High School Confessional, Part One

“They are always in love.” (from Liar)

     In poetry, the confessional mode no longer commands the attention it once did. Simply writing about drug abuse, mental illness, and sex isn’t enough to excite us anymore. Lowell, Sexton, the rest: they came, they conquered. An obvious strategy a poet hungry for notoriety might adopt now is to push the confessional boundaries even further, to tell of things yet darker and more disturbing. Liar by Lynn Crosbie and Troubled by R. M. Vaughan have not received the attention they fully deserve for what they revealed about the limits of this strategy. Their failure as works of art suggests that the self-indulgent, confessional mode has, perhaps, met the natural end of all modes or styles: grotesque parody. While no subject is taboo for poetry, intensely personal subject matter by itself does not constitute poetry. Having the fearlessness to expose one’s personal life is not an artistic achievement. The raw material must be transmuted into poetry and in this most fundamental requirement, both Vaughan and Crosbie fail utterly.

     RM Vaughan’s book about the sexual abuse perpetrated by his psychiatrist at least establishes the fact that Vaughan was done a great wrong. What should have been kept sacred –the doctor-patient relationship— was compromised and defiled. Vaughan took appropriate actions to report this misconduct and the reprehensible doctor was punished for his transgressions. But beyond that, the ethics of Troubled are troubling. The guilty doctor is demonized, rendered simplistically as merely bad, an abuser, and never portrayed as a flawed human being. For example, nowhere is the murk of real life (and therefore the murk of poetry) avoided more than when in one of the many “Session” poems the psychiatrist is transformed into a snake and the speaker is left to “grow used to the hiss inside.” Further, the speaker asserts that:

The privileged are never vulnerable
to complexities, to rhythms more symphonic
than the clomp-clomp of high-saddle sense.

     Unfortunately this simplistic thinking about “the privileged” informs the sensibility of the book as a whole. It never occurs to the narrator that the doctor might have regretted his actions, that he too felt pain. Instead, the chief aim of Troubled is to sanctify Vaughan’s status as bona-fide victim. Vaughan’s representations only hint at the complexity which the real-life situations would appear to demand. The doctor was wrong to pervert the patient-doctor relationship, but the speaker, as presented, isn’t exactly a victim. Troubled never owns up to what it can’t help but imply: that the speaker also makes poor choices and is something more than a victim. For example, in the book’s opening poem, the psychiatrist is described in openly sexual terms:

and so, too, his body    a recap
of all the top muscle groups of the nineties- the baseball bicep,
the cleft chest, shoulders like whale backs and a teen waist

This is the poem of their first meeting and it’s hardly innocent. The next poem sexualizes the atmosphere further:

All my embarrassments, summoned, cast on the floor-
runes and bones and shiny stones- our first magic, first sniff
of the glands, presenting of horns.

In fact all of the poems describing the therapy sessions are overtly sexualized:

Of course we touch, palms to forearms   know the linens.
And you are handsome   bullish in the shoulders, box-jawed,
tough below the trunk.

     It is not wrong for the speaker to have sexual desire for his doctor, but it is something less than honest to then portray himself as merely a victim, as powerless, for this book has a vindictive, thrumming power that belies victimhood. Vaughan is no one’s fool; he is an educated man, a successful writer. And the sex itself tells an interesting tale: in “New York Weekend” the sex was “only cock, plain cock.” This cancels out any notion that the speaker bears no complicity in the affair.

     More to the point, the poet must have complicity with poetry and this is the chief aesthetic failing of the book. Vaughan as a poet is not equal to the task. The subject matter defeats him and he commits the classic aesthetic cop-out of citing the facts of the case, unmediated, even inserting actual correspondence between himself and the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario throughout the book. Why would Vaughan want anyone to read these documents? Why would he think they are of interest to the reader? The intention cannot be to suggest that these letters, represented as facsimiles with the doctor’s name redacted, are prose poetry. They can only be viewed as legalese, evidence, exhibits for the prosecution, meant to buttress Vaughan’s case. And about as compelling as you might expect them to be.

