Rambling Confessional

May 22, 2012 § 2 Comments

Kitsune, Japanese fox spirit, able to take human form

Cat purring in my ear, rainy day, got some work done on the mystery. I need to write about stained glass windows, immigration, bad sex; and make travel plans to visit my mother. Instead what do I do? Visit the traps in my brain, the ones with the siren songs, get caught as always, have to break the spell and crawl out, muttering, “Why do I keep thinking there’s gold in there…I know it’s only Lucite, empty shells, carnivorous mice…”

I’ve been spending time on the Facebook page for the Woodstock Country School, where I was too briefly a student, expelled for loneliness. I’ve never been around as many interesting people in my life as I was that year, not in Berkeley, not in New York. As adults, they seem no less interesting, though my contact so far is tentative.

Everything is tentative now, postponed, done incrementally. My friend Amelia used to say, “I thought about calling you and then I thought I had.” I’m not quite there yet, but almost. I think about calling, writing, doing something, and it seems like progress. I daydream. Then suddenly I sit down and write 3000 words. The cats applaud. I stop to think.

Extreme shyness led to loneliness led to alcohol led to expulsion and a spring and summer idle at home in New Hampshire where we had recently moved and knew no one, my brother and I. Johnny had been coincidentally expelled the same semester (different school, different offense), and my not-to-pleased mother and stepfather were our only companions. Actually, my stepfather didn’t give a shit, though he pretended he did. He liked the drama. He liked playing “father,”—a very sparsely imagined “father” of his own invention—though not even that much with his own kids.

Johnny and I spent afternoons smoking pot down by the creek, having our first semi-adult conversations. We discussed the parents of course, and cautiously told each other our tales of school. I’d sleep late then lie on the couch reading about witchcraft and ESP, which I tried and tried but could never make work. The high point of the summer was a three-day visit from my friend Jerome (also expelled from Woodstock; it was something in the water), both of us confused about how to relate without the surrounding gaudy circus of the school. Lying side by side on my bed, discussing why it felt weird to kiss, when it hadn’t on the dorm stairs. Actually, I had some ideas about why it felt weird, but was anxious about how and how many of these ideas to introduce.

My mother came in to tell me my stepfather thought we shouldn’t be on the bed, even though we were fully clothed. “We’re talking about important things,” I said.

Woodstock was where the very smart, creative kids without unblemished records went. I wanted to go to Putney, like Mary Kennedy, but didn’t get in. My PSAT scores were never lived up to, partly because I was lazy and crazy, and partly because I loved learning so much, and wanted to say what I wanted to say so badly, that I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about what my teachers wanted. It wasn’t dinned into me that I should get straight A’s. I think my mother was so convinced of her children’s brilliance that she didn’t care what the schools thought, and she had no idea that admittance to college in 1972 would be ferociously competitive. You’d think my trouble getting into boarding school would have taught both of us a lesson, but we were in difficult periods in my life, my mother and I, she in her new marriage, me plunging into sex, that ‘sufficient unto the day’ was the best we could manage.

Also, regarding grades, there was the shyness thing. I could never go ask a teacher why a grade was low, what I had done wrong. I can remember sitting at my desk thinking about it; envisioning every step I would take; the moment the teacher would notice I wasn’t going out the door but had turned toward him; his questioning face; my searing blush and the pounding in my ears; the hideous vulnerability of asking for help. After rehearsing it a few times, I’d get up and leave.

I’d arrive home angry at my cowardice, refuse to help my mother vacuum because somehow it was all her fault, then hide in my room knowing I was a failure on all counts but maybe it would be okay when I was a famous writer and everyone looked back, amazed that they’d had a genius in their midst and never known it. And my mom would forgive me for being a bad daughter.

Janet Frame wrote about this kind of shyness, although hers was much worse. Her prose is precise and lucid, and I find it unbearably painful. I just read an obit of her, to refresh my memory, and it praised her “lightness of touch” in the autobiography (the middle volume An Angel at My Table was made into the film of the same name by Jane Campion). To me the light was a glare; it was the light they leave on in interrogation rooms; it was the truth that annihilates. But then extreme shyness, to those who have no idea what it’s like, has a mystery and charm—the hidden person, the fear that is so much like desire, that is in fact desire; the possibility of opening the box—that those who have experienced it can only feel baffled by.

