PART TWO: THE GLASS MOUNTAIN
CHAPTER 17 BETWEEN UNIVERSITY AND STATE
After the novel course ended, I got a job in the Serials Department of the university library. It was limited term employment -- six months -- and it was unexciting, clerical work. But in those days one such job paid enough to live on; I would have evenings and weekends.
Then I decided to rent my own apartment. I found one on the second floor of a old gray frame house, wedged between commercial buildings on Gilman Street, between University Avenue and State Street. It had a kitchen painted robin’s-egg blue and a front room painted yellow. The wall that faced the street was bayed out, so that the room was six-sided. A smaller, darker room, painted a pale blue-gray, opened off this one. The landlady, an elderly lady, lived downstairs. The rent was reasonable, and the digits of the address -- 419 -- added to 14.
So I moved into this place, where I was to live for just short of six years, until my departure for Israel. I still had a few furnishings from Buffalo: an Art Nouveau lamp; a russet-and-cobalt Chinese rug for the main room, a Kurdestan rug for the smaller room. This smaller room I made into a study, with brick-and-board bookcases and a door for a desk. In the main room a daybed, with a brown and white striped Indian bedspread and large cushions. On the living-room walls I tacked up prints of Rembrandt’s “Girl with a Pearl Necklace” and Murillo’s “Little Fruit Seller,”as well as the mystical Kirkland poster from Seattle. Later I acquired a poster with the words “Cancion Protesta” and a simplified drawing of a red rose with one blood-stained thorn, which reminded me of Celan’s “Psalm.” In the study John Graham’s “Venere Lucifera” looked down from the wall opposite the door, and on the wall behind the desk I eventually hung a photographic poster, showing a waterfall in a forest, with the legend: “If you do not understand my silence you will not understand my words.” On the back wall of the apartment, in the space between the refrigerator and the bathroom door, I tacked a blue-gray poster with an ear of wheat and the text: “I will contine to be an impossible person as long as those who are possible remain possible. -- Mikhail Bakunin.”
There was an antiques store just across the street, and shortly after moving in I saw a large seven-branched candelabrum in the window. It was evidently from a church, for the sconces had crosses incised in them. These sconces and the base were of a similar kind of work, smooth and thin, and detachable from the main part, which was a fine piece of casting, tree-like, vaguely Celtic in feeling, with curlicues and finely-shaped leaves. There was a shape at the center that might also be a cross, but could also be interpreted as two ellipses intersecting within a circle. The finding of this object seemed like a blessing on the new place. I put it in the bay window, on an oval mahogany veneer table that had belonged to Grandma Cameron and that my mother was always trying to decide whether to keep or throw out. A pair of wicker chairs flanked the table. I made royal-blue curtains for the front windows out of two more Indian bedspreads.
That fall I gave one more course, not in a regular University department but at the University Extension. It was called “Toward a Philosophy of the Use of Poetry,” and was based on those texts that had come to mind as I taught the novel course, suggesting an alternative mode of thinking about literature. Perhaps ten students came to the first meeting, including Caroline and perhaps Denise too. And my mother.
The course began with Peter Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid: a Factor of Evolution. I had looked up this book, probably in the winter of 1971-2, because Celan had mentioned Kropotkin and Landauer, in “The Meridian,” as writers with whom he had grown up. They were both anarchists; Mutual Aid seemed to be Kropotkin’s best-known work. It was a first attempt to answer social Darwinism, which justified selfishness with the doctrine of “survival of the fittest.” Kropotkin countered that the fittest are those who best learn to cooperate, and provided many instances from animal and human life. His book is written with feeling and charm, and contains many fascinating anecdotes. Kropotkin seems to have believed that life was essentially joyous. There is a passage on the building of a cathedral as an expression of the community’s spirit to which many different artists can make their distinctive contributions. In an afterword Kropotkin tells us that he and his siblings were raised by serfs. His mother had died young, but she had been so kind that all the serfs had grateful memories of her and loved the children for her sake. Thus he grew up in an environment that radiated back to him the love of the absent mother. So his method was a little like Malte’s: he picks out from the data of the world things that remind him. Not the “scientific method” for studying life, but perhaps something better. Raising the sparks.
Next, I handed out a selection from Buber’s Tales of the Hasidim, which portray a community interested in serving truth together and vitally interested in one another’s discoveries. (In the greatness of my ignorance I had, as the reader may have suspected, notions of becoming something like a Hasidic “tsaddik.”) Then I had them read Simone Weil’s “Human Personality,” and Laura (Riding) Jackson’s The Telling, and finally The Last Unicorn.
Like the summer course on the novel, the class was useful in helping me to sort out my thoughts, in offering a sounding-board. And while in the class, my mother wrote her first (and only) poem since high school, about a summer day on the farm; I remember the phrase “a million little green leaves.” But after the first couple of sessions the class did not go very well. As happens in many classes where no grades are at stake, attendance began to thin out. When there were just six people, it was all right; in fact, six seemed to be a “magic number” for discussion groups, producing a special kind of energy. (At another meeting, in Jerusalem years later, a friend also noticed this and wrote a poem about it.) But then the number fell below six, and I lost my balance and, to my mother’s dismay, began to talk about a lot of negative experiences. It is a wonder that Caroline’s and my relationship continued for a while after that.
It was the fall of 1973, the autumn of the Yom Kippur war, about which I remember nothing. All those weeks while Israel was fighting for its life, I was struggling with the extension course, with the tedium of my temporary clerical job, and with the various individuals I wanted to draw into an alliance. This last was to be the labor of Sisyphus, the task that could be neither completed nor abandoned. My experience with Paul Celan had both given me a belief in a new kind of solidarity, and placed a high barrier between me and others.
