Saying What Happened

Reading the three new posts on our blog—The Long Road to Publication, by Lisa Gruenberg; The Realities of Being Creative in a Profit-Driven World, by Sabrina Fedel; and Scribo, Ergo Scriptorem: The Existential Imperative of Writing, by Curt Eriksen—got me thinking about one of my favorite poems by the late, great, and problematic Robert Lowell, a miniature masterpiece he wrote near the end of his life.  In “Epilogue,” the speaker asks plaintively:

Those blessèd structures, plot and rhyme—
why are they no help to me now
I want to make
something imagined, not recalled?

“Paralyzed by fact,” he still wonders: “why not say what happened?” Finally, beautifully, he enjoins himself to:

Pray for the grace of accuracy
Vermeer gave to the sun’s illumination
stealing like the tide across a map
to his girl solid with yearning.
We are poor passing facts,
warned by that to give
each figure in the photograph
his living name.

In wishing to make “something imagined, not recalled”—but also asking “why not say what happened?”—Lowell wrestles with a dialectic that all three writers clearly know well, and all three tell their stories of memory and imagination with the kind of unvarnished candor I expect the author of “Epilogue” would have recognized.  Lisa Gruenberg tracks her tortuous path from flashback and nightmare to out-of-the-blue publication offer with no self-dramatization or special pleading.  Sabrina Fedel’s disabused communiqué—from an America for which writing that matters hardly matters—isn’t for the faint of heart.  Nor is writing.  And Curt Eriksen’s meditation on process is so tight-lipped—so parsimonious in its devotion to le mot juste—it gives renewed resonance to the figure of “the man of few words.”

So, three ways to “say what happened” with “the grace of accuracy.”  I’ve always felt especially moved by that single preposition in “Epilogue”; the speaker prays “for the grace of [not in or and] accuracy. . .” Precision equals a kind of benefaction.  If Lowell is right—that “we are poor passing facts,/warned by that to give/each figure in the photograph/his living name”—then these three pieces heed that warning by giving us what honest writing always gives: something permanent in a way we are not.

Please see the Letter from the Curator here for specifics about contributing a post to Open Pages.

–Steven Cramer

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