As you have no doubt noticed, I’m having a hard time figuring out what to say to this blog lately, since my academic thoughts are all getting funneled into my dissertation. But two out of my three most recent posts have been collage-poems, so I figure I may as well share with you another poem in order to keep this place from going completely dark. Lately in places other than this blog I have been experimenting with another poetic technique of constraint, wherein I take every Nth letter of an existing, usually rather famous poem, and write a new poem connecting those words in the order that I found them. The best results of this I have been hoarding with the ambition of getting them published someplace, but tonight’s poem hits that place between “potentially publishable” and “do not show to anyone ever” that blogs so happily occupy — and besides, I think it’s kind of fun. Instead of a poem, I used “The Promised Land,” one of my favorite Bruce Springsteen songs, as my source text, because it’s my last night in Jersey until December. Enjoy.
Thirty miles into Utah and the
radio stops working. Barefoot driving
turns me part machine; soon the cops won’t know
who to tell to step out of what. They all said to live
in the moment, like a moment was a place where you could
wipe your feet and hang your hat. I don’t know anymore
what I’ve done, just that I’ve got a long way to go.
Your eyes can’t tell when somebody’s gone cold-hearted, so just
remember this: when you get cut and somebody else bleeds,
the dogs understand. Cut yourself into ribbons,
boy; believe in the dark spaces between them.
I’m heading straight for the twister,
so either you’ve gotta blow apart
your tomorrows or you’ve gotta leave the keys
in the ignition. They all said to live in the moment
like a moment was a goddamn split-level condo.
I believe in starting fires and running
for the horizon.
One of the things I seem to keep coming back to in this blog is the question of what can and cannot and should and should not be articulated. In my last post, I invoked the myth of Cupid and Psyche in order to argue that there is a value to keeping dark corners unlit, that certain experiences are impoverished by the telling. Today I’m going to investigate some critiques of that point of view from some experimental poets, and I’m going to connect all of this to a discussion of Burning Man, a yearly festival of art, free expression, and self-reliance in the Nevada desert that I have just returned from for the second time.
The Cult of Silence
Most mainstream US poetry, since at least the 1950s, has organized its emotional economy around a conspicuously absent center. Concrete details point to a an epiphany of resonant silence, where the emotional force of the poem is expressed through its very unexpressableness. Consider, for example, Robert Hass’ poem “Meditations at Lagunitas”. The speaker begins with a sort of critique of Platonism, arguing that concrete instances of things should not be viewed as degraded versions of their ideal forms. Then he turns to words, the bottom of Plato’s hierarchy (because they are imitations of imitations of the Forms), and argues that just “because there is in this world no one thing / to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds,” we should not think that “a word is an elegy to what it signifies.” (It’s tricky, of course, because all this is stated in the positive & not the negative, but the framing of the first few lines makes this criticism apparent.)
At this point, you might think that Hass is rejecting the numinous, vague world of forms — but as the end of the poem makes clear, he is in fact holding it more sacred than anything, so sacred that it cannot be described. The mistake is not believing in something beyond words, but failing to put that thing properly beyond words. As he thinks of his beloved, the speaker is driven to a series of recollections, presented paratactically in a series of concrete details, first about his childhood and then about the woman herself. The gaps in the parataxis point to what cannot be said, and the final chant of “blackberry, blackberry, blackberry” walks a weird line between signifying everything and signifying nothing: the true essence of those afternoons and evenings is safely hidden where attempts to explain it cannot limit or contaminate it.