Already in 1971, the configuration of friends that had surrounded my first hearing of Celan had begun to disintegrate. Isadora, Nadine, Jason, Marsha, Ismene: not all of them knew each other, and though each in their way had glimpses of my experience, perhaps none of them guessed his or her own role in it, understood that I listened to Paul Celan, not just with my own faculties, but also with theirs: with Ismene's depth of silent memory, Nadine's anger and demandingness, Isadora's matronly grace, Marsha's high-strung communicativeness, Jason's objectivity and unsparing view of human nature, so strangely paired with his belief in Utopia. All of these things seemed to me part of one being, like different capacities in one and the same individual, like the different emanations of Divine light which Kabbalists call the Sefirot, so that each person could be a little world in himself or herself and yet part of a larger one, the way each of Celan' s poems closed perfectly on itself and yet was open to the universe of meanings that was his work as a whole. For many years to come, I would occasionally hear my thoughts in their voices, or say something with a gesture or intonation of that belonged to one of them. But from their perspective it must have been as though, in the grip something that had after all happened only to me, I was turning into a stranger. By 1973, Isadora had drifted out of touch, and communication with Ismene had become a repetitious cycle of frantic pleadings and evasive replies.
Nadine had visited in the spring of 1973, on her way from New York, where she was now studying medicine, to Berkeley. We had been exchanging poems. Hers were now uniformly angry. They contained many “realistic” impressions of the people she was meeting in medical school and the situations there. The details were not arranged so as to let the light through, and the formal energy that had once been hers was largely scattered. It was a tense visit. Nadine opened hostilities toward my mother almost immediately; my mother did her best to maintain civility (which only made Nadine angrier) but formed a highly negative opinion of Nadine. My room was between my mother's and the room where Nadine was staying, and one morning I woke to find myself lying with one arm outstretched toward Nadine's room and one arm toward my mother's, feeling as though literally pulled in two directions. After a few days of this, Nadine and I took a walk down the railroad tracks near the house and had it out. I spoke of my experiences and belief; Nadine felt that it was just a very complicated delusional system; moreover, “It is just your private fantasy! We need something for all of us!” There it was. Abolish the meaning of each individual life, and then make your revolution. Other topics came up and there was a great explosion, in which all of the aggression was on Nadine's side, and yet the last expression I saw on her face, when I took her to the Greyhound station that afternoon, was a look of hurt, which baffled me. After all, she must have known that I loved her in my way. A way, perhaps, that she didn’t want to hear about.
Jason and Marsha visited me in the fall of 1973, on their way to or from the East. They had already left the community they had started but were involved with a larger organization of communally minded people in Seattle. As we talked in the living-room of the Gilman Street apartment about the past and future, I had hopes that some of the thinking I had done could be relevant to them. Community, after all, could not be founded on business enterprises alone. Poetry, the enterprise of building a common world of perception, was critical. I showed them an essay I had written after the summer course, called “Language and the Alternation of Social Behavior.” Jason seemed impressed with it, and we took leave of each other in a hopeful mood. But later I heard from Marsha that Jason had shown it to a friend of his, someone whose arrogance I had always feared, and had allowed himself to be influenced by the friend’s dismissal. We had little communication after that. A couple of years later I heard that Jason had given up on communal endeavors and gotten an academic job in the East. Until very recently I did not know that at some point he did return to Seattle and to the idea of the commune.
Still I kept on meeting people, and connections kept on appearing. There was a sociologist who had had one touch of second sight: he had known he was going to meet a woman with dark hair and dark eyes just before he had in fact met his future wife. There was another woman poet who had felt connected with another male poet who had committed suicide. There was a young woman -- she was Jewish, and her name was Deborah, which means “bee” -- who had written a few poems that reminded me of Celan, and who liked one of his late, cryptic poems because it gave her the feeling of “another world.” There was a man who gone to the same high school, a class or two ahead of me, who had published a sonnet in the high school newspaper and to whom I had been attracted, but who had never seemed to notice me then. He was still living in the Madison area, concerned about the environment, a veteran of divorce (I also met his ex-wife, a poet from China). Now he seemed possibly interested in a kind of relationship that I had given up on, while I attempted without success to communicate my ideas to him.
There was Nancy, who had been one of two girls with whom I could hang out during my last year in high school. I used to go over to her house and sit around listening to French songs (she had been an exchange student in France), often in the presence of her mother. Or we would go to foreign movies. She was quiet, gentle, a conscientious rather than brilliant student, who wrote with a large round hand. We had gone to different colleges and lost track of each other. Now I learned the background of that long-ago friendship: at a certain point she had stopped wanting to talk about boys and clothes with the other girls, and had withdrawn into herself, and then she had started to spend time with me. At college she had had a mental breakdown, from which she had never wholly recovered. For a while she had worked for one of the larger local company, but then she had lost that job. During her employment with the company she had written a number of poems and shown them to the people for whom she worked, and at some time she collected them into a booklet. Though not literarily polished, the poems were acts of self-disclosure and reaching-out. In November of 1973 I wrote her a poem that ended:
Wait at your window. Believe a star watches.
We may yet see them --
and all his merry men.
I don’t recall Nancy’s reaction to the poem. I’m afraid that in general she perceived me as wanting to coopt her for my own agenda, rather than as offering sustenance and trying to build on common ground. Our friendship, or argument, lasted another few years, while her deterioration, possibly due to some organic illness beyond the reach of words, sadly progressed.
To hindsight my attempt to “recruit” a person like Nancy seems bizarre and irresponsible. But I never heard Nancy say anything incoherent; she seemed to me not so much crazy as broken, unable to recover enough faith in herself to start over. Besides, I myself had escaped the mental health care system by a hair’s breadth, and partly by forming my own critique of sanity. If the answer was to come from an agreement among the brokenhearted, then one could not dismiss anyone just for being so. The Tristero, so to speak, does not declare people unfit for action. I also talked to people with more apparent strength and power, professors and administrators and clergymen. As Dickinson put it:
Much Madness is divinest Sense
To a discerning eye
Much Sense the starkest Madness
Tis the majority
In this, as all, prevail
I seldom gave up on anyone; how long the dialogue lasted was up to the other person.
