For a few years, I’ve been working on a series of “selfie” poems that were also midlife (crisis?) poems. I’m grateful to Brian Phillip Whalen and Quarterly West for including them, in their current iteration, in the [Salvage / Selvage] special feature.
I dreamed someone appeared at my door. I invited her in for coffee. Another woman was behind her. I invited her in, too.
It was the simplest task, to make coffee for my two guests. But I couldn’t get it right. It took me so long. The kitchen was not my kitchen. I spilled the coffee. Started over. Poured milk in both, although the first woman wanted her coffee black. I could not complete the simplest task. The cups I had did not match. Some were very large, and some were tiny. I hadn’t made enough coffee for the large mugs, and I spilled while pouring into the small cups.
I finally was able to bring one small cup, on a saucer, to the room where we were sitting. The woman accepted it graciously, but when I looked down at the cup, it appeared to be full of milk.
In the kitchen that was not my kitchen, the counter was wet with spilled coffee, with milk. The sink was filled with dishes, cups. The refrigerator door hung open.
I didn’t recognize the house, the kitchen, the women who came to visit.
I woke thinking about abandoning all my current projects and starting anew. Throwing all the notebooks and loose papers into boxes, stacking the boxes in the dark hallway closet. Clearing the desk, the mind. Would I feel less burdened? After all, I thought, there is no one waiting for anything.
We spent the weekend painting our bedroom. Once a dark, dusty rose, it is now a soft, bright white. The old nightstands we bought from the consignment shop down the road (which I later had decoupaged with gold wrapping paper) sit in the hallway, exiled. I want something to replace them but don’t yet know what. My indecision suspends time. Each day, we maneuver around the misplaced nightstands, the dropcloths still down on one side of the room. At night, there’s nowhere to put my glasses down.
I’ve backed myself into a corner in one sense, with one book. I’ve plotted out the story arc and it no longer interests me. It no longer resembles where it started. It has become another thing entirely, and I am, I feel rather gutted to admit, not that into it. Or, it is possible that I fear it. That I fear I am unable to rise to its occasion. That I am bored, or distracted, or have not tried hard enough. I want the story to be written, but I don’t think I am the right person to write it.
This is the life I’ve chosen.
Or: This is the life I’ve chosen!
Then there is the “new” thing. Cannot call it a book really. Project? I’ve sketched out its bones, too. I am circling, circling.
There was a manuscript I thought was nearly finished, but then when I looked again, it was not. I abandoned most of it, was left with only a few poems, anemic ideas. I am afraid to go back to it. Afraid there will be nothing left. If I avoid it, I can imagine there is still something there worth revisiting.
Panic panic panic panic
I spent some time trying to plan one last retreat before the end of summer. A little cottage by the ocean, a quiet house by a lake somewhere. But of course, at this point, so late in the season, everything is booked, everyone planful has made their decisions and as my mother was often fond of telling me, “She who hesitates is lost.” I don’t know where she got that from, and I hadn’t thought of it in years. But now, in a moment of doubt, of persistent indecision, isn’t it my mother who inserts herself?
Meanwhile, confronted with the prospect of the (real) new book, and the pre-publication efforts it requires. Make a list of every place, every person you have ever known. Every school attended, every town you’ve lived. Make a list of entreaties you will be making on its behalf. Ready yourself to call in all your favors. It’s nearly showtime in this life you’ve chosen.
The time of transition begins. The sense of summer yielding to the next thing. Certain rhythms carried in the body. Expectations. A predictable ache.
I went away for a time and then I came back.
The river running underground. Its dark current.
I returned to a manuscript that now seems like it was written in another lifetime. In actuality, two years ago, maybe three. Thinking it now into the future, into its intended future. What will it become.
It is only when I speak to other people that my own process, my own switching from one thing to another, seems like folly. When I hear reflected back, the juggling of multiple things. It is only then I think, wouldn’t it be better to focus on one thing for a while. Take one at a time. It is not as though I have not tried. Perhaps not hard enough.
DREAM FRAGMENT: An examination of sorts. But I pass easily.
I walked beneath the leafy trees. The air was hot and dense, but the shade provided relief. Brick paths, cobblestones, a stretch here and there of flat uninterrupted pavement. Orange lilies grow wild and leggy. Hydrangea in full, audacious bloom. These streets I know so well. Carried in the body all these years.
