MODEST WILDERNESS after Milosz’s “Modlitwa wigilijna”
Maria comes, hungry for silence, Unable to sing her one million worries. Not once will she speak in this poem. It will be as if the poor mutt never was. Here in this place we both sit.
No wildness or jesting tonight Tonight is for lonely magicians, Not for us to travel, under a bright warm parasol, Not for us to break the quiet. A grey bird calls as it swoops between buildings.
The proud blithe pedestrians here, They want what they can never have. Astrology, the Chaldeans, and Ur— Mystical panic of an ancient heart. Smartly a poem can say nothing Something it could never otherwise speak.
God it’s so hot on the deck where we sit in the two chairs I found on the street, you in your new slip and me in my shorts and t-shirt and hat. The sun sears everything, paint is stripped and bleached and the Coleman cooler that R put under the table in 2017 has lost its blue skin. Two tables finally collapsed this spring, and the wood of the deck is so thin I could put my bare foot through the railing. We sit baking in the two new chairs which are the only things that feel as if they are vital, aside from ourselves. The two chairs, castoffs from some wealthy household, with the bright blue cushions which will themselves I know become bleached in time. Behind you a robin feeds its chick, whose little head peeks out of the nest and when it has eaten waits patiently for the father to return. I think briefly that we should put the chairs together, facing the same direction, since that is the way we sit most comfortably outside, but it is nice too to sit across from you and see you with your crossed legs and your golden hair and your tattoo on your left foot. I want to reach you to touch you but you are too far. On the old TV aerial there is another bird, perhaps the baby robin’s mother or perhaps another species entirely, and it is keeping watch, but when I point to it you say the sky is too bright for you to see. Oh to sit out on the deck and be beaten down by the light. Oh to be out there with you as the sun’s rays punch us to nothing.
I have been hungry for the language of Chaucer. Some interior gnawing, growing every day in strength. Perhaps I always desire Chaucer at this time of year—in May, when the leaves become thick and the air is redolent with flowers, which recalls Chaucer’s dreamers peacefully drifting off in the surprising new heat of spring. I have just read—I am unsure if for the first time—Borges’s “Translators of the Arabian Nights.” In that essay he praises the Burton translation, which he notes others find so successful because “Chaucer’s English” is so close to the thirteenth century Arabic original (Borges clarifies that he also sees, in the translation, the influence of Urquhart’s Rabelais). But it is the words themselves—Chaucer’s words—which I long for, now with an additional desire: that their vocabularly might work some deep interior change in me, perhaps something like the translation from winter to spring works on trees. So that later commentators will feel obligated to note that it is Chaucer’s English that I speak.
For the Pennance that Man Taketh of Himselfe Was Not Shewid Me—
To Calais, I thought, to Calais where I will eat chicken fricaseed So much in France that if I died my effects to the king and no one else— From the bedroom to the kitchen to the office and up stairs and down And the doorframe of the bathroom and in the tall ship from Dover… Oh how little I wanted to be there! Dover, Calais, a chicken waiting Fricaseed in the little parlour facing the king’s portrait, the king With his chickens, his tall men with chicken legs, they call this Calais, Calais, Calais, this feeling, these men, this steaming dinner If only I could turn this ship around scorn this scowling shore, forget Calais Forget this feeling, if I could bow before some one other than the king The king and myself and his portrait—
Whenever I travel I draft an entire book, in pencil, in the back of whatever I’m reading. On Sunday it was a series of short stories based of A.L. Snijders’s “zkv’s,” or very short stories, ninety-nine of which have recently been translated into English by Lydia Davis. I want to document the whole trip, the flight to Fredericton and the return, in Snijders’s gnomic style (which doesn’t not share a resemblance, at least superficially, with what I sometimes try to write here). In the air I can see the drama of the trip, and of my life, in a way that interests me less on the ground. As you can see, I’m already giving them up. Maybe if I had started writing them then (we only had an hour and fifty minutes on the entire flight) I would have kept working once we returned home. But instead, for the last part of our trip I put on a basketball podcast and held F’s hand (she’s terrified of flying) while I looked out the window, watching the earth change below. I knew it would be more difficult than it seems on its surface to write an entire piece in fragments that maintain a duty to themselves even as they also build toward a larger narrative.
