A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
The catalogue of infractions I have committed against this world would overflow a small library, for what it’s worth. I pilfered a pack of gum before I could talk; I pretended to know how to write in cursive when I was five. When I showed my cousin the hieroglyphics I’d scratched all over her Scooby Doo drawing pad, I moreover felt something like pride when she broke down in tears and went running to her mom because she couldn’t even write in regular letters yet. I distinctly remember cheating on a philosophy exam when I was in college; the plan took at least a week’s work of pre-meditation and is therefore fused into my memory like the three times I gave birth without so much as a shot of whisky. Speaking of whisky, I drove drunk more times than I can remember during my pre-maternal years and smoked pot when I was pregnant after they’d commenced. I let my kids skip school to keep me company when I was lonely. I also put them into bed with me when I was lonely and told them to go back to sleep when they claimed to be thirsty. Oh, yes I called in sick when I wasn’t sick. Oh yes I talked about myself for an hour and half when I was supposed to be teaching my students how to recognize a sentence fragment.
As for how klutzy I am—as for how often I fall trying to walk up a flight of stairs or knock a door I’m opening into my own forehead—as for my inability to understand geography and history and physics and anything else that is by design complicated and mathematical and boring—this is already a part of the public record. I remember believing my father when he told me that the cows in the fields on the way to my grandmother’s farm were statues—never mind that I could watch them lie down, eat, and open their mouths to moo. I remember being taunted when I was in high school for asking my driving teacher what a guardrail was, and—oh, the shame!—bringing cookies to my English teacher two months in advance of an event I was supposed to bring cupcakes to. I remember saying I’d never drive a car, get divorced, smoke a cigarette, or put my tongue in a man’s mouth and wiggle it around. Of course I’ve done all these things and worse, falling down on the way and bruising my hips, lips, and pride as though I was born to be a clown and not a mother or a fidgety writer: once my cousin and I went skinny- dipping in the river on my grandmother’s farm and tried to kick some trespassing fishermen off the land by sinking in the water up to our necks and pointing the way out with our index fingers. They laughed at us, of course: what fisherman wouldn’t laugh at naked pre-teens being bossy in a catfish hole?
But the only infractions that really bother me are the ones I’ve committed against myself. Thus this long prelude in which I admit to being mean and dim-witted: it’s really just a kind of curtain behind which I am going to hide, for the infraction against myself I most don’t want to confess concerns a she that could not make out the forest for the trees. It concerns a recently-divorced she bent on vengeance, a single-mom-she who’d spent her entire life learning how to rationalize the unsound, the unwise, and the unfounded by reading Wuthering Heights and Gone With the Wind thirty-seven times. This writer–she is so obsessive she took only English electives in college and graduate school and therefore didn’t have time for Psychology 101. In Psychology 101, the professors are bound to spend a week teaching students how to recognize a madman. In Psychology 101, the professors are bound to stand up behind their podiums and describe the enemy. If they don’t, they should. If they don’t, they are themselves the enemy.
The madman said he loved me on the bank of a clichéd river. We were drinking a bottle of clichéd wine. The clichéd river and the clichéd wine filled me up with the fetid venom of the hot-pink yew berry. I mean, the clichéd river and the clichéd wine caused the universe to rupture, since I said something like, yes, yes, I love you too though it’s possible he was the most loathsome man in America. By “loathsome” I mean that he was extremely fucked-up. By “loathsome” I mean that he was gray-colored, like a kindergartener’s knapsack in a dark corner of the basement, from a lack of vitamin D. Nevertheless I was single for the first time since I’d turned eighteen. Nevertheless it was dusk—the time of day in that poem by James Wright in which twilight bounds softly forth on the grass. Steam was rising up out of the rippling water, birds were cawing overhead, and I am certain there had to be fish somewhere, opening and closing their ravenous mouths. The water and the birds made me feel like a contemporary Venus on a Halfshell or some-goddess-else out of a good painter’s dreamy imagination. I was a modern Mona Lisa; I was one of Gauguin’s naked tribal girls; I was Madonna in black lace licking a half- baked thing off her foolish pinkie finger.
