Today an essay in the Rumpus, about the life-saving power of female friendship. Thanks to Gina Frangello for commissioning the piece.
Monthly Archives: January 2012
Of a Beautiful Child I am becoming cicada husk, the cool Throat of an empty vase, the dark space Between stars. You touch me and I see That monstrous child Montaigne pitied On the streets of Paris – my … Continue reading
This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary.
The trees of the mind are black. The light is blue.
The grasses unload their griefs on my feet as if I were a God.
Prickling my ankles and murmuring of their humility.
Fumy, spiritous mists inhabit this place.
Separated from my house by a row of headstones.
I simply cannot see where there is to get to.
I have fallen a long way. Clouds are flowering
Blue and mystical over the face of the stars.
Inside the church, the saints will be all blue,
Floating on their delicate feet over the cold pews,
Their hands and faces stiff with holiness.
The moon sees nothing of this. She is bald and wild.
And the message of the yew tree is blackness – blackness and silence.
-From “The Moon and the Yew Tree,” Sylvia Plath
This Tuesday, January 10th, the moon will be full, a fact that people in Santa Fe tend to get quite excited about. Cancer moon: moon of new visions, surges of creativity and nurturing and growth. This Tuesday is also the one-year anniversary of Ronan’s diagnosis. 1.10.11. I have fallen a long way.
Typed out like that the date reminds me of the release date for a disaster movie, or the next Mission Impossible movie, or a film involving the latest generation of lovesick, lip-glossed vampires, witches, wizards, whatever. The year has been not so dissimilar to a disaster – epic, all-consuming, disproportionate, unbelievable. I realized this most distinctly during the holidays when, while trying to shave off a final few seconds from my mile time, I found myself running on the treadmill to the slew of holiday movies that are shown on cable television each year, an odd collection: Happy Gilmore (hell, no), Pretty Woman (NO!), and Deep Impact. The last movie is the only one I could watch. Quick synopsis: a few big-ass comets are headed to earth, and if they’re not stopped, the earth and all its life will be destroyed. The movie has everything: an ethical, calm-talking president (Morgan Freeman), epic heroism (Robert Duvall sacrificing his life and the lives of his team to deliver a nuclear bomb into the eye of one of the earth-destroying comets), and other gestures of kindness and compassion and sacrifice. For example: an “Arc” has been designed to preserve the best of the best of American culture: artists, politicians (?), scientists, etc. If you don’t get shoulder tapped as Arc-worthy, if your phone doesn’t literally ring in the middle of the night to let you know that you’ve been selected, you draw straws for the remaining slots. Tea Leoni, who plays a prominent television reporter, gives her spot to a woman and her child who drew the shortest straw. She puts her friend and her child in the Arc-bound helicopter (giving up her life), books it to the coast to see her father, and goes down in a dramatic, lethal, comet-driven wave of water. All this place-taking is kind of dopey, but it also delivers a profound message: life is precious, but it’s also cheap. I would trade anyone for Ronan’s life – Ronan, who got the shortest stick. Anyone. Me. You. A stranger. Anyone I love. Brutally. Mercifully. Without a stitch of regret or remorse. This is the light of the mind – lunar, lonely, true.
What’s so silly and also ridiculously appealing about disaster movies is that some people do live, even though some people die, even though the odds are impossible, stacked, undeniably crappy. There’s a collective sigh of relief, a group redemption. If only life were like the final take of a disaster movie. I’d love it if I turned on my computer to find a video of Morgan Freeman telling me that we will begin again, that we will live, that we will go on, survive. There is a cure for Tay-Sachs, he’ll say, just call this number. Last January – 1.10.11 – a descent into blackness, a plunge. This year, 1.10.12…
One weekend while I was writing and pregnant at Yaddo, a well-known retreat for artists and writers in upstate New York, I rented a car for the single purpose of driving to a local multi-plex to see 2012, the disaster movie based on Mayan predictions about the end of the world. During the scene when Amanda Peet and John Cusack (another reason I saw the movie) attempt to hand their children over to the people who can save them (There’s an Arc in this movie, too), saying please, take them, take them, save them, even though the kids don’t want to go, I cried into my popcorn, which greatly dismayed the artist I had dragged along to the theater with me. This silly movie kept me up that night, thinking would I be able to let my son go? Now, of course, I don’t have a choice, but as I wandered around the Yaddo lakes in the middle of the night, bundled up and sweating and sleepless, I wondered and agonized. Maybe I already knew.
Katrina Trask, one of the developers of Yaddo, lost her husband in an accident, and all four of her children in infancy. She had the flu, thought she had recovered, invited her kids into her bedroom and then they got sick and died. Just like that. She spent the remainder of her life at Yaddo, “an invalid” according to Wikipedia, although that definition seems dubious at best. The lakes around the property – beautiful, peaceful, tree-lined, banked by mud and a mash of fragrant leaves – are named after Katrina’s children. Ghosts abound, and not just of the Trask kids.
It is well-documented in several essays about Plath’s stay at Yaddo in the fall of 1959 that she turned 27, learned that she was pregnant, was finally able to work apart from her husband (during which time she created some of her most powerful poems and would do so again later after the dissolution of her marriage), and was treated to breakfast in bed each morning.
