[T]he trained hand does not forget its skill.
Edna St. Vincent Millay, 1950
Your past is on loop turn it off
see this possible future and be in it
She was a girl with 8 years behind her, bumping her bicycle across a stubble-field just outside St. Paul. Minnesota hadn’t yet been given over into greens and their spiking up into what the light would ask of them. She’d come from her weekly hour with Sister Mary Louise, at the cloistered school that her father roused himself to pay for, the twin baby grands face to face, their keys buffed that morning while birds swooped and spluttered in the trees, new sheet music written by that Frenchman whose name she couldn’t quite manage to say sitting up straight on the music stands, as she and the woman crisped by her habit began to play, in almost unison. She could guess at the notes, at the right hand’s group of threes rolling, lolling, up and down. Yet the bass failed to support them in a way that she knew how to hear: it kept on moving, delaying what she’d later call a cadence, as if the ground dipped and shifted, along with anything that hoped to stand on it. Though she could do more than guess at the Frenchman’s title. In the right hand’s bouncing pitches, she found his Girl with the Flaxen Hair that rose and plunged in time with the rhythm of her head, up, down, even if now, riding home, her music stood safe in the bike’s front basket. But safety was like dirt—it was capable of lunging away from you. She saw a cloud in the shape of a great heel, about to thump on her and the linen-like girl and the street below them, as she wheeled back towards the city. Striking, it became fist-sized pellets of rain that made the sheet music curl, its ink leaking one letter into another. She stopped riding. She dropped down the kickstand. She stuck the music under the warm middle of her shirt, close against her skin. And she opened her mouth to a cry larger than all of it.
Patricia Hampl tells this tale in multiple time-registers. Her recent memoir, The Art of the Wasted Day, gives readers the girl that she then was, looked on by Hampl at nearly 70, recounting this cry to her husband in their kitchen, at the yellow table that matches the light, sifting through the window. She’s honed the skill of a plural focus, of attending to one event or thing from more than a single perspective, in her writing, in her teaching, and she angles it at her long-married husband. He’ll die, a little further on, unexpectedly. She puts that break into the book that she’ll write around it, in which Hampl details how there, in the rain’s fat slop, a car paused at her side, driven by the man who calls her a little girl and who asks why she cries. Itemizing the ruin of The Girl with the Flaxen Hair, she knows that he sees her as another “crazy child.” She remembers her mother’s urgency: never talk to unknown men; never enter a strange man’s car, since at the snap of a door, you’re an outlier to prediction, to control. But, reading her hesitation, the man offers to drive the soaked prelude to her house, which he affirms is nearer than she’d thought. So, when the music arrives before the presence of her daughter, Hampl’s mother leans on the certainty that the girl with those 8 years in every bone and muscle must be dead, just as she’ll sit, later, in her failure to understand why what the Frenchman made needed to be protected, brought home. Listening to the tale’s end, her husband insists that this compass of attention is like poetry—that poetry comes first in all our kind has found it possible to craft of voices. Hampl doesn’t know, then, now, if poetry’s blazon stood marked by its firstness or if her husband meant to say that “the cry antedates the story.” She knew, she knows, that any person should stand upright under the beat of rain and save the flaxen girl—save her counterpart— whose hair encircles everything that she can be, that the “lyrical self” and its fragility are strengths worth holding to. You extend that holding not to conceal her, not to order her, but to “keep in reserve the alert intimacy of that ardent heart.” All this equals what the sounding cry gave way to.
Will Oldham, known musically as Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, performs the “Prognosticator” in David Lowery’s 2017 film A Ghost Story. When viewers meet him, he sits at the kitchen table in a house we’ve seen before, however much it’s changed from the camera’s first vision of it. A long-ish, ranchy thing within suburban distance from Dallas, the house seems to waver over the ground, as if trying to disappear. Given its copies on either side, slightly elevated from the soil to resist descending into dirt, the house dates to the 1950s, when everything boomed or anticipated booming. After a cluster of years from this moment, the city will encroach with its need for more high rent building space, demolishing any house whose inhabitants longed for a homestead, any object standing before that need’s achievement. But so much here concerns the downward glide into disappearing: the film’s lead couple, embodied by Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck, their names withheld from us, even if the credits identify them as M and C, begin to split apart. She knows herself according to her capacity to move, to her yearning for the words that her partner can’t wrestle with himself to give. He sits at the controls of their living room’s makeshift studio, laboring at a song whose ache he can sing out but not explain, surrounded by the house he won’t animate himself to part with. We get the attachment but not its cause, just as we get the sight of him, one early morning, dead inside his car before their driveway, the thing cracked open, a bracelet of mist coiled around the whole, the scene denying us proximity to how the cracking happened. She takes her mourning with her, and the house enters into a period of revolving tenants, leading us to this late night domestic rave, the volume pushed up, the bass blasting down, when Oldham clasps his beer bottle, his mouth widened by a prophecy that no one wants to hear.
