“I’m not telling you to make the world better, because I don’t think that progress is necessarily part of the package. I’m just telling you to live in it. Not just to endure it, not just to suffer it, not just to pass through it, but to live in it. To look at it. To try to get the picture. To live recklessly. To take chances. To make your own work and take pride in it. To seize the moment. And if you ask me why you should bother to do that, I could tell you that the grave’s a fine and private place, but none I think do there embrace. Nor do they sing there, or write, or argue, or see the tidal bore on the Amazon, or touch their children. And that’s what there is to do and get it while you can and good luck at it.”.
–Joan Didion, University of California, Riverside commencement address, 1975
Vanessa Bell writes to her sister, Virginia Woolf, shortly after her suicide in the River Ouse, April 1941
Have you ever been to Merivale?
She writes. While
Angelica, (six), fist full of flowers, arranges them in a pattern similar to that of the painted tile of the hearth.
Violet stalks with purple faces for the V and daisies for the W while she sits, cross-legged, in the milk-dish of sunlight coming in through the half-open door.
Have you ever been to Merivale?
She begins again. Blots the end of the pen, nib down for too long on the fold of cloth.
Watches the ink bleed out blue, blue, blue… Perhaps-
Perhaps we shall go, you, me—
A song thrush in the wisteria just outside of the window calls from her nest, Leonard whistles back from where he stands between the tulips.
Angelica hums a tune half-forgotten and half-remembered,
and the children, of course, they do so love to see you.
She smiles, watches her daughter weave her own initials with petals from the Forsythia.
And, upon our last visit, Angelica fell rather in love with a cow which she gave your name to—
Out in the garden again, just by the door, Angelica picks weeds, plucked with the hollow sound of the milk thistle or dandelion stalk.
A brown cow, all doe-eyes, soft-muzzle. Standing on legs with knees like pollarded trees.
She smiles. Gains momentum. Shifts in her chair that creaks and scrapes against the flag-stone floor.
Netty’s here, folding your stockings, rolling them into yellow balls like eggs – like eggs, in a basket.
As soon as she is gone, I’ll unravel them, fitting perhaps, for I seem myself unraveled.
She hears Netty on the stairs. Knows the satisfaction she will gain from this rolled nest of previously unraveled and unkempt stockings.
Did I tell you I see Vita now?
She comes to dinner in your place, sits in your chair with its back to the fire, with some hesitation, of course.
She looks at me. And I in her see you, and you in me she sees, though neither of us has spoken of this of course.
Instead, darling Tom slaps cards down upon the table, Queen of Hearts upturned, only fleetingly, between her and I,
And then, of course, Duncan slaps his card down too — the King, perhaps, of Spades, as suits him, and the moment passes, without whistle or trace—
The song thrush sings again, greets her mate with a beak of soft sheep’s wool scraps.
—only the echo for which I have spent these last few weeks digging for beneath the roots of speculation, only to find dust and grit, the shriveled bulb of a daffodil dug up too often and the skull of a blackbird buried by Angelica, I am sure, though at your behest.
Now, the ticking of the clock, the whirr, the readying, readying, then the chime. Too loud. Always, too loud.
She closes her eyes, waits, waits, for stillness, and then—
Have you ever been to Merivale?
She has digressed for too long.
I ask not because of the (now) literary bovine, but because, in passing a cottage I noticed a young woman, a girl, perhaps, sat, elbows on the windowsill, Mrs Dalloway between her hands—and it was such a shock to see you there, so suddenly, so starkly, in this house painted the colour of our Cornish sea, because you see (as only you do, you did) I look for traces of you, without knowing it at all, and I find I cannot speak, cannot say, as you would have done, so eloquently, but I cannot, neither with voice nor with pen the pain it is to glimpse you so suddenly, and so sharply within your absence.
The house is quiet, the bird has flown, Angelica has gone, the garden too tempting.
Such is death.
The stillness stretches.
But one of these days we may contrive to speak again. Who knows?
Again, the stillness.
My darling Virginia, I miss you.
And this letter is nothing, without you to receive it.
The hesitancy of pen held above paper.
–> Elinora Lord
Loss for Words
So long ago you taught me the power
of words well chosen; not the
incantations of wizards or priests
that summon gods or unlock ancient
secrets but those that resonate
in the soul, tear away the shrouds
of artifice that separate us one
from another and let us connect
with people across the world or just
across the room, dim and so much
quieter now. Those words have become
traitors to you, refusing to come out,
stuck in the impenetrable briar patch
that slowly encroaches and covers
over the past; but then she flips a
switch, gears whir, keys shudder and paper
rolls unspool into glorious music
that pushes back the tangled tendrils
for a time. Students come and go
veiled in darkness but talking of
Eliot and Yevtushenko and today
you recall their names, but do not
despair if one day you forget me
for I shall never forget you.
