06 November 2012

Begin Anywhere

In “This Morning My Son Dominic Watches Me Shave My Father,” the penultimate poem of Frank Giampietro’s Begin Anywhere (Alice James Books, 2008), the speaker, as one can rightly guess from the title, shaves his aging father while his own son watches. He also informs his audience that:
Dad is ninety-one and has become
wonderfully more and more sweet
as he has grown senile

and [I] think of his story explaining his baldness,
how the Indians scalped him—how
I believed him about so many things for so long. (62)
The above excerpts, to some extent, address the central themes of the collection: namely, the manner in which we construct narratives, their trustworthiness, and our penchant for passing them down from generation to generation. As a child, the speaker “believed…so many things for so long” that his father told him, only to realize as he became older that these stories were fictions, not autobiographies. But due to the fact that they were issued from an authority figure and imbued with a particular veracity, these tales gained an unquestioned legitimacy. No doubt, due to the presence of the speaker’s son, we’re led to believe that this tradition will not end with the “senile” grandfather’s passing. Indeed, another generation will sustain these narratives that conflate the imagined and the real, producing a history both endearing and dubious because of its origin.

Of course, in the wake of postmodernism, we tend not to accept narratives as willingly as previous generations. Or, at least, our engagement with narrative becomes increasingly complex. Case in point, the title poem from Begin Anywhere. It opens with the lines:
I could begin with my father’s strong right arm

heaving his shotgun into the lake.

This is usually where I begin. Or I could begin

with my half-sister standing at the top of the hill

looking down at my father’s back as he hurls the gun

into the lake

Or I could begin after the splash, with the ducks

flying back to the bread. Or ten minutes earlier (39)
The poem unfolds like this, in reverse chronological order, with the speaker offering us seven more exceedingly distant points of entry for the story he intends to tell. While providing us with successive beginnings, he calls attention to the construct of narrative, all the while augmenting it with details until we discover that the speaker’s step-mother has shot herself in the head with the shotgun his father has thrown into the lake. Whether employing this technique as a coping mechanism for a traumatic life event, or simply to bring into relief qualities of composition, the speaker forces us to question how we frame events and the manner in which we present them. To be certain, narrative and confessional poetry of the past is no more; instead, Giampietro’s collection seems to suggest that one cannot work within these subgenres without deconstructing (and demolishing) their foundations and guiding principles.

Another recurring theme within Begin Anywhere is the often cryptic and sometimes disturbing content of the stories. Take, for instance, the opening to the poem “Indulgence”:
Here’s how, having called home four times from work

and getting no answer, I thought my wife and baby had died:

Cherie is ironing her purple shirt on our portable board.

Dominic, playing in his walker, starts fussing

because he can’t get the blowfish into his mouth.

Cherie moves toward him

when the ironing board suddenly collapses,

and in spinning around she overcompensates,

launching the iron into the air.

Still hissing, it fall pointy-end down, piercing her skull. (34)
Soon thereafter, Cherie “slips and falls” on the speaker’s son, “suffocating the baby” (35). Mother and child, in this vision, both die horribly. Likewise, the first poem of the book, “Juice,” starts with the line: “I’d like to begin with my addiction to heroin” (11). As the speaker reveals more information about his addiction, we’re told: “I shared crack with a pregnant Dominican woman / …at the top of a five-flight walk-up on 109th Street in Harlem” (11). Is this a fact of the speaker’s life, a confession of the poet, or a fiction composed of news-related material and imaginations? Yes, Begin Anywhere does challenges us to question the “truth” of a narrative in an off-kilter world of death dreams and drug addiction. And, certainly, some readers might be compelled to ask: Are these stories true? But the better question to ask might be: Where do we begin?

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