“You’re shy,” people used to croon: how cute it was, how modestly girlish! I was like a fawn they could coax to eat tidbits from their hands. I wanted to bite their fingers off. I wanted to proclaim that I was not sweet, nor modest, nor girlish: I was a dirty-minded homicidal multi-sexed monstrosity, and what the fuck is it to you, anyway, asshole? You looking at me?

Well, of course I drank. Crème de menthe, watching TV in the late afternoon/evening, staining my teeth green. And the rest of the time impersonating a pretty girl who liked wine and sleeping with boys, who intimidated them with her sexual forthrightness, and went home with their confessions of feeling—I don’t mean about me—like smooth stones striped with minerals. Boys showed their souls during sex in those days. I don’t know if they do now.

And if I woke up and the day promised solitude, I would into slip into my daytime skin as if into that of a kitsune, read poetry, wander outside into the light or clouds or wind, staring at the lovely edges of things. There was so much me, a superabundance I never communicated and which now is now a fossil in the museum I visit when I write to you, dear readers.

Woodstock is a key to that whole period because I was there so briefly, left so unwillingly. It was what I was and what I wasn’t: the brilliant (in brains or personality) talkative kids were the siblings who didn’t know me, the kind of person I could be if I wasn’t impaired. I soaked them up. “You’re always watching,” Jerome told me.

I couldn’t tell him what I saw, how glorious he was with his dirty blond hair and sardonic grin, how glorious they all were, 16 year old barefoot goddesses and boys like sidekick charmers in Shakespeare.

I want to write about all of it, and my 20s, and the last 12 years. The missed opportunities, the mistakes and losses—in books, you know, failures and disasters are the interesting parts. I’ve been a writer for decades. Perhaps it’s time to actually become a book, and care only about what’s new, striking, active; what’s changed or revealed. Not what feels good or hurts. Sounds challenging, doesn’t it? Life is kicking me in that direction with big boots.

But listen to Robert Creeley, whose birthday was yesterday, who’s dead now and was great and saw mercilessly.


Most explicit–
the sense of trap

as a narrowing
cone one’s got

stuck into and
any movement

forward simply
wedges once more–

but where
or quite when,

even with whom,
since now there is no one

quite with you–Quite? Quiet?
English expression: Quait?

Language of singular
impedance? A dance? An

involuntary gesture to
others not there? What’s

wrong here? How
reach out to the

other side all
others live on as

now you see the
two doctors, behind

you, in mind’s eye,
probe into your anus,

or ass, or bottom,
behind you, the roto-

rooter-like device
sees all up, concludes

“like a worn-out inner tube,”
“old,” prose prolapsed, person’s

problems won’t do, must
cut into, cut out . . .

The world is a round but
diminishing ball, a spherical

ice cube, a dusty
joke, a fading,

faint echo of its
former self but remembers,

sometimes, its past, sees
friends, places, reflections,

talks to itself in a fond,
judgemental murmur,

alone at last.
I stood so close

to you I could have
reached out and

touched you just
as you turned

over and began to
snore not unattractively,

no, never less than
attractively, my love,

my love–but in this
curiously glowing dark, this

finite emptiness, you, you, you
are crucial, hear the

whimpering back of
the talk, the approaching

fears when I may
cease to be me, all

lost or rather lumped
here in a retrograded,

dislocating, imploding
self, a uselessness

talks, even if finally to no one,
talks and talks.

Robert Creeley

By Way of the Ear

May 17, 2009 § 2 Comments


(This is not another post about the cat. I got lazy about finding just the right picture.)

I resisted reading Verlyn Kinkenborg’s New York Times piece on reading aloud* because I thought it referred to the successful complaint from publishers that the Kindle’s computer-generated voice infringed on their audio rights. This is an argument that makes no sense, since my laptop can read aloud to me (I discourage it). The Kindle may sound better, but the real threat, in the publishers’ tiny minds, is that Jeff Bezos will soon make the Kindle sound much better, nearly human, maybe better than human, at which point audio book sales will fall off a cliff.

This won’t be soon. Until the New York Times pointed it out to Bezos, The Kindle was pronouncing ‘Barack Obama’ as ‘Black Alabama’.

