September 8, 2013 § Leave a comment
I thought of something that made me want to write a memory piece about visiting my grandmother in the Christmas of 1967. So I set the scene: my father and brother newly dead, my mother taking us to Houston—where she came from; we lived in new Jersey—which was a gift since I loved my elegant grandmother, her beautiful house, and her two golden retrievers. That was the week I became friends with my cousin Faxy, the first person in my life that I could talk to endlessly about nothing in particular. I was a pathologically shy and lonely child, and this friendship was one of the most important events of my first 20 years.
So I set the scene, but when I was ready to probe into that compelling memory, the piece of event or emotion that was vivid enough to hang a few paragraphs on, I had completely forgotten it.
I remembered the stories I usually remember: getting drunk on champagne with Fax and rolling around on the twin beds with their peach satin quilts, then, later, pushing a boy we didn’t like into the pool (clothed), though my grandmother didn’t have a pool, so that was somewhere else. The servants chiding us for our tipsiness with swallowed smiles, warning us to stay out of our grandmother’s sight. The adults, glimpsed from a distance, down the hall, holding cocktail glasses and cigarettes, so well dressed: suits, dresses, patent leather shoes, makeup and hairdos. No one in jogging clothes or shorts, sneakers or jeans, not even the children.
I felt so hopeful: I can forget all the dulling futility & constipated eroticism of this period of my life, write memoir from a softer and wider perspective than I did in 1999. Remember those I love with some complication, but mostly forgiveness and humor, no need to mention the frozen zombie heart I have pinned to my closet floor.
I see the two little girls rolling on twin beds, their faces flushed, their fine dresses rucked up above their knees. My first experience of champagne sparked that helpless laughter that reminds me of a toilet overflowing, great gulps brimming over and sloshing out.
But there was something else. Something resembling an idea. It’s gone, whatever it was. I feel as if pieces of me are disappearing at an alarming rate. That solid, ferocious ego of youth or even of forty—that’s as much history as the American cars of the mid 20th century that were big, hungry and powered like tanks. Some of you remember Old Green: ex-police, tough as nails. Whatever in me was like that is not anymore.
It’s been storming here lately. Last night it was so violent, I wanted to run outside and play in the lightning. The cooler weather is very welcome. There’s a young poet here who looks a little bit like my stepdaughter did in college, and that makes me nostalgic too. I’m going to keep doing this—residencies in beautiful places—but I miss being able to share a landscape with someone I love. My cats, for instance, would occupy this place with far more artistry and imaginative leaps than I ever could. I can see them nosing through the grass, chasing snakes and mice and rabbits, climbing fences and trees. If only the silly things liked to travel.
A few hours after Des Moines
the toilet overflowed.
This wasn’t the adventure it sounds.
I sat with a man whose tattoos
weighed more than I did.
He played Hendrix on mouth guitar.
His Electric Ladyland lips
weren’t fast enough
and if pitch and melody
are the rudiments of music,
this was just
memory, a body nostalgic
for the touch of adored sound.
Hope’s a smaller thing on a bus.
You hope a forgotten smoke consorts
with lint in the pocket of last
resort to be upwind
of the human condition, that the baby
and when this never happens,
that she cries
with the lullaby meter of the sea.
We were swallowed by rhythm.
The ultra blond
who removed her wig and applied
fresh loops of duct tape
to her skull,
her companion who held a mirror
and popped his dentures
in and out of place,
the boy who cut stuffing
from the seat where his mother
should have been—
there was a little more sleep
in our thoughts,
it was easier to yield.
To what, exactly—
the suspicion that what we watch
cornfields that stare at our hands,
that hold us in their windows
through the night?
Or faith, strange to feel
in that zoo of manners.
I had drool on my shirt and breath
of the undead, a guy
dropped empty Buds on the floor
like gravity was born
to provide this service,
we were white and black trash
in an outhouse on wheels and still
some had grown—
in touching the spirited shirts
after watching a sky of starlings
flow like cursive
over wheat—back into creatures
capable of a wish.
As we entered Arizona
I thought I smelled the ocean,
liked the lie of this
and closed my eyes
puppeted against my lids.
