Section “K” of Merrill’s Book of Ephraim details a circumnavigation of the globe that Merrill undertook with his partner, David Jackson, in 1956. They flew westward, stopping in San Francisco, Kamakura, Kowloon, Bangkok, Jaipur, Sri Lanka, Istanbul, Geneva, and London. Along the way they were told that if their itinerary were drawn out as if a script, it would resemble the Arabic for “great wonder.” While in Japan Merrill learned of his father’s death; in the poem JM both laments and resigns himself to the fact that “there will be no way to fly back in time.” There never is. Meanwhile, I am 40, making my way westward from Bozeman to Berkeley. West Yellowstone, Pocatello, Idaho Falls, Elko, Winnemucca: it doesn’t have quite the same ring, but it will have to do.
Three cars had skidded off the road in Gallatin Canyon at different points. The third one I saw was an SUV that looked as though it had simply pulled off the road into three feet of snow just below the road’s shoulder. There was already a police car there with its lights on and a flare set up. As I slowly passed, I looked down into the car, where an elderly couple sat calmly, as if at a red light waiting for it to turn green, the man “driving,” the woman sitting next to him looking straight ahead with dignified aplomb. Were they off to visit family for the holidays? All the way to West the roads were dangerous; then they opened up and became wet with run-off in the sun heading west.
I’ve just had a shower in my Holiday Inn Express room. Generally, I don’t sleep all that well in hotel rooms, but I love just lounging about in them, watching TV or reading or writing. I’m wearing my blue t-shirt from Paris and my green drawstring shorts. The last time I was in a hotel was this summer, in Jackson, where Merrill himself once vacationed, I believe, though I forget with whom (my copy of Hammer’s biography is back home). Throughout the day today I “foraged,” eating a banana, an apple, two oranges, some pretzels, and a pastry that I bought in the bookstore/cafe in West but that I didn’t eat until I crossed the Idaho/Nevada border at Jackpot and started making my way towards Wells. I had two cups of coffee, one from home, the other from West. Christmas Vacation is on the television on mute. Students keep emailing me and I wish they’d give it a rest for like a few days already. In Idaho Falls I sat idling at a red light downtown, the town itself looking empty and cold. An older woman in a pillbox hat stood on the sidewalk at the crosswalk waiting for the signal to cross the street. I thought she might risk it while we waited for our own green light, but she didn’t; she would patiently wait another round to get the light anew, knowing her speed and presumably having nowhere to get to in a hurry anyway.
Later I drove into a gauzy, orange sunset flanked by prismatic cloud angels, the rate at which I chased the sun not equal to the rate at which it receded from me. I thought I’d lost it for good behind a mountain and bade it farewell for the day, only to then crest a pass and have its light flood back into the car once more for another thirty minutes. We should all be so lucky. The silhouette of a semi-trailer I was quickly gaining on at the top of the hill loomed black against the now more pink sky, and I guessed that with 50 miles still to go to Winnemucca and four “dots” left on the fuel gauge, I would get there with one dot yet remaining and so wouldn’t have to stop between now and then. It got dark quickly, but twilight lingered ahead of me, and I remembered a flight from Chicago to Bozeman on the way back from Europe in 2014, when the plane kept pace with the sunset much better than my car does, so that the flight was a two-hour near-perpetual sunset that outstripped us just barely, very slowly, and I read the final pages of The Waves, a book I was then reading for the second time overall, the first time being in 2002, when I read those same last pages at a cafe in the Mission near where Marilyn then lived.
12.20.18 Winnemucca>Walnut Creek
The question that Frost’s Oven Bird “frames in all but words” in its unsonglike song is “what to make of a diminished thing.” The poem itself is not diminished: it’s a standard fourteen-line sonnet. Compare this with the poem that precedes it in Mountain Interval, “Hyla Brook,” it, too, like “The Oven Bird,” a poem about diminished things. That poem is a fifteen-line sonnet about a dried-up brook the bed of which is “left a faded paper sheet / of dead leaves stuck together” come June. Its final line would actually seem to answer the question posed at the end of the poem that follows it. What to make of a diminished thing? “We love the things we love for what they are.” But: that’s only what the poem says in the words that comprise it; what it frames in all but words is something different and supplemental: we love the things we love for what we can make of them, too. Hyla Brook itself might be diminished, a ghost of a brook, but “Hyla Brook” the poem is decidedly augmented; it’s an augmented sonnet. Meanwhile, though, “The Oven Bird” would seem to suggest something different by its example, seeing as it is not augmented, but a standard sonnet, at least in terms of length (rhyme scheme is another matter). That’s precisely it though: to make anything out of a diminished thing is to augment it. Even if you were to make of it something less than what it is, you’d still have thereby added to it.
A dried-up creek bed, a bird not famed for its song: both are stand-ins, too, of course, for Frost’s own poetry (go back to that “paper sheet” once more). He’s not the meandering, murmuring brook of Romantic lore, nor that lore’s warbling nightingale, but something less than either or both, but because of that also something more, certainly something different: a poet who sees in a diminished thing no smaller amount of beauty, and perhaps even more, than what one might find in nature at full strength. “Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten,” says the Oven Bird, and while at first glance this would seem to be a recommendation decidedly in favor of the earlier time of year, the poem that precedes it would seem to suggest otherwise.
