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.
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.
September 10, 2013 § Leave a comment
Last night, seven of us, all women, went on a walk after dinner, a longer walk than I’ve taken before. The hills were bronze with a coppery glow, and folds of darkness. September was present in the crisp edges and festive preliminaries to longing.
As we turned off the highway onto Cold Creek Road, the scrub began to let out more colors: lavender, mauve, ash, sage. The clouds were garlands of vivid rose-apricot flung against the soft blue.
Look! someone said: a mule deer at the top of a hill, outlined against the sky, almost directly beneath the crescent moon. We watched; the deer stood still; there was no genius with a video camera, only our sets of eyes and memories. Animal talk prevailed, including an informative disquisition on pack rats (White-throated Wood Rat, not Homo semi-Sapiens), and miniature dairy cows, which sadly do not come miniature enough to live in a NYC apartment, producing only enough for coffee and banana milkshakes. Where is genetic engineering when you need it?
After a further uphill stretch I said, “I feel like I’m on drugs,” meaning LSD, and a few agreed with me. The hills had a thousand colors and the color was vibrating; I could have sat all day watching the same place without ever seeing the same thing. Except, of course, that it was dusk and we had to turn back, though this took some argument.
Back at the homestead, Cecilia gave us a singing lesson in the living room. A small circle of women, feeling musically inadequate, were taught the basics of body-as-instrument, listening and imitating pitch. We sang “Home On The Range.” Tonight, we’re learning “Don’t Fence Me In, “ if I can get around to printing out the lyrics.
Summer camp for grownups. I’m very lucky.
Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind
The past is a bucket of ashes
The woman named Tomorrow
sits with a hairpin in her teeth
and takes her time
and does her hair the way she wants it
and fastens at last the last braid and coil
and puts the hairpin where it belongs
and turns and drawls: Well, what of it?
My grandmother, Yesterday, is gone.
What of it? Let the dead be dead.
The doors were cedar
and the panels strips of gold
and the girls were golden girls
and the panels read and the girls chanted:
We are the greatest city,
the greatest nation:
nothing like us ever was.
The doors are twisted on broken hinges.
Sheets of rain swish through on the wind
where the golden girls ran and the panels read:
We are the greatest city,
the greatest nation,
nothing like us ever was.
It has happened before.
Strong men put up a city and got
a nation together,
And paid singers to sing and women
to warble: We are the greatest city,
the greatest nation,
nothing like us ever was.
And while the singers sang
and the strong men listened
and paid the singers well
and felt good about it all,
there were rats and lizards who listened
… and the only listeners left now
… are … the rats … and the lizards.
And there are black crows
crying, “Caw, caw,”
bringing mud and sticks
building a nest
over the words carved
on the doors where the panels were cedar
and the strips on the panels were gold
and the golden girls came singing:
We are the greatest city,
the greatest nation:
nothing like us ever was.
The only singers now are crows crying, “Caw, caw,”
And the sheets of rain whine in the wind and doorways.
And the only listeners now are … the rats … and the lizards.
The feet of the rats
scribble on the door sills;
the hieroglyphs of the rat footprints
chatter the pedigrees of the rats
and babble of the blood
and gabble of the breed
of the grandfathers and the great-grandfathers
of the rats.
And the wind shifts
and the dust on a door sill shifts
and even the writing of the rat footprints
tells us nothing, nothing at all
about the greatest city, the greatest nation
where the strong men listened
and the women warbled: Nothing like us ever was.
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.
September 5, 2013 § 1 Comment
I lay on the grass last night, looking at the big stars in the midnight blue sky. There were tatters of clouds barely visible, slung between the stars like fishing nets. I’d been reading about Climate Change and felt intensely grateful for the still-sweet and welcoming earth. One of the things I came to Wyoming for—that opening out of the senses that only happens to me in nature—was right there, tapping me on the shoulder. Just stop thinking. So I did.
This used to come so easily—the profound peace that attends an intense awareness of beauty—that it woke a lot of questions about the universe, life, meaning and so on. Now it comes rarely and I have no questions. I’m a body, breathing. Just for now. Not for later and memory is a story with an unreliable narrator.
Why don’t I spend more time on my back in the grass at night, out where a person can see stars? A mosquito came and whined in my ear. I went inside.
Novels are so finicky. They don’t want to be changed too fast or too much. They’re like children, impatient for pleasure, distrustful of the unknown. They want their own beds and more chocolate.
“You’re not alive,” I whisper to my novel. “You’re just a heap of words, which represent ideas or sounds or a gestalt of meaning, depending on who you ask. You have no soul.” And then my novel transforms itself with cruel witchery into a beautiful woman who shows me the infinity of her possibilities: a million lives, cities, men, powers.
My parents come from a place where all the houses stop
at one story
for the heat. Where every porch—front
and back—simmers in black screens that sieve
mosquitoes from our blood. Where everyone knows
there’s only one kind of tea:
served sweet. The first time my father
introduced my mother to his parents,
his mother made my mother change
the bed sheets in the guest room. She’d believed it
a gesture of intimacy. My grandmother
saved lavender hotel soaps and lotions
to wrap and mail as gifts at Christmas. My grandfather
once shot the head off a rattlesnake
in the gravel driveway of the house he built
in Greenwood. He gave the dry rattle to my mother
the same week I was born, saying, Why don’t you
make something out of it.
