The Irrational Season: Reading The Route
A week ago I put my cat in a mesh box and we walked onto a plane. I moved away from home, but I don’t want to write about that I want to write about the books I took with me. (Play Jonathan Richman’s “A Plea for Tenderness,” again. A vade mecum is a real punk compass. So are patchwork reader’s diaries, oof.) On the jet bridge my face went white and my hands turned purple. On the plane the cat said hello hello don’t forget, I’m here too and so I read Sweeney Astray with one hand in her carrier.
Sweeney Astray is Seamus Heaney’s translation of Buile Suibhne, an epic poem about Mad Sweeney, a pagan king who, understandably I think, loses his shit when Christians try to build a church on his land. Sweeney’s wife Eorann pleads, no honey, stay home, and she grabs his cloak but Sweeney slips it off and goes out naked and angry into the world. Pretty soon someone sneak-baptizes him with holy water and Sweeney freaks out again, killing a bishop with one spear and cracking a very important bell with the other. In response Saint Ronan curses Sweeney twice to match. “You too will die by a spear,” Ronan says, “plus you broke the bell, so until then you’ll suffer tinnitus.” (The American Tinnitus Association created an online archive of tinnitus sounds -- kettles, screeches, buzzing -- that you can play for a clearer read if you don’t already hear that way sometimes.)
Next day there is another battle. Cursed Sweeney acts brave and dresses fiercely: white silk next to his skin, underneath crimson, underneath gems, metal, sashes, and loops plus two spears, a horn, and a gold sword. Heavy metal boner. His shoes and eyes are not described. But in battle Sweeney goes crazy not angry -- “Vertigo, hysteria, lurchings / and launchings.” He drops his weapons, levitates, and decides to live in awhile in a yew tree where it’s safe. (Yew trees are magical, oracular loners.) All this happens in the first nine pages. (There is also an otter rising out of the lake, holding psalms in her paws.)
On page ten, the book gets really good: Sweeney sits in the tree. Here he’s part Calvino’s Palomar, who wants to look at the ocean and so he is looking at it, but not completely because Sweeney is still part of the world. He “makes” poems, he talks, he feels, he notices specific birds and weather just like Margery Kempe does in Robert Glück’s book, or E.L. Koingsburg’s Claudia Kincaid, people-watching secretly at the Met. Sweeney reckons with God and death in the yew tree. He stays up there for a long time, but not forever.
Before I got on the plane Stephanie and I both got tattoos of black arcs and thick lines. My design was lifted from one of Gordon Matta-Clark’s cut drawings, which he considered technical. They’re edits but they look like vibrations too, or Daphne Oram’s ELEC CELE, or parentheses, ocean waves, ghost space. They shimmer without true center, which makes me think of Anselm Hollo’s poem about the blue room (“… you turn to be held / and to hold me // your beholder”) or the Thermals’ song “I Hold The Sound” (“I hold you / I hold the sound / We sleep now”). Holding people, holding space. Sitting down. Man alive.
Whenever I get a tattoo I want to quote Kathy Acker, who says it’s important to make your own signs. Signs can be hard, because you have to sit still to make them. I laid on my back for the tattoo, looking up at the Chicago Metallic tin ceiling and already feeling nostalgic about it. “I’ll miss ceilings like this,” I told Andy, and he said “What, don’t they have ceilings where you’re going?” “Well I know,” I said. “They do, but,” and “You’ll be fine,” he said. Joel Craig’s The White House begins with Matta-Clark too: “Here is what we have to offer you in its most elaborate form—confusion guided by a clear sense of purpose.” When I sat up there were circles in my wrist.
For the first few days in Denver, I kept listening to this song. I love it because it’s not clear whether she’s coming or going, which ideally I guess is how adventures feel -- maybe just a little too close to death. I love her cool tiny “bump on a log, baby / fistfight with a fog, baby.” The song unravels at the end. It renames but not because of failure.
For the first few days here I had two metal chairs and a mattress, and I sat on one then the other, reading fashion magazines and books about time: Eliade’s Myth of the Eternal Return, Birnbaum’s Chronology, and L’Engle’s The Irrational Season. L’Engle’s chapters on Easter always make me cry, even on days when I would help Sweeney break that bell. I don’t understand these books as well as I will, but this time around I listened to Eno while I read, and that helped -- patterns in time, books, music, even though Eliade says it doesn’t always work that way.
After reading I walked my new neighborhood like a snail shell, a maze, monkey bread -- one left wider every time. Boustrophedonically, like tilling fields. I pretended I was an ox. I walked streets where tags were whitewashed and ones where they weren’t, found the river that starts where my dad was born and also my new local library, where half the books are in Spanish and you can pick the color of your card.
At night I read The Route by Patrick Durgin and Jen Hofer, which took ten years to write and is usually shelved as poetry. It looks at political engagement through writing, specifically letters (open, closed) and other kinds of collaboration, including waiting (patiently, or not), and listening. It’s an act of love and as Durgin writes, “thought as a form of witness (etymologically, that holds up).” Reading The Route helps me feel angry and less alien, my gut more practical. It is interested more in new words than new names, and it is one of my favorite books about politics (even as it asks me to be more specific about “favorite” and “politics”).
In Chicago I was a legal observer. I wore a green hat and carried a notebook more private than any journal I ever kept. Being a legal observer requires sitting up in a tree, to a point, or existing on the edges. It’s confidential reading and writing and so I used to keep two separate notebooks -- until I read The Route, at which point I combined them and my brain started humming much better, though the content was still separate. It was heavier, but still a relief. In Denver, today, I am not a legal observer and so I feel shimmery, walking around outside. I’m not wearing a hat. I’m back in my own body, thinking about my own body. It’s not happy or sad. I wrote a story and earned some money for it, and I sent the money to Ferguson.
Unpacking boxes, I found a sandwich of papers. Most were microfictions, gifts from a man who used to come through a writing workshop I led at a library on the West Side of Chicago. He wrote firework stories about his life and also, an opera about a guy looking for his beloved in Purgatory. The writer said the opera was about his life too, just waiting for music and minus the flaming rain. He is no longer alive and his papers are not mine to share, but one of the stories he did publish was also called “The Route.” “There’s no one road,” it goes. “Just keep your legs strong.”
Mairead Case (@maireadcase) lives in Colorado, where she is a PhD student at the University of Denver. Before that she lived in Chicago for a decade, working with youth and adults at small presses, libraries, public schools, jails, at the Poetry Foundation Library and as a birthday party clown. Her book See You in the Morning comes out from featherproof in October 2015.