Friday, December 30, 2011

Interlude: Work

Window facing an ill-kept front yard
Plums on the tree heavy with nectar
Prayers to summon the destroying angel
Moon stuttering in the sky like film stuck in a projector
       -- The Mountain Goats, “Tallahasse”

What kind of work is this
The scrimshaw idols
Stacked on the shelf,
Popcorn shards
Littering the floor,
Long legs and loafers
Halved by white socks,
Spanish moss dipping
Into the frame like
Water stains

Don’t I know enough
Already to distinguish
The boats curving
Along the river’s arc
From the sad man
Leaning, arms
Crossed, against his
Typewriter’s keys

Or the chapped-lip boy
Clutching his dog
From the dry
burnished field
With its shadows
Stretched out
Behind them

So the garden is brittle,
Almost dust,
Peach and dogwood
A shamble of wire,
Pulse extinguished
To a dull scrape
Of stick against sky,

And why is it
Each season is quick
To append what’s next
To its every inflection
And a single night
Casts about for its
Own synonym,
Yes, what kind of work
Speaks the wrong name
Over and over,
Calls the father a man,
His son a boy,
The field behind his house
A field and doesn’t
Ever say precisely how
He loves them
What kind of work
Is this

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Song For Lonely Giants

Face in the leaves, song in my throat.
Fall through the air, hoping to float.
Practicing my solitary scales 'til they grow heavy,
Too heavy to carry.
Watching them go where they will go.
  -- The Mountain Goats, “Song for Lonely Giants”

I am the father of a poet. It is a strange thing to be, especially since being a poet is what I first wanted to be, soon after – or perhaps concurrent with – my longing to be Pistol Pete.

How different is it, really? The graceful swan’s neck of the wrist, the sagging gray socks, the long bangs hiding the eyes, the sloped shoulders, the desperate impossible grace, the certainty that the clock has ticked down to its final seconds, the beauty that forever trumps strength and, even better, again and again tricks it, robs it blind.

But I would have to wait for years and years for poetry to enter my life the way I’d imagined it to be in the life of a true poet: sacramental, essential, without which not. I would have to wait for the daughter for whom the music of the spheres rang in her ears with the echoing pleasure and portent of Sunday church bells.

So I was listening last night to the poet Lisa Spaar explaining the origin of each poem she’d chosen to read, and I was filled with some measure of gratitude that I did not have to be a poet myself, that I could merely be a poet’s father, for the poet must, if she is the real deal, as my daughter sadly and splendidly is – the poet must respond to every moment, every encounter, every word on the page, every pigment and accidentally encountered animal, every memory and shine on the shoes and plink of finger nail against glass as though contained in it is both beauty and horror, the gasp and yawp and cry of everything it means to be human. How hard that must be! How incredibly impossibly unbearably hard to live such a life.

So my daughter says on the phone that she wakes up every day filled with sadness and must then find, must name for herself, all the reasons to cast that sadness aside: the promise of friendship, the prospect of accomplishment, the beauty of the one small moment that one might miss if one were not, well, attending to life.

That’s what the poet does, isn’t it? Attend. Be present. Be there now. And now. And now.

And So what I will beg and claw for the rest of my days is that she be granted every single goddamn moment of her life that morning’s wish: promise and prospect and beauty.

So I go to my daughter’s room like a penitent to a dusty abandoned shrine, and I root around on her shelves for the poets who will speak to me as they have spoken to her, who are gentle and generous enough to offer something of what I need.

This week I found, as I had never found in my fifty-one years to heaven, as Walker Percy describes a life, James Wright’s The Branch Will Not Break.

And here’s what occurs to me, though it may be as wrong as sin: that James Wright is the poet I’ve been searching for, poetic father of the son John Danielle whose epigraphs grace these pages. James Wright is the muse that JD may have never encountered, may have never read, though I suspect he has and would be willing to wager good money on it. If he has not, though, it doesn’t matter, because it’s all there in Wright’s poetry as it s in JD’s songs: the desperate son searching and searching, scrounging and scouring and scavenging the vast and familiar and unknowable American landscape for meaning, for the promise of transcendence, for love.

For love, of course. What else is there?

Here’s one of the poems in Wright's The Branch Will Not Break:

In the Face of Hatred

I am frightened by the sorrow
Of escaping animals.
The snake moves slowly
Beyond his horizon of yellow stone.
A great harvest of convicts has shaken loose
And hurries across the walls of your eyes.
Most of them, all moving alike,
Are gone already along the river.
Only two boys,
Trailed by shadows of rooted police, 
Turn aimlessly in the lashing elderberries.
One cries for his father’s death,
And the other, the silent one, 
Listens into the hallway
Of a dark leaf.

I may be wrong, of course. I am nothing if not an expert at being wrong. But I think it’s possible to imagine the young poet choosing to strum, with fierce and frenetic strokes, the strings of a barely tuned guitar and then to try to sing these words only to discover that he, more than singing, is shouting them out against the awful wretched unbearable silence.

And the shouting is a good and fine thing. There's music in it.

Tell me you can’t hear John Darnielle’s brittle pleading nasal voice in these lines: The sad bones of my hands descend into a valley / Of strange rocks. Or: An eagle rejoices in the oak trees of heaven. Or: All the proud fathers are ashamed to go home. Or: I do not even have ashes to rub into my eyes.

I’m sure there’s a formula for all of this: a certain American childhood, a Christ-haunted landscape, the glow of street lights against dented cars, flowers left too long in their vases, candles burned down, papers yellowed.

