Juniper, Day 2

I wake early and try to write. Read a bit instead. I walk. The sky is gray, holding back rain. I find the gym and as I perform my perfunctory furious pedaling, the sky darkens and rain comes down in torrents. The deliciousness of the rolling thunder, deep and guttural. The lightning across the dark sky. 

I walk back in the rain, let it soak me to the skin. I think of Mark Doty’s reading. About how our bodies are mostly water and about our continuity to water, to grass, to earth, to sky. I feel beautiful and light as I walk. Vital and urgent and brimming. 

The hot shower delights the body. I have brought the soap from the hotel in Paris because I am sentimental, foolish. 

It had been left on the sink, wrapped in its fine paper, with a tiny plastic bag and a card in it that read: so that you can take it with you

Over breakfast the morning I left, you had said: This is the longest you will be away. And I realized that yes, this was true. 

Upstairs, I found the soap in its plastic bag, tucked it in with my things. 

I open it now in the steam and its scent is of lavender, intoxicating. In the hotel, we sat in the deep tub to wash. It was a handheld shower, so I let the hot water run over the porcelain of the tub for several moments to warm it, but still it was cool when I lowered myself to it. 

I think of you, driving along the winding, tree-lined roads to take our son to summer camp before you catch your train into the city. How you will hurry. How when you are finally seated on the train, you will put your bag down and bring your palm to your damp forehead. To the place where when I put my lips there, I taste salt and a trace of something earthy and bitter, like tree bark. 

In the auditorium, we talk about the rain. We talk about the beginnings of things, but not the ends. Matthew Zapruder and Mary Doty in conversation. I sit up as close as I can. I watch them intently as they speak. It is enthralling to be here. Even in the auditorium of the business school, its strange and sterile design. 

They speak of the usefulness of doubt. About the drama of discovery. 

Zapruder says of Frank O’Hara: “It is not what Frank knew, but Frank’s way of knowing.” This is why we admire. This is why we are enthralled. 

Of precision in making metaphor, Doty quotes Whitman, “and that a kelson of the creation is love.” He speaks of a kelson, the beam that provides the keel of a ship its strength, a throughline. 

There is more talk of Whitman, of his artistry. Of how he makes a statement arrive with the force of truth, even if it can’t be articulated or explained or summarized. About the willingness, in poetry, to deal with a certain level of irrationality. 

They speak of the distinction between mystery and confusion. That the writing should be clear, but it should illuminate something mysterious. Zapruder quotes Flannery O’Connor: “To be as clear as possible about mystery.” 

(We live in a society, he says, in which language is constantly being used for obfuscation.)

There is a question or two from the audience, but I am scribbling down my notes. I catch one of the last lines spoken. It is Doty: “Always do a little more than you think you’re capable of.”

In the afternoon, we gather around a wooden table and talk about Mary Gaitskill’s Lost Cat, a piece that took a turn I had not anticipated and reading it, in my bed, I had cried and cried until I was weak. The ink of my margin notes is streaked with tears. 

There is much to say about this work, but one thing to say is that she is interrogating pain. She lays out the questions of what it means to be in our own pain, what we are expected to suppress, what we are expected to carry. 

She loses a cat. She becomes a caretaker of sorts for children who are not her own. She remembers her father, his pain, his death. She suffers, she struggles and we witness this, on the page. 

It is about being lost. It is about love. Toward the end of the piece, she writes this:

“I once read a Chekhov story which described a minor character as ‘trying to snatch from life more than it can give’; maybe I have turned into such a person, unable to accept what is given, always trying to tear things up in order to find what is ‘real’, even when I don’t know what ‘real’ is, unable to maintain the respect, the dignity of not asking too much or even looking too closely at the workings of the heart, which, no matter how you look, can never be fully seen or understood.

The thought makes me look down in self-reproach. Then I think, but life can give a lot. If you can’t see inside the heart no matter how you look, then why not look? Why not see as much as you can? How is that disrespectful? If you are only given one look, shouldn’t you look as fully as you can? A lost cat would not ask itself if food and shelter were too much to expect, or try to figure out how much food and shelter were enough or who was the right person to give those things. It would just keep trying to get those things until the moment it died.”

At night, back in the auditorium, Matthea Harvey reads poems about mermaids. They are about bodies and about desire and about the limitations of the flesh. They are so funny and dark and touching and beautiful that I want to run up and embrace her. All of us there in that audience do, I think. She is gracious and generous and when she smiles, you recognize kindness. 

Noy Holland reads a story about a boy who wants a pet mouse and about the lengths to which his mother must go to grant this simple wish. Although she prefaces the reading by saying - dryly - that she has trouble being funny, the piece vibrates with a tense, dark humor. Toward the end, two mice (named brilliantly: Macaroni and Basket) that live in the narrator’s car offer her advice, predict the future. 

I leave the auditorium reeling. I came here with simple expectations: A break from the routine. A little space to read, to write. A chance to look at the work I have been doing, to see what might be next. 

I had not expected to be so moved by the readings, by the generosity of the faculty. I suddenly feel as though a small, precious thing has been dropped into my open hands. I turn it over, gaze on it, and each time it moves, I can see a new dimension. The way the sun hits it, the way it glistens. I only hope that I can hold on to it through the week. That I can carry it home.