[T]he trained hand does not forget its skill.
–Edna St. Vincent Millay, 1950
Your past is on loop turn it off
see this possible future and be in it
She was a girl with 8 years behind her, bumping her bicycle across a field of stubble just outside St. Paul.
She’d come from her weekly hour with Sister Mary Louise. At the cloistered school that her father roused himself to pay for, the twin baby grands were face to face, their keys buffed that morning while birds swooped and spluttered in the trees. New sheet music written by that Frenchman whose name she couldn’t quite manage to say sat up straight on the music stands, as she and Sister Mary Louise played. She could guess at the notes, at the right hand’s group of threes rolling, up and down. Yet the bass failed to support those groups in a way that she knew how to hear: it kept on moving, delaying what she’d later call a cadence, as if the ground dipped and shifted.
She saw a cloud in the shape of a great heel, about to thump on her and The Girl with the Flaxen Hair and the street below them, as she wheeled back towards the city. Striking, it became fist-sized pellets of rain that made the sheet music curl, its ink leaking one letter into another. She stopped riding. She dropped down the kickstand. She stuck the music under her shirt, close against her skin. And she opened her mouth to cry larger than all of it.
Patricia Hampl tells this tale in multiple time-registers. Her recent memoir, The Art of the Wasted Day, gives readers the girl that she then was, looked on by Hampl at nearly 70, recounting this cry to her husband in their kitchen, at the yellow table that matches the light, sifting through the window. She’s honed the skill of a plural focus, of attending to one event or thing from more than a single perspective, in her writing, in her teaching, and she angles it at her long-married husband. He’ll die, a little further on, unexpectedly.
She puts that break into the book that she’ll write around it, in which Hampl details how there, in the rain’s fat slop, a car paused at her side, driven by the man who calls her a little girl and who asks why she cries. Itemizing the ruin of The Girl with the Flaxen Hair, she knows that he sees her as another “crazy child.” She remembers her mother’s urgency: never enter a strange man’s car, since at the snap of a door, you’re an outlier to prediction, to control. But, reading her hesitation, the man offers to drive the soaked prelude to her house, which he affirms is nearer than she’d thought. So, when the music arrives before the presence of her daughter, Hampl’s mother leans on the certainty that the girl with those 8 years in every bone and muscle must be dead, just as she’ll sit, later, in her failure to understand why what the Frenchman made needed to be protected, brought home.
Listening to the tale’s end, her husband insists that this compass of attention is like poetry. Hampl doesn’t know, then, now, if poetry’s blazon stood marked by its firstness or if her husband meant to say that “the cry antedates the story.” She knew, she knows, that any person should stand upright under the beat of rain and save the flaxen girl—save her counterpart— whose hair encircles everything that she can be, that the “lyrical self” and its fragility are strengths worth holding to. You extend that holding not to conceal her, not to order her, but to “keep in reserve the alert intimacy of that ardent heart.” All this equals what the sounding cry gave way to.
Will Oldham, known musically as Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, performs the “Prognosticator” in David Lowery’s 2017 film A Ghost Story. When viewers meet him, he sits at the kitchen table in a house we’ve seen before, however much it’s changed from the camera’s first vision of it. A long-ish, ranchy thing within suburban distance from Dallas, the house seems to waver over the ground, as if trying to disappear.
Given its copies on either side, slightly elevated from the soil to resist descending into dirt, the house dates to the 1950s, when everything boomed or anticipated booming. After a cluster of years from this moment, the city will encroach with its need for more high rent building space, demolishing any house whose inhabitants longed for a homestead, any object standing before that need’s achievement. But so much here concerns the downward glide into disappearing: the film’s lead couple, played by by Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck, their names withheld from us, even if the credits identify them as M and C, begin to split apart. She knows herself according to her capacity to move, to her yearning for the words that her partner can’t wrestle with himself to give. He sits at the controls of their living room’s makeshift studio, laboring at a song whose ache he can sing out but not explain, surrounded by the house he won’t animate himself to part with.
