High School Confessional, Part Two

     The idea of fact-checking poetry is an anathema: poets are granted leeway in the telling of their stories and confessional poets aren’t put in the dock or called to account for their lies. Lynn Crosbie’s Liar is a notorious book, partly because of its transgressions in the confessional, but also because of its transgressions of the confessional. When it was published in 2006, people knew parts of the story Crosbie was telling. The one-sidedness of the book’s version added to its notoriety. It’s not for me to fact-check a book penned by a woman scorned (perhaps the only good thing about Vaughan’s found poetry is that the letters from the CPSO are indisputably real legal documents), but it’s fair to say that poetry tends to make the most of detail, emphasizing some over others. It’s in the nature of poetry to concentrate, to elide, to unfairly juxtapose. And with a book bottled as a tell-all, the manner of the telling is paramount.

    Certainly Crosbie is very intelligent –-although I object to the tone of her poetic novel Paul’s Case for example, only a fool would think it wasn’t written well. And the poems in Liar do occasionally lose their aggrieved air long enough to concern themselves as poetry, and not as diary or indictment. But that said, the telling of this “tell-all” is faithful, if such a word can be used, only to Lynn Crosbie. Liar is ostensibly about Crosbie’s long-term relationship with a former lover and how that relationship came to an end. I usually don’t quibble with jacket copy, but when the words  “emotional honesty” and “love poem” appear, I expect exactly that. Liar is a love poem? Honestly?

     Perhaps the honesty lies in Crosbie’s unwitting self-awareness. The first page of the book mentions “some awful memory of what it is to be possessed of one’s self, entirely.” This is the equivalent of a factory whistle: confessional poets divulge their natures to compromise themselves for the sake of art; the performance must be controlled to impose an artistic order upon unruly, self-inflicted pain. Yet a reference to such a process, on page one, completely undercuts the purported factuality of the book. In being possessed by one’s self, the poet best possesses their own art; but it’s solipsism at bottom. One can’t know another human being when in such a state, for in knowing another, one must make accommodations. If one is in love, the kind of love Crosbie professes, then it is a love with oneself, a dangerous place for a confessional poet to be.

     But in reading so many passages like the aforementioned, it’s hard to know just how intentional such statements are. The reader hears the same self-satisfied snarl on every page, building to something truly malignant at the end. There is a definite intentionality occurring, but the potential for such statements to be read doubly, to be used against the poet, suggests Crosbie is incriminating herself in the most aesthetically compromising way possible. The target is the “lover”; the question is whether anything resembling love ever existed. At one point Crosbie alludes to a “monstrous integrity,” another example of her blurting out the truth – integrity is indeed monstrous when bound between vindictive pages.

     Part of establishing this “monstrous integrity” is portraying the ex-lover as wholly culpable, a philanderer, a liar. This is a confessional, after all, but a reverse one. The ex-lover’s porn habits are mentioned, as is his affairs with students, and his physical intimidation of a seventy year old. But the narrator doesn’t let herself off the hook. This is the other part of establishing integrity, the old trick of confessing a few minor sins so as to complicate the simplistic Crosbie-as-wronged persona. Crosbie depicts herself snorting cocaine and, in a single, detail-light fragment – in contrast to the serial cheating of the man-whore ex-lover – she mentions that she has also been unfaithful. This is, of course, an insurance policy.

     So is Liar honest? Maybe. There are of course two sides to every story. Is it a “love poem”?  Or, more to the point, is it a poem? It is really more a series of vignettes, incidents that are somehow symbolic of the failed relationship, fragments that focus on an embarrassing habit or statement of the former lover. Elsewhere, Crosbie uses the ubiquitous symbol of dying flowers or trees, and then throws in abstractions about love. It’s altogether too easy to pick from the book, as if at random, dead lines pestled together in the convenient form of a prose poem. Instead, it’s better to select an affecting passage in an effort to prove that Crosbie did actually love the poor guy.

I do not admit that you have ruined me,
that you changed my life,
as though swinging an axe.
That it is a combination of religion and drugs that walks me
from day to day,
discolouring my heart further,
as far as I have come.
It would surprise you, how seldom I think of you,
imagining you at this moment is like setting a radio dial to static,
a short, miscalculated wave.
not hating you as much as what you have done-
you could be anyone.
anyone who decides, for reasons unknown, to slide a blade inside his pocket,
whose cruelty is pointed yet arcane.

    This is the kind of stuff brainy grade-school girls write to purge their heartache. It’s affecting because of the actual anti-honesty: one can’t read Liar and not know that Crosbie was ruined, or at least wrecked, by her loss. There’s the anti-honesty of the cliché: being “ruined” by love, a life being “changed” by love. When poets resort to cliché, their art is failing, but their hearts are beating hard. The use of the word “heart” suggests we’re devolving even further, or at least getting more anti-honest: Crosbie is grieving, she’s heart-struck, even as she claims she isn’t. Again, this is the rage of adolescents: I love you I hate you I need you I don’t want to see you again. Consider the phrase “It would surprise you”: it’s the stock sentiment the spurned have when confronting their lovers, as if to tell them that they don’t matter anymore. The only successful poetic device in the passage, the simile of “setting the radio dial to static”, is either a stroke of genius or the kind of success poets have by accident. Crosbie reduces the former lover to a “short, miscalculated wave”, but when a radio is set to static, the resultant sound is blared until the dial itself is changed. Finally, the “reasons unknown” bit causes me to once again suspect Crosbie is aware her unskilled approach has great fidelity with the truly unskilled, the legions of adolescent girls who cannot accept rejection. For a poet to use such a dull utterance at the same time as suspecting her own role in those “reasons” is incredible; and then calling the ex-lover cruel while writing a book meant to embarrass him and complicate his future relationships further suggests that Crosbie has gone beyond caring about knowing what she’s doing.

     Later, after the reader has apprehended the book entire, Crosbie says “I had stopped keeping diaries, because of their sameness,/ their false authenticity,” and again one doesn’t know if she’s serious (and therefore oblivious) or winking. But after what I’ve cited already, and much I haven’t, one concludes that, either way, she’s wrong. The lack of judgment displayed by writing evilly about the former lover’s subsequent wedding to another woman is proof enough. No one, ever, should do this. When is revenge enough? Even a diary would be ashamed.

     But in the end, the poor ethical judgements and sanctimony underlying Troubled and Liar should not distract anyone from their poetic failure. Their chief failing is that, as collections of poetry, these books are just not very good. I suspect they were doomed for the cause of poetry at the stage of conception for two concluding reasons:

(1) A story about a failed relationship has to be generous to the other side; bitterness sinks poetry. If the objective is to publicly assume a boring victimhood, poetry will resist. There must be a genuine open-mindedness at work to reward the reader’s trust and render the pain as credible. Further, there must be joy as well as pain, love as well as hate, for the rejection to matter. Words must be devoted as well to the value of what has been lost; if it was only suffering and deception from beginning to end, then what is the great loss that demands to be written about?

(2) One has to take care of the story itself. For a book to be a book, and not a recapitulation of the same idea over dozens of duplicate poems, there can’t be a static scream, one long note of pain at the same pitch. Readers want growth. For books like these, owing so much in terms of their form to prose, to succeed they have to also adopt prose’s narrative strategy. Collections with individual poems don’t have to tell a story. But collections that are stories, must.    

— Shane Neilson