Notes in the Margin (Part IV)
Nothing like reading a Holocaust memoir at the Jiffy Lube. Distant relatives gassed so I could be here waiting on another uniformed man with a checklist. Soon, he will tell me, with a half smile, all the things I need aside from an oil change. An oil change is $37.50 (more if you use the fancy synthetic oil), but everything else is going to run the bill to—oh, my neglected Outback. There’s a TV hanging, by chains, from a corner of the ceiling. A real estate show’s on. A couple is touring a beach house in San Diego. They discuss square footage with the host. In my book, a professor tours the remains of Birkenau, a sub-camp, part of the Auschwitz complex. It is his first time back since he was an eleven-year-old prisoner. A historian, the professor had not intended for the visit to become personal. This is a memoir of reluctance. The title is a mouthful: Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death: Reflections on Memory and Imagination. But it’s accurate and landscape looms as prominently in the book as death. The professor, Otto Dov Kulka, didn’t actually write it. He spoke it into a tape recorder over the course of many years.
It is mid-October in West Lebanon, New Hampshire. We call it West Leb. Cold, the kind of cold you aren’t yet ready for, and the rain falls in solid sheets of gray. The couple is testing out the hot tub. They appear to have brought bathing suits. The other patrons and I sit and watch the TV, our mouths agape, awaiting our verdicts. A kind of comfort in this collective paralysis. All waiting rooms are the same. The Jiffy Lube, the hospital. A permanence about them. My cohorts look like the type of people who probably take better care of their cars than I do. Their news will be more welcome than mine. But I pledge here, to myself, that I will not be duped, as I was last time, into having the spark plugs replaced. Same goes for the air filter. This time I will hold fast. The couple and the host are standing in the driveway now. The husband says that the three-car garage will give them a lot of flexibility. He loves toys. Sometimes he wishes he didn’t live in SoCal, so he could buy a snow blower. I read. In the fall of 1944, the front was closing in on Auschwitz. Those prisoners who had not yet been annihilated were either killed or, if deemed healthy enough, sent to work in Germany. A few remained, alive though unable to work. Among these was an eleven-year-old named Otto. He says it was like living in a ghost camp. The crematorium was dismantled and blown up. No more columns of smoke, no more trains in, trains out. But he doesn’t club a reader over the head with details. And maybe this is the beauty of Kulka’s book. He’s sketching landscapes as much as he is reconstructing memories. Winter arrived. They waited. The cannons, Kulka says, could be heard in the distance. In January of 1945, the order was given to transfer from Birkenau to the main camp, at Auschwitz. Kulka recalls tromping through the snow.
From there, on the night of 18 January, began the journey, through the gates that were opened, to a kind of freedom, into the white snow, the night snow, into expanses dispossessed of all the accoutrements of that Metropolis I knew, which I had breathed every moment since coming to it on that night of flickering chains of light.
I pause and go back and re-read the paragraph, zeroing on the sentence with “night snow.” So simple and right, but I’m not sure I’ve seen it put like this before. As he marches, Otto notices, ahead, dark stains on the snow. It doesn’t take the kid long to realize what the stains are. “Death’s drips,” he calls them. Those who couldn’t keep pace were shot. Again, the older Otto, the professor, doesn’t linger, even though he’s speaking this into a tape recorder in Jerusalem. But neither, of course, did the kid at the time. Night snow, death’s drips. It’s still raining. It’s October 12, 2019.
Rightfully accused of something I’ve done, I retreat for a day, alone with a book. Since this, of course, is what I love to do anyway, you might call it a self-imposed un-punishment. And yet reading this particular book is a sincere attempt to acknowledge my wrongdoing. The root of my crime—all my crimes, really—is inattention to the present tense of my life. The book is Bernadette Mayer’s Midwinter Day. Mayer wrote it, the whole thing, every word, on December 22, 1978. Before today, I’d read only parts, but this is a book to be swallowed whole, hour by hour, the way Mayer wrote it. Therefore, I’m currently parked in a chair in the Lebanon, New Hampshire, public library, attempting a small degree of penance through reading.