“Meditations at Lagunitas” is one of my favorite examples of this kind of poem, but as you might guess, the premise that the most important revelations are beyond words can lead to a lot of really dubious poetry. Ron Silliman, probably the most widely-read poetry blogger today, pejoratively calls this tendency in mainstream US poetry the “School of Quietude” — this is the sort of writing more widely known as “workshop lyric” because it’s the kind of poetry that’s generally encouraged by creative writing classes. You know these poems, even if you’ve never heard these terms — this is the poetry of quiet, serene epiphany, often taking place in nature. Poets of this school would agree with the declaration in my last post that “love suffers in the naming” — these are what you might call reticent poems, which rely on evocative concrete detail. Silliman calls this tendency a “school” to emphasize that it’s just one way of making poetry, and should not be thought of as the “normal” from which avant-garde poetry “deviates.” (He claims, furthermore, that every single US Poet Laureate has been a member of the SoQ, with the sole exception of William Carlos Williams, who declined the position due to illness and never served.)
And if running an institutional hegemony that’s been crowding out other styles of writing for the past few decades weren’t enough reason to dislike it, the “School of Quietude” also has plenty of critics of its aesthetic practice. In Self and Sensibility in Contemporary American Poetry (1984), Charles Alteri characterizes this kind of poetry as “the scenic style,” explaining that these poems “achieve closure by a leap from the narrative to the visionary levels, as if sensitive experience reached its climax in moments of resonant silence” and goes on to criticize this approach pretty sternly: “finally, the pursuit of resonant silence may not allow the poet to say enough, may not purchase enough in vision to pay for what it costs poetry in eloquence, especially when a cult of silence makes it easy to luxuriate in vague emotions” (15).
Alteri’s critique gives us an economics of style, where silence is a poverty taken on almost monastically as a prerequisite to visions that may or may not turn out to be worth the sacrifice. But he clearly sees hypocrisy in this “cult,” in which an initial vow of asceticism devolves quickly into complacency — the silence that was supposed to make us all seekers has instead dulled that impulse and made us all either converts to or heretics of a new orthodoxy.
The Heresy of Eloquence
David Antin and Jerome Rothenberg were already heretics in 1965, when they began the poetry magazine some/thing with a manifesto railing against this aesthetics of resonant silence. It’s a problem for much more than poetry, they argue; the cult of silence is diminishing our ability to understand ourselves and others:
THE MOST TERRIBLE EXPERIENCE OF THE LAST THREE HUNDRED AND FIFTY YEARS HAS BEEN THE GROWING CONVICTION THAT THE MOST SIGNIFICANT ASPECTS OF REALITY HAVE BECOME UNSPEAKABLE WITH THE CONSEQUENCE THAT THEY HAVE ALSO COME TO FEEL UNREAL THEY ARE UNREAL
STATEMENT: I CAN CALL SPIRITS FROM THE VASTY DEEP
QUESTION: BUT WILL THEY COME
THE FEELING THAT SOME/THING LIES OUT THERE THAT WE CANNOT LAY HOLD OF IS THE FEELING OF THE INADEQUACY OF THE EXISTING ORDER IT IS THE DEMAND FOR A DIFFERENT ORDER THE CONDITION OF POETRY THE NEED TO GAIN GROUND
Antin and Rothenberg up the ante, then, when they say that the problem is not just the emotional economy of a particular style of poetry, but a general trend in consciousness. Once we start to treat our “most significant” experiences with reverent silence, these experiences start to feel unreal — and consequently become unreal, for what are they but feelings? The quote from Shakespeare’s Henry IV in this context is not about devils, but about emotions: you can name them, but will you feel them? Antin and Rothenberg want to turn this skepticism about the connection between words and experience into a positive force: instead of passing over in silence that which we cannot speak of, we ought to be constructing new ways of speaking.
