I remember, still a child, thinking that the line of clouds on the horizon was more than a line of clouds – but the text of some dead language I could almost discern. It has always been my way to see more than what is, and as I imagine it is with most people, I make even more of my memories than what they are. For example:
It is spring. It is 2001. I have just left a class and I am walking across my college campus. I am cutting through a parking lot. I am thinking about Spring and All [By the road to the contagious hospital] because it is Spring. I am full of magnolia. I am full of poetry. I round a car and see two figures framed under a street light. A man standing and a woman kneeling. It is the cover of a book, my book, every book. I head straight toward them, and like all good characters in all good plays, they don’t move.
As I near, I notice that the woman is in shock, staring at the ground. The man stands over her, hands on his hips. He is concerned, unable to help. Walking past, I see that there is a pile of toothpicks on the ground – some class project – months – the world. She is staring like a grieving person stares in the mirror. I slow down and pass.
The second I saw it I knew it would haunt me. I knew it would become one of those memories that are more like singularities – pulling all surrounding emotions and thoughts into their long and silent lives. Take this short poem by Aleksandr Blok:
Night, street, lamp, drugstore,
A dull and meaningless light.
Go and live another quarter century –
Nothing will change. There’s no way out.
You’ll die, then start once again from the beginning,
It will repeat, just like before:
Night, icy ripples on a canal,
Drugstore, street, lamp.
The woman can only drop the matchstick bridge. Nothing can save her. And it will happen again and again. It is happening now. And because it is happening now, poems begin. They begin and they end and they begin again, doing their best to both contain and fight the silence.
I don’t remember how much of this memory is true. But does it matter?
St. Augustine, before confessing anything else, confesses that he does not know what he was before he was. Nabokov, in Speak, Memory, describes how haunted he is by pictures of his house just before he was born: his cradle, his stroller, all empty and in place – lacking only him.
I am about to become a father. By the time anyone reads this, it will have happened. I walk around my empty house and touch those empty things – the cradle, the stroller, the unimaginably small clothing, and I think about the woman with the matchstick bridge. I don’t want to, I just do. I think of her sadness – her horror as it drops from her hands and the world slows. It would be so easy to stop it from happening. Here, let me carry that for you, I’d say, and all her work would get a good grade and, and what? Would the world be any less arbitrary and cruel? Would it make me any less scared to bring another human into the world?
I run to the bookshelf, as I so often do when I don’t want to answer my own questions, and randomly find T.S. Eliot answering my question:
Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it.
And I wonder if I am thinking about the woman with the matchstick bridge because I still haven’t found a way to say her in Eliot’s sense of the word, and that if I could, I could protect my daughter from losing whatever she assembles in her life. If only I could say it in time.
Elias Canetti writes that “The temptation to create grief is virtually impossible to resist – as long it remains in one’s power to remove it once again.” Isn’t that what I am doing when I create something that isn’t only to long for its absence? And in doing so attempt to repair or ready myself for the inevitable grief to come? So many poems exist to do just this – invent, long for, ready, repeat.
I have grieved for real enough to know that it works: that there are poems that can equal, and offset, the mass of my grief. I can recite, ‘Night, street, lamp, drugstore’ without despair. But there is a new kind of speechlessness coming to me now, and I am unfamiliar with its landscapes. Fatherhood. What is that?
Where will the woman with the matchstick bridge fit? I have put her in long empty hallways, frozen seas, dugouts. Will she be at the hospital? Will she be there at 3 a.m. in the dim lamplight of the screaming infant? Or is it possible that I am now putting her away? That now that she is written she will function only in this space – locked in a mirror like the bad guys at the beginning of Superman?
I don’t know. I am such a sucker for elegy. I don’t know. It’s doubtful. But I want to raise my glass to her and the other old tropes as they breathe their old crackly breaths, and to the crows out the window, three of them, and to the little girl who is soon to be breathing our air – may they all find their ends and never, never ever, stand for anything more than what they are.
I know it is an exaggerated, impossible wish, but if it wasn’t, would it be true?
Dan Chelotti’s recent poems have appeared, or will be appearing in Fence, notnostrums, North American Review, Bateau, Gulf Coast, Handsome, Court Green, and other fine journals. He was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and is the author of two chapbooks, The Eights (PSA 2006) and Day Later (False Indigo Press 2011). His prose can be found in Slack Lust and Kenyon Review Online. He teaches writing at Elms College.