At work, too, I made some efforts of this kind, which relieved the monotony of filing invoices and writing claim letters. There were several other women in the department, and in mid-morning and mid-afternoon we all took a fifteen-minute break together. Due to the feminist ferment there was more openness among my colleagues, more willingness to discuss, than there might have been at other times. Naturally it was not enough for me, and I chafed at their resignation and limited horizons. But I found some common topics with Helen, who had majored in Slavic literature before deciding to be practical and study computers, and also with Diana, a slightly-built young woman with a round delicate face. Diana told me a dream about having "cancer of the heart" that I worked into a poem I was writing at the time.
The job did bring its odd gifts. Some of the serials came in book form, and the dust jackets were discarded. Out of these I made another whole-pictures collage, which slowly grew on my kitchen wall. At either end were two romanesque capitals, that had been the front and back covers of a large art book, and that between them seemed to imply an arch; at the bottom was a Hellenistic painting of a very fierce-looking leopard; in the middle was a map in the form of a rose with Prague at the center. I also had time to glance at the contents of the magazines as they came in, and every now and then I saw a poem I liked, even a few that suggested to me that the poet had read Celan. No one objected to my Xeroxing these poems on the office Xerox machine. Toward the end of my employment there, I collected them in a mimeographed anthology entitled Convergent Vision. One of the poems is Marilyn Hacker’s sestina, “An Alexandrite Pendant for My Mother,” which appeared in some poetry journal before being included in Presentation Piece.
The sestina has six stanzas of six lines each. The same six end-words are used in all the stanzas, but in an order that keeps turning itself inside out: abcdef, faebdc, cfdabe…The poem ends with a three-line "envoi" that has to contain all the end-words. If the same order of permutation is applied in the envoi, then the order in the envoi will be the same as in the first stanza, like a cat's cradle coming out. (Technical note: in the classical sestina the envoi is supposed to scramble the order of the words, but Hacker’s lets it come out even.) Of course, this form can all too easily lapse into meaningless repetition. One way to avoid this is to make the form itself symbolic in some way – “thematic,” as Celan perhaps might have said. In “An Alexandrite Pendant for My Mother,” the repeating end-words are like the gleaming facets of a gem in whose depths different images appear as it is turned. I thought: “I’ll have to try this sometime.”
A week or two later, on a Saturday afternoon in late December, my mother visited me on Gilman Street, bringing with her my niece Laura, who was then five or six. Next morning I sat down and wrote my first sestina. Like Hacker’s, it was associated with a gift to my mother: the afghan that I wanted to make her for Christmas, but that wouldn’t be ready by then. As in Hacker’s example, there was a correspondence between form and content, with the crisscrossing end-words corresponding to the crocheted pattern.
THE PROMISED WEB
Time stands, accomplished, in a face
insistent twinges challenge me to mend.
Last night I dreamed we were in jail, with bars
between us; now, with you across the city,
thoughts toil along the nerve-ways, bringing yarn,
under the supervision of the dead.
I had not thought there were so many dead
as I saw yesterday, along your face,
twisted into each other, like fine yarn
How did your mother and grandmother mend
their lace together, in that time-bound city,
draw threads across the rents, in soft white bars?
-- Sunday morning. Across the street, in bars,
huddle our secret kindred, the long-dead-
to promises, marginal notes of every city.
One tunneled face leans to another face
and, into crevices no one thinks to mend,
dribbles bits of landlocked sailor's yarn.
Fat, dull-eyed, too dull to wind the yarn,
in my dream, behind the iron bars,
I cannot think what I came to mend.
Am I to pick the runner-trails of the dead
up off the snow, follow them to a face
where mistrust of me has built a strong city?
It's true I dreamed of trying to cheat the city:
forged a set of documents, concocted some yarn.
There was a look in the librarian's face
which said I deserved to be put behind bars
for taking out a book that belonged to the dead
and lying, when it got too torn to mend.
But it was the book that kept crying, "Mend,
with what you can tear out of me, this city!"
In my cell I frantically plucked the sleeve of the dead
man who unravelled, as though made of yarn.
Now I lay down my steps, crisscrossing bars --
how will the patch show up, and on what face?
Mother, signal me the face I must mend
beyond these gates that bar me from the city,
and help the bringers of yarn, help the dead.
The reader should recognize some motifs: the lace-mending foremothers, the “secret kindred” (the outcast-network), the association of text/textile/tissue/community. The “runner-trails of the lost” are from a poem by Celan (“Homecoming,” in Speech-Grille). There really was a bar across the street, and the dream related in stanzas 4-5 was an actual dream; stanza 6 was written in a kind of waking continuation of the dream. Of course the man who “unravelled as if made of yarn” was Celan, whom I had encountered mainly as a text.
This poem was duly placed under the tree, along with a white plastic dove. I recall Mother reading it with some uneasiness. The next day I went to the yarn store and bought some soft French wool -- midnight blue, early-twilight blue, forest green, crocus-yellow -- and began crocheting the hexagonal patches. As it turned out, this was not the only web that was to follow.
I remember from that season the discussion of one political event: the Arab oil embargo that resulted from the Yom Kippur war. I remember it because it worried my father. He had long been uneasy about the growing dependence of this country on foreign sources of oil and other minerals, but now he seemed to see the writing on the wall. I did not lose the opportunity to reinforce the point, but wrote him a poem about Pharaoh's dream. When the embargo was lifted he was not reassured but began to agitate for a greater awareness of the “energy crisis,” as he called it. He went to Washington, talked to a number of politicians, worked on a task force or two, and eventually, at my mother's urging, wrote a book about it, called At the Crossroads, which came out in 1986. But from the start, he was discouraged about the lack of foresight that seems written into the political process, where politicians cannot afford to worry about matters that do not affect the next election. But I still could not recruit him for my efforts to set a different kind of political process in motion.