A tall order, you say. Shall we concoct a new alphabet? Put together new words out of nonsense syllables? No and no: all Antin wants is for people to listen to each other, rather than assuming that the truth of another person is out of reach or, worse, already understood. In a piece entitled “tuning,” he writes,
at this point i think its very important for us to form a new notion of human rapprochement thats not based on understanding and i would like to contribute to not understanding i would like to contribute to human not understanding i would like to slow down the fantasy and illusion of understanding so that we could inspect the way and the pace at which we are approaching or leaving other people and see how far away they are and whether there is any reason or prospect for reaching them because one thing thats been promoted endlessly in the world is the fantasy of understanding the notion that its always possible desirable and costs nothing
For Antin, subjectivity is always in motion, a state of affairs belied by our traditional metaphors for understanding, such as “getting,” “grasping,” and “finding common ground.” In “gambling,” a companion piece to “tuning,” Antin says that such metaphors “reinforce the static sense of knowing whereby it seems a kind of standing instead of going” and suggests that “there is another way of talking about all this because wherever im standing ill only be there for a while.” Antin would like to replace these static notions of understanding with the concept of “tuning,” the process whereby musicians, by alternately sounding and listening, come to a point where their notes match up. He likens it to walking side by side, where the longer-legged person shortens her stride, and the shorter-legged person speeds up a little bit, so that they can move together harmoniously. When we walk we do this more or less unconsciously, but when we talk we ought to know that we are doing it; we ought to be aware that we are coming from different places, and that my words might not mean the same thing to you that they do to me, and we ought to take turns talking and listening until we are both satisfied that we hitting the same — or nearly the same — notes.
The Price of Vision
It’s not news that the Burning Man festival costs a lot of money and time, and hence is only open to a certain, economically privileged section of the population. Problematic as that is, I want to talk about a different kind of price tag. Charles Alteri set up this economy for us earlier when he said that “the pursuit of resonant silence . . . may not purchase enough in vision to pay for what it costs poetry in eloquence.” In the “School of Quietude,” vision is purchased by giving up words, by foregoing the hope that the numinous can be made concrete, by declaring eloquence to be worthless. At Burning Man the numinous is made concrete, again and again and again. At an art installation called CheckPoint DreamYourTopia, visitors were asked to fill out lengthy, complicated forms, endure harassment from border guards, and undergo interrogation by customs agents in order to be granted passports to the “Land of Dreams.” A giant duck with a disco-ball head that shot flames roamed the desert hosting a mobile party. The temple burned, as it does every year, sending the hopes, fears, regrets, prayers, and messages of the thousands of participants who wrote on its wooden walls literally up to the heavens in smoke.
None of these artistic feats could have been accomplished under an ideology of resonant silence. Burning Man has got an ideology of riotous noise, incarnated not only in the thumping electronic music that is audible at all places at all times of the day and night, but in all of the creations, costumes, and events that the participants bring to life. The giant duck you build may not quite be the giant duck of your dreams, but it makes your dream real for thousands of other people, and allows them to live their own dreams. Over and over again, you find yourself saying “fuck it — let’s do that” — let’s climb that tower, let’s swing on those swings, let’s light those lamps, let’s talk to that guy, let’s use that giant mechanical hand to pick up and crush cars. Any possibility that you don’t seize and turn into a reality there, you will eventually regret. (I didn’t bother to wait in line for the giant mechanical hand, and will basically never forgive myself.)
Furthermore, I’ve never been to a place where Davin Antin’s notion of “tuning” was more possible — people at Burning Man are far more open to one another than most people in what burners call “the default world.” One source of this is certainly the sense of camaraderie, the sense that you all share certain fundamental beliefs and inclinations. But I think another source is a heightened sense of subjectivity as something fundamentally in motion, like Antin describes — burners come from all over the world, from all kinds of different backgrounds and walks of life, and share a single bizarre space for a brief time. Moreover, the city is so chaotic and people keep such different hours that the likelihood of you seeing any one person a second time (unless you are camping with them, or try really hard) are pretty slim. All encounters are understood to be momentary crossings of paths: you fall into step with somebody, you talk, you go your separate ways.
I didn’t write on the temple. Part of it was that I didn’t know what to write, and part of it was the pervasive influence of the cult of silence: if I did try to write something personally sacred, wouldn’t I mess it up by writing it wrong, or writing it only partially, or failing to do it justice? This afternoon, David Antin reminded me that “the weakness of representation is also its strength . . . all representations are at the expense of other representations, and the only way to deal with this is to preserve some sense of their provisionality.” This, I think, is what Burning Man does in spades: every year, the man is burned, the temple is burned, and a whole city of 50,000 people vanishes without a trace when the festival is over.
