Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Friday, 1 February 2008

Reading through the keyhole

It's always nice to see one of your poems in print, even if it takes twenty years to make it that far. My poem Naked Truth will be appearing in Issue 21 of Aesthetica Magazine. The issue is due for release today. Aesthetica is now available from Borders and WH Smith Bookshops UK, as well as ICA, BALTIC and other national galleries. And a PDF of the magazine can be downloaded, for a price, here.

          NAKED TRUTH

          Without thinking
          I barged into her room
          only to find her praying.

          She paused
          and looked up in silence
          like the time she caught me spying
          as she undressed.

          But then she did not cover herself:
          her arms even fell by her sides
          so that I could see better.

          But all I could see were her eyes.

          9 November 1988

What can I tell you about this poem? For starters I know I worked on it for a very long time. This is one of those poems where, when people ask me what it means, I can only really answer with, if I could have said it any better then I would have. It is an experiential piece, by placing yourself in the position of the narrator, hopefully you will make the right connections.

The poem is about intrusion and how it's impossible to take what's already been given. Voyeurism has appeared quite a few times in my poetry over the years. I think all writers have a propensity towards nosiness and eavesdropping; full blown voyeurism is not that much of a stretch. Of course there is opportunistic voyeurism, being in the right/wrong place at the right/wrong time and then there is putting yourself in a position where you increase the odds of seeing that certain something. I'm not talking about skulking around under cover of darkness peeking in people's windows but quite often in a restaurant or café I'll take the seat with the best view and see what wanders into my line of vision.

What am I looking for? In a word, truth, something I've written about more than any other topic. I can watch movies or documentaries dealing with what interests me but the action always feels staged; even in documentaries mostly the people there are aware of the fact they're being filmed and play, albeit subconsciously, to the camera. But, as you're sitting on the top of a bus and you look into someone's flat for a few seconds you catch a glimmer of truth. Mostly these truths aren't very interesting but every now and then you get that Rear Window situation and that's what you're waiting for. But if you're not prepared you can miss it. Writers don't carry cameras, they have imaginations.

The voyeur in the poem isn't interested in waiting. He has, in the past, gone out of his way to spy on the girl. The girl, once she's realised has done the last thing he would have expected. She's deliberately dropped her guard and let him look. The thing is, in that moment he's been confronted with a truth he didn’t expect or want to see, a truth about himself. What the poem is saying is that real truth only comes through participation not mere observation. Later, who knows how much later, the spying incident has been forgiven, or at least gotten over, and life has gone back to normal when, this time with no ulterior motive, the guy barges into her room only the situation has changed and the girl is praying, exposing a different side to her. Her reaction is identical though and this time she does exactly the same thing, she reveals herself – only this time it's her inner self – to him. A better title might have been 'Revelations' with its triple connotation of revealing flesh, truth and as a nod to the book of the bible.

I find this an uncomfortable poem to read. It doesn't matter that it's fiction – and it is – I still cast myself as the weaker male character.

I've always found the subtle differences between "look", "see" and "watch" interesting; they're not interchangeable synonyms, not by a long chalk. The male in the poem doesn't look; the female looks, the male spies at first but later on his sees and finally sees within.

The poem works on another level. Readers are all voyeurs, voyeurs by proxy but voyeurs nevertheless. You can't really call them spectators because they're not open about it. They read in private, in secret.

In her introduction to The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes Janet Malcolm describes biography as "tiptoeing down the corridor together to stand in front of the bedroom door and try to peep through the keyhole." While the scholarly apparatus of footnotes and references may legitimise this voyeurism and take it out of the realm of the tawdry, at its core biography remains tawdry. It's easier to tar a writer with the peeping-Tom brush where their subject was or is still alive but I think readers of fiction, myself included, still pick up novels and short story collections for that selfsame reason. The thing about biography is that a biographer is faced with the moral dilemma of what to and not to include; a fiction writer doesn’t have real people to worry about offending or being sued by. The voyeuristic novel reader is at the mercy of an exhibitionistic novel writer. Maybe that's a match made in heaven or maybe that's the real truth that's being revealed here. I don't know.

I'm not the only writer to have realised how voyeuristic writers are. Matthew Porubsky, Topeka poet and railroad conductor (is there any better a job for an inveterate voyeur to have?) released a poetry collection called Voyeur Poems that won the 2006 Kansas Authors Club Nelson Poetry Book Award. Porubsky developed his voyeuristic tendencies at an early age, working at his family’s diner which is also in Topeka and is famous for its hot pickles. He loved watching self-proclaimed tough guys take brave bites of the scorching pickles and then crumble.

Ordinary moments captured his eye as well.

Like watching my grandpa, having him teach me how to cut up chicken and cut up pork chops. I remember the workers would come in and eat sandwiches, and their hands would be dirty and they would leave thumbprints on the bread and they would still eat it.

That's the very thing that would catch my eye. It doesn’t even have to be something happening. I wrote a short story once inspired by a pair of red-headed twin girls not talking in an Edinburgh café just across the road from the Scottish Poetry Library as a matter of fact. They were absolutely captivating and obviously in a mood with each other and I was transfixed by them.

Porubsky continues:

I don't pussyfoot around about something I want to talk about. If I'm writing about something, I'm not going to hint about it as much as I'm going to put you there. I can't remember who said it -- I think it was Keats -- that poetry should be felt on the pulse. You get that when you're reading, but when you HEAR someone reading, that's when you really feel it.