Midwinter Day is a book that resists dumb hyperbole. And yet I’m going to go out on a flimsy limb and say, proclaim, ordain it to be the greatest celebration of family life ever written by an American—ever. Except, and here’s the thing, although Mayer’s husband, Lewis, and their two young daughters, Marie and Sophia, appear on every page—there’s breakfast, a trip to the library, lunch, dancing around the kitchen, reading out loud, squeezed-in sex, toys on the floor, dreaming—this book, at its core, is a dense 119-page record of Mayer’s fiercely individual consciousness across the seconds, minutes, hours of December 22, 1978. Mayer manages to be as aloof from her family as she is at the center of it. A god who also does the dishes and shops for beer and Pampers. To quote Midwinter Day would be like cutting out a vital organ. A kidney won’t tell the story of a body or a soul. (A liver will, maybe.) And yet, over the past couple of hours, I’ve covered pages of this small notebook with lines, and even wrote one on my wrist, because when I went to the bathroom, I took the book with me but not the notebook. Across my veins is written: “Marie’s asleep.…The human race was saved…” Any one of the thousands of other lines of poetry and prose I could quote here run the risk of making Mayer sound merely quirky. But fuck it.
We read Bready Bear. It’s a story of a toy panda bear who decides he ought to live in a cave but he can’t fall asleep there because it’s cold and he’s nervous and then he just falls down and can’t move because he needs to be wound up again by the child to whom he belongs, a boy named Thayer. I’ve had dreams that Rosemary becomes the editor of The New York Times and has a son, that I am a Marine and Bill Berkson is the head of my reserve unit, that Godard dies and comes back to life to make a movie, that Henry Miller shoots George Wallace, that Grace is in the Electoral College, that Picasso lives on Saturn, that Hawthorne turns into a white chicken…
An explanation for this nutty shift from Bready Bear to Rosemary (Mayer’s sister) assuming the editorship of The New York Times? You’ll never get it. But doesn’t your mind work the same way? Out of nowhere I just had a vision of my grandfather’s big feet. I don’t know what made me think of his feet, which I haven’t seen in more than twenty years. Synapses can be as random as they are relational. Sometimes things connect to one another rationally. Just as often they don’t. Consider your own brain, where it goes at any given hour, on any given day. Mayer is quirky, sure, but also deadly serious and without a shred of self-importance.
If we’re all wrong about everything, the life so short and the craft so long to learn, the assay so hard, so sharp the conquering, the dreadful joy that passes so quick and then being left alone again, what I mean is love astonishes my feeling with its wonderful working so ardently so painfully that when I’m thinking about such certainty I don’t know like the earth if I’m floating or sinking.
Mayer states directly that she seeks to prove that the day, like dreams, has everything in it. And by everything she means everything. She also describes the book as an attempt to write an “introduction to love.” That this December day, in spite of all its aggravating details and numberless meals, is love itself—or at least its introduction. Laundry, the water bill, the phone bill, the heating bill, more laundry. Unpaid bills are as much love itself as a story before bed, as a little fucking when the kids are finally asleep.
I’m still reading Bernadette Mayer at the library in Lebanon, in the vain hope that it will make me a slightly better person. I don’t believe that a book, any book, can do this, but, look, everything else I’ve tried has failed.
Page 81 and Mayer is serving her kids spaghetti.
The woman in the next chair is snoring peacefully, a couple of plastic grocery bags at her feet. There’s a guy pretending to read a magazine and I don’t think that’s water in his water bottle. The hushed way people talk in the library, like it’s a morgue and all the books are dead people. Except the librarians, who all shout like train conductors. Read someone long enough and you start to become them. My ears are Bernadette’s ears and I’ve fallen in love with these hushed voices, this strange, anachronistic reverence for all these books—books nobody checks out much anymore. There’s a line to use the public computer. The sounds of chairs being pulled in and out, the clack of shoes walking away. This library is chronically underfunded. I read about it in the Valley News.
Mayer is thinking about Geoffrey Chaucer. She’s also taking out the garbage.
