In my mother’s battered copy of Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind, she wrote a single word in the margin of page 29. Ferlinghetti’s nearby lines are
Don’t let that horse
eat that violin
cried Chagall’s mother
kept right on
A bit to the right of the word painting, in faint but, after more than sixty years, still-readable pencil, in my mother’s distinct all-caps handwriting: “YES!”
A Coney Island of the Mind was everywhere in the late ’50s and ’60s. My mother’s copy is a New Directions paperback published in 1959. The eleventh printing, according to the copyright page. There’s the familiar black-and-white cover image of, presumably, Coney Island at night. Dark, tower-like buildings festooned with lights. Something fantastical about the photograph, suggesting a wondrous, hedonistic carnival. My mother’s copy is well-worn; the pages aren’t crisp but rather flimsy, thumbed, as if she read it over and over again.
Why that particular line caused her to react and talk back to the poem, it’s hard to say, but she probably thought it was bold that Chagall went ahead and let his horse eat the violin. My mother never much listened to her mother’s advice, either. In 1959, she dropped out of Simmons College after a semester, married my father, and fled Massachusetts for Chicago. She was twenty-one. After an enormous wedding in Fall River—my father’s parents chartered a plane to ferry all their friends east—the two settled into a little apartment on North State Parkway in Lincoln Park.
Chicago, my god: my mother had never seen anything like it. I sometimes imagine those first few years. Not simply the sheer number of people, bodies; not simply the excitement of the frantic, day-to-day bustle on the sidewalks, the honking, the shouts, the laughter, the sirens, but how my mother also could feel the pulse, beneath all the surface noise, of a seething energy that seemed to emanate from the lake itself, brooding out there, just a few blocks from the apartment. Lake Michigan—radiant, glistening, and yet at the same time, at night, especially at night, menacing and fathomless—came to embody how my mother felt about the city in general: it was a place where anything was possible.
She would have bought her copy of A Coney Island of the Mind at Chicago’s mighty, now-vanished citadel of books, Kroch’s and Brentano’s, on Michigan Avenue. Five floors of books and light and books and books. My mother wasn’t a beatnik. She’d married an up-and-coming lawyer and they lived in an apartment building alongside other young professional men and their wives. She was, of course, a Kennedy Democrat but, no, not a beatnik. I’m not sure she would have known what one was exactly, but she’d heard about Ferlinghetti’s book and people like Allen Ginsberg and the nutty goings-on in San Francisco and she must have wanted in on a little of that action.
but then this dame
comes up behind me see
You and me could really exist
Wow I says
Only the next day
she has bad teeth
and really hates
I can hear my mother laughing at this, too, in Chicago in 1959. “Bad teeth and really hates poetry!” My mother was twenty-six and having the time of her life. Was Ferlinghetti a great poet? No, he never was, but he made my mother laugh more than once. And there’s life on the pages, which is all I can ask of any book, now and always. Wow I says.
Down the block from my parents’ apartment was a bar called the Buttery. It was at the corner of Goethe and North State. In Chicago we say “Go-thi.” The correct pronunciation can go screw itself. The Buttery was inside the Ambassador West Hotel, and my mother used to go there with her friends from the Alliance Française. My mother, who didn’t speak French, was invited into this cultural organization by a highbrow neighbor. You wore a black dress to the Buttery, my mother once told me. A sleeveless black dress, and you talked about France.
Husbands weren’t invited to the meetings of the Alliance Française. You went to the Buttery to see and be seen by other people. I think of my mother coming home after one of these nights. My father is snoring quietly, grinding his teeth in his sleep. My mother’s still giddy, so she flops onto the couch in the tiny living room, and, still wearing high heels, she reads a few more poems from A Coney Island of the Mind. She’s always preferred silence to music, my mother, but I can’t help giving the moment a soundtrack. Maybe a little Coleman Hawkins to accompany these jazzed-up poems. She doesn’t think of my father. He doesn’t exist. This isn’t the point; the point is—no, there is no point. Only my mother, young, so young, holding a book over her head and reading, a little bleary, but at the same time she’s not tired; if anything, she’s too awake.
