Blinded by the Proverbial First-Person Light

Two events occurred in my life this past week.  One was a long and very interesting discussion on Facebook about how the “I” in poems is not necessarily the poet.

It is surprising how many poets know this.  I find it surprising how many readers don’t know this.

The other event was our neighbors “hedged” the big, overgrown plant-thing between our two houses.  The result is that the secret arbor on the side of our house is no longer arched and beautiful, the large overgrown plant-thing is no longer resting on our roof and we have bath towels tacked up on every window to keep out the blinding sun.

While having the Facebook discussion it was brought up that while writing in the first-person, if you don’t sometimes write in the point of view of the other gender you are limiting yourself to half the experiences to be written about.

One poet said he just flat out lies when writing.  I suspect that is only half-true.

Another poet said when a first-person poem got uncomfortable for him to write, he changed it to second-person.  There’s a way to do it and still feel authentic to the reader.

Still another said “Years ago I read a story (in the NY TIMES BOOK REVIEW) about a poet who had written a long poem about his brother and himself climbing in the mountains and about how his brother had died on trip when he couldn’t save him. He read it at a reading and a woman came up to him in tears saying she was touched and sorry for his loss. Then he told her he didn’t even have a brother.”

It is a conflicting topic.  Where does the poem end and manipulation begin?

So back to our too-bright house with beach towels tacked up on all the windows.  We couldn’t say no.  The large plant-thing is on their property.  But it made me remember another time when this same family cut down a row of diseased cypresses between our properties.

I wrote the following poem, in first-person, but the only true thing about it is about the trees.  It is the title, and title poem of my first chapbook.  I hope you enjoy it.

Sanity Among the Wildflowers

My lover’s teeth are gray from lies,
spitting the poison out has darkened
them around the edges.
Her smile reminds me to be wary.
Remember the doctor smiling,
holding some vaccine behind his back,
that is how it feels today. 

Our neighbors destroyed a
row of cypress trees
between our properties.  I
am helpless in the blinding
spotlight I cannot ignore she is
untruthful, her thoughts a mosaic
I cannot parse and so it goes. 

I am an uncomplicated man I
am not a hero.
I spread a blanket in the field,
ease into her journals.

There is no epiphany I know
I will never make her happy.
Only temporarily, as an orphan waits
anxiously along the edge of
a darkened train station for
rescue she waits with me. 

She squeezes an orange
her hand shakes, how long
will this farce be played out?
It is very quiet in our house, civil
to the casual eye, never joyful,
her teeth are gray from lies. 

So many lies.

 (Seven CirclePress, Jan/Feb 2009)

Tobi Cogswell is the author of five chapbooks and one full-length collection.  Her latest chapbook is “Lit Up” from Kindred Spirit Press.  She is the co-editor and co-publisher of San Pedro River Review (  She rarely writes in first-person but when she does, it’s usually raunchy.  She lies a lot.