History as Literature: The Letters of Djuna Barnes and Emily Holmes Coleman (1935-1936)
Poetry Feature: Jeff Worley
Featuring the following poems:
- Some Observations While Recovering from Surgery
Learning to Smoke
I started smoking at six, or at least that’s the age I give for when I had my first puffs, riding in the car with my mother, lighting her cigarettes, learning how not to wet the ends when I drew in the smoke.
Six, I say when people ask, though I’m reasonably sure I was younger, four or five probably, a nursery school renegade. But I’ve learned that most people won’t buy it. They think I’m making it up, like a story from the Examiner or Star or Enquirer-“Baby Born Smoking”-with a photo of a diapered newborn puffing on a big cigar and a caption underneath: Cuban infant nursed on tobacco. They smile and say, “Really?” with an ostentatious intake of breath and the kind of bright look that people get when they think they’re talking to idiots.
A very few, supremely dedicated smokers have believed me and have even confessed their own delighted discovery of the weed at around that age, but generally it’s regarded as either malarkey or perversion to suggest that a child might puff on a cigarette-and like it-at the same age as she first discovered the joys of playing with herself.
“Six?” shrieked the terrible French teacher at the Alliance Francaise, where I was taking a course in hopes of reviving my once-fluent, now nearly desiccated knowledge of the language. “Sees?” Mais non, Madame, vous voulez dire ‘seize.'”
I held up six fingers. “Un, deux, trois . . .”
She shrugged, defeated. It was a French class from hell that I’d signed up for the month I quit smoking, thinking it would be amusing or educational, or at least a distraction while I waited for the craving to go away. Mademoiselle Estelle d’Estaing was one of those tatterdemalion young women who come into being fully matriculated on the Boul’ Mich’ or rue des Ecoles, near the Sorbonne, with their ideas pre-formed, opinions intact; who regard Simone de Beauvoir as a retro, if not exactly a bimbo, shrink back in horror at the sight of a Coke and who take pleasure in informing you on first meeting that Americans are materialistic, lacking in culture, under-educated and-with an accusatory glare-rude.
“. . . cinq, six,” I continued counting, ending on the extra thumb.“J’avais six ans quand j’ai commencé de-commencé à?-fumer.”
She wouldn’t help me out. In any case, whether I commenced of or at smoking, it was a lie. I wasn’t six; it had happened earlier, around the time I learned to spell my first word, its pink neon flashing at the corner of Queens Boulevard and 83rd Street when we passed it coming home from nursery school. The pink shapes, on again, off again, were hypnotically beautiful, and when tiny Edward Davidson, who sat in front of me in the large station wagon, pointed to the sign and said, “B. A. R. spells BAR,” I was awed. When he turned and repeated it, the letters fixed themselves like rare butterflies in my mind, and as I watched the sounds tumble from his mouth, I fell in love with him, even though he was the shortest boy in our class and I was the tallest girl.
A few days later my mother and I were riding in the Chevy and when we passed the sign I crooned out, “B. A. R. spells bar.” She looked at me with a moment’s incomprehension and then she laughed. She was proud of me, being that smart. Her English was still only tolerable then, and it must have tickled her that the first spelling word of her American child was an international one, like “taxi” or “toilet,” as apt in Paris or Prague as in New York.
It was around this time, the year the war ended, riding in the Chevy alone with my mother, that I began lighting her Chesterfields, making sure to keep the ends dry, holding out to her the torch of my love, handing her the burning proof of it years before I had words to declare myself.
She was beautiful, she held herself tall, she had thick auburn hair swept into a chignon and the profile of Nefertiti. Her clothes were couture, and she rustled when she walked. But I could feel she was imprisoned in a kind of silence where I couldn’t reach her.
She spoke many languages but had no command over any of them. Language was her tyrant as she floundered to keep up, trying to relay her meaning despite or between words that she never actively selected. She simply allowed them to drift in, taking hold of whichever first came to mind in whatever language, and then bending it to her will through intonation and gesture, as she would later shape her sculptural forms into approximations of animals.
As a little girl I felt some of her emptiness echoing through me. Her silences were reproaches, the places I couldn’t fill. Bewildered, annoyed, usually resentful, she was suffocated by words that wouldn’t rise to the surface, drowning in her own inarticulateness.
She was always in a sense “over there”-back in the land of her childhood, where she’d grown up with tennis courts and a French tutor, the prettiest girl in town, who wore a little fur collar in the snow and eventually, as a young woman, came to America like a banished royal, bearing her sorrow with her beauty, an Anastasia on Ellis Island, wearing a babushka.
She was a lady. As a child I never saw her cry, except for one morning when I was about three and a half or four. I’d planned to surprise her, crawling along the hallway from my bedroom to hers on all fours, quiet as a cat, avoiding the creaking floorboard and holding my breath when I came close to her door. It was ajar, and I could see her sitting at her desk with a piece of paper in her hands, doing something strange with her shoulders and her chest, making sounds I’d never heard her make. I was as terrified in that moment as I would be again a few years later-when I was sucked up into an enormous wave at Jones Beach and churned around, my mind going black until I was somehow released-and then I crept away from her door, still holding my breath. From then on I tried to make up for it, for her being alone like that, unable to speak, reading her terrible letter, her mother gassed.
The smoke warmed the car, filled it for us, riding along Queens Boulevard some time after V-E day in the 1939 Chevy, sharing the perfect happiness of a Chesterfield, from my lips to hers.
My first puffs brought me into her world, the magic and silence of Prague before the war, before my birth, before the deaths. I never thought about the ashes of my grandmother and all the others; the smoke surrounded us and held us in a nimbus.
I didn’t start smoking on my own until I was close to puberty, in junior high in the wilds of central Queens, where I was one of the designated goody-goodys, one of the rich-bitch kids with IQs of over 130 who were in the accelerated classes, S.P. (Special Progress), one of the Some People, usually Jewish, who were bused in from Kew Gardens and Forest Hills, who were educationally motivated, richer, younger and far more cowardly than the other students.
We had kids of sixteen still in seventh grade, stuck in remedial reading and taking courses in carpentry or electrical wiring. The girls were tough, full-breasted, and they fought like crazy over boys or imagined insults, tearing each other’s hair out or bashing each other’s heads on the concrete of the handball courts. Only a few students carried knives then, and if they did it was mainly for show. But the cops were called over to the school nearly every day, at morning recess and again at lunch, to break up fights or haul someone off for vandalism.
This was in the early fifties, before drugs and guns came into the schools, but even without them we had violence. We had poverty. A kid in our speedup class (not Jewish, not privileged, just smart) was one of a dozen siblings, all of whom shared a single bedroom. We who didn’t have to go there were attending this school because it was scholastically exciting for all of us, who were sorted according to ability or potential instead of grades, and taught by young, idealistic teachers full of fire and imagination.
