Cats’ Christmas

December 22, 2011 § 1 Comment

Charles is arriving tomorrow, staying through New Year’s, and we have a number of social events and outings planned. So I won’t be deprived of festivities this season. But I’ve been alone, no work or social events, since last weekend and it’s been not exactly unpleasant— but solitude, even a gentle solitude, as it piles up has a certain devastating quality, the scent of annihilation.

It’s made me think about Christmases in my mother’s house when I was in my early 20’s. My stepchildren were still children, and adorable ones at that, sweet but not overly good; you could always count on the boys to find the BB guns, play with matches or spy on the adults’ bedrooms, and the girls to do things I still don’t know about because girls are sneakier. My mother was a vibrant and sexy Santa Claus/hostess, and for a while my sister brought home a new man every year, which made for a bit of drama. I liked it all: my sweetheart, his children, my mother’s and sister’s romances. I relished everything to do with love, including jealousy, secrets, fights and tears. I wasn’t afraid of love! What an innocent! And there was nothing worse. There was no hatred or real grief, no illness or poverty in our immediate circle, no political nightmares. Carter was President. Congress wasn’t synonymous with Remedial Evil in Hell. I believed in my glorious future. The Atlantic Ocean was right outside the door.

Outside my door now is a carpet cleaned daily but still pregnant with odors of interest to the cats. I only let them out after midnight, but they’re not good with time and clamor for adventure in the afternoon. “Non, mon cheres!’ I say. “Vous sont tres petite et peur.” In the wee hours we take a stroll together past all the locked doors, the felines walking with exaggerated care, looking around like actors in a silent movie. They stop to sniff every threshold, while I speak softly in my cat-mommy voice, about which I feel no shame, because I know that animals, like babies, respond greatly to the tone of voice adults think of as silly and sugary. They don’t even mind my French. Perhaps animals respond even more than babies. Dogs certainly do; cats are just a little less likely to show their gratitude with fresh slobber. But they do show it. If you want to know true intimacy with a cat, live in an apartment and spend most of your days and nights alone.

Is it worth it? That’s not the right question. My isolation has never been as simple as a choice, although it’s also a choice. Free will, as they say, may be a lie, but we disbelieve in it to our peril. There are compensations, though, for the lack of human hubbub. My cats never complain about my habits. When my moods disturb them they say so simply rather than uttering pieties about how I need help, or threatening to leave. They never leave. And they’re beautiful and smell like chocolate.

When I am in the Kitchen

I think about the past. I empty the ice-cube trays
crack crack cracking like bones, and I think
of decades of ice cubes and of John Cheever,
of Anne Sexton making cocktails, of decades
of cocktail parties, and it feels suddenly far
too lonely at my counter. Although I have on hooks
nearby the embroidered apron of my friend’s
grandmother and one my mother made for me
for Christmas 30 years ago with gingham I had
coveted through my childhood. In my kitchen
I wield my great aunt’s sturdy black-handled
soup ladle and spatula, and when I pull out
the drawer, like one in a morgue, I visit
the silverware of my husband’s grandparents.
We never met, but I place this in my mouth
every day and keep it polished out of duty.
In the cabinets I find my godmother’s
teapot, my mother’s Cambridge glass goblets,
my mother-in-law’s Franciscan plates, and here
is the cutting board my first husband parqueted
and two potholders I wove in grade school.
Oh the past is too much with me in the kitchen,
where I open the vintage metal recipe box,
robin’s egg blue in its interior, to uncover
the card for Waffles, writ in my father’s hand
reaching out from the grave to guide me
from the beginning, “sift and mix dry ingredients”
with his note that this makes “3 waffles in our
large pan” and around that our an unbearable
round stain—of egg yolk or melted butter?—
that once defined a world.

–Jean Marie Beaumont

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Lark, Hitch, Death, Whine

December 18, 2011 § Leave a comment


jwdiehl.homestead.com

I’m not too keen about weighing in on the deaths of famous men and didn’t think I had anything to say regarding Christopher Hitchens until I read Ross Douthat’s column about him in the Times this Sunday (although what I have to say is not really about Hitchens). Douthat claims the atheist Hitchens as a should-have-been Christian. He ends, “When stripped of Marxist fairy tales and techno-utopian happy talk, rigorous atheism casts a wasting shadow over every human hope and endeavor, and leads ineluctably to the terrible conclusion of Philip Larkin’s poem “Aubade” — that ‘death is no different whined at than withstood.'”

