Sunday, July 24, 2011

You Are

What's  going to be the death of me?
static electricity.
what's making me take it all too far?
you are.
you are.

what's keeping me up at night?
the streetlight.
what's finally gonna let me sleep alright?
you might.
you might.

      - "I Love You. Let's Light Ourselves on Fire"

 I've been having trouble sleeping; this is rare for me. Usually I get into bed and am asleep within what seems like seconds. I don't wake up in the middle of the night. I rarely have dreams I can remember. I feel steady and solid and sinking, and then it is morning. The small service my body usually seems willing to do me is to shut off obediently when I tell it to: alright, alright, we've clambered through enough today. But I've tossed and turned every night since arriving back to California from New York  in late June. And this summer, when I can't sleep, I can't stop thinking about the fact that we are  made of atoms  and so every second we're moving an infinitesimal amount, and of course, of course, of course  we're not as solid as we seem.

I  hesitate to write this, because it sounds exactly like a joke my father would make about poets and their insistent  overly-intellectualizaed navel-gazing. Q: Why couldn't the poet sleep at night? A: She was too busy worrying about her rhythms. 

And it is a little ridiculous: I'm lying there pushing my shoulder-blades into the mattress and thinking: I can feel them vibrating inside my skin; they are my skin; and there are so damn many of them; and I don't know anything about them. Is this what Whitman meant when he said: "I sing the Body electric."  It couldn't have been this: this sense that everywhere in you there are particles  calling out: go. go. and hurling themselves at the limits of you, hard. 

Emily Dickinson has a poem that reads:  

I am afraid to own a Body—
I am afraid to own a Soul—
Profound—precarious Property—
Possession, not optional—

Double Estate—entailed at pleasure
Upon an unsuspecting Heir—
Duke in a moment of Deathlessness
And God, for a Frontier.

And  maybe this is what is. I am afraid to own a body. I am afraid to own a soul. Because they are profound and precarious: as fragile and as much as a galaxy of atoms, as what I can almost hear vibrating, but then can't. And always there is  that phrase "in a moment of Deathlessness". Just a moment.  Amy Winehouse is dead at twenty-seven; my father's eyes are cloudy; there is still a small knot on the back of my head where I slammed it on the asphalt and the blood pooled; In a few weeks I will be twenty, and there's another woman with my face who won't be. 

And if even the body is a frontier: a thumb, a tongue, a vein near the skin of a wrist, then what of the whole world? go. go. so much. so much, my body says. or is it the streetlight outside? or the radio of the girl in the room next door? you are. you are. you are. you are. you are.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Pure Heat