I’m currently using Hugo as a footrest while Marilyn’s taking a bath and trying to get through a sinus infection. By the time I came down from the mountains this morning, a fog had rolled into the valley all the way to Sacramento, and slowly I remembered what it feels like to step outside in California into air dense with fog, and what it smells like, too. I remembered mornings in Santa Cruz, the fog fresh from the ocean, a kind of cool vapor in your nostrils and throat as you made your way to class. When I turned twenty I walked ten miles up the coast and then turned around and walked back home and went to a party where my age was celebrated. The evening ended with me pretending to be a wheelbarrow, pushed by a friend from one set of Oakes College apartments to another as if at one of those races at an old time county fair. My strongest desire in those days was to walk all over creation. No wonder I’m drawn to Elizabeth Bishop, who when she’d dreamt that she found herself at the southern tip of Tierra del Fuego and knew she had to set off northwards, walking all the way back to Nova Scotia, set off quite cheerfully.
Hugo, meanwhile, sage and sage brush, bigger than me if you look at us both together from the right angle, sleeps.
Writing the Dog
A poem sticks apart, said Robert Lowell,
or should. Like Hugo when he stretches out
in Yoga mode upon the floor. Back flat,
hind legs jutting this way, forelegs that.
Marcos once got too close to Hugo’s bowl;
I saw the ensuing whirlwind, the manic rout,
or rather, didn’t see it, at least, not quite.
Good poems keep their essence out of sight.
A surfaced submarine in water, who
shall hail this craft in words appropriate
to paws the size of kittens? (Didn’t you
at least attempt to say what you had meant?)
The poet pauses; it is not too late
to ask, when Hugo dreams, just where he went.
It is indeed nice to sit outside in late December, shoeless, long sleeves rolled up, on a bench in a patio-style back yard surfaced with large, irregularly shaped paving stones between which there are tufts of grass, with an occasional fly buzzing by, a dog’s tennis ball sitting on the bottom of six stairs leading up to the house, and surrounded by trees and plants and flowers, the smell of the California coast pervading the air, two books at my side: the Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens and the Selected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson. In May I’ll be going to an American literature conference Boston, where I’ll be giving a talk on Emerson and Stevens. My subject will be: whim; my title will probably be something like “Whim at Last: Emerson and Stevens.” I’m saving the riveting stuff for the talk itself.
The “whim” of whimandworry.com actually comes from Emerson’s “Self Reliance.” I remember discussing the passage in question with Seth via a Gmail chat, emphasizing Emerson’s point that whim itself more often than not seems to go undervalued and underutilized in our lives. Far from being denigrated or dismissed along the lines of folly, it ought to be elevated to the status of a virtue, or at least a practice that offers all kinds of benefits. But here’s what Emerson himself says on the subject as he attempts to carve out a kind of defense of not being held accountable to either others or their expectations, whoever or whatever they may be: “I would write on the lintels of the doorpost, Whim. I hope it is somewhat better than whim at last, but we cannot spend the day in explanation.” A lintel is a horizontal support of timber, stone, concrete, or steel across the top of a door or window; I had to look it up. It has the same Latin root as “limit,” a word that denotes a border or threshold. This is suggestive. Even more suggestive, though, is the etymology of “whim.”
First, however, a definition. Over the last few days I’ve been thinking about it, and what I’ve come up with is that a whim is a sudden, unpredicted disposition, where to be whimsical is therefore to be subject to such dispositions, and where to practice whim would then be to deliberately cultivate such dispositions, where this becomes a bit tricky insofar as the likes of deliberate cultivation would seem to run against the grain of whim itself. It can, however, be done; ask a really good jazz musician, for instance. But etymologically, “whim” comes from the delightful and no longer used word, whimwham (even Word underlines it in red, suggesting its invalidity). A whimwham is a thing, a fanciful object or trifle, maybe a bauble. It would seem to be something of a Viking word, coming from the Old Norse hvima, meaning to let the eyes wander, or the related Norwegian kvima, meaning to flutter. So, a delightful thing catches your eye, and over the course of time we move from identifying the thing itself as a whimwham to calling a predilection for such catchings whim, or whimsy, or whimsicalness. Typing out variations of the word like this, it suddenly strikes me that they themselves are all whimwhams; it’s a strange little word that flutters like a slight bird, or that makes one think of a short poem glittering on the page. In this regard, the online etymology dictionary’s definition of whim is better than mine: a caprice, a fancy, a sudden turn or inclination of the mind. I especially like “turn” here, as it leads one to verse, and then, quite easily, to a poem like Stevens’s “The Emperor of Ice-Cream.”
Quite easily, and legitimately, too: you would be hard pressed, I think, to find a more strange, fanciful poetic object in the English language. Stevens himself liked it a great deal among all of his poems because it captured, he felt, something of the “essential gaudiness” of poetry. And now we have another word to pick up and examine as if it were a many-colored, opalescent marble: gaudy. As an adjective, we know it: it means showy, tastelessly rich, but also, and earlier, joyfully festive. As a noun, though, a gaud is a bauble or a trinket, or, more specifically, an ornamental bead in a rosary. In other words, one might say, a whimwham. The essential gaudiness of poetry therefore might also be its essential whimsicalness: it catches the eye with its luster and shine; if flutters and the light of the sun blinks off of it; it is fanciful and fit for a child’s toy (see the word “babe” in baubel). The overwhelming majority of Stevens’s poetry answers to these descriptors (if it doesn’t, in fact, epitomize them), but no one poem more so than the one that begins with the injunction to “Call the roller of big cigars, / The muscular one, and bid him whip / In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.” If you stretched the word “whim” out as if a piece of taffy, it might resolve itself into precisely that string of sonically similar syllables: bid, him, whip, kitch, pisc.