Douthat continues, “Officially, Hitchens’s creed was one with Larkin’s. But everything else about his life suggests that he intuited that his fellow Englishman was completely wrong to give in to despair.”

Yet what makes Larkin a great poet is that he doesn’t give in to despair in his poetry, which is the only part of his life that anyone cares about now. He offers no quotable lines of solace but he follows his arguments to their terrifying end with enormous control and precision of language while the emotions they arouse are so bleak that one can’t help thinking—over and over—so why write? And whatever answer you come up with owes nothing to despair. He didn’t write gaudily about wanting to die, only about struggling to live in an emotional atmosphere very few people could withstand. Yes, he drank a lot, but not enough to kill the poems.

Hitchens was altogether a happier and more charming creature, and if he had, as an atheist, more interest in God than many atheists do, it was surely a result of the fact that God and his various cohorts are everywhere in literature. If you love the masterpieces of the English language—not to mention all the other Indo-European languages—you’ll have Christ, Yahweh, Satan, et al, rattling around in your brain, along with the Greek and Roman Pantheons, other deities, half-deities, and assorted supernatural specimens. And if you’re Hitchens, you won’t know too many people as conversant with them as you are. So, yes, you’d want to talk to religious intellectuals. And you might wish God himself were around to debate.

One way of looking at the human spirit is to say that those who withstand horrific tragedies and remain or become productive, generous, joyful contributors to the world have the most to teach us. But it’s also true that there’s something to be learned from people like Larkin—people without the solace of belief, suffering severe, unending melancholy, but determined to explore and communicate that which they do know, to honor the peculiar shape of their experience without drowning in it.

Christopher Hitchens blessed us with his wit, and Christopher Hitchens was blessed not to be Philip Larkin. We are all blessed that Philip Larkin refused to be anyone else.

And I’ll be damned if I know why I’m strewing these blessings around, since like Christopher I suspect that all joy and pleasure is here, along with every variety of torment. Merry Christmas.

Continuing To Live

Continuing to live – that is, repeat
A habit formed to get necessaries –
Is nearly always losing, or going without.
It varies.

This loss of interest, hair, and enterprise –
Ah, if the game were poker, yes,
You might discard them, draw a full house!
But it’s chess.

And once you have walked the length of your mind, what
You command is clear as a lading-list.
Anything else must not, for you, be thought
To exist.

And what’s the profit? Only that, in time,
We half-identify the blind impress
All our behavings bear, may trace it home.
But to confess,

On that green evening when our death begins,
Just what it was, is hardly satisfying,
Since it applied only to one man once,
And that one dying.

–Philip Larkin

Feeling Christmassy

December 13, 2011 § 2 Comments


Christmas 2010

I’ve been in a remarkably good mood in the last week or so. Is it recent events, and going out more, looking forward to going out, or Christmas? Christmas is something I dread in October and November, then start to feel as a sparkle in my fingers once December comes around. However imperfect the holiday is now, it was always magical when I was a child, and that’s what sticks.

It certainly wasn’t religious. My father was a Catholic-turned-atheist who would drive his visiting mother to church in his undershirt so she wouldn’t try to entice him inside. My mother taught her children “God is love,” and didn’t elaborate on that. She also taught us that on Christmas we would wake to hand-sewn red velvet stockings on our bed and a plenitude of gifts around an enormous tree. She imbued the house, in the weeks around the holiday, with a happy, serene spirit I have rarely seen, as an adult, in mothers of four small children.

When I was a little older I chafed at the vagueness of “God is love.” What did it say about the important questions: is God paying attention? Is the soul immortal? Now I realize that what it says is about experience, and mine hasn’t been so different from my mother’s. I’ve been loved deeply and have loved in return. Not much else matters. Of course some of the things I love are not human.

One of my colleagues at the Cathedral of St John the Divine said to me twice recently, “Isn’t it amazing that we have this cathedral?” Each time it was as we were leaving, walking through to check on something related to the current art exhibit. She was the one doing the checking; I was merely accompanying her, but I knew what she meant. It was the pleasure I used to feel putting my house to sleep at night. Caring for a building that cares for you is a special kind of love. Caring for a cathedral that cares for so many, that holds their gifts, their art, and the marks of their passage is a blessing that cannot easily be put in words. There’s nothing of ownership about it, though it contains the effect of responsibility that is rarely mentioned: the sense of inner order that follows when you have done what is needed. In addition, there’s what’s often lacking when you spend too much time in a cramped apartment, office or subway car: the feeling that it’s right and proper for mind and heart to stretch and open, for the body to remember its love of motion at the same time as your whole being delights in the knowledge of belonging.

