SPORADICALLY-PUBLISHED "MAGAZINE" OF POETRY AND POETICS
Christopher W. Alexander and Linda Russo, eds.
I wrote this sequence of letters in 1996 at a time I was trying to reconstitute myself as a writer of creative prose and poetry after having concentrated on criticism for over a decade. That I turned to Kathleen Fraser whom I had never met and knew very little about suggests something of the magnetism of her draw, as a poet and as a presence within her poetry. I later sent her these letters and eventually came to meet her to find the instigative presence I knew only through her poetry was in fact an inspiriting presence to untold others for whom Kathleen has served as a teacher, mentor, and friend. The importance of Kathleen Fraser to these letters can be witnessed not only in the letter specifically addressed to her, but in the other letters as well. These letters place her in proximity to several of her peers, who work someof the same terrain as Kathleen, albeit, needless to say, somewhat differently. Through the contingent relations these letters explore I hope something of Kathleen's person and work is communicated.
Of all the persons I might write you are not the easiest, although our relationship as intimates might make others think differently. I will try to keep my pencil to paper in a thin line of writing that will keep me writing towards you. Although I often talk sideways to you, I am very aware of your lightsome eyes.
I first thought to write this letter as much to someone else as to you as we sat eating breakfast in a neighborhood of friends that reminded me of a neighborhood of friends in San Francisco when I was young enough to be looking for a different kind of family in Victorian apartments with freshly ground coffee in yellow mugs and roof decks that looked out toward the pyramid building and blue waters of the bay. We were at a table back from our usual window table on a sunny morning at a restaurant, owned and operated by a middle-aged Ethiopian woman, with whom you are friendly because you so admire her restaurant and her cooking, at an intersection of arterials with just enough traffic to provide a backdrop for our morning reveries. Along with meditating on my San Francisco life and other assorted subjects that crossed my mind, I was trying to think loosely about another way of writing having spent much of the week before writing something I came to dislike.
I had just been reading Kathleen Fraser about how she didn't want to write anything more written that she would write it when she wanted to write it, although this is not exactly how she put it, but this is what I got out of it. In 'Five Letters From One Window,' she writes of discovering the stories of Martha Gelhorn, once a wife of Hemingway, who in one of her stories has a male novelist say, 'It was too much trouble, he wanted to follow no one through the planned deviousness of a story.' She continues, 'Her anti-hero has been writing successful, well-plotted novels all his life and is tired, finally, of pre-fabricating significance in human events.' Because of Kathleen Fraser, I began thinking of writing as writing a letter, so as to escape the glaring command of a blank page which can only distort my purposes in writing to you. I started contemplating writing this letter, when you began telling such plaintive stories that I could not believe how curiously the story of our morning was unfolding.
Now I am writing in an espresso shop where we also like to go, that is not in a neighborhood of friends but of a lot of street life. A young woman who reminds me of myself when I was her age is talking loudly about modelling in an art class to an acquaintance who is a good listener, although the woman is not confident enough to hear to how her friend has heard her and so keeps talking in doubt on this also sunny morning. The young woman is speaking loud and exacting enough that she is distracting me from my writing. I think if I am serious about writing to you that I should get up and leave because her hard-hitting speech is blotting out the rhythms I am writing. But I do not want to leave my place in the sun and steaming latte, and think perhaps this distraction is good for my writing because it will help to keep me on track.
When you began telling one story about the violinist with the major career who still kept to her tomboy ways and ended up slicing her hand with a kitchen knife I imagined you were going to tell it differently. I expected as you told it that she would be grateful for this accident because she was now free to imagine other lives and to be the tomboy to her heart's content that she always wanted to be. I thought you would relate it this way because of all the ways you've told me about your happiness that because of the accident of having to make a living you were able to get out of the confining regimen of classical music with its boring practice and nerve-wracking performance. You were able to put your guitar down and turn your table saws up, and so make your living as a furniture maker producing the modicum of better income that would allow you to survive. But as you sit with your left hand bitten by your table saw, that will most likely heal well enough so that with some adjustment you will come to play your guitar as before, you say instead that the violinist was fortunate, lucky for her, her hand healed. She learned her lesson and decided to take better care of her hands after that. I am surprised by this change of endings, and I try to understand its complication for our lives. So, I say, what did she do after that, just go around with her hands in plastic boxes. You search your mind, I think, for a story I might like better and smile at me, mischievously. There is the story of Pablo Casals who mountain climbing jars a rock loose and it falls on his hand. At first he is glad because he has injured his hand and will no longer have to be a musician. But his hand heals and he is happy because he can play music again and realizes that there was never anything else he really wanted to do.