We, the Smarties of 7-9 (ninth division of seventh grade) and later 9-9, read Shakespeare, wrote plays, published a newspaper from the days of Ivanhoe and studied either French or Spanish. My two years there were the most stimulating of my educational life-including college and graduate school-but I was a fish out of water, large and pusillanimous, still wearing braids at the time of the poodle cut, shy enough to respond with a flush if a male spoke to me-a child of another era, of prewar Mitteleuropa, where my parents had grown up in the privileged splendor of Russian novels, cultured and assimilated, polyglots at seven and on the run by ’38, fleeing the Anschluss.
As their only child, I knew it was up to me to provide them with something like a family, a shadow of what they’d lost. By the time I started going to junior high, I had already accompanied them on many travels, to Europe mainly, and business trips to South America, spending most evenings alone in a hotel room in the era before television, when a child had to read or write or make up her own stories. My days were with adults, taken along on their pursuits, walking in silence, often not understanding the language they were speaking. I had grown up lopsided, with too much head and too little sense-both common sense and a sense of myself.
Junior high in the slums was a shock; the first months there I cried every morning before leaving for school, and after that I started wearing make-up, bleaching my hair and carrying my own pack of cigarettes.
That was forty years ago. Giving up, as the song says, was awf’ly hard to do . . . particularly since I’d come to depend on cigarettes as my juice, my gas, my inspiration for writing.
I became a writer early; I was published young. To write, I depended on cigarettes, chain-smoking my Marlboros-“coffin nails,” we joked even then-four or five packs a day, eighty to a hundred little white logs to fuel my passion, churning me into a frenzy that drove me to write 2,000, 3,000, sometimes as many as 5,000 words of a morning. I’d take only two or three hours for it, my fingers dancing a mad tattoo on the Olivetti keys (and the keys of the Underwood before that); coming down from my high in time for lunch, or earlier, for “elevenses” when I lived in England after college, or for gabelfruhstuck in an Austrian farmhouse where I’d escaped to write, when the freshly made dumplings would arrive in my Spartan room, steaming in broth from the newly slaughtered pig or gleaming in butter, with that morning’s pick of ripe plums.
I wrote in a daze, a haze, a trance of nicotine and smoke, scrambling to keep up with the flow of words that streamed out without my conscious direction. I wrote until there was no more oxygen left to breathe, when the room began to take off and black spots danced in front of my eyes, twirling into a dark snow and making me too dizzy to stand, slightly nauseated, lightheaded, gasping for breath, unable to write another word and barely able to walk.
At writers’ colonies, reaching for my Marlboros at dawn, the words already popping like corks, I’d race into day on a rush of bright phrases, roaring my energy over breakfast, the high nicotine wit at the early risers’ table. I’d have four cups of coffee and an ashtray filled by the time I left for my studio with a large thermos of black coffee.
And there, in my studio in the woods or up by the barn, I’d pour out the words, let them spill onto the page like pearls, gleaming. For the next few hours, smoking, in a trance, I’d let the words stream without check, until a silent whistle blew in my head. Time to stop, time to breathe again. I’d look at the clock-a couple of hours gone-and read what I had done.
When I gave up smoking, I spent much time mourning my loss, in dreams as well as waking. I missed the comfort, companionship, the reassurance that life, punctuated by a reliable series of jolts to the system-a drag every every thirty-two seconds of an ordinary sixteen-hour waking day-was somehow doable, one step, one drag, one half-minute at a time.
Without cigarettes, I couldn’t write. Things didn’t hang together. I couldn’t concentrate on anything; new projects or places or people were terrifying, the old grind and ordinary relations became boring to the point of stultification.
My lost cigarettes, my happiness. I fell into a grieving and a physical deprivation, my body not yet adjusted to the loss. I missed the taste of them, the handling of them, the bygone days, my childhood, my mother, our songs, the innocence of the American fifties when More Doctors Smoke Chesterfields Than Any Other Cigarettes and
Smoke gets in your eyes . . .
Those foolish things-
a cigarette that bears a lipstick’s traces . . .
remind me of you.
Cigarettes go back to our first love, the first attachment. Smoking is sucking, our first impulse. Mammals need to suck to survive. We begin practicing in utero. Emerging from the womb (most of us still blind), we nose our way toward the warmest place on her body, the soft areola or the pulpy softness around the teats, plant ourselves there and suck. Sucking is all we know of life. Even proto-mammals, even the marsupials, know how to do it. A half-gestated kangaroo joey no larger than a pinky climbs up the belly and into mother’s pouch, settles deep inside and sucks the fat-rich milk from her lower set of nipples. Sucking is survival, our first act, first instinct, leading to our first taste of life. Sucking is mother; sucking is love.
Freud discovered latency in the libido. Mother love in infancy becomes Oedipal by adolescence. The same goes for cigarettes-they carry us back to the first pleasure we tasted, to the first act we committed on our own. No matter what addictions we move on to later, it was smoking that started us. Most dedicated smokers have started smoking regularly by their early teens.
I was thirteen when I began, my mother twelve, in her faraway snow dome beyond the great castle of Prague. It was Kafka country, circa 1920, at the onset of what would become the flapper decade-fringed dresses, a modern attitude, cigarette holders as part of fashion, emancipation in Europe from the grimness of war; a time for frivolity, costume balls, breast-baring art students, films (the great Garbo smoked, and Jean Harlow, and Dietrich in her tux), gramophone records, and the thrill of Marxist “free love” for every pretty bourgeoise. My mother became a beauty, she stole her sister’s boyfriends, she didn’t like women, not even her mother. She referred to members of her own sex as “female,” and was able to ignore all the women in a room, even a man’s wife, standing next to him. I was named after the cook, she told me, and when she was dying, she sometimes called me by the name of the maid, not through confusion but to make a point. Women were servants, competitors, enemies. When she loved me most, she called me her “best admirer.”
Memories trail: Smoke rings over Times Square, spreading out from the wooden o of the Camel smoker’s mouth, round as doughnuts floating down Broadway, in the forties and fifties, when I went to the theater with my parents, usually for a birthday, and then later with boys; fumbling with cigarettes, through my high school years into college, struggling with bras and lipstick, male fingers outlining my areolae, making my nipples strain against the tight purple sweater flecked with angora; hands groping their way under the soft wool like small animals seeking to feed, as I puffed into my womanhood, from the Chesterfields of home to the Marlboros of maturity.
I saw my first pack of Marlboros in the pudgy hand of a blind date, my first year of college. We’d gone to a football game (also my first), Brown vs. Columbia. At half time I was asked to come down on the field to pose for a photo with the home team’s mascot, the Brown bear. I followed instructions, thrusting my chest forward à la Lana Turner, holding the bear by a chain. Afterwards my blind date laid his arm across my shoulders, the plump fingers of his right hand drooping toward the incline of my breasts and edging forward millimeter by millimeter until my throat went furry and my thighs slack. He had a tattoo on his left arm; he’d been in the Navy; he smoked Marlboros. I was still “pure” in those days, hymen intact, and nothing else happened. The fingertips, exploration, the clouds of Marlboro smoke, his tongue in my ear. His name was Julius. I switched to Marlboros.
