My body, now that we will not be traveling together much longer I begin to feel a new tenderness toward you, very raw and unfamiliar, like what I remember of love when I was young —
love that was so often foolish in its objectives but never in its choices, its intensities Too much demanded in advance, too much that could not be promised —
My soul has been so fearful, so violent; forgive its brutality. As though it were that soul, my hand moves over you cautiously,
not wishing to give offense but eager, finally, to achieve expression as substance: it is not the earth I will miss, it is you I will miss.
A New Beginning for Our Ending
I too feel a new tenderness toward this body that holds me so tenderly in return, within its soft, wide confines. That moves me and moves with me wherever I go. That holds within all that I am, memories and emotions that ebb and flow, that mere touch, taste, scent, releases. And even now, after all this time together, when a foot or knee fails, when bones creak and muscles sigh, and the weight of you seems too much to bear, still, still, you gather me in your arms. You hold me near, breathe me in, lift me up, and lay me down. You try so hard to be what I need, to do what needs doing. Too often I have railed against you, dismissed you, disowned you. Let me see you now as friend, as lover, as mother. As dear to me as sky and earth and tree and sea. Let me cherish you as you have cherished me, and when the end comes, let us rest and rise together.
I’m still trying to understand why this poem moves me so much, and thought maybe you can help.
And What Good Will Your Vanity Be When The Rapture Comes
says the man with a cart of empty bottles at the corner of church and lincoln while I stare into my phone and I say I know oh I know while trying to find the specific filter that will make the sun’s near-flawless descent look
the way I might describe it in a poem and the man says the moment is already right in front of you and I say I know but everyone I love is not here and I mean here like on this street corner with me while I turn
the sky a darker shade of red on my phone and I mean here like everyone I love who I can still touch and not pass my fingers through like the wind in a dream but I look up at the man and he is a kaleidoscope
of shadows I mean his shadows have shadows and they are small and trailing behind him and I know then that everyone he loves is also not here and the man doesn’t ask but I still say hey man I’ve got nothing I’ve got nothing even though I have plenty
to go home to and the sun is still hot even in its endless flirt with submission and the man’s palm has a small river inside I mean he has taken my hand now and here we are tethered and unmoving and the man says what color are you making
the sky and I say what I might say in a poem I say all surrender ends in blood and he says what color are you making the sky and I say something bright enough to make people wish they were here and he squints towards the dancing shrapnel of dying
light along a rooftop and he says I love things only as they are and I’m sure I did once too but I can’t prove it to anyone these days and he says the end isn’t always about what dies and I know I know or I knew once and now I write about beautiful things
like I will never touch a beautiful thing again and the man looks me in the eyes and he points to the blue-orange vault over heaven’s gates and he says the face of everyone you miss is up there and I know I know I can’t see them but I know
and he turns my face to the horizon and he says we don’t have much time left and I get that he means the time before the sun is finally through with its daily work or I think I get that but I still can’t stop trembling and I close
my eyes and I am sobbing on the corner of church and lincoln and when I open my eyes the sun is plucking everyone who has chosen to love me from the clouds and carrying them into the light-drunk horizon and I am seeing this and I know
I am seeing this the girl who kissed me as a boy in the dairy aisle of meijer while our parents shopped and the older boy on the basketball team who taught me how to make a good fist and swing it into the jaw of a bully and the friends who crawled to my porch
in the summer of any year I have been alive they were all there I saw their faces and it was like I was given the eyes of a newborn again and once you know what it is to be lonely it is hard to unsee that which serves as a reminder that you were not always
empty and I am gasping into the now-dark air and I pull my shirt up to wipe whatever tears are left and I see the man walking in the other direction and I chase him down and tap his arm and I say did you see it did you see it like I did and he turns and leans into the
glow of a streetlamp and he is anchored by a single shadow now and he sneers and he says have we met and he scoffs and pushes his cart off into the night and I can hear the glass rattling even as I watch him become small and vanish and I look down at my
phone and the sky on the screen is still blood red.
