In order to explicate my concept of the writer’s life and a writer’s relationship to writing, I have created an imagined conversation between Nicole Cooley, author of a book of poetry titled, The Afflicted Girls, and Rita Dove, who also wrote a novelistic collection of poetry called, Sonata Mulattica:
Rita is lying down on a tapestry sheet in the middle of a rolling hill in Ireland. She rests her head on the knee of Nicole, who is sitting cross-legged with Octavio Paz’s The Other Voice opened on her other knee. They are enjoying a pleasant, sunny day, respite during a long intermission of a writer’s symposium. Rita stares out to one of very few white, puffy clouds, the shape of which seems to form the letter A.
Through soft, earnest expressiveness, Rita begins an intimate conversation with Nicole: “I love your poem ‘An Alphabet of Lessons for Girls.’ Since the abecedarian is an ancient poetic form, it makes total sense that you would use it to portray the way you imagined that Puritan girls learned the alphabet. When you later make it clear that ‘No girls in Salem Village are allowed to go to school’ and ‘No girls can hold / a writing tablet on their laps,’ I recognize the value in placing the abecedarian, which depicts the isolating and restraining positions of their lives, four poems prior to ‘The Afflicted Girls’ (Cooley, 3). They were refused education, but what they would’ve learned to read and write would’ve been words that taught them how their society viewed them as inferior. It was one of your ways of revealing the mysteriousness within documented history.”
When Nicole pauses her reading to respond to Rita, she does not lift her eyes, the color of which changes enigmatically in response to the elocution of Rita’s voice, or the cadence of her own words delivered so beautifully by Rita’s poetic timbre. Nicole’s irises shift from a charcoal-blue to hazel with hints of sharp greens and blues streaking out form her pupils.
“Thank you, friend. Yes. I was motivated by the idea that these girls did not have the opportunity nor the ability to document their own experiences, so what we see depicted in history books is the memory of others. In this way, it’s as if the girls are not the others or the unknowns. They may not have been able to write or speak about their lives, but they were valuable enough for others to write about. Their lives represented the central theme for an entire culture that has been archived in history. They are the people who actually matter most, and my goal was to expose them as the central characters which the others clung to in order to make history happen. They represented the mystery which their persecutors instinctively desired. They were the mystery that became history’s tacit partner. And this reminds me, Rita, didn’t you do the same type of thing by exploring George’s life when you stated in ‘Prologue of the Rambling Sort’ that ‘This is a story / about music and what it does to those / who make it, whom it enslaves….yes, / slavery of all kinds enters into the mix’ (Dove, 21 )?”
Rita’s glossy, plump lips slowly part. Still fixated on the shape-shifting clouds, her pupils slightly dilate, momentarily shrinking her rich mahogany irises. “Hmmm, yes. I think you’re right. I see what you mean. Your afflicted girls were enslaved, but the people that caused their slavery were actually binding themselves to a history that they felt the need to create, a history that caused mystery to live inside it; and it was the girls they needed in order to create the history in the first place. The girls were more valuable to their history, even if they couldn’t read or write. Their lives provided the value in the history that the Puritans of Salem felt compelled to create. So, without George, what source of inspiration, whether innocent or corrupted, would Beethoven have used in order to create his Kreutzer Sonata? Beethoven needed an enemy to work against, his yang, if you will, and George, who ‘played the Viotti Concerto / with an eloquence and refinement / rarely delivered by his more celebrated seniors’ couldn’t have been a better source (Dove, 41). A young Mulatto musical prodigy was an extraordinary and mysterious person to witness during that time. And just who would the rest of the society use as their punching bag or their villain, if not George? How would history have achieved such mysterious developments without George? George was invaluable to Beethoven’s history as well as the rest of society’s, whether they wanted to admit it.”
Nicole shifts the leg which holds the book steady. She bends it upward, so that her bare boney knee, slightly exposed by her rolled-up blue-jeans, faces the sky. As she glances back to see what Nicole is doing, Rita’s shoulder-length straightened dark hair falls loosely onto Nicole’s leg. Nicole’s sun-touched face does not turn from her book. Rita swiftly returns her gaze at the passing clouds.
Nicole brushes her long brown hair to the side with a contemplative sigh. “So, both of our books are based on the concept that the unknowns are the more valuable part of history than the others whose perspectives where selected for historical data. The others within our books become those who created the historical accounts or those who succeeded in making it into the history books; and the most valuable and significant figures become the people that once were depicted as the marginalized others. They become the heroic figures of history instead of the victims, if only because of their mystery. Actually, though, both opposing groups were enslaved together. I try to convey that both opposing groups were involved in history and mystery making together by using similar language or language that agrees with the rest of the language in the book. I think, by doing this, I’ve also silenced my own voice, melding it into their history, taking it on as my own, since it cannot be anything otherwise. I think you do that as well.”
