A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
Wednesday, February 5, a windy, rainy, chilly afternoon nearer the end of the world as we knew it than anyone seems to suspect. I’m sitting at a little marble table, in a draft from the unaccountably open door of the deli across 168th Street from Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, tea and a hefty slice of lemon pound cake in front of me.
I turn first to the tightly wrapped piece of cake, but it turns out to be swathed in something impermeable. What do I have on me that’s sharp? Keys don’t work. Not for the first time, I wish I had a Swiss Army knife. Rooting around in my purse, I come up with a ballpoint pen and stab the stubborn plastic which so thoroughly swaddles the slice of cake that piercing its glossy surface isn’t enough; after I’ve breached the plastic, I need to unwrap it patiently and gently. It doesn’t yield easily, but I eventually manage. After all, I have plenty of time. The Narrative Medicine lecture across the street, which is why I’m up in this neighborhood at this hour, doesn’t begin until 5:30; the doors open at five. It’s only a little after four. The pound cake is delicious, all the more so because it’s been so hard to divest it of its stubborn wrappings.
So many things these days seem to be wrapped and gleaming—easy to look at, hard to get at. “Mine eye and heart are at a mortal war,” writes Shakespeare, and then in the next sonnet, “Betwixt mine eye and heart a league is took.” But for me staring at the Saran wrap interposing between me and the cake, maybe it’s more the eye and the hand; for heart read hand. Lucretius wrote of lovers that “they can’t decide / What to enjoy first with hand or eye”—the beloved, the beloved’s luscious flesh, the slice of lemon pound cake. Make that hand or mouth or eye.
No plate. No napkin. Not even a flimsy plastic knife. The ballpoint pen in my now slightly greasy hand wasn’t easy to find; but now that I’ve fished it out and it has done its job of deflowering the Saran wrap and laying the cake open for me to eat, the next challenge is to find a piece of paper so I can use this pen to write with. I’m reduced to rooting around in my always too heavy bag of school stuff—I’ve come uptown straight from school, via New Jersey Transit and the subway to 168th Street—and here is an archaic roll book where I record my two classes’ attendance. I can write in this. (Two months later: New Jersey Transit. The subway. Remember?)
A ballpoint pen can serve as a knife; a roll book serves as a notebook. Two months from now, no, six weeks from now, factories that make fancy scented candles will be repurposed to produce hand sanitizer.
Repurposed? Retrofitted? Maybe curated is the word I’m fumbling around for. Certainly “curated” is one of the more overused words of our time, and also of this stage of my life, a season when the aging body needs to be taken care of, treated with curatorial attention like the frail thing it is fast becoming—that is, if it wasn’t, or didn’t seem to be, frail already. Taken care of; curated (cura = care): either proleptically, as one tries with statins or Fosamax to ward off or reverse osteoporosis or high cholesterol; or else, on the other hand, as a matter of deferred maintenance, of dealing belatedly (too late?) with what should have been dealt with earlier but that had stealthily bided its time.
Take the recently diagnosed precancerous lesions—actinic keratosis—under my nose, the result of too much sun long ago. A brutal ointment applied to the area a few weeks ago, functioning like invisible ink, revealed other hitherto invisible neighboring spots and brought the underlying pathology painfully to the surface. And then somewhere in those uncomfortable and uncosmetic weeks when I sported a raw, red, sore, scabby mustache (part of the healing process, I was assured), a tooth broke. My mouth was a war zone.
Why is everything so hard to open? That slice of cake; the curated treasure glistening and toothsome under plastic wrap or behind a pane of glass: it’s tempting to make this stand for all that’s visible, tempting, and unobtainable; all that’s hidden in plain sight. I’m now remembering a recent dream. Deep within the somber marble halls of Columbia’s Low Library is, of all things, a bed, a hospital bed, there for the purpose of some nameless procedure (an operation? a test?)—a procedure which will, at my request, be deferred. Balance future risk against present discomfort—or maybe the other way around.
I dreamed this dream in late January or early February. Two months later, some college dormitories will be converted to hospital wards—not one bed in the depths of an august institutional building, but many beds. What is, what was, what will be. The Mirror of Galadriel. Calchas in the Iliad. It’s not always easy to tell the past from the future.
Well, screw the top back on that particular jar of ointment—the jar of gloppy gel one smears on a breast or belly before ultrasound. The jar is there in the dream, on top of a little table, but I cover it. Apocalypse: an uncovering. Unveiling. Taking the lid off the boiling pot of the world.