He lived in a love shack in the woods when the weather was warm enough. I call this mongoose hole a love shack because love is what he pretended to feel whenever he was there. It was really a 2-room LSD getaway that his stepfather left behind when he ran off to drown at sea. Pretending love was exciting at first with the owls outside in the trees hooting their midnightelegies and the raccoon babies under the porch sniffing around for tossed-out celery sticks. Pretending love in the love shack even seemed romantic, at first. I could think of him as a new-fangled Thoreau simplifying his life for the sake of the nation. I’d even go home and read Thoreau for encouragement after a love shack visit: Thoreau said, ‘all good things are wild and free,’ I’d write in my journal. I’d then tell my mother that my new boyfriend was an aesthete, a hermit-philosopher, a spirit-man like Joseph Campbell or Robert Bly. My mother, being wise, would sigh.
But the love shack didn’t even have an outhouse. Or what outhouse there had been was now overgrown with vines and crawling with snakes and spiders. This meant that we had to go to his mother’s house to use the bathroom. There wasn’t even a kitchen in the love shack. Well, there once had been a kitchen, but it was filled with trash, so he kept blocks of cheese in the creek and ate these with crackers or obscenely long loaves of bread, pretending to be French. He also kept six-packs of beer in the creek and the bottles of wine I’d bring over when my children were spending the weekend with their father. I wanted him to clean up the love shack and the outhouse, of course—I wanted him to cut out a big circle around the outhouse with the scythe he didn’t own and cover the walls inside with poems by James Wright and paintings of Italian people eating grapes. I wanted him to burn the love shack, really: I wanted him to get a job and leave his mother and write a book or at least buy a truck with valves that didn’t knock. But he was too busy sleeping, which was perhaps the first sign that Eden was not Eden and he not Adam and she—she not Eve.
He was in his late thirties, returning to college to study English Literature after many years of doing semi-religious things that I never did understand. He was tall, good-looking, articulate, and extremely unemployed. The fact that he was a college student helped account for his housing and money trouble, or so I told myself during this yew-berry state. I thought college was a good idea, since his limited work-history included lifting heavy boxes for UPS and washing off dead people in a variety of West Virginian funeral homes, but he could only study for about an hour before he’d have to take a nap. Once, toward the end of the nine months we spent together, he took me to visit his sister, who was married to a halfway famous rock star, which was supposed to impress me. He pulled over on the side of the road in some residential neighborhood a couple of miles from his sister’s house near Richmond, Virginia. I thought at first that he wanted to make out, which seemed odd in its timing and unwise in its setting. Instead he pulled his cap over his head and said in this prissy, British tone that he liked to affect, “let us take a little nap.”
There were children outside playing on their bikes or tossing basketballs into hoops that had no nets—there were people everywhere mowing lawns and women in housedresses watering ferns—and still he pushed the driver’s seat as far back as it would go and spread out his legs. I sat there and looked at him and sighed. I stared at the knobs on the radio and at the light blue upholstery in my Toyota. I pondered our cooler of beer in the back seat. I looked outside at the sunshine filtering down through the trees like bleached little hemp ropes and signed even more. Maybe Istarted a fight—maybe I said, you’re crazy,you’re such a fuck-up,something’swrong with you. Maybe I went back through my mind to the texts I’d begun to gather on depression and neurosis and told myself how much I hated Sylvia Plath and Ann Sexton for being insane and making me think I had to be crazy and date crazy, too; maybe I leaned back in the car and closed my own eyes. Probably I just sat there; probably I thought of a poem against him and promised myself I’d write it all down when I got home, which probably I didn’t.
If he wasn’t sleeping, he was reading Milton out loud on the double bed with the confederate flag bedspread. I’m a poet, and still I couldn’t stand him reading Milton. Sometimes, reading Milton, he’d cry, though, and so I’d listen out of writerly admiration for the vast scope and breadth of his feeling for the English language, which I took to represent the vast scope and breadth of his crazy man’s heart. If he wasn’t reading Milton, he was singing Irish ballads about girls dying and coming back and walking along the Cliffs of Moor in billowing black capes. If he wasn’t singing Irish songs, he was talking about how the Jews ran everything in America; if I said he was being anti-Semitic and stupid and hateful he’d give me a lecture on how materialistic and uninformed I was. I’d tell him about Marina Tsvetaeva, the Russian poet, saying “all poets are Jews,” and he’d say all poets were Irish. As if to prove him right, I’d get up out of bed and get a drink. I’d scrub something—I’d go outside and stand under the big oak tree and pray to God to give me a way out that wouldn’t get anybody killed.
