The Age of Secrets

Margaret Atwood once wrote, “Little girls are cute and small only to adults. To one another they are not cute. They are life-sized.” I would argue that a similar statement can be made about children and secrets; many experiences witnessed by children are secretive only in the eyes of adults. Young children do not often learn that something is a secret until after they have witnessed it. Before the label of “secret” is applied, the experience may feel public, normal, life-sized.

It is an honor to co-curate this secrets-themed FUSION with Iranian poet Mahnaz Badihian. Immediately I knew that I wanted to go digging into Prairie Schooner’s archives for poems blending secrets and childhood, since I am currently working on a book of poems about girlhood, and reading and researching child psychology, girls in literature, child portraiture, and so on. The well-loved book The Secret Garden comes to mind for obvious reasons, but I intentionally turned away from poems like it that present whispering escapades taken by innocent children into fantasy-like natural spaces; what I was after were loud, splashy crimes witnessed by children too young to fully understand them. These experiences should disrupt, overwhelm, and even induce agony in their young observers (or victims).

Why would I wish such trauma on young people and poems? Long after horrific and confusing experiences are labeled “secret,” they have built character for good or bad. The same cannot be said of traditional secrets found in children’s books (written by adults, remember), which often take the form of puzzles or games with set rules: think of the board game in Jumanji, a secret to its players; or Harry Potter’s true identity as a famous wizard, a secret kept from him by colleagues of his deceased parents. The children in these stories eventually emerge triumphant. They have paired every question with a fitting answer and are ready for a new day. Is it a secret that a narrative arc, rather than reality, is the reason for their success?

The tension between children and secrets is that children are not naturally confessional; they speak and act and have to be told by older or more experienced individuals when their speech and actions are wrong. Ted Kooser demonstrates this point in his terrific poem “A Deck of Pornographic Playing Cards” about two ten-year-old boys who discover a deck of cards under a bridge, where an adult secretively “had carefully hidden them there.” They feel none of the shame that the owner of the cards undoubtedly does; they look and look and at last straightforwardly observe, “We had wanted to laugh / but we couldn’t… / we were already dying inside.”

This same straightforwardness can be found in many of the poems I present here. Elton Glaser’s “Secrets” describes two sons spying on their mother helping a woman breastfeed, unsure even by the end what they’ve witnessed. In Enid Shomer’s “Theater of Dreams,” the speaker pieces together buried memories of her father through fragmented images from childhood: old tools, a marble floor, a thrown shoe. These objects, like very young children, possess no self-consciousness and thus are ripe with information.

In this selection you will also see the results of shame, as some children give up oblivion to willingly participate in a culture that fetishizes secrets. A boy whispers “creepy secrets” to an ancestral ghost in R. T. Smith’s “Ghost Story,” and “scarred trees twisted and the locked garage” can barely contain all of one girl’s secrets in Louise Erdrich’s “The Return.” In these poems, secrets become property to children desperate for things of value. We should remember these secrets may also be the after-effects of monumental trauma.

I am so excited to share with you Santiago Cal’s sculptures, which lend a spooky stillness to this FUSION. Here are children frozen in not quite play—their legs are adorably chubby, their reaching hands are hungry for life, but their eyes are often closed. Their bodies bear the weight of metal rods, the confinement of a suitcase, an attachment to balloon strings. You can almost hear the secrets murmuring inside these frustrated children.

I am excited, too, to collaborate with the accomplished poet and translator Mahnaz Badihian. The poems she presents here amplify the hushed secrets of powerful spaces—the garden, the dance floor, even Hell. Yet as we are given more information, more information remains hidden. Take Quisar Aminpour’s “The Secret of Life,” a poem that settles an argument between a flower and bud while stating that the argument forever “echoes in the ear.” Shirin Sadeghi’s arresting portraits also balance light and shadow: a woman with electric-pink bangs covering one eye.

As a young woman, I am drawn to writing poems about children or in a girl’s voice because of how easy it is to avoid shame. I can be raunchy, or goofy, or startlingly sincere without any of the common judgments assigned to poems about women’s lives. In terms of drama, I can create a scene of intensely raw personal damage. I can also conjure the purest discoveries and surprises. The poets whose work you are about to read have their own reasons for revisiting childhood; each poem is a different glimpse into a life stage that many adults consider a mystery. I hope it’s a mystery we can work to unveil rather than bury in secret.

Author Photo of Marianne Kunkel

About the Author

Marianne Kunkel is the managing editor of Prairie Schooner and a PhD student in poetry at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, with a specialization in women’s and gender studies. Her poems have appeared in Columbia Poetry Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Poet Lore, Rattle, and River Styx, and her chapbook is The Laughing Game (Finishing Line Press).