We brought our failures with us,
their taste, their smell.
But the kid
who threw up in the back
pushed to the window anyway,
and let the wind clean his face,
I couldn’t make out
but agreed with
in shape, a sound I recognized
as everything I’d come so far
to give away.
March 28, 2013 § 1 Comment
The other day, I participated in a memory study for a pair of young documentary filmmakers. (Actually, one was a filmmaker, the other a fiction writer, but involved in the project.) They’d put an ad in Craigslist, offering a sum of money for an hour of time, and I responded. I met them in Washington Square Park and talked for an hour on camera about a day two weeks ago, an ordinary day. They were interested in all the little details I could remember. I wanted to come up with the details, but found myself editing, because it sounded so boring. “Then I took the subway downtown.” Could I have remembered more about that particular ride? Probably. I remembered more about talking to Charles, but my conversation was in large part a recounting of my day, which I had already recounted to the filmmakers.
That night, in bed, the details that I would have used in writing came to me: the two different yellows of a piece of cake at the Hungarian pastry shop; the softness of a young woman’s features, as if a hand had lightly smoothed over a sculpted visage; the slanted gaze of Lisa signing a credit card slip as a sudden image came to mind of my mother 40 years ago: Grownup.
I hadn’t prepared for my interview in a writerly way. I wasn’t sure what they were doing with the material and I was busy. That’s probably for the best—it’s their material to shape—yet recounting a day’s events, with the self-consciousness any one who knows me can imagine, emphasized my tunnel vision to the point that I felt breathless. I don’t see as much as I used to. I get up and work and walk around and talk to people and the details don’t stick; I discard them without knowing it; I’ve seen it all before.
And of course context: what I thought, what I was reminded of, has such complex roots. Because I work at the Cathedral, they asked if I was religious (no), if I consider myself spiritual. To answer that thoroughly—I would like to answer that thoroughly, for my own sake, but even now, mulling it over, all I have is the beginning pieces: how I was raised, what my mother taught me (fairies, tarot, astrology, the Platonic ideal of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny), what I read and thought in my 20’s and 30’s.
So much of my interior life has been sucked into the hole of “Do I want to keep living?” because if I don’t, none of this matters. I keep deciding that I do want to live, so beliefs and philosophies and goals need addressing. I feel like a house that has been mostly cleared out, contents disposed of, and now the owner has decided not to move after all.
Oh, it’s surprising. Life, books. The plumber grumbling in the bathroom, which is being fixed for the umpteenth time. “Who fired my boy? Damn, that made me mad. What day was it? I can’t remember. Do you remember?”
The other plumber doesn’t reply. Charles wanders in and out. The cats sleep. I was going to go for a walk. My heart feels soft, as if a hand lightly smoothed over the sculpted organ.
Caress, pressure, erasure. I remember myself, who I used to be. But as the young man, Jonathan, said, “Our memories change over time.”
It was snowing. No, it wasn’t.
“I can’t get down on my knees. Goddamn.” The plumber is middle-aged, like me. He complains with workaday joyousness, talking to himself. The other plumber’s gone downstairs.
“Where’d that cat go? I can’t have him going in this hole in the wall.’’
“I think he’s under the bed,” I say.
“I’m-a shut the door. Can’t have him going in the wall.”
“That would be a problem.”
I check my email. Charles asks about dinner. The second plumber returns and takes up the story. “You find that cat? You got that kitty cat? I seen him run. We coulda closed him in like we did in that other apartment. He went in the hole. I didn’t know he was in the wall. You hear about that? Meow, meow, meow. The lady calls…”
Voices lowered. Then, again, singsong, “Kittycat, kittycat…”
He’s under the bed.
The Snowfall is So Silent
The snowfall is so silent,
bit by bit, with delicacy
it settles down on the earth
and covers over the fields.
The silent snow comes down
white and weightless;
snowfall makes no noise,
falls as forgetting falls,
flake after flake.
It covers the fields gently
while frost attacks them
with its sudden flashes of white;
covers everything with its pure
and silent covering;
not one thing on the ground
anywhere escapes it.
