There's a poem by Marcia Southwick called "A Star is Born in the Eagle Nebula." It's an elegy for her ex-husband, the poet Larry Levis, and I remember being sixteen and reading it in the B. Dalton on my break from work:
...In today’s paper four girls
in a photo appear to be tied, as if by invisible threads, to five
soap bubbles floating along the street against the black wall
of the Park Avenue underpass. Nothing earthshattering. The girls
are simply there. They’ve blown the bubbles & are following them
up the street. That’s the plot. A life. Any life.
I always think that maybe I should have grown out of the poetry I loved as a junior in high school. But the fact remains that, like most people, I'm fond of wrestling things into some sort of narrative form. Which makes poems like this one useful even now.
I was reminded of this last night, working on a side project with one of my friends. I'll hold off on the details for now, but what you need to know (for our purposes) is that it's a media production, we have a pile of recordings of high school students but no real chance to collect more, and there's a whole lot of compelling media but not much story. So we kept pacing around my apartment, yelling "WE HAVE NO NARRATIVE" and "WHO'S GOING TO CARE?" and "WHAT WOULD IRA GLASS DO? HUH?" And then - this is totally true - I remembered this poem and I ran to my bookshelf (my apartment is not large, so the running was about five feet), grabbed The Best American Poetry 1999 off the shelf, and started reading it aloud. I would like to think that the girl in the armchair at B. Dalton is proud of me.
The urge to impose a narrative is a pretty strong one, and I have to admit that it was also my initial impulse when I read Francesca Borri's poignant, bitter piece about being a freelance journalist in Syria. In it, she describes what starts to feel like the failure of, well, everything:
Yet we pretend to be here so that nobody will be able to say, “But I didn’t know what was happening in Syria.” When really we are here just to get an award, to gain visibility. We are here thwarting one another as if there were a Pulitzer within our grasp, when there’s absolutely nothing. We are squeezed between a regime that grants you a visa only if you are against the rebels, and rebels who, if you are with them, allow you to see only what they want you to see. The truth is, we are failures. Two years on, our readers barely remember where Damascus is, and the world instinctively describes what’s happening in Syria as “that mayhem,” because nobody understands anything about Syria—only blood, blood, blood.
(Courtesy of my childhood friend Cori, who has some experience with military communications herself.)
You read it, and at first you feel that it's just sort of chaotic and angry, with no clear target for blame and no real call to action (e.g. Stop Covering The War). And you're just like, great, okay, so?
But, of course, I've come to the conclusion that those qualities are what make it great. There's no one entity to blame in her piece, because guess what: wars aren't clear-cut either. Her experience doesn't make sense because war doesn't make sense. She only learns one thing, but it may be all we can learn from conflict:
Had I really understood something of war, I wouldn’t have gotten sidetracked trying to write about rebels and loyalists, Sunnis and Shia. Because really the only story to tell in war is how to live without fear. It all could be over in an instant. If I knew that, then I wouldn’t have been so afraid to love, to dare, in my life; instead of being here, now, hugging myself in this dark, rancid corner, desperately regretting all I didn’t do, all I didn’t say. You who tomorrow are still alive, what are you waiting for? Why don’t you love enough? You who have everything, why you are so afraid?
We can try to impose all the frames we want, but maybe that's not where the value of the story is, after all. It will be a collection of voices, a portrait of the world through the microcosm of experience. Nothing earthshattering. That's the plot.