Marlboros, the world’s best-selling cigarettes, first appeared on the market in 1902. Made by Philip Morris, they were intended for ladies, with a red tip to hide lipstick marks. Cigarette smoking, it was known, kept you slim.
They kept me thin, or at least prevented the bloat. Once out of college, I left America for England. The cigarettes there were perfectly disgusting, due to the bizarre English practice of curing their tobacco with saltpeter in order-so I was told-to discourage libidinous urges in the trenches and on the playing fields of Eton.
But in the byways of Soho, and of course in Mayfair, I could buy Marlboros. They were pricey, desirable. Almost everybody smoked them. Or Gauloises. Or the cigarettes of almost any other nationality. I smoked Austrian cigarettes, Dutch, French, even Spanish. I tried cigars, bought a pipe.
When I gave up smoking, it was not for any good reason. Not, for instance, to avoid death. My lungs didn’t hurt; I wasn’t coughing, and my x-rays were gorgeous. True, I was out of breath after a flight or two en route to a walk-up apartment and I had a tendency to pant after exercising for a few minutes. But these weren’t serious symptoms in and of themselves, and in any case my own doctor, whom I’d gone to since the age of fifteen, still smoked.
I stopped partly to prove I could. Proving things to oneself is undoubtedly both childish and narcissistic, but I was bored, self-preoccupied, unable to write, over fifty with wrinkles showing and I needed an overhaul. I wondered what it would be like to be free of a lifetime habit, not to mention wrinkles. Deciding to quit and actually doing it would prove I was free-or so I deluded myself.
Once I started stopping, I knew I couldn’t stop. And to make sure I’d continue quitting, I concocted the perfectly insane notion that I would write about it, fully aware that I couldn’t write without smoking.
I couldn’t sit down, sit still, remain at the computer or even in an armchair. In order to write anything I had to trick myself, jotting a word or two, sometimes a phrase, in the little black marbleized notebook I carried while walking on the street or down the aisles of the supermarket, while driving or putting on my clothes at the health club, supporting myself against the red metal locker. Writing-the physical activity-was torture. Like an overgrown toddler, I couldn’t stay still long enough to put one word in front of another.
But I persevered, determined to be an observer of myself. My hope in keeping a journal was that it would permit me, by making me the subject and providing my own suspense-Will She or Won’t She?-to accomplish what I set out to do. The reasons no longer mattered. The process itself took over: withdrawal and all its symptoms, the physical changes, easy tears, flatulence, strange dreams, a kind of seasickness, pitching me from wave to wave and mood to mood. There was occasional humor, too like the time I followed a man on Fifth Avenue, inhaling his fumes like a pig nosing for truffles, until he suddenly turned and I blushed, trapped like a deer in lights, unable to explain.
At the beginning, I was caught up in the sheer physicality of it, unable, as with pain, to do anything but ride the currents of my body’s needs. And then it turned out that most of my reasons for stopping came after I’d done it. It was almost as if I’d been hidden from myself and couldn’t see what I was up to until the smoke began to clear.
Learning to Breathe
The type of smoking I’d been doing most of my life-more than 300 hits per day (for roughly a two-pack habit, down from my peak at 5 packs, 750+ hits)-gave me a certain distinction, and dumped enough nicotine into my system to affect the brain like cocaine. I was, it turned out, a druggy kind of writer, like Henri Michaux or Thomas De Quincey, writing from the equivalent of a cocaine high.
This I learned through my reading, which became compulsive. Obsessed with the cigarettes I could no longer smoke, I started reading about everything to do with smoking, in history and across cultures; medically, historically (tobacco was America’s first cash crop), politically, etymologically (what is a “smoking”?), financially (especially R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris, the Big Board sweetheart), socially, confessionally. I read The Surgeon-General’s Report on Smoking & Health of 1988, the one titled “Nicotine Addiction,” and it was there I discovered that cigarettes can (if you smoke enough of them) affect the brain more potently than cocaine; also, that withdrawal from nicotine is, for some wretched subjects, as difficult as giving up heroin. (The word “nicotine,” I read somewhere else, comes from Jean Nicot, French Ambassador to Portugal at the time when tobacco was imported by ship from the New World. He encouraged the cultivation of the plant in Europe.) I read The Surgeon-General’s Report of 1988 from cover to cover, the whole 639-page, in-depth survey based on the work of dozens of eminent scientists from different fields, and acknowledged to be the most comprehensive study of the subject ever done: the tobacco abolitionist’s Bible.
I read about addictions of all types-to liquor and coffee and chocolate, and to drugs of every type and stripe. I read about behavioral addictions too: of love slaves and money junkies, risk-runners and fitness fanatics. Books on addiction to food, of course, overran the shelves. There was a lot to read, though other people’s addictions seemed excessive and unnecessary to me.
My own symptoms were more interesting. Violent mood changes, too much saliva, a need to chew anything, a lust for sweets, backache, pains of indeterminate origin. Also, I was having breaking-dependency dreams that I recounted for my hypnotist. He called it “growing pains.”
I’d started going to him after my first week, when I heard myself telling my son, “I don’t love you. I don’t love your father. All I love are cigarettes.” My son was grown, but still. The moment of fear sent me to Sandy Touchstone, appropriately named, with hair and eyebrows the color of I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter. He lived and practiced in a cluttered apartment on the Upper West Side, about $100,000 short of a river view, crammed with books and the kind of interesting garbage we used to find on the street in the sixties and transform into furniture: orange-crate bookshelves, chianti-bottle lamps, peeling old chests covered with bits of Indian cloth, the glints from the tiny mirrors flitting around the room.
The place was instantly familiar. In the living room, where all activities of life appeared to be concentrated except for the eating and eliminating (those were sequestered behind room-dividing curtains), two enormous armchairs confronted each other like monarchs of equal power. On the floor between them revolved a sophisticated-looking device, something between a barometer and an electroencephalograph machine, which I took to be part of the hocus-pocus, a New Age kind of gizmo intended to measure the rate and rhythm of breathing in the hypnotized subject.
Later, I learned it’s an air purifier. Touchstone is allergic to cigarettes, he explains; his parents were always smoking.
So were mine, I say. His were smoking at each other, he clarifies, justifying his allergy.
In any case, almost everybody’s parents smoked. Mine smoked all the time. I sat in the car between them on the bump, inhaling their air, their mystery, her unspoken words, the shifts in mood between them, unaddressed reproaches, unexposed memories of the world they had come from, their childhoods, the portion of Europe that had disappeared from the earth. We lived behind veils, my mother’s haute-couture wardrobe making her as glamorous as the fabled Elisabeth, Empress of Austria, the most beautiful royal of Europe. She had a dress with a wide border of large black spangles below the hips; she dazzled when she walked, auburn hair coiffed into an ornate chignon, black dress with black spangles, high heels, striding like an empress. She allowed me into her dressing room and I could watch the secrets of her beauty unfolding: the ball of cotton doused with eau de cologne mowing lanes of cleanliness on her neck. She spat onto the small block of mascara, frotted the caked brush across, touched it to the pale tips of her lashes. She put on jewels, asked my opinion, tried the emeralds, the diamonds, all of it tasteful. She straightened the seams of her stocking, she dabbed on perfume, touches of Femme at the ears, between her breasts. My father, when he came in, was speechless. She was always more beautiful than he could remember. He was permanently banished, like the Emperor Franz Joseph, from his Empress; she distanced herself from him in many ways. They had separate bedrooms; she was an artist and a lady, a grande dame, with the demeanor of a duchess.
