Tether–Jenny Boully

I didn’t realize until later, after the lights were out and the sheets were tucked around her, that when my daughter asked that I hold on that I hold on tight to the balloons that what she really wanted was for the party to not end and she thought that if we held on to the balloons that the party would not end and she needed my help in this one sure party-saving act and that is why she had what we call a meltdown: her mother failed to help her in this one act that was sure to keep us here at the party forever.

She had asked me, previous to the balloon-time-stopping attempt, to give her the moon. Can’t reach it, she said. I, too, could not reach it, knew I could not reach it, but showed her that I was trying that I would if I could.

And she has said the sentence as clear as a bell tonight: Mommy, let me have it.

And it was stunning: the message, the sentence, the want, the clarity of that.

We have given her the balloon at the top of the balloon tower; it is a giant shimmering silver star balloon that, after we had dismounted it, was discovered to be full of the buoyant helium. Hold it tight, I tell her, so that it doesn’t fly away so that it doesn’t go up and stay with the other stars that are too far away.

I try to placate her so that she will not cry the whole ride: someday Mommy will get you the moon.

I realize now that that is what I do when I hold her at night: I am trying to keep us here; I am trying to keep her from floating away and staying where I cannot reach her. And between the darkness and the bad dreams, it is the solely the hold that makes her trust the deep drowning of sleep.

Tour, Part II-Kevin Haworth

I am reading the streets of Tel Aviv for their genre affiliations.

There are streets named after rabbis and streets named after politicians.  Streets of royalty and streets of revolutionaries.  There’s Shalom Shabazi Street, named for a poet who wrote in three languages (Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic) and who dreamed of Israel from 17th century Yemen.  Just a quick walk away—look closely or you’ll miss it—is one small block named after George Eliot, who challenged both gender and genre and somehow wound up here, holding a convenience store and a shoe repair on her tiny lap.

There are relationships in the map grid, if you look closely enough.  Dizengoff, named after the mayor, runs parallel to, but does not intersect with, Ben-Yehuda, the linguist—except that if there were no Ben-Yehuda, all the street signs, including Dizengoff, would be in a different language.  Weizmann, the chemist-president, leads to David, the poet-king.  Ben-Gurion runs east-west, while his great political rival, Menachem Begin, runs north-south.  (They do not meet.)  One of the shortest streets of all is Ha-Nevei’im—the street of the prophets.  Genre-defying folks, for sure, though their stories all end the same way.

No matter how many times I’m here, the street signs are never just designations to me.  They bend and they open, revealing all their connections and contradictions.  My apartment looks out on Basel Street, the city in Switzerland, sure, but really marking an event and an idea—the first Zionist congress, held there in 1897.  One way or another, we’re all here in this city, Tel Aviv, because of Basel.  But my children don’t know that, nor, perhaps, do they need to, when they walk down Basel Street every morning for their daily pastry. 

What happens to street names when you encounter them every day?  How do they fade, shift in their purpose?  Israelis are as aware of history as anyone I’ve ever met, but it’s human nature to skew to habit and complacency.  Here, Ben-Gurion takes you to the beach, and Basel takes you to the bakery.

Ask one of my Israeli neighbors how to get from point A to point B, and you won’t get a history lecture, or a discussion of changing literary conventions.  (A long cab ride might be a different story.)  In fact, they’re likely to dispense with complicated instructions and street names altogether, especially when dealing with tourists. Instead, it’s just an energetic wave of the hand in the general direction of wherever it is you want to go.  You’ll probably also get, unsolicited, the standard Israeli advice for finding your way.  Yeshar, yeshar, yeshar—ad ha-sof.  Straight ahead, until the end.

