On Downton Abbey, House Parties, and Surviving AWP

Posted on February 28, 2012


A few days ago I went to a house party with poetry. The occasion was an incantatory reading by poet Karen Chase, start-to-finish, of her book-length poem, “Jamali-Kamali: A Tale of Passion in Mughal India” (Mapin Publishing, India 2011). As a starting point, Karen Chase knew only this: just off Mehrauli-Gurgaon Road in Delhi, India, the 16th century Sufi court poet Jamali is buried in a tomb next to Kamali, of whom the printed matter says “identity unknown,” but the guides told her Kamali was the poet’s lover. Almost nothing is known about either, and so Chase imagines their love and their longing — all of it — a product of her own unconscious, so vivid it must have been “given”:

Hot wind blasted my torso
with dust as I left Delhi
reeking of beauty.
Stunned by my zeal for you,

I passed a junkheap:
terracotta horse head,
clay arm near a bush.
I slept in a field

of gaillardia, red-streaked
like pixie flame.
“What is this place?”
I quizzed a peahen.

The small house in the Berkshires, fire roaring in the den (one of those large fireplaces that accommodate thigh-sized hardwood logs) was filled with mysteries. Almost nobody there was a poet. There were artists, cooks, teachers, welders, musicians, and who knows what else. There was dinner too, tandoori lamb, saag paneer, tamarind chutney, basmati rice, fat Greek olives, a huge salad. Plenty of wine, plenty of beer.

There were no titled nobility in evidence; it was strictly a downstairs affair. Convivial & warm and filled with the air of the mystical. Those enormous logs, long in the very real fireplace, burned all night with astonishing heat and flame, yet they were not consumed. The evening’s syntax had a minimum of grammatical subordinating structures (paratactic rather than hypotactic, as the grammarians would put it.) So even the night’s language bore no trace of hierarchical order. People spoke with a sparing use of commas and abstractions were pretty much anathema. There wasn’t, in short, much plot to the night, but there was plenty of story.

As for me, I’d be driving south next day to visit my mom, and we to visit my dad’s ashes which have settled now for several months across the bottom of Dam Pond in Orient Point, Long Island, between the Long Island Sound and Great Peconic Bay. She’s 88 now, and has a dry cough. I was consumed by things eschatological, by which I mean, really sad. In the course of lunch at the Greek restaurant, appropriately The Hellenic, she advised me that I’ve been spending far too much time publishing other people and far too little time paying attention to my own muse. She is a wise mother.

Royalty or no, we all consider ourselves the hero of our own lives, at the center of our own Greek tragedies, no? Jamali. Kamali. The woman who owns “The Hellenic” lost her own father and then her mother in the last few months. My friends here in the Berkshires who have had similar double whammies – in less than a month, he his father, she her mother.

On the long drive north from New London (where the Orient Point ferry lands) back to the Berkshires, I was listening to Ian Bostridge’s heart-rending accounts of Bach’s Contata’s 55 and 82 and remembering the lush, glorious rendition of these same arias by the late Mezzo Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (who died of breast cancer in the prime of her own career).

Well, we’ve all known too many deaths already, and we’ll know more of them. I noticed that there’s a new performance coming in NYC of the evergreen “Death of a Salesman” and was wondering about its eternal appeal. The Greeks, of course, could never have taken Miller’s play as a genuine tragedy: the hero is too average and ordinary for his destruction to seem anything more than a grimly pathetic social statistic. To sound the tone of sublimity, Greek tragedy must deal with noble and extraordinary individuals (Lady Mary? Lord Grantham?) above the average run of mankind (Mr. Carson; Mrs. Hughes).

After all, “ordinary” people die miserably every day, and we cannot be expected to feel pity and terror – the emotions of tragedy – for the passage of each.

And then there’s Arthur Miller, who teaches us – again and again, year after year – the exact opposite of this aristocratic doctrine. The gulf that separates us from the ancients is impassible. The Greeks’ credo must now appear almost brutally aristocratic, despite our enduring fascination with the lives and trappings of the aristocracy and that pang of loss we feel as those imposing castles get themselves carved up into condominiums. But it turns out that Biblical and Christian influences on Western civilization are far more democratic in spirit that the Greco-Roman inheritance.

What does all this have to do with surviving AWP (the annual writers conference, this week in Chicago), a simultaneous tragedy of the spirit and comedy of the flesh in the way Chekhov’s “Cherry Orchard” was both. No matter what realm we approach the coming convention in Chicago (as writers, as publishers, as editors, as teachers, and dazzlers and dazzled, as emperors and supplicants, as cats and dogs, as wizards and alchemists, as bone-tired coffee drinkers) it’s a play within a play within a play within a play — AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) — with an upstairs and a downstairs in constant flux.

