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PART ONE: THE DARK WOOD
CHAPTER 5: POINTING OUTWARD
Early in 1968 Politzer decided that I should spend the year 1968-69 in Germany and encouraged me to apply for a Fulbright scholarship, something relatively easy to obtain in those days. Besides the chance to polish my language skills, it would obviously be easier to arrange for an interview or interviews with Celan from there. As to which university I should enroll in, the obvious one was the Freie Universitaet Berlin, where Peter Szondi taught, a sensitive and erudite commentator known to be a friend of Paul Celan. But for some reason we ruled that out, whether because the Freie Universitaet Berlin was already disrupted by student disturbances, or because it was far from Paris. Munich would be in easier reach, and Politzer thought he knew someone there who would be a good supervisor. Yet no definite connection was made beforehand; the preparations were, like all my intents and purposes at the time, rather vague.
One of the unstated hopes with which I planned the trip to Europe was that my missing half might turn up there. I was going on twenty-seven, the classic age for what the Germans call Torschlusspanik; and I had a fairly glaring case of it. In his recommendation to the Fulbright committee Jaszi described me as being very erudite and having a “rich inner life” which would find – how did he put it exactly? – more to complement it outwardly in the European cultural milieu. Luke and Ismene thought the same. Ismene had an idea that people were more sound and mature in Europe than in Berkeley, where the decadence was becoming more and more apparent. Luke said: “This is no place for you. You’re a lady!” An old-fashioned term, and one which my behavior in those years no longer fitted.
I had been to Germany once before, on an exchange scholarship between my junior and senior years, and, as it happened, had come closer to marriage then than at any time before or since. A kind, musically gifted medical student named Uwe had fallen in love with me, and I had liked him very much. I have never had the heart to “upgrade” the pleasant-toned inexpensive guitar he helped me to pick out one day. Perhaps even my choosing German as a graduate field had something to do with him; through him it had become a language of the heart. But something had held me back, a knot of motives, one of which was that I didn’t want to marry a German Catholic. I could hardly hold the murder of European Jewry against Uwe, who had been a child, living in China, when it happened, and in whom I recognized a kinder nature than my own; but associate myself with that people and that faith (against which my mother, who had been raised Catholic, had immunized me) I could not. After returning to the United States I had lost touch with Uwe, but had heard through a chance encounter that he had gotten married. So why was I going to Germany, again, with that half-acknowledged hope? It was not logical.
You can see that for all my introspection I was not conscious of what I was doing. All I knew as that I felt the lack of a partner that spring as never before. It was not just frustrated desire, the need for social acceptance, the reproach of childlessness (especially keen around Ismene and Gabriel), but a feeling of being incomplete. A whole side of me was missing, a whole half of my brain. And there was nothing I could do about it. The completion was not in my hands.
This had something to do with my resorting to marijuana rather oftener that spring than before, and sometimes alone. It gave me the sense of working on something, of figuring things out, of things opening up. It also intensified the solitude, made it from an emptiness I could neither avoid nor confront into something audible as the ringing in my ears, palpable as the walls of the room, and at the same time otherworldly, vibrating silently with a cry at the verge of articulation. It was better that way, it was at least something and not nothing, or if nothing then an active nothing.
Ismene understood this, I think, although she would have liked to pull me back. One bright, rather chilly afternoon I was sitting out in the garden of the duplex, stoned, looking at the hedge which had small red flowers on it, and the solitude was all around me. It was eternal, irrevocable, but I felt within myself the strength to assume it, and within it was a thought I had not grasped yet. Then Ismene was there. I heard her say gently: “You shouldn’t do this to yourself. When you feel like this, you should come over to our house. Luke and I love you. Not ‘like,’ love you. You should not feel alone.” Her words came to me over a great distance; I felt a sadness I had not been feeling before, and a little impatience. Perhaps I did not believe her; certainly we both knew that the love which she offered, while it could comfort, could not suffice. A few weeks later Ismene wrote a poem in which she saw me in her kitchen lifting a glass of red wine, while behind me the walls and roof were taken away, letting in the night and the rain. I wanted a copy of the poem, but she would never give me one and seemed to regret having shown it.