It starts out as just an ordinary encounter on a street corner and kaleidoscopes into something quite different. The narrator is preoccupied with his phone, with enhancing an image of a sunset to show off to others. When approached by a homeless man preoccupied with the coming rapture, he fakes empathy, saying “I know I know”, but not really knowing, not really caring. He continues to humor the man by saying, in essence, yes, I know, the rapture is coming, but since all my people aren’t here, I’m not really ready for it right now.
And it’s at this point the poem shifts from the real to the surreal, the homeless guy before him kaleidoscopes into something else, and takes hold of the narrator’s hand. Now they are “tethered and unmoving.”
From here until the end is a dreamlike episode, where poignant moments and phrases seem to flow, one after the other, like that river flowing from the man’s palm: the sun’s “endless flirt with submission,” “I love things only as they are,” “the end isn’t always about what dies,” “now I write about beautiful things like I will never touch a beautiful thing again,” and “the face of everyone you miss is up there.”
By now the narrator is trembling and sobbing. He keeps saying “I know, I know, or I knew once,” as if he’s forgotten the things he should know. And then comes this vision: “when I open my eyes the sun is plucking everyone who has chosen to love me from the clouds and carrying them into the light-drunk horizon and I am seeing this and I know”. He sees all these faces and precious moments from his past and says: ” it was like I was given the eyes of a newborn again.” Then he adds “once you know what it is to be lonely it is hard to unsee that which serves as a reminder that you were not always empty.”
After this vision and revelation, the scene devolves back into an ordinary street scene. The homeless man, when asked, apparently has not seen what he saw. He scornfully pushes the narrator away, and continues his journey into the night with his cart full of empty bottles.
I’m still struggling to put into words what moves me, but it’s in the images I’ve highlighted above, and the refrain “I know I know or I knew once.” It’s in that feeling that things aren’t really as they seem to be, they are so much more; and also in the fact that all we really want or need is already right here before us, if only we had eyes to see.
It’s in that coalescing of the real and surreal, the now and forever, the ordinary and extraordinary, and how they morph back and forth, dreamlike and elusive. It’s in that eternal yearning for “something more,” and, at the same time, the need to surrender to what is. To let that “dancing shrapnel” of light break us apart so we are open to this moment, right here, before us.
There’s so much more to say about this poem, and I’d be really interested in knowing what you think.
The constant reference to a poem is interesting too, making this a kind of meta-poem. The narrator himself is a poet it seems. And I wonder, does the act of writing (my writing this post, his writing that poem) does it take us out of the moment or deeper into it? And when I say “moment” do I mean what is happening right now in this room and outside my window as I write, or what is going on in my head and heart as I write quite unaware of my surroundings? Are they the same moment? Or are each part of a kaleidoscopic now, moments within moments?
The word “rapture” is mentioned only once, but referred to again and again, and perhaps the title of this post, “the rapture is already right in front of us,” comes closest to capturing what I take away from reading this poem. The rapture not referring to the Biblical sense of people being plucked off the streets into heaven, but to the ecstatic joy that lies just out of sight within the present moment, if only we have eyes to see.
Many thanks to The Vale of Soul-Making for introducing me to this poem and poet. And many thanks for the painting by Robert Roth that captures without words what I really wanted to say here.
One of my favorite poets, again, swept me off my feet, expressing the inexpressible with perfect eloquence.
And it was at that age … poetry arrived in search of me. I don’t know, I don’t know where it came from, from winter or a river. I don’t know how or when, no, they were not voices, they were not words, nor silence, but from a street I was summoned from the branches of night, abruptly from the others, among violent fires or returning alone, there I was, without a face, and it touched me.
I didn’t know what to say, my mouth had no way with names, my eyes were blind. And something started in my soul, fever or forgotten wings, and I made my own way, deciphering that fire, and I wrote the first, faint line, faint, without substance, pure nonsense, pure wisdom of someone who knows nothing; and suddenly I saw the heavens unfastened and open, planets, palpitating plantations, shadow perforated, riddled with arrows, fire, and flowers, the winding night, the universe.
And I, infinitesimal being, drunk with the great starry void, likeness, image of mystery, felt myself a pure part of the abyss. I wheeled with the stars.