A Violence From Within: On Waiting for Word–Lia Purpura

A recurring nightmare with variations: I’m on a stage, about to give a reading, but when I open my mouth, no words come out — or a kind of gargling sound does, which makes my audience yawn with impatience then file out of the room. Or, I’m stuck in wet concrete and can’t reach the podium. Or, bending to read my poems, the words scramble, blur into nonsense, appear to be in a foreign language. Not uncommon themes for writers I suppose, who daily weigh, scour, reject, seek adequate language, and for whom, as Thomas Mann said, “writing is more difficult than it is other people.”  If this pressure is a daily, occupational hazard, then it shows up most ferociously when words are most needed, in response to enormous, unthinkable events.

      Months after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, I’m still trying to get my bearings, to steady the wobble between a fearsome sense of fragility and a jarring sense of normalcy.  As a poet/essayist – and as a citizen and mother: what to speak of? And how — grieve, accuse, rage ? To whom? To what end?

      A first step: examine the shapes fear takes. The weird guy whose house I used pass every day on the way to class when I lived in Iowa – he owned a gun (why make a point of telling me, I wondered, even then.) Might he crack? And why not? Pain abounds, much of it private, relentless, unsolvable. Would she lose it, home all day with two kids, a loud  dog, a frayed marriage? What about the agitated guy in line at the post office yesterday? Reading another’s demeanor is complicated, intensified now: is that normal impatience, or a very thin, internal wire about to snap? Was he a “disgruntled employee?” I’ve certainly been disgruntled at work. But the word no longer means “displeased, discontented; sulky, peevish,” hitched, now, as it is to “gunman” and mass killings.  I used to like crowds — the press of bodies, moving as part of an organism. In seasonal crowds, say at Christmas tree lightings, I used to feel taken in, part of a surging, expressive moment. Now, just sitting in traffic makes me nervous; with nowhere to go, nowhere to hide, rush hour downtown looks like a tragedy waiting to happen.  A “powder keg” with “sitting ducks.” In elevators, offices, stores, I start dividing people — possible shooters, likely victims — and then subdivide the victims: the canny, the lucky, the doomed.  I devise escape plans in grocery stores. In the very aisles where I used to edit poems in my head, listen for interesting conversations and phrases, I’m now sharply alert, suspicious of anyone lingering. At the movies, anxiety nibbles the edges of what used to be a delicious moment: the lights dimming, the dark rising. The loss of imaginative civic space, peace, reverie, a sense of sanctuary in the small, inconsequential seeming moments of a day. . . we’re all suffering that.

      And this, too, feeds my unease: that mythical sense of elsewhere, the illusion that mass shootings happen in far off cities and neighborhoods, has dissolved completely. I tally my own list of proximities: a writer friend of mine taught the Virginia Tech shooter.  The granddaughter of a family friend was shot in the head at the movie theater in Aurora, Co. In Baltimore, where we live, the DC sniper slept overnight in the parking lot of a 7-11 not three miles from our neighborhood. And just recently I learned that the partner of a friend is related to the Sandy Hook shooter.

      In trying to think, speak and write about the unspeakables, the language we use takes on the predictable features of disbelief: it was a normal evening. It was a beautiful day. They’d just eaten dinner. They were on vacation. On a whim, she stopped in at a coffee shop (as I did, in Tacoma, WA recently – the very same shop where, just months later, four people were ambushed and killed). He seemed so harmless. He never spoke. He was odd but never bothered anyone. We didn’t know. We hadn’t guessed. The guns were stolen/hidden/legal. Rampage. Gunman. The heroes. The miracles. After a while, the plot feels predictable. The scripts, the characters, the grief: familiar.

      And here’s the twinned anxiety, masquerading as reprieve: for big swatches of time after the shooting at Sandy Hook, I’ve moved about normally – -and then, been rattled by normalcy. I remember eating a carton of yogurt that day, then unloading the dishwasher, for long minutes completely unencumbered by thoughts of the scene. By way of a phone call or the small task of an egg to boil, shock and disbelief flip over and the underside of a day shines on with ease. Rows of collards flourished in our neighborhood community garden all winter, and even now, when I stop by to pick some for dinner, the beds richly mulched, promising, serene, the scene often flips again, and having any bearings at all feels wrong, misaligned, insubstantial.