The price of vision, then, is provision. If you want to keep what you hold sacred inviolate and pure, you are going to have to keep it to yourself. But if you want to bring it into the world and share it with others, it’s not going to come out in quite the way you imagined, it’s not going to last forever, and it’s probably going to get a little dusty.
Tomemos has just written a post that, in an alternate universe, I might have written myself. Honeymooning in Mexico, he decided that since it was so difficult to eat satisfyingly as a vegetarian there, he might as well permit himself to sample some of the local carnivorous cuisine. I have just returned from a vacation in New Orleans, which is also no picnic for us veggies — its chief cuisines include cajun, which is full of seafood and sausage, and barbecue. It also features a bunch of upscale restaurants run by famous chefs such as Emeril, Paul Prudhomme, and Susan Spicer, none of whom have any vegetarian entrees on their menus. For the first time in years, I began to experience “meat ideation,” in which I would picture myself stealing a bite from my brother’s plate of lobster with no intention of actually doing so, in much the way a depressed person crossing a bridge might picture herself jumping.
I did not succumb to these temptations. Unlike Tomemos, who says he’s “never been one of those vegetarians who is appalled by the thought of eating meat unknowingly,” I once wept openly in an airport food court upon discovering that the burrito I had been happily eating contained shrimp. It was embarrassing, and I wish I could be a little more relaxed about it, but I just felt so bad for those poor shrimp. (It was kind of like this.)
A high school girl that I tutor in writing recently told me that she’s trying to go vegetarian, but keeps falling off the wagon. I told her that she shouldn’t try to impose an absolute prohibition on herself, but rather to think of herself as trying to eat less meat. That way, eating the occasional hamburger doesn’t become a sin that makes her want to give up her whole project. I was interested to read that Tomemos’ carnivorous experiments actually reinforced his convictions:
In the end, though, I think this experiment ended up strengthening my vegetarianism. The fish tacos tasted good; they didn’t make me feel like I had been missing out on something amazing for fifteen years. At one point during our trip, I had a vegetarian tostada, and that was as satisfying a meal as anything else I ate in Mexico. Taste is possibly the most transitory aesthetic experience: even if you eat a meal that you remember for the rest of your life—and I’ve had one or two—it can’t make you want to live a different way. My feelings on eating meat are unchanged: for me, it is a moral issue, but not a moral absolute.
This was immensely reassuring, because it appeared that amazing things were happening on my family members’ plates and I was a little bit jealous. I’m sure they were great, but the truth was that I managed to eat pretty well. Most decent restaurants will fix you a vegetarian plate even if it’s not on the menu, something I didn’t learn until I’d been one for a few years. At first, I hated having to order them — I felt like I was being a nuisance, and I resented the restaurants for putting me in that position in the first place. Over the years I’ve gotten used to it, but it wasn’t until this trip to New Orleans that I began to actually appreciate the experience. You see, ordering a vegetarian plate gives you a unique relationship to the chef. Some will just give you a collection of their side dishes, which can be a bummer, but some will look around at their kitchens, see what’s on hand, and improvise something special for you. If taste is the most transitory aesthetic experience, it is also one of the most intimate, and I am grateful to all the chefs who have ever taken extra time to consider my needs. While my family members struggled with difficult choices, I would be sitting serenely with a closed menu, waiting to see what delightful thing the chef would do for me. I didn’t feel restricted — I felt more free.
One summer in college, I lived in a Buddhist monastery in Japan. One afternoon, I was assigned the job of sweeping out the spider webs from the temple’s windows. “But won’t that kill the spiders?” I asked. The monk responded, “We avoid harming other creatures when we can, but sometimes we have to. It’s not our intention to kill the spiders, but we need to clean our windows. You should bow to the spiders, say ‘Omitofo,’ and pray that they get reborn as humans.” This seems like a sensible attitude to me, certainly more sensible than crying over a few accidentally-eaten shrimp. We should honor all creatures, even and especially when circumstances beyond our control require us to harm them.
