No Forwarding Address
A letter comes in the mail -- blue envelope fat with folded sheets, Technicolor crowned heads on a panoply of foreign stamps. It's not for me but for Vi, the woman who lived here before the man who lived here before me. Vi's long gone. The man before me chanced to mention her as he was pawning off bits of furniture on me; Vi left him a stack of framed chinoiserie prints -- coy but tasteful brothel ads -- that turned out to be eaten up with little beetles. He assured me he would not do the same by me; nevertheless, I tore his retro apple print contact paper from the cabinets on my first day in the apartment.
Vi's left no forwarding address. I toss her long overdue collections notes (from a library in Little Rock, no less). What should I do with this letter?
What are you reading? The second volume of Susan Sontag's diaries, As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh; Wayne Koestenbaum's My 1980s; C. D. Wright's One with Others; Alice Notley's essay collection Coming After; a little more I don't remember. Koestenbaum: the glory of aesthetics. Aesthetics as a rebel answer to "morality." Pleasure as a higher order. Sontag, Wright: the struggle to get something down, to make sense of it, to undo it or love it. Or, for a start, to push aside the rubble and see the original damage. The Tower in tarot: you have to check the foundations before you build.
The young man in the coffee shop is reading Steinbeck. Last week he was reading Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy the week before. He holds each book -- always a vintage paperback -- up right in front of his face, elbow propped in the palm of his other hand, which is tucked across his midriff. This is picturesque, but it doesn't bode well for our conversation.
What's in Vi's letter? I haven't opened it, but I've taken to carrying it around with me. That it's a love letter, I'm certain; a letter of regret, possibly, a letter cradling a change of heart. Otherwise, why write so late after she's gone? Here is a lover who doesn't mind being unhappy.
I find I've read halfway through Sontag's diary almost without noticing it. Without noticing it because this volume is less appealing and less urgent than the first, Reborn. Where the first found Sontag discovering herself, life, the world, this volume finds her filling in corners, pursuing her literary, cultural, and erotic business. Here, Sontag seems to have suffered the adult switch, in which events in one's life become less events in themselves than instances -- types you've encountered before, recombined. The new lover is not a person in herself, but a chance to work through whatever bedevils you -- what will always bedevil you until you figure it out, cure yourself, fix the past.
Of a new affair, Sontag writes:
I must allow her her liberty to be with me when she wants to and then go away again. I must learn to use, and genuinely enjoy, the liberty that such a situation allows me.
I must appear to be strong -- which means that I must really be strong. I must not offer her my suffering, my longing for her, as a proof of love. I must not even tell her so often that I love her.
I must show that I am interested in (get pleasure from) my work, David [Sontag's son], my friends... I must be strong, permissive, unreproachful, capable of joy (independently of her), able to take care of my own needs... I cannot ever show her all my weakness. I must limit my thirst for candor.
Can I love non-possessively, permissively -- without withdrawing myself, setting up my own defenses and strategic retreats, on the one hand, or reducing the amount and intensity of my love, on the other?
My friends take off like birds for here and there and everywhere. Other friends come back changed from Istanbul, Wales, Cambodia. I start a correspondence, a "project," but it falls apart on my side or theirs. We send a couple of postcards back and forth, swear passionate allegiance to the mail, forget about it. Never mind: another friend starts something else. My world seems to run on the principle of the intercepted glance: you look up with a mood on your face and there's someone standing in the path of your gaze, some stranger you're looking at now with longing or contempt, hurt or amusement.
I'm not reading Frank O'Hara. Instead, I read everyone reading O'Hara. Koestenbaum (on "Poem [O sole mio]"):
O'Hara's excitement... depends on the "you" who arrives in the penultimate line ("you see I have always wanted things to be beautiful"). Where did this "you" come from? The performance of excitement is aimed at the "you." The performance of excitement creates the "you." You wouldn't be there if I weren't excited...
...the unafraid speaking self, O'Hara's great construction: the interesting, direct, excessive, and/or plain voice trying to get at it -- not at all the same thing as explaining yourself.
Reading O'Hara this way is like loving someone at a distance or through a pane of glass. It's easier, and it's nice, this yearning obedient to my call, obediently unsatisfied.
The problem is that the letter can only disappoint me. I once knew a Marianne who sent back beautiful letters from her trip to Thailand, her neat and artful writing curving around sketches of people, riverboats, temples. But when Marianne came back she wasn't any different than before. All the shadow puppets in the world couldn't change how she caught the light.
At the coffee shop, a woman comes up to me. "Excuse me," she says, "but you look just like my daughter. I had to look twice to make sure you weren't her."