Looking back on those years, I can sometimes take comfort in a remark by Flaubert: “If I had been loved at seventeen, what a fool I would be today!” I am devoutly thankful that the world does not know me from some of the things I wrote and did in those years. On the other hand, sometimes I think that if I could have met early on with others who shared my basic perceptions and aspirations, those others could have corrected my early aberrations, and a collective wisdom would have developed, in the light of which my mistakes would have sunk into insignificance.
It was as it was. I hope these memoirs will not dwell too much on mistakes made and rebuffs encountered. Celan had warned me of a solitary, purifying journey. Or so I understood that poem “Etched Away,” which speaks of a way “through the human-shaped snow, the penitent-snow/ toward the honeycomb-ice /where waits the word-crystal that is/ your incontrovertible/ testimony.” I guessed that the “you” of this poem was self-addressed, but at the same time addressed to his perennial Other, to the character I was supposed to be playing. To the person who, a few months before reading “Etched Away,” had written: “and i will kiss the stone stairs/ of this consequent universe.” Whatever his intent, those lines -- his and mine -- have helped me to keep going. Another thing that helped was a kind of experimental playfulness that Celan’s poems, for all their darkness, encouraged. Had I not seen that one smile of his, in Paris, I might not have caught this. But read, for instance, the end of “The Meridian.” Moreover, the different ways of saying things that he kept inventing had the effect of encouraging me to think that we also might find different ways of doing things.
As the year 1974 began, I found it harder and harder to concentrate on my clerical job, and perhaps I tried less and less. It was to end in February, but perhaps I left a week or two early. Just before leaving the job I wrote one final poem for Diana.
We saw the same things, but you
didn’t act on them.
“Run for your life!” I cried.
You said, “That’s so,”
and without you starting, I
ran in place.
Sun in Scorpio,
is it always
As if you stood in the window
of a burning house
and the heat of the onlookers
drove you back.
Child, no one ever
hit that ground yet,
jump, I am burning
One sees here the main features of my various appeals to other individuals. Each of these appeals was "personalized" in some way - here, the second stanza contains references to the addressee's name and horoscope - but the message was always the same. I have a dim memory of Diana’s response: intimidated, put off. The response was always the same too. I had received a wakeup call, had been confronted to the depth of my being; but I could not reach the same depth in others.
The poem for Diana is one of the last things in a collection that I put together just after leaving the job; the preface is dated February 27, 1974. Actually it was three books in one. In the spring of 1973 I had put together a collection called In the Blackened Rose, my one attempt at a conventional book of poems. It contained (this was still the time when “no one” was writing sonnets) no formal verse, except for “Ballad of a Fisherman’s Wife” and the rhymed sections of “Earthwake.” Then, some months later, I had put together a collection of twenty-one formal poems called Snow-Wreath. Finally, in February 1974, I typed up everything else I thought worth keeping, from my Radcliffe days onward, including “The Castle Cepheus” and a few other stories and that essay “Language and the Alteration of Social Behavior,” into a 118-page document, which I called Clarifications. The titles of the poems I’d already used in the other two collections were inserted in their chronological places. So you had two selections, telling the same story in two different styles, and between them the matrix from which these selections had been taken. For cover illustrations I commissioned three pen-and-ink drawings from a talented art student named Regina Flanagan. The drawings were dark, with a lot of cross-hatching. The one for Clarifications looked like mountains and the moon reflected in a lake, except that the moon in the sky was gibbous and the moon in the lake was a crescent, the mountains were pointed and their reflections were rounded. There was a place in the basement of one of the university buildings that made copies for two cents a sheet. I had a hundred copies of the trilogy made there on punched paper, collated them and put them into binders, and sold them among my acquaintance over the next few months.
After that it occurred to me to write a book based on the two courses I'd given. I persuaded my parents to support me during the time of writing. I continued living in the apartment downtown. A title came to me for the book: The Web of What Is Written WWW for short. Like my use of that "joke" about the network of computers in the first version of my dissertation, this now seems prescient. In this first version the work had two subtitles: "Literature and the Legitimacy of Language" and "A Metanovel." As in that essay, "Language and the Alteration of Social Behavior," I intended to call attention to a continuous process of meaning-making (“It is the elaboration of justice out of man’s control, it is the hand of God,” as Oates’ Maureen put it), a process that does not stop at the borders of a literary work. Around that time I wrote a parable called "The Good Messenger," about a messenger who is given a message to deliver, but when he tries to deliver it the listeners just criticize the form of the message and pay no attention to its content. By "metanovel" I meant something different from what some recent criticism seems to mean by it. I was trying to suggest a larger work, a work without borders that included Madame Bovary, The Adolescent, and any works related to them -- that is, by eventual association, just about everything. The manuscript that bears the title “The Web of What Is Written” is not the metanovel, the “web” itself, but a "master-document" that assembles the different works into one. The master-document has its own plot: the story of my encounter with Paul Celan, which is told in bits and pieces.
