The Long Truth
This is an embryonic poem fertilised by a sentence in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers: “If he could not speak the whole long truth no other word would come to him.” Doctor Copeland’s mental mapping joins up an immensity of factors too complex for quotidian conversation. It’s not necessarily lies that cause pain, but facts placed in faulty or exclusive paradigms.
If truth be told
it be long
and feet chafe
on its roughened skin.
it will grind
and throng itself,
embind its elements to
intricate lumps, less passable.
He stands, considers.
A man of direction.
If they veer off
or turn back, linked,
he will not begin.
It took me until the age of thirty to properly understand the truth of parallax. One reason it took me so long was that I hadn’t properly investigated it. Apparently, psychological evidence indicates that we make decisions on the basis of our emotions. If you want to win someone over tell them a story; statistics won’t do it. This came up during an online chat and I chuckled to myself. Naw, not me. I’m a statistics woman. Since I let go of belief-cum-intuition as a method of mental operation, I’ve never looked back for the pounding heart. An hour later I found myself immersed in the stories of women who’d had abortions.
My childhood was spent in the grip of a conscious logic. Whose I don’t know. I think it was genetically ambient. It was a logic whose given was the prevailing paradigm and whose task was to prove it correct. Stretches and rips in the weave had to be darned or accepted as fashion. The main thing was the well-formed sentence. Both parents enjoyed the well-formed sentence.
Being logical, I couldn’t see how there could be many truths. Either something happened one way or it happened another. Either there was a god or there wasn’t. We just didn’t know the truth yet but there was a truth. Plain as daylight. The foetus has all its organs therefore it’s a person therefore to stop its life is murder therefore abortion is wrong. A young woman on the radio, qualified in medical chemistry and chemical biology, has interrupted her career to campaign for No because the baby in the womb has all its organs at 13 weeks.
The family picture below must have been taken when I was about 4. I’m the youngest. Amn’t I cute. Couldn’t care less about the fact that no-one in the picture is particularly happy, least of all my mother. The bandage on her leg is to contain pernicious varicose veins. The darkness in her face is disappointment and mourning. She’d had at least ten pregnancies. Two miscarriages, one baby who died shortly after birth, and seven living children. The legend is that the first two babies weighed 14 lbs. The spoken history is that she suffered greatly with each baby. The quantifiable science is that her womb was removed shortly after I was; and that state-funded medical methods at the time did not improve her life. Even her false teeth were a bad fit. She died at the age of 56.
We, as the people say, were a credit to our parents. We were “brainy” and healthy. We could find jobs and get the hell out. We were reared to leave. With our mother’s incontrovertible, loving, tragic approbation we packed our best sentences, our paradigmatic logic, our learned sympathetic diplomacy, some packets of good-humoured flexibility, and set out on our unwinged safe paths. My mother was the eternal shrine to which homage would be paid forever. The beautiful perfect victim of a terrifying husband-ogre. All-would-be-well-if-he’d-only-be-nice was the logic I imbibed from about the age of seven. Sweet-sour sulk-smile gory little mind decided that if it came to it and I had to kill him so be it.
The flip side of badly grounded logic is solar flare. This is equal to lunacy in its non-adaptability. My father was reared in the poorest part of Limerick city by an alcoholic shell-shocked father (World War 1 veteran) and a kind but powerless mother. He couldn’t attend secondary school because he couldn’t afford the clothes. He started working at an early age as a messenger boy and was liberated into the army at sixteen, a permanent position, a surrogate father-institution, further education and a source of income with which he could honourably help his mother. He was disciplined, drank only on occasion and moderately, and always did a full day’s work. When he married, he took his church-sanctioned place as head of his household and ruled loudly and bad-temperedly while rising daily at 6.30 am, milking two extra-curricular cows, working all day in a lone manual job for the County Council and tending to the garden in the evenings. He grew all our vegetables including herbs and garlic. He knew about holistic health methods from reading The Observer and The UNESCO Courier and such. He loved the classics, played competitive chess and spoke some Irish. He was an outsider. He delighted in me. I hated him.
Emily Dickinson’s line “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant –” is one of her most perpetual. I came across it yet again yesterday in a new online magazine as advice to writers. I feel compelled to quote the whole poem.
