SUSAN SETTLEMYRE WILLIAMS
Review | The
Room Where I Was Born, by Brian Teare
"Once there was a boy who loved a story so much he walked through the page," a boy in need of escape, who finds himself instead in the midst of fairy tales where children are menaced by evil monsters—some of them their own flesh and blood. For this boy, the protagonist of The Room Where I Was Born, "happily ever after" is not even a distant dream.
Night after night, his older brother forces his way into the boy's room ("turned the knob, entered // you: once & once & once he put himself inside you until it was dying / to be a body & still it didn't end"), while their parents ("dreaming in the sleep / you all slept: curse of Fathers, of Mothers") seem willfully oblivious. Not since Randall Jarrell and Anne Sexton has a poet revealed the cruelty at the root of folktales as unflinchingly as Brian Teare. "You are here," he warns, "to learn, to die, & this is how a witch gets business. // . . . Any path leads to the Wolf, the Witch, the house or cottage where what waits is patient & sharp." The squeamish should beware. Except for a brief and less compelling sequence about girls in a more ordinarily dysfunctional family, The Room Where I Was Born keeps the reader right there with the witch and the wolf and the sharp tooth.
Although, in the second section of the book, the fairy tale motif gives way to Southern Gothic as the boy—presumably the same boy, given a transition poem, "Because David & Jonathan," that combines themes from both sections—becomes a teenaged prostitute, Teare continues to use the device of fiction genres as a way of framing his themes. Near the beginning of an episode in which a middle-aged businessman ("plump in the word seersucker—suit, straw hat, white oxfords") unnerves the boy by professing love, Teare comments, "it's too cliché to be sympathetic," then muses, "If I had to, I'd start with the motel before they screw / everything up . . ." Later, he considers revising: "'It's hot,'" I could start, "'It's 1989.'" Later still, "I'd start with anything / but what they have, that room's air, interior scrubbed raw / with the smell of sex . . ."
Metanarrative typically signals a Postmodern sensibility, exploding the illusion of literature as anything other than language; but I believe Teare is operating from a somewhat different premise. His narrator seems instead to be searching for a way to live with his story by casting it as story. We see the poet (whether he's meant to be Teare himself or a persona) interrogating his own creative and interpretive processes as he weighs the best approach for telling—and surviving—his truth.
This process is frequently explicit: "Her telling has rules, the child knows," one poem begins, "parts / as in a play: one who is voice, one who is ear." In the first of two poems called "—In the Library of the Fairy Tale," the speaker examines the "key-word brothers" in the "Thematic Index of Folk-Lore & Fairy Tale" to try to find an appropriate motif among "the entries sick / with benignities, all the awful plucky brothers playing nice- / nice" and finally locates "b. chosen rather than husband; lecherous b." He imagines a story collected from "an old bachelor" who recounts, "Once / upon a time, a brother loved his brother, the sorrow of all beginning." Literary formulae offer a way to start to come to terms with awful, formless experience. Thus, as the poem understands, "no matter / how he came to learn it, the teller can only say, Sir, it's always been // a borrowed song."
The second section of The Room Where I Was Born, although less overtly horrific (in fact, at times highly erotic), continues the merciless recital of ugly reality. "Trick Noir" depicts the stoned adolescent on his first "date" with an adult male ("not anyone / you'd want to see again but you will"), a sordid encounter from which he gains this insight into his redneck client's mind: "There are only two ways to fuck a boy and be a man—drunk, / or paying for it—and anything else, he'll say, is less than a man // and worse than a woman: a faggot. Which would be you." There's no self-pity, though. In a first-person poem, the narrator remarks, "Really, my heart's / the old joke about men and their blood: enough only / for one organ at a time."
A final sequence, "Toward Lost Letters," seeks a different, more sympathetic formula for framing the narrator's life. In letters to a bachelor great-uncle he never knew, he speculates on hereditary homosexuality ("my mother always claimed: I'm her only child / to take after you"), imagining his uncle's youthful affair with a "young seminarian" who left him "for the Church." Oral sex and history combine in these tender and erotic poems, the mouth intimately linked to both telling and pleasure: "I write out loud your sexed and crowded mouth."
Teare risks a lot with his dark and steamy narratives. They locate themselves on the borders of melodrama and nightmare and could easily slide over or fall into parody. But they maintain their dangerous balance, in part because of language that offsets lushness with bald fact ("beauty . . . in the tinny chuckle of his belt unbuckling, // . . . in the tick of bills he counts out after"), in part because of the distancing and sometimes weirdly distorting effect of those literary formulae. The Room Where I Was Born casts a powerful spell, and it has to: "When the book and voice and light give up and go / to bed under another name," all hell breaks loose. "This is knowledge: the child awake as the light goes out."