PART ONE: THE DARK WOOD
Chapter 4: Fugue of Memory
Ireni came from Greece. She was married to Luke, a lawyer from Texas, and they had a fifteen-month-old son, Gabriel; she was a graduate student in the Comparative Literature department, with a reduced course load. She did not think she could return to Greece because of the political situation there, but that was not why she had left; she never did tell me the reason.
Her family had lived in Athens, but her father had been born in Turkey, where there had been a large Greek colony for some centuries. When the Turks expelled the Greeks, these colonists had returned to their mother country; and perhaps the memory of a double exile was one of the hidden threads that connected her with me and with Paul Celan. During World War II there had been great hardship, and the family was only saved from starvation by the rabbits her grandfather raised. She had been a first child, unbeloved by a harsh and difficult mother, small and unprepossessing; the other children at school had thrown stones at her. When she was fourteen a gypsy had told her fortune, saying that she would travel across the sea and would be with more than one man. This was unusual in that time and place. Perhaps the prophecy was self-fulfilling, for people in that part of the world had a great belief in dreams and the supernatural. For instance, Ireni’s mother had known she was pregnant through a dream of bread in the oven. It was a world in which children were still named Antigone or Eurydice and the Greek tragedies were common reading, though the pronunciation of the language had changed. At one time Ireni had seen all the classic tragedies being reenacted around her. She had had to deliberately blind herself a little, to learn not to see them. I told her that if I had that gift, I wouldn’t throw it away!
She was small, with short dark hair, large, round dark eyes, delicate features; there was something fawnlike in the eyes, the line of nose and mouth and chin and throat, the look of sensitive alertness. Her voice had a plaintive foreign melody; her utterances were brief, but there was a sureness about them, as though the few words were pebbles brought down by the stream from an unseen massif of certainty. Whatever I told her, she seemed able to conclude from it more than I had understood; it seemed to fit into her previous knowledge somewhere.
Ireni told me that I had some of the spiritual characteristics of a man, and this was because I was not married yet: “When you marry you give your husband some of your masculine traits, and he gives you some of his feminine traits.” I told her the fable of Goethe’s Natural Daughter, and she said this was an allegory about the fate of the soul on earth.
In her native tongue Ireni had been a poet. Now she was beginning to write in English. On rare occasions she would show me a brief, stammering poem about the fragility of life. She wrote out and explained to me a few poems in Greek, of which I knew a little from a semester’s course two years earlier. The poems were by Lambros Porfires, whom she said most critics regarded as sentimental. One was called “Lacrimae Rerum (The Tears in Things).” The language sounded very beautiful when Ireni read it to me, liquid and plaintive. Once, on the beach, she sang a song:
Pos agapas eimena
Kai oukhi’allon kanen,
Mou to’khis ipomena,
Yati, yati, yati?
“You said you love me and no one else, why, why, why?”) I got her to teach it to me. But then I sang it to a more sophisticated friend, Harriet, and she laughed and said it was an international hit and sang it over in Italian or Spanish with a mambo beat. The way Ireni sang it, it had nothing commercial; it was an expression of elemental hurt and sadness. Another time I heard Ireni singing to Gabriel: “Sti vrisi tin vounisia...” I recognized the tune, only slightly changed: it was Schubert’s “Der Lindenbaum.” Ireni said it was about an ash tree in the mountains.
Ireni had arrived in New York at the age of sixteen. She had gotten a miserable job, and then had become very ill. Somehow she had managed to get into college. A brilliant man named Gabriel had befriended her and fallen in love with her, but she would not allow herself to become involved with him. Something held her back, and finally he gave up and married someone else. Her refusal had embittered him, and she felt considerable guilt. Once we discussed Andrew Marvell’s poem “The Definition of Love,” which says that the union of two people perfectly suited to each other is not possible; if it were to occur the world would be destroyed or utterly transformed. Ireni said that this was true. After the end of her friendship with Gabriel she had had other relationships; the most drawn-out and painful had been with a man named Ardan, who sounded a little like the Ardan I had been involved with: beautiful and very strange. After that was over she had met Luke.
