Sunday, November 27, 2011

And Hope That My Dreams Will Come True

The unconscious wants truth, as the body does. The complexity and fecundity of dreams comes from the complexity and fecundity of the unconscious struggling to fulfill that desire.

When I spent the night with Abigail, back in the ‘60s, we slept in her double bed under a pile of quilts—summer nights were chilly in Vermont. Her bedroom under the eaves had slanting ceilings, just like mine. I don’t think she ever got see my room when we were children because her mother wouldn’t allow her to spend the night at my house. Her mother and my parents were close, dear friends, and she must have known that they would protect Abigail as one of their own. But sadly her mom held fast to the fear that some harm would come to her youngest daughter if she left her side.
After supper, we ran upstairs to her room, and we became free travelers. Nestled together with our cold noses almost touching, we whispered late into the night. Just as we drifted into sleep, Abigail instructed me in dream-making. “If we concentrate hard enough, and only let ourselves think of the dream we want, we can go anywhere we want in our dreams and be with whoever we want. Let’s only talk about the dreams we want.” With that, Abigail, who is a great mimic, spoke in a perfect Liverpoolian accent, “We can have Beatle dreams! I want to be in London with George. Where do you want to go, Kiki?”
“I want to be in London, too, with Paul. Abby, would you like to go on a double date?” My proposal set off bed-shaking giggles, and we planned the flowers George and Paul would bring us and our outfits—long purple velvet dresses, pointy-toed lace-up boots, peacock feather boas, and wide-brimmed hats or Mondrian inspired mini-dresses and stack heeled shoes. We’d walk along Thames and see all the sights and go to the most expensive, luxurious, yummy restaurants in whole world.

Sometimes Abigail told me that she met her father in her dreams, and she wanted to dream him with her again. On those nights I tried to help her bring into him being. I saw him emerge in light from the wooded hilltop, and walk toward us along the brook where iridescent dragonflies skimmed the water’s surface. He wore a black sports coat and baggy trousers and a fedora. When he reached us, he knelt on one knee before Abigail, and pulled an imaginary creature from his pocket—it wasn’t a mouse or a bird or any animal for which we have a name. “Remember?” he said. The little creature stood on its hind legs on his palm, and Abby nodded and stroked its head.
Other times, Abigail would cry bitterly, “I don’t have a father! I don’t have a father!” I was only six when Abigail and I began our friendship. I was too young to know that our parents, each of them, produced literally hundreds of poems about the suicides of Abigail’s father and my grandfather. I can’t remember not knowing that her father had hung himself, but somehow, I’ve since learned, that fact was kept secret from Abigail for years. I do remember when I tried to voice my intuition that my grandfather had also killed himself. When my mother described her father’s gentleness, his soft, healing hands—he was a doctor—she also sadly told me about her father’s death of “a creeping paralysis” (probably multiple sclerosis). When my father told me about his mother, her New England reserve and her properness, he also told me about her death: she’d fallen ill on a ship to Europe with my mother. So, sad, they never got to travel together. They immediately returned the U.S., and she died soon afterwards of pancreatic cancer. My father told exciting stories about his adventures with his father—they took a road trip out West and hit a deer in Wyoming; they sold watch straps on the train in order to fund going to see the Yankees; his father designed watches and branded them, Pierre Grange, which means Stone Barn in French—but how did he die? One day in the living room of our house in Vermont, I mustered the courage to ask, “Daddy, how did your father die?”
“We’ll talk about it another time,” he said, and I saw his body awkwardly scrunch up with grief or perhaps he was embarrassed by his evasive answer. I couldn’t bear my father’s pain, which I felt acutely, so I didn’t ask again. I knew my grandfather killed himself. I sensed that fact, as all children intuitively apprehend everything about their parents; for survival’s sake, they’re biologically programmed to know, to adjust, and to compensate. The way I compensated was to participate in the denial narrative, even after I figured out the story, through the poetry, I guess. Eventually, my father was able to discuss the suicide with me. But by then I’d already learned to distrust my perceptions. That distrust led me to allow other people to name reality. When I told my story, I hoped someone else would refine the raw materials of my speech and tell me the true, the good, the wise, and the real. 
You may say, “But you’ve been writing poetry since you were a child, how can you say your work doesn’t name reality?” For much of my life, my poetics could be summed up in Antonio Machado’s lines, “En mi soledad / he visto cosas muy claras / que no son verdad” (In my solitude / I’ve seen things very clearly / that aren’t true.”) Until recent years, I didn’t internalize his other lines: “La verdad es que lo es, / y sigue siendo verdad / aunque se piense al rev├ęs” :

The truth is what it is,
and still stays true
even if you think the reverse.

