It’s been a while since I last read a poem that really something struck me, in that deep, stomach churning, “I’ve lost something too” kind of way.
I don’t know why, but Jen McClanaghan’s poem, “My Lie,” which appeared in the New Yorker some weeks ago, really moved me. I first read it on the subway, surrounded by idiots, some weeks ago.
And it keeps on returning. In the bottom of my bag, it floated for a few days, still attached to the bulk of the magazine, picking up crumbs of crushed potato chips and smears of Chanel lip gloss. The lip gloss, my sister gave me. On the back of it is attached a magnet, which she used to glue it to her refrigerator, alongside of the 20 other Chanel lip glosses. They decorated her kitchen, before she was evicted. In my bag, the magnet collects bobby pins and detritus. It sticks to things, and makes them dirty.
Then I took the poem out of my bag, and ripped it free from the pages of the issue, to save it. Around the edges, it was frayed and torn and smudged with deep vamp sparkles and unhealthy snacks. The remnants of my own private disasters, and those of my sister.
I threw it back in, folded in half, and forgot about it for a few more days.
(Three months after the war photographer Kevin Carter won the Pulitzer Prize for this photograph, he killed himself. The girl starved to death in Darfur.)
Just now, I was on the phone with National Grid, who forgot that I existed. “You are not currently a customer on record,” they keep on telling me, even though I’ve been living in my apartment for five years, paying every bill that comes my way three months after its due. (I only pay paper bills if they come with a warning.)
Still, National Grid says, they are shutting off my service.
All the while they were forgetting about me, I was forgetting about “My Lie” by Jen McClanaghan. Fortunately, it was stuck to the post-it where I wrote the National Grid’s collection agency’s number. I say fortunately, because I need something to do while I’m on hold.
Jen McClanaghan has a PhD, and on her website, the picture that comes up on her homepage is of a manicured set of toes dangling over a deep blue pool. Somewhat Joan Didion, somewhat Faye Dunaway, and altogether amateur.
I liked it, but did not love it.
She was born in New Caanan, CT, but she lived in Texas, and Baton Rouge. From what I can tell, she romanticizes the south, or at least she has at one time, in one of her poems, “Your Own Private Oil Spill.”
She’s also a photographer. Her website is a strange combination of bio, CV, ephemera, voice recordings, and pictures, one of a girl holding a fish. A Facebook page with a profession. Or something clever like that.
On the first read, I thought the poem was about love, because of the last line. On the second, I had to look up the genocides Jen McClanaghan references. On the third, I thought about the lie she portends. On the fourth, I realized that she was talking about an abortion, and if not an abortion, then a pregnancy with a child who will be deformed from cigarette smoke. On the fifth, I had to read it again all over.
I didn’t really get the poem’s weight until I started looking at images of Sudan, and President Bashir, and the genocide he presided over, some of which I’ve included in this post.
In any case, here is the poem in question, before National Grid gets back on the line, and I become inured to anyone’s suffering but my own.
We are always moving toward the valley,
and the shadow of the valley
moving toward us. This morning, naked
except for a jaunty paper jacket,
I lied to the gynecologist.
I had read in the morning newspaper while waiting,
having just told the same lie to the nurse,
of Desmond Tutu prevailing on the world
to bring a war criminal to court,
and the Hague, hesitating, wanting to delay.
I’d read of a girl severed in two,
bent as she drew her bucket of wellw ater,
of lone farmers smote in their fields,
amd the slaughtered tribe Fur,
a name I affectionately use for my own family.
In Tallahassee I offer up m clean feet,
my painted toes, my lie that I quit smoking.
I study a picture of Bashir,
his closed lips, his cheek inclined
to receive a kiss—
how we share the same cosmology,
the same way of receiving a guest.
I won up to my own crime
against myself, which isn’t my simple lie
but not letting the world in,
my words swallowed in a private wind,
my thinking too small to deliver me
to the edge of a greater valley,
offering a hand, a sip of water, and something of faith
in language, which brings you to me.