Luke was tall, a little awkward-looking, with a shy, kind smile. He came from the Southwest, from an unpretentious family, and I gathered that, like Ireni, he had had a harsh mother. He had finished his law studies and was now a hard-worked associate in a law firm. In Berkeley, at the parties where he never said much, he was wide-eyed, like a child at a carnival. The two of them lived simply. The little house which they rented contained only the essential furniture, and Ireni made no attempt to create an ambiance. On the bare floor of the living room stood unapologetically a large television console (an appliance which it was a point of honor in Berkeley not to have); the few decorations were things that had come to Ireni by chance, and she had taken them in as one takes in homeless strangers. Their car was an ancient light blue Chevrolet pickup which Luke had bought for twenty-five dollars.
When I first met Luke and Ireni, Gabriel was fifteen months old, a handsome, robust child with ash-blond curls, large for his age and firmly muscled, with a joy in life that seemed more than infantile. He already had a strong sense of self and knew how to stand on his dignity. Once Luke and Ireni had taken him to a “be-in” at one of the parks in Berkeley. In the atmosphere of trust at the gathering they had let him wander off by himself, and he approached other groups and communicated with them in his way. Ireni swore that he only picked the prettiest girls to go up to. He was already going through the “Oedipal” phase, possessive of his mother and jealous of his father, or of anyone else who claimed too much of her attention. Once when I was lying on the grass in their back yard, talking to Ireni, I looked up and saw Gabriel standing over me with a heavy toy in his hand and murderous determination on his face. Notwithstanding the remonstrances he received on this occasion, Ireni and Luke found it all hugely amusing, and some of their amusement communicated itself to Gabriel. Once, when he was three years old, I fell ill on a visit to them, and Nadine came to visit me, dressed in the height of Berkeley elegance. When she turned to go, Gabriel rushed to the door and flung it wide for her, with an air of being vastly impressed and also just a hint of comic exaggeration. Because he could express his emotions so directly, they seldom came out in indirect ways; he exhausted Ireni sometimes with his boundless energy, but not by fussing or whining. One evening I overheard quiet, laconic Luke making up stories for Gabriel about the adventures of a marvellous snake. Ireni said that was an ongoing bedtime feature.
It was the first time I had been close to a mother besides my own, who had been, I guess, what is called overprotective: intense, high-strung, perfectionistic. Like Ireni, I was an eldest child; unlike her, I had felt not unloved but too much loved; the strength of the maternal attachment frightened me; I struggled to get loose. With Ireni I was able to observe the mother-instinct from outside. She told me that once, while crossing the street with Gabriel’s baby carriage, she had thought they would be hit by a truck. She had pushed the carriage away from her, not even thinking about her own escape. I saw the concentration with which she watched Gabriel, not taking her mind off him for a second. This was something I could not duplicate; once when I tried to watch him my mind wandered and he promptly got into some mischief. Ireni was a year or two younger than I was; yet twice I found myself calling her “Mother.” In her presence life seemed profound as it never had before. I looked back on my adolescence and childhood and was filled with dismay over the coldness, the superficiality, the false pride and false shame, amidst which my life had begun. Could anyone with such beginnings hope to create? I asked Ireni. She did not know.
But gradually a different reaction set in. I began to see different things about my past, things that corresponded to what I perceived in Ireni, and which had been buried under an interpretation of my background which was as conventional, in its way, as that background had been.
In this, Ireni’s presence served to reinforce one effect of Celan’s poetry, to which the maternal image is central. Early on, I had attempted to translated a rhymed poem from “Poppy and Memory” entitled “So bist du denn geworden (And so you have become),” which is addressed to a “you” that has ceased to be an individual person and become a pervading influence in “a land of wells.” The landscape of memory itself: in his biography of the poet’s youth, Dr. Chalfen says that these “wells” were a feature of the Bukovina landscape. In this lost landscape the lost mother – now indistinguishable from the unconscious layer of the poet’s mind – is like the groundwater. There is another rhymed poem – “She combs her hair” -- which I didn’t even attempt to translate then, because the sharpness of its crystalline structure made the task seem hopeless. There, the mother appears as a figure standing outside the world, wearing the world like a shard on a string. The shard is also a mirror that gives back not her face but the face of the child. I think this poem must hark back, past the terrible shattering which is not allowed here to stop the poem’s music-box tune, to the earliest stage of memory, the stage of the “I-thou” relation between mother and infant, where the child first comes to itself in the mother’s gaze. A lot of poetry harks back to this stage; I think here of Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, which was a favorite book of Celan’s. At any rate, the seed-crystal of these words in my mind, combined with Ireni’s presence, prompted me to begin remaking my own relation to the maternal image.