You do have to wonder what her husband, Lewis, also a poet, is doing all day. He must be writing poems. Something completely obvious finally occurs to me. This book is not remembered. It’s life created—in real time. Not a memorialization of family; this is family. The momentum comes from the present action, from the routine of this particular ordinary, sacred day. All this on December 22? Mostly what I think about consists of memories, barely grasped. I have this persistent worry about what will happen when I run out of things to remember. Will I have to live? I wish I was kidding. Writing is a form of remembering and I seem to exist in this space.
Meanwhile, Mayer’s back from the convenience store, where she’s gone for the beer and diapers. Now she’s sitting at her desk in a down jacket.
“All the windows,” she writes, “are frozen shut.”
For no articulable reason, I find this almost unbearably moving: that on December 22, 1978, all of Bernadette Mayer’s windows are frozen shut—I’m still here. It’s near closing. My own family is at home, across the Connecticut River, and everything I’ve squandered encloses me like a fist.
The poet Tom Clark was run down while crossing the street in Berkeley. This happened in August 2018. There were still some people alive who cared. The San Francisco Chronicle ran an obituary. So did the East Bay Times. The New York Times noted that he was Donald Hall’s favorite student and that he wrote baseball poems and published so many books that the Times didn’t have an exact number. Around two dozen, the paper said. Berkeley held a candlelight vigil in his honor. Wish I’d been there.
I’ve got a little book of Clark’s that I read every once in a while. I bought it at a store called Grey Matter in Hadley, Massachusetts. The title of the book is A Short Guide to the High Plains, and it was published in 1981 by Cadmus Editions out of Santa Barbara. It’s forty pages long. I had to count. A Short Guide to the High Plains has no page numbers. But the pages are thick to the touch, and the book is a beautiful object. There’s a self-portrait of Clark after the last poem. A line drawing. Longish hair, clean-shaven, wrinkles about the eyes. It is interesting how he sees himself. Stern, a non-disheveled hippie, staring out from the page in judgment. The book also includes a priceless one-and-a-half-page introduction by the poet Edward Dorn. Dorn’s prose is just this side of incoherent. But I re-read the introduction every once in a while, too, and with great joy. It’s dated, weird—exhilarating. It begins:
What you are about to enter is not the West of Grizzly Adams, it is the West of Measley Adams, who drives one of those Noxious German imports, not a jackrabbit but a Diesel Rabbit, and if he saw a Bear He’d floorboard it. Ug!
Huh? No, Dorn says the West in Clark’s book isn’t Grizzly Adams’s West; it’s a West degraded nearly beyond recognition by people beneath contempt, who, by the end of his tirade, have apparently traded in their diesel Rabbits for trucks. But before this, a few words about children.
And now we come to the Boom, or rather the latest Boom. No problems with abortion out here. They just stick babies on a fence post and shootem. If you’re walking across the street, they just gun their 4×4’s and run you over… And that’s to mention only the nice people.
You can trust Edward Dorn, beautiful freak that he must have been. He knew all the ways little people get crushed in America. One of my favorite poems of Dorn’s, by the way, is the painfully coherent “On the Debt My Mother Owed to Sears Roebuck,” which includes the lines “On the debt my mother owed to sears roebuck? / I have nothing to say, it gave me clothes to / wear to school, / and my mother brooded / in the rooms of the house, the kitchen, waiting.”
Tom Clark’s A Short Guide to the High Plains is, in my mind, a lot longer than forty pages. It’s like a ribbon of road you can’t see the end of. Listen to this:
All I want to do
is to go
and let the wind blow
right through me
in the parking lot
by the Trailways Depot
How many of my own paltry sentences would I trade to capture this wind in a Trailways Depot parking lot?
Rage, though, above all else, permeates these poems. In “Population Control in Gillette,” Clark writes of the coal trains that rattle across the nights, “At first, as you lie in bed in your motel room or mobile home, / it merely disrupts your sleep, your nervous system. Later you kill / your dog and wife.” Also: a kind of too-lateness. In 1981, Clark knew, maybe before a lot of people, where we were heading.