      Just yesterday, while walking my dog, very suddenly, the opening lines from Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Arts” came to me:

“About suffering they were never wrong,

The Old Masters: how well they understood

Its human position: how it takes place

While someone else is eating or opening a window or just

                      walking dully along . . .”

 

To say the poem “came to me” understates the experience. The stanza burst back, wholly unsought. As I spoke it aloud, I wanted to know again what the Old Masters – Breughel, and by extension, Auden – understood about suffering, what certainty about it might be had. At home, I took down my Collected Poems of Auden, and read the whole poem. Here’s the final stanza, where he deepens that phrase “the human position”:

“In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away

Quite leisurely form the disaster: the ploughman may

Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,

But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone

As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green

Water; and the expensive, delicate ship that must have seen

Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,

Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.”

 

      The poem was not a “comfort” or a “balm” though it confirmed my own experience of brutal simultaneity, of the inexplicable, side-by-side existence of the mundane and the tragic.

      I remembered my first reading of the poem in high school, where it was presented as a study of indifference. Easy enough to see – the turning away, the frightening, calm ease with which people remain absorbed in their lives, in the midst of the falling boy’s tragedy. Now, though, the poem weighed differently. Its more shattering feature was its patience, the way it studied the vastness of co-incidents. Of course, a poem takes on and throws off different lights, and a reader absorbs angles of the spectrum at different ages and times of life — but something else happened, too, when the poem returned with such force.  A clear, new thought formed: “what is the myth that’s taking place now, that none of us can see, that we’re living alongside?  How will it be told and by what Ovid? Will it be pinned to the sky, like Orion’s belt, and used to navigate epic journeys? Will its telling become a seasonal event, the way Demeter’s loss of Persephone overlays fall?” With this briefly flowering question, finally, a nap of thought caught, a kind of phrase/image cluster. It’s the sensation of passing a rough hand over silk, or when a pencil catches on paper and produces a pleasant snagging resistance. This is the moment the bolt slides out and the gate swings wide — and I know I’m “in.” Language roots. The wavering firms. Here was a moment I recognized. It opened, breathed, extended in familiar ways. A working thought is a promising thing, a solidity to move into, live with, lean on.

      Writers labor under many anxieties – a common fear, shared by many is that one’s chosen genre isn’t agile enough to respond to the violences of the day; that one’s work, or soul, as it wrangles with a poem, or story, is not up to fulfilling Wallace Stevens’ definition of the imagination, the force that “Press[es] back against the pressure of reality”; a  “violence within that protects us from a violence without.”    

      A moment when all air has been choked out, when one can hardly breathe for the grief is not necessarily the time to make something. In this moment, on my walk, Auden’s poem confirmed a vast and frightening vision, but it also kick-started  . . . something. A trail, a thread, an inkling of my own to follow. 

      Reading “Musee des Beaux Arts” again, at this age, at this time, I had the sense that the poem knew me better than I knew myself, that it had been waiting for me to grow into it. Or waiting for this occasion to speak again. Or really, who knows why, just then, it surfaced. The finely shaded responses to suffering (the ploughman may have heard the splash, the ship must have seen the falling boy), those degrees of complicity, the way in which fate – ours, others’ – is ever-present, at work, concealed, partly glimpsed — I’ll study them. I’ll weigh, repeat, live with Auden’s words while I sign petitions, get up and do my part, lobby for the basic rights of children to be safe in school; that is, while I wait for language of my own, some way of seeing, recording and shaping that might be adequate to the violence without. 

Being a Boy-Man–David Lazar

Around Father’s Day, 2013

An ex-girlfriend used to call me her lesbian boyfriend, and this used to please me, flatter me. I felt it gave me the aura of transcending my gender, which, I must say, was, is, much to be desired. Because, after all, who wants to be a “man.” The qualities I associate with manhood I experience in the ways I imagine the descendants of slaveholders feel– shame mixed with disgust. What are these qualities? Condescension, argumentation, arrogance, smugness, entitlement to power, discomfort with powerful feelings. Though gay masculinity has begun to re-define manhood, slowly, in the larger culture, when I hear the word “man,” a kind of monolith with a penis appears in my mind, perhaps with graying temples. I’m Jewish, so the graying temples make sense.

