Oh, this one I remember. Curly mop of copper hair and eyes that saw so much and could hold you still until everything around you faded. He was an artist, a photographer, a sweet heart. He took pictures of me, all eyelashes and cheekbones; I wrote him poetry. We traded scar stories, cooked together, played like a basket of kittens. He wanted my heart and I showed him what I had, still beating but ragged around the edges where it had torn when I tried to take it back from the last love.
We sat in the kitchen one morning, that last love and I, laughing over coffee. Meanwhile, the photographer squeezed under the bed where it was too dark to see anything, not even a way out. I brought his coffee into the room, surprised he hadn't come into the kitchen for it. A hand sudden around my ankles and I fell, he crawled into me, sobbing and choking while he ate his own heart. You need to be a little braver to love someone than I was then and I felt my ragged heart locking itself away from him.
I saw him years later, and he still looked the same, a little less hair. Softer around the eyes, too, but still able to hold me in place. He'd won awards, toured. I hope somebody loved him really hard. I am sorry I couldn't, but I was so much younger then and even my coffee was weaker.
by Billy Collins
This is the beginning.
Almost anything can happen.
This is where you find
the creation of light, a fish wriggling onto land,
the first word of Paradise Lost on an empty page.
Think of an egg, the letter A,
a woman ironing on a bare stage
as the heavy curtain rises.
This is the very beginning.
The first-person narrator introduces himself,
tells us about his lineage.
The mezzo-soprano stands in the wings.
Here the climbers are studying a map
or pulling on their long woolen socks.
This is early on, years before the Ark, dawn.
The profile of an animal is being smeared
on the wall of a cave,
and you have not yet learned to crawl.
This is the opening, the gambit,
a pawn moving forward an inch.
This is your first night with her,
your first night without her.
This is the first part
where the wheels begin to turn,
where the elevator begins its ascent,
before the doors lurch apart.
This is the middle.
Things have had time to get complicated,
messy, really. Nothing is simple anymore.
Cities have sprouted up along the rivers
teeming with people at cross-purposes -
a million schemes, a million wild looks.
Disappointment unshoulders his knapsack
here and pitches his ragged tent.
This is the sticky part where the plot congeals,
where the action suddenly reverses
or swerves off in an outrageous direction.
Here the narrator devotes a long paragraph
to why Miriam does not want Edward's child.
Someone hides a letter under a pillow.
Here the aria rises to a pitch,
a song of betrayal, salted with revenge.
And the climbing party is stuck on a ledge
halfway up the mountain.
This is the bridge, the painful modulation.
This is the thick of things.
So much is crowded into the middle -
the guitars of Spain, piles of ripe avocados,
Russian uniforms, noisy parties,
lakeside kisses, arguments heard through a wall -
too much to name, too much to think about.
And this is the end,
the car running out of road,
the river losing its name in an ocean,
the long nose of the photographed horse
touching the white electronic line.
This is the colophon, the last elephant in the parade,
the empty wheelchair,
and pigeons floating down in the evening.
Here the stage is littered with bodies,
the narrator leads the characters to their cells,
and the climbers are in their graves.
It is me hitting the period
and you closing the book.
It is Sylvia Plath in the kitchen
and St. Clement with an anchor around his neck.
This is the final bit
thinning away to nothing.
This is the end, according to Aristotle,
what we have all been waiting for,
what everything comes down to,
the destination we cannot help imagining,
a streak of light in the sky,
a hat on a peg, and outside the cabin, falling leaves.
when you've made a change to your appearance and every time you walk past a mirror you don't recognize yourself for a second, and then eventually it becomes normal, like looking the other way when you cross the street in London or Japan, and then you can't remember the way you looked before.
Whoa I'm sorry, boy I stepped into some kind of alternate dimension where time wasn't moving and when I stepped back out again time had moved. Here we are.
Working so much. I have cried from the sheer weight of it but on the plus side I'll have money for the hot sandy beach calling my personal name this winter.
Doing stuff with other people. Sometimes with other people's children, but then aren't we all other people's children? We are, we are.
Tomorrow I'm going to Prague to a garden party at the embassy. As one does.
A weekend in London. This time I think I'm going to touch the art.
Next week I'm going to see Laurie Anderson in Budapest. I almost can't articulate my love for her except I totally can because somebody asked me yesterday and it poured out.
The next week my sister's coming. I just can't even do my anticipation justice here. It's been five years.
After that, it's hermit time. I'm... I don't know. Dancing as fast as I can. No drugs and no dramatically bad hair, just trying to make my body outspin the dervish of my heart.
In 1994 we went to Telc for the first time; there's a beautiful castle there. This was before Western tourism had really hit the country and we pretty much had the run of the place (now it has the red ropes that all castles buy in bulk). We posed in embroidered chairs at the dining hall table, slid around on the ballroom's parquet floor in the ubiquitous Czech slippers, took flash photos of the sgraffito which was not a misspelling. There was, in one room, a puzzle box. According to the guide, the box had 20 hidden compartments, of which they had only found fifteen. We fiddled with it for a while before zooming off, high on kofola and drunk on antiquity.
