Last Nostalgia Starting with a Piece of Spider Plant on our Car’s Backseat
You moved clippings of your childhood spider plant
with us in a Ziploc half-filled with tap water
Northrop Frye, discussing the arc of Shakespeare’s plays, says something very profound about Shakespeare’s late “Romances,” like A Winter’s Tale and Pericles, Prince of Tyre.
…as a dramatist, he [Shakespeare] reflects the priority of mythology to ideology…. Further, he reflects it increasingly as he goes on. Because of this, his later plays are more primitive than the earlier ones, not, as we might expect, less so. They get closer all the time to folk tales and myths, because those are primitive stories.
A brilliant insight, that: And one which we see paralleled exactly in the transition between the early-middle Tolstoy of the major novels, and the late Tolstoy of the parables and moral tales. Tolstoy, too, willfully regressed to less sophisticated forms of storytelling. In 1897’s What is Art?, he lists his examples of “supreme [literary] art: the Iliad, the Odyssey, the stories of Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, the Hebrew prophets, the psalms, the Gospel parables, the story of Sakya Muni, and the hymns of the Vedas.” Not a single novelist or playwright! Tolstoy famously despised the Shakespeare of King Lear, and there are passages in both his major novels disdaining the sophisticated, empty illusions of the theater (and it is with an anecdote of being backstage at a theater that What is Art? opens).
This regression to the primitive, after mastering the sophisticated art, has occurred, in our own day, in Cormac McCarthy, beginning with Suttree and Blood Meridian and becoming, today, the Cormac McCarthy of The Road; in the highly polished, formally intricate early W. S. Merwin, giving way to the W. S. Merwin of the punctuation-free, stripped-down, seemingly “artless” later poems.
I should also note that an opposite movement is also possible. Ibsen begins with verse dramas out of Scandinavian legend like Peer Gynt, and transitions to writing more urbane prose plays. Gustave Flaubert, characteristically, covers the spectrum. He begins with the saint’s tale The Temptation of St. Anthony, scraps it, moves through Madame Bovary, and ends up all the way in Salammbo–a highly researched, highly sophisticated historical novel. But then he circles back. He rewrites The Temptation of St. Anthony; publishes the parable-like short stories of Three Tales (1877), one of which is titled “Un Coeur Simple”—and, as if to prove my point, in 1880 writes a feerie, a genre of stage play, which is, according to Wikipedia, “influenced by romanticism’s interest in folklore and mythology” and “often inspired by fairy tales.” A sort of 19th-century descendant of the fairy-tale-like Shakespearean late romance.
You moved clippings of your childhood spider plant
with us in a Ziploc half-filled with tap water
so we could grow something once rooted in the cool
valleys of Blacksburg in our new
Houston duplex. You kept a photograph of me—
where I perch on a brick wall in Richmond, by a coal train
idling near the muddy James—tacked to the velvet
insides of your fiddle case, its interior the purple
nap of coffins. I often wonder if you made it
back to your mountain town, if your friend Sheff—
the cokehead gravedigger—is still around, if he does
bumps in his pickup as he waits
for that day’s mourners to leave, so he can jump
on the coffin to get it all the way down,
which upsets the family if they linger
and see it. And you used to say I was the ghoul,
cutting my baked potato in front of the late
blue light of my true crime shows. You know,
a woman was once found crouched in her
killer’s white mini-fridge. This was
years later: her body rigid, her expression
still perfectly intact.
—after the photograph “Fox, 2004,” by Jody Fausett
If this were a fable of insomnia, the cloth
couch on fire would be mine—
pea green—and the dead
fox, its right foot raised,
would be a waifish
Texan coyote. Don’t tell me
to brew chamomile tea
for a proper remedy. What
I’ve got is humidity
hot as marrow
working its slow way through
the blue paint in my bathroom,
sponging the windows’ seals
slick and loose
as honeysuckle. I fight
the new urge to write
the photographer from Dawsonville,
Georgia, to ask if he too
sits up late on a concrete porch
sipping something with fizz. Night
like a wick. I want to see if
he’ll drive to Houston soon
with a gas can and a red fox
frozen in an arsonist’s
pose. To see if he knows
how long a night
burns once we light it.
