Initiation

You never played the tricky games

I liked, Amelia. My favorite was Initiation.

We took a new girl, sat her down in someone’s

living room and stationed glasses for water

and glasses for wine– thin-stemmed crystal

in difficult patterns on a bare-wood floor

We gave the girl a minute to memorize

a route that would get her across the room.

Then someone led her off, blindfolded her.

We cleared the glasses away– they led her back.

The blinded girl would begin her crossing…. Some shuffled

and some tiptoed an invisible wire across

the wilderness. They teetered and wavered and flailed

their hands, trying to keep their balance, to keep

from breaking a single glass. And we’d call out

directions or hysterical expressions of

concern. –Turn right! No! No! Watch out!– One girl,

not very bright, overweight, eager to please,

crashed to the ground like a felled ox.

That’s how afraid I am to touch you, Amelia.

When the blindfold comes off, will I see a crowd

of war-whooping girls, everyone doubled with laughter?

Or will I be lying in my own living room, everyone

long ago fled, broken glass all over the bare-wood

floor, darkness coming and mother due home?

 

Published in Human Trappings, Abattoir Editions (1979).

What Do You Do When a Student Threatens Murder?

What Do You Do When A Student Threatens Murder?

Dear Readers,

This is not a “Reflective Essay” in terms of its being measured or balanced. This is a Reflective Essay because it attempts to put down on the page some of the thoughts, ideas, and observations I’ve had since the above poem first came into my hands on April 17, 2006, and began to haunt me. (It haunts me to this day.) The writing will necessarily be raw and perhaps a little jumbled.

Two months ago, one of my Renton co-teachers put the following prompt on the board because she thought it would lead to some good Creative Writing: “Write about a time when you broke up with someone. What feelings did this inspire in you?” She told me privately that she had just gone through a breakup herself, and wanted to see how her students handled such things.

I did not think the writing prompt was a good idea, since it asked for a lot of negative emoting, without tying it to any narrative specifics. I was afraid to tell the teacher this, however. She was clearly in a vulnerable space and I did not want to further upset her or delay the start of class.

The class we co-taught was a difficult one. At the start of the year, it had been a “grab-bag” course, a “dumping ground” for athletes and English-as-a-second-language students whose writing was, so far as anyone knew, of dubious merit. The class started out being huge (36/37/38) but by the time The Poem was written, the class had returned to a “normal” size.  The class had little cohesion. There were respectful, even obedient students, mostly Asian, who hardly ever spoke up in class. There was a clique of mostly African-American students, who had a large ‘tude on their mutual shoulders. Several of them had been featured in the local papers, were virtually guaranteed for college admission (they’d been told) on the basis of their basketball abilities.

The student in question was one I had identified early on as a class leader. James and several others were allowed to listen to headphones during class, with the proviso that they take out the earplugs when someone spoke to them. James had trouble staying in his seat: he moved about at the back of the class; he frequently asked for and got passes to the men’s room, or showed up late with excuses. In an earlier exercise, he and his buddies, working in a small group, responded scatologically to a “skeletal story” exercise and was reprimanded by the teacher. James seemed to hold his having gotten into trouble against me, personally. He rebuffed any attempts to talk to him, and crumpled writing in which I had praised his abilities.

During the “break up” class on April 17, I saw the teacher try to engage James in conversation, to discuss what he had written, but James put his hands over his paper, and wouldn’t let her see. He handed me the paper directly. This was highly unusual for him.

When I got home that night, I read through a bunch of expectable responses- Students’ ex’s were described as “lower than scum;” people said they were sorry they’d ever met their ex’s, that their ex’s were not nearly good enough for them, or way too good; they said they wished they’d never met their ex; they said if their ex were dying of thirst in the dessert, they wouldn’t give them water, and so on. Their writing was full of “tell not show” words—“Despair,” “Grief,” “Anger,” “Frustration.” And then, at the very end of the whole batch of student work, I came to James’s poem.

J**** G*****  4-17-0? Per. 4 Lyn writen

Im a kill you

cut throat now u die

why

die, die, die

Im southside

I’ll kill u witthe gun

keep yo mouth wide

why

cause you should die,

burnt up, no life

cut deeply with sharp knives

you dyeing isliketaken a thousand lives

why

Imcrazy, you made me like this,

pissed at you and the world,

all over you, a dumb ass girl,

with a jerry curl.

sryke.

Its that time, good bye

you are done,

your life is none

 

When I first read the poem, I thought it was directed at me. I thought “keep yo mouth wide” was a reference to his thinking (as I knew he did) that I talked too much in class. “Im southside” I thought referred to the fact that I live in basically whitebread Magnolia, and he lives in a lower class ‘hood in Renton. I thought “you made me like this” referred to me and his other teachers and all the other adults in his life who had let him down, who had failed to help him reach his potential anywhere except basketball.

I read the “dumb ass girl” with a “jerry curl” part over, until I was sure James’s poem was not directed at me. After all, I reminded myself, the topic had been “breaking up.” Also, the teacher had told me one time when I was complaining of James’s class performance and attitude that she thought he needed to be “cut special slack” since he’d just broken up with his girl friend. I calmed down for a moment, then immediately got all worked up again. So the focus for his death threat wasn’t me, but against the statistically most likely target- his ex-girl friend.

I caught myself. This was, after all, poetry. Did we not talk about poetic license? Why was I running so scared? Wasn’t I just knee-jerk over-reacting in a “culture of fear” way to something that was, after all, a very powerful piece of writing?

I went back and read over all the other student responses, hoping for something that looked or felt a little similar, so I could relax a little. But going over the other writing just made me more keenly aware of how different James’s piece was. Nowhere, in any of the other angry, depressed, guilty, resentful, accusatory writing, was there so much as a hint of anybody’s taking action against another person.

I thought for a moment of what made the piece powerful. I thought aimlessly of all the “I” sounds in the poem- the rhyming of die and I and why and knife and life and the concluding “truncated Shakespearean sonnet” couplet—“you are done/ your life is none.” I thought of how a critic might tease apart the Donnean wit of the conclusion. (reminscent of the famous, “I have done/ You have Donne”) I imagined myself as a lecturer explaining, “You see, the victim’s life is no longer hers; it is forfeit. Neither is it the victimizer’s, since it amounts to zero in his eyes. The poet is saying here that the speaker of the poem is saying he will manipulate the physical (by killing his victim), until her physical state is equatable in its nullness to the state of its metaphorical value.”

I sat with the poem for a long time. I thought of putting it away in a drawer and forgetting about it. No one would know. No one would be the wiser. If found out, I would be culpable of nothing more than—Nothing more than— When I have difficult decisions to make, I find a useful strategy is to apply “worst case scenarios” to both sides of the equation. So, here, if I “reported” James (and I wasn’t sure to who, or what consequences would follow from the reporting; he hadn’t done anything yet; he’d only written a poem), the worst case scenario would be that he would shut down completely in class, refuse to participate whatever, pressure by example his whole little clique, and beyond that, the class, to turn against me. No, wait. Why had I come up with that as a worst case scenario? What was the matter with me? The worst case scenario if I reported James was that he would become enraged and carry out against me the actions he threatened to take against his ex- girl friend. The worst case scenario if I didn’t say anything to anyone was that James would kill his ex-girl friend. The worst case scenario if I did say something was that James would kill me. What was the matter with me was that I was frightened.

Now my mind leapt into lurid technicolor fantasizings. James would kill his ex, then kill me, then kill the whole class. Renton would be the next Columbine. He and his athletic group would band together a la Lord of the Flies: they would band together and come to school armed with a whole shooting match of supplies, available at gun shows and elsewhere.

I told myself that was impossible. Then I flashed back a few years. I was living in a peaceful country house with my husband, a psychiatrist, and my three year old daughter. The dog had awakened me at 2 in the morning. He was downstairs on the back porch, barking his “something’s wrong and you need to take care of it” bark. I went quietly downstairs—no sense in waking either of them up—and went into the kitchen. The minute the dog saw me standing by the door, he stopped barking. And that’s when I heard Crazy Pete pounding on his door. Crazy Pete normally liked to play his Crazy Religion radio station loudly at night. It was hard to ignore. Even through a couple of doors, I found it difficult not to hear that Elvis, for example, had been the reincarnated Jesus. He had not died, but was wandering around…. I had just last week come around to realizing that two of our renters needed to go. I had already spoken to Pete, and was planning to speak to Berna Drumwright, the world’s ugliest woman, though sweet, a welfare renter, who mumbled odd things and tried to borrow money for cigarettes the day after she paid her rent. I was planning to turn over the rental of the whole back of the house to Jason, a cheerfully ambitious up and coming young man who came with references and worked two jobs and was going to build us a basketball court. With the two crazies gone, the house could return to a peaceful state.

But Pete was shouting as he pounded, “He’s killing her. Jason’s killing her.” I ran to get my husband, still asleep upstairs, and called 911 on my cell phone as I ran. I told my husband what little I knew, and he pulled on some jockey shorts and stumbled downstairs. As I was telling the 911 operator what little I knew, it occurred to me that the house had gone back to being silent. I thought of waking up my daughter and taking her away, but I didn’t know what was happening. “Sit tight,” the operator advised. We’ll be right there.” I stepped out of the front door, and walked around the corner of the house until I could see the back entrance. The door to it was open, and the light was on. There was my husband, throwing himself against Berna’s door. At first I saw him in profile, but then he turned toward me. His head was bloody. Then there was a noise, and my husband disappeared into Berna’s room. I ran up the back stairs and followed him in. Berna lay on the floor. There was literally blood everywhere I looked. She was naked from the waist down, Her face had been bashed in. Before I could think that I didn’t know what to do, police and an ambulance came. They took Berna away. Pete was nowhere to be found. My husband told the officers that he had been trying to enter Berna’s room to stop Jason from doing whatever he was doing and Jason had tried to keep the door closed, bracing himself with his feet. When my husband got the upper part of the door half-open and stuck his head in, Jason hit him on the forehead, backwards, with a wine bottle. My husband said Jason was wearing nothing but underpants. He had apparently gone out the window at some point.