For the “conventional” interpretation of my past there had been, of course, ample material. Our family was middle class, and had been so for generations on both sides. My parents voted Republican, believed in American democracy and the free enterprise system, and sent us to Sunday school at the Congregational church. Although both had begun college with an interest in literature, neither read much while I was growing up; for years the Saturday Evening Post was the only magazine to which they subscribed. Their social life was similarly austere. They attended faculty gatherings, went to the homes of colleagues for dinner and reciprocated by inviting them to our house; but those occasions generated little warmth. All our relatives lived far away, in the East, so there was no middle ground between the confines of the immediate family and the larger world with which only arm’s-length relations were possible. My parents’ moral standards were a shade stricter than the average of their generation – little short of “Victorian,” in fact. They did not talk a lot about the kind of conduct of which they disapproved; they treated it as not worth discussion. Work, especially intellectual work, was understood to be the main thing in life. My father had worked his way through college during the Depression, almost at the price of his health. He worked not only by day but also in the evenings, at home, and in summer he would go away on field trips. Sundays he would fix things around the house. (Nowadays everyone works all the time, but this was not generally the case when I was growing up.) He was known to his colleagues as a man of great integrity, and my mother had no doubts of his loyalty. He was a utilitarian; although he would occasionally listen to classical music, and would sometimes quote a line of poetry, he considered such things impractical. He could maintain his dignity in physical pain; my mother used to say he was a Spartan. And in emotional matters he was similarly stoical; once, when I was lamenting my social isolation, he said to me, “You must simply recognize that some people can be hail-fellow-well-met with everyone, while others have to gain people’s respect through their work – and you are one of those.” As an adolescent I tried to imitate his stoic dignity, but failed repeatedly to maintain it. He represented a standard which I couldn’t reach; it was a relief, for a while, when my first real friend in college suggested that this standard was inhuman.
My mother, on the other hand, held me in a grip of love and anxiety which made separation difficult. It was impossible to lie to her, because she could always tell, and for this reason she could permit me, as a child, to leaf through the Saturday Evening Post on condition I would not read the love stories, which were “too old” for me. From the age of five on I was aware of a shrinking horror of the body, which must have come to me from her. Maybe it was a survival of her Catholic upbringing, but she never spoke of sin or evil in that connection. It seemed related rather to the way she prepared for guests, as for an invasion, or the way she once clutched my arm, while engaged in apparently casual conversation, until the nails dug in. Perhaps I was a child of anxiety, not only hers. I was born in New York in 1941, and the three doctors who watched over my mother’s pregnancy, my birth and my first months, were Jewish. The pediatrician, a woman, warned my mother strictly to feed me only every four hours, and my mother (“I wanted to do everything just right”) followed these instructions to the letter although, because my stomach was undersized, I got hungry long before four hours were up and “screamed like a banshee through [my] first year of life,” in her words.
In my college years I had come to read my upbringing as a Victorian horror-story, my parents guilty of a denial of nature which caused me to become inhibited and solitary. I was assisted in forming this impression by some of the therapists I saw – mostly at my parents’ expense – but even more by friends who held certain ideas about human psychology, as part of the general wisdom of the times.
When I first related my past to Ireni, it was in this light; and she shared enough of the time’s hostility toward the genteel, the righteous, the inhibited, to encourage me in this view. She even came up with some weird conjectures of her own about what my parents had done to me. Only the conjectures changed every day, so it got harder to take them seriously. And then a number of her remarks were at odd angles to the standard interpretation. She said once that with such an intellectual father, and such an emotional mother, it must be hard for me to strike a balance. This blamed nobody; and then she was not as sure as some that I ought to have turned out differently. When I spoke of my inability to overcome my fear of men, she said that there was some reason to be afraid of men. When I spoke of having accomplished nothing, she said, “You should be glad that you have not done great harm in this world. You should see that as a positive accomplishment.” (She did me too much credit there. I had possibly done great harm to someone the year before, through stupidity, egoism and lack of self-possession under pressure. I do not wish to relate the details – if I told all my sins I would never get around to the things that make this story worth telling – but I have as much on my conscience as most people.) She said that she did not understand how I could bear to live alone, but she said it with a touch of admiration; once she told me that she felt guilty at times for having brought someone into this world. There was a still darkness in her words which checked my desperation and made it possible for me to stand still and to look at my past without the distortions imposed by a wish to change things, seeking now not the origin my own woes, but my parents’ being – what they were in themselves.
Like Ireni, my mother had always lived on foreign soil. True, she was born in America, but her father was Lebanese, her mother the daughter of French immigrant parents, and the language of the household was French until my mother, the sixth of their seventh children, entered school, not knowing a word of English. She mastered the language, did well in school, drifted over, with her friends, to the Presbyterian church, went to college and graduate school in New York, married a man of Scottish-English ancestry, and ended up living in Madison, a thousand miles away from her relations, among a mainly Nordic population. Feeling like a foreigner, she did her best to imitate the manners of those around her, the manners of strangers; thus her life acquired a strained surface, and she could not initiate me into a society to which she herself did not feel connected. In my resulting frustration, I had forgotten that amid our exile she had managed to create a small world, a miniature tradition with history, proverbs, half-formed prophecies, which she handed on to me as the eldest child and only daughter. She did not mean to do this; it happened precisely when she was not trying to bring me up, but playing with me, with the absent-minded concentration of a child playing with her doll.
When I was five, the Sunday school teacher told us, “God made you.” “My mommy made me,” I corrected her. I can still remember the tone in which I said it, and the smile exchanged by my mother and the Sunday school teacher after class, and it seems to me that my statement arose not only from the certain confused knowledge I had recently acquired, but from the way in which she dressed me, sang to me, admonished me, made my clothes, entered into my childhood projects: with the attention to detail, and the hidden sense of overall design, that characterize the artist. Perhaps indeed it was this sense of being created that the later “folie à deux” with Paul Celan was to help me to recapture. The exchange in Sunday school happened near the end of a long winter spent in the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina, a mile from the nearest neighbor. Father was doing surveying work; at night he would come home and color in green on a map the area surveyed that day, while my brother Jim and I watched in fascination. But we spent the days with our mother, walking beside the rushing river some hundred yards from the back door, under the walnut trees quiet with winter, picking up walnuts, or sticks for the wood stove. Hers was the only voice that spoke to us in the wilderness.
She would tell us stories that began “When I was a little girl...” These stories held more magic than fairy tales, although nothing happened in them but the ordinary doings of her mother and siblings, whom I knew slightly in their present disguises, and of her father who had died before I was born, in the dark, substantial old house in Ridgewood, which must have been a different place with all those people moving around it, tending roses and making ice cream and getting dinner and playing the piano. For us it was enough magic that these things which had really happened and were no more should return again through her; that she could let us look, as through a window, into the time and place where these things were still and always would be. And for her it must have been an act of mastery, to recreate a world in which she had been one of the smallest actors and give it to us, with her small self still in it.
Once, many years later, in Madison, while we were driving between her house and mine, my mother began to describe an associate at work whose funeral she had recently attended. She spoke of this woman’s black hair and blue eyes, of her bright manner, of the way she had arranged her life, her little mannerisms and reactions. At the end of the description this woman stood before me, and I almost wished I had been writing it all down. “So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.”