For a few weeks I had a mild crush on a neighbor down the street, named Phil. It was quite hopeless because he was drawn to men rather than women, and in any case the attraction I felt for him was mental rather than physical. He was thin and unhealthy-looking and his features were not beautiful. He painted delicate watercolors that did not have quite enough structure. Once he took me to dinner at his mother’s house, which had stained glass windows. There was something very cold about the mother, and the things she cooked -- the fat pallid drumstick and boiled potato and wax beans on the white plate on the white cloth – looked what they were, dead. Elton and I got stoned together several times and would always do something aesthetic: look at the visionary landscapes of a new painter he’d discovered, or go up into the Berkeley hills, where I remember seeing a young eucalyptus tree silhouetted against the sunset, its leaves, shaped like arrowheads, all aligned at the same angle to the stem, an amazing moment of symmetry that would never be repeated. In his living room, where a variety of interesting objects were artistically arranged yet produced an oddly desolate impression, we listened to Simon and Garfunkel and to Bob Dylan; he knew the words to Dylan’s songs by heart and would correct my quotations. His favorite song was “Visions of Johanna”; I can still hear him quoting from it. The lines gave me the sense of a space behind the world, similar to what I sensed in Celan’s poems. From Elton I learned that Dylan was Jewish, which astounded me, as I’d always thought of Dylan as the quintessence of the AmGabrielan folk spirit. On the other hand, Elton himself looked Jewish and had a Jewish-sounding last name, but wasn’t Jewish at all.
The acquaintance soon ended, mostly because, making my old mistake (Ismene: “You are very intelligent, yet you live your life like a much less intelligent person”), I could not let it be just what it was. Elton was at times only a shadow to me. Yet in those days I thought I couldn’t do without a physical relationship and so, as much against my own inclination as against his, I tried to make this tenuous connection answer that need, and thus destroyed it. One night before that happened, Elton came over and sat in my living room for several hours. We had a long, tortuous conversation, and the next morning I wrote the following, which I later titled “Ballad of a Fisherman’s Wife”:
Paths meet in the distance,
rocks bow down in the spray,
and as we sat speaking
our thoughts went walking away,
Like leaves from under the tree,
Like rain we passed to the sea --
Two griefs, and a single cure!
The sky was gray, a dimmed pearl,
And our boat seaweed-brown,
Midships the sun was couched
And gave pale shine,
And hard under our keel
The flounder sang --
Two griefs, and a single cure!
Wind is cold and soft,
Soft and cold the rain,
Sea-kine rise and drift
Over a gray plain,
And the pale sisters drive them down
To the sea again --
Two griefs, and never a cure!
This acquired an eerie little tune, slightly reminiscent (as Isadora said the following fall) of Schubert’s “Die Stadt.” Ismene liked it; I did not show it to Elton. It seems to me that the various brief crushes I indulged in those years were partly a “screen,” like that episode in the Vita Nuova where Dante says he paid court to one lady in order to conceal the true direction of his affections. Only I was also concealing it from myself. There was one poem that spring which I did not show to anyone, and indeed it is hardly a poem:
The hand of longing
is on your breast,
the invisible arms hold
you, falling, of
some gray-rained sorrow –
The last phrase, I knew, was an echo; but I did not probe to find out from where, although just that sort of compound (in German it would be meines graugeregneten Schmerzens) is one of the main stylistic features of Celan’s poetry. Similarly, the one thing I did not do while stoned that spring was read Celan. All those repetitions of "stone" in his poems may have reinforced the countercultural suggestion to "get stoned"; the "stoned" state may have reminded me of the poems' otherworldly realm, the trance they induced. The chemistry of words goes on working outside the mind of the poet. But something must have warned me to keep the two experiences apart, like two masses of uranium that would go critical if combined, as they eventually were and did. Again this is typical of the kind of “trance” state in which I was living. It is amazing to me in retrospect how close to the surface the awareness was, and yet I could still manage to ignore it.