The young woman who
has been talking loudly is now gone, and I wonder where this will go.
Dear Wayne Koestenbaum,
Forgive me for writing publicly to you in a private manner when I hardly know you, although you of all people should well appreciate the attractions of such an exchange. You may not even remember meeting me, so inconsequential was our interchange over dinner, to which several people were invited in order to fete you for your presentation on the poetry of James Schuyler. We went to a Thai restaurant located down the long arterial leading from the officious university to one of the most trafficked arterials in the city, so the usual Thai restaurant variously lit on a rainy street that does so much with so little was here glaringly exposed and bloated with shiny brass lamps and upholstered chairs.
Although I admired your presentation, I did not think it would have much place in my existence, but all spring long and then into other seasons, the handout of James Schuyler's poems that you passed out kept appearing in the most untoward places. For some time it found its way into my top dresser drawer with my jewelry, keys, night reading light, and stray pieces of clothing that should have been in the drawers below. That drawer is always a mess and, a particularly busy spring, it was completely out of control. Whenever the handout surfaced in this mess of stuff and I opened up the folded white, I was surprised to remember what it was. Finally, I transported it to my office, where it floated in piles of other transient papers, and still I was loath to throw it out. When school was at last over and I had time to attend to these papers, I found it a permanent home in the only place I thought I would likely reencounter it in a way that would be useful to me, in John Ashbery's SELECTED POEMS. Then, today, I wanted it for itself and, searching a files and stacks, I remembered I had stashed it in John Ashbery.
The reason I even began looking for these pages was that I wanted to include James, my mate, in my writing. It all started out with trying to think up a different way to write, and then wanting to include some stories James had told me something I was writing and then thinking I should include him, too. At a restaurant owned and operated by an Ethiopian woman, on a tree-lined, quiet arterial, he told me plaintive stories about musicians who hurt their hands that later healed, his two fingers sliced by a table saw in a way that will likely heal well enough so that he will come to play his guitar as before. Wanting to put these stories in my writing, made me want to put him in it, too, because he has always existed along side my writing, but never in it.
When I first tried writing to James in the form of a letter that I had hit on after reading Kathleen Fraser, I could not get it the way I wanted and was reminded of James Schuyler's poetry and the ways he had written poems that you thought were likely addressed to John Ashbery. Without knowing it Schuyler's voice had become an attitude in my mind for which there was no other. And then one day, much like John Ashbery in his poem 'Wet Casements,' 'I wanted that information very much today,' although you 'Are an epistemological snapshot of the processes / that first mentioned your name at some crowded cocktail / Party long ago.' Lucky for me, unlike Ashbery, 'Can't have' that information, I found your handout where I put it.
Although I remember better the tenor of your address than your exact presentation, I do believe you discussed first the poem 'Poem' and then 'Salute.' 'Poem,' tellingly begins,
You drew attention to how Schuyler might be teasing, or even chiding, Ashbery, for those prepositions of his that make him so directionally difficult to follow. In later stanzas the intriguing reference to 'display' becomes entirely arresting:
Sensing in Ashbery 'a wish to stand out, admired from the throng,' Schuyler writes a lover's complaint at what distances him from his lover, suggesting something amiss with Ashbery's private public distibutions. But Schuyler quickly closes that gap through his own modest immodest poem for 'what is, is by its nature, on display,' and although 'We talk together in a common way,' 'I do not always understand what you say.'
