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.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Song For All of You.

you had oranges and lemons in a canvas bag beside you
and seven different kinds of light welling up inside of you
you smeared citrus pulp all over me, it felt okay
sweet home east rutherford three thousand miles away

i felt the warm wind brush my mind
coming in from behind
on the day your love came screaming through me

    -Song For An Old Friend.

It's almost nine and  newly cool: completely still, but porous and open, like only a Northern California night can be. Inside the apartment two huge blue candles are lit and sunk in jars of dry rice to stay upright. There is a loaf of sourdough bread, a bottle of cheap wine, peaches sliced and soaking through a paper towel on the table. Everyone trickles in slowly, drops their bag, goes to the kitchen to look for a glass, says: my day was long. how are you? let me take that. you look beautiful. where is the corkscrew? today we made a mouse's muscles glow in lab. Slowly they settle down: a few on the couch, another in a chair pulled away from the kitchen table, one perched on the arm of the sofa so he can flit around the room as the night changes. Somebody says hush! and they hush, and then:  "Picture the east Aegean sea by night /  And on the beach aslant it's shimmering  / Upwards of 50,000 men / Asleep like spoons..."

The thing about reading aloud, especially in a group, is that it's like praying. Not that it's holy, just that it takes some time to get into. You have to strain away the noise of the truck backing up outside, and the sudden light in the living room of the next apartment over. You have to stop making mental notes to pick up laundry detergent and replace the ink in your printer. You can't get distracted by the shadow on someone else's knuckle, or your own. In the beginning you have to think hard about how one word hangs on to the next, and which lovely girl  in a shell-pink dress they're describing in this scene.  When it's your turn to read you have to think: how do I talk about a city falling? how would a king turn away from his subjects? in what tone do you render Athena putting her thumb under a boy's chin? and you have to think fast. 

After awhile, though, it's like you can breathe underwater. Your head is a little fuzzy, and your hearing's a little dimmed, but everything that was thick and dark around you is lit up, and you can see the solider looking out over the ocean, and Helen in bed while Troy is under fire. The man sitting in the corner who laughed at this whole idea has a strong clear voice and reads for much longer than he'd promised. The woman bent near the candle on the couch reads like she's talking to a lover or a child she loves. Two hours go by.

Reading out loud wasn't my idea. it started on a Tuesday evening I'd been spending with friends every week all summer. We'd hollowed out a couple of hours in the midst of jobs and research and commitments  in other cities just to be sure we saw one another regularly as things churned on. One week a friend called and said:  come read the Illiad at my place tonight. He'd read with his roommate the night before and been surprised how much he loved it. And so we all  said really!? trooped  over in the dark, and laughed at him, started reading, and did it again the next week...

It wasn't my idea. But the way my life has built itself reading aloud has always meant I belong, in someplace, or with someone, however briefly. C.S. Lewis as  a child in bed with my mother at night. Adrienne Rich  in high school on my back porch, with a long distance best friend flown in from Detroit just to take her shoes off, organize my bookshelves and drink iced tea. Kant On a Massachusetts gazebo one evening in  winter, bumping wrists and shoulders with a waif of a boy. Darwin's The Origin of Species heartbroken early in college, drinking a weak margarita with my head on a friend's ankles. Yeats while somebody brushes my hair. Edna St. Vincent Millay in a Coffee Shop in the afternoon. Auden on a road trip to nowhere in particular. Mountain Goats lyrics from a screen so a painter can pick them out on a ukulele, the Illiad in a dimming California apartment with my hands behind my neck, and on... 

Monday, August 1, 2011

No, I Can't.

You bought me a puppy.
And you bought me a lamp.
And you bought me some books.
And you bought me a filing cabinet.

Thank you for the puppy.
Thank you for the lamp.
Thank you for the books.
Thank you for the filing cabinet --
I don't know what I did without it.

Now I have everything I need.
Now I have everything I need.
        -- The Mountain Goats, "No, I Can't."

Last night, lying in bed, in my birthday's final hour, I watched an Amy Winehouse concert on television, on a channel I stumbled across trying to find something besides the mid-summer's inconsequential sports scores and the mind-numbing, disgusting debt-ceiling debate. It was an old concert -- from 2007, I think -- but even so it was peculiar, even a bit shocking, to see so soon after  her death Amy Winehouse up on stage in a short sleeveless gingham dress smartly cinched at her Barbie-like waist  -- not full of life, not ever that of course and not even close, but alive nonetheless and on stage and standing up and singing.

And singing, yes, even as she delicately stumbled forward and back, as she peered around from time to time, suddenly afraid, suddenly lost, as she distractedly twirled and patted her fabulous nest of hair, as she began and then, after a hesitant skip and jump, quickly abandoned some sequence of choreographed dance steps, a self-conscious teenager, legs as thin and shapeless as fence-posts, eyes glued to a black and white screen, mimicking the Shirelles or the Ronettes or the Supremes...

Yes, singing, and all the while with that impossibly glorious voice with its endless quaverings and soulful slips and growls, its unpredictable dips and slides and husky quips and slitheringly sweet nasty asides...You should have known from the jump that you always get dumped, so dust off your fuck me pumps.

Singing, yes, with a voice more remarkable -- more anguished and exuberantly alive, imagine that -- than any other I've heard in all my life except for one other: Billie Holiday's, whose pride and torment and little-lost-girl shimmer and squirm and quake and sweet Bourbon hopscotch swing and back of the beat ache are like nothing else you'll ever hear on this earth. You took the part that once was my heart, so why not take all of me.

For my birthday Carrie gave me a small-batch potato vodka from Richmond, raspberry vinegar, pomegranate cosmopolitan mix, black loafers, a white linen shirt. We ate steak and had tomatoes from our garden. Truly, I have everything I need.

Is it just that I'm past fifty that birthdays now serve to remind me --

Oh, shut up. It has nothing to do with age. It's the same song that has been sung a thousand times. Every poet sings it. Here's Lorca, translated by W.S. Merwin:

 If I die,
leave the balcony open.

The little boy is eating oranges.
(From my balcony I can see him.)

The reaper is harvesting the wheat.
(From my balcony I can hear him.)

If I die,
leave the balcony open!

Throughout the concert, Amy Winehouse shielded her eyes from the stage lights and peered blindly, helplessly, out into the dark. Finally, she made it clear who she was looking for: her father. He was somewhere up in a private box in the balcony. From the the desolation in her eyes, from their endless searching, it was clear she couldn't find him.

Lorca, of course, loved music -- the music of the gypsies and what he called deep song, a music deeper than all the wells and seas in the world, a music that arises from the first sob and the first kiss.

Lorca was -- like the young Goethe dreaming up Young Werther, like the young Rilke in his own caged and restless pacing, like Whitman listening to the whispering waves -- forever ready for romantic longing, for St. Sebastian's arrows, for pain made flesh. For Lorca pain was, as he described it, a dark woman wanting to catch birds in nets of wind.

So what would Lorca have made of Amy Winehouse?

Deep song always sings in the night, he wrote. It knows neither morning nor evening, mountains nor plains. It has only the night, a wide night steeped in stars. Nothing else matters. It is song without landscape, withdrawn into itself and terrible in the dark. Deep song shoots its arrows of gold right into our heart. In the dark it is a terrifying blue archer whose quiver is never empty.

Oh, he would have loved her.