Experimental Confessionalism: The Personal Turn in American Post-conceptual Poetry

1 August 2018

Trisha Low’s ‘Confessions’

A pivotal text that exemplifies experimental confessionalism, and demonstrates its potential, is Trisha Low’s ‘Confessions’ (Low 2011). This piece stands out in the Dworkin-Goldsmith anthology, partly because it seems to move beyond conceptual poetry in its openness to confession and affect.

Trisha Low, who is Chinese American but has lived in many different parts of the world, is a member of the post-conceptual poetry circle, and is a friend and peer of Felix Bernstein. Her work is situated at the intersection between poetry, prose and performance, and her most major work so far, The Compleat Purge, is more fiction than poetry (Low 2013). While often using conceptual strategies, she has firmly stated her commitment to confessionalism. However, for her this involves a high degree of artifice: she claims she is ‘interested in thinking about the confessional as more manipulative’ (Low et al. 2013). Low links her interest in the confessional to her engagement with 18th century writing. In a group discussion she states:

I’m more interested in thinking about the confessional as a formal space, as a genre…I guess when I think about confessional writing, I think back to the eighteenth century. That’s the moment I think it arose because what happened is that living space became really complicated and people had these spaces just for writing. They were called cabinets, and they were typically inhabited by women. It was a domestic space, and they would go in here and write their diaries and things like that. Pamela, Or Virtue Rewarded, which is a novel written by [Samuel] Richardson, is based on the idea of this servant girl going into this small space and writing this confessional story of what happened to her. So maybe a way to think about the confessional would be for it to be more of a fantasy of what a private life should be or maybe even a fantasy of what a feminine private life would be. That’s a very interesting tension for me to think about. What’s real and what’s not? Is it important that I say what’s real and what’s confessional if it’s treated like a fiction anyway? (Low et al. 2013)

To think about confessionalism as a formal space, and to link it to fantasy, is to undermine its claims to authenticity in the process of adopting it. For Low, confessional writing is also a feminist intervention because it has often been demeaned as women’s writing and its critical reception has been ‘deeply gendered, either dismissing or lauding the work for its vulnerability, exposure, its sense of scandal or its abject nature to the point of fetishism. Narcissism is a common accusation …’ (Low 2015).

One could argue that Low is trying to have it both ways here: she is courting the confessional but at the same time distancing it and conceptualising the first person as a persona. It is this double take on the confessional, however, that makes Low’s (and Felix Bernstein’s) exploration of the mode experimental, because they are stretching it rather than simply slipping into it ready-made. Their work also raises questions about whether confessional poetry was ever unequivocably confessional, even if it was labeled as such. For, as we know from a long history of structuralist and post-structuralist theory, poetic expression is always mediated by language and the ‘I’ of the poem is never identical to the author. Furthermore, the label of confessional poet has always been somewhat arbitrary. Frank O’Hara, for example, uses real life names recurrently, and draws overtly on autobiographical material and personal feelings. However, he is not regarded as a confessional poet because his work is often humorous and eschews self-pity and egoism. O’Hara’s ‘hypergrace’ (Smith 2000, 55), which I have previously defined as the ‘ability to move discontinuously between different places, histories and sexual identities without fear’ (55); his merging of real life and text life (50-53); his ambivalent statements about the role of the personal in his poetry (51) and his gay sensibility (103-135) seem to foreshadow the experimental confessionalists I discuss here.

‘Confessions’ arises out of Low’s visits to four different priests to make a confession, which she recorded and then transcribed. The confession is about sexual behavior with a married man, which she characterises as somewhat sadomasochistic. Although Low has stated that ‘the piece is pretty true to the detailed transcripts of what happened’(Low et al. 2013), there is no way for us to know what degree of veracity or sincerity there is in these episodes. Rather there is a tension throughout between Trisha Low, the author, and ‘Trisha’, the actant. This is heightened by the fact that Low seems to be roleplaying and each confessional is, in some sense, a set-up.

Although the four confessions are rather like highly constrained and formulaic interviews, ‘Confessions’ is inherently performative and dramatic. The piece is structured around the four confessions and also appears in the dialogue form that the Catholic confessional takes, though the names or titles of the actants are reduced to numbers. The dialogue reveals that the confession is not, in the main, very reciprocal. The first three priests offer a largely platitudinous, pre-programmed response to Low’s confession, though the fourth priest is an important deviation from this. The piece, like much conceptual work, relies on found material, though here the material is not so much found as planted.