I love the Cathedral when it is empty, or nearly so—the great pillars, the shadowy stone and the immense space providing me with an experience of sacredness I find most reliably in wild places. Much of this has to do with stone and air, but it’s also true that the sacred wildness of the Cathedral is the wildness of the relationship between people: the freedom to grow. When I speak to another person in the nave, in front of the altar, or in one of the chapels, our conversation is nourished by the building around us. Catty remarks are not unheard of but a certain depth of sourness is hard to reach. The Cathedral contains us.

Christmas intensifies this awareness of connection. It’s a cliché that the holiday has become too much about gifts. Events like the Black Friday pepper-spraying at Walmart make the case without need for elaboration. There is no doubt that finding presents for many people can be a chore, yet I’ve found that this demand sparks my imagination in a way that looking for a wedding or birthday gift doesn’t. It’s the feeling of loving everyone at once that makes each particular act of love, each choice of gift, so satisfying. It’s like the feeling of being in a packed cathedral.

That New Book Feeling

December 6, 2011 § 3 Comments

I thought I’d put up this picture of me happy, since I’ve written so many posts about depression. Last weekend, I went out with friends, including my darling friend Janet Kaplan, who published my chapbook, for a celebratory dinner and then a drink at the BAM cafe, where this was taken. We had a very good time.

That new book feeling. I first experienced it in August, 1988, when my publisher/editor Juris brought a box of copies of my first novel Men to my apartment. He wanted to see my face when I opened the box. At that point in my life, I was shy about showing strong emotion and it was hard to look at those beautiful hardcovers in the presence of someone I liked enormously but who was not yet the dear friend he has become. Still…that ocean blue…the mysterious face (not mine; mine was on the back)…the slick, heavy jackets. The plenitude of copies. It wasn’t a feeling of accomplishment. It wasn’t getting a fabulous present, or an engagement ring. It was like having one foot in another dimension, the one I found in books when I was young, but with full consciousness—exquisite self-consciousness. Self-consciousness experienced entirely as pleasure, and yet strange: the story complete and good but unknown.

I was distracted by Juris standing there with a grin on his face, effortlessly summoning up my father. My father worked in publishing, and twice a year, he brought home the season’s children’s titles from Scribners and then Putnam. The books were for all of us kids, but I was the only one who thought of those nights as extra Christmases. My father rarely bothered to try to please, but he was tickled by how much I adored the books, all unknown to me. It must be gratifying to have a child who thinks what you do at work is best thing a father could possibly do. So that’s who Juris was at that moment, and yet not—also himself, editor of my first book—and I was confused by the crisscrossing emotions. I worried that I wasn’t exhibiting adequate excitement.

How could I tell him why? He probably had some idea—he’d told me that when he entered publishing, my father, recently deceased, was still a legend. And he’d been an editor for quite a while. But he couldn’t know the particular power of that evocation, the vivid memory of running outside barefoot and coatless in the cold to get the books out of my father’s car; lugging the heavy box; my father’s laughter that I couldn’t wait until he had a drink and a smoke and would bring them in himself. My father’s pride at my book-greediness like a fire I couldn’t get too close to, but never wanted to be too far away from. But that’s my childhood. I wrote a book about it: The Boy on the Green Bicycle. You can buy it discounted on amazon.com.

Still, I had it that afternoon, the new book feeling. The first book feeling. I can see us standing there on either side of the opened box, me hesitating to disturb the books, Juris having to tell me to take them out. I wasn’t really sure they were mine.

I never thought I’d experience anything like it again. So while I was looking forward to receiving my copies of the chapbook, I thought it best not to expect too much. My depression is like a bad parent, telling me that nothing will help, I’ll never amount to anything. And, in fact, the intense joy was fleeting: that surprise opening of the heart, that wonder like looking on the face of a newborn. Here and gone. The armor rematerialized. But it was enough to remember.

I cracked the book and read and Ethan teased me—I can’t remember exactly what he said—but I replied, “They look different in print.” What was especially pleasing was that they seemed better in print. I didn’t feel that with my novels. I was too anxious, too ashamed about my subject matter—what will always be my subject matter: love, sex, grief. (Not to the exclusion of all else, but that’s the heart of my literary territory.) The poetry manages to skirt that fear, though it touches on it now and then. Poems stand alone. I feel complicit with my novels.

