A few months ago, I received an e-mail from a bright young writer who’s having some success: “You can keep a secret,” she wrote. “Right?” And my heart sank. Earlier that day, discussing a gift for her brother, I’d asked my eight-year-old niece, “Can you keep a secret?” She put her hands on her hips and sagely reminded me, “I don’t keep secrets. Secrets are lies.” In her family, “secret” is distinguished from “private.” My sister has taught her children that secrets hurt. Privacy protects.
That very same evening, a woman who knowingly passed on an STD to a partner without disclosing it (privately defending her action with my spouse and me because, she says, the STD is so common), publicly “liked” on Facebook a page called “The Respect and Dignity Campaign,” whereby all likers will “treat everyone with respect and dignity.” The following morning, two poems about secrecy, lies, and public and private matters crossed my desk. My attention was roused.
The first poem is Sarah Vap’s “Someone to be good in front of”; the second, John Olivares Espinoza’s “L’Argent.” In a recent Blackbird Review interview, Vap says, “I have been called a secretive person, a private person, my whole life. I’m always evaluating what is private versus what is secret versus what is more generally shared.” I quoted Vap—where else to reflect on privacy?—on Facebook. In response, a wise teacher among my friends shared that she is “secretive” when not revealing some information for dubious reasons, such as manipulating an outcome, and “private” when discernment guides not revealing some information because it is wise and caring not to do so. “How others may read it speaks to their own motives,” she wrote, “but I try to be very clear about my own.”
Indeed, the question of what’s private, secret, and what amounts to a personal or cultural lie points to significant personal responsibility—and creative potential—in both Vap’s and Espinoza’s poems.
“L’Argent” opens with the married, thirty-something speaker addressing himself as “you” while withdrawing money from an ATM, the money a monthly “gift” from his mother. We witness the solitary act knowing he’d be loath to divulge it publicly. But as both he and the poem itself expose this “you” who withdraws the money, the poem becomes increasingly, ironically self-aware of the protective gap the speaker heretofore maintained between “himself” and this “you”:
You are prideful, you pretend this gift from your mother
is her way of showing she loves you, and to turn down her money
is to deny the love she needs from her only son,
whom she thinks works overtime with never a free moment to call …
Espinoza examines how a secret kept from “others” amounts to keeping a secret from one’s self—a secret that, as my niece knows, can rightly be called a lie. If the poem is even somewhat autobiographical, it may seem confessional, too—but the speaker isn’t looking for personal absolution, and the secret and the lie are much bigger than the poet alone. Neither poet is seeking pardon in the way that mere confession might. In fact, each seems to discover the secret with him or herself, and to shake a finger at the larger world.
You tell yourself this money
will be saved for something worthwhile,
like the honeymoon your wife and you never took
preparing for the coming recession, or something urgent
and unforeseen, like the down payment of a new used car
when the old one dies on the shoulder of the 101,
on your way to your part-time job, where you back up
the morning commute of everyone important enough to be
at their middle-management jobs on time. Commuters would like
to scald your face with cups of premium coffee imported
from the emerging economy of Sierra Madre de Chiapas…
As his own hidden thoughts are revealed, the poem is taken over by this possible story in which the speaker eventually traces the money in his hand to a drug-addicted kid, shot by poem’s end. The act of creating the story to reveal the speaker’s involvement in a much bigger cultural “lie” parallels the act of the poet writing a poem in order to do the same.
Both Espinoza’s and Vap’s poems suggest that while we are free to decide which secrets to keep, if any, there are external contexts that want to determine it for us. In Espinoza’s case, it is as complex as financial machinery between emerging and developed economies, and as simple as the desperation and shame that arise out of poverty. In Vap’s poem, it is an old context of female shame. “Madonnas fuck,” Vap says in the same aforementioned interview. “Are we really still talking about this?”
None of this is so much a matter of cultural studies as I believe it is simply part of a poet’s work: to intuit, then utter, not something that is secret or hidden—for what, ultimately, is hidden?—but what is in fact available for everybody to see. Good poems often elicit this surprised feeling of “yes, yes, I’ve always known this.” Isn’t encouraging this kind of recognition and daylight in so many ways a task we all share?
Vap opens this question with breathtaking precision.
The older we are the more secrets we are given to refuse—
I understood this the night we began. As I now understand the nurse-cells for your baby sperm. And that testicles,
They help us; they will drag a human soul out.
In this poem, both secret and soul must be dragged out of some shadowy place. To speak openly about a woman’s experience of receiving sperm is in effect a refusal to keep secret this fact of life, and the creativity and goodness—not shame—in it. Conception is after all a creative act. The “nurse cells” into which the sperm enter introduce the insects that materialize a few lines later:
On the night of conception
We scattered wasp eggs in batches to the alfalfa.
The wasps were to kill the caterpillars
who’d eat the sprouts.
A lethal business for such a night, perhaps. So may this poem seem a confession, too. But as with Espinoza’s poem, to read this as confessional is to miss the point. Even this deliberately destructive act is, in many respects, a creative one. To thrive, the alfalfa needs the caterpillars destroyed; likewise, the poem requires the abrupt end of keeping secret what was heretofore, for the poet, a private moment indeed. Something new emerges out of the destruction in each case. The poem is stunning, itself a manifestation of what can arise when a secret (the taking of sperm into a woman’s body) is destroyed.
Who is it in Vap’s title that we have to be good in front of? For her, it may be the newly conceived child. For the rest of us, Vap points to a real and unhidden, fundamental goodness in everyone that is made more visible when shame and secrets among us are peeled away.
But we musn’t think as readers we’re off the hook—that the poets will decide for us whether or not to put pictures of our children on the Internet or how we’re to get familiar with our own hearts and the stories we tell ourselves. Espinoza’s secret money is kept in the pages of a “twice-read detective novel.” In Vap’s poem, the wasp “eggs are in straight white rows / Like braille on squares of black paper.” There remains some mystery in each poem—one that is literally embedded in text. The reader must ultimately weigh matters for herself, not only in terms of which secrets to acknowledge or refuse, but also in terms of how we make meaning, even of these very poems.
Thanks to Sarah and John for taking these risks in order to demonstrate how sharing old secrets can be a supremely creative act.
Bonnie Nadzam has published work in Harper’s, The Kenyon Review, Epoch, Story, Quarterly, and other fine journals; her debut novel, Lamb, won the Center for Fiction’s Flaherty Dunnan First Novel Prize.