In this copy of James Tate’s The Lost Pilot, there’s an inscription:
This is a permit for the present;
Take it with you.
It proves I live.
With all there is to hope, Mary
Not me—a different Peter. I found the book at the dump in town. There’s a small shed where people drop off books in grocery bags and cardboard boxes. Every Saturday the books arrive, more books. Sometimes people dump their books so they can keep their cardboard box. The Lost Pilot dates from ’67, the year Tate won the Yale Younger Poets Prize. In its day, it sold for a dollar forty-five. The biography on the back cover says he’s one of the youngest to win the Younger. There’s a photograph of the poet in a shirt and tie, holding an umbrella and leaning to the left, toward the edge of the frame, as though he were about to walk off his own book. Since finding the book at the dump, the only poem I’ve ever re-read is the title poem. The others, if I remember, were too witty for me. There’s one—I’m looking at it right now—called “The Loveliest Woman in Altoona, Iowa,” and it opens with these lines:
Tonight the loveliest woman
In Altoona is giving herself
To a dry-cleaning apprentice
Maybe I was wrong. Witty but not too witty. Maybe our first impressions are always skewed because we haven’t yet given ourselves over to a thing. We judge before we feel. But I do know that The Lost Pilot isn’t clever, and I probably knew this right away, which is why I return to it. It’s about Tate’s father, who was reported missing over Germany on what was supposed to be his last mission. At the top of the poem, just below the title, is this:
for my father, 1922–1944
That’s a poem in itself. To have a father who died at age twenty-two. No matter how young you are, he will always be younger. In death, younger.
In the poem, the father is orbiting. The son looks up and sees him, once a year, and he spins across the wilds of the sky. People are always disappearing. I re-read the inscription again. Peter did not hold on to this book that Mary gave him “with all there is to hope.” Who’s Mary? Who’s Peter? How long did Peter hold on to the book before he lost track of it? Or tossed it?
This is a permit for the present;
Take it with you.
It proves I live.
Mary may be quoting someone here. It may be Tate, and it may be that the three lines appear somewhere in this book, though I haven’t been able to find them. There’s a goodbye in these three lines, as if she already knew Peter would lose this book. Lose the proof of her. She might have hoped against hope, but I’m not sure she believed in it. James Tate lost his father before he knew the man existed. This is a permit for the present. There is no such thing, the present being the only term we have for what’s about to disappear. Mary had to have known.
In “Thinking About Unamuno’s San Manuel Bueno, Mártir,” poet Eleanor Wilner wonders about San Manuel, a “priest who kept his poor parish in the faith” in rough times by preaching about the glories of heaven. There was only one problem: he wasn’t buying what he was selling.
And San Manuel? Late in the story we learn
he did not believe in the hope
he kept alive believing as he did
(like his author) in the sustaining power
Can you suddenly (and with all your soul) believe in something you don’t even understand? Who is San Manuel? Don’t ask me. A character in an Unamuno story, apparently. Unamuno, a Spanish writer, if I remember, who was so important he went by only one name. Never read him. Will the list of books I’ve never read ever get shorter? To boggle myself further, I think of all that will be written after I’m gone. So not only the books I’ll never get around to but the books that have not yet been conceived. Sometimes I lie on the floor and close my eyes and read unwritten sentences. I got offtrack—this priest in a poem in a book I haven’t read… He doesn’t believe in the hope his own words inspire. Notice the space, the gap, the silence, the canyon between “alive” and “believing.” Poets probably have a word for it. I think of it as a deep breath, as Wilner inhaling as she thinks about this conundrum. Because what comes after “alive” changes everything, doesn’t it? Not the hope but the fiction. And yet fiction, by its nature, isn’t true, right? It’s made-up stuff, a web of lies. As in heaven is only a story San Manuel tells his people, and he believes, yes, in the story, but not in the existence of the actual place. It’s contradictory, beautifully contradictory. Let it be said that I’ve always felt simultaneously doomed by the news of the world and sustained—buoyed—by stories that describe (fictionalize?) that same chaos.
Eleanor Wilner, am I warmer?
