November 9, 2016 § 1 Comment
The above picture taken this September in Seville–this is what humanity is capable of–
When you’re not a happy person to begin with, when you’ve spent months fighting the depression and anger made worse by quitting an SSRI, when voting for a moderately liberal and very smart woman for president on a beautiful, crisp, blue-sky fall day has given you a lift, and there’s poetry to read, to write, words put together with rigor and magic—and then the unspeakable happens….
The disbelief: like a death not quite in the family but very close…the slime that won’t wash off…and beyond the central nuclear horror family, the New York vampire, the bridge troll, and silver-haired poison elf rubbing their sulfurous hands…
I don’t want to go on. I have jobs to finish, animals to care for, loved ones. Not likely to check out. But I want to. I feel like I want too much of the good stuff that there seems not to be enough of though we all can make it whenever we try—kindness, charm, laughter, imagination—and nature is so beautiful everywhere.
Those who voted in this remnant of a human being live in some of America’s grandest and most gorgeous landscapes, and they mostly have families, homes and plenty of food. They are human, like me, subject to despair and rage, the pleasure of hate, stupid decisions. But the attraction of this hell-hound is beyond me. He offers nothing. He cares for no one. He has no skills except grandstanding and losing other people’s money.
And in other news, do you have any idea how thin the arctic ice is this fall? Do you know that several recent peer-reviewed papers suggest a warming world is much more sensitive to carbon, that the “runaway” warming possibility with methane releases, etc., and abrupt temperature increases (as in a decade or less), always a lurking maybe, seems much more likely now? Not certain by any means. But it’s there—not just the bad that we think we’ve accepted but the much worse we can’t even imagine. Maybe it won’t happen. Maybe it will. The children in their cradles know nothing: when will you tell them?
This is the most important event of our lifetimes, the one that will define us forever, that makes terrorists into dusty action figures stuffed under the couch cushions and economic crashes into summer rainstorms with a chance of mild hail.
Many of my Facebook friends are writing inspiring posts about being strong and going onwards. I appreciate that and love them—I love you all, my friends, my readers. I have had those moments of strength and uplift today (a few). But I am the grumpy old woman, feeling much older than I actually am, and as you know from fairytales, grumpy old women should be listened to.
Our brains ache, in the merciless iced east winds that knive us . . .
Wearied we keep awake because the night is silent . . .
Low drooping flares confuse our memory of the salient . . .
Worried by silence, sentries whisper, curious, nervous,
But nothing happens.
Watching, we hear the mad gusts tugging on the wire,
Like twitching agonies of men among its brambles.
Northward, incessantly, the flickering gunnery rumbles,
Far off, like a dull rumour of some other war.
What are we doing here?
The poignant misery of dawn begins to grow . . .
We only know war lasts, rain soaks, and clouds sag stormy.
Dawn massing in the east her melancholy army
Attacks once more in ranks on shivering ranks of grey,
But nothing happens.
Sudden successive flights of bullets streak the silence.
Less deadly than the air that shudders black with snow,
With sidelong flowing flakes that flock, pause, and renew,
We watch them wandering up and down the wind’s nonchalance,
But nothing happens.
Pale flakes with fingering stealth come feeling for our faces—
We cringe in holes, back on forgotten dreams, and stare, snow-dazed,
Deep into grassier ditches. So we drowse, sun-dozed,
Littered with blossoms trickling where the blackbird fusses.
—Is it that we are dying?
Slowly our ghosts drag home: glimpsing the sunk fires, glozed
With crusted dark-red jewels; crickets jingle there;
For hours the innocent mice rejoice: the house is theirs;
Shutters and doors, all closed: on us the doors are closed,—
We turn back to our dying.
Since we believe not otherwise can kind fires burn;
Now ever suns smile true on child, or field, or fruit.
For God’s invincible spring our love is made afraid;
Therefore, not loath, we lie out here; therefore were born,
For love of God seems dying.
Tonight, this frost will fasten on this mud and us,
Shrivelling many hands, and puckering foreheads crisp.
The burying-party, picks and shovels in shaking grasp,
Pause over half-known faces. All their eyes are ice,
But nothing happens.
August 29, 2016 § 1 Comment
Me and Lucian, Grand Canyon, 1979
Union Square Farmers Market, late on a Saturday afternoon. Sunny and hot but not quite as hot as it’s been. The raspberries were $2 a box, so I bought four. Thought of making ice cream, but big bowls of Greek yogurt and a cascade of red berries will be better.
