Martha Serpas’s “The Best of Us” was first published in the March 3, 2014 issue of The New Yorker and is available here for subscribers.
In the poem, “The Best of Us,” by Martha Serpas, a woman looks back thirty years to a different time — a time when she was a “speechless” teenager in a bayou town in Louisiana, when the times also required that gay teens should be “speechless.” I like the way, ballad-like, the poem draws you in with the story that it tells; I like the measured tone this poem takes toward repression and prejudice; and I like the way the serious purpose of the poet slowly reveals itself.
This seemingly simple reminiscence is more layered than it first appears. The first hint, however, is in the bland title, a title that at first seems to have little to do with the story of the poem. I think the occasion of the poem’s publication is important: The New Yorker published it just at the end of the Sochi Olympic Games, an event where many of “the best of us” had recently made an appearance. In its own under-the-radar-way, this poem has chosen as an audience Vladimir Putin and the Russian establishment, and it has taken as its target repressive Russian laws that cast their shadow on the games.
Two days before the games began on February 7, BBC News Europe wrote (here):
Last year, Russia banned the promotion of “non-traditional” sexuality — widely seen as an attack on gay rights. The law makes providing information on homosexuality to under-18s a crime, punishable by a fine. Critics say its loose interpretation effectively stops gay rights protests in Russia.
Equal rights for the “under 18s” are the underlying concern this poem. In its roundabout, balladeering way, the poem makes a passionate case for the rights of gay teens and for the importance of sexual information and openness to gay teens. What the poem does not do is engage in anger or polemic.
Although the language of the poem is heightened by image, allusion, and alliteration, the poem’s language is not off-putting but is basically natural, clear, and conversational. The poem’s appeal is story-telling that is at once lyric, comic, poignant, and romantic, but the poem’s reach expands with re-reading.
Thirty years before, the woman remembering the story tells us, Trey emblazoned his love for Carmen on a bridge, and the next morning, on the way to Mass with his family, Carmen’s father saw the declaration: “Trey loves Carmen.” The father was outraged: sandblasters attacked the bridge that day and turned much of the graffiti to dust, but the word “Carmen” remained, “like a woman who guards the pass/or a woman who starts a war.”
Our speaker loves the daring that Trey and Carmen represent. After all, she opens the poem by saying
Give me your Greek myths
and I’ll give you the Carmen
Kief Bridge [. . .]
In order to explain herself, though, she needs the assist of two mere earthlings: Oris G. and his girl, and the time he “did [her] on the lawn/at lunch,” presumably in front of God, the school, and all the people. The speaker was “speechless with admiration.” Trey and Oris G. were free to act out their desire boldly; they could be noble or crass, they could declare themselves publicly, and in Oris G.’s case, they could flaunt the rules, and yet even the coach, who passes by, seems to approve.
On the surface, the poem is a wonderful flash fiction, complete with a dozen characters, plot and sub-plot, all told by a reserved, on-the-scene narrator, a woman who remembers being a teenager. This speaker makes all the difference in the poem. She looks on from the sidelines, while the other teens play out their scenes of love.
The poem turns on the speaker’s understated revelation:
(What girl could I hold — even under the bleachers?)
The woman looking back on the “speechless” girl that she had been makes us see just how marginalized she was — that she would admire even brazen Oris G. and his machismo. On behalf of the shadowy girl she once was, the woman yearns for Oris G.’s freedom.
But there is more to the poem than story and surface, more than wistful memory.
First of all, Carmen Kief herself is a bridge between past and present, her name rising from the ancient Latin for lyric or song, and her name transformed by Trey (Troy) to that of a modern Helen. Carmen stands as the speaker’s ideal — a bridge to what the speaker wishes she could be — bold and free. Carmen Kief is also a bridge between the acceptance of the ordinary and the lure of passion, kief being a word related to transformation. This needs a little explication. Kief is derived from a German word for barrel maker, barrels often being used to store spirits or wine. But more to the point, kief is a word from the Arabic that means euphoric feeling; in English, the word refers to the part of the marijuana plant that is the most potent. Surely Trey’s inscription on the bridge commemorates a euphoric tryst he has shared with Carmen. Serpas is celebrating the pleasure that Carmen represents: the joy of Juliet being chosen, the pleasure that a girl feels in the presence of her love, and the pleasure of sex.
