But I Was So Much Older Then, I’m Younger Than That Now

April 27, 2012 § Leave a comment


The toilet’s clogged and the handyman looks at me sadly. “What fell into the toilet?’

“Nothing,” I say.

“Something did. Something big. The snake can’t get it out.”

I don’t know why he thinks I would drop something big—My hairbrush? The cat?— into the toilet and then just flush it as usual. I’m neither that stupid nor that squeamish. It’s more likely the troll that lives in the plumbing system, but management doesn’t like to hear about that. I didn’t believe in the troll either, until I got curious as to why Fitzroy was always gazing into the toilet so I snuck up on him once (he jumps down hurriedly if he hears me) and saw that leering, toothy face, whiskery lips, tongue out and wagging alluringly at my bored kitty…

Boredom is a problem around here. Late night walks in the hall have become a normal, which is to say required, part of the feline lifestyle. They can tell time, more or less, and remind me, often painfully, if I happen to be absorbed in something else come midnight. So I let them out, and leave the door ajar, and usually they’re back in five minutes and five minutes after that want to go out again. It was better when it was a big adventure, when I was introducing them to the huge and pungent world of invisible people. They especially liked sniffing under doors. Now they’re just addicts—always trying to recapture the buzz of the first time. I feel for them. I remember being young and restless. No good saying, “It’s better than being old and achey.” When I used to imagine myself at this age, I thought: that won’t be me; that will be someone else.

My sister’s 60 now. This means I’m younger than that. I remember my mother saying, when I was a child and complaining that my sister would always get to do things before I did and it wasn’t fair, that someday I’d be glad to be the younger one. Am I glad now? It doesn’t seem to make a difference. The way in which I feel much younger than she is—my life a mess and mystery, at least in regards to where I will live, what I will do for money, etc—is at once scary, embarrassing and oddly exhilarating. As I said to someone recently, “I was retired in my 20’s.” I traveled some, read a lot, worked when I wanted to (which was every morning, but only for 3 hours) and didn’t have to worry about money. Now I get to do the anxious youth thing, clawing at opportunity, having no idea what’s ahead.

Well, we don’t, do we. And it’s easier, for me at least, to claw and grovel now that I don’t really care what people think of me, or what I think of myself, for that matter. I was talking to a woman at a poetry reading last night—older than I am—and she said she hated having to do publicity for her books, it just wasn’t her, etc. And I said, “I used to feel that way but now I’ll do anything.” I got a look—I’m used to that look. People hold their dignity close. My dignity was only fear. I’m happier without it.

It isn’t entirely true that I’ll do anything. I haven’t committed to Twitter yet. But I’m still younger than my sister.

Mouchette is doing bed ballet to get my attention, lying on her back writhing soulfully, legs akimbo.  If I pat her, she’ll come shed all over the laptop. Someone told me that when he took his laptop to be fixed, he was told, “Cat hair in the computer is not covered by warranty.”  Luckily I only rent this apartment, so whatever is in the plumbing is not my problem.


a woman precedes me up the long rope,

her dangling braids the color of rain.

maybe i should have had braids.

maybe i should have kept the body i started,

slim and possible as a boy’s bone.

maybe i should have wanted less.

maybe i should have ignored the bowl in me  burning to be filled.  maybe i should have wanted less.

the woman passes the notch in the rope

marked Sixty. i rise toward it, struggling,

hand over hungry hand.

–Lucille Clifton

And in French and Portuguese (since the translations happened to be provided where I found the poem). For my devoted readers, A and B.


une femme me précède vers le haut de la longue corde, elle  balançant tresse la couleur de la pluie peut-être que je devrais  avoir eu des tresses peut-être je devrais avoir gardé le corps j’ai  commencé, mince et possible pendant que l’os d’un garçon peut-être  je devrait avoir voulu moins peut-être je devrais avoir ignoré la  cuvette dans moi brûlant pour être remplie peut-être moi devrais  avoir voulu la moins les passages de femme l’entaille dans la corde a  marqué soixante. je me lève vers elle, luttant, remets la main  affamée.


uma mulher precede-me acima da corda longa, ela que dangling trança a

cor da chuva talvez que eu devo ter tido tranças talvez eu devo ter  mantido o corpo eu comecei, slim e possível enquanto o osso de um  menino talvez mim deve ter querido menos talvez eu devo ter ignorado a  bacia em mim que queima-se para ser enchida talvez mim devo ter  querido a menos as passagens da mulher o entalhe na corda marcou  sessenta. eu levanto-me para ele, esforçando-se, mão com fome do  excesso da mão.