“Driving is a spectacular form of amnesia. Everything is to be discovered, everything to be obliterated.” — Jean Baudrillard, America
“Life, friends, is boring,” proclaims Henry at the beginning of Berryman’s fourteenth Dream Song. If you’ve ever been on a lengthy car trip, you know that there are few things more boring. Sometimes the road brings startling things into your path, but there are long, barren stretches in between. Sometimes you are blessed with a conversation partner, but even the chattiest of friends runs out of steam after a few hours. Sometimes there is something good on the radio, but most of the time it’s country, preaching, static, or something you’ve heard thirty thousand times before. And every few hours, you have to stop for gas, food, the bathroom.
Gabriel Gudding’s brand-new Rhode Island Notebook (Nov 23 2007, Dalkey Archive Press) is a book of poetry that was handwritten in notebooks as Gudding drove back and forth between Illinois and Rhode Island twenty-six times. It is a book that embraces boredom and transforms it, proving that the author is firmly in touch with his “Inner Resources.” It is a record of mileage, billboards, and bug splats, but it is also a record of loss, suffering, and redemption. Here’s an excerpt:
Are hot with coffee, you can’t
solve or remove or understand
suffering, you really can’t
understand anything. The best
you can do, 1:49am, while thinking is see
similarities among particularities jesus
what the shit am I talking about, best you
can do is to keep a loving heart 79000m Odo
844.7m fr Providence Tractor & trailer
in the ditch. Pee 2 AM
Newsflash: I don’t need
to get anything from the world.
I had planned for my series on the poetics of attention to proceed in an orderly manner from Frost to Stevens to Williams, etc, but Gudding’s book is such a stunning example that I felt compelled to inform you immediately. I wrote in my last entry that the demands of attention are always contradictory — we must be open to the world, but we also must perform the tasks of synthesis and analysis which require our abstraction from the world. Gudding’s text is constantly interrupting itself as he moves between these two modes. There are lengthy meditations on subjects such as literary narcissism, the importance of dung, Nancy Reagan’s life as a psychotic nightmarish eagle, and the meaning of suffering, but even these extended treatises are peppered throughout with the sort of information you see above — the odometer, the traffic conditions, the stops to pee. The very process of reading the book becomes a kind of exercise in attention; it’s tempting to treat this information as “noise,” skimming past it to get to the good stuff (Nancy Reagan’s nipples are made of nickel!), but it serves an important function — namely, it grounds the whole book in a continuous present. Even if you skip over these textual details, they’re there, as insistent and banal as the facts themselves, reminding you where Gudding is, what the weather’s like, and how long he’s been on the road. You are confronted with your desire to filter, to privilege information about Gudding’s mind over information about his body or his car.
It is a profoundly lonely book. The trips Gudding makes back and forth between Illinois and Rhode Island are undertaken in order to see his wife and daughter, who live half a continent away. Over the course of the book, the marriage falls apart and the trips become less frequent. Gudding is almost always alone in the car — very occasionally his daughter is with him — yet the book is not claustrophobic, because Gudding’s mind is always reaching outward, observing and fantasizing and reflecting. Though the divorce is the book’s main “plot” line, very few of its details are discussed. The real throughline is the gradual sea-change in Gudding’s emotional states: the narration is always heterogeneous, but at the start of the book we see him being flippant and vitriolic about a wide range of subjects (including, importantly, the start of the Iraq war and the concordant rise in patriotic bumper-stickers) more often than not. As the divorce starts to become real, he starts to report his emotional states as though they were more roadside facts, as here:
88m fr. Providence. Am
incredibly sad. blue steel
double-arch “dromedary” bridge
over Quinnipiac River 95m
The book is structured around the epic conventions of anabasis and katabasis, the descent into and march up from hell. As it progresses, and he begins to process his loss, the notebooks (which are still, as before, assiduously reporting road conditions) begin to reflect a change in focus and a change in resolve.
