Gale Walden's "Autobiography"

There seems to be a sense among some contemporary readers that if something isn’t factually true then it’s somehow less compelling or less urgent than the “real.” I have to admit that as a fiction writer, this saddens me a little. I think fiction carries a method of truth-telling that can be just as powerful and transformative—sometimes even more so—than the quote/unquote “truth.” But I will also admit to be interested in the autobiographies of the writers I read.

The Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk talks about this in his book The Naïve and Sentimental Novelist. He says that this very question—what’s real and what’s invented—is at the center of the pleasure we take in reading a novel. Of course when we read memoir, we indulge in that pleasure—of hearing some juicy gossip—without any of the veils or filters of fiction. Although even a memoirist is shaping reality, selecting details to tell a specific story. With poetry, though, the question remains. Is the speaker the poet or a persona of the poet? Are the events in the poem true? We don’t usually know for sure.

The poet Gale Walden addresses this question directly in her poem “Autobiography.” Because of the title, we have the sense that the writer is telling us a “true story.” And yet the patterned structure of the poem’s imagery, and the fact that the girl in the poems chooses “what is not there,” makes the title “Autobiography” hover in the territory of a question.

Here is “Autobiography,” by Gale Walden, which was published online in the museum of americana: a literary review.

In the dining room the baby
is crawling on the braided rug.
Around and around the table
she goes. This is important
to itself in the telling of the story
of the girl’s life which is important
to the baby only peripherally.
In the archway between the dining room
and the living room, the girl is four.
The mother is in the kitchen
separated from the girl and the baby
by swinging half doors.
In the side den the phonograph
is resolving itself over and over
into a song about heartbreak.
In the kitchen the mother
is her own magician, she
knows how to make things
float in Jello, how to transfer
her voice from womb to room
as she calls into the girl
not to let the baby touch wood.
But the girl is already revolving
like a record herself, she is already
grooving herself out into different songs
as she orbits from one doorway to the other,
the baby crawling toward the outer edge
of the rug to touch the girl spinning like a top.
The mother’s head and legs appear,
her whole middle a mystery
yelling, “Why can’t you do as I say,”
and because that’s not enough
she declares Buddy Holly dead.
The girl understands that anyone thin
enough to spin inside the record
will be dead. The girl understands
that the pain of the words and the guitar
could kill anyone, but she doesn’t understand
the mother’s anger which has now
harmonized with words and guitar.
Perhaps the mother sees
the type of magic the girl will come to;
that the girl will choose
what is not there, what
is in the air, floating
without benefit of slow congelation.
But this is later in the story.
Now there was a setting.
The wood in the doorway
was dark. It was summer.
The baby was already problematic:
It was the first time
I remembered music.