Once Upon a Time, or Not

April 19, 2012 § Leave a comment

Floating Woman by Jean Spitzer

I feel like a child to whom the fairies have given seven magnificent tools and the instruction that with them I can build what I need to save myself, but I don’t know how the tools work, not even what they’re for. Well, I sort of know what they’re for—I know how others use ones that look similar—but imitation gets me nowhere. I have to figure it out from scratch.

I would like to say this is a metaphor for writing a book, that august activity that so many think elevates their struggles to the realm of myth. But writing a book is the least of my concerns.

When I was in 9th grade, the teacher asked: “What’s a myth?” A boy said, “Something that’s not true.” I said, “It’s a story that people tell to explain why things are the way they are,” and got a gold star stamped on my forehead. Metaphorically.

But I’m beginning to think the boy had it right: myths aren’t true. Stories aren’t true. They’re human, necessary, desired by all ages—and more than human:  the bedrock of consciousness, its elemental structure. I’m sure animals have stories. Dogs dream sentimental tales, camels endless sagas. Maybe even ants churn out Fables of the Four Directions. But so what?

I want something else. Something without words, and I’m not talking about sex (or if I am, I don’t know it—text me if you think that’s the case). Am I just reacting to the cult of the story, so prevalent among writers and nonprofit arts organizations? I’ve lived in stories more than sensual life, and I have my regrets: maybe stories are to blame.

Oh, this is a dead end. I’m obviously telling you a story. How the writer lost her chops. How the woman, poisoned by words, fell out of life but death wouldn’t have her. How she floats outside our windows, never seeing us, never responding, and we don’t know how to feel about that. Should we mention her? Should we put a flower on her chest? Maybe it’s best to draw the curtains. It’s been said that certain impressionable young children, seeing this woman, will follow her, even though their bodies stay behind and appear normal. How can we know? When the men go out and hit her with sticks, nothing happens. Her body takes the blows, but isn’t damaged. I don’t think it’s helping, all these angry men. The sticks break. The knives shatter.

The woman poisoned by words won’t be here forever. We can wait. Let the winds come. Hide the books.

Even so, I’m going to a poetry reading tonight and expect to enjoy it. Here’s a poem by one of the poets I’m going to hear.

The Bargain

In the transatlantic fury
when I feared
I might not survive
to see Florence,
clutching an elfin
Love Sonnets of Shakespeare,
I implored:
Lord, let me live
long enough to dare
a love poem

In time, of course, the skies
stopped glowering.
And in the Tuscan summer’s imperial
segue into autumn,
poetry burgeoned—

It’s not only the active grace,
the glory between us:
these praise songs spring
from a holy bargain,
from my deepest desire
to live.

–Cyrus Cassells

Just Before I Post This, a Neighbor Stops to Discuss a Murder.

April 16, 2012 § 1 Comment

Sunset, South Philly charlescushing.com


I went to a truly dreadful play last night, which I’m not going to name because it didn’t make me feel vindictive toward the playwright, as some bad plays do.

Delilah thought it was interesting, and I can see why; the acting was excellent and the things I found most unbearable—the endless silences—might have affected me in a welcome manner when I was younger and/or in a different mood.

Stage set: lower middle class Italian living room in South Philly, 1986. Two actors: an old man, his grown son. A silence of about 15 minutes, very like the silences in real family life, but I was going nuts because I hated what was in my head and I didn’t want to be forced to sit and stare at others hating what was in their heads, without even knowing what it was.

