There has perhaps been too much debate in the poetry community about the book project versus the collection of poems. Regardless of what corner you find yourself in, there is no doubt that Eleanor Boudreau’s Earnest, Earnest? transcends any narrow notion of what poetry should be. Written as a series of postcards, the poems follow the relationship between the speaker Eleanor and her on-and-off again lover Earnest. But more than just a narrative, Boudreau explores the nuances of love, relationships, patriarchy, religious understanding, and how one thinks of intimacy when what has kept it intact begins to slowly unravel. In “Scatter Plot,” for example, the speaker Eleanor, inquisitive as always, questions what it means when a man tries to make you the center of his plot:
I would never compare men to God, but let me start
by saying—names or not—they all respond, or don’t respond, to you.
The vacuum sucks a desert from the carpet—varoom, room. You enter
and say words to me, words I do not hear until you tear the cord-head out,
“—nothing,” you say, “happens in a vacuum.” An argument
proceeds from here, and you tell me to go to hell. I think I would like hell—
Hell, at least, is just,
its plain intelligible—unlike this world so full
of double standards and double talk and the double question,
So this is or is not about my faithlessness?
Eleanor, and we as readers, might not arrive at the answers we expected—if we arrive at an answer at all—but poetry isn’t always a guarantee. Instead, poetry like Boudreau’s is an opportunity, and the more we read, the more we realize how fortunate we are to have experienced such a gift.
Esteban Rodriguez, Interviews Editor
The Making of Earnest, Earnest?
I could have died of sepsis four months before I finished my first book. On January 18, 2019, I found myself suddenly in excruciating abdominal pain, but I didn’t want to go to the ER because I was afraid of how much it would cost. Instead, I went to a clinic called Patients First. In an exam room, a nurse asked why I was wailing.
I’m in pain, I said.
You’re pregnant, she suggested.
I’m not pregnant.
She gave me a pregnancy test. You’re not pregnant, she said.
She sent me home. I was in too much agony to sleep. I lay on my bed in a fetal position and hugged my stomach. I waited for the pain to pass for 18 hours, but it only got worse, so I went to the hospital.
When a surgeon finally opened me up on the afternoon of January 20, he saw that my appendix had burst. He spent about two hours removing the fragments of tissue. Afterwards, this doctor described my insides to me. It was a mess in there, he said.
Writing Earnest, Earnest? was painful and messy. And I don’t want the short surgery of this prose to obscure that fact.
Earnest, Earnest? is structured by postcards that the speaker, Eleanor, writes to her on-again-off-again lover, Earnest. These “Earnest Postcards” began as “Dear Diary” poems. Fifteen years ago, instead of writing Dear Earnest, the speaker wrote, Dear Diary. But readers complained that there was no “objective correlative” for the speaker’s feelings. A common reader response to my “Dear Diary” poems was, Is this a break-up poem? Some of these poems were break-up poems, but most were not. In my experience, the end of a romance can break your heart, but this is not the most frequent cause of heartbreak in the world. I loved being a child, but I grew. I loved horseback riding, but I could not afford to continue. I loved being an environmental organizer and I believed I was helping make the world a better place, but I quit that job to go to college and pursue my poetic ambition.
We have trouble imagining women’s pain as unrelated to men. If I’m in pain, I must be heartbroken. Or pregnant. And in we I include myself, because I capitulated to this early reader feedback—I assigned parts of myself to Earnest and other parts to Eleanor, I entwined the two in an unhappy romantic relationship, then I watched the couple break-up over and over.
Earnest makes the book cohesive. After my manuscript won the Starrett prize, I made very few changes—I inserted one more time-stamp-moment, that was about it. But that doesn’t mean the process was tidy. I worked on Earnest, Earnest? for 15 years and I finished it while I was recovering from major surgery. At the same time, I could feel the book nearing completion, I was in pain, I was weak, I was tired, and I had hospital bills I could not pay. The end didn’t feel like a triumph. I often wished I had died of sepsis.
Looking back, this seems the only possible termination. Earnest, Earnest? was almost a disaster, then it was a book.