“Don’t worry,” the police said, “we’ll go after him with the dogs. You don’t have to worry.” “But there are doors on the other side of the house that lead directly into his room,” I said. “What if he comes back to try to get clothes or something? He has a key. In the movies, they always come back.” “You have the dog,” they said. “The dog will bark.” “But the dog barked because Jason was attacking Berna. He knows Jason. Jason gives him biscuits. He might let Jason back into the house. Please check his room before you go.” So they checked Jason’s room begrudgingly, and when they opened Jason’s closet, Jason sprang on them from the top shelf. And they led him away, smiling his obliging smile, still wearing only his underpants, blood on his chest and arms.

All the jumbled events of that night came back to me, and the trial afterward, and how Jason pleaded no contest and got some really light sentence and how about the time the sentence was to have ended, I saw Berna walking on the street, and she looked wonderful, with a new hairdo, new clothes, a new face.

What if Jason in the days or the week before attacking Berna had threatened to kill her? What if, because the threat came in the form of a poem, no one took it seriously?

And then I flashed back to the year before Jason, when my mother was very near death, and we all feared the worst, and the early morning phone call came and I thought, “This is it,” and took the phone to hear that my 26-year-old niece had been stabbed to death on the Appalachian Trail, stabbed almost thirty times, and her boy friend, traveling with her, shot three times.

When I read James’s poem, a wave of fear and violent remembrances swept through me. It took several days for that to subside. I reported what had happened to the Language Arts supervisor at the school, and then to the class teacher. The class teacher said the “scary” poem “didn’t sound at all like James,” but agreed that we should report it to the school nurse. It turned out that’s what happens at Renton when someone threatens violence against themselves or others: they’re sent to the nurse. That’s all that happens—a one time visit to the nurse. The school is has had its share of lockdowns and reports of guns and even some sporadic gang violence. I guess a “scary” poem doesn’t loom large in their list of worries.

And then I remembered being a graduate student at the University of Michigan. I was friendly acquaintances with a famous poet, a Nobel Prize winner, and was pleasantly surprised to have him call me from Berkeley one day. He told me his son was “running amuck,” and threatening people’s lives. He gave me the number of his son’s best friend, a Canadian psychologist, and asked me to go and talk to his son (whom I’d only met once) and see if I could talk him into getting help. Another long story, the upshot of which was that the son was “ravaging” the anthropology department, sending letters to faculty and putting notes in mailboxes which threatened to have the people “executed” for “crimes against the state.” I spoke on many occasions to various social service agencies, agitating (along with the friend, who had come down from Canada to be of help) to have the poet’s son put in a mental hospital. The social agencies said they couldn’t do anything because the poet’s son didn’t use the proscribed language. “He doesn’t say ‘kill’ or ‘murder,’” they explained to me. “As long as he sticks to words like ‘execute,’ we can’t do anything. In the end, the Canadian friend and I realized if anyone was going to give the poet’s son the respite we felt he needed (the friend felt even more strongly than I that the poet’s son was very dangerous), one of us was going to have to commit him. The Canadian friend, as it turned out, couldn’t do it, because he wasn’t an American citizen. So I did.

I reflected on how seriously we take language, and found myself wondering how good a predictor language was of future event. (I remember from my days as a hospice social worker that written expressions of suicidality were one of the strongest predictors of actual attempts. Going over James’s poem for the umpteenth time, I noticed (finally) that he had actually not fulfilled the assignment. The prompt had asked students for their feelings- What feelings did they have, etc. The other students had written less graphic, less powerful, more “tell without showing” pieces in which they did as they had been asked, and presented (in most cases) a jumble of conflicting feelings, most of them carefully labeled—“anger,” “depression,” “guilt,” “fear.” James hadn’t actually said what sorts of feelings he had—what he had presented was a game plan for acting out feelings of anger and worthlessness and victimhood: “Im crazy, you made me like this” along with hyper-powerfulness and self-justification and hyper-revenge, “you dyeing is like taen a thousand lives.”

I wrote James a letter (because I wasn’t due to meet with the class for another week, and James was going to be gone the week following that) and I wanted to be out in the open with the decision I had made. explained that his teacher and I were referring the matter to the school nurse because he had threatened the life of another human being, and I needed to take that threat seriously. At least that’s what I thought I’d said, until I found and reread my letter for this essay. Here it is in its entirety:

Dear James,

In your latest piece of writing, you threaten to kill another human being. I am therefore going to pass it on to Ms. Barker and the school nurse, and see if there is a need for further action.

Your piece is scary, and a call for help. The fact that it is eloquently written is not the point here.

I don’t know if you know what a strong writer you are. It scares and saddens me to read what you have written.

You have a lot of sadness and rage in you, and you know how to express what you are feeling forcefully and economically. What is important to realize here is that you have NOT expressed your feelings, which was what Ms. Barker’s prompt asked you to do. You have jumped over most of your feelings and written a death threat describing what you say you will do; one in which you blame someone else for your internal state—“you made me like this, pissed at you and the world.”

I would appreciate your redoing this assignment, and writing about a break-up you experienced. What actually happened? How did you feel? In my view, one of the greatest services writing performs is helping people examine their own feelings and beliefs and the feelings and beliefs of others, so they can act in a reasoned and compassionate way.

I wish you well, and hope I can continue to help you strengthen your writing.

                                                Lyn   

Looking back and reflecting on my letter, I would say I was an idiot. I was acting “under the gun” of time pressure, however. The school nurse would be contacted the next day, and I wanted to get word to James before that happened, so he wouldn’t feel sabotaged by me.

One sentence I especially don’t like is, “Your poem is scary, and a call for help.” The last, “call for help” part of it sounds both arrogant and cliched (social worker jargon) to me now.

For the next three or four weeks, James managed to get out of class with me. He had a series of “legitimate” excuses. For about two weeks, he was out looking at top basketball schools on the west coast.

When he came back to school, the teacher gave him a couple of library passes for to work on different projects. As soon as James appeared, I tried to speak with him, but he was having none of it.

Lyn: James, I’d like to talk with you.

James: (walking away) I’ve got nothing to talk about.

Lyn: You sound pretty angry.

James: Conversation over.

The teacher first spoke of setting up a three-way meeting (her, James, myself), then said James didn’t want to talk with me, so she’d agreed he could write me an email. When I said, weeks later, I’d never gotten an email, she said he’d gone to see the school nurse, and would write me an email before the school year was out. She told me that was all I could reasonably expect of him.

In the last couple of months, I noticed a marked “chilling” in James’s class. The whole experience rattled me. Partly, I was secretly glad when James didn’t show up in class, because it was one less thing to deal with. Mostly, I was obsessing about what I’d done, what I hadn’t done (spoken to the principal, confronted James, confronted the teacher, etc.)

It wasn’t clear to me until the last day that this was a kind of classic t.v. story, without the classic feel-good entry. There no positive resolution to this story, and I am aware that, together with my being ill, James’s poem and its consequences colored the whole end of my teaching year. Even though I was able to keep to my WITS commitment, the last few weeks I have felt like a failure as a teacher. Partly, I feel that sentiment so familiar to a lot of teachers and fishermen (I think)—a tendency to focus on “the one that got away.”