In America 1980
There are many Lost Zones sad abandoned towns
Places left behind
By the movements of commerce
Yet amid the doom, Buddhism is mentioned on the positive side of the ledger. There are dusty girls, too, playing volleyball. And sometimes, as he drives, Clark sings out the window of his car. At the time he wrote A Short Guide to the High Plains, Clark, then in his late thirties, had already published his first dozen or so books. Some of the early titles are Airplanes, Stones, Air, Neil Young, The No Book, How I Broke In, and The Last Gas Station and Other Stories.
I read that Tom Clark was outside the crosswalk when he was hit. Horrific as this is, it feels right.
In the early 1920s, Ford Madox Ford, author of the still revered The Good Soldier and a thousand other now-forgotten books, once tried to tell Jean Rhys to add more descriptive passages to her stories. The word he used was “topography.” A reader, he told her, needs to know where he’s standing. You know, like Flaubert or Maupassant or Conrad—do it like they’d do it, in a cunning way. Your stories are too skeletal, Ford said, or might have said. Like you, Jean, there’s not enough meat on their bones. Ford was one of the first editors to see something in her work. He knew it was like nobody else’s, and so felt—as editors, particularly male editors at that time, and long after, generally felt when encountering a singular, brilliant writer who happened to be a woman—entitled to mold the work in his own image. Gimme some more meat, Jean. Ford, by the way, was apparently gargantuan. Robert Lowell called him a “mammoth mumbler.” Rhys liked Ford. He was older (she was in her thirties; he was in his fifties), and common-law married to someone else, but the two (and sometimes the three, since, the story goes, the wife was included) were lovers for a time, in Paris in the ’20s. But sex and conversation and books and good wine were one thing, her work another. Rhys went through her stories and hacked out every extraneous and not-so-extraneous description she could find. Fuck topography. Her readers, particularly her women readers, knew exactly where her characters stood. From the short story “At the Villa d’Or”:
Sara, who sang, was installed on the third floor, though, as she was a female and relatively unimportant, her room was less sumptuous.
We’re talking here about the earliest stories, those collected in her first book, The Left Bank and Other Stories, published in 1927 with a lengthy preface by Ford. He goes on mostly about himself for fifteen pages before mentioning Rhys and finally manages to say: “One likes, in short, to be connected with something good, and Miss Rhys’ work seems to me to be so very good, so vivid, so extraordinarily distinguished by the rendering of passion, and so true, that I wish to be connected with it.”
The Left Bank was followed by four well-received novels, the last of which, Good Morning, Midnight, came out in 1939. And then, as is well known, Rhys vanished from the literary scene for almost three decades.
The story “Vienne,” the last one in The Left Bank, might be the best of what I’ll call Rhys’s slash-and-burn period. While never a wordy writer, Rhys did grow more expansive in some of her later stories, which were collected in two volumes published in the ’60s and ’70s. “Vienne,” though, is twenty-nine pages and reads as if it were weightless. The narrator, Francine, laments that nothing is left of the time she and her husband, Pierre, lived high on the hog in Vienna. All she’s got now are images in her head, like the one of a petite Hungarian dancer who could jump four or five feet and land on the wooden floor without a sound. After Francine sees her perform, she moves to Budapest and marries a barber. And that’s all there is of the little Hungarian dancer, a few lines at the beginning of a story ultimately preoccupied with other memories.
“Vienne” is oddly spare and lush at the same time. Rhys often repeats words, doubles back for emphasis. At first, Pierre is a great success. Money’s pouring in. What does he do to make it? Francine doesn’t give a hoot. Pierre, who was based on Rhys’s first husband, was loaded. What else counts?
Nice to have lots of money—nice, nice. Goody to have a car, a chauffeur, rings, and as many frocks as I liked.
Good to have money, money. All the flowers I wanted. All the compliments I wanted. Everything, everything.
Oh, great god money…
I get a little a woozy. Start to feel what it might have been like to strut around in a casino in Vienna after the First World War, tuxedo pockets bulging with cash. I spend a lot of time pretending I don’t lust after money. Rhys exposes me for the fraud that I am. Oh, great god, do I want it. But nothing ever lasts in a Rhys story, least of all wealth. And again and again, she destroys her people, especially her women. Francine describes eating in a restaurant, where, at the same table, only a few days earlier, a twenty-four-year-old Russian girl shot herself. Foreigners, Rhys knew, being one herself, often take it the hardest.