Then there is the wonderful poem Salute:
When I was first looking for the handout, one of the places I searched was a file marked 'voice,' in which I have been collecting thoughts for an article I have long wished to write on this troubling literary designation. I thought I may have put the handout of Schuyler's poems there, because of notes I had taken from your THE QUEEN'S THROAT Because of my mistaken inclination, I was fortunate to come upon several pronouncements from THE QUEEN'S THROAT. In one, you identify your younger self with Freud's 'Dora': 'I, a virgin who couldn't sing, understood this peculiar paralysis of the throat, and connected it to a life apart from marriage, a life of secrets and containments.' Then elsewhere you, write, 'we drink sound through our throats: our throats, are activated, brought to life by what we hear. Listening is a reciprocation: grateful for what the ear receives the throat responds by opening.'
I wish to thank you
for giving me so much when I expected very little. I thank you for helping
me to write a letter to James through the poetry of James Schuyler, probably
written to John Ashbery. There are many singular daisies in the field,
and you are surely one, to borrow from James Schuyler, and another poet
I am sure we both love, Emily Dickinson. I thank you for all the space
between the petals you have given me, the distinctions that have helped
me to write this letter, that is plaintive to me.
Dear Kathleen Fraser,
Having just written a letter to Wayne Koestenbaum about how his presentation on some poems of James Schuyler probably written to John Ashbery helped me to write a letter inspired by your letters in NOTES PRECEDING TRUST, I thought I should write a letter to you too. I hope you will not mind my writing to you when I have never met you, although your life has crossed my life many times before. Most recently, a few days ago, when I came to a place in my writing that was making me unhappy and so searched my mind for writers I might read who could help me.
The book that happened to be on my shelves, NOTES PRECEDING TRUST was a book of yours I once taught because it was then your current work. When I opened NOTES, planning to ransack it for my own devices, I hit on the letter in which you tell of your discovery of Martha Gelhorn, a one-time wife of Hemingway, who in a story has a male novelist profess, 'It was too much trouble, he wanted to follow no one through the planned deviousness of a story.' You provide your own rendition, 'Her anti-hero has been writing successful, well-plotted novels all his life and is tired, finally, of pre-fabricating significance in human events.' It was not the ideas here, so much, but your discovery of Gelhorn's writing and your inspirited restatement of her anti-hero's tiredness that moved me along.
I was sitting over breakfast at an Ethiopian restaurant with James, awash in pleasurable thoughts on how this neighborhood of friends reminds me of a neighborhood of friends in San Francisco. I was trying to think loosely of a different way of writing, recalling your 'the loose voice, no less, is crucial,' when James, his two fingers chewed by his table saw, began telling peculiar stories of musicians with major careers who hurt their hands, which later came to heal so that they could play again. I was surprised by the stories that James was telling of hurt hands reunited with musical instruments, since in his change of careers from classical music to furniture making, James had not been inclined toward stories of joyous reunions with musical instruments, but rather of anger at the demands of classical preservation. The whole morning seemed a haven from the terrible danger that rushed us to the emergency room, as he now sat with stinging fingers that will most likely heal well enough so that he will be able to push twisted hard metals through his table saw and play his lithesome guitar as before.
Because of all of this and because I am now involved in writing story poem letters, I went to the library in search of your NEW SHOES, which I read with much excitment years before. In tracing my past reading through pencil checks of my affection from years ago, I can now see the importance for you of Frank O'Hara, in your desire to include everything and in your refusal to refuse wherever your poems take you. There is also the sense that everything is always different and for this reason should not be singled out, over much. You thank O'Hara in a letter to Eric in the section titled 'Hit-and-run':
Although when I first read NEW SHOES I was also reading O'Hara, I did not find your connection to him particularly meaningful, engrossed as I was with particulars I could get only from you. The difference one doesn't really notice, but takes in like milk. And lines like these:
Some years before, when I was barely finished being a child, I dreamt in a life of much writing frustration of a writing success that transpired in long, slippery lines:
In NEW SHOES, I especially liked those things that you do that I do, too. Take, for example, the way you carry around the manila envelope with a manuscript that you know is important for you to read for two years before you read it, and then one day decide this is the day to read it. The ledger that you buy at a dime store, 'black bound in red leather with gold lettering,' for no other purpose than you like it. Later in this ledger you inscribe the journals of Emma Slide. Then, in the Magritte series, in a poem called 'Les Valeurs Personnelles / Personal Values' you depict imaginary places that I inhabit, too. One is in the bathroom under the porcelain sink where you put the stove. Then there is the boat 'made of many pieces of wood' with its 'little mirror just under the seat. It would send out light, little flashes of it, to make it seem as though there were an electric storm about to approach. But caught in one corner, to maintain the sense of home, a curtain of soft white cotton, as though a window were behind it, to open, if one wanted, or to look out of.'
I have now come better to appreciate your title poem, 'New Shoes,' also titled '(or why I cross out words).' When I first read your book, the title, NEW SHOES, all by itself seemed pedestrian, compared to your poems. But now I see you are asserting your own way of walking quite deliberately. 'New Shoes' describes two kinds of holes in shoes, some cut out for use in the snow and others worn out, and
Other ways your life has crossed mine. When my book on Marianne Moore, OMISSIONS ARE NOT ACCIDENTS, first came out, I thought I would send it to you. And so whenever I looked at the remaining copies of OMISSIONS on my bottom shelf, I thought of you. And then one day I knew it had been too long, and I would no longer send that information out. Around that time, I heard your talk at the MLA, 'Without a Net,' at which you told the story about how a male poet and critic eating lunch with you and a younger woman poet proclaims that 'the important poetry being written now is by women in their twenties, women with first books . . . such as yours . . . only now are the really interesting books being written.' In this one sweeping gesture, the critic knocks the dishware off the table, and the salad and soup go flying, and still he continues eating calmly.
I want to thank you for giving me so much when I least expected it. 'Like that gather-/ing of one of each I / planned.' The difference one comes to notice, and takes in like milk.
Dear Charles Bernstein,
While I was writing a letter to Wayne Koestenbaum about his presentation on James Schuyler's poetry and Schuyler's poem 'Poem' with its refrain, 'what is, is by its nature, on display,' I was reminded of your CONTENT'S DREAM and your meditations on 'public' and 'private,' and sometimes 'person.' At times these get pretty turned around, as they should be, if we, as you take from Wittgenstein, are to notice what is always before our eyes. ''The aspects of things that are most important to us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity. (One is unable to notice something--because it is always before one's eyes.)''
Of your meditations in CONTENT'S DREAM, I particularly liked how in 'Three or Four Things I Know about Him,' despite how you find 'going to work' to be like 'a living death' or 'tomb,' you enjoin against anyone who might think that 'what they did all day' 'was not them.' 'You are what you're forced to be when you go to work.' It is 'the conjuring trick of projecting a self outside of one's own actions' that leads at work to 'no contact with anybody there,' a 'tremendous vacancy of person.' Just so writing that would pretend to anything but writing, hiding rather than manifesting its mechanisms, participates in a similar emptying out, a refusal to correspond.
At one point, you arrive at the decidedly conventional idea 'That writing is in some senses the exploration and revelation of that which is private seems the heart of the desire to write poetry. A person alone with their thoughts takes pen in hand. . .' You deplore a privacy based on revelations of taboo content, since 'such confessions take on a style and content largely predictable, largely in a sense, already public.' The private is not confessional material to be dumped on the page, but the writer's keener listening to his 'private convictions and insistencies' that enable his exploration of the 'common good.' 'So that writing that had seemed to distance itself from us by its solitude--opaque, obscure, difficult--now seems by its distance more public, its distance the measure of its music. A privacy in which the self itself disappears and leaves us the world.'
It is now to your 'person' to which I most wish to write. While you doubt that there are 'preconstituted persons' at all, you cannot take leave of person 'as the most fundamental projection that we make.' I have met you twice before, the first time barely. The second time, amidst a host of persons, sitting across from you, in a tavern with a lot of debris of our city's arts fair thrown on the floor. In the awkward position of meeting a person who I already knew too well through admiration of his writing, I tried to get my footing through interjecting subjects of possible disagreement, to find myself in an actual dispute with you.