Suicide Survivor

Suicide Survivor
This is not an essay or an article. This is me speaking from the heart. I am a suicide survivor. It’s only through providence or accidental grace that I’m here typing these words. So– To anyone out there who is contemplating suicide, stop. It makes the depression recede for a while and if you “succeed” in your suicide attempt, your depression will go completely, taking you with it. There are two things you should know about that- a) the people you leave behind will pay the price of your act- You will leave Them depressed, which is hardly fair. And the more they care about you, the more you will hurt them. So, don’t. Plus though I cannot guarantee (no one can) that things will get better, they will inevitably get Different. And Different is always easier for a while. The plans you’re hatching, your obsession with how and where and when- that’s all the depression riding you. It’s just a horse you’re on. Get off. Take this attitude: Okay, I was going to kill myself- So I’ll consider that I succeeded. I killed off the old me and now I’ll just wait to see what comes next.
Norman Fischer) gave a great teaching in a retreat I was on last year- “Let’s see what happens.” It’s arrogant to think you know what’s coming. You don’t. Your plans to kill yourself give yourself the illusion of control. But you’re not controlling anything, you’re opting out. Well, enough preaching.
I was a young mother, with two small boys, and I’d been in and out of psychiatric facilities, diagnosed as manic depressive, Major Affective Disorder, borderline disorder, even “pseudo-neurotic schizophrenic.” I’d been drugged up and cooped up and therapized until the cows got lost, and still I was suicidal. Years later, my son would ask me about this- Did I not love them? Did I not care about the effect on them? (He asked me this consequent to his dad’s suicide, but that’s a story I haven’t the right to tell here.) And the answer? Oh my god, yes. I loved my two boys beyond anything, beyond words, beyond compare, beyond life itself. And the thought running my life was- They are so wonderful, perfect, amazing. And they deserve a good mother, a great mother, a perfect mother. I am not that mother. I am a mess of a mother. I am erratic. I don’t know what to do. I know how to love them- that came before they were born. But I don’t know how to help them. And then- all at once- Yes, I do know how to help them. I’ll remove myself from their life so their father, who is a good father, a great father, can find the perfect all-nurturing mother to complete the family picture. I planned for suicide, thinking it a sacrifice I would make for my beloved children.
[That’s a side little message in all of this. If you are a suicide survivor in the sense someone you love has killed themselves, I would say this. Don’t take it as a sign they didn’t love you. That’s your anger talking. It may have been a (totally misguided, wrong-headed, depressed) Expression of their love for you. And don’t look too hard for a reason. I had a minor satori after meditation the other day, and it came in the form of this statement: “Nothing happens for a reason.” That may not make rational sense, but it makes deep intuitive sense to me. Of course, on a certain level, people look for a reason, find it, apply a solution, and make things better. “The plants in the garden are not growing.” (Problem) What is the reason? Maybe I’m not watering them enough. (Source of the problem.) Solution: “I’ll water them more.” Result: Plants grow better. But on a deeper level- there is no Reason for what people do- Everything is because it is.
I am wandering off track here, but the point I’m trying to make is that even if you could ask a suicide- Why did you do it?- they would almost certainly not be able to give you A Reason that would satisfy you or even make much sense. If you know someone who’s committed suicide, or if you’re contemplating it yourself (I hope you’ve already reconsidered)- try to think of a reason that would satisfy those left behind. Whenever something hurts us deeply, there is no one reason, and usually no host of reasons, that satisfies our grief-stricken “Why?” “Why now?” “Why you?” “Why me?” No person is an island- We do the things we do because we do them. But I want to tell you what happened.]
I was living in Maplewood, NJ, and I decided to kill myself. I was around 30 at the time, married to a husband who loved me, with two great little boys, aged around 4 and 6 and I had been hospitalized and released (more story there, but not now)- and it was Christmas time and I was “home” but I was depressed and miserable and all the medications and the hospitalizations and the therapies had, in my view, failed to “fix” me. And so I went up to the medicine cabinet when I thought my husband was sleeping, and took every sleeping pill and “downer” in there (there were many)- And my husband found me, lying on the floor dying, and somehow got me in the car and rushed me to the hospital emergency room, leaving our little boys sleeping in their beds, without adult supervision. I knew none of this, because I was already mostly not there.
In the emergency room, I was so far gone, they couldn’t get the trach tube down my throat, and I was losing consciousness fast, and they needed me to rouse enough so that they could get in down there. At least I think that’s the back story. What I remember is none of that. I remember just beginning to feel a little relaxation, a little something else than depression. And suddenly there was this tall dark thin man who hated me, who was in a fury. He was shouting at me- What’s your name? What’s your name? And I couldn’t find it in myself to answer. And then he slapped me Hard on the face Whap! Whap! What’s your name? What’s your name? And from somewhere in my gut I said Lyn. But that didn’t satisfy him. How old are you? How old are you? Whap Whap! And I remember feeling/seeing dimly how much he hated me. He was yelling at me, and hitting me, and he gave me no mercy. No mercy whatsoever. And then after minutes (?) of this torture, I dimly dimly heard “We got her.” (Which later I would realize meant the trach tube was in and the poisons were being pumped out of my stomach and I would live despite myself.) And the moment they said, “We got her,” the tall dark thin man sat back in his chair and looked at me with the greatest love and tenderness that I have ever known from anyone and he smiled a sad sad smile and tears rolled down his cheeks and I realized he had saved my life.
The next day, he came to see me in the hospital and we cried and laughed together a little. And I never saw him again, and I don’t remember his name. But he was an ER doc or attendant in the hospital closest to Maplewood, NJ, in the early 70s. And I have a fantasy that he will read this story here, and recognize himself, and write to me, or comment. Of course there are many many suicide attempters in our country, but I think if he were to read this story, he would remember.
The years went by, and eventually I got well, eventually I became a chaplain working at St. Luke’s in Milwaukee, and I raised a woman from the dead. But I’ll tell you about that another day.
This is just to say- Don’t try to kill yourself. The most dangerous time for such an attempt is not when you are at your worst. When you are at your worst, you are paralyzed by depression. No. Suicide comes as the first “plan,” the first “idea” you get for dealing with your depression. And what you don’t see is that this “solution” is proposed by a double agent, by your depression in disguise. Life is so Interesting, so wild and unpredictable. Here I am, roughly 37 years later, and I see everything differently. I have three granddaughters now, and they are a strong joyful presence in my life and I love them. And I love my children: my two boys are grown into wonderful kind creative human beings, and I have a later in life daughter who is wonderful kind and creative as well.
Please don’t kill yourself. We can’t afford to lose you. You, too, may have children or grandchildren in your future. I remember someone of my current age (67) talking to me when I was in the cut-throat years of my life (my 20s) saying to me- “It gets better. It sucks to be your age.” I was so struck by that, because middle-aged and older people were always coming up to me and envying my youth. But I want to tell you that, from my perspective now, that person was right. Here I am, with maybe a decade or two of a full life ahead of me at most. And I can’t wait to find out what happens.
And the last two things I’ll say about suicide are this: First, nobody can stop you from killing yourself, so don’t count on them to do that. I used to read about Virginia Woolf and Ann Sexton and Sylvia Plath and get all romantic about suicide. What a crock! Secondly, people often try to kill themselves because they are so afraid of dying. That, too, gets better. I don’t want to die. I’m still afraid of it- still worry when I get some strange symptom (and I have strange symptoms more and more: my dad used to say that when we grow older, our symptoms become more interesting than we are)- but I’m not terrified any more.
So don’t chicken out. Don’t kill yourself. Don’t kill anyone. Killing yourself is not an act of love, take it from a suicide survivor. Do something surprising and creative- Stick around and see what happens. You’ll be amazed, I promise you. I thank whatever gods there be for that tall dark thin man who saved my life.
ps And now, at 71 (unbelievable), I’m not even afraid to die.

Joseph Brodsky was Joseph Brodsky

Title piece for Joseph Brodsky Was Joseph Brodsky publsihed by Levan Kavleli Publishing in 2012.

Read review by Judith Roche.

Purchase the book from bedouin books.

JOSEPH BRODSKY WAS JOSEPH BRODSKY

a quixotic reminiscence

I should probably begin by stating my credentials for writing a memoir which is not private, an article which is not scholarly, about Joseph Brodsky.

I was Joseph’s teaching assistant for two years in Ann Arbor, Michigan, at the start of the 1970s. In the course of that time, we became what I would call fitful friends.

I would not presume to say I ever really understood Joseph. He was a great poet, and a Russian, two classes of people that have always struck me as far more inscrutable than the Asian peoples singled out by cliché.

I was often intimidated or awed by Joseph, and felt that was as it should be—in the presence of genius, ones clumsy tongue is apt to wag more slowly. I was also often irritated. De mortuis nil nisi bonum, and all that- but the claims on the writer of public honesty go deep. (I take it as axiomatic that private honesty, self honesty, is oxymoronic.)

I was a graduate student at the University of Michigan, and had some familiarity with the Slavicists there, having translated Jiri Orten (one of the world’s greatest virtually unsung poets- a Jew killed young in the holocaust; his words, deathless, are still awaiting life/publication) and later-to-be Nobel prize winner Jaroslav Seifert from Czech, with the help of Ladislav Matejka, himself a Czech ex-pat.

Ladislav eventually went on to Yale, and I lost touch with him. I lost touch with Joseph when he left, as well. Someone should write a play about “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Academic.” I do not think it will be me.

Back to Joseph.

I’m not sure why I was chosen to be his assistant. I didn’t get any money for the job, I remember that. I considered it payment enough to be in the precincts of Joseph Brodsky: I had somehow gotten hold of a few poems in bad translation. His thoughts and images seemed to burn through the awkward wording like strong sunlight coming from another planet. Well- even now, I find it difficult to write about Joseph without waxing poetic.

I think the fact that I knew who Joseph was, and had done some translating from a Slavic language, that I was willing, that I was married to a faculty member in the English Department- perhaps all these factors together led the powers that be to assign me the task. They needed somebody right away, and they needed someone who would actually teach the class for a few weeks, until Joseph could manage to make his way to Ann Arbor.

So, the class started. I introduced myself to the students, and handled the restive unhappiness that greeted my announcement. I understood their feelings. If I had been expecting Joseph Brodsky, and Lyn Coffin showed up, I would not have been a happy camper.

Eventually, Joseph arrived, and took over the reins. I can’t remember our first conversations. I can’t remember much of anything about anything these days.

For me, remembrances are like strings of bright beads- I remember moments, flashes- I get probably highly-polished (therefore, in some sense, probably false, at least highly-embellished) glimpses of the past.

The first thing I remember about “life with Joseph” was telling him about what we had done in the class so far, and asking if he had any questions. He looked at me searchingly and said, “How old are you?” He thought I was much younger, apparently. People did in those days. Ah, you see how it is- Once again, here I stand at the front of the class. I want to tell you about me, but you’re only interested in him. Understandable, if discouraging.

So, a couple of incidents I remember from the early days of class. One of the first poets we read was Cavafy. Joseph loved Cavafy, as what modern poet could not- The class members were grad (maybe an undergrad here and there?) students in Comparative Literature. If memory serves me at all, there were only about ten of them by the time Joseph arrived. (To be fair to myself, there were not all that many more when I arrived like a bad fairy on that first day of class, delivering the news that, for a while, I was it.)

The time of Joseph in Ann Arbor was one of the many heydays of the “Coddle the Students” approach. If a student said something wrong, most professors- well, at least most of the untenured faculty, most of the untenured literary faculty- tried to find a way to make the student’s opinion correct. After all, the reasoning went, we were teaching literature, not science. We certainly didn’t want to be seen as tromping on student egos or finding fault with their opinions- Most of us, after all, were pathetically grateful if a student had any opinion at all. Best not to quibble over right and wrong. There were not a lot of hands waving in the air, after all. And it was nice to feel ones speaking responded to.

           So (I’m getting to it)- this young woman in one of the first classes not so much taught as guided by and prodded at by Joseph- spoke up about a Cavafy poem. I remember (because I loved and continue to love the poem) that it was “Myres: Alexandria, a.d. 340) on page 155 of our text. (The Complete Poems of Cavafy, translated by Rae Dalven, with an introduction by W.H. Auden, who was one of Joseph’s favorite poets- but more on that later.) Joseph read the poem aloud- he was always reading poems aloud: it really startled the students, used to poems existing only in the thick atmosphere of paper.

“Myres” ends with the line, “I left quickly before the memory of Myres should be/ snatched away, should be altered by their Christianity.” Of course, immediately before that comes the line, “I had the vague feeling/ that Myres … was united, a Christian,/ with his own people, /and I was becoming/ a stranger….” Well, one is tempted to go on quoting Cavafy for an extended period- a temptation to which Joseph himself often surrendered- but getting back to the young woman student– After Joseph had read “Myres,” and asked for comment (the students that semester got more and more reticent- I thought it eminently understandable), the student in question raised her hand and said a bunch of things I’ve mercifully obliterated from my mind.

The gist of her ramblings had to do with Cavafy’s being a Christian, and how one could see his Christianity in the poem. Awkward words to that effect.

I remember the look on Joseph’s face- It was one of the first times I saw this look, so to speak, “dawn” on his countenance. It was certainly far from the last.