“With her last money she had a decent meal and then bang! Out—”
Rhys refuses to dwell on the sad facts that preceded the suicide. She knew well enough not to pretend they were unique. The pressure, in this world, to look good and what happens when a woman no longer does. Or when an unmarried girl gets pregnant. How fast a man will run. The Russian girl flickers as briefly as the Hungarian dancer. We’re left to imagine the gory scene at the table.
Pierre’s shady dealings catch up with him soon enough. The couple flees to Budapest and from there to Prague, where Pierre agrees to sell the car because he’s completely broke. The two of them take one last drive, and Francine eggs on Pierre to drive faster, faster, make the damn thing go! She’s hoping to go out in a crush of metal and glory. But Pierre slows down and Francine has to live with herself for another day. And another, and another. Like her creator. Because, unlike many of her characters, Jean Rhys never did “bang! Out—” She lived on, for years, decades, and I think of that time after she disappeared.
As if being poor and no longer living in London meant she didn’t exist. As if the fact that her books were out of print meant she no longer breathed. Biographers have since, of course, nosed around. We now know a lot more about what she was doing before she resurfaced. Her second husband died. Her third, like her first, ended up in prison for shady financial dealings. We know she was constantly hard up and moving from town to town. Her mental health was tenuous. Her drinking was nonstop. At one point she went to jail for throwing a brick through a neighbor’s window. She’d had good reason. The neighbor’s dog had murdered her cat. And in spite of it all, we know that she kept working, or at least kept trying to work. Not publishing didn’t mean not writing, and not writing didn’t mean not living. Her story is often told, on book jackets, as if she rose from the grave in 1966 and handed a publisher Wide Sargasso Sea. It makes for a good resurrection myth. But she wasn’t gone, wasn’t vanished. Very much flesh and blood and gnawing needs. In 1979, the year she died, she told an interviewer the following:
I’d planned to die at thirty, and then I’d push it on ten years, forty, and then fifty. You always push it on. And then you go on and on and on. It’s difficult. I’ve thought about death a great deal. One day in the snow I felt so tired. I thought, “Damn it, I’ll sit down. I can’t go on. I’m tired of living here in the snow and ice.” So I sat down on the ground. But it was so cold I got up.
Strange to think it’s been more than thirty years since Mrs. Sanchez drove her Pontiac into the garage, shut the door with the clicker, and then climbed over and settled into the passenger seat. The family lived three doors down. Two kids: one, Jacob Sanchez, was in my class, and he acted like nothing had happened. I’d watch him in class, though. I’d watch him concentrating on the door in the middle of physical science like he thought she might walk through it.
I’d like to convey how weighted those days felt. How when we laughed we checked ourselves. How in the cafeteria we ate slower. This didn’t last long. What she’d done became a fact soon enough. But I’m talking about the time it was still floating, when it hadn’t yet settled into story. I was waiting for Jacob to crack. To rage, or at least to kick a locker or a fifth grader. But in this story, like in so many of my stories, non-stories, there’s no movement—only Jacob looking at the door. Nothing else. The issue is not only my own lack of imagination—though it’s definitely this—but also my obsessive need to clutch a moment and stare at it across the sinkhole of time.
In my mad handwriting, typing this, I misread my own “stare” for “starve.” Which works too. Starve a moment across time. What if there’s nothing to this? What if he wanted only to get the hell out of physical science? Who didn’t? What if had zero to do with his mother?
How could it not have?
Part of me was jealous of all the attention he got. Jacob became a kind of god. No longer one of us, though he was always with us. We used to play a game called “kill the guy with the ball.” Jacob, who was taller and stronger than any of us, had always played it mildly. He still played it mildly. And he still preferred to be the guy with the ball, not one of the ecstatic killers. What if the only thing that matters is not what didn’t happen but what did, which is nothing?
