On September 19, 1961, around 10:30 in the evening, Betty and Barney Hill were driving in the White Mountains, near Lancaster, New Hampshire, when they noticed a bright light in the sky that seemed to be following them. The light grew larger and brighter. Barney pulled the car over and stepped out to investigate with his binoculars.
Their lives would never be the same after that night. Three years later, under hypnosis, the Hills described the strange light as an extraterrestrial aircraft. The two claimed they had been captured by aliens who brought them into their ship and performed medical experiments on them before returning them to their car in a deliberately induced fugue.
The Hills’ experience is the subject of my most recent book, Proof Something Happened, a collection of documentary poems forthcoming in spring 2021 from Marsh Hawk Press.
I realize this is an unusual way to start an autobiographical essay on my development as a writer. But I begin here because Proof Something Happened can serve as a metaphor for how my writing life has been shaped by the relationship among poetry, narrative, and the uncanny.
No ready vocabulary exists to describe the experience of encountering a literally out-of-this-world “other.” The Hills could not prove to a skeptical public that something actually happened to them in the White Mountains. Our sense-based, utilitarian language is inadequate to describe such a happening, whether what occurred was an actual alien abduction or an intergalactic mirage.
Words define the boundary between the real and unreal, which would be a perfect arrangement if our lives unfolded exclusively within the limits of what we already know. But what happens when you come face-to-face with something that is beyond words because it is, as the Hills claimed, literally from another world? How do you describe what we have no language for?
Poetic language is the only kind of discourse that helps me untangle what is strange, weird, and sublime in my everyday lived experience. Poetry forces me to pay attention. It requires me to slow down my emotional and intellectual attention spans and actually listen to what the unknown world is telling me. But I also write from deep anxiety that some part of my environment might go un-represented unless shaped into language.
The relationship between anxiety and speech was an inescapable part of my childhood. I was fortunate to grow up in a household and extended family where a couple different languages were spoken—English and Italian. I was exposed at any early age to all the ways language can fail to convey anything.
What’s more, my mother suffered from a severe hearing disorder, a malady that runs in our entire family, and we all took for granted that no matter how earnestly we try to communicate, our words inevitably leave gaps in understanding.
I could’ve been intimidated by the confusing childhood realization that the words I used were simultaneously trustworthy and fickle. Instead, each effort to try to represent a feeling, idea, or experience in language became something of a dare. I took it personally.
As much as we distrusted language in my family, we just as fervently believed in it. We didn’t need to read Wallace Stevens to know that words are “necessary fictions.”
Language is our ticket into community, and in my family, narrative was what kept us thriving. As a child, I was riveted by the colloquial oral histories my mother and father told over dinner—stories of how their first-generation immigrant families navigated the bizarre ways of this new country and how their otherness frustrated them. They pined for what they portrayed as our inevitable return to Italy, “the old country,” as they called it.
My impulse for narrative comes from my family’s stories. But poetic narrative encompasses more than just plot-based storytelling that builds toward cleanly structured epiphanies. Poetic narrative is cross-cut with associational, often interfering images and phrases, and by counterpoint rhythms and voicings that interrupt the trajectory of the standard narrative arc. This dance between narrative linearity and flash-cut interruption is what makes the most opaque or elusive experiences speakable.
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I’ve been fascinated for as long as I can remember by language that tries to describe uncanny experiences, like that of the Hills, without explaining them away. Like many poets, my first experience with this kind of discourse occurred in sacred texts, where the representation of extra-sensory phenomena depends on the figurative language of poetry. Consider Ezekiel: the more you try to describe the flaming chariot you see in the sky, its wheel rims full of eyes, the stranger and more unfamiliar—and more poetic—your language becomes.
My first secular poetry obsession was Dylan Thomas, whose work taught me that poems express what can’t be contained by the limited logic of everyday language. Like the religious texts of my Catholic childhood, Thomas’s work induced a feeling of vertigo that, paradoxically, also helped me see the world more clearly—that encouraged me to pay attention to the ineffable landscapes beneath the surface of things. I couldn’t take vision for granted anymore. Seeing was a matter of urgency.