He describes how our kind will rocket to the moon or Mars, conquering, taming its turf in the face of a climate disaster there can be no way of coming back from. He muses on Bach and Beethoven, hums the Ninth Symphony’s famous tune to a joy-spreading freedom that even the uninformed must know, while its maker’s name remains distant from them, the sequence of notes valued, he says, for the eternal sketched out by their shape, for how that sequence attaches to human memory and balks at time’s bulky incitements to forget. So, the power to be remembered manifests our skills at their apex and means that what stands for us will always negate our end. But with the heap of decimated CDs and musical scores and instruments behind us, who will recall the soar of Beethoven’s melody? It will vanish into that eternity it was once made to take the place of. Shouting now, he asserts to the raving dancers that each of their children will die in an answer to their own deaths, that losing is the only fact, that the concept of unending could never support everything forced to stand upon it. Yet the “Prognosticator” can’t see how the loss he leans into replaces—in its noisy certitude—the conceptualizing he still rages against; he can’t see the camera as it veers from his face, revealing C’s sheeted figure, the ghost at the center of the film’s title, its eyes blackened ovals, the long, pleated thing that rose from a table in the morgue to return to the house that he, or it, didn’t know how to leave. C raises what must be an arm, the lights blink, fizzle, the music cuts off, and the lamp above the kitchen table sways in a wide arc, batted by a cause that won’t be reasoned out of the room.
I notice that my work with Hampl and Lowery marches around questions: how can those of us who care, who might learn to care, safeguard a musically figured girl and the lyricism that rises from her sonic example; how can we foster the heart of a loved one that will or won’t go on pulsing, regardless of our attentions to that sound; what can each of us make of the doubt that surely follows every life? To think on these, I turn to my own cries, ones that trail me in the classroom, as I teach writing to students who hope to settle into their four years at New York University.
I live in a country with a deadening at its core, among the Twitter-drone of a President who professes that women are there for the grabbing, or they’re not, that the options to grab and its negative are supported by the paper currency of his power that underwrites his ability to dismiss, or to inadequately recognize, whole categories of persons: transgender members of the military; the bodies so other than his own, whether in Puerto Rico under the ravaging of Hurricane Maria and the federal assistance that neglected to show, or on southern streets, on northern sidewalks, brown flesh battered by policemen ill-trained to see, or to empathize with, anything in addition to their own reflections. But this emphasis on the fiat of individual force and its dismissals becomes a sound too easily echoed by those ready to replicate it. An Attorney General who argues that Title VII of 1964’s Civil Rights Act won’t prohibit discrimination based on gender-identity, that lovers of the same sex will, under law, be vulnerable to the intolerance of others, even as the highest court confirms our right to marry. A Secretary of Education who has yet to organize a single, vigilant policy before the vision of students shot down in schools meant to assist them in imagining the range of a life, in a country requiring more range than it knows how, at the moment, to accept. I think of Mary Beard’s 2017 Women and Power, where she counters the latter term’s liability to being treated as “something elite, coupled to public prestige, to the individual charisma of so-called ‘leadership,’ and often, though not always, to a degree of celebrity.” She opposes such an image of power by maintaining that you can’t “easily fit women into a structure that is already coded as male; you have to change the structure. That means thinking about power differently. It means decoupling it from public prestige. It means thinking collaboratively, about the power of followers not just of leaders.” Over everything, it means “thinking about power as an attribute or even as a verb . . . not as a possession.” I think of Alan Dent’s preamble to the poet Martin Hayes’ rageful song of a book, The Things Our Hands Once Stood For, where he acknowledges that “employment is a demeaning subject because employment is demeaning,” with overseers clicked into a system preparing them to comprehend each human worker as identical with the function delegated to him. I hear Hayes rail, “never give up fighting / until the day we die / because that was exactly what they wanted us to do,” because the railing was to be expected—and discounted. All this sticks to the air in the rooms I share with my students. For some, it weighs heavily, for others, not at all. I’m not interested in foisting on students the obligation to transform a structure or to adhere to one perspective. I’m devoted to helping them to see that the structures are there and that they can turn to words to face them.
