Emily Dickinson wrote that the speaker in her poems is not the poet herself but “a supposed person.” The degree to which a poem’s persona or “supposed person” is a reflection of the poet herself is largely left to biographers, but the question does have an allure. Whether the persona of a given poem is rhetorical device or obscured vehicle of confessionalism is an irresistible question. And, when the speaker is a fully realized fictional character, the poet-persona relationship is further razed, and doubly intriguing. The practical angles created by the triangulation of reader-speaker-poet become as numerous as the reflections in a hall of fun house mirrors.
Creating a character is the ultimate move of subjectivity – perhaps the ultimate move of authorial trust. A character mitigates the dangers of high poetic voice and creates multiple angles of vision by placing the poet both inside and outside the poem at once. Characters can more easily slip into the role of repository for sympathy, judgment, and identification, and pave the way for heightened drama in a thematic collection (or single dramatic lyric).
Fictional (as opposed to “supposed”) personae also allow the poet to reveal difficult truths while more effectively concealing its source. In Maurice Manning’s brilliant Lawrence Booth’s Book of Visions, Lawrence is the book’s hero, but Manning’s quirky style creates a chasm between his characters’ life and realism; Lawrence’s drama and pain, though universal, belongs to him and him alone. In Cornelius Eady’s collection Brutal Imagination, Eady masterfully personifies Susan Smith’s own fabrication – a black man that she accused of kidnapping her children. The voice of such self-interrogation is one man’s, though the effect bleeds beyond the margins.
Beatrice, battered and on the run in a stolen pickup, is the speaker throughout Anne-Marie Oomen’s Uncoded Woman. Beatrice encounters Barn, both brute and savior, and their pas de deux serves as the backdrop to the collection’s unfolding drama. The reader comes to know Barn, a fisherman that watches the ocean with a cardsharp’s eye, through Beatrice’s defiance and surrender. His seductive promise to her is that they can “stay alive” and each poem is for Beatrice an act of survival.
Beatrice is ideal as narrator and as foil for the poet’s telling of a truth of the female experience; the practical angles created by the triangulation of Beatrice-Oomen-reader serve these poems. Beatrice is coarse, she is dismissive of hidden meanings, and her language is natural and rhythmic, which heightens the tension created between the verse line and the grammatical sentence. The book’s characters lack the demeanor for elaboration, and the reader, free of exposition, is placed directly inside Beatrice’s experience.
In the following poem, Beatrice witnesses a private act turned public with Barn, who looks on “without shame.” Together they serve to name the reader as accessory in an ignominious scene. Worth noting is that the titles of each of the poems in the collection derive from semaphores, the messages created by colors and combinations of flags used by vessels to communicate at sea.
You Should Come as Near as Possible
With Barn, I watch a pair of steelhead
hold their place in the Platte,
her at the gravel bed, him gray
and hovering, warding off
foreign males, the marks
on his body possessive
as spilled ink. He bucks and snaps
at the others, and his sound,
if there were one, a growl at the moon.
And though Barn has watched
this coupling for decades, he
cannot tell me what happens next.
The male shimmies, draws
near her tail, slides over.
Side by side. Shadow. Shadow.
In the narrow current,
the swim together.
We can barely see it—the quiver
before he falls back, quick
arrow into the current below the rocks.
Then the radical gesture. She
flips to her side, slaps down her
silver body against hard stones.
Don’t let the old-timers fool you.
It is not a beautiful sight,
except for the light from her belly,
gorged with river. From her liquid bones
she forces a thousand eggs into a tomorrow
where they will also tremble and slap.
They do this all the afternoon. I watch
like a sinner who lovers her sin, a voyeur
of river with this man who tells me
without any shame,
There, there, she’s doing it.
Woman, she’s ready again.
Oh God, she’ll fill the river.
You Should Come as Near as Possible, from Uncoded Woman by Anne-Marie Oomen. (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2000). Copyright © 2006 by Anne-Marie Oomen . Reprinted with permission from Milkweed Editions.