Long before Oprah bitch-slapped James Frey for the semi-truths in his memoir Million Little Pieces, confessional poetry—made famous in the 1960s by Sylvia Plath, Allen Ginsberg and Anne Sexton—tinkered and toyed with autobiographical truth-telling.
Written in “I,” confessional poetry draws on the author’s own deeply personal and often painful experiences. Some critics claim these wordsmiths suffer from a terminal case of narcissism; perhaps that’s true, but it takes a lot of guts to write honestly about yourself in an unflattering way, and to do it well. This is not teenage diary angst either: Confessionalism is a thoughtfully plotted and critically received form of writing.
Toronto author Lynn Crosbie, best known for her pop culture column in the Globe and Mail, is an expert on the art of confession. She wrote her PhD on the notorious poet Anne Sexton (the subject of Peter Gabriel’s hit “Mercy Street”), who pushed the boundaries, penning tales of sex, mental illness and other taboo issues of the day, until her suicide in 1974. Now, Crosbie tells her own story in Liar, a novel-length poem cheekily launched this Valentine’s Day, chronicling the slow destruction of her relationship with a lying, philandering, unnamed boyfriend.
Told in a tightrope-taut, gorgeous narrative that is both accessible and intellectual, the story itself is familiar: Boy and girl meet, fall madly in love. Girl discovers boy is cheating. A lot. Girl copes with all the emotions and repercussions of having her heart stomped on by a person she trusts.
After the breakup, Crosbie began writing in a journal given to her as a gift. “I hadn’t written in journals in years—in fact, I had written an article about why I wouldn’t write in journals anymore because they have a tendency to infantilize you. I’d look at a diary I’d written when I was 33 and it was the same as when I was 13. ‘I feel ugly!’ ‘I like this guy!’ God, stop it,” Crosbie says, on the phone from Toronto. “But when I started writing, I couldn’t write about what had happened, so I just started randomly pasting in photographs and writing in circles and backwards. It was learning to write and think about this all over again.”
Her late-night entries led to a poetic structure that mimics the chaotic nature of human memory, moving deftly from touching moments to bile-rising betrayal. Liar begins with a lazy memory of his mother’s garden—“your mother’s cucumbers/in the bayou of her backyard, sunning themselves and snapping at the grass, cater-corner to the lawn gnomes, boxes of pansies, gauntlets of marigold” —then turning sharply: “That night I collected her freezer bags of cubed meat and tubby margarine/containers housing orange mush, fiddleheads, larded gravy./Called you and left, as a message, the sound of the jar sailing over the hedges/and crashing.”
Crosbie bravely reexamines the relationship’s details, from the cozy sharing of a pasta dinner sprinkled with Kraft Parmesan to the pain of discovering adulterous emails. “Finding those emails, it felt like my eye was being cut open, I just couldn’t read those emails again. The book for me has that affect too. Maybe on a good day I can force myself to be very pragmatic and I can read a good chunk of it,” she says. “It’s a little punishing for me to look at it again. It was a very sad, agonizing time in my life and not one that’s easily revisited. I can do it as a writer, because as a writer I can turn that off, but as a human being it’s hard.”
Although some might dismiss Liar (named after the Sex Pistols song) as revenge on paper, as an academic, Crosbie is much more interested in creating a written voice, constructed with respect for the genre.
Still, she admits that sharing your experiences, even in poetry, is fraught with repercussions. “That’s what makes me scared about this book,” Crosbie says. “I know how this kind of writing can affect people, and make people feel close to the writing. But I know that it can also repel them. You can be punished if you write that intimately. If someone said it’s really flabby awful prose, I could take that, but if someone started taking me to task for some of the things in the book, that would be hard.”
And what about the ex, and his feelings? “I thought about him. He’s not a public figure. And I had to think about my own culpability in the book and in the relationship. I did bad things too that I try to talk about, not like his, but my own.
“We haven’t spoken in two years. I hope it’s not hurtful to him. I know him well enough that there are parts of it he would be moved by, and there are parts that he would be angry about—there’s no way of getting around that,” she says. “But believe it or not, I didn’t write with him in mind; he wasn’t my ideal audience, he was a character in a book.”
A book that Crosbie is happy to leave behind. “I’m glad that I wrote it, because it was very much a labour of love, but a painful one,” she says. “It’s like shovelling a grave, you gotta walk away. You’re tired and you’re sad, but you’re done.”
Excerpt from Lynn Crosbie’s Liar
Your other girlfriend called me also, at three in the morning,last fall. Hung up, three times.
These women do not want to apologize or make amends.I am a complaint department to them. A Formica counter that they can lean on, vexed and somewhat afraid
of their own audacity.
The instructions are complicated and translated from Aramaic into English, then Plutonian.
Hooks and charges are involved, a colour-coded wire-boardand nautical terminology.
I just wanted a boyfriend, they might say. This is supposed to be simple.
I would nod my assent as they opened and closed their throats.
As fragile and voracious as hatchlings— I dreamed about them both, the second in particular.Her teeth bared, as flat and cheerless as piano keys.
She is drinking from your mother’s purple decanter,offering me a seat at an event you are presiding over,
I slap her as hard as I can, and she still smiles.
I warn you—I am starting to like her.
Courtesy of Anansi Press, 2006. www.anansi.ca