The poem creates a sense of urgency through its emphasis on birth and rebirth. In the second half of the poem, the woman speaks of how Carmen had seized power, how she became the “protagonist,” how she “acted,” and the poet chooses to express this transformation in terms of rebirth. Carmen, in her father’s eyes, was the “baby [who] became the protagonist.”
Trey, Carmen’s lover, drives the coolest of cars. His Trans Am is the one with the wingspread of a bird blazoned in gold across the hood. This is no mere bird, however; it is a firebird, the bird that is reborn out of the fire. This is the car he climbs out of to signal his own rebirth when he climbs the bridge to write his declaration on the I-beam. Trey’s is a double birth — first in his sexual life with Carmen and then in his decision to declare himself upon the bridge.
It is no accident that the girl in this poem is named Carmen. Not only does Carmen mean lyric or song, it is also linked to Carmenta, the Roman goddess of childbirth. The poem thus builds an argument: that we all, in adolescence, must be the agents of our own rebirth — must be born from babies into sexual beings.
The argument regarding rebirth through sexuality intensifies as the poem nears its close, when the poet refers to the way the speaker had to “hide” herself. Having celebrated Carmen’s “freeing/herself,” the speaker says:
Shame is such
a bastard, its fly by night parents
cowardice and hubris [. . .]
So while Trey and Carmen and even Oris G. can be born into legitimately sexual beings, (the coach having given Oris a blessing), the speaker remembers only shame.
The argument allows the poet to make a point. It’s not just our cowardice that creates shame, it’s also that we think we know “better than God.” I think perhaps the writer means it’s not just society who proscribes what sexuality will and will not be. In fact, by hiding or repressing true human nature, people themselves subscribe to society’s assumptions.
So the poem is more than a ballad, more than just a story. The poet acknowledges this when she uses the phrase “bayou infrastructure” to refer to the bridge where Trey wrote his declaration. The bayou infrastructure, of course, also means the sexual shaming that the parents and schools, churches and government enforce. Of course, she also means that Trey’s bold act has also transformed the bayou infrastructure.
In addition, she is signaling that the poem also has its own infrastructure. Part of that infrastructure is the focus on birth and rebirth. Another part is the way references to myth are interwoven: from the introduction that says “Give me your Greek myths and I’ll give you the Carmen Kief Bridge” to the image of the firebird as a symbol of rebirth, to Carmen as a name that stretches into antiquity and myth, as well as references to Helen and the Odyssey.
And the poem has an argument: that it is natural to stand up for yourself, to act on your own behalf. She says it is hubris to think we should “know better than God,” that we should “hide from the grass and sky.” The use of the ancient Greek word “hubris” makes the reader pause, and it lends gravity to the argument.
Part of the infrastructure of the poem depends upon the idea that ancient wisdom, ancient literature or myth add credibility and strength to a poem.
Thinking about the way the poem reaches into antiquity to make its case brought me to thinking about the way the name Oris G. is reminiscent of the name of the ancient Roman poet, Horace (65 BC – 8 BC). Here, the poem takes a surprising turn. At the moment the reader realizes that Oris derives from Horace, the reader should remember, on Oris G.’s behalf, the Horatian maxim, “Carpe Diem.” Oris G. certainly did seize the day. Oris G. is a comic figure. His name is a garbled version of Horace, lacking an H, adding a G. Nonetheless, he serves a larger purpose. Not only is he a kind of comic groundling or yokel, his rustic behavior is foil to the speaker’s own desires.
Oris is an amusement for the poet and reader alike, as his actions, although bold and free, are not actually what the speaker is after. Late in the poem, the speaker remembers the object of Oris G.’s affections as “the blotted girl on the lawn.” The reader thinks “blotto” or drunk or obliterated. Of course, the blotted girl on the lawn is also be the speaker, the girl who could not speak or declare herself or hold the girl of her affections.
But the poet also needs a boy named “Oris,” to point us to the fact that the title (“The Best of Us”) appears to be an allusion to Roman poet Horace. In Satire III of Book I of his “Satires, Horace says (here):
Casually we enact these laws against ourselves!
No man alive is free of faults: the best of us is him
Who’s burdened with the least.
While I am only tangentially familiar with Horace, my reading of this satire allows that Horace wished people would be more tolerant of others and less judgmental. By “laws enacted,” Horace means more the rigidly “good” behavior we require of other people that we hardly observe ourselves. At the same time, at least in this translation, we are reminded of actual laws we enact “against ourselves!” In the context of the occasion of this poem, we cannot help but think of the laws enacted in Russia.
