I come across the poet Susan Howe’s new essay, “Vagrancy in the Park,” about the poetry of Wallace Stevens and Elizabeth Park, the public garden through which he walked each day en route to his job at the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company. For me, Howe’s work speaks not only to the historical hereafter of a region thats past is imprinted on my consciousness but of the conflicts and contradictions of origin intersecting as the “the” of history, personal and public, becomes both wilderness and shelter, homecoming and farewell. I’m scheduled for a Thanksgiving visit to Hartford, the city where I was born and in which the park is located, and I decide to save the essay for a moment when I can disappear into its autumn-lit New England greenery. I want to read Howe’s essay in the setting to which its addressed so as to locate, as she writes of Stevens’ late poem, “The Course of a Particular,” a language that “rescues and delivers what is secret, wild, double, and various in the near-at-hand.”
“The great structure has become a minor house”
For the last few years, my grandmother Helen’s health has been in decline. It started with my grandfather’s death in 2007, after which she found herself confronting a world of loss and vacancy for which she was totally unprepared. Pampered throughout her life by her husband and her father before him, she managed to turn a working-class existence on Jerome Avenue in the Bronx to a comfortable middle class life in the suburbs of Massachusetts. Maybe her loss, gradual then sudden, forced her to confront a vulnerability that secretly defined her, a negative double emerging from the dark reality of her husband’s death. These years were without a doubt her most difficult. A drive to the doctor or the arrival of a bank statement were occasions for dread and uncertainty. When my grandfather died, my grandmother became sullen, depressed, and insufferably needy. No one, not my mother or her sister, my aunt, she seemed to believe, could meet the standard of support delivered by her late husband. She might demand, for example, that my mother drive up from Connecticut on a snow-filled winter day to take her to the hairdresser or the grocery store. A refusal would be met with charges of failing to meet her daughterly obligations. Her kids were never there when she needed them, she repeatedly announced, and even when they were, their lack of enthusiasm was an act of violence against her proper care.
Over this period, Helen became increasingly frightened and illogical. She managed to convince herself that her daughters were after her money and persuaded her brother, Larry, and his wife, Ilona, of this, as well. They became distant and mistrustful, even writing a letter for Helen to present to her attorney stating that she wanted her assets confiscated from the custodianship of her children. Soon Larry and the daughters were no longer on speaking terms. My grandmother, they believed, had succeeded in poisoning the lines of communication with suspicion and ill will. In April of 2015, when I visited her upscale assisted living facility, she was frail and lifeless. I asked what she thought about as she sat in her room pretending to watch the Masters on TV: My father, she said. What about him? His kindness, she told me, which I imagined was measured against the perceived negligence of her daughters, a perception that became a self-fulfilling prophecy sinking her deeper and deeper into an abyss of isolation and despair. I thought of her house in Longmeadow, just over the border from Connecticut, which she’d recently sold. It was the antithesis of our cookie-cutter 1950s suburban development in which my grandmother, Roz, who lived a street away, hoarded frozen chicken and chopped spinach in a second refrigerator in the basement, saving for a future that would save us from repeating the past. In Helen’s house, there was artwork on the walls, a curated assortment of antique furniture, and even bookshelves, a far cry from the Hartford Fagins who’d come up from Depression-era scarcity with minimal furnishings and no concept whatsoever of aesthetic taste. I remembered the pink, silky sheets on my grandmother’s guest bed in which I’d spent the night as a child. Everything looked wrong to my drab, Spartan sensibilities. I insisted on calling Roz and Jake, who I missed with a kind of tender desperation. When I got them on the line, they sounded small and far away–as if we spoke to each other across two worlds. As if our voices constituted this distance.