And I sit outside here in White River—the sun is out, the snow is melting, my mother is partially vaccinated—and I’m nodding to myself like I’m in the know, like things are looking up and I’ve read Unamuno and we’re all going to be saved. Or maybe we won’t be saved, but we will have a story of ourselves being saved. As if San Manuel’s credo were my own: a belief that it’s not heaven but the metaphor of heaven that feeds my beating heart. Because isn’t a pulse, too, a kind of a metaphor? A story we tell ourselves?
Once, in a hospital in San Rafael, California, I listened to a heart monitor. I’d been admitted for eating not one but three—or it could have been four—pot cookies. Summer, Bolinas. This was at April and Gordy’s place. A birthday party. Our kids were running around like little hippie banshees. In the kitchen, on top of the refrigerator, were Gordy’s special “spicy” cookies for the mommies and the daddies. I wasn’t eating the cookies for the dope. I was eating the cookies for the cookies. Give me a cookie, any cookie—
My mother kneeling to tie my shoe. And at first I was dimly aware of what was happening, that I was seeing images—experiencing images would be better way of putting it—but at a certain point I no longer knew they were only images, or rather I knew and I didn’t know. My mother was tying my All Stars circa 1983, and at the same time I could see, clearly, my own bare feet rooted in the grass. The kids were zinging around me, and other parts of my, what—consciousness?—were starting to fling themselves all over. More faces, voices, visions. My ex-wife, my father. I went into the little outhouse April and Gordy had built. A long story, but they had no indoor plumbing. It was Bolinas. April and Gordy lived in a treehouse. But the outhouse was outfitted comfortably, and I stretched out on the little plush rug, trying to right my ship, but this was becoming impossible because I could feel myself rotating like a rotisserie chicken, and my ex-wife—why am I using this term?—Julia, Julia was screaming. No, I’m screaming. No, we’re both screaming and it’s like we’re back at the tennis courts at Dolores Park in the middle of the night, clawing at each other. No, it wasn’t like we were back at the tennis courts; we were at the tennis courts. And somewhere else, like in the next room of my brain, my father was lecturing me about keeping a car clean, how a clean car always runs better, and I start throwing food at him—I’m holding a bag of groceries—throwing bananas, a can of creamed corn, and Julia says, because the membrane from the two rooms is so thin, “Even when you tell the truth it comes out a lie,” and my father says, “The floor mats, too—you have to vacuum the—”
And somebody’s pounding on the outhouse door and I shout, “One minute!” because I’m concurrently aware that I’m an idiot dad at a birthday party and that Katie’s out there somewhere talking and laughing, as is our five-year-old daughter—
I get up, fling myself out of the outhouse, and take off up the road toward our house. Because now I’m hyperventilating also, and I believe what’s really happening is I’m having a heart attack. Die at home, I’m thinking, best to die at home. I spot someone’s bike leaning against a toolshed. I take it and float: Who needs pedaling?
“—or if you don’t have a vacuum,” my father says, “you can always take the floor mats out and beat them with a mallet…”
Katie says that when she got home, she found that I’d turned on all the faucets and the bathtub was overflowing. I was on the kitchen floor moaning. I told her I needed an ambulance. She told me I needed to seriously calm down. I told her I most definitely needed an ambulance, pronto, and she said fine but that I was going to be embarrassed tomorrow and I said, “Tomorrow I’ll be dead,” and this went on for a while because the ambulance had to come from San Rafael.
“Where’s the kid?” I ask.
I went out into the yard and did laps around the collapsed chicken coop. Katie came out onto the deck with a book and watched me for a while before she went back to reading. I tried to tell her about simultaneity, how I finally understood it now, how the past and the present—multiple pasts and maybe there’s more than one present, too, and none of it is linear—all played in a loop, and if it weren’t for my heart imploding—
She looked up from her book. “Look, you’re high—you’re very, very high,” Katie said. “You have no clue how boring—”
“And Julia and I are still on the tennis court, we haven’t left, we’re still—”
“Good luck with your heart attack.”
She went inside, leaving her book on the chair.
“Pot cookies,” Katie told the paramedics, “multiple.” And they loaded me up and carried me away.