“Begotten, not made, one in Being with the Father,” we recited from the Nicene Creed each week in Catholic mass, describing the mystery of the incarnation—a line that I couldn’t stop saying out loud when I was younger, even though it bewildered me to no end. Its regular rhythm clashed with its sinewy semantics, which only heightened the difficulty of imagining the god-made-flesh we were celebrating in church every Sunday. Eventually, I decided that this line from the Nicene Creed was the only appropriate verse to follow the opening lines of Thomas’s “Altarwise by Owl-Light,” one of the favorite poems of my youth (possibly because it was absolutely inscrutable to me): “Altarwise by owl-light in the half-way house / The gentleman lay graveward with his furies / Begotten, not made, one in Being with the Father.”
I was thrilled by my earliest exposure to religious texts, in the Bible and in the tidy, liturgical missalettes of weekly church service. But poetry was special primarily because it was secular. Thomas’s difficult, mystical poems weren’t trying to persuade me to be a good Catholic, which would’ve been a futile effort, anyway. I converted to Buddhism a quarter-century ago, a religion with its own tradition of voicing what seems beyond language (but without the metaphysical doom and gloom of original sin).
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Music was the bridge between religious language and poetry for me. All thanks for this goes to my sister Mary Ann, whose Beatles records affected me profoundly from the moment I first encountered them at age six. The lyrics in songs like “Eleanor Rigby” and “Nowhere Man,” especially, offered a vocabulary to describe the solitary nature of being human, a difficult feeling I was just starting to experience at that age, and one that I barely understood.
These songs suggested, as religious texts did, that a luminosity can be found inside those intensified moments of feeling when we are alone with ourselves. They taught me something about solitude and writing that would become clearer many years later when I first read Allen Ginsberg’s “Improvisation in Beijing,” from his collection Cosmopolitan Greetings.
“I write poetry,” Ginsberg says, “because I want to be alone and want to talk to people.”
Still, to develop as a poet most of us need the guidance of others, especially in the United States, a country that undervalues art in general and dismisses poetry in particular. I grew up in a middling, utilitarian, rust-belt city, Erie, Pennsylvania. It was not the kind of place where you could find many artistic role models. I was grateful for those rare moments when an adult asked me what I was writing and actually wanted to hear my answer. The first to do this was my fourth-grade writing teacher, Ms. Omark.
She convinced me that I could write autobiographical material that other people might want to read. I composed my first serious poem in 1974, age eight, an anxiety-ridden response to my abject fear of tornadoes. We didn’t have a basement at home. I wrote about my terror that we had nowhere to hide if a tornado touched down in our neighborhood. Ms. Omark liked the poem so much that she asked me to rewrite it on poster board, and then she taped it to the front of her desk.
Later, in my first undergraduate poetry workshop at Kent State University, I began to take poetry seriously as an artistic practice. We had very little space in our family to cultivate the arts. But here I was, in a college-level classroom with twelve other students who wanted to write poetry. Our instructor, Mac Hassler, guided us with formal and informal writing prompts, and he also taught us how to keep a regular journal and then to incorporate our journaling into finished poems that could have an individual shape and voice all their own. This pedagogy is a foundation for the creative writing courses I teach now at Columbia College Chicago. Back then, it was a revelation that the four walls of the classroom could be an environment for intimate life-writing.
Poetry, then, came to me foremost as a personal thing: an art form that documents our emotions as they collide with the outside world. Poetry revealed itself as the artistic practice best suited for documenting the mysterious emotional narrative arc of my life.
Poems give me access to the vulnerable, the strange, the unsayable in what otherwise seems quotidian. Whether I’m writing documentary or autobiographical poems, I’m drawn to material that dramatizes ordinary, everyday moments in time that evade the rudimentary language of social exchange.
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A poem is a document of an ordinary person passing through their brief moment in time. This spirit is at the core of a documentary collection like Proof Something Happened, and it’s also crucial to my autobiographical work.
