Oh, y’all, it is spring and it is glorious. And I’ve reached the point I find in every spring semester when I feel nineteen again, as if I’m back on the heady and blossoming campus of my youth, where everything seemed to come alive with promise and possibility and pheromones.
I’m not nineteen, of course—and that world is in many ways far away. (As you’ll see, a central setting of the first love story is a phone booth—an actual, bona fide, functioning phone booth—perhaps the best proof of all that this season I’m writing my way back toward is very, very distant.) Nostalgia’s a tricky thing, particularly if we aren’t wary of practicing “nostalgia without memory” (a lovely phrase I encountered in the past week, though I’ve got still to go back and track down where, exactly. Maybe David Remnick’s New Yorker article on the Bolshoi Ballet? I’m not positive). And so today I’ve returned to my piece “Aubade: A Revision,” originally published in You Must Be This Tall To Ride, B.J. Hollars’s project about the coming of age story. The project’s no longer available to readers, so I thought I’d post the text of my piece here.
This semester, I’ve been teaching a class on the American BildungsRoman, or coming of age narrative. And on one level, this piece of mine illustrates some of the tropes we’ve discussed in class: certainly, the idea of sexual maturity, particularly for female protagonists, shows up frequently in coming of age literature. And sometimes we do age in a single moment; I’ve admitted to my class that I’ve had moments in my life when I’ve realized that childhood is over (see my essay “Watching Your Brother Die” for starters). But for me, the real growth and the real work of this piece—or (let’s not be coy, as it is nonfiction) the real work of my own life, of my constant quest to be better—isn’t about any single event or defining moment. Rather, it’s more about learning how to be in community; thinking about how to be better (at teaching, at relating, at writing, at community, at love); and all the ways we might look back and realize how we might have improved on what we’ve done, who we’ve been.
I’ve never tried to track down my first love in any tangible way. No final phone calls or notes, no facebook friend requests. I’ve visited, for other reasons, his childhood neighborhood, but I’ve never driven past his home. When I decided we were done, it was finite: one morning, I woke up and drove away, and that was the end of whatever it was that we were.
But this piece is real: I go back to that room often, not really to revisit whatever it was that we were or because I want to pretend that its lifespan could have been longer than it really was, but because now, looking back, I know that whatever it was that we were deserved better than what I gave it, deserved a more compassionate ending than I allowed it.
So I don’t pretend that I’ll see my first love again. And he’s not likely to read any of my words; he wasn’t one to enter into “all this fiddle” (as Marianne Moore says) of poetry. But I know how much I’ve changed, and I like to think that maybe he has, too, that maybe someday he’ll stumble on some of my words. I say, truthfully, that all my stories are love stories. And they are. But as far as the stories about the first love are concerned, they’re apologies, too.
And that’s why I’m back at this piece today, because nostalgia without memory is dangerous. So each spring, as I’m energized by the coltish energy of April, I’m sobered by the knowledge of all those beginnings I fumbled, and by the conviction that I must keep trying to do better, love better.
Aubade: a revision
(Originally published in You Must Be This Tall To Ride)
This is not about the issue of Playboy you stored beneath the hospital bed, or about the phone booth where I found you years later, or even about your room near campus in a house I saw only once. No, this is about you prying the bark from my headlight and refusing to share the twin bed. It’s about me waking at dawn to the sound of baseballs spiraling into mitts worn by college boys, boys who understood what it meant to follow a process, boys who soaked their gloves in neatsfoot oil, stroking the leather until it softened and yielded, ready to embrace each Rawlings, each MacGregor. My brother labored to season the Wilsons his godfather sent each birthday, baking them in mother’s car on summer days in Alabama, retrieving them at dusk to tuck them under his mattress, using his weight to mold them, believing, like the woman who slumbered faithfully on a rooted, hand-hewn bed, that the man responsible for such gifts would someday return to recognize the handiwork.
Eventually my brother quit waiting, and now, fifteen years later, I’m sure that you have, too. But lately I’ve taken to meeting you there in that room overlooking the diamond, to coming back with coffee or vodka, to wearing your shirt that smelled like home or just walking in clothed in my own set of terrors, crumpling the note on your desk and waiting for you to rise.
Or sometimes you’re back at that phone booth, stranded because I never could give directions, and I’m circling town and telling the story: We said we’d meet at the first gas station to the right of the exit, only there isn’t a station for miles. Half the residents of that small town were out that night looking for you, the boy in a black car with out of state plates, so that they could set you back on my path, and this time when I find you in that phone booth I do not wait, but kiss you as the townspeople cheer around us.