Rita turns her head to catch a glimpse of a yellow bird pecking the soil underneath the velvety grass. She wonders about this bird, its origins, its home, its offspring chirping and bouncing in some nearby Yew tree, or was it just a visitor, like them, to the grass, the soil, the roots.
Slowly, Rita responds: “Yes. My poetry within the book is primarily lyrical, and there are several occasions where I use white space to convey the musicality inherent to the violinist prodigy, like in ‘Recollection, Preempted.’ As a musician and lover of music, it felt natural for me to write the narrator’s pieces musically, as well. Music’s history is my history. Heck, it’s our history, not just those of that time period. And isn’t music full of mystery, too?”
Pausing to adjust her legs, bending the left perpendicular to the clouds, like Nicole’s, and relaxing the right against the cushiony sheet covered grass, Rita continues: “I enjoyed your use of white space within ‘Archival: Silence. I imagined you cracking open an ancient, historical book with ‘the string holding the broken / spine together.’ The white space between ‘together’ and ‘Then I wait’ has such a powerful effect on the rest of the poem, which ends with ‘History choked me History took hold / of my throat’ (Cooley, 1). History choked me, too. At least, it stopped me. It gave me a reason to write, if I needed one. I became entirely captivated by the mystery of George, history’s mystery. I was suspended by it, or in it. You’re reading Octavio Paz’s The Other Voice, right?’All poets in the moments, long or short, of poetry, if they are really poets, hear ‘the other voice.’ It is their own, someone else’s, no one else’s, and everyone’s. Nothing distinguishes a poet from other men and women but those moments – rare yet frequent – in which, beginning themselves, they are other. The possession of strange forces and powers, the sudden emergence of a store of psychic knowledge buried in the most private depths of their being, or is it a singular ability to associate words, images, sounds, forms’ (Paz, 151 )?”
Nicole quickly shuffles to the page. Pauses.
With abrupt enthusiasm, Nicole exclaims: “Exactly! I have a quote of my own to share from his book: ‘The function of poetry for the last two hundred years has been to remind us of their existence (the hidden and buried realities that caused cataclysmic failure of revolutionaries’ plans); the poetry of tomorrow cannot do otherwise. Its mission will not be to provide new ideas but to announce what has been obstinately forgotten for centuries. Poetry is memory become image, and image become voice. ‘The other voice’ is not the voice from beyond the grave: it is that of man fast asleep in the heart of hearts of mankind. It is a thousand years old and as old as you and I, and it has not yet been born’ (Paz, 155). Isn’t this what we were after? Isn’t it this voice that captures and possesses the feeling, imagery, voice and the very essence of those buried realities and people within our history? Aren’t we motivated by it? By the mystery?”
Rita notices the bird flitting away, a worm dangling from the side of its beak, but she does not follow it with her eyes. She continues her long gaze at the grassy area from which the bird had captured its prey. She wonders how many more worms call that hole home. She wants to open her mouth around it. Maybe she can suck them in, like the bird, for the mystery of it. Out from her meditative pause, she squeezes a response: “Yes. Indeed, my friend.”
Nicole watches Rita staring at the grass. She is curious, too, wondering what Rita is staring at, wondering what she is thinking, wondering about what must’ve been there, now gone from sight.
Nicole places her veiny hand, palm downward, onto the pages of her book, as if she is swearing in on the Bible. While she responds, she continues watching Rita and the landscape, captivating her thoughts. “It’s the reason that I was motivated to write almost every poem, even those that depict or are dedicated to the depiction of my antagonists, with the significant presence of the women, like in ‘John Winthrop, ‘Reasons to be Considered for . . .the Intended Plantation in New England,’ 1629′ where the last line reads ‘Remember that the Invisible World is full of women’ (Cooley, 2). Even if you can’t see them, even if their voice isn’t prominent within the textbooks, for me, ‘the other voice’ was provoking me to portray all of that particular historical time frame hinging on the presence of women. Mistreated or not, without women, without their lives, and their voices, absent or present, history could not have been created at all.
Rita rests her chin on her chest. The sun spray on her cheeks illuminates the elegance of her creamy brown skin. She stares out to the city below. She thinks of George. She thinks of music. She thinks of women. Then, as if her thoughts were like slick glaciers sliding one on top of the other, she responds with aplomb: “I like that, Nicole. Can I see that book for a moment?”
