Jacqueline Jones LaMon is associate professor of English and director of the MFA program in Creative Writing at Adelphi University. She is the author of a previous poetry collection, Gravity, U.S.A. and the novel In the Arms of One Who Loves Me. The collection Last Seen received the Felix Pollak Prize in Poetry.
In the section “The Elsewhere Chronicles,” you include a preface about consulting the online site for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and mention how you gravitated to the stories of missing African American girls in particular. That preface ends with a startling paragraph that reads: “What we hear in our daily lives is the voice of their absence. This silence is the source of these poems.” One interesting choice you made was to avoid persona poems in the points of view of these young people you might have come across, but to allow those on the periphery (a suspect mother, a facial reconstructionist, a TV network news director, among others) to present various angles to narratives that, suddenly, are not so simple or straight-forward. Yes, the child is missing, but that’s just a fact in what is otherwise a multi-layered, unfinished story. How did you determine which perspectives would best serve the telling of these stories while preserving the dignity of those affected? Were there moments when you tread cautiously? And why not invoke the voices of the missing children more often?
I was trying to capture the essence of absence, to write in the gap and reflect the spaces in our lives where these missing children could have occupied. It felt very false to me to adopt the voices for the children because the nexus of the book is not about their narratives of disappearance; it’s about those of us who are present and accounted for, experiencing our lives in the midst of their absence. Since everything we do has an impact, the removal of any one of us will touch more lives than we could ever fathom. This book is trying to illustrate that fundamental connection we all have to each other, without sensationalizing the horrific crimes of abduction.
I believe that many of the missing and lost are actually present and among us. When an infant or toddler is abducted, there may be no indication to the child that she is in a foreign environment. When we think of the missing, we think not in terms of the child herself, but in terms of the world in which she is no longer present to experience. If the child is alive, conscious and lucid, she is not missing from herself, unless we define the self in terms of those surrounding us. The child still exists somewhere; she is just not in the place where we expect her to be.
In “The San Francisco Sonnets,” it takes 14 perspectives (including that of the murdered pregnant young woman) to tell only a small part of the story of this tragedy. Because the mystery persists, the journey doesn’t offer any explanations or even hypotheses, rather it offers an emotional response. I’m struck by the missing girl’s boyfriend’s statement: “I’m learning there are layers to me,/ like the layers to what I’ve lost.” What do you hope readers will take away from this particular sequence of poems, which is relentless in not allowing the reader to forget about the missing girl? And why did you choose the sonnet as a vehicle for these voices?
What I hope readers will take away from the sequence is that sometimes there are no answers that satisfy; sometimes, we will never know what happened in a given situation. We’ve become accustomed to narrative and crave resolution in our lives and in our literature, but this is an instance where all we have is the pervasive ache of our questions. Dismissing those who are missing with a premature determination of death might force some sort of closure for those of us who remain watchful and pained; but without proof or certainty, it could be a very dangerous and false assumption.
Each poem in the sequence is a dotted line to the missing woman’s narrative, akin to the spokes of a wheel. I was lured by the volta (or turn) of the sonnet; the point where shifts occur and possibility is high. While I tried to preserve narrative distance to create heightened awareness of the surrounding scenes, I decided early on that these sonnets would be unrhymed. Nothing about the subject matter evoked that kind of symmetry or satisfaction.
Given your mention of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and how you situate that resource in connection to the African American community, perhaps an obvious avenue of exploration would have been the Atlanta child murders. Did you consider engaging that specific high-profile case? Or did the cases that shaped and inspired the work choose you?
Focusing on the Atlanta child murders would have been an obvious avenue of exploration and I avoided it for that reason. I visited Atlanta and did consider the possibility. The poems in Last Seen were inspired by my exposure to the cases of long-term missing African American children who have been overlooked by our national media, those hundreds of children who may still be alive somewhere but are no longer the subjects of active investigations. There are other works (such as Tayari Jones’ Leaving Atlanta, Toni Cade Bambara’s These Bones Are Not My Child, and James Baldwin’s The Evidence of Things Not Seen) that well address the horrors of the Atlanta child murders tragedy with skill and compassion. I’m not aware of anyone who is writing poetry about the living void surrounding the silent population of the long-term missing.
I read the posters on the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children website, one after another. It pained me to read what a child was wearing when he was last seen twenty or thirty years ago or that the only identifiable mark on a toddler was her pierced ears, but I continued to read them. I am a poet and part of my responsibility is to pay attention to detail in the world around me. After awhile, I began to dream about the children on the posters; and then, I started to write. The poems are composites of various cases or influenced by the facts of several cases. That was also a very conscious choice I made, to not try to recreate a narrative when none was clearly presented.
You mention that you are in conversation with Bhanu Kapil’s The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers, adapting the questions in her project as titles in the poems that frame Last Seen as “Polygraph: The Control Questions” and “Polygraph: The Guilty Knowledge Test.” In Kapil’s project, she posed the same questions to herself and other women at various times and places, and the cultural specificity and social contexts surface in the responses, presenting a startling and complex portrait of womanhood. In your version, the answers are not given in first-person but in second-person. How does this shift in point of view negotiate psychic distance with the intimate knowledge and revelations of the You in the poems? (I’m reminded of the lines: “The executioner’s pain is only measurable/ from a comfortable distance.”) The subject of the poems is “last seen” considering her mortality, her own vanishing from the troubled world she has, mercifully, come to terms with. Is this what is suggested by the lines: “You are used to living/ on the memories of breath in your body, savoring// history”? And how are you coming to terms with the completion of this project?
The narrator in the polygraph poems is observing herself being observed; that is one of the objectives of polygraph, to approach the notion of truth from an unsuspecting angle in order to catch the subject’s psyche off-guard. Writing in second-person, writing as though the narrator were writing before a series of mirrors, allowed me the freedom to represent this layered experience of observed intimacy without appearing to veer into the confessional.
So often we associate mention of the missing and the lost with an “other” outside of ourselves, but there are parts of ourselves that remain unacknowledged and unrecognized. We’ve all put portions of our pasts behind us, or done something of which we’re not proud. The polygraph poems seek to remind us that even those dark spaces of ourselves are to be included in our total definition of self. We are truly the sum total of all of our experiences. At the end of our lives, we don’t have an opportunity to pick and choose our past. We all have to enter into some sort of negotiation with ourselves; hopefully, for most of us, this will lead to our self-acceptance. It is about mercy and it is about breath.
I lived with this project for a little over five years and I appreciate the question of how I’m coming to terms with its completion. I’m content; in terms of craft and structure, I did what I set out to do. My hope is that the poems will help someone to trust her instincts a little bit more, help us all to be more aware of our surroundings, and encourage everyone to continue looking for those whom are lost or missing.