Each time I feed the green lake
my stale apricot granola, it offers only
a pack of rat-tailed nutria
in return. They swim toward me,
their bucktooth incisors stained
from their body’s own iron—those bright red
front teeth. I know a thing or two
about mutiny, how a wound can
conform to any shape. You often say,
I moved here for you, as you slam
your door and splinter a few
low notes on the cello. I go
to the public park where people waver
through trails as they hold black
umbrellas in the heat. No rain. When you
gave up wheat, we thought
the stomach pains would stop, but the aches
came sharp and straight
from the landscape. Look at the Ouzo
you bought—finally, a liquor free
of barley. One shot clouds your tumbler
of water white. Watch the swamprats
I’ve summoned draw closer, slowly
rusting from something inside.
I am telling you, first of all, that your husband will be beautiful, but he will be a man who will love you then stand out on the stoop, the red eye of a cigarette sighing between his lips, his shoulders slumped as he sucks smoke in a state of unexplainable melancholy. He will teach children so he doesn’t need to ask you for any. He will have curly blonde hair and baby blue eyes and on your wedding day I will wear a green dress and kick off my sandals to stand in the still-wet grass, and I won’t catch the bouquet, but the white petals dropped on the floor in the toss will remind me of marshmallows, my mouth already sticky sweet with cake. At the end I’ll kiss him on the cheek and it will be secretly rough against my lips, and I won’t be surprised when you tell me later he hides things in his closet, hunting knives and his father’s ties and shoeboxes of old photos of family you have never met.
I will take a long series of lovers who fit the pattern of my life like Fibonacci numbers. My entanglements will bore you in their repetition, becoming a collection of bangles assembled from flesh and amputated dreams. I will fuck a man and his son will open the door and call out, “Daddy?” because he’s blinded by the white hall light but he knows something is going on. Later, when I’m alone, and you come to visit and find me deep in a bottle, my eyes rolling in my head like marbles, you will give me the helicopter blade seed of a maple tree, sticky in the palm of your hand, then sticky in the palm of mine. The light will shine beautifully through the bronze gleam of whiskey, throwing the sheen of new pennies on our skin. We will sit together until I’m sober and drink dark tea with notes of cinnamon and talk about a certain lack of faith.
The hardwood floors of your new house will make hollow noises when we walk across them after nights in bars, nights that we won’t give up. You will have a cut made inside you so you can’t have babies, and the house will fill with shadows instead of children’s voices, shadows like your husband, who uses the empty bedroom as an office that he fills with more and more things until it’s splitting at the seams with papers and decay. I will secretly touch his things in the bathroom and I will stare at the dust of dark blonde hair caught on the blade of his razor. And after the surgery you will show me your scar and let me touch it, imagining things escaping from a tiny hole in you. Your garden will be full of bees and I’ll pick sage for your kitchen because I like the feeling of the soft leaves between my fingers and sometimes I will sleep on your couch because I’m too dizzy to drive home.
My daughters will be half-sisters. Their daddies will send me money and come around at odd times, petting the heads of their daughters with distant affection. You will bring me tiny socks and smooth wooden toys and give me recipes for homemade applesauce and pea soup. One girl will have smooth dark skin and the other will be pale as snow, and they will fight, their tiny fingers scratching and their pearl teeth biting. I will work in finance and insurance to make ends meet and I will tell you how the women at the daycare are slovenly and cruel. When they’re old enough we will take my girls to fly kites in the park and you will tell them to try to hook a piece of cloud.
You will take long trips and come back with beautiful photos that look like paintings. You before the ocean, you before vast cityscapes. Your husband will stay home because he’s afraid of flying, and he will help me watch the girls while they play their favorite game, a game called ‘tattoos,’ where they draw on each other’s skin with magic markers. I will drop my wide-necked soft shirt over my shoulder and let him draw a tattoo on me, feeling the cold marker swooping lines on my skin, making a picture I cannot see. You will bring back books of glossy postcards and I’ll tape them to the walls. You will whisper to me of an Italian man, whose apartment in Rome smelled like fish and thyme.
One of my girls will be beautiful, and she will lose her virginity when she is fourteen; I will know this the way mothers know things. The other will be fat and grow fatter, a puffy marshmallow in whose backpack I find candy wrappers and melancholy notes on smudged scraps of lined paper. They won’t like you. They will say you are cold and frightening, but you will still come and sit in my kitchen and tell me you’ve been promoted and you are getting bonuses for your hard work, and you can afford nice things now, and you want me to go shopping with you for clothes. Hearing this, I will go to your house later on a whim with coupons and a tiny bottle of vodka, but I won’t go inside because I will hear you screaming at him, the house quivering with your rage. I will back down the porch steps, brushing my fingers over the blooming clematis growing there on the white railing.