Whatever the equation, the answer is not me, no matter all my longing, all my inclination toward the exquisitely ecstatic beauty of melancholy. I am not musical, not a poet, though I try again and again to hammer my words into some ghostly echo of the real thing, the real deal, the without which not.

I am the father of a poet, though, and that is enough for me. It is actually, in the end, even better, because my own words, no matter how well I’ve crafted them, never make me cry, never make me bow down in silent gratitude. But the poet’s do; my daughter’s do. And that will always be enough.

Friday, November 4, 2011

You know this already.

“I cut the flowers that grew near the door,
and I arranged them in the center of the floor.
The room was so empty.
There were pale shadows inside.”
   -- The Mountain Goats, “Edvard Munch”

You know this already: I want to sing.

You know this already as well: everything is to be found in song.

Here is Ralph Ellison, for instance, in his first published music essay, describing flamenco: “Great space, echoes, rolling slopes, the charging of bulls, and the prancing and galloping of horses flow in this sound much as animal cries, train whistles, and the loneliness of night sound through the blues.”

And so you’ll find the blistering sun in Malian blues and the crooked cobblestone streets in fado and the modest white clapboard churches atop hillsides in bluegrass…

All of which you already know.
So there’s nothing new here, nothing you don’t already know – which is exactly, come to think of it, the way songs work. You know it all already, the song says. But I’ll tell you again anyway, sweet and true. And the singer sings the chorus one more time not to tell you what you don’t yet know but to affirm what you both do.

We’re not talking just any songs, of course, but the right ones, the real ones, the impossibly true. They become more beautiful and delicate, more moving and triumphant (or more desolate, more blue, more inclement or dappled or enticing), the second and then the third and then the fourth time through, each an acquaintance who becomes a friend and then, only over time, with repetition, the beloved, though never an entirely faithful one and certainly not forever: you’re both better off forgetting one another for a while, going your separate ways, crossing paths only every now and again, unexpectedly, at some peculiar time or unlikely place, though it must always be – yes? am I wrong? – precisely the proper season for such a meeting.

Is that accurate, that each song, each right and real and impossibly true one, has its own particular season? Or is it better to say that they conjure their own weather? Is there any sadness that belongs just to summer? Any joy strictly to winter or to fall? Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard. Mercy Street. Thunder Road. Don’t Fall Apart On Me Tonight. Let It Be Me. Julia. It Had To Be You. Fall on Me. Is there a season, a time under heaven, turning and turning, to each?

Songs are, like poems, private meditations hammered and shaped into public utterance, ardent testimonials of faith or carnal desire, wry manifestos of triumph or defiance, wistful odes to all there is to lose, which is usually – okay, always – youth and love, love and youth, two sides to the same thin rattling coin that again and again finds the hole in your pocket.

The dandy balladeer beneath the balcony window; the cavernous cathedral’s slope-shouldered, arthritic organist; the street-corner crooner in his tattered tuxedo jacket; my teenage son fervently strumming his guitar, belting out Brett Dennen or the Avett Brothers: all of them ask only that most meager of favors: merely to be heard. Why else would one perform, play and sing, sway and strut and bow?

And so the singer loves an audience, every auditorium or stadium seat sold and church pew filled, every inch of dark low-ceilinged clubs lined wall-to-wall and stage-to-bar with piously faithful initiates, thousands and thousands of car radios tuned to the same station, the same infectious tune: Rolling in the Deep, Paparazzi, Love the Way You Lie. Crocodile Rock. California Girls.

But this, too: I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down. Backstabbers. Guns of Brixton. Surrender. War.

What is it good for?

And there’s always a story to the song, isn’t there? In this case, it’s that the original recording of War featured the mighty Temptations, but the song was re-recorded before being released as a single with a new vocal track, this time by Edwin Starr, one of the minor leaguers in Motown’s stable, the change made in order to avoid alienating any Temptations fans who happened, in 1969, to think the goings-on in Vietnam were worth more than what the song insisted they were worth: absolutely nothing.

And what an astonishing conflagration ignites this version: sanctified hymns and swaying choirs and stop-time trumpet blasts alongside a preacher’s Pentecostal shouts and dance-floor gyrations and the relentless call and response, call and response, of white-hot defiance while heartbroken mothers deliver their sons to the undertaker and the war, for all that rabble-rousing, nevertheless rages on.

How many songs tear at the heart and soul like that?

That’s the amazing thing; there’s the miracle: it’s not just a handful or dozens or hundreds but by now, the universe thrumming and thrumming these millions of years,  seven billion of us alive on the planet, it's got to be hundreds and hundreds of thousands of songs that do just that: tear at the heart, tear at the soul. Imagine what it’s like – how always, every moment of every hour of every day, someone is listening to a song and, though they’ve heard it dozens and dozens of times before, thinking Here it is, everything I’ve known and felt already. Here it is, and once again it is mine and once again it is new.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Let The Dying Be Long

The ghosts that haunt your building are prepared to take on substance
And the dull pain that you live with isn't getting any duller
There's a closet full of almost-pristine videotape
Documenting sordid little scenes in living color

      - "The Young Thousands"

The winter of my freshman year of college I broke into a house. It was alone at the top of a hill that bordered my little New England campus, and I'd passed by it almost every day for months on a loop my friend X and I walked in the evenings, when we were sick of our reading and stirring inside our own muscles. Those months we talked a lot about being young and smart and unhappy. We traded books and I mulled over going to Divinity School, which I knew nothing about but liked the sound of. She hummed bars of songs she was writing, talked about linguistics using all the new jargon she was learning, and smoked the occasional cigarette, which seemed to be a thing you had to do if you were going to live in rural Massachusetts and talk about Hamlet all the time and never sleep. This is, in my memory, how I spent most of that year. 

