I’m a bit travel-addled, not sleeping well. Last night, I finally drifted into wispy sleep, but then woke myself from a dream that my son had missed his bus and was running out into a busy street to catch up to it. He was waving his arms and yelling please. His sobbing jolted me awake, heart racing.
I drifted off again. Then woke with the image of an apple, sliced but then re-assembled, held together with a rubber band around its middle. Benign, perhaps, but in the dream state, there is something sullied and deceitful to it.
I am thinking about daily practice. For the month, I’ve put aside one project and returned to another. There are many reasons it makes sense to change focus for a time, but there’s also a cost to the switching. Upon my return to it, the question looms: Is it even in the right form? I know well enough that the only way to know is to wade around in the muck of it for a while, so for now, I’m resigned to my discomfort. For various uninteresting reasons, I’ve resisted thinking deeply and seriously about genre distinctions, but at some point, decisions must be made.
I’ve finally read the short chapter in which Freud discusses “repetition compulsion.” I’d read of it, but not the text itself. He writes:
“There is one special class of experiences of the utmost importance for which no memory can as a rule be recovered. These are experiences which occurred in very early childhood and were not understood at the time but which were subsequently understood and interpreted.”
Instead of remembering, we enact. Rather than articulate the fears, doubts, and helplessness of those experiences (because we are unable), we enact them: “He reproduces it not as a memory but as an action; he repeats it, without, of course, knowing that he is repeating.”
For Freud, of course, one way to acquire knowledge is through dreams. A tricky proposition, to be sure. Perhaps I am my son, crying out for some lost thing. Perhaps I am being deceived. Or am I the bus driver, moving on, indifferent? Or the apple, forever broken, but appearing, for the moment, whole?
I spoke with Caroline Miller and Logan Newby about literary lineage and formal experimentation for Essay Press.
About my influences, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Myung Mi Kim, and Don Mee Choi:
There is a recognition in all these women’s lives and work that there is no personal without political, that the Korean American woman exists in a politicized body, politicized state. To proceed as if otherwise is a kind of self-denial, self-abnegation. I was trying to resist this impulse toward self-erasure, too.
The full interview is at Essay Press.
I never know where to begin. So, I try to do what I tell my students. Be explicit about your position.
At a symposium yesterday about writing and art, and art criticism, and artists who write about art and other artists, a whole body of work I know little about, despite its intersections with my own interests, I felt at once both moved to immediate action, taking down titles and names to look up later, and wearied, how will I ever catch up?
(The poet who asked us, what poem did you read today, and when we all looked around a little hesitant, a little confused, he said, “Well, good luck with your hobby.” The unveiled sneer in it.)
I understand it, this desire to recognize seriousness, in self, in others. It is not that I don’t understand it. I wonder what proof is necessary. Perhaps I am asking the wrong questions.
Perhaps I am feeling a bit antsy about my own practices these days. Since the semester started, I’ve been scattered, pressed. Several short trips that have interrupted daily routines of course, but there are other concerns lurking beneath. Doubts, uncertainty. And more often than not, the impossible question, what is the point.
(Who said it: The work is the work is the work.)
I’ve started a new project somewhat unintentionally, but now, two months in, starting to take the faintest shape. A series of morning poems. What is starting to emerge? A notion of fine-ness. As in craft? Re-fining? Fine, as in end? As in the smallest pieces of something? Fines. In this house overlooking where the textile mill once stood. Of finery.
These is an elegy in here somewhere.
Repetition compulsion: remembering, repeating, and working through
Carole Maso, Anne Carson, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich
Returning to our (literary) mothers
What if the book contains: its false starts, its hesitations
You think you know what a reader wants: a good old-fashioned story
I want this to be everything
What if the book contains
Susan Sontag, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha
You think you know what a woman wants:
Almeida: Reproducing something is not the opposite of productivity
a good old fashioned—
There is something still that haunts me
The language, word by word
She was working on an erotic song cycle
She was working through it
A moment of discovery. The pulse. Missing something that was never there
A flatness here, in the middle
And Gertrude Stein, again
Of a country. Of an undoing.
What if a book contains—
Virginia Woolf, Djuna Barnes, Renata Adler
How, in this city of men
This flattened middle
A knowledge that comes too late
What if the book contains
Kapil: I wanted to write a novel, but I wrote this instead
Dream with the force of a wish
What possible use is there for certainty
wish with the insistence of memory
Carson: I merely know where to stand to see the lines that are there
What if the book contains
“It’s only love,” laughing
There is something left to say
Adler: She kept patting every sentence along the line with a little crazy laugh
There is nothing
But look: It’s happening again
I got to write about the five books I'm currently reading for Tarpaulin Sky. The list:
Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, Viet Thanh Nguyen
If They Come for Us, Fatimah Asghar
The Arrangements, Kate Colby
The End of Peril, The End of Enmity, The End of Strife, A Haven, Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint
Feminaissance, Christine Wertheim (ed).
