PART ONE: THE DARK WOOD
CHAPTER 12: MOVED
I returned to Buffalo as an effect of inertia; once there, I made no more effort than before to succeed at teaching. On the one occasion when I communicated with the class, I did not feel good about it. I had assigned Peter Handke’s play Kaspar, in which a clumsy, naive fellow comes on stage repeating: “I want to be such a person as somebody else once was.” Anonymous voices then “torture” him by forcing him to listen to the garbled jargons of advertising and propaganda. He keeps on with his own sentences for a while, but finally starts parroting the language of his tormentors. The play ends with his saying “I am no longer I” and collapsing like a marionette whose strings have been cut. It was a small class. One boy spoke up: “That’s pretty much the way it is.” In the glum little row of faces, others nodded agreement. Was this what I had to teach?
In the first faculty meeting, the eldest professor had greeted me with “Well, Miss Cameron, I see you are working on a corpse now for your dissertation.” This was considered academic humor. I think I tried to pretend it had not been said. I did not start packing the next day.
I had found another apartment with another single woman faculty member. Someone recommended a very pleasant psychiatrist to me, and I began going to see her. The psychiatrist and I agreed that I would probably have been happier being married and doing nice artistic things on the side than working at a university, and then we played badminton with my reservations about writing the thesis. One time I told her about the old woman in the hotel with the Jewish star, and came up with the sentence: “God is an author with a heavyhanded sense of symbolism.” She smiled indulgently. I audited a poetry class given by a Jewish poet. Once he talked about the Holocaust, in which many of his relatives had perished. “It is different,” he said, “when not just you but everybody dies.” He was a very intelligent man and all the people in the class seemed very intelligent, but I could not care much about the poems I wrote that winter. The thing that I had liked about Celan’s poetry, as well as Plath’s, was that the poems seemed to be in motion – “on their way” to something, as Celan put it. And I felt that however minor, my own best work was also in motion. But the poems I wrote that winter were static.
I read the Inferno and one other interesting book, Geza Roheim’s The Gates of the Dream, whose title attracted me because it was, probably fortuitously, from Celan’s early work; it was about dream patterns that recur in different cultures. I read Lichtzwang (Compulsion of Light), the book that had been in press at the time of Celan’s death, comprehending nothing, responding to nothing. There was a new song out, that one by James Taylor with the refrain: “I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain... but I always thought that I’d see you again.”
At the university there was an atmosphere of “Business as usual,” as one colleague put it to me. Many people looked to me as if they did not like themselves. The association born of the sit-in was quite dead. There remained from it, for me, a few friendships, particularly with two mathematicians who always went around together, talking in metaphors no one else understood. But although they felt as I did about many things, they had accepted the situation; we could engage in witty, high-minded pessimism together, but that was all. With another fellow-protester, who was getting divorced and leaving the city, I spent a night in his house emptied of furniture. He gave me a chance to ask about the divorce. I did not ask. I could not.
At winter break I again flew out to Berkeley and Seattle, intending afterward to come back and work, uninterruptedly, on the thesis. Luke picked me up at the airport in Oakland, we drove back, climbed the steps to the house, it was after dark. Ireni stood in the door, we embraced in greeting, she had missed me, I was home.
Nadine was in a dark mood. She talked about poison gas being shipped across the country by freight car. She gave me a little mimeographed anthology of feminist verse, where the authors were listed in front but it didn’t say who had written each poem. One poem ended: “Look at me, baby, or pretty soon you won’t be able to see anything at all.” It struck a chord. This was the first I had heard about the movement. Nadine had been ready for it since 1966, when she got divorced and began writing poems in which the celebration of women, the identification of women with the life-force, were the main themes. After her acknowledgment of the Movement, these themes became more conscious and she began openly to express anger against men. I don’t believe she was part of any organizational effort; she felt that by going to medical school she was participating in women’s struggle for power. She had some vision of a time when people would not oppress each other nor destroy the environment but would enjoy one another’s being, and the business of all society would be the fostering of life. But there was a burning anger in her that eventually attacked every bridge between her and others, everything on which she could have laid the foundations of her world.