At the hospital, I needed no medical attention, though I think they might have given me an IV to be able to charge me something. The ambulance ride alone turned out to be 1,500 bucks. A nurse with huge saucers under her eyes told me to take it easy, to try and stop talking, that she had patients to attend to, and then pulled a shower curtain around me, and I remember feeling cocooned in my bed, exhausted, not yet embarrassed, a little amazed. The images, the voices, dissipating back into memory. That’s when I began to listen to the intermittent beep… beep… beep of someone’s heart monitor. Maybe it isn’t the throb itself but the beep that speaks for the throb? The beep, the beep, the beep. And here I return to Eleanor Wilner. Literary criticism while still on a residual high? Why the hell not? Yet I hope, should she ever happen to see this, that Wilner—who’s without any question one of our greatest poets—will forgive me for dragging her into a stoner story. But I think again of San Manuel, whoever he was. How he, according to Unamuno, didn’t need to believe in the story itself in order to believe in its power. For better or for worse. Is this making sense? Maybe I’m still a little baked. But if I don’t believe in the heart, maybe I can at least believe in the beep?
Katie parts the curtain. “You need to eat,” she says. “I brought you a muffin.”
A fat, white, Protestant hardcover. John Cheever’s Journals. It collects twenty-nine loose-leaf notebooks covering over thirty years. I read the last entry this morning. I’ve been skipping ahead in biographies lately. I do this less from morbid curiosity—though I’m guilty of this too—than from an urge to explore a theory that toward the end might come a distillation. That as a person deteriorates, physically or mentally, they are more likely to cut to the elemental chase.
Today is no different from any other recent day. I’m still cut off from other people, though this I don’t mind very much. These hours I spend alone in this old hotel are a strange gift. A couple of cooks, on break from the restaurant, are down in the alley. I can’t hear what they’re saying through their masks, only their laughter. Also, the wind moans a little through the warp in the window frame. The paper towel I stuffed in the gap isn’t doing any good. Cheever’s last entry describes how he’s just barely made it up to his second-floor study, to his typewriter. He can’t understand what’s happened to the discipline, to the iron character, that brought him up here day after day after day for all those years.
Then Cheever moves, without transition, into these lines:
I think of an early dusk, the day before yesterday.
Already, this is strange. Shouldn’t it read: I think of early dusk the day before yesterday?Why the unnecessary an? Doesn’t it make it sound as if he’s speaking about multiple dusks? But a day has only one, right? Cheever, never a sloppy writer, continues:
My wife is in the upper garden planting something. “I want to get these in before dark,” she will have said. A light rain, a drizzle is falling.
Notice the oddness of this tense shift. The detail Cheever remembers, from the day before yesterday, is of his wife planting in the garden, and he remembers it, recounts it, as we often do, in the present tense. But rather than continuing in the present, he makes this abrupt shift: “she will have said.” What tense is this? Future conditional? Is that a thing? Whatever it is, Cheever’s grammar here is unlikely the mistake of a terminally exhausted man. It seems too deliberate. It’s the sort of phrase a person might use to indicate what would typically happen in the distant past. For instance, this, from a story I’ll never finish:
My mother will have said goodnight in that silent way she had, without moving her lips. You’d hardly hear it but you knew she said it. Good night.
I wonder if, in beginning to describe the dusk before yesterday, Cheever starts to see further into the past. His wife out there in the half dark, planting. She says something to explain herself, and what she says is what she will have said on many other nights like this one. “I want to get these in before dark.” The man will be dead in a few days. It makes sense that time conflates, that one dusk becomes other dusks, becomes all dusks.
I look out the window. A light rain, a drizzle is falling. Down in the alley the cooks are still laughing.
In the opening pages of Bette Howland’s memoir, W-3, she describes the immediate aftermath of swallowing a bottle of pills. Nothing earth-shattering happened. She says she pretty quickly regretted what she’d done, but not in a frantic way. She didn’t run into the street shouting. She called her doctor and got the answering service. She told the answering service what she’d done. Then she waited for the doctor to call her back. “That was all. Nothing happened. No stealth; no reckoning; no leaden weight.”
