For a dying friend
He grasped my hand hard before I left
A shrinking giant in a heaven of skylights
High on the vapor of morphine
His eyes were hooded but clear
Said he was square with the Man upstairs,
Though I cannot imagine but this square
Could have used some rounding
With the Man’s more amusing emeries
Instead the Man rewarded kindness with cancer
The Man can be that way
I told him I’d be back
That I would bring him images of autumn
That we would look at them together in a few days’ time
His wife may be a widow today, tomorrow
I see pictures
In the mountain gaps filled with smoke
In the leaves curling fast before winter blasts them
Off the talus slopes
In the black bear that leaps up on stone walls
To lure the idjits in for a close-up
I wrote that poem in October 2012, for a neighbor of mine named Dave. He was a very good guy. He was a writer, like his wife. He was gentle, very learned, and completely devoid of authoritarian impulses. I wrote the poem for him just before I headed out on a solo trip to the Shenandoah to watch the autumn cover the fields and mountains, because he couldn’t do what I was doing. I wrote it so he could see what I hoped to see, sort of like an internal document we could share intra-office. I write poetry very seldom these days. But there is a term—“beautiful inner seams”— that I discovered recently, that has started to resonate with me suddenly. The term refers to fine tailoring that is not carried out for the purpose of being seen, but simply for the sake of doing the work as well as possible, for making something beautiful that someone else may never see, for creating an epitome. Something for which you will never get credit.
I wrote a lot of poetry when I was younger before some people convinced me that literature was a waste of my intellect, and moreover, that a concentration in literature would surely not make me rich (some of these people had ulterior motives and concerns for their particular futures). I took those pieces of stupid advice to heart for a long while, switched to the sciences, and in the doing lost much of my inclination to noodle around the dictionary and thesaurus. There’s no doubt the sciences brought me more certainty and a type of real joy, but they did not bring me sublimity.
The arts are no less dogmatic than the sciences. Both suffer from the plagues of celebrity culture, popularity contests, and knee-jerk resistance to change. I first encountered the dogmatism of art in a Shakespeare class, where the top student, well-read but somewhat sycophantic, mouthed the platitudes of the professor at every opportunity, thereby dominating most discussions and mocking with dismissive, annotated commentary any alarming signs of original thought. His presence, and the tired hierarchical establishment, grated on me. Recognized and demonstrated laws in chemistry, say, or mathematics, gradually erode any possibility of riffing on previous criticisms. Science moves forward in fits and starts, and does indeed suffer from its personality cults, but move forward it does (I exclude the present idiotic attempts to prove that the Earth is flat, and the ubiquitous Facebook trolls with their antic crappy video “facts” that serve as brainless retorts to complex problems). We had to throw out the books on alchemy once it was graduated to empirical methods and became chemistry. Not so in literature or philosophy or psychology. Old themes crop up like fashion colors- one season’s burgundy is the next season’s merlot. Adding to the cacophony. Human themes repeat themselves endlessly like spirals in natural growths or fractal patterns in the tree tops. These products of an extraordinarily simple yet complex self-replicating molecule are not inherently harmful or harmless. It is the self-awareness of the human that facilitates harm, or good. And sometimes that human awareness latches on to malignancy and does not let go. That is a mystery. One worth plumbing and monitoring.
I am re-reading Saul Bellow’s Herzog. I read a lot of Bellow as a teenager and young adult, dazzled by his language. This go-round, I am struck by how much the protagonist dwells on the physical failings of his characters- receding hairlines, hairy ears, paunches, the early signs of age on the faces of the women that Herzog loves. All of this frantic description is punctuated by discourses on philosophy and history that don’t exactly get anywhere or make any lingering points. It strikes me more like furious name-dropping or brand-flashing, or something, a look-at-me exercise. The protagonist is in his forties, the age of disenlightenment. A silverback who rescues himself from his personal disappointments by concentrating on the flaws of others. I am admittedly only halfway through so I have not yet made an accounting. But the self-congratulatory blatting is noteworthy. Compare it to Carol Shields’ Stone Diaries, a magnificent account of an “ordinary” woman’s life, or to any of Willa Cather’s dazzling and incisive character tales, and you notice the absence of the writer’s ego. I didn’t notice this when I was younger, plowing through books at speed. Largely because I accepted the status quo as normal.
On my way home from Pasadena a while back, I lugged my suitcase through the cavernous LAX terminal in the company of many TV monitors. I looked up and saw the talking heads, all male, all the time, all over the airport. All yammering away. They say: Listen to me. Only me. Give me your time, your money, your sovereign souls. Because we want to profit off your backs. We want to control it all. We want to shove our opinions down your gullet.
And this pervasive strain in our society struck me at once as so loudly, horribly, disgustingly abnormal, that I had to shake myself.
I am not anti-male. Far from it. The people I work with at NASA are largely male, but most of them are beyond enlightened, to my great relief. Anyone with enough “knowledge” comes to know just how much a human cannot know or understand. The knowledge the truly learned carry around tends to make them tentative, humble, inclusive, and welcoming, by and large. They are a contemplative oasis in this continuing Trumpian nightmare. But I am so incredibly tired of the male fixation on guns, the corrosive anger, the sexual repugnance, the entitled stances, the power hunger, all the timeworn factors that brought an unthinkably monstrous cretin to an office he does not remotely merit. I think of the “great” literature I have read through the years and that caustic drip of the braggart voice, the effect it has had on me and the behavior I tolerated for decades. The many powerful people who have tried to silence women and other disenfranchised humans. The many people who looked the other way. The many petty disingenuous avowals and disavowals. The many ways we all end up silencing ourselves in the fight we must fight every day. I am just one woman, but every single woman I know has a similar story, a trove of sickening tales. Just think of the factorial summation, the implication of just one of us and what we have each experienced, and the branching numbers are hard to believe. Each day, when I wake up and see that an odious criminal is still sitting in the White House, I must actively seek goodness to counteract all that palpable badness, a strangely rotten touch that can be heard as well as felt.
Carry on the work, love your kids and your friends, bake cookies, create objects with care, read, write, think, think, think. Be like Dave. Learn and adjust your antennae, every day. Be generous with your time and attention. Do good. Erase that snotty, wretched, selfish, whiny, infantile thought— “But why should I have to pay for someone else’s problems?”—from your brain. Please. My two cents for the day.
We still have those “beautiful inner seams” to look forward to, seams that good people are always working away on, seams that we will re-discover eventually, after these dark days are over. It’s the only thing to do. That phrase, by the way, lest *anyone* mock it or attempt to devalue it for being distaff, was coined by a male designer.