It was a look compounded of astonishment and, I would say, something like horror- with a little dressing of contempt or derision. He allowed the young woman to finish and then said without moving (he could be almost sibylline in some of his pronouncements) something on this order: “One can say many things about Cavafy. He is, after all, a great poet, and contains multitudes. You, however, have just said the One thing that Should Not and Cannot Be Said. In the case (one of Joseph’s favorite expressions was “in the case’) I am not clear- You are totally and completely wrong. You couldn’t be wronger.”

The silence in the room was charged.

I thought for a moment the young woman was going to bolt, but no… Her face flushed, she endured the rest of the class without once raising her gaze from the Cavafy text. (At least, in my memory.)

That is one in-class moment. Another came shortly after that.

Brodsky asked the students who they thought should get the Nobel Prize in Literature. (His candidate was Milosz, who did go on to get it.) Someone- fortunately, a male student- Joseph was always easier on the guys- suggested Borges. And Joseph said two things I will never forget- “Well, first of all, I don’t think they give prizes for blindness. Second of all, Spanish isn’t really a language.”

Charged silences were common in Brodsky’s classrooms.

The last of the trinity of classroom moments I remember was this- The assignment (this was in the middle of the semester) had been to read Auden’s “In Memory of W. B. Yeats.” Brodsky read some passages aloud, and asked for comment. There was none. (As I say, charged silences were common.) The students reluctance- no, make that fear– was palpable. And Joseph surprised us by being charitable– indulgent, even. He seemed to be in a remarkably good mood. “Come on,” he said (or something to that effect.) “Let’s talk about the poem.”

The students visibly relaxed a little, and began to make comment.

After several moments of animated but cloudy student discourse, the look dawned again.

“Wait,” said Joseph, in his old Old Testament voice. “You do know who Auden was? And of all ten students in Comparative Literature, not one raised his/her hand to indicate any knowledge at all.”

Joseph shook his head. American students, native speakers of English, who didn’t know Auden. One could see that the extent of American barbarism was dawning on him, again.

“Lyn,” Joseph said, speaking wearily, as if from a great depth- “Tell them something about Auden.” So I told them something about Auden (probably trembling in my boots lest I make an error- Joseph’s mind was like a steel trap for all things poetic,)

And the conversation went on, not much more smoothly than before. I do not think we had gotten much past “He became his admirers” (I tried to find Auden just now on my bookshelf, and couldn’t- I can see Joseph shaking his head) when the look came back, now intensified.

“Is it possible,” Joseph asked, in a tone which made clear he had already proceeded to the wrong side of the question, and was speaking rhetorically (i.e., sarcastically) “you so-called English-speaking students of Comparative Literature don’t know W. B. Yeats? Is it possible?”

And I realized- up to now, we had studied Greeks and Poles and Lithuanians. Now we were launching upon the English speakers. And Joseph expected us, all of us, all speakers of the English language, to know their poetic heritage. And they (we) didn’t.

A student who rarely spoke raised his hand, seeing a chance, I think, to shine. “Wasn’t Yeats Irish?” he said. Joseph groaned.

“Lyn,” he said, “Tell them something about Yeats.”

Those are the classroom incidents I remember most clearly. Out of class, I remember a few things. I remember Joseph’s asking me to be part of a reading with Tomas Wenclova. Wenclova (a really nice man, very unassuming, and a terrific poet despite that) read the Lithuanian originals, Joseph Russian translations, I American renderings. (Not mine.) I remember how struck I was by the varying tonalities: Wenclova’s voice transcribed a hilly terrain. With Joseph, we got to the mountains- a fervent, almost savage up and down- not just mountains, but holy mountains- not just imposing men, but prophets! And then I read- and my voice sounded in my own ears like dishwater. Of course, the feminine register was a shock after Joseph’s testosteronic forcefulness, but it was more (and in this case, more is less) than that- My American modality spoke of flat plains, and dust bowls, the “foul bag and bone shop of the heart,” to quote a poet mentioned above. (Multiple choice test to follow.)

Then there was the doctor. I will tell this incident with a mute on; I think that’s only fair, given that Joseph is not here to present his side of things. (Nor would he deign to, if given the chance- He had more important things on his mind than the trivia of daily life.) Joseph was an inveterate smoker and drinker and lover of women. Quel (Maybe it should be Quelle) surprise!

As we got to be something like friends (Joseph liked visiting me and my husband- My husband was smart, well-versed in English poetry, ironic- and six feet six inches tall. Joseph used to say something to the effect that he loved having someone to really look up to.) Joseph confided to me that he was concerned about his health. We all were, all us lovers of literature in Ann Arbor- Joseph smoked like a Russian smokestack, drank like a Russian fish, and… and did not get nearly enough shut-eye. (Part of what made him a great poet?) As a result, he coughed a lot, and his breathing wasn’t the greatest. So- when he told me about his concerns, I suggested a trip to the doctor. Reasonable enough.

Then ensued a long debate (but friendly- I would have withdrawn in the face of Josephian displeasure- I was, after all, motivated by my concern and respect and admiration of him, my evaluation of him as self-destructive by inches and ounces)-

Joseph, it seemed, was afraid of doctors. I said I knew a really friendly, smart one, who liked poetry. (Amazingly, I did.) Joseph said he refused to wait, and American medicine was built on a culture of waiting. I said I would see if I could get him the first appointment. It would have to be early. I said it would be. Very early. Fine. He didn’t have a car and didn’t want to take a taxi. I would drive him. It would be expensive. I thought the university would provide the monies. And on and on.

Finally he agreed to this chauffeur-driven crack of dawn (I think it was just before 8) appointment to have his heart and lungs checked. (He was very afraid of cancer, as who among those of middling age living in America are not?)

So, I got up at 6 or 6:30, gulped a cup of lukewarm tea, drove over to Joseph’s, picked him up, took him to the hospital, guided him to the doctor’s office, ran interference with the receptionist, blah blah blah.

And in an amazingly short period of time, perhaps half an hour or forty-five minutes, Joseph had been seen. The doctor made recommendations which I wouldn’t divulge even if I could remember them, and I can’t- and we were on our way. Essentially, Joseph had been reassured that there was nothing horribly the matter with him.

“Well,” said Joseph, driving home. “I have to say I’m really glad I got myself to do this.”

Perhaps you can imagine my reaction.

The last times I had significant interactions with Joseph had to do with the publication of my book of Akhmatova translations- I don’t read Russian, but had worked with interlinear translations, and Serge Shishkoff, a native speaker teaching at the University, brilliant and kind. First of all, I asked Joseph if he would write a letter recommending me and the translations. “Well,” said Joseph. “Let’s do this. Here—” and he signed his name at the bottom of two or three sheets of paper. “Write what you like,” he said.

So I did.

I wrote something brief about my translations “being poems in their own right and doing something like justice to the originals.” I added, “One can think of no higher praise than that.” I showed Joseph the three-sentence letter I had (literally) written in his (i.e., over his) name, and he said it was fine.

By that time, Joseph was moving on, leaving Ann Arbor for NewYork, where he would live until he died. I had a contract from W.W. Norton in my hand for my Akhmatova translations, predicated on the book’s bearing an introduction by Joseph Brodsky.

He had promised to write said introduction before he left, but had not done so. To say he was a procrastinator perhaps does not convey the full extent of the situation. Joseph promised a lot. He always, eventually, delivered. But sometimes later was so later it was no better than never.

So- the book went into galleys. No introduction.

I wrote and called. Joseph (offhandedly) promised and promised. Norton began making threatening noises. The book would be pulled unless Joseph delivered. I was desperate, so I did a wild and desperate thing.

I went to the library and read all the introductions I could find in English that Joseph had previously written- paying special attention to what he said about Russian writers. Using his own words, and twisting them to fit Akhmatova, then weaving them into a more or less coherent Introduction, I wrote Brodsky’s Introduction for him. (I justified myself on the basis of Joseph’s having not been true to his word and b) those sheets of paper he had given me with his signature at the bottom. To be sure, a whole introduction was perhaps not what he had envisioned- But, then, neither had I.)

Anyway, I wrote the Introduction and sent it out, then waited with bated breath for Norton’s response. (Maybe, I told myself, as I mused about the stressful situation- Maybe when Joseph finds out, he’ll think it’s funny or a good “up yours” to the academic establishment. I could not quite push myself into being sanguine about his reaction but, like Scarlet, I would think about that tomorrow, after the book was published. Maybe the “fake” introduction would become a classic, taught in classes of Russian literature.)

Norton’s reaction came swiftly. They LOVED the Introduction. Their letter (written by someone who knew the lay of Brodsky land) said he and the other Norton people thought it was the best piece of prose Brodsky had ever written. (Inwardly, I complimented myself- It was, I noted, a truly loving tribute– condensed, vintage Brodsky.)

And so the book went ahead, with not a word from Brodsky. And I kid you not- about one hour before I was going to go to the post office and send back the by now corrected and recorrected galleys of the whole book- a package arrived on my doorstep from Brodsky. It was his Introduction. The note read, “Sorry, I’m late with this” (or something to that effect.) It was signed, I remember, “Citizen Joe.”

What to do? I immediately sent the new Introduction to Norton. Joseph, I said, had written another Introduction, and he wanted that to be used for the book. Norton read the new Introduction and objected. The first Introduction, they said, was by far the better.

“I agree,” I told them, (I actually did) “but Joseph Brodsky is Joseph Brodsky. And he wants the second Introduction. He would be really unhappy if the first Introduction were used.” (Truer words were never spoken.)

Finally, to my astonishment and immense relief, Norton agreed. The book was published with Joseph’s “real” Introduction.

My last contact with Joseph was not a terribly happy one- A year or so after the book came out, guilt assailed me, and curiosity. (Those two so often come together.) I wondered what Joseph’s reaction to my masquerade would be.

We weren’t really in the same circle any more. I didn’t hear from him. I was hurt. I thought I might get a (hopefully amused) reaction. I sent him the Introduction I had pastiched together. I don’t know whether he ever wrote me back or not. I don’t think so. I think I heard from a mutual acquaintance that Joseph was not amused.

I will close with my favorite memory of Joseph, of a time with Joseph. He and I gave a reading at Guild House, a small, friendly venue, March 20 at 7:30 p.m. (I have the framed poster in my bathroom.) I do not know the year, since the poster is mute on that macro point.