In the prologue, Gudding refers to a notebook as “a road through emptiness, a sea sewn to a spine.” It records your journey, but more than that, it makes your life into a journey, by giving it epochs with beginnings, middles, and ends even if they are bounded arbitrarily by the number of pages. I too am a keeper of notebooks; they are similarly full of debris, but when I start a new one or end an old one I am forced to give an account of myself, to take stock. In between, the things I scratch down furtively in train stations and coffeehouses become my definitive history. I opened one at random today, and found this on 4/13/02: “Am I really going to be doing this for the rest of my life? Putting words in sequences on a page? Shouldn’t I go do something useful, like build a bridge? But I am building a bridge, if you think about it. A bridge from me to ‘you’ even if you is just a page in a notebook or another part of myself. My tea is cold. Fuck.”
John Ashbery said in a 1981 interview that, “Most of my poems are about the experience of experience. I’m trying to set down a generalized transcript of what’s really going on in our minds all day long.” I love him deeply, but somehow my mind fails to produce transcripts like his: “The immense hope, and forbearance / Trailing out of night, to sidewalks of the day / Like air breathed into a paper city, exhaled / As night returns bringing doubts”. Gudding’s Notebook is much more like mind as I know it — full of nonsense, full of noise, easily distracted, self-obsessed, but occasionally brilliant. It is, in many ways, a relief.
“And if you don’t believe in love, what do you believe in?” she asked, mocking. “Simply in the end of the world, and grass?”
— D.H. Lawrence, Women in Love
When we made that last, familiar left turn just around the bend I was shocked. I had expected all the greenery of an east coast summer to come as a comfort, a sight for sore desert eyes, but instead the forest I grew up in just made me feel claustrophobic. When I was twelve, my family left the forest to visit New Mexico, and the desert terrified me. I was used to being wrapped in a sylvan blanket, and all those wide open spaces left me feeling exposed and vulnerable on all sides. Now that I’ve been living out west for three years, it’s the east that unsettles me.
In conversation, I’ve stopped referring to these trips as “going home” and started referring to them as “visiting my parents” or “going back east for awhile.” I may have only moved west three years ago, but it’s been fully seven since this town was a place I lived in for more than a few weeks at a time. And yet despite the shift in nomenclature, this place is incredibly important to me. I am continually blindsided by my own history: here is the pond where I never caught any fish, here is the movie theater where I had my exhilarating but awkward first date, here is the intersection where I forgot you can’t turn left on red.
But this place persists in my absence, and it changes. My parents have a new kitchen, my middle school has a new science wing, and they tore down the ghetto A&P and put up a shiny new Whole Foods. When I come back to visit, I can get into strange hallucinatory moods: I project the used bookstore on top of the Starbucks that has taken its place, and I prefer my daydream.
Over time, I’ve developed a series of rituals that help stave off some of this weirdness and make this place feel more like home. There is a local pub it is imperative I visit. There are records in my mother’s collection that I absolutely must listen to (I Got Dem Ol’ Kosmic Blues Again Mama!, Pearl, American Beauty, Nashville Skyline). And I need to take a long luxurious bubble bath with a glass of wine and a good book. But by far the most significant ritual is the whirlwind visit to New York City in which I try to see as many old, dear friends as possible over the course of a single weekend. I just got back from one of these which was a stunning success; the complex scheduling came off perfectly, and every minute of all three days was spent in the company of completely marvelous people.
Of course, it’s easy to be a visiting celebrity. You become everybody’s number one social priority, and you don’t have to pay for your drinks. On these trips I feel like a comet, arcing brilliantly through the sky and making headline news, only to disappear and leave folks to their pedestrian local constellations until my orbit brings me back around again.
I always come back from these trips feeling supremely loved. Sometimes on these trips I receive actual confessions of love, which I am always careful to take kindly but with a grain of salt — it’s easy to love somebody you see twice a year; it’s much much harder to love somebody you see every day.