You can read my column and more at Tarpaulin Sky.
Remember when I convinced myself that the man I was in love with would meet and promptly fall love with my best friend? I heard something — that he was in New York for the summer, or that she was. The idea that they might cross paths. And then, the conviction that they would. How I spent long summer weeks tearful, alternating between longing and rage. That the two people I loved most in the world would choose each other over me. That I would be shut out.
It starts in the body. The stomach flips. Or is it the heart.
Sometimes an inkling. A hunch. Sometimes you know someone so well, or think you do, that you believe you can predict their actions. Sometimes, you see a thing and are convinced you can trace it back to its source. Sometimes, you are right, and you think I am so good at being right. Sometimes, you want very much to be wrong.
A dream of high school, again. Is it because I always think of her around her birthday? Late summer, suffused with melancholy. The shapeless days coming to an end, but not quite yet --
There are things I still want to do in these final weeks. The grave and the trivial. Where has the summer gone?
Let this be the record of these days passing. Let this be the document of hours spent in doubt, in curiosity, in wonder. A little joy.
On the ends of things, she said: “There is grief, and there is gratitude. And grief. And then, there is embracing your new life.”
I dreamed about a bear in the woods behind where I was walking, with my friend, to get groceries.
She saw it first. Told me, in a panic, there’s a bear, we have to run.
She ran on ahead. I couldn’t run. Then, I was lying flat on the ground, trying to move forward, but I could not. I was completely immobilized.
We were on a grassy hill and I could see the road from where I was. She was running back and forth, yelling for me to run. But I couldn’t even stand.
I could see my own arm, reaching forward. A motion like swimming.
It’s too hard, I thought. I can’t.
What is the bear? Is it my past? My future? I’m stuck, unable to move. I can’t take any action.
The threat is closing in.
There are things I think I want, and I can see them now, their proximity.
There are moments I feel a deep, unnameable terror. Not panic, but a fear so profound, so bodily, it precedes language.
From the introduction:
In 1974, a two-year old Korean girl named Mi Jin Kim was sent from the country and culture of her birth to the United States, where she was adopted by a man and woman who would become her American parents and where she would become the artist and writer Mary-Kim Arnold. Her new book, Litany for the Long Moment (Essay Press, 2018), is her attempt to grapple with that history and its aftermath, to understand the experience of that girl she once was and how that girl shaped the woman she would become. Arnold writes:
“I will never know for certain what transpired in those first two years of my life. I only know that I am continually drawn back, tethered to the whispy, blurred possibilities of the mother I will never know, a language I do not speak, the life I will never have.”
Through a dazzling range of literary strategies, from the use of archival documents and family photographs to primers on the Korean language and the work of her fellow Korean-American artists, Arnold explores these wispy, blurred possibilities. She takes us into her need to know this never-realized self and this life she never lived. By stunning and poignant turns, her book reveals the complexities of the lives we do end up living, the hauntings that make us who we are, and the unexpected way in which great art and artists pull us apart and pieces us back together.
And the book has an excellent trailer, which you can find here.
You can listen to the whole interview here.
"Where every student [of fiction] eventually arrives is a place where the formal problems of the work are the same as the psychological problems of the student and the philosophical problems of the student's worldview. And that's a good place for students to arrive; it also shows that the formal problems of the work are now deeper." –Jane Smiley
Spent a lovely Sunday afternoon at 9 1/2 Main Gallery in Nyack, New York to read with Suzanne Parker for River River.
Anu and Donna are founders of River River, a literary journal, writing community, and more. It's been such a pleasure to reconnect with Donna, an old college friend. We lost touch after our children were born, but then found each other again when she and I were both published in the same journal.
Came across an unexpected reference to my past in a book I am reading for work. A name leaps from the white page and transports —
How unnerving that time can shift like that.
Writing is slow, slow, but an occasional line or phrase that even if useless in itself as a line, provides a point of departure:
One comes to love, inexplicably, the places they first found love.
Carried all morning like a koan.
The morning’s labors: meditation on train stations as sites of desire.
Emerging from a few immobilizing doubt-filled days. Circling the fallow ground.
On the one hand: I am too attentive to the moment-by-moment shifts in my own mind. On the other: my own mind is locked cabinet.
