By Andrea Bates
Inside my bedroom closet there is nothing for me to wear. Not literally, of course. I could choose from: a pair of jeans too baggy in the bum, a skirt that threatens to slide down my hips unless it is nipped at the waist with a safety pin, or a black “librarian” cardigan missing a button. Some garments are ghosts of a former self: the tailored black blazer I wore only once, three years ago, at my mother’s funeral; the white prairie skirt I wore when my lover and I sat together in the big chair in my living room and he read aloud the poems I wrote for him. Every morning I sigh, faced with the personas I have constructed from such rags. Nothing fits anymore.
There’s that old wives’ tale: every seven years or so most of the cells in our body are replaced. We shed our skin, our liver regenerates, fresh blood flows through our veins. I can see this transformation re-reading the poems I’ve written. The language has shifted; what once preoccupied now bores. Metaphors have ripened and decayed like fruit left in a bowl. Muses have come and gone. As I put together my first full-length manuscript, I think: the book is a body wearing poems for clothes. Every time I read through it, I sigh, faced with the personas I have constructed from such flights of fancy, such madness, such longing. Nothing fits anymore.
In poetry, personas are masks; they are an essential component of the costume drama. They allow, as Julie Sheehan said in a panel discussion “Channeling Voices” at this year’s AWP Conference, “an escape from the relentless self.” Or, as Robert Polito remarked, personas allow “a confessional moment that is someone else’s confession.” Personas allow us to play dress up, to pretend, to transgress, to breathe life into historical figures; as Robert Thomas said, they can be “a way of interpreting a dream to someone.” Clothes, like personas, are a means of concealment. How freeing it is, then, to run naked in one’s dream. How liberating it is when you finally take off your clothes and face who you really are.
Clarissa Pinkola Estes writes in Women Who Run With the Wolves, “In Buddhism there is a questing action called nyubu, which means to go into the mountains in order to understand oneself and to remake one’s connections to the Great.” Deep in the Blue Ridge mountains is a little cabin at the end of a dirt road where wild blackberries grow. Thirteen hundred feet above sea level, nestled among the pines, it is the secret place of my heart. There, on the screened in porch, festooned with solar powered lights shaped like stars, I sit cross legged on the papasan chair, my eyes closed, listening to the crows. I’ve just showered, the ends of my hair still wet and smelling of lavender. I am wrapped in a soft cotton towel. I focus on my breathing. The air here smells of fresh thunder, approaching rain. When the wind moves through the trees, I hear the sound of papers rustling, all those poems I’ve written fanning out their pages behind me. Soon the lightning comes, signing its name across the sky. I imagine I am alone in the woods with the ghosts of all the clothes I’ve ever worn. The person who wore those clothes doesn’t fit this landscape.
Some native peoples burn the clothes of the deceased a year after their death in an elaborate bonfire. Such a ritual comforts. Such a ritual is the dividing line between lives. I realize I need to burn away the longing for what cannot be replaced: a mother, the lover who used to undress my heart. Yes, I must burn away the old masks, the frayed costumes, the scuffed shoes. On the next stage of my quest I begin barefoot, naked, alone and writing in a dark wood, a new voice rising above the thunder, ascending to the stars.