The zucchini were almost gone at the next stand (though zucchini were, of course, everywhere) and I bought the tiny conjoined remnants and a tomato with a second belly growing out of its top. I felt virtuous buying the misshapen veggies, thinking of the tons of waste this country produces, much of it due to cosmetic preference. The idea of thousands of pounds of produce plowed under at the farm because it’s just not pretty enough, while children go hungry, makes me angry. But it’s also true that I like my little oddities, especially the zucchini, which I will separate surgically and then slice fast into pale green rounds before they even know they are individuals.
Is there any color as delicate as the inside of a zucchini? I once had a blouse almost that color—a silk blouse inherited from my grandmother, with narrow pleats and tiny mother-of pearl buttons. It was too big for years and years, though I wore it anyway, and then too small. The silk fell apart in my hands finally.
Corn and string beans. I’d like to slather the corn with spices and roast it over a fire, but in this apartment it will be boiled and messily eaten, kernels falling to the floor where Fitzroy will attempt to eat them, my poor sick cat who can’t absorb nutrients and is always hungry, though he eats upwards of a pound of food a day. He prowls, hoping against hope someone has left a mouse heart under the table.
String beans were my first love among vegetables. I ate them from a can as a child and sometimes now the flavor of fresh ones makes me taste metal. In my 20s, I served them with butter and garlic or lemon and dill. Now I also like them cooked, chilled and tossed with olive oil and chopped tomato, or cucumber, red onion and feta. I still have a child’s love for their shape, tight skinny twigs, how they lie on the plate like an armful of kindling.
I chose a small cantaloupe in remembrance of a cat I bought as a four-week kitten in a pet store on the Upper East Side in October 1976. I named him Lucian after Balzac’s poet in Illusions Perdue, Lucian de Rubempré. At night, Lucian would climb into my bed and suck on my neck like a toothless vampire. His neediness made me anxious. He also loved cantaloupe and would lick the seeds clean.
Later, when I was married and renting where pets weren’t allowed, Lucian went to live temporarily with my stepchildren and their mother. At that point, he was renamed R2D2. My stepdaughter once came downstairs to find her mother in the kitchen crooning to the cat: “You’re so pretty; why are you so stupid?” It’s a remark I often think of as I make my way through life.
Lucian was a passenger on our drive across county, scared by the motion, the smell of the highway, and unimpressed with an up-close view of the Grand Canyon. He did approve of our half a house on Ellsworth Street in Berkeley, which came with a tiny yard and a lemon tree. Gray cat, yellow lemons. Blue sky. Both beings—feline and tree—enjoying the fresh air, the warm/cool days, my company on the steps, barefoot, in a denim skirt, with a cup of tea.
Then—so horrible—Lucian was hit by a car when he followed us on a walk. I can still see him lying in the gutter as we found him on the way home, a smear of red on his tiger belly, mouth a little open. A girl was kneeling by him, as in the famous Kent State picture, but with less distress. The distress was ours. He lived an hour. So pretty. A light silvery gray, with darker but subtle markings.
I bought striped beets the color of persimmons and a curly pepper. A jar of honey. I admired the rows of dark plums and some red ones, and thought of autumn. When I’m back from Portugal, I’ll make a cake. Apples and plums, pecans and brandy, brown sugar, black pepper, fresh ginger, nutmeg, eggs, butter and two cups of sifted white flour.
I hope Fitzroy is still with us. Not just until I return, not just until Christmas or spring, but forever. My mother once said (mistakenly, she admits), “Cats cannot love a person.” At 11, I didn’t see the point of this complaint. I loved cats—one cat in particular—and whether he loved me back was immaterial.
Great warriors of the night, the bed, the barn, the lap, champions of the Internet. While we do our feeble best to think out of the box, they get in the box and know that it is good. They sleep. They creep. They wait patiently by mouse holes. They wake me up from unlawful naps, meowing in my ear.
I was too young to fully appreciate Balzac when I read La Comedie Humaine, his great series of novels that includes Illusions Perdue. How fascinated I was, swallowing the classics! I loved the intricate study of motive and secrets, mistakes, betrayals, ruinous passion. Balzac, Zola, Steinbeck, George Eliot, Tolstoy, Proust. I had no idea it was all so accurate. I was Pollyanna in the dark, playing with my witch toys. Basking in the dazzle of precision-guided words.