Besides the books I had assigned for the course, The Web of What Is Written included a chapter on Pynchon' s The Crying of Lot 49. It certainly belonged there, being a kind of comic-strip pastiche of Rilke, Kafka, and Joyce; and though I did not find its tone sympathetic, the plot was closest of all to my own story. The protagonist of The Crying of Lot 49 is named, with typical unsubtlety, Oedipa Maas (note: Maas can be translated "ruler"). Except for the funny name there is nothing strange about Oedipa; amid the surrealistic goings-on her reactions are hilariously ordinary. Like Kafka’s Joseph K., her life is abruptly invaded by something from beyond the human, when she learns that she has been named the executrix of the will of a former boyfriend, who has left an enormous empire for her to “sort out.” The testator represents both God and the author, while Oedipa is the reader attempting to grasp the authorial intent -- or the mere human being attempting to “do the will” of the Creator. (Similarly, in the Kabbalah Binah is the “executive” power of Chochmah.) She begins to pick up symbolic clues which lead her to discover the Tristero, a network of the outcast which uses trash bins as mailboxes and whose logo is a muted posthorn. There is a lot of scary Freudian symbolism, with which I was all too familiar from Celan as well as Flaubert et al.; this symbolism seems to arise from the author's reluctance to be understood, to commit himself to meaning. There are also a number of references to Jewish traditions. The story has something to do with Purim ("lots"; Oedipa's husband, who owns a used car lot, is named Mucho), and the number 49 is intended to suggest the border where the finite world as we know it merges into the infinite. I think the final confrontation, whose outcome remains in doubt, is meant to suggest that if the authorial resistance to understanding and covenant could be overcome, infinite possibilities could open up. The energy of the Word would be released, and perhaps the sinister Tristero would become the holy congregation. It would be the healing of the Waste Land, the overcoming of the entropy that affects the entire world of the novel. However, given the tone of the novel (not to mention the famed personal elusiveness of its author), that is a very big If.
While working on The Web of What Is Written, I belonged to a “Feminist Criticism Collective” that met regularly at the university. Most of its members were faculty or students, but it was open to others. In the early spring I gave a paper to the group on Charlotte Perkins Gilman's story, “The Yellow Wallpaper.” The protagonist of this story, supposedly for her health, is confined by her husband in a room papered with an ugly pattern in yellow. She becomes obsessed with this pattern and eventually goes mad. In the early stages of her madness, she imagines that she sees a different pattern beneath the surface of the wallpaper. I called my paper “The Two Patterns,” and its thesis was that women's liberation depends on attention to this second pattern, to a hidden layer of reality that needs to be acknowledged and understood. I brought in Sylvia Plath, suggesting that the important aspect of her work was not her anger but her attention to this hidden layer, and by a train of associations (illustrating this hidden layer) I came to Paul Celan and his appeal to me.
The reaction to this paper was mixed. Some of the listeners seemed impressed. But one young woman caught me off guard by asking: “What you're saying there is: ‘I am the way, the truth and the life,’ isn’t it?”
I recoiled, stammered a disclaimer, and then felt that I hadn't met the question fairly. True, I had never viewed myself as anything but an ordinary mortal trying to rise to an extraordinary occasion. But this occasion might be unique and important. Celan' s poetry might well have been the only sign of new spiritual life after the Holocaust, the one seed that germinated in that firestorm; and he seemed to have singled me out to try to nurture that seed. The role he had written for me needed a supporting cast, and if others missed their cues, then people might very well not find the way, the truth and the life. I don't know if I could possibly have said this, given greater presence of mind, or if I could have explained it to them afterwards, in such a way as not to sound crazy. And then someone, an already rather prominent Marxist feminist, said: “I guess I can't relate to scripture.” To this I had no reply. It was the voice of a world closed against the spirit. It seemed to me that in such a world feminism, which after all could not call on great material forces, had little chance.
Afterwards one of the hearers suggested that I submit the paper to a certain academic journal that was devoted to feminist criticism. I did so, only to be asked to rewrite it in a more scholarly style. This I indignantly refused to do. Perhaps I should have tried, after all. These days I have difficulty rereading “The Two Patterns,” or indeed any of the prose of those years. It seems high-toned, melodramatic -- overacted, in short. But I still don't know what is the right way to speak of these things. Some of the poems from that time, like "The Promised Web," have lasted better with me. Others make me as uncomfortable as the prose.
About a month after giving that paper, I wrote another essay, "Between University and State." I am not sure whether it was then that I bought some large letters spelling "Small World School of Poetry," painted them with gold paint, and stuck them somehow on the upper pane of the central window of my main room, or whether I had done this shortly after moving in. At any rate I wanted both to give my ideas a concrete locus, and to explain the name I had chosen.
That phrase, "The Small World," was perhaps less banal in 1974 than it has become since. I meant it to mean several things. There wass the old phrase, "It's a small world," which is a stock response to an unexpected connection. There was the still older idea of the "microcosm," the small as the model of the great, the individual as the model of the world. There was the contemporary perception that the planet is "shrinking" because of modern connections and the global effect of each small action; there was the recent book title Small Is Beautiful. And finally, the Small World is named for its spiritual begetter (in “Conversation in the Mountains,” Celan names his autobiographical character Klein, or Small, which is the etymological meaning of Paul). In the light of Celan’s work I had seen the world as if miniaturized, and this miniaturization seemed to hold hopes of human destiny becoming manageable, reparable.
“Between University and State” was both a concrete location and an intellectual position. In calling attention to the location, I was trying to invoke the city’s vision of itself. Madison is named for the statesman who is generally regarded as the architect of the United States Constitution. Its Capitol, with its four wings, is a fine example of Neoclassical architecture, a smaller version of the Capitol in Washington. The streets laid out around Capitol Square are named for the signers of the Constitution. (Gilman, someone told me, was the only delegate to the Constitutional Convention who never made a speech.) State Street leads from one corner of Capitol Square to the foot of a grassy mall, from the top of which, in front of the University’s main administration building, a seated statue of Lincoln gazes toward the Capitol. Thus the layout of the city recalled the crisis in which the ground-plan of our nation took shape, and seemed to place learning and government in permanent confrontation. Between these entities, then, the Small World School of Poetry sought to found a community of learners, from within and without the university, to develop an intellectual discipline that would address the needs of the polity. Such a discipline would have to be centered in poetry , because it is only through poetry that the intellect can apprehend the truth of the human being. There would then have to be a poetics appropriate to that role.