In an immediate, ongoing way, this aesthetic serves as the conceptual blueprint for my multivolume experiment in poetic memoir, The Complete Dark Shadows (of My Childhood), published by BlazeVOX [books].
As part of my research for this series, I’m re-watching every episode of the old 1960s-1970s gothic soap opera, Dark Shadows, which I saw every afternoon with my mother when I was a small child. Back then, sitting in front of the television with her on the sagging, gray couch in our living room, I became obsessed with the show’s main character, a two-centuries-old vampire named Barnabas Collins. I was afflicted with constant nightmares about him, and I went so far as to hunch my shoulders at night, thinking this would prevent him from biting my neck when I slept. (Evidently, it worked: when I checked the mirror every morning, I was relieved to find no vampire puncture wounds.)
I write one sentence in response to each Dark Shadows episode, then shape these sentences into a poetry/prose hybrid form, using each sentence as a trigger for autobiographical explorations. The most recent book, Ghosts of the Upper Floor, the third installment in the series, was published in 2019 by BlazeVOX.
The show ran for 1,225 episodes, which means I’ll need several more volumes to finish the project. Proust had his madeleine; I have my vampire.
Proof Something Happened also recovers a lost moment in time in order to document its emotional history. I’m not just referring to the four hours of missing time the Hills experienced during their alleged abduction. The book also recalls the subsequent years when these two ordinary people tried to prove—in the cold war’s repressive culture of containment—that something truly did happen to them that night in 1961.
The Hills’ most ardent skeptics mocked their experience. They received hate mail, much of it racist. Theirs was an interracial relationship at the very beginning of the civil rights movement, and the hostility toward what they claimed happened in 1961 was heightened dramatically by white supremacy. The trauma of trying to explain their alleged abduction to a skeptical public was exceeded by the racial trauma inflicted upon them by that same public.
Letters arrived constantly from people who alleged to have seen UFOs, many of whom claimed that they, too, had come face-to-face with extraterrestrials. Some of their correspondence also was pure crankery from the fervently religious. “Enclosed is a book which will enlighten you in regard to Spiritualism,” one such letter begins, “and which, we hope, will cause you to have nothing to do with the ‘Prince of the Power of the Air’ (the title the Bible gives to the Devil).”
This was not just a sci-fi captivity narrative, nor was it only a critique of the postwar politics of race. As I became immersed in the research and writing, I realized I was also writing a love story. Two individuals, deeply attached to each other, suffering a terrifying aloneness because of an experience most people dismissed out of hand.
Two ordinary people passing through their brief moment in time together.
“I feel a love of the ordinary to the point of revolution,” Bernadette Mayer writes in Piece of Cake, a collaboration with then-husband Lewis Warsh that documents in autobiographical prose the day-to-day particulars of one month in their lives, August 1976.
Forty-five years later, her words are just as relevant. It’s difficult, but necessary, to pay attention closely enough to make art that documents an ordinary life—whether I’m rendering my life or that of a person in a docu-poetry collection—especially in a culture whose power structures actively discourage such attentiveness.
The effort to see clearly, to cast one’s vision both wide and deep, requires deliberate, conscious effort in a moment in time like ours, dominated by marketing language that translates our subjective experiences into constellations of data points, a moment in time saturated with artificial needs and ersatz satisfactions. We have to find our own counter-discourses for this process of pacification. Ever since childhood, I’ve turned to poetry to imagine a language for vision. I want to read and write poems that teach me to see. “The eye altering,” as William Blake writes, “alters all.”
Tony Trigilio’s newest books are Proof Something Happened (Marsh Hawk Press, forthcoming 2021) and Ghosts of the Upper Floor(BlazeVOX [books], 2019). His selected poems, Fuera del Taller del Cosmos, was published in Guatemala in 2018 by Editorial Poe (translated by Bony Hernández). Trigilio co-edits the poetry journal Court Green, and he is an associate editor for Tupelo Quarterly. He is a Professor of English and Creative Writing at Columbia College Chicago.