Pretty I was then, surely—but why so stupid? I recently read the obituary and some poems of a poet who died at 25 this August. He was no dreaming ninny. He was obsessed with his own death (anticipated, cancer); I with the deaths of family in childhood. I didn’t grow. Didn’t want to. Or know how. Who knows? Berkeley sidewalks were often covered with fallen blossoms and fallen fruit, green seedpods.
I wrote in the mornings, spent all afternoon in bed reading, spending down my inheritance from my mother’s uncle, a Texas insurance tycoon, LBJ backer.
Money that could’ve, but didn’t, last. A world away.
I should go eat those raspberries.
The 25-year-old poet who just died is Max Ritvo, prodigiously talented. I’m including a poem from a poet whose work I’ve loved for a long time, Andrew Hudgins.
Day Job and Night Job
After my night job, I sat in class
and ate, every thirteen minutes,
an orange peanut-butter cracker.
Bright grease adorned my notes.
At noon I rushed to my day job
and pushed a broom enough
to keep the boss calm if not happy.
In a hiding place, walled off
by bolts of calico and serge,
I read my masters and copied
Donne, Marlowe, Dickinson, and Frost,
scrawling the words I envied,
so my hand could move as theirs had moved
and learn outside of logic
how the masters wrote. But why? Words
would never heal the sick,
feed the hungry, clothe the naked,
blah, blah, blah.
Why couldn’t I be practical,
Dad asked, and study law—
or take a single business class?
I stewed on what and why
till driving into work one day,
a burger on my thigh
and a sweating Coke between my knees,
I yelled, ‘Because I want to!’—
pained—thrilled!—as I looked down
from somewhere in the blue
and saw beneath my chastened gaze
another slack romantic
chasing his heart like an unleashed dog
chasing a pickup truck.
And then I spilled my Coke. In sugar
I sat and fought a smirk.
I could see my new life clear before me.
lt looked the same. Like work.
July 10, 2016 § 2 Comments
Edvard Munch. The Storm
As a very young woman, I liked the word “regret.” I liked the way it sounded, its Frenchness. “Je ne regrette rien” comes to mind, of course, but I don’t think it was that song, more swaggering and maudlin than I would have appreciated at 18, that drew me to the word. I see it in print: black on white, the discreet letters with that fat g in the middle. Everything regretted (still desired) lurks within that g. A Google search gives me: “from Old French regreter ‘bewail (the dead),’ perhaps from the Germanic base of ‘greet’ (weep; cry.)”
Regret also sounds like my own first name, though I didn’t realize that until I started writing this. Mostly I liked it because it was a signifier of a lived life and of melancholy, and while I had plenty of the latter—and stubbornly clung to it—the former was still a mystery. One cannot regret without having done something, unless one regrets doing nothing or not enough—and even that seemed oddly appealing to me at 19 or 21: languid, somnolent, poetic. Sometime around then, or perhaps a couple of years later, I read Henry James’ great novella The Beast in the Jungle, which is all about the life unlived, death-like regret, and how it can be created, piece by piece, by a longing for beauty, mystery, the sublime.
I had a longing for beauty, mystery, the sublime. It was the part of myself I was most proud of. I thought it would take me to the tops of mountains, the depths of oceans, distant magical cities. I wouldn’t be so foolish as the man in the story, though. I knew that, just as I knew that I wanted to write with as much breathtaking poise and discernment as James, albeit with a bit more sex. And I haven’t been (as foolish, I mean). I have been differently foolish. This is not the place to list all my mistakes, especially because even now I can’t tease out what were really mistakes and what is the ongoing mistake to consider something a mistake. But I am well acquainted with regret.
It is corrosive, unrelenting. It is a constant yammer, the obverse of the self-consciousness of youth, which thinks itself so different as to be monstrous, while regret knows one is so similar as to be banal and will beat you about the head for it. Regret is neither generous nor kind. I associate it with those travellers (in fiction as in life) who fasten on strangers and pour out their resentments and self-pity, hour upon hour, into a time stretched to forever. At best, this is comedy. I think of Lot’s wife who was turned into a pillar of salt because she looked over her shoulder. I was never a bible student so I assumed religious people knew what this meant and only recently discovered that there is a bit of discussion about it. Did her action reveal her longing for what was left behind (including her daughters), or did she merely suffer the effect of gazing upon the face of the destroying God? What does salt have to do with it? The story of Lot’s wife’s is akin to the Orpheus and Eurydice story. An utterly human reaction, glancing back to make sure she really follows, means the rule broken and the wife lost.