She smoked first thing in the morning and first thing on waking in the night, Then she’d go downstairs in her creamy silk dressing gown, her hair tousled, her eyes puffy (like an owl, she called herself, eine Eule; she did a series of them, owls in lithos and woodcuts) and she made espresso, the kind we had then, with the flip-over coffee pots. Earlier, in the forties, she cooked her coffee the way they did in Prague, letting it boil up three times in the pot, removing it from the fire each time until the last, when a single large bubble would form over the liquid like a dome, and she’d turn off the gas.
Coffee and cigarettes, and she never allowed herself to weigh more than 127 pounds, at five feet, six inches. At the end, she lost weight drastically. I dreamed of carrying her in my arms; she turned into a cat, a cat dying as I ran through the streets of my childhood, the closed school, the closed church at the corner, the darkening avenues.
They both smoked, always. I loved the smell, the warmth, the haze it put us under. On the front seat of the Chevy, me between them breathing their smoke, listening to them speak the admixture of languages they used with each other-German and Czech and English, French, bits of Italian, Hungarian-I felt the safety of being a part of all that, of having drifted here from another shore, a bygone world, whose reality receded as we traveled, vague and dreamy, inventing our own landscape.
In Sandy Touchstone’s large chair, with only a few feet between us, I barely hear him. He mumbles, eats his words. He is primarily an eater, an inhaler. We exhalers are different, we cover the world with our own breath, we mark our territory, preserve it for ourselves.
“Eating,” Sandy says, “is harder to stop than smoking. You need to eat to live.”
My HMO is paying for this therapy, so I don’t argue. He gets started on his routine. I can’t hear what he says and don’t fall into any trance. But as he mumbles on, I relax for some reason, though I know he can’t put me under.
“What does smoking do for you?” he’s asking.
“It lets me breathe.”
“Yes. That’s what they all say.”
Ridiculous. I never say what they all say. I want to tell him that, but I’m too lethargic. Let it go. He asks me to breathe, breathe in through my toes, up my body, letting the breath clean out all the debris. (Later all this will be too embarrassing to repeat to anyone, but for the moment, in the huge armchair from which my legs don’t quite reach the floor, I do what he says.) A few more deep breaths like that, up from the toes, cooling as they chase through the body, and I am suddenly remembering-re-enacting, almost-one of my most persistent fantasies from when I was about eight or nine. It was summer. We’d rented a house near Tanglewood, in the Berkshires, a large tumbledown place with a stream on the property and a tiny path cut through a high meadow leading to my mother’s studio. Sometimes I modeled for her there. Her drawings of me show a girl with pigtails, striped shirt, features unfocused.
In that house I read the books left by the owner’s family: The Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew. But at night, in my room to the right of the stairs, I preferred telling myself stories before I fell asleep. All that summer, the story was the same.
A band of kidnappers scales the outside wall and come into my bedroom. They take me away to their gangsters’ den, a cave filled with blue, smoky light. There they make me take off my clothes. They put a lighted cigarette between my lips and make me dance for them. I dance, naked, at the center of the circle, the men looking at me with intense interest, the cigarette glued to the side of my mouth, my own little column of smoke rising in the wonderful blue of the smoky cave as I dance, dance, dance, dance.
“Yes,” I heard him say, “Good.” At the end of that session I was refreshed, even happy. It didn’t last long, though. By the time I reached my car the overpowering need, the physical one, was back and made me shake and cry and scream out the window at people as I drove home.
But after a few weeks the intense craving was gone. I was still anxious, though, gaining weight, having palpitations, unable to sleep. “I am allergic,” I told Sandy, “to the healthy life.” It would be just my luck to stop smoking and a week later discover I had cancer. That kind of thing is always happening.
When I stopped smoking, life didn’t improve. Yes, food tasted better, everything smelled better, but that only made me grow fat. My heroic battle was insignificant in the eyes of other people, and though I tried to perpetuate a belief in my own bravery, it faltered and finally became an embarrassment. Giving up cigarettes was my only accomplishment-of the month, the year, of the past two years. For how long, after all, can you base your self- image on your success at not doing something?
I gained weight. I hated my clothes, They hated me back, straining and pinching me as I walked, sometimes unwilling to let me sit down. The flesh was weak, sagging. When I went back to Sandy he suggested we “do a little work on self-image.” According to him, I wasn’t even fat, so why did I think I was?
Again I sat back in the ridiculously huge armchair. I closed my eyes, barely able to hear him as he asked me to breathe in the cool air through my body, picture dry leaves rustling in the wind, pull in the air, clean out all the debris inside, let the dead leaves go . . .
My mother and I are driving out to the beach on a sunny day, in the Buick convertible, the top down, the red leather seats gleaming. The wind is ruffling my hair, my new short hair. I am about thirteen, oversized, and I’ve just had a poodle cut finally, my pigtails cut off.
We’re driving toward the small bridge over the lagoon at the basin of the bay, several miles before the obelisk and the parking lots of Jones Beach. We can smell the ocean: the salt and the sweet, fishy decomposition, and we can see the shards of silver sunlight flash across the lagoon, making the water look like wrinkled silk dotted with white sails.
She is sitting tall in the driver’s seat, a scarf on her head. She’s smoking; the end of her cigarette is bright red with her lipstick, and a few specks of tobacco dot her lower lip. She’s wearing sunglasses, smiling lightly. She looks like a film star.
As we begin the ascent toward the bridge I see two boys with fishing gear at the side of the road. They are about fourteen or fifteen, and I quickly turn my face away. If they see only the back of my head, the bouncy curls of my poodle cut, maybe they’ll think I’m pretty.
We drive by. They whistle. I am looking at my mother. “That was for me,” she says, the smile still playing on her lips.
And then I am sobbing in the big armchair, me, the mother of an adult child, facing my mousy therapist and weeping as I never did then.
My mother has been dead for twenty years. There is no gravestone. My father chose cremation for her, as he chose it for his mother, as he later chose it for himself. I never saw her dead, of a particularly virulent cancer that had lain dormant five years, then lashed out and consumed her in a month. The ashes were scattered in accordance with the laws of New York state.
When she died at seventy she was still a young woman, still beautiful except for the skin blackened by radiation, the white roots of her still luxuriant auburn hair. The thoughts she was trying to express still remained at the tip of her tongue, unuttered.