My heart broke loose on the wind. Pablo Neruda, Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, trans. W.S. Merwin (Penguin Classics, 2004)
Illustration by Dorothy Lathrop 1891 – 1980 Stars, 1930, ink on illustration board. Illustration for Sarah Teasdale, Stars Tonight, New York: Macmillan Company, 1930.
I’d always wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t really know how I wanted to write or what I wanted to write until I read Toni Morrison’s Song of Soloman.
What I mean by how and what is this: Sentences so carefully crafted they grab and bite. Images so sharp and powerful they cleave you to the bone. That lift you up and tear you apart with one clean stoke. Characters that are utterly human and yet larger than life. Story-telling that is a kind of myth-making. Themes that capture the heartbreaking beauty and gut-wrenching brutality of an oppressed people.
Song of Solomon is the coming of age tale of a Black man in the 1930’s, Macon Dead, III, otherwise know as Milkman, because his mother nursed him until his his legs were dangling toward the floor. It’s about his strange aloof family, a wealthy bitter father and a secretive, passive mother, a bootlegger Aunt born with no novel, a beautiful cousin he lusts after and abandons. It’s about his best friend Guitar who joins other angry young men bent on revenge killings, and his own quest to escape that violence and a dead-end life and learn to fly, as his own great-grandfather, Soloman, is reported to have done. All the way back to Africa.
It’s tale that reminds us about the possibility and need of transcendence, to find something within ourselves that lifts us beyond where we ever thought we could go.
Morrison’s novel Beloved, which won a Pulitzer Prize, struck me in similar ways. So much so that I taught the book in my freshman literature and composition courses for many years. Reading that book was an experience that I believed my students must not miss out on. “A book like an axe,” as Kafka recommended, “to break the seas frozen inside our souls.”
Beloved tells the story of slavery, its escape, and its aftermath. It’s based on the true story a a woman who would rather kill her own than to see that child return to the horrors they’d just escaped. And it’s the tale of how the horrors of the past, in this case a dead child, can come back to haunt us.
In the end though, it’s about love. About loving others, being loved, and learning to love ourselves, despite all that would argue against it or try to stop us. This is the great theme that runs through all her books.
In one moving scene, Baby Suggs, Holy, a backwoods preacher in a sunlit meadow, offers up to those who come to hear, her great big heart:
Here in this place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in the grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t love your eyes; they’d just as soon pick em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder, they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face ’cause they don’t love that either. You got to love it, You!
Morrison’s writing is a kind of “diving into darkness on wings of light.” She does not flinch away from the darkness, but at the same time shows us how it’s pierced with light.
She has inspired me as a writer on not only how and what to write, but also why. To write large, and write deep, in language that sears and soars. To write stories that matter, that make a difference, that must be heard. To write in nuanced and meaningful ways about both the beauty and brutality of the human experience. Stories that inspire us to rise above our smaller selves.
You want to fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down. –Toni Morrison
I’m finding it harder to blog these days, harder to paint, to play piano, to clean house, to do most anything but write, rewrite, and write again.
And yet, despite this, I’m trying to keep the blogging going at least. The painting is on holiday until I start an acrylic and oil class this summer. But the piano, the poor piano! I feel guilty each time I walk by. She so wants to play.
And the house. Well, let’s not talk about the house.
I’m explaining more than complaining. I set this rigorous writing schedule myself. A “scaffolding” Annie Dillard calls it. A “blurred and powerful pattern.” It is all that.
Here is her full quote:
What then shall I do this morning? How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order—willed, faked, and so brought into being: it is a life boat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living. Each day is the same, so you remember the series afterward as a blurred and powerful pattern.
She also writes about the writer’s precarious relationship to a work in process which I’ve found to be quite true:
I do not so much write a book as sit up with it, as with a dying friend. During visiting hours, I enter its room with dread and sympathy for its many disorders. I hold its hand and hope it will get better.
This tender relationship can change in a twinkling. If you skip a visit or two, a work in progress will turn on you.
A work in progress quickly becomes feral. It reverts to a wild state overnight . . . . As the work grows, it gets harder to control; it is a lion growing in strength. You must visit it every day and reassert your mastery over it. If you skip a day, you are, quite rightly, afraid to open the door to its room.
Another quote relating writing and dying strikes at the heart of the writer’s task:
Write as if you were dying . . . write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. What would you begin writing if you knew you should die soon? What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?
