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.
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.
My poem “Vertigo” appears in the latest print issue of AGNI, which makes me very happy.
Last year I started taking a yoga class, and I enjoyed it a lot, even though I found it challenging. I’m not good at being single-minded——I tend to multi-task on many things. So the idea of meditation was difficult for me. I liked it, but it took a while to master. The poem arose from one of those pre-mastery moments.
In the same fall, my brother started doing yoga, too. He did it at the rehab facility he was at, as a way to learn coping and stress management and relaxation. We laughed every now and then about the incongruity of it—-he wasn’t prone to meditation or introspection.
After he died, I went back to my yoga class. I cried through the first one—the first thing I did by myself after he died—but I got through it. I quit going eventually, for a number of reasons (someone very loud joined the class, and I just found it not very restful any more), but I do it on my own sometimes.
This summer, at the start of a long road trip, I found myself at the family farm. We were in the den, watching the tribute to “Big Man” Clarence Clemmons. I moved into a pose, steadying my gaze on something in front of me. At some point, I realized that one of my friends had turned around to watch me rather than the television, but I couldn’t meet his gaze—I knew that moving my eyes would make me lose my balance.
There’s a metaphor here somewhere, but I’m not going to reach too far for it.
Or maybe the point of the story is that I’d learned the value of focus.
Or maybe morals are myths and O’Brien is right: there’s no moral, no true way to tell a story of war or any sort of battle.
But we keep going, keep reaching, keep telling. And ultimately, I think that’s good.
Last night, in the midst of a 13 hour trip back from Thanksgiving break, I learned that the editors of the fabulous journal Nano Fiction have nominated my forthcoming piece “Pleurisy” for a Pushcart Prize. I was stunned and honored and thrilled. I’ll post about the prose poem itself when I have the issue in hand (any day, I hear), but I figure this deserved its own mention.
Many thanks to editors Kirby Johnson & Glenn Shaheen—-not just for the nomination, but for believing in the work and giving it a home.
And check out Nano Fiction! I submitted to them because I like the work they’re doing, and I’m honored to be among their authors.