    There are actual “poems” in the book.  Vaughan shaves off as many words to a line as he can, so as to barely telegraph meaning. It’s a frequent strategy in the book, as if he took a “make every word count” seminar and decided to make it his religion. This is also from one of the “Session” poems:

So far, similes   palmed coins, shirks, two-steps
In lieu of marches, little shuffles
On hot coals, in army boots   feint work, goldbrick skips.

     Brittle nonsense, but happily and lazily “poetic.” When not carving out the linkages, Vaughan taps out straightforward anecdotes that make one want him to put them in a blender and come up with something resembling the above.

     One speculates on a causal relationship between the ethical failure of the book and its poetic failure. In Troubled, Vaughan publicizes a grief and the only possible motivation is revenge. The speaker feels the doctor was not punished severely enough (in what can be gleaned from the book, the doctor lost his license for several years before being reinstated under restricted conditions) and Vaughan has decided to extra-judicially settle the score. Ironically, once this is understood, the reader can’t help sympathizing to some degree with the doctor, as he is powerless to refute Vaughan’s version of events. He is no doubt subject to strict conditions regarding any contact with, or public mention of, his abused patient. The balance of power has completely shifted, and while the doctor is unquestionably guilty of wrongdoing, there is something unseemly about Vaughan’s one-sided and unrebuttable characterization.

    Vaughan’s motivations become even more questionable when it’s made clear that it was the doctor who ended the relationship after only a few weeks. Simply put, Vaughan was spurned, and this alters completely one’s reception of the book. Finally, in the “Author’s Note” Vaughan claims that the book is an act of forgiveness. It’s difficult to take this statement seriously. In fact, though the college conducted an investigation and determined the doctor had had sex with one patient in his career, the narrator of Troubled is of the conviction “Dr. M” should never practise again. This is a standard that, if applied across the board to all professions, would be impossible to maintain. (Using Vaughan-logic: the drug-addled and mentally ill, should we shuck them too?) Here’s the speaker’s statement on finding that his doctor may be reinstated:

Dr. M- is a skilled manipulator of people, especially the
vulnerable. I should know, as I was deeply and profoundly ma-
nipulated by Dr. M- myself. He perceived the world around
him as a toy, a game, a device to be manipulated to satisfy his
immediate gains.

… I am not a vengeful person, and I do believe that peo-
ple can change and be rehabilitated- not, however, in the case
of Dr. M-.

Vaughan has human charity in him, just not for his abuser. Closer to the truth are these lines from “The Comeback Kid”:

This is what I want to know:
When do my pennies stop dropping
in your best dinner plate? Do you ever toss
coins to beggars and thank me for my taxes, my
nickels and dollars that keep you, plush your pillows,
lacquer your new office, put shoelaces on your brogues,
press your dull shirts, make you respectable again?

    Yes, it’s true: the doctor made money from his lover. Though there’s no mention of the income he lost when his licence was suspended. And Vaughan’s merciless dismissal of the extenuating personal circumstances related to the doctor’s folly – including depression — is, hopefully, not the same attitude Vaughan encountered with the health professionals caring for him in the aftermath of the sexual impropriety. It is true poets make poetry of their experience, but poets must also have awareness and compassion for the feelings of others in order to create a cohesive and affecting piece of art. But there is no room for compassion in Troubled.

     In one of the “prose poem” facsimiles occurring later in the book, a clinical assessment of the speaker by a different psychiatrist, the poet expresses a wish not to be seen as a victim. But that’s really all this book presents him as – selfish, unforgiving, and incapable of considering the situation from any perspective but his own. The word “poison” appears in this book several times, and I think Vaughan has indeed been poisoned by what took place with his doctor. The evidence of this is his book, a book poisoned by anger, bitterness and a host of poor aesthetic decisions.

— Shane Neilson