For a while now, I’ve emailed something akin to the following before my students and I meet, words that ink out an instance of what that facing can sound like:
It’s March 1996. After coming to NYU from Columbia University, I’m in my last semester
of being a doctoral student who doesn’t teach. I live in graduate housing, just around the
corner from Bellevue Hospital. A week earlier, a Korean young man, studying at the Stern
School of Business, leapt from the 17th floor while I sat at my desk before the south-facing
window, struggling to round off an essay on Virginia Woolf’s approach to landscape and
its connections with the painted hills of John Constable, loomed over by sea-like skies.
Looking to my left, I saw his body suspended by a shining shelf of air, only to torque into
the pounding he became as the ground met him. I’ve never forgotten either this sight or
that sound, and both are with me as I attempt to sleep, much later. In my dream, I’m
visited by the presence of Susan Barker, a biologist, writer, the mother of my long ago
lover, and now dead for some time. The dream’s vantage point is as though a camera were
angled from my bedroom ceiling, Susan sitting among the covers at the edge of the bed as
I lie on my back, eyes shut. She begins to gesture with both hands, plaiting something that
I can’t see, murmuring: they’re all there, the words; you must simply pull them out,
through your body, and weave a work of them. When I wake, too early, I return to my
essay, finishing it with a grace and limpidity new to me.
Now, to some presences vital to my current teaching: I think of Jian Su, a biology major, a
senior who’s taken and withdrawn from Writing the Essay (a required course) twice
before in her college career. A woman from Taiwan, Jian Su’s prose often gleams with
lingering focus on what the words of Annie Dillard and Mark Doty perform on the page,
along with all that their performances imply regarding larger ideas. When she responds to
my commentary on the values of slow attention, Jian Su tells me that no one has ever
offered her these observations, so that she can’t yet verify their merit. She stands before
me after class, head down, the hair heavy, covering her eyes, though I find one tear
slipping out of them. I’ve learned of her overbearing mother, how Jian Su hears her
mother’s scolding voice in her head as she writes, straining to craft a whole essay, greater
than the mere addition of its parts. And I think of Alessandro in another class, who
vanished for a week, reappearing once I pressed the need to reappear upon him, via email,
and after I contacted NYU’s Director of Student Advising to say: this student requires our
conjoined attentive skills. I see Alessandro sitting in front of me in the library, in a public
space where many other students glance at their books and seem to tilt towards us,
responding to the concentration of our talk. Alessandro explains: I haven’t been able to
get out of bed because my boyfriend, since I was 13, has left me, and I don’t know how to
experience this; also, I can’t talk about it with my mother, who won’t accept my being
gay, or with my father, who doesn’t live with us, and who swung the door at my face when
I told him about my sexuality.
He asks: how do you survive such losses?
For both students, I remind them of our preceding class as a means of reflecting on what,
in our work, can help them to envision where they’ve come from and how they might
imagine moving forward. I tell the story of that class: how, before turning to the last half
of our film, Agnès Merlet’s Artemisia, I draw Wittgenstein’s Duck-Rabbit figure on the
board, asking students to tell me what they see. Some say a duck, some a rabbit, and all
declare—in response to my question, as I point to the chalk-marked board: what is this?—
well, it’s a drawing. When I advise them that there’s a more precise answer, one whose
priority exceeds their reply, they recognize that they’ve been in contact with chalk lines on
a board, shapes that the optics and the neuroscience of sight permit them to acknowledge
doubly. And, if doubleness, richness, multiplicity holds for a simply sketched body, we
ought to carry that fruitfulness to the essays we read and write, the film we’re about to
complete watching, the beings among whom we live. But we can only commit ourselves
to that holding to the extent that we waken to how we see, to the ways in which this how
and what we attempt to identify may be in conflict—and to the (rightfully) inescapable
claim that such conflict is our labor, prodding our efforts to conceptualize, to think
through again. Shortly afterwards, we watch as Artemisia Gentileschi learns the art of
seeing-in-depth by gazing through a perspectival frame, join her as she applies more than
one frame to envisioning embattled bodies, choreographed in space. Later, Alessandro and
Jian Su tell me, in different words, that they can rearrange the experience of their
predicaments by knowing more closely the frames through which they order that
experience, since any frame suggests the world beyond it, a domain large enough to
to include multiple approaches to what we conjure by means of sight.
