Tuesday, January 29, 2013


I am fully present in my world. This morning, even the radio was singing it. "You've got the music inside you--don't let go!" a man grunted earnestly from a radio station up the Peninsula and across the Bay. Had we met? Would we ever meet? Transcribing them just now, I had the lyrics wrong. I had to look them up. I remembered him singing, "You can do it! The music is inside you!" but when I checked the station's website playlist against a YouTube video of the song, I made my corrections. What he meant he sang over and over, screaming, in falsetto, in deep reverb, in fragments of words and sentences, in full garble-rock parody mode, until the song itself dissolved into delay and feedback. Maybe the song needed to be a certain length, or he had only written the choruses. Maybe I was meant to be fixed by the choruses because the hook was so good no one really cared about the words around it. The hypnotic quality of the song was undeniable. It said nothing else for any length of time. Did it even matter what else he was telling me? It was the end of the world unless I held onto the music.

My first year as a Peace Corps volunteer, in Bangladesh, the office staff from the capital would sometimes stop in to say hello, passing through on the major highway from the North. I remember once hearing Santana's "Smooth," muffled and from a distance. I was sitting in my cement room, trying to write poems by hand, which never worked. Usually, I just wrote out lines from poems I admired, then went back and tried to change enough of the words until the rest felt like my own. I felt terribly guilty. I had no idea this was how many students of poetry tried to become young poets. The working title of the poem I wrote unsuccessfully all summer was "Etude for the Map-Makers." The poem I cribbed was James Merrill's "Lost in Translation." I don't read German, but I had the footnotes from the powder blue Norton Anthology of Poetry I had slugged across oceans. I was doing my best to turn the widowed French nanny into a reticent professor of astronomy who loved baseball--it was that kind of poem--when a car door clicked opened, Santana played a few licks, Rob Thomas liberated from inside an SUV sang his flat vibrat; looking down from my window I watched the assistant director step out of his glacial mobile palace and into the monsoon heat, his sunglasses instantly fogged. Santana makes anyone's arrival instantly memorable, though probably I was just thrilled at the distraction, a small part of my country instantly conjured to make the day distinct and memorable. I was that kind of American abroad.

I thought at the time that "Smooth" was a pretty corny song. Now I don't know. I certainly don't seek it out, it's not on my iPhone, friends don't bust out late-90s Santana albums at barbecues, playdates, and weddings. But writing this, I have listened to "Smooth" three or four times in a row, and it seems to be the sort of song one has to listen to a few more times to get out of the system. Anyway, our destination was some roadside restaurant recommended by the bus drivers. I rode in that enormous white Land Rover chilled to 60-odd degrees for a good hour. I liked it. I sat on a leather seat and looked out tinted windows, as we crossed the Bangabandhu (roughly: International Friendship) Bridge over the Jamuna River, past towns and food stalls, rickshaws, motor taxis, and row after row of tire stores on either side of the bridge, next to the bus depots. How quickly out there had become in here. From which vantage did I really mean to be looking in or out was still something else I stole from James Merrill, and probably also Robert Frost, at least until the assistant director slapped me on the arm, smiled, and said, "Hey, now isn't this wild! I mean, does Santana know how to rock or what?!"

My nieces recommended Cait and I watch "Pitch Perfect" last night. About five minutes in, Cait looked over at me and said, "I love absolutely everything about this movie!" I liked it, too, but I also kept thinking, "Wait, so that's a thing now?" Meaning, A Capella is a thing now? Mash-up mixes are a thing now? Vomit jokes are a thing now? How exceptionally hard everyone seemed to be working in the movie to have a good time; in that cinematic/montage-y, harmless and friendly, making-an-old-thing-new way, the ideals of friendship and shared purpose cleared all obstacles. Had I ever enjoyed anything in college so un-ironically as the students of Barden University enjoyed harmonizing? Could anything be enjoyed without such complication anywhere except onscreen? Whither now, slacker ethos? Though I'm sure someone asked the same things about Flashdance, Footloose, House Party, Armageddon.

I am ambivalent about the asynchronous tendencies of our contemporary age. They seem derivative, and more than a little resigned, where I might hope we would be, well, hopeful and innovative, perhaps even a little uncertain. Or, at least, a little less aggregated and codified. I think the dissension here is from broad nostalgia: not feeling constantly somewhere and someplace else, however comforting the impulse. When I first came back to the United States from Bangladesh, the Blockbuster video store was stacked wall to wall with copies of the movie, Freddy Got Fingered. I enjoyed my ironic disdain: So this is what I had missed in two years away. Once, briefly, Tom Green was a very big thing. According to IMDB, Freddy is an unemployed cartoonist who moves back in with his parents, then accuses them of sexual abuse when they insist he gets a job. Probably I'll get this wrong, but let me guess that Freddy recants, gets the girl, moves out of the house, and writes a bestseller graphic novel about the whole experience.

A little more than a month ago, I found out that my memoir, Young Widower, won the River Teeth Book Prize and will be published in 2014 by the University of Nebraska Press. It's exciting news. I'm looking forward to sharing the book and seeing it in print. I'm not really sure what having a book published will be like. I've done my best to watch the people around me doing it. One of the great and humbling things about working where I do is seeing so many talented writers have success. It's hard, I guess, to get a sense of scale about expectations in a bull market. More to the point, it's sort of mind-boggling to approach what seems like the first significant marker of a writing life. Everything that was one hypothetical is becoming both linear and tangible; I will hold the book in my hands, on or around its publication date, when people will read it, at which point it will sit on bookshelves and library racks with other books. Then, it's what to write next, and how. I always imagined my first book would be a collection of poems. I never imagined I would have the occasion to write the memoir I did. The shape of my own writing life has not changed very much in the last fifteen or so years, even as the life that sustains it seems distinct, even fragmented away from any sense of a sequence. But those lives sustain each other, which I suppose is a kind of fortune; certainly, at times like this, an occasion for gratitude.

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