Finally, a little talk. Chit. Chat. Chit….. It’s after a funeral. The father’s a fuckhead, the son anxious and placating—“You want a drink, Pa? You want a sandwich? Huh? Pa?”—still living at home and covered in bruises which you slowly see as he takes off one piece of clothing after another (it’s just us guys, it’s hot). You find out eventually that he gets in fights but doesn’t hit back. I spend a lot of time examining the color of the bruises. They’re much too red. Lipstick? We’re sitting very close to the stage, marked only by carpeting, not raised or set back.

The wife/mother died. There was also a daughter who died a long time ago, hit by a “spic-nigger drunk driver” at 13; no clue as to what she was like. Just daughter/sister/icon. Now her overweight brother plays with a ouija board and has visions of her coming back, eating ice cream. The father drinks, smokes his cigar while wearing goggles to protect his eyes, goes upstairs for a nap. You know the kind of guy. Older son arrives from Pittsburgh too late for the funeral. It was the trains. It was on purpose. Trains respond to drama.

Long silence. “You got fat.” “You got thin.” Silence. Younger brother tells older brother he leaves notes on the sidewalk where the sister died, pushed into the cracks. Silence. “You want me to add your name? I can go back and add your name.”

“NO.” Some yelling, drinking. Silence.

Father comes back downstairs, informs his newly arrived son and the audience that years ago this son killed the “spic-nigger drunk driver” (good) then told his mother what he did (very bad) and went to jail, though it’s not clear if the mother had anything to do with that. After he gets out of jail he tells his mother he did it because his father told him he had to in order to be a man (very, very bad) and because of that—after a while?—she kills herself. Nobody disputes this assertion, nor does the older son react to the throat-slit- with-a-steak knife detail, which is properly melodramatic for an Italian mother, perhaps, but it made me laugh.

Father goes to bed, having completed the exposition. The brothers talk, argue, dance, drink a lot, you can’t hear the talk over the music (I forgot to tell you about the music: not bad music, but lots of starts and stops, needle on and off the record, annoying as all hell)  so I stopped paying attention, then the killer jailbird brother shoots himself in the head while behind the couch. It took me a while to understand that’s why I couldn’t see him anymore. When  the other brother lifted him up, blood seeping through his fingers,  I laughed again.

End of act one. I get chastised for walking on the “stage” during intermission. Delilah explains that it’s still the stage, the magic space of the play (she didn’t say magic) and I know that; that’s why I walked on it. Besides the fact that it was the shortest way out and I didn’t notice.

Long hike to the restrooms; you have to go outside. Delilah has a cigarette. Says her mother tells her she looks like a sugar bowl. It takes me awhile to get it: hair scraped back, ears sticking out. A sugar bowl is not what I see.

Act two, no deaths, just another post-funeral feast of silence. (Delilah reminds me, “a cute 8 year old boy.”) True. Also a living woman, the new widow. You can imagine them. The widow has all the stand-up lines, whips the old bastard into shape, briefly. When the two inhabitants of the family home—that they will reside in forever—are alone again, the plump son attempts to strangle his father. The strangling goes on for a long time, meant to be suspenseful, then the son jumps back, the old man coughs and the not-killer-material eternal Peter Pan (with bruises) asks Pa if he wants a sandwich.

It was a lovely, blossom-scented April evening, 72 degrees, and always a pleasure to see Delilah.


A Story


Everyone loves a story. Let’s begin with a house.

We can fill it with careful rooms and fill the rooms

with things—tables, chairs, cupboards, drawers

closed to hide tiny beds where children once slept

or big drawers that yawn open to reveal

precisely folded garments washed half to death,

unsoiled, stale, and waiting to be worn out.

There must be a kitchen, and the kitchen

must have a stove, perhaps a big iron one

with a fat black pipe that vanishes into the ceiling

to reach the sky and exhale its smells and collusions.

This was the center of whatever family life

was here, this and the sink gone yellow

around the drain where the water, dirty or pure,

ran off with no explanation, somehow like the point

of this, the story we promised and may yet deliver.

Make no mistake, a family was here. You see

the path worn into the linoleum where the wood,

gray and certainly pine, shows through.