I remember the poet reading translations. The way he stood at the podium, one leg extended behind the other, shifting his weight forward and back, animated by the poem’s music. But this was a long time ago.
DREAM FRAGMENT: The empty stage, empty podium. Its small lamp aglow. Sound of laughter, applause drifting from a nearby room. I am walking toward the stage. The applause grows louder. As I ascend the stairs, the stage becomes the ocean. The sound of the audience only the murmur of waves.
I want very much to spend a few days by the sea. One dedicated trip before the summer’s end. I spend time looking for places to stay, but predictably everywhere I want to go is booked. It feels insufficient to drive down for an afternoon. What I want is to pass whole days and nights by the shore. To watch night fall over the dark water, to feel the evening’s gradual chill. To feel the cool air warm as morning yields to afternoon.
This is the last one. It was not what I set out to do, entirely. What I had wanted: a poem a day, for a week, maybe two. To see what might be added to a sheaf of poems that don’t yet speak to each other. A series of lines, fragments, to see what questions might emerge.
Instead I found myself writing in prose, toward something about time, about recursion. I suppose it does not matter.
I suppose I am writing around memory, around memorial. Fidelity, or its lack, to remembrance and its rituals — e.g., here is the photo you posted x years ago. Here is what you were doing on this day. Here is your own memory, re-remembered and re-presented.
Brandon Shimoda, on the World Trade Center memorial: “People took — and continue to take — pride in the fact that many ethnicities were represented among the dead, as if the United States is only able to realize its democratic ambitions by being attacked. To memorialize, then, democracy, or democratic ambition, as a chimera that appears only in the emanations rising off the embers of death.”
Memorials, by definition, outlast the dead, but also, those who might remember the dead. To keep returning to the site of the injury, the site of rupture, its own kind of reenactment. The return re-creating the rupture, urging it to remain open.
It’s a long game we are playing, showing up, retreating, nursing our disappointments. Returning.
I’m collecting lines and sentences for something that may never take shape. At times I envision piles of sentences righting (writing) themselves into position. Without my intervention, but to my great delight.
There is so little time left.
What I mean to say is there is a fast train and I am on it.
All this generative time is great, but when does it come together? Into something more cohesive?
There are deadlines I’ve missed. Time passes. There are lists I’ve made and discarded. There are moments when I’m overcome by dread. Isn’t this the life I’ve chosen.
Panic panic panic panic panic
I’ve learned to compartmentalize. Time block. I remember Anne Carson’s multiple desks. On each one, a different project, so she can move from one to another. I’ve made half-hearted attempts at this, but nothing sticks. I sit at one table folding paper. At another clicking on this keyboard. Does this amass to something greater?
We missed all the performances. The festival, the opening party, the closing one. The VIP receptions and the after parties. The moon room, the bouncy castle. The family fun day. I don’t know how to make it all fit.
News of another shooting on the far coast.
It is the experience that’s chaotic.
After each devastation, we return. Some, not all.
DREAM FRAGMENT: I am running from a stand of trees into an open field. The grasses get taller until I cannot see.
DREAM FRAGMENT: I am lost in a deep valley of red rock. I call out but don’t make a sound.
DREAM FRAGMENT: I am at the same party again. I see you in the doorway but you are not looking in my direction. It is time to decide: Do I approach?
Panic panic panic
Over time, the question has shifted from is this good enough to can I finish it.
There isn’t enough time.
Drawing two points on a line is not the same as drawing the line between two points. This is something I’ve written down.
Brandon Shimoda: “Are ghosts anomalous to the rule of life? They remind us that life is a compositional process, with seams and fissures between moments. The seams and fissures allow for ghosts to emerge — through the rage, regret, foreclosure, the infinite spoils of the soul of the living.”
Rage, regret, foreclosure: A life’s holy trinity.
The preoccupation becomes not the thing itself, but the abandonment of the thing. Is it the right time, is it the right thing to do. Who am I asking, to what authority am I calling out? The valley is so deep.
I’ve developed small habits, made small changes. A shift in orientation that lets in a little more light. Change is slow, incremental.
(One no longer is inclined to use the term glacial.)
The point is, I think, steady work. To believe that the accumulation will, in time, mean something more than itself, more than its simple inventory. What is the alternative?
