Sunday, May 28, 2017

Barn Burning

I’ve said on a number of occasions that I am glad that I keep a journal.  One of my projects over the past few years has been to go back to the entries that I began keeping in the early 1980’s and read forward.  It keeps me honest and prevents me from rewriting my personal history in a way that makes me out to be the hero. (It is amazing what you forget.)

There are some nice surprises, too, and I came across one of those when I was reading in my 1994 journal earlier this week.  I discovered a poem that I had written and forgotten for some reason. Perhaps my sensibilities were different at the time and I thought it was incomplete, but on reading it again I really liked it and decided to resurrect it.

The immediate impetus was that Maya had to do a report on Wiliam Faulkner’s story “Barn Burning” and I had read the story to be able to help her if she had any problems. 

Barn Burning

After years of moving from place to place,
Of constant boils and pinworms from shared beds
Of welfare saying “college is not for you,” “wash dishes”
I understood Abner’s need to put the match to the hay.
Now I live in the white house
Am become one of the columns that is part and support.
It is difficult not to keep glancing out the window to see
If the barn is still standing
Or if perhaps sleep walking I have reverted
And handed it over,
To the flames it deserves.

From an aesthetic point of view, what I like about the poem is that it achieves a sort of simplicity while at the same time, it seems to me, still being to be able to speak to a reader in on terms that s/he can relate to in relationship to their own lives.  It is a middle ground between merely reporting and trying to cram in unneeded material, as I am prone to do. 

More to the point, however, it serves to keep me honest.  After writing the blog about Dad and the military the other day, I’m particularly mindful that, in Faulkner’s famous words, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”  More than ever, I’m convinced that is true.


EMMLP said...

Ed sent the following reaction to me by email, but I think he has some interesting things to say, so wanted to post it here.

Hello Mike, thank you for sending me your poem "Barn Burning”. I am glad that you have kept a diary all of these years and that you are going back through your writings, it certainly does help to keep one honest about the facts of the time. Perhaps we do not rewrite our own history but we do have a different perspective of our history from the view point of not veins things from in the middle of the circumstances of the time. I suppose one could liken it to a teenager who has just been rejected by their first love. To them life seems over and that they have no purpose for life. Yet parent sees so much life and opportunity ahead for the child do to their own experience and older reference of life. Both facts are true at the same time, the emotions of heartache, rejection and despair verses that of future opportunities and hope.

Your’e right however in saying “ the past is not dead, it isn’t even past", in the fact that life's experiences become part of who we are, and yet like the parent who views the break-up differently we can choose how we view and respond to the past. To be honest I think the big difficulties are easier to respond to and overcome then the small intangible which are difficult to define. You and I both experienced our family life from a different point of view because we had different experiences. For example, though you moved around a lot, dad was around for most of your youth, even though he was not physically present a good deal, you knew he was working in the Navy and would return. We did not move around much, I lived basically in two homes, Santa Ana on Van Ness Street an Clinton Street. Yet Dad was not present much of the time and we were abandoned, not knowing where he was and if he would ever come back and like you no welfare and food stamps. I think there is also big difference in growing up as the oldest son verses the fifth child. I suppose the other factor was you went away to college, joined vista, , got married and moved to New York, which removed you from the family responsibility verse me living in the area and in a sense having to be the eldest son to mom and help take care of her when Dad was not around. You had moved into the big white house so to speak, I was still living in the share cropper shack, metaphorically speaking.

Well I rambled on enough, but I do want to comment on the poem. For me it certainly accomplished two things, it tells your story or experience in relation to the book, and elcites pondering on the readers part, inviting them into their own story. I think your usage of words is balanced, descriptive and conscience, achieving what you want. I especially like the the phrase “ I understood Abner’s need to put the match to the hay.” and for me personally I don’t know that I ever have. I suppose for me the metaphor would be that of renovating an old house a little at a time. I like how the poem progresses from understanding the need to set the barn ablaze and handing it over to the flames it deserves, and how the blaze is kindled while sleep walking. Perhaps done, not in the conscious state but in the subconscious fervently taking match to hay.

Melissa Rachel said...

For me, this poem speaks to idea that we can live in a state of being pulled back into our past and then awaken to our current lives as if awakening from a dream. Much of the time, past is not circumstance, but rather living life as our former selves. Being a slave to the mind that is supposed to be the rational self, only to have it pull you further out of reality and back into the past (or future). You captured such a sense of the complexity of grief/disdain/complexity/loss that comes from the difficult things we carry with us. I am glad that you found this poem and shared it.