In the first confession Low sets the ground for the series. She tells the priest that she told lies in her last confession, has dishonoured her father and her mother, has taken the Lord’s name in vain, and has hurt people. She says she has had sex with a man who is not her husband, that he slapped her around and that she enjoyed it. When the priest asks her if she feels guilty about it she replies yes, and he asks her why. She gives a stock answer which is also a series of questions, ‘when I was younger I was taught that my body is a temple of God? And, um – sins of the flesh defile it? I mean, I’m correct in thinking so?’ (353). The priest does not answer these questions immediately, but does ask her if the man slapped her hard, to which she replies that he did but she desired it. He also asks if she had been with the man before (to which Low responds that she had but he was not a boyfriend). So the priest does ask some questions but his response is formulaic. He says she must stop having sex and sleeping around, ‘it sounds a little bit casual’ (353) and diagnoses her enjoyment of the slapping as a ‘psychological quirk’ (353).

In the second confession Trisha reiterates the same story. The priest does not respond to this but generates what seems like a non sequitur, ‘Now thank God for all the blessings he has given to you’ (354). He goes on to give a conventional response, one informed by the ten commandments, ‘Obey your mother … she’s – looking out for your welfare’ (354) and, like the first priest, moves into a patriarchal and anachronous mode: sex should be preserved for marriage and having sex before marriage ‘cheapens you a wee bit’ (354). The act of contrition that he asks Tricia to repeat after him includes the suggestion that she has offended God, whereby God is represented as both authoritarian and hypersensitive.

The third confession is the most minimal. The priest greets the different aspects of Trisha’s confession with silence or the minimum response. He expresses no opinion about what she has confessed, the revelations being answered with ‘Uh. That’s all?’(355).

This makes the contrast with the fourth priest particularly sharp. The fourth confession brings the piece to a satisfying close, which both mimics and verges on epiphany. While the first three episodes expose the limitations of the confession as it is normally practiced, the fourth priest is much more probing and breaks out of the confessional mould. He asks Trisha to tell him a bit about herself, thereby expressing an interest in her and also putting her confession into a context. He quickly elicits information from her that may be important to understanding her confession: that she was born in the US but grew up in London, was brought up Catholic, has a sister in London, is a student and is called Trisha. This priest, then, makes a much more personal connection. When Trisha apologies for the way she speaks, he responds with ‘I love your voice, it’s actually a nice change’ (356). This warmth is palpable throughout the confession: when blessing Trisha he incorporates her name and as she is leaving asks her what major she is taking.

This priest is more analytical, probing and given to debating issues than the other priests. He also admits to lack of knowledge or uncertainty in many matters. Whereas the others are driven by moral agendas, this priest has a stronger sense of the complexity and fluidity of ethical choices. After Trisha has given her usual confession, he debates the role of aggression in sex: ‘I think in sex sometimes, there’s aggression that some find pleasurable’ (356). He asks whether it was degrading and aggressive and says, ‘Well I don’t know – where that distinction lies, sometimes, between what is aggressive and what is degrading’ (357). He seems reluctant to call what she has done a sin, rather suggesting ‘that’s something you can – work out – talk about’ (357). In fact, this confession reads like a counseling session or a talk to a sympathetic acquaintance: it is also much more interactive and empowering than the other confessions. The priest asks Trisha ‘anything you’d like to recommend for your penance?’(357). He posits Trisha’s putative relationship with God not as one bounded by obligation but as intimate and interactive: ‘for your penance ask for God to stir in your heart the desire, the hunger to be more in touch with him’ (357) … it’s always nice when you feel like the Lord is calling you at that moment, rendezvous to that intimacy. And sometimes it’s just nice to – to – hear that invitation’ (357).

A striking feature of this confession is the strong affect it projects, which is not necessarily intrinsic to a conceptual writing approach. Despite the constraints of the confessional mode, the priest shows compassion, insight and humility, and this also makes an emotional connection with the reader. He is interested in holding a conversation rather than giving a sermon, in being supportive rather than judgmental, and in responding to Trisha as an individual. The affective momentum of the piece is aided by the structure, which takes the form of repetition with variation, but with a significant climax toward the end.

This confession also seems to be making a self-referential comment about the ability of writing to break out of any form in which it finds itself trapped. The confessional is a genre, like a literary genre: one can adhere to the conventions or try to break them. The priest is bending the genre of the confessional, just as Low is arguably taking the piece beyond the genre of conceptualism.

‘Confessions’ plays on the Christian / Catholic notion of confession and on contemporary poetry’s ambivalent relationship with the confessional mode. Whereas the Catholic notion of confession is based on revealing something that one believes to be wrong and that one regrets, in confessional poetry a self-revelation may not necessarily carry with it a connotation of self-blame. In both cases we might also ask whether what is being addressed here is really confession at all. In the case of the church confessional there are considerable constraints on the scope of the ritual that only the fourth priest overcomes. In the case of confessional poetry, the confession is always a poetic construct, an attempt to disseminate the personal in a public way. ‘Confessions’, therefore, appears to be double sided. It engages with confessionalism as a genre while also parodying it; it enlists conceptual writing while also moving beyond it.

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