Time to Go
Sitting and reading in a new place. One hand rests on the handle of the coffee mug, one holds down the page. I can see my reflection in the glass -- distracting; I would never have sat here if I'd known how the light at four turns this window to a mirror. But I don't know this place, how it turns. The coffee mug is chipped.
I'm reading a little book -- Susan Howe's Sorting Facts, or Nineteen Ways of Looking at Chris Marker. Chris Marker was a filmmaker; I barely remember this. Should I review Chris Marker first? Should I review husbands, or Tarkovsky? Howe laments, discusses them all. I seem to have just reread her lament for a different husband (That This); she seems to have known much that's gone. She is as definite about it all as ever: "Surely nonfiction filmmakers sometimes work intuitively by factual telepathy. I call poetry factual telepathy."
Gaze into the mirror for a bit. Realize what you are doing and try not to. Nothing is intelligible other than an image or a flat bit of light, lying on the floor there calling up a shard of Emily Dickinson, how the light "oppresses, like the Heft / of Cathedral Tunes." The light's heavy but it's weightless to be a stranger, drifting through. I know I'll need to read this book twice anyway, so maybe I don't need to decide now about "factual telepathy," whether that seems distinct from telepathy and whether I believe in it. For now, I'll just skim the crests. It's strange to coexist so blankly with Howe and her passionate people. Perhaps I can adjust this balance later, the way Tarkovsky adjusts his found footage: "The archival inserts are sometimes shown at a slower speed, sometimes with 'wild recording' faked later." Would it be wild recording if I jogged the page as I wrote in this marginalia?
The dregs are lukewarm. Anyway I must go on: I need to get through the forest by nightfall. Howe writes, "Shades of the dead of Hiroshima and Nagasaki hover at the margins [of Marker's Sans Soleil] because what is the chaos of fire to Memory?" I move those elements around in my mind as I tidy the edges of my possessions: shade, dead, margin, chaos, fire, memory. I don't remember why I've stopped here. "The films of Andrei Tarkovsky are also imprinted by the signal recollection of our soils and losses." This I, for a moment, understand: the black soil exposed by receding snow outside is not the soil of my home. I have a ways to go. I put the bookmark in, get up.
The barista hands me my coffee across the counter, her white crochet shirt lifting to show her belly. Whirling on her heel to push a dish into the sink, she is a woman in her place, her head swiveling exactly to the clock. Out of place, I guess at the right spot to sit -- a little table with a frilly-skirted little lamp. This is what a friend would call a first-wave coffee shop; everything is milky and sweet and the table needs a shim.
I've brought Bernadette Mayer's little The Helens of Troy, NY, a charming, quirky book in which Mayer seeks out women in Troy named Helen, interviews them, takes their picture, and writes them little poems. Helen Fuller, photographed holding a sprig of her lavender and smiling through librarian's glasses, is
a gold helen
a steiner helen
an interrogative helen
the coal-mining helen
mimi, a revolving lavender Helen
Many of these poems fall into forms -- sonnet, sestina, villanelle. Is it something to do with women in places, how we inhabit, curl in to fit? I am a woman out of place, unfitting, all elbows. I watch the two women next to me. White, middle-class, fifties, with bobbed hair, they could be Helens. I watch them without listening, as if in a foreign country, watching the palms of their faces and their faces, their welcoming surfaces welcoming each other. I've never liked sestinas but I see why they proliferate here; the stupid repetition-with-variation fits so much of life.
Almost time to go. I think about the hemlock in the forest. There is nothing stupid about that repetition: dark green leaflets sawing at the dusk.
I want to find Mayer's effort heroic, and I do, but these women also depress me with their unpunctuated, uncapitalized natterings. Or maybe it's their seeming fixity that bothers me: Helens of Troy, as if they could not be anywhere else ("we thought this troy was the only troy," says one). Maybe Mayer does that intentionally: after all, why should we be named for our fathers, why should we pretend that any name is not some ownership we must slip?
there's something about
in a ruined city
murmurs "Helen" Marci Nelligan, reclining. Didn't we all, I think -- all of us who've left, anyway. Did it burn down before or after or because or was that why, and am I crossing the forest toward it or away -- I don't remember.
The women are watching me now. I wonder what I've been doing, or am I just new: "we can see you, knowing nothing about you."
Mayer writes about naked Helen Carmody, who gazes at a candle as if waiting for her visitor to leave. I have to tilt the page to see her. Light's getting low: time to go.
