My memoir students and I have been talking a lot about the flexibility of the genre. I asked them recently whether a memoir must always be a work of literary prose or if we might find memoirs ensconced in other forms of art. What about Sally Mann’s intimate photographs collected in Immediate Family, or Jonathan Caouette’s self-reflexive documentary, Tarnation, or Margaret Cho’s autobiographical stand-up comedy, I’m the One that I Want? Are these memoirs, too, other ways of mobilizing what Paul John Eakin calls “the self-referential arts”?
And of course poets have been engaged in the self-referential arts since long before memoir was a recognized genre. Who are the poet-memoirists among us?
My bright and eager graduate students at Florida International University name many poets who write lyric and narrative memoirs arranged in lines and stanzas instead of sentences and paragraphs. Some of the poet-memoirists they name have graduated from our MFA program. One was this year’s inaugural poet, Richard Blanco.
After reading Blanco’s most recent book, Looking for The Gulf Motel, I am struck by how this poet moves beyond the merely self-referential into the truest and hardest work a memoirist can do—plumbing both the depths and the reliability of memory itself.
Take, for instance, the haunting refrain from Blanco’s title poem, “There should be nothing here I don’t remember…” The italics suggest the urgency of recollection, while the ellipses suggest the inherent incompleteness of this task. In these poems, Blanco scours his memory of the past, committed to its artful resurrection:
My brother and I should still be playing Parcheesi,
my father should still be alive, slow dancing
with my mother on the sliding-glass balcony
of the Gulf Motel. No music, only the waves
keeping time, a song only their minds hear
ten-thousand nights back to their life in Cuba.
My mother’s face should still be resting against
his bare chest like the moon resting on the sea,
the stars should still be turning around them.
At the same time, in this poem, the repetition of the word should reveals the speaker’s anger at loss, his longing for a past that survives into the present. “I should still be eight years old/ dazzled by seashells and how many seconds/ I hold my breath underwater—but I’m not,” the speaker says, his long dash like a startled wake from a dream. “I am thirty-eight, driving up Collier Boulevard,/looking for The Gulf Motel, for everything/ that should still be, but isn’t.” We understand now as readers that The Gulf Motel is a metonym, proxy for all that remains only in memory. The poem closes with what might be read as a memoirist’s rallying cry: “I want to find The Gulf Motel exactly as it was/ and pretend for a moment, nothing lost is lost.”
Why write memoir unless you wish to somehow un-lose your greatest loss?
In one of my favorite poems from the collection, “Of Consequence, Inconsequently,” Blanco reaches for another of the memoirist’s most valuable tools: imagination. He writes:
A bearded shepherd in a gray wool vest,
a beret lowered to his brow, that’s how
my blood has always imagined the man
who was my great-grandfather, his eyes
hazel, I was told once.
Blanco describes his ancestors who he cannot remember—men and women living before he was
born—telling the reader, “I can only imagine.” Yet he can do more, as all memoirists can. He can remember and imagine, and he can also wonder at what might have been:
But what if they’d never met, what color
would my eyes be? Who would I be now
had they gone to Johannesburg instead,
or Maracaibo, or not left Sevilla at all?
Into what seas would I have cast thoughts,
what other cities would I’ve drowned in?
Memoirists don’t only recall and recreate; they speculate about the past and draw their own conclusions. Blanco tells his readers confidingly, the words soft in our ears like a whisper:
I’d like to believe I’ve willed every detail
of my life, but I’m a consequence, a drop
of rain, a seed fallen by chance, here
in the middle of a story I don’t know,
having to finish it and call it my own.
Why write memoir unless you wish to somehow finish the impossible story of your life?
My undergraduates tell me you must be very sad or very troubled to write a memoir. Either that, or something terribly exciting must have happened to you, they say.
“Some memoirs are like that,” I reply. “Some memoirs read like action movies—lots of car chases and steamy love scenes. But some are quiet, contemplative. The memoirist seeks to understand a younger version of himself or laments the passing of someone beloved.”
In “Love as if Love,” Blanco explores sexual orientation, not as something static, but as a form of self-knowledge that evolves over time: “Before I dared kiss a man, I kissed/ Elizabeth,” he tells us. “She sang/until I wasn’t afraid of her loose hair,/ the scent of lilacs creased in her neck,/ her small bones in the space between her breasts, until I dared undress her.” There is such tenderness in this poem, and such curiosity toward both of them, the “woman old enough to know songs/ I didn’t” and the way this younger self held Elizabeth in his arms, “loving her as if I could love her.”
In the final poems of the book, Blanco embraces what seems the memoirist’s universal penchant for mourning and homage. All memoirs, I believe, are elegies in some form to the past, to the fallibility of memory and the burden of mortality. Blanco’s titles reflect his turn toward requiem: “Remembering What Tia Noelia Can’t,” “Unspoken Elegy for Tia Cucha,” “Burning in the Rain,” “Place of Mind,” and “Since Unfinished.” How true to the nature of memoir that Blanco concludes with a poem that addresses the inability to capture it all, to get everything down and everything right. Here he introduces a new refrain—“I’ve been writing this since”—and the since leaps backward and forward in time to these “forever works-in-progress,” Blanco’s life and poems, and Blanco’s life-in-poems, both of which are always full and always incomplete.
As a reader, I want to give a good and true answer when Blanco speaks to Cousin Elena but seems also to be speaking to me:
it’s true, we’re everything we remember,
tell me memories never fail us, tell me
we take them with us, that I’ll take you
with me, and you’ll take me with you.
Why write memoir unless you accept that some promises cannot be made, some questions cannot be answered?