I wish when I asked my father how his father had died, he’d had sat down with me on the couch, and taken my hand in his, just as he did so many times when he read to me—“I take your hand, companion of the hills” he wrote in one my birthday poems. I wish he’d told me the truth in his even, steady voice, as he did in his later poem, “In Our Life Watch,” which tells the story my magical grandfather, a merchant of diamonds and watches, who made and lost many fortunes in what one newspaper article called his “Horatio Alger-like career.” Here are the last lines:

            He steps over the low railing, leaps,
            And floats in blind sorrow into May sun.

            Dad’s fallen again, but we can’t wake early
            and look up a small jewelry shop
            to peddle our wares and hearts,
            our soft Swiss straps or cold diamond,
            since death at last has cleaned us out.

How utterly simple, beautiful, and heartbreaking! I’m not saying that my poetry or anybody’s doesn’t name truth; it’s a striving toward it. Poetry – all writing, all art – is a process of discovery for both the artist and the reader. Shouldn’t this poem be enough? Shouldn’t all the poems be enough? My answer is no, I’m sorry to say. There’s a difference between art and life, between the artist and the person. There’s a difference between readers and a person’s family. Art isn’t the only place where one can be honest and insightful, one’s best self. Art might be mere practice for an ordinary person to sit face to face with a child and tell the truth that “is what it is / and still stays true / even if you think [or say] the reverse” or stay silent.

Abigail Stone
In our conversations, Abigail and I have discovered that we were practicing truth-seeking in our dreams. Sometimes it’s terrible to know what one shouldn’t know. I was told in a dream that my uncle had killed himself. I visited a friend in the hospital, though I didn’t  “know” he was ill, and my bed was two-thousand miles away. Not all dreams know and tell the unknowable and untellable. Yet the dreams (if that’s right word) that do invariably find a way to prove indisputably that they have uncannily told the dreamer the truth.

A couple of weeks ago Abigail posted a piece on her blog, House of Stone, about learning Hebrew. She wrote: “ I have learned to read ‘my father is coming,’ which is ironic, as my father has been dead since I was five years old, and yet I still believe at some point he will return.” He did return, many times. Now my dear friend has lost her mother, who happens to be one of the great poets of the world. Abigail, I’m closing my eyes and concentrating very hard before I sleep, just as I know you are. She is the dream returning, giving you the faith to tell the truth you know. 

Friday, November 25, 2011

A Poem about an Incident in the Life of Ruth Stone

Ruth Stone: Photo by John Lane Studio

I don't like to admit that my poems tell "what really happened" because I want the same freedom that fiction writers have to tell lies that tell the truth. As I wrote about in my post, "Occupy Imagination: Everyone is Invited!," I prefer to let the imagination speak and invent the happily ever after.

I confess that "Madly in Love" really happened, but not to me. I was just a child observing. I remember Ruth's response to the poem, her customary generosity: "How amazing, Kiki,  that you remember the incident in such detail." And then she giggled or laughed. I don't know what to call her particular expression of delight.

I wrote this poem in January of 1992, when I was living in freezing Madison, Wisconsin. I was collecting unemployment, my marriage was unraveling, and I was depressed—if you get the picture of an unmastered disaster—well, that's what really happened, I guess—or at least it's a part of what really happened. Ruth's life of poverty, loss, and loneliness, which she transformed so exquisitely in her poetry, gave me the courage to name my own destitution, which I'm happy to report was brief, at least in terms of employment. I wrote the whole of my book, Madly in Love, in 1992. Each poem had a kind of inevitability; beginning with "Madly in Love," the first poem in the book, the poems came almost exactly in the same order as they appear in published volume. I've never had that writing experience before or since. From her winter in Binghamton to her summer in Goshen, I believe that whole year Ruth sent her spirit to me in Madison, to stay close and encourage me to listen carefully and attend, as her speaker does in "Dream of the Light in the Shade:" "and all says attend! / The light so coldly spells in innocence / Attend!" 

Ruth said in her acceptance speech when she won the National Book Award that her poetry "just talked to me, and I wrote it down,” she said. “So I can’t even take much credit for it.” Amen to that. 

 Madly in Love
                                                    For Ruth Stone

Late one summer night he tore through
her latched screen door, his trousers
in his hand, and declared his love.
Then he lay down on the rug and screamed.
He was obliging when she asked him to leave
and hiked from Goshen twenty miles
across the Brandon Gap in his underwear.
At six AM, casually as if he carried
a sack of breakfast bagels, he rang
our bell, trousers still in hand.
Three days later he committed himself.
He was a librarian, a sensible man.