Everything I write about these students is made room for by the essay-form that many of
us teach daily in our classrooms, by the ethics ordering that form, founded on the energy
to connect word, idea, pattern, and the tale of the thought that deploys all at the service of
what writer and painter John Berger calls, in Bento’s Sketchbook, “bestowing attention”
on what deserves our cogitating-time. And, if the essay we’ve written or read impresses us
with a bestowed intensity, “something of these habits,” Berger tells us, “something of
[their] way of giving attention, will become our own,” so that we might “then apply” that
gift “to the chaos of ongoing life, in which multitudes of stories are hidden.”
Because of the reciprocity between teaching and learning, Jian Su, Alessandro, their
colleagues, and I move close to what Clive James argues for, in an essay on poetry and
technique: by endeavoring to “get beyond” ourselves, we confirm the “there” we start
from—and expand on.
I’ve lived enough to recall, to reflect on, my undergraduate musical education in Boston, where teachers (well-meaning, a little tired) mingled their voices together in a chorus to maintain that we penciled in the eighth and sixteenth notes of our scores, we coaxed artful croons from pianos, saxophones, and violins in a sealed space, haloed by its separation from the buzz and hazards of the streets outside, with their crazy, overpeopled geometries. I see my then-contemporary, Rachel, so attached to the box of her practice room and its shut door that she’ll play for 15 hours daily, forgetting to eat, forgetting to nurture the body that allows her to plunk out sound at all, her hands a flutter of bones over piano keys obedient to her need of them. I was a student locked in the chug-chug of a stutter, my mouth a locomotion of consonants never reaching the right place, though that faltering had an upturn: it pushed me into the world that our teachers schooled all of us to berate.
In the mid-1980s, I took my music on a tour through England, Scotland, and France, at the mercy of pianos in rented halls, on the thickening edge of a plague that would knife the lives of the men I loved. Reagan in the White House busied himself with not enunciating the name of that scourge, and men with fury in their faces stopped me on train platforms, yelling “AIDS victim” at my face, equating me with a wrecking that I was strangely, somehow, saved from. I look on versions of the past that our current President hoists up as something to fold back into, the struggle to “make America great again” chastened by years whose policies and practices were often more unloving, more heart-dead, than any greatness should lay claim to. I say yes to Millay’s “trained hand” and the bodily encoded memory of its “skill”; I worry about the courage pressed on those who refuse to trot out skill sets and employ them in well-worn ways, who deny remaking the past and the more than occasional injustice of its flaws. I hear voices of men and women who stand by the compulsion to go back, though I know that the going back will never be a way of stepping onward.
All these concerns walk with me into the classroom as my students and I greet each other. I remain quiet about them. They’re ghosts that blur in a clutch behind every word that we read, say, write. But those words aim out, beyond the page, beyond the desk, and through the window.
Thinking the Cry
Patricio Guzmán’s 2011 documentary, Nostalgia for the Light, glances back at time according to varying scales of measurement. There’s the arid air that the camera makes available to viewers of Chile’s Atacama Desert, which, like all sun-stoked places, takes what it can get and clasps, hard. It scavenges the bits of once animate life that belonged to those who clung to them when whole, stratifying the residue of fishermen who plunged into abundant water 7,000 years before that child who was Jesus, his advent drawing the threshold between before and after his incarnation, only to deposit everything that followed in granular heaps of time. Alongside archeologists from the nation’s universities, sisters and mothers of those whom Augusto Pinochet’s regime “disappeared,” or threw away, because they rejected his taking of the state, are scraping at the ground with spades. They look for pieces of the ones they loved because the granules must give them back, though the military assures all who listen that the bodies were hurled into the sea and lost there. But what the women find over the course of filming, a severed foot, a face split open, belies that assurance. Above the spading women, the telescopes of ALMA’s international complex direct their perfect circles at the celestial picture of events long over, given the distance between their signals and the astronomers who mark that gap. So many assurances are undone here, ones beloved by my students with their phones and Twitter feeds and selfies, trumpeting the moment that never seems to end: astrophysicist Gaspar Galaz, from his office within sight of ALMA’s telescopes, responds to Guzmán’s query about the present. He points at the camera we can’t see, says that its standing a few meters away from him means that this conversation is already in the past, that we don’t recognize anything in the instant that we look at it, how the trap is to think otherwise, since any signal takes time to travel and to be answered. Yet the upside of this lag tells us that the power to reflect is made room for by our experience of each moment-to-moment. And that room should be taken. If the prodded cry occurs before the story that we form of it, what precedes the rising up of sound lies encrypted there. Those of us who bother to unspool its instructions can critique them, in what loose language permits me to call the present, as we flick through the past adjacent to it. The millionth of a second lapse can be an aid to hearing how pastness seems to want to speak to us.