–> John Kaprielian
“Some said he could be condescending.”
That’s what it says up there in granite right after his name
and the dates that put a wrap on the whole story
in Chancery font deep cut sanded panel all the better
to drive the message home give it some impact.
Who thought to engrave those words for us?
Did he come up with them himself did he truly believe
that they were an adequate summation of a life
nothing more nothing less there you have it Q.E.D.?
Where is the proclamation to a life of good works
to getting the job done honesty as the best policy
that truth is everything knowledge is all carpe diem!
or any other succinctly self-defining aphorism.
Instead we get these six words a tenaciously disagreeable
cancer of a brain worm disproportionate to its paradoxical gravity
slowly devolving into a fastigium of keen self-awareness
posthumously converting the observation to an adjudication
abbreviated of any merit.
–> Michael Thomas Ellis
“You have more to fear from the living than from the dead.”
—Gove Family saying
How fortunate these ghosts are old:
guarded by granite posts
and rusty cast-iron chains
lush with poison ivy,
the cemeteries keep all the ancestors
safely down. A stranger maintains
the Stumpfield plot, rakes leaves each fall,
but the ground edges over
the broken stones that each year
wearing out become less legible.
In the bird-filled woods we struggle
to see dementia, death by drink,
babies felled by dysentery,
memorialized by initials in tiny stones.
These losses reincarnate
in our thinning generations.
Here the stones occlude
such hard facts.
But the virtues remain.
In memory of Enoch Gove,
born Oct. 10, 1764, died Dec. 3, 1828,
aged 64 years.
In labour industrious,
in business, upright,
and a friend to the
widow and fatherless.
In society retiring,
but a patriot true
to his country.
In friendship, largely known
and deeply loved.
And in faith, he died with hope in Jesus Christ.
The only tales stones tell, they tell in soundless song:
He is gone, forever gone,
And left each dear familiar spot;
Love may invoke, with tenderest tone
His name, but he cometh not.
–> Karen Kilcup
The two heroes of my Americana years sit with arms and legs crossed at a worktable in the rock star’s recording studio. They reminisce about being men. About the dogs they raised from pups. And the last T-bird that detoured onto a dirt road that rolls past tattered Confederate flags and convenience stores that cater to those who trust jackpot lottery odds. The 44th president wears slim blue jeans; the Boss, a pair of white chinos. Both have chosen black shirts. The table between them is littered with sheets of typewriter paper. An Apple laptop peeks out from an arranged mess. I have devoted my man-child life to decanting wisdom from unfathered men, and I imagine Obama and Springsteen sharing the secrets I could have drawn upon when I stalled at the threshold of my one-hit wonder life. My idols relax in director chairs against a backdrop of speakers and guitars while the promised land opens up between them. A carafe of amber liquid glistens at the far end of the table. A boom mic hovers a breath away from the man the Secret Service code-named “Renegade.” If the mic pivoted toward me, I’d tell them the only thing I do well is flail against the grain. What, after all, is the silver-dollar word for the absence of a father in the life of his son?
–> Michael Brockley
The incomparable delights of a joint
venture were held up as analogous
to the pleasures of carnal congress
with a suitable partner as opposed to
solo gratification. However, I failed
to extend the metaphor to include
its discomforts, not limited to poor
timing, quite distressing cacophony,
excessive flatulence, taking a lion’s
share of the bed, and also the entire
duvet. To say nothing of the brazen
demands for reassurance, snuggles,
and lavish compensatory damages.
Originally we had thought alternating
stanzas might generate profitable
results, but we failed to agree upon
a form, a meter, or what constituted
a rhyme—let’s face it: while “prime
interest rate” and “eviscerate” may
create a euphonious effect, as do
“felony” and “fell on me,” friction
ensues when one’s co-conspirator
insists on constructing a villanelle
after the poem has clearly begun
in the mode of a Petrarchan sonnet.
I was willing to offer a compromise
by including the word “villainous.”
We tried our four hands on a Ouija
board, but that quickly degenerated
into a shoving contest. At this point
the second author chose—unwisely,
I thought—to deviate from our agreed-
upon theme (abstinence, or possibly
absinthe) by inserting incomplete dicta
referring to her maternal great-aunt’s
idiosyncratic coleslaw recipe. Finally
we decided that a performance piece
would be best, and agreed to launch it
at a local slam, complete with coleslaw
samples for the audience. No matter
what she testifies under oath, I did not
furnish the herbal garnish—my garden,
like poesy itself, is purely decorative.
–> F. J. Bergmann