and discover they’re not Satan. In fact, God strike me dead, some are absolutely charming. My mother had attended something called Charm School, where she’d learned how to walk like a goddess in high heels with an imaginary string tied from her pubic bone to heaven. She also learned the proper etiquette of eating pie (from point to crust) and soup (always spoon away from yourself), things that as a teenager had made me roll on the floor with laughter. My mother’s charm school lectures were about the only comic relief I got during my adolescent, no-saying years where, due to circumstances, my family lived in a garage. Not just any garage, but a three-car garage with a Lincoln Continental in the center berth. We kept our clothes in waxed baby coffin-sized boxes, which my father brought home from the slaughterhouse where he worked, and ate TV dinners which I had to share with my younger siblings. When you need adequate nourishment and shelter, eating Banquet frozen pie in tiny bites and always, like Scarlet O’Hara, leaving a tad of crust on your plate to show off your tiny appetite seems beside the point. But after meeting Bukowski and Hughes I’m left with the sinking feeling that my mother and her charm school mentality may have been on to something. Maybe I should have paid more attention to her helpful hints (putting a pair of underpants over my head to protect my make up and clothes while dressing). When she threatened to stop speaking to me unless I started using a lipstick brush, maybe I shouldn’t have given up my rummage sale Revlon altogether. For reasons I did not want to fathom, being so bowled over by Ted’s and Charles’s charm depressed the heck out of me.
Back on my own domestic front, which now fuels the blood spurt that is poetry: My significant other and I join the organic gardening and backto-the-land craze. We leave Berkeley, come back to Berkeley, leave. In order to support ourselves and our art (he is a landscaper, specializing in people’s parks and sculpture gardens), we work on fishing boats in Alaska. I cook, he’s a deck hand. The ill treatment and slaughter of salmon the size of children spawns many poems. There isn’t much to do on board, except to listen to fish die and watch men bend their elbows too often. My new MFA degree in creative writing not only helps me think up names for the variations of green that proliferate Sitka and the Alexander Archipelago, but also names for drinks made by odd combinations of liquor. Better to spend as much time as possible on shore where-surprise-I discover there’s almost the same number of females in Alaska as males. Many of these women are elderly and sequestered in The Old Pioneer Home where I spend the day on the front steps listening to their yams.
My alternative marriage’s bad end generates even more confessional poetry. Oddly it is here that I reach a turning point, the beginning of the end of my career as a confessional poet. This time my catharsis is not more (and more) “he said /she said” poems, but a novel about the women who helped build Southeast Alaska. Finally finally the stories of the trials and tribulations of others seem more interesting, more important, more healing than my own. But only in fiction. Across the Englishspeaking world and beyond, first person, eye-witness-account poetry dominates the 1980s. From all quarters confessions come as thick as mosquitoes in August. More and more horrific abuses leap out of the cupboard. The winds of confession howl a single two-syllable word: incest, and with it the nightmarish tales of dysfunction escalate.
By now I’ve published enough so that I can give up trying to teach Algebra and begin to teach creative writing in a university where the confessions of my students halt me in my tracks. I feel like a magnet for their unburdening. Some of their stories even our National Enquirer newshungry society isn’t ready for (at least I’m not ready for them). Like a serial killer who tortures his victims longer and in a more gruesome fashion with each successive attempt, the crimes confessed in my student’s stories and poems become more and more hideous. And my confessions seem more and more insignificant-at least I can’t make them appear significant events in literature or even in my own life. My writing starts to sound like an add-a-pearl necklace of complaints and excuses.