Or else we’re sixteen again. We’re back in the recovery ward, and I’m pulling the blanket from your shoulders and running my hand down your chest until I meet the hem of your hospital gown, recuperation and caution and avoid all exertion be damned. I’m watching the monitor as your heart rate beep—beep—beeps all the way up to the nurse’s station, and a team runs in, alarmed, and discovers how I move you.
But most nights, you’re still bedridden and veiled in morphine, and I’m still too timid even to touch your hand near its IV. Love, I know I cannot save us. But I come anyway, slipping back until I find that room, smell the chlorine products the janitors favored, see the roses you could not have wanted, the crutches you cannot yet wield. I rescue that magazine from the place where you believe it is hidden, moving it from the tile to your pillow to keep you from waking alone.
I’m excited that my essay “Thirty-fifth” appears in the new issue of Poem Memoir Story, a journal out of Birmingham, AL. It’s one I’ve hoped to get into for years, and it’s nice to have finally accomplished that.
I wrote this essay as my birthday approached one year. I was feeling restless about it, anxious, and I decided to channel that by writing myself something—a commemoration of sorts, with one section per year. (That sounds really pretentious now, but hopefully if you read the essay, you’ll see that I was overwhelmed with grief and health issues, and writing was a way of working through those.) Anyway, I wrote 6 line-paragraphs, one for (though not necessarily describing or depicting) each year, choosing the arbitrary number 6 mostly because I knew I needed to rein in my words somehow, and that was the length of the first paragraph.
The essay ends before I decide how I’ll spend my upcoming birthday, and since I like to use this blog to give you, dear readers, an inside scoop, I’ll admit that I did go to the concert in question, that my dear friend Brian made sure (unknown to me) that the performers knew it was my birthday, that they serenaded me, that afterwards they invited me for celebratory tequilla shots; that initially I thought I’m a college professor who’s probably too old to be drinking with rappers, and that there was a moment in our tequilla-fueled conversation when I revealed to one of them that I’d graduated from Tuscaloosa’s Central High School, and suddenly I realized with that one sentence I’d established my credibility. He called and texted me periodically after that, which was a lovely and incongruous aspect of my life. (I wrote a different piece about him, and it’s been published elsewhere, though I’m guessing no one’s realized that he’s at the center of it, and I’m okay with not identifying it overtly.)
So that’s the unofficial conclusion to the essay. Today in our town it is warm and bright, and though I’ll be working most of the day, I might sneak the laptop outside to do so.
I’ve thought a lot this week about how to be better at the things that matter, and, frankly, this week’s giving me lots of opportunity for that. So I’ll end with a few lines from “Thirty-fifth,” as they still ring quite true to me. They’re describing a time when doctors thought I had a really serious heart-health issue. They were wrong, thankfully, and these lines describe the moments when they finally figured that out:
“My heart was, as I’d later read on the CT report, unremarkable….[The doctor] said Your heart is a normal size, and though I knew this was positive in physiological terms, it made me sad. I vowed again to live better, love bigger.”
So that’s the goal, the life’s work, the reason I almost always end these posts the way I do.
Love big, y’all.
At AWP (yes, a month ago now—oops) I picked up copies of my recent-ish print publications to send my college mentor, and I realized I’d never mentioned the publication of this particular poem. (Or a more recent essay, though I’ll get to it on a subsequent day.) It’s based on a fan letter I received from an actual inmate, who had read one of my prose poemsin a literary journal and wanted to know if I’d “care to make a genial pen friend.” His letter referenced Victorian lit, and the statues on Easter Island, and his crime—not naming it, but admitting that he had done it, that he had been imprisoned for nearly as long as I’d been alive.
The letter arrived at the school where I taught at the time (one reason I’m more circumspect these days in contributor’s notes), and my husband brought it home. I was in the bedroom when he gloated his way in, taunting, “I brought you mail.” Prisoners have to list the prison as the return address, so my husband knew this was not a typical letter. He tossed the letter on the bed, and I’ll admit that since then I’ve often thought of his action: He introduced the knowledge of violence to a place where there should not have been the knowledge of violence. He later admitted that he thought it was funny, that he suspected the letter was from a former student. (I want to return to this in a minute.) He later admitted that he had been wrong.
I really wrestled with how to respond to this letter. I wanted to write back—and frankly, over a year later, I still do. But last year was marked, for me, by violence of many kinds—threatened and actual, implicit and explicit, relatively minor and the kind that I’m still trying to find a vocabulary for.
In the midst of last spring, a cop looked at me and said, “You’ve got some strength in you,” and thankfully, in the subsequent moments when I most needed to believe it, I realized she was right. But she hadn’t yet told me that when I received my inmate’s letter. I hadn’t yet had to fight my way out (physically, yes, but also psychologically) of things no one should ever have to fight her way through. And even without those strains, I knew that I was unprepared to embark on this sort of proposed correspondence.