I am presently smack in the middle of D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love, a book whose mystical sensibilities appeal to me greatly but whose gender dynamics leave me a little queasy. Yesterday on the train I read the following marvelously interesting passage: Rupert and Ursula (the names in this book are fantastic) are acquaintances who have recently had one or two philosophical-type arguments, the most recent of which was about the nature of love. A few days later, Rupert invites Ursula and her sister Gudrun (I kid you not!) over for tea, and Ursula deliberately fails to bring Gudrun because she’s pretty sure that last conversation meant something important. Rupert immediately cuts to the chase: “I can’t say it is love I have to offer — and it isn’t love I want. It is something much more impersonal and harder — and rarer.” Rupert is suspicious of love for essentially the reasons that Kugelmass laid out and that I responded to a few months ago in our posts on Neruda. Rupert says, “There is a final me which is stark and impersonal and beyond responsibility. So there is a final you. And it is there I would want to meet you — not in the emotional, loving plane — but there beyond, where there is no speech and no terms of agreement. There we are two stark, unknown beings, two utterly strange creatures, I would want to approach you, and you me.” O, the infinite otherness of the other!
Ursula is hurt. The word “love” is important to her; she thinks Rupert is dodging the question. She asks him, mockingly, whether he thinks she’s good looking.
“Don’t you see that it’s not a question of visual appreciation in the least,” he cried. “I don’t want to see you. I’ve seen plenty of women, I’m sick and weary of seeing them. I want a woman I don’t see.”
“I’m sorry I can’t oblige you by being invisible,” she laughed.
“Yes,” he said, “you are invisible to me, if you don’t force me to be visually aware of you. But I don’t want to see you or hear you.”
“What did you ask me to tea for, then?” she mocked.
But he would take no notice of her. He was talking to himself.
“I want to find you, where you don’t know your own existence, the you that your common self denies utterly. But I don’t want your good looks, and I don’t want your womanly feelings, and I don’t want your thoughts nor your opinions nor your ideas — they are all bagatelles to me.”
Rupert’s wish here actually sounds a lot like a line in the Neruda poem that Kugelmass and I were writing about: “Oh let me remember you as you were before you existed.” It is intended to be an expression of not just love, but more than love. Where love concerns itself with trifles such as a person’s physical presence and thoughts and ideas, this kind of regard concerns itself with deep spiritual truth — a mystical truth that is beyond attributes and is only and purely essential. While I appreciate that Rupert’s vision tries to be honest about the isolated human condition, I also think that it’s total bullshit. Rupert is such a thoroughgoing narcissist — or such a coward — (and when is there much of a difference?) — that he cannot imagine what it would be like to actually deal with another person. He would rather strip away all of Ursula’s specificity than try to understand it. He keeps insisting that his ideal model for their relationship is two stars in orbit around one another, holding one another in balance. But the problem with loving stars or loving comets is that they are nothing but points of light. You can’t tell one from another, and you can’t ask them to tea. And what is this hidden inner self, and how would Rupert come to know it at all? All he can ever get from Ursula are the outward, physical signs of her inner self, and to reject those is to reject the real, material person in favor of a fantasy.
This is why I smile gently and change the subject whenever a person on the east coast tries to tell me about their undying affection. What is your affection for, sir? How often do you and I even speak to one another? This town is not the only thing that’s changed; the people in it must inevitably see me with the same hallucinatory vision, projecting the girl with pigtails on top of the one with short-cropped hair. And yet it would be entirely wrong to say that my friends here and I don’t share real love. I miss them when I’m gone; I care about them deeply. A case could even be made that my faraway friends and I take our relationships with each other much more seriously than my day-to-day friends and I generally do, because our time together is so precious. But if we call this love, is it not the love of shadows?
