Is poetry true? That has been an awkward question since my poems sound so autobiographical. I often start with memories then freely invent to round out a story that would be only a fragment if I stuck to the journalistic truth. But I’ve left friends who’ve read my poems with the mistaken impression that my former wife suffered a miscarriage or that my father had died. Once, in fact, I sat beside my father at a theatrical reading of my poems during which we heard my father’s eulogy delivered as a comic send-up. I cringed, for I’d neglected to warn him of what he might hear, but fortunately his hearing aid didn’t seem to be on. Afterwards, my former wife said to my brother, for nearly the complete cast of my poetry was in the audience, “Well, I guess I we took our lumps tonight.” “Nah,” my brother replied. “He makes all that stuff up.” Bless him for letting me off the hook. (Wait till you read what I wrote about him in my zombie poems.) Yet many people seem to automatically assume that poems are true. “An affecting verse memoir,” wrote the Chronogram reviewer of Love in the City of Grudges, which includes those zombie poems. (No, I did not drive a tire iron through my brother’s forehead. And, no, I did not find my old wedding ring in my mother’s cannibal soup.) Yet at times, not wanting to disappoint this urge to believe, I’ve described my poetry as “memoirish.” How weaselly can you get?
So Gray Jacobik’s Little Boy Blue: A Memoir in Verse has been an edifying book to read. Reading her work, I realize how much I’ve relied upon my imagination to dramatize the underlying disquiets that in life remained unspoken and unacted upon. Not for nothing did Kafka imagine Gregor Samsa as a giant beetle as a way of revealing the terrible anxieties in a seemingly normal household. But Gray Jacobik has taken the opposite tact, sticking to facts and writing in an unembellished style. The story she tells is so shocking in itself that she wants to avoid letting it become a crappy tabloid tale not worthy of actual people. And she creates tremendous emotional force by facing the truth for what it is, however awkward and ugly, rather than pretending that events might have turned out otherwise. The effect is mesmerizing. No wonder readers love memoirs. It’s simplistic to say that the truth can set you free. But it can be powerful medicine.
Little Boy Blue is Gray’s son. The first two poems lay out the beginning and the end of their stories together. The rest fills in with episodes that range from heartbreaking to endearing. In the early 1960s Gray became pregnant at seventeen through a passing infatuation. She tried and failed to find “a back-alley abortionist in the Negro district of Newport News,” then took thirty quinine pills from the father’s football coach that didn’t abort the baby as hoped but did cause his “tooth buds” to fail to grow in his mouth and may have caused his bipolar disorder and ADHD.
So, a bad start. And a bad end when her son, now past forty, sits in her driveway in his white truck with “two toast-brown dogs” beside him, and announces that he never wants to see Gray again because his girlfriend wants to severe all contact. She’ll later accuse Gray of trying to abandon her son seventeen times. To which Gray’s reply is “You think it only seventeen…” Yet, as we read in the subsequent poems, Gray couldn’t deny her motherly love for her son that she poured into the cauldron of their lives. The rare moments of humor and lightness that they shared still glow in her memories like the fireflies of a life that might have been.
Outside of this book, Gray would go on to make a good life for herself. In her twenties she became interested in poetry which led her to earn a PhD. and then to become a professor at Eastern Connecticut State University for many years, while also publishing half a dozen books. She taught as well at the Stonecoast MFA Program where she mentored Joanna Solfrian, whose first book I really admired. At a reading of Joanna’s, I met Gray, a lovely woman whom I suspect has been a supportive teacher to many. But her success couldn’t protect her against the heartbreaks of mothering her son. Here’s a poem from late in the book. Her son—late into his thirties, I’ll guess—lives in the Dope Kingdom of northern California. (In the published version the shorter lines are indented, so the poem looks more balanced on the page. Alas, I lack the computer skills to retain the indentations in this blog.)
I had one night, two hours only, before the FCC threatened
a lawsuit then shut you down,
to sit in a rented Corolla on a side street in Ukiah & listen
to your voice broadcast
from the station you created. Your built a transformer first,
then taught yourself the craft.
Now you wrote and performed twelve hours a day, six days
a week, programs that floated
from your small rented room—community, pirate radio,
a six mile radius—89.7 FM.
Your on-air voice sounded pleasant—you—but not quite.
I could hear how your jaw
was clinched to tame your stutter & squeeze out this
modulated deejay voice.
One of your shows was The Atheists’ Hour—every Sunday
morning to counter religious programming—
you’d begin with a weekly round-up of the imprisonments,
torture & killings across the globe
committed in the name of one deity or another. At the end,
you’d cackle and say, “The producer
of The Atheists’ Hour wishes to thank…Satan!” You gave
Friday nights, late, to Skid Row,
after scouring downtown for drunks & asking them
to talk about their choice
to stay as intoxicated as possible for as long as possible.
During The Grow-at-Home Companion you conversed with those
who enjoyed or required cannabis
argued the pros & cons of various varietals & cultivation
techniques. This was Free Radio,
&, on air, you were The Captain conducting a troupe
of streetwise “associates” who’d come by
as scheduled or not, locals with names like Gruesome P.
Jones, Trouthead, Ripe Cherry,
& Bong Brain—tete-a-tete buffoonery & barroom
banter of a high, if salacious, order.
In one skit, you played Elvis & Devious Dave played
Colonel Tom Parker—the two of you
quarreling & quipping rapid-fire over a proposed
comeback from the grave—Presley
in an eternal hell of constipation, wanting to resurrect,
but stuck on a toilet, loud farting
& worse, pared with riffs from Love Me Tender & Hound
With such high jinks & high compadres, your studio was
subject to raids & wiretapping,
but you’d always wanted to stick it to authority, & now you
had your means, your art.
By running fake ads & bogus public service
announcements that spoofed bureaucratic absurdities
& legal legerdemains, you spoke for the oppressed &
That night I let your voice lead me through the dizzying maze
of your ingenious mind,
remembering the little boy who kept us in stitches. I admired
your politics, your liberality,
your voice there on the fringe of the country, outrageous, brave,
I no longer felt guilt toward you or shame for myself, only glad
I’d kept you, that we were
in one another’s life. And I saw then that you are mine & there
is no mystery to it