Sunday, September 30, 2012

Asking a Woman Out, Cold: A Prose Poem and a Memory of My Childhood

I am going to be bold, walking like this, a slight list to the right on my injured leg, to your door and knocking, having seen you several times from there, leashing your dogs into a trot; walking these fifty yards, past barking pugs and an elderly stare that measures the lilt of my eagerness, to say when you finally answer, looking at something near your right nostril, as deep and dark as that is, something almost witty about a beer and a shot or maybe you’d rather just sip a coffee and watch a lifetime of cream drip into it, drip like the drizzle off the shadow of the leaves I stepped under on the lake shore, watching a moment as you tugged and twisted your bathing suit, swimming, God knows where, maybe toward the fantasy of the far shore, diving just then, a flash of yellow ties, to gather pebbles you would polish and trade for the feathers your mother would use, use to make the headdress you wore on that Thanksgiving we wrote in large, tentative letters on the paper of flimsy turkeys, in the quacking uncertainty of first thoughts; I watched from only a gesture away while slow tears welled at the corners of your eyes, as you gathered the pine needles you had dropped in the hall on the first day of kindergarten or maybe it was the last. 

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Lunch: The Angle of Introspection (September 23, 2012)

I try to eat lean--salads, fruits, and a variety of lean meats with a bit of cottage cheese and a few other items to provide those ephemeral nutrients we often overlook. Doing this requires me to cook pretty much every meal or on occasion eat lunch at the University cafeteria, which is actually well suited to my needs. This day, as I was wedging cherry tomatoes next to leaves of Romaine, green peppers, mushrooms and a scattering of yellowized cheese, I was struck by the mundanity rooted beneath the chaos. Students pass through lunch, as do most of us, in a frantic plate-to-gullet procession. And putting aside the gorging and, frankly, nauseating table manners, they confront lunch as little more than a gnat flitting about their eyes. Get it out of the way and move on. While this youthful gluttony is in part developmental, they simply need a lot of fuel, it suggests how few have been raised to appreciate the pause, that moment of reflection, lunchtime offers, and how this lack of interest is reflected in the larger culture. Students have classes at noon, adults have working lunches, and everyone moves rapidly toward dinner and death.

Those cultures that appreciate the time lunch provides are well rehearsed. The Spanish and large swaths of Latin America have the siesta, the East Indians take long lunch breaks even though they may work all day, the French drink wine and enjoy cafe society, an older American enjoyed the martini over a plate of corned beef and sauerkraut. What seems obvious now, as I make my circuit around the salad bar following the train of mastication, is that a person or culture that doesn't appreciate lunch, doesn't appreciate the morning, and the experiences that emerge from the ebb and flow of the day. 

When I was in Vienna, in which the cafe is an institution, I noticed not only that people took long lunches, as this is the main meal of the day, but also talked to each other. This point may seem obvious: I see people, one might say, talking at lunch all the time; however, along the Ringstrasse a different tenor in this conversation seemed to prevail. Reminiscent of stories about Brahms’s, Beethoven’s, Mozart’s, or Hofmannsthal’s mid-day declamations, people engaged each other, using this time as an opportunity to explore ideas, linking the efforts of the morning to the reflection of the evening. Over the last year, due to myriad, I'd forgotten the potential of this time to help me find equilibrium, as I reflect not only on my work but also on what makes that work and my life meaningful.

To do this, however, we need to retire with a thought and rise early with the intent to think. Ask a friend or student or whoever to describe the sunrise and she might say, "I couldn't see it I was driving to work," or "I couldn't see it I was driving home from work," or "I didn't realize the sun rose. Isn't it always up there?" Of course, when you see the morning, you realize why so many cultures revered it. A feeling of comfort and calm emerges from the aesthetic as well as the genetic response to its promise of beginnings. Of course, reams of self-help books and new-age treatises expound on this idea, and for the most part their pronouncements range from humorous to absurd. For example, one such book mewls that the “morning uplifts the soul to the potential of the day.” Of course any day has potential to be good only in the abstract. I could meditate into utter inaction and contemplate the cosmos in complete disregard of where my next foot might fall. Yet, as with all things, poetry provides an insight where conscious or even conscientious insight ends. 

For some the morning colors the fog of memory, bringing to these moments an air of redemption, a breath we might take to diminish fear and see the day as we do a wide stretch of calm water. As we look over it, our perception is pulled toward that distant shore, a horizon that suggests a transition, perhaps a revision, among forms: earth diffusing into sky as that moment of exhalation frames the angle of introspection. Such an angle is suggested in the opening stanza of Wallace Stevens’s “Sunday Morning.”