 We were barely seventeen -- all self-consciousness  and the sounds of our own voices -- and that winter everything was  beautiful because it was difficult: the spare gold plant that grew along the road even in the snow, each other's cheekbones, the thick dark bodies of the last geese in the fields, the lake frozen over. It was cold all the time, so we wore scarves and fur-lined boots and coats with high collars, and we blew on our hands. 

The house was where we always stopped and turned around, pausing at the crest of the hill to look down at the scrub grass  and the bare branches and all the feet between us and the valley. It was in that shadow state between use and abandonment, and we debated for weeks whether or not it belonged to anyone, drawing steadily closer, peering in the windows and over the low fence at the wild garden, and running our hands along the siding and the window latches and the doorframe. We never saw a car in the driveway, and though we sometimes thought we noted changes in the debris on the front lawn, there was never any certain sign of life. 

I don't remember why we finally went in on the day we did or whose idea it was, just that X found an unlocked window and slid her body through it like a fine thread and then came around and unlatched the front door so I could come inside.  The first floor was one vast, open room:  empty except for a few scattered cardboard boxes, an overturned paint can in the fireplace, and an old piano in the middle of it all. X went to it and put her hands on the keys and started to play, first softly, and then so loudly I was sure someone would hear and call the police. I would not have dreamed of telling her to be quiet.  She sang and pumped the pedals, and I went through what was left in the kitchen: an unplugged phone, a flashlight without batteries, one of those little yellow legal pads for taking messages, a bright red colander.  I was a sucker for it all, the weird, specific beauty, the sense that it was illicit, and the way it made me feel like a character in someone's novel, which is all I wanted that year: to put my hands in my hair and feel wild. 

In middle and high school I was good and safe and lonely, and the small ways in which I was sometimes a disappointment to my parents were never surprising or beautiful in the ways I thought they should be; they were just messy and boring and brief. I did not go to parties where people lit things on fire; I did not filch cigarettes from my father's car or beer from the basement fridge. I  did not lie about what I was watching or reading because I  was allowed to read or watch whatever I wanted, and then my mother would sit at the kitchen table and talk to me about it for hours and tell me that she thought it was beautiful too. I did not go alone to rock concerts, because my father was happy to take me, buy expensive teeshirts, and stand right in front of blaring speakers and then drink Frostys at Wendy's at 2 a.m. on a school night and drive home in the new dawn.  I did not make big mistakes. I did not make noise.

Raised by and among artists mired in the making of  art and struck by the real  practical and psychological blows and blessings of a creative life and temperament, I should have been immune to the cliche: the ache to be a brilliant rebel,  hard-edged and fearless and sarcastically lovely in grainy photographs, but it  was intoxicating. I was ecstatic that somehow I had ended up singing a sad song  in a house I'd snuck into and picking through a of box of black and white pictures of uniformed men in the attic. The people who'd left this house had a strange and gorgeous life, I was sure. I was getting to dismantle  them in pieces, and this was a scene from every movie I'd ever loved: through a window you see two beautiful girls, cross-legged on the floor, stripping off their coats and shoes and sweaters piece by piece. The light is copper and thick around them, and you can see a quilt, a gilded frame, a lighter. They move slowly and you want madly to be close to them and whatever it is they are recklessly tearing apart.  

Several years later I am writing this from California between hours of filling out graduate school applications. I am only a little less young and a little less dumb, and I worry, writing this, that I'll be guilty of the thing my father always says he notes in youthful writing: the misplaced sense that one is saying something meaningful and remarkable when, in fact, all it is is a copy of a thing you've read too many times in other words. But preparing to graduate in an entirely different kind of country, in what feels like an entirely different cosmos of my life, I've been dreaming of this house.

Here is what happened: We left the house that afternoon and, in the manner of people who are worried about ruining something fragile and wonderful, we didn't really talk about it again. But within less than a year (six months, really)  much of what had seemed beautiful about our reckless misery had tarnished and grown too unwieldy to sustain. The year following  was in many ways an awful one. Although I know this can't be true, in my memory of that  year it snowed without stopping,  my muscles ached and split, my body broke down and, in concert, so did my brain. I didn't know what I wanted, or whether I had any control over where I'd ended up and where I was going. I made a mess. There were real  moments of sweetness and light, of course,  and I was educated in  a remarkable way, but these were punctures in the pitch dark.  It's not an interesting story.  When I tell it, it feels stock and unspecific.  What matters is that coming out the other side of a second New England winter I wanted entirely different things: I wanted light and sunshine, energy and ease. I wanted out of the margins. I wanted to love things and be safe. And I was in luck; I could strike out West. 

Late this summer I was joking with my parents, who'd flown to California for the week, about my literary career.  "Maybe," I laughed, "I'll write a best-selling memoir." 

"Not enough horrible things have happened to you," my mother said, sipping her drink. 

She's right; tragedy and chaos have really only padded around the edges of my life, their intrusions small and occasional, and most of their indelible marks left early, a whole life ahead of me to paper around them.  This feels lucky beyond language, and I no longer believe in the romance of unadulterated suffering or of rebelling for rebellion's sake . I'm sure at thirty I will look back and want to rewrite this, think here is what you didn't understand, and again every few years after that. 