In this room now you arrive. With your wide eyes you open one drawer, with your careful mouth you speak and open two more. Clever fingers open the velvet drawer where a woman could store her jewelry, find the hidden latch and the lid flies open, and music pours out of the puzzle box, all the secrets but one revealed now. It is part of your genius that in this moment you pass your hand gently across the lid and stand and walk away, leaving that one last mystery for later, or for someone else, and go on to join the others while the music plays on behind you.
A beauty in white, heels clicking on the sidewalk, matching white bag slung over forearm, ducks around the corner and pulls down at the sides of her very short, very tight dress. At the edge of the parking lot, a tall police officer is on his walkie talkie while the middle-aged seller packs up the cheap pajamas and underwear and two people lean over the railings at the tram stop to watch in what can only be described as extremely passive fascination. A tie and shirtsleeves absentmindedly rubs at his generous belly, waiting for the light to change. A woman leans down and whispers in a baby's ear, and the baby's face lights up in joy at the warmth and tickle, the flow of words. Two bent elderly women get on the tram and the rush to give up seats is like a sudden wave of kindness, and one of the people who sits back down starts talking with the too-loud voice of the mildly retarded, asking the ladies how old they are, and it's lovely, flirtatious and the ladies, both ninety, are coy and visibly pleased. A green shirt and shorts pacing on the sidewalk, muttering angrily, though whether to himself or his demons or his phone is hard to tell at this distance. In another parking lot, a police officer in mirrored sunglasses is talking to a driver, also in mirrored sunglasses, their faces versailles as they talk, endlessly reflecting.
I've always been good at seeing below the surface, the shadows in the water, the fingers of seaweed pulled and pushed by the tide. Human behavior, too, has generally been a matter of standing very still and just watching until the sparkles stop dazzling you and you see the fish that disperse and then swim back with cautious curiosity or the perfect curve of shell at your feet. Even when the person doing something doesn't know why, if you are quiet and watchful it generally becomes clear. We are animals, after all, and a little study is all that's required. I think sometimes one reason I like television is that the actors are told what their motivation is, and when you watch a good actor they telegraph their intent even when the words contradict that. He tells her he loves her but we know he's lying because of the way his eyes flicker away from her. For example. And now when I see your eyes flicker away even as your lower lip kisses your top teeth, the V of love, I know it's a lie. The thing I don't know is the motivation for it; that's hidden from me still. Lately I find myself increasingly lost, and I'm confused because this used to be my strong point. Why because money. Why because death. Why because shame. Those were the most because causes, so obvious, but I used to be able to see the subtle ones, too, as clear as water. But suddenly the water is always murky, clouded with garbage, my feet cut into ribbons with sea glass and I can't hear anything but the roar of the waves.
for Patricia, who asked:
Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain , particularly "Taran Wanderer". Alexander is hands-down my favorite writer for children/young adults, amazing with the fantasy genre and so beautiful at the sentence level as well, and Taran's search for himself as reflected in his friends and embodied in the work he learns to do is perfection.
Margaret Atwood "Cat's Eye" because it's a perfectly constructed novel and because its description of friendship, among women in particular, still hits me between the eyes.
Jane Austen's "Emma" because it made me go back and re-examine that whole period and wonder if it wasn't a lot smarter and funnier than I'd thought (it was!). It was my introduction to sophisticated irony, maybe.
Nicholson Baker's "The Mezzanine" because it does what I wanted "Ulysses" to do; it takes the reader inside a moment and makes the nuances of that moment visible through his eyes; and it made me see the value in examining my own moments more carefully.
Kazuo Ishiguru's "Remains of the Day" ... I went through a long period of fascination with characters who knew their hearts but couldn't speak them (Prufrock, too; actually it's an undercurrent with a lot of poets I like, including Parker and Bukowski). I feel like I've moved past that but the clarity that Ishiguru brings to that fear and the resulting anguish is still beautiful.
Judith Martin's "Miss Manners Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior" because it's one of the funniest and smartest books I've ever read.
Josef Skvorecky's "The Engineer of Human Souls" was a huge factor in deciding to live here, and the translation really influenced how I feel about what translation can and should do, so it's affected me professionally as well as just generally being a great book.
Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse Five" because time travel and regret and memory and everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.
David Foster Wallace's "A Supposedly Fun Thing..." because "Infinite Jest" is a masterpiece, fictionwise, and I admire it intellectually, but his essays are where he shows his heart and where he took mine.
Jeanette Winterson's "Written on the Body" because I love a gimmick novel and because it's just so poetic. And the questions of when to let love go for the sake of the beloved and when to fight for it for yourself are still interesting to me.