For all the sense of deprivation, there was also a happiness in my state that spring. One bright morning I found myself composing a tune to that loveliest of Middle High German lyrics, Walther von der Vogelweide’s “Under der Linden.” The poem reports a lover’s tryst from the woman’s point of view; it has a refrain like a bird-call. Lately I found an article that included several translations, but none of them quite captured its quality of telling just enough, and in just the right tone. The tune was the only creation of mine that ever won Jason’s unstinted praise, although one of his friends liked the tune I wrote afterwards to Walther’s “Nemt, vrouwe, disen Kranz” even better. “Nemt, vrouwe, disen kranz” is also about a lovers’ tryst, but reported by the man, who wakes up to find it was a dream and keeps looking into the faces of the ladies he meets, hoping to find his dream-girl again. Singing had become one of the great consolations of my existence; several years later a listener noted that it was my way of making love to my audience. I was so stupid then as to seduce him; but it was all wrong, driven, like most of my encounters, by need on my side rather by than desire on either. It took me a long time to accept that the consummation was in the song. That that was it.
Oddly enough, in the spring of 1968 I saw the only good translation of “Under der linden” that I’ve ever read. It was made by Ismene’s next-door neighbor, Ray, an English professor whose last name I don’t remember, whom I knew only slightly and who did not know I had set the poem to music. Ismene showed it to me, and like a fool I did not ask for a copy. This came from a motive which I have since come to fear like fire: poetic jealousy. Cain and Abel must have been rival poets. I had a sneaking hope of being able to translate the poem myself one day, but of course (the powers that rule these matters are just) I have never been able to do so, and so I cannot share “Under der linden” in English with you now.
I spent some time that spring in the company of poets, thanks to Nadine, who introduced me to a poetry class she was auditing. It was taught by a gentleman and a scholar whose official field was political science rather than poetry. The poets in the class each had a distinctive style, and the instructor, who would read his own latest poems along with the rest, encouraged each in his or her own way and did not try to make them write something the literary magazines would publish. Fragments of the poems remain in mind, each redolent of the air of the time and stamped with the personality of the poet, prophetic, elegiac, satiric. They were practically all very good. There was only one girl who had submitted two poems the first time I came, poems typed in a font resembling handwriting. They were about a boy who had left her; in one she compared herself to someone marooned on a desert island. No one expressed enthusiasm for the poems, and she did not come back.
After sitting through one class I got the instructor’s permission to audit. I gave him the dozen or so halfway-satisfactory things I’d written in the previous two years, and at the next session he distributed a few to the class. Though more artful than that girl’s, they seemed to make people uncomfortable in the same way. Not all the comments were negative; the instructor noted a quality of “ambitiousness” in the poems, to which he seemed to accord a tentative respect. Driving home afterwards, Nadine said decidedly, “Well, Bea, I don’t care if nobody else likes your poems; I think they’re great.” A compliment about which I had mixed feelings. Naive about words, I have often believed the pleasant things people only said to sugar-coat the less pleasant things they really meant. This habit has made a fool of me at times, but it has also protected me, and I had been benefiting from it until that moment.
But the most inwardly discomfiting thing about the evening was the experience of the fact that my poetic talent, so long suppressed, so recently revived, but always brooded over with almost a monomaniac intensity, was no uncommon thing at all. Rilke says in Malte Laurids Brigge: “There aren’t three hundred poets.” Well, maybe not three hundred Rilkes. But in Berkeley I was always meeting poets – the students in that class, Nadine, Isadora, Kent, Ismene, a disagreeable young hippie whose name I forget, who dropped in at Ismene’s one evening – who when the hour struck could produce work of real beauty and appositeness. I felt like the Little Prince who thought that his rose was the only one in the world and is cast down when he sees a whole hedge of them. I had to admit the resistance I felt to admitting the existence of others. It seemed to me that on the evening when I read my poems the air of the room had been laden with that feeling. Moreover, a lot of the poems read that evening had dealt with violence and destructive relationships. I had fearful dreams, and in the morning produced the following poem:
They've got those suits now
(Oh darling I'm so frightened)
that fit you from neck to toenails
thick asbestos-filled and very tight.
A blow through one of those doesn't leave marks;
they take you out, dead and perfect as a bad girl in the gangster movies.
Last night a car passed the border.
