In Julian Barnes’s novel Flaubert’s Parrot the narrator, Geoffrey Braithwaite, refutes the role of historiographer and explodes what could have been a singular history into infinite fragments, interminable possibilities. Even where there are well-documented sources such as the Greek journeys of Flaubert and Maxime Du Camp the story-teller presents the reader with contradictions as accounts differ, journals disagree and, in conclusion, Braithwaite tells us “What happened to the truth is not recorded”.
Patricia Debney’s new collection of poems and prose focuses upon the edge of vision, that which can be detected out of the side of the eye, and the often quite imperative tone confronts us with a sense of responsibility for what seems to be hiding there:
Things Which Had I Stopped to Consider –
Really Consider – Or If I’d Been Older –
Might Have Been Clues
‘That time we took Violet the cat – who had six toes on each front
paw – up to the Blue Ridge Parkway. You said she would like to
get out of the city. We opened the car door and she ran away, right
into the rhododendron up the side of the mountain. We called and
called – Violet! Violet! – but she never came back.
The time you locked yourself in the bedroom. I screamed – don’t
do it, don’t do it – but you still didn’t come out.’
On the back cover of this remarkably disturbing volume of memory’s fragments Simon Smith mentions the ‘desolation of Hopper’ and there is an eerie exactness about this reference. In the 1939 painting ‘Cape Cod Evening’ (National Gallery of Art, Washington) a man sits on the doorstep in front of a house and a woman stands with folded arms looking downwards at his hand which is offered out with something in it held there to attract a dog. There is a kind of serenity in the scene except that the dog is peering alertly away from the man and, with ears pointed and tail sticking out horizontally, is staring at something (some thing) off stage. It is a very unsettling painting as one becomes aware of the importance of whatever is there, just out of sight!
Carrie Etter’s comment raises to my mind another source for this collection of ‘fragments, prose poetry, and white space’ (Jane Monson):
‘In her compelling new collection, Patricia Debney deftly fractures narratives, lines, and syntax to evoke a daughter’s struggle with an unstable mother. Baby intelligently renders their fraught relationship in all its emotional complexity.’
I am drawn back here to Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel Beloved which opens with the uncompromising statement ‘124 WAS SPITEFUL. Full of a baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children.’ The epigraph Toni Morrison chose for her novel was from the letter Paul the Apostle wrote to the Romans and the nine sections of Debney’s poem ‘Armour of Light’ take their title from a reference to Romans 13:12. Whereas Morrison’s reference presents us with a contradiction concerning who is beloved Debney’s has a positive assertion of the day being at hand as the night is far spent. In these fragmentary shards of writing the poet sifts through ashes, picks ‘through remnants / of fires / in which not everything / burned’:
Just as History isn’t what happened but is instead what Historians tell us happened, the story of our selves is an accumulation of fragments upon which we place narrative sequence. Patricia Debney’s eerie and moving collection presents us with characters whose story is made up of what happens between the lines and just off the stage.
Ian Brinton 6th October 2016