Father stood there in the middle of his life

to call to the heavens he imagined above the roof

must surely be listening. When no one answered

you can see where his heel came down again

and again, even though he’d been taught

never to demand. Not that life was especially cruel;

they had well water they pumped at first,

a stove that gave heat, a mother who stood

at the sink at all hours and gazed longingly

to where the woods once held the voices

of small bears—themselves a family—and the songs

of birds long fled once the deep woods surrendered

one tree at a time after the workmen arrived

with jugs of hot coffee. The worn spot on the sill

is where Mother rested her head when no one saw,

those two stained ridges were handholds

she relied on; they never let her down.

Where is she now? You think you have a right

to know everything? The children tiny enough

to inhabit cupboards, large enough to have rooms

of their own and to abandon them, the father

with his right hand raised against the sky?

If those questions are too personal, then tell us,

where are the woods? They had to have been

because the continent was clothed in trees.

We all read that in school and knew it to be true.

Yet all we see are houses, rows and rows

of houses as far as sight, and where sight vanishes

into nothing, into the new world no one has seen,

there has to be more than dust, wind-borne particles

of burning earth, the earth we lost, and nothing else.

Philip Levine

The Writer’s Life

April 14, 2012 § 1 Comment

Lovely evening with friends last night—dinner at La Ripaille, old-style French, delicious, then strolling through the Village observing the bare-legged, teetering wildlife, finally stopping for a drink at the Spanish bar on 10th Street where I ask Deborah if she thinks the bartender is gay (I’ve had a little crush on him for years, though I go in this place so rarely, I only remember this when I see him again). She says she can’t tell but that he reminds her of Charles. I see what she means: the alertness, brightness, the shape of his face. Therefore he must not be gay? Not that it matters…I’m saving sex for my old age, when I’ll purchase a top of the line, customized sexbot, program it to behave like various men from my past, then bite its head off after climaxing.

I guess I should buy more than one.

I woke up with a mild hangover: not especially painful, just a brain full of bilge water and the kind of faintness that I imagine would result from a very tight corset. After feeding myself and the animals, I was lazy all morning, facebooking, newspaper reading, then decided I MUST clean the messy apartment I was too embarrassed to bring my friends to last night.  I began on the dishes, broke a plate and sliced open my thumb. It didn’t seem that bad, so I continued, collecting coffee mugs, cat dishes, etc, from other room. I realized I’d bled all over the floor. I cleaned up the blood, wondering if the traces would be found during some future murder investigation. I felt both guilty for complicating this as-yet-imaginary crime scene and possessive about my space: it’s my party, and I’ll bleed if I want to. Meanwhile Mouchette was crowding me, mewing for attention. I bled on her head. When I tried to wipe her off, she ran away. She or Fitzroy will have a treat  during the next grooming session.

I finally gave up, wrapped my thumb in a huge wad of paper towels and got in bed with my laptop where I’m typing this one-handed.

OK, now what?  It’s a beautiful day; I have plenty of grunt work I don’t want to do; I’m lonely. I miss my house in the country I shared with the green vines, the June bugs, the squirrels and the snakes. I miss my siblings. I miss the safety of having money, what allowed me to manage all my psychological and physical ailments with some skill. We were talking books last night and Poe’s name came up. Dave said Poe had nothing to say—that Edgar Allen didn’t believe art should “say” anything. I replied that that might be what he thought but that his work said the most fundamental thing of all: life is terror.

I suppose it’s a kind of growth to stop thinking of terror as my personal character defect and understand it as one of the two or three most crucial facts of existence—what the rabbit feels, what the baby waking up alone feels, what you will feel now, if you let your mind wander…poverty? Illness? Betrayal? Death? Loneliness? Public speaking? Killer bees? Lots to choose from.

Like many writers, I write to stay sane, to outrun terror. My imagination is a disability I turn into a gift for society, whether society wants it or not. Oh, I wish it did! Oh, Great Society, in tatters as you are, bleeding from the thumbs and gasping in polluted wetlands, suffocated by the lakes of hog manure, the dying children, the forgotten prisoners whose crimes were tiny, the Republicans whose crimes are vast, the cheerful college graduates who can’t write and know no history, the helicopter parents, the men with guns—confer on me the honor of a living wage! For writing exactly what I want to! Let me be a parasite on the world, as writers always have been. It’s our calling, our song.  We do it as best we can. We ask the insects for advice; they know more than you think. We drink and the next day remember something said about a book that we can use in our own work, that unlocks a whole new wing of mysterious rooms…

We write. It’s what keeps the rest of you as minimally sane as you are. Send money.