Emerson says he hopes that “it is somewhat better than whim at last,” but I’m not so sure, and I’m not so sure that Stevens would be sure either. Why need it be better than whim at last? What’s so insufficient about whim? Are we (or was Emerson) still so beholden to Puritan-like values of consistency that we must find something essentially lacking in the susceptibility to and/or practice of whim? But perhaps consistency is as overrated as whim is underrated. Merrill appreciated and valued the freedom to be oneself, yes, but he prized even more highly the freedom not to be oneself. And in Tombstone Val Kilmer’s Doc Holliday at first proudly asserts that his hypocrisy “only goes so far,” but he then later delightfully admits that it in fact “knows no bounds.” There is something to be said for whim, it seems to me. Whim and morality are by no means mutually exclusive. I guess it has too strong of an association of becoming to it, and thus pales in comparison to other words that connote being instead, and therefore permanence, enduringness, which we generally value over transience. But I rather think, with Nietzsche and others, that we’ve got a lot backwards here. I rather hope, that is, that it is not somewhat better than whim at last, because I don’t think it needs to be. Whim suffices. Carve Whim indelibly into the lintel of the doorpost and be done with it. What more you hope it might be is something it cannot be, anyway. Above or behind whim needn’t be something more lasting, more secure, more enduring, a principle that would ultimately supplant and cancel it. Let whim itself be the ultimate principle. We’ll be no worse off for it, and might even be considerably better. On the one hand, the enactment of whim would seem to negate even the possibility of worry; on the other, worry elevated to the status of whim might comprise enlightenment itself.
Stevens’s two-stanza poem details the goings-on in two rooms (stanza means room): in the first, there is a great deal of activity and bustle, of joyful festivity; in the second, a corpse is somberly laid out in advance of a funeral. The poem unfolds by way of a series of injunctions: call, bid, let, let, bring, let in the first octave, take, spread, let in the second. The most famous of these injunctions is the one pronounced in the first stanza’s penultimate line, the seemingly philosophically abstract injunction to “Let be be finale of seem.” I used to take this to mean something along the lines of “let becoming be followed by being,” or “let this transient world of seeming appearances be followed and capped by an eternal realm of permanent Forms,” something like that, where the “Let” here functions in the form of a fervent plea for eventual access to a greater reality: please, let it be so, let be be finale of seem, let all not be lost. But that would be precisely to hope that it is indeed better than whim at last. I now no longer read the poem’s four occurrences of “let” in this fashion. Instead, I read them as curt, insouciant dismissals, as in “Let him say whatever he likes, it doesn’t matter.” Or: “Let be be finale of seem. / The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.” Be can be finale of seem all it likes; whatever. There is still only whim at last. You can hope for a Kingdom of God and all that all you want to; paradoxically, though, even that’s a whim, or that especially. Permanence is but a dream of transience, and it is envious of its dreamer. And similarly with the second stanza’s, and thus the entire poem’s, penultimate line, “Let the lamp affix its beam.” Yeah, let it. The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream. There will be joyful festivity, youth, cigars and ice-cream, wenches and boys and toys and baubles; there will also be old age and paralysis and death and loneliness. So be it. Let it all unfold and stretch out as copiously or insufficiently as it will. But whenever your worrying over all of this gets to a certain point where you begin to take all things, serious and unserious alike, a bit too seriously, remember to look at the lintels of the doorpost. And then pick up a volume of poems, and hold it lightly.
A thin scrim of cloud cover has come in from somewhere out over the Pacific, and I’ve gone inside. First I’ll eat some fruit and potato chips, then I’ll reread and revise this and hope that there’s at least some ghost of quality and sense to it, then I’ll likely head up to the downtown Berkeley Pegasus Bookstore and look for a copy of Cather’s My Ántonia for Natalie before going to the Romeo cafe to have an Americano before dinner. At the cafe I’ll take Merrill’s Late Settings out of my bag and open it up to the poem “Last Mornings in California,” and read the opening lines, “Another misty one. These opaline / Emulsions of world and self.” Then I’ll put the book down, think of Mirabell’s No Accident clause, and marvel at who I am, and where, and what I’m doing and what I would like to do. And I will pine, absolutely pine, for love, even as I know that there is nothing that is not it surrounding and emanating from me, and that love is just another word for whim, in fact, and needn’t be better than its terrestrial manifestations in the end. And following this, as I sit at a table and run my hand across my face in a manner all too becoming someone who is now in middle-age, following these actions, a sip from my coffee and the sound of Billy Idol’s “Rebel Yell” coming through speakers in the ceiling, and everyone else in the cafe and those walking by outside, and the atmospherically produced and now regularly recurring memories of my life in California when I was eighteen and nineteen and young, will all be maddeningly satisfying to me even as I’m once more overcome by the impossible désir de mener la vie de tout le monde.
The intensity with which I’ll on occasion miss H. is matched only by the regularity with which I don’t.
