Thank you, Susanna, for this wonderful contribution!
Several years ago, my friend’s husband lost his job as a teacher at a private church-affiliated high school because he admitted he was no longer addicted to pornography. Yes, you read that right.
My friend’s husband had written a personal blog post for his personal blog page addressing the bright edges of joy in which he found himself, freedom so rich he proclaimed it to the world wide web, a main source, in fact, of the compulsion he’d wrestled with since adolescence; one of his students, a young woman who was perhaps over-fond of her teacher, found the blog, and up and up the chain of command it went from there, until the principal and superintendent called him in and forced him to resign his job.
Beyond what is initially salacious about the whole scenario—Porn! Pink slip! Scandal!—I’ve mulled over the situation for nearly a decade now because of the complexities it casts on the act of confession. The night my friend spoke of the situation in which she and her spouse found themselves, I remember thinking but choosing not to say: this is such poetic irony. And why couldn’t I say it? Well, we’re talking real people’s real lives here, not some French short story where fanciful characters ruin their best years to replace a string of phony diamonds. Don’t get me wrong, Guy de Maupassant is a master, but something about vocalizing how particular and acute suffering possesses literary delight seems gauche.
Maybe what I’ve been pondering is this: the connections between irony and pain, poetry and irony, pain and poetry; what does poetic irony even mean—a clever, cute little surprise, some doubling back of ideas or virtue or implication? What’s poetic about that?
To be fair to my allusion, the exquisite ache in “The Necklace” is that Mathilde’s confession at the tail end of the story, having spent a decade of her and her husband’s lives working to pay the diamond-debt, does not bring her joy or garner Madame Forester’s respect; it illuminates Mathilde’s original folly; it spins on her, undoing a soul-crushing decade of lower-class work. It binds her to an incongruity.
Perhaps there’s more connection to the story of my friend’s husband than I’d originally allowed: he, too, was bound to an incongruity: his freedom now trapped him; the new big “secret” in his life was something he could have been proud of, not ashamed. But such is our world. And that, in its way, is a kind of poetry—the lyric lens of paradox, anomaly, enigma.
Maupassant was a realist. “The Necklace” is electric with the stern, terse, and tense. But it is also deftly poetic, making me think of dark Robert Frost (“Home Burial”) and wry Elizabeth Bishop (“The Bight”), in a moment like this, two-thirds of the way through “The Necklace”: “What would have happened if she had not lost that necklace? Who knows? Who knows? How singular life is, how changeable! What a little thing it takes to save you or to lose you.”
I think I know the truth of this line, each little thing, our changeable lives. This is what draws me to art, and to confession, too. In fact, it might be that my art is a kind of confession, as it, too, has inured me to mystery, to all that is “poetic” about irony—a far more potent term than most of us recognize. The literary arts, poetry and short fiction and creative nonfiction, offer an exposition and expression of humanity turning in on itself, unveiling the complex, nuanced, textured experience of being human: that dark window flung open in my friend’s life, the shadow of goodness bobbing along, growing longer in front of us, a delicate French woman’s grimy fingernails, the honeyed and the horrifying neighbored and tangled, at every last turn.
Susanna Childress is the author of Jagged with Love, which won the Brittingham Prize in Poetry from the University of Wisconsin and the Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award from the Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, and Entering the House of Awe, which won the 2012 award in poetry from the Society of Midland Authors. She has received an AWP Intro Journals Award, the National Career Award in Poetry from the National Society of Arts and Letters, and a Lilly post-doctoral fellowship. She lives in Holland, Michigan and teaches at Hope College. Keep up with her work at her Facebook author page.