Thursday, April 17, 2008

Little Souvenir

There's a passage in A Moveable Feast where Hemingway talks about the writing work that the mind does while he is walking around Paris, hungry, in the early evenings after he’s left his writing desk. The hunger gives his subconscious the clarity it needs to consider, then store away until morning, the major revisions it needs to do while he’s engaged in the daily stuff of living. Hemingway claims that he never talked about a work in progress during this period for fear of disrupting, then ultimately losing those revisions. While much of the historical detail in his memoir is score-settling apocrypha (including one especially petty anecdote about Fitzgerald), I've always liked and generally abided by this principle when writing. It seems to me as a good an explanation as any of The Muse(s), who auspiciously, if sometimes quite forcefully, gives us the means to put whole poems on the page without much, if any, awareness of the process we're undertaking.

I thought of this process recently after writing and then accidentally erasing the beginning of a poem I’d spent all morning and afternoon revising. When I reopened MSWord, I tried to write down the lines that seemed the most distinct and powerful, but couldn't remember any of them. Not one. The whole thing had come out onto the page, taken shape, taken more shape, and then finally, briefly, existed on the page before disappearing into the ether forever. I can't tell you what was lost. Something about water, branches, a reflection. Which sounds like a good 60% of the poem I've ever written, and many of the ones I've posted here. It wasn’t such a big deal to lose that poem because I felt like I’d written it, in one form or another, before.

In general, I feel like I've reached a place with my grief where I can't figure out how to keep making new sense. It’s ironic: I’ve been working really hard at getting to the bottom of things, and, well, here I am. This is the bottom and this is what I know. Love begins. Love ends. Life goes on. Sometimes it doesn't. I like being an uncle. I miss Katie. I miss being married. I feel bad about the times we didn't get along so well. We were both pretty human. I loved Katie. Katie loved me. It felt good to be loved. It felt good to be married. Now I feel lonely. Except when I don't. Point being, maybe there are only so many questions, so many words, to put into play? But, then what else do we have, if not the asking?

The year before we applied to graduate school, while Katie and I were living in Chicago, I read Stephen Covey's
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. I'm pretty sure that Habit #1 (Be Proactive) inspired Ben and I to start the now-defunct East Side Chicago Writer's Group, while Habit #4 (Think Win/Win) and Habit #7 (Sharpen the Saw) inspired the ill-advised acquisition of a few hundred business cards with the word “poet” just below my name. Some of the ideas in the book (emotional bank account, sphere of anxiety vs. sphere of influence) continue to stick in my mind as good general principles. My dad is in town this week, and over dinner we got to talking about the book. Aren’t the ideas in Covey's book so obvious and straightforward as to be grounded in common sense: try hard, make your own decisions, don't be a jerk, care for your family, take time out of the day for yourself, etc.?

These days, the Chicago doc is big on short-term distinctions and long-term continuity. He’s especially keen on carefully separating out chance and volition: some things happen randomly, others you intend, and to confuse the one with the other is to needlessly complicate the sufficiently challenging task of living. He’ll say things like, “The rich get richer in therapy” and “you felt guilty about things before Katie died, it makes sense that you’ll feel guilty afterwards,” and I’ll walk away feeling the uniqueness of my current situation within the context of a long tradition of having always been myself. I like the sort of portable knowledge that I get out of therapy. It’s good to know that much of what happens in life happens in recognizable patterns, and that if you have the right guide then there is a kind of general approach to getting through.
All roads lead to Damascus, and that sort of thing.

All week I’ve listened compulsively to Here’s Where the Story Ends by The Sundays. I've had it on repeat since reading a recent A.V. Club feature on first-and-best albums. So much of what I like about the song works like a good poem: internal rhymes, parataxis (oh yeah!), the mid-composition questions, the final chorus’s single-word substitution that turns the mood from despairing to wistful. If the guitar work and vocals shades just shy of Sixpence None the Richer, the lyrics deliver one of the better riddles of early 90s, overstuffed-sofas-and-vests-on-blurry MTV2-era indie rock. What is the oft-mentioned "little souvenir" and how does it transform “a terrible year" into one that is merely "colorful"?

