“You never asked questions about me,” I said to Nicole at the end of a brief relationship in which we only ever talked about her. “I didn’t have to,” she said, pointing to two of my poetry books on a nearby shelf. “I’ve read all about you.” I was amazed: she thought those books were me.
Maybe I was to blame. I’d long exploited the tendency of readers to assume events in poems are “true”—that Whitman once ditched an astronomy lecture to gaze at the night sky, and Dickinson listened to a fly buzz while dying (and lived to tell about it). The books of mine Nicole pointed to contained many “personal” poems—poems about childhood, work, sex, love, travel—though the key event of any poem is the spell cast on the reader, for which I was glad to supply fictions. I obey Marianne Moore’s call for poems to be “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” Maybe “personal” poetry is when the gardens also seem real. Did I, or didn’t I, visualize my mother bound and gagged with a gun to her head while practicing foul shots as a teenager? The answer is it doesn’t matter (though it may have to Nicole).
I think I gravitated to poetry because it lets you sing through masks, though that’s kind of how all art works. It’s also how being in the closet works, how in the 1930s and 1940s Cole Porter made genius contributions to the American songbook of heterosexual love, and how, thirty years later, a tortured Elton John sang chart-topping rock ballads about women. Though neither of them could have written an honest memoir at the time. Nor could I, prior to coming out.
When I began my memoir, I didn’t assume I’d include any of the poems I’d written, even if the poems included events from my life. Not only were they written for a different purpose, but I didn’t want to subjugate my prose to my poetry. To put it bluntly, I didn’t want to be a nonwriter. Most memoirs are written by nonwriters, employing formulas and half-truths and gimmicks. I intended This Body I Wore to be a literary work, which meant my prose would have to find its own way, make its own discoveries. I did expect to include the fact that I was a poet, how I began doing it, and how poetry sustained me as a source of community and embodiment in my closeted adult life. All of that was well and good to narrate, though there was no need to insert old poems into a work of new prose.
But then, a hundred pages in, there was. I was writing a short section about Beth Rigazio, a woman around my age whom someone introduced me to in Santa Fe. Beth was looking for a driving companion interested in touring the southwest, and the two of us had a fun and memorable time. But there was something serious at the heart of that experience, which is what made it memorable, and which was best captured by inserting a poem—one that hadn’t appeared in any of my books. Here is the entirety of that section:
If my life were a movie, and I were a character tasked with meeting one trustworthy and uncomplicated friend, that friend would be Beth Rigazio, my road buddy. Beth and I zig-zagged through the American Southwest in her used Volkswagen Beetle convertible, as though driving into a hundred iconic movie posters. We ate chicken fried steak and shot pool in Durango, drove the scenic Million Dollar Highway (no guardrails!), came down, through Zion National Park and Monument Valley, to the Grand Canyon, where we slept by a campfire on the North Rim, then stopped for three days of hedonism in Las Vegas. We laughed and conversed, at ease with one another, staying in the present, neither of us saying much about our past. We shared single-bed motel rooms. We were not lovers—somehow there was no question of that—yet that didn’t stop me from writing a love poem:
WITH BETH IN VEGAS
I thought money was love when you found me
at the nickel slots and told me you lost some,
admitted later you lost a lot, and that you wired
New York and lost that too. All in fifteen minutes.
We played your last $20 at black jack, where women
in togas served us Black Russians for free, like love,
which must be why I asked the dealer to hit us
when we already had 21, because love is wanting
what you already have, I explained, as you howled,
as we swayed down the desert to our motel
and hit the bed in one another’s arms.
Beth had wit and openness, and something else I admired immensely: an aptitude for aimless wandering. She was originally from New Hampshire, had lived in New York City, then Santa Fe for several months, and was going to L.A. to try her hand at screenwriting, even though she had no training in it, or connections in the industry. If she was nervous, it didn’t show. Beth knew something about life, something I needed to know, though I couldn’t name it—other than to say she was at home in the world, while I was hiding out at the nickel slots.
Though not strictly factual, that poem led directly to the all-too-true point that ends the section, about Beth possessing something that I didn’t. It did so by offering those two contrasting images: her wiring New York for more money, while I played the “nickel slots.” (It’s typical of trans people, especially prior to coming out, not to want to take up space—and here was someone pulling me out of the shadows, “where women in togas served us Black Russians.”) Without the poem it would have taken far longer to develop this point. The poem functioned as a flying carpet. It didn’t disrupt or falsify the memoir, and it deepened the narrative.