It Happens Like This

I was outside St. Cecelia’s Rectory

smoking a cigarette when a goat appeared beside me.

It was mostly black and white, with a little reddish

brown here and there. When I started to walk away,

it followed. I was amused and delighted, but wondered

what the laws were on this kind of thing. There’s

a leash law for dogs, but what about goats? People

smiled at me and admired the goat. “It’s not my goat,”

I explained. “It’s the town’s goat. I’m just taking

my turn caring for it.” “I didn’t know we had a goat,”

one of them said. “I wonder when my turn is.” “Soon,”

I said. “Be patient. Your time is coming.” The goat

stayed by my side. It stopped when I stopped. It looked

up at me and I stared into its eyes. I felt he knew

everything essential about me. We walked on. A police-

man on his beat looked us over. “That’s a mighty

fine goat you got there,” he said, stopping to admire.

“It’s the town’s goat,” I said. “His family goes back

three-hundred years with us,” I said, “from the beginning.”

The officer leaned forward to touch him, then stopped

and looked up at me. “Mind if I pat him?” he asked.

“Touching this goat will change your life,” I said.

“It’s your decision.” He thought real hard for a minute,

and then stood up and said, “What’s his name?” “He’s

called the Prince of Peace,” I said. “God! This town

is like a fairy tale. Everywhere you turn there’s mystery

and wonder. And I’m just a child playing cops and robbers

forever. Please forgive me if I cry.” “We forgive you,

Officer,” I said. “And we understand why you, more than

anybody, should never touch the Prince.” The goat and

I walked on. It was getting dark and we were beginning

to wonder where we would spend the night.



—James Tate

And all her Silken Flanks with Garlands Drest

April 10, 2012 § 3 Comments

The park was indescribably beautiful tonight. Or this evening, rather, before the light was gone—when it was going, but not in a blue swoon or the slow filtering in of black ink; no, the light was going green, lima bean green, the green of sick on a face, the green of sage. The green of new life lifted from the walked-upon grass, from the curving branches of the old trees, from the in-bending wire and wooden fences. There was green in all of those things, and that green lifted up like a curtain rising from below to make the evening apparent, to remind us that there is no beauty more terrible than the beauty of endings, though beauty numbs the terror and you only feel it later. The earth knows secrets that are so far beyond our puny human self-importance that all fears of harming the “biosphere” recede as I remember how it harms us by being, by leaving, by making us leave, by taking what we have, little by little.

On the way home, with milk, chocolate cookies and catfood, I look at the absurdly big tulips that are everywhere in the city now, their heads the size of eggs: hard yellow, Easter purple, a clear red edged in delicately curling white. The reds take the light the best; I stare at them for minutes. I want to eat them. I want to fold my body inside those red cups, then roll around like a stoned 15-year-old.

The white fringe, on the other hand, is too easy; it reminds me of Bolo’s white feathers as she incessantly groomed herself or preened, tilting her flirty head. Bolo was my friend John’s cockatoo who sat on his shoulder, who pecked little bird-holes in his arms and torso at night—“I have scars all over my body,” he said cheerfully—who was the love of his life.

John was murdered not long ago by a human being, so now, of course, he’s the one I want to spend the evening with, though we were neighbors more than friends and had a meal alone together maybe three times in 20 years.

But I’m not only thinking of melancholy things (okay, maybe I am. Go Twitter if you’d rather). I’m grateful at how open I was to the beauty, which is not always the case anymore. When I was young, beauty flung itself in my face every day; I had to fend if off; I never imagined a time when it wouldn’t be pursing me with insistent seduction, trying to take me to that invisible barrier it hides behind, rubbing my face in the fact that I couldn’t have it. Now weeks can pass when I don’t see beauty as more than a postcard. It’s a lovely day; wish you were here. Oh, I’ll get there sometime.