When I think of that house now I want to go in and find myself in the kitchen and put my arms around my own neck. Look around , I want to say, but don't touch, don't pull apart.  Look at the way they've left a comforter at the foot of the bed. See the way the man in the photograph is reaching his arm toward someone you can't see?  I want to tell myself to write down the color of the colander I found because I've had to make it up now, to touch the fabric of the curtains, the bare bulbs on the wall.

This whole place and your presence here  isn't proof of your own strength and power, or the romance of the abandoned, or that Berryman was right that the luckiest artist is the one who suffers as much as possible without being killed by it. It's just tenuous: the particulars of a left life.

What I love is that it's all irreplicable, that being there was like stepping into a still-life, and then we stepped away and behind us it continued to exist. There is a theory of quantum mechanics that asserts that we change the nature of whatever we look at just by looking at it. So, then, our presence there caused some shift before we even touched the keys of the piano.

Now, bound for someplace, something, new, I dream that house and a voice that says darling, tread lightly, take notice, go slow, be happy when you can— a voice that repeats those  lines of Hayden Caruth's: my beautiful, beautiful Baby Doll, / let the dying be long.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Women at Twenty.

and on the railroad bridge, half a mile of solid steel
wheels were spitting out sparks, scraping at the rails
wind in your hair all right
sunset spilling through the rear window
your white t-shirt hugging your shoulders, beaded with sweat
on the day that i become so forgetful
that all of this melts away
i will burn all the calanders that counted the years down
to such a worthless day.
   -  The Mountain Goats, "Twin Human Highway Flares"

Women in their early twenties  are struck by the shape of things: the bells in a clock tower,  their own wrists, the slope of windowsills, the fine amber necks of bottles, and the foreheads of the men who bring them. In that particularly dangerous hour of the late afternoon when the light is gunmetal and low, their tether to themselves is tenuous,  and when they're walking to and from their homes, or the post office, or that job where they've been sorting files, they're likely to end up looking down at their shadow versions and thinking: what a wild little marionette down there: talking about Faulkner, or going to the ATM, or pulling her hair in behind her neck.  Their parents are aging  audibly thousands of miles away at the end of telephone lines, and the girls are determinedly buying oxford shirts and laundry detergent and matches.

Half  the time they are trailing their fingers through the thick air outside car windows and watching wide cities roll past, they're turning up the volume on CD players and trying to be nowhere but right  there: loud and gorgeous and quick on the side-streets of their own country. They get good at drinking, not for the buzz as much as for the weight of the glass in their hands, or the hush at the back of their throats, or the way that they hope they look by the lit up window with a watered-down whiskey they've been nursing all night. The lines of their bodies against the pitch feel indestructible, and there are moments when they're tempted to hurl themselves at things to prove the point.

The rest of the time, though,  they are trying to cast their eyes ten years or fifteen years into the  future and predict the corners of the rooms they'll live in, some kind of steadiness: an office and cicadas, another body in the front hall, sometimes a child, sometimes not. They're struck by how pedestrian their futures look, and by the fact that they don't mind it. 


Women at twenty are caught, brief,  dumb and wild, more fragile than they realize. But they know, for just a moment, what men at fifty will rediscover— that the grace of a life is in the small, the mundane, the tangible that looks like refuse: stacks of dusty plates, the caves of their own bodies, the plastic wine glass filled with paper clips and sea-glass on a desk, stacks of papers and postcards and defunct stamps on the broad windowsill. They're bowled over by it all. What they can't imagine, or can only sense in flashes, is that this is important, and that they will forget it and then spend so much just trying to remember.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Men at Fifty

And I know you're waiting for the ironic ending,
And I know you're waiting for the punchline,
And I know you're waiting for the rain to come by.
So am I.
-- The Mountain Goats, “Seed Song”

I remember when, years ago, I would read Donald Justice’s poem “Men at Forty” with a kind of anticipatory nostalgia, imagining the sweet melancholy I would feel when I left my thirties behind and joined the legions of men who must, as Justice puts it,  “learn to close softly / The doors to rooms they will not be / Coming back to.” I imagined what it would be like to stand before a bathroom mirror and encounter my own image in precisely the manner that the poem describes –

And deep in mirrors 
They rediscover 
The face of the boy as he practices trying 
His father’s tie there in secret 

And the face of that father, 
Still warm with the mystery of lather

 –  past and present merging in the very features of my face, a face that would have become more like my father’s than that of the child I had once been. “They are more fathers than sons themselves now,” Justice declares with a kind of forlorn certainty, the scale of time finally tipped from one side to the other, and I imagined that this would of course be true.

It was not true for me, though, when I turned forty. I continued to feel then more son than father, though my father had already died. Now that I am fifty – past fifty, having turned fifty-one – it does indeed seem true, indisputably and inconsolably true. Any childhood photograph of me looks a great deal more like my son than like me, this son who now at seventeen looks more like a man than a boy. And I am startled from time to time when I look in the mirror and feel that I have caught a glimpse, brief and unsettling and spectral, of my father’s weathered face, my startled expression become his, as if he too is surprised to have stumbled upon me in such an otherwise insignificant moment.

As for the photos I have of my father, they have begun to look – not more like me than him, not that, but more of me, as if they were taken as sly predictions or gentle warnings (to which I was, of course, always much too young to attend) that this is what I would become, the expression I would bear, the lines and folds that I would wear as though they were etched there, as indeed they were in a way, in some act of ritual scarification.

