Image Credit: Martin Johnson Heade – Passion Flowers and Hummingbirds
“All gladness, dear Nelly, all light!”—Paul Celan, entire last letter to Nelly Sachs before suicide
I’m a lilac thief. For the blue vase in my new living room, for the clear vase on the nightstand in my new bedroom. At dark I stalk the avenues with scissors. Culling my neighbors’ clippings. How I get here: a constellation of leaves. Against white paint. An impossible face.
The frozen river of you. Something human under eyelashes. 36 days we’ve lived a block apart. For 36 days I wonder if you’ve returned home each evening or if the apartment’s empty, your public body hanging or smashed. I never thought a boxcutter could break my heart: in the shower together I notice & say, “Where did those scratches come from?” Our friends don’t own cats. You say, “I wanted to know what it felt like.” What does that mean. Yet your line breaks / are so emotional.
11 months into your therapy & medication, I take a course on Levinas to understand what you believe. I think you forgot that while you’re responsible for all others, they are responsible for you too. You have to offer the little o’s of your Other. Even if the uppercase O is perpetually a leaf out of reach, high-shelved. With cloud.
You grew the biggest toe. I wrapped my whole hand around that one toe. A buoy, roadblock, a secret. This is how privacy turns into relation. Then relation turns to a series of memories.
In an apartment for one, all shoes the same size.
Two dried roses, snakeskin, scraps of paper flame in the traveling caldron. An inauguration like a key sewn to a palm-sized blank page. Red twine.
To crave a palpable response. Yet, I received scrimshaw: etched, unwavering, detached. Severed tusk of love. I’m ready. I think I’m ready. I think, I’m ready. For what, for what I want.
I chant to myself: So little o so little o so little o so. So little o so little o so little o so. So little o so little o so. So little, o! So, little o. So little. o. Nothing I make is alive?
The anniversary of your failure to jump, & then your failure to hang. “Too many bikers passing by the bridge.” Is that why? No day without fiction.
Given answers I didn’t know how to question, I dead-ended. Petal-eddies on the pavement. You weaned language.
A brown carpet desires blue chairs. Take a photograph of the empty birdcage shadow on my wall. So who wants to see my replica of a shadow gliding a wall?
Therapy Session #13:
Dr: So a lot has happened since we last saw each other.
J: Yes, I’m a block & a half from where I was living before. It’s been hectic & horrible, but it’s starting to feel different.
Dr: Okay, so tell me more.
J: What part?! Last week I was just really sad: us living together yet knowing that there was an end to our relationship. Me, scrambling around trying to find a new place to live as soon as possible. At the same time, I don’t feel that there is any animosity toward each other so it wasn’t like hostile silence while living in the same place. It was us going about what we normally do, but much, much sadder. I feel tired from it all. It seems strange after 5 years of being together all the time, now we don’t speak. It’s totally gone. I guess that’s what happens, yet it seems so strange. I’m losing the person I love the most.
J: I’m adjusting to not having N in my life anymore; trying not to feel frustrated that a particular shared life you can put so much effort into just vanishes. The manifestation of it vanishes, not the history or experiences.
Dr: So it’s sad & odd to be without something & someone that has been central to your whole existence for so long.
J: Yeah, on many levels. Our days were incredibly intertwined. I also feel like his health & the future of our relationship have been the foci of my attention consistently for the last two years—it’s weird to not, I don’t know, to not have that anymore as to where my concentration & attention goes.
Dr: Right, a close relationship for five years becomes an organizing principle.
Your texts I can’t yet delete from my phone: “I love you & your face.” “I miss you. You’re the violin of my string quartet.” “If you were a flower I’d bang a flower.” “Everything is for you. Forever.” “I love you. Sit on my face!”
Suicide-desire is the rejection of desire for the Other’s little o’s. So, o? So little. Suicide-desire is the rejection of the worth in your own little o’s. Rejects the accumulation of worth. Accepts all little o’s as demarcations of failure.
I recognized your face, but you wouldn’t let me read it. Or, it could not be read.
I crave oatmeal every morning. No one to scrutinize the bowl that looks like slop: ½ cup oatmeal, a handful of cashews, nutritional yeast, ground flax seed, salsa, two eggs. I’m full & ready.
11 months ago, after your release from the hospital, you only read Celan. All the poems & letters. What does this mean? I couldn’t ask & I couldn’t read along.