I still struggle with that, though. I believe in second chances, in redemption and rehabilitation, in grace and forgiveness. I believe in compassion and caring. I believe that reading literature can instill empathy, that books can help us envision new ways of being and relating. I know that I am who I am because people have taken chances on me when nothing about my being suggested that I deserved their faith.
And yet, I know that sometimes you have to concede things that are beyond you. And this one was—as my friend the DA made explicitly clear. (You lack both the proper security staff and, frankly, the cynicism to do this, she told me, and I knew she was right.) So I didn’t write a letter back to my inmate. (“My inmate”: yes, that’s how I think of him, though I don’t think too closely about what that might say about me.) And though he’s imprisoned for life, I have a google alert set up in his name, just in case.
So I didn’t write him back, but not writing him back bothered me, so eventually I wrote a poem about this whole experience (Yes, I changed the name of the prison, and no, you can’t identify him from the poem.) The poem proceeds in stanzas with different margins—reading down one set shows you the conversation I’d have with my inmate if I were to have a conversation with my inmate. Reading the other, you’ll see my reasons for not having the conversation. It’s a form I like a lot—the dialogue—though I’m aware, of course, that this dialogue is not real: unless the prison library gets OVS, he’ll likely never hear my response.
I’m not really Biblical, but isn’t there a line somewhere in the Bible about a voice calling out to the wilderness? If a poem is written for a person who never reads it….
Now that I type that, I realize most of my poems are written for persons who I believe will never read them. Or maybe that’s wrong, and really, they’re all—this one included—written primarily for me.
I said I was going to return to my students, though it seems odd to segue to them through a felon. This spring has held lots of interesting challenges in terms of classroom community building, but I genuinely like and enjoy (and in some wonderful, wonderful cases, admire the hell out of) my students. My senior (ish—some not-quite seniors made the cut too) seminar has particularly delighted me to no end, and when, in a few weeks, we’re no longer sitting down together for several hours a week, I’ll be genuinely sad about that. But I know my job is not to pull them tighter but to show them how very ready they are (and they are!) to move out into the world and share all their talents with it. I know it’s selfish to hoard them, though I’ll admit that I wish a little bit that I could.
Mostly, though, my affection for them has made me reappraise (yet again) my own relationship with my undergraduate mentor Tim, who’s still in my life some 15 years after my college career (and who’s still in my inbox about every month, slightly less in basketball season). When I graduated, I thought I’d used up all my allotted time with him, that we were done. It’s been the great joy of my life to realize that we aren’t, and now, watching my students prepare to embark to a slew of disparate places and pursuits, I finally understand what Tim means when he tells me, as I apologize once again for instigating yet another conversation, this is the fun stuff. I’m hoping my students will get it in ways that I didn’t, will realize that we’re only done when they want to be done, will write from their road, whether that road leads them to graduate school or their parents’ basement or jobs they don’t love or people they do, whether that road is papered with poems/stories/essays or whether they never write creatively again, whether they are whole and happy or desperate and broken. I hope that they will keep instigating conversations, will keep sending me their work, will keep telling me about things they fear, believe, covet, love. Some of them have already vowed, on their own volition, to write me, and I hope they do. I hope they all do.
I do not believe that any of these students will ever end up in prison. But I am grateful my husband believed that if my students were in prison, I am the kind of professor they would feel comfortable writing.
So y’all, if you’re reading (I know that some of you are reading) here’s the first instruction: don’t go to prison! But here’s the second: wherever you go, write me. For you all, I’ll always write back.
Yesterday the new issue of Cave Wall arrived. It’s a journal I’ve long admired, and I’m really excited that my poem “Selling the Saddle” appears in this issue. The editors call the poem a “mini-epic,” which is their very nice way of acknowledging that it’s really long (seven pages!). I’m deeply grateful to them for making such a commitment in publishing something so sprawling.
This poem means a lot to me. When I wrote it, in early 2010, I didn’t know what the rest of the year held for me, at least not exactly. And yet, somehow I wrote myself a survival guide, and it helped.
Last night we went to a local military cemetery, where the graves are adorned with luminarias (that’s apparently the correct plural of the word, though it seems odd to me). A year ago, I couldn’t face the ritual of Memorial Day so ran away to the coast and did my best to forget what day it was. But last night, sitting on the hill, I looked out at the candles and realized it was okay. That’s not to say subsequent times won’t be difficult, but just that for that night, I was all right. And that was good.
Be brave, y’all. Love big.