“In the house the house is all
house and each of its authors
passing from room to room”
In her poem “118 Westerly Terrace,” Stevens’ Hartford address, Howe imagines poetic lineage as co-habitation carrying the past into the present–and vice versa. I can’t help but think of these lines in the context of family, each member of which lives in the same house made different by his or her perceptions of it. As in Howe’s description of public parks, “dreamscapes set off for communal sharing,” these perceptions create of this contested space a swarm of discrete and hidden dwellings, which, for better or worse, are interconnected and interdependent. In October of 2010, I went to Hartford after Jake, now 92 years old, had survived a bout of pneumonia; I decided to visit Stevens’ house just a mile or so from my parents’ home. When I got there, a woman was stretched out on a lawnchair in the yard. I must’ve stopped to listen to the Top 40 bass coming from the second-story window. The woman gave me an irritated but acquiescing look. Did she know why I’d come? I said nothing and stumbled on like the poetry drifter I was. By the time she’d been placed in assisted living, my grandmother had become something of an existential vagrant, her present “home” serving as the portal between this world and the next. She complained the staff was treating her poorly, stealing from her, even groping her as they placed her in bed. As she sat in her room contemplating her father’s kindness, this imaginative space became the locus of her being, and she sank deeper into herself. “We want other people to have a centre, a history,” writes Anne Carson. “an account that makes sense. We want to be able to say This is what he did and Here’s why.” But what happens when one’s own story, one’s own center is displaced by the words and thoughts of others? Does one experience this displacement as oneself–or the loss of that self portending one’s non-existence? Over the same period, Jake had become more and more beloved by the family, his unselfishness, generosity, and kindness increasingly venerated as he neared the century mark. At the same time, he’d become the victim of his ennui. His only wish, he often told me, was death. Not because he was depressed or limited physically or intellectually (in fact, he was astoundingly healthy) but due to the absence of his contemporaries, in particular his late wife, Roz. When I asked what came next, meaning post-death, he said: “No idea. Don’t care at all.” Soon after making this statement, he felt a lump in his side. Believing it was the aneurysm his doctor said had a slight chance of rupturing and killing him, he began to draw up his funeral plans. Then he waited. When nothing happened, he went to the doctor who diagnosed the lump as a hernia. “What did you do with the funeral plans?” I asked. “Threw’em away,” he said as if casually discarding the reality of his death.
“And the house is of the mind and they and time,
Together, all together”
No timeless autumn reverie for me. When I get to Hartford, it’s November chills and winter-thin skies. On Sunday morning, my grandfather, my parents, and I go to The Pond House at Elizabeth Park to celebrate my father’s birthday. He loves this little brunch spot and introduces me excitedly to the waitress. We get coffee and omelettes and stare through the windows at the strolling pedestrians and ducks on the water. Afterwards, as we walk toward the rose garden, my grandfather announces his displeasure. “You can’t tell me these eggs are better than the ones at Denny’s,” he tells me, and I can’t argue with him. Not because he’s right but because he is practically deaf. Jake has always been hard of hearing, but now he relies on his meager lip-reading skills to make sense of what’s said. He seems to seize on a couple of words, repeating them slowly as if contemplating their meaning with a poet’s seriousness. Then after an instant of intermingled concentration and perplexity, a look of comprehension breaks across his face as the words are placed into definite relation. I’ve come to understand which plosives and hard consonants will register in his hearing and choose my words accordingly. Our phonecalls are comic dialogues full of shouts, repetition, and misunderstandings, hilarious and excruciating at the same time. He often seems to give an instant English-to-English homophonic translation of my queries: “Did you got depressed when [insert professional athletic team] lost.” “The doctor what?” he asks. My grandfather is otherwise remarkably well: he walks daily, rides a stationary bike in the basement of his apartment complex, and drives to the library and food store when he pleases. He is almost entirely without the health scares that have come to define Helen’s existence. In the last few years, with increasingly frequency the daughters will receive a call from the assisted living facility describing the latest emergency. At this point, no one seems too concerned. In fact, a kind of excitement takes hold as my mother and aunt reach the scene. The instant consensus: This is it. And they begin to discuss final arrangements. “Everyone wants her to die,” I once said to my father, who admitted that this could be the cause of their excitement. The anger and resentment my grandmother generated in her children gradually transformed their filial piety into an impatient wait for the end. I was no different. I listened stoically to reports on Helen’s gall bladder problem, for example, the likelihood that it was cancer, the possible treatments she might have to undergo, etc. Ever since my grandmother had fashioned the narrative in which my mom and aunt were attempting to siphon off her assets, something I knew would never even occur to them, I cut off communication. I used to visit Helen whenever I was in town. I found her to be smart, curious, and open-minded despite her often pronounced fatalism, which I took to be the manifestation of feelings of helplessness combined with a fearful reluctance to address the issues at hand–be they personal or more widely political, such as the state of the economy. I planned to see her during my Thanksgiving visit, but I hadn’t so much as called her for years, even when she attempted “suicide” by swallowing a combination of Tylenol and blood thinners. The earnestness of this attempt was universally doubted. The family understood it not as a cry for help but a demand on our attention, which she seemed to crave and loathe in equal measure. Helen’s bitterness, astounding when one considered the extent of her privilege, seemed to usurp her humanity, a side-effect, perhaps, of her life-long entitlement and hierarchical view of the family structure, which, of course, placed her on top. I sometimes wondered why we found this attitude so intolerable? Did it confirm our worst suspicions about life, about each another and the fragility of family? “Life’s nonsense pierces us with strange relation,” writes Stevens in “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction.” For Stevens, imagination and the real sometimes seem like romantic partners making widows of each another. Their boundaries often indistinguishable, they serve as both lineage and fate. In the wake of the difficulties with my grandmother, family itself began to feel like a fiction we repeated to ourselves in order to understand its dissolution––at least where Helen was concerned. For her daughters, whose most fundamental relationship was in question, she’d become the villain working against them even as they tried to do right by her. She’d unintentionally succeeded in creating an environment in which my mother and aunt no longer carried out their duties as an expression of their love but as a function of cultural obligation, mechanically and with a sad weariness. “It’s not only that you’re not,” writes Howe, “It’s what wills and will not.” These lines articulate among other things an absence with the power to shape the speaker’s present. For me they also mean that we’re defined as much by what we’re not as according to who we are, our words and silence, action and inaction fellow travelers in the failed search for one another within ourselves.