The end of the 80s brings me a much more stable life. I live on a farm in the Northwestern foothills of the Cascade Mountains where my new husband and I raise horses. I have to rise every morning at six in order to care for beasts ten times my size, which is better than any antidepressant that I know of. I become strong, healthy, lean, tan, disciplined, learn to live on little sleep. Learn also that I am always always at the mercy of the elements. I come to know that there is such a thing as God’s will, because sometimes little foals born with the deck stacked against them survive only because they have a tremendous willingness to thrive. I learn to be vigilant, to read the tiny nuances that, bunched together, bud into change. On a farm, reading between the lines of the proverbial writing-on-the-wall becomes a necessity to survival. But I am what’s not so aptly termed a gentleman farmer. Which means that I don’t support myself by this endeavor and probably never could. I marvel at the lives of those who had to and did, which consists of most of the people who populated the planet before the twentieth century. Indeed, remnants of nineteenth-century life surround me. People still pan for gold in the Skykomish River that runs near my door. The hollow eyes of silver and copper mines stare out from Haystack Ridge, an area rapidly being clearcut by the timber industry. Like the nature poet I had tried to be before finding my niche in the confessional, I wait for those Wordsworthian sounds of spring-migrating geese and night croaking frogs—only to be confronted by their chainsaw and bulldozer conquistadors. I hear the unmistakable crash and aftershock of trees falling, which is followed by days of inhaling nothing but a pall of blue smoke generated by burning stump piles.
At first thinking about the last century is a means of escape, then it becomes a valuable tool for coping with farm life. It’s an economic given that those who monopolize the powers of transportation rule. Up until the advent of the internal combustion engine, beasts of burden and the wind propelled people and cargo from one place to another. A horse was an important beast of burden. Much of the art of horse husbandry was developed by non-literate people and never written down. What little was documented has been out of print for more than a century. I begin combing pioneer journals for information on blacksmithing, handling, and just out-and-out telepathic communication with equines. Because horses can’t speak to tell me where it hurts, I have to learn to read their body language for signs. Modern veterinary science is just that, a science. What I want is information (even the tiniest tidbit) concerning the art of healing and caring for these beasts.
In January of 1990, as I devoured pioneer reminiscences of anyone who had either made the trek by ox or horse across the plains or had been connected with the cavalry, I get the idea of writing a novel about a late nineteenth-century woman miner. I want to set my tale in Washington or Idaho, not the overused venues of Alaska, which I have already written about, or California. As I go about my winter chores, I try to imagine her day-to-day life; washing clothes in glacier run-off, rubbing the soil out with sand, drying her skirts on rocks. During a January mountain snow storm, winds rage at more than eighty miles an hour, bringing down a hundred-foot tree which crashes across the power line and onto a hundred feet of my back pasture fence. No electricity for a week, which means no heat other than wood and no water from my well. No stove, no lights, no oven, no shower. A horse should drink 15 gallons of water a day. My husband and I break the four-inch thick ice on our pond with a hammer and chisel, hauling hundreds of gallons of water about a quarter of a mile by handcart. Most of it sloshes out of the buckets and turns to ice, which makes our next journey to the barn even more interesting. It takes all our energy to keep warm, clean, the horses and ourselves fed and watered. Roads close due to ice and downed power lines, so going to a friend’s or a motel isn’t possible. No telephone, therefore no moral support. It stops snowing. Temperatures plummet. Trees encased in ice explode when another storm blasts through. The sun sets at about four in the afternoon and rises just after eight the next morning. What we have is long Walkman nights and a short daytime crush to get everything done during the few hours of light. Frozen Red Baron pizza warming on the woodstove proves especially good the following morning with tea made from pine needles steeped in pond water. Then an unforeseen variable: it’s the year-of-the-swine-flu and my husband is one of the first casualties.
I imagine my novel’s main character, her life and the lives of her neighbors: Endless years spent surviving winter, compounded by new babies and growing children, perhaps a sick or injured husband, and endless isolation-a far cry from the leisure-driven lives of the late twentieth century. Restored to life, my phone rings. A girlfriend calls to complain that her car won’t start, she misses her leg waxing appointment and can’t get to the tanning booth. While waiting for the overdue tow truck, she’s spent twenty extra minutes on her Nordic Trak. I can barely contain myself. I haven’t had a shower in six days. In the dugout my main character has cut into the side of a hill near her mineral claim, it’s been too cold for three months to do anything but soak her hands and feet in a bucket of melted snow heated by the fire she built.
