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
here’s stephen tully dierks who emerged on the message board
with his cow lick and his blue eyes and his thirty page pdf
in every interview in the early ’tens two or sometimes three author photos
tumblr aesthetic, minimal variation, a kitchen with a microwave
postcards taped to the cupboards. they knew how to sell poetry
and that selling died with them, or a version of it did
and it was all probably going to die anyway. felled by Instagram
or TikTok or poets petting poets who didn’t want to be pet
publishing a document that everyone wants to be in even if it looks bad
glad I never wrote that angry essay from my messy vantage. my vice
is wondering how it can be better when I am just outside
my vice is telling the car who ran me over how bad that was
but to pull your wheels over a pedestrian is not such a bad thing
what’s good or bad is not for me to decide. from my vantage
I am only a squashed little ant. I am only spinning on the wheel
of someone who has somewhere to go. for some poetry is vice
it is dangerous, it is God. oh and these men who are poets can sadly be bad
who am I to shout that with my mouth split on the asphalt
aside from the crayon I’d ground into the speakers
the only thing on TV was Woody Woodpecker
or at least that was all I could remember, the bird popping
his head out of the trees and laughing at whoever
wanted him dead. I guess I wanted more of that bird
wanted to be in the trees, wanted his defiance
my brain rotted by a three-colour cartoon and a limited
orchestra. my brain and the sounds in the house
that were not quite music. that were limited, the laughter,
wanting the bird dead. we moved from that house
to another and another and another still, retreating finally
to a place where the birds made that sound themselves
high up knocking on the rotten wood. we were close
in. we were living in a wood house they did not knock on.
the TV I last saw in a basement regularly flooded by rain
I would turn it on and let it speak in soft tones. I played
on the tiles. I let the sounds tell me what was and was
not there. I tried to remember that they were far away
last night it was too warm for January and we’ve already cranked
all the baseboards and it’s too late in the season to be on our knees
teasing them back and forth with every change so we cracked the window
heard the birds chirp with the first light after a night of turning
now I feel slow and pensive like grey Indy in the photo my dad sent an hour ago
with the subject line FINAL PARTING and Fawn says oh no Paul that’s too dark
though I have just listened to Elizabeth explain the illness in great detail
the diarrhea on the stairs and on their balcony and before the elevators
some rupture or blockage—but not a tear—experienced in the two weeks
they kennelled him as they prepared to move home, how he ran back
to the kennellers to say one final goodbye, remembered he once as a puppy escaped
at the pound and the other dogs just watched him run
which never happened, so impressed they called him Houdini said some dogs
are just liked by other dogs, no one knows why
seemed to carry this until Saskatoon, no one knows what happened in the belly
of the plane or maybe it was a calcification slow and natural
being in the city or living with my parents or growing older, and faster
as all dogs do, but he grew suspicious, hated air balloons
and mailmen, both newly abundant, and never seen before—now he’s dead
remember how he used to climb up an ex when we were dating
as she crouched to pet him, her and no one else, perhaps he just wanted
to get a little higher and saw an opportunity, no one could explain
how he happened in our yard or why my parents felt so compelled to go back
and bring him home, just as I can’t tell you how I knew today
he was the little brown bird caught beyond the automatic doors
running in circles through the store
If I’m going to be irresponsible I might as well be that way with writing. I make lots of room for interruption—not only because I am burnt out, as I tell myself daily, but because I am cultivating feeling interrupted, something I’ve worked on for a long while.
Would it be possible to go back to who I was before the pandemic? Sure, I still felt lost in things from time to time, but I was never very far from me. Or at least that’s how it often feels, looking back now. I must remind myself that I have felt this numerous times in my life, and even then. Thinking that there was something I could go back to, when I was more thoughtful and intelligent. It is dangerous to feel so consumed by nostalgia for something that never really was.
Remember Sam Lipsyte’s words: writing is a competition, not a race. Was writing here for one reason: to scrape out the inside of my brain. To turn it out, read my own insides for clues.
If I’m going to put anything off, it should be to read. Even if I don’t do it carefully. Why am I alive if not to read, and write, and love?
Reading is its own end. Reading brings me closer. Last night I approached the agitation necessary for writing. The agitation and passion that is the beginning of anything and which I have not felt in a long time, not like that.
Like a boil rising on my skin but something impossible comes out, a horn perhaps, or music. Like I’m firing a gun into the night without a target. Scattershot—like in high school, watching a TV or reading science fiction or going outside and looking at the trees, feeling a vague buzzing that I want to capture but don’t quite know how.