We were sitting in her house one dark winter afternoon, she and I and another woman friend of hers, discussing the Berkeley German department. All their betrayals were raked up, all the little incidents that showed their evil and cowardice were recounted, and at the end of the afternoon nothing was left. After the other friend had gone I went to the harpsichord and opened Bach’s Preludes and Fugues. I played the first few, which I had learned years before, and then sight-read through about a fourth of the rest, one after the other, although I have never been any good at sight-reading. I found that if I set a steady rhythm, no matter how slow, I could keep going. I had to do something to restore harmony in my soul. After a while I sensed Nadine’s annoyance, and the gesture became self-conscious, but still I didn’t stop until it was time to got to Ireni’s for dinner.
Nadine came with me; I had wanted the two to meet. But they never became friends. Nadine was annoyed by the reverence I felt for Ireni, and thought that Ireni judged her. Ireni always spoke with respect of Nadine’s mind and talent, but thought Nadine was destructive and power-hungry. She told me once that she had told Nadine she was welcome to come by and talk any time; but as far as I know, Nadine never did.
In Seattle the commune was still going, although still less harmoniously than in the summer. Jason had picked up a “shadow,” a new member named Steve, whose job seemed to be to act out the negative side of an ambivalence toward Marsha. I thought it was outrageous and told Jason so, but Jason took refuge in the general unwillingness of people in the counterculture to use judgment. I looked up Michael, my ambivalent love of last summer, and learned that he had fallen in love with someone else. She worked at the university library. I saw her when I went to look up the Zaitsev translation of Dante; she was a slight, fair, sensitive-yet-competent-looking person who resembled Michael a little in feature; they were probably well suited.
So I returned to Buffalo, now on leave of absence, with nothing to do except face the task in my battleship-gray basement office. On the wall opposite the desk I had made a sort of collage, not with pieces of pictures but with whole pictures. In the middle was the print of Rembrandt’s “Girl Holding a Medallion,” and around it I had arranged the colored photomicrographs from my father’s Leica calendars, in a way that suggested symmetries, comparisons, some overall design. The poems still refused to tell me what I should say about them.
One evening, after a day of futilely chipping away at the adamantine wall around my dissertation topic, I visited Louis, one of my two mathematical friends, and his wife Evelyn, a strong, artistic woman who was into sewing, baking, and bookbinding, and had also written a volume of poetry . In their barely-furnished living room two walls were covered by a huge poster for 7-Up that showed an assortment of hippie characters. We proceeded to get stoned and listen to music.
At this point I feel the necessity of restating that this book is not being written to recommend any chemical aid to reflection, any more than it is being written to recommend suicide. I don't know if the drug really shortened my road to certain recognitions; perhaps without it I would have arrived at them anyway, and in a condition to use them more wisely. And even if we say the drug was useful in this particular case, it was one case in a million. Bear in mind that none of the associations that connected for me in that “altered state of consciousness”, would have been there to connect if I had not first bothered to get an education. Therefore, impressionable reader, do not try this at home unless you are sure that angels are watching, and even then, thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God. To others I say again, please bear with me. The fumes will clear, and for good, at the end of the next chapter.
They had a record of Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky singing Blake poems in raucous voices, accompanied by drone instruments, and also a record by the Jefferson Starship with a song called “The Baby Tree” : “And the babies lie there in a pile, And the grownups they come after a while, And they always pass by all the little babies that cry, They only take babies that smile.”
Was that what got me thinking about my past, that narrative I had rehearsed for so many therapists? What came to me then was a kind of summing-up of all these tellings, in which I saw myself as totally determinate. Everything was accounted for. Intellectually and morally rigid father, emotional mother, shabby-genteel background, academic milieu, early childhood isolation, hostile school environment, etc.; it stood to reason that I would be articulate, sexually inhibited, socially awkward, introspective, and so on. So be it.
It struck me for the first time that freedom might not consist in jumping over one's own shadow, in being able to discard what one was and pick something else, but in understanding exactly what one was and why, and how that thing fitted into the scheme of things, some pattern larger than one's own life. I saw, felt from within, the vast and intricate structure of the created being. It was like subvisual impressions I got from reading Gershom Scholem's books on the Kabbala, it was like the time Tom and Sally and I had gotten stoned and gone to the zoo and I had looked at a zebra and realized that this amazing design had been transmitted from generation to generation, not by conscious imitation of its appearance, but by an internal code that did not even resemble it.
The three of us started talking about making a map of Buffalo. We would map not just streets and buildings, but who lived in them, what they did, who they were. I wonder whether, if I'd stayed in Buffalo, we'd have actually tried it, or whether the idea would just have blown off with the smoke, like so many others.