From my notes, from the news: A litter of kittens taped into a cardbox box and buried.
From the news: The body of a Georgia man who was found dead, rolled up in a gymnasium mat, exhumed for the second time.
The morning’s (other) labors:
I am here to be with my father. The father I barely know. I get up early. Run through the village and down by the quarry. He sleeps. His wife boils water in an ancient kettle, stirs coffee powder into it. I don’t know how long I will stay.
We fight about the weather. “I wouldn’t call that a light rain,” he says.
At night, he takes me down to the tavern where his friends gather around a table in the back. They drink, play cards, tell stories about the war. Sometimes I stay. Sometimes, I take a stool at the bar instead. There’s always a pile of old newspapers and magazines and I scan through them idly while Kit, behind the bar, pours the gin.
In the news: a box of kittens taped into a cardbox box and buried. A kid walking through the woods heard mewling. I’m languishing here, but I am not yet ready to leave.
After seeing the Dutch film The Vanishing a few years ago, I have become aware of an intense fear of being buried alive. I suppose the fear has always been there, but the film’s final scenes gave my fear specificity and detail. I tell this to a friend one morning as we ride the train to New York. I tell her that for reasons that I cannot quite articulate, I find that knowing this is among the most common phobias oddly comforting. As if to suggest it is not unreasonable for me to feel panic when I think of it (which is perhaps, more often than I’d care to admit).
This morning, I wake from a dream where I am witness to a woman being tied to the side of a train car. I don’t know why, or what I have to do with it. There’s a cartoonish sense to the scene and I wake just as in the dream I am walking away.
I have always said I am afraid of heights and I believe this to be true, although I have not had occasion to test this out in some time. Aside from the fear of being buried alive (specifically in a coffin or box), I don’t think of myself as particularly afraid of small spaces. I have, a few times, caught myself in behaviors that might suggest compulsivity. I often find myself doing things and not knowing exactly why.
I remember an essay I read years ago about a woman who moves to New York and experiences profound loneliness. She goes on to detail the harmful effects that sustained loneliness can have on the body and on the mind. She suggests, as I recall, that pain — psychic pain — can be a call to action. In her case, she moved back to England.
This is not the point of her essay, but it seems to me that there are some kinds of psychic pain that simply must be endured. I am thinking about grief. The loss of a loved one. I don’t know that there is much to be done in response, save perhaps the typical platitudes — take a walk, write in a journal, etc. I would like there to be actions to take. To change the situation. To (metaphorically at least) move back to England.
When my mother died, I found the rituals around death — the funeral, the burial, the luncheon, the notes that needed to be written in response to the kind words of sympathy that came from friends and acquaintances — to be a comfort. Tasks to be completed, decisions to be made. I find myself reaching for rituals of one sort or another, but I don’t know what to do. A friend of mine told me that her family acknowledges the anniversary of her father’s death. That they make his favorite foods and tell stories about him. I think of this as such a lovely idea, but the person I am grieving most acutely (if grief can be described in degrees?) is someone I know nothing about. There are no stories to be told, no memories to share. No favorite foods to reproduce.
I wonder, can I, occasional writer of fictions, simply make it up? An adopted friend of mine who is also a painter went through a period of painting self-portraits as an attempt to imagine his own father. I have myself envisioned recreating a traditional Korean home and courtyard, imagining the home, the artifacts I might have had. I suppose in a way this is some of what we do as writers, as artists — create spaces to accommodate our grief.
Walked the track again with my son this morning. Early, before the heat. We didn’t stay long — three times around, plus there and back, the whole excursion takes about 40 minutes — but I like to think I am perhaps offering him some small, everyday rituals to remember. The quiet, shapelessness of cool mornings in early summer. Occasional companionable chatter.
Sometimes we talk about our plans for the day. He’s working on a little animation project. I’m juggling a meeting or two in an otherwise open-ended day. By the end of the month, the rhythms we’ve acclimated to will change again. But for now, I’m trying to make the most of the time, mostly formless, punctuated by little bursts of activity.
The early spring blossoms are all gone now — the forsythia, the cherry trees, the irises. The peonies are peaking, but they won’t hold on much longer. Now, the roses. Sweet pea vine. Astilbe and lavender. Purple salvia in abundance. Honeysuckle.
For better or worse, I’ve spent some time these past few weeks going through all the notes I’ve kept for the past two decades now, tracing the origins of certain lines of thought, ongoing preoccupations. Although most of what I’ve kept is useless, uninteresting even to myself, there are occasional lines or ideas that will spark something in the present. A note my past self did not yet know that future self might need. There is a certain kind of pleasure in this traveling back and forth in time. This reconciling of past and present lives.