Howland’s prose is as flat as it is harrowing, and this is what gives it such force. She writes: “I pretty quickly regretted what I had done…” Pause here and just think about it. You feel that regret right away, but you also know that soon enough you’re going to feel even more tired than you already feel. That there’s not much time; that very soon sleep will trump all. And what’s easier to give way to than tiredness? Howland got lucky. When the doctor called back and he received no answer from her, he called an ambulance. But, again, I’m trying to remain in this kind of nether space where she was nominally still awake and had a sense of things slipping away. Maybe this sounds morbid. Maybe these sorts of speculations are where morbid curiosity comes from in the first place. It had been on her mind for some time, she tells us, before she shook the pills into her palm and swallowed them—all of them. She was dealing with money troubles, the pressures of raising two boys in Chicago as a single mother. And yet: so soon after the act itself, regret. As if both the act and the regret were lying in wait for her and now would compete with each other, the act having the distinct advantage. Regret like a silent passenger who must have been there all along. How feeble, though, compared to the mighty indifference of that impending sleep.
Howland doesn’t dwell on this, and I shouldn’t, either. But it might be because she had so little time. You can’t dwell on anything when you’re up against the last clock in the world.
Evidently I had gotten undressed, a creature of habit, and lain down between the sheets in an orderly fashion. I never heard the telephone.
There is no daylight between the last two sentences. The great power of sleep, such an accurate metaphor for death. No phones ring. “I have never remembered it,” she writes, “it was just as if no one was home.”
Bette Howland came out on the other side, but not before spending months on a psych ward populated by an indelible cast of characters, which is what W-3 is about, the people she encounters and lives among.
Now, this is going to sound weird, but lately I’ve begun to read with my eyes closed. I’ll drop off in the middle of a sentence and go on reading. I don’t mean I fall asleep reading. I mean I keep reading after I fall asleep. Ghost sentences. There’s a scene with Howland and a psychiatrist. It starts with a sense of hope. “This was what we were in the hospital for,” she says. To have therapeutic conversations with doctors. That’s how you got cured. Fat chance of this, Howland understands almost immediately.
“Now how about sex?” asks Dr. Doremy, clasping the edge of his steel desk and rolling himself up to it… I say it’s really very important; but then again, it isn’t everything…
“OK. Good,” the doctor says, and here’s where I nodded off, filling in what happened next myself, sentences I can’t quote here because they made sense only to my unconscious. This is starting to sound almost mystical and I’m about as mystical as a drain cover. It’s just something that happened. The cadence of Howland’s prose—so direct it’s knifelike—leaked into my brain and I went on reading, eyes closed and drooling. I listened to Howland and the doctor talk until the meeting was over and Howland could go back to the ward and continue being nuts. Though she (and most everybody else on W-3) is about as sane as you and I are—that is: some percentage sane, some percentage otherwise.
No revelation here. As I say, Howland endured it. The sleepless nights, the monotonous days. Newcomers always protested, at first, that they didn’t belong there. What? Me? Here with these loons? But that ends up being the point. Nobody, no matter how troubled, burdened, wounded, belongs in a place like W-3. As Howland puts it with typical unflustered honesty: “The patients existed for the sake of the hospital, not the other way around.”
I understand the obsession some people have with Primo Levi’s suicide. On April 11, 1987, the coroner’s report says, Levi hurled himself from the landing at the top of four flights of stairs. Evidence points to the depression he’d been experiencing for some time as the likely cause. There are those, however—including his widower and a close friend—who argued that it must have been some sort of accident, that as a chemist Levi would have known countless other ways to do himself in, ways that wouldn’t risk his possibly becoming maimed and surviving. While this sounds logical, I’m not quite persuaded. If someone is suicidal, I’m not sure they would fear injury, mortal or otherwise.
Still, it’s tempting to want to reject depression as the cause. A man who defied death with such tenacity. You wouldn’t think depression could undo him. Not Levi. Of course, we know that it can and does undo so many, and that there’s evidence that torture survivors are even more likely to succumb. Still—still—when your books stand as bulwarks, it’s not easy to reconcile. Again, not because I don’t understand but because I desperately don’t want it to be true. I want to believe it is at least possible for a single human being—and, if anyone, Primo Levi—to overcome anything. As soon as I say this, I have a counter-thought: What if it was his depressive nature that helped him to endure the camp in the first place? Allowed him some kind of remove from what was happening?