We get the attachment but not its cause, just as we get the sight of him, one early morning, dead inside his car before their driveway, the thing cracked open, a bracelet of mist coiled around the whole, the scene denying us proximity to how the cracking happened. She takes her mourning with her, and the house enters into a period of revolving tenants, leading us to this late night domestic rave, the volume pushed up, the bass blasting down, when Oldham clasps his beer bottle, his mouth widened by a prophecy that no one wants to hear.
He describes how our kind will rocket to the moon or Mars, conquering, taming its turf in the face of a climate disaster there can be no way of coming back from. He muses on Bach and Beethoven, hums the Ninth Symphony’s famous tune to a joy-spreading freedom that even the uninformed must know, while its maker’s name remains distant from them, the sequence of notes valued, he says, for the eternal sketched out by their shape, for how that sequence attaches to human memory and balks at time’s bulky incitements to forget. So, the power to be remembered manifests our skills at their apex and means that what stands for us will always negate our end. But with the heap of decimated CDs and musical scores and instruments behind us, who will recall the soar of Beethoven’s melody?
It will vanish into that eternity it was once made to take the place of.
C raises what must be an arm, the lights blink, fizzle, the music cuts off, and the lamp above the kitchen table sways in a wide arc, batted by a cause that won’t be reasoned out of the room.
I notice that my work here marches around questions: how can those of us who care, who might learn to care, safeguard a musically figured girl and the lyricism that rises from her sonic example; how can we nurture the heart of a loved one that will or won’t go on pulsing, regardless of our attentions to that sound; what can each of us make of the doubt that surely follows us? To think on these, I turn to my own cries, ones that trail me in the classroom, as I teach writing to students who hope to settle into their four years at New York University.
I live in a country with a deadening at its core, among the Twitter-drone of a President who professes that women are there for the grabbing, or they’re not, that the options to grab and its negative are supported by the paper currency of his power that underwrites his ability to dismiss, or to inadequately recognize, whole categories of persons.
But this emphasis on the fiat of individual force and its dismissals becomes a sound too easily echoed by those ready to replicate it. An Attorney General who argues that Title VII of 1964’s Civil Rights Act won’t prohibit discrimination based on gender-identity, that lovers of the same sex will, under law, be vulnerable to the intolerance of others, even as the highest court confirms our right to marry. A Secretary of Education who has yet to organize a single, vigilant policy before the vision of students shot down in schools meant to assist them in imagining the range of a life, in a country requiring more range than it knows how, at the moment, to accept. I think of Mary Beard’s 2017 Women and Power, where she counters the latter term’s liability to being treated as “something elite, coupled to public prestige, to the individual charisma of so-called ‘leadership,’ and often, though not always, to a degree of celebrity.” She opposes such an image of power by maintaining that you can’t “easily fit women into a structure that is already coded as male; you have to change the structure. That means thinking about power differently. It means decoupling it from public prestige. It means thinking collaboratively, about the power of followers not just of leaders.” Over everything, it means “thinking about power as an attribute or even as a verb . . . not as a possession.” I think of Alan Dent’s preamble to the poet Martin Hayes’ rageful song of a book, The Things Our Hands Once Stood For, where he acknowledges that “employment is a demeaning subject because employment is demeaning,” with overseers clicked into a system preparing them to comprehend each human worker as identical with the function delegated to him. I hear Hayes rail, “never give up fighting / until the day we die / because that was exactly what they wanted us to do,” because the railing was to be expected—and discounted.
All this is in the air of the rooms I share with my students. For some, it weighs heavily, for others, not at all. I’m not interested in foisting on students the obligation to transform a structure or to adhere to one perspective. I’m devoted to helping them to see that the structures are there and that they can turn to words to face them.
During my undergraduate musical education in Boston, our teachers maintained that we penciled in the eighth and sixteenth notes of our scores, we coaxed artful croons from instruments in a sealed space, haloed by its separation from the buzz and hazards of the streets outside, with their crazy, overpeopled geometries. I had a friend, Rachel, so attached to the box of her practice room and its shut door that she’d play for 15 hours daily, forgetting to eat, forgetting to support the body that allowed her to plunk out sound at all. I was a student locked in the chug-chug of a stutter, my mouth a locomotion of consonants never reaching the right place, though that faltering had an upturn: it pushed me into the world that our teachers schooled all of us to berate.