And wherever it falls it stays,
content and gay,
for snow does not slip off
as rain does,
but it stays and sinks in.
The flakes are skyflowers,
pale lilies from the clouds,
that wither on earth.
They come down blossoming
but then so quickly
they are gone;
they bloom only on the peak,
above the mountains,
and make the earth feel heavier
when they die inside.
Snow, delicate snow,
that falls with such lightness
on the head,
on the feelings,
come and cover over the sadness
that lies always in my reason.
by Miguel de Unamuno
translated by Robert Bly
September 14, 2010 § 2 Comments
A friend came over for dinner last night, and we had a nice time, nice pasta, nice salad, good wine, gentle words, but he left early, especially relative to my schedule: bed at 2 am, up at 10 am. I didn’t want to drink the rest of the wine and couldn’t focus on work, so I took a walk. Glorious night! The French-blue sky clogged with gray, slow-moving clouds; the persistent Quad Cinema; a store called Filaments, full of plump, excited lamps; and lots of NYU real estate. I realized how much the hot summer had debilitated me, pinning me to my bed to ready gory fantasy novels full of necromancers bringing the dead back to life (it’s very hard to get rid of them once they’re already dead: you must burn them or mince thoroughly), in between hours of work in the fake chill of the air conditioner…As often happens when I spend too much time without feeling physically well, I started imagining I was an automaton, or a person Who Once Was, that all the good stuff in life was over, and what’s worse, I was no longer entitled to complain.
I’m not entitled to complain. I will, though, when I figure out how to mask it better. Some pathetic ne’er do well minor character in the fifth volume of a series, a brilliant portrait of whining, petty why-me regret and greed…and, he’ll look nothing like me! No one will ever guess!
I’m remembering the good stuff now. Much of it is over. But memory has its pleasures, and if forced to watch football, one can always admire those tight, well-defined butts… I digress….When I returned from my walk, I spoke to a woman on the elevator, never seen her before, she was Southern and friendly in the old style, reminding me of the past and also reminding me of a time when I was full of excitement about strangers: who they were, how they lived. Yes, I know more now and the big surprises have been unveiled, or so I imagine. Really, who knows? Maybe the universe will turn inside out. Maybe I’ll become a button. Maybe wolves will run over the crusted snow endlessly, in a novel that is never finished, the words stopping just there: the wolves flowed like water over the untouched snow, their lean bodies merging into one shadow-colored, ferocious wave, the horizon removing itself invisibly…
III. MAD EXIT
They scare me by saying
There’s a screw loose in my head
They scare me more by saying
They’ll bury me
In a box with the screws loose
They scare me but little do they realise
That my loose screws
The happy crazy from our street
Boasts to me
April 7, 2009 § 3 Comments
“Yet as scientists begin to climb out of the dark foothills and into the dim light, they are now poised to alter the understanding of human nature in ways artists and writers have not.” The New York Times, April 6, 2009
Or to be more precise—they are now poised to alter human nature in ways artists and writers have not.
I’m used to the revision process. When I was young, I resisted it, too attached to my words, especially the bits that stuck out like shiny metal from a teenager’s face. Eventually, it became my favorite part. I liked knowing I could improve something; I liked the deft snips and rearrangements that could keep the body of a story intact while making it mean something entirely different. Revision becomes fun when you realize it’s not only work but play. That’s where the scientists are now. But what drives change in the world? Necessity, utility and boredom—perhaps most importantly, consumer boredom. Birds have brilliant plumage for the same reason designers create new styles: Buy me.
My brain, edited, would not only be less of a minefield for me, it would be a different aesthetic experience for you. Maybe you enjoy my writing but wish you could just tilt the tone a bit, or shake out the parts you’re sick of. I wish she’d stop writing about THAT so much. Stop trying to be funny. Stop trying to be serious. Be the same but surprise me more.
I can think of many discrete ways of editing my husband, mother, lover, siblings—not for better or worse, but for change and highlight. If you’ve ever worked in Photoshop, you know what I mean. It’s not that you’re changing the soul of the image. Of course not. But: lighter or darker? What if you dialed up the blue of her eyes—and turned that guy behind her into wallpaper?