Finally today I check Paul Celan & Nelly Sachs: Correspondence out from the library. The intro quotes Celan: “Reachable, near & not lost, there remained amid the losses this one thing: language. It, the language, remained, not lost, yes in spite of everything. But it has to pass through its own answerlessness, pass through frightful muting, pass through the thousand darknesses of deathbringing speech.”
Light from my new window wakes me at 6am everyday. In apparitions of light, I never hit the snooze button. I’m the only one who waters these plants.
I pretend the wall-to-wall brown carpet is the forest floor, the dirt, oak leaves, & pine needles of New England. As a kid, I asked my parents if I could cover my bedroom in sand, to pretend I lived on a beach. “I’ll keep it in my room, I promise.” Planned to trade my bed for a hammock. I didn’t believe my Mom when she said, “That’s not how sand works.”
I packed only two summer quilts. For the first three weeks the nights unleash a starry chill & I sleep with slippers on, my hoodie pulled over my head like a glowworm.
I catalogue the scents of the bodies I’ve slept with: warm milk, hay, lilacs, clover, wet pavement, almonds, lavender, lavender. You said I was black pepper. Who could be clay?
Therapy Session #13 Continued:
Dr: We don’t have to talk about this, but it’s sort of related. Maybe you’d be comfortable talking about your decision not to come to your appointment with me last week.
J: I just felt like I was being sad enough on my own. I was fine with my own emotions & thinking through everything that had transpired. I didn’t feel like there would be a huge difference between crying & thinking about things on my own or being in this office. I wanted to stay where I was.
Dr: Could there be a link between how sad you’re feeling & not wanting to come here?
J: Yeah, that’s what I’m saying. Not that I didn’t want to be sad in front of you, but it was more like I was fine on my own, I didn’t need mediation. I wanted to experience it firsthand by myself. Our appointment was scheduled only two days after we broke up.
Dr: It struck me that you said that you’re feeling more busy than sad, & that felt good. I understand that feeling not sad is better than feeling sad, but…you’re less comfortable feelings might get less room.
J: I mean, I think my feelings come out whenever they want to. You always see in movies when people cry on cue or at appropriate moments. But strange things catch me off guard. Yesterday I was texting N because I needed to figure out when to pick boxes up from his place. I received this flat response from him, which made me immensely sad. It was devoid of all affection or connection, it was devoid of the recognition that we knew each other in any significant way. It was strictly informational. Moments like that epitomize everything that’s changing. So I don’t feel like I’m busying myself & pushing things away. I’ve had one straight week of stressing out trying to sign a lease—my graduate stipend isn’t enough to sign leases in Denver, so I needed to have my younger brother co-sign the lease with me & he lives in Atlanta—packing, being sad & being around someone incredibly sad. So, to me, emotions are very much present.
Dr: How do you feel like you’re handling this experience?
J: Like I’ve been a giant mess, but that I’m a giant mess in private. Or, I’ve been with N. I don’t really tend to fall apart in front of my friends.
Dr: Do you feel like you could fall apart here?
J: I think I’ve cried here before. I can’t talk & cry at the same time— it’s true! I don’t know how people do it. So I guess crying seems more private because it’s expressive but at the same time doesn’t actually allow me to communicate other than the raw emotion—usually someone is waiting for a response of more than tears. But I was hanging out with my friend S who is best friends with N, & I was just sitting at her house crying. So it depends. As I said, when I’m telling my friends how I’m doing, I usually feel more together than the random moments when I’m by myself & something unexpected triggers the sadness.
Dr: Struggling with conflicted feelings of what do about this relationship was very central to what brought you here, in addition to anxiety disorder. You’ve been working hard to sort out different feelings you’ve had, what was & wasn’t in this relationship, trying to anticipate the future of it. So you’ve canceled on our appointment during the most difficult week you’ve had.
J: I felt like I could be on my own.
Dr: How might that make sense?
J: I mean, because I’ve never done this before. Everything I’ve been going through is new. I wanted it to be unfiltered.
Dr: So in a way, you made an effort to protect your own experience of it. Is it possible, in that sense, it was useful to not come here. Because it kept you clearer about where you were?
J: Well, I felt like you’d ask me how it was going & I’d just cry. I was doing that on my own without any prompting. I didn’t want to have to articulate what I was going through outside of actually living it.
Dr: So it could have been too much. That makes sense. You were using up enough energy having the experience, articulating it might have been a burden.
J: I don’t even know if I could have, with the whole talking/crying divide.
Dr: In that sense, it was actually important that you didn’t come. In terms of processing. You had to manage the experience. You’ve spent an immense amount of energy & time thinking about N’s experience & where he is coming from.