Tell all the Truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —(1)
Dickinson’s capitalisation of “Truth” makes it large, maybe suggesting theological truth, but at any rate implying that it’s in some way homogeneous. All of it must be told, but cautiously. This is a prescription for didacts: coax the listener in, don’t alienate them with something too large. It’s a tactic. The other capitalised words augment this idea. “Circuit” is the method; “Delight” is the desired effect; “Lightning” is the substance; “Children” are the target. We can’t bear the truth.
But this is a Given Truth and a Main Road to what is presented as Revelation. A lot like Zeus coming to Semele in his real form and killing her. Truth can kill and I’m not sure that telling it slant will do much more than delay the dagger. Does poetry tell it slant? Yes, if code is slant, but isn’t the truth emerging in the act of the poem itself? I reckon that if we tell the phenomenon straight we arrive at a slant truth. It’s not that the Truth is dazzling, but that dazzles participate in it.
Photographs are not Truth. Yes, I recognise all my family in this one, but what I can tell from their faces are things I know from their talk and history. My mother’s family are all around her here, but a few years later most of them had gone elsewhere. Eventually there was only me. The others were either not allowed to come home or didn’t particularly want to. Home was never a place to relax. It was a place of constant anxiety, mostly on behalf of my mother, who seemed perpetually in danger.
We’re all avatars of themes and genes. My father represented a history as my mother did as I do. A doctor on Newstalk this morning was asked whether he’d deny abortion to an 11-year-old victim of rape. He replied slant, with a series of questions. “Would you execute the rapist?” No, replied the interviewer. “Would you execute the young lady?” No. “Well then, why execute the child?” The argument might seem logical at first but it’s sophistry. Its Given is not Truth. The paradigm presumes, firstly, that all parties involved are equal entities; secondly, that any action applied to one should be applied to the other two; thirdly, that the word “execution” is applicable to a sub-social entity, when it’s an explicitly social mechanism.
A better paradigm would be that of national invasion. Apart from the salient fact that womb-occupation is still being used as a vehicle of colonisation, the body itself might be seen as a sovereign state; foreign laws should not be forced upon it. Or what about the straight truth that pregnancy is occupation, and the host body must have the right to allow itself to be used for sustenance. Before I got pregnant myself I also thought that “Life was right.” Within two months I had appropriated to myself a precedence to the new life inside. I didn’t abort, because my organism didn’t want to, but if it had I probably would have. I had another child after that, terrified of the labour, and struggled unhappily through the entire child-rearing process, saved by indrilled discipline, innate honour, their reliable hard-working father, their own very impressive gifts, and the skin of my randomly durable over-biting teeth.
During the process of birthing my children, I was shocked at how complex the whole thing was, and how many variations of experience there are. We underestimate the self-possession required to manage a body built for two, when the unpregnant person might go prostrate with a bad bout of indigestion. Natural design yes, but it has so many variations and random machinations that you never know what complication might arise. In short, there’s pain.
There’s no Truth of Life that required my mother to have seven children, however upstanding we were. With self-possession and contraception, four would have done quite nicely. Of course, when a family exists, every individual assumes a special location, but if sweet little, pouting little, entertaining little Mairead had never existed, sweet little etc. Anthony would have done just as well, and a Mairead-theme would have emerged elsewhere.
To say that Human Life is sacred is to say that Pro-Life activists should be daily campaigning in countries that still have the death penalty. If “Human Life” should bow to the involuntary inner activities of the organs, why have we no scruples about attacking cancer, which involves several genetic mutations and could be said to be human also.(2) The same applies to our myriad passenger-bacteria.
The fundamental right is to personal socio-physical integrity. What goes into a body should be the body’s chosen fare. The foetus is not being murdered or executed in abortion. The foetus is in a liminal state between the blueprint and the building, not yet part of a social paradigm that requires its part in a given contract. That given, very few women will lightly rescind the potential that has sprung up in them.
Truth in this case isn’t about the way of telling it but the way of discovering it, and that requires a wide open road.
I’m buried now under the strong feet
Of money. I’m dead. I hope my mother
Sings and dances.
– Brendan Kennelly(3)
1. Emily Dickinson 1129, The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas H. Johnson, Little, Brown & Co., 1961.
2. Scientific American, April 2018, 27-33.
3. “Baby.” A Time for Voices: Selected Poems 1960-1990, Newcastle on Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, 1996. (First published 1985).