There are no accidents here. In the first entry of this journal, written from a Holiday Inn Express in Winnemucca, I was reminded of the last time that I was in a hotel room, this summer, in Jackson, where I then recalled, faintly, that James Merrill once also vacationed in Jackson, though I wasn’t entirely sure, and I couldn’t remember with whom. Then, in Berkeley, two days ago, I remembered that I needed to write an email to Keegan, Matthew, and Zach, letting them know which Merrill poems I’d like for them to focus on over the break in advance of our independent study. But I didn’t have any kind of list or table of contents on me from which to choose a handful of poems. I could have come up with a good list from memory, but I was anxious about forgetting two or three poems that might be necessary. I might have used the Internet, but that seemed too laborious. Then, in Moe’s Bookstore on Telegraph, looking in the poetry section under “M,” I noticed the Everyman’s Poets Pocket Library selection of Merrill’s works and recalled that I no longer have a copy of this myself (gave it to Marilyn in September), and saw the opportunity this presented me. Almost all of the poems I’d want to put on my list would be here, with only a few exceptions, and I needed a new copy anyway. Book purchased, I walked up Telegraph, onto the Berkeley campus, and began slowly making my way up one of its hills. Because my computer is on Mountain time, I had left my room an hour earlier than I’d had to and so had some time to kill before meeting my parents for dinner. There was yet another beautiful dark orange and pink sunset in progress, and when I turned around and looked down toward the bay I saw the silhouette of the Golden Gate Bridge against the shredded winter sky, the sight of which double threshold (geographical, temporal) put me in the mind to read a poem before the light faded entirely, as I walked up to the clock tower, then down a curving road, then up another path through a grove of trees, then down again. Flipping through the pages of my new-bought book with my thumb, I stopped in a Sortes Virgilianae manner and landed on the two-part poem, “Up and Down,” with its first section facing me from across the threshold of page 125: “1/ SNOW KING CHAIRLIFT.” There are no accidents here.
A sudden dread. Could it be? I stopped and looked around, probably as if I didn’t know quite where I was. Could it be that this is the very chairlift that, with no good reason whatsoever and certainly no precedent, I suggested to H. we ride up when we were in Jackson in July? That would be too much of a coincidence, I thought, though even as I thought it I knew it was true, that it was the same one. But I’d read this poem before, and it didn’t occur to me even once the entire time we were in Jackson. I hadn’t read it multiple times, like I have so many of Merrill’s other lyrics, but at least once or twice, for sure. Somehow it had slipped through the cracks and I’d forgotten it. If I hadn’t, I would have thought of it then, while we were in Jackson, and no doubt mentioned it, and then certainly I would have remembered the other night in Winnemucca that yes, Merrill did indeed vacation in Jackson, in 1968 as it turns out, with David McIntosh, a good friend who didn’t work out as a lover. June 1968, to be precise: ten years before I was born and 50 years and one month before H. and I made our own no less fearful ascent up Snow King, or, to borrow the word Merrill uses in the poem, our own anabasis, the Greek for ascent, especially one into the heavens, where katabasis, the opposite term, means a descent, usually into the underworld. I’ve written about these terms before. Up and down we go.
At this point, having confirmed via Google Maps that it is indeed the same chairlift, I was walking, maybe even more like sort of staggering, rather slowly across campus, possibly gesticulating to no one in particular as meanwhile the oranges and pinks of the sunset were becoming deeper out over the bay, the silhouette of the bridge more darkly vivid in relief, the bell in the clock tower chiming ominously and beautifully five solemn times, and, when I looked down at it, Merrill looking up at me from the cover of the book with a look on his face that all but says, well, what else did you expect?
(Now it’s Christmas Eve, two days later; it’s raining outside; the flat stones of the patio are brimming. It’s not a heavy rain, more like a mist that’s just heavy enough to fall, so that one can call it rain and not be wrong. I’ve the day to myself to spend as I will. Having earlier had some coffee at Romeo’s and done some scholarship application reviews for work, I’m now back here at Fulton and Russell, it’s 12:09pm, and I’m once more trying to make some kind of sense out of the life lived, out of the love spent.)
There was absolutely no good reason at all, as H. and I walked about that morning, for me to suggest, once we came in sight of the lift and saw that it was indeed conveying passengers up and down the mountain, that we take a ride on it. It’s not the sort of thing I’ve ever done before (ridden a chairlift in the summer), and it’s not the sort of thing I’d ever be likely to do, possessing as I do in sufficient measure my grandmother’s fear of heights. But I said, “Let’s ride up!” and H. agreed. So: did I remember the poem, more sub- than conciously? Was it guiding me throughout the morning to its subject, that I might reenact its scene a cool half-century later? And then were my reactions, once on the lift, near identical to Merrill’s because I’d already read the poem before, even if I’d since “forgotten” it, and so been primed on how to respond? Or am I drawn to Merrill in the first place for reasons like this, because we often have the same kinds of reactions to certain things, as, for instance, here, in the case of an impulsive decision followed, almost immediately after it became irrevocable, by sudden regret?
Prey swooped up, the iron love seat shudders
Onward into its acrophilic trance.
What folly has possessed us? Ambulance!