DREAM FRAGMENT: The narrow elevator in the round tower. The doors keep opening and closing. The elevator does not rise or fall. Only prepares itself continuously for an action it never takes, for a destination at which it never arrives.
I’ll have a Blue Christmas without you, running through my head this morning.
I woke thinking about the holidays. Why?
Still so far from any sort of clarity on the form of this book. One wonders: When and under what circumstances should a book (a poem, a project, an idea) be abandoned?
Bhanu Kapil: “I threw the book into the dark garden.”
Still, a preoccupation with failures. As if documenting the failure itself could elevate the attempt.
This is not what I set out to write.
Yesterday, a letter sent that I later regretted. All day, turning a line or two over in my mind. Should I have said it another way? Should I have remained silent?
In silence, a clarity of its own.
At night we walked along the river as night descended and I thought we could be somewhere else. Both in the sense of it’s possible to leave this place for another. And also this might be anywhere, with a river and a pathway to walk along it, in the world.
Under what circumstances should a place be abandoned?
In one form of accounting, today is the sixth day. There are of course, many ways to keep count.
I made a list of the years to come. How I imagined my life might unfold in them. An audacious, impractical way to mark time. Rare moments of boldness: By this time, I will have done these things. A practice I have maintained for long enough to go back, compare the imagined to the real. It is never that far off, but my imagination, to date, has been limited.
Bhanu Kapil: “I dreamed of a tree uprooted by the river and instinctively, I climbed up.”
Thinking of density as a way to characterize time. The density of this day or another. The month ahead will be densely packed with reading, planning, revisions. Contemplating new work. Characterizing, re-contextualizing, for the benefit of others, the work already done.
Along the river, contemplating what’s possible. As if in response we reach a dead end. The path still being built. We must turn around, go the way we came. A nearly immaterial thing, except for the moment, it briefly takes on metaphorical weight. We give it shape, speak it aloud, but then shake it off. It is easy, at a certain age, to see everything as a reminder of mortality.
When, and under what circumstances, might ambition be abandoned?
Here I am, attempting to make peace with the noise in my own head. Here, trying to embrace the lessons of the past. Here, remaining for as long as possible in the present moment, the ongoing now, the pleasure of a walk along the river as night descends, of the cool, sweet breeze that urges us on, across the bridge to the other side.
I made a list of the years to come. I folded my wishes and fears into paper, then put them aside.
Approached the bridge, re-traced my steps for a while.
Trying to remember a dream before the last dream. The image in mind is reaching back behind the dream I can remember, as if the earlier dream has remained there intact, waiting to be re-collected.
An announcement of something that happened two years ago is inexplicably circulating on facebook now. The notifications pile up. People post their enthusiastic congratulations. A thing long since past, resurfacing. Time collapses, coils back on itself.
A better word might have been retrieved.
DREAM FRAGMENT: I am building a low stone wall. No matter how many stones I drag and stack, the wall never gets any higher.
I have only identified the problem.
Phrases that drift like the play of light and shadow across a blank wall. We begin in wonder.
Lengthening shadows. Then softening, blurring.
All the rest is mourning.
I take a length of thread and pull it through wet paper. Surface tension. Resistance.
I do not know what comes next.
Waiting for you on the front steps, observing the nail heads asserting themselves from the porch boards. The wood swells, contracts? Little heads forced up?
Orange light across the horizon inspires a moment of unearned pleasure. It is only light. It is only nightfall, approaching.
Brandon Shimoda: “A grave is anywhere we leave an unrepeatable part of ourselves. A part that has been broken away.”
The present self locates the past self, examines it, finds it lacking.
The word mindfulness, repeated, means nothing.
I do not know what comes next.
A small boat, set adrift. A boat made of paper. The most tender, most vulnerable boat. You saw me when I was a boat made of paper. You saw me when I was such a tender boat.
The past self stands beneath a tree in an open field. The past self wears a white dress to distinguish herself from the present self, wearing black. The past self is not aware of what comes next. She is a bit wide-eyed, always taken by surprise.
Retrieved from the past, which is intact, which is a cardboard box filled with files. The past which is paper, stacks of folders and papers.
Guy Davenport: “Where it was, there you must begin to be. There are no depths, only distances. Memory shuffles, scans, forages.”