A few nights later it finally occurred to me that since I seemed to get ideas while stoned, I should try reading Celan in that state. But it did not work out as planned. First I was eating alone in the kitchen – my roommate was away – and it struck me that I was eating like an animal, that sitting alone in the kitchen there was no more significance to my eating than an animal's. Finally I opened one of the books. But before I could read an impulse of revolt rose in me. I put down the book and called another friend, Diana, and asked if I could come over.
Diana was from Trinidad; she was in Third World studies and used a lot of Movement slang and rhetoric that contrasted with an appearance and manner that were really rather refined. She was very beautiful and always strikingly dressed, and she admitted to me once that she used to write poetry. We – she, her boyfriend and I – smoked some more and listened to some more music, including a spaced-out version of “Silkie” and Dylan's “Like a Rolling Stone,” and I announced to them that I had had it with the academic world and was leaving as soon as I could pack. Diana and her friend applauded the resolution. Then I started talking about Celan a little, no literary interpretations, something about the kind of protest I felt he had been trying to lodge. By the time we finished talking it was late. Diana offered me her spare bed, and I accepted. It was the night of January 20, or thereabouts.
In the morning I said to Diana, “I really am leaving.” Diana had come back to earth. She looked at me, concerned: “Really? You weren't just saying that last night because you were stoned?” “Maybe so, but it's the truth. I have to get out of here.” “You should think it over...” “There's nothing to think over.”
I cleared out my office, throwing out some things I wish now I'd kept: the paper on Helena that I'd written for Politzer, perhaps also the paper on which Celan had written.... if he really did write it. I had my car checked, arranged to sell my furniture except for the rugs and one lamp that would fit into the car. I borrowed a sewing machine from Evelyn and sewed myself a dress, a Minoan fantasy of thin wool-like material with alternate thin, wavey horizontal stripes of mauve and light orange, longsleeved, high-necked, with a long slightly-f1ared skirt. Around my neck I wore the sundisc on a round wire that I had worn at the interview. It was a good party. The Midwestern poet brought his translation of an anti-winter poem by Walther von der Vogelweide. The last line, “I'd rather be a monk at Toberlu,” was translated “I'd sooner teach at Buffalo.” Louis gave me a copy of Foucault's Madness and Civilization. Evelyn gave me a blank book that she had bound. I played my guitar and sang. Two days later I drove out of Buffalo for the last time.
At least no one can say I was not moved.
I was not used to highway driving, and the car, as it turned out, was not up to it. I drove it as far as Madison and then left it there for my brother Don to sell. I stayed with my parents for a few days before going on to Seattle by Greyhound bus.
My father, naturally, was not happy. “Do you think you could carve out a new career for yourself?” he asked. I laughed rudely. He still did not get angry, even when I sang “Maggie's Farm” to him; he seemed stunned. He did not react punitively or say he would not help me, which he could very well have done. My mother said, “Why don't you come back to Madison to live? You wouldn't have to live with us, you could have an apartment in town, but you'd be close to us and we could help you.” I was touched, but Madison at that point was the last place where I could think of living. It would always be associated in my mind with neighborhood bullies and being picked on at school. And besides, there is that sad line in Frost's “Death of the Hired Man,” about home being “something you somehow haven't to deserve.” I wasn't yet ready to settle for that. For years I had been trying to escape my mother's orbit, to form ties in the world that would prevent me from falling back. Now the ties, such as they had been, were breaking, but I did not yet want to see that this meant I must go home.
But for the first time in years I accepted gifts from her without resistance. She took me shopping and bought me three dresses on sale in the “better dresses” department at Gimbels: a golden-brown knit with a blue-gray jacket, a heavy salt-and-pepper tweed with brown trim, and a loosely-woven angora dress with bell sleeves and a full skirt, in a large plaid of muted pale gray and beige. They were the best dresses I have ever had, and made to last. There was also one that I insisted on, a floor-length sleeveless white synthetic with one wide vertical stripe each of red, reddish-purple, and deep orange forming a panel down the front – flamboyance itself. It was an awful waste of money, for I never wore it; by the next summer I felt too humbled to put on such a thing. It got smoke-damaged in the fire at my parents' house a few years later. But I could never bring myself to get rid of it until I left for Israel in 1979.
I had always thought that my mother did not understand my rebellion; but during that visit I began to suspect that she did understand it and on some level approved. We had gone to a new shopping center called West Towne, which was then outside the city limits that have long since swelled to swallow it. It had a glass-covered atrium with fountains and real trees, and there was something about the main entrance that recalled religious architecture; I called it Babylon West. In one of the stores there were two young women standing rigidly posed on a platform, pretending to be dummies. I walked up close but could not think of anything to hiss at them except, “Can't you see you're being used?” A smile jerked at the corners of their mouths, they shook slightly, as if someone had jogged the platform, but they steadied themselves quickly. My mother said I should not take it so seriously; but I felt that she was glad I had said something.
She told me a story I had not heard before: “The summer after your Dad and I were married, we drove up to New England with his brothers Heck and John, and my brothers Al and Nick, all in one car. It was the most beautiful weather, and the New England landscape, just at the end of spring, and I looked at all of them and I thought: all those lovely young men! And the next year the war came and all of them except your father had to go into the army, and you know, none of them was ever quite the same person again. I always used to think about that afterwards.”
One day we drove out to the farm they had acquired eight years earlier: Father had looked at a contour map of the area and picked out the farm with the most relief, and then he had gone to the farmer and asked if he wanted to sell. As the hill farm was more scenic than productive, the farmer agreed. The land was half wooded, with two converging valleys, the little asphalt-shingled house and graying red barn on a high ridge between them, but sheltered from the winds by a field higher still. They had bought it as a speculation but then could not bear to part with it. The day was sunny and very cold. Don and I went out for a walk by ourselves and built a campfire and talked for a long time, mostly about the intricate relations among the characters in our family. We were pretty well past the aggressive phase of rebellion; we felt that we were outside our parents' frame of reference and could now look back on their experience as on our own, and draw conclusions for the lives we wanted to lead and the world we wanted to make. It seemed to us, as it must have seemed to so many young people at that time, that our conversations were strategic planning sessions, that someday we would be able to do something about the world, indeed were already doing something about it.
From time to time the whine of a snowmobile reached our ears, violating the beautiful quiet of the winter landscape. Don hated the snowmobiles. On the road back to Madison we saw a party of them, all dressed in black, goggled, with black beetle-like machines, swarming up over a snow-covered ridge near the road, like some sci-fi invasion by beings no longer human, no longer conscious of anything of worth. No doubt we overdramatized, but in those days everything seemed symbolic. Later people got tired of it; too many things turned out to mean the same thing.
But what moved me most, that day, was a glimpse I had of my parents on the road outside the farmhouse, some inconspicuous gesture that told of the love between them. On infrequent occasions my mother would speak to me of their courtship, and I think this visit was one. She told me that especially when he was young, “his mind was so sharp!” It came clear to me that this had been a major part of the attraction. And I was struck, too, with her faculty for appreciation.
The year after their marriage, before I was thought of, my parents spent the summer surveying, mapping an area in New England together. In surveying, the two partners take a distance from each other and then sights toward a third point. When the line between them and the angles of that line with the respect line of sight are measured, the location of the third point can be determined. That has stayed with me.
The Greyhound bus moved northeastward through Wisconsin; beside me sat a lady a little younger than my mother, auburn-haired, well-dressed, pretty, her eyes sparkling with intelligence and amusement. She was not traveling as far as I was – only to a town near the Minnesota border. We were discussing, of course, the world. She was waxing indignant over the betrayal of intelligence in her teenage daughter's school. She was a writer, she loved to go out to a certain pond in the country just to think, but lately the snowmobilers had made that impossible. She was working a book she was going to call a novel. “But it won't be one,” she added. “A lot of people do that –just put their friends' and acquaintances' lives into a book and call it fiction. Oh, I'm a dirty dog.”
In Seattle, the commune put me up in the house where I had stayed that summer, and where all the members were now living, until I should find a place by myself. Somehow the question of my rejoining them did not come up. I felt the tensions among them, and the distance created by my decision not to throw in my lot with them. But I believed that I was after something that would eventually be of value to them too. On the couch in the living room I found a book: Black Elk Speaks, by John Neihardt. I felt that this life-story of a visionary of a doomed people had come to teach me. Years later I went back and studied it carefully. What most influenced me on first reading was the passage where the older “holy man” tells Black Elk that it is time to “dance your vision before the tribe.”
As if by more than good luck, I soon found a room in the neighborhood, just across the intersection in a house that was partly visible from the commune house, on a comer lot with a wide green lawn, a tall substantial light-gray house with a steep gabled roof and beveled glass in the front windows. In front of the house stood a splendid horse-chestnut tree. The old man who owned it reminded me of my landlord on College Avenue, the one with the bees and the stone lions and the plaster cast of Venus, perhaps because of a certain sly irony about him. But my new landlord was very neat, and kept the house up carefully. He had thin, bright-white hair and refined features, and there was a kind of shine to his face, as if it had been polished by many sunsets. He lived a couple of streets away; I think he went to the Russian Orthodox Church. My room was on the first floor, with windows on the back yard, in the direction of the Pike Place Market. There was a tiny kitchen. The main room was painted white, and its two windows had plain white gauze curtains. Between the windows was a small wooden table. The floor was hardwood; there was a rocking-chair, and a high bureau of clear-varnished red wood. I settled my household gods in the sunny, compact dwelling, and then proceeded, gradually at first and then in accelerating tempo, to spin out of control.
The acceleration began with the housewarming party I gave at the new apartment, inviting the members of the commune and Reva. They all came, at different times, though none of them stayed for long. It was at this party that I first fixed my intentions on Michael, the Michael who had worked with Jason since Berkeley. It might seem that for a female in my situation to form designs on an unattached (or loosely-attached) male was quite ordinary. But given Michael’s character and history, it was as Quixotic as anything that happened afterwards.
Michael was a very tall, bony young man with a high, domed forehead, somewhat narrower lower part of the face, very attractive brown eyes, and a smile that held one at a distance. His father, who had died some years ago, had been a scientist, and he himself had been a graduate student in astronomy when he encountered Jason. He had the reputation of not being easy to get along with: stubborn, uncommunicative, arbitrary, unforgiving. He had an air of authority which, because of his own uncertainties, he was never able to use. Like Jason he had a “shadow,” a sidekick who seemed to personify the negative side of his ambivalence, whose every word was pure venom. He also had an on-again, off-again girlfriend, who oddly enough went by the same first name as the sidekick; it was said that after two years she was fed up with him. He had once invited Nadine out for dinner, then carefully arranged it so that they ran across the girlfriend and Nadine had very little of his company. I had the impression that he anguished about his own lack of commitment. He had been delivered to a burdensome freedom by the demography and mores of our generation, which ensured that there would always be another woman willing to try where her predecessor had failed. And perhaps science had also contributed in a subtler way to his spoiling. He read a lot of philosophy and seemed to be in search of a truth that would make commitment possible, unaware that the most important truths can be found only through commitment. My interest in him was not entirely unrequited: two years later I received a brief note from him saying that he felt more ready for a relationship now. Too late. And probably on some level he knew it when writing the letter. Perhaps he was the ideal partner for my own ambivalence. I wonder what in fact happened to him, whether he ever did meet the one who could compel his affections. Still I like to think of an “alternate future” that branched off after that evening when he sat on one of the small wooden chairs or an upended orange-crate in my apartment, listening or speaking to me with an expression he often had in conversation, the fixed smile of someone into whose eyes the doctor is shining a thin beam of light. In that alternate future my designs on him succeeded, and we became partners. Strong and clear-headed, we succeeded in putting human relations within the commune on a solid basis, in reconciling its spiritual and material concerns, giving it a broader vision, in the name of which it then proceeded to speak to kindred minds throughout society and take the lead in society’s transformation. At any rate that was the scheme that formed in my mind the next morning.
I don’t know whether it was before or after that, that I wrote the following poem:
I strove with my steps towards one
who overtook me. My child
was in the world
For a while I was held in the real world by a real concern: the Pike Place Market was in danger. A group of developers had gotten together and come up with a scheme to replace the wooden market, which so many people loved, with a modern shopping center, boutiques, and stalls designed, of course, “nostalgically,” to recall the market, but basically a different kind of thing altogether. Like Babylon West. Instead of Pike Place Market it was to be called Pike Plaza. The scheme was very close to approval, but a group of citizens had formed to oppose it. I joined the group and was assigned to work in the office, which was in the market itself. Unfortunately it was still February, and the office was unheated. I got the flu and lay in bed for a week or ten days with a fever of 103N, listening to the radio – they played a record of Rumanian folk songs, sung by Maria Tanase, that was like a breath of wind from that distant landscape – and reading the Bible. I read the King James Bible from cover to cover.
My earlier knowledge of the Bible had been fragmentary, and most of it had been acquired before the age of fourteen or fifteen, when I had become disillusioned with Christianity. Why, I don’t know exactly; I suppose one never does. My parents had thought it important for their children to have some religious training, as a foundation for moral character; but when I reached adolescence they gradually let me see that they, especially my father, did not believe. And then there was a moment when I felt distaste for the theophagous imagery of Communion, and another moment when I tried to pray and felt there was no one there, and still another, on the steps of the church while waiting for a bus, when I felt that God actually disliked me; with the rashness of youth, I returned the compliment. Anyway I stopped going to church, and spiritual questions were not reopened until the contact with Eastern mysticism in Berkeley. Once, in Munich, under the influence of Ellen who was a believing Christian, I tried to pray. But not only did I feel unanswered but the gesture itself felt false.
But now I was reading the Bible without asking myself questions of belief or disbelief. The parts I remember most clearly from that reading were the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai and the vision of Revelations. The violence with which the Law was imposed inspired awe mixed with revulsion. Revelations fascinated by the poetic power of its images, a kind crystalline inner consistency among them. But stronger than any single impression was the sense of reading the entire history of the world, from Creation to Apocalypse – even if the insignificant interval in which we had been living for the last couple of millennia was skipped over.
When the fever left me I went to the library and borrowed some books on Celtic fairy tales. One idea in them struck me particularly: the concept of geasa. It seemed that under certain circumstances one person could place another under geasa to do a thing, and the other person would have to do it, even though there was no external compulsion. The person would be compelled by a kind of mystic sense of honor. This led me to think that perhaps individuals have mystic obligations to one another, obligations that are not spelled out in advance by some general code but that follow from our various characters and histories. These obligations it would of course be very important to find out and fulfill, and one would disregard at one’s spiritual peril anyone who pointed them out.
On the morning of March 15, 1971 – the anniversary of the faculty sit-in – I was sitting at the table between the two white-curtained windows, in a condition that was becoming more and more frequent. It was a beautiful spring morning and I felt mildly euphoric. I began scribbling randomly, and then it occurred to me to interpret the myth of Perseus and Andromeda. Interpretation soon became a retelling of the story, with one condition changed.
In the Greek myth, Perseus had to kill a monster, Medusa, whose gaze turned anyone who looked at her into stone. He was able, however, to strike off her head by using the shield of Athena as a mirror. He then used the head to petrify the another monster, the sea-monster who was about to swallow up Andromeda. In the version I found myself writing, Medusa’s gaze is such that even a reflection of it would petrify. It costs Perseus some extra time and trouble to despatch Medusa, and when he arrives to rescue Andromeda the sea-monster has just swallowed her up. He petrifies the sea-monster anyway, but because Andromeda is inside him the sea-monster turns into a shining castle offshore. Then Perseus himself looks at the head of Medusa and is turned to stone, along with two companions. The townspeople are afraid of both the castle, which they never attempt to visit, and the stone men, around which they build a wall. The spell lasts for three hundred years; at the end of one hundred years, and again after two hundred years, a youth arrives in the town and tries to reach the castle, but dies in the attempt. Meanwhile the castle crumbles, but inside it Andromeda begins to awaken. When three hundred years are up, Perseus and his companions come back to life. They do not pass through the town; aided by a wise old couple who (in previous incarnations) had tried to discourage their predecessors, they are able to reach the island. Perseus’ two companions fall in combat with Medusa, who has reappeared as a vulture, but Perseus overcomes her and is reunited with Andromeda. The lovers spend three days in the castle, which has suddenly regained its former splendor, and are then transported to the sun. For the townspeople these three days are an apocalyptic interval, during which the sun does not shine. They panic and (following the advice of a scientific type) finally destroy themselves except for the children, who hide in the woods. The old couple round them up and take them to the castle, where they see the images of Perseus and Andromed fixed in mirrors on opposite walls of a room; they are fed, and each receives a different symbolic gift. From this time on the castle is always accessible – and the sun rises in the west and sets in the east.
This was the basic story line, but it was intertwined, like a Celtic letter, with all sorts of motifs from Celan’s poetry, fairy tales, the Bible, Kafka’s Castle, Wagner’s Ring, and my own personal history (notably the geology). It all came out with such perfect fluency that I had only to stand aside. I thought it had the mechanical grace of The Magic Flute in the Marionettentheater, of the clock at the Children’s Zoo. To this day I can’t reread it without shivering. I called the story “The Castle Cepheus” and added a poetic “Prologue”:
Wake and dream at evening's dawn!
Calm is the bright nocturnal day,
Sleeping Fates no more can frown,
Weariness is worn away.
The wave is weary of the shore,
And of the eye the mortal tear.
Weep among the stones no more,
Dreaming rise to that pure sphere
Where none are slain, and none destroy,
Where none are deaf, and none are mute,
Fierce Mockery dares not follow Joy,
Nor set his heel on heart and lute.
Of course, both poem and story were attempts to revive hope after Celan’s fate. My Medusa is not only from Greek legend but from “The Meridian.” Shortly afterward I wrote a short poem that attempts to draw a “moral” from the story of a poet trying to speak in the literary marketplace for the murdered community:
“If all may buy,
then some may read,”
sighed the Fly.
Spider smirked, “Indeed,
no reason why
the flies shouldn't read.”
In the fairy tale I was trying to imagine not only a reunion of lovers but a rebirth of community, hoping to reconcile what appealed to me in the counterculture (the children) with my parents’ wisdom. The three hundred years were both the mythical age of the world and an allusion to my own approaching thirtieth birthday. The island castle opposite the town symbolized the separation of Life and Art, but was also suggested by the geography of Seattle and Bainbridge Island, and my own position with respect to the commune. And of course Perseus’ three reincarnations, the last successful, represented one more attempt to reconcile a tragic fascination with the hope for new love and life. Even at that, in the end the lovers, though united, do not return to the town; they remain in the world only as images in mirrors on opposite sides of a room. The real hope of the ending is the hope of leaving some work in which my own inner image would appear as a counterpart to that of the one who had inspired me, in a revelation that would help future generations – the children who visit the castle – to live in wisdom and in happiness.
Despite that ending, I viewed the story at first as an instrument of my plan with respect to Michael and the commune. The commune owned a mimeograph machine; I typed the story out on stencils, mimeographied it, gave copies to Michael and the commune, and sent copies to my parents, Isadora, Ireni, Ellen, my mathematician friends, and doubtless to Nadine and others as well. I hoped that Michael, the commune, my parents, and my women friends, all of whom I identified with myself, would recognize their respective roles and be prepared to act accordingly. (What did I expect of them, at that point?) But people were not used to relating to one another through riddles. Jason’s partner Richard liked it; Jason liked it except for the ending with the townspeople, which he thought dragged a little; my parents were puzzled; Ireni mistrusted its fluency; Isadora said it was like a German romantic Märchen; and I seem to recall a joyous note from Buffalo, egging me on. Michael’s response was guarded.
I made other attempts to communicate with Michael through poetry. There were probably semi-coherent letters in free-verse and prose; there may have been one evasive free-verse poem from him. But two sonnets remain.
Yes, there dwells a monster in this stone,
But you shall slay him. Enter without fear.
The inward path you shall find out alone,
After the deed the outward way lies clear.
Above the door there hangs a spiderweb,
But brush it not aside as you go by;
See in your hollow hand the ball of thread:
Arachne, Ariadne – it is I.
It is the castle of enchambered Grief.
Enchanted songs in jeweled silence stand
Along the walls, and stare with strangers’ eyes,
But in the vaults there grows the herb Belief.
Descend, and pluck it with a reverent hand,
And in the joy of manly stature rise.
BE DAVID, not Actaeon; for the hounds
That kenneled near Diana's spring have fled,
They howl around Goliath's feet instead;
It is the iron, and not the wood, resounds.
Artemis' magic fails. Her orb still rounds
And shrinks, but moonlight in the streets lies dead.
Scarred is the sacred face with impious tread:
Therefore the tides of hell have burst hell's bounds,
And fiercely bright and ominous dawns this day.
See there a forest shrine: the votaress
Comes out to greet the traveler on his way
Toward meetings darkened to a woman's guess –
Desiring but to hear a tale, and bless
Some hero's arms against the oncoming fray.