Acrophilia is a love of heights. The chair possesses it; we, like Merrill and McIntosh, did not. H. was clearly even less enthused about what we suddenly found ourselves doing than I was. I attempted small talk, but this only further aggravated her even as she put a brave and stoic face upon it. The slope, and so the ascent, is precipitous. I looked back only once and immediately went light in my legs and mind. Continuing to try to be calm, I took a picture of H.—she smiled, holding my copy of Knausgaard’s Spring in her lap. Her smile was radiant in a way that the tired cliché of precisely that expression belies. (I remember her now from time to time, variously: sitting on a stone wall in front of Sacajawea Park in Livingston, wearing a peach dress; or in a candy cane bikini in Paradise Valley, walking along a wet cement patio; or filmed in blue swirls on a walk in the early evening out behind 19th Street.) In the wake of things not working out between us I consigned the picture of her on the lift, along with others like it, to oblivion, both wisely and unwisely, I feel, it’s hard to say which more than the other, though so many other pictures that never were taken remain acute in memory. Halfway up the mountain, at the point where the steepness of the climb seems to double, I as much as said to her:
Give me your hand, try thinking of those others’
Unhurt return by twos from June’s immense
Sunbeamed ark with such transfigured faces.
And indeed as we climbed others were coming down, passing us; some smiled and waved, others didn’t. At this point I’d already walked up and down several roads and paths on the main Berkeley campus, and I hadn’t yet gotten past, or over, these first six lines of the poem. I couldn’t, I can’t, stop fiercely marveling over life itself and missing what I’ve lost and being grateful for what I have. My emotions go quite literally up and down, simultaneously, not consecutively, leaving me halved. Around me there were groups of visitors and tourists in twos, threes, and fours taking pictures: of the campus, of the clock tower, of the sunset, of themselves. They spoke in several languages. Three young boys came swooping down the hill on skateboards, moving perilously fast, periodically braking by quickly sweeping their boards forward out from behind them, in a motion that suggested a windshield wiper in action. I slapped my book lightly against my leg in a futile attempt to somehow process how overcome I was with, well, with everything.
Merrill’s poem begins with an epigraph from John H. Finley, Jr.’s Four Stages of Greek Thought: “The heart that leaps to the invitation of sparkling appearances is the heart that would itself perform as handsomely.” I have not read the study, I do not know the context, but these words make me think of the myth of Icarus, who leapt at the sparkling appearance of the sun, and for a moment did perform as handsomely. I myself can never set off from the island and simply push and lift my wings steadily; too many times I have seen and envied, while driving down a state highway or walking along the crest of a hill, a hawk on the wing, drifting and gliding on impalpable currents, a model for the soaring heart.
The chair moved perilously slow, twice even stopping with a faint but sudden jerk followed by a dip and bounce. H. and I, yes, had moved perilously fast. I could grieve for the period of our adolescent-like courtship. But it would appear that this is what I am good (and bad) at: relationships the duration of which can be counted in days, weeks, or months, never years, with one exception. Recently, over drinks with two single friends, in response to their pronouncements that they are afraid of being hurt, I said, truthfully, “I am not afraid of being hurt. I’m afraid of hurting others.” Because I have, on too many occasions. And it’s not that I don’t get hurt, too, or haven’t, or wasn’t at the beginning of August when—I still don’t know what happened. It’s just that I’m not afraid of that; I’d rather be the one who gets hurt, and I’d rather get hurt in the first place than plot a path along a prudent middle course that precludes any ascent into the sun or descent into the sea, come what may. But what compelled us, what compels us thus, over and over, to take up positions on love’s shuddering seat once more?
We sought admission on the shaky basis
That some good follows from experience
Of anything or leaving it behind . . .
When one gets to the end of the second line here, one thinks that one has read the completed thought of a just completed stanza: that some good follows from experience, period. And one sits with that thought in mind for the duration of exactly the amount of time it takes the eye to move both back across the page and down it to the next quatrain, at which point the fact of the thought’s continuing necessitates a reassessment of what one has just read. It’s not just the shaky thought that some good follows from experience, but that some good follows from experience of anything or leaving it behind. Huh. There’s a sense, isn’t there, in which the addendum doesn’t really change anything, even as it does, right? “Anything or leaving it behind,” that is, would still seem to cover “experience” in general for the most part, wouldn’t it? But even as it does, it nevertheless gets more specific, in the sense that we realize that what we’re really talking about here, it transpires, is not the experience of anything but precisely that of leaving it behind, rising above it, transcending it, even as in the same act one from the very outset longs and longs for and desires a—the—return trip. Let me go up that I might never come back down, but also: let me come back down that I might go up again. I not only rode the chairlift with H.; I also rode it towards and away from her. She was everything I could aspire to long for, attain, lose, and long for again. When I accidentally bumped into her—the first and only time—after we split up, in October, was it, or November, I was paralyzed and mute. Gretchen said it seemed as though I’d seen a ghost. But it wasn’t that I could not move, or speak. I was moving, just in every direction at once, and all the words I wanted to say had come to a faint but sudden halt halfway on their way.
Frost’s lines from “Birches” provide a good commentary on Merrill’s poem, I think:
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.
Indeed it is. On those occasions when I do miss H. it is with a frenzy to lie with her again. I have dreamt of her standing in front of my mirror in my t-shirt and her underwear, getting ready for work in the morning. And though I feel that I adequately conveyed to her how I felt, I now wish, notwithstanding those efforts, that I could have found words even kinder still, and more caring, and more soaked and wrung in desire.