When I first started this blog, I thought it was going to be some an all-rounder assembling of my publications, interesting links, and cribbed ideas—rather than forwarding emails to friends and family, I’d just post here and let folks check in and pick through what they like. Then, it became a tribute: photos, songs, and memories that said something simple, clear, and direct about Katie and her life. Now, it seems to be more about the process of grief and living with loss, the muddling through with an eye toward some changes on the horizon. It’s difficult to view recent events in the context of a whole life. It’s exhausting to step back and sort of let things happen, to not feel like there is an element of control to everything. Isn’t all of life some actualization of that scene from Annie Hall where Woody Allen compares failing relationships to sharks?

Katie could live in a moment better than anyone I knew. Her stock answer to the question of what she wanted to be when she grew up was, “Happy.” Given some down time, she’d take a nap. And, often, another one. I’ve been working on this essay for Marginalia, about writing and living during the last year, and it’s been refreshing, if difficult, to sit down and think, okay, what are those qualities that, for me, beyond adjectives and grief-driven platitudes, made Katie essentially “Katie”?

Jack Gilbert writes elegy magnificently. His book The Great Fires speaks elegantly, and with a kind of deep withstanding and love of life, when grieving for and remembering his wife, Michiko. The book is full of an awareness of loss that resonates in much of my favorite art. Picking the "best" Gilbert poems is akin to putting the table of contents onto a dartboard, blindfolding yourself, and letting loose--chances are, whatever you hit will be exceptional. Still, two poems, in particular, stand out for me (scroll down on the page for each): "Married" and "Trying to Have Something Left Over."

Gilbert has made a literary life outside of the contemporary spotlight. He still has his seat at the table (much of his most recent book appeared first in The New Yorker), but he spends long periods of time living in rustic isolation, abroad, rather than teaching at a university. Equally anachronistic, he writes a rhetoric-driven lyric about big ideas—“heart,” “stone,” “death,” “moon,” “beauty,” “muse,” “love,” “stars”—from which many contemporary American poets shy away, and about which whole schools of criticism insist there can be no consensus or meaningful holding forth. Gilbert has only published four books in his lifetime—Views of Jeopardy (1962), Monolithos (1984), The Great Fires (1994), and Refusing Heaven (2005)—following a minimalist approach to publishing embraced by greats like Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath, and most recently, Robert Hass. I like to think that Gilbert takes so much time bringing out books because his insights and ideas require long periods of incubation, that it takes a long time for poems of this caliber to mature.

Those of you who know me well know of my general enthusiasm for the songwriting skills and early biography of Kris Kristofferson (for those of you who don’t, well, here’s where the gloss comes off a little). I contend that he’s in that class of greatly-underappreciated contemporary American songwriters that includes Susan Werner, Guy Clark, Damien Jurado, etc. I love everything about the version of “Sunday Morning Coming Down” that Kris did at CMT’s Tribute for Johnny Cash shortly after his death: the words he chose to introduce it, the understated way in which he played it, how clearly the feeling comes across in the singing. Johnny’s favorite Kristofferson song wasn’t “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” It was “Here Comes That Rainbow Again,” a two-verse parable adapted from a scene in the movie adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath. Katie preferred East of Eden, but all the same, this song makes me think of the regular, small, understated things that Katie did on a daily basis, that make her absence so challenging for family and friends. It’s the part of Katie that I like to think we’re all doing our best to keep in circulation, regardless of what does and does make sense.


KATE EVANS said...

John, this is too strange, but one of the last things my father and I did together was watch Walk the Line. (That was the night he died; just a few hours later, he was gone.) When the movie was over, Dad had asked me how old Cash was when he died. I look it up on the internet and told him "71", and Dad said, "Imagine that, I outlived Johnny Cash." Also, that day, Dad and I had gotten into two arguments about two different things. When I talked to my sister about the guilt I felt, she said she felt great guilt, for different reasons. Perhaps we feel guilt because the conversation can't go on--there is no continuing the patterns of relationship. The sense of things being stopped makes certain moments reverberate in their unfinishedness. Yet that's the nature of life, unfinished.

I know what you mean about grief platitudes. That's something I've been struggling with as I've been writing a memoir about my parents.

Kayla said...

My favorite paragraph is the 3rd one. I like having you as an uncle.(:

This whole post was greatt.

Marcus said...

This blog is awesome--so many hyperlinks, so little time!

Thanks for the Kris K; that brought me back a few years to long ago conversations at Northwestern.

Look forward to the essay in Marginalia.