Push it. Examine all things intensely and relentlessly. Probe and search each object in a piece of art. Do not leave it, do not course over it, as if it were understood, but instead follow it down until you see it in the mystery of its own specificity and strength.
Who but an artist fierce to know—not fierce to seem to know—would suppose that a live image possessed a secret? The artist is willing to give all his or her strength and life to probing with blunt instruments those same secrets no one can describe in any way but with those instruments’ faint tracks.
One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now.
I read the above quote daily as a reminder: Push, pull, probe, go deeper, page by page. Leave nothing unturned. Don’t do what’s easy. Do what’s hard.
And finally, another reminder when the writing seems so slow and never-ending:
You are writing a book. . . . you do not hurry and do not rest. You climb steadily, doing your job in the dark. When you reach the end, there is nothing more to climb. The sun hits you; the bright wideness surprises you; you had forgotten there was an end.
How much of our lives do we view through a narrow lens, whether through the lens of a camera, our own limited viewpoint, or the stories we tell about ourselves and each other?
When we walk through life with a perpetual camera around our necks, we are tempted to see everything through that narrow focus, framing everything we see–the city streets, the sunsets and landscapes, the people we pass, the objects that come into view. As we frame what we see and take photos, it helps us to notice things we may have overlooked otherwise, and to see these things in a new light. It intensifies our ability to discover the extraordinary in the ordinary, and allows us to capture and preserve those visions.
But it also breaks the whole into parts, raw experience into the photo-worthy and not-so-much. We experience things not as a participant, but an observer, a spectator or voyeur at worst, a curator of the significant at best.
When we were sailing around the world, I wish I had done more of that capturing and preserving. There were no digital cameras then, and film was expensive and hard to store in a hot, damp climates. So now I have only a handful of photos from hikes through the enchanted valleys of the Marquesas. Three or four of our stay in legendary Bora Bora, a dozen from our three months in Samoa. Now I wish we had dozens more photos of each place to view and remember.
On the other hand, by the time my first grandchild was born we had a digital camera. Because I saw him so seldom, when I was with him I photographed him almost continuously, following him everywhere and capturing every sweet smile, every cute incident, every new thing he did.
Until I stood back one day and realized that by indulging the urge to “frame” everything for posterity, I was missing out on now, on just being with him–soaking up his presence, our time together–in the moment, raw and unfiltered.
Now though, I do not regret all those photos I took. For I am able to relive those moments with greater clarity and in more detail that I might have been able to do so without them.
It’s all a balancing act, I guess.
As writers we do that too—viewing the world and our experiences through a mental lens, framing things for posterity, seeing images, events, interactions, as fodder for our stories. We couldn’t write without doing that, consciously, or unconsciously.
But we have to know when to see things through the writer’s mind, as observer, spectator, curator, and when to put away that lens and become a participant in the raw experience that evolves around us. To “step barefoot into reality” as the poet Wallace Stevens once evoked.
It’s harder than we might imagine, to put away all the filters through which we experience life, and just “be” it. Life itself. Unfiltered.
NOTE: I wrote this post six years ago, but it shows, even then, my keen interest in photography, and even more in how we capture and reflect experience, limit and distort it. As you know, I’m researching a new novel with photography and the creative endeavor at its core, and the reading I’m doing meshes quite nicely with what I wrote here. So I thought I’d share this, my own take on this subject, before sharing what I’ve gathered from others.
I’m working on a sequel to my novel From the Far Ends of the Earth, mostly research and note-taking at this time. The sequel will be following the “missing” mother’s journey of self-discovery and re-invention through the lens of her camera as she travels through Mexico to the tip of South America.
The mother’s photography plays a key part in the first novel. It becomes an obsession for one of the main characters, the son, a struggling drug addict. He receives packets of his mother’s photos, black and white glossies, with no notes or explanations of why she’s sending these to him. They are stark, often disturbing images, wildlife mostly: a horny-head lizard, mean face, wicked eye, flash of tongue; a nasty looking rooster perched on top a fence post, its wings in a flurry, beak open, eyes wild and furious. Another of a dead tree, all bare limbs, like outstretched arms, like someone shaking its fists at the sky, or trying to tear it to pieces.