In the collection of work that begins where Clarifications leaves off, many poems are memoranda of conversations in the living room on Gilman Street, under the sign of the Small World School of Poetry. Sometimes a small group would meet there; one group that met more than once included Caroline and a bright young recent graduate I’ll call Bridget, who lived in the other flat on the second floor of the house and worked for the State. But usually there would just be one visitor. We would sit in the two wicker chairs, with the oval table and the candelabrum between us. The visitor would show me his or her poems. Sometimes the conversation would remind me of a poem I’d already written, and I would page through the trilogy and find it and hand it to the visitor. Or one of us would pick up the guitar and sing a song. And sometimes afterward I would write another poem -- usually, alas, in a last-ditch effort at persuasion. Here is one that I wrote for Caroline in April, 1974:
no ties of duty bind you to your chair.
Nothing warm and liquid flowed between us --
only that we caught
on each other’s faces the glare
of the same fear.
What I say, you see,
yet make of me a thing to be resisted.
If you could lock my words up in my mouth,
they would seek a way through yours.
And still I see you strain to tear away,
deny that words have led you to this place,
Outside is a lightless chaos
of whirling words that settle to no form
or plan of action. It is the edges
of passing things, tearing at you here,
that make you stir.
this little pain.
Draw closer in,
then turn, and watch the motions from within,
exert your wish, and draw --
So shall our work be done.
Be mad with me: believe,
to heave the planet’s wheel around it is enough
if we keep faith.
With Bridget it was more or less the same story. Perhaps it was simply that for all their feminist leanings they were young and anxious to marry and therefore could not take any definite stands that might jeopardize their chances. Then too it seems as though people, men as well as women, feel a need to separate themselves from the mother as young adults, fear being reabsorbed, and what I said came up against the basic instinct toward “separation and individuation” (in the terminology of Margaret Mahler, whose work I encountered a year or so later). No one seemed as much afraid of being absorbed into the inanity of adult groupthink. So my attempts to teach always seemed to end in the same futile struggle. What surprises me in retrospect is that Caroline and I, Bridget and I, stayed friends as long as we did. Both Caroline and Bridget signed another manifesto, called “Poetic Organization,” which was based on a talk given to the Madison chapter of Wisconsin Women in the Arts in August, and revised in October.
“Poetic Organization” continued the line of thinking of “The Two Patterns.” It was addressed to a discussion on the nature of feminist art and urged that “The primary work of art is, must be, the society itself. Only an artistic attention can create in society the union of freedom and relatedness, a structure of bonds based, not on an abstract conception of sisterhood and shared sense of wrongs, but on discriminating knowledge of and delight in and loyalty to each other.” I envisioned a method of social organization analogous to the organizing process that had led to the design of The Web of What Is Written, a method designed primarily not to pursue external goals, but to make what could be made with the materials at hand, with a given collection of individuals. Despite the signatures of Bridget and Caroline, and one other woman, this manifesto also met with little support. And yet I kept on trying, because the vision of what such a method could achieve was so compellingly beautiful that it always seemed to be almost within reach.
The world alone is the mother.
in the shattering of a mosaic.
Her hands -- empty of hands!
Her eyes -- empty of eyes!
Lift this stone, sister, brother.
Light -- the effort is in bending.
here -- the bit of darkness,
so she can see.
Don't care for me -- care for the world
and help me find my place in it.
I love you as I love the ring on my finger,
the menorah in my front window,
the pattern of which you're a part.
Keep what I give you,
later you'll find what it matches,
what you lost before.
congruent to one another,
we gaze through each other at strange
On all ways
you can still hear the humming of light
from a center outside the air.
There is still, on a bookshelf, the shell --
sign of the inner ear
in the outer air.
the shell, the moment
when the eyes flared up in answer,
the sound that unrolls like a clew
when you walk from this door:
You will return,
the door out of space, we will find it,
look you, the inner ear
is the way.
The Diana of this dedication was not the Diana of “Starting” but someone I had met that summer. I think it was with this Diana and some of her friends that I organized a potless pot session one evening. We sat around in a semicircle, and I lit the candles in the candelabrum, poured herb tea and played some appropriate music - Judee Sill and the songs of the humpbacked whale. It worked pretty well. Another time I led Caroline and a friend of hers up to a ruined silo on a ridge just off our farm. The silo had been struck by lightning in 1939, and you could step inside the roofless tower and look up at the sky. Caroline said it was like being in a movie. But the show I wanted to put together did not, somehow, get on the road.
Early in the following year I wrote a long memo to the committee that was discussing the formation of a Women’s Studies Department at the university. Evidently one of the committee members had suggested I write it after I had expressed a minority view at public meetings. The memo may represent the nadir of my writing style -- unless the interminable terminal letter to Ismene, from around the same time, was even worse. Rereading it now I can see how it must have appeared to its first readers: as a rambling diatribe by an unbalanced person.
On the other hand, it was all true.
It was entitled “The Unexpected.” What was worrying me was the all-too-rapid crystalization and rigidification of a feminist party line that did not represent my views, feelings or interests, and that I suspected would not turn out to represent the views feelings or interests of the majority of women either. I begged people to wait, to keep an open mind, to take some time out from talking about the ways in which women’s creativity had been suppressed and support creativity in the present (me). Besides these complaints, this seems to be the first time that I urged the adoption of the “cell” form of organization, as the only way to keep track of individuals’ resources, perceptions, and needs. Amid all the vain appeals, something was taking shape in my own mind anyway. but the local feminist leaders could not see it.
During this period there are also a number of poems addressed to male poets, sometimes in an angry or bitter tone, trying to get through what I perceived as blindness to the feminine perspective. But in others, as with my appeals to women poets, I was just trying to establish a common visionary basis. Due to the emergence of feminism there was a lot of turbulence in the atmosphere, verbal violence on both sides. But the “psychedelic” impulse had not entirely dissipated, and poems were being written by men as well as women that looked deep into the soul and gave life to words, and now and then reminded me of Paul Celan. The following was written after hearing Charles Cantrell read one such poem:
You invent strange returns.
On landings where only your footfall
stacks tread on riser through the spiralling dark
your hands shuffle receipts for how many worlds.