There are truths implicit in many of my poems but they're not presented in an explicit way. I think what I'm talking about is the difference between being naked and nude. On one level there's absolutely no difference, on another there's every difference in the world.

Let me leave you for once with a non-poetry site but one that encapsulates the kind of poetry that is in all of us. I don't believe there is anyone out there who doesn't have poetry within him or her. You could call it visual poetry (or even a kind of modern haiga) but I think labelling it takes away from what it is. The site is PostSecret. Like so many great sites it's been on the go for years and it rests on a simple premise: Think of something you hold close to you, a secret you'd never imagine sharing with anyone. Now think of what your secret would look like if you printed it on a postcard, mailed it to a perfect stranger and got it published on the Web for the world to see. That's it.

The site is run by a fellow called Frank Warren and it's been on the go since 2004. When reading these anonymous postcards, everyone suddenly becomes equal. No one's feelings are right or wrong, they just are. Someone from New Zealand anonymously wrote to Frank saying, "The things that make us feel so abnormal are actually the things that make us all the same." PostSecret couldn't make this sentiment any clearer, and it echoes those great words uttered by C S Lewis, "We read to know we are not alone." Not alone being lonely, not alone being depressed or unhappy or fed up to the back teeth with the kids demanding attention, not alone knowing we've done bad things, seen bad things or dreamt about doing bad things, not alone wanting, or feeling things, not alone in needing to know we are not alone in needing to know we are not alone.


Ani said...

Hello. This is a really beautiful piece. Not just the poem but your exposition of it.

As a relatively new writer, I am curious about something. Did you know all those things about the poem before you began writing? Or did the themes become clear as you wrote (maybe nudging you in a certain direction)? Or did you just write and then dissect what you wrote? Maybe a combination of the above or something else entirely?

Jim Murdoch said...

It is a long time since I wrote that piece, Ani, so you will forgive me if I can't remember the experience very well. The answer will probably be that I didn't. I usually – and this may sound a bit daft – just start, the same goes for the short stories and even the novels. It is in the writing process that the meaning starts to unfold. Half the time I start writing I haven't a clue where I'm going although there have been occasions, with short poems, that the whole thing has just popped into my head and there's little to do but shape it on the page.

The Unskilled Poet said...

A really, really nice piece, Jim. It's so evocative and feels really weighty (in a slow, powerful way).

As mentioned on my blog, I’m tagging you for a 10 for 10, which is 10 verses about you, and then you challenge 10 others to do the same thing. It’s a great way to get to know more about each other! If you can then comment on my 10 for 10 with a link to your own, that would be great. Good luck!

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for the nice feedback Unskilled Poet. You will forgive me however if I decline the 10 for 10 challenge. Firstly, I haven't written anything with 10 verses since I was a teenager (it'd take me weeks); secondly, I'm really quite a private person and though I'm happy to add in the odd personal detail in passing, this is not why I'm on-line; thirdly, I find writing poems off-the-cuff difficult at the best of time and I don't need the extra pressure – trying to come up with something for your daily challenge is hard enough – and lastly, I don't like burdening others with things like memes – I did it once and I was very uncomfortable doing so – besides I don't think I could come up with ten I'd feel comfortable asking.

Terry said...


I enjoyed both your poem and your discussion about it. I particularly like when you said, "Writers don't carry cameras, they have imaginations." But what really touches home for me is when you say you write because you're looking for truth. To me that means we're looking for answers to life. Ex litterarum studijs immortalitatem acquiri (Through literary studies immortality is acquired).

Jim Murdoch said...

Appreciate the feedback, Terry. I was a bit wary about that sentence because these days it's probably not true. The thing is I never think to take my phone out to take a photo.

the other jim murdoch said...

And usually the moment has passed by the time you ge tyour camera out and ready. Sometimes my wife has said, "Get the camera!" but I don't, and by the time she gets back the moment has passed and the memory missed.
Jim, all the best for your published poem. May it lead to many more.
(the other) Jim Murdoch

Terry said...

Not to get off topic, but my camera phone doesn't do me any good anyway. I still haven't figured out how to get the pictures off it.

Jim Murdoch said...

I'm like the two of you (Terry/Jim) simply having a camera on my phone really does me no good, by the time I fiddle my way through the menus the moment will have been lost. The thing is, I'm not exactly a technophobe but something in me resists becoming overly familiar with my mobile in fact it's turned off 95% of the time.

Conda said...

Lovely poem, Jim, thank you for sharing it with us. Poetry writing is the most difficult. I know, I occasionally try but my efforts--well, most of them are not saleable much less postable! It does create a sense of how each word matters, however.

As for cell phones, I resisted for a while but my s.o. is a techie and taught me well, maybe too well. Now I can't even remember my home phone number! But all the photos on my blog are taken with my phone.

Dick said...

A striking poem & a fascinating exposition, Jim, which goes places beyond the immediate territory of the poem.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for the feedback, Conda. I've been writing poetry since I was a teenager. It took a while to find my voice (about 452 poems to be precise) but once I did that was me and that's pretty much all I did almost twenty years with never a thought about prose and it really doesn't matter how much else I've written I'll always be a poet first and foremost. To my mind I'm a much better novelist for being a poet despite the fact that I write the least overtly 'poetic' poetry you'll ever read.

And, Dick, glad you appreciated the poem too. I have to say I don't think it needs a great deal of explanation, though I managed a better job than I expected. I've actually been a bit surprised by the positive feedback. I've always thought I didn't quite get it right on that one.

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