I might go a little nuts editing myself. Weed out all the memories that hold me back with their whisper of failure and the ones that embarrass me with their generic drone. Take out the days and months I was bored; the hangovers; most of 1983. I’d be sleek and wily, smart, ready to pounce on the future and bat it from paw to the outfield. I’d be happy to inform you I’d forgotten when we met, that we met, what you were like on the job or in bed, and why you think you matter.
Naturally someday I’d want to return to the trashed bits, sift through them like the stuff you leave in boxes in your parents’ attic. I mean, maybe you do matter, 1983. I know there were some good days; otherwise I would have slit my wrists. There must be vast pages of forgotten hours adding to parts of myself I treasure. You know how it is when you learn something so thoroughly you forget what it was like not to know it? You feel ignorant again; only being confronted with a real novice does the awareness of expertise return. If you can never see the base of the mountain, how do you know what counts?
Trauma reappearing in dreams and phobias sounds grim, and is, but think about that other complaint we have, that human life is too short for the species to learn much—for example, that war sucks. The only reason teenagers know this even vaguely is the horrifying stories told by their elders. These stories haven’t stopped war (partly because they’re often dishonest). On the other hand, we’re not starting a war every five minutes. Not quite.
Think of the Binghamton carnage. Watching TV coverage, for the susceptible, is drama and action without emotional consequence. What if that happened to you when you were told, We excised this memory at your request, but for your information, here are the facts. Maybe you’d take the stripped skeleton and over time feel nostalgia for imaginary flesh. Maybe you’d say, I wonder what that felt like? Maybe I should let myself be raped again.
If this sounds implausible, remember that lots of women have rape fantasies, just as lots of men and women have murder fantasies. We know we don’t want our fantasies to become true because we’ve heard the unvarnished stories. There are so many of these, we think we don’t need them; we can imagine how we’d feel. But are you sure that’s true? What if personal stories of horrors disappeared, or became very, very old?
February 3, 2009 § 2 Comments
I went to thenation.com to read about the banking rescue/ /givaway/gamble, got distracted by a poem by Tomaz Salamun, and wanted to paste it here but it’s subscription only so I don’t think I should. But here’s a little—
women want to be more than metaphor.
With their moist, round, soft skin, with their
drunken scent of warm mushrooms they drive me insane.
I love that last line, especially considering it’s a translation from Slovenian. It makes me remember evenings of drink, food, sex, the country, trees and night: youth, being driven insane. There was a time when the US was in financial crisis, the late 70’s, and I noticed and was affected, but not terribly; it was never as important as the night, wine and poetry (poetry was the closest thing to God I knew). Not as important as mushrooms wiped with a damp cloth and cooked fast in hot butter until almost black, then heaped in a bowl with a little salt and lemon, and eaten in bed after sex. Cooked after sex, I mean, naked in the kitchen together—what did we talk about, how did we touch? I don’t remember.
How much does Charles, my dear, distant husband, remember? He’s flying this weekend to that same town in Virginia where neither of us has lived in 30 years. He’s visiting his girlfriend with whom he has wild, passionate sex. He doesn’t tell me details, but he says that much. I think I should be jealous but only feel blank. He deserves this. I’ve had my share of adulterous romance in the last several years. What we had that was precious, in bed, was so long ago; nostalgia touches it with wonder; it has nothing to do with today. At the same time, nothing can surpass those Charlottesville nights—when, mind you, I was unhappy because youth drove me insane—happiness and unhappiness threaded together so close, so glittering, sharp, blurred, gray and immense. Our rented house was in the middle of a 1,000 acre cattle farm, black angus; when we walked at night, we’d be among cows we could barely see, the dark shapes moving to let us pass, that strange almost-fear of their size jolting me now and then, as well as wonder at how docile they were, these large beasts waiting for slaughter.
Now I wait for slaughter (okay, not really. Big change.) I find poetry on the Web and it startles me. I have a few hundred books of the stuff and hardly ever open one. Youth is wise in what it refuses to know. I see my nieces holding up their shields—don’t interrupt me, I’m being young!—and applaud them. They’re hurting through this crisis, but not ready to sell a body part yet. I hope.
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers…