Our playing field is completely overgrown now. I’m calling it a “playing field” though it was just a bare hillside with rocks we plucked and threw into a sewer grate for a game. But it was not “just,” as in “inconsequential”; I only mean the field was in no way official. And I mean to be neither sentimental nor nostalgic-though to say “our” field does mark it with an intimacy, I realize. To present a little history here, even if remote and sketchy, to let you know this site is charged and layered-up, is important, so that I might best grade into the state I am bent on exploring: being of two minds.
Passing our field, some milkweed fluff blew onto my black Tshirt and I let it stay—it fastened at my breast, and Milk of me now I thought, though I do not long to be breast-feeding, seven years after I stopped. And then: Fuzzy-edged cloud, after burn, spun sugar halo . . . The day was so beautiful that I laughed, the sky so absurdly blue, June first, it seemed apologetic, a making-up-for. But the laughter was not tinged with sadness of any kind, for the game we played was of a certain time and place. It was meant to be contained, I know this now, and looking back, the game itself was absurdly blue and lit, a respite even, like this day, in which nothing, for once, came up about this all going, me going, everything too soon gone. I crossed the street and saw a parked truck covered in Astroturf with thousands of little plastic animals hot-glued on at all angles. Then I really burst out, and as I passed it, looked back and saw, hand-painted in white on the bumper: “Laughter drives the winter from human faces ha ha ha.”
I was not of two minds at that moment. Instead, I laughed easily, without thought or effort. Whereas two minds come in. They find you. They wrestle and present cases, part waters and curtains. There can be legalese with two minds, and wranglings, and shadows and rays vying. But this was one mind-the freedom from sadness, from missing the game; the bright weather, the truck with its tailgate afterthought; and the day, or moment at least, unbesieged.
Then, closer to home, came a yellow rose in the yard of the hands-down best gardener in the neighborhood, wet at the top of the climbing bush, bent far from the lattice, heavy and shirred on its stalk, but upright.
There is a way a flower can be frightening and this rose was emphatically so. It was doing exactly what it was called to do at that instant, the only moment there to receive it. Wholly in time, it was fixed to its task, with all consequence still ahead. It did not refer to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 50, which earlier I had been reading: “For that same groan doth put this in my mind: / My grief lies onward, and my joy behind.” No. Centrally commanding as the rose was, as a heart is, it was not a scooped center posed between griefs. It was the yellowest butter/cream/custard and bowl of itself. And unto itself, unhinged from time, I saw it. Not “timeless” in its beauty, but loud. It was, I think, laughing. That yellow might have been a “peal.” There might have been “mirth” or “glee” in its face. The rose might have grown “on a lark”—then flown! But not then. Not just then. It was fat and its wings were folded. Nimble and fearsome in its flight contained, its one aureate face/body/mind bent on neither staying nor going.
Really, I think there are more than two minds.
But that third, bent on settling up: that’s not the state I’m after here. Not that perfectly pleasing, measured harmonic, that synthed and kindled happy medium. That balance, that stasis; form on its way toward resolve, that cant.
I think we are up to—out there—eleven dimensions.
I do not believe the earth is flat.
But I still believe in the humors. I subscribe to all that good theory, from Hippocrates on down, about the origins and travel patterns of feeling and disease, trade routes of blood, phlegm, yellow and black biles wafting or bathing, the charts of consequence for the overflow of one and the absence of another. I believe in the humors with their assigned temperaments, dispersed and roaring throughout the body, each with its province bounded and hued, its climate matched to the elements residing in spleen, heart, brain, and liver.
Of course, when I’m driving long stretches, I still pull toward the horizon, numinous line that exists and doesn’t exist.
And of course, when I saw the autopsies performed, the blood therein was poppy red, red unceasingly, and no misty or frothy, clotted or blackened and bilious poisons rushed forth.
Two minds certainly complicate one’s mythopoetics.
When I read Dickinson and Whitman back-to-back, I am reading for the precipitous rise and fall between them. If styles are territories, I want to tack along those raw, open ranges and consider the America that held them both. I read as if trekking, for the recovery period in which a musculature repairs between one exertion and another. I read for the crevice, the gorge that opens between the vastness on either side. And I read to fall into the gap there, to be the place where the two shadows go syncretic. Sometimes I get confused: whose shadow, whose shoulder was that rubbing mine?