I am writing my way to the present moment. I am arriving from an earlier point in time. From behind the present.
Waiting for you in the parking lot. You descend the shallow steps from the train. Arriving from a past I cannot know, though at a point in the future, you will speak of it. You will describe the past from which you arrived, in the present for me. You will reach behind the moment to retrieve it, a modest offering set out on a plate for us to share.
It is not a question I know how to answer. Some lines, some phrases stay lodged, dormant in the mind, in the body, then leap forward to respond to certain environmental cues. Such as sitting at the desk, typing. Such as walking down the stairs of one’s own house.
At night, we drove to another state but then returned, having left no visible clues, in relation to the house, as to our leaving. What I mean is: the car was in the driveway at night. Imagine two points in time: Before we left and after we returned. There isn’t much more to say about that.
The bar: bad lighting, chairs artlessly arranged. A man at the door inks the back of our hands. An old man shouts about Chinese laundromats. I drink two watery drinks, feel nothing.
By the time you read this, I will have forgotten more.
These days, I find it necessary to provide an accounting of my time. Worked on this yesterday, completed this today. As if not to appear idle, in thought or in action.
The days pile up. It has already been so long.
Yesterday, I wandered through an old building, now a new office. Peeked into rooms, climbed up and down stairs. I sat in one light-filled room for a long time. Someone asked me questions and I answered them. When I left there, I sat in different room for a while.
I do not mean to suggest that my days are unpleasant or regrettable or empty. My diction casts a veil of remorse across my recollections. But these days are days in which I often feel useful, rising to occasions to which I am called, however small or fleeting they might ultimately be.
They reopened the track after several days. I could see, as I approached, there were people moving around. I am always glad for a place where my intentions do not need to be explained to casual observers.
When I was younger, someone I knew well lived near to the bar we found ourselves in last night. Driving through narrow, tree-lined streets I remembered the route I had walked from the bus to his house. I remembered that there was a time the air there felt soft, that what I felt was softness. A tenderness to the air, to the hours, to the people we were, the ambitions we voiced tentatively, to each other, to the night.
[Day 3: 350]
I walked up the hill and then down again, retracing the same steps.
I was trying to know something inside myself that left no visible markers. I was trying to look
inside the self, inside the inside of the self.
The metaphors are insufficient: a winding corridor, a series of basement rooms, each one
smaller and more cramped than the last.
A dark well, unfathomable.
A moment of panic — intense, fleeting — when I think you are not coming back
Or is it fight or flight
The poets all know each other. They circle around, pair off.
In a dream, you showed me a series of powerpoint slides, describing your expertise.
“I’ll show you how,” you said then spent the rest of the time we had together bundling branches.
The room was filled with branches. The room became a tree. You became the tree. I sat beneath. I sat and lived and died beneath the tree that was once you.
The poets threw a party. They swam in the ocean. They took photos of themselves swimming.
Someone I once loved wrote a love poem to someone else. Have I been replaced?
At the bottom of the hill, I counted my steps — from the corner to the parking lot and back. I turned around and climbed back up.
The heart, unfathomable.
We stood on the hill looking down over ruins. The worn stone marking a time we could only imagine, human in its specificity. How to describe these ruins.
There is a movie we saw that I can no longer remember much about except this: At the end, the man fastens himself beneath a truck, so that when the truck is driven he will be dragged along the pavement. We see the truck speeding down the highway. We see the dark streak it leaves behind.
How long will it drive.
A room inside a room inside a room. Space collapsing on itself. A self collapsing from the inside. Without instinct for survival. Or overcoming it.
I found myself saying, “I want to reassure you,” but I did not know whether I meant it. We were both silent for a while. And then we left.
[Day 2: 300]
Five gray herons hanging suspended
An unmarked grave
Concrete, soaked and glistening
I saw bones on the ground. The bones were picked clean. I wrote it in a poem to you.
September weather in July.
A red truck rounding a curve.
I stood, my back to the fireplace.
She said, about the painting, “it’s costly.”
My impulse toward documentation.
I need you to know this is not for you.
Exquisite pleasure of a passing cool breeze
Suspended on the air like a window without a wall
The town is gone, the city is gone, the family who lived there is gone.
We have changed our system of naming the streets, the villages.
