Published: Apr 25, 2012
Norman Mailer said you don’t really know a woman until you’ve met her in court.
I say you don’t know a woman until you’ve read her poems.
Gretl Claggett is one of my best friends. She’s written several times for this site — most notably about Kathryn Harrison and Cara Hoffman. I’ve read her prose work-in-progress. When we get together, we start with gossip and kvetching, but then we get down to a conversation about writing.
Until this week, I’d read exactly one of her poems, “Happy Hour.”
When women laugh at jokes they don’t find funny
and men tell stories only half-true, I recall how,
at his house, my parents and their friends welcomed in the weekends.
How they’d sit by the fireplace wishing
the flame’s ribbons could tie up life’s loose ends. How they’d never
see him lead me from the room and up the stairs,
martini in hand. Olives bobbing like bloodshot eyes. After, cleanup:
a monogrammed handkerchief, the quick zip of pants, he’d
slip a silver dollar into my pocket — Good girl.
This is a poem about childhood sexual abuse. Sustained abuse. Occurring sometimes in the home of the close friend of the poet’s unsuspecting parents. It’s a cautionary tale, a dark history, a survivor’s account. One thing it’s not, after all these years: a call for help, a cry for pity.
The poem is not fiction. It’s not a creative leap. It’s testimony. It’s Gretl’s story. And it’s one of the reasons I came to like her so much, first as a writer — because that’s the way it works for me — and then as a person. She doesn’t play the victim card. She’s a writer, a real one: emotional yet disciplined, capable of looking into a moment without being swallowed by it.
“Happy Hour” doesn’t suggest the theme — or the primary subject — of the poems in Gretl Claggett’s first book, “Monsoon Solo: Voices Once Submerged,” but it does give you a good idea of her method. Her interest is in bringing to the surface the truth of the stories we know — or think we know — about one another. The courage is in the intensity of the search-and-rescue effort. What makes her a poet worth noticing is the skill she brings to the effort. Let the John Barth quotation from the front of the book be her creed and your guide: “Like an ox-cart driver in monsoon season… one must sometimes go forward by going back.” [To buy the paperback of “Monsoon Solo,” click here.]
Gretl Claggett is from Hannibal, Missouri — birthplace of Mark Twain — and although she now lives in New York, many of her poems are set in the real America. And the people there! Vietnam vets who, back home, die “accidentally.” The handsome kid in high school, and how he lost an eye. An actress about to go onstage at a community theater, her daughter at home. The fate of a “door-to-door door salesman.” A wife who tells her husband “I’m in love with someone else.” The widow of an unloved husband.
A chronicle of losers? Beware of surface, shallow judgments. Consider that the poet might have considerable compassion for these people, and that you might too. Like this:
Life is not a dinner party. We don’t get to surround ourselves only with the charming and the beautiful, with people who have happy problems. And we shouldn’t ask our writers — especially our poets — to offer phony pleasure.
Gretl Claggett penetrates appearances, brings back what’s underneath. That is the job of the real poet. The discovery for me: My friend is a real poet. I liked her for all the right reasons. As can you.