I’m recalling Lowery’s “Prognosticator” and how his bemoaning forecast really asks: if everything is always (already) over, why do anything at all? I’ve taught many of the old books that raise up eternity in contrast to flux, applying their associated values to the sexes that differentiate what we are. The men behind these words customarily wrote them at the cost of women whose bodies were their originators. Siri Hustvedt and 2016’s A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women remind us that “human beings are the only animals who kill for ideas, so it is wise to take them seriously, wise to ask what they are and how they came about,” seeing that all “ideas are in one way or another received ideas,” however adapted or maladapted over time. In the 4th century before our Common Era, Aristotle’s Generation of Animals seized, hard, on the idea that “male and female are the first principles” of “soul and body,” and “they will exist in those things that possess them for the sake of generation.” But, “as the [masculine] or efficient moving cause, to which belong the definition and the form, is better and more divine in nature than the [feminine] material on which it works,” the “superior should be separated from the inferior,” at least in terms of value. Because “the first principle of the [generating] movement, whereby that which comes into being is male, is better and more divine, and the female is the matter,” the “soul” must be held high over “body” and its inability to say no to the flux of time’s devastations. Hustvedt underscores how, when “ancient philosophy” and “Aristotle in particular” were “revived in the West by Islamic thinkers,” then “retranslated from Arabic into Latin in the twelfth century,” these “old ideas breathed with new life,” reverberating “over the centuries” and refusing to die, as if miming the gendered soul that was their crux.
But “old ideas” don’t disappoint death on their own. Their continued life needs to be fought for by those who legislate the rigidity at their center, in approaches to governance that calibrate which bodies are worthy and unworthy, which should walk free and which deserve enslavement because of their fellowship with feminine “matter” that persists only to be worked on—or, at this moment, which children must be disunited from their migrating families and encaged, made into the wrong bodies at the wrong border, struggling for asylum in the wrong country. Yet the “representation” of thought fundamental to all word-gathering, legal or otherwise, Hustvedt stresses, is “by its very nature . . . estranged from what is being represented. In speech and writing we alienate ourselves from ourselves even when we say ‘I’ to include the self as speaker.” The interval attendant on that making-strange, this self-othering, ought to issue in the power of any word-user to reflect on the ramifications of what he intended to utter and to enforce. With Hustvedt, we may approve the idea that in “the beginning there is an organism of blood and muscle and flesh and bone and, if all goes well, it will eventually say ‘I’ to a ‘you.’” Yes, “it will spin narratives and be spun by them,” but each of us is responsible for the character of that spinning, which deserves watchful judgment, the kind that generates more life than it nullifies and will soon destroy.
Answering to how ideas need to be accounted for remains much of what the essay as a form teaches its writers, readers, students, instructors. That’s why any classroom can be a waking place.
Walk It out of the Room
A few months ago, I emailed a letter to my students, a reading of what their first essays told me about where they were and where they could be, on and off the page. Each of us took turns voicing out a sentence until we reached the whole’s end. I asked students to listen for what, in my words, they might find it possible to take with them:
She pictured the sunny room, the sun-washed wall, the bayberry outside. It baffled her, the
world. She did not want to leave it yet: these words are one way in which novelist
Elizabeth Strout allows readers to draw near to how her main character, Olive Kitteridge,
wakes to the world that is always there, even when unnoticed by those who live in it, who
abide by virtue of it. This vision of the shining that announces the fact of the day and its
shape over time nevertheless baffles Olive, a baffling that supports her desire not to want
to leave, yet, the world that exceeds her ability to know it, comprehensively. The upswing
of that not knowing with ample fullness enhances Olive’s longing to go on, into a world
that will accept her, for a time.