Sylvia’s life: was it a disaster? A “beautiful” disaster if there is such a thing? A weird, cult-inducing story that is attractive because it is tragic and ends with a death by suicide? She was a genius, no doubt, absolutely, hands down, but a difficult genius. Her poems about moons are not about hope and surges of life and gratitude and love and the Tarot, they’re about something else, something unseen, something life-giving and also soul-destroying. They speak to disaster without giving into it. They are triumphant without being uncomplicated. They howl without being hysterical. Now I doubt that any movie about the end of the world is going to have a line from Plath as an epigraph, or a little screen shout out to her, but maybe it should. She was a comet of truth, she was a poet of power. She was not a deranged, hysterical housewife who wrote some interesting and angry feminist poems about “Daddy.” She was not “the poet who put her head in the oven,” she was a poet who, unlike some, actually put her head and heart in the world, fully, and at the greatest emotional cost. She was an almost unbelievable mind; she provided a truthful vision of what you find when you look underneath the stories everybody tells you are true but are always lies. She was a muse to herself when nobody else was, and she is a muse to me. My disaster muse. A poet who won’t look away, who, instead of hiding behind a wall, burns it down; instead of putting her head in the sand, eats the sand and spits it back at you in a shapely, wet ball. She didn’t survive but she is a survivor. In that sense she is the most hopeful poet I’ve ever read.
Today Ronan had several rolling seizures, and when Rick swam with him to the opposite end of the therapy pool, this day before the day of the full moon, I imagined the day when Ronan’s body will not just float away to the other side of the pool, a sight I can barely stand, but will be gone. He loves the pool – perhaps it reminds him of when he was the most safe, swimming in amniotic fluid, being hauled around the dark glass of a lake named after a dead child, his arms free to move before the paralysis and spasticity that come with Tay-Sachs, a disaster illness like no other. Three guys with gray hair, all wearing yellow LIVE STRONG bracelets, massaged their hips on the jets in the pool’s corner, discussing the NFL playoffs. These men, with all their lives to talk about and their sore muscles to massage, and their favorite teams and their language and they can walk and hold their heads up. And my baby, almost 2, floats, helpless, in the arms of his father. I stretched out at the edge of the pool and closed my eyes, waiting for Rick and Ronan to swim back to me.
This year I am still writing in the same back room by the same fire as I was last year, but I am not the same. I can see Sylvia in her tower, the Trask kids standing at their mother’s door, then at her bedside, then the mother at the graves. I see the path around those lakes on my middle-of-the-night walks, see a grave pass from window to street, see gray parallel gray as the sun came up and I wandered back to my cabin. During her fall at Yaddo, Sylvia was firing out poems of such beauty and desperation, such shiny, clean howls into the void, that a moon would have been no contest.
I can see Sylvia writing herself almost out of disaster – almost – poems that are written from the slick edge of it, poems that slide and shine like the snow that’s skittering past my window now, poems that scatter and charm and smash and heal and rip, poems that look out into the moonlit night, into what is supposed to be some romantic, future-knowing, divinely-routed night sky and know that “the moon is no door. It is a face in its own right, White as a knuckle and terribly upset.” Yes.
Thank you, Alma, lovely poet full of generosity and compassion, for this gift of a poem for Ronan. Lorca was my muse this summer, so Alma is also a mind-reader!
“Where is the duende? Through the empty arch comes
a wind, a mental wind, blowing relentlessly over the
heads of the dead, in search of new landscapes and
unknown accents; a wind that smells of baby’s spittle,
crushed grass, and jellyfish veil, announcing the constant
baptism of newly created things.” Federico Garcia Lorca*
I keep writing to
Lil Ronan, every
stage of his life,
manhood, I follow him,
I follow you, so
far until my mind/heart
collapses with grief, imagining
what you live
and I’m left with
questions, simple questions-
What song does every
mother’s womb sing to her
child? What light connects
the unborn to the born, the
dying to the living, those
waiting their turn to be
come flesh, vulnerable flesh,
life death life death
**Sound of a rattle**
again, oh again, between
their mother’s dark thighs, a
light emerges. What is this
light, always ancient, always
new, why do we long for
light, why do we long for
darkness, why do we wait
our turn life death life death
**Sound of a rattle**
Why do some be-come only
in the womb, a year, four
years, 16, 28, 49, 54, 90,
110, why, life death life death
**Sound of a rattle, sacred rattle**
I ask the ocean, why?
I ask the mountain, why?
I ask the stars, why?
And of course, I ask the Sun,
why? I ask Grandmother
Moon, why? I ask
my dream, why, why?
Within the awe-full silence,
the music, drums and rattles,
voices from womb, heart, throat,
I hear, gift, repeated
chanted endlessly, one
word, gift, we are offered,
we must receive, or not,
and you have life death life
death life la mar
moans, sings, in
love with salt, human
DNA, the womb echoes
ancient rattle (stones,
bones, seeds), gift.
Alma Luz Villanueva
San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
January 1, 2012
To Emily Rapp, her son Ronan
A poem I keep writing, so finally here it is, con amor…
*In Search of Duende, Federico Garcia Lorca