At the end of his life, when he was dying in Paris, Richard Wright wrote haiku. A lot of obvious things have been said about this. He was tired out and all he had left was the energy for a few lines at a time. Wright said so himself. In a letter to his Dutch translator, he wrote, “During my illness I experimented with the Japanese form of poetry called haiku; I wrote some 4,000 of them and am now sifting them out to see if they are any good.”
Wright speaks of his illness in the past tense, but I’m not sure it ever went away. To his agent, he wrote, “These poems are the result of my being in bed a great deal and it is likely that they are bad. I don’t know.”
It is September,
The month in which I was born;
And I have no thoughts.
So, yes, think of what he’d already said. I must first have read about Bigger Thomas around the time of Jacob’s mother’s death. I still have my copy of Native Son, a battered mass-market paperback. In the left margin, a hundred pages into the book, I wrote, in block letters: “BIGGER IS SO FUCKED.”
Absolutely Wright was tired, and sick, and I can’t help but think of the strength it must have taken, then, to create only those few lines at a time. After having said so much—the restraint, the pulling back. Because at what point have you almost had enough? I’m not even talking about written words, books. What about the chatter in our own heads?
A fourteen-year-old kid in 1983 watches a door.
Can’t this be—
I remember she had short hair. My mother said it was a style. On Tuesdays, she drove carpool. She listened to the radio, the news, and she’d try to explain it to us, this president, this old man. Jacob would be sitting in the passenger seat with his All-Stars on the dash, not listening.
Wright’s daughter said that the rhythms of the haiku matched the rhythms of his labored breathing.
For weeks now, I’ve been carrying around a battered hard copy of Lorraine Hansberry’s second play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window. The play revolves around a thirty-seven-year-old Jewish bohemian named Sidney Brustein in 1960s Greenwich Village. I wake up every morning and think: I’m still a thirty-seven-year-old bohemian Jewish guy—until I realize that I’m now as far from thirty-seven as I was when I was twenty-five. Still bohemian, vaguely. Leftism, like being a Jew, runs in the family, particularly on my mother’s side. So maybe I can be forgiven for reading myself into this play, throughout which Sidney struggles from the opening scene to the last—with marital complications, his wavering political commitment, his overall place in the universe, et cetera, et cetera.
Check all those boxes on my behalf.
The other day my car broke down in Warren, New Hampshire. They’ve got a decommissioned nuclear warhead on the green. Or something like that; I didn’t read the plaque. I always love it when my car breaks down. I’ve got an excuse to read without interruption. I sat on the hood of my Subaru and read The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window. These are some dark, confusing days, and my response has been to turn to Hansberry. Not for answers, not for solace—but because of my lack of backbone.
Lorraine Hansberry didn’t fuck around. She told off Bobby Kennedy. She said, to his face, that if he was the best that white America could muster, we were in trouble. And in spite of a monumental triumph before she turned thirty, Hansberry never had it easy. She was a semi-closeted gay woman in the early ’60s (out to her friends, to her ex-husband, but not to the public). She once wrote, under a pseudonym, an essay about lesbianism and the married woman. At the end of her life, Hansberry suffered from debilitating pain on account of initially undiagnosed cancer.
The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window closed the day Hansberry died, at age thirty-four, in January 1965. Though it had run on Broadway for 101 nights (mostly as a result of last-minute financial contributions from some enthusiastic supporters, including Shelley Winters, later of The Poseidon Adventure fame), the play was neither a critical nor a popular success. The New York Times called one scene “searing” but was baffled by the rest of the play, as were many other mainstream critics. As Margaret Wilkerson puts it in her introduction to Les Blancs: The Collected Last Plays, “It was not about the black experience; in fact, it had only one black character in it. Lorraine Hansberry, hailed by the establishment as a new black voice, had written about white artists and intellectuals…” What happened to the phenom who wrote A Raisin in the Sun? Where was Sidney Poitier? “Second,” Wilkerson writes, “the play firmly opposed the vogue of urbane, sophisticated ennui and the glorification of intellectual impotence so typical of the period.” True: Hansberry’s critique of jibber-jabbering lefties is loud and clear. And yet Sidney and his wife, Iris, aren’t bowling pins. Hansberry doesn’t set them up in order to knock them down, as lesser writers too often do. Sidney and Iris are a married couple who read like a married couple.