I have no reason to write to you except my desire to steal your thoughts for a moment or two. I love your dreamy CONTENT'S DREAM and the painting on its cover, "Lighthouse in Black," by Susan Bee.
Dear Helene Cixous,
Please forgive my writing to you with all the effrontery it is my pleasure to evince. While I have been writing the foregoing letters, I have been cross reading your works as an escape from their portals of transportive and regressive confines. 'To go through the various doors, obstacles, walks, and distances we have forged to make a life.' Like you, I should like to have my cake, and sink my teeth into its beautiful white. The sudden strand of pearls pulled from my throat. You who put two I's together to make an H in order to inscribe you ladder of writing.
'When we climb up toward the bottom we proceed carried in the direction of.' 'Jacob dreamed that there was a ladder set upon the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.' 'What I particularly enjoyed was that the angels went up and down.' 'This is my ladder, this toing and froing of messengers whose journey interests me when it descends.' 'You have to take a rock, put it under your head and let the dream ladder grow.' 'Birds are forbidden because they are the root.' 'The true poet is a traveler. Poetry is about travelling on foot and all its substitutes, all forms of transportation.' 'I wonder what kind of poet doesn't wear out their shoes.' Tsataveva 'fell in love with the word 'pathfinder.'' 'But then this, she-man who discovered the text's origin at the bottom of the ladder, goes from one live fragment to another, playing the text, twisting it, making fun of it, 'pastiching' it, travestying it, endlessly making it travel.'
' The Voice of the Play. This initial account may be compared to an unnavigable current, a current whose course would now be obstructed by rocks, and now divided by sandbars.'
'Dora. I'm taking back this coat. Too beautiful for me. It was a leather coat. I never felt like myself when I wore it, it was the hide of an animal I didn't know, extremely fine and soft, pale, with orange highlights. Is it mine? I searched through the pockets to be sure. He had warned me so many times. I might have left something in the pockets . . . . letters?'
'Dora. When you can't speak, you're dead. If I wrote him a superhuman letter, in my blood; if I explained to him who I could have been if I could have if he looked at me if I showed him my hands in my pockets, the letters crumpled in my hands, if I proved my strength my life my courage to him right here where I'm burning if I captured his glance just long enough to throw fire to water and sun to shadow if I stung him with this regret if I knocked him out if I crushed him.'
'The first book I wrote rose from my father's tomb. I don't know why, perhaps it was the only thing I had to write then, in my poverty, my inexperience, the only asset: the only thing that made me live, that I had lived, that put me to the test, and that I felt because it completely defeated me. It was my strange and monstrous treasure. And I said to myself that I wouldn't' have written . . . . I wouldn't have had death, if my father had lived. I have written this several times: he gave me death. To start with.'
'As far as Bernhard is concerned, we might say that losing became winning in a fulgurating continuity. He tells the story of how he began writing: he was hospitalized at the age of eighteen and declared byond all hope. His grandfather, whom he adored, was in the same hospital, and doing well, he tells us, then suddenly passed away. Bernhard; 'I began to write hundreds and hundreds of poems.' This is admirable, because it inscribes an ovarabundance in its apparent realism, an extraordiarily vital stream. 'I existed only when I was writng.' We comprehend that it is necessary to write, to no longer stop, since not dying and writing have been exchanged. 'And since my grandfather the poet was dead, now I had the right to write and I used the entire world, transforming it into poems.'
'As Kafka was dying he lost the ability to speak, since tuberculosis had affected his larnyx he could not even drink.' 'Somewhere in today's newspapers there is an excellent item on the treatment of cut flowers; they are so terribly thirsty, one more such newspaper.' 'Sideways, that was almost my idea so they could drink more. Spread out the leaves.' 'Move the liliacs into the sun.' 'Cut very much on the bias, that way they can touch the bottom.' 'It drinks, goes on swilling.' 'Show me the gladiolus, it's too thin to be with the others.' 'Please look and see that the peonies don't touch the bottom fo the vase. This is why they have to be kept in bowls.' 'I'd like to take care of the peonies because they are so fragile.' 'Do you have a moment, please? Then please spray the peonies.'
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