Remember At Swim-Two-Birds, Brian O’Nolan (writing as Flann O’Brien) giving us his 1939 account of three simultaneous stories: a student/writer giving us the story about a story about a writer who’s writing a story about characters who are writing a story about him? Like that.

The term “paramnesia” has, so far as I can remember, two distinct meanings, one of which refers to a distortion of memory in which fantasy and objective experience are confused, as in longing for a house that never existed. Or consider all of childhood which is, after all, pretty much imaginary. Although come to think of it, I’m not so sure that adulthood is any less a product of our imaginations. Like that, too.

Throughout, one has that feeling of nostalgia for something that never existed.

Titled or untitled, I guess we become as much as we inherit, or as McLuhan put it (co-opting Blake), we become what we behold. Oh, I know, it’s an old dialectic.

My grandparents on my father’s side were Eastern European Orthodox Jews. Anna, my Nana, spoke only Yiddish (or so she said, but I heard her with my own ears speaking German, English, and so help me, French). So half of me is one generation removed from the shtetl, and my grandparents on my mother’s side were, well, he was a Brooklyn runaway and she was a platinum Philadelphia Blue Line flapper.

On the other hand, I fervently believe that neither the happenstance of genetics nor the circumstance of family necessarily predict, and certainly shouldn’t dictate, what as writers we may adopt as our felt belongings and causes. You know that Roy Blount, Jr. joke — Somebody asks a Southerner whether he believes in infant baptism, and the Southerner replies, “Believe in it? Why, I’ve even seen it!”

Some people explode into paroxysms of laughter, some people just scratch their heads over it. You can’t co-opt the feel for things. Well, we can all, I think, find our roots in certain kinds of abjection, which is, I guess, what makes writing possible, what makes humor possible, possibly Indian cooking, probably Freud, and certainly poetry.

What I’m saying is, we all probably feel at least a little bit more entitled than we are entitled to feel (for publishing, for fame, for an inheritance, or for a few more years of life).

“But there is no real difference between a childish impossibility and an adult one; the only thing that the person achieves is a practiced self-deceit — what we call the ‘mature’ character.”  — That’s from The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker, a Pulitzer Prize winner. It’s exactly this practiced self-deceit, I believe, that makes possible the impossible — the creation of something from nothing — whether a piece of music, a poem, a book, a painting, a dance, a play, a performance.

Susan Langer refers to “the myth of the inner life” — and by “myth”  I don’t think she means “illusion;” rather I think she has in mind the power of myth to generate real conceptual power, real apprehension of a dim truth, some kind of global adumbration of what we miss by sharp, analytic reason. We imagine stuff into being because, despite the odds, and despite the readiness of others to tell us it’s not possible to make something that matters out of nothing, we do it anyway, and in doing it anyway, we’d like to FEEL heroic, but mostly we don’t.  Who does not feel cheated out of her/his primary heroism?

The poet Deborah Digges, who almost exactly three years ago also died way too young – another inconsolable loss — left so many treasures. Here’s one to help us understand the nature of understanding, and inside that, the key to AWP and to “Death of A Salesman” and to Jamali and Kamali and even a peek inside the astonishingly closed-up Mr. Bates:


My Life’s Calling

My life’s calling, setting fires.
Here in a hearth so huge
I can stand inside and shove
the wood around with my
bare hands while church bells
deal the hours down through
the chimney. No more
woodcutter, creel for the fire
or architect, the five staves
pitched like rifles over stone.
But to be mistro-elemental.
The flute of clay playing
my breath that riles the flames,
the fire risen to such dreaming
sung once from landlords’ attics.
Sung once the broken lyres,
seasoned and green.
Even the few things I might save,
my mother’s letters,
locks of my children’s hair
here handed over like the keys
to a foreclosure, my robes
remanded, and furniture
dragged out into the yard,
my bedsheets hoisted up the pine,
whereby the house sets sail.
And I am standing on a cliff
above the sea, a paper light,
a lantern. No longer mine
to count the wrecks.
Who rode the ships in ringing,
marrying rock the waters
storm to break the door,
looked through the fire, beheld
a clearing there. This is what
you are. What you’ve come to.

(Knopf, 2005)

All we owe ourselves is a transubstantiated state of hapax legomenon. By which I mean, that way in which the unsayable thing we know when we turn off the light is shadow stumbling over itself. Give me light. Give me light. Rage. Dream your life into being. Don’t you know what’s happening? See us leaning westward. Or anyway, slouching toward Chicago.

Posted in: Poetry