In the weeks leading up to my family’s Christmas trip to New Orleans, there was one question I had to answer more often than any other: “Are you going there to do charity work?”. The answer was an uncomfortable no; we were really just going there to eat, drink, and be merry. Often I would point out that merely by doing so, we would be pumping valuable dollars into the local economy — but this always seemed a bit flimsy; if we were going all the way there, why weren’t we going to swing over to the Lower Ninth Ward and pick up some debris?
To visit New Orleans these days is to be confronted with an intensified version of the ethical dilemma we first-worlders face every second of every day: with so much suffering in the world, why am I not doing anything to stop it right now? Any answer to this question makes us queasy: “I do what I can,” “I vote with my dollars,” “am I ethically required to sacrifice comfort?” In New Orleans you are faced with this problem immediately: on your way to the relatively immaculate French Quarter, you must pass by neighborhoods that are still a shambles — roofs caved in, boats on top of houses, doors boarded up and still bearing the spray-painted body counts of the initial rescue operations.
But in many neighborhoods, including the French Quarter, the damage is much more subtle. A cracked window here, some missing shingles there, and you begin to notice with discomfort your temptation to read all the decrepitude you see as evidence of the hurricane. But this can’t be right — surely there were always poor neighborhoods in this city; surely there were abandoned buildings before the disaster struck.
The locals make it easier on you by being extremely friendly. No matter where in the world you go, you always feel a little gauche when you’re a tourist — but the people you meet in New Orleans go out of their way to make sure you feel welcome and are aware of how much they appreciate having you visit. My family wandered into a cemetery we happened to pass by, and wound up being given a guided tour by a toothless old caretaker who was just thrilled to have us in his city. He offered to let us climb into an open, empty tomb for a photo opportunity. “There are no human remains inside!” We declined.
In the courtyard of a bar on Bourbon Street one night, my family was startled out of quiet conversation by a man getting down on his knees and declaring, loudly, his love for his wife. We laughed and applauded, and then talked to the couple: they had met in the Superdome during the hurricane. Now they lived in the neighboring town to which they had both been relocated by the government; they refused to move back to New Orleans because they trusted the fate that had brought them together via their uprooting.
Tonight, back home, while I was waiting for my friend Jeff to change his clothes so we could go out for the evening, I saw a scene of Miyazaki’s Spirited Away that moved me deeply. The protagonist, a young girl, is riding on the back of a dragon that is soaring through the sky when suddenly she recovers a memory. She leans over and whispers in the dragon’s ear something along these lines: “When I was a young girl, I lost a shoe in the Kohaku River. When I tried to get it out, I fell in, and I almost drowned. But something pulled me into shallow water. Your real name is ‘Kohaku River.’ You were a river spirit then, and you saved me.” At this revelation, the dragon turns back into a human boy and the two of them begin plummeting through the sky. The boy is overjoyed at being reminded of his true name, and the girl is crying tears that, because the two of them are falling so fast, drop upwards into the sky, leaving a trail from the heavens back to the earth.
This moment of recognition is every moment of recognition. Sometimes you meet a person and you love them immediately, and you don’t know why. You wish there were a story like this: you were a river spirit then, and you saved me. You wish you could cry tears up to the heavens.
I have been home, visiting my parents, for about two weeks now. Ever since I arrived, my mother has been hounding me to read a particular essay by Barbara Kingsolver called “Small Wonder.” I liked The Poisonwood Bible very much when I read it a few years ago, so this morning I finally made time for it. It’s a post-9/11 essay about how to deal with tragedies that are not your own, though they are kind of your own by virtue of being anybody’s at all. Her solution is beautiful: “It’s the same struggle for each of us, and the same path out: the utterly simple, infinitely wise, ultimately defiant act of loving one thing and then another, loving our way back to life.”
Probably your newest love is not the river spirit who saved you. The river spirits do not seem to save many people these days. Back home in New Jersey, the D has fallen off the “CARBORUNDUM” sign, and Amboy Cinemas has been closed and abandoned for years. There is no hurricane to blame. But love? Love is everywhere.