It had all been arranged. I would read some of my own poems, then Joseph would read his poems in Russian, and I would read the English translations—Russian, English, Russian, English- like that. I can’t tell you who the translator was for the English versions of Brodsky’s poems. Joseph liked to ask a lot of people to translate from the original or, if they didn’t know Russian, from an interlinear rendering. Then he would cobble together a translation, add something of his own or take a little out- and publish it as his own. (I remember years later recognizing “my” lines in one of his published books. I was not amused, either.) It didn’t really, I suppose, hurt any one of his collaborators- but it was a lot of work for no glory and no thanks.

Anyway- so there we were at Guild House that night. I read first as we’d agreed (saving the best to last), then we had an intermission. At the intermission, Joseph informed me that he’d asked a male graduate student to read aloud the English versions. This was something of a blow to me, as I had been practicing my delivery, and was looking forward to speaking those wonderful poems aloud.

But, as I would later explain to Norton, Joseph Brodsky was Joseph Brodsky- I, of course, agreed, with what I hoped passed for gracious acceptance.

And then came the moment… I suppose it was a “you had to be there” moment. But it was like this- there was Joseph, me, my husband, a small but enthusiastic crowd. In the crowd, were several beautiful young women who seemed to have a special and specific interest in Joseph that, shall we say, did not extend itself to Russian, or poetry. There was the male graduate student, a little flustered and red in the face- Joseph had, I assume, “tapped” him for the honor shortly before the reading- even during the intermission.

Joseph read the first of his poems. The male graduate student got up. The line (as well I knew, having rehearsed it at home) was supposed to be, “I reach into the drawer for a shirt/ and the whole day’s shot.” (Joseph loved to salt and pepper his verse with the slang-detritus of common speech.)

Instead, the graduate student said in a loud, not very poetic voice, “I reach into the drawer for a skirt, and the whole day’s shot.” Perhaps coincidentally, several of the beautiful young women in the audience blushed at that, and somebody started to laugh. This was a local audience. Brodsky had been in Ann Arbor for perhaps six months. Word had gotten around. Pretty soon, the small room was convulsed with merriment.

Joseph didn’t seem to mind, but the graduate student had the look of one on the guillotine.

So there you have it- my memories of Joseph Brodsky, undependable and fitful as they are. Somewhere in my files, I have his reading list. All I remember at the moment is that it featured Walter Benjamin.

I would like to close (poet that I am- have to get a poem in by hook or by crook- Are you listening, Joseph- Hook or by crook, that’s for you) with three of the poems I wrote in Joseph’s honor during those turbulent, halcyonic days I was his assistant in Ann Arbor.

One I quote because it has to do with the quality of his speaking (and is short)-

showshoe vowels

       pursued through the snow

  by consonants like Russian wolves

 

           I will quote my second (and, for the purposes of this article, my penultimate) poem to Brodsky in its entirety, though it is a page long. It is based on, and so far as I know, is entirely true to, one of the reminiscences Brodsky shared with us in that long ago class on Comparative Literature, and I tried (quixotically) to stay faithful to his way of speaking:

 

Brodsky’s Two Memories of Prison

           The first prison was built around a large

courtyard and they used that yard to stack

Siberian timber: the whole area was,

to employ the Americanism, under-developed, and

lumber was its only resource.  We prisoners

existed to cut lumber, but so many of us

(I don’t mean to be facetious, just truthful)

were so busy dying, we didn’t have much—

what’s the idiom?—heart for the job.

They conferred and decided upon

a Socialistic Competition.  So I said,

And what if I refuse to enter the lists?

Simple, they said.  Then you don’t eat.

The morning came as it always does, even

in prison, and we began: I had a short, rough axe

that suited me, and red woolen mittens,

a child’s mittens because of my small hands.

I worked like—not like a maniac, as you would say—

like an automaton. Lunchtime came and went and still

I worked.  When it grew too dark to see, they made me stop.

It was more comfortable for them that way….

Another time, another courtyard, another prison—

Archangelsk, I think—We, just off the train, were

camping in the courtyard, doing whatever it is prisoners

mostly do—It isn’t waiting, exactly, though it looks like it.

One of us must have gotten too close to the wire:

a guard shot him, climbed down from his tower,

turned the man over as a bureaucrat turns over a form,

a piece of paper, checked his neck for signs of life, found

none.  That would have been it except the prisoner’s watch

caught the guard’s attention.  He lifted the watch hand to

his ear, and listened.  What he heard must have been

satisfactory, because he took the watch.

 

 

I will close with a sort of haiku, a poetic epitaph I wrote for Joseph and showed to him. Epitaphs were a favorite topic of my discussions with Joseph- death-obsessed as we both were. He loved the epitaph Yeats wrote for Yeats, I remember- “Cast a cold eye/ on life on death/ Horseman, pass by.” (I didn’t and still don’t care for it.)

I seem to remember (or like to think) the following did manage to amuse him:

 

Here lies Joseph Brodsky

               newly translated

               from the Russian

 

You had to know him to know him. I count myself as greatly fortunate for having had that privilege.

Brodsky, too, has become his admirers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Brodsky, Revisited

Poem from Joseph Brodsky Was Joseph Brodsky publsihed by Levan Kavleli Publishing in 2012.

Read review by Judith Roche.

Links to purchase the book can be found.

BRODSKY REVISITED

for Gia, who wished this poem into existence

I write now to please my Gia

with a Brodsky fantasia—

Gia, you are Joseph’s fan

he could have no better than.

 

You know all the Brodsky saga—

that he was for Auden gaga.

Yet I need to make you wary

of some digging in that quarry.

 

In that old abandoned site,

Comes the Irishman by night

praising Bordsky, Auden Yeats—

is there nobody he hates?

 

I’m not saying he’s a thief—

He’s just got small cause for grief.

I shared with Joseph, when a lass,

sexier than sex, his class.

 

I was married, we were friends.

There our story nearly ends.

Soon he left our state behind,

the Michigander state of mind

 

Years went by. We wrote. Not much.

Eventually, we lost touch.

Then one day, I read he’d died.

I don’t even think I cried.

 

Joseph, you are where we’ll be,

postmarked to eternity.

Your smokes are gone, your coffeed curses,

What remains of you is verses.

 

In my recent dreams, I kiss you.

When I read your poems, I miss you.

And in these, how bright you shine—

In your poetry, you’re mine.

Her Political Body

Excerpt from Her Political Body Published in The Rachham Review (1989)

A woman is in a bar, coming out of what is still called a ladies’ room. She is wearing sneakers, a white blouse, and a tweed skirt. There was a cartoon in the stall. The cartoon showed a pants-suit looking at a closet full of naked women on hangers. The woman finds herself wishing she had been born in Canada. She imagines her mother laboring on a narrow bed. The bed springs creak and the howling outside comes from wind and wolves. The woman sits at the bar. Under the glossy but scarred wooden counter, she parts her knees. She has what men call good legs, meaning when she parts her knees, her upper thighs go with them. The bartender asks what she wants to drink. She doesn’t know. The usual? he asks, winking. She nods, though she’s certain she’s never been here before. She begins to speculate on the bartender’s private life. She wonders what falling in love would be like after all this time: she imagines water pouring through a dam. She would like to imagine herself and a group of her friends kidnapping the bartender, just for fun, but first she would have to imagine a group of friends, and this would take more time than she has. The woman wonders what her fingers will be doing in an hour’s time. She shifts on her barstool, unsticking her good legs from the red vinyl. She waits for the future to occur to her.

“An Emperor in Sheep’s Clothing” from Crystals of the Unforeseen

Excerpt from “An Emperor in Sheep’s Clothing” Published in Crystals of the Unforeseen published by Plain View Press (1999). 


GRAVEYARD FLOWERS

I
My Location

            By the time Milo came home that evening, I was located somewhere between second and third base in the erotic ballpark. When I told him that his wife had been to see me, my little boat of eroticism foundered in the turgid wash of his male determination not to understand or be understood.

He asked me if I was angry with him.

I said I didn’t see why I should be.

Then he began a long and tortured speech, half confession, half accusation, about how humiliating it must have been to discover that my “longtime and almost live-in lover” was not only unfaithful but married, how “betrayed” I must have felt to have his wife show up on my doorstep, “reeking of her origins.”

I felt myself getting really furious.

“Ah ha!” His satisfaction was, as always, transparent. “You are angry,” he said. “All the angrier because you’re pretending not to be.” He was trying to confuse me, which so enraged me I couldn’t figure out why he was trying to confuse me, which enraged me even more. Luckily, Milo was too intent on himself to notice much of me.

“What am I going to do?” he groaned at one point, throwing himself backward onto our water bed

“What do you mean?” I asked, seeing the question as a big red thumb in a bouquet of graveyard flowers.

“What do you mean, what do I mean? I can’t just keep on going as I was before!”

“I don’t see why not,” I objected. I stood by the night stand while Milo thrashed about on the bed, working himself up.

“I have to choose,” he said, hand over his eyes. “I have to act! To seize the bull by its horn!”

I began to be nervous.

II
William the Conqueror

There was silence for a moment, broken only by the moribund gurgling of the bed. “It took a great deal for her coming here today,” he said finally. There was unmistakable admiration in his voice.

“Gee,” I said, trying to balance on the barbed wire fence between sarcasm and sincerity. “You never talk that nice about me.”

He snorted. A pure thick barnyard sound that reminded me of his comment about her, that she smelled of her origins. There was something in all this very foreign to me. My Nantucket, white bread, mentioned-in-Moby-Dick family goes back to William the Conqueror. We’ve always smelled like conquerors of something.

“You’ve had it easy with me,” he said. “you didn’t even have to move. You just had to lie here on this heated waterbed of yours and wait for me to come.” Usually he laughs at his own jokes, but not this time. Even he knew it was too late for jokes. “Be honest,” he said finally. “You’ve had other lovers since me, right?” We both knew I didn’t have to answer. My fidelity was not the issue. But I wanted to answer for that very reason. I wanted something of me to be the issue. Better guilty than unimportant.

“Yes,” I said, moving past the foot of the bed to stand at the long mirror, smooth my hair, and look back at his watercolory reflection. He was pulling off his shirt, struggling out of his pants. “But they all have a lot more sense than to show up here and cause a scene.” My words astonished me. I had liked her, hadn’t I? I had admired her. And now I was using her to get him off the hook. (Whose hook it was, or how it had gotten there, I had no idea.)

