The following is the content of a presentation I made in January 2018 as a member of a literary panel organized by Steve Heller for the Hawaii International Conference on the Arts and Humanities.
In her book Liespotting, Pamela Meyer describes attempts to design machines that will detect lying, the most popular of which is the polygraph. As she says, however, many courts will not allow the results of lie-detector tests to be admitted as evidence. Designers of these machines believe that biological functions—heartbeat, breathing, temperature, blood flow, and so forth—change when people are lying and that the machines can detect when this happens.
But it turns out that people’s heart rate, breathing, and so forth can also vary if they are telling the truth. And to make things more complex, the innocent can feel guilt from just being bystanders, witnesses, or confidantes.
In recollecting and retelling significant events, we relive them in all their vivid, lasting power. If we put our accounts on paper, we sometimes feel as if we’ve become two people: the one terrified, excited, grieving, dazed, lonely, traumatized—and the other watching and recording.
Depending on what we are writing and whom we are writing for, it can be vitally important to capture the experience in accurate detail. It can also be important to capture effects, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, which can magnify the initial experience, appear unexpectedly, and cast their own strange power over us. And it can be crucial to define our relationship to the event: participant, witness, victim, reporter.
The following description of a machine that detects deviations from normal functions is from Maria Bustillos’s article on Blade Runner 2049. She begins by describing John Shade, the main character of Pale Fire, a novel in poetic form by Vladimir Nabokov, and then shifts to Detective K/Joe, the main character of the film:
One day [Shade] is giving a lecture and collapses with a heart attack, and within it, a vision.
Cells interlinked within cells interlinked
Within one stem. And, dreadfully distinct
Against the dark, a tall white fountain played.
These lines recur in Blade Runner 2049 multiple times as a sort of test of Joe’s sanity, like a car diagnostic. Hesitations, it seems, or evidence of questioning, indicate a malfunction in the machine. Joe too is wondering, even though he isn’t supposed to, what everything is for —what he himself is for. For Joe, the fountain is the little wooden horse he remembers (or does he?) from his childhood in an orphanage. The curiosity he dares himself to follow to its conclusion leads him to this totem, and finally to Deckard [the detective from the original Blade Runner]….There is a rapport between them that may indicate an answer to Joe’s question of why, why he is important, “special” as his lover says. Why he exists at all: it seems there may be a reason.
The machine finds that Joe’s sanity, as Bustillos calls it, is impaired, and his superior officer takes him off active duty. From then on, he is suspended in a mystery: discovering the purpose for which he was created.
What does a poet make poems out of? Snakes and snails and puppy dog tails? Sugar and spice and everything nice? No. No.
For many of us, poems are made in part of memories of people in our past who have become the ghosts of our present. Words spoken to us, whispers, smells, impressions that are difficult to tolerate and yet forget, actions that changed our lives but that we had no say in, pushes, shoves, embraces wanted and unwanted—these are some of the things that poems are made of.
Poets drawing on the truth of their lives—if some of it is sad, ugly, or painful—can wonder, like Joe in Blade Runner 2049, if trying to capture these moments is what they should be doing. Or should they, like others in Joe’s society, pretend to have ordinary lives and suppress whatever makes them different, causes them to “malfunction”—in Joe’s case, a desire to learn the truth of himself. For the society of 2049, such truths can be dangerous, for embedded in the social foundation are lies, falsehoods passing as the truth.
And yet writing also causes harm to the truth teller: tears, mourning, hate, revulsion, nightmares, fantasies of revenge. But accepting these disturbances because they are not a measure of lying but an accompaniment of truth telling is something we eventually learn to do. It is part of becoming a writer or artist. In that sense, if our childhood and young adulthood don’t corrupt or destroy us, many of us who make it to middlehood or latehood are artists.
Here I would define corrupt as becoming like the ghosts that haunt us.
For this presentation, I want to focus on my poem “Devotion,” which is about a man I knew many years ago—someone who was firm in his convictions and couldn’t be swayed that he should reexamine who he was.
In “Devotion,” a writer “endlessly refines his logic to eliminate his fault.” He leaves his wife each day to go to his office, where he composes fantasies about women. This creative task becomes overwhelmed by his sexual desires, and he starts to act on them, first by seducing a girl. Her age is not given, but the context suggests she is a minor and a virgin. Another character, The Simoniac, appears, at first trying to disclose to the wife what the writer is doing, and then to the writer himself in an effort to save him. We can see The Simoniac—the name is for a seller of pardons—as a representative of the force of morality, though he does not enforce laws or rules. He simply gives people the opportunity to choose morality.
Toward the end of the poem, the writer commits a murder but feels no more remorse about it than he does about his other deeds. So in “Devotion,” a large social force moves through the lives of the characters, casting its shadow, wielding its light. When the writer rejects the presence and influence of this force, he condemns himself to a life in which forgiveness, compassion, and humanity have fled. He then becomes a ghost: the kind of amoral man who haunts my writing.