Not for nothing do dream and screen almost rhyme. It wasn’t a dream, but the experience was dreamlike: across the computer screen, one day last week, a photograph of my father, sent by some well-meaning distant acquaintance, flashed without warning. In this black-and-white photo, Moses Hadas is sitting at the desk in his office (I recognize the desk and the office) in Philosophy Hall, almost adjacent to Low Library on the Columbia campus. An overflowing ashtray at his elbow, he’s talking on a black telephone with a long cord. The photo is dated 1963. My father had three more years to live.
Later that same day (2020, not 1963), a casual reference stabbed me. A snapshot had gone viral on the internet of a friendship, if that is what it was, between a coyote and a badger encountering one another, or else keeping an agreed-on rendezvous, in a culvert somewhere in a California park. The photo had been taken at night; the coyote’s eyes gleamed. The badger, apparently hesitating just outside the culvert (the coyote was just inside it), resembled a guest uncertain how to cross the threshold of a crowded room and plunge into the party. (Parties. Crowded rooms. Remember?)
“Out of Aesop’s Fables,” said my husband. And I thought of my father’s posthumous book, his translation of Fables of a Jewish Aesop, and of that photograph. My eyes prickled with rare tears. It’s hardly ever clear whether we are mourning the past, the present, or the future—maybe all three. Regret; sadness; fear. More than half a century after my father’s death, I was aching to coincide with him in time. He’d be sixty-six; I’m seventy-one—suddenly, older than my bearded, venerable father. Would we be able, in this counterfactual meeting, badger and coyote at the lip of the culvert, to converse as equals? Or would he slip away like Anchises from Aeneas’ embrace, or Antikleia from Odysseus’ arms?
E. R. Dodds, whose The Greeks and the Irrational I’ve been rereading, captures what is so tantalizing about dreams: “If the waking world has certain advantages of solidity and continuity, its social opportunities are terribly restricted—in it we meet, as a rule, only the neighbours, whereas the dream world offers the chance of intercourse, however fugitive, with our distant friends, our dead, and our gods.” Anchises and Antikleia are fugitive indeed (Vergil describes Anchises as slipping away very like a dream, volucrique simillima somno). Still, Aeneas gets to converse with Anchises; Odysseus and Antikleia have a conversation. For “normal” people, Dodds continues, dreaming “is the sole experience in which they escape the offensive and incomprehensible bondage of time and space.”
Are our beloved lost ones somewhere nearby but inaccessible, sealed behind a transparent layer? The transparent layer of screens, for example, makes everything look at once more vivid and also more unreal, more distant, even as it is apparently right in front of you. Two months later, Zoom was to loom large in many of our lives. But already one day last April, a year before the pandemic, the world seemed shrunken to a glassy little surface. I’d slipped in a puddle of something in Penn Station that day and had fallen. Later, as I was lying in a cubicle waiting to be X-rayed, it occurred to me after an hour or two to turn on the tiny TV angled overhead. And there—vivid, close, unreal, distant—was Notre Dame in flames.
I’m finally managing to get at the slice of pound cake, dipping it before each bite into my tea. I’m eating with enjoyment—I’m hungry—but also with difficulty, both because of my broken tooth and because the treatment for actinic keratosis has opened up painful cracks at both edges of my mouth. Eating turns out to be not so simple. Very soon many simple acts one had taken for granted will turn out not to be so simple.
My father, albeit invisible, doesn’t feel terribly far away. With sad accuracy, my son referred, at some point in his own father’s long-drawn-out, gradual long disappearance from dementia, to a dad-shaped hole. Ambiguous loss, as the psychologist Pauline Boss calls it: physically present and psychologically absent; or physically absent and psychologically present.
A gust of wind blows the door of the deli further open. Spatter of rain. Valéry wrote in Le Cimetière Marin, “le vent se levé; il faut tenter de vivre!” The wind is rising; we must try to live. It’s almost five o’clock; teatime’s over. Time to zip my coat up and cross 168th Street, to get to the lecture in Columbia Medical School’s Narrative Medicine series. Arthur Kleinman, a psychiatrist who nursed his wife through Alzheimer’s, will be talking about his new book, The Soul of Care.
February 5. This was or seemed to be a day in a world when the word “viral” or the ubiquity of screens still seemed like everyday phenomena. But something was coming toward us. Now the thwarted desire to touch our living loved ones and to reach out to our dead makes many of us into some version of Aeneas or Odysseus every day. The soul of care? Care. Cura. Love. Worry.
Copyright 2021 Rachel Hadas. First published in The Hudson Review. Included in Vox Populi with permission.
Rachel Hadas’s many books include Poems for Camilla (Measure Press, 2018).