Sunday, June 3, 2018


Novels, whether short or long, simple or complex, derive from the same source: the mind of the novelist. Though results will vary, only two paths are open to the writer: magic or muscle. Often the initial impetus for a story comes willy-nilly, out of the air, and this is attributed to the 'muses', a creative force posited by classic Greek thinkers and firmly rooted in Greek mythology.

Composers, and other creative artists, experience the same magic. A melody line seemingly comes from nothing, and then becomes the grain of sand around which the pearl of song is created. Writers are occasionally fortunate enough to have the words tumble out onto the page as though the story were writing itself.

More often, once a beginning is made, it becomes necessary to plant oneself in a chair and work through all the problems that arise until a satisfactory conclusion is reached. Muscle suggests the difficult work this entails. If thinking were easy, everyone would do it.

I - 3

The Distinct Hiss Of Distant Surf

Elizabeth cleaned her glasses with a rub on the hem of her gray cotton robe. She adjusted the angle of the blue composition book and wrote:

In order to draw Mori with any accuracy at all, it is necessary to sketch Ikkyu.

He was born into the stifling milieu that was Kyoto court life of the late 14th century. He was the son of a lady-in-waiting at the imperial palace of Emperor Gokomatsu, who chose from time to time to 'show her favor'. His mother was a concubine, literally a woman who lives with a married man but who has distinctly lower status.

This last sentence troubled her. 'Concubine' was sufficient, she thought, and drew a thin, straight line through the 'literally' descriptive. We have not yet discovered the poor woman's name, she thought. Certainly there must be records, but ... The empress accused Ikkyu's mother of sympathy for a competing political faction, certainly just a pretext to act on her jealousy; and had the poor woman banned from Kyoto. Ikkyu, son of an emperor and a woman of a samurai family, was born in a commoner's house on New Year's Day, 1394.

The stony path that the young man followed was common enough for those distant centuries. Raised in Ankokuji, a village near Kyoto, at age five he was 'given' to a Zen temple in the city. Known as an imperial son, he was a potential threat to the powers that be. His foster mother, presciently, chose to make him an acolyte. This also removed a hungry mouth from her table. And so began the boy's classical education.

Five years old. True, he would be doing menial tasks initially. Sweeping, carrying water, carrying wood. Even so, sutras are difficult enough for me to understand, but a boy of say nine or ten? She stretched her arms out horizontally, a turn forward, a turn backward---keeping up the pretense, she thought---and pushed herself up with her hands on the edge of her desk, peering out the dormer window.
The horizon was sharp and gently bending in the mid-morning light. Stellar jays, swooping over the roof of the house and down past the eaves, set up a raucous cry. Wanting breakfast, she thought. "I am sharp-set myself," she said aloud. "Curious phrase." Good Anglo-Saxon collocation. Scearp. However it's pronounced. A derivative from 'scrape'? Or vice-versa. Some think ... some think evil this way comes. Bess shook her head. A movie line that? That Bradbury story. Not quite ... "I'll think about it," she said.
Thinking a curious thing. Do we think, or are we thought?
"Most don't bother," she said. Pity.
Gulls mewling along the shoreline. Rising tide with waves breaking on the rocky shoal far off shore. Composition for a painting. Paint by number thing with a lurid sunset. In the foreground the stony path leading through the shrubbery to the rabbit hole.
Micki and she had set each of the pavers. The path had come first, then the shrubbery, the salal, huckleberry, rhododendrons and sword ferns all grown riotously giving privacy from the beach. Micki and she had done the planting, too. The old couple who had built the cottage during the depression---how had they managed that?---preferred open vistas to the west. She and Micki had other ideas. They had scribbled a haphazard design. And the boy from Guadalajara---how names flit and fly---who had taken my 311 class three or four times, came to visit and stayed to do the lifting and toting.
"So very long ago."
Javier. That was his name. Like the Cuban Micki called Jappy. The choreographer, a left-handed man whom I thought sinister indeed. But she was so smitten. The perfect word. Grievously stricken yet so very much in love.
Her choreographer, this Jappy, it was he who had found her. Wrapped in a blanket, sitting on the floor against her narrow trundle bed already stiff and cold. She had left a note, he said. The note was written on a plain sheet of copy paper, the writing---her elegant hand, a calligrapher---centered, the note placed precisely on her little book of Mallarmé poems. Set just below the title. Poesies. No date, no salutation, no closing, no signature. Just her poem:

gathering firewood & flowers as
crows scatter and the raucous jays cry;
ashes tossed to wind & sea,
walking the stone path to nowhere

Which Javier read to her over the phone. Like a laundry list. "Something you might should want," he had said. That curious phrase. Stumbling over his verbs. He would send it to me. "Must certainly meant for you." Must certainly. "Got her mother's address? Need to send the things."
Must certainly. But yes. Meant for me, Elizabeth thought. Obviously meant for me. Jappy had not sounded the least bit grieved. Standing at her desk, squinting against the coming glare, the forenoon nearly spent, the afternoon inexorable.
Micki's favorite poem from Poesies was 'The Windows'. Mallarmé's poem:

Je me mire et me vois ange! et je meurs, et j'aime
—Que la vitre soit l'art, soit la mysticité—
A renaître, portant mon rêve en diadème,
Au ciel antérieur où fleurit la Beauté.

