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On Voice (Having to Hear It)

By Keith Wilson

There is hardly anything more embarrassing than reading something I wrote a long time ago. I cringe every time I accidentally open a draft of something that is more than a few years old. There seems nothing salvageable in any of it. It is a starry-eyed terrible rawness that reflects nothing. It is something said under my breath that got, somehow, recorded. It’s always, over and over, the worst.

Hearing one’s own voice, in a recording, is bad enough. But the source of discomfort there, for me, is how little I sound the way I think I sound, and I can get away with focusing on how no physical part of me ever seems quite what I imagine it to be. I can tell myself that it’s the imagining that is me. That whole Descartes thing.

That is, in this big thought experiment, I rationalize that I am more my mind than I am my body. And of course I would rationalize that, since rationalizing is one of the things the mind is best at. Or, at the very least, my mind. It is like a hammer explaining the taste of nails. Even if it is true that they are delicious, how, really, can I trust it?

If I trust it—if I trust that I am my mind—then what was I doing in this old essay, in this poem accidentally scrapped by time but which I had tried and tried to publish (glory be to the failure!). This was, I thought, my mind at its very best, and it’s a wreck.

The optimistic way I have tended to look at it is that it is a sign that I am better now. On any given day I still believe it: that poem was a stone in a path forward.

But this is enlightenment thinking. Thinking that I don’t actually believe and that I don’t like to reinvigorate or promote. Progress as we often imagine it is the movement away from a negative toward a positive, and what that means is that we can wash over everything we have destroyed for everything we have gained. Nothing, least of all our minds or souls, fits in a ledger like that.

A strategy for revision is to put the poem away in a drawer for a while. To come back to it when you are less emotionally invested. To see it with a cool heart and mind. On one hand, I am doing that when I find an old poem. But what else I am doing, when I hate the voice of my youth, is discovering myself in a drawer. And finding that one can never divest themselves from themselves—I am still invested in this snapshot of my soul, and if I find it ugly, it is not a rational part of me finding it ugly, it is a rational part of my finding an excuse to look for flaws, now that I can pretend I am looking at a page I have moved fully on from. I am skilled in the art of bias against myself.

But there was something there, once. My love for the poem. Sometimes, for myself. My willingness to fail, if indeed that is what I did. It has led me here, and I don’t have to believe I have progressed, precisely, to see the place I am in and be grateful for it. Or, at the very least, to be grateful for the parts of it that elicit safety and beauty and warmth.

Though I still won’t share this poem.


Keith S. Wilson is author of the poetry collection Fieldnotes on Ordinary Love. An Affrilachian Poet, Cave Canem fellow, and graduate of the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop, he has received both a Kenyon Review Fellowship and a Stegner Fellowship. He serves as Assistant Poetry Editor at Four Way Review and Digital Media Editor at Obsidian Journal. His writing has appeared in Poetry, Adroit Journal, Crab Orchard Review, Little A, Narrative, 32 Poems, Rhino, Muzzle, Blueshift Journal, and Vinyl. He has received an NEA Grant, a Best of the Net Award, and a Redivider Blurred Genre prize, and his work has been anthologized in Best New Poets. He holds an MFA from Chicago State University.


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