Something is filling them,” filling these men, Justice goes on to write at his poem’s conclusion,

That is like the twilight sound
Of the crickets, immense,
Filling the woods at the foot of the slope
Behind their mortgage houses.

And I used to snicker a little, way back when, at the sweet sad irony of that final line, of the mundane earthly debts and responsibilities – the mortgaged house and all that comes with it: the slope behind it with its inevitably disappointing lawn and the gray mulched flower beds and the scattering of sticks and snake holes and dried leaves – so many inconsequential annoyances and obligations intruding upon that immense and somber and crepuscular sound, the universe’s holy shimmering that the man who has turned forty has just begun to detect.

I don’t snicker any more. I don’t snicker because I know what I didn’t know at thirty or even forty, what even Donald Justice may not have known when he wrote this poem.  He was, after all, only just past forty himself when the poem appeared in his 1967 collection Night Light, and so perhaps he was still caught in the sweet pleasures of its sad embrace. I know now, a man at fifty, that even our mundane earthly debts acquire, as time passes, as the scale dips further down, their own spectral grace. We begin to sense that these too – and not just our mortgaged house but the spindly trees we planted, the weedy beds to which we seasonally attend, the dry leaves spilling from the woods’ edge, the sputtering car with its cracked windshield, the flat-tired wheelbarrow, the unwieldy unreliable rake, the vines creeping around porch rails and above doorways, the wasp-infested birdhouse, the nest spilling twigs and cloth from its perch, the carpenter bees’ tunnels of mud and spit, the aching joints, the calloused hands, the cloudy eyes, the stacks of bills in their leather folder, the empty bottles and cans in the kitchen cupboard, the unsprung mousetraps and garbage bags and dryer sheets and wicker baskets and clothes yet to be ironed and nearly spent candles and loose change on the counter – all of this, every bit, are merely the notes composing the grand elegiac hymn, a million and a million more droning voices. They are all, all of them, that twilight sound I hear. It is immense, unceasing, terrifying, as haunting and beautiful a sound as anyone would ever hope to hear.

And I know this, too, I guess, or suspect it – that at sixty I will finally understand that at fifty I had not yet heard the half of it, did not have a clue of the great, magnificent sounds the earth could make, the giant crash of thunder or an axe raised high against the darkening sky to again and again split the wood.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Rain Song

The rain came down,
soaked the old hibachi.
And I wish I could sing
like Allen Callaci,
and then you would know
how sad it was
when the rain came down.

Drop by drop,
gallon by gallon.
Brother, if I could sing,
if I could sing like Allen,
you would know
and understand
how sad it was
when the rain came down.

-- The Mountain Goats, “The Rain Song”

It’s going to rain all week here in Virginia, the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee slogging up the east coast like a stained dish towel slowly covering a bowl of already-bruised, fruit-fly-infested peaches or a tired waitress’s wet gray rag swirling over a dirty formica countertop or the foam-edged tide inching across the cracked shells and oozing jellyfish skins and tar-coated stones of a faded-corduroy-brown Florida panhandle beach stained by the shade of the third-rate timeshare condominiums looming overhead, their dust-specked and dirt-smudged and cobwebbed once-white ceilings plastered with precisely the same swirling patterns as the storm itself.

All of which is to say that the rain – day upon day of it, that is -- makes me regard the world, the natural world, in the worst possible light, which is itself the very darkened light of an overcast sky: not pewter so much as a pale and hoary gray, the gray of expiration, of skin and mold and fire-damaged clothes, of true tin and not aluminum, of an unslaked thirst, a sky with no heaven propped behind it, the dull blanket swept over a pauper’s corpse.

I know that there are words for this, that there’s diagnosis and treatment, an easy cure for what ails me, but there are times when you don’t want to name what you feel. You want instead to burrow down into the comforting imprecision of metaphor. You want to know how I feel? Then I will tell you how I feel. And what I tell you will be everything except the thing itself, for the thing itself is of little interest. It is not how I feel that matters; it is not what I want you to know. It is how I choose to say how I feel that matters, how I bend the objects of the world closer and closer to how I feel without ever truly touching it. That’s one of the key rules, of course: Don’t touch it. Don’t touch it. It hurts too much. (If it sounds to you as if a small child has made the rules, then you already know more – much more – than you thought you did.)

This is why, perhaps, I’ve got a litany of questions for the famous – famous to me; we’ve all got our own – forever scrolling through my head, though they’re always, I’m well aware, the wrong questions, ones unlikely to lead anywhere productive or particularly telling. And some of them, to boot – the questioned famous, that is – are already dead:
Rilke, Lorca, Pistol Pete, my father, Walker Percy, Thelonious Monk, maybe Gandhi and Jesus but only if this were one of those after-dinner who-would-you-invite-to-dinner affairs and I could make some awful rightwing lunatic sit smackdab between them and get a good talking-to. All men, it seems, though I can think of a few women: Billie Holiday. Well, that’s one – though I wouldn’t dare ask her a thing, would simply get down on my knees and beg for one song, even a verse or two of something, anything, a children’s lullaby or a hymn. Because if there was ever someone who knew how to truly answer the question without needing to say the word itself or even directly suggest it, she was it. She was the one.

So here are a few questions for the living:

For Bob Dylan: Can I have your boots when you die?
For Philip Levine: Can I have your favorite pen?

No, that’s wrong, though it’s true I would like a token or talisman from every person I admire. I need to ask questions that can be answered.