III

Of Sperm and Bitter Grapes

            I turned back to him. Lying naked on his back now on the still-heaving waterbed, he wasn’t all that much to look at. Still, he did know how to use what he had to terrible advantage.

“That’s the thing of it,” he said, avoiding my eyes. “She loves me as you can’t—Love is something you and I have the great good sense to steer clear of.”

The remark was so typical of him, I got confused and angry all over again. He was so PushMePullYouish, first criticizing me for my failure to love him, then allying himself to me in that failure, making it part of the bond between us.

“You’re wrong,” I told him. “I could love you perfectly well if you were different.”

I thought of something I should have thought of from the beginning. “I don’t suppose you have children stashed somewhere?”

“No,” he said. ‘She wanted them, of course. I didn’t.”

“Because of the stillborn baby?”

“There was no stillborn baby,” Milo said. “Despite what the critics say, I occasionally manage to break out of my autobiographical confines.” He shrugged. “We went to a doctor a long time ago. I didn’t see the report but Zdena said there was something wrong with my sperm. Could have been bitter grapes”—he smiled his press conference smile— “but I don’t think so.”

“Well,” I said. “If it wasn’t bitter grapes, I guess it’s safe for me to go off the pill, then.”

“Yes,” he said. “Yes, of course, as far as I’m concerned.”

 

IV
He Calls Me a Pervert

            We still managed to get ourselves into another argument. But it was one of our old, familiar arguments. When I saw he was getting the better of me, I shed my clothes and slid into bed.

“You don’t play fair,” he said.

“No,” I agreed. “I’m built like that.”

He put his hands on my breasts.

“Your hands are cold,” I said, as always.

“It’s my warm heart,” he answered on cue. “Do you mind?”

He slid his hands between my thighs. “How would you like it tonight, my gutter flutterby?”

“I want it to be quick,” I whispered. “As though it were nothing special. As though it were always the same.”

“What a little pervert you are,” he said.

I had to agree he was right.

 

Front Towards Enemy

Published in The Michigan Quarterly Review

(for Jeff)

…the fuck?
Guard, Martin. Ten minutes.
Huh? Oh, yeah. Thanks, Louis. He gripped the sides of his hammock and swung himself to the earth floor of the bunker…. I’m awake.
We’re on LP 3 tonight.
Right… He knew it was Louie’s responsibility, went with the territory, as they said, but it annoyed him, being reminded, prodded along like that, particularly by such a lilting, sing-song, little girl voice. It had been better before Louie’s promotion… Well, in some ways it had been better. Once, getting ready to leave the camp, the Montagnard had told him to make sure Moon Eater didn’t swallow the team while he was gone.
Moon Eater was the dragon superstition of the Vietnamese, never to be confused with Montagnards. Moon Eater could be frightened away only by consecrated firecrackers. Also, to cross water three times in one night meant contracting a repulsive and fatal disease.
If you could read my mind, love, he thought sardonically, addressing himself to the small, doe-eyed Montagnard, you would know why my voice last night sounded so apologetic.
Anything out there?
No. Only other carriers of capitalism.
Good.
His dream hung for a moment behind his eyes. A kind of film. He rubbed, and both the dream and Louie went away, as if by prearranged agreement. He yawned hugely, shook hiiself, and took the pair of dappled dark green and black tiger pants off one of the two hooks on the wall next to his hammock.
The dream had been about Sally. She had been pushing his mother, who sat stiffly in a gun-metal wheelchair. In that one image, he remembered more than he would have wanted. Usually, he came into this world, this twilight jungle zone, bringing nothing with him. A dead man resurrected.
He pulled the tiger pants on over his slim, hairless legs. Once, there had been a black and white movie in which somebody—Clark Gable?—gave his girlfriend a lecture about the different ways men got dressed.
Then came a black sleeveless t-shirt and another shirt of the same material as the pants. He pulled on white socks before sliding his feet into the canvas jungle boots, boots made heavy by the thin plates of steel in the soles. They were supposed to protect your feet against punji sticks.
He tugged a battered patrol cap on his head, buckled on a web belt and checked the equipment that hung from it—canteen, bayonet, flashlight, first-aid pouch and a length of blackened bicycle chain. Adjusting the belt around his hips, he took his M-16 off the other hook and walked down the row of hammocks… Lilies of the valley deck my garden walk/ Oh, don’t you wish that you could hear them ring? That will only happen when the fairies sing… Of all the mothers he knew or had heard about, she was the only one who had wanted girls and gotten boys.
Louie was waiting at the other side of the room. He handed Martin two small tins of gritty camouflage paste.
What’s the matter, Louie? Your hands too tired this morning?
Louie shrugged without looking up. You have been around long enough now to do your own, he said in his overly-precise, uncontracted English. Do a good job, though. It is bright out there.
Graduation, huh? But Louie wouldn’t look up, wouldn’t smile.
Martin took the tins and dipped two fingers in the larger of the two. He rubbed the dark green paste over his cheeks and neck. The second tin held burnt cork; he smeared that over his cheekbones and ears, avoiding any sort of regular pattern. Finished, he handed the tins back to Louis and submitted to his inspection.
You are learning, Louie said.
The voice was as neutral as water, the face as impassive as stone.
You’re being particularly inscrutable this morning, Louie, my man.
Perhaps. Louie’s expression was what a novel might have described as the ghost of a smile. –Perhaps… But until we are out there, everything must be the same or even more so. You are agreed?
Martin nodded. To the core, he thought. Aloud, he said, I am agreed.
His high school English teacher had said he was wet behind the ears. For him, as perhaps for the other boys who dreamed their way into what was called adulthood by staring out that second-floor window, she seemed to have been his only English teacher. He remembered her vividly, Miss What’s-Her-Face, remembered her under that name, remembered even how in some childhood book, “under the name” had been explained as meaning having a sign with your name on it poised over your bed. Or was it door?
He remembered her as Miss What’s-Her-Face because he had never, somehow, been possessed of an awareness of her as a face, as a person with, for example, eyes, kindly, stern, with glasses, otherwise. At first, she had only been a voice—a kind, bodiless voice, a voice that had set him to furious scribblings, bad poems about the wind in the pine trees. And then, much later, she had become all body, only body—a long, express-train faceless force of a body, a body that threw him off balance just by the power of its rushing by.
He and Louie pulled on their dark green gloves, then walked around the bunker and down a short slope to the first ring of accordion wire. The tall spirals of barbs were dark in the moonlight. Hung with tin cans, strips of wire, anything to make noise, as well as grenades, trip wires, and an occasional Claymore fastening. In his mother’s magazines, December people trapped in far-off places had used cranberries or hair ribbons to decorate their valiant Christmas trees.
Louie wrapped a soft cloth around Martin’s left hand and another around his own. he reached out delicately, pulling at a strand. Then, holding the wire, he walked slowly backward. An opening about three feet wide and two feet high appeared. Martin slung his weapon across his back and eased himself down, under the wire, keeping his arms tight against his sides and pushing himself forward with the minimum of side-to-side motion.
It wasn’t true that Montagnards never cracked, though. Last night, after all Partin’s teasing about his being “inscrutable,” Louis had finally said something other than “Perhaps.” Right before leaving the bar, he had turned and said, “It is my opinion that I can be most scrutable at times.”
Martin approached the kill zone with the sharpened consciousness he had come to expect. It seemed to him that he understood war better than he had ever understood anything before. School, for example, its patterns and its purposes. The first-grade teacher had told him to raise his hand when he wanted to go, and he had said How is that going to help?
When, as always, he turned to look, Louie, as always, had disappeared.
The tangle of wire had been anchored three feet down. It arched over and curved underneath him. He could feel strands winding through the hard soil. They pressed upward against the cotton-padded gloves that were supposed to protect your hands. Wire to the left of him, wire to the right of him—
He edged forward by pushing with his hands and feet against the dirt. He could feel his shoes digging in—CPC’s. canvas personnel carriers, the Special Forces called them. All SF jokes were private.
He passed a pair of ranked Claymores, curved, ledger-sized mines facing outward. He looked sideway at the Claymores as he went by, turning just a fraction to do so and remembering what Louie had told him, centuries ago: It is always advisable around here to watch where one is going. Do not look to the sides and never, never look back unless you are stationary.
FRONT TOWARDS ENEMY, the Claymores advised him… Steel and glass flechettes over a hundred yard area, one in every two square inches, each with the force of a high-powered rifle bullet.
Miss What’s-Her-Face had given them exercises in writing self-descriptions. You can learn something from everything, even if it’s nothing, his had begun. Even then, he had geared the most random of his jottings to future biographers, as if to say—There, you small-mouthed, small-minded, tinsel-balled bastards—Take that and that and that—
He rose to a low crouch at the inside rim of the kill zone. Resting on one knee, he looked over his shoulder. Louie reappeared right on schedule and lifted his arm. Martin ducked his head, looking for the guideposts that were supposed to lead you intact through the minefield. The dark red arrow at his feet pointed ahead and to his right. Still bent, he set off across the sandy ground. The second guide was thirty feet from the first, another arrow indicating a ninety-degree change of course. He did not stop moving. Another of Louie’s lessons. The second arrow led him to a small, round depression in the earth where he stopped again. He was almost in the shadow of the second ring now.
His college girlfriend had been a philosophy major who said marriage was better seen through a telescope than a microscope. Louie had said it was better to think than to feel. Best was just to react.
Squatting, he sighted to his left and picked out the head-shaped banyan tree. He sighted to his right and identified “the hooker,” a large white rock standing in the center of a cluster of strangle bushes. Keeping his bearings both ways, he moved at a fast, bent-over hustle into the shelter of the perimeter wire. There, he bent over even more and moved his head from side to side without changing the placement of his feet. The mines were planted thickest here, where the shadow of the wire could hide anyone coming through from the other side.
The civilian could always be identified by his greedy demand for the truth, the truth about the war, the country they had never been to, the club to which they had never been invited. Fixing you with their bloodless, bayonet eyes, they asked their questions and the points of those questions seemed to have been dipped in church tea as in curare…
Louie liked expensive French wine. He knew vintages like some Americans knew batting averages. When he got drunk, you couldn’t really tell any difference—he just got a little harder to figure. And sometimes, like last night, he would not only let you tease him, he would tease back.
Martin located two strips of tan cloth hanging from the wire, lowered himself againa dn very slowly slid forward.
They were blundering through the toy lands of these miniature saffron people like prehistoric water buffalo: they must expect, being Americans, to be punished, to die dramatically. But the dying, the getting killed he had seen was like getting caught with your pants down pissing in your mother’s flowerbed. Messier, was all.
The clearance here was less than eight inches. He held the M-16 in the crook of his arm, under his body, kept the other arm extended in front of him. “This is my weapon. This is my gun. This is for killing. This is for fun.” The Army’s idea of poetry.
He moved with gentle pushes of his feet, transmitted along the length of his body with a rippling motion. Even with a full moon, it was pitch black under the wire.
Last night, when some jerk had accused Louie of not believing in anything, he had looked at Martin before answering. “I believe in the most important thing,” he had said, as if talking solely for Martin’s benefit. “I believe in my own power to survive. What else matters?”
A bitter metallic smell gave an edge to the air. He could smell dust, his own cold sweat, the faint odor of long-decaying flesh. He guided himself by delicate feelings of his leading hand, left and right from one wall of the tunnel through the wire to the other.
He and Denise had never done more than what the books called light petting. She would have said it never became an issue between them. How was it with Louie and women, he wondered. Maybe there were no Montagnard women left. Montagnards were dangerously pretty by any standard: maybe the women had all been sucked up by the Saigon whorehouses.
At last, he saw a dim, milky blue glow ahead, filtering faintly down to him. he slowed, moving forward an inch at a time, with a three-second pause between each movement. Then, abruptly, his outstretched hand met sharp-edged wire—wire on every side, cutting him off.
In the dream, he and Sally had been in the snackbar. The room was full of trees that had anti-war posters instead of leaves. She was wearing a white dress which he knew had nothing to do with her wanting to be a nurse, but then she was pushing his mother in a wheelchair and they seemed to be coming at him down a slight incline, a kind of metal ramp or runway which was also a jungle path. His mother was making a kind of disapproving, clacking noise which at first he thought was coming from a sub-machine gun. But, no, she was just trying out for the part of Mother Goose in the school play and since he was her crooked son, it all fit, it locked into place like a metal bolt in a metal chamber. Sally wagged her hips engagingly, then cracked her gum at him with an I’m-forever-blowing-bubbles smile. The sound startled him but he aimed carefully, remembering how he had once thought medics wouldn’t have to use, perhaps wouldn’t have to carry weapons at all, only to discover they were given the best arsenal of all.
He continued moving the truck of his body until his face was touching his hand, an inch from the nearest barb. Squinting through the strands, he saw a small ditch. It was less than five feet ahead. He lay without moving until he had scrutinized every inch of it and assured himself that it was empty. Then he extended both gloved hands, placed them on the wire and pushed.
He aimed directly beneath the antique brooch that had been his father’s present to her on their twentieth anniversary and was not surprised to find that his weapon was made of cut-glass and shaped like a perfume atomizer. Lowering his mask, he sprayed the air with the gas they’d nicknamed Tanglefoot. His mother got up out of the wheelchair, shed the shawl he’d never liked, and wandered absentmindedly away into the jungle without so much as a backward glance at the tigers with enormous moon-eyes that followed her. The wheelchair lay upside down, wheels spinning. Slowly, the section of wire in front of him, a chunk about five feet long and two feet around, slid forward and rolled down into the slope and into the gully.
Watching his mother toddle away, Sally smiled a wider smile. She took a few little mincing steps toward him—they made her seem invincible. She was dressed in a short white cheerleader’s tunic: in one hand, she waved a baton; in the other, she held a bouquet of sweetheart roses. On her head was the homecoming crown. This time they’ve done it, he thought, but arraying all his weapons on the slight rise in front of him in a kind of musical keyboard, he found fingers enough to press all the triggers simultaneously.
He waited another ten seconds in the opening, bringing the M-16 into his hands. With his thumb, he pushed the selector to SEMI. Taking a deep breath, he slid himself forward into the gully, using the roll of wire for concealment. He came to his feet with the rifle at his shoulder and swung his upper body around in a semicircle scanning the ground, with the muzzle of the weapon following his eyes. Then he put the weapon on SAFE and slung it. Working quickly, he lifted the roll of wire and shoved it back into the opening in the vast accordion behind him. Every man for himself, and that included Montagnards, no matter how pretty.
At first he thought he had missed. Sally continued to smile as convincingly as before. But something unpleasant was stirring under the creamy white smells of toothpaste and deodorant. She smiled and smiled as though she were once again standing at the head of the class, in front of the teacher’s tank-like desk, as though she and she alone knew the answer.
He unslung the rifle, put it back on SEMI and set off, following the gully to his right along the tiger path toward the river. He proceeded through a route of gullies and depressions in the earth across the plain, until the firebase was finally lost to sight behind the tall elephant grass. He stayed bent with the M-16 at his hip, the muzzle elevated slightly but always pointing ahead. After about five minutes of cautious progress, he came to a gully that seemed straighter and more even-sided than the others. It was about forty feet long, the length of a long room, and seemed to end abruptly in an unusually thick clump of strangle bushes. He stopped in front of this and called softly.
But a small, very delicate floweret of blood had expressed itself in the center of the petalled white skirt of her tunic and it blossomed slowly into a cloud, into an avalanche—an orgasm, an education of blood.
Hey, Jim.
No answer.
Hey, Lulu.
The answer was little more than a whisper. Yeah…. It seemed to come from the center of the bush.
One comin’ in. Hold back.
You got a handle?
Lobo Two.
Come in nice and slow, Lobo.
He moved forward with exquisite slowness, weapon pointed almost straight up. As he approached the bush, a section of it was slid back. He ducked through, into a small semicircular concavity about the size of a restaurant booth. There were two men inside, the Thai named Chittatouk looking delicate and feminine next to the burly, red-bearded Harris. The bush formed a roof overhead but the surrounding plain was clearly visible through the vines. The walls of the listening post were shored up with sandbags. They held racks of flares and grenades and a PRC-25 radio, switched off.
She had failed and she knew it. Nonetheless, or perhaps because of this, she held up a small white pennant of paper and read aloud in that woozy, sexy, always breathless voice, “For my poem, I have chosen to read ‘Tigers Have Eaten the Moon.’” That was all she found time to say before she was drowned in a babble of laughter, the laughter of children, which only a civilian would have confused with the laughter of idiots.
Martin nodded to the two and set his weapon against the wall. Anything going on, Harris?
Harris shook his head. Too damn bright. Everybody’s staying home tonight. He had a loud, gravelly voice. It was a testament to his reflexes that he’d survived this long with a voice like that. A Texas voice, too, from deep in the heart of wherever.
Fine with me, Martin said.
Harris and the Thai waited until Louie appeared, then slid out through the bush, weapons at the ready.
Martin picked up his M-16. set the selector on SEMI and laid the weapon across his knees. With his left hand, he adjusted the sandbags behind him. He waited until Louis had similarly settled down; then, still looking straight ahead out onto the moon-swept clearing with its scattering of strange, fragile trees—he extended his right hand slowly up and out from his side until it found the back of Louie’s neck.
Feeling as though he were a dog with a wild bird, he put his thumb on the near pressure point and the tip of his index finger on the far one… He stroked the hair on the nape of the Montagnard’s slender neck for a moment, marveling once again at the sleek smoothness it managed to preserve even in its close-cropped state, like the neck of an otter or some other small, water animal… The breathless moonlight night increased the feeling of being in an underwater burrow, sharing the warmth, the supportive darkness of the lair.
Still looking straight ahead, he said softly. “Louie, last night, I—“
“Shh.” The Montagnard’s voice was like tissue paper. Like silk.
“There are two times when it is better not to speak,” he said. “Two times. And now is both of them.”