The only certain things we’ve got are his sentences. They remain intact, whole, and somehow, ultimately, uncontradicted by how he may or may not have died. Unlike a body, unlike a mind, the pages he left us can’t be silenced. In “Gold” in The Periodic Table, Levi describes meeting another prisoner in an Italian prison. This is before he is transported to Auschwitz, when he is still being held by the somewhat hapless Italian fascists. It is a freezing night and the fascist guards allow the two prisoners a few minutes of heat in the boiler room. This other prisoner isn’t a partisan; he’s been arrested for smuggling contraband. Soon, unlike, Levi, he’ll be released. To pass the time, the two begin to talk, and the smuggler tells Levi a fantastic story. He says there’s a stretch of river that’s become a birthright in his family. And you know what? Gold runs through it.
It’s the water that drags it down from the mountain and piles it up at random, there’s some in one bend of the river and none in another. Our particular bend, which we have passed from father to son, is the richest of all: it is well-hidden, very much out of-the-way…
The smuggler tells Levi that if their situations were reversed—if Levi were a soon-to-be-released common prisoner, and he, the smuggler, were a Jew in Levi’s shoes—he’d tell him where the golden stretch of river lies. Levi writes that he felt wounded because he knew exactly where he stood and didn’t want to be reminded. A moment of awkwardness follows as the two prisoners stand by the boiler, with the guard slumped and dozing by the door, a tommy gun in his lap. The smuggler tries to smooth things over by saying that there isn’t that much gold, anyway, and that he takes just a little bit at a time. He also tells Levi, in an attempt to give him a sliver of hope, that should he ever get the chance, it’s best to pan for gold in good weather, when the moon is in its last quarter. The two go silent for a while. Levi’s grateful for the quiet. He’s grateful for the human connection. And he thinks about all the living he’s going to do if—if—he’s ever set free, including, he tells himself, panning for gold. Why wouldn’t he? Why not pan for gold?
Of course I would search for gold: not to get rich but to try out a new skill, to see again the earth, air, and water from which I was separated by a gulf that grew larger every day…
- Levi I appears in Notes in the Margin I (Dec. 2017–Jan. 2018), which can be found at culture.org.
Before his arrest in the mountains, Primo Levi worked in a lab in Milan. There he fell in love with a fellow chemist named Giulia. Oh, Guila! Funny, smart, irreverent, fearless. Always says what is on her mind and never, ever minces words. She tells him up front that she has a fiancé, that he has no chance with her whatsoever. Still, Levi takes her to a matinee. After the movie, Giulia asks him to take her home. Levi—Romeo he’s not—says no, he can’t; he’s got a dentist appointment.
Another time Giulia orders him to take her on his bike to her fiancé’s parents’ house. The parents have rejected her, have forbidden the marriage. Giulia wants to go and tell them off immediately. Levi does as he’s commanded. As she rides on his crossbar across Milan, Giulia tells him that they think she’s not pretty enough. Levi manages to blurt: “What idiots! You look pretty enough to me.” Not great, but it’s a start. Giulia responds:
“Get smart. You don’t know what it’s all about.”
“I only wanted to pay you a compliment; besides, that’s what I think.”
“This is not the moment. If you’re trying to court me now, I’ll knock you down.”
“You’ll fall, too.”
“You’re a fool. Go on, keep pedaling, it’s getting late.”
Primo! Don’t you see this is your opening? Stop the bike and tell her how you feel about her. Tell her, just tell her… Isn’t this how it goes with our big moments? We fumble. Levi’s just some timid guy on a bicycle. It’s so ordinary you want to fall to your knees. Soon after, Giulia marries her fiancé and leaves the lab. Within the year, Levi and a group of friends join a group of partisans up in the mountains. None of them are very gung-ho about it. They have few things to fight with: a couple of pistols. They aren’t guerilla fighters; they are young people who, according to Levi, “wrote poems.” They surrender without firing a shot.
After the war, after Auschwitz, Levi runs into Giulia from time to time.