Rita curiously flips through the pages.
“Nicole, this quote written by Paz describes exactly what we’ve accomplished, doesn’t it?: ‘The operative mode of poetic thought is imagining, and imagination consists, essentially, of the ability to place contrary or divergent realities in relationship. All poetic forms and all linguistic figures have one thing in common: they seek, and often find, hidden resemblances. In the most extreme cases, they unite opposites. Comparisons, analogies, metaphors, metonymies, and the other devices of poetry – all tend to produce images in which this and that, the one and the other, the one and the many are joined. The poetic process conceives of language as an animated universe traversed by a dual current of attraction and repulsion’ (Paz, 158).”
Nicole spaces out her words in concentration: “Yes. Yes it does. Everything and everyone requires an opposite in order to create conflict or re-imagine conflict, which itself reveals and creates the landscape for the buried realities to perform, for mystery to wiggle inside the mouth of a yellow bird. Kudos, Rita!”
Rita turns her head upward and smiles at Nicole.
Nicole returns Rita’s smile with a cool, pleasing grin, one side of her lower lip slightly drooping. She says, “So, then, what’s our story? Is there a secret possibility that you may go all Beethovenish on me?”
Rita, curtly chuckles. “Nah, girl! We cool like that. Let’s go get a beer and flirt with the barmaid.”
At the bar, Rita and Nicole recite an excerpt from Paz’s book.
Rita begins: “’Everything seeks everything, without purpose, without end, without cease. The relationship between (wo)man and poetry is as old as our history: it began when human beings began to be human’ (Paz, 159). Poetry is the yellow bird. It’s the cloud forming the letter A.”
Nicole continues: “’The first hunters and gatherers looked at themselves in astonishment one day, for an interminable instant, in the still waters of a poem. Since that moment, people have not stopped looking at themselves in the mirror’ (Paz, 159). Poetry is the worm. It’s the hole.”
Rita chimes in: “’And they have seen themselves, at one and the same time, as creators of images and as images of their creations. For that reason I can say, with a modicum of certainty, that as long as there are people, there will be poetry’ (Paz, 159 – 160). It’s the baby birds chirping, hungry in a Yew tree. It’s their mother dropping bits into their mouths.”
Nicole responds to the music of Rita’s diction: “’The relationship, however, may be broken. Born of the human imagination, it may die if imagination dies or is corrupted’ (Paz, 160). The worm cannot die if we discover it first. We cup the hole. Place our mouths around it. We are the baby birds, too.”
Together, Rita and Nicole enunciate their melodious incantations: “’If human beings forget poetry, they will forget themselves. And return to original chaos’ (Paz, 159).”
Rita abruptly turns her head inward toward Nicole. Her face squeezes in a pose of perplexity: “Girl, did you hear that?”
Bewildered, yet relaxed from slight intoxication, Nicole blurts out: “What? Shit! Just got beer on my blouse!”
“Hush, Nicole!” Rita says sternly, still frozen in position, her left hand wrapped around her beer glass.
Frantically patting her silky white blouse with an already soaked bar napkin, Nicole snaps back: “You hush! What are you talkin’ about, hush?”
Rita huffs, annoyed by Nicole’s shoulder bumping into her left arm. Her normally wide, smooth brow, now sustaining a deep v-shaped crease, Rita desperately desires a moment of silence so that she can focus. “No. I’m serious! Nicole, listen.”
Nicole, slightly amused, her lips in a hesitant smile, and her pointy shin pivoting downward, yet with a seriously quizzical look across her eyes, responds slowly: “You hearin’ ‘the other voice’ right now? Don’t you know I’m the one who wrote ‘The book is a voice trying to speak’ (Cooley, 46)?”
Rita stares meditatively into her half-empty glass. She imagines that she hears George reciting from her poem “The Performer: The Finale”:
If this world could stop / for a moment / and see me; / if I could step out / into the street and become / one of them, / one of anything, / I would sing- / no, weep right here-to simply / be and be and be….
Under her breath, but just so Nicole can hear, Rita responds: “I hear you, Georgie Boy. This one’s for you:
‘Mirror of the fraternity of the cosmos, the poem is a model of what human society might be’ (Paz, 158).”
She smiles lovingly, longingly, wishfully. Nicole gulps the remainder of her beer after holding the glass outward in salutation to George. The bar scene fades in the light of history and sweet mystery .
Andrea Collins, “Tough Girl”