Still, I’m the last person to pooh-pooh possible advances in this field. I’m hoping for the perfect robot pal to gently usher me through old age, not only doing the chores and chatting with me, not only reading me to sleep in my mother’s voice—the voice she had when she was 35, I mean, which exists nowhere but memory—but doing so without rancor, without muttering under its breath when I repeat myself (knowing I’m repeating myself, as the elderly generally do: they don’t care).

When that great leap forward has been made, new computers will come equipped with the technology and the publishers’ point will be moot. It was a silly waste of money to fight Bezos on this, although I think he caved pretty quickly. He needs publishers to feed the Kindle.

Back to Klinkenborg. He’s waxing nostalgic for the days when adults read aloud, not only to children but each other. When it was a drawing room activity, as in Jane Austen’s day. He’s right that it’s an educative, emotional, sometimes erotic experience to read something in front of even a small audience (this doesn’t include reading aloud instructions on how to put together a piece of furniture while your husband sweats and swears).

“Reading aloud recaptures the physicality of words. To read with your lungs and diaphragm, with your tongue and lips, is very different than reading with your eyes alone. The language becomes a part of the body…”

He’s restating Charles Olson’s famous dictum: poetry comes from,  “the HEAD, by way of the EAR, to the SYLLABLE/the HEART, by way of the BREATH, to the LINE.”

When I was young, I knew a few people who liked to have poetry read aloud after dinner. Mainly it was one family—my friend Caitlin’s family—but I came across it on a couple of other occasions and instigated it myself a few times. In the right company, it’s the best way to end a good dinner.

Those dinners at Caitlin’s grandparents’ farm: steak with béarnaise sauce and several bottles of red wine, pretty women in long dresses, Julian with his cultured Argentinean accent nobody could understand though it was easier to pretend when you were drunk and so was he, summer in the country by a river.

I always blushed when it was my turn to read. I’d try to get someone to dim the lights, never admitting why. Mood and atmosphere mattered to them, so it was usually possible. “Is there enough light for you? Can you see?” I could see well enough. I just didn’t want them to see my red cheeks, which were an indicator of how scary and profoundly exciting attention was—a fact I found so embarrassing as to be nearly shameful.

I concentrated on reading well. The words were always strengthening. I remember reading Lorca. Yeats. I don’t know who else. And yes, it went through my whole body, brain to ear to heart to breath. Mouth, lips.  My head tipped over the book. My own voice and the poet’s in my blood. Breasts, hips, the pool of my long, flowered dress around my ankles. That particular audience—Caitlin, Tamsen, Julie, Julian, maybe Charles, maybe Annabel—would dim and the larger one emerge: the one I was waiting for, and the one I felt in surrounding night.

But audio books weren’t invented for nights like that. Reading aloud isn’t feasible if you’re commuting to work alone. I suppose the very rich could hire a reader to join him/her in the Mercedes, but the very rich don’t exist anymore, or so they’d like you to believe.

I don’t imagine it would be too popular on airplanes. Though if they start letting people use cellphones in the air, I’ll fight back by reading The Wasteland aloud. At the first complaint, I’ll call my answering machine. “It’s my husband,” I’ll say. “He’s having a panic attack. Hearing Eliot always soothes him.”

Some things need to be read aloud, even if you’re alone. This is especially true of poems (though Dickens and Hemingway also benefit). Reading poetry silently is not quite like reading notes of music on the page—I don’t think; I can’t read music—but it’s close. This is true of poems with lush gorgeous rhythms, like Keats’ odes or Shakespeare’s sonnets, or Dover Beach…or any of a thousand other poems…but also with Robert Creeley’s spare, odd poems.

The Rain

All night the sound had

come back again,

and again falls

this quite, persistent rain.

What am I to myself

that must be remembered,

insisted upon

so often? Is it

that never the ease,

even the hardness,

of rain falling

will have for me

something other than this,

something not so insistent–

am I to be locked in this

final uneasiness.

Love, if you love me,

lie next to me.

Be for me, like rain,

the getting out

of the tiredness, the fatuousness, the semi-

lust of intentional indifference.

Be wet

with a decent happiness.


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