Memoir is Erasure Poetry

Fetch me the Exact-O knife.


There is no way to capture the whole experience. Thousands of photographs later, and I am still writing myself toward my life. I am sitting in front of a blank page, trying to explain what it feels like. The texture of it, maybe? The temperature, the wash of color. Although it feels more like a wall of text, and I am cutting most of it away until what it left feels true and kind and real. Memoir cannot account for every eventuality without heaving under the burden of endless caveat — nor does it serve solely as an indictment. Just because I tell you that the white pony loved to roll around in the creek doesn’t mean that I’ve forgotten my grandmother’s applesauce cake. I remember Old Bay seasoning dripping down my arms on the screened-in porch, and I remember my hands shaking as I read my vows. I am cutting away what doesn’t matter to point you toward a narrative that will make sense. I am scooping all of it together under the blanket fort. I am making room for the monsters under the bed.


I can tell you things from my perspective, but that perspective is unreliable, at best, and certainly incomplete. I have forgotten certain things on purpose, like the broken wine glass and the empty, heavy silence of grudges. The heat on my face when, wordless, I know what I’ve done. I want to know how much of this is mine to tell: how much of it happened to me and how much of it was a matter of proximity? How much of my story is mine to tell and how much should I excise, whether single words or entire paragraphs, letting bits of it flutter to the floor?


I can tell you how I felt, and I’d dare you to try to stop me. That part is mine.


But what about the name I gave my child? Round and soft, with a bit of a thrum. The middle name is more angular, the letters that leap, and the way the sound of it pulls your lips into a smile. The two names together make a little song that we sing all day long in our house, gliding up and down the stairs. The name means dinner is ready and I love you and one more hug. I gave the name away; it isn’t mine to own or to tell. It’s his to do with what he wants now.


I am trying to write about my life, and keep stumbling into other peoples’ stories, the ones that don’t belong to me, the ones I only heard from the next room, the ones I promised to protect. Sometimes, it’s to keep them safe from themselves and their worst choices. Sometimes from the world that wouldn’t understand — because once it’s out there, you cannot control how you’re interpreted.


That’s different from keeping someone’s story out of fear of their anger: the ones who use the truth as a weapon and wield emotion as obfuscation. The ones who erase not to illuminate something bigger, but to stamp you out completely. The ones who claim your story for themselves, casting themselves as the main character and using sleight of hand to make it fit.


This is about the way secrets oxidize when they hit the page: the way they turn to poison in the light or the way they turn black and scab over, finally ready to heal from the inside. The others? They don’t get to choose.


What am I trying to say? That I don’t want to forget listening to Prince in the hospital when he was born.


That I am a free woman, which is to say, not in prison, because people kept their mouths shut. They didn’t feel the need to go blabbing every detail.


This is a memoir, not a map of where the bodies are buried, but the memory of the music I heard as the wind blew through the trees in the graveyard. It is about Delaware in January and leaving my grandmother’s ashes in their final place, as though anything to do with the sea is final. It’s about wringing out everything into the sink and watching what floats to the surface. This story started out writing into parenthood, and around my child, and ended up in the place where my grandmother’s ashes lay for most of an afternoon, before becoming part of everything again.


It is a hermit crab, like the ones in the tourist shops, or it is a recipe for applesauce cake, or an erasure poem, taking out the bits that don’t make sense (which is most of it) and rearranging it into something that someone can understand or relate to, blurring out the faces and focusing in on the tiniest details. The sound of his laugh, like a bird that’s yet to be named. His feet crashing down the stairs, like ripe plums falling to earth. The stack of books we have read and re-read, the smell of the paper and his hair against my cheek. I close my eyes and memorize it. Soft, crisp.


I have practiced shame so many times that I often wonder if there’s anything at all worth saying. This is how we become erased. In those tiny moments of “Who the fuck do you think you are?” as you are falling asleep and remembering the terrible thing I probably did at the sleepover in fourth grade when I was trying to grow up and be loved. In trying to be careful, I sometimes lose another word that might have mattered. The whiteout splatters, collateral damage, onto something I wanted to keep.


I will redact the mundane details, but there are salacious bits I want to tell you. All the salacious and dangerous things like jumping off cliffs and the way I drove a van into a ditch once. The things I’ve lit on fire, not the least of which was my own life, when I decided that I could not be with someone who couldn’t summon passion for me. The way he demanded that I stifle my own passions, the fact that I felt ravenous toward the world shamed him.


I will not tell you his name, but I can tell you about the way the light hit my pink hair one afternoon in the park and I knew myself as a microscopic god, a tiny spec of omniscient moss in an infinite universe.


I am telling you that I am still willing to be broken open.


I want to show you the precarious, liminal moments: all the animals I have held as their bodies died, and how I whispered how good they were, how loved, how safe. How the last thing they heard was the story of how well they were loved told back to them. There is something comforting about hearing your own story told back to you, just the sweet parts. “Just the good bits, you remember? Only the parts where you were loved.”


We are told not to speak ill of the dead. My father’s father is not a part of my story. He erased himself from my father’s life and I will not hold him in esteem simply because he is in the ground. This is memoir as erasure poetry, too: withholding a story, so that there’s nothing left to tell. Once they’re in the ground, have they left those stories for us to tell? Or do the stories die, too, entombed like golden scarabs or food on which the dead will feast for eternity? Do our stories finally unravel from one another? Is death the moment we can finally drag it all into the light?


Life is pockmarked with these kinds of loss, made more devastating by the fact that it was never the salacious bits that mattered. It was the ordinary days that made up a life, listening to the cat snoring in her crate and buying milk and listening to the coffee being made. Today, the sun filtered through the olive tree in the backyard and we ate dinner on the porch. My child’s face was stained with strawberries and he snuggled into my arms when the wind picked up.


This could be an erasure poem or a hunt for pirate treasure.


Image: photo by Kristiana Pinne on Unsplash, licensed under CC 2.0.

Christy Tending
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