I have two shoulders, I know, I know. There’s a voice stationed at each—her strain, his force; the oracular and choric; whisper and yawp. And there between them, I tense and hollow out pockets in my collarbone. I make myself a harrowed place into which each abundance, each with its differing umbrage, falls, for one is not more dense than the other, or more weighty, ecstatic, agonal, dire.
The scission that has been made between them, I am not upholding.
On my way back from Poland, where I lived for a year—almost fifteen years ago now—I sat next to an old woman on the plane. She wore a long skirt with a long-sleeved blouse, and a heavy wig with a scarf, though it was June. She was the wife of an important rabbi in New York. They had both survived the Holocaust; when she reached for her bag overhead, there were the numbers on her arm. We were talking about famous gardens we both knew in Russia, England, Poland, and France. I told her I’d never had much luck with my own gardens, how they were always a mess, everything straying and overrunning the beds, getting out of hand and defiant, that it was not at all relaxing. She described the gardens she’d always kept. She spoke of her roses, zinnias, dahlias, the tangle of vines netting over, everything crammed in a too-small space. “You know,” she said in her thick accent, “I love them all. All the weeds and flowers. I keep even the dandelions in.” I remember thinking I recognize that. And I remember feeling shaken by the recognition, the neatness and the wildness unresolved. That she was not, could not be, discerning. I remember staring into the dirty gray weave of the seat in front of me. I remember thinking, uneasily, This is the only way anything will ever make sense to me.
I love the friend who is slow to talk, whose composure is a hardwon grace, who works to find a rent in the persistent heavy folds and drapes that weeks-indeed whole seasons at a stretch-can be, and laughs despite.
And I love the one who stands easily close, goes rib to rib, leans in, eyes closed, and sniffs and says, “We are all such animals, aren’t we?”
Two minds must state their position, as in any good debate, and fight it out.
I believe in progress and that we get better.
And I believe in a form/countenance/aspect so essential it cannot be altered. I like the archaic “bearing,” the idea of a temperament informing, upholding our actions.
“He had two selves within him apparently, and they must learn to accommodate each other and bear reciprocal impediments. Strange that some of us, with quick alternate vision, see beyond our infatuations, and even while we rave on the heights, behold the wide plain where our persistent self pauses and awaits us.”—wrote George Eliot/Mary Ann Evans.
The woman with the long gray braid, who walks her grandchild to school, ought to cut her hair, I’m thinking this morning. The braid is too long and limp and wispy and looks more like a baby squirrel’s tail than a gathered plait waiting to be unfolded and let cascade. I thought “terrible to be old”—the sinking, the shuffle, the loss of balance and ease of leaping over curbs…but what is it, really, I’m turning away from? The evidence of Time as it rests and elaborates in the body? Time commandeering. Offshore detonations rising and rocking the waters. That it’s shameful somehow to be made helpless by Time, its scouring away of the individual form one worked so hard, over a lifetime, to constitute. It is the custom of some old women to wear beige—“bone,” my grandmother called it. Not “tan” or “ecru.” Not “eggshell.” Not “khaki”—right gear for stalking the land of bones—but bone. As if that were a color along the spectrum. Or a charm: resemble the thing you will ultimately be and Time will pass over your house, mistaking you for already gone.
I hated the meekness of that color. Let me never wear “bone,” I’d think.
I, who sit daily in front of a collection of real bones, three animal skulls with rough, flat planes, holes for cords and sockets for eyes, all flesh picked, washed, burned away.
I read: “What others might have called the futility of his passion, made an additional delight for his imagination. . .” (George Eliot).
Two of my oldest friends just visited, each briefly, and returned home, one to England and one to Italy. I miss them now and, in their absence, know that I will never see them enough in this lifetime.
And I also feel held by the atmosphere each so recently scented. Right there in my kitchen was the gesture of hers I’d forgotten, long, elegant hand at her flushed neck, restraining just before launching her point. And there, still, the sharp tooth that shows when he laughs, and the quick eye that follows the curve of a pear, reddened in one spot low on its rump. So I go back and forth. Bereft/held, bereft/held: my heavy, iambic, two-chambered work.
And yes, the eidetic moments help.
Here is a favorite sentence from Ethan Frome, a marvel of lightness and economy: “Once or twice in the past he had been faintly disquieted by Zenobia’s way of letting things happen without seeming to remark them, and then, weeks afterward, in a casual phrase, revealing that she had all along taken her notes and drawn her inferences.” By the time that first comma arrives, the route of the whole sentence is so clear and inevitable that the sentence’s way of saying, post-comma—I remember my brief anxiety about this, the first time I read it-had better be up to the shape that exists to hold it, that has already been cast out ahead. Of course, the sentence is up to the task. It’s a clean, spare sentence. It’s a hinge in the story, too; events turn because of this sentence, loitering intentions ripen, recrudesce at just this syntactical moment. I love this sentence because it points out that a way in which I want to know-as a terrible drive with its end enfolded-will, in fact, be dramatized in a much larger field in the story. And though I may be engaged in, as Keats advised against, an “irritable reaching after fact and reason,” it’s more like a game, reading this sentence. I see the arm cocked and the point let fly. I get a little blinded by sun and step back. I agitate from foot to foot—then catch it like an ampoule of dye, or poison, or perfume tossed from a speeding sled.
Then, too, there is this sentence from Swann’s Way:
She was genuinely fond of us; she would have enjoyed the long luxury of weeping for our untimely decease; coming at a moment when she felt “well” and was not in a perspiration, the news that the house was being destroyed by a fire, in which all the rest of us had already perished, a fire which, in a little while, would not leave one stone standing upon another, but from which she herself would still have plenty of time to escape without undue haste, provided that she rose at once from her bed, must often have haunted her dreams, as a prospect which combined with the two minor advantages of letting her taste the full savour of her affection for us in long years of mourning, and of causing universal stupefaction in the village when she should sally forth to conduct our obsequies, crushed but courageous, moribund but erect, the paramount and priceless boon of forcing her at the right moment, with no time to be lost, no room for weakening hesitations, to go off and spend the summer at her charming farm of Mirougrain, where there was a waterfall.
Waterfall! The mossy relief after the sentence’s journey, much switching of carriages, all the ungraded roads and travel-dust clouds- washed away instantly! Such a moment is impervious to irritable reaching: it deflects and deflects it. While I read faster and faster, “waterfall,” in its solidity and inexplicable arrival, punches back. Here is a sentence that withstands me. To which I submit. That perhaps did not know its own end when it started, as I cannot know its end when I begin reading. And I am wholly delighted by the resistance and jittery plunge that follows. By the mirror the sentence becomes, in which I see my own surprise.
I love the line cast cleanly out, the simple lead weight bringing it down in the spot planned for.
And I love the veering, careening ride, the ramble and torque and purifying shock of landing hard.
Freud tells the story of taking a summer walk in the country with a “taciturn friend” and a “young but already famous poet.” They are ambling along, it’s August 1913, so imagine the overall heaviness of the slow summer air.
The poet admired the beauty of the scene around us but felt no joy in it. He was disturbed by the thought that all this beauty was fated to extinction, that it would vanish when winter came, like all human beauty and all the beauty and splendour that men have created or may create. All that he would otherwise have loved and admired seemed to him to be shorn of its worth by the transience which was its doom.
But Freud disputes “the pessimistic poet’s view that the transience of what is beautiful involves any loss in its worth.” Then he tries to figure out how mourning works-since that must be what the two are experiencing, each in his own way, he believes-mourning for impending death, brevity, fragility. Mourning comes to its own “spontaneous end,” he reasons. Mourning “consume[s] itself,” he says, and leaves us freshened and ready to attach our love to new objects.
I think Freud must have seen many beautiful nests-with-eggs on that walk to come up with this idea about the spontaneous end of mourning. Is there anything more snugly held, more promising a sign of spring, than a surprise cluster of eggs in a nest? I imagine they would have been robins’ eggs, blue of the favorite book of my fourth year, Little Bear’s Mother, where I first encountered the color in any meaningful way (as backlit morning playground, then dusky sky, then shadow of the mother over the little bear) and was held by it, felt some thirst commence, and drank and drank, and felt, at that stream, the never-enough, never, never, never-enough of pleasure held only briefly still (then gone, but so refreshed upon reading—again! Please, again! ). Freud saw—must have seen—a nest and constituted therein his response, which was a kind of rivulet of blue between his friends’ adamant darks. He must have held his mourning in his own warm hand-after all, it was 1915 when he wrote of this walk, the war was on-until out came an orange-breasted flame from the blue.