Deal. Elsewhere, hands at the dial, tilting
you into focus, turn
transparent to the elbow,
the room, burst into by a congruent solid,
staggers and gets its footing in a crouch,
-- they freeze into sleep in a box
on the shoulders of a troll striding.
O morning bright and calm. All that, confined
to a package delivered on the doorstep,
the ground is printed in sunlight
with bracts of locust. Flats
of maple leaves stir for the last time, camps
of the dying. But blindsight primes the eye with storm,
stomps the mind in rhyme,
and the stories will whirl up, to inscribe
the missing lighthouse.
The following also grew out of my exchange with some local male poet or poets, although I can no longer recall the circumstances:
Everything is explainable, like the sun.
Time has stopped, but things keep on turning.
Unnoticed something has slipped behind your will
which whirls round, but the holsters are empty.
At the threshold of your heart did you pause aghast?
Did you not remember it as an empty classroom?
A blind friable with sun, a tapping of flies --
where are the drapes, the dark paraphernalia?
The first snow, and a memory of music lessons
and acorns on the playground, perhaps suffice
to explain this; but more important is the fact
that the contracts are written into the palms of our hands,
we see each other all the time without looking,
and I know you well, without being introduced.
Despite the slight truculence that echoes the of the ongoing gender dialogue, the poem remains a favorite of mine because it expresses as well as any the sense I had of an implicit structure of relations and obligations – again the idea of the “geasa” – which the vision of poetry could expose.
Unfortunately the local poetry scene, sometimes even in feminist venues, seemed dominated by a kind of schlock anarchism that did not favor the growth of visionary community. The various “liberation” movements were not making much of a dent in the structures of social oppression, but it was always possible to tear down the civility that makes thoughtful communication possible. The phenomenon known as “flaming” existed before the Internet. In that atmosphere I tried, but failed, to put across the point that poetry, no less than feminism, could be a cause in its own right, and needed appropriate forms of organization.
It seemed as though I ought to be able to find some group of people with whom to identify and make common cause. Perhaps the basic problem was that the cause I was struggling for had (as Celan had hinted,) no name. It was a global concern, and could not be divided. By itself it seemed to have little drawing power. So I began to think seriously about traditional religious forms. In December, 1974 I still did not want to take any of these as I found them:
A CAROL WITHOUT SONG, FOR WINTER TURNING
Another year -- we'll fix
a star with one more point
atop a small pine,
but leave it in the woods.
Another year -- we'll search
our minds for stories,
for new truths not yet told,
and give them to each other, in a corner
where nine or seven candles burn.
Another year -- we'll take
the boards away from the opening
to the hugest attic.
The dead will descend,
something in their hands:
We'll trade them smiles jeweled with tears
for their dreams of quiet crystal.
The unborn, tall, will turn
like angels above candle-flames.
We'll clasp hands with the holly
and with the ivy.
Between brows a pure mirror
will be unveiled,
and the doors behind foreheads
swing inward --
My love is wandering still.
From a few months later there is a poem apparently written after a Passover seder, with the title “Bashana Haba’ah Biyerushalyaim (Next Year in Jerusalem),” and then there are a couple of other poems that seem inspired by Sabbath services at Hillel. These poems show that I had picked up on the fact that the erotic imagery of Celan’s poetry continues a strain in Jewish tradition that is associated with Passover and the Sabbath. These poems -- they belong to a genre that I would continue writing through the eighties -- now embarrass me very much; whether rightly, I don’t know. They were, after all, a response to the inclusive eroticism of some of Celan’s poems. There was a lot of erotic candor in the atmosphere at the time, and the poems (Celan’s, probably, as well as mine) were influenced by this as well.
In June occurred one of those periodic meltdowns, in which a number of contacts – Caroline and Bridget among them, this time -- disappeared at once. It was then that I wrote the following:
THE HATE STORM
They were swept away from me
in the hate storm.
I held onto them,
I called to them, "Hang on,"
but they were swept away.
The high wind came,
the dark water
my calling could not quell,
my singing could not calm,
or was my calling the wind?
or was my singing the water?
A darkness came
bigger than my arms and full of snakes
"Hang on," I cried.
I held onto them,
but they were swept away.
In writing this I was recalling a terrible newspaper account which I’d read many years before about a hurricane in Louisiana that had swept several children out of their mother’s arms as she clung to them on a rooftop.
There were a couple days of the kind that have to be gotten through somehow. And then one morning I received a call from a young man I knew slightly from Hillel. He had read the copy of “The Two Patterns” which I had placed in the magazine rack at Hillel and wanted to talk with me. I was surprised that as a man he could relate to it, but he told me it had given him a feeling of “being.” I showed him “Between University and State,” and he wrote a poem describing it as a kind of cosmic explosion. At the same time another young man, who was not Jewish, became interested in my work, and I introduced them. They both had the same first name -- I’ll call them Greg J. and Greg P. – and were both in their mid-twenties. Greg J. was a baal teshuva, someone who was returning to practice Judaism after growing up in an assimilated family. Early in our acquaintance he gave me the Hertz edition of the prayerbook and pointed out Pirkei Avot (Sayings of the Fathers) in the back. Greg P. was a poet and a visual artist, very much influenced by the “counterculture.” Between them, they gave me the courage to start the Small World up again.
About that time, I finished The Web of What Is Written, which came out to a double-spaced typescript of about 500 pages. I submitted it to the University of Wisconsin Press. They wrote back giving a fairly extensive review but insisting that I modify the manner of writing to conform to scholarly conventions, which, again, I refused to do. It didn’t bother me too much because I still hoped to create the kind of community that would not only read such a work but take its perceptions to heart and apply them.