I still sometimes wonder whether, if this or that had been just slightly different, Michael might have responded to my riddling invitations and emerged wise and heroic, capable of love and leadership, to struggle with the world’s disenchantments. And if he had shown signs of responding, would I have bonded to him and forgotten about the other trails of thought I was following that spring? The two sonnets for Michael were among seven, modeled (yes, consciously) on Gérard de Nerval’s Chimères. But in the rest of the “Nouvelles Chimères,” as I later called them, the main topic was the connection with Celan and the kind of being I was turning into as a result.
Falcon, fly where you will! I know the way:
A feather, a drop of blood each thousand-year,
And I'll find out your track in oceans drear,
And steer through all the dolphin-crowded bays.
Though but a leaf, a snake, a bird betray
Which way you turned, surmising no one near,
Yet I will climb to where your eagles veer
And sing your star at morning and noonday –
Dawn breaks. I feel the movement of the wind,
I stand on peak or on wave-cleaving prow,
Foam-, cloud-white garments flutter out behind.
Image of victory, en route from one
Show to the next – the waves like barkers run –
But if I live or not, I do not know.
To this poem I gave the title “Dulcinea” and affixed as epigraph Helena’s line: “I swoon away and become an idol unto myself.” There are allusions in the last stanza to things Celan had said in “The Meridian” about the petrifying vision of art. What is central to the poem is the sense of becoming something fixed, unchangeable, and at the same time of pursuing, and being driven on by, a spirit that can be detected only by rare and elusive signs. This poem, too, I sent to Michael; but I was launched on a track where he could hardly have been expected to follow.
The “doll vision,” which had shadowed me ever since my first encounter with Plath, or ever since my father brought home that record of “Paper Doll,” had caught up with me at last. And I did not mind. There is such a thing as a wish to conform to an image. In that play I had taught in Buffalo, Kaspar, the hero loses his identity when he stops trying to resemble some dimly-sensed prototype. The doll may symbolize loss of freedom or it may symbolize an inner, timeless being. I had a vivid sense that spring of being determined in both senses, of choosing to be what I could not help being. I was in the process of deciding to play, on the stage of life, a character that someone else had written. I would be the Golem. I thought in quotations and allusions, and everything I did had some literary precedent. I was even conscious of playing Ophelia.
During the earlier part of that spring I had a part-time job with, of all things, the psychology department at the State University of Washington. (I was supervising a psychological experiment, but quit after it became clear that I was making the subjects nervous.) One day in the department office I saw a picture tacked to a cabinet door. It was printed on glossy paper, mostly in shades of red and bluish-purple, as if the scene were set within the bloodstream. On the horizon in the center of the picture was a single saffron-colored eye with a great dark pupil that seemed to rest on some water-surface that reflected it. In the foreground, as though underwater, was a kind of garden, with two figures. On the left was a face, round, masculine in a lunar kind of way, open-eyed, growing on a stalk like a flower. On the top of his head there were three small, luminous spheres from which rays of light issued and curved down into the hands of the figure on the right: a woman in profile, with a great corolla of petals flaring out around her body; the petals could also be the emanation of the light she is receiving through her hands. Above, in the sky, there is a formation of black birds in flight, also from left to right. The lowest bird has hanging down from his body what look like a man’s legs from the knees down, in suit pants and shoes, as if the bird were not only flying but walking. According to the information on the back, the picture had been distributed as a pharmaceutical advertisement. It was signed “Kirkland,” a name then unknown to me; a Google search, just now, turned up a an artist named Vance Kirkland, whose surrealist work is now housed in a museum in Denver. I expressed my wonder at this picture to the department secretary, and the next day she said I could have it, as the professor did not care for it so much. It has hung on a wall in most of the places where I have lived since.
I had recognized the picture, from my reading of Gershom Scholem, as a portrait of the first three “sefirot,” as the Kabbala calls the stages by which the Divine power emanates to the world. A true Kabbalist, of course, would never try to depict them visually. But the artist was doubtless someone like me, an outsider with whom the esoteric descriptions had struck a chord. In the Kabbala the first and highest of the emanations, the farthest from human comprehension, is called Keter (crown). That might be represented by the eye. The lunar man’s head might be Chochmah (Wisdom), the first “point” of intuition, also called Father; the woman must be Binah (Understanding), also called Mother, the stage at which the initial point expands into a structure. Both the lunar face and the walking black bird made me think of the poet whose winged words, long “on the way” to me, were at the point of arrival.