Embracing the Unknown – Lynne Thompson

It can be hard to define a poet like Lynne Thompson. Her work is rooted in autobiography, like so many poets, but often times they take off into the fantastic. They are obsessed with how language can jolt the imagination. It’s work of the intellect, but solidly work of the heart.

Like most poets she is interested in where she came from, yet because of her background the quest for that information might be more elusive than it is for others. Lynne is a California native, adopted by parents who immigrated to the US before she was born. Her mother’s Caribbean island is so small, she tells us, you couldn’t find it on most maps, and her biological father is unknown to her. Perhaps so many unknowns are a fundamental gift to the imagination, sparking the capacity to ask questions and speculate answers, which become the basis of poetry.

It is interesting to note that in our interview with Lynne, both her easy-to-write poem and her difficult poem are about the unknown and the might-have-been. In the easy poem below, Thompson takes one of the known parts of her origin story, her birth-name, and writes a portrait of who that other person might have become.

 

She, Named P___ At Birth, Speaks To Me, Says

“You think you know who you are;
you do not. You think everything’s great
in your gravy train life, your feet up
on the taboret, sipping fingers of Pernod
and blowing smoky O’s of Gauloise
like you were born to it. You were not.
You were born at County Gen., the random
upshot of a collision between an urgent
virgin, a married man, and the backseat
of a Studebaker though everyone knows
there was no joy the night you got made.
You came into this world on cotton rough
from 10,000 washings. The doc showed up
late, then spilled a little Maxwell House
on the sheets; the nurses yawned. Mama cried
for you for sixteen hours before her water broke
and she’s been in labor for you all her life. But
no one came; no one came to see. So in time,
mama just gave you away. Of course,
you don’t remember that just like you don’t
remember me. Me, who never got the pretty
dresses. Never got the vacations at the beach.
Never sat down with the family to eat lamb
and mint jelly on a sunny Easter day. No,
you don’t remember me. It’s as though you
were born to the manor, born to speak lousy
French and read Edwardian novels in a hot-
house, to gad about at high-tone schools,
to raise your finger just so, so the ruby shines.
But you don’t know who you really are, Miss
Don’t-Remind-Me, Miss Given-Away-Four-
Times-Until-You-Were-Taken-For-Good. Well,
you got my blood in your veins and you ain’t
no fancy dancer, you ain’t no pearls and piety,
you ain’t no seashell by the seashore, and you
sure ain’t no evening out at Lincoln Center.
You got me in your veins, got my chipped white
fence, my regular job, my 39-dollar-a-night
room in Vegas, and this name that ain’t gonna be
at the end of any poem. But don’t worry, my sister,
my slip of a pen, I’ll never let you forget the night
you were born, my name was all you had.”

 

I love how this poem takes delight in the play of words, despite its serious subject matter. It starts with some statements of reality, allowing the drama of the facts to establish stakes and express sympathy for the speaker.

Mama cried
for you for sixteen hours before her water broke
and she’s been in labor for you all her life. But
no one came; no one came to see. So in time,
mama just gave you away.

 

After that the poem alights into play with language. “No fancy dancer, you ain’t no pearls and piety,/ you ain’t no seashell by the seashore.” On their own these are cliché phrases, but lined up together in the context of this poem shifts their meaning. The poem makes “No seashell by the sea shore” sound like an accusation, making the one being spoken to seem superficial, cliché, even absurd. The speaker has a kind of disdain for these luxuries and their unreality. Then the speaker grounds us back in the stark reality of the world of the one who got lost when the poet was adopted, “I was the only thing you had.”

This poem reminds us again that poetry is a place where we can get honest with ourselves, admitting our feelings of guilt as well as pleasure or joy.

In her second poem, Thompson relies on the imagination again, endeavoring to understand or speculate on who her birth father might have been. Unlike the previous poem, which settles on a strong persona and voice with a clear opinion to express, this one moves from possibility to possibility…

 

the birth father

could have been anyone:
a Pole
a felon
an identical twin

he could have been a Holy Roller
(although that seems unlikely)

he could have been
an ocean
a doorbell
a slice of American cheese

he could have been
goya—the Urdu’s’
transporting suspension
of disbelief

i suspect he was a train schedule
& every woman’s intermittent

it’s been my choice not to believe
father once lived
somewhere near
Uncle Tom’s cabin

or that, unbidden, Siri found him, said:
your father is sitting beside me

What is logic in a hurricane’s eye?

if he’d been my crossing guard, i could’ve adored him—
would have hated to know he never looked both ways

he has never been but
if you’re of a certain age,
he could have been yours…

 

Both of these poems show a mind in collaboration with itself, with the known and the unknown.

To learn from Lynne Thompson, here is an exercise:

Exercise: What is a choice you made for yourself or that someone else made for you that has changed your life? What might have happened had the choice been different? You may try to embody the voice of this alternate person, as Lynne Thompson does in her first poem, or you may move from one possibility to another, making a list of things that might have been different.

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