In the mid-1980s, I took my music on a tour through England, Scotland, and France, at the mercy of pianos in rented halls, on the thickening edge of a plague that would knife the lives of the men I loved. Reagan in the White House busied himself with not enunciating the name of that scourge, and men with fury in their faces stopped me on train platforms, yelling “AIDS victim” at my face, equating me with a wrecking that I was strangely, somehow, saved from. I look on versions of the past that our current President hoists up as something to fold back into, the struggle to “make America great again” chastened by years whose policies and practices were often more heart-dead than any greatness should lay claim to.
All these concerns walk with me into the classroom as my students and I greet each other. I remain quiet about them. They’re ghosts that blur in a clutch behind every word that we read, say, write. But those words aim out, beyond the page, beyond the desk, and through the window.
We do, too.
Thinking the Cry
Patricio Guzmán’s 2011 documentary, Nostalgia for the Light, glances back at time according to varying scales of measurement. In Chile’s Atacama Desert, alongside archeologists from the nation’s universities, sisters and mothers of those whom Augusto Pinochet’s regime “disappeared,” or threw away, because they rejected his taking of the state, are scraping at the ground with spades. They look for pieces of the ones they loved because the granules must give them back, though the military assures all who listen that the bodies were hurled into the sea and lost there. But what the women find over the course of filming, a severed foot, a face split open, belies that assurance.
Above the spading women, the telescopes of ALMA’s international complex direct their perfect circles at the celestial picture of events long over, given the distance between their signals and the astronomers who mark that gap. So many assurances are undone here, ones beloved by my students with their phones and Twitter feeds and selfies, trumpeting the moment that never seems to end: astrophysicist Gaspar Galaz, from his office within sight of ALMA’s telescopes, responds to Guzmán’s query about the present. He points at the camera we can’t see, says that its standing a few meters away from him means that this conversation is already in the past, that we don’t recognize anything in the instant that we look at it, how the trap is to think otherwise, since any signal takes time to travel and to be answered.
Yet the upside of this lag tells us that the power to reflect is made room for by our experience of each moment-to-moment. And that room should be taken. If the prodded cry occurs before the story that we form of it, what precedes the rising up of sound lies encrypted there. Those of us who bother to unspool its instructions can critique them, in what loose language permits me to call the present, as we flick through the past adjacent to it. The millionth of a second lapse can be an aid to hearing how pastness seems to want to speak to us.
Lowery’s “Prognosticator” and his bemoaning forecast really ask: if everything is always (already) over, why do anything at all? I’ve taught many of the old books that raise up eternity in contrast to flux, applying their associated values to the sexes that differentiate what we are. The men behind these words customarily wrote them at the cost of women whose bodies were their originators. Siri Hustvedt and 2016’s A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women remind us that “human beings are the only animals who kill for ideas, so it is wise to take them seriously, wise to ask what they are and how they came about,” seeing that all “ideas are in one way or another received ideas,” however adapted or maladapted over time.
In the 4th century before our Common Era, Aristotle’s Generation of Animals seized, hard, on the idea that “male and female are the first principles” of “soul and body,” and “they will exist in those things that possess them for the sake of generation.” But, “as the [masculine] or efficient moving cause, to which belong the definition and the form, is better and more divine in nature than the [feminine] material on which it works,” the “superior should be separated from the inferior,” at least in terms of value. Because “the first principle of the [generating] movement, whereby that which comes into being is male, is better and more divine, and the female is the matter,” the “soul” must be held high over “body” and its inability to say no to the flux of time’s devastations. Hustvedt underscores how, when “ancient philosophy” and “Aristotle in particular” were “revived in the West by Islamic thinkers,” then “retranslated from Arabic into Latin in the twelfth century,” these “old ideas breathed with new life,” reverberating “over the centuries” and refusing to die, as if miming the gendered soul that was their crux.
But “old ideas” don’t disappoint death on their own. Their continued life needs to be fought for by those who legislate the rigidity at their center, in approaches to governance that calibrate which bodies are worthy and unworthy, which should walk free and which deserve enslavement because of their fellowship with feminine “matter” that persists only to be worked on—or, at this moment, which children must be disunited from their migrating families and encaged, made into the wrong bodies at the wrong border, struggling for asylum in the wrong country.
