Saturday, June 15, 2002

On Writing & Dreams

Have you ever had the experience of making mental notes to say this or that to someone, something terribly important (or at least half-way intelligible) and in their presence, despite best intentions, you turn featherbrained on yourself, betrayed by a cheesecloth-that-stands-for memory/mind: whatever thoughts you had, driven clean out of your head, only to re-emerge at the oddest hours—say, at 5 AM, in a strange flat (and country) not your own—even the cats have deserted you because your tossing and turning like a crazed narwhal reminds them of the bilious sea, and water is not their favorite subject, unless fish are involved.

(As the actress Tallulah Bankhead said, I nevah drink the watah, dahling, fish fhuck in it. By the time it reached the sanitized public, it was "piss" versus "fuck". As if piss were preferable to fucking. Tell me why San Francisco society was not ready for that Anglo-Saxon word. My first and only opera I attended, there she was in a peacock sequined gown, Tallulah brandishing a cigarette holder longer than her arm, speaking in a sotto voice that carried across the marble lobby and into the streets. Fresh from the hills, I was wide-eyed in amazement, but that’s another story.)

This mental indulgence exacerbated by bad cramps tempered with aspirin, cognac—one gets these images of wheels spinning in the muddied ruts in the backroads of the mind, ends up having entire one-sided conversations that never actually reach their intended victims. I’m a lousy correspondent—either dead silence for years, or a series of volumous ramblings like this one. Nocturnal epistolic documents, personal essays produced under duress by the obsessive urge to write. An unwillingness to let go.

Ah, one could say, self-indulgence is a fine thing, as long as it goes no farther than the page but essays demand an audience, that’s the other half of the Faustian pact. The monks had it right: indulgences. These, my indulgences—not poems (too self-absorbed and convoluted), but poet’s work.

Practice for scholarly glosses in the margins of what may later become a poem (if one is lucky).

I like Brodsky’s attitude on writing and the personal essay: A man of my occupation seldom claims a systematic mode of thinking. He elaborates that a writer is caught up by the relentless centrifugal nature of language. . . . where . . . ambivalence and open-endedness as the essence of [the poets’] endeavor.

This of verbal excess began in earnest when I had a Ukrainian boyfriend. Suffice to say, in 1989 letters rarely reached their intended destination, the KGB (or NKVD or NVKD—they were forever changing their acronym every decade or so, but not their technique, their headquarters, the Lubiyanka, cold solemn stone fortress/oubliette in the krasnaya heart of Moscow) working overtime to intercept love letters complicated by poetry between the sheets of Soviets and Americans.

So we wrote everything in a gonzo journalistic fashion, in triplicate, mailing one copy, sending the others via “couriers.” (Yes, our mail was opened.) I met many Russian couriers traveling to the USA, I received mail postmarked from all the cities of the free world, or got late night calls from homesick Russian friends of friends wanting to talk with someone—anyone who'd been there—a sort of sympathetic magic. The friends system was amazingly good.

Luckily, there were many Russian delegations traveling back and forth because of the efforts of people like William Mandel, a NPR radio commentator, Armand Hammer, the baking soda king, and the stuffed toy animal king, Henry Daiken. They all were couriers for me, they allowed me to stay in touch, to communicate with my Soviet lover—who now lives in New York and shared afternoon coffees with Josip Brodsky—who gave his Nobel money away to struggling Russians.

Strange offerings I received from people I didn't even know from Mother Russia—pre-revolutionary peasant dresses, coral & amber necklaces, USSR army watches, belts and pins. The Russians sent things of value to the west to raise valuta to buy an airline ticket out, or to pay for delivering packets and letters.

Once I flew back from St. Petersburg smuggling out dozens of letters, lacy silver spoons and tea glass holders, and more US currency than I arrived with, I was afraid I would get caught red-handed, so to speak. A counter-counter-revolutionary of sorts, I said No when they handed me an old icon. Ironically, I’d smuggled in as much money from Russians working in California for their families to live on; a thousand dollars was worth more than a year’s salary in Russia.

I chased elusive dreams to distant countries specifically because they were off limits, I purposefully slept with the enemy because in 5th grade I learned of a mythical Russia with troikas in the snow, in love with horses, I couldn’t let go of the image, and little did I know it was somehow tied to the frozen canals of Holland—Hans Brinker’s mythical silver skates—

I lived in St. Petersburg one winter, small patches of ice-free water beneath the bridges relentlessly patrolled by the ducks who knew: to let go of the open pond was to die. Friends are everything in Russia; without them survival is impossible. On the Field of Mars I stood overlooking the converted palaces, children sledding down the steps, and really, it was no different than here in Amsterdam.

Only later I learned Tzar Peter modeled St. Petersburg after this city we now inhabit. That inhabits us and our writing. Czaar Peterstraat and the birth of the Russian Navy. Amsterdam was his window to the west.

Of course, I’d be sentenced to spend time here looking out these windows, letting go of the myths, only to reinvent them in the poem. I perversely learn history through the back door, as a traveler in search of some elusive mystery. For what reason? Why do we write, and who for?

I need that reassurance of the personal conviction as testimonial. For poetry makes us whores— it is a relentless, unforgiving mistress. I’ve found myself in unusual circumstances for the sake of poetry. I’m merely the scribe.

And this Celtic insensibility—of course I skirt the issues, isn’t that Celtic nature, the Gordian knot? The muse comes in strange forms I no longer question. And so dawn nudges the trams into play, here, as in Russia, still I can’t sleep, but soon oblivion will find me like all the rest.

The cats are semi colons at the foot of my bed: I dream of people before I meet them. Crazy? A good Cartesian response to the unmeasurable. I know craziness second-hand, my mother’s indulgements influenced by the drug-induced ’60s & ’70s.

Then, my grandmother spent her free time wandered about the house muttering Cromwell; the Anglo Saxons & Jutes. The sassanach, she spat. When I was a child, I thought they were swearwords. I knew they were bad, very bad, that I mustn’t forget my history. And so when I recognize “kin” so far from home, I am overwhelmed. There’s a word for it: anim chara (soul/heart friend).

I don’t want to “make” precognitive dreams come true. Once I went to great lengths to try to change them. To my horror, the circumlocutions were also part of the dreaming cycle. If anything, I err in being too passive, waiting for them to unfold, & then wonder what the (fuck the) significance is. It’s not like a storyline, it’s a series of isolated moments, that upon waking, I sometimes mistakenly string them together into a narrative thus confusing the picture.

Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine:
people live in one another’s shadows.

I didn’t get a chance to tell you I dreamed I had to memorise 5 lines in Welsh—it was all a jumble of sounds, with no images to hang onto. I no sooner got one line down when it forced out the one preceding it, and so on through the night. I can’t even begin to pronounce the Welsh, I barely know the rules of Irish. I awoke with the cadence.

Pay attention to the rhythms. Teachers come in the most surprising forms. Poetry is a two-way mirror. The inside looking out. The outside looking in. You have to be ready to reassemble the pieces, wrote David Meltzer.

Once Vins and I went to Louven in Belgium where he went to University to study philosophy. Wandering the city, we stumbled upon an arch with Old Irish enscribed on the lintel. To my surprise, I was able to decipher it. . . perhaps one of the few visitors able to do so in the past several hundred years. A college founded by Irish monks in the so-called Dark Ages. And here we are, archaic sentinels from a culture (and languages) on the verge of extinction for nearly as many centuries. And we’ve so rudely taken a long time dyin’ at that.

How does one come to terms with: Cenedl heb raith; cenedl heb galon (a nation without a language; a nation without a heart).

I prefer phrases like Tá grá agam ort or Yr wyf yn du garu to the names of war.

Glamour, corrupted from grammar, this rough magic by which we strike. It’s in the blood. The dark, threatening sky. Again.

As I watched the stairs, I remembered subject/ object/ verb, but not the details—like inside vs. outside. I got to WH Smith bookstore 10 minutes early, I went downstairs 5 or 10 after 3, but didn’t think to go outside, and there he was out there all the time standing in the rain. I sat in the bay window, the rain falling, thinking Paul had gone home first, and got caught up in something. The story of star crossed lovers stood up by a miscommunication, the clock kept chiming the quarter hours with a vengeance.

What I recall of Ted Hughes’ animal poems in Thought Fox, I liked very much—especially the one about the horses. I need recommendations to “get” a particular poet. Maybe it’s because I’ve never “gotten” his voice in the small bits of anthologised poetry I’ve read in Norton, etc.

Of course, at the time (early 1980s), feminists were blaming him for Sylvia’s death. . . I was still new to poetry. So much to learn. . . In context to Ted’s poems, Heaney’s seemed a bit flat, but I was already familiar with many of the poems.

Some poems take their own time coming in.



© Maureen Hurley 2002. A shorter version/ variation of this piece, Anim Chara, takes the form of the epistilary letter—actually a confluence of two posts to Walo Rojas, Chilean poet, and to Paul Evans, Welsh poet and translator. The original piece dates back to 1996 when I was living in Amsterdam, after participating in the Poetry International festival. Amsterdam is very much a dreamlike city. For years, I repeatedly dreamed of the canals of Amsterdam, long before I ever went there. It was already part of my dream psyche, only I always thought the shining city of light was San Francisco with weird mantle clock houses. I was shocked to recognize the place of my dreams in Amsterdam.

Saturday, June 1, 2002

POEM FOR SEAMUS

Seamus’ palms are pale suns
as he points to his dance trophies
but his body turned against him
and when he danced his swollen liver rebelled.
He recites an alphabetic litany of letters for hepatitis
says D&E, F&G are twin diseases
he recites a litany of drugs that keep him on this earthly plain

They say the guard assigned to Evita Peron went crazy
looking at her gold hair spread out like a sun
and he took her as she lay in the sarcophagus

Bingham thought he found
the lost Inca city of the virgins of the sun
I waited three hours to wait for the mist to clear
before entering the sacred city
so that the gates would open.

On top of a mountain in northern China, a monk Wu Sha
was gilded by fellow monks for what transgression
or enlightenment, the story is lost, only the verb remains.
At the hitching post of the sun
he pointed to the four sacred mountains.

In the Atacama desert I stood in a sandy trough
holding pot shards in one hand
and what I thought was an animal jaw
in the other hand, was human
and I looked at those teeth
grinning at me and waiting…


2002/06