Addresses, phone numbers, street names.
What remains? A low stone wall. A faint memory.
A tether toward some unknowable thing.
Yesterday, I walked the track again. The track was wet. The geese were out. A man in a brown cap, circling. I wished, for a moment, that you had come with me.
In the book of our names, someone is writing your name down.
I went to the house on the corner. The white house is circled by orange lilies, their slender stems pulsing. I ascended its steep front steps. When I entered, a quiet descended.
It is raining again. A black umbrella crosses my field of vision. I cannot see who is under it.
Lines for the book I will never write
Instructions for the life I will never know
Orange lilies, then white, then pink.
I descended the stairs and was again at the sea. Salt spray. The waves a muted violence.
A man threw his fishing line and shouted warning, but I was already turning away.
Season of false starts. Season of unfinished gestures. October weather in July.
I saw bones on the ground and thought of you. I wrote this instead.
*lines in italics from The Grave on the Wall, Brandon Shimoda
[A 10-day sprint: start at 250 words, add 50 every day.]
It was not without reason
They stormed the coast
Tempest in a teacup
We walked and walked
Led the girl by the hand
Left the others by the beach
Over the seawall
I won’t tell you how much I miss you
The shadows of trees on the ceiling
The light across the doorway
Nothing we hadn’t already said
Seeing you in another city
The difficult air
Unexpected, your hand on the back of my neck
We walked across the damp field
The path was blocked so we walked back
It was such a simple question
Like an invitation
What can I tell you that you don’t already know
Write you letters from this beach
The girl a memory of a child
The child no longer ours
A location I cannot identify
On this map or any other
I keep this tenuous grasp
To avoid confronting what I think I already know
“It was the nineties, things were different then”
One generation and the next
The ceiling, the doorway, the light across it
Walking to the shore in the afternoon
As if we’ve never known a day of regret
An antiseptic smell — witch hazel, rosemary
Lightning storm all night
In the morning as if you had never been there at all
Let that not be the last time
A weekend away by the shore
Blindfolded at night
Bulbs all burned out
The last call
Stumbling back out to the street
Fumbling with our pockets
A hurried embrace
Before making my way home
Friday @ 4:57 am, Valros.
DREAM FRAGMENTS: Sitting with the famous poet in the lobby of the hotel. He talks about his grandchildren. Then bicycling (!) through downtown Providence, but the streets are unfamiliar. Then caught in a torrential storm. Thunder.
We planned for the beach yesterday but it rained in sudden, short bursts throughout the afternoon. Once it cleared we drove over to Pézenas, found a little restaurant on one of the quiet side streets, ate outside along a trellis adorned with paper flowers.
It stays light here well into the night. At 9:30, we sit in bed still awash in soft orange and pink. It will be very hard to leave.
I mostly worked on the application yesterday and made progress on the timeline, budget notes. I should be able to finish it today. The best thing I found in my online meandering was the work of Korean artist Wook-kyung Choi.
Also today: Return to the book.
My open tabs: This list of 50 documentaries the Guardian says I need to see; this 1829 account of King Philip’s War; A Pictorial History of the Korean War; this New York Times piece on the original manuscript for Mrs. Dalloway; and the website of the incredible artist Ellie Ga.
Wednesday @ 4:48 am, Valros
I took notes yesterday in the morning, as I had intended. Did not transcribe, but in the afternoon, we drove out to Carcassonne, and wandered through its walled city. It’s mostly restaurants and shops. A haunted house (we did not go in) and an “Inquisition Museum” (we did). I thought I might read some more in the evening, after dinner, but did not.
On the ride back, was reminded of Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others, which is among other things, as I recall, a consideration of the limitations of our empathy for the suffering of others — primarily through our responses to war photography. War, suffering of others, our response to it — these are on my mind daily, as for many. The children at the border, the incarcerated, everyone in this country who has lived and suffered, and died beneath the burdens of oppression, racism, hatred, white supremacy. Refugees everywhere. My temporary, superficial engagement with the real and pressing concerns of others. I can’t stay with it. I make my excuses, disclaimers, keep my distance. How many blind eyes do I have left to turn?