In the everyday sense of the phrase, Carmen and Trey represent the “the best of us”; they are the writer and the actor, they are the protagonists. Carmen was “the baby [who] became the protagonist.” She is like someone who acts behalf of a cause or “guards the pass or starts a war.” The poet is combining the right to one’s passion with the right to fight for one’s passion.
Although Horace may be best known for his odes, he also engaged in a genre known as “blame poetry,” a kind of poetry meant (as Wikipedia says) to “shame fellow citizens into a sense of their social obligations.” Serpas herself uses the word “shame” in her poem, and her poem is clearly meant to wake readers to a sense of shame that some people must hide their sexuality.
Horace himself wrote a poem (famous in his time) called the “Carmen Saeculare.” Not only does this poem link to the Serpas poem through the word “Carmen,” there is an odd link of occasion in this poem. Horace wrote this “Song” to be performed on the occasion of the games held by the Emperor Augustus. The Seculare were held loosely every 100 or 110 years, and Augustus used these games as a grand occasion to celebrate the empire and his reign. One is reminded of the games just held in Sochi, in which Vladimir Putin hoped to demonstrate the rebirth of former Russian greatness, perhaps even Russian empire.
The games in Sochi were a glittering and successful event. If Serpas intends for us to make this connection with Horace and the Augustan games, she means in particular for us to notice what was hidden at the games.
In contrast, Serpas’s poem addresses the openness that all teens require. I think it is no accident that Serpas reminds us how important a role games play in the modern high school, as she has the coach bless Oris G.’s behavior. And certainly, Trey’s scaling the bridge to initial it with his message is another widely practiced high school game. Serpas ends her own “Carmen Saeculare” by urging that Carmen Kief be remembered like “a woman who guards the pass/or a woman who starts a war.” She means that openness is worth fighting for.
Another part of the infrastructure of this poem is the bridge itself. As a means for altering society’s infrastructure (or as a means of protesting Putin’s infrastructure) Serpas celebrates the power of the artist’s vision and the power of writing. In particular, when she has Trey inscribe his declaration on the “I-beam” of the bridge, she is celebrating the eye-beam of the poet and the poet’s vision, even if the poet is very young. Trey writes because his declaration has “the imprimatur of his passion”; he needs no permission from parent or publisher, church or state; his passion is right and good in and of itself.
The poet makes clear that Carmen herself was gorgeous to the speaker. While Carmen was a physically beautiful sight to the speaker-girl, I think it is the way Carmen can free herself that matters most to the woman speaking to us. Carmen stands for open passion, openly declared, openly celebrated. Carmen also stands for action: like the players at the games, Carmen is, the speaker says, a “protagonist” and an “actor.” Within the rebirth motif of this poem, it is as if one must choose to reborn — through action, through choice, through writing, through love — regardless of the “bayou infrastructure” that tries to obliterate. Like Trey, who “scaled the steel lift” to spray paint the bridge, the speechless speaker-girl would like to be the poet who declares herself.
It’s a great poem. Serpas takes on the bayou infrastructure, takes on Putin, and makes her own passion her imprimatur. She layers the poem so as to have it reach the reader gradually. On one level, the poem is like a pitch for a movie. On another, it is in the tradition of the blame poetry that Horace wrote to shake up his fellow citizens. On a deeper level, it is a celebration of the rebirth that sexuality almost requires of adolescents, and on another, it is a call to action. But on a topic where many a writer is angry, Serpas is engaging, thoughtful, personal, and understated. That is persuasive. That really works.
It takes time to give a poem its due attention. I like to read a poem until I am pretty sure I have got what the poet meant and that often takes more than a day. It takes a while to process a poem. The intervals of sleep that several days (or weeks) afford are also really essential to me for letting the poet have her say.
At the same time, though, the more layered, the more condensed, the more allusive, the more compressed, the harder the poem is to write about. You make multiple starts, and the complexity of what you want to say can make the whole thing go clunk. CLUNK is surely not the effect the poet had in mind and Clunk is surely not how the reader wants to honor the poet’s work. So it takes a while to work out the prose and the paragraphs. Not that this particular essay is on the money. One of the joys of taking the time to think or write about a poem, however, is that the process of understanding a poem can make a fine companion for a couple of weeks. And difficult as it might be, elusive as an accurate representation might be, writing about the poem brings the reader closer to the poet’s intent.
“The Best of Us” is really worth your while. I recommend it.