They took the lids off the suitcases
the sides off the car
they scraped the passengers down to the tendons
and sent them on still with suspicious side-looks
or the red on their bones
In a dream I came and sat next to you
you did not look at me
I took your hand
it closed on mine then
was it one of them
the people we cut out of magazines
They walk around there are more than I
remembered they are lifesize flat and very brightly colored
You must try to tell me if you see one of them
I will try to tell you if I see one of them
the last movie was thirty hours long
ARE YOU ALL RIGHT CAN YOU HEAR ME
NOW I WANT YOU TO LISTEN VERY CAREFULLY
THIS IS IMPORTANT
The images came from the dreams of the preceding night. The “you” was partly Elton, who again never saw the poem. I was also trying for some of the directness of Celan’s appeal to his reader. In the final, capitalized stanza I had in mind a rescue scene from some long-ago television program, where rescuers speak to the person who is trapped, to calm the person and give instructions on how to get free. Both Nadine and the instructor liked this poem very much; they agreed it was my best. I felt proud of it but could not like it somehow. In his selection of my previous work for the class the instructor had not included “when angels shall reseam these rags,” which Nadine also didn’t like. When I asked him why, the instructor said, “It seems to me to be a poem based on poetry rather than observation,” and pointed out a few echoes in it – I could have pointed out others. I was sorry he didn’t like what I still considered my best poem, but I stayed in the class and wrote for it. Since I couldn’t match the force Nadine put into a few simple words, I began expanding my poems by means of dream material and more complicated structures of imagery. With the presence of a group to speak to, my voice seemed to get stronger and more sustained, and the class reacted more favorably. The other students’ work also seemed to be growing more intense. But toward the end of the summer Ismene said to me very seriously: “I like your earlier poems better. They are more beautiful, they are not literary. Luke feels the same way I do.” Whereas Nadine seemed to egg me on in the direction I was moving, Ismene seemed to what to hold me back. But she was generally ambivalent about poetry, about the way it fed on suffering, and she distrusted literary ambition altogether. When I showed her a poem called “Garden,” about a mistake that had possibly cost me the love of my first lover, she said, “You should not torment yourself.”
In retrospect, “The Invaded” seems to me like an early attempt to make the connection between my own inner state and the state of the world. During my first year or two at Berkeley I had been preoccupied mainly with my personal unhappiness. When I saw a poster of a napalmed child in the spring of 1966, my first reaction was that my emotions were being manipulated. Then I asked my behavior therapist one day if what was going on over there could possibly have something to do with my unhappiness, and he dismissed this as a grandiose thought. But in 1967-68 I became aware generally of an impingement on my psyche by the world of commercial images. The way the human image was used in advertising – not anything particularly offensive, I remember most a line drawing of a pleasant middle-aged woman’s face as an ad for aspirin – began to bother me. I think this awareness of the sacredness of the human image, as the touchstone of all ethical values, is something that Celan’s poems transmitted to me, or made me remember. It must be connected with the inner Gestalt of the poem.
The final meeting of the poetry course was held in the living-room of Jason and Marsha’s house in Lafayette, where Nadine, you’ll recall, occupied the basement apartment. First, as usual, copies of poems were handed round and discussed. I think it was then that a young Jewish girl named Felicia read a lovely poem to her fiancé, alluding to the Sabbath hymn Lekha Dodi and the Song of Songs. After we’d read our work, the party began. There was wine, and brownies with marijuana in them, and music on the stereo. A conversation got started of which I don’t remember the details, but suddenly it seemed as though only everyone’s worst self was present. Sybil, the beautiful visionary poetess, was bitchy; the boy who had just presented a poem beginning “Come into my eerie garden” was snide; Nadine was playing the vamp; the instructor, whose civilization showed in every line he wrote, loosened his tie and unbuttoned the first few buttons of his shirt and looked disheveled and off-balance. I felt that none of them, except Nadine, had ever taken an interest in me except out of politeness, and politeness was now no longer in force. This was my usual feeling at parties, but this time I decided to write a poem. On finishing which, I raised my voice above the conversation to offer it to them. It was the first draft of the following:
black cannon in the field
over the hill
In the first winter
I found the minute cathedrals under the leaves
I touched their spiny spires,
wondering, and used them
for the mystery plays with small figures
The next year mushrooms appeared
in clumps where the little churches had melted
I had no idea which ones were not poisonous
you could hardly have advised me
without remembering, open your hands
where you stand in the shuttered house over the garden
the soil yields rusted metals
I want a fragment
of your glass heart
like a clear lens to look through
there were no leaves this year
They listened, of course, with an air of being imposed upon, and then the instructor said that as a rule it was not a good idea to read a poem to others immediately after composing it; still there were some phrases, like the “clear lens,” that were good. Late in the evening, just as everyone was getting ready to go home, Nadine became upset and ran out into the garden. She came back or was brought back, having scraped her shins on the stones, and in a bad state. Everyone was concerned, but they still had to leave. Jason and Marsha had long since gone to bed. Nadine asked me to stay there with her and, with some reluctance, I agreed.