She was not a literary artist; her powers would take refuge in secrecy at the slightest suggestion that someone might look at what she was doing as a performance. Once, in adolescence, I was criticized by her for striking a pose at the piano in which she detected affectation. She insisted on my practicing piano, but would not let me take voice lessons, as she felt that to sing in public was a bit vulgar. She claimed to have no singing voice and did not sing to herself at work. And yet when we were small she must have sung to us a great deal, if, as she says, at twenty months I had a repertory of twenty little songs with all the words, which I could only have learned from her. Her speaking voice was very beautiful, in the carefulness of its intonations and pronunciations. It was important to say things in just the right way; each word was a thing to be respected.
She often quoted proverbs to us; a few of these (“Don’t throw out your black water before you have some clean”) were translations from the French, but most were American sayings (“Fools’ names and fools’ faces/ Always appear in public places”). When asked what a proverb meant she would sometimes explain with a little improvised story. She was constantly reading to us, everything from nursery rhymes and fairy tales to Little Golden Books bought at the grocery story, and would refer to books when our behavior reminded her of them (“You’re just like the Princess on the Pea,” or “You’re just like a little Fisherman’s Wife”). Her literary education had stopped short of the concept of aesthetic distance; although she would sometimes remind me that a story taken to heart was “only a story,” this never sounded convincing. Once, after she and Father had read Hamlet with a playreading group, she summarized the plot for me. “So they all died!” she concluded, looking at me and trying to smile. There were a number of real-life stories which she told in a similar manner; they ended badly but on a forced upward intonation, as though she sought assurance that she had exorcised the story by telling it. The events in these stories were not terrible by this world’s standards: someone had gotten cheated by a contractor, a friendship had been broken by a careless word, someone had received a doll for a present and had taken off the elaborate handmade doll clothes and put them on the cat, and the cat had run away. But because of that concluding false upward note those stories haunted me almost worse than real tragedies.
This might have been because of a story that she did not tell, that I first began to guess by counting. She had always said there were seven siblings in her family, but one day I realized I only knew the names of six. My father explained: “Your Aunt Lolly is sick.” It was several more years before I learned the story.
Aunt Lolly – her real name was Nazleh – was the second sister, and for the first nine years of her life she was the prettiest and brightest. Then one day she fell and hit her head on the sidewalk, and from then on began to show signs of epilepsy, which grew worse and worse. Her parents got the money together for an operation by a great brain surgeon. In the middle of the operation the surgeon went out to talk to the parents. He said that there was a mass of scar tissue in the brain which he could remove, and the convulsions would stop, but she would be crippled for life. If he did not remove the scar tissue there was still a chance she would outgrow the convulsions. My grandparents could not bring themselves to cripple their daughter; they chose to hope. It was the wrong choice. The convulsions not only got worse, but Aunt Lolly’s personality changed; she became violent. My mother, the youngest of the five sisters, was the most frequent victim. And then my mother could not bring her friends home from school, because of the strange sister. I wonder now whether that memory might have been behind her fear of visitors to our house, years after she had grown up and gone away and Aunt Lolly had been placed in an institution. Aunt Lolly died in the institution at the age of fifty, when I was fifteen, and my mother went back East for the funeral. When my mother returned she told me, “There was no peace on her face; only deep suffering.”
My mother was beautiful, although not like a movie star. I used to study her face, trying to discover the secret of its loveliness. Perhaps it was the way the unhurried angle between the vertical forehead and the rather long, straight nose was repeated between lower lip and chin. She had brown eyes, and her hair was a rich dark brown, framing her face in orderly natural waves. Her mouth was thin, but agreeably shaped, and when she smiled, pressing her lips together a little as if enjoining silence, this thinness lent a spiritual quality to the warmth that was diffused. Her figure was not striking, and she used to look with dissatisfaction at her hands which were not finely made; but she dressed with an exquisite though reticent taste, and the touch of her hand on a child’s hand could be almost weightless. She was never entirely free from tension, and the calm which she made surround her, for us to take refuge in, always had a slightly fictitious quality. It was an act of will.
My mother might have liked to find an old house in Madison to make her own; but my father did not like old houses, just as he seldom told stories about his own childhood. “You can’t live in the past,” he would say. And yet in his voice, when he said that, there was an undertone, an undertow, of nostalgia, one of those signs of a deeper layer in my father’s personality that occasionally “cropped out” on the surface but was most often accessed through my mother. It was she who told me most of the stories about my father’s ancestry and childhood.
Jessie Bennett, my father’s mother, came from Jarvis, Ontario, a small town near Toronto. She had musical talent and studied piano in Leipzig for a few years. But her ambition to become a concert pianist was not realized, so she returned home and spent a few restless and disappointed years before meeting my grandfather, Nathan Cameron. They met at Mammoth Cave; oddly enough my maternal grandparents also met at a public place, at a race track. He came from the South, a quiet man who by intellect and temperament should have been a scholar. But he had an eye injury which prevented him from studying, so he went into business, for which he was not suited. His wife grew impatient and took the affairs of the family into her own hands, with even worse results. My father grew up in a series of shabby houses, in different cities, to a constant accompaniment of money worries. Yet my grandmother saw to it that her three sons received good schooling; and she herself taught them piano by a rigorous, old-fashioned method against which my father rebelled, to his later regret. She was a tall, thin woman, with a determined way in everything she did. Mother, with her eye for symmetries, pointed out that whereas Grandma Macksoud was born on February 14, Grandma Cameron was born on July 14. Her husband avoided disagreements. He used to say of her, “She rules by gentle sarcasm,” and he had a plaque on his wall which my father once quoted to me: “The city of happiness is in the state of mind.” My father was the second son. His mother, who had wanted a daughter, dressed him in girl’s clothes and did not cut his hair until he was five, and later she would relate what a sweet boy soprano he had until one day at a baseball game he yelled himself hoarse, and his voice never recovered. His name, too, permitted an effeminate nickname (“Jeanie”) which his peers took advantage of for a few years. On top of all this he was left-handed, in a time when this was a defect to be corrected. Fortunately there was no one around to tell him he should have complexes from all this; he became neither effeminate nor a mother-hater but remained a loyal son while recognizing, objectively, that his mother was a difficult person. I daresay he had inherited her will to self-determination. But it was another of the odd symmetries between my parents’ backgrounds: as a fifth girl my mother had been so unwelcome that she was almost given away at birth.
There had also been something like the tragedy of Aunt Lolly in my father’s family: his younger brother had contracted encephalitis at summer camp, and it had changed him from a robust, merry child into a withdrawn boy of delicate health; he died in his thirties. Growing up in the shadow of a domineering female relative who was a frustrated concert pianist might likewise have helped to give their minds a shape they recognized in each other. It happens, too, that my father was born in the sign of Leo, linking him to my mother’s lion-named parentage, though I was the first to notice that. My mother had no interest in the occult; it is just that when she told our family history she communicated an intuition of an underlying, unifying pattern. The characters, events and names of the past were spread out before her, and she would notice correspondences and treasure them like rare crystals.
In the summers, when my father went on his field trips, my mother would take Jim and me back to her mother’s house – 118 Linden Street, Ridgewood, New Jersey – where for a few months each year it was possible to live in the past.
It was a large, dark-shingled house with a long front porch and an oval stained glass window just in the middle, on the second floor (in the closet of my grandmother’s bedroom). I loved everything about that house: the front porch with its spring rockers; the BB hole in the heavy plate glass of the front door; the dark library with its rows of books in locked glass cases and its grand piano and the plants whose leaves showed red against the windows; the living-room furniture, faded and worn to lumpy softness except for the intractable dark-blue horsehair sofa; the broken leather bellows beside the living-room fireplace; the kitchen with the long white table in the middle; the back stairs to the back yard with its memory of a grape arbor; the butler’s pantry, the dining room with its sideboards of deep golden wood and a windowseat under a leaded window; the heavy velvet curtain between dining room and library; the staircase of dark wood with a landing; the bedrooms upstairs, still called by the names of people who no longer slept there; the attic in which one could stand up, with Uncle Al’s chemistry laboratory and the piles of discards from which I pulled a wooden ukulele in a green felt case which had belonged to Aunt Lolly. Even the odor of gasoline in the empty white separate garage had the sweetness of lost time. The uncles and aunts lived within visiting distance, and without being close to any of them I was comforted by their comings and goings and fascinated by their different characters: Aunt Effie’s wordly wisdom and kindliness, Uncle Al’s wild jokes and Army language (somewhat laundered for our benefit) and his watercolors; good-natured Uncle Nick; Aunt Claire, rich and beautiful, with prematurely white hair; Aunt Maude, the eldest, who could have been a concert pianist, heavy in figure and with a brooding, domineering look. Mother was still very much the youngest sister; they called her Doddy. Grandmother herself sat almost all day in the living room, playing solitaire and listening to the radio or watching television, a great novelty then. She would play cards with us, not letting us win if she could help it. After her husband’s death, illness had altered her; she had lost her lovely figure and become very overweight; she never went out. Though her demeanor was always urbanely affectionate, and her silk dresses and upswept hair were still elegant, I was afraid of her, even repelled by her; her massiveness and infirmity stirred my childhood horror of the physical.