Her voice become so strangely soft, reciting aloud, the sea gone to sibilance, the flood spent.
"Spent," the woman said. Toilworn, that fine archaic word. And how abrasive this life can be. Building our castles in the sand, like dreams, not lasting a tide. Yeats' great line: The blood dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned.
Turning to the book shelves, she scanned the volumes; pulled out the little book entitled Poésies; found the poem and read Micki's translation, penciled in the margin. She read:

I look at myself and see me as a messenger of the gods---
that either art or mysticism is the window to the soul---
born again, wearing my dream like a coronal
to a bygone heaven where beauty does flourish

Micki had lived in a worn and wasted building on West 67th Street just off Central Park. An enclave of artists managing to eke out a living, a life on the cheap. A month and a day before her friend's death, Elizabeth had gotten a hand written letter. Micki had dreamed of Carcassone and Robert. The little yellow Renault deux chevaux with the dented fenders. They couldn't possibly have squeezed six bodies into that car. Her memory playing tricks. Sixty years ago. Traveling that night from Pamplona, fed up with drunks and dirt, bound for Greece and the simplicity of sun and wine dark seas. Robert and two boys from Pau; Micki and I. Five then. Robert standing up through the open sun roof, vomiting over the back, the chorus of groans, the sudden turn the wrong way down a one way street, the walls of the old city, narrow alleys, and one of the French boys whose name Elizabeth had forgotten yelled, Estoopa, estoopa, estoopa.
They had stopped.
Freenglisch, announced the boy, laughing, you comprestand mon nude languish?
At the time.
Elizabeth remembered. And she and Micki had talked from Genoa to Rome about novels to be written and dances to be performed. They nursed the battered little car to Rome, abandoned finally early one morning on a narrow side street near the Villa Medici. Hugs and partings. Robert off with ... whomever, the French boys.
Too long ago.
She and Micki had wandered down the Via Veneto in the darkness of that morning, lugging their packs, expecting the PMs to hassle them, the city's infamous polizia municipale. Finally found the train station. Argued. Micki had gone off to get tickets for a night train to Brindisi. I sat with the packs. She seemed to be gone a long while. Anxiety and anger mixed with my fatigue.
"Where have you been?" I snapped at her.
Startled, she shook her head. "There are no trains to Brindisi," she said.
"Well, there aren't." Becoming angry herself. "The dialect is wicked. I said Brindisi. They said no possible or something like. Back and forth. Two of them, wagging their fingers, rolling their eyes."
"So you don't speak Italian."
"I told you. I speak Piedmontese. My Mother was from Piedmont. The farther south you go the less you understand." Micki folded herself down to the floor, slumped. She began to softly weep.
And I had gone off in a huff to solve the conundrum.
'No possible' became 'Napoli'. There was a train to Napoli---Naples---that then connected to Bari and a bus ride would take us to Brindisi. And a boat for Greece. They had a map. Drew the route. All too complicated.
"Naples is a sewer," Micki had said.
We passed the night in silence. In the morning, we took a train for Paris. Sitting in a rattling coach uncomfortable on the hard bench seats, Micki handed me a small package wrapped precisely in newsprint. A piece of string tied in a neat bow. "Happy Birthday," she said.
And her eyes, welling again with tears, became a crystalline, brilliant blue.
The dancing frog. A candle.
A year, a month, and three days before her death, I visited her in Greenwich Village. Some conference at Columbia, my travel and expenses paid for by the university. Micki shared a small apartment on MacDougall Street. Another woman and the choreographer from Cuba. Emaciated, sick, injured: so she seemed to me. Micki denied any problems at all. Said she was fine. They got a few parts in the big Broadway shows. Some little theatre work. Mostly street dancing. Very exciting. Had enough money. No problem. Ate ravenously at lunch. Slipped off with a black man. Left me sitting and wondering. Came back with eyes dancing. She had a small corner of the bedroom to herself. A few books. Clothes.
"Come home with me, " I said.
She shook her head. Cried.
"I never saw her again," Elizabeth said out loud. "How fucking melodramatic. I never saw her again."
The mewling gulls. She raised a hand to the glass pane, placed it flat with fingers spread. Heard the distinct hiss of distant surf.

No comments:

Post a Comment