Past as Prologue


Often, when I sit down to write these commentaries, I find myself thinking about genre. Mostly, I keep asking myself what it is that I’m doing here, in this space, and whether the presence of craft analysis in the blogosphere means something about how I should approach my task. And if so, what is that something? I wonder if the informality of the medium suggests more informality in my writing. Maybe I should be including cat photos. Maybe I should be quippier. But, on the other hand, maybe I should be more oblique and artful and essayist-like. Such are the questions and suggestions of a preface: here’s the problem I faced, and here’s how I decided to approach it. And, oh yeah, here’s the key that unlocks all of the puzzles scattered throughout the work itself. [Insert key, once I know what it is].


Once, a famous kind of literary agent (someone who represents books you’d recognize, even if you’re not a reader of literary fiction or nonfiction) told me my writing reminded her of Mark Doty. Probably, I’m mentioning that just to mention that, because any kind of equation between the magnificent artfulness of his writing and the rusted clunk of my own is unearned praise that puffs my ego in welcoming ways. Were I to get a tattoo, I’d probably have some cursive script wrap up my forearm, he writes like Mark Doty. An important side note and metaphorical completion to this prelude: this agent, later, declined to represent my writing in a rather dismissive and categorically unimpressed manner.

Chapter One: On Prologues

Of all the things I like about Descanso For My Father, one thing I don’t is the prologue. I imagine it was written either because an editor demanded it, or as part of the materials Fletcher used to find a publisher for the collection. As with so many prologues, it declares itself too assuredly. It spoils the design, because it foregrounds precisely what the following art object is. It’s like the answers that lay in the back of my high school calculus text, which I usually looked at first, so I didn’t have to bother doing the math. But, in calculus, book designers got wise, only putting the odd-numbered answers in, and the calc teacher knew that, so he usually assigned the even-numbered questions, unless he was feeling particularly generous or, perhaps, despondent at the way the class had been recently butchering its homework. Either way, at least part of the mystery was gone. Worse, the elimination of the mystery made me think I understood the rest of the questions, too, a fallacy that became epically clear when I scored a perfect 0/25 on a multiple choice exam, a statistical impossibility that could have demonstrated artful mastery of mathematics coupled with subversive protest: I won’t play this game. In fact, the zero demonstrated the rounder, harsher truth of zero, of nothingness, of an honest attempt that revealed absolute absence. Thus, my mathematical prologue: every day, my best friend and I went to the math lab over lunch, where we sat for an hour and bullshitted with my calc teacher about golf and football and how tall he was and how, yeah, we should probably be using this time to study calc but we’re not.

Chapter Two: On Preludes

I think I actually just wrote a prelude in chapter one, at least according to the calculus of Mark Doty’s Firebird, which includes a pre-chapter that carries the more gestural title of “prelude.” Instead of a direct explanation of what should be understood, he instead offers a nuanced story of discovering a “perspective box” created by Dutch painter Samuel von Hoogstraten. He describes how the interior appears distorted and twisted and all wrong until the viewer looks through one of two corrective lenses, at which point the pictures inside rectify into a perfect rendition of a Dutch home and all that happens within (I want to note: Doty writes of finding this box while killing time before an award ceremony, in which he later reports winning a prize for his writing, which I am right now going to equate to my own trumpet-blare a few paragraphs ago; I’m feeling bad about bragging, so I’m either bringing Doty down with me or trying to lift myself up (again) through comparison). The effect of Doty’s prelude is to offer a mostly-metaphorical and, therefore, powerful commentary on the nature of memoir, without ever declaring, this is the nature of memoir. He writes fully of the box, and fully of the contents of the box, leading in the end to a discussion of a hidden “boy lost in a book, which is itself a tiny box” (6). Doty is still writing about art here, about the effect of distortions, and the inevitability of distortions, and how von Hoogstraten purposefully melted images around walls so that, when viewed through the proper lens, they resolved. But this boy, in this other box, reads of his family: “His book angles and skews them by artifice, and then tries to use artifice to set them right” (6).

Chapter 3: Resolution

Of course, the boy with the book is Doty. He makes that clear. The single sentence paragraph before he describes the boy reads, fully: “The museum vanishes” (6). Once gone, we are left with the boy and the book, and some brief contextual information (drafting tools, loneliness), clues that will appear later in the memoir itself. So there’s no trickery here, just a bit of distortion/artifice that helps the reader understand the elaborate metaphor that makes up the bulk of the prelude. This will be a book, Doty declares, that will meld the discovery of boxes with the discovery of the self, and you might not ever quite know which is which, but I will tell you which is which if you pay close attention because, in fact, my act of memoir cannot be written without the close proximity of art and experience, as my own life is a distortion and my memoir the lens through which it must be seen, in order to understand the truth I am seeking to find.

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