At this point in my walk I’m almost a third of the way through the poem’s fourteen quatrains and won’t finish it before it’s too dark to keep reading. Or rather, I’m a third of the way through the poem’s first part’s fourteen quatrains; part two (THE EMERALD) has fourteen of its own, that take place in Manhattan, and recall a descent, a katabasis to the first part’s anabasis, into a bank vault where Merrill’s mother removes from a safe deposit box a ring her first husband, Merrill’s father, had given her when he, James, was born. She says its his now, for his bride, “for when you marry,” in response to which Merrill can only think, not say, that in his case there will be no wife, shouldn’t she have figured that out by now?
Berkeley. It’s a beautiful campus. I’ve never walked around it thus before. It’s nice to do so when it’s practically empty like this, for the winter break. At dinner, shortly, I’ll sit with my parents; the next day I’ll ride with them and Marilyn to Napa for an afternoon and evening outing. It will be just us. The following day, today, I’ll have to myself, to write. On Christmas we’ll watch basketball.
Amidst the deepening evening and the slow extinguishing of the sky’s colors, looking down once more towards the bay, then upwards towards the Berkeley hills, it was impossible for me to feel that there is any sort of substantial lack in my life, even as I felt that my life itself is comprised largely of substantial lack.
By the time H. and I finally reached the Snow King summit and stepped down from our throne (Merrill’s mot juste, in the poem), we were temporarily dizzy with the glee of survival, standing on the wooden platform jutting out over the mountain we’d just risen to the top of, looking down upon mad Jackson and then, beyond it to the northwest, out towards the Teton range. I had only driven through Jackson twice before, but had stopped and stayed on neither occasion. For H., though, there was a near-sacredness to the region: her mentor, whom we’d seen the night before and would see once more tonight, lived in town, and out at the feet of the Tetons themselves she’d experienced, years ago, her calling. We did not think of how we’d get back down, not for the moment. There was time to take in the view. We took two pictures of ourselves, smiling, two national parks behind us. H. did a handstand on the platform as I stood carefully back from the railing and applauded. Our fear and discomfort had been left behind as we were clear not only from danger now, but also from the crush below:
why, this is fun, appalling
Bungalows, goodbye! dark frames of mind
Whatever’s settled into, comfort, despair,
Sin, expectation, apathy, the past,
Rigid interiors that will not outlast
Their decorators or their millionaire . . .
Oh, yes, we were above it all now indeed, but even as we were we most assuredly were not, for we knew all too well the artificiality of our very means of ascent, and that our reward had thus not properly been earned. We’d been delivered by precisely the means we had in large part sought to escape—oh, we would not ride back down, but seek the trail, and make our descent by a different, slower, more circuitous path, through shaded woods and arch switchbacks and knee-high wildflowers, as though in some kind of confused mash-up of the Divine Comedy. Paradise was now below.
You got blisters on your feet as we progressed; the sun just barely burned your skin; and by the time we’d reached the mountain’s base we were parched for want of water, not having planned on hiking when we left our room that morning.
And so we returned to our hotel at mid-afternoon’s apex, in from under the lion sun, you in just the fashion in which I swear I always loved you most: unshowered, slick to the touch with sweat, and of a smell that I would gladly drown in beyond the gate to any golden sea.
Now it is legitimately raining.
12.27.18 Walnut Creek
Sitting in my sleeping bag on Marilyn’s couch having woken up thirty minutes ago. It’s a little after 9AM; just made coffee. Hugo is on his bed, snoring. Parents left this morning; good talk with mom in Marilyn’s kitchen last night.
I wanted to bring A. R. Ammons’s Tape for the Turn of the Year on this trip, but I forgot it when I left Bozeman, along with a few other things. As soon as I had the idea, somewhere in Nevada, I think, of writing a little travel journal like this, I realized I’d forgotten to bring this specific book-length poem. I wanted to bring it in the first place because it’s a poem that, as its title suggests, was written and that takes place over the holiday season, so it’s always an appropriate book to have on you in December and January. Even more pertinently, though, it’s written in a journal form. Actually, it was probably remembering that I forgot to bring it that led me to the idea of a journal, not the other way around.
Ammons, if I remember this correctly, was a little stuck, writing-wise, and one day had the idea to buy a roll of adding machine tape and insert the one end into his typewriter. Then it was simple: write regularly over the course of one year’s end and another’s beginning until the roll ran out, regardless of whether or not you felt like you had anything to write about that day. The result is a book-length poem written in a continuous narrow column, not in a block of text, though, but in Ammons’s characteristic loose, eroded form. He chronicles the daily goings-on in his life and at the same time reflects on the act of writing the poem he’s writing. It’s a delightful little book. It was published in 1965, when Ammons was a year short of 40.
Writing a poem on a roll of adding machine tape: the idea is suggestive from the outset. What will happen, Ammons wonders, if I take this one thing that is used for purposes of adding up numbers, more often than not for purposes of commerce and finance, and turn it into the medium for the inscription of a poem? At first it seems like two things that ought not to go together, but that’s of course what makes them a good pairing in the first place, and besides, poetry is nothing if not measure, a fact that, when remembered, keeps it pretty close to any number of subjects that stereotypical conceptions of it would push away: math and science, commerce, finance, economics, accounting. I’m probably making this up, so I’ll say imagine instead of remember: I imagine Ammons thinking that the roll of tape on which he wrote his poem considered itself a bit privileged to be used in the way Ammons used it. Poetry is addition, but it is higher addition.