In the museum, in an exhibition hall filled with ancient armor and weaponry, I asked my son whether he thought he believed in past lives. I find myself often thinking of this when confronted with the unfamiliar, ancient world. I find it difficult to imagine all these eras have passed without me — without even some version of me. I suppose it’s a kind of “fear of missing out” on a protracted, epic scale. How else to explain the odd twinge of recognition when entering the reproduction of a darkened, medieval dining hall? Or the study of an 18th century Chinese scholar?
Many ways to explain it, I suppose. But for the moment, the hushed reverence and the chilled, mostly empty exhibition halls, lend an air of magic and mystery to our wandering. An openness to possibility, to the inexplicable.
“I like the idea of it,” he said.
I said, “Yes, I like that too.”
The last gallery we enter is a reproduction of a 19th century Japanese ceremonial teahouse. There is a group of schoolchildren there, sitting on the little stools they have carried in from the hallway. Someone standing in front of them with a clipboard is asking questions and a few children raise their hands enthusiastically.
As we leave, we see the sign, informing us that the name of the teahouse is Sunkaraku, “which reflects the spirit of the traditional Japanese tea ceremony as a temporary refuse from the complexities of daily life.”
Sunkaraku, meaning “Evanescent Joys.”
A found note: “In interviews, years later, John Hawthorne will say, ‘Her life was not any more important than anyone elses’s, but certainly, nor was it less.’” He was speaking of his wife, Alice Hawthorne, killed when a bomb exploded at Centennial Park during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. I have carried around this fragment for decades. This simple statement about the significance of a single human life.
“She was loved and now she is gone. And it matters.”
Returning to the tasks of domesticity after a few days away is difficult. The piles of books and papers around my desk seem somehow more chaotic than when I left, and I feel a bit wearied, to have to make my way through them. I suppose I am feeling a bit overwhelmed this morning.
Here in my chosen city, I have come to live at a particular scale. Mostly, what I need is at arm’s reach. Philadelphia is vast and sprawling. More than 1.5 million residents, compared with 200,000 in Providence (and 71,000 in Pawtucket). I know myself well enough at this point to recognize that wherever I am, it is rarely where I want to be. But still, I wonder about the tradeoffs we have made for a certain kind of ease, a certain kind of comfort, the knowability of this place I have lived for nearly thirty years.
Over the weekend, our friends threw us a “soiree,” as they called it. A dinner party so that we could meet the people who populate their daily lives, and they could meet us. They hosted it in a renovated church that now housed offices and co-working space. Next to it, what had been the church’s rectory was now the stylish home of the church’s owners. All the children found their way over there while the parents sat around a long, gracious wooden table covered with the dishes people had brought to share. There were some Providence connections and we talked about the people we knew in common, shared news of them. But mostly, it was the usual questions, what do you do, where did you live before, what are you working on now. Chatter about children and cats.
And the evening passed like that, laughing and talking in the company of people, for the most part, we had just met. Something about that experience — the newness of it, the way it required a kind of presence, a particular kind of attentiveness, alertness — that was buoying.
I went back to the art museum alone yesterday, was able to linger in the galleries, wander aimlessly. I was rewarded for my return by Cy Twombly’s 10-part series, Fifty Days at Iliam, based on the last fifty days of the Trojan War. These ten canvases are large — most about sixteen feet long and ten feet high — and nine of them are hung in a small gallery that perfectly contains them.
When I entered the gallery it was empty, and the feeling that washed over me — reverence, awe, surprise — was as sudden and intense and it was unexpected. I don’t know much about painting or how to speak or write about paintings, but my response was visceral and immediate. Hand-scrawled text, bold, fierce strokes, minimal color, except for the dark red that dominates a few — all immediately suggested the chaos and violence of war, its aggression and confusion. All at a scale I could not help but be moved by immediately. I was reminded of hearing Eileen Myles talk about the painting of Joan Mitchell — the way she took the world in through her body and her painting became the utterance of the experience. I find the notion of painting (or of other forms of art?) being the transfer of the energy of experience through the body — the way its performance becomes a kind of utterance, a kind of language — appealing.
There were other pleasures to be had. An exhibit of Agnes Martin’s drawings and writings (notes, artistic statements, correspondence) provided quiet insights on sustaining a working life in art. She wrote on beauty and inspiration:
As I describe inspiration I do not want you to think I am speaking of religion.
That which takes us by surprise — moments of happiness — that is inspiration. Inspiration which is different from daily care.
