Filed under: Hyperbole, Nostalgia | Tags: Anais Nin, Blizzard, Henry and June, Incest
The house where we all lived on Rodman Street opened into a short hall that lead to a long flight of stairs, and I don’t think this typical quirk of Old Philly townhouse architecture found its true purpose before the blizzard that April. We had over three feet of snow when just the day before we’d all been running around in sweatshirts. I woke up late and found Jonah, Hershel, and Natashia at the top of the stairs with their BMX bikes. They were riding them down the stairs, out the front door, and into the enormous wall of snow that had been plowed directly in front of our house.
Part of me wanted to join in but I didn’t, satisfied with the way this event filled the house with shouts and laughter. I made myself a cup of instant coffee and curled up in my quilt at the kitchen table, reading Anais Nin. I had moved past all the Henry and June stuff and was now getting into Incest. There were certain things for which I could forgive old Anais and certain things I could not. I thought of her as a kind of moral abomination and hoped I never got like that myself, but found it very exciting that she had written the warning signs out for me with such detail and density. I was irritated by her insistence on portraying herself as this fragile, empathic ingenue who even while laying waste to the lives around her was perpetually laid up with the vapors in a home someone else was paying for and trying to work up the energy to write, but then again, that seemed real to me; the way it would actually go. The thing that really scared me, though, was the way she just let everything and anything happen to her and wrote about it with almost zero implied responsibility. Kind of like, “ooopsie… did I really just have sex with my estranged father?”
The Rodman Street house was maybe a step away from being a squat. None of us cleaned, although sometimes one of the people crashing there would try. There were random holes in the wall. The outside blew inside regardless of the season through the walls, the fireplaces, the cracks in the foundation. It had the most sinister basement imaginable. Everything could be used as an ashtray. My own theoretical morally abominable affairs would necessarily be prefaced by a statement like, “just move that stuff over.” The door was wide open and there might have been almost as much snow in the hall as there was outside that day.
Later, we went down the street to Dirty Frank’s for pitchers. My ex boyfriend showed up there, as he inevitably showed up everywhere in those days. I’d thought I’d been safe, in the aftermath of a blizzard, with him living at least fifteen blocks away. “How did you get here?” I asked, not very nicely, ignoring the girl he’d come with. He made a gesture that suggested he swam to the bar through the banks of snow. He looked as though he thought he was going to sit down and join us. “But why?” I persisted. That worked. He left. If I were Anais Nin, I would have gotten yet another journal entry describing in exquisite detail my torture at having to sit through yet another evening of the same thing happening the way it always happened. But it occurred to me then that Anais never had much in the way of territory to defend, which must have been the entire problem.
I had this dream last night that I was in one of my favorite used bookstores and the proprietor said to me that a woman browsing the shelves was Karen Volkman and that I should ask her to read something for us. My heart bucked in my chest the way it always does right before I do something that I know is the wrong thing to do. Karen Volkman, in my dream, was not into “read[ing] something for us,” as I knew she would not be, but she was friendly enough that I was encouraged to tell her about my paperback copy of her book of prose poems, Spar, a book swollen to about three times its normal size by years of being carried around in various purses, thumbed through, propped open by something heavier, and cried all over. It meant less to her than it did to me to tell her that even in my dream, but when I woke up, something small had been resolved.
I can never decide where the fine line is between sincere fandom and something tinged a bit darker with the erotomaniacal and creepy. It was difficult, even in a dream, to come up with something disingenuously lighthearted to say to this woman who wrote a book that knows all about me. Even, “Nice book! You go, girl!” would sound all wrong when my purest impulse would be to start spouting quotes from it like a secret language, because she’s already written about all of it and therefore should know exactly what it means. So it would go something like, “Oh my God. Oh my God. It’s you. I know this line. It’s–it’s– ‘As I was saying, nice hat, nice head–a riot heart. A gamine dracula and so much to swindle–the parched, anemic stars, the moon’s liquidations.'” But there is not a line in this book that I have not cannibalized; having given up caring about her intent years ago and using her words instead to help me define my own. I think the crazy line is drawn at the point where I might convince myself that this would be personally flattering to her.
On the other hand, I think that Spar is actually about this exact type of human mess, the struggle to aggrandize oneself through personal relationships in a world that one so often has the nagging suspicion is entirely subjective. The book tries to stick pins in things, fails, takes it from a different angle and fails again, rearranges the entire organic structure of the way things are to make it accessible to pins, fails some more, looks for a bit of comfort in all the wrong places, and seems to decide that acceptance is not only the path of least resistance, but valid for its own exhilarating and complex reasons. She’s talking about the banged-up relationship that she couldn’t put to bed because its failure blew the causal realities of space and time and environment wide open into the state of “whole howl” anarchy that anyone who has ever been through this understands intimately. These poems do not tell the story that anyone over 25 can tell, though. Instead, they give briefings about the turmoil directly from the center of the turmoil. “The first greeting on a bright sift, yes. And the less falls, a loss does. You will not be absent in the day’s convocation, as a trickle wakes to find itself in the rift’s mind,” Volkman writes, not only drawing a parallel between the weather and a personal event that has become the only reliable structure despite being inherently unreliable, but speaking as though the two are organically interchangeable. One of our more touching aspects as human beings is the way that in times of crisis we perpetually seek to understand above everything else, and Volkman’s poems seem to dignify this stubborn optimism while highlighting the dread that it might all be for nothing. And always, in these poems, while we’re being stubbornly optimistic, is the brave certainty that human emotions deserve the same sort of maps and barometers as the rest of our barely-understood environmental phenomena.
It almost goes without saying that when I found Volkman, I was in the middle of my own crisis of matter. I found incredible solace in these poems and their insistence that understanding the inexplicable is an important job for the very reason that it will never be finished. Often, reading these poems, understanding what Volkman is even talking about becomes its own exercise in understanding something not meant to be understood. The title of this blog, for example, comes from one of the poems in Spar that I felt to be most difficult, which is to say that I still don’t understand it. From one of the few titled poems in this collection, Kiss Me Deadly, came this:
“Though intentions erode like the moon,
they are still as ghostly, as noble.
Someday to sing it with champagne and sherry,
in a gauze gown, tonic,
stippled with perfume.
An opera of Edens. A synaptic how-come.
In this boomtown boudoir, baby,
you always wrong.”
My interpretation of this is that a) she’s speaking directly to the man that all of this has to do with, and b) she’s speaking as a writer, telling him that whatever happened between them is her material now and she’s going to make it as grandiose and ridiculous as she wants. It also seems a bit mocking in a sarcastic way, as though she’s making fun of what he thinks she will write. But as I said earlier, I’ve cannibalized this entire book and that’s only what I would mean were I to write something like that. As for the blog, I didn’t think about it very hard when I named it. It was just her poem that contained the word “perfume” and some neat alliteration. But now that I am thinking about it, yes, my boomtown boudoir is also a bit of a “synaptic how-come,” rife with all the hysterical trappings of the kind of glamour that is always a bit of a spoof of itself. I like that. I’ll take it.
As for dream-Karen-Volkman, the thing I regretted most was that I no longer carry Spar around with me everywhere so I couldn’t show her how physically well-loved my copy of her book is. It really is funny to look at. The edges of the pages have mushed together so that it’s almost impossible to turn them and the cover is half torn off. It is full of greasy fingerprints and cigarette ashes. It is the physical proof of how someone else’s words can turn into something of a worry stone, the kind of superstitious tool to turn to when all of the actually concrete tools have failed, useful almost despite itself. I think my appreciation probably surpasses what anyone could comfortably listen to in a face-to-face encounter. I could barely bring myself to speak even in the dream.