Toward the end of the memoir, in a chapter called “Revisionist History,” another poem provided a flying carpet. The chapter tells about my relationship with a widowed mother in DC named Vanessa. The relationship would be my last attempt to live as a man, and take my place in a family. The logistics of our arrangement were unusual, as well as the combination of occupations: attorney and poet. I saw that, by inserting a poem I was writing at that time, I could plunge inside that unusualness, while fast-forwarding the chapter into our household life:
I SPLIT MY weeks between New York and DC. I wrote, and worked on my low residency MFA, on the bus back and forth. I wrote at a little desk upstairs in Vanessa’s house, and in the coffee shops along Connecticut Avenue. I had good luck in the downstairs café at the famous Politics and Prose bookstore, and even better luck at a Starbucks farther uptown, where I drafted this poem:
I am carrying a boy who fell asleep in the car
upstairs. This isn’t in itself unusual—nothing
in itself is. I could be rushing downstairs
in another house cradling a Yorkshire Terrier,
but that’s not how things have worked out.
The boy isn’t mine—though for the moment
I guess he is. He’s big for six. I need to grip
him tight. He has woolly hair and dark
alert eyes when he’s awake. He can’t stand girls
and likes a little of his mother’s pink
polish on his toes. Earlier, at the rest stop,
he and his brother played rock, paper, scissors,
only it was rock, paper, scissors, black hole!
which they cried, crashing into each other,
or rock, paper, scissors, supernova! or atom bomb!—
whatever disaster they could think up to trump
all previous disasters, though nothing to match
their father collapsed dead on the back deck
in his barbecue apron, or them being whisked
from the sight, as John Kennedy’s children
undoubtedly were, by some wise and quick-
thinking soul, perhaps to a room upstairs—
these stairs I’m walking up now, three years later
with a boy sleeping deeply. If you’ve never
done what I am doing and get the opportunity,
I would recommend it. You might find
you’ve never stepped quite so purposefully,
as though climbing out of life’s trouble
into a cloud realm, and laying down
a body that could be anyone’s.
That evening, Vanessa found me revising that poem and asked what I was working on. I met her eyes and told her it was a tough one. “I want to read it,” she said, “but give me a day.” I’d written another poem mentioning the death of Lloyd, who I felt strangely close to. Vanessa was eager to read it, though his death still overwhelmed her. Just a glimpse of someone crossing a street in a windbreaker similar to his could put her in tears for half a day.
In addition to what I’ve mentioned, “Upstairs” helped me introduce the boys, whom we will get to know shortly (we already know one of them is gender nonconforming), as well as Vanessa’s husband, the circumstances of his death, and the fact that she’s still in mourning. And now that I think about it, a memoir reader might wonder, by this point, what my poems are like. And now that I think about it, the ending of this poem—“laying down / a body that could be anyone’s”—probably fits the memoir’s title better than anything else in the book.
In the nineteen chapters of This Body I Wore, I used just five of my poems. None of their insertions were planned—i.e., the prose led me to the poetry—and each poem served as a flying carpet, zeroing in on something important, while speeding the narrative forward. Three of the five poems had never been published in a collection. That eased another concern of mine, having to do with ego: I didn’t want to just play my aces. Though “Upstairs” may be an ace, as well one of the unpublished poems. And in honor of National Poetry Month, which all started with FSG, I’d like to debut that poem right here:
A FAMILY IN DC
A woman is swatting a fly in her kitchen,
a Chinese woman, a widow with two small
half-Chinese boys who are sitting at the table
watching their mother jump up (she’s not so tall)
and swing murderously at something that lives
but seven days. I am the man in this picture—
or was, anyway—sitting with the boys at the table.
“You’re rooting for the fly, aren’t you?” she says,
glancing sidelong at me. The boys look at me too,
then back to her. They know I don’t believe in
killing sentient beings. For all we know (and
I’d never say this aloud) the fly could be a visit
from their father, who collapsed just outside
on the deck, two years earlier. But it’s the boys
who interest me. They’re deciding who to side with:
the only parent they have left, or kooky, superfun
Doug from New York City, who comes every other
week and plays football with them, and builds
shelves, and insists on a crazy prayer before meals,
who their mother calls her “sexy man,” making
sure to get her long hair blown out on the day
of his arrival. Or the fly—which is who I’d like
them to side with, because I’ll soon be gone.
Diana Goetsch is an American poet and essayist. Her poems have appeared widely, in The New Yorker, Poetry, The Gettysburg Review, Ploughshares, The Best American Poetry, and the Pushcart Prize anthology, and in the collections Nameless Boy and In America, among others. She also wrote the “Life in Transition” blog at The American Scholar. Her honors include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York Foundation for the Arts, and the New School, where she served as the Grace Paley Teaching Fellow. For twenty-one years Goetsch was a New York City public school teacher, at Stuyvesant High School and at Passages Academy in the Bronx, where she ran a creative writing program for incarcerated teens.