Poetry

Poetry Sunday: 'Swinging Open,' by Millicent Borges Accardi

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor
Rebecca Foust (Photo: Jeremy Thornton)When I first read “Swinging Open,” I assumed its details were autobiographical and it was not until I read the author’s note that I understood the poem to be about someone else’s childhood, so much so as to be—at least in part—a persona poem. A persona is a mask donned for the artistic moment, in ancient Greece an actual mask donned for the duration of the play. To borrow sartorial metaphor, a persona poem allows the writer to step into someone else’s shoes or wear his or her hat. Speaking the voice of another whose gender or ethnicity you do not share brings a certain responsibility and poses the risk of cultural appropriation and exploitation. But it can be very freeing, and I’ve written poems spoken by parents and siblings, not to mention dogs, items of apparel, and each of the seven deadly sins—as well as by people I’ve never met. A great way to jump-start a stalled poem (or story) you are writing can be to imagine and write about the subject from a different point of view. And as what I’ve already said implies, it need not be the perspective of a human being.
Anyway, when I first read today’s poem I made an assumption I’d guess other readers might also make, that the speaker is writing about her own life. In fact, we cannot tell even the speaker’s gender from anything in this poem but, because the Poet’s Note tells us Borges was writing about her husband’s childhood, I’ll use the pronoun “she” when referring to the speaker today. Again, though, I first read it assuming the author was the speaker and offered memories of her own childhood. An early clue that this was a misreading comes in the epigraph (“for the youngest son”) and its use of the word “the” where we’d expect a “my.”
This is a good time to talk about the “speaker” in poems, about the separation between that entity and the person who wrote the piece. Many people assume all poetry to be autobiographical, and I’ve heard of more than one incident of outrage when a reader discovers that details of a poem (or indeed, the whole poem) are fabricated. I’ve gotten flak from my family about details in my poems about events that they recall actually happened, but, um, differently. There are a few ways to respond to this. One is that memory is fallible and an event can generate as many distinct and equally subjectively true memories as there are people who experience it. Another is that like all art, poetry is a made or fabricated thing. The word “poet,” after all, comes from the Greek word for “maker.” And, as Picasso famously reminds us, art lies to tell a greater truth. It deletes and compresses some details in favor of including and expanding others. It is autobiographical, but only to the same extent that fiction is autobiographical: we can’t write about what we do not know, and we only know what we have experienced (but remember: reading is one way to experience things). Any good poem or story does more than simply faithfully report, and the best attain a kind of porous universality that journalism—being wedded to accuracy and specific facts—rarely achieves.
At any rate, poetry does maintain a separation between speaker and author, and a first-person poem about rape, for example, does not mean that the author ever endured that experience. This becomes relevant in a number of circumstances. One is in the workshop setting, where students are taught not to equate author with speaker and, for example, not to pry about or offer comfort for details revealed in a poem. It also matters, I found out, when doing things like writing book reviews or even these columns. I always try to use the term “the speaker” to maintain that divide, but honestly catch myself sometimes—as I did at first with this poem—assuming the two are one and the same.
In fact, for a short space of time at the beginning of “Swinging Open,” the speaker and the author are one and the same, but again, we only know this because of the Poet’s Note. For most of the poem, the speaker is someone else entirely: the “youngest son” referred to in the epigraph and Borges’s husband, something else we know only because of the Note.  We’re in the speaker’s head for less than two lines at the poem’s outset when she finds it difficult to imagine “at that age / to lather up and take an open blade // to my cheek. That little word “my” marks the transition from being inside the speaker’s head to being inside the head of “the youngest son,” and from this point onwards, Borges dons the mask of persona and speaks in the first-person voice of the boy she is imagining.

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  • Patricia Yarberry Allen, M.D. October 23, 2016 at 9:45 am

    Rebecca, thank you again for the choice of a wonderful poem and seminar. I look forward to Sunday and these special conversations with you. I especially appreciated the information that “as Picasso famously reminds us, art lies to tell a greater truth”.
    Pat

    Reply
  • Patricia Yarberry Allen, M.D. October 23, 2016 at 9:45 am

    Rebecca, thank you again for the choice of a wonderful poem and seminar. I look forward to Sunday and these special conversations with you. I especially appreciated the information that “as Picasso famously reminds us, art lies to tell a greater truth”.
    Pat

    Reply