Over my mother’s sewing machine in Madison hung a picture in an oval mahogany frame, showing a young woman in a frilled shirtwaist, hair in the upswept coiffure I remember, but dark. The oval of her face is just neatly full, doll-like, but there is snap and spirit in the dark eyes, in the poise of the perfect head. That was Leonie Valentine Macksoud, nee Lallemand, born on February 14. The good omen had been fulfilled for her: she and her husband had remained in love. Their life together had never lost its elegance, although he worked long hours managing a negligee factory in New York and she, with seven children, one sick, and a large house to manage, had enough to do, even with the help of her elder daughters and an occasional servant. At dinner she would always wear her good black silk dress, and after dinner she would never do any housework, but sit and talk, or read, or do fine needlework, or play the piano. On Sunday, too, there was rest, except for the cooking of the noon meal. Cheble Macksoud had a rose garden which he would tend early in the morning, before taking the train to New York. I could still see the trellises with the long-neglected rambler roses beside the house. The factory prospered, because he had an eye for textiles and was an efficient and well-liked manager; but it was his relatives who owned the factory and became really wealthy from it. He had just started out in business for himself when the Depression struck, and in struggling to keep afloat he overworked and died of heart failure in 1939.
He had come from a village named Zahle, near Beirut, of a family that had traditionally been rug-weavers; Mother said that one of their carpets was in the British Museum. As a small child he had been orphaned, and on growing up found that his guardians had appropriated his inheritance. He had shown promise in school, mastering the flowery style of literary Arabic as well as French, but on learning what had happened he took some kind of job and left for America as soon as he could earn the passage (how he nevertheless ended up working for the family in America, was a story my mother did not know). He went back to Lebanon only once, briefly, and would tell his children: “Thank God you’re Americans!” At a race track near New York City he had met the Lallemands, whom he had overheard speaking French together. The father, Alfred Lallemand, had been disinherited in a somewhat similar manner in France. He was educated as a lawyer and had fought in the Franco-Prussian war. During the war he met and married Modeste Josquin, whose father ran a livery stable, and who had blond hair and blue eyes; as a young girl she had been taken into the local castle and taught the craft of lacemaking; later, in New York, she was head of the lace-mending department of a large department store, and this stood the family in good stead, as my grandfather was no businessman. He was active in the community of French intellectuals, and had a cosmopolitan circle of friends; he translated “Evangeline” into French; he edited a journal that was said to be of high quality, but which failed because the issues were always late in coming out. My grandmother was their only child and waited until twenty-five to marry because, though she had had seven suitors, she was happy with her parents. After the marriage her parents lived with the young couple. My mother remembered how, when her grandfather was on his deathbed, a group of French dignitaries came to the house to give him the Legion of Honor.
I can remember, from one of the summers at my grandmother’s house, a feeling that all of these interwoven destinies were addressing themselves to me, pressing on me to give them some new voice, some new meaning.