To John Darnielle: What were you thinking when you wrote “The Rain Song”?
To Everyone Else: What is that voice I hear in the distance? Whose voice is it? That quiet one? Yes, that one. Will the news be good?

Thursday, September 1, 2011

To Take To The Highway

I took to the highway
The highway took to me
Like a second skin
Rolled around in the evening
Circling like a buzzard
Trouble in mind
Excavating the space
We left behind
Yes, I took trinkets with me
Left them by the crater
Here ghosts, old ghosts
    - The Mountain Goats, "Design your Own Container Garden"

The trip between home and my high school was 53 miles, an hour of clean, straight highway we drove regularly for three years. That hour, and the early mornings it insisted on, taught me to love coffee. It was that hour when  I first heard The Decemberists The Crane Wife , Margot and The Nuclear So and So's The Dust of Retreat , and Joanna Newsom's The Milk-Eyed Menderthe first albums I really loved in my own right. In that hour I tried listen to Guns, Germs, and Steel  on tape and decided there were some things I just wasn't willing to do to be smart.  And  it was that hour that taught me the romance of distance, of leaving, of mile marker signs, and being gone. 

It isn't surprising that at fourteen, when we started making that drive, I was feeling the tug of division between myself and my family and the small town where I grew up. This is every new teenager's narrative: separateness and selfhood, a rabid need to call themselves by their own, individual name. And yes: part of the charm of those miles was that they actualized  the psychological space between my  childhood and my adolescence.  There was literal travel. A place that I could call my own. A record store and restaurants I haunted alone. A geography the rest of my family and hometown couldn't claim. 

But my impulse for leaving was more complicated, and has outlasted that first stretching; it tugged me to Massachusetts on my seventeenth birthday, and a year later it was already stirring, preparing to take me West. Two years in New England and I was counting mountains on a plane to California.  

I've been here eleven months and seventeen days, and the call for motion is waking and shifting like a bird in my throat. A year ago I might have called it loneliness, mistaken it for discontent. There's still a measure of ambition in it,  an ache for adventure, a piece of something like fear ... but it's none of those things exactly...

I am not lonely,  at least not on any daily level, perhaps for the first time in my life. I have the kind of friends immediately around me  who throw birthday parties, pick me up from hospital, invite my parents for dinner when they arrive to visit, and finish my sentences.  The climate  is gorgeous and navigable, the intellect and opportunity are striking. The late light is lilac and familiar. I'm happy.  Successful. Known. Still I wake up thinking get ready to go. I spend afternoons wandering steadily farther afield of my daily territory. I close my eyes and want the road. I have fantasies of a city I am calling Berlin, but it could just as easily be Moscow, or Austin or Dublin or Chicago. I dream Southern red clay and Italian water, a low lit bar, a red apartment, a flatbed truck.

The romance and danger of someplace far off: there are stories of it everywhere. Willy Nelson sings On The Road Again,  Icarus flies too close to the sun and drops like a flicker in the corner of Bruegel's painting. Scores of beautiful, sharp-shouldered teenage boys carry Kerouac in their back pockets. I'm smart enough to count myself among these masses, and to check the romance of the new against the boxes I'll have to pack, the life I'll have to disassemble or leave behind: from wheelchair to beloveds, and the one I'll have to build: from a new sense of direction  to an assembled library. 

I know enough to know that part of why I'm going is youth and  that part of what I'm fleeing are my own limits: the fact that my body means I will never live in the third story of a Brooklyn brownstone, or take photographs alone in the wilds of Cambodia. I can't run, can't travel on impulse, can't take off at the drop at the hat.  My chest goes tight with terror when my mother, well meaning, looks around Manhattan and says: you could live here, as long as you developed a real routine, and only had to travel a set path.  A small, set path.  

We all fight, I think, the sense that our lives are circumscribed beyond our control, and ever since I can remember the limits of my existence have felt steel  and close and central, decided too soon. Your body will do this but not  this. you will need people like this,  just to stand. every place you go you will call ahead to ask if you'll be able to use the shower. It would be so easy, at any given moment, to think: it's pretty here, I know my way around, it's interesting, my knees don't hurt too badly: i could stay, and wake up twenty years later  having done just that: stayed because that was the simple thing , because I wasn't giving up anything I could name, because I was tired. 

And the world feels too big, and too wild for that. A writer I admire, talking about Emily Dickinson, once said: she must have felt like her head was on fire. I  wake up every day lucky to feel on fire, burning and light and alive. Mary Shelly wrote Frankenstein by twenty, and there are continents where I've never been.

 It's a delicate state.  When I wake up straining towards the road I have to put my hand on the hurried little thrush inside me, the heartbeat rattling at my ribs.  it's good here. I have to whisper, and there's more of it  than you can see from your window. You can be still a little longer, you can look a little harder at the corners of things. You'll go eventually. I promise. I swear.  

What do you want? I've been asking myself, and maybe it's trite to say that what I want is to always be heading toward something, not just away. You'll go when something else is calling, I  tell that shaking piece. For as long as I can, however long that is,  I want to be the  one who is not afraid  to be where the world beckons This means I want to get good at packing a car and reading a flight map, at taking taxis at twilight, and talking with strangers in dive bars and conference rooms. More than that though, it means that I want to hear what other people don't, in familiar places and far off ones,  so that wherever it is the world finally sets me down I will know how far I am from Frankfurt, and that the mountains  at sunup are just the color of the Golden Gate Bridge, that all over the world there are people I love, and that just where  something  looks finite and small there is space and space and space enough to live a hundred lives.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Waiting to Climb Something....