She has had many hardships and many children; we have remained friends, we see each other every so often in Milan and talk about chemistry and other reasonable matters. We are not dissatisfied with our choices and with what life has given us, but when we meet we both have a curious and not unpleasant impression (which we have both described to each other several times) that a veil, a breath, a throw of the dice deflected us onto two divergent paths, which were not ours.
They talk of “chemistry and other reasonable matters.” Other reasonable matters? Yet I think I get it. There had to be some invisible line separating the things they could talk about from the things they couldn’t. When you see Giulia, someone you once loved, on the street, where even to begin? Well, after I was nabbed trying to fight the Blackshirts with a butter knife and some poems, I was transported to a death camp…
What must it have been like to look at Giulia’s face? Or anyone’s, really, from before that time? But I also think of the conversations these two were able to have, the ones he compresses into a parentheses. How the two of them talked about fate, about chance. “A veil, a breath, a throw of the dice.” And in the end, it’s as much about generosity as it is about lost love. Levi, after all he’s lived through, can recognize her hardships…
I’m reading on the porch of a rented house in the north end of Burlington. My mother is upstairs in a small bedroom, in a narrow bed, trying to sleep. Now she sleeps late. She never used to. Grief has tired her like few things ever have.
It’s after ten in the morning, June, 2021.
This house is across the street from a cemetery. There’s a battered, sun-bleached sign on a rusted gate, No Dogs Allowed. I wonder how many of these dead had dogs. Wouldn’t they welcome the company? There’s a guy wearing headphones, weedwhacking among the graves. It’s a noisy morning in Vermont. In the sky above, the Air National Guard is flying training missions over Lake Champlain. These sleek black planes, their sonic boomings.
Yesterday, I wandered around the cemetery. Mismatched stones crowd the hillside. Pike, Dumas, Kane, McAuliffe, Dattilo, Greenough. Near the top of the hill, I came across blankets and a camping mattress unfurled at the foot of a grave. On the branch of a tree nearby, someone had hung up a sweatshirt.
I’m three quarters of the way through Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Beginning of Spring, past the point where the swath of pages I’ve read is thicker than what’s left. There’s a metaphor there for my own life, which is more than half through, approaching three quarters if I’m not already there. No need to spell it out any further.
To finish a Fitzgerald novel is to become immediately bereft that you can no longer read it for the first time. I’m putting it off. I’ve started it again.
My mother sleeps. The weedwhacker decapitates. The planes—
A family of British expatriates in Moscow before the revolution. In the opening sentence we learn that Frank’s wife, Nina, has left him. At first, she took the children with her on a train heading west but changed her mind. During a stopover, Nina sent the kids back to Moscow, back to Frank. In chapter two, Frank arrives at the station to retrieve them. Fitzgerald describes the people Frank sees waiting around:
Lost souls who haunt stations and hospitals in the hope of acquiring some purpose of their own in the presence of so much urgent business, other people’s partings, reunions, sickness and death.
I’m thinking about other people’s partings when the front door slaps open and my mother, fully dressed and wearing sunglasses and a baseball hat, charges past me, off the porch and out to the sidewalk, shouting at the sky, at all that deafening noise, all that urgent business, “What the hell’s happening?”
On page 11 of this library copy of Gayl Jones’s Corregidora, somebody, using a thick marker, underlined the following lines:
It was as if the words were helping her, as if the words repeated again and again could be a substitute for memory, were somehow more than memory. As if it were only the words that kept her anger.
I wonder about this person, for whom these words were important enough to leave a trace. Sometimes you have to make a mark, if only to let a stranger know you were there. No other passages in the book are marked. Corregidora was Jones’s first novel, published in 1975 when she was twenty-six. Toni Morrison was her editor. According to the library slip glued to the back page of the book—that haphazard list of dates stamped in different-colored inks—the last time anybody checked it out was in December 1999.
The story’s a brutal one. Ursa’s a blues singer. Her new husband disapproves of her continuing to sing at Happy’s. One night after a show, he throws her down a set of stairs. Not only does she spend a few days in the hospital but she loses the baby she was pregnant with, as well as, the doctor tells her, any chance to have children in the future. The attack also brings on memories she’s been carrying around for years, memories of the stories her grandmother used to tell her when she was a kid. As Ursa convalesces, her grandmother’s voice comes back to her again and again.