In the morning, I found a talk Jill Lepore gave at Gilder Lerhman about her book, The Name of War, which I had read a few years ago, and was arguably one of the early nudges toward the idea for Nine Men’s Misery. Her discussion about King Philip’s War opens with an eye witness account of the savagery and brutality of the torture and killing of colonial prisoners. She makes a point about the exceptional cruelty exhibited by both Indians and colonists in this “earliest and bitterest” of American conflicts, but now, as I have read discussions of many wars — World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War — I am struck by this authorial stance. Calling out the exceptional nature of the brutality, as if it were the first time men have shown their boundless capacity for cruelty. We want to believe, I think, that such horrors are exceptional, some break in the fabric of human behavior, some anomaly. And yet, in what war, under what military rule, when given authority, given power over others, have we not shown exactly who we are?
I have no idea where this book is going. I am learning, I think, to find some comfort in the unknowing, in the small meandering steps forward and back. Particularly in these unstructured days. There is time, I think, for more directed thought. Now, I am trying to follow little paths where they lead.
DAILY INTENTIONS: Catch up on the #1000wordsofsummer thread. Two hours, uninterrupted on NMM. Respond to all those emails, really. Spend an hour drafting the application timeline.
Tuesday @ 4:46 am, Valros
DREAM FRAGMENT: The snow-covered grass. There are brown pebbles beneath a layer of slushy snow. William says he’s to bring home a survey, a questionnaire about the garden. We are on a little patch of the yard.
Yesterday, at nearly the mid-point of the time here, I felt out of sorts. Doubt creeping in. Who am I to take up this space, this time?
Today will be a better day.
I hear a fast clock ticking but there is no clock.
I hear the cries of birds from the inky blue. The bells chime the hour.
ON THE BEACH: the umbrella cartwheeling across the sand. The vendor’s cart, parked near to the water’s edge. Children approach. They leave with ice pops, cones wrapped in paper. The man who dances by, holding his box of treats aloft, singing. I recognize the words “beignets, nutella.” No one buys anything from him, but he continues singing as he makes his way down the beach.
They disappear into the green sea.
In the early morning, the village trucks rumble down the narrow streets. In the evenings, motorcycles and scooters.
It is easy, in so many ways, to be here. Disconnected from the dailiness. And yet, I am not immune here from a sense of sadness, a sense of not quite doing the right thing. Not knowing what comes next.
DAILY INTENTIONS: note-taking, transcribing in the morning. In the afternoon, the grant application. Respond to the waiting emails.
Sunday @ 5:02 am, Valros.
A little breakthrough yesterday. A way to move forward for now. A list of new lists to make, new paths to wander down. To have a little open-ended time, when I am not propelled from one deadline to the next. It almost makes me question: Was I even ever writing before?
Wrote for a while in the morning yesterday — three-hour chunks are the sweet spot, I think. Note to self: When you return home, give yourself one three-hour stretch of time at least once a week. Made a pass through my neglected inbox. Wandered through the crowded, loud Pézenas Market for a bit, ended with croissants and ginger lemonade and made it back to the car just before the downpour. The rain here comes in short bursts.
Made soup for lunch — mushrooms, zucchini, broccoli, tomatoes — tossed in a few fresh tortellini from the market. Spent the afternoon on the roof deck, taking notes, dozing. I want to remember the way the days feel here. Their softness.
Found All The Light We Cannot See here in the house. Didn’t expect to be immediately drawn in, but I was. This opening page:
At dusk they pour from the sky. They blow across the ramparts, turn cartwheels over rooftops, flutter into the ravines between houses. Entire streets swirl with them, flashing white against the cobbles. Urgent message to the inhabitants of this town, they say, Depart immediately to open country.
The tide climbs. The moon hangs small and yellow and gibbous. On the rooftops of beachfront hotels to the east, and in the gardens behind them, a half-dozen American artillery units drop incendiary rounds into the mouths of mortars.
After dinner (roasted potatoes, leftover soup, toasted baguette, gouda), a walk in the village. Ice cream and card games before bed. I try to read a bit more, but sleepiness overtakes me.
I keep asking myself: Is it possible to feel so unencumbered? So much like, we could stay here, and not return. Why does this country, so far from anywhere I’ve ever called home, feel so much like home to me?