(Often I prefer mourning/anger/rebellion in the face of my own various losses. But too, I have my blue robins’ eggs, and looking at them makes me content. These I collected, souvenirs of a sort, over the past year on the walks I took, sometimes three a day, to quell the factions, to run the warring out of my body.)
Recently I was walking to the park and, as I dropped the letter I was carrying into the mailbox, I was stilled by the notion, almost a prediction, that I would find a reindeer, a really tiny one, the size of, say, a lemon. This is the way the image came to me: it “popped in” (maybe fell? down from some nest?). Maybe the weather, a very cool June afternoon, encouraged the image’s weird arrival. I attempted to exchange the reindeer for something more seasonal, more discernibly trinkety and likely to surface (clover, penny, bottle cap), but the reindeer was stubborn. It was meaning to be found.
I suppose I might dig around a bit, psyche-wise, and find the reindeer representing/standing in for something delicate and hidden, meaningful in some way I cannot yet understand.
Along the way there were white tulips so robust they reached to my waist. I saw some kind of evergreen whose uppermost branch shot out, like a hooked cane, into clear sky. Pink azaleas were dulling to brown and looked more like colonies of coral. And the place the reindeer sprang from, that swampy, rampant, tundral field, offered this image, too: a cleanly flensed frog. Now the two images were overlapping, the frog’s empurpled and milky-blue, skinned legs-and the whole and intact tiny-frog-sized reindeer.
Then came the smell of gingerbread, though maybe I’m misidentifying some flower’s perfume, and while this whole sensation/ eidolon/charm wasn’t about winter at all, many wintry things kept adding up.
To what, though? To what?
What if I thought about the images differently: simply, that they exist. Are out there embedded in shifting forms, and enter me, the moment’s site of odd happenings. No irritable reaching, just Hello, Reindeer. Hello, Frog. Your absolute smallness. Your unexplained blues. All fact and reason just let go of.
These images are meaningful/I have no idea what these images mean. And what do I get if I push these very real-but-odd pictures up against the nothing-in-hand?
Not a stand-in bird.
Maybe a glimpse of the blue flame of an egg.
Shakespeare’s Sonnet 13 is either to a person called “Love,” or it’s an apostrophe to Love-the-Idea. There’s a pleasing wobble, a close up then zoomed-out, back-and-forth shimmy between the options as you read. You have to go at it like a swimmer, face in and out (breathe!) of the water.
Love is a palpable, real, other’s body you can touch and smell and talk to.
Or if the Beloved goes away, and there’s carelessness to hachure in, and the issue of dumb youth/dumb age overtakes, you’re suddenly overhearing someone reasoning, wrangling with an unruly idea.
(Reading this sonnet is good practice for the even more dizzying Sonnets 135 and 136, where “will” has no fewer than three meanings embraided: poet/drive/intention to act.)
That old man kneeling in the woods, come upon as I was walking, crouched low at a fallen tree, hands pressed together—was he okay, resting like any pilgrim might, his scant belongings bundled, eyes closed and face tilted up? I looked back to be sure he was praying and hadn’t just fallen, and to see if I should help. It seemed like a loss he was speaking to, for he had picked the right props-downed tree, rough cane, small parcel-and added to them only himself, a beseeching presence.
But maybe he had fallen. As in “from grace.” (Sometimes, against one’s will, a oneness of meaning creeps in.)
This summer, of all I’ve read and copied out, because I wanted to keep the words close and to feel them come from my own hand, here’s this little passage from Proust: “To reach the end of a day, natures that are slightly nervous, as mine was, make use, like motorcars, of different ‘speeds.’ There are mountainous, uncomfortable days, up which one takes an infinite time to pass, and days downward sloping, through which one can go at full tilt, singing as one goes.”
That’s me in my motorcar dress, windows open, hair flying.
Sometimes I am grateful he knows. (And that he knew me before I was born! And that the words awaited me all these years!)
Sometimes I feel stripped bare and found out.
Given the choice between, say, a dozen decent chocolates and one small piece of pure Belgian dark, I’ll take the smaller, perfect thing. The brief, onetime delicacy. It has always been this way with me. I’ll eat it at once, no slow rationing-out, and then live with the fleet abundance and longing.
