I’ve been thinking about Little John lately – specifically, the animated-bear-version from 1973, when Disney was on a mission to tell little girls it was totally cool to have crushes on bears and foxes and orangutans and tigers. But that’s not what I’m writing about here.
There’s a particular scene, right after the archery contest, when, in the chaos of Robin’s exposure as a fox only disguised as a bird (seriously dude?), the whole carnival erupts in madness and Little John, caught up in a striped tent so packed with animals it begins to run away poles and all, pops his head from the top of its little roof, looks around and shouts, “Hey! Who’s drivin’ this thing?”
This Little John one-liner comes to mind often when I see things slip out of control. I yell it when I almost back into my mailbox every morning. When I see a leashed dog running ownerless down the trail, when my computer turns on without being touched, when I trip over my own feet. And I thought about it Monday night, in front of a ballroom filled with three hundred donors, artists, board members, and invited guests of the Broome County Arts Council. Sharon Ball, the Director of the BCAC, had invited me to read one of my poems as a representative of the Binghamton Poetry Project, an organization they graciously support.
The stage manager pushed me lightly on the small of my back after I was introduced, and I stepped up to the podium under the glow of so many crystal chandeliers. I’ve always appreciated poets who talk candidly (and briefly) before reading their poems, if only to smooth the reading out and give the audience some context – a perk we miss when reading a book. So I gave a few sentences about my poem, “Phantom Limb,” soon to be published in an issue of Rattle. The poem is about the Afghan people Tom worked with so recently, and what they can build using mostly rubble. In it, the speaker confesses she is a phantom limb, there and not there, practical but not really helpful.
“I write often about my husband’s experiences as a soldier deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. He’s a capt – wait, he’s a major, recently promoted, in the infantry—” and the ballroom burst out in applause for Tom and his accomplishments. “I’ll tell him you said that,” I chirped. I read my poem and went back to my seat by the pasta bar, where I selfishly wondered whether the people here connected with me, the poet, or my husband, the soldier at the center of so many of my poems. I think about this every now and again, when I’m riding that chaotic circus tent of poetry, when I stick my head out of its open roof to shout, “Hey! Who’s driving this thing?”
By the time I drove home, it was dark, and the night was cold. The approach of autumn put me in a better mood, and I called Tom to tell him what had happened.
“So, this ballroom full of people wants me to tell you you’re awesome,” I said. I have a real way with translation.
Tom, for the record, has never really appreciated the handshaking and thank-you-for-your-service-ing he gets from so many strangers. He never knows what to say – I wouldn’t either – and he often gets caught in awkward confessions and conversations that isolate him more than they comfort or inform. His trauma isn’t something he knows how to give to people like a dropped wallet or a lost cat. But he puts a good face on, every time, and tries to escape the situation with grace and speed.
“Because you’ve been to war.”
“Oh. What’d you tell them?”
“When I got up there to read my poem, I just gave a little background to the piece by telling them I write often about your deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.”
“But you don’t.”
“I kind of do. You know Little John? In the Disney version of Robin Hood? That time he pops out of the circus tent when it starts running away and he yells, ‘Hey! Who’s drivin’ this thing?’”
“Dude, I’m Little John! I don’t know who’s writing this stuff. It must be you.”
“Why don’t you just own your poetry and start saying you write about your experiences of war? You aren’t writing my experiences. They’re yours.”
I feel like he missed out on my Disney reference. But.
Let me say here, in writing, on the Internets, that I hate it when Tom is right like this – in an unprompted, why-didn’t-I-think-of-that kind of way. Also, let me say that Tom, while a very thorough reader, doesn’t often offer such poetic advice. When another poet insults me or disappoints me in any way, his response is an explosive “fuck them!” If someone criticizes my writing, he dubs that person asshole.
Experienced poetry mentors, beloved past professors, have given me the kind of insight Tom gave me on Monday. Marvin Bell, Dorianne Laux, and Joe Millar. Peter Sears. Sharon Cumberland, who, when I cried in her office as an undergrad because I had married a soldier I loved but felt, at best, passionately conflicted about his career and the social expectations of officers’ wives, said, “Abby! Snap out of it! You’re on the inside now – you’ve got to write about this. Don’t you see?” Let the record show that, back then, in Sharon’s office, I felt like a sneak, a liar, a greasy fraud who stole everything she heard and gave it away as her own. (Isn’t this how all women are made to feel when they find their voices? That they are so clear they must not be their own?)
And yet, I continued to write poetry because, well, I couldn’t stop. And if I was going to do it anyway, I figured I may as well be my best version of honest, and my feelings about a war that swallows up so many lives demand my attention when I sit down to write. I write what I see in Tom and all men and women who fight because those stories won’t go away, and they don’t follow Tom the way they follow me.
I think there was safety in thinking these were Tom’s stories and not mine, in seeing the reader as someone concerned about Tom and not me. I could forfeit loneliness that way, imagining myself picking up what he’d dropped and putting it together again. I didn’t make the thing; I just reassembled it after it broke. If they weren’t my stories, I wouldn’t have to be by myself with them, which is good because they’re scary.
I hate it when Tom is right, but today, I need to admit that he is. A couple weeks ago, he started writing his own creative nonfiction in earnest, and I realized then, too, that he is the only one who can write his experiences. His stories are his own. My poems, my stories, tell what I’ve seen, done, heard, felt. They are retellings of my own horror, loneliness, confusion, helplessness. They show my humor, love, faith, desire for something good.
Turns out, I’m driving this thing. I’m moving forward without knowing how, shouting from the busted rooftop.