I’ve never liked the concept of favorites. Among my siblings, being called The Favorite – Mom’s or Dad’s – was rarely spat at another sibling as compliment. When we were children to be called Favorite meant you got something you hadn’t earned, that you were simpering , and just a little too good. Favoritism was all about unfairness in a family where limited resources meant fairness had to be the rule. If the oldest wasn’t allowed to get her ears pierced or to date until she was sixteen, then the youngest (me) couldn’t either. If our parents couldn’t afford to send all the kids to college, we’d each have to pay our own ways. We learned early equatability might dampen conflict, but it could also be a drag.
I’m still wary of playing favorites,. I can’t escape the feeling that it’s a big deal to say I like one thing better than all of the others, and when someone counters my favorite with his, I find myself saying and believing, "Yeah, that’s good too."
All of this to say I really love Eavan Boland’s poem "Lava Cameo" from her book In a Time of Violence (1994). The beauty of the language is in its sharpness. Its images are stunning yet quite human – the cameo forged from volcanic rock worn at the throat of the speaker’s grandmother, who waits at the Cork dock for the speaker’s sea captain grandfather to return (she doesn’t trust the dock women). The poem confronts story and history and the role of the artist: "There is a way of making free with the past,/ a pastiche of what is/real and what is/not." The poem performs as it analyses, making free with the past, constructing the past in the poem.
I find myself returning to this poem whenever I want to understand what role my own past, my memories and my history, plays in my writing. I have come to believe and to write by Boland’s assertion that there is a justification for "using" one’s past and the pasts of others, "which can only be/justified if you think of it/not as sculpture but syntax; /a structure extrinsic to meaning, which uncovers/the hidden secret of it."
Perhaps the concept that creating art is sifting, structuring, and inventing the past is not so different from playing favorites, where one must sift and discard and pretend affections can be justified. Perhaps that is also why the best art is discomfiting. Inherent in the best art is a lack of equity. Art necessarily selects because the artist must. So it isn’t really fair that as the only writer in my family, I get to write it down, to "use" our communal memories and histories. As a writer, I get to play favorites with the past, but Boland’s "Lava Cameo" reminds me to play fair.