Becoming Rumania (Godot is Waiting)

Letter of Intent: Lorgean Theatre Residency

There is a Czech travel story that goes like this: a man was once traveling back to Prague and his plane had a stopover in Buenos Aires. The man found himself with a few hours to spend in the small hours of the morning (1-4), so he hired a taxi and
drove through the city for an hour to see what he could see. At one point, he looked
up (at 3 a.m., let’s say) and saw a man standing on a balcony in his pajamas, playing a violin. When the traveler arrived back in Prague, he wrote a newspaper column about his travels and began, “In Buenos Aires, it is a national custom for men to get up in the middle of the night, go out onto their balconies in the small hours of the morning, and play the violin.”

This story was an important motivation for this performance proposal, as was my friend’s comment (forwarding the online notice) “this project has you written allll over it.” The third motivation was my repeated reading of the Griffin and Sabine books years ago.

My intent is to take advantage of this opportunity to become my shadow self, a shadow self I take to be a man who lives in Rumania, on the other side of the world and the other side of the gender (and possible age) gap. I am going to assume that this man, about whom I know nothing, and whose life and character I will not study or research until I arrive in Rumania, in fact represents Rumania as a whole.

The fictional springboard I have is that I have a long-lost relative (a sixth cousin, perhaps) wrote and invited me to come and visit him in Bucharest. He says he would like me to know about him, so we can explore our trans-national connection. He is interested, he says, in building a personal bridge between our two countries. As a translator and around-the-world traveler, I am very interested in exploring this idea. But when I arrive in Rumania, he is not there to greet me. I receive a key and some money that he has left for me, and perhaps a letter or a map or a riddle and instructions from him not to ask anyone direct questions about him, because it will “raise suspicion.”

As an actor as well as a playwright/poet/fiction writer/translator/traveler, and a natural empath, I am very interested in other people’s worlds and mindsets.

My intent therefore is to write a series of short performance pieces to be performed in the space, based on my developing picture of my European male shadow shelf. These may be dialogues, monologues, mime, performance poetry, music, art.

I will complete the equation my private self= his public self= Rumania. In so doing, I will make it possible for theatre goers to view my performance piece and make the equation “This performance = the American who was here” or even “This performance is America.”

My intention is to become Rumania.

The Performance Piece

I will be open to what information I can glean from friends and neighbors and, above all, from the apartment itself. I will not ask directly about him unless he directs me (indirectly) to do so, but will stay keenly aware of, alert to, things people say about this man unprovoked.