The county maintenance crew sands and salts the road to my farm. My husband takes fluids and a little day-old pizza crust, but getting out of bed for more than five minutes isn’t possible. I drive the two miles to town in a small Japanese car where I buy a dozen lemon bars before trying to fix the smashed fence. I also buy my first latte in days, Handiwipes (which are a poor substitute for a shower, but never mind), and more lantern batteries so that I can plan my lessons for the new semester which begins next week. Because I teach school, I begin reading the reminiscences of Virginia Grainger, a school marm and an early graduate of the University of Washington where I am an instructor of creative writing. In 1890, during her first year homesteading on the other, eastern, side of the Cascade Mountains, directly opposite my farm, she and her husband had no barn. When the snow crusted and temperatures dropped to 60 below, the only cattle to survive were those they brought into their log and stick hut. A March thaw left every coulee filled with the bloated carcasses of white-faced cattle. Typhoid broke out. Virginia’s husband was so afflicted he looked more skeletal than anyone at Andersonville Prison and could not rise from his bed. The remaining cattle were too weak to graze on the sparse blades of spring grass and often fell down, unable to rise. Virginia, ill herself, had to crawl out to them with her baby on her back and raise each cow with a fence rail. A hundred years later, my husband is now able to rise and feed the woodstove. As I contemplate the fallen Alaska spruce in my back pasture, the image of Virginia moving hand over hand through the mud in long skirts and bloomers haunts me.
I’ve never raised a fallen bovine, but raising a cast horse (one that is down and can’t get up) is difficult and dangerous. Foals and young horses often cast themselves in the corners of stalls or paddocks by rolling over to itch their backs and then getting trapped against the wall or under a fence rail. It usually takes two people, a rope, and sometimes a two-by-six to raise the beast. I’ve done it alone, and recall the danger of the hind legs kicking out at me just before the frightened, angry, disoriented horse scrabbles to its feet, lunging-teeth bared-in my direction, holding me accountable for its grief. I can barely accomplish this in good health and can’t imagine raising a thousand pound animal while malnourished, so ill I had to crawl, and with a year-old infant strapped to my back. On this day, as the sun sets behind a lacy fringe of hemlock, my husband is well enough to walk to the car, turn on the ignition, and drive to the airport for a week-long meeting in a foreign city leaving me to cope with the storm’s wreckage. The novel I intend to write about a woman miner seeps away and the idea of a book of poems concerning the imagined confessions of women like Virginia Grainger takes its place.
When winter quarter starts, I face a fresh sea of faces. Among them a new voice, the children of the children of the sixties who write about what they knew best: poems which sport such titles as: “A Year of Living on Peanut Butter.” In this piece, a budding male poet writes in a conversational style concerning communal life with his artist mother and his eight half-brothers and sisters. Their life in a wrecked school bus came to a dramatic close after a visit from Child Protective Services and the author never saw the siblings left in his care again. In another poem, “Men of Color: Agent Orange and Gangrene Green,” an angry young woman chronicles her life with a seriously disturbed Vietnam vet of a parent who used his Chronic Combat Fatigue Syndrome as an excuse to deal drugs from the family home.
Sometime while my back was turned, the confessional voice kicked up another notch and was now speeding toward a galaxy far beyond my own. Had my generation done unto the next an exponentially more frightening amount of abuse than our parents had done to us? Are my new students’ wounds of a crueler variety, or should I take solace in the fact that they’ve been given a platform on which to build their narratives? The above student writing is interspersed with coming-of-age-during-theEpoch-of-AIDS poems. Until approximately 1980, the wages of sin was birth or disease. Now the wages of sin is death. I think about my own work. A poem I have just written concerning a woman shopping at Nordstrom’s on the Feast of the Epiphany, trapped in endless after Christmas lines amid a sea of other women trying to look younger and thinner. In -the pale January light cast by my fresh-faced students, my work lacks even the power of a complaint and, after a long teaching day, a difficult commute, and late night barn chores, reads like the whinings of a middle-aged, fat-bottomed suburbanite who couldn’t see farther than her crows feet. Artful? Possibly-after all, I’ve been crafting these poems for years. Important? I give it a “2” on the one-to-ten scale.