Still, for all the play’s engagement with politics (and hypocrisy), as I sat on my hood I found myself drawn to an entirely different aspect. Act two, scene one. The shortest in the play, it’s an outlier. It opens with Sidney lying on his Greenwich Village stoop with his banjo. It’s dawn and he’s entered what appears to be a trancelike state as he imagines himself up on a mountain where things are not only apolitical; they’re pure. Iris joins him on the stoop. What follows is a scene of real tenderness. Things slow down, and Hansberry allows this flailing couple a possibility of connection that seemed so lacking before. Iris, for a few moments, enters Sidney’s fantasy.
IRIS: (Charmed in spite of herself) You’ll catch cold, Sidney. It’s too early for games. Come to bed.
SIDNEY: No, Iris. Come up. (She does, as he speaks; and, finally, kneels beside him.) Look at the pines—look at the goddamn pines. You can taste and feel the scent of them. And if you look down, down through the mist, you will make out the thin line of dawn far distant. There’s not another soul for miles, and if you listen, really listen—you might almost hear yourself think.
IRIS: (Surveying the realm, gently laughing) This is some mountain.
Short-lived, the moment on the mountain ends with the need to move the car for Tuesday’s street cleaning. But I’m willing to believe these two have got a chance. Politics will always fail us. But other people? Isn’t this what we need sometimes? For someone else, if only for a few minutes, to join our delusions?
In the title poem of Allen Grossman’s The Woman on the Bridge over the Chicago River, everything weeps. The moon, the cormorants, the roses. Stars are tears falling with light inside. The wind and the streams weep. Bones too.
The gnat weeps crossing the air of a room;
And a moth weeps in the eye of the lamp.
Eternity and Time itself. Both are weeping. Throw in Being and Nothing and the copulation that leads to the former—and eventually to the latter as well. They all weep.
The boy looks up
As the grieving sound of his own begetting
And it is this same boy who, one night, watches as a woman in an old blue coat weeps into the Chicago River. Grossman moves from the cosmos to the achingly singular. The woman who gave the poem and the book their name doesn’t appear until the seventh of eight stanzas. That’s when the boy sees her out on the bridge, lit by the white shadow of the Wrigley Building.
If you think of the Chicago River, if you see it glooming down there beneath our streets—they stain it green on Saint Patrick’s Day, but even then it’s not festive, and there are no banks to be seen, only high cement walls that contain the river’s wallows—maybe you can see her too? Out there in the snow in her old blue coat? See her?
My worn-out copy of The Woman on the Bridge over the Chicago River sits right here on my desk. A New Directions paperback from 1979. I bought it in Iowa City in the mid-’90s at a store that no longer exists. Not a store, really; just the house of an old man. He kept the books in a bin on his front porch. If you found something you liked, you took it. Stuffed a buck or two under this mat, where there were always other stray dollars he never seemed to collect.
On the cover is a black-and-white photograph of a jumbled bank of storm clouds. Often when I look at it, I mistake the clouds for waves, for whitecaps. On the first page, in the right-hand corner, someone wrote in what is now faded blue ink, “This Book Belongs to Elvis Presley.” This is neither here nor there. I just mention it because it’s true. Anyway, who can say it wasn’t his?
Spare me that Elvis died in ’77.
I wonder more about how the title poem came about. Did Grossman, as a boy, walk on the bridge one night and happen to see a woman out there weeping, and make a note in his mind not to forget her? For forty years he held on to the image before reincarnating her in a poem?
It is cold and snowing
And the snow is falling into the river.
On the bridge, lit by the white shadow of
The Wrigley building
A small woman wrapped in an old blue coat
Staggers to the rail weeping.
If so, how long, as a boy, did he stand there in the cold, in the snow, and watch? There are some people—you’ve seen them—who aren’t afraid to weep in public. Reading the poem today, I’m struck by a single word: staggers. That remarkable white shadow, the woman’s blue coat, the tears mingling with the snow. These details I had remembered. But given the many times I’ve read this poem, how did I somehow miss the fact that she staggers to the rail?