My main source of information will be his apartment. (I am also respectful of boundaries, so if there is anything marked “hands off” in the apartment, or if verbal instructions await me, I will respect those directions.)

Many (perhaps all) of the books in the apartment will be in Rumanian, and I do not read or speak or understand Rumanian, so I will be looking especially at English-language materials (anything I touch to be put back in its original place) and non-verbal clues– What sort of cooking utensils does this person use? What sort of towels? What kind of a man has a make believe theater in his real apartment, when I have a make believe apartment in a real theater (a set). What images are on his walls?

Perhaps the man, my shadow self, will have left clues or puzzles for me, or even a kind of treasure hunt. Perhaps he will leave non-verbal clues. Will I recognize them as such, though?

The performance piece (to be presented in the theatre) will use real objects in the apartment and real people (who come to see the performance of which they are part) and be a mixed-genre, mixed media event- sort of the mirror image to Waiting for Godot, hence called Godot is Waiting.

It will have built in the possibility for the shadow self, when he returns, to respond with a performative evaluation of the woman who lived in his apartment, based on her performance piece and whatever clues, riddles, maps, drawings, she leaves behind.

I believe my friend was right– I think this opportunity does have me written allll over it.

LOL (lots of lotuses)
Lyn

 

A Ghost from the Future

Published in Departed Family and Friends by Atraid Press (2005)
I was a hospice social worker, and Dorothea was one of my long-term patients. Dorothea was in her eighties, and dying of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. During one of our last interviews, Dorothea told me that she had always wanted to see a psychic, and regretted never having done. I pointed out that it wasn’t too late, and asked if she would like me to get her the name of a respected psychic in the area. She said she would, and I called her that evening with the name and phone number. When I next saw Dorothea, two weeks later, she told me how grateful she was to me for the contact. She had been to the psychic, and felt the psychic was “right on the money.” She asked if I would like to hear the tape the psychic had made of their interview together. I said yes. Proudly, Dorothea put on the tape and we sat there in her kitchen, listening. On the tape, the psychic said what I would have said about Dorothea, put into “psychic” instead of “social work” terms. She said Dorothea had lived a long life and had her emotional affairs in good order. She spoke about Dorothea’s good relationship with her living family (her daughter) and her deceased family– father, mother, and older brother. She said Dorothea had really “no unfinished business.” As I listened to the psychic, I at first heard nothing with which I could not wholeheartedly agree. Dorothea had been in hospice therapy with me for a number of months and she did seem to have her emotional house in order. She had talked to me about her somewhat distant mother, her reconciliation with her older brother, the many happy times she had spent with her father. Whatever small traumas she had suffered in her childhood seemed to be resolved and safely in the past. But as the psychic kept talking, the hairs on the back of my neck began to rise, and I suddenly saw a ghost. I don’t know how else to call her. This was not the sheeted and “whoo whoo” ghost of Halloween stories. This was the ghost of a little girl. Not only did I see a ghost, but I also saw her surroundings. I seemed to have been transported in time and place. I was floating above the second landing of a stairwell carpeted in green. There was a window to my left, through which streamed the early morning sun. Outside was a large Douglas fir. I could count the steps leading up to the landing. The “ghost” just ahead of and a few feet below me was the ghost of a little girl of about five, facing up the final short flight of stairs. I couldn’t see her face, but I saw her short and puff-sleeved red dress, and the scuffs on the back of her black patent leather shoes. I saw her wheat-blonde, shoulder-length hair. I saw her pale, thin arms, held slightly out from her sides; I saw her small, tightly-clenched fists. Even seen from the back, I knew this ghost child was both terrified and furious. She was staring up at the second floor landing. She wasn’t making a sound (I was aware of small birds chattering in the fir tree) but I could “hear” her soundless tears. I knew she was furious at someone in her family. A male. Her father or her brother. Her father. I knew something terrible had just happened. And then I knew what it was. A shot had just gone off. I heard it backward. I knew now this little ghost of a girl knew, that her father, her doomed, beloved father, had just shot and killed himself. Her father had been the love at the heart of her life, and now he was gone. As if sensing my presence, the girl turned around, and a small Dorothea looked up at me, her face wet with tears. For a second, she seemed to see me. I tried to “send her” my love.The connection faded almost immediately, but not before I realized: I was the one from another time period; I was the one floating above the floor; I was the ghost. The realization returned me suddenly to my “normal” present: I was back in the kitchen. Dorothea asked me for my reaction. Didn’t I think what the psychic had said was 100% on the money? But I knew now, somehow, that what the psychic had said was wrong in some fundamental way: I knew that both the psychic and I had missed a key fact of Dorothea’s childhood and the state of her soul: there was much work yet to be done, and not much time. But Dorothea had shared so many “happy” memories with me, most of them of her father. Was what she had told me a lie? Was what I had seen a lie?
I didn’t want to upset Dorothea, but I had never “fibbed” to her before, and this didn’t seem like the time to start. When she asked me a second time whether I agreed with the psychic, I said no: I told her what I had seen, all of it- her as a terrified and angry little girl on the stairway, and me floating above her, a ghost from the future. Dorothea turned completely pale, and called to her daughter in a panicky voice, “Helen! Helen! Come here!” When Helen ran in from the living room, Dorothea told me, commanded me, really- “Tell her what you saw.” Obediently, I described the stairway scene. Now it was Helen’s turn to become pale. When I’d finished, Dorothea asked Helen, “Should I tell her?” “You might as well,” Helen said. “She already seems to know.”
Dorothea told me that the man she had described so lovingly as her father was really her stepfather. Her biological father had shot himself to death when she was five. Her first memory was of being on the green carpeted stairs and hearing the shot- knowing instinctively, intuitively, what he had done- feeling a great sense of anger, and a greater sense of loss. Dorothea and I set to our therapeutic work, processing her unresolved feelings about her beloved father’s suicide. She died peacefully about three weeks later. Now, when I hear people talking about the ghosts they’ve seen, I want to say, “Sometimes ghosts can be from the future, not the past- I know, because I was one.”

Valentine to Georgia

TRANSLATOR’S NOTE

It was my pleasure and privilege to live in Georgia for three months in the spring of 2011. It was my first trip there: I was a “stranger in a strange land.” I could not figure out why I felt so at home until I took my first excursion out of Tbilisi.
After an hour or two of driving, the tour bus stopped in a small town and many of us got out to stretch our legs. I was standing there, taking in the scene, when a woman approached and asked in Georgian if I spoke Georgian and if I did, would I tell her who I was.
I responded (in halting Georgian) that I was a poet from the United States. I might have said more but at that point the woman, smiling broadly, grabbed my sleeve and pulled me a few doorways down and into what she said was “a sort of hardware store,” a room full of boxes and shelves containing a welter of mostly metal parts and gadgets.
The woman began rummaging, searching through her wares until she finally uncovered an account book, half-filled with lists of items and prices. This she turned to a new page. She rummaged some more and came up with a pen which she tested to make sure it still wrote. (Yes.)
She cleared some space on the main table, spread out the account book and handed me the pen. Then she explained in clear and careful Georgian that this was the only book she had in her shop at the moment so would I please sign it for her.
I was momentarily confused. Was she asking me to sign for a purchase? The woman apparently understood why I hesitated, because she laughed and said she had never before had a real poet in her hardware store. She wanted my autograph.
Georgians know and love poetry, their own and others’. They see poetry as a universal language and welcome all who write it.
The Georgian love of poetry really made me feel at home. And their world-famous generosity. And their great ability to have fun.

The Second Page

Original story published in The Catholic Digest; June, 1968 (under Miksovsky); performed (produced, with accompanying dance by Julia Goldsmith) at Guild House and Washtenaw Community College, March/April 1998.

The plane began its take-off, and I slumped in my seat, feeling miserable. I had gone to Hollywood on a quest for autographs, but all I had to show for my vacation was an empty autograph book. My parents and older sisters would be waiting at the airport to hear about the movie stars I had seen in Hollywood. I could hear myself now: “Well, I did see a dog that looked just like Lassie.”
I rummaged in my pockets for food and came up with two lifesavers. Lunch wouldn’t be served for two hours, and I was ravenous. I was suddenly aware of a little girl. She was standing beside me, staring at the lifesavers. I started to say something cross, but thought better of it. Feeling miserable was no excuse to be nasty.
I slid over and motioned to her. She sat down, never taking her eyes off the lifesavers, and identified herself as Emma. “Are you hungry?” I asked. She nodded. “Didn’t you have lunch?” She nodded again. “Milk and a sandwich.” “No dessert?” I persisted. She pointed her stubby finger at the lifesavers. “I lost mine,” she said. What could I do? I gave her the lifesavers.
After little Emma ate them, she showed interest in my autograph book, so I let her scribble on the first page. Why not?
In about fifteen minutes, Emma’s mother came to get her. “I hope my daughter hasn’t been a bother,” she said. I managed to smile and point to Emma’s scribbles: her mother understood. On the second page of my autograph book is the following inscription: “Thank you for taking care of my daughter. Best Wishes. Julie Andrews.”

*I wrote and published this story in 1968, 13 years after the events took place. Those events forty-two years ago happened pretty much as I described them. Except the child on the plane was not a girl named Emma, but a little boy whose name I never knew. And I changed the name of the movie star to Julie Andrews when I submitted the piece– because I’d been told the Catholic Digest would never print a favorable story about my real benefactress.

Part Two: After the plane landed that evening in 1955, the police made all the regular people get off. My family was waiting. They wanted to leave, but agreed to stay when they saw the red carpet being unrolled, and all the photographers and reporters clustering around. The movie star’s family must already have been whisked off somewhere, because when she finally emerged, she was alone, looking fabulously glamorous. She posed a moment, then proceeded down the airplane stairs and along the carpet between the waiting throngs of cordoned-off admirers. When she came abreast of me and my family, she stopped, turned, and shook hands with me. “Thank you, Lyn,” she said. “Thank you for all your help.” I stammered something in response, and she swept on. The most famous movie star in the world had acknowledged me, thanked me, and called me by my name-in public, for the world to hear. Thank you, Elizabeth Taylor.

Original story published in The Catholic Digest; June, 1968; performed (produced, with accompanying dance by Julia Goldsmith) at Guild House and Washtenaw Community College, March/April 1998.