It is now seven years since I gave up smoking. Seven is a magic number. Last week it was twenty years since my mother died. In my back yard, a large bronze sculpture of hers rises from its stand, wings outspread, an owl with its head to one side, feet of clay, unwilling to fly up. It is a beautiful piece, and on the anniversary of her death I planted black-eyed Susans around it. They were her favorite flower, they were in bloom when she died. We had them in large vases at the front of the room at her funeral, and her sculptures were there too.
That’s what remains. No body, no grave. The monument is of her own making, her ashes scattered; hers, and her mother’s before her.
The End of Those Things
IF YOU MOVE TO COLUMBUS, Ohio, from Farmington, Maine (as I did three years ago to take a job at Ohio State), you will not be impressed by the landscape. It’s flat there–as I write I’m back in Maine, escaped from Ohio for a third summer straight–and the prairie rivers move sluggish and brown. In Maine you pick out the height of flood on, say, the Sandy River by the damage to tree trunks and the spookily exact plane made by ice and roaring current tearing off the lowest branches of riverside trees. In Columbus you pick out the height of flood on the Olentangy or Scioto Rivers by the consistent plane attained by 10,000 pieces of garbage, mostly plastic bags, caught in tree branches.
Always in the months after I moved, I was looking for a place to run my dogs, Wally and Desmond, who are Maine country dogs used to the unlimited woods. We started on a subsidiary athletic field at Ohio State–long, kick-out-the-jams gallops across mowed acres, lots of barking and rumbling–then leashes to cross Olentangy Boulevard and a parking lot, so to the Olentangy River (my students call it the Old and Tangy), where “the boys” swam hard just across from the Ohio Stadium, known as the Shoe, in which the football Buckeyes famously play.
By the time the U. started building the gargantuan new basketball arena in the middle of our running field, the dogs and I had found Whetstone Park, a big urban preserve a couple of miles upstream, just across the river from Highway 315, which at that point is a six-lane, limited-access highway. Really, Whetstone’s a lovely place, well kept, used in multiple ways, though not much in winter, always the sounds of 315 in the air like a mystical waterfall with diesel power and gear changes. There are athletic fields, a goldfish pond, picnic areas, tennis and basketball courts, an enormous and important rose collection in a special area called Park of the Roses, just one section (about three miles) of an all-city bike path, tetherball, speed bumps, a library branch (in satisfying possession of my books) and fishing spots on the Olentangy River.
Which runs through Whetstone after a scary trip through a couple of suburban towns (Route 315 its constant companion), through a dozen new developments and several parks, past at least six shopping malls. Indeed, the detritus at its banks in Whetstone is emphatically suburban. Plastic grocery and other store bags of course dominate, festooning the trees in various colors, the worst of which is the sort of pinky brown that some stores use in a pathetic attempt to imitate the good old kraft paper of the now fading question, “Paper or plastic?” The best colors are red and blue, because at least there’s that moment of thinking you see a rare bird. Garbage bags are part of the mix, too, but heavier so lower in the trees.
Plastic soft-drink bottles come next in sheer numbers. These things float best when someone upriver has put the cap back on before they’re flung out of a car window. Or perhaps not flung but only left beside a car in a parking lot along with a neat pile of cigarette butts from the emptied car ashtray. Come to think of it, these bottles are probably seldom thrown directly into the river. Their walls are thin, so plastic bottles aren’t always the long-distance travelers you’d think. Cracks let water in, and silt. The bottles don’t end up often in trees, either, because they are light enough and smooth enough for the wind to knock them free. They are everywhere.
Tires occupy their own category and come in two sorts: with and without wheels. Those with wheels are heavy, but float, so they end up high on logjams and in trees; those without wheels get caught up in the silt and mud and form strange, ring-shaped silt islands or, buried deeper, show just a little tread as part of a sand bar.
Next are car parts other than tires. Like bumpers and doors and hoods. These must be dumped at riverbanks, is my guess, off the edges of parking lots built too close to the water, then carried by floods. Occasionally, too, a whole car gets into the water and slowly demonstrates the second law of thermodynamics: all things seek randomness. Entropy continues its work, and the car spreads downstream.
Aerosol containers make a strong showing in the river, those former dispensers of paint and freon and deodorant and foot spray and whipped cream and so forth. Indestructibly happy bobbers, these canisters are capable of long trips, clear to the Gulf of Mexico, I’m sure, and before long into the oxygen-free, Lake Erie-sized dead zone the Gulf now boasts. But some do get up high in tree crotches and last there for years–decades if they’re of stainless steel. WD-40 as a product gets a special mention here, for the paint on the outside and the oil film on the inside keep these cans alive and recognizable for years, wherever they roam.
Newspaper and other print matter turns up but disappears just as fast, leaching what it leaches into the water. A special category of printed matter that I ought to mention is pornography, which I often find high and dry, the park being its entry point into the river. Juggswas one magazine I happened across. It had many photos in it of women who’d had obviously harrowing operations. Also, some kind of trading cards that featured various young women naked. These I discovered clipped neatly by the bark flaps of a shaggy hickory at the eye level of a large adolescent or small man, footprints and dribbles beneath, the whole gallery abandoned after the riparian onanist had done his work.
Other items: prescription medicine bottles, but not in abundance; mattresses, common, usually appearing as skeleton only, that is, the springs; pens of endless varieties, mostly ballpoint, ubiquitous, some working; twisted shopping carts; tampon tubes of pink plastic made by Johnson and Johnson (plenty of these, from flushes, giving lie to the idea that sewage is well managed upstream); guard rails; lengths of rope of various types; lengths of cable, mostly Romex; joint-compound buckets (but these are fast fillers and sinkers and join the silt banks permanently with their tire friends and broken glass bottles).
Glass. Any glass that turns up, except tempered, as in windshields, at least turns back to sand, squandering its legacy of power and fire. The rare complete glass bottle with lid does float by, but these are goners, baby; first rock they encounter and it’s smash, step one toward beach glass for kids to find. Eyeglasses you’d think would be rare, but just in the last year I’ve found three pair, lenses intact.
Planks. Now, planks hardly count, being trees, but often planks have nails, which hardly count, either, come to think of it, being iron. Then again, planks are often painted, so they do add to the color stream–what’s that purple? What’s that turquoise? A bright yellow board I once saw up in a willow, was particularly startling.
Pieces of Styrofoam are important in this trash system. There are blue pieces often enough, occasionally green, but white is most common. Everywhere are the tiny cells that make up the product–billions of bright spheres, with samples worked into every handful of mud. Cups, sure, but these don’t last long. Coolers predominate. Then chunks, which must come from packing materials. Then even bigger chunks, unexplained on the Olentangy, though nowhere as big as the huge chunks found on beaches on the seacoast in Maine, parts of boats or floats or who knows what. And oh, yes, speaking of beach flotsam, boat parts are common too, even on rivers, and even in the Olentangy. Fiberglass boards, not too big, or rowboat seats, or canoe prows, rarely. This is not a sport river.