When I first read them, I found these stories unfair. Not that I didn’t understand they were metaphors; I still found them unfair. It takes age to bring a different perspective, to see the clear and present danger of too much looking back and therefore the need for such tales, opaque as they may be to young readers. The implicit message is: trust God (or the god). I don’t, actually, but I admit I ought to trust something; would be happier if there were an area of life, loosely called the spirit, where I could let go and believe that if this is not the best of times and circumstances, it’s the only one I have and therefore, by default, the best. It is a time infinite until it is over, minutes upon minutes upon hours, and who can say any of us deserve more than this unfathomable magic?
There is a place for regret, perhaps the place I imagined at 20; the older person, standing by a window looking out at the rain, mind touching lightly upon wrong turns, wrongdoing, feeling a shiver of sorrow and something else, something ineffable and French. The older person is beautifully dressed, in a spacious and well appointed library, standing on two healthy limbs, looking at a landscape that does not include leering demons, crazed assault rifle murderers, mutant giant insects, unnamed evil from beyond the stars.
My library is not spacious (it is also my bedroom and work space). There’s no room to stand by the window because boxes of jewelry-making supplies and old notebooks are piled everywhere, and the windows are dirty anyway. And if I did look, because I do look, this direction or that, inside and out, what I see too often is leering mutant evil from beyond the stars.
I regret that.
Ode to the Unbroken World, Which Is Coming
It must be coming, mustn’t it? Churches
and saloons are filled with decent humans.
A mother wants to feed her daughter,
fathers to buy their children things that break.
People laugh, all over the world, people laugh.
We were born to laugh, and we know how to be sad;
we dislike injustice and cancer,
and are not unaware of our terrible errors.
A man wants to love his wife.
His wife wants him to carry something.
We’re capable of empathy, and intense moments of joy.
Sure, some of us are venal, but not most.
There’s always a punchbowl, somewhere,
in which floats a…
Life’s a bullet, that fast, and the sweeter for it.
It’s the same everywhere: Slovenia, India,
Pakistan, Suriname—people like to pray,
or they don’t,
or they like to fill a blue plastic pool
in the back yard with a hose
and watch their children splash.
Or sit in cafes, or at table with family.
And if a long train of cattle cars passes
along West Ridge
it’s only the cattle from East Ridge going to the abattoir.
The unbroken world is coming,
(it must be coming!), I heard a choir,
there were clouds, there was dust,
I heard it in the streets, I heard it
announced by loudhailers
mounted on trucks.
February 1, 2016 § 5 Comments
My oldest brother, Jimmy, was born today, 65 years ago. He died at just 14, so it’s a little hard to imagine him old enough for Medicare. If I try I can see his face: wrinkles around the eyes, the soft skin, the lines cut near the mouth so like my mother’s. His hair, if he were like the rest of us, wouldn’t be all gray yet. He’d probably have a few extra pounds, but maybe not; he was the only athlete in the family. He’d have a wife, certainly, and kids. He gave his cat to my sister (who already had a cat) the summer we successfully begged two new ones, so he wouldn’t have one of those. I can’t picture his house or imagine his career, though he had more openness to the wide world than the rest of us. I decided to be a writer at 7; my sister the veterinarian always loved animals. My younger brother’s focus seemed to be on not growing up and he’s made that work for him, though he’s incredibly responsible and caring, particularly with our mother, and earns a living. But he’s never had a career and wouldn’t want one—“Johnny” and “career” just don’t mix. Jimmy, though—I can see Jimmy having a career. I just can’t tell you which one.
What you lose when you are as old as I am is the belief that such a thing shouldn’t happen to you. My brother. My mother’s child. How can I say that when I read about Brazilian babies born with microcephaly or Syrian children drowning off the coast of Greece? Sure, in the world I would create, if someone would only make me God, children wouldn’t die. Nobody’s children, ever, nor suffer horrible diseases, disabilities, cruelty, abuse or neglect.