You will get the house; your husband will get his freedom. When the divorce is complete he will come to me, and I will look out into the night before I take him into my arms. He will pad upstairs in sock feet and we will rock back and forth in my bed until I hear a quiet knock on my door, and my fat daughter calling out, “Mom?” because though she won’t open the door she knows something is going on. In the morning he will be gone, and when he doesn’t return that evening, or for a week after, I will take out a secret bottle of tequila and my daughters will quietly pull a quilt over my body as the hour grows late. You will call but I won’t answer the phone. My daughters and I will go for a long walk and the air will smell good, like fall, and we will crush amber leaves under our feet until they are dust. You will hear of his visit to my house, and you will send me a letter I will never open.
I won’t see you for a long time. My thin daughter will marry and my fat daughter will adopt two cats and she will call and ask me what to name them. I will bring her a jade plant because it secretly reminds me of her, cartoonish in its round curves. My thin daughter will be pregnant and have a boy and there will be parties in backyards and both of my daughters will suddenly make contact with their fathers and start having relationships with them, and I will be angry, though I can’t say why. I will hold my new grandson, feeling the same shock I felt when I lifted my own baby, that a thing so little could be so heavy. I will tell my daughter I don’t know much about boys. As I say this I will secretly wish you were there, wandering aimlessly at the edge of the yard the way I’ve seen you do before: barefoot, hands clasped securely behind your back.
I will look at my house sometimes and wonder how long it will hold me. And finally you will come by, appearing one day as I sit on the porch with a disobedient cigarette. You will have news. You’re getting married again. A man you met at work. I will tell you about my daughters and you will hand me a beautiful wood bracelet you bought me in Africa but it will be too small to fit over my hand, which is bigger than yours, and I’ll pass it back to you. I will try to offer you tea but you will assure me you really can’t stay. Later I will hear this second husband got cancer, the way men sometimes do, and he will die holding your hand. You will collect the wilted clusters of flowers in his hospital room and cradle them in your arms, a crisp, brown bouquet empty of fragrance now.
I will start sleeping in your house, sometimes, like I used to, so you know you’re not alone. I will walk barefoot across the cold floors before you are awake, searching for the source of a draft. When you wake you will appear in the kitchen’s doorway like a ghost. We will pull rags from the closet, blouses and sweaters and skirts you can’t wear anymore, and wedge them between each window’s sash and sill with hard fingertips, stopping up leak after leak. We will make a soup. We will talk over the hiss of onions in the pan. You will tell me his face slips from your mind, and I won’t know if you mean your first or second husband. I will take out a worn deck of cards and ask you to play: cribbage or rummy or war. And you will say that this isn’t enough, but I will say it’s better than nothing.
We will go to the beach together. After years of planning this trip and never taking it, we will finally drive east until we hit a tiny cabin with a wooden walkway to the sea. We will sleep in the same bed, our bodies sweaty and pale in the blue sheets. When we touch we won’t pull away, allowing a closeness born of time to be affirmed by the contact of skins. We will eat bags of cherries and drink bottles of wine. There will be things we won’t say. We will pick handfuls of sea oats and put them in an old vase we find in the cupboard and they will dry, a melancholy bouquet on the tiny table where we eat salad after salad but never feel full. We will sit on the sand for hours and I’ll watch you swim out after a lost beach ball, floating lonely on the surface of the water, moving up and down in the waves.
Minneapolis, MN: Gray Wolf Press, 2011. 175 pages. $15.00
(Click on cover image to purchase)
Readers of Sven Birkertsʼ Editorʼs Notes in AGNI will be familiar with the value he places on contemplation. Whether his subject is the Jeopardy face-off between man and machine or cyber-fantasia, he studies it with a mode of thought often associated with religious orders. Birkerts established his reputation by questioning our deep reading sensibility in The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age. This 1994 text fears a digital mind-warping metamorphosis could send the literary eye wayward as a stray cursor. In his ninth and most recent collection The Other Walk: Essays, he continues to make a case for focus, but by making a “right instead of left” on his habitual walk, illustrating that attention transcends media.
Reading continues to be his subject—but his text is the stuff of life, including such things-in-themselves as “Cup,” “Ladder,” and “Lighter.” As emblems of the common, these forty-five short ruminations take on a timeless, universal quality. One might lift a page anywhere and find affinity, as in “Magda,” an essay named after the woman with an unforgettable name that Birkerts has the embarrassment of forgetting. Or, one might open to “The German Poet,” which reflects on poetryʼs power to assure us at least temporarily “that being, consciousness, is not for nothing.” Birkerts looks so closely at the inmost levels of experience he reveals the structural integrity we have in common.
