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My memory

Poetry as memoir

Colleen Higgs

I am fascinated by people's real lives, the choices they make, and the sense they make of their choices and of what happens to them. I am willing to hear friends tell me the same stories again and again, as there is always a new bit that they add. I love to "gossip", because I am deeply interested in people, their motivations and dreams, and as Eudora Welty said, I am interested in "what folks will up and do".

My own poetry is autobiographical, confessional. My collection of poems Halfborn Woman is a kind of memoir. As the blurb on the back says, "Halfborn Woman is a chronicle of a woman's journey towards life and towards wholeness'" Until I had published it and got the responses that I did for the book and my "confessional" poems I felt slightly sheepish, almost ashamed of the fact that it was so personal, so autobiographical. Not that I am the first confessional poet - I am in good company, my elders and betters include Sylvia Plath, Sharon Olds, Dorothy Allison, Adrienne Rich. As RD Laing said in The Divided Self, "We have our secrets and our needs to confess."

The first poem in the collection is called "autobiography" and is after a poem by the same name by the wonderful Turkish writer Nazim Hikmet. It begins:

I was born in 1962
the year after Sharpeville
two years after the Republic was declared
by the Nats
a year before Kennedy was assassinated
in Texas, which at one, I'd never heard of

I like to turn back
it's a compulsion
to look back with longing and regret

I've been a writer since I was eight
but mostly afraid to admit it

Some people know about plants or fish
motor car engines, tooth decay, how to split the atom
I know about absence, loss, grief
they're inked into my cells

I know about the relief of writing
finally to speak the unspeakable
exposing its pale naked tendrils …

All my poems refer to real people and real situations, things I have seen, things I have witnessed, what I have wondered or felt about what has happened to me. I write about my life and my experience of those who are in my life. I write to make up my life, to make sense of my life, to stitch my days and thoughts and feelings into some kind of coherent tapestry. "My eyes die of hunger/ as I make up my life/ look for forgiveness, dream onwards" (from the poem "intentions").

Writing for me is a way of making meaning out of something that could otherwise just disappear into the void. Days, life, feelings, troubles, joys. It's a way of hanging on, a way of letting go. I write about the ordinary, the daily, the quotidian.

I am not sure who this might interest, apart from myself, but it feels terribly necessary. I feel I am documenting my life and times, trying to capture the ephemeral before it has disappeared unnoticed. It is a way of living in the present, of being present to myself and others, being the watcher, having "the beady eye" that Margaret Atwood has referred to, and attempting to be a person who lives fully. I have this sense that it is very important to do this, as though I'm doing it for someone - my daughter perhaps - she is only two, yet I've had this feeling of imperative for as long as I've been writing.

My writing is about daily life, relationships, what I see before me. I wrote about the experience of becoming a mother in the prose poem "being Kate's mother":

I've been cracked open by a force much larger and more powerful than imaginable, it's made me humble, broken my will and my ego. I now see that this is good for me, as a writer and as a person, even though it is painful and sometimes at 2 in the morning, I think I can't do this anymore, then I find I can endure, to the next moment.

Being a new mother is an ordeal in the sense that knights had to undergo ordeals in order to prove themselves worthy to their kings.

The poems in Section 2 are from the period in my life before Kate, in my 20s and 30s, where I had a series of relationships that lurched and floundered. I didn't know what I wanted, and the poems in Section 2 capture something of both the despair and the hopefulness which characterised my experience of these different relationships.

The short poem "in retrospect" captures this mood accurately:

in retrospect I guess I didn't play my cards right probably because I didn't realise we were playing cards.

After 13 years of psychotherapy I came to a place where I was able to be in a committed relationship; not that it is easy, but it works, and my husband and my child have both taught me about commitment. Having a child has helped to heal many things which I could not get over, like the loss of my father at age five, when my parents got divorced. Later they came to some arrangement that my stepfather could adopt me and then my birth-father remarried and left the country and went on to have four more children.

I came of age in a time that was deeply repressive in South Africa, the late 70s, the early 80s. I couldn't imagine what the future would look like and how I would fit into it. The world was bleak and oppressive. I felt small and afraid.

I remember starting work as a teacher in 1986 at Edenvale High. The previous year had been a State of Emergency. I felt paranoid as I stepped into the classroom in my new clothes and slightly uncomfortable shoes, trying to fit into the persona of a teacher. I imagined that the principal, or "they", were listening in on my classes as I prompted political discussions and got learners to read poems like Chris van Wyk's "beware of white ladies when spring is here", among others, and the middle-class white learners came back with statements like, "they burn down their schools, why should we build them any more schools?" which left me reeling and speechless.

One of the lifelines I hung onto in this period was writing as a way of life, as a way of making sense of my life and the world around me, of gaining insight. I think I see the world as a writer, I see patterns, and narratives, images, beauty, particularity. I feel that I am engaging in "the endless conversation" - which is what I see writing as doing. The things that move me most prompt me to write back to them, or to dream or to imagine another life, other possible worlds. And yet it is not always possible to find "the words to say it", to quote Marie Cardinal. And I, too, have secrets that I won't write about. Well not yet, anyway.