One of those reclaimed industrial spaces and I arrive in time to see the male barista yank up the garage door, faux-tribal tattoo flexing as light pours over the legs of two girls on a faded yellow divan. My cappuccino is good, like chewing on bark, but in an heirloom way, and I'm reading Eliot Weinberger's A Journey on the Colorado River, which collages one thing and another without saying what anything is, and I feel good about this, about not knowing or caring, and I'm free to roam around and collect the stray gleams from lifted demitasse spoons and charm bracelets and shaken out black-black hair. Weinberger is taking me on a river journey, in 1869 apparently, with the usual privations and snatches of poetry:
I know not, O I know not,
what joys await us there
When you can ride it, when you can catch it, it's good: this being in public and strange, reading a bit and then letting the words dissolve, being a surface against which others can let their own readings wash and break.
It doesn't last forever, though. My time's ticked out by the invisible meter: $3.25 plus a dollar tip buys me an hour and a half, maybe two. Anyway, if the light lands on the letterpress for sale in the corner, I have to leave, because I still have a ways to drive. The girls get on their bikes and ride home. "We raise our little flags and push the boats from shore."
The same day, another place. Or vice versa. It's hard to say -- everything's brushed aluminum and harsh in the falling sun. I'm reading Lydia Davis's Our Village, a dreamy account of life in a New England hamlet in the early 1800s, adapted from the memoir of an ancestor of hers. The lines, broken at the phrase, roll in like long breakers in a lulling song of going nowhere:
The road lay exactly east and west,
we children knew,
because at noon
the shadow of every chimney fell
straight across the roof towards the eaves
and twice every year, for a few days,
the great red sun rose and set
in the middle of the road.
It had been traveled more than a hundred years
when I was born.
It was probably an Indian path.
I have never believed that you only learn from traveling. You find yourself traveling and you make what you can of that, but if you could stand still, you could learn the names of everything:
old maples, huckleberry,
wild pear and swamp honeysuckle,
with baybush, box and briar
You could know everyone around you, their histories and their desires and their middle names, instead of passing through, blind to the new scar and the old crush. You could make a memory palace of everything around you, planting knowledge in the landscape:
The Garden of Eden was in no other place
than Grandfather's orchard,
and the magnificent pictures of Milton
could never remove it.
You could travel by looking closer: the grain of the wood soda sign on the wall, a story of centuries of fire, flood, drought, and regular rain.
But even here something is broken. There's a place no one will go, a shaded hollow haunted because years ago a man died there in the snow:
He retraced his steps to the nearest house,
but only the children were at home
and they were afraid to admit him.
He returned to the valley,
which he must cross to reach home,
but he never ascended to the other side.
Sliding light's turning the aluminum counter to a frozen waterfall. Someone's about to ask me a question: what are you reading, what's the Internet password, excuse me but I think we've met before. Time to go. I can almost hear the wind in the pines.
This place seems familiar: brickwork cubbies for trailing houseplants, black ceramic cups, a woman with sea-green eyes smiling behind the counter. I find a good spot open at the bar, sunlight coming in from my left, a fan lazily circulating over my right shoulder, a couple reading the paper on the couch around the corner. The soundtrack is the album I wanted to play full blast that second year of college when I was so in love and everything leaked rainbows of iridescent oil. Soft and sixteen years later, I can read to that vanished future with no pain, even a crescent smile.
I'm reading Sylvia Legris's Pneumatic Antiphonal, a zinging birdsong sampler that begins as a joke -- the poet's love of birds made literal -- and rapidly gets deep and electric as the corded nerves running through the spinal channel. The "Cartilage / architecture" of a titmouse pitches its courting call, so what ribcage resounds like this?
Meadowlark nebulization. Flaring nares. Between maxilla and eye a goldenrod-tipped mist. Pluvially orchestral. Sparrowful.
You'd have to tap yourself to know.
Air-chamber nidification. The right lung partitions into upper, middle, and lower lobes, each with enough space to accommodate numerous cavity-nesting birds.
Is there? I'm tempted to touch and measure with the taxidermy peeking from the Cornell-lite box on the far wall. I feel I'm learning something here, something I can take into the woods, where, as I remember, every branch is heavy with voice. Not to scatter behind me to make a trail -- I think we've learned that retracing your steps doesn't work. You have to go out by the other side, not back the way you came in.
Backward-fold the cervical atlas. The spinal incunabulum articulates the isochronal loral line. Hollow bone archaeology. Canarygrass reed, elemental cannulae, transitional fossil thoracentesis (Pulmonaris lithographica). Cryptic.
I make a note in the margin, say the words under my breath. I don't think anyone sees me. There's a dark front sweeping in like a wing and I have the wrong shoes on, but I remember the first steps -- over humps of moss, past braids of Cherokee rose... "Clavicula: the little key that unlocks the door."
Time to go. The couple is still reading in their corner. The barista nods like she knows.