How to account for, keep alive, the grotesque horrors of the past? Pass them on, repeat them:
My great-grandmama told my grandmama the part she lived through that my grandmama didn’t live through and my grandmama told my mama what they both lived through and my mama told me what they all lived through and we were supposed to pass it down like that from generation to generation so we don’t forget.
There’s a story about Jones—the person, not the storyteller—that seems to come up whenever her name appears in the press: a complicated, sensational story. And now that Jones has recently published her first book in two decades, the story is being retold once again. The details are easy enough to uncover with a few clicks, though the truth about what happened is much harder to find, if it’s possible to ascertain at all. Jones, I believe, hasn’t spoken publicly in many years. And I understand she has no plans to do any talking now.
But hasn’t she already said enough? I’m talking about how this writer captures the blues on the page with so much visceral yet tender intensity.When she’s able to travel again, Ursa takes a bus home to see her mother. Now that her grandmother has passed away, she’s got questions about the past that only her mother can answer. During this visit back home, Ursa keeps asking her mother questions that her mother won’t answer. And then comes this:
I looked away from her for a moment and then when I looked back at her she was looking at me. It was a quiet look. It was as if she were waiting for me to make her talk. I just kept looking at her, hoping that what was in my look would make her.
There’s a story right there, isn’t there? A wordless story. I keep coming back to it. In that peace between mother and daughter, something gives. And Ursa’s mother does begin to tell her a story, one she hasn’t told before. Ursa’s mother, like Ursa, has endured unspeakable violence at the hands of men. Similar to—but not the same as—the violence Ursa has experienced, which is the point. Violence, it seems to me, is always specific, always personal.
You can’t repeat the stories, Jones is telling us, unless you seek them out in the first place.
Ursa makes a distinction between the lived life, one’s own memories, and the stories handed down through the generations. In a sense, her mother’s lived life is the one she cobbled together in real time out of the wreckage. And Ursa’s mother has come out on the other side. In spite of everything, she has lived a life. Ursa? She’s trying.
Andre Dubus has been dead twenty-two years. This morning I read “Sunday Morning” from his final collection, Dancing after Hours. Something about reading the sentences of someone you’ve loved so long. Every line is like a message from the grave.
Her fear could not have been that sudden, but in memory it seemed so, as if she had waked to it one ordinary morning.
Tess has just spent the night with a guy she met at the supermarket. It’s Sunday morning, quiet, the window’s open, there’s a breeze, and Tess and Andrew—his name’s Andrew—are in bed drinking coffee. They talk about going to breakfast. Andrew wants to; Tess is evasive. She’s got something she needs to say. And without preface or warming up to it, she tells Andrew that a friend of hers was murdered by her own husband.
“Jesus, in a fight?”
“No. He never got drunk. He never hit her. You’d see them together, and you’d think, That’s how a couple should be. He watched her when she talked. He actually listened to her. No: he planned it.
The husband shot Tess’s friend in the face when she was three months pregnant. Maybe it’s a thing you tell someone in order to watch how they hear it? Andrew asks if it was about another woman. Tess tells him no; that wasn’t it, either—he wanted to open a nightclub. Andrew, maybe hoping to change the subject, offers to run to the corner store for cigarettes. Tess doesn’t want cigarettes; she doesn’t want breakfast. She tells Andrew that a couple of weeks before the murder, she and the friend had lunch. The friend happened to mention, between sips of soup, that the husband had taken out more life insurance on her. She didn’t know why.
And she held the spoon there for a moment, looking at me. Then she waved her left hand past her eyes, just once. Like she was fanning smoke away from them.
The line makes me wonder if there’s anything we won’t refuse to see if we don’t want to see it.
All the things I never had the chance to ask him. After an accident—he was run over on I-93 north of Boston and lost one leg and the use of another—he couldn’t write fiction. It took years for him to find the silence again. I think, for Andre, stories were less written than overheard.
I think of his mornings, working at the small wooden desk in his bedroom. He writes by hand but mostly he doesn’t write at all. He waits. He backs his wheelchair up a little and rubs his face because he sees it. A hand, just once, waving away smoke that isn’t there.