Many people as adults are so startled by inspiration which is different from daily care that they think they are unique in having had it. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Inspiration is there all the time
The poet Ralph Angel introduced me to Martin’s writing on beauty some years ago, and then, as now, I am struck by the complexity in it that resists my easy understanding. Her statements are at once straightforward and elusive. I think I understand it, but then question. I find I must return to it, consider it for a while. Think about it in the context of her meticulous, meditative drawings and paintings. Their repetitions, their spare, quietly-controlled gestures.
There is more to say about the glorious hours I spent there in the galleries. But we are packing up now for the trip home.
I called the suicide hotline once, but — and I swear this is true — I got a busy signal. I tried several times. This was in 1998. I was calling from a landline. A slim beige receiver. The buttons glowed green. I got the number from a telephone book, which seems unimaginable now. I remember my heart racing. In those days, I did not do well alone.
I tried to call a few more times, each time, hung up sobbing. I left the television on all night. I knew I just had to make it till morning. I watched The English Patient. When it ended, I watched it again.
“Every night I cut out my heart. But in the morning it was full again.”
At the museum, the thing I love best is a small exhibit of works by Korean American artist Jean Shin, called Collections. Using mostly discarded materials — broken umbrellas, old sweaters, worn shoes — Shin painstakingly reconfigures the abandoned objects of everyday life to highlight the individuals who have used or worn them, the intricate interconnectedness between people, and the traces of experiences and stories that inhabit these objects. I felt an immediate kinship to the work and the thinking that seems to have inspired it.
I woke remembering a scene from a film I saw several years ago. It was Memorial Day weekend and I was alone. I went to a matinee showing of Of Gods and Men, which ends with a devastating scene of several Trappist monks being marched to their death in the snow in Tibhirine, during the Algerian Civil War. I remember emerging from the cool dark theatre to the bright afternoon. The sorrow for these men, the blinding snow on the screen, the humid air outside.
Downtown, the city was preparing for the evening’s celebrations — the holiday lighting of Waterfire amid Brown’s commencement festivities. I was to be there later myself, circulating among the artists and administrators for one purpose or another.
But that snow. How I remember it filling the screen. Beautiful, pristine, silent. Then the footsteps of the men as they trudged through, knowing how it would end. I was overwhelmed with sadness, thinking of it again this morning, all these years later.
Drove down to Philadelphia, arrived in late afternoon. It was a bright and beautiful day. In the car, M played a podcast series about Charles Manson. Mostly, I drifted in and out of sleep. Would wake periodically to some disturbing story or gruesome detail. I don’t remember dreaming.
One of M’s oldest friends lives here. I recognize places we’ve been before, over the years. Before the children and jobs. It’s a perfect evening for walking, so after decadent pizzas (truffle and pecorino) and happy hour wine (just me), we walk through downtown for gelato and then sit with it in the park.
This morning, I wake feeling anxious. There are a few things I should have done before we left, a few emails still unanswered. And gradually, I start to see how quickly the time here will go. Already, plans with friends today and tomorrow. Any vague notions I might have had about stretches of time to read and write now dissipating. I have a busy week ahead — appointments and meetings I will need to have prepared for. It’s wearying at times, but I remind myself: This is in fact the life I have chosen.
Among my various notebooks, I find one I kept during the week-long summer writing course I took at Brown nearly ten years ago now. I was finding my way back to writing. Workshops in the morning, writing time in the afternoon, which I mostly spent in the sciences library. (I think I put myself in an unfamiliar place, so that I would remain in a state of heightened alert.) Readings in the evening. I remember it being a good and productive week. Wayne Koestenbaum was one of the visiting authors. He read from what would become Humiliation, and my notebook is filled with things he said about living as a writer. The long game of it.
On reading voraciously and widely: “What if you haven’t even yet discovered the nationality of the writers who will become most important to you?”
On finding your form: “You’ll write a novel, and then a second, and then a third, and maybe then you’ll find the right form, which will all be informed by the three novels.”
“Become an activist of your own sensibility,” he said. “Become a cultural sleuth.” I wrote all these things down, sensing their importance, even if I did not then know what they meant. I think I am understanding a little better, now.
One of the assignments that week was to draw some sort of map. I don’t recall exactly what the prompt was anymore, but it must have made some reference to childhood or to memory. After a few false starts (my drawing skills are extremely limited) I came up with this.
What I love about discovering this scrap (I’ve written “napkin map” in the upper corner, just beyond the frame) is seeing how I am always attempting to express something about longing. About wanting some other thing, about the emotional charge of desire. I see myself existing in this liminal state — here, but not here. Here, but looking back. Here, but awaiting the next thing, just around the bend, following the curve of desire.