The fun of digging out is that we are digging out from what we are seldom digging out from. We are not working our way out of spates and chains of email, nor piles of snail mail, nor escaping oppressive debt, nor solving social tangles of our own absurdity, nor pulling back from excess of adjectives or superlatives that have piled up in a crush of ecstatic emotion, a dizzying sense that this equals that — therefore the more metaphor, the more alike the underlying structures of the whole world.
Phew! We are digging out from snow. Two glorious feet of it. With shovels and muscle and terrifically repetitive motion. Some with snow blowers, and some with plows attached with pickup trucks with brackets. We are scraping off layers to get to deeper layers that will eventually yield a familiar bottom.
We are digging out. The spinning that we often do, as poets, is calmed. Replenishing, never static. We can feel ourselves like birds gathered in trees, shaking off the branches, thinking of nothing but delight.
Black being such a glorious color, it’s unfair to see it maligned in the season of light. During those holiday weeks of celebrating “light,” all those little pinpricks stung me and made me think, in a Baudelairean way, about its other. I was thinking about how to decouple darkness and its sometime extension “blackness” from the metaphors of sin and ignorance of the age/soul. I thought about how to decouple part of the daily cosmic cycle and a radically beautiful color from centuries and millennia of role play, poetry and language games. How might race relations have been different if the color of sin had stayed in the red zones, stains of blood and sex as they were in the Hebrew Bible? But new color games came along, Christianity codifying and equating Adam and Eve’s “original” sin to death and to the color of death. In a much, much longer story spanning centuries, black came to mark dark ecstasies of sinners, devils, and sadly, Ethiopians.
I was listening to a magnificent sermon of Martin Luther King at Riverside Church, from 1964. Was I surprised to hear him use the metaphors “terrible midnight of our age” and “it’s midnight, a darkness so deep that we can hardly see which way to turn”? When he preached, I believed his midnight, his condemnation of moral relativity, hypocrisy, lack of compassion. He doesn’t say blackness – he says darkness, and midnight. Deep dark holes of moral/Christian failure, using the full weight of age-old cultural symbols.
The title of this speech, “A Knock at the Door,” is a midrash of a parable of Luke, which in itself is a midrash of “The Song of Songs.” When a stranger, lover or needy person, which could be divine or part of ourselves, comes knocking at our door, we are unprepared, we hesitate, or play or hide. The desire and demand of this other breaks in on our lassitude; it erupts, interrupts our borders. There are so many “colorations” here, but there is a pattern. Certain things cannot be explained, but we know to be true. Color breaks in, uninvited, irreducible, not standing for anything except itself.
The quarantine was stunning, Covid we could have done without. A walk on the snow-covered beach the last outing before we took to our big old house full of windows — the outside world just beyond the dimpled glass: great rolling heaves of mist, rain, the labored breath of a bus
We laid trays of coffee — “room service!” — at the first child’s door. Two more sick: the house now kids’ majority rule! I slipped behind the door of my office but an hour of virtue is all you need to know it’s no fun. Why bother otherwise?
How lucky the kitchen was stocked with tiny marshmallows and French chocolate waiting in dishes for guests that would never come… a list of movies, a fireplace with stacks of crackling logs six-point crumpled Kleenex fluttering as paper snowflakes in an infinity of patterns tables littered with bottles —- cough syrup, elderberry, zinc — and cake vying for room with white test kits
We laughed into delirium when time was a stream of barely noted notches in the inevitable: and talked of dreams, Rebbe Nachman, how to organize notebooks not optimists but expecting each day would get better
New Year’s Eve was a muted affair; even if historic and global, we could say we did it in our pyjamas in our own creaturely language although we were still stuck in the indeterminacy
This past week I’ve been flashing on Penelope Fitzgerald’s scintillating descriptions of preparing a house. Her novel “Blue Flower,” set in the 18th century, is full of the bright crush of domestic detail, the half-laborious, half-ecstatic ritual of organizing a home. As I was dashing around, making way for my grown kids and friends to migrate, I heard Fitzgerald’s echo — “great dingy snowfalls of sheets, pillow-cases, bolster-cases, vests, bodices, drawers, from the upper windows into the courtyard … into giant baskets.” I’m not firing up the old Maytag with anything but a switch; still, I note my excitement to make a nest, a safe haven through methodical hands-on work. I bent my head as I came down from the attic, carrying unrolling stored mattresses, shaking goose down through the corners of comforters, slapping pillows to life so they seem just born, cutting flowers for vases.
We don’t have Christmas decoration like what Fitzgerald describes — “”myriad shining points of light threw vast shadows of the fir branches onto the high walls and even across the ceiling.” There are still, always rituals of the kitchen! I took the knives to be sharpened on a whetstone by a local knife sharpener. I have piles of fruit and dried dates and figs, preserved lemons in their jars preserving, prunes in Armagnac. We beat eggs with whisks and crush almonds as Fitzgerald’s staff does – “almond paste baked brown”! – (I’m not missing those soups of rose-hips and onions,bread and cabbage-water, cows’ udders flavored with nutmeg.”) I lugged piles of logs/coffee logs/electric heaters inside, but the item of the moment is the one I can’t find — home covid tests! Safe haven, feast and famine, nice work if you can get it!
One charming cliche pops up when you are going on a trip — people ask, can you pack me in your suitcase? When you’re returning, it’s a moot point. Or is it?
I wouldn’t have known it when I was boarding the plane, but now that I’ve unpacked and am reorienting, certain things did ask to come back. I’d call them mute things. They are live elements that I encountered, with which I shared space and shared alert, vibrant moments. They are inanimate but have subtle voice and life. These things called and intersected my perception. They cracked open staleness, cracked open language that was carrying pragmatic messages without carrying surprise, and winged across the abyss. Many, many aesthetic happenings that happened inside and out.
The energy of traffic that moves like the ocean’s surf, its waves of energy roaring forward, pulling back, lulled by a lazy club beat. A dull blue bucket in moonlight as an old woman lowers it on a pulley from her terrace. Active volcanos that grow like children and move towards the sea. The soft bee sound of motorbikes. Color that is there beyond us. A recognition of the brilliant chaos that swarms us, reminding us that we are participants but not masters. If we listen, we get it. They travel with us. Carry on.
Walking through Paris in the (imagined) aftermath of a pandemic, I had the uncanny feelings of déjà vu, that things had disappeared and been replaced, leaving behind a residue of scented melancholy. The gap between then and now ignited a play of imagination, of desire. I had the sense that a great poet had walked this terrain before….voilà Baudelaire!
Baudelaire, delicate but so durably modern, was a visionary of things shadowy, emotionally complex and fugitive, errant. He was a vagabond in the city he inhabited, an internal exile as he moved roughly every two years due to poor finances. An exhibition, “Baudelaire, la Modernité Mélancolique” at Bibliothèque Nationale lists some 20 of his addresses all over the city. More trenchant, he retained memory of Paris as it was cut asunder by Baron Haussmann and remade for a new world. The poet was brilliant at giving presence to things absent. He created images that were less precise rendering than color of a memory.
Baudelaire sang. One of the youthful letters in the show, he complained to his mother when she erased his primacy in favor of her new husband. The calligraphy of “à moi, à moi” — what about me! — soars with doubled underlining and accents graves that fly like the crescendo of musical notations. The emotion is real, the emotion is all.