 Wine and honey, lipstick and spit,
you coming through the door with a cigarette lit.
And I'm not supposed to think your death wish is cool,
but then I see you knocking back tequilas by the pool
And  I am the yellow rose, growing near the ground,
waiting to climb something.
    - " All Rooms Cable a/c Free Coffee" The Extra Glenns 
   (John Darnielle's duo with Franklin Bruno)

Edna St. Vincent Millay
Emily Dickinson has a thrush tattooed on the back of her neck; Edna St. Vincent Millay wears the same clear-eyed stare she had at Vassar and drinks her coffee strong; John Keats is still too pale, but his slight, Romantic body looks good in blue jeans and suspenders, and he can't believe  William Carlos Williams. John's  been carrying a copy of "Spring and All" in his back pocket for weeks, pulling it out in the middle of conversations. Now he and William are leaning across the table toward one another like they're each looking at some wild version of their own reflection. Elsewhere, Rilke is distracted by all of Rodin's sculptures, and John Donne has wandered into the nearby cathedral with Elizabeth Bishop to bicker about God and to look at all the tiny points of light flung on the ceiling.

William Carlos Williams

"No poet enters the life and work of another, whatever the disruptions of time and distance, through words alone" writes Evaan Boland in her new collection of essays A Journey With Two Maps: Becoming A Woman Poet. "Poets imagine each other," she insists, "They think and think until their own sense of the narrow streets of Florence explains the light and passion of the Paradiso... They imagine the cattle train bringing Mandelstam to Smirsk or the freezing room in Devon where Sylvia Plath worked. It is hardly a pure critical process. All the same I feel sure it is in these fires of rapport that poets have found and loved one another for a millennium."

For me, this is one half of the equation.  It's true that when I read things I love my brain rockets away from my body, and I am with Gerard Manley Hopkins at his low little monastery desk, sleepless at night; I am  in Paris with  Ezra Pound; I am in Emily Dickinson's drawing room and she's drafting another letter, and she's slender and talking to Death and weighing some kind of God in the open palm of her hand. Sometimes I'm in a McDonalds only a few years ago where a pregnant woman practices Hebrew and then stops to draft a poem, or I'm on the California cliffs with DA Powell's "wildly surviving," "flash of light" poppies. 

The  great grace of this, though, is  that when I've watched her write out syllable from sound  I can take Emily by the wrist and walk her back with me through centuries. When we arrive she's wearing corduroys and ballet flats and has learned to swear, but she's still shy and the volcano of her brain's still going, and she takes off to find a desk in this new millennium. 

Because I have a head for remembering poems, and because I've read she has a weakness for flowers, I will often hear syllable from sound again in my head, and then I'll catch a glimpse of her in the garden outside the library or with her hand in her loose hair in a lecture hall, writing down the names of all the elements in the periodic table, which she likes, because she thinks they could be other ways to name the soul. She never says much to me, but she's there, and she nods when she sees me,  and once I caught her watching me in church. 

Emily Dickinson
This is all a young woman's desire. I am hungry for the details of the lives of  artists and thinkers living before and alongside me.  I read memoir with a parishioner's devotion and  addict's need:  Kristin Hersh's rock n' roll  tell-all, Andre Dubus III's portrait of life with his father, Linda Sexton's struggle with her mother's legacy, Paul Guest's meditation on poetry and his paralysis, Nick Flynn's vignettes about being a father and a writer in a volatile world. I'm making my way through every narrative of faith and the loss of it that I can find. I read memoirs about grief and memoirs about water and the way it marks out time.  I've read all of Bishop's letters, and most of Mandelstam's prose, and every book about Dickinson that I can get my hands on. I know the epitaph Keats wanted by heart: here lies one whose name was writ in water, and I think it all the time, like a thread which insists that things dissolve even as it  holds them together. Every week I read The Rumpus's  Dear Sugar, even though I swore I'd never read an advice column with any seriousness, because I like the thought that out there someone is asking a specter of one of my questions, and a woman is bent over a computer willing to gesture towards an answer at it, based on the way her writer's life has built itself around her. 

I want these details because I want my vision to be wider, to cross cities and continents and centuries.  I want to be bigger than myself. I want to know the people who have made me fall in love so absolutely, the ones whose lines I run through my head to put myself to sleep at night. It's selfish,  this desire, but it's also generative and comforting and communal. When I pull these writers into my world, they are part themselves and their lines and their  lives and part the woman that I am, or that I want to be. I imagine Dickinson loves the sound of the periodic table because I do, just as I love the breath in her lines. I want Keats to see some version of himself in Williams, because those lines that end Williams's "Danse Russe" who shall say I am not / the happy genius of my household?  always seem to me like a kind of soft answer to Keats' "Ode on Melancholy."

It's the biggest gift of my life: this talking to people I haven't met, this glancing around the corner to see Sylvia Plath by a window with a cigarette, the fact that in this moment  time is fluid, and everything I read, and everyone, comes into my life and stays there: something I am waiting to, wanting to climb.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Your Belgian Things

I shot a roll of thirty-two exposures
My camera groans beneath the weight it bears
-- The Mountain Goats, “Your Belgian Things”

I don’t take so many pictures anymore. I used to. I took thousands of them. But the kids have mostly grown up and moved away. Our friends’ kids have, too, though I guess that goes without saying. Maybe all it is is vanity, is that I don’t look the way I once did.

These are the kinds of small truths that interest me these days. I’ve got no time, really, for the larger ones, for the eternal tabulations, the final settling of scores or the evening out of unpaid debts and unrecompensed generosities.