There must have been another guest staying downstairs; at any rate there was only one place to sleep, a couch that folded out into a double bed. Nadine had said that I could sleep there and she would sleep on the floor, but in the end she crawled in with me. She stayed on her side of the bed; nevertheless I felt as if a demand was being placed on me. We did not speak. Nadine may eventually have slept, I did not; I lay at the edge of the bed by the picture window, in the dark that slowly turned to blue twilight, questioning whether I had somehow provoked the situation, whether I was imagining it, whether the idea of being for a change the one desired and refusing was not affording me a perverse pleasure, and what it was finally that bound me to men, whom no man wanted. Morning came, Nadine drove me back home, and for the time being our friendship appeared undamaged.
The semester was ending. As the final duty of my teaching assistantship, I had to administer the final exam. While my neglected students bent over their papers, I feverishly scribbled my longest poem to date, called “A Hymn to the Ancestors,” which spews out all the childhood and ancestral memories Ismene’s presence had encouraged me to retrieve. Mother, grandmother, great-grandmother call on me to finish the pattern of their lives, and at the same time there is an overpowering sense of the presence of destructive forces. Various legends are worked in. The style is borrowed from a San Francisco poet, Michael McClure, who wove medieval imagery into some rather violent poems about drug experiences. And my poem is violent too; it’s about destruction, frustration, discontinuity. After raging itself out, the poem concludes by evoking the kind of extra-temporal maternal image I’d seen in Celan’s poems:
then said that lady
go and find
my jester's skull
in youth I did love
I never showed this poem to Ismene; I knew she would strongly disapprove of it. The only one I showed it to was Dr. Singh.
With some encouragement from Ismene, I had returned that spring to the thought that therapy might help overcome whatever inhibitions (I just wrote “ambitions” by mistake; now there is a confession!) had been blocking me from getting into a satisfactory relationship. So I went to the clinic and was referred to Dr. Singh, whom I saw perhaps ten times. He wore a turban; I suppose he was a practicing Sikh. He did not say a great deal, and his manner was quiet, but friendly and interested. When I recited “Symposium” for him (why did I pick that?), he said, with an air almost of surprise, “That is very good!” I brought him “A Hymn to the Ancestors” along with the much more restrained “Garden.” Unexpectedly, this quiet man said that “A Hymn to the Ancestors” was a much better poem.
Perhaps a week or two after the final meeting of the poetry class, I had the following dream:
I was walking with Nadine across a bridge over a river. The colors were muddy blue and brown, and I felt some anxiety about our feelings for each other. But then we had crossed the river and came to some stairs which led to a much higher level of ground. The air was clear, though we were in shadow. At the midpoint of the stairs there was a landing, and on this landing was a bronze statue of a boy, a satyr. When we reached the landing he came to life and placed himself between us. The three of us walked up the last flight of stairs and stood on the edge of the dropoff, facing a meadow. Now we were in sunlight, the green of the meadow was clear and fresh as it only is in certain dreams, the distances veiled in a shining mist. Out of the mist a lady appeared and came toward us. She was tall, her hair red-gold, her clothes, fawn-colored, of a marvellous fashion: tailored, they seemed at the same time to flow around her like draperies. Over her face was the lightest of veils. Her smile was celestial; it was clear that she was a divine being. She came toward us and stopped before the bronze satyr-boy who was in the middle, and he took a bronze piece out of his bronze side and offered it to her. I thought suddenly that this was very sad. But the lady, smiling, accepted it.