But, too, I have these perfect T-shirts, so well fitting, falling just so—a whole drawerful I took such care in collecting-that I resist putting them on for fear of wearing them out and then not-having.
I’m drawn to the way rust bleeds out around a razor in the rain.
And I want to pick the razor up so no kid will get hurt.
I want the stain to spread.
And I want no one to run in a mess to the doctor (for I myself, surprise nail-in-the-foot, once had the awful emergency shots).
I want this perfect lost-barn tint contained in the blade’s corona every time I cross the street right here.
And just for fun? One of the T-shirts I love too well is the color of that rust, precisely.
One letter, handwritten (unsealed, the flap just tucked in) to a Mrs. G. from Jehovah’s Witness Mary D., suggesting another visit and scripture reading (quick, fifteen minutes, she assures) to ease Mrs. G.’s hurt over the loss of her brother. The letter is beautiful, and ends, “I just wanted you to know that I am still out and will be happy to see you whenever you can make the time—and that’s usually what we have to do-make time because it seem time just don’t allow. Most Sincerely.” I am drawn to the handwriting, a combination of script and print, carefully laid across plain, unlined paper and comfortably sloping, the ease of language, the un-self-conscious voice set down so directly on the page, an unmediated mind-to-paper move certain of its task. I wish the letter would go on, for I do not want to leave this voice.
But at home, I hide when the Witnesses come. I want to be left alone in my godless world. I want not to be exhorted or cajoled or handed one thing more for my own good. I am fed best by what is left behind. Detritus, loved and held. (No pure dark Belgian here.) I’d do well as a crow or a vulture, cleaning, paring, finding succulent what has been overlooked and is moldering.
The “good word,” okay.
But not to have to receive it fresh and from on high.
Today it rained hard for much of the afternoon. It got dark fast, let go a hard, final downpour, and now the streets are clear and sharp-smelling. The light, these long last days of summer, is low enough to jewel and yellow, blur, and now, if I tilt my head, rainbow all the drops hanging from the phone line. The colors weight the drops, slick them with fire and sea greens in shifts.
I read, for sustenance, more sustenance than my own lemonbeaded raindrops on the high wire can give, Proust on asparagus:
tinged with ultramarine and rosy pink which ran from their heads, finely stippled in mauve and azure, through a series of imperceptible changes to their white feet, still stained a little by the soil of their garden-bed: a rainbow-loveliness that was not of this world. I felt that these celestial hues indicated the presence of exquisite creatures who had been pleased to assume vegetable form, who, through the disguise which covered their firm and edible flesh, allowed me to discern in this radiance of earliest dawn, these hinted rainbows, these blue evening shades . . .
I walk through this rain thinking at one time I would point this all out to you, hold these drops somehow against that astral asparagus, iridesce the water, roll a pearly drop toward you, fray and sift asparagal light. But now you live in another city, and you, in another country, or you (who have not yet even made an appearance here) and I no longer speak of such things.
But I want the shine to live. And before I know it, I am offering, tilting into the light and bringing forth . . . something: fine beads aloft, an abacus of pearls, say. I’m sowing some new green, but it’s for you, Reader, whom I both know and do not know, who both exist and do not exist, who constitute an elsewhere far, further than I can imagine, years, maybe centuries away.
Whose elsewhere is a balm and a comfort.
Lia Purpura is the author of nine collections of essays, poems, and translations. A finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for On Looking (essays, Sarabande Books), she has also received Guggenheim, NEA, and Fulbright Fellowships, as well as five Pushcart Prizes, the Associated Writing Programs Award in Nonfiction, and other honors. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New Republic, Orion, The Paris Review, The Georgia Review, AGNI, Emergence, and elsewhere. She lives in Baltimore, where she is writer in residence at The University of Maryland, Baltimore County. She has taught in the Rainier Writing Workshop’s MFA program, at Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, in The University of Iowa’s nonfiction MFA program, and at conferences, workshops, and graduate programs throughout the country. Her newest collection of poems is It Shouldn’t Have Been Beautiful (Penguin), and her latest collection of essays is All the Fierce Tethers (Sarabande Books). She is a contributing editor of AGNI. (updated 4/2017)
Purpura’s AGNI essay “Glaciology” won a Pushcart Prize and is reprinted in the 2006 anthology.