Seven trees open The Woman I Kept to Myself, a book of poems by the magician, Julia Alvarez...long one of my favorite contemporary writers. Seven tree poems, "Family Tree", "Saman", "Weeping Willow", "Maple, Oak, or Elm?", "Aborvitae", "Locust", and "Last Trees" reflect on her past, present, and future.
This book is one of those rare intruders breaking against you...breaking into you...until you realize, yes, words can invade a living, breathing person and infect her with poems. No finer disease, I assure you...than the feeling of poetry in the blood. Even the quote she uses to open the book is jarring: "To Whom do we tell what happened on the earth?" --Czeslaw Milosz. I dropped the book when I read that line. Isn't that what I'm really doing with my life here? Making a vague attempt to record what has happened on earth from my perspective...
I have compelled writing students of mine to keep journals--if only during the semester they were studying with me. Most of them rebelled at first, "I don't have time to live what I'm doing each day and you want me to write about it?!?" I would patiently stare at them, "Yes," I said, "That's exactly what I want you to do." "But, WHY?" would come the moaning protest... "Because," I answered, "No one else can record your life but you. I want to know where you live--how you get through each day. I want to understand what it feels like to be inside your head. I'm here as a white, heterosexual, educated, middle-class woman. But, there's so much more than just the classifications and labels. Not just for me, but for all of us." Usually, they'd lapse into silence. They'd get their journals going--at first, because I assigned it. Before long, something changed and they were launching off into our in-class writing sessions. Why? What had changed? After every class, a small huddle of men and women would wait for me half-panicked, half-thrilled...confiding that now that they'd started they couldn't stop. "Everything seems like it's happening just for my journal."/"Things look different to me: I'm noticing light, the color of people's eyes, the patterns of the dust on the library floor." This was what I expected...this was just right. For me, it's almost as though things don't even happen until I have written about them in my journal. My brain is on some sort of time-delay...then, I write it down and the vague forms take on shape and color...life.
The Woman I Kept to Myself spills out like a hidden journal entry. We see the things this woman kept to herself over her whole life: broken love, anger, family stories, racism, religion, childlessness, and death. It is personal recorded history...dressed up in lyrical poetry. In "Why I Write" she reflects, "In short, I don't know I'm alive unless I'm writing/ as I'll only be convinced--when I am scribbled on some stony epitaph--that I am gone...and the rest is silence." I couldn't agree with anything more. I think of my journals--piles and piles of them stemming back from when I was an eight year old girl--until I've written my last lines, I won't even know my life has passed by. The tragic, the joyful, the trivial, the unbelievable...the fragments of a life. I am telling my version of what happened on the earth. Who will tell yours?