J: I have all this extra time now.
Your face looked honest. Then fish-hooked like a false diploma. I think suicide is the desire to turn yourself into an object. To un-Other.
Where sprouts the distraction? I have to empty a room to fill the other with my body. Pay attention to every browning leaf.
It is tiring to keep someone else alive.
Accidently I rip the quilt. My hoodie’s white cord hangs out of the antique bureau. Shadow-cars float on my wall’s night. No one else can remember this for me.
Something empties from my brain. Makes room. For, is it lack of emotion or a calmness I’d forgotten.
Two dresses hang in the shower to steam. I’d rather have a surfboard than an ironing board. Try not to splash soap, to stain with what cleans.
My desktop has your folder named “N’s Stuff.” Inside, an article you started to write & never completed. You left it open last May & I read what stared at me, surfacing in front of my own documents. Did you mean to leave it open? I check to see if it’s still in the folder:
“Somewhere between June & September of 2010, I’m not sure when exactly it was, I decided I was going to kill myself. One thing I wanted to do before I died was listen to A Love Supreme as many times as I could. I listened to it on vinyl, on CD, on iPod. I listened to it in the bath, on the train, while writing, while grading papers, while biking. I listened to it with other people. I listened to it alone.
On the morning of April second, 2011, I stood at the edge of a sixteen story parking garage, watching the sunrise pink the foothills beyond Denver. The cold was still, present everywhere. The wind off the mountains chafed my cheeks. I sat on the edge of the building, looking out at the mountains, crying. In my headphones Coltrane’s alto wailed. I looked at photos of Julia on my phone, thinking about how awful it was going to be for her…
John Coltrane was 38 when he recorded A Love Supreme. In short, I think it is the greatest piece of music of the 20th Century.”
Unfinished, yet this is the moment I begin to hate Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. I was the “other people.” I was in the bath with you listening to this album. No day without fiction. I think: I soaped your legs in the tub, leaned against your chest. How those gestures drained into your suicide plan. “How awful it was going to be for her” to what? What, exactly? So little o. Your incompletion is my unending.
Nelly writes to Paul, “Despair / your letters like matches /spitting fire /No one gets to the end / but through the antlers of your words—”
Tulips look honest. I paint my toenails green for the stems & fingernails petal-red. Could I hide in a flowerbed. A face is never enough.
To know the o of your O. Ancestry of light. Remember how you remember nights. I don’t necessarily believe in walls, yet secretly want to design wallpaper. How much forgetting inhabits the decay of sadness. How much of you.
Your texts I can’t yet delete from my phone: “Okay I love you. I’m going to rub & lick your pussy until you come 100 times tonight.” “I love you.” “I saw a cool pigeon.” “Landed in Denver. Feeling sad. I miss you.” “I love you for that.” “That does not give you permission to eat him alive.” “I love you. That’s not from the story. That’s science fact.” “Landed! Safe! Fantasizing about licking your pussy til you moan & come.” “Hello my blood, my bone, my heart.” “Every disease is a musical problem.” “The lights are lit.”
Your privacy, I’ve lost it. I have ten blank CDs left before I need to buy more. I need stamps & laundry detergent. No one else will replace these. Postcards ready to mail.
I address the little o of the Other: So, little o. So? The opening of the opening. The violent light.
I collect scattered glasses through my house: two on the nightstand, one on the coffee table, one in the bathroom, one nesting the desk on a stack of papers. I wash them in the sink & hang them upside-down in the dishwasher to dry.
You were my Saint of Lost Books. Not out of desire for neatness or organization I alphabetize my books: without a saint, titles dislocate. I have no memory for spines.
Sleep in tennis socks. Inevitably one slips off each night. In the morning I fish the bed like a bear in a lake, pawing for what I know is there.
Nelly writes, “Paul, dear Paul, your poems breathe with me day and night, and so they share my life.”
How many times did you listen to A Love Supreme?
Therapy Session #13 Continued:
Dr: Maybe it was overwhelming to have this much of your own experience.
J: I mean, it’s overwhelming in that everything is changing all at once. I feel that the experience of this week is pretty similar to when I had to bring N to the mental hospital. It doesn’t feel that far away from what I was experiencing exactly one year ago plus three days. Although I was blindsided then; it’s the same sense of overtakedness.
Dr: Were you feeling those feelings as much as you were right now? Because you were taking him to the hospital & managing his experience.