Though there are fishermen, and there are fish. Catfish and bass, most notably. The fishermen leave their own class of trash: broken fishing rods; lots of line tangled in branches above; bobbers hanging from power lines; lead sinkers. Lead is poisonous, of course, so a special mention. Also lures sometimes, hanging as well. Or just plain hooks in a branch, with dried-up worms. Left by little boys, mostly, though lots of retired men like to fish the river. Also men who don’t look old enough to retire, maybe some of those guys who have I’d Rather Be Fishing bumper stickers on their bumpers.
The fisherfolk also leave packaging for hooks and snells and bait and so forth. American Eagle is one of the brand names you see frequently in the mud. And Styrofoam bait cups are just everywhere, their lids not far behind, these packed by local concerns, sometimes with an address printed along with the logo so that I can mail the shit back to them (yes, I’m a crank). They may not be responsible for their customers, but they should care where their names turn up.
Some of the other garbage comes with brand names, too: Budweiser, Wendy’s, Kmart, Big Bear, Dow Chemical, General Electric, Goodyear, to name just a few. All these big names sticking up out of the mud! It’s like some apocalyptic ad campaign!
Now for the less tangible. Apart from the major chunks in the Old and Tangy River, there is the smell, and the smell must come from somewhere. It’s not horrible or anything, not even pervasive, but when the dogs get out of the river there’s not only the usual river smell–mud and oxygen and hydrogen and fish and pungent organic rot–there’s something else, one notch below healthy on the dial. My amateur analysis is as follows: equal parts motor oils, fertilizers and straight human shit. Also shampoo and detergent, the faintest sickening edge of perfume.
Which leads me to the foam, good bubbly stuff that can stack up to two or three feet high and is sometimes wishfully called “fish foam.” But fish foam hasn’t the density of suds, not at all, and smells like fish rather than perfume.
I mean, the river is a junkfest.
That’s the Olentangy before it gets to campus, and before it gets to the large skyscraper downtown of Columbus. And Columbus is big–bigger than you think, an Emerald City that pops up on the prairie. It’s the biggest city in Ohio, population about 1.25 million inside the Greater Columbus loop of 1-270. The city’s official slogan should be It’s Not That Bad, since that’s what people tell you, over and over. I think the actual civic slogan is More Than You Dreamed. True. And that huge school where I’ve just gotten tenure: 60,000 students, 15,000 staff, 5,000 faculty. Something like that. A city within the city. The Olentangy flows right through campus, unassaulted except by lawn chemicals and parking-lot runoff and frequent beer vomit on its way to the Scioto.
Columbus’s two main rivers meet at Confluence Park. This is not really a park at all but some kind of convention or catering facility on city land, probably the result of all kinds of inside deals. I took the dogs there once in my early search for dog-walking paradises. Confluence Park was hard to find. There are so many roads crisscrossing each other and exit ramps and overpasses that you pass the place ten times before you get to it, a scavenger hunt of signage, and then when you finally get there, it’s just another parking lot next to the river. Oh, and the catering facility and its big dumpsters overflowing with whatever party has just come through, making someone a nice private profit on public land, is my guess. And meanwhile, plentiful homeless people have pulled all the liquor bottles out of the dumpsters, for years, getting those last drops, then creating a midden of broken glass down along the water. No park at all, just a steep, rocky, trash-strewn embankment forming a point of land where our two protagonist rivers mightily meet, the greater silt carry of the Olentangy coloring the greater water volume of the Scioto. Here the Olentangy gives up its name, and the two are one: Scioto.
Which flows through the big city under several bridges, looking like the Seine in Paris (the Seine is a dead river, by the way, fishless, oxygenless, killed, unlike the Scioto). But the Scioto is not a navigable river like the Seine; the Scioto’s only four feet deep and heavily ensilted. I won’t say much about the replica of the Santa Maria that floats here, trapped in a specially dredged comer under the Broad Street bridge in a 500-year anniversary testament to a man who never reached the Midwest but gave his name to our fair city nevertheless.
Anyway, just below town the river pillows over a containment dam a couple of hundred yards wide, a very pretty fall, really, the funny river smell coming up, men fishing, bums and burnmettes and bumminas lounging, bike path twisting alongside, highway bridges, rail bridges, turtles on the warm rocks in spring, egrets, herons, seagulls, swans, kingfishers, beavers, muskrats, rats.
And no dearth of trees to catch the trash after flood! Maple, ash, cherry, gum, walnut, oak, locust, sycamore–on and on, dominated thoroughly by cottonwoods, which in the spring leave a blanket of cottony seed parachutes in a layer like snow.
The parks once you pass below the city are a little tawdry–poorly cared for, placed near the police impoundment lot and the railroad yards and light industry and a complicated series of unused cement ponds that once surely were meant as a sewage-treatment facility. Oh, also in sight of the practice tower for the fire department, which trainers douse with kerosene and burn for the recruits to put out.
On the northeast bank of the river is Blowjob Park, as one of my students called it in a paper, which I found because it is at the very end of the bike path. The path ends at a parking lot where lonely and harmless-looking men sit in cars gazing at each other and waiting for liaisons. The city sometimes arrests these men in courageless raids, not a homophobic act, says a spokesperson, for the men are said not to be gay exactly, but married guys looking for action of any kind, loitering and littering and certainly dangerous so close to the impound lot and the defunct sewage-treatment plant.
When I moved downtown, downriver, to German Village, a turn-of-the-century neighborhood–now trendy–of brick buildings, restaurants and shops surrounded by what some Columbusites have called slums in warning me, but which are just further neighborhoods, with less and less money apparent, true, but with plenty of lively children and sweet gardens and flashes of beauty along with the ugliness (which isn’t much worse than the general ugliness that pervades this prairie city and its suburbs) … when I moved downtown, I brought the dogs over there for a walk and a swim, two of their favorite activities. Down below the dam, I nodded to men fishing, and the dogs raced happily, and it wasn’t bad. You go down below the dam and the riverbank is broad and walkable in dry times–this first walk was in auturnn–and you see good trees, remnants of the hardwood forest, and chunks of concrete under the Greenlawn Avenue bridge and rebar wire and yes, examples of all the junk listed above, particularly those plastic grocery bags in the trees, but fifty-five-gallon drums as well, and broken lawn chairs used for comfort by fishermen and abandoned when beyond hope. Also some real dumping–an exploded couch, perhaps thrown off the high bridge, and some kind of switchboard with wires dangling, and a filing cabinet with drawers labeled Contracts, Abstracts, Accounts Payable and Personnel. It would not take much, I thought at the time, to figure out what local business all this came from. Might be fun to return it, but a lot of work. And probably they paid some asshole to cart the stuff to the dump, some asshole who kept the dump fee and emptied his truck off the Greenlawn Avenue bridge.