A collection of poems as a memoir could, I imagine, feel incomplete. It is shards of light in a dark room, rather than all the lights turned on. As Doris Lessing, in her autobiography Under my skin says, "Telling the truth about yourself is one thing, if you can, but what about other people?"

One of the biggest problems I faced with my book was the anguish about my mother and what I'd said about her in the book. For example, in the poem "Enough clues" I write:

My mother has tried more than once to take her life.
It was a hit and miss affair.
What are my chances?

It is one thing to write poems, another to publish them in small literary magazines and quite another to put them out in a book. "What will my mother think? Will she cope with what I have written? Will she survive what I have written?" One of the problems with poetry as memoir is that it is harder to distance yourself from what you are writing. It is my mother, not any mother, not a character.

There are many things that are / have been important to me and that have affected me deeply, but either the writing is still too raw, or I can't find the words to write about those things - yet. The way Tobias Wolfe put it in Pharoah's Army really gets at the heart of the difficulty:

As soon as I started telling the story I knew I shouldn't tell it ...

I couldn't find the right tone. My first instinct was to make it sombre and regretful, to show how much more compassionate I was than the person who had done this thing, how far I'd evolved in wisdom since then, but it came off sounding phoney. I shifted to a clinical deadpan exposition. This proved less convincing than the first pose, which at least acknowledged that the narrator had a stake in his narrative. The neutral tone was a lie, also a bore.

How do you tell a terrible story? Maybe such a story shouldn't be told at all. Yet finally it will be told. But as soon as you open your mouth you have problems, problems of recollection, problems of tone, ethical problems ...

For example, my two brothers served in the SADF in the mid and late 1980s and both were damaged by the experience. I don't know how to write about it. It is too painful for them and for me, I suppose, and I am not sure that they have admitted the extent of the damage. And I struggle with Doris's question about telling the truth about others, for others. Especially for my younger brother, who was in Angola for seven months leading up to the battle at Quito Cuanavale in 1987. He reminds me of what happened to the Vietnam vets: he was fighting on the wrong side in the wrong war, and he found out too late. I don't think he knows how to make sense of that time in his life. Has he just pushed it away and got on with things? But it has to be lurking in his psyche, troubling him. Is this something I can write about? Obviously the answer is yes, but how? That is the question.

Adrienne Rich, on the other hand, makes writers responsible for bearing witness, because we have the "verbal privilege". In a poem called "North American Time" Rich says:

It doesn't matter what you think.
Words are found responsible
all you can do is choose them
or choose
to remain silent. Or you never had a choice,
which is why the words that do stand
are responsible
and this is the verbal privilege.

I have experienced my own life of "verbal privilege" as veering between the absurd and sadness, loss. It's taken me a long time to reach a place in myself where I feel stable and "happy". I don't experience happiness as my ground. As I say in the poem "walls and gaps", being happy "is not a thread or a quilt or a road/ it's like bees buzzing on a hot afternoon/ separately, then disappearing".

Encountering feminist literary theory when I did an English Honours degree at RAU in 1989/90 was hugely liberating for me; it was thrilling and instructive to look at how women have been silenced and marginalised, over and over again in history, because I knew that it wasn't just me who had felt this way. And then to read Adrienne Rich and Helene Cixous, I felt connected to history, to other women in other times, and I suddenly started writing again, with a renewed, fierce energy. I, like many other writers, particularly women, have internalised those critical patriarchal voices. For me just writing often seems like an act of defiance. Let alone publishing my writing. Let alone publishing my writing in a book. Let alone publishing it myself.

I did my thesis on the poetry and prose of Adrienne Rich, and was inspired by the way she engaged with personal/political issues in her writing. In fact, the title of my book Halfborn Woman comes from a line in an Adrienne Rich poem, "Upper Broadway":

I look at hands and see they are still unfinished
I look at the vine and see the leafbud
inching towards life

I look at my face in the glass and see
a halfborn woman …

"We make up our pasts. You can actually watch the mind doing it," says Doris Lessing. What we make up is that these two things go together, it's an attempt to make order out of chaos, to imbue life with meaning, so that it doesn't all feel so pointless, sand through my fingers. Some attempt at grasping onto life, while being detached. Writing and compiling the collection of poems, my memoir as poetry, has made me feel less half born, less afraid.

Dorothy Allison, in Two or three things I know for sure, says, "I can tell you anything. All you have to believe is the truth." I believe that the poems or the parts in the poems in my collection that are the strongest are the ones that are "true", that touch another person to become aware of some truth they hadn't quite been brought to consciousness. I think this is so in all writing.

Perhaps as I continue to write and make up my unfinished life I will continue to find ways to live in the "realm of the imagination which is the bridge between the personal and the political" (Awar Nafisi, Teaching Lolita in Teheran).

I have experienced something of what Tobias Wolfe said in Pharoah's army, that in writing

… you work toward a result that you won't see for years, and can't be sure you'll ever see. It takes self mastery and faith. It demands things of you, then gives them back with a little extra, a surprise to keep you coming. It toughens you and clears your head. I could feel it happening. I was saving my life with every word I wrote, and I knew it.

Finally that is what writing is about for me, be it autobiographical or not. It is "inching towards life", saving my life word by word.

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