That green haze in the park, the escape of evening from the earth, which happens exactly as the sun goes down (but who can really say the sun has anything to do with it?) doesn’t ask me to surrender as beauty used to do. I suppose I’m too old. My vitality is gone; there’s nothing for the otherworldly ones to steal, no lover to vanquish.

Lisa said the other night that we must always remember we’ll die, die and be forgotten. I was trying to enjoy my duck with pears. But she wanted to talk about this—she very often wants to talk about it—so we did. There’s something she can’t explain to me; something I can’t explain to her.

Because I know I’m dying, know it as I know what sunlight feels like. I’m not the 9 year old who stared into the mirror the morning after her brother was killed, seeing for the first time the million million cells ablaze with life, feeling all the tender parts of being and was greedy for it, that dance of life and self. She’s gone, that child; I’m dying. Today, tomorrow. Life is hard; death is easy. Thinking about death is hard; others’ deaths are hard; that’s life.

Lisa said that when she’s in bed she stares at a photograph on the wall of a great aunt, childless, and thinks she’ll be like that and I’ll be like that: no claim to the young crawling up the forked paths in the genealogy forest, saying Great-Great-Grandmother, who were you, what was your world like?

But the famed writers and warriors, explorers, philosophers—the spiritual, the daring, the craven, the mad—have left us their books, letters, diaries, grocery lists; and I don’t think I know what their world was like. They adorn my world. They are mine absolutely, and yours absolutely; they are not themselves.

Once I wanted to be famous, “immortal,” as they say (and the earth laughs, knowing that Shakespeare and Homer are like the black ants on my porch in upstate New York, one evening 20 years ago; do I remember the special ones?) Now, alive, it makes no difference if people are thinking of me; if I imagine they’re thinking of me. I’ve had some practice imagining this, trying to wring pleasure or comfort from it, but it makes no difference. What makes a difference is if someone speaks, if someone touches me.

So I’ll be forgotten. I only mourn that I won’t keep forgetting. This is a poem I once knew by heart.

A slumber did my spirit seal;

I had no human fears:

She seemed a thing that could not feel

The touch of earthly years.

No motion has she now, no force;

She neither hears nor sees;

Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course,

With rocks, and stones, and trees.

-William Wordsworth

Maundy Thursday, Laundry Saturday

April 7, 2012 § 2 Comments

William Blake, Dante's Inferno

“Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself/ In dark woods, the right road lost”—Dante, The Inferno


Tonight is the Maundy Thursday marathon Dante reading at the Cathedral. It starts at 9; it’s 7 now. I sit in Lisa’s office, where I work, shivering. Dusk is coming and the trees are fading outside the window. I missed the last flush of sun.

The right road is lost. I never even knew I was on it, but if I was, it was only with one foot. Now I push through the dark woods and I don’t have a Virgil; this is a different story. This is the story about accepting that there is no guide, mentor, guardian, parent for adulthood. It’s all wide open to make, though the past I already made is mine forever, limiting and immensely useful. It’s like a fairytale: here’s a bunch of stuff—some glitters, some appears worthless—you have a day and a night to weave it into a ladder, a window, a weapon.

Only a day and a night. I have to remember that. How can I forget?

Dante makes hell more enticing than love—what a trick! Beatrice waiting in Heaven has nothing on ice-bound Satan with a writhing Judas between his teeth. Poetry. You have to admit it’s a bit of a con game.

I’ve been tempted to write a contemporary Inferno. The idea of inverting the sins—not fornication but the zealots against it, not suicides but those opposing the right-to-die movement—has some promise. And I like pitchforks, malicious scampering baby devils and lakes of fire: who doesn’t? But why write something that, even it were brilliant, would wilt pathetically beside the original?

It’s really quite cold in here. When Lisa gets back from picking up her dog at daycare and taking him home (tucking him into bed, kissing him goodnight), we’ll go have some soup, some wine. Fortification. Three hours of sitting in the cold Cathedral on the hard chairs to hear the Inferno yet again and go to a party at midnight—yes, it’s worth it. But I’d still like some wine first, the kind that makes me think of medieval reds in illustrated books and birds swooping down (the lively changes of alcohol on the tongue) and the blood of those pagan goddesses who were made of the earth.