J: Yeah, I see what you mean, but for 10 days I was returning from visiting him at the hospital & crying & trying to sift through the disparate experiences of our life together. That was more of a shock. At least for this, I had my own warning.
Dr: Yes. I don’t have a clear, articulated statement, more the sense that— perhaps in the relationship your emotions were more reactionary. N’s difficulties emotionally took up a lot of the room. Even if he wasn’t talking about it.
J: Right. I was still feeling things the whole time, but yes, I suppose they were more reactionary. Yes, now my emotions are the priority I suppose, or, that sounds narcissistic, maybe I mean, I am able to attend to them with more care.
Dr: You got short changed, not because he wasn’t a good man, but because he was working on taking care of his own health & that has to come before taking care of someone else.
I water my herbs when I shower. Oregano with its wily tentacles I haven’t yet tossed in a meal. Mint’s the tallest, a leaning & leafy Pisa. I’ve already replaced the basil. I take the hottest showers, a red stripe down my back. My new routine: I count slowly to 10 before stepping onto a turquoise mat, wash my face, brush teeth, stash the contact solution & comb back in the cabinet. I like to air-dry, to wash the dishes as the shower evaporates from my shoulders. Then I return to the bathroom & moisturize. Then clothing, pigtails, a single bobby pin.
Not yours, texts from others I cannot delete: “And it will be a full-size, hearse-shaped book with interior lights that you have to lie in, in order to read,” “‘Because we love them—all. That is the secret: a new sort of murder’—WCW” “I wish I had gotten off at your stop,” “On that scale, it was small rabbit eating a snake,” “What does AWOL mean?” “Parks. Sex. Bookstores. Sex. Cooking dinner together. Sex. Subway rides. Sex. Cocktails!” “Saw a book in a thrift store called The Wine Dark Seas. Not sure exactly what it was about. I didn’t even pick it up & read the back. That’s indicative of something,” “I’m pregnant!” “In my dream last night you had two owls, each on a leash. I was in a wading pool.”
Dear, esteemed Nelly Sachs!
I thank you, I thank you from my heart.
All the unanswerable questions in these dark days. This ghostly, mute not-yet, this even more ghostly and mute no-longer and once-again, and in between the unforeseeable, even tomorrow, even today.
Your Paul Celan
I will find burnt corncobs. I will find seeds alluding starlings. I will find a lost daguerreotype, lost lipstick, a dry roof, smoke-bushes like rusted cotton candy. I will find accidents. Wind hiding the heat. Recycling in the trashcan & trash in the recycling bin. I will find someone sweeping water out of the potholes, over the asphalt canvas. Who can recover? Wind forgetting the light.
The volume of the vacuum cleaner scares me too. Is there such a thing as enough. Forget the parking lot’s genus. Forget to look up the name of that bird. Forget you for a while. Lipstick left on the plastic straw. Have I already grieved? Under the new coffee table the dog cannot fit but he hasn’t given up. I forget my chipped blue nail polish so much darker than the sky. Count to 10 like it’s Hide & Seek & forget that no one’s hiding.
Therapy Session #13 Continued:
J: I basically told him that I felt that he was doing an amazing job of taking care of himself, & that I could see all the progress—although I don’t like that particular word—advances, developments, that he’s made in therapy & medicine, reaching out to friends, & the general day to day of tending to oneself. But at the same time, that was a priority, & the second priority, which was our relationship, wasn’t fitting into it well. Because he only has time & room & focus for priority number one, because it’s so all-encompassing. I basically said I loved him very much & had complete faith in the changes he wants to make in himself, but that we were in really different places with our lives & I didn’t know how to continue to reconcile that. The circumstances created & carried a level of sadness I couldn’t fully dissipate.
Dr: It sounds like you were able to articulate your love.
J: I was afraid I would change in a negative & irrecoverable way. I’ve started to realize that I’ve been expecting less, & that’s made me give less, too. Even if N is healthy in a few years, I’m deeply fearful that I wouldn’t even be the person he would love at that point, that my ebullience & my expectation for engagement would be too diminished. I was returning home at the end of the day no longer expecting someone to be happy to see me, & in turn, I was less enthusiastic. I don’t want that for either of us.
Dr: So what happened?