September 2, 2013 § 1 Comment
Sacred to the Lakota, America’s first national monument (thanks to Teddy Roosevelt), Devil’s Tower has nothing devilish about it at all—not until you’re driving away, late afternoon, and the shadows make it look like a giant thumb sticking up from the land. Even then, it’s not really devilish, but more suggestive of folklore. It prompted Tannaz to tell me a legend about—oh, Ucross rules, I’m not supposed to quote anyone here on social media without asking permission and she’s in the other building so you’ll just have to imagine the conversation.
In any case, the Tower you see in these pictures, when we were right on top of it in bright sun, looks like a fat Corinthian column with a nubbly top. A moat of silvery boulders sweeps around the base and hawks circle high overhead. The uphill, downhill, uphill path the state has made for tourists is a mile and a half, through a rocky forest frequently hit by lightning, judging from the number of burned trees surrounded by unburned ones. In the only visible evidence that it was Labor Day Weekend in Wyoming, the monument had a fair number of visitors, mostly families.
I was strongly reminded of childhood summers at Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire, where our island house was in a landscape similarly rocky and piney. It made me feel younger but not so young that I dared scramble across the boulders. The sad thing was that none of the many children present were doing so. I prefer the French version of well-behaved children—running pell-mell through city streets and when they bump into you, a brilliant smile and a “Pardon, Madame.” These kids were just corralled.
The natural beauty didn’t produce the same beaten-by-joy feeling I had Saturday, but it was still very satisfying—the long drive through rolling and pointy hills, some green, some red, some gray-brown-gold, hills sprinkled with matchstick trees and the occasional tortured curl of ancient rock.
We drove through Gillette, coal capital of the world, and Hulett, where almost everything was “closed for the season.” Isn’t it still summer the day before Labor Day? We managed to have lunch in a little café with the obligatory animal heads on the walls, a souvenir case full of pastel china figurines, and big kindergarten tables. We browsed the one open-for-business antique store, which contained enough rifles and knives for a small private militia. This is an area where the town statue is of a man with a rifle in one hand and a pistol in the other, and where a few blocks later there’s a sign reading “Custom Slaughtering.”
I’m not so naïve as to think that Wyoming cattle, coal, hunting and fracking culture has nothing to do with me—it has everything to do with me and with all of us. I respect those who can kill what they eat, and who work to dig the guts out of the land for not nearly enough money. The culture of guns bothers me not because, as an effete New Yorker, I can’t imagine wanting one of those loud, nasty things, but because I can imagine it all too well. Gun laws are supposed to restrict the mentally ill from purchasing firearms, and while I don’t qualify to the extent that the school shooters we all hate do, I sort of qualify. I find it easier to imagine shooting a person than a deer.
But not today.
And as for coal, fracking, etc: expect the worst. But, again: not today.
Here’s a poem I loved in my youth, and still do.
A Season in Hell
A while back, if I remember right, my life was one long party where all hearts were open wide, where all wines kept flowing.
One night, I sat Beauty down on my lap.—And I found her galling.—And I roughed her up.
I armed myself against justice.
I ran away. O witches, O misery, O hatred, my treasure’s been turned over to you!
I managed to make every trace of human hope vanish from my mind. I pounced on every joy like a ferocious animal eager to strangle it.
I called for executioners so that, while dying, I could bite the butts of their rifles. I called for plagues to choke me with sand, with blood. Bad luck was my god. I stretched out in the muck. I dried myself in the air of crime. And I played tricks on insanity.
And Spring brought me the frightening laugh of the idiot.
So, just recently, when I found myself on the brink of the final squawk! it dawned on me to look again for the key to that ancient party where I might find my appetite once more.
Charity is that key.—This inspiration proves I was dreaming!
“You’ll always be a hyena etc. . . ,” yells the devil, who’d crowned me with such pretty poppies. “Deserve death with all your appetites, your selfishness, and all the capital sins!”
Ah! I’ve been through too much:—But, sweet Satan, I beg of you, a less blazing eye! And while waiting for the new little cowardly gestures yet to come, since you like an absence of descriptive or didactic skills in a writer, let me rip out these few ghastly pages from my notebook of the damned.
September 1, 2013 § Leave a comment
So we asked the woman in the rental car place if she had any ideas on where we should go (though we had our own ideas) and she mentioned a brewery, and when we didn’t seem overly excited about that, told us about another place that serves ice cream. This was our running joke as we drove through one gorgeous landscape after another—round, pointy, bald and forested mountains, huge calving rocks, stands of white birch surrounded by spruce, a glittering lake shore—that if you live here, the beauty gets so blah that soon all you look forward to is beer and ice cream.
The pictures will give you an idea. But the scent of sage and spruce, the peculiar feeling of being hit over the head with tranquility; the Sonoma County–Russia–New Hampshire quality of the woods turned indisputably Wyoming by the jagged peaks with their red tips and long flanks of boulders; that stoned, breathless daze of 10,000 feet—that you have to visit to understand.
It was only a four-hour trip. We got out of the car five or six times, climbed a little, ate lunch, walked by the lake. But the moments of happiness in those four hours equals my collected happy moments of the last half-decade. Today, we’re gong to see the laccolith, Devil’s Tower.
‘For joy’s sake, from my hands,’
For joy’s sake, from my hands,
take some honey and some sun,
as Persephone’s bees told us.
Not to be freed, the unmoored boat.
Not to be heard, fur-booted shadows.
Not to be silenced, life’s dark terrors.
Now we only have kisses,
dry and bristling like bees,
that die when they leave the hive.
Rustling in clear glades of night,
in the dense forests of Taygetos,
time feeds them; honeysuckle; mint.
For joy’s sake take my strange gift,
this simple thread of dead, dried bees,
turned honey in the sun.