But this is the world we have and everybody dies unexpectedly, even if the doctor just said about the 98-year-old, “It will happen tonight.” The crossing from one moment to the next is inexplicable, unbearable, and the foundation of the world. We all know we wouldn’t be here without the millions and millions of deaths the world is built on, from the earliest life forms, the amoebas, blind fish, saber-tooths and Neanderthals, to our grandparents getting out of our way. It is a spiritual practice to learn to see death (mostly one’s own) as akin to a leaf falling: ordinary, lovely, reassuring.
When I was 10, I wouldn’t have given my life for my brother’s. I knew I was selfish that way and suspected my parents might have chosen differently if they had any say in the matter. I didn’t blame them for that: it was enough that I would choose myself. Now, of course, it’s different. I think I’d give what years I have left to have had him with me since 1965, though who knows what I’d really do if Rod Serling appeared with a notarized offer. The tricky thing about thought experiments like this is that if there is some being with the power to change life and death and time, death loses much of its sting. (My Catholic aunt died happy that she was soon to see Jesus.) The point of death as we know it is, as people like me know it, people who are not believers—though sometimes we have our fancies—is that it is faceless and indifferent. You may be killed by a maniac with a knife or a drug-addicted doctor, but death itself has no personality.
That is what Buddhists say to embrace. The no-thing. Let go of the material world, which passes. Beloveds, who die. It’s easier to imagine doing that now than it was at 10—much easier. I have far less longing, curiosity, wild wonder at beauty and knowledge, less ambition (though it’s still there, banked coals). But if one is to let go, why, I wonder, is it so important to be kind? The Dalai Lama, who knows a lot about this, says that’s all that really matters: kindness.
I am kind, when I am, because of death and suffering, because I understand that you don’t want it to all be over, to lose them and the world and yourself; and you will. It is the proper response to the barely put together shambling creatures we are, hugging our wounds like furry little sharp-toothed pets. Jimmy was kind (not always). He knew how to be. He would be more so now. I’m with the Greeks: the dead still exist someplace but it’s really nowhere, no food, nothing to look at, nothing to do. No punishment or reward. Just awareness, forever, that there is such a thing as life and you don’t have it.
What I mean is, that’s the death I carry with me. Not Heaven, Nirvana, or nothingness (how to carry that?) But a bunch of shades in a dim cavern, remembering feasts and friendships, the sun on the waves: love, jealousy, betrayal. Or that moment when you wake up before everyone else and look at them sleeping: this one’s mouth open, drool on his lip, sun on his hair; that one curled in a ball, blanket over her head. Dreams pacing under eyelids. Husband, wife, mother, father, sister, brother, child, cat.
What I miss most is what I never knew or could have known: who he was in the privacy of his mind. I knew he was there, in his kingdom. Thinking, laughing. Making plans. It was always a secret. I wanted to bite that secret open. Never could, never would have. By now, if he’d lived, I’d have forgotten. But since he’s still 14, a part of me is still 10, and I miss him like a little sister does, wanting to know everything.
Making a Fist
We forget that we are all dead men conversing with dead men.
—Jorge Luis Borges
For the first time, on the road north of Tampico,
I felt the life sliding out of me,
a drum in the desert, harder and harder to hear.
I was seven, I lay in the car
watching palm trees swirl a sickening pattern past the glass.
My stomach was a melon split wide inside my skin.
“How do you know if you are going to die?”
I begged my mother.
We had been traveling for days.
With strange confidence she answered,
“When you can no longer make a fist.”
Years later I smile to think of that journey,
the borders we must cross separately,
stamped with our unanswerable woes.
I who did not die, who am still living,
still lying in the backseat behind all my questions,
clenching and opening one small hand.
January 29, 2016 § Leave a comment
Lovely night at the Cathedral with passionate gardeners talking about seeds: old seeds, heirloom seeds, seeds as inspiration, freedom, art; as child you watch over and as parent that feeds you. They spoke of colleagues whose grandparents started saving seeds in the 1930s, freezing them in baby food bottles. They told stories of rare plants, plant diseases, the taste of okra, the Black labor that picked the cotton and the prisoners who pick it now. They asked people’s opinions of what the phrase “keeping seeds” connotes versus the more prosaic “saving seeds.”
“Protection” “Cherish” “Caring,” said audience members. Keepsake, I thought. For keeps. Stronghold.