Answering to how ideas need to be accounted for remains much of what the essay as a form teaches its writers, readers, students, instructors. That’s why any classroom can be a waking place.
Walk It out of the Room
I write now on a greening June day, on the third floor of a Brooklyn townhouse built in 1865, when the country’s vitriolic combat reached a legally negotiated pause and long-enchained bodies were given forty acres and a mule, which they found it tougher and tougher to retain as their own. We’ve moved, my partner Neil and I, because our landlord for the last 15 years opted to sell the three-tiered place that had been our home, most likely for its land value. One day, all of it will be bulldozed, emptied of history, ripe for the rebuilding. It arose in 1900 as a way station for day-laborers from Poland, from Latvia, the metal workers and trench-diggers who sweated over what citizens felt disinclined to bend to.
Below me lies the earth that the Boerum and Bergen families ordered should be ploughed by slaves whose language they could feel no interest in scuffling with to understand. On some lower level must be the soil where members of the Mohawk Nation stood, those resilient enough to still breathe among that onrush of the pale ones, who kept coming. I’ve been watching Anne Carson’s 2016 conversation with Michael Silverblatt, where she tussles with the conventional essay’s end, the expectation that writers ought to fasten themselves to summing up everything they’ve pieced together, before. Carson vows, instead, that we should “blast it open,” defusing the presumption that you can offer a “nugget” for readers “to have.”
I know that our lives aren’t equivalent to essays, though so many of us teach and write them. I know that layered pasts upthrow the passing present and shiver the air, if you squint a little. But what happens to all that’s come before, when it’s clawed, ripped out of the ground? I don’t want any looping past to obscure the “possible future” that Björk sings of, but we should evaluate what we “loop” before we turn from it. At this moment, as the President withdraws our country from the UN Human Rights Council, as he terminates a web of environmental regulations, I can’t know if the citizens who gave him their votes, or who didn’t vote at all, care. I do know that when self-interest becomes a flaming light, its burst into self-serving shudders everything that it touches.
I hear Daniel Hart’s score for A Ghost Story, remember how its initial two chords, sternly bowed, fractionize into bits belonging to the melody that C will write later for M. At the film’s close, the strings arrive at a slower, more plaintive incarnation of it, as if the past quaked in a future that reassembles this song, betters it. Away from CDs and screens, I hope that we can see to the getting there.
Not far from Washington Square Park, where renovations recently dug up a mass grave stuffed with the unmarked poor, the hanged, the few indigenous bodies that withstood, for a while, the inrush of the Dutch, the English, my students and I were ready for our next-to-last class. We watched Georgia O’Keeffe at 90 recall herself at college-age, on the cusp of graduation, when she could find nothing of her own in all that painting and started over. We listened to Joni Mitchell tell us how her pregnancy after delighting in sex for the first time brought her to the “bad woman’s trail,” that she made music from the unmarried shame awaiting her there. We saw Keith Jarrett lift a Rameau-like tune out of a dissonant, sonic haze, so that late eighteenth century beheadings were put to new use in a fragile present. My students were going to write of how these things spoke to them about our work, about the world that they hoped to more steadfastly join. Katarina volunteered to read her words aloud:
Georgia O’Keeffe says, and I paraphrase, “It’s as if my mind creates shapes that I
don’t know about, shapes that repeat and change themselves without my knowing about
If you take a bag made of leather and thread and take it apart—slowly, conserving all
the pieces in a pile, so that you can put it together again, can you say that it’s the same
bag as you had before? Can you say that it’s not?
I feel like I am this bag. I feel as if we, me and the world, are always taking each other
apart and putting each other back together. This is the work that has been done on and
with us in our class. This is what I take with me, and what I will continue to do. For as
long as I can, and then some.*
We walked Katarina’s cry out of the room, into that mid-May afternoon and its still sun-shot streets. One by one, each of us seemed to hear the stories that might come after, in a future prepared by enough of us to listen for them.
*printed here with permission from the author