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.
August 31, 2013 § Leave a comment
Strong wind this afternoon, the kind that makes your feel like your hair is blowing off. French-blue sky, wheat-colored mountains drizzled with gold, the sharp grasses bending in great curls. A few deer, a few trucks and me. I could get addicted to this place.
The other night we went to the Occidental Hotel in Buffalo to hear bluegrass music. Multi-instrumentalists with impressive moustaches, a guitar player with an orange guitar strap marked “Dept. of Corrections,” a little girl standing on a box playing her fiddle, a woman who looked like Maureen Stapleton singing a torch song, and a youngish man doing a cover of “The Fox Went out on a Chilly Night,” which Charles used to play and sing to his children at bedtime. A good half of the customers were over 60, the ladies with perms and the men with high-waisted pants. The collection box handed around wasn’t for the musicians but needy townsfolk.
Nothing like live, homegrown music to make you feel the reality of a place, although the animal head décor had a say in that as well. We were looked down on by the big, glassy-eyed trophies and while this doesn’t affect me the way it does some people (roadkill bothers me far more), that may be a generational thing. I grew up thinking it was kind of normal—not that I knew anyone who shot and mounted ungulates but it was so prevalent in novels about England, the West, etc, that it seemed as if I did, and when I began came across the odd, real trophy, in my teens, I didn’t think twice. Now it just seems tacky.
We didn’t stay long at the Occidental, but it was fun to get off the grounds of this monument to creative solitude and remember that art is always of the people and by the people, both common and precious. Maybe before I die I’ll wring the last of the tortured romantic artist myth out of my soul.
Though, of course, I am tortured and romantic. But not because I’m an artist, and anyway, I’m much less romantic than I used to be. As for torment, they have drugs for that.
A Dog Was Crying Tonight In Wicklow Also
In memory of Donatus Nwoga
When human beings found out about death
They sent the dog to Chukwu with a message:
They wanted to be let back into the house of life.
They didn’t want to end up lost forever
Like burnt wood disappearing into smoke
Or ashes that get blown away to nothing.
Instead, they saw their souls in a flock at twilight
Cawing and heading back for the same old roosts
And the same bright airs and wing-stretchings each morning.
Death would be like a night spent in the wood:
At first light they’d be back in the house of life.
(The dog was meant to tell all this to Chukwu.)
But death and human beings took second place
When he trotted off the path and started barking
At another dog in broad daylight just barking
Back at him from the far bank of a river.
And that is how the toad reached Chukwu first,
The toad who’d overheard in the beginning
What the dog was meant to tell. “Human beings,” he said
(And here the toad was trusted absolutely),
“Human beings want death to last forever.”
August 23, 2013 § Leave a comment
Gray-golden fields; flat, rounded and pointy mountains; a haze of smoke in the air from those out-of-control fires in Yellowstone and Idaho. A bedroom with a good bed, good light; a huge studio with a desk, couch, several armchairs and a porch; meals prepared.
Dinner last night: cioppino with scallops, shrimp and mussels, salads, breads and three cheeses; flourless chocolate cake with whipped cream. Good company (4 men, 4 women; 4 writers, 4 artists) and no obligations, other than to clean up after myself. I even have phone and Internet service in my bedroom and a kitchen to make coffee in down the hall.
Yet I feel surprisingly homesick. I don’t want to go home, but I miss my domestic world, the triple feline and guitar-playing family. But the writing I have done is much better than what I’ve managed do in the city this year. So. No complaints.
Every night before dinner I’m stricken with shyness. I’ve only ever been in communal living situations with strangers twice: boarding school and college. Neither time was I leaving intimacy behind. And there were boys: walking enchantments, creatures too glorious for my eyes, sinister angels with the powers of heaven, strewn carelessly. None of that now. But the mountains, the sea of grass, the gray-gold, the sage green. Rumors of rattlesnakes. Cattle guards. A winding, metallic-blue creek. A full moon.
I had to spend most of Tuesday at the dentist because a tooth broke (at dinner the first night) but the doctor made the crown himself in 20 minutes, and it cost less than it would have in Manhattan—though not as much less as I expected. He said I needed at least two more crowns done soon. Medical tourism in Costa Rica, perhaps?
I’ve finished a novel (worked on, on and off, for over 10 years). It was really already done; I just needed to believe it was finished, to wrap it up and give it a final polish. Not perfect, but good enough. Now I’m sleepy.
A Bird came down the Walk—
He did not know I saw—
He bit an Angleworm in halves
And ate the fellow, raw,
And then he drank a Dew
From a convenient Grass—
And then hopped sidewise to the Wall
To let a Beetle pass—
He glanced with rapid eyes
That hurried all around—
They looked like frightened Beads, I thought—
He stirred his Velvet Head
Like one in danger, Cautious,
I offered him a Crumb
And he unrolled his feathers
And rowed him softer home—
Than Oars divide the Ocean,
Too silver for a seam—
Or Butterflies, off Banks of Noon
Leap, plashless as they swim.