The house on Linden Street remained in the hands of the family until two years before my grandmother’s death, which occurred when I was fifteen. My mother was with her at the end; she had taken my brothers and me to visit her a few months before. By then I had reached the age of conscience: I regretted my revulsion from her infirmity, and tried to make amends; and I sympathized with my mother’s loss. Yet it was the sale of the house, that refuge with its deep deposits of former life, center of a unity not to be reconstructed, that felt like irretrievable disaster. Years afterwards, when I heard people in Jerusalem talking about the destruction of the Temple, I thought of the sale of my grandmother’s house. “A house by definition is a place in which to find shelter, comfort and express our identity,” as a recent essay by Rebbetzin Tzipporah Heller puts it. I’ve often wondered whether in every life there is some event that corresponds to this destruction, and whether, if all these memories were collated, we’d find some clues as to how to rebuild.
My grandmother’s house was, I suppose, my first real passion; and happens with such early loves, I had kept trying to find analogues to it in later life. I had found one the year before, in Isadora’s house on Derby Street; it had inspired a little poem that never seemed to me quite satisfactory, but for what it’s worth:
Summer or winter, this room imposes
a sentence of cool decorum in the presence
of last-years hiding in the paneled walls.
It is a lucent forest shadow, where things
and seasons out of favor take their ease:
in this bright bowl of dried chrysanthemums
autumn is resting. From without the silence comes
birdsong falling with the sweetness of all sounds
that have forgotten us. Forgetting, the hand closes
on agates, glass. Unseeing, eyes stare
out the window towards unseeing roses.
This is another of those poems that now sound to me like a faint echo of something as yet unheard. In Poppy and Memory there is a poem of about the same length, called “Die Feste Burg (The Mighty Fortress),” that begins: “I know the most evening-like of all houses.” By a curious chance I recognized a literary allusion: during my crash course in German, the summer of 1961, I’d read an abridged version of Abendliche Häuser (Evening Houses), a long-forgotten fin de siècle novel that was then still assigned as an intermediate text. The description in Celan’s poem – I am not sure it has been translated – is more abstract, more symbolistic (his kin were apartment-dwellers, and I am not sure he ever actually frequented a house like the one on Linden Street or Derby Street); but it is still the same place, the place where everything is remembered and forgotten. Obvious theme: return to the nurturing environment. The return is somewhat deathlike: in both poems the subject of the poem seems to lose consciousness at the end. But I think this is not just because of the stock association of death and “return to the womb,” but because the return to the nurturing environment entails the dropping of that wariness, and compulsion to control, which is a large part of ordinary “consciousness.” And this can be really suicidal in a world ruled by force; I think of a story told to me in the 70’s about a group of partisans in the forest who chose to celebrate Purim and were ambushed during the celebration; the father of the teller was one of two survivors. Celan clearly understood this; his poem’s title (borrowed from Luther who was borrowing from Psalms) is an act of defiant re-appropriation that situates the poem in the midst of a battleground, as a form of risk-taking behavior he seems still to hope will somehow be protected. There’s a later poem, too, that speaks of the heart as a “fortified castle.” This risky faith, which the “psychedelic” generation didn’t understand, is the true price of mind-expansion. As the “I” allows itself to be absorbed, the things around it – especially in Celan’s poem, but also a little in mine – seem to come alive, a greater consciousness, as happens of course in the creation of the poem, in any really creative work, where the elements take on a life of their own. The consciousness of the subject vanishes, but into a deeper and more encompassing consciousness. There are quite a few moments like that in Celan’s poetry, and it is this kind of experience that I think he is trying to talk about in the “Meridian” speech, of which more later.
Of course I couldn’t have articulated any of this in the spring of 1968, when I loafed about in Jason and Marsha’s meeting-room, to which I had had Isadora’s square piano moved from the dissolving Derby Street household, or when I went to the beach in the blue truck with Ireni and Luke and Gabriel, feeling like the knight in The Seventh Seal, in that scene where he shares a bowl of strawberries and cream with the innocent young couple and their child, in front of their covered wagon, between moves in his chess-game with Death. I came no closer that spring than the preceding fall to words that might begin an acceptable scholarly introduction to the poems of Paul Celan. But the foundation was certainly being laid for a future interpretation, scholarly or not.