“A home against one’s self, a darkness”
When I got the call about Helen’s passing, I felt nothing. I didn’t cry. I didn’t mourn. I didn’t fly home for the funeral. Knowing she might not make it to Thanksgiving, I decided to end my extended radio silence. It took me several attempts to get through to her at the facility. Finally, after a twenty minute wait, an aide put her on the phone. When I heard her attenuated Bronx Hello come over the line, so much did I associate her with her cruel and erratic behavior, I was almost surprised to hear a human voice. I hadn’t been avoiding a monster all this time, I suddenly realized, it was just my grandmother, a woman with her own traumas and fears and battles, both internal and eternal, living out her days in a kind of self-enforced solitary confinement. I tried to converse, but she was so medicated this proved impossible, and I decided to end the call. There was a long pause when I told her I loved her. I could hear her breathing on the line. Then, softly and with a kind of desperate conviction, she said she loved me, too. “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you,” she repeated, as if I’d rescued her into herself with my words. As if after a prolonged period of exile she was suddenly returned to the person I recognized as my grandmother. I thought of the last time I’d seen Roz on her hospital bed in September 2003. She’d had a stroke and was expected to make a full recovery. One look at her, however, told me different. I held her ice-cold hand to let her know I was there. I told her I loved her. “I love you, too, honey,” she said, and it was the last word, honey, in which she managed to manifest herself through a Dilaudid haze. She died the next day in Hartford where she was born. Just a mile from the house where she grew up. Not two miles from Elizabeth Park, which might as well have been halfway across the world, so infrequently did she visit the place. On my dad’s birthday in 2015, I photographed her widower, my grandfather, there in front of a winter-bare rose garden.
Here it looks like he might turn around and disappear forever through the series of wire-and-post thresholds behind him. It seems fitting that the photo foregrounds the immaterial, the billowing lack of sun on grass in the precise shape of the man. As if his shadow projected before him a future from which he was overwhelmingly absent. “[S]o many prior needle eyes under the wet, green grass,” writes Howe in “Vagrancy in the Park. “Came–and were gone.” I read her essay not in the rose garden like I’d planned (too cold) but at a Starbucks in Bloomfield. At one point in the work, Howe goes to Elizabeth park and is mentally transported to Ireland circa 1947, the year she first visited her ancestral motherland. “Hartford was Dublin,” she writes. “Home in the world–away in the world–landscape and language threaded.” I experience the park not as a scene from childhood but the inaccessibility (and unintelligibility) of the past. This allows me a depth of present as it seems recede further into itself with every approach, the widening gap between the people and places I’ve known and an infinite, expanding now. Indeed, when I think of my grandfather’s death, it is beyond my ability to comprehend and a dangerous reality; it is both house and haunting: “this / conviction of your spirit” writes Howe in “118 Westerly Terrace” “came home to me as you.” Spirit from the Latin spiritus: respiration, breath, and of the wind. Howe takes as her epigraph to this poem a line from Stevens’ “The Hand as a Being”: “The wind had seized the tree, and ha, and ha.” Here laughter can be heard in the empty movement of air through branch and leaf. In this way, Stevens’ employs nature’s eternal indifference as punchline to the rift between reality and the imagination. This indifference, however, is also the projection of a mortal fear. “One down, one to go,” my grandfather answers his phone after Helen’s death, meaning now that she is gone he’s my last surviving grandparent; he chuckles darkly to himself. In the above picture, Jake isn’t walking away or waving goodbye or dissolving into thin air. But for me the image trembles with his farewell, alive in the pressures and vacancies of a love hereafter and heretofore.