Saturday @ 5:03 am, Valros
I love the loud bird chatter in the morning. I love the town bells that chime the hour. I love the vineyards along the Avenue de Pézenas. I love the tile floors in this house, the way they feel dusty and cool underfoot. I love the tall windows that open out to narrow balconies overlooking the street. I love the quiet of this village. The way a bit of conversation might drift up, but so rarely, and only briefly. I love hanging clothes on a line to dry, even knowing as I do, that I would hate to have to do it at home.
I love the way time feels luxurious and spacious early in the day then seems to accelerate and contract by afternoon. I love even the familiar weariness that settles in, the gentle reminder that this body is unaccustomed to being in this space, this time.
I spend the mornings in the past. Mining memory, of course, but also: war documentaries, war novels, war stories. A handbook for the rules of engagement. The past is my daily present.
Yesterday: Stood out on the narrow balcony in the cool blue morning. Wrote, drank coffee, read, napped. Closed all the windows against the sudden rainstorm. Made big salad and 6-minute eggs, their yolks still soft and “jammy.” Watched war movies in bed, took half-hearted notes. Tried to read. Napped instead. Woke to the brightest afternoon. Took a ride into Béziers to wander around an open-air shopping centre, and have dinner (gin cocktail, big salad, soft cheeses). Ride back, attempt another documentary, sleep.
Today: The famed Saturday market in Pézenas! Take new notes, transcribe notes from earlier in the week. Keep mind and heart open, light. Take in all the light.
Friday at 4:55 am, Valros.
We left Providence nearly a week ago today. Took the bus to the airport, then the six-hour flight. With the six-hour time difference, we landed in the early morning, lingered in the airport a while for our rental to be ready. Travel is always a bit disorienting. I find myself tired all the time.
It is hard to know how to be here. I have goals and hopes for the time, some of which are perhaps unrealistic. The whole trip seems so decadent, three weeks to write. But of course, in the end, the hours are frittered a bit with the dailiness of simply living. Getting groceries, preparing meals, cleaning up.
The mornings are glorious. Three hours of uninterrupted time. For most of it, I write by hand in one of the many notebooks I’ve brought. I feel as though my practice back home makes the mornings the easiest to know how to use. It’s a time I know well. My body knows how to spend it. After that, it feels a bit more challenging to give shape to the day.
I’m revisiting Speedboat, which I have found useful for this particular project. The energy and propulsiveness of its sentences and rhythms. I’ve brought Flowers of Mold by Ha Seong-Nan, which I’m reading a bit at a time. In many ways what I am working on is a war book, and so I re-read Slaughterhouse Five, which I didn’t think to bring myself, but serendipitiously, M did. Started listening (and following along on kindle) to James Salter’s The Hunters, about a fighter pilot in the Korean War.
Mostly, I am working on this novel draft. Trying to make it through a draft without too many preconceptions about how it will go. Right before I left home, I got word that I’ve made it to the second stage of a grant for a different, wildly ambitious project and so I will need to spend some time on that application. They are looking for a few more work samples and a timeline. On the first couple days here, I tried to spend the mornings on the novel and the afternoons on the application, but I think I’d like a few days to focus on one thing at a time. These little adjustments, the moments of not knowing exactly what to do next stir up a bit of anxiety. I don’t want to squander this time.
Today’s goals and intentions:
Take note of the light this morning.
Three hours of notes on the manuscript.
This afternoon, begin transcribing what I’ve written so far into a document, editing while I go.
With all best intentions, by late afternoon, it’s difficult for me to want to work. I want a glass of wine with a bit of bread and cheese. There’s pleasure in preparing a simple dinner for all of us to have together. A little time to clean up and then to watch movies or play games.
I want also, of course, to spend time seeing the region, being here. Mostly, we’ve run a few errands in town. Wandered through our tiny village. Visited what we were told was the best bakery in Pezenas, the next town over. It did not disappoint. We took a long walk along Via Domitia through vineyards. This weekend, perhaps a ride to the beach? We are twenty minutes from the coast. The challenge is, when I am writing, a little part of me thinks I should be exploring. When I am doing anything other than writing, I feel like I should not be. I think mostly, I have to make peace with the discomfort. It is, after all, a gift to be here, in this place, for this time. That seems important to hold on to, most of all.
These notes are from a Cynthia Huntington lecture. I didn’t record the date.
I wrote this down, attributed to Marcus Aurelius? “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”
Then, a series of bullet points:
A fatal flaw built into every work.
