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.

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