I delve deeper and deeper into the lives of my pioneer ladies, looking for common ground which begins to leap from the pages. When Virginia Grainger and her friends weren’t besieged by weather-related difficulties, they pondered problems as varied and timely as childcare, race relations, alcohol and drug addiction, gangs, health care, drug trafficking, equal pay for equal work, even the problems of having children of different ethnic backgrounds in the same classroom.
Childcare was particularly straightforward; children were tied to chairs, bed posts, wagon wheels, looms; all of which was preferable to the alternative-if left at large they ran the risk of falling into the fire or the river. The question wasn’t, To Tie or Not To Tie, but How To Tie. There was the exception of a Pierce County, Washington woman whose husband had been the sheriff. She had her spouse bring home a convict Indian shackled to a ball and chain to mind her children while she edited the local suffragist newsletter, The Echo. Why, I wonder, a convict Indian? I become hungry for these lost minutiae of the past and start constructing poems around gems such as this.
The reminiscences of one-room schoolteachers beckon to me. My counterparts in the nineteenth century preferred buildings with thatched roofs, because thatched roofs gave them clout. The professor, as they were called, pulled thrashing rods from the ceiling any time a discipline problem arose. Otherwise, he/she was advised to keep a bundle of hazelnut sticks in all four corners of the room. Why hazelnut? Another lost tidbit cries out to me to be saved and resurrected. Hazelnut, I find out, because after the first strike, the switch returns to its original position and the second, third, and forth blows have as much sting as the first.
Of particular interest to me are the elderly who were interviewed by the WPA Federal Writer’s Project in the 1930s. What strikes me about these memoirs is the comparisons made between the deprivations of the 1930s and the privations of the interviewee’s post Civil War recession childhoods. The respondents all seemed to be of one mind and that mind was that though they had suffered economic losses after the stock market crash in 1928, their lives during “these recent troubles” were plentiful as compared to their childhoods. As children they had had nothing. The difference between the late 1860s and the 1930s was that as children, it felt as if we all had nothing alike, that there was not the wide (and widening) discrepancy between the haves and have nots. That snippet of language, we all had nothing alike, jumped at me and stuck in my head together with other fragments of language. One of my favorite snippets from the WPA Federal Writers Project archives is: ” If you don’t worry the bottle of Blue Ruin [corn liquor], you’ll never mistake pig weed for amaranth.”
The isolation of farm life often makes me want to reach for the bottle of Blue Ruin myself. Gazing at the fallen mastodon spruce in my back pasture, I settle for another dozen lemon bars instead of hot tea spiked with Jim Beam. The big question is how many treats to eat before trudging out to try to fix the smashed fence and how many to save for afterwards. The dead souls whose voices have begun to haunt me had no local bakery; indeed, no mercantile for hundreds of miles, no credit or currency if they did, and no antibiotics to treat their TB or pneumonia, no tetanus or typhoid vaccine, and no running water, except for a creek which, like my pond, froze over several months of the year. When things failed, the answer was try again, try harder, because failure could spell death-what we in the later half of the twentieth century have euphemized down to the bland Saltine wafer of “collateral damage.” And it is here in the area of problem-solving that my common ground gives way. The residents of yesteryear were better problem solvers than their descendents. Today our all too common solution seems to be: buy a new one, buy more.
