By Alice Beecher
In today’s literary universe, the distinction between narrative and poetry is blurry at best. Last week at the FAVA gallery, Sylvia Watanabe hosted a reading with two renowned poets—Christine Gelaneau and Lee Upton—with the aim of examining the ways in which poetry permeates narrative and narrative permeates poetry. Seated amongst gorgeous paintings and tapestries, the gallery provided the audience with an apt setting to contemplate the integration of art forms.
Lee Upton, a widely honored poetry and prose writer, began the night by reading an excerpt from her novel What Doesn’t Kill You Makes Me Stronger. The novel is centered around a “strength healing” camp in the Pokonos in Pennsylvania. Though I think it is easy to satirize such self-serious and new-agey organizations, Upton’s humor and wisdom made the material feel fresh and relevant. Anselm, the central character, has had a succession of bad jobs and is mourning the recent death of his father. He works for a slightly bogus historical society and has trouble believing in the psychic healing practices the camp promotes.
Upton’s writing is full of clever, sharp one liner’s that illuminate the hypocrisy and desperation of the kind of people who go to such mid-life crisis centers. Some of my favorites were “women – they speak another language…like a language without words” and “he could tell himself everything had been a choice.” These poignant (if occasionally confused and sad) platitudes reflect the characters’ struggle to arrive at a sense authenticity and agency in lives gone sour too early. None of the characters know how to communicate clearly or openly—rumors circulate that Anselm is here for an addiction to bestiality; Anselm himself is detached from everyone he interacts with. In fact, Anselm’s “insecure attachment to human beings” is not from some perverted fetish, but is instead rooted in his inability to cope with his father’s death and the slower, spiritual death of his own middle aged disappointment. Lee’s grabbing, consistent prose kept these existential crises from getting too weighty, yet her sense of humor does not limit the richness of her characters, with all their complex desires and vulnerabilities.
Christine Gelaneau, the second speaker that night is a poet and essayist whose work has received numerous awards and accolades, including her recent collection, “Appetite for the Divine”. Drawing on the theme off narrative in poetry and poetry in narrative, Gelaneau read us two poetry/prose pairings that each dealt with the same subject using different forms. The first piece, which described the relationship between her husband and their family farm, drew its strength from long bare descriptions and unadorned, poignantly specific language. However, I felt that the poem-version of this piece was more evocative in portraying the emotional currents embedded in their relationship to this farm. I think this was in part because the rhythmic cadence and tactile metaphors she employed more viscerally reflected the rhythms and physicality of life on the farm itself. Sensuous images such as “rollers tight as a tourniquet/the memory of his wisdom/tight in his arms” reflected not only the facts of life on the farm, but the emotional pulse of all those who lived there.
Gelaneau’s writing balances specifically rendered natural imagery/depictions of range life with larger meditations on birth, death, and violence. She writes of both “a west I knew only in books and Saturday morning TV” and the “disappeared” peoples of Argentina who were displaced by a military junta, stories about selling horses and Jews jumping out of Munchausen, a labor camp in Austria. The range of her subject matter reflects the range of her writing itself, which veers from terse, spare prose to incredibly lush and evocative poetry. In describing her writing process, Gelaneau explained that she draws on ancient texts to tie together the threads of these small and large human stories, since these “centuries-old narratives shape who we are and how we treat the natural world.” I think this advice is inspiring and helpful to all young writers, myself included, in that it reminds us that we are part of a larger literary history. We are not lonely in our desire to write things down – the narratives we create in our own stories do not spring out of nowhere, but in fact are inextricably tied to this universal impulse to organize and dramatize the emotional currents of human life.