The problem contains the solution.
The problem carries its own destruction within itself.
The obstacle is the gift. It has helpfully arisen to get you where you need to be.
Amor fati: Love what happens.
The energy locked into every obstacle.
Flow in the direction that the energy is flowing.
And this, which I wrote as a quotation, but did not attribute: “And together you can sit among the broken pieces, full of possibility.”
The element that makes the arrow a threat becomes a threat to the arrow. (Once landed, it’s stuck).
Castle is a fortress until it is surrounded, then it becomes a prison.
First rule: Reject nothing.
Next: Be willing to be a fool.
You need emptiness to hold something new. You need silence to hear.
Again, unattributed: “I’m making you and you’re making me.”
Jamaal May: “Language will fail us every time.”
In poetry, more than one thing can be true at a time. Think of a poem as a small machine you can build to get closer to someone. You can’t feel someone else’s pain, but you can approximate the reach.
Ecstasy can lead to ruin. Will.
The past is not past. The dead are not dead. Everything we imagine and dream, it’s all real. Imagination, speculation, dream.
“Absence is the highest form of presence.” (Joyce?)
PROMPT: A series of footnotes to a text that does not exist.
PROMPT: No one in the house sleeps at night.
Donald Hall: “A poem is a monument to its moment”
Transtromer: “I don’t think these poems are costing you enough.”
Sending messages out into the void and expecting a response. How the internet is a perfect metaphor for my lost mother. (For all our mothers?)
What is a childhood?
I went away and then returned
but you never went back
ghosts there too hungry
Memory makes its pirate ships
from railroad ties and black rubber,
a wooden ladder reaching up–
climb as high as you can go
your heart in your thin chest
A twelve-year-old boy
leads his friends to a highway overpass
and while they are watching, jostling,
and laughing, he takes a gun
from his backpack
and shoots himself
People on the television say
There’s a lesson to be learned
from this tragedy
as the highway traffic rushes on
At night, my son enumerates his grievances:
It is noisy and I cannot sleep.
There is something uncomfortable in my bed.
My leg hurts.
We let him climb into bed with us. Just this once.
Outside, two men are arguing. There is construction on the bridge.
My friend is in love with a married man and when they speak on the phone, she tells him: “Take me somewhere you have never been and promise me you will not go back there without me.” The city desire makes.
The distance is the distance: Don’t say you have not wished for this. Don’t say you do not wish it.
In preparation for a time of what I hope will be sustained attention to reading and writing, I’m gathering up notes from old notebooks. I’m grateful to my past self for leaving little gifts for my future self to find.
The value and quality of your writing will come from the value and quality of your life when you are not writing.
David Wojahn: “Pain is not just to be endured but to show a way toward something like grace.”
Margaret Atwood: “All writers learn from the dead.”
PROMPT: “Heart burial”
Who said this? “Poetry must resist intelligence almost successfully.”
David Wojahn: “Not an hour goes by I’m not thinking about poetry.”
Larry Levis: “The Oldest Living Thing in LA”
PROMPT: What are the stories that would save your life?
PROMPT: Begin a poem with this line: “Before you dream of me tonight, you must know…”
Stuck on the current manuscript and kept feeling stuck. Made lists of writers and poets I thought the book was “in conversation” with, and that helped. As did asking myself what the playlist for the book might be. Here’s the working list.
Landslide, Fleetwood Mac, Fleetwood Mac, 1977.
This Woman’s Work, Kate Bush, The Sensual World, 1989.
Love Out of Lust, Lykke Li, Wounded Rhymes, 2010.
Leading Me Now, The Tallest Man on Earth, There’s No Leaving Now, 2012.
I Dream A Highway, Gillian Welch, Time (The Revelator), 2001.
We Belong, Pat Benatar, Tropico, 1984.
Holocene, Bon Iver, Bon Iver, 2011.
What We Had, Handsome Furs, Plague Park, 2007.
Escape, Richard Buckner, Our Blood, 2011.
Landslide, Joel R.L. Phelps & The Downer Trio, Blackbird, 1999.
I can tell by looking at the list that there are decisions still to be made about tone, form, emotional arc. It’s helpful, I think, to have to look at the work through a different lens. I feel like a new kind of movement is now possible. And that is always a good thing.