They spoke as part of The Value of Food art exhibition (through April 3rd in all the bays and chapels of the Cathedral) to an audience of seventy or so people who want to grow food in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, Philadelphia, New Jersey, upstate. The veteran city gardener Karen Washington, who successfully faced off against Giuliani in the 90s, organized the event with panelists Owen Taylor, Ken Greene, Onika Abraham, Chris Bolden Newsome, and Kirtrina Baxter. These are the people who are rescuing what’s left of America’s once-amazing diversity of fruits and vegetables, squandered by industry in the last seventy-five years. “When I teach, I ask people: do you come from a farm family?” said the African American Chris Bolden Newsome. “If they say no, I say, ‘go back a little further.’ That’s what all our families were doing a hundred years ago.” And further than that—“All of us. That’s what most people do in the world.”
I thought about the house in the country I used to have, where we planted mostly flowers, but also herbs. Where the laden apple and pear trees were treasures for the squirrels and deer, who must have passed their seeds on, though I don’t know if any offspring grew wild in the woods that went up the flank of the mountain. I remembered the smell of dirt in the sun, the resistance of weeds, the persistence of mint, the hardy thyme and insect-laced basil. I ran the numbers: should we buy another house in the county? Abandon Manhattan? Spend more time with plants?
I’d like to. I’d also like to stay here, with the theaters, museums and cathedrals. With the people who enliven me (though plants enliven me too, especially trees). I decided to apply to a few country writers’ colonies for the summer and bought a pack of catnip seeds to plant in a pot in the window. Charles is doubtful they will thrive. With all that we have to do and don’t get done—our messy, on the edge of uncontrollable lives—he’s not sure growing catnip is a necessary endeavor. Our beasts like the stuff we buy at Whiskers just fine. But he wasn’t there. He didn’t hear all the people raising their hands, wanting to know how they can get started growing their own food, saving seeds, avoiding “the seed industrial complex.” Saving the world, one fragile stalk at a time.
Here’s a poem of mine from my chapbook, it all stayed open, Red Glass Press, 2011.
Where I Left Her
Under my lilac
white and grainy as cement dust
two pounds of woman.
I mixed her into the earth
kneeling in light rain.
She loved this tree
would leave me on the porch to walk around it.
When I could glimpse her
only through the slender
much more was visible.
May again, bloom time.
I’m busy writing love poems.
But on the bus home
to the city there are women
carrying the harvest, armfuls
and the whole packed crew of us
ride in fragrance.
My lover makes me radiant
friends say—I tremble
like a purple cone of tiny flowers—
and makes me suffer. What I most desire
is to hide my heart
where it can never be recovered.
November 8, 2015 § Leave a comment
Today, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine inducted Zora Neale Hurston into the Poets Corner during the Sunday Evensong. It was, as the annual inductions always are, full of gorgeous choral music and solemn ritual, with a candlelit procession to the stone where her words “The dream is the truth” were inscribed. Cathedral Poet in Residence Marilyn Nelson talked about what that means for us today, when dreamers and what one might call “dream studies” (the humanities) are being cut from college curricula and treated with general scorn. There is enormous sadness in this for those of us who remember a different era, remember college as being, among other things, a dreamtime. Then she read from Ta-Nehesi’s Coates’ book, Between the World and Me. He uses the word “dreamer” to refer to those lost in the illusion and prison of the American Dream: those who must suffer to create it for others, those who work for it and never achieve it, and those who think they have it and as a result are blind to those around them. Marilyn is inclined to restore the idea of the dream as something hopeful and forward-looking, something that cannot be destroyed by history.
I loved Ta-Nehisi’s book, which I read the week it came out; its darkness was a corrective, a fierce defense of truth as a necessary cleansing, and the growth that comes from having done that, having thrown off, as much as a person can, the murderous glare of society that breaks Black lives.
Who is society? Is it you and me? Only the racist policeman? Where is it exactly? I don’t know the answer to this. I take those tests online that have you respond to words and images quickly to uncover hidden bias: “black” teamed with “good” or “dangerous”—which pairing do you see first?—and find in myself, in the testers’ words, “some racism.” And so. The flaws are there. Coates has them too. What stands out is his uncompromising determination to speak what he has experienced, and the conclusions he has reached—whatever you may think of them. Hurston’s work has that quality as well, with more of the novelist’s embellishment and surrender to enchantment. (And she had her strong opinions and interests, which many disagreed with, and which may have led to her slipping out of the canon for a while.)
We do need—young people especially need—the space and time, the continuous encouragement of art (seeing it, listening and reading it) to create worlds that may never leave our thoughts, or may find a page or a canvas or an instrument, or build an intimacy with friend or lover that remains private always. Dreams are stitched into our lives in small ways as well as the grand—poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world—manner. Dreams light the afternoon walk, the evening dinner preparation, the bedtime storytelling (to child, partner or cat); dreams excrete the atmosphere in which the self can breathe.
And they also veil reality. They distract, they play games with the other—the longed for, hated, neglected or misunderstood other—they are the substance of lies and desire. Hurston writes about her characters Janie and Tea Cake, in Their Eyes were Seeing God, “She couldn’t make him look just like any other man to her. He looked like the love thoughts of women. He could be a bee to a blossom—a pear tree blossom in the spring. He seemed to be crushing scent out of the world with his footsteps. Crushing aromatic herbs with every step he took. Spices hung above him. He was a glance from God.”
Later, after a bite from a rabid dog, he tries to kill her. Dreams are dangerous. Every attempt to truly live is.
September 21, 2015 § 1 Comment
I went to a writing retreat in eastern Oregon for nearly a month, a place called Playa. “Playa” means beach and the beach is that of a vast, mostly dry lake, whose waters are three miles away: all we could see from the residence was the yellow grasses, cakes of sand, birds big and small, and the smoky horizon. There were wildfires to the north. Closer to home were green grass, roses and sunflowers, snakes and ducks. Behind my cabin, the other cabins and the lodge were mountains—dry sage-greens, grey rock, and lots of birds, coyotes and other creatures. It was very quiet, very remote and beautiful. I was given this great luxury, after one week of driving around with Charles, seeing mountains, waterfalls, lava, Ponderosa forests.
I got much work done—three novels nearly finished, though last night I had doubts, remembering the protagonist needs to care A LOT….about something, anything, a glass of water (Vonnegut)…can I remember what that feels like? Can I drop the self-protectiveness?
—then dreams about a place like Playa, though with more sex and more dishes (it’s always something). The real Playa was not about the social/sexual/money-making concerns of adult life but was more like exuberance of childhood when you know that nothing matters more than serious play. I felt embraced by the company of others who also left their usual problems at home and were almost always in a good mood. It occurred to me, after a couple of weeks, that I hadn’t been in a rage since I left New York. No swearing, no wanting to knife the guy ahead of me, throw the phone out the window, none of that. A little shortness of breath (it’s high altitude), some longing for the cats, occasional hunger for chocolate or theater—but no rage.
Writing as serious play is something I’ve been lucky enough to spend my life at, though the last several years have been mostly dry. A rush of poems in 2011 led to a chapbook, then fits and starts, working and reworking the same material, feeling that I had nothing to say, or nothing I was willing to say. My previous writing retreat (two years ago!) was the last time I was deeply engaged. I’ve already misplaced much of the commitment and joy I felt there, but now know I can get it back.
In the morning, the horizon was startlingly white, like a band of salt, and it was cool. At sunset, a stripe of bright gold set off a scribble of blue mountains–as in so much of America, miles of wilderness where nobody lives except the ten thousand thousand species that get by without history. It was hot most of the day with a vast hum of bugs, especially in the evening as we attempted to sit on porches. The coyotes howled, Deb told bear stories, Cai told rattlesnake stories, Mel made a chocolate cake and the hawks landed on the railing of my porch, dribbling feathers.
One night we lay out on the playa, looking at stars. They have more there than in upstate New York or New Hampshire. They have a few extra galaxies—maybe a universe or two—and so close. The stars were smeared all over the sky like snow sticking to a windshield. We talked about this and that, and we wrote with barely any effort at all.
Okay, some effort. Easier than writing this.
And now a poem by William Stafford. I can’t get the spacing right–go look it up if you want.
An Oregon Message
When we first moved here, pulled
the trees in around us, curled
our backs to the wind, no one
had ever hit the moon—no one.
Now our trees are safer than the stars,
and only other people’s neglect
is our precious and abiding shell,
pierced by meteors, radar, and the telephone.
From our snug place we shout
religiously for attention, in order to hide:
only silence or evasion will bring
dangerous notice, the hovering hawk
of the state, or the sudden quiet stare
and fatal estimate of an alerted neighbor.
This message we smuggle out in
its plain cover, to be opened
quietly: Friends everywhere—
we are alive! Those moon rockets
have missed millions of secret
places! Best wishes.