J: We were both crying & incredibly sad. Breaking up was the worst-case scenario, basically. It sounds cliché, but I’ve fought harder then I ever have for anything to make this work & I didn’t want it to end this way. It seemed like there was no other healthy alternative. So, we were just really, really sad. I got the sense that there was a big part of him that felt he was trying to heal & get healthy for me—which is not why he should be making the effort—but in those wine-dark sea moments, at least, thinking of being with me was the positive outcome. It was incredibly hard for him to hear me take myself out of that equation. I wanted to be there to help him get through this, too. I love him. Probably more than he could ever let himself feel. [Audible sigh]. So we talked on & off for a week & then I started moving into my new apartment on Saturday.
Dr: How are you feeling now?
J: Even though in some way I took control by ending the relationship, this wasn’t what I wanted. It all seems strangely out of my hands. We have all the same friends, we go to the same events, we share the same intimate world. I could be capable of spending time with him in a group—not that it wouldn’t be sad—but just that I’d rather have some connection than nothing, than total absence. I can think about ways of negotiating his presence so that it’s better to have him in my life than not, because ultimately I’d like to think that after five years this doesn’t end in silence. That might actually make me angry. I’d like to figure out a way for us to be friends in the long term, but again, it just feels out of my hands. It’s what I want, but I might not get what I want because it all has to do with how N handles it. It’s frustrating. & when he’s healthy & with someone else, my heart will probably ache all over again.
Dr: Back to the same problem of waiting to react to someone else.
My insides of non-light. An absence referring to being. Language’s accident. Bellicosity sounds gentle, without knuckle.
I buy green sheets. I buy five succulents, place the jade plant in the birdcage. I buy a vacuum cleaner. I buy a coffee table. I buy two shelves. I cry with a sadness that is never about one thing. It’s that you’re a block away. For you return home at night & I wouldn’t know. For the names of our children, they pop like bubbles poked with a boxcutter. For the song about your love of sandwiches. Your song about my boots on the bed. For how you squeezed my neck at night. For how you squeezed the meat of my thumb while watching movies. How you curated our life with the record player.
So little o so little o so little o so. So little o so little o so little o so. So little o so little o so. So little, o! So, little o. So little. o. So o.
How many times did I listen to A Love Supreme?
My computer floats vocabulary words across the screen when it sleeps. The program’s imperfect & often the same word circles the block like a stutter. Today, whenever I look up from my book, “major-domo” skates by. Dishwater drains from the sink when the disposal gargles.
Not yours, texts from others I cannot delete: “punch the truth away,” “You have an awesome voice!” “I read your text message in the middle of a dream. Buy two pairs of everything,” “You are not a leper, but a leprechaun! A fancy lady one!” “You look like a tulip,” “Baby is fine! I’m so happy I can’t stop crying. A girl! Oh my my my my my.” “‘The written page is no mirror. To write is to confront an unknown face.’—Jabes” “An extremely drunk ship captain is trying to recruit me to apprentice on his boat.”
Therapy Session #13 Continued:
J: I understand that I have this new space all to myself, & I’m trying to live in the calm of that space: the space of the actual experience, not the meta-analysis of the experience. Yet, he’s still a part of my larger social world, which intersects with the calmer space I’m trying to create & maintain.
Dr: I wonder, if you feel angry about the idea that you might not be able to have a friendship with N because it’s his decision, how you could think about it in a different way.
J: Well, although I feel a little like a bystander in regards to that situation, I know that possible friendship is about the long term, & what I can do is not obsessively think about wanting something in the distant future I can’t control, & focus on what is immediately in my presence, that I can actually interact with & engage. I have a whole new life to build up now, I guess. Which is where my attention should be.
J: But it felt like I was making the wrong decision. Because I love N with an intensity I’m grateful to be able to experience. I have faith in his ability to learn to care for himself. But I do feel calmer now. All the anxiety that has been consuming my thoughts has vanished. In its place is this quiet vacuum, where I can experience new routines, emotions, thoughts as they happen, instead of interrupting them with anxiety. I’m in them fully, time feels slower, more wrapped around me, fluid. I’m no longer waiting to see how someone else will react first. I don’t know, but I think that’s a good sign?
Lilac thievery ends by mid-May. I’m afraid of empty vases & fiction. My phone only holds 107 text messages & I’ve saved 103. My new stairwell is a frostbitten mauve. Where chipped, orange glances give warmth.
Nelly writes to Paul, “for the way in and way out / can never be the same…”
Try to remember: hold the memories that sustained these years without feeling crushed by the loss of a certain future.
A nest of scarves. Two quarters I save for laundry. A broken alarm clock, plugged in. This blue pillowcase now looks grey against the new green.
You can’t keep someone else alive. But you can try. Everywhere it is face. Why is A Love Supreme the greatest piece of music of the 20th Century.