Complacencies of the peignoir, and lateCoffee and oranges in a sunny chair,And the green freedom of a cockatooUpon a rug mingle to dissipateThe holy hush of ancient sacrifice. (1-5)

A still life, these objects frame an absence that dissipates the divine, which in scattering infiltrates each object with a whisper of presence, a presence that recalls the gnostic concept of a divine spark.  In that whisper resides knowledge, a knowledge that emerges for us in the construction of meaning. In complacencies of the peignoir and the lateness of the coffee, for instance, is a reluctance to engage in the ritual of Sunday, certainly, but also the expectations of the day itself. In this resistance, both complacent and late, we are drawn into a moment of introspection, a moment similar to that of gazing over water that begs us to ask, to ponder, to mine existence for meaning and invest this meaning in the objects around us. Manifesting meaning into the world is the function of introspection, and the action we witness in Stevens’s poem. These objects are not merely present; they suggest in their relationship, their “angle of repose” in Wallace Stegner’s words, fragments of meaning around which consciousness, a being in place, eddies. Our understanding of our life emerges as we draw this fragments into coherence as either a thought or maybe something more structured, such as a narrative. 

In Boston, I noticed this angle of introspection in the robe of the woman I was with as she draped it over the dais on her way to the shower. In the folds of the fabric and bend of the loosened belt, I began to outline a structure of feeling that defined the emotional composition of the room. The perspective emerged in a drawing I completed while she showered. In retrospect, this image defines loss, but had the love I felt for her been reciprocated, the image would no doubt suggest a link between us, a moment when emotion previously ephemerally became manifest in the movement of lines and the weight of values, gestures that articulate in the reification of an instance of sincere feeling. The dissonance between what I felt as I completed this drawing, which I did before she came out of the bathroom, and that conveyed in a poem I wrote in response to it a few months later reveals that irony that defines heartbreak.
It’s done like this, quickly,lines becoming shapesand hatching hinting at shadows—
a breath taken and held to shape the word from the chill off the street,or to trace the curve of the beltthat winds across the robe and hangs,falling to quiet
the exhale that is lusty in line workfaint in crosshatch, loosein a touch thatmistook the impossible for the possible.
The dissonance--however I might describe its central irony: heartbreak, sadness, loss—is the meaning encompassed by juxtaposing these two texts. Lunch is the time, the moment of introspection, that allows me to confront this meaning and make it part of my life, as painful as that is to do. 

And now, holding the doggy bag, I stumble wearier toward dinner. 

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Breakfast: Reading the Coffee Grounds (September 14, 2012)

"THE HAGGARD woman with a hacking cough and a deathless love whispers of white
flowers … in your poem you pour like a cup of coffee, Gabriel" (Carl Sandburg from "Cups of Coffee")

I woke from a weird dream, rehearsing to myself, as I often do, the names of women I have known. I don't know why I do this, perhaps it is because I find comfort in giving voice to a woman's name; or maybe it's a way to remember some of those to whom I once mattered; or maybe, like Boethius languishing in an Italian prison, it’s an attempt to invoke the muse and wrench inspiration from the anxieties and confusion that shutter us from insight and the happiness it could bring.

With only the hazy afterimage of the dream in mind, I stumbled downstairs for coffee. I like my coffee strong, which Jim Harrison once described as having enough density to obscure a dime dropped into it. Months ago the plunger of my French press broke, so now I use a tin measuring cup, which has gathered innumerable dents. The number of uses indicated by these dents reflects the desperation I feel in the morning as I seek to force a few hours of lucidity into my day.

I drank my coffee, and after finishing the cup I noticed that the grounds resembled pictures of the Milky Way: at the bottom was a disk composed of dark spots of various sizes increasing in intensity toward the center. A wisp of chunks rose from the disk to cling to the lip. As we all do in the actual Milky Way, I ride that outer bit, hunkered down in the galactic outskirts, looking both in at the luminosities around which so many gather and out toward the silence that wanders away. As with so many introverts, I am pulled toward the calm of those open stretches, such as that I experienced from the portion of US 2 running through North Dakota. Along the margins of the highway are wild flowers, remnants of the mostly lost tall-grass prairie, and huge, steroid-heavy bulls that rise as high as the stunted and mangled ash trees.

On one trip, I stopped, after hours without seeing a soul, at a rest area, which amounted to a green-stained cinder block building, housing one stall with what struck me as a very lonely toilet. I approached one of the bulls that snorted at the sight of me; its skin rippling against the horse flies that darted from bush to bush. When the bull moved the earth stuttered in protest, and an instinctual panic rose in me. The bull could have turned me into a pool of guts in seconds. In that moment, however, I felt outside of time, maybe lost maybe rooted in the whispers rather than yawps of life. Unlike Emerson and Thoreau, I don't suppose that place or time led me to any insight nearer the source; indeed, I'd argue there is no source. Yet at that moment I wasn't in a hurry, and I had no desire to justify my existence in terms relevant to the enormity of those luminosities, those meanings that allows us to place our meager minds in relation to the clock. Maybe that moment drew me nearer freedom where personal failings and vulnerabilities don't paralyze the mind and chill the blood. A location where those you disappoint don't cut and run, but crack a beer or poor a drink and tell you a joke, waiting out your "hard time," as you do theirs. The cynics would no doubt claim that this is utopian crap; the optimists might wonder how such behavior would "pay off"; and those remaining might just ignore the slightly embarrassing, existential drivel.

The shutter across my window shuddered, and I sat the cup down, grabbed a banana and headed out toward Lunch.