As a child it mystified me.
Now I think despair could make me
walk twenty miles in my underwear.
I could lie down half-naked and wail
for an audience for my articulate loins.
I've screamed--haven't you?--even though
screaming means no one will listen.
And he was a librarian--I imagine him
knowing all the proper places for books
and for the lover in the stacks
who wasn't there when he clicked off
the fluorescent lights and drove

into mountains where the Milky Way's
silk sash billowed above him
and crickets sang out crazy excitement
as he stood on the dirt road with mountains
rising over him, wonderful, dark,
breathing desire. He saw her lighted
by a lamp and the fire, reading. 
And for a moment, before he broke
through the obstructing screen,
liberating to the inside
mosquitoes and winking fireflies,
he thought she might respond.

Ruth Stone, June 8, 1915-November 19, 2011

Ruth & my dad, Willis
Thanksgiving Day, 2011: After putting the turkey in the oven, I went out into the sunny noonday to harvest greens for our salad. I stuck my trowel in the dirt to see if the carrots were ready to eat (no), and there among the feathery carrot-tops, the radishes, the peas, the clover, and the pesky creeping-Charlie was a dead mole covered with glistening flies. I heard this poem by Ruth Stone, as I do so often:

The Plan

I said to myself, do you have a plan?
And the answer was always, no, I have no plan.
Then I would say to myself, you must think of one.
But what happened went on, chaotic with necessary pain.
During the winter the dogs dug moles from their runs
And rolled them blind on the frozen road.
Then the crossbills left at the equinox.
All this time I tried to think of a plan,
Something to bring the points together.
I saw that we move in a circle
But I was wordless in the field.
The smell of green steamed, everything shoved,
But I folded my hands and sat on the rocks.
Here I am, I said, with my eyes.
When they have fallen like marbles from their sockets,
What will become of this? And then I remembered
That there were young moles in my mind's eye,
Whose pink bellies shaded to mauve plush,
Whose little dead snouts sparkled with crystals of frost;
And it came to me, the blind will be leading the blind.

The little mole lay on its back, its pink paws, so much like hands, lay on on its fur. I wondered if one of our dogs had killed the mole, or was it Christopher, our muscular black cat, whom I call little jaguar. I wondered if Abigail was in Vermont for the holiday. Inside, washing the greens, arranging a purple pansy and some curly parsley to garnish the humus, I remembered our days in Providence, telling Phoebe how much I love the way purple and green look together. She was pregnant with Ethan, and I asked about the drawings she was making with graphite rubbings on rice paper, using household items like cheese graters. I've used the same method in some of my drawings. I made the cornbread dressing and gravy, and the meal was prepared. Time to take a shower, wash away the smell of onions and garlic from my hands. When the blind leading the blind entered my mind, I gratefully sang "Amazing Grace," because I'm no longer afraid to sing; I sing as freely as I did when I was a child in Vermont, singing Beatles songs with Abigail. Then I sat down at my computer, and wished Abigail a happy Thanksgiving on her Facebook wall, sending lots of love.

Our guests began to arrive and then my dad called with Thanksgiving greetings and he said, "I have very sad news. Ruth died." When I met Ruth, I was younger than I am in this first grade photo.  I have no memory of life without her and now she is memory on a new earth.

Tonight I remember something so simple—or strange—I don't know. Maybe I'm numb. She'd arranged a reading for me at Binghamton University, and she put me up in her home there. In the morning, we drank tea and ate toast on beautiful bread, with ginger preserves. How delicious the preserves! And I recalled our teas in Vermont served on her Blue Willow tea set, and the delicacy, the ginger preserves. I held the jar in my hand, admiring the old fashioned label, the opaque white glass, which is made to look like porcelain, I guess. It was a winter day in Binghamton, with that kind of gray that has heft. Nonetheless, talking about how she keeps those preserves on hand to treat herself, Ruth sitting at her kitchen table glowed with warm ginger and her palpable delight to share such yumminess.  Yes, her poetry is a gift to the world. Yes, she influenced me. Without her, I would not be the poet I am, or the person. I've written about the poetry; the poetry remains. Tonight I want to run to the grocery store, and treat myself to ginger preserves—and bites of toast that make me feel the warm rush of her love on my forehead, hear her spicy words, sharp wit, her sweet laughter, and taste her presence again.