When I was in the first year of my undergraduate degree, the author of one of the books we had read that year came to visit the class. He spoke a little bit about writing, answered a few questions, and afterwards sat at the front of the class and signed our books. When it was my turn I told him that I thought the book was “perfectly constructed,” a compliment he took gracefully though I had meant it as an insult (I was an anxious little shit who couldn’t quite get it off). I didn’t like the TA for the course, who I thought wore herself as if her own body was a suit of armour, in a permanent defensive posture. She confirmed my dislike when she stood up and asked a question which seemed only to demonstrate that she’d paid attention, reading up on the author outside of the class. It was something like “How do you feel, now that you’ve been named one of Knopf Canada’s ‘New Faces of Fiction’?” Though I’ve heard very little about the book, or about the writer, in the almost two decades since the visit, at the time he was doing well, and he mentioned using the money from the book to buy a house on the Danforth. Now we’re friends on Facebook. Thinking about all of this now I have the sudden urge to ring him up, and ask him if he remembers the visit, as if we are old friends, though his author visit remains the only time I’ve ever spoken to him.
Lydia Davis writes that the project of Michel Leiris’s long autobiographical essay collection The Rules of the Game is to “write himself into existence,” and that in doing so he is following Michel Foucault, who said in an interview that a writer is “not simply creating his work in his books, in what he publishes… his principal work is in the end himself writing his books.” (Essays II, 392.) I remember sitting across from the extremely cramped little card table in M’s apartment, where we worked on our laptops and ate mostly silent meals, and her saying, in response to some story I had told about growing up or about the years of writing and loneliness immediately preceding that it was like I had written myself into existence, which was true at the time especially because there was very little of me outside of that writing. One of us—I forget who—imagined it as pulling myself out of the muck. I thought of Fernando Pessoa and The Book of Disquiet, which I imagined as a similiar project, working so hard to build form out of what seemed impossibly various.In many ways this blog (over so many years) has been the most obvious example of that long effort, and my hiatuses—or times when I have substituted more confessional writing for something more difficult to parse—are examples of times where I have, for various reasons, put that project on hold. Or at least publicly done so.
Similarly, in Thomas Hoccleve’s Complaint the speaker (who we can safely assume is Thomas) complains about what it is like to return to society after suffering a long mental illness, with few believing that he has regained his sound mind. He looks in a mirror, practicing appearing in control, and imagines that if people just saw him like that they would believe that he was alright again. In his poem Dialogue, which follows immediately afterwards, a friend—who may or may not be fictional—arrives and Thomas tells him about his desire to cleanse his body (of its “guilt… foul and unclene”) through translation of the consolatory Latin treatise Lerne for to Die. The friend is worried about this project, since he believes Hoccleve’s mental illness already to be the result of “overstudy” (which may be true). Perhaps the job of the writer is balancing the need for rest with the desire to transform oneself. Writing is magic, in that its concerted practice can effect change not only on the world which receives it (as in Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius) but also on the body and the mind of the writer. (I have my own translation project that I imagined clarifying or cleansing me.)
Every so often—when I feel at my worst—I imagine that I don’t have time for the writing that I like to do, or that in order to do it I have to wait for circumstances to be perfect. This is never correct—more often I write myself back into sanity. Therefore I am writing this post in the middle of the night, on the eve of a short trip. Soon I will go to bed. I am nurturing the most urgent part of myself, one sentence at a time.
POEM FOR PUPPETS AND STRAY DOGS translation from nowhere
when they forget their lines we go down to the street stray dogs move in and out of the crowd tear-gassed canines rushing at the police I am a forgotten part of myself. I am biting the cop’s neck they don’t know how to keep us from speaking like that until we can taste the blood—until it runs from their throats— on TV a good puppet plays the part of a leader until the strings come into view. until they try to sweep us away there’s nowhere you could put us all. nowhere we would go without biting