I might attend, in my weakest moments, to ghosts and clouds; I might fleetingly entertain the dark specter of ambition, but I don’t ever expect, for good or ill, to wake as if from a dream to discover I’ve somehow sprouted wings, though I can imagine well their burnished majesty, the feathers’ delicately hollowed spines, their soft shorn sheen.

I’ve got a hundred memories with which to fill each ever-duller instant as age overtakes me – a hundred times a hundred, actually, so endlessly minute are the divisions by which the past can be conceived: a speck of salt in a single line of the dozens there where my wrist folds into my arm, one finger gently pressed into the tar of our street’s patched cracks the very summer I notice my shoulders’ strange bony slope forward, new moles sprouting along my neck and arms, inconsequential blemishes of precisely the sort to reward, when he turns to regard himself in a shop window or car’s rearview mirror, a boy’s anguished searching gaze.

Sometimes, I like to say, days and days now pass without so much as a single glance at my own reflection. What I don’t declare are the consequences of such apparent indifference, the truths that unfurl like the delicate pale spikes of new leaves. You want me to innumerate them, I know, but I won’t do it. I care now, I admit, more about the cadences of speech than the content. It is a wonder to me how, in the whispered monologue intoning my life’s story, the declarative now gives way to the interrogative. Not Someday I am going to walk out of here free but What’s this in my eye? or What number would you like me to count to? or even The dull gray bird? This one lost dappled feather? This?

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Prowl Great Cain

Sometimes a great wave of forgetfulness rises up and blesses me
And other times the sickness howls and I despair of any remedy.
       -- The Mountain Goats, “Prowl Great Cain”

It is indeed hard sometimes, as the song puts it, to tell
gifts of the spirit from clever counterfeits. And you can’t
always discern, truth be told, when God speaks directly at
you, how much he does and doesn’t know. Well, we’ve all
heard, in the matter of Cain v. Abel, God’s first question
and Cain’s cagey answer:

Where? God asks.
Am I? Cain rejoins.

But how many of us remember – or ever really knew –
what God says next and, what’s more, how or why
he says it. What hast thou done? God inquires of Cain, as though
he’s truly perplexed, but then quickly adds, the voice of thy
brother's blood crieth unto me from the ground. Here, we might
be tempted to assert, is the holy book’s first unholy ghost,
the slain brother’s blood become not simply a poison seeping
into the ground that Cain must henceforth fruitlessly till
but something scarier still: an abiding presence, an admonishing
song. And it does indeed seem to be true, for a mere eight verses later
all the begetting has begotten a world filled with woeful hymns,
with the pathetic evocation of love under other moons and other winds
(yes, that’s Lorca again), for Adah gives birth to Jabal and then to Jubal,
father of all such as handle the harp and organ. And Lamech, the boys’ father,
Cain’s great great great (and perhaps still greater) grandson,
confesses to his two wives Adah and Zillah, that in revenge
for being attacked, he has killed someone – a young man,
he tells them, a man to my wounding, and a young man 
to my hurt. And the next verse asserts that if Cain is avenged
sevenfold – well, is he? – then Lamech is avenged seventy-seven.
And then the next verse, the last of Genesis 4, has Adam knowing
His wife again and her bearing him another son. For God, she says,
hath appointed me another seed instead of Abel, whom Cain slew.

I know I don’t need to say it again, that nobody is listening still,
but here’s another way to say it, a la the gospel John in the KJV:
In the beginning was the Word and the Word was promptly, without
a moment’s delay, set to music, and the Word was not good, not good
at all, but was of  endless suffering and quiet longing. And back to Lorca,
who transforms, in his Poem of the Deep Song, the guitar into an elemental
force, emitting a song of such sorrow that it cannot be squelched:

The Guitar

The guitar
begins its weeping.
The wineglasses of dawn
Are shattered.
The guitar 
begins its weeping.
It is useless to hush it.
to hush it.
It cries monotonously,
as the water cries,
as the wind cries
over the snowfield.
It is impossible 
to hush it.
It cries
for distant things.
Sand from the hot South
asking for white camellias.
It cries, arrow with no target,
evening with no morning,
and the first bird
dead on the branch.
Oh guitar!
Heart mortally wounded
by five swords.

Time and again I’ve said to Molly that I don’t care about the lyrics,
that I’m not really listening. Instead, what I attend to, what I hear
is the precise character of haunting that a song possesses, the way
it rises crying from beneath the ground, from inside the dark earth,
the way it weeps and shatters the wineglasses of dawn, the way
the singer’s voice clmbs in anguish and hope and despair, and great
waves of forgetfulness then wash over me because there it is,
that inexplicable joy: murder and anguish and revenge but then life
again,  always life again – another child born, another generation,
the dry earth tilled and tilled until finally the seeds have sprouted.

Yes, I'm an old dull saw playing the same sad sweet song.
What else, I keep asking and asking, is there to do?

And that last of Adam's sons, we're told, the one named Seth,
has a son he names Enos, and it is only with that son,
with Enos, that men begin to call upon the name of the Lord.
All that suffering and murder and casting out, and only then
do they call out to God. I wonder what they ask him. Simply
Enough? Or Oh Lord, when will all these pains finally quit us?
Or perhaps they ask for nothing but instead hear some distant
cry or wailing and mistake it for solemn music. Perhaps they
raise their voices in song as if to say: No matter our suffering. 
It is always too beautiful. It can never, in the end, be enough.