I begin reading for problem solving, finding lots of inspiration but, as I suspected, little common ground. Also I begin visiting my hundred-yearold neighbor and get more inspiration. Her father had raised horses which he sold to miners outside of Boise. Three days before she was born, the family’s house burned down. On a snowy February evening, my neighbor came into this world in a stallion’s stall. Bud, the stallion, had been moved in with a mare. My neighbor said that her mother once told her that the thing she remembered most about the birth was the mare rubbing her tail against the wall next to her. This kernel of information was one of the only tidbits she had from her mother, who died of heart failure while scrubbing the floor when my neighbor was only six. Her father’s new wife bloodied her with a stick for no reason when no one was looking. My neighbor imparts these stories to me while her daughters drop in to praise the afghan she’s been crocheting. When they leave she lowers her voice and tells me about what happened when she went to live with her older sister. My neighbor had been sent to work in her brother-in-law’s trading post, sorting apples and potatoes. In her words, the brother-in-law was always trying to get her to himself and feel where her breasts would be. He told my neighbor that if she said anything to her sister about these “touchings,” it would kill her. The brother-in-law was held in high esteem in the community. And for this reason, my neighbor tells me, she never put much stake in public opinion. She tells me this story many times with never a word altered and never a relative within hearing. It feels as if she cannot take this story to her grave, but even at age one hundred has not found a confessor. My unspoken thoughts tell her: I will be your witness.
Shortly after my electricity and well and shower and heat are restored, I discover that the daughter of one of Virginia Grainger’s neighbors is still living, age one hundred and one, and I decide to visit her. I couldn’t call on Signe on a Monday, she told me when I telephoned to arrange an interview, because she works Mondays at a rest home, teaching ladies how to knit receiving blankets for newborns. She lives alone, making dolls in her spare time. When I arrive at her sparkling clean apartment, I admire the photo of her 100th birthday celebration on the table next to me. “That’s my good dress,” Signe says of the navy blue velvet, semi-formal gown she wears while seated at a table heaped with flowers and surrounded by relatives. Signe raised seven children alone. Her husband worked building boats at the Tacoma docks during and after World War I. When he deserted the family, she sold the milk cow and yearling calf for one hundred-and-fifty dollars in order to buy a house, because no one would rent to a single mother. No milk, but they had a roof over their heads and saved apple parings from the tree in the front yard to make vinegar. After Signe had put all her children through the University or vocational college, she went to nursing school. When she graduated, she bought herself a good dress-ten dollars, a terrible extravagance at the time. But she just had to have it, she told me, because it was the same midnight blue of the early hours of Armistice. On the eve of the end of the First World War, her only daughter had gone out with a friend and not come home. The neighbors had found the girls playing on the swings at the schoolhouse. “Do you think those children would be found alive today?” She asks me, then continues; “I’m still not over the fright. And when I saw that dress in the same color as the evening sky the night they found my daughter safe, I just had to have it.” Signe points to herself in the framed photo of her hundredth birthday party and asks if I’d like to see her gown. I’m speechless. I think of my many closets of clothes. I think of my now seemingly ridiculously unimportant poem about shopping at Nordstrom’s.
On the two-hour drive home from visiting Signe, my troubles pale into a realm beyond the trivial. Instead of writing a novel about a woman silver miner, or poems concerning the life of a gentleman farmer, I decide to become a miner for the forgotten minutiae of everyday life of the past, for Common Ground, for snippets of lost language. These set the pitch for the chorus of voices ringing between my ears. Virginia Grainger and her neighbors speak to me, their trials flowing out through my pen. I know about isolation and cold weather and endless hours of chores. Virginia and her contemporaries often wrote about these in their diaries-or later in reminiscences-with the lack of emotion of someone composing a grocery list. But my eye is keen and I pry out the tokens of abuse, the marks of addiction, and the theater-of-the-absurd logic of dysfunction. Under careful scrutiny the messages my foremothers scrawled between the lines of their diaries become more and more clear. What was it that washed these women’s souls of the dust of everyday life? I imagine their confessions and then I start to write in the first person in a voice I choose to own, but a voice not my own.
Mythology of Modern Death. *** Jana Harris’s seventh and most recent book of poetry, The Dust of Everyday Life (Sasquatch Press, 1998), won the 1998 Andres Berger Award for Poetry. Her second novel, The Pearl of Ruby City, was published by St. Martin’s in 1998. *** Jeffrey