After finishing The Web of What Is Written, I needed to be gainfully employed and so reported to the employment office. In those days the employment office actually looked for work for you, and I was sent to the offices of an insurance company that was changing its records from paper to microfilm and needed I forget what done to the original records to facilitate this. It was still less inspiring work than the work in the Serials Department. But one evening I saw one of the other temporary workers at a poetry reading, and the next day we got into conversation. She later chose the pen name Alice Clark; her real name was even more colorless. She herself was colorless, a small, stocky, ash-blond woman, dressed in jeans and a shirt; when I last saw her, a few years ago, she seemed scarcely to have changed. Her father had been a socialist and she had had two years of college. Possibly she had never been out of the state. After I asked her if she wrote poetry she brought me a sheaf of lined notebook paper with about forty short poems written several to a page in a graceless but meticulous hand. The poems were poignant, witty, sometimes savagely so, full of beauty and sadness and punctuated with moments of wild hope.
It was around the same time, too, that I made the acquaintance of another Deborah, a poet who lived in another city. I had seen some of her poems in print and felt a kinship with them. She came from an academic Jewish family and was involved with a feminist writers’ collective. I felt a connection with her partly because of the name Deborah (“bee”), and also because she had written a poem about Pablo Picasso (based mostly on “Guernica”) in which she said some things that could also have applied to Celan although she did not know his work. I showed her “The Promised Web,” and she responded with a poem of her own, that seemed like a commitment to work with me toward the realization of the vision.
I felt a kind of obligation to mark the occasion with a poem. I had written so many poems out of grief, despair, and frustration; now it occurred to me that one ought not to be inspired only by sadness. So I thought about it for a few days, and then sat down at the typewriter and typed out the following:
BIRTHDAY OF A COURIER
The high-relief of something in the mind
almost forgotten, remembered not by name
but rising, shedding water from bright flanks:
Follow the trails of water to their source,
enter the source, and speak. Let your eyes
protrude from tree-trunks, your hands
appear over intersections, in the air.
Your companion is a thought that keeps pace
with you, dodging among the mirrors of the air,
surfacing in eyes, in eyes, ringing
voice after voice like a set of untried chimes.
Your credentials are: the constellation and the leaf,
the tokens under the tongues of the unborn,
and you are shod in thankfulness of the earth.
A few days later I took “Birthday of a Courier” to an open mike, and there I met another poet, a visitor from the city where Deborah lived, who read only one thing: a long poem about running. We had some correspondence afterward, and he did end up taking a message from me, by publishing a short essay of mine about Paul Celan in his little magazine. It seemed to me that this poem had come to me not only because of what had happened, but also because of what was going to happen! It was like a reminder that despite all the failures, all the obvious obstacles, there were still unknown forces in the world, from which hope could be drawn.
Late in July, at odd moments on the job, I jotted down a few lines that related to the vision of the Small World. On the weekend I decided to write a text to be used on a poster advertising the school. I put pen to paper and wrote:
We gather here to see
faces from which we need not hide our face,
to hear the sound of honest speech, to share
what dreams have etched upon the sleeping brain,
what the still voice has said, when heavy hours
plunged us to regions of the mind and life
not mentioned in the marketplace: to find
and match the threads of common destinies,
designs grimed over by our thoughtless life --
A sanctuary for the common mind
we seek. Not to compete, but to compare
what we have seen and learned, and to look back
from here upon that world where tangled minds
create the problems they attempt to solve
by doubting one another, doubting love,
the wise imagination, and the word.
For, looking back from here upon that world,
perhaps ways will appear to us, which when
we only struggled in it, did not take
counsel of kindred minds, lay undiscovered;
perhaps, reflecting on the Babeled speech
of various disciplines that make careers,
we shall find out some speech by which to address
each sector of the world's fragmented truth
and bring news of the whole to every part.
We say the mind, once whole, can mend the world.
To mend the mind, that is the task we set.
How many years? How many lives? We do not know;
but each shall bring a thread.
It is dated July 28, 1975.
In The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge there is a passage about how much has to go into a poem, not named nor evoked but there in the background. There is a lot in the background of “Invitation”: all those spaced-out midnight conversations in Berkeley and Buffalo, Berlin and Seattle; the years of waiting to understand Celan; the interpretive struggle with Flaubert, Joyce, et al.; what I had heard in the Tao and in the Divine Comedy, in the Hasidim, in Kropotkin and Weil and Jackson and Black Elk; all the attempts at gathering a group, and the space of that front room on Gilman Street, and even my brother Don’s poem that had ended “man’s loneliness and daybreak’s invitation.” All that had led up to this poem, which has become my “signature”; I have put copies of it in as many places as I could, and have spliced it into other works, and recited it at dinner tables.
Unknown to me at the time of writing were Celan’s actual last poems, the ones that were finally published as Zeitgehöft (Croft of Time) toward the end of the following year. The poem from April 7, 1970, “Crocus,” ends:
of a common truth,
(“But each shall bring a thread.”) And the very last poem, dated April 13, 1970, ends:
The open ones carry
the stone behind the eye,
it recognizes you
on the Sabbath.
(“Faces from which we need not hide our face.”) “Invitation” does not mention the Sabbath; I had not yet realized the connection between that institution and the epiphany I was trying to get people to have. That realization would arrive about the same time as Zeitgehöft, with the reading of A.J. Heschel’s The Sabbath. In January, 1977, drawing on Heschel’s book, I wrote: “”The Talmud relates that before the Fall, in Eden, there was a light by which you could see from one end of the world to the other. On the Sabbath – when all work, all struggle for existence is forbidden – that light can still be seen sometimes. After a prolonged acquaintance with Celan’s poetry, such glimpses do not seem unfamiliar.”
Whatever the truth of my conjectures about the personal tie between us, the congruence of “Invitation” with Celan’s last statements assures me that I did once manage to reach the place that he was pointing toward.
After writing “Invitation” I showed it to a student poet named Steve Pecha, who calligraphed the poem and also a prose text that I wrote, and I posted copies on bulletin boards around the university. And thus was launched the Small World School of Poetry, version 2.