12.28.18 Walnut Creek>Ashland
Mt. Shasta was capped in a cloud. I drove through northern California and into southern Oregon as the sun was going down behind the Siskiyou Mountains. I strained, once I’d gotten far enough north, to find Shasta behind me, now in the side-view mirror, now in the rear-view. There was snow at the pass as I crossed the state line but otherwise the roads were clear and fast. I came into Ashland and drove down Siskiyou Boulevard, past the Weisinger winery; past Clay Street, where I lived when I first moved here before I moved out to the farm in Talent; past the university, off to the left, where I had rambled across campus determined to prove myself in ways that in the end did not matter, even as unbeknownst to myself I was proving myself, at least on occasion, in a few ways that did; past Mountain Street, where if I’d taken a right I could have driven towards and then past a house in which I’d trembled with love for the length of an evening nearly two decades ago, in a bedroom that is strangely small and rectangular in memory, almost a pantry. But there are houses to the right and to the left, and behind me and ahead of me, as well, as I head into town. I could drive towards and past any number of them. There are so many houses, just within a mile of here, into which I have stepped and through which I have passed and in which I’ve both acquired and left behind something of who I am, or who I was, so that it seems either pointless or impossible, or both, to seek them out with my eyes, to say nothing of attempting to chronicle what happened in any or all of them. But I want to live twice; or, I want to live almost twice. So these are the kinds of things I do to that end. You work your work, I mine.
Now, twenty years after I first pulled the metal ring on the red door and ascended the stairs to the second floor, I have walked into the Black Sheep once more after parking my car downtown. People say it’s not what it used to be. They’re right, but most things aren’t and never can be. I sit at a table by the window, overlooking the plaza, and order a Guinness. I have ascended the stairs once more, and entered again the room which formed my character in many ways, ways that it is both easy and impossible to measure. Notwithstanding a nine-year gap from 2003-2012, there are still enough images and memories and experiences associated with this room between the years 1998 and 2017 to fill several volumes that who would want to read. Yesterday, in the car with Marilyn on the way to Sacramento, we discussed how we might break our lives into “Books” (as in Book One, Book Two, etc., as of some large multi-volume epic of Millennial American life). We focused on breaking our lives into segments across time, suggesting to each other moments in our lives at which one Book might have come to a close and another been begun. We could, though, have focused on space, on places, too, not when but where. Something like Book Three: The Black Sheep, 1998-2003, a portrait of the would-be artist and aspiring scholar.
Once, in the spring of 2001, I was sitting outside at the Standing Stone Brewery with a friend, and found myself looking down towards the plaza at the windows of the Sheep, and thinking to myself how odd it seemed, and also somewhat sad and meager, that so much of such a vital period of my life should have been spent there, behind those windows, been so associated with this particular place. It hadn’t acquired any kind of mythical status yet, because I hadn’t yet left it behind, though I soon would in a few months. And from that moment in June when I did leave forward I would revise, and have ever since been steadily revising, that initial unfair, blind assessment. I was at fault in my judgment; this should be my mantra. No doubt I was simply bewildered, in a general, understandable sense, that such formative years that might have been spent in so many different places and in so many different ways were in the end being spent in this one place and this one way only, though this of course is inevitable, such is the case for everyone, no matter how often you might move or how much you might travel. This is a sadness and a state of bewilderment, that is, that makes perfect sense (it is the actual meaning of “The Road Not Taken,” for instance), but I nevertheless still maintain that I was at fault in my judgment as I sat on the Standing Stone patio drinking a Sprite that day, trying to calm an upset stomach before a play. I might have known at least somewhat better, for today I wouldn’t have had it any other way; I don’t know where it’s likely to have gone better. The place itself, with its fitting name, its lavender exterior, its high windows that arch at the top, its open layout, its dart boards and conduciveness to reading and its high, starred ceiling, all of this, along with everyone associated with it from that time, all so expressly perfect for me as I attempted to come into adulthood, all, through memory’s glass-surfaced roses, is now not only mythic in status, continuing to push with its many arms outward against the walls of my experience, taking up more and more space within the confines of a life’s meaning, but also crystalline and sharp-edged and precise and cool to the touch like a geometrical ice formation at one’s fingertips that invites contact but does not, in the end, and thankfully, reward it.
It could have closed last summer; it’s under new ownership now. I had resigned myself to its being closed permanently and then becoming something else, perhaps reverting back to its previous form, that of a dance studio, but it remains still what it has been since I first saw it and knew it, and my picture, too, still remains on the wall: Halloween 1999, with John and Kari and Daniel, a mystic monk, a lemon princess, a cowboy with six-shooters, respectively, and I among them, an orphan out of Dickens orbiting not the sun itself but, somehow, the very light that shined from it, in the form of a young woman who’d come into the university writing center in need of a tutor and subsequently become someone to whom I would unironically address love letters written in the style of 19th century French novels. I remember that I’d never had the hiccups before and never have had them since the way I had them that night, after we’d left the Black Sheep with her brother and some of his friends, and went…somewhere, to a house I recall so faintly that it seems as though I must have dreamt it. Any number of houses are like this: the house I went to with Laurie after Halloween four years later, for instance; or Dara’s house in Medford; or even the house where Travis lived in late 2001, with its back yard full of brown leaves slapped together, giving way to a field underneath a sky of variations on gray and rain and mist. There are so many houses! I now understand in my own way Shabine’s pronouncement in “The Schooner Flight” about islands, that there are “as many islands as the stars at night,” or Bishop’s Crusoe’s nightmare of “infinities / of islands, islands spawning islands, / like frogs’ eggs turning into polliwogs / of islands,” the word itself proliferating in the manner of that which he is trying to describe by way of it. Each house leads to another house, or three, or five, seven. Long I stood…
A pint of Guinness. The same black napkins. The woman serving me is wearing fishnet stockings; I’m envious. Christmas decorations still up, including a tall tree strung with blue lights. New Year celebrations will begin tonight and continue through the small hours of Tuesday morning. Is this the Cure? It might be. A man in a kilt just came in and walked a circle around the bar’s island, looking for a friend whom he only found after nearly completing a first orbit; he’d gone the wrong way. The bartender is the same person who’s been here since at least 2012, and whom I knew over a decade before as a patron when I was the bartender. What’s so bad about nostalgia anyway; the more nostalgic I feel, the more I feel at home.