I begin with these ruminations because, as you’ve just rounded off your first essays in our
course, what Strout shows us so briefly, so caringly, underscores some of what I hope
you’ll concentrate on in future work. The essays I’ve given back to you are, in general,
fine, reasonable, first efforts at building a whole greater than the simple adding up of its
parts—like you, yourselves. But, in order to continue to grow into what you might make,
essay forms different from your past work, different from what you now know how to do,
I need to emphasize the issue of caring.
All of you come from systems of learning that have asked you to think of the essay as a
formula, one you’ve learned, adroitly, to manage, a managing that helped you to gain
entrance into the academy. But that formulaic approach to shaping, while it served you in
the past, won’t foster what you might enact in the future, so long as you adhere too rigidly
to what that formula permitted you to do, on the page. I’m saying that, if we equate the
past and the future, match the two time-scales out of our love for what we’ve found it
possible to make, out of fear of letting go of where we no longer are, we’ll find ourselves
in a beclouded place, one we can’t use.
Much of the balance of our remaining work will ask you to care about the issues at stake in
our texts, ones that orient how our kind considers what it means to value living in a shared
world, since our method for considering the meanings that we make and unmake affects
everything, both with respect to ourselves and to others. And the manner of how we care
shows up in the ways in which we employ the words available to us, in how we imagine
the essayistic shapes through which those words live. All this will demand from you the
risk of trying to perform thinking with words in ways that are new for you, ways that are
shapely yet not bound by a static formula that freezes the ideas inside it, yearning to get
out. I appreciate that ideas, themselves, can’t yearn, but those who treat them do; indeed,
our yearnings power the ideas that we can conceive of committing ourselves to. I worry
about how many of you appear insufficiently interested in, or curious about, what you
don’t immediately know in your texts. But staying in that incuriosity, that non-knowledge,
won’t alter your thinking, and transformation, along with the focused research that aids it,
should be what bestirs us.
Instead of beginning, for example, with something like
In his essay entitled “Stranger in the Village,” James Baldwin discusses racism and
argues that we are one big human family[,]
you might try risking a start in kinship with the following:
James Baldwin’s essay, “Stranger in the Village,” shows the necessity of contending
with ideas that many of us have imagined must simply be the case, that a person ought
to be equal to what his appearance transmits to us, with ease, that how we read a
human being is already forecast by the quality of his skin, by the texture of his hair, by
what these characteristics elicit from those who view them. But Baldwin urges his
readers to understand that such reading is always culturally ordained. And, when our
culture seems to require its members to read passively, even as a passive reading of
persons often issues in aggressive behaviors, aimed at objects of interpretation, that
readerly act can only be a lie. The person you read is a subject, capable of reading the
one who looks, who appraises. Both should rethink what appraising entails, so that
they can judge, rightly, what they see, along with the act of judgment itself.
That beginning, at least, varies its sentence-forms, its diction, and brings out into the light
some of what Baldwin risks: the effort to encourage his readers to question how they’ve
been taught, often unthinkingly, to engage in the act of sight. Variation and focus, here,
signal the energy behind the words. That signaling and that call earn the reader’s harking
to them. If you were to proceed from such a beginning, you’d have to introduce textual
evidence supporting what you’ve started to make of it; you’d need to linger over that
evidential material as a means of helping us to comprehend how it’s taken you to where
you find yourself, as a thinker. The slowness necessary for these tasks would underline
your labor of building a bridge for your readers, so that they might travel with you.
And that potential movement on the reader’s part points to: how we respond to what calls
out to us, to what warrants our following it, may reshape the ways in which we move
through the world. This “may,” I think, merits all that it asks of the writers who struggle to
give rise to it, however “baffled” by an earth that, of course, exceeds its members in its
roundness, its rotations, its duration. But you and I—and those who read us—are parts of
that ample whole. How we care about this partnership, how we manifest that caring, will
transform everything we can know of the ground that upholds us, even the baffling that
spurs us to go on, into the light and its shimmers.
