Move in the Right Direction
In 2012 in The Paris Review, Susan Howe told Maureen N. McLane that she -- Howe -- doesn’t travel easily. “If I can get into a library -- public libraries or even a bookstore,” Howe said, “I feel safe... It’s a sense of self-identification and trust that widens to delight,” she continued, here talking specifically about university libraries “...discovering accidental originals or feeling that you’re pulling something back.”
I love Howe’s agoraphobic rebel girl, her confidence like books are teeth stuck in the wrong mouth. Her attitude here makes me want to re-read her book My Emily Dickinson, which now seems like a statement of power. Like nesting. In it Howe writes that “love, a binding force, is both envy and emulation.”
I sneak into libraries and bookstores too -- romantically, sure, but also practically. I write so it is practical, spending breaks memorizing a poem or drafting chapters, reading encyclopedias, because this is the work (and sometimes it’s hard to do at home) but also, when you’re writing in a library nobody bothers you. When you’re writing in a library you are a writer, not a secretary or public relations or freelance or waiting for keys or a date or the heat to come back on or whatever. I’ve gone to career days as parts of these other jobs, but on the whole I’ve never felt as powerful, as mobile, as hopeful, even as mentored, as I do in the stacks. When I read and write I know I’m moving somehow. I know my body’s holding space.
Of course there are different directions, for example one after the other, or all at once: a tornado. I love the music video for The Gossip’s “Move In The Right Direction” obviously because of Beth Ditto’s sequin-stitch eyebrows but also, for how literal it is. There is a guitar solo, and the words “guitar solo.” This is how we hope, how we believe hits are written. One foot then the other. Pages to the end. It is in contrast but just as powerful as Thalia Field’s Icarus in her poem sequence “Bird Lovers, Backyard.” “Instead of narrative build-up,” Field writes, “what if we have Icarus crawling right into the water -- wings on, indifferent to flight -- skipping past the story-part to lie down in the ending?” I love her Icarus, rejecting technology to plant his face in the mud. Like Italo Calvino’s Palomar, he wants to look at a wave and so he is looking at it. It’s so punk.
(My other favorite part of that Susan Howe interview is when she remembers taking method acting with Sanford Meisner. Howe was terrible at it. Improvisation was frightening, and so was ditching the written script in the first place. I like how she mentions both fears. It’s not redundant.
Martha Graham taught a class in stage movement there too though, and Howe loved her. “She was an old woman then, or so I thought. Probably younger than I am now.” She remembers Graham’s big bare toes, which “turned in at a solid angle from so much hard use.” That is another thing about going to the library, you don’t need a special outfit and you don’t cover yourself in paint or sweat and when you leave, you look same as when you went in only maybe now it’s snacktime.)
This month I travelled, for ceremonies and then, equally importantly, to sit in the sun with friends and eat salt licorice, drink whiskey. It felt luxurious, travelling in the first place and also meals together, taking pictures at endings. In-between I slipped into bookstores to realign. To focus on fixed points -- in Austin at Farewell Books, I bought Lucy Lippard’s novel I See/You Mean, whose cover is purple, a slightly darker shade than my copy of Ariana Reines’s Mercury is. Both books vibrate like magic rocks and I like reading them together late at night, a little bit from each in different places until I fall asleep with my hands in the pages.
In New York, I bought two Vivian Gornick titles at the Tenement Museum, in line behind fourth graders paying for toy tops with coins; Tarjei Vesaas’s The Birds at Spoonbill and Sugartown; and at the Whitney gift shop, Semiotext(e) pamphlets (Lynne Tillman, Jackie Wang, Simone Weil, Eileen Myles, Chris Kraus) for gobbling on train rides to work. At McNally Jackson I bought Sarah Gerard’s Things I Told My Mother, which nearly finally convinced me to be vegan, and Shirley Jackson’s The Sundial. Reading about Jackson I learned she supported her family with stories and wore a fur coat in wintertime, told stray cats she’d turn them into mittens.
In New Haven my sister fried me an avocado and cheese sandwich, also a luxury. Afterwards I didn’t buy any books but I went running, past the Harvey Cushing Library which is full of quiet brains in jars, and neuroscience books and photographs of people and eyes and edges, and after that to the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, which is made of granite and marble triangles so special and thin they filter light. The building is next to “Gallows and Lollipops,” a sculpture by Alexander Calder whose name gives me the squicks. Those Ls. Brains, books. My brain.
I did go inside the Beinecke, not into the stacks but the public area in front, where a copy of Audubon’s Birds of America is kept inside a big case made of glass, metal, and wood. Inside the case is dark but when you walk up to it, the space senses your body and a warm butter-color light turns on so you can read. I stood there sweating in a black t-shirt and looking at Audubon’s peacock handwriting, moving closer a second whenever the light dimmed. I took out my earbuds because it didn’t seem respectful, looking at birds with my ears plugged.
It’s been eight years since I left Chicago jobs and school for this long. In my notebook I kept writing the first couple lines of Bernadette Mayer’s “The Way To Keep Going in Antarctica” like practicing bass. “Be strong Bernadette” she starts. “Perhaps there is a life here / Of not being afraid of your own heart beating / Do not be afraid of your own heart beating.” I love this sequence, which makes “be not afraid” seem obvious and funny.
Heartbeats -- before I went running, I asked and so my sister told me how professionals read EKG strips. The points that jag up like stalagmite mark when muscle moves closest to the sensors on the patient’s skin. I’d always linked that line to sound but actually she said, rhythm strips measure proximity. If we hope for life we must, for the most part, get close and refuse to be scared.
Mairead Case (@maireadcase) is a writer, editor, and teacher. Currently in Youth Services at the Poetry Foundation Library, this August she is moving to Denver as a PhD candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Denver. Her first book comes out from featherproof in October 2015.