My father was powerful, scary, charming. My mother was warm, accepting, scary. My dog was diffident. I became a kind of gender patchwork: confused, heterosexual, feminized, feminist, inconsistent, wounded, queer. Yes, I know the last is a minefield, fraught, territorial. It evolved out of a sense of strangeness, difference.

When I was a boy, I thought manhood was a prize the Wizard would give me, one of the secret medals he had hidden in his bag. Here is my song: (to be sung to the tune of “If I Only Had a Brain”)

When a boy is wracked and worried
He gets so awful hurried
He’s tight as a tin can
Still I’d know life were easy
And I wouldn’t be so queasy
If I only were a man

You know, I need to grow
Right out of the bonds that seem so slow
Life is happening outside of my window
Accelerate! How great!

If you think that boyhood’s pleasant
A charming adolescent
Engagement in the show.
I can’t bear my position
It’s my sole and dear ambition
To stop being young and grow.

But the Wizard didn’t give my manhood medal.

And years passed and I became a man, by default. First I ran towards manhood, and I’ve spent the last few decades running away from it. Because, in my way of thinking: who wants to be a man? I’ll say more about this. First, though, there is there is the stage which we call in which males in our culture are neither men, nor boys, which we call young manhood. I’ve actually never heard this noun form alluded to in anything other than the singular form, but someone must have. This stage of being men with training wheels. It might also be called Late or Old Boyhood, but we don’t do this, because at this stage most American males are yearning to throw off the shackles of adolescence. “Old Boy” also has connotations that make it slightly distasteful.

I think I liked being a young man. “Man” was modified. Man always needs to be modified, in my opinion. One never has the opportunity to say to someone, “I’m a man.” What would the situation, the conversation, the unfortunate event be that led to this circumstance? A hospital admittance? A date? Pulled over by a cop? A cop who was a man, no doubt. And what would be the response of someone to this announcement, to saying, perhaps peremptorily, “I’m a man” (are you in a football stadium? Is the ballet about to begin? Giselle?)?

Here are some possibilities:
A woman: I’m sorry.
A man: Can I have one?
A Transgendered person: Are you sure?
A Dog: Woof.

As a young man, say between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five, I felt sophisticated beyond my years thanks to my years of traveling, full of unidentified yearning, compulsive in ways I couldn’t control which scared me constantly, and completely confused about whether or not I was an attractive human being. The cauldron of my early political radicalism and the second wave of feminism, a kind of insistent desire to resist convention, and, and . . . what to call it? An aversion to certain masculine norms that had seeped into me from an early age: aggression, loudness, insensitivity, indifference or antipathy to intense emotion and self-reflection. I identified these, stereotypically, of course, with masculinity. Along with my politics, and what Hazlitt called The Spirit of the Age, while sexually heterosexual, I was spiritually and politically engaged with the (here the writer taps the table impatiently) LGBT movement. My own sense of “maleness” or “man-ness” became diffuse, deconstructed over the years.

I’m a boy, I’m a boy, but my mother won’t admit it
I’m a boy, I’m a boy, but when I say I am I get it.
–The Who

I run away from “man,” but I could embrace some version of boy, some version of the open, still-evolving biological masculine nomenclature, even if it carried a whiff of Andy Hardy or comic books. Look, I’m not talking about Peter Pan, about clinging to youth. I think of most boys as more emotionally supple than most men. More sensitive. Charles Lamb referred to himself as a “boy-man.” I like that.

The truth is I don’t often think of my gender, except when I’m thinking about gender. That’s probably patriarchal privilege, in disguise. When I do, I think of it as a kind of male-queer construction, painted with feminine outlines. I’d like to define my gender as Fred Astaire, actually, if I were asked. Fluid but focused. Dances alone, however, much of the time.