I write now on a greening June day, on the third floor of a Brooklyn townhouse built in 1865, when the country’s vitriolic combat reached a legally negotiated pause and long-enchained bodies were given forty acres and a mule, which they found it tougher and tougher to retain as their own. Rain lives in clouds farther south, sliding this way. We’ve moved, my partner Neil and I, because our landlord for the last 15 years opted to sell the bricked, three-tiered place that had been our home, most likely for its land value. One day, all of it will be bulldozed, emptied of history and ripe for the rebuilding. It arose in 1900 as a way station for day-laborers from Poland, from Latvia, the metal workers and trench-diggers who sweated over what citizens felt disinclined to bend to. Under my newly placed desk among the branches, below bees that whirr and mate outside my window, tapping against the screen, lies the earth that the Boerum and Bergen families ordered should be ploughed by slaves whose language they could feel no interest in scuffling with to understand. On some lower level must be the soil where members of the Mohawk Nation stood, those resilient enough to still breathe among that onrush of the pale ones, who kept coming. I’ve been watching Anne Carson’s 2016 conversation with Michael Silverblatt, filmed with support from the Lannan Foundation, where she tussles with the conventional essay’s end, the expectation that writers ought to fasten themselves to summing up everything they’ve pieced together, before. Carson vows, instead, that we should “blast it open,” defusing the presumption that you can offer a “nugget” for readers “to have”: don’t “have” the thought; “be in the thought”; make “the story go out of reach,” like much of this life that always passes, so that it can’t be tacked down, staked. I know that our lives aren’t equivalent to essays, though so many of us teach and write them. I know that layered pasts upthrow the passing present and that they shiver the air, if you squint a little. But what happens to all that’s come before, when it’s clawed apart and ripped out of the ground? I don’t want any looping past to obscure the “possible future” that Björk sings of, but we should evaluate what we “loop” before we turn from it. At this moment, as the President withdraws our country from the UN Human Rights Council, as he defunds or terminates a web of environmental regulations, I can’t know if the citizens who gave him their votes, or who didn’t vote at all, care. I do know that when self-interest becomes a flaming light, its burst into self-serving shudders everything that it touches.
I hear Daniel Hart’s score for A Ghost Story, remember how its initial two chords, sternly bowed, fractionize into bits belonging to the melody that C will write later for M. At the film’s close, the strings arrive at a slower, more plaintive incarnation of it, as if the past quaked in a future that reassembles this song, betters it. Away from CDs and screens, I hope that we can see to the getting there.
Not far from Washington Square Park, where renovations recently dug up a mass grave stuffed with the unmarked poor, the hanged, the few indigenous bodies that withstood, for a while, the inrush of the Dutch, the English, my students and I were ready for our next-to-last class. We watched Georgia O’Keeffe at 90 recall herself at college-age, on the cusp of graduation, when she could find nothing of her own in all that painting and started over. We listened to Joni Mitchell tell us how her pregnancy after delighting in sex for the first time brought her to the “bad woman’s trail,” that she made music from the unmarried shame awaiting her there. We saw Keith Jarrett lift a Rameau-like tune out of a dissonant, sonic haze, so that late eighteenth century ruptures and beheadings were put to new use in a fragile present. My students were going to write of how these things spoke to them about our work, about the world that they hoped to more steadfastly join. Katarina volunteered to read her words aloud:
Georgia O’Keeffe says, and I paraphrase, “It’s as if my mind creates shapes that I
don’t know about, shapes that repeat and change themselves without my knowing about
If you take a bag made of leather and thread and take it apart–slowly, conserving all
the pieces in a pile, noting exactly where everything goes, so that you can put it together
again: all the pieces in the same places, nothing added, nothing removed. Can you say
that it’s the same bag as you had before? Can you say that it’s not?
I feel like I am this bag. I feel as if we, me and the world, are always taking each other
apart and putting each other back together. This is the work we have done in our class,
the work that has been done on and with us. This is what I take with me, and what I will
continue to do. For as long as I can, and then some.
We walked Katarina’s cry out of the room, into that mid-May afternoon and its still sun-shot streets. One by one, each of us seemed to hear the stories that might come after, in a future prepared by enough of us to listen for them.
Bruce Bromley is the author of The Life in the Sky Comes Down: Essays, Stories, Essay/Stories (2017, Backlash Press) and Making Figures: Reimagining Body, Sound, and Image in a World That Is Not for Us (2014, Dalkey Archive Press). He has performed his music and poetry throughout Europe and the US. His poetry, fiction, and essays have appeared in Out Magazine; Open Democracy; Gargoyle Magazine; The Nervous Breakdown; Cleaver Magazine; The Tusk Magazine; Able Muse Review; Environmental Philosophy; the Journal of Speculative Philosophy; Entropy Magazine, and elsewhere. He teaches writing at New York University.