And down there too was the large concrete bastion of a culvert, labeled with a sign: Caution, Combined Sewer Overflow. In other words, when it rains, get out of the way. And if you think Combined Sewer Overflow just means rainwater washed off parking lots, listen: in the rich, dried mud right exactly there, the dogs and I hiked through 1,000, no, 10,000, plants I recognized (and you would recognize, too, at once) as tomato vines. How did so many tomato plants get sown? Well, tomato seeds don’t readily digest, generally pass through the human digestive tract unscathed. You get the picture.
And the doggies and I walked that sweet fall day. After the bridge it was hard going, a rocky bank strewn with valueless trash, but also bedding and clothes, particularly male underwear for some reason. It wasn’t too pleasant, and getting steep, so I turned back, but not before noting that across the river there was much parklike land, sandy soils under great canopy trees. Dog paradise. How to get there?
Wally and Desmond and I hiked back to the car, drove over the Greenlawn Avenue bridge (it looked very different from above), and found the entrance to what is called Berliner Park. I was excited. There were baseball fields and a basketball dome and a paved bike path along the river (a discontinuous section, as it turned out, of the Olentangy bicycle trail that also passes through Whetstone Park, mentioned before), and many footpaths to the water.
In the woods along the river there was the familiar trash, of course, multiplied enormously by the location just below the city and just below the dam. Here’s how it gets there: rain falls, perhaps during one of the many thunderstorms Columbus enjoys. The parking lots puddle, then begin to flow, carrying gasoline and oil and antifteeze of course, but also cigarette butts and cigarette packs, chaw containers, pop bottles, aerosol cans and many tires, just simply whatever is there. The light stuff gets to the river fast. Tires move a few feet per rainstorm, but they eventually make their ways to the river or get stuck trying. Shopping carts probably have to be actually thrown in, but shopping bags get there two ways–flow and blow. Kids’ toys are carried downstream just like anything else. And what can’t float waits for a flood. Anything can ride a flood! Anything at all!
It’s a mess. In fact, the part of Berliner that lies along the river is so bad that most people just won’t hang out there. That leaves it open to what I call lurkers, men who lurk in the trees and know that my two dogs mean I’m a dogwalker and not a lurker, and so not to approach. My dogs have even learned to ignore them, and I have, too. To each his own.
Except for the one lunkhead who threw a rock in the path in front of my wife, but he seemed just developmentally delayed, not malicious, and with the dogs along, gentle Juliet felt safe enough but hurried up out of his purview.
And once I found a note–poignant and plaintive, a personal ad aimed directly at its market, pinned to a log: “Loking for love. Grate Sex. Call me up or meat heer, meet hear.”
During one of our weekly phone talks, I told my mother about Berliner and all the trash. She said, Well, why don’t you and a couple of your friends get together and go in there and clean it up?
She’s right, of course. It’s easy to complain and not do anything. But, Jesus, the flow of garbage is so great that my friends and I would need to work full time till retirement to keep up just with the one park. Perhaps the city could hire a river keeper. I do pick up this bottle and that can, and fill a bag now and again. It’s the least I can do. Yes, the least. Okay, I’m implicated here, too.
Downstream a little farther there’s another storm-sewer runoff warning and the vile smell of unadulterated, uncomposted shit. The bike path goes on. It’s not a bad walk once you are past the stench, which takes a minute because there is also a honey-truck dump station right there, which you can see from the path, a kind of long pit where the septic-tank-pumping trucks unload. This stuff has a more composted reek, a little less septic, so there’s no danger of puking or anything. The dogs run on, free of their leashes because there isn’t ever anybody around here except lurkers. The dogs have no interest whatsoever in lurkers, and they love nothing more than a good stink. The path ends at a six-lane highway spur-and-exit complex, but not before passing a stump dump and a wrecking yard, 10,000 or so crashed cars in piles. Also a funny kind of graveyard for things of the city: highway signs, streetlight poles, unused swimming rafts, traffic cones. It’s not too inviting under the highway bridge; it’s frightening in fact, but if you keep going there’s a fire ring and much soggy bedding, a bum stop, and above you, up the bank and past a fence or two, the real city dump.
Here we (dogs, Juliet, myself) most commonly turn around and head back. I guess I’d be hard-pressed to convince anyone that it’s not that bad walking here. Really, it’s not that bad. The dogs love it. But they do get burrs, and Wally, the big dope, insists on diving into the reeking storm-sewer runoff, so we have to make him swim extra when we get upstream, where the water’s cleaner. And note: the city’s been working on the pump house. Lots of new valves and stuff, and the smell is really much less, if just as bad. I mean, I’m not saying no one cares.
It’s a nice place under the crap. The trees are still trees. Up in the trees, the Carolina wrens are still Carolina wrens. And the wildflowers are still wildflowers even if they grow from an old chest of drawers. And the piles of stumps are pretty cool to look at. And the great mounds of concrete from demolition projects, too, reminding me a little of Roman ruins. And the sky is still the sky, and the river flows by below with the perfection of eddies and boils and riffles and pools. And the herons are still herons, and squawk. And the sound of the highway is not so different from the sound of the wind (except for the screeching and honking and sputtering). And the lights of the concrete plant are like sunset. And the train whistle is truly plaintive and romantic, and the buildings of the city a mile upstream are like cliffs, and I’ve heard that peregrine falcons have been convinced to live there. And the earth is the earth; it is always the earth. And the sun is the sun, and shines. And the stars are the stars, and the sliver of the waxing moon appears in the evening, stench or no, and moves me. So don’t think I’m saying it’s all bad. It’s not. I’m only saying that the bad part is really bad.
One fine blue day after much spring rain, Juliet and I in joy take the dogs down to Berliner Park, oh, early spring when the trees are still bare (but budded) and all the world is at its barest and ugliest, every flake of the forest floor, every fleck of litter and offal visible, and the turtles are not yet up from the mud.
We get out of the car next to a pile of litter someone has jettisoned from their car (Burger King gets a nod here, and Marlboro), and walk down the dike through old magazines and condoms to the dam to watch the high water of spring roaring over. In fact, the normal fifteen-foot plunge is now only two feet, and the water comes up clear to the platform where we normally stand high over the river to look, laps at our toes. There are boiling eddies and brown storms of water and the unbelievable force of all that water smoothly raging over the dam at several feet deep and twenty miles an hour. You would die fast in that water, not because it is so very cold but because of the supercomplex and violent pattern of flow.
Juliet and I stare through the high chain-link and barbed-wire fence into the boiling maelstrom, absorb the roar wholly, lose our edges to the cool breezes flung up and the lucky charge all around us of negative ions as molecules are battered apart by this greatest force of nature: water unleashed. It’s a moment before we see the flotsam trap, where an eddy returns anything that floats–anything–back to the dam and the blast of the falling river. And the falling river forms a clean foaming cut the length of the dam, a sharp line, a chasm; the river falls so hard and so fast that it drops under itself. Great logs are rolling at the juncture. Whole tree trunks, forty feet long, polished clean of bark and branches. Entire trees, a score or more, dive and roll and leap and disappear, then pop into the daylight like great whales sounding, float peacefully to the wall of water, which spins them lengthwise fast or sinks them instantly, and disappear only to appear twenty feet downriver, sounding again, all but spouting, roaring up out of the water, ten, fifteen feet into the sky, only to fall back. Humpback whales they are, slapping and parting the water, floating purposefully again to the dam. It’s an astonishing sight, objects so big under such thorough control and in such graceful movement, trees that in life only swayed and finally, after a century or two of wind and bare winters, fell at river’s edge.