In “Starbucks,” for instance, another regular irritates him with her blustery arrangement of the newspaper. He sees her in garish makeup spilling parcels several times a week. They interacted once. She asked if he was going to do the crossword in his newspaper. He answered her with such abrupt dismissal she never engaged him again. When he overhears her in conversation a year and many judgmental irritations later, its nuance of political understanding causes him to realize he underestimated her. Pettiness could crush humanity, he demonstrates, if not for its power to reveal us.
Birkertsʼ perception is so deft it recalls Annie Dillard stalking Roanoke waterways for muskrats. For decades this human nature data-gatherer has been scrutinizing the pinned butterflies of modern poetry, twentieth-century literature, and American fiction. Years of close reading practiced him to net winged daily specimens. In “Coffee,” he realizes that a clean-shaven stranger has been listening in on his conversation with his friend G. Once aware of “this monitoring,” he says: “I could feel the performing self stir to life. . . . We had only a split-second meeting of the eyes, but I saw it all.” This degree of self-awareness is a boon to other attentive readers. Like good conversation about a favorite text, it communicates unforeseen intimacies.
Birkertsʼ penultimate essay “Walden” connects him geographically to Thoreauʼs Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts and psychically to that writer who distinguishes walkers as a breed of “holy-landers” who can appreciate the art of perambulation. The “other” walk in his title alludes to the “genius . . . for sauntering” Thoreau describes in his essay “Walking.” Birkerts admits near the end of the collection that he had to make his way toward this mode. He spent many years in an anxiety-driven quest to arrive at some station in life, but over the years his pace slowed and his notice deepened. These essays benefit from that exchange of progress for absorption in his surroundings.
Birkerts traverses ground without forcing it to summit. One day, driving the same route home from work as usual, he decides “who knows why” to give money to the man positioned at the red light at River and Memorial. Another day, equally without explanation, he disappoints him, although the manʼs face reflects no judgment, nor self-pity nor pride. Make of such neutrality what you will, reader. Meaning is inherent in the accounting or it is nothing. Birkertsʼ style invites companionship without asking it, as he did not ask his daughter Mara to keep his morning ritual with him for “many seasons” though she did.
The surprise of this collection—although Thoreauvian references put one on the ready—is its mystic undercurrent. Witness this summer afternoon from “Points of Sail”:
I felt come over me, gradually, the clearest and sweetest melancholy. It was as if I had suddenly moved out of myself, pulling away and rising like some insect that has left its transparent shell stuck to the branch of a tree. I was in my body, aware of everything around me, but I was above it at the same time. It was as if the needle on the balance had drawn up completely straight; the string I plucked was exactly in tune.
Birkerts earns this cosmic scene by laying down a careful trail of field notes beforehand. He offers so much access to life inside his brown loafers, readers grow willing to follow him anywhere, curious where this departure from the everyday will lead. A conscientious traveler, he never finishes arriving. In the next passage his son Liamʼs red sail disappears from the horizon. The same steady eye reflects on his near drowning that has shined on bag ladies and Barcelona. They share the fundamental insight the pale, wide-eyed boy brings close: “We know nothing.” There is no hierarchy to what is. The only danger is that a walker might outpace herself for some destination or attempt at meaning, overlooking the succession of sidewalk, cobblestones, beach grass, pavement. Better to query texture, the sounds of moments, for the book of the world has no end and no beginning but in stories compressed from a vast network of consciousness.
New York, NY: Norton, 2012. 314 pages. $25.95.
(Click on cover image to purchase)
In The Collective, the most recent installment of the American campus novel, Don Lee presents a group of Asian American artists whose coming-of-age is marked by an irresolvable conflict: the tug-of-war between self-identity and community. For the members of the 3AC (or Asian American Artists Collective), the process of self-discovery isn’t so much about finding an identity as it is about confronting the identities that are, somewhat inescapably, chosen for them—identities based on politics, race, and the expectations that come with belonging to a minority community.