I’d tell him I should see other men. Of course, I’d only do this when I was very drunk. He’d try to kick me out of the love shack. I’d say, well, I’m too drunk to drive right now, but the minute I get sober, I’m going. He would say, you don’t mean it, and I’d insist I did. He would get his keys to the knocking truck and start to walk down the hill. I’d suddenly be afraid to spend the night alone in the love shack since a boy had been killed near it not a year earlier. I’d wonder if he’d been the killer; I’d shiver; I’d cross my chest like I was a Catholic and not an atheist; I’d scream his name and follow him down the path that lead to the road, saying, you need to see a doctor.
The doctors said he was depressed, potentially psychotic, and an alcoholic. I took him several times to several hospitals—I stood there beside him and signed papers that said I’d be responsible for him and nodded my head and feigned concern, though what I really felt was fear that he would kill me or him if I left him. He’d promise to stop drinking and take his Prozac. But he couldn’t stop drinking, and the Prozac interfered with the operations of his penis, which already had issues on account of the alcohol.
I knew in those days of an ex-nun who was also an ex-alcoholic. She talked of spiritual things the way he did—they both acted as though they had the answers to every mystery from albino dogs to the kinds of clothes Jesus wore. I told myself that it might make good sense to introduce them, since I wasn’t doing anything for him but becoming an alcoholic myself and he wasn’t doing anything for me but driving me mad. Maybe I had it in my mind then that he would really like her; maybe I was trying to find a way to make him stop drinking. In any case, one night we went to my friend the ex-nun’s house. She made spaghetti and they talked of the scriptures—of New York and the scriptures—of AA and New York and the scriptures—while I sat at the kitchen table and pretended the plastic spoon on the table was a top, spinning it around and around until I got dizzy and went home alone and threw up.
The next weekend the kids weren’t home I cleaned out his kitchen with Ajax and a stainless steal brush; I took the bags of trash to the dump and bleached his sink and made curtains out of old aprons or potato sacks and placed a new broom in the corner of the room. I bought dishes, hand towels, and a small refrigerator. I dusted and vacuumed the walls of the love shack; I rearranged the furniture and picked up the trash in the yard and brought a couple of rocking chairs from my house and sat them side-by-side on the love shack’s front porch. I bought him On Suicide, four shirts, and books about writing. I put his tapes of Irish drinking songs into alphabetical order on the bookshelf and tied the love letters of old girlfriends together with a piece of red ribbon and laid them with matchbooks and new pens into a little Easter basket, which I placed in the center of the coffee table. I stacked his wood for the woodstove up in a pile and covered it with plastic wrap. Meanwhile he went to his classes and slept in the hammock in the yard. Meanwhile he drank cheap beer and got a black cat and named her Prozac and read Milton by the big oak tree and called my friend the ex-nun on the phone and told her he was in love with her.
He may have even said she was the love of his life. Certainly he spat his well-rehearsed come-on all over the phone while sipping a clear bottle of something and wiping the residue of it off his mouth with the back of this hand. I don’t know for sure, though, and I don’t want to. I’ve heard from other friends that the ex-nun may have visited the madman’s love shack a couple of times, and God forgive her. God forgive us all these yew-berry transgressions, I mean in conclusion to say: God forgive us for being needy and selfish and unreasonably optimistic about the gone-astray. God forgive us for scrubbing the filthy world until our hands turn pink. Finally our eyes do blink open: we spit out the yew berry, open the doors to our Toyotas, and drive on home to our kids. They’ll be carving jack-o-lanterns at the kitchen table. They’ll have four or five already lit with candles. Thus that buoyant scent of pumpkins—I’m not lying— hanging triumphant in the harvest air.
copyright 2015 Adrian Blevins
Masters of Rain, a painting by Robert Qualters