"We entered our new house like a virus entering its host.
You following me, me following you. However you like. The windows were high and the walls were thick and sturdy. It was hot as blazes. The guts of summer. Always down in the sugar-deep barrel-bottom belly of summer itself. Always. In our shared walk down to the bottom, which bottom we will surely find if only our hearts are brave and our love true enough, we have found that it is somehow invariably and quite permanently summer."
-- from the liner notes to Tallahassee
In mid-July of 2011 New Orleans has packed up its August weather – the blinding swelter, the cruel humidity, the tyrannical sweat-soaked gustless swabbing – and taken it on the road. I don’t know how it is, here in the Blue Ridge foothills, the actors performing an outdoor Twelfth Night made it through without collapsing, without the comic misconstructions turned
suddenly tragic, beloved and belovers falling to the ground one after another as though they had been run through with poisoned swords or bitten by venomous asps, a small swallow of the sweetest wine become a deadly choking obliterating draught.
Everything in my garden, save the tomatoes, is giving up. The eggplant’s leaves have become torn gray lattice, the zucchini’s leaves like the brittle parchment pages of a discarded pamphlet – one extolling, perhaps, the Lord’s bounteous blessings (see James, Chapter 5, Verse 7: Be patient therefore, brethren, unto the coming  of the Lord. Behold,the husbandman waiteth for the precious fruit  of the earth, and hath long patience for it, until he receive the  early and latter rain.) The basil is now little more than a silenced cacophony of flapping black tongues, and the limp lamb’s ears lie down with the lime and the loam. It's all become a verdant tomb.
Yes, every breath you take in this heat is a gasp, every move you make a sharp, poultice-less sting (You think I haven’t been watching you?)  But there’s something about this awful heat I like, for I am nothing if not a friend to lethargy, a brother-in-arms to indolence, a lad the closest of kin – and maybe even a twin – to lassitude. Who would dare ask you, ask me, in heat like this, to run an errand, to get done today what’s best put off until tomorrow – which has put me in mind of my favorite Raymond Carver poem, a long-hot-summer-day’s song if there ever was one:
The people who were better than us were comfortable.
They lived in painted houses with flush toilets.
Drove cars whose year and make were recognizable.
The ones worse off were sorry and didn't work.
Their strange cars sat on blocks in dusty yards.
The years go by and everything and everyone
gets replaced. But this much is still true –
I never liked work. My goal was always
to be shiftless. I saw the merit in that.
I liked the idea of sitting in a chair
in front of your house for hours, doing nothing
but wearing a hat and drinking cola.
What's wrong with that?
Drawing on a cigarette from time to time.
Spitting. Making things out of wood with a knife.
Where's the harm there? Now and then calling
the dogs to hunt rabbits. Try it sometime.
Once in a while hailing a fat, blond kid like me
and saying, “Don't I know you?”
Not, “What are you going to be when you grow up?”
And I’ll tell you what, in my own shiftless way, I’m imagining. I’m imagining New Orleans come this August, all of the month’s wretched weather already given away, cast high and low across the country in July like seeds from a woven canvas seed bag that’s now full empty. And all that remains is the cool rustling breeze through the magnolias and along the climbed-smooth branches of the live oak trees, and my feet up on some porch railing, and all the friends I’ve lost to time and distance and to our separate winding paths all gathered now around me, all of them with their feet up on the porch railing, too, and nothing at all that needs saying between us except for one thing, this one thing, like it's a prayer of high and holy gratitude: This weather, my friends. Dear Lord,  yes, indeed, this weather, this weather. It will surely do.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

...Like the American South

The compasses I came into this world with never really worked so good
Gentle shadows spilling down the hills up on Mulhollad at Ledgewood
Turn back turn back, find someone to tell your secrets to
Dream past an old hotel on Ivy and seconds later I saw you
Never get away, never get away, I am never ever gonna get away from this place.
- The Mountain Goats, "Liza Forever Minelli" 

It's an old story. Girl grows up in a small, small town. strains against it. is bored. feels foreign, fractured, out of place. dreams another direction. She moves away, builds another life she loves, and only then discovers the yoke to wherever it is she came from.  Strong, messy tie, like somebody's sinew wrapped around her wrist .

Last week I was at dinner with a friend and we were talking about future plans, which is all I ever seem to talk about with anyone these days. I wouldn't mind moving back south, I said in response to his musings over the kinds of places he'd eventually like to live.  It's funny, he said offhand, because you kind of look like the American South. This is the kind of thing he would say, some picture in his head he can't exactly translate. The way you wear your hair sometimes, he added when I pressed him,  your face, like a girl I used to date from North Carolina. 

The next day my thesis advisor asked why I'm so interested in Christianity, why I talk and think and write so much about God and history, and why in the midst of all the literature I'm reading about monstrosity and otherness I keep pulling religious iconography out from between the lines like stray flowers in a mowed field. (okay, so he didn't say that, exactly, but it's what he meant.)  I struggled with what to say to him. Every poem I write seems to be about Virginia in some sense, even if only insofar as in my head each piece is located there: in a gas-station parking lot at the foot of the blue-ridge, at night before the coal train comes aching through, in the mouth of a church, where you can see the dogwood and smell the honeysuckle, where your skin is stained with wet red clay, where evangelists lie in tanning beds and pilgrims smoke cigarettes. But I struggle to write about it in prose, or even talk about it. Everything I say risks being too simple, too basic, too judgmental  or too romantic. Distance makes things romantic. 