He doesn’t know what to make of these and pins them on a wall to study. In his drugged haze, he comes to see the photos as pieces of his mother she’s cut from her own body and sent to him to put back together. If he does, she’s saved, and he’s saved, and she come home. If he doesn’t they’re both doomed.
I love photography but have never studied it professionally, so I have a lot to learn before writing this. I began my research by foraging through all my bookcases, large and small, tucked in various corners of the house to discover any books I might already have on the subject. I was delighted to find a few gems:
On Photography, by Susan Sontag. A collection of essays about the art and its cultural significance and influence.
The Joy of Photography, by the editors of the Eastman Kodak Company. A 1979 guide to the tools and techniques of good photography.
The Family of Children A 1977 collection of photographs about childhood around the world from the greatest photographers of the time. This is a sequel to the iconic The Family of Man collection curated by Edward Steichen and Carl Sandburg published in 1955.
In addition, I’m reading the The Age of Light, a novel by Whitney Sharer based on the life of Lee Miller, a fashion model who becomes a photographer, studying with the famous surrealist painter and photographer Man Ray. Eventually she becomes his muse and lover. She goes on to establish herself as a noted photographer as well as the first female war correspondent embedded with the Americans. She was there when they freed the concentration camps and took photos of herself bathing in Hitler’s bathtub, after his suicide.
I’ve also ordered a book by the photographer Sally Mann, Holding Still: A Memoir with Photographs.She caused quite a stir in 1992 when her book of photographs Immediate Family was published. Although highly acclaimed as one of the greatest and most influential photography books of the time, it was also criticized for the extremely intimate and personal photographs of her children, some unclothed.
My character begins her journey in the year 2000, before digital photography was popular.
What kind of camera would she have had? Could she create a dark room and develop her own film in the back of her camper?
How would she earn a living as a traveling photographer?
How would she advance enough over the course of two years to earn a cover story in the National Geographic, which she has done by the end of my first novel?
These are just a few of the questions I have. If any of you know the answers or can suggest other reading or research material that might help, I’d be most appreciative.
Doing research for a book is one of the easiest, most rewarding and inspiring stages in the process of writing a novel. I’m a little bit in heaven.
Either way, I believe this new ending is stronger–still hopeful, but less certain. More in keeping with the way things are for most of us when things we love go missing, or when struggling with our own demons and addictions.
I’ve decided something else too. Quite a few publishers have wanted to see more of the missing mother in my story, yet I wasn’t willing to do that. It would have unraveled the very premise of my novel, which was, how do we cope when the center holding everything together falls apart? When that upon which we most depend disappears?
I wanted the mother to be part of the puzzle, not a presence herself, but that “absent” presence we feel, even yearn for, but cannot quite pin down, and never really know for certain.
Do any of us ever, really, know our mothers? Don’t we only know them through our own often faulty and incomplete perceptions of them? What they’ve allowed us to see, or what we choose to believe? All knowledge is partial and open to revision. We may know the facts that lay before us. But do facts a person make?
Yet even while I’ve resisted the call to add the mother’s perspective to this novel, I can understand how a reader might want more of her, to hear about her journey as she travels away from her family and through South America. What does she learn as she discovers the world through the new lens of her photography? Does it lend insight into her past? Into herself as a mother and wife and now an artist? How does it shape her anew? Where does it take her?
I think it might be fun to give the mother her own voice and space, to see what shaped her past and how her journey shapes her future.
It’s the thing I love most about writing, discovering what I never knew I knew before I began to write it, as if the words themselves are drawn from some inner well of insight or vision I never knew I had.
“We create ourselves out of our innermost intuitions,” so writes a sage.
I believe that. And I also believe our characters are created in much of the same way. I wonder if we all contain multiple characters within us that make themselves known to us through our writing? Or are we just writing our larger selves?
Perhaps all the selves of all the people we’ve come to know, to experience, in this wider world, once known, become part of us, at least partially?
I believe there is a collective consciousness that we tap into from time to time, and writers, perhaps, most of all.
Sometimes I don’t know where I end and another begins.
My son says I have boundary issues. No doubt he’s right.