And then I see the balls. At least five basketballs, and many softballs, and two soccer balls, and ten dark pink and stippled playground balls and forty littler balls of all colors and sizes, all of them bobbing up to the wall of water, rolling, then going under, accompanied by pop bottles of many hues and Styrofoarn pieces and aerosol cans, polished. And a car tire with wheel, floating flat. This old roller hits the wall of water and bounces away slightly, floats back, bounces away, floats back, bounces away, floats back, is caught, disappears. Even the dogs love watching. They love balls, especially Wally, and are transfixed.
The tire reappears long seconds after its immersion, many yards away, cresting like a dolphin. Logs pop out of the water like titanic fishes, diving at the dam head-up the way salmon do (in fact, you see in the logs how salmon accomplish their feats: they use the power of the eddy, swim hard with the backcurrent, leap–even a log can do it!) among froth and playground balls and tires and bottles with caps on, balls and bottles and tires ajumble, reds and blues and yellows and pinks and purples and greens and blacks, bottles and aerosol cans and balls, balls and tires and logs and tree trunks and chunks of Styrofoarn, all leaping and feinting and diving under and popping up and reappearing in colors not of the river: aquas and fuchsias and metallics, WD-40 blue and Right Guard gold and polished wood and black of tire and crimson board and child’s green ball and pummeled log and white seagulls hovering, darting for fish brought to the tortured surface in the chaos of trash and logs and toys, all of it bobbing, the logs diving headfirst at the dam, the balls rolling and popping free of the foam for airborne flights, and tires like dolphins, and softballs fired from the foam, and polished logs, and a babydoll body, all of it rumbling, caught in the dam wash for hours, days, nights of flood, rumbling and tumbling and popping free, rolling and diving and popping free, bubbling and plunging and popping free.
In Faculty Block Number Five
The Woman Who Said No
An Interview with Daniel Woodrell
Poetry Feature: Charles Simic
Featuring the following poems:
- Angel Tongue
- Burning Edgar Poe
- Looking for Trouble
- The Tunneling
- Miss X
- Madge Put On Your Tea Kettle
Poetry Feature: Eric Pankey
Featuring the following poems:
- The Cold War
- The Anniversary
- To the Magpie on the Roof of the Manger
The Cold War
My mother nods off. A lit cigarette
Elegant between her long fingers.
The arm of the divan riddled with burns.
Lightning, out of sync, preens the maple.
What is the square root of yesterday?
How did I solve for the door ajar?
There’s no end to it, my father would say.
My mother nods off. A lit cigarette
Elegant between her long fingers.
The burns like islands on an oily sea,
The obsolete map of an archipelago
Where the Bomb was tested year after year.
There’s no end to it, my father would say
And ask me to warm up his drink.
The unknown, the variable we call it.
Upholstery smoulders more than it flames.
Lightning, out of sync, preens the maple.
What is the past but everything:
The not-there between memory
And foreground, between suffering
And a moment’s hardened amber?
Still, each word gives way to silence
And I must reinscribe this scrawl,
This impermanent graphite ghost
As signature on these torn scraps.
In the end I will be voiceless.
The earth that held me down will hold
Me once again, unforgiven,
Without a plea. Once, I listened
And heard far off the fire break
Ignite with the song of crickets.
I heard a cold wind at loose ends
In the brambles and witch hazel.
I heard my brother say his prayers,
Not as rehearsed words enacted,
But with a child’s solemnity.
I heard the snap of a dog’s jaw,
The thud when the truck knocked it down.
I heard the refrain, I ain’t got
Stuck as these lines stick in my mind,
But the rest of the song was lost:
Each unsaid word driven in edgewise,
A silence etched by burin and acid.
In the shallow domain of light’s fitful flare,
An aviary of silt and minutia drifts:
Pinpoints of citron, lilac, and sulfur,
Chips of shell-pink, a medusa’s plume and ruff,
Coral cleaved and sundered, its dust offcast,
A constellation untied from its mooring.
How close the splintered sun that bracelets my wrist.
I reach down through to the edge of my seeing,
Beyond the fan vaulting of bladder wrack,
Through eel grass, through fallow shadow realms,
But I cannot pull you back to the surface,
You who are the body of confession,
The cold weight of water that unearths a grave.
The night above you is a capsized hull:
No air finds its way through the caulked seams.
How long did the crescent moon trawl in the wake?
How long before the wake itself collapsed?
Before North and South held the same compass point,
Marked the same unfathomable distance home?
Nothing can hold the body for long.
Burned by salt’s caustic, ropes would frazzle
And a canvas shroud, rived and flayed,
Would let loose the dark matter of its cargo,
Thus I offer only provisional words:
Each a winding sheet of reef wind and white wash,
Each a tattered disguise for the travesty.
From a distilled essence of quartz and rose,
From a gramarye of psalms and waves,
From strewn stones and a hazel rod,
I have built this empty tomb for you.
Let its fretwork of shadows be your raiment.
Let thunder’s phosphor light your way.
Grief is weightless and hard-shelled
Like a seed carried on an updraft,
A seed set down on hostile soil.
I have built this empty tomb for you,
Which the tide will bury and not exhume.
Sleep as silt sleeps in its dark fall and depth.
Sleep as silt sleeps in its dark fall and depth.
The wind-brindled marsh surface,
The dunes overthrown by flood tide,
The length of Salt Island Road to its dead end,
Are now a charcoal stain burnt beneath zinc and titanium,
The abandoned gestures of a night’s edge.
Nonetheless, a fish hawk hunkers beneath the downpour:
A smudge beyond the blown rain, a ragged effigy
Of nothing I can honestly name. Yet in my idleness,
I ravel the hermeneutics of talon and wingspan,
Of updrafts, windsheer, and angles of descent.
I wipe the glass, but it fogs again. I wipe the glass,
But soon cannot see through the marks my hand has left.
To the Magpie on the Roof of the Manger
You hid each star but one in a shallow shadow box,
A relic-filled cabinet of curiosities,
And let the wind rifle the tinder. And let the wind
Refurbish the straw, the stalls, and the dovecote’s niches.
What happens to a moment held captive, a moment
Torn away, ransacked from the dull continuum?
In your beak, you hold a marble in which the world–
Shrunken, drawn long, upside down-is as round as this world
That deceives us with horizons and vanishing points,
The parallel rows of grapes that touch in the distance,
The far away where all is drawn together at last.
From here, I can even see myself in the marble-
Bent, distorted, the sky below me a blue pit
Over which I hang headfirst, confused like the damned.