The original version of Men had a lot more sex in it than the published book, and when Juris asked me to rewrite some parts, I ended up taking stuff out that he hadn’t objected to. I finally got it that strangers, friends, family and acquaintances would be reading it. That what seemed fine in the privacy of my study was something else when I imagined it read by anyone other than my close circle and a number of anonymous agents and editors. I can’t remember the excised parts so I have no idea whether they would have enhanced the book. But I’ve spent most of my life watching other writers become famous for ‘shocking’ or simply unusual new material not very different from what I’d wanted to write, but thought was just too…Margaret…to be publishable.

I’m grateful for the teachers I had, both in person and on the page, who said over and over: you have to write what scares you, what you’re afraid no one will like or understand. That this terror of the monstrous self and of invading the privacy of others happens to every writer and you embrace the former and negotiate the latter. There’s no way around it. Nobody can tell you whether you’ve gone too far or not far enough, though everyone will have an opinion.

I haven’t followed that advice very well, but I’ve never questioned it. I’ve benefited too much from other writers’ courage, even or especially the ones who’ve staked out what I think of as my territory. Historic territory now. There’s a time for certain stories and if you wait too long, someone else or several someones will tell the stories well enough that the public is satisfied, and will snap in annoyance at a late offering.

Janet has reminded me how precious it is, a book of one’s own. I don’t care that she only printed 100 copies. Every day on Facebook I read about this or that writer winning a prize, and I know if I won something, it would feel glorious, but at this point I’m back to where I was in the beginning of my career, when to be published, to be read, is a great gift. And, you know, that doesn’t feel like a bad thing. On the contrary. It’s fun to be a beginner not as frightened and naïve as the first time. Here’s a poem for you.

(Look at previous post for the chapbook price and buying instructions, as well as another poem.)

Untitled

My father in his 45th year
gave into an embarrassing hunger
not to be, and so be loved.

He envied the dead boy, my brother,
for whom the women wept.
And didn’t I?

The fleeing man
bequeathed me his desire
like a black handkerchief tucked into my bosom.

I didn’t have a bosom.
I pinned it to my flat chest.
My bosom grew up around it
full and springy, naïve
as the silk sunk in, whispering.

What does the silk know?
It doesn’t have to know. It has me.
When I ignore it, my inordinate
desire, ambition—
which is only desire under pressure—

it knots me up,
veins and guts, while I sleep.
I wake in pieces, longing to be great.

II

Envying the dead boy, he took himself off
without much ado
in a car that didn’t move
to where the martinis are mixed
by angels spritzed with ‘50’s
bohemian girl perfume.

More life. More life.
That’s what you wanted, Father, didn’t you?

Or not. I inquire into a voyage
by means of small boat
among leaf mulch, rocks and spiders.
The cold black water’s far down
and whirlpools are spaced
like the muscles of the throat
the boat spins away —

I merely inquire.
Collect travelers’ maps.
Here you are. Might be. As if
it were not enough for any of us

to say: was here.
I remember the fishwife in the tale
magicked to queen, then empress
of the world, demanding
to be made God, and why?
Is there no roof above me?

Only the embroidery of the stars
like a piece of stuff someone left fall
when she stepped out the door

into the garden where the man laughed
the children were at play
and the dusk
quickly blurred them all.

My New Chapbook

December 1, 2011 § 4 Comments

Kindness is the last part of love
after the muddy tumble
of spring and all, after the summer
forest-consuming fires—
their shimmer
often mistaken for the moonlight
where the pale knight loitered

too young to know, as we all are,
save the unloved,
who learn faster—
burns clean to bone, and then
the bone-saws and this awful
silence. Who can wield it?

Silence is my ocean.
I think it knows me.
I know it doesn’t care.
All around us the children
are lengthening the hem of night.
Who remembers
that this always happens?

The last tree, no longer visible,
has let loose its black seeds
into the damp air:
crescent-shaped, shining.
There’s kindness in the kernel.
It will not satisfy.

***

From my new, limited edition chapbook, published by Red Glass Books

it all stayed open

poems by Margaret Diehl

book edited and designed by Janet Kaplan

$12 plus $2 postage    paypal margaret.diehl@gmail.com ( and email me your name/address), pick it up locally if you’re in NYC, or send a check to Margaret Diehl, 24 5th Ave, # 1209, NY, NY, 10011

 

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