Did I tell this dream to Nadine, to Ismene? I don’t recall. I did tell it to Dr. Singh. He said it was a very good dream. Perhaps if I’d stayed in therapy with him I would have learned something that would have enabled me to get through the next few years without pulling the house down over my own head; but I was leaving town. My application for a Fulbright scholarship had been accepted.
It was a long departure, prefaced by a month of especially transitory existence. Jason and Marsha had planned to take the group up to British Columbia, to spend part of the summer in communal living on some farmland Jason had purchased together with his partner in the venture, Frank. But we were not scheduled to leave until the first of July. Meanwhile, a friend of theirs wanted the Grant Street apartment for the summer, starting the first of June. The solution was for me to spend June on Ismene's back porch. Somehow, I managed to fit all my things into that space; my packed trunk served as a desk. Luke and Ismene absorbed me into their household without fuss.
While I was living there, Ismene urged me to make one more attempt to find a mate in Berkeley, by placing a personal ad in the Berkeley Barb. Placing personal ads was not such an accepted thing as it is now; the general assumption about people who placed ads in the Berkeley Barb was that they were either hopelessly unattractive or that their intentions were unusually squalid (as was evident from many of the ads). But Ismene saw nothing wrong with it. I had already experimented once with alternative ways of meeting people: two years earlier I had participated in one of the first computer dating programs. It had not worked badly. I had matched with three men. One of them became a friend for a time, while with another -- Ian -- I had become quite deeply involved. In 1968 I was still not quite over him. I placed the ad under an assumed name. And that was how I came to spend an evening with Michael.
He was a little younger than I was, smaller, not academically educated but very smart, and tough. He said that he had recently returned from Vietnam, and he showed me some poems relating to his experiences there, as well as some poems written before the Vietnam experience. We got stoned together. I wasn't attracted to him, and he didn't seem to be attracted to me either; he seemed to want mainly a listener. I saw him only that once. He rather alarmed me, for it seemed to me that while his Vietnam experience had been traumatic, at the same time it had answered some need for violence in him, which I could see in the early poems. I kept still and did not express alarm, but I think I was glad to get back to Ismene's. The next day or shortly thereafter, I started writing a poem which I dedicated to him.
POET, 23, IS BACK FROM VIETNAM
You had been half in love with easeful death
for some time
Brown ghosts hovered
singing over clipped lawns
You used to speak
almost fondly of the face that was
a gray spot in the crowd
of the ashlight from invisible t.v.
live on stoned faces
Well I suppose it was
a surgical revelation
those jungle viridians
the shell-torn clay the different reds
soaking the retina
Now you are back behind your dark glasses
looking at us
with the ultimate X ray vision
can you see
. . .
Where O death is
your waxed moustache
your umber fantasies of dead fish talking
in an undersea room
your gray dracula cloak
ripped away like a billboard
and i projected
into the landscape's
green violent NOW
red flowers of love and hate devour one another
and spleen heart entrails thrive nakedly --
the cloak the t.v. screen
the mirror Time
and your face
. . .
What does the woman standing
in robes of dark-green patina
at the mouth of the western harbor
mouth round and softly darkened)
What does she hold in it
for the soldier
the elm leaves' electric shadows
down the street
a dark snow to walk through
red sands keep on spreading across a green desert
The images in the first two sections are derived from Michael's poems. The sinister image of the singing ghosts was meant to recall Celan's "Death Fugue." One thing I notice now about this poem is that as in "Hymn to the Ancestors" the image of the Lady appears to offer a possibility of healing, although here the offer is definitely refused.
Ismene strongly disapproved. This was this kind of poem that made her feel suspicious of poetry generally, the way it fed on suffering. She told me that her younger sister was writing political poetry in Greece, and receiving some recognition for it. But she mistrusted public poetry, the attempt to make poetry public. I had the feeling that I ought to send this poem to Michael, but I did not. I left for British Columbia without communicating with him again. Ismene said that he called once after I left. Michael will always be on my conscience, though I can never know if the poem would have helped or not.