the truth is: I grew up on a the campus of a women's college that used to be a plantation. The President's place was the Big House. You can still see the ruins of slave cabins. I studied no history aside from Virginia's until I was a teenager. You can't drive two miles around my hometown without seeing a church or a roadside cross. In a barbecue joint on the side of the highway they play Rush Limbaugh on the radio all day.  I grew up in a liberal family in a conservative town, hating Jerry Fallwell and visiting an old woman who lived down the hill from my family who heated her house with a wood stove, played Christian television all day long, called me Angel, and sent me home with applesauce frozen in giant tupperware. I visited Jamestown and the Appomattox Courthouse where they signed the cease-fire of the Civil War.  I had teachers with soft drawls. For years, in Virginia, they called Martin Luther King Day "Lee-Jackson-King Day" and so we celebrated Civil War Generals along with a leader of the Civil Rights movement. At home we hated it. They sometimes sell Dixie Outfitters Merchandise on the side of the road.  People mean it when they say God Bless You. People mean it when they tell you that if you don't accept Jesus as your personal savior then you're going to Hell. When you search "rural amherst virginia" on Google images one of the first things that comes up is a photo of a baby marmoset. A few months ago there was a story in the national papers, because a local woman tried to bring a marmoset into court in her bra. At the town's official centennial the choir sings. I know most everyone's name. Even all this isn't enough to really be the truth of it. to tell you why I love it. despise it.  strain against it. can't shake it out of my bones. I am never ever gonna get away from this place.  

Everything I'm interested in is about origin. violence. history. faith and when it leaves you.

Natasha Trethewey's Native Guard  is one of my favorite collections of poems about the American South, all the mess of it, the hurt of it, the beauty of it, but it's not as trite as all that. I've been keeping it by my bedside and reading and re-reading it. lately. this is the beginning of Pilgrimage:


Vicksburg, Mississippi

Here, the Mississippi carved
            its mud-dark path, a graveyard

for skeletons of sunken riverboats.
            Here, the river changed its course,

turning away from the city
            as one turns, forgetting, from the past—

the abandoned bluffs, land sloping up
            above the river's bend—where now

the Yazoo fills the Mississippi's empty bed.
            Here, the dead stand up in stone, white

marble, on Confederate Avenue. I stand
            on ground once hollowed by a web of caves;

they must have seemed like catacombs,
            in 1863, to the woman sitting in her parlor,

candlelit, underground. I can see her
            listening to shells explode, writing herself

into history, asking what is to become
            of all the living things in this place?

Last summer, when I was home for a few weeks, a friend and I drove to Bedford, to a closed-down attraction we didn't know was closed-down: a site on the outskirts of town where they'd constructed replicas of all the Stations of the Cross. We were prepared to laugh, to shake our heads, to sip the homemade sangria we'd packed in styrofoam cups and take snapshots of ourselves next to whatever garish structure purported to be Galilee. Instead, it was mostly old wood, and red-clay, and whatever shape the rock already took. Zion was a falling down treehouse, there was a Wasp's nest in the shack where the wise-men had sheltered. We didn't talk much, we drove through the shell of it slowly. There were bluebells or something like them crawling over Jerusalem.  On the road out we met a hiker who told us that the man who had built the place when his young son was killed suddenly had died, and his family just couldn't afford to keep it up anymore. Find someone else to tell your secrets to.

Is this what I look like?

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

On "Alpha Rats Nest" and Rilke and Vanishings

Oh sing sing sing For the dying of the day Sing for the flames that will rip through here And the smoke that will carry us away -- The Mountain Goats, "Alpha Rats Nest"

I've been thinking about blindness and the ways that going blind might transform, through memory, through the longing for what has been irretrievably lost, the most mundane scenes into ones of rare and spectacular beauty. Right now, for instance, on this unremarkable early Saturday evening three days past the summer solstice, the setting sun angles through the living room window and cuts along the coiled pink skin of a conch shell, reflects off of a brass lamp stand just beneath its salmon-colored shade, then creates a trapezoid of light on an open art book (Essential Picasso by one Laura Payne, on the cover one of Picasso's seated women, her figure all trapezoids and light and decisive black lines, a swath of  color in her lap simply to suggest her dress).  A patch of the light falls on a blue and white paisley-print Chinese vase and then slips through the glass top of the coffee table to land on the pale green and rusty peach Oriental rug. Then the sun sets further, gone now from the window, and all that detail -- all that color, all those textures, all that sensual light --  disappears. What's left is worn furniture and a faded rug and, of course, me: a tired body, a middle-aged man's aching joints and pinched nerves and wonky eyes. How exactly does one "sing sing sing for the dying of the day"?

