Tuesday, September 20, 2011


Last night, I started reading Elyn R. Saks's "The Center Cannot Hold." Saks's opening chapters do a deft job of defining the essential problems of living with various kinds/causes of instability: how does one expect to find a center, and then, what will give the center integrity such that one can trust it to hold? Her answer, it seems, is to begin and sustain a thoughtful dialogue about meaning and stability, so as to measure the gaps against the continuing pieces. This runs counter to one contemporary response to loss, which is to give it definitive beginnings and ends, to say that, much like an infection is cured by antibiotics, or a trash can is emptied and taken across town to the county dump, so too can we tinker with and compartmentalize the events and interruptions in a life. Later, Saks notes, "While medication had kept me alive, it had been psychoanalysis that helped me find a life worth living." Saks’s memoir looks to be, I think, the last entry in a summer's worth of solid memoir/essay reading (looking to my Kindle: In Pharaoh's Army, The Duke of Deception,History of a Suicide, A Journey with Two Maps, Speak, Memory, Just Kids, Memoranda During the War, Notes from No Man's Land, The Traveling Death and Resurrection Show, Reality Hunger).

Saks's "center" is a terrific concept. It suggests flatness, a total absence of hierarchy, and valuing by proximity, infinitely. But it also suggests limitation. Saks believes in the value of continuity, but also in defining limits, taking breaks, making choices, understanding opportunity costs. I don’t know that these are easy criteria to understand when writing about personal experience. It seems that the impulse to say everything often supersedes the selected moment, while representation in the particular event or action requires some sense of narrative, order, hierarchy. There is a nice moment at the beginning of season 2 of Breaking Bad, when a strung-out drug dealer shows up at an old friend’s house, and prattles on about how great it will be to get their band back together, while the friend feeds his toddler Cheerios, smiling, humoring him, catching every third word. As my friend Kelly once suggested, in a different context, it’s terrible to become a parody of oneself. Perhaps, also, to revisit the same old self, in the same ways, for the same reasons, again and again.

Paul Begala's recent Newsweek column makes a terrific defense of the U.S. federal government. He calls it "the greatest force for good in human history. Period." This might be a bit of an overreach--David Plotz has argued that China, in bringing basic amenities to hundreds of millions of its citizens, far outpaces other nations in the 20th century--but it is good to see someone thoughtfully, and outside of the usual Democratic talking points, taking up the cause of big government. Regulation instead of enterprise, obligation instead of need. It feels much-needed, but then I also understand that there is rarely much new under the American political sun. Perhaps Obama's reelection prospects come down to whether there is really any new way to triangulate entrenched interests. Clinton figured it out, but somehow nostalgia for the 90s seems to come forward in this conversation, rather than entitlement or tax reform. How strange to witness such nostalgia, especially considering that, as we lived through it, the dominant feeling seemed to be that we were tunneling head-first through a vacuous wasteland of recycled ideas about music, fashion, writing, and culture.

I gave a reading last week in San Francisco, as part of Jen Pitts’s terrific It’s Gotta Be True series, at Viracocha. The night before the reading, I practiced for Cait a lengthy quasi-academic introduction. It seemed important to give some kind of context for the poems, to prepare the audience a little before starting off. Cait said she liked the remarks, but they were dry; why not open instead with a story? When I was an undergraduate, I keep these two quotes pegged on note cards over my writing desk (Norman Mailer: the mark of the mediocre mind is to seek precedent;Warren Beatty: if you have a secret to keep, keep it). Then, I believed these quotes explained everything I would need to know in order to begin a writing life. Now, it seems funny, a little embarrassing, that I found such comfort in these semi-maxims, which would seem to exclude structurally much of what I try to do in my writing. How had I gotten it so wrong? Had these pithy phrases stuck with me for a reason? These seemed like important questions for understanding the creative process that enabled me to write the poems I eventually read that night.

I have alternated awe and ambivalence at the clips of Jim Corneilson singing the national anthem at Soldier Field, on the 10th anniversary of the September 11th attacks circulating via email and Facebook. Awe, because his is a magnificent and big-hearted performance, a patriotic march without the usual shock and timbre of a big brass band, that nonetheless riles a nervous crowd to dizzying heights of feeling. It's hard not to cheer along, to swell with feeling. Ambivalence, because there is something compensatory in that feeling, a desire for closure and triumph where it has yet to take, that feels, at the end, more than a little frantic and preemptive. What are we rooting for? Who are we rooting against? Where is the uncertainty, the intervening time that accommodates reflection, analysis, measured action in response? There is the initial deference, then the longer-term uncertainty that sets in and usually does not resolve with group singing. Perhaps a football game is not the right place to undertake nuanced contemplation, but then when and where is? It seems a state of permanent victimhood to insist repeatedly that one is unaffected and also stronger after a traumatic loss. It is a kind of willed imperviousness that makes me deeply uncomfortable.

Perhaps this is one expression of elegy, to name those symbols that contain grief and make it portable, even durable, as the world around it changes; think of the painted nails on Meghan O'Rourke's Aunts, Jack Gilbert's potted avocado,Longfellow's Cross of Snow. Paul Simon's performance of "The Boxer" on Saturday Night Live, shortly after September 11th, gets at the uncertainty and contemplation that follows grief and trauma in a much more meaningful way for me. Will we survive, seems the right question, followed closely by, And to what will we return? I love the ovation that Simon gets at the end. It is pure catharsis, unexpected, as though the audience had forgotten for a moment that it wants to applaud, that the song might end unexpectedly, without cue or triumph. What a testament to and expression of the shock and awe of having been attacked, and of feeling defenseless--the first gesture of naming and sustaining the true center that will hold after the one we imagined fell apart.

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