When reading The Collective, one can’t help but think about the college setting of Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot, whose Madeleine Hanna, like The Collective’s narrator, Eric Cho, questions the possibility of creating truly original work in a postmodern age drenched with semiotics, deconstruction, and other forms of what Eric describes as the “lingua-franca of pseudo-intellectualism.” The same Sturm und Drang that troubles Madeleine, an uncertain prospective PhD student in English, saturates the first-person narration of Eric, a third-generation Korean American from California who, later in the novel, reluctantly enrolls in an MFA writing program. While in a freshman creative writing course at Macalester College, Eric meets the fiercely intellectual and polemical Joshua Yoon, a Korean student from the East Coast whose many preoccupations include the politics of Asian American art. In the same course, the two befriend Jessica Tsai, a Taiwanese American art student who’s interested in painting and sculpture. Together, they form the 3AC, a group that expands beyond Macalester to include other artists and writers after the three relocate to Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Although the 3AC is founded early in the novel, it isn’t until the three collectively experience related acts of racism that the 3AC becomes an intellectual community. The pain and anger resulting from these and other experiences of racism fuel the activities of the Collective. The group’s sense of cohesion is short-lived, as its members become increasingly wary of Joshua’s unrelenting politicization of Asian American art. As the Collective begins to dissolve, Joshua becomes unable to see that the very thing that would seem to unite them logically, the experience of being a minority artist, is also the thing that begins to push them apart.
The scope of Lee’s characters’ preoccupations—art made for a small audience—can risk giving them a sense of one-dimensionality. But he saves them from that pitfall. Ultimately, they move us with their tenacious insistence that, indeed, one can create beautiful art through perseverance. And one can create, as well, meaningful relationships with fellow artists. In the case of Joshua and Eric, however, this meaningfulness has a shelf life. From the beginning, the friendship is contentious. When Joshua senses Eric’s unfamiliarity with the realities of racism, he chides him for not writing about Asian Americans, claiming that he’s been brainwashed into a form of “race betrayal.” When Eric begins to date Didi O’Brien, an Irish Catholic from Boston, Joshua accuses him of being a “twinkie” (a stereotypical term for an Asian person who mainly associates with white people), attempting to convince him that Didi is only fascinated with his racial difference—in other words, “slumming.” Such withering critiques from Joshua continue throughout the novel. When Eric come to terms with Joshua’s rage, this gap in the narrative is filled: “Although I relished his counsel and company, I was wary of him at times, wary of how critical, noisome, and dogmatic he could be, of his predilection for creating drama and havoc, of the inequity in our roles, and wary, too, of his dependence on me, his neediness.”
Although their friendship doesn’t dissolve until the end of the novel, it has been marked by death from the very beginning. In the opening pages, forty-one-year-old Eric ruminates about the possible reasons for Joshua’s suicide. When Eric visits Joshua for the last time, we surmise that their friendship has reached a symbolic end. As Joshua tells Eric, “You have been a great friend to me, Eric. My best friend. . . . But you stopped needing me a long time ago.” Recalling the words of Didi O’Brien, with whom Eric reconnects and marries, Eric realizes that Joshua “would never have what I now possess—a life beyond the pursuit of art.”
For Eric, it would seem, the “problem” with being an “idealist” like Joshua is that it comes with too heavy a price. We can’t help but see a similar conflict between idealism and reality in the academic pursuits of Madeleine Hanna, Mitchell Grammaticus, and Leonard Bankhead, the triangle at the heart of The Marriage Plot. For them, like the original trifecta of the 3AC, the pursuit of the academic dream in a postgraduate world is undercut by a deeper tension between self-identity and reality. The acute psychological realism that both Lee and Eugenides bring to the campus novel suggests that the college experience and all of its attendant idealism is ultimately unsustainable. In both The Marriage Plot and The Collective, the sacred division between the university and the outside world crumbles, only to be replaced by a gulf between the artist and the world around him—a world that is, as Lee reminds us, inimical to the artist’s vision. And in the case of Joshua Yoon, who becomes unable to distinguish between art and life, it is a world that is, in many ways, his own self.
On Joyce Carol Oates’ Wild Nights! Stories about the Last Days of Poe, Dickinson, Twain, James, and Hemingway and Christopher Benfey’s A Summer of the Hummingbirds: Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, & Martin Johnson Heade
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You moved clippings of your childhood spider plant
with us in a Ziploc half-filled with tap water
I am telling you, first of all, that your husband will be beautiful, but he will be a man who will love you then stand out on the stoop, the red eye of a cigarette sighing between his lips, his shoulders slumped as he sucks smoke in a state of unexplainable melancholy.…
Readers of Sven Birkertsʼ Editorʼs Notes in AGNI will be familiar with the value he places on contemplation. Whether his subject is the Jeopardy face-off between man and machine or cyber-fantasia, he studies it with a mode of thought often associated with religious orders.…
In The Collective, the most recent installment of the American campus novel, Don Lee presents a group of Asian American artists whose coming-of-age is marked by an irresolvable conflict: the tug-of-war between self-identity and community.…
A burnt stick,
Extends the body
The Kenyon Review is supported in part by The National Endowment
for the Arts and the Ohio Arts Council