My eyes hurt just to look over what I've typed. My vision is blurry, my eyes itchy and throbbing. My pupils look a bit like mismatched black buttons, the right one dilated, clearly larger than the left...How does one "sing for the flames that will rip through here and the smoke that will carry us away?"

That's all a young man's romantic notion, isn't it -- that destruction and decay might be celebrated.

Is there or is there not beauty in the autumnal, in the dying of the light?

Here is Rilke's poem "Going Blind," translated by Stephen Mitchell:

She sat just like the others at the table.
But on second glance, she seemed to hold her cup
a little differently as she picked it up.
She smiled once. It was almost painful.

And when they finished and it was time to stand
and slowly, as chance selected them, they left
and moved through many rooms (they talked and laughed),
I saw her. She was moving far behind 

the others, absorbed, like someone who will soon
have to sing before a large assembly;
upon her eyes, which were radiant with joy,
light played as on the surface of a pool.

She followed slowly, taking a long time,
as though there were some obstacle in the way;
and yet: as though, once it was overcome,
she would be beyond all walking, and would fly.

That's a young poet's poem, though. Rilke is, of course, forever and ever a young poet. He died having just turned 51.

It may be that every poet's work is, in the end, about seeing, about representing the interior world through the exterior, the complex resonance of objects and places made corporal. No ideas but in things and these things -- blackbirds, fallen angels, dry leaves, darkened houses, late coffee and oranges in a sunny chair, whistling quail and ripened berries -- are simply the means through which we celebrate the awful knowledge that one day we will not be able to see, that the world will be lost to us.

In his translation of Rilke's "Going Blind," Edward Snow presents in the poem's final stanza the woman slowly following her companions:

as if something still were not surmounted;
and yet: as if, after a crossing over, 
she would be done with walking, and would fly.

The "crossing over" here sounds more like death (and resurrection) than it does in Mitchell's use of the more mundane "overcome." But Snow simply suggests that she will be "done with walking" while Mitchell's translation asserts that she will be "beyond all walking." Both of these men are trying to find the right words in English to convey Rilke's notion that with blindness there will be some new -- perhaps richer -- way of seeing.

And again and again in his work Rilke revisits the idea of blindness and seeing -- and of the journey between these two: light dying so that a landscape is transformed, as in the poem "Entrance," here in Snow's translation:

Whoever you are: in the evening step out
of your room, where you know everything;
yours is the last house before the distant:
whoever you are.
With your eyes, which wearily
just free themselves from the worn-out threshold,
very slowly you raise one black tree
and set it against the sky: slender, alone,
And you've made the world. And it's immense
and like a word ripening in silence.
And as your will reaches for its meaning,
tenderly your eyes let it go. . . .

"Our lives / pass in transformation," Rilke writes in his Seventh Elegy. "And all the while the outer realm / is lessening." Until it is gone, as it is for the blind man in "Pont Du Carrousel," who has completely "crossed over" to that other world:

The blind man standing on the bridge,
gray like a boundary stone of nameless kingdoms:
he is perhaps that one unchanging thing
around which the far-off stellar hours revolve,
the silent midpoint of the constellations.
For everything around him strays and struts and runs.

He is the immovable upright one
set down in many tangled paths;
the dark entrance to the underworld
among a surface-dwelling race.

(trans. Edward Snow)

What blindness means is that one has fully entered the world of memory, in which experience has finally and fully been transformed. And of course Rilke has a poem for that as well:


And you wait, you wait for that one thing
that will infinitely enlarge your life;
the gigantic, the stupendous,
the awakening of stones, 
depths turned round toward you.

The volumes bound in rust and gold
flicker dimly on the shelves;
and you think of lands traveled across,
of paintings, of the clothes of
women found and lost.

And then suddenly you know: it was then.
You rise, and before you
stands the fear and prayer and shape
of a vanished year.

(trans. Edward Snow)

There it is: all that beauty in our lives, all those terrible, spectacular vanishings: childhood, youth, friendships, love, the seasons, this blackbird, that pear tree, those clothes, these eyes. So maybe there is indeed nothing else to do but to sing sing sing for the dying of the day and for the flames that will rip through here and the smoke that will, in the end, carry every one of us away.