The wine was two-dimensional, a little harsh, but warmed and softened me. I stayed at the restaurant for a few minutes after Lisa and Tenzin left, then wandered through the Cathedral grounds, looking at the moon, low and heavy in the sky. I used to make wishes on the full moon. I wished for a lover at 17, and Charles appeared in my life a couple of weeks later. But mostly it didn’t work. So this time I said only, “Thy will be done,” since it is anyway, whoever, whatever “Thy” may be. In my 20’s, when I read widely in Christian literature, I understood faith and prayer, how it aligns you with what is, what can’t be escaped, what remains indifferent to ego and desire. I didn’t agree with the writers as to why this process worked to bring peace, but I understood that it did. I understood the mental tricks and avenues the saints and priests discussed—from afar, I understood.  I thought then that eventually I’d come back to it—not God as such but the pursuit of selflessness. After I’d gotten what I wanted, I mean.

Youth is so endlessly amusing.

I daydreamed through the reading, listening about half the time. Last year, whoever read Canto XXXII used Mark Musa’s translation, “A thousand dog-like faces, purple from the cold.” This year’s reader used a different translation, I can’t remember whose, “A thousand bitch-like faces,” which was not nearly as evocative to me. “Bitch” has other meanings in English and those interfere with the ability of the image to catch fire.

This time of year brings a lot of memories, from childhood through more recent Easters. You know how it is, life is always changing, but there are periods and relationships that seem enduring even as they evolve, and then suddenly you turn a corner.  Someone leaves, something happens, and you notice that in fact what you think of as “now” is already not now, and hasn’t been for a while. After the shock and disorientation, after the compass reading and preparations for the new direction, comes another quieter time, one when memories are dipped in preservative, added to the vault, no longer what you’re in but what you have.

I think we always remember others better than we remember ourselves. Our selves keep getting rebooted, made to conform to the new direction, and it’s necessary to discard a lot. But the people we used to know, the ones we played and fought with, they don’t change so much.  Even if we still know them, once an era is over, there they are, as they were: the mother of my childhood, my husband before we married, and so on.

Memory is an art and an artifact, a guardian. It can be a guide—it’s meant to be a guide—that in that role it’s always treacherous.


This is a poem I like to argue with, which makes it worth putting here–

A Myth of Devotion  

When Hades decided he loved this girl
he built for her a duplicate of earth,
everything the same, down to the meadow,
but with a bed added.

Everything the same, including sunlight,
because it would be hard on a young girl
to go so quickly from bright light to utter darkness

Gradually, he thought, he’d introduce the night,
first as the shadows of fluttering leaves.
Then moon, then stars. Then no moon, no stars.
Let Persephone get used to it slowly.
In the end, he thought, she’d find it comforting.

A replica of earth
except there was love here.
Doesn’t everyone want love?

He waited many years,
building a world, watching
Persephone in the meadow.
Persephone, a smeller, a taster.
If you have one appetite, he thought,
you have them all.

Doesn’t everyone want to feel in the night
the beloved body, compass, polestar,
to hear the quiet breathing that says
I am alive, that means also
you are alive, because you hear me,
you are here with me. And when one turns,
the other turns—

That’s what he felt, the lord of darkness,
looking at the world he had
constructed for Persephone. It never crossed his mind
that there’d be no more smelling here,
certainly no more eating.

Guilt? Terror? The fear of love?
These things he couldn’t imagine;
no lover ever imagines them.

He dreams, he wonders what to call this place.
First he thinks: The New Hell. Then: The Garden.
In the end, he decides to name it
Persephone’s Girlhood.

A soft light rising above the level meadow,
behind the bed. He takes her in his arms.
He wants to say I love you, nothing can hurt you

but he thinks
this is a lie, so he says in the end
you’re dead, nothing can hurt you
which seems to him
a more promising beginning, more true.

–Louise Gluck

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