Discussed herein: the duplicity of self and saying the same thing differently.
Courtesy of Jane Hirshfield:
A poet is often asked certain things, when put into circumstances of being askable: "When did you first know you were a poet?" "Do you enjoy travelling so much to do readings?" "Can I send you something?"
In the moment of each question and answer, I do the best I can. "I wrote from earliest childhood...for me, writing poems was a way both to forge a self and to save it," I might say to the first. "Each event like this that I do is wonderful--there's a great intimacy to being in a room with people and saying, or hearing, poems spoken aloud. The travel itself is dreadful, and exhausting, but being here with you is an incredible privilege." And to the third: "I know there are writers who invite everyone to send them notes, and they answer, sometimes keeping up correspondences for years...but if I did that, I'd never write the poems that are the only reason anyone wants to correspond. I live much more slowly, it seems, or write more slowly. So please, only send me something if you absolutely must, and forgive me if I don't answer for a long time."
But there is another dimension present in my mind as well, unspoken--my awareness that the "you" the question is addressed to is not the "me" who hears it. The letter cannot reach her--only me, her spokesperson and doppleganger and emanuensis. Only the poems speak in the voice of the person who writes the poems--the person I describe in the poem below, who is not me though she wears my clothes, drinks my coffee. She lives as I speak of her here, in the grammar of the third person most of the time. I, answering the question from the front of a bookstore or college auditorium, am the one who opens and answers her mail.
To find a way to be freer of thought and of tongue, more accurate of music and perception, to find a self smarter, wilder, more deep of feeling and perhaps wiser than you can otherwise be--that is what writing is. Writing lets you think deeper and farther than ordinary thought allows. It lets you surprise yourself into new comprehensions. It's rather sad, when not actually writing, to know to the bone marrow that you are capable of more than you can, that moment, possibly manifest. Yet the ability to step into that other woman, to shapeshift into the one who writes the poems, is found (at least by me) only with pen in hand, in silence, alone.
My thoughts here, and my poem's concern, are far from an untouched subject. Perhaps the best exploration of the theme is in Jorge Luis Borges's magnificent prose poem, "Borges and I." But the subject of most poetry will not be an experience never written about before; it is more often a description, different from any written before, of an experience many have had.
Here then is my own version, written in early 2001, of this relationship between the woman who lives and her double, the woman who writes. Here, by the way, it's the one not the writer of poems who speaks throughout. This is more than a little peculiar: it may be the only poem the woman who does not write the poems has herself written.
More and more I have come to wonder
about this stranger--
woman whose sweaters and coats resemble my own,
whose taste in breads and coffee
resembles my own,
who sleeps when I sleep, wakens when I awaken.
whose verb-form takes the felicitous "s" at its close,
what happens is simply what happens.
I fret the most slender of errors--
the name forgotten, the borrowed book unreturned,
but never have found her holding a teacup
or coin between her fingers
as if its substance and purpose were something she did not comprehend.
How self-assured she seems,
who decides nothing,
whose insomnia is to my own what the shadow of a leaf is to a leaf.
I am tired, but she is not tired.
I am wordless;
she, who has never spoken a word of her own,
is full of thoughts as precise and impassioned
as the yellow and black exchanges of a wasp's striped body.
For a long time I thought her imposter.
her jokes, even her puns, are only too subtle for me to follow.
And so we go on, mostly ignoring each other,
though what I cook, she eats with seeming gusto,
and letters intended for her alone I open with a curious ease,
as if I, not she, were the long-accomplished thief.
(from After; HarperCollins, 2006)