The last poem that I wrote in Berkeley came out of a drive with Luke and Ismene and Gabriel along the Mendocino coast.
for Luke and Ismene
Miles following the coastroad
gray staves ran, the music
A swallowtail weightless
over the yellow weed
A hawk pinned to the sun
The blue table down there, the rocks,
the white spume-statute standing
An optimistic poem, I guess, and a poem of gratitude. Ismene and Luke had given me a great deal, they seemed to believe in me, and it seemed as if I should now be able to face the future with a greater strength.
Then it was time for the drive to British Columbia with Jason and Marsha. We stopped in Seattle to pick up Frank and Linda, we stayed overnight in Vancouver with some friends of theirs. In the morning I remember looking out of a window that had panes of faceted glass. Everything on the street was in rather ugly shades of green and orange. It occurred to me to wonder whether those colors were any truer than the "natural" colors of things. It was moment I would come back to.
The communal experiment on the farm was supposed to last two months; it lasted three weeks. According to my notes from five years later, there were quarrels, though I don't remember over what, and after three weeks Jason and Marsha and Frank and Linda asked the rest of us to leave. I did not write any poems that I liked during this time. I remember translating Celan while there; I was working on the poems of Speech-Grille. These poems are austere in form, with an atonal music. They have a lot of nature imagery, but the subject is not exactly nature. It is more a psychological landscape, where everything is objectified. There is little direct expression of feeling, but all of the objects you see appear emotionally charged. Sometimes the landscape seems completely abstract. In one of these poems, I was struck by the concluding lines:
Hörbar (vor Morgen?): ein Stein, [Audible (before morning?): one stone]
der den andern zum Ziel nahm. [that aimed itself at the other.]
The words “ein Stein” made me think of Einstein, and the idea of one stone aiming itself at the other reminded me of relativity. It occurred to me that maybe Celan was trying to establish a sort of physics of the word.
Among those who participated in the farm experiment was a nineteen-year-old hippie named Tom. He was one of the Seattle contingent. He was tall, graceful, fine-featured; he looked more like one of Tolkien’s elves than any of the actors they got to play them in the movie. He wrote a little poetry and read all the books that were popular in the counter-culture. During our short acquaintance Tom and I performed the sort of dance of mutual appreciation, distanced by our years, that an older woman and a younger man will sometimes engage in; I was amused to read, in my account of those days from 1972, that he pointed at me one day when I was sitting alone on a rock and said: Andromeda. I had forgotten that, although the fairy-tale I wrote at the onset of delirium in 1971 is based on the Andromeda myth. Such was the effect that even a moment of being seen could have on me. Also according to those notes, it was he who got me to read Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, which introduced me to the concept of the karass. (“We Bokononists believe that humanity is organized into teams, teams that do God’s Will without ever discovering what they are doing. Such a team is called a karass...”) Like Cat’s Cradle, this book is partly an investigation – necessarily, as Vonnegut observes, incomplete – of the workings of a karass. It also purports to “examine all strong hints as to what on Earth we, collectively, have been up to.” Of course that is merely the manic side of a depressive piece of sci-fi, but I guess I have made an intellectual career out of taking such mad hopes seriously.
As if that were not enough experience for a summer, I also visited two friends who had married and moved from Berkeley to somewhere in Michigan, and who had a new baby and were already out of the mood for the wild discussions that had nourished our friendship in Berkeley. And then I went with my parents and Don on a trip to Mexico, which I did not enjoy; the sight of the poverty there was prefaced by an encounter with a border guard who wrote down my age, and the word: Soltera. It just means “single” in Spanish, but it gave me a turn, because it sounded like a name.
And finally I was in New York for a week, staying at the apartment of a friend of Isadora’s. I met Isadora at the plane. She stood still for a moment at the gate, looking around her with an air of shaking Europe’s dust off her feet. “It’s good to be back,” she said.
“It’s good to be getting out of here,” I retorted. For a moment we faced the conclusions in each other’s eyes.