I’m staying in the Romeo room at the Bard’s Inn tonight, not by design. It seems to be a theme of this trip, after the cafe in Berkeley. I should’ve grabbed a copy of it at the bookstore just now along with the book I did buy, on Virginia Woolf’s last years, which looks like it will be good. Romeo and Juliet (“a rose by any other name”), 1Henry IV (“yet herein will I imitate the sun”), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (“if we shadows have offended”), Henry V (“save ceremony, save general ceremony”). More delightfully still, Twelfth Night, Cymbeline, As You Like It, The Winter’s Tale, with their forests and bears and sheep and stormy seas. Long Day’s Journey Into Night, A Streetcar Named Desire, Two Trains Running. Intermissions spent speechless and reeling and trying to put oneself back together before reentry. They call theaters houses.
Shall I continue to thus list the plays that I have seen over the years here, or perhaps I should move on to the movies I saw at the Varsity? (American Beauty, Boys Don’t Cry, Eyes Wide Shut, Indignation.) Or maybe the names of people with whom I attended these plays and movies, and with whom I had drinks beforehand or afterwards, or with whom I took pre- or post-show walks in Lythia Park, in sunshine or under an archipelago of stars? Or just all of the books I bought and read in this small town, bought in the several bookstores and read in the even more cafes and bars, and on so many benches in the park, and on the swing on the deck at Robert and Steve’s? Shall I name my several loves from over a five-year period, where even at the thought of doing so I am struck immediately as though by lightning (“which doth cease to be / Ere one can say, ‘It lightens’”) by how many names and/or faces come to mind at once, and how quickly they then begin to proliferate and to replace one another—how can there be so many? and how is it that anything at all became of but so few (only no—that isn’t true, all were important, and are, and ever shall be)? Or shall I simply say where I went, and with whom, and what we did, day by day, night after night, in town, on the farm, in the various rooms of so many houses, where what most baffles me now is how little awareness I then possessed of the opportunities that were at that time mine—the dead and the unborn alike at my mercy—and the fortune that was all around me, even as I did make good, or at least decent, use of what had been bestowed upon me by circumstance, by general circumstance? Shall I write of first love, of Sunshine and lemon-flavored lip wax and the sound of drums coming from the high school football field behind a blanket-strewn shed (or of another shed in the rain in the garden and my yellow windbreaker)? Or shall I write instead of the dawning of actual vocation, and of what it means and what it meant to find a mentor and a teacher and a friend in a single person who was able to give another life, my own, a direction and purpose with respect to which it has not faltered since: Edward B. Versluis? What shall I write of? Write.
The swords that overhung your bed
you’d worked on hour after hour – restoring
their blades and: hafts? – their medieval lustre.
“My passion’s for the idiotically slow.”
Toothpick bridges, Chaucer, star formation.
A collection of bar coasters, I’d heard,
got you this job teaching dull students who,
no matter how you tried to sharpen their edges,
refused to be converted into brightness.
The idiotically slow? “There are limits.”
Ashland. Snow. Fever. Cold. Sunshine.
You sat in your office, feet propped on
a slightly open drawer, elbow on desk,
eating a sandwich packed that morning by
your second wife. The light came through
the window like a beam from a projector,
illuminating books ranged across shelves,
the colors of their bindings: brown, green, maroon.
was better, you maintained.
When cancer dealt
its mortal blow, its blade aflame
inside your bowels (“my malicious bowels!”),
I wondered if you’d given it hell. “Six months,”
they said. A year and a half later you
succumbed. You must have loved your death
the way you loved your swords; it was no less
Well. Today (12/29, Ashland>Otter Rock) the Oregon coast
is cloaked in fog and being lashed by rain.
Pacific waves crest white beneath a sky that’s overcast.
12.30.18 The End of December
Otter Rock. A little after noon. Just got back from a walk along the beach. Offshore, unseen, thousands of Gray Whales swim south. Last night, as I slept and dreamt, they swam past the window open just next to my head. I woke up periodically and inhaled the air of the coast, their air. They’re out there even now, swimming south: thousands of them, barnacled and massive.
I just got back from a walk on the beach. First, I walked south for a little while, towards the lighthouse, then back north. The sun came out from behind the clouds as I hopped over rivulets and watched brief, evanescent halos form around my shoes with each step firmly planted in the wet sand. I brought a cup of coffee with me: coffee, ocean, morning.
At ocean’s edge one stares and stares and stares,
The whales unseen like, during daytime, stars.