Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

Listen to This, Listen to That: Family Matters

by Dan Froid

“I’ve had this sort of ongoing romance with the subjunctive . . . to imagine this possible future that didn’t look like anything you’d seen in the world around you.” That’s how Julie Marie Wade describes her interest in memoir in “Family Matters,” Episode 18 of Air Schooner. I like that: the romance of the subjunctive. That’s a real pleasure of the imagination, or a real nightmare, to set up a scenario and follow it to its furthest conclusion. Family matters present surely the biggest daydreaming minefield: it’s so easy to go back to petty conflicts, or strained relationships, or whatever, and conjecture other possibilities. In the episode, we hear Sharon Olds do this, too, in “I Go Back to May 1937,” which for me is essentially an episode of The Twilight Zone. Olds imagines telling her parents not to marry, but at the end

I don’t do it. I want to live. I  
take them up like the male and female  
paper dolls and bang them together  
at the hips, like chips of flint, as if to  
strike sparks from them, I say
Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it.

Like The Twilight Zone, the final image of paper dolls mashed together is vaguely threatening, but fascinating. It’s strange, but it has an eerie aptness to it. Maybe what I’m thinking of is that one episode where five characters—there’s a clown, a ballet dancer—wander around in a tiny room trying to figure out where they could be. As it turns out, they’re dolls in an orphanage collection bin. The poem envisions the past like a toy-chest, in which one can play—but it’s only ever play. There’s a sense of fatalism here, too: No, it has to be that way, it couldn’t go otherwise. I’m humming Marianne Faithfull’s “No Child of Mine” to myself. Faithfull repeats again and again, “Go home, find your own way.” Its mood is similar to the Olds poem, as if both of them are looking at the collection bin, wondering what they could play with, and deciding against playing too much. At the very end the song changes tack—the hazy music vaporizes into a simple guitar, handclaps, and the voices of Faithfull and PJ Harvey:

I have no time for hate or love
Hey child, you’re so full of woe
I have no time for hate or lying
Hey child, you’re no child of mine

Here, perhaps, the romance of the subjunctive goes wildly awry. The subjunctive itself stops allowing itself to be played with. At first pensive, Faithfull now sounds frustrated, tired.

A somewhat similar mood pervades Natalie Diaz’s poem “Black Magic Brother”:

            My brother’s shadow flutters from his shoulders, a magician’s cape.
            My personal charlatan glittering in woofle dust and loaded
            With gimmicks and gaffs.

            A train of dirty cabooses, of once-beautiful girls,
            Follows my magus man like a chewed tail
            helping him perform his tricks.

I love the constant refiguring of Diaz’s brother: a magician, a charlatan, a magus—all terms conveying a slightly different image. Is he a trickster, a phony, a dark mystery? Diaz also talks about her family’s response following the release of When My Brother Was an Aztec. As Diaz says, her mom disagreed with Diaz’s interpretation of events: “That’s just not how it happened. The things you wrote in there, that’s just not how they happened,” she said. Her sister, on the other hand, insisted that Diaz was right. Martha Wainwright’s “BMFA” also suggests the problem of conflicting interpretations. (I’ll leave it up to you to discover what the thoroughly-NSFW title acronym stands for.) It addresses Wainwright’s relationship with her father. If you figure out what the acronym stands for, that might give you the gist. It features a truly wonderful opening—Wainwright’s lovely croak of a voice bursts in and sings:

Poetry is no place for a heart that’s a whore
And I’m young and I’m strong
But I feel old and tired
Overfired

And I’ve been poked and stoked
It’s all smoke, there’s no more fire
Only desire
For you, whoever you are

I love that opening line. This song is angsty, yes, but forceful. I’m compelled to sing along every time I hear it. As Diaz and Wade do, Wainwright raises serious questions about family and art. To what extent is her father at fault for her feeling tired and cowed? “You say my time here has been some sort of joke,” she says later, “and you have no idea how it feels to be on your own / in your own home.” It’s an indictment, of course, but she insists that she desires “you, whoever you are.” So like Olds, she seems dissatisfied with the shape the present has taken, the line the past has taken to become it, and yet she doesn’t seem to want to change it. The romance with the subjunctive ends up in the same way every time: focusing on what has actually happened and fashioning it into art. Do what you are going to do, all these poets and singers suggest, and they will tell about it.