Life consists of propositions about life.
A certain esteemed professor requires that those enrolled in his poetry workshop meet with him in his downtown studio apartment, right off Washington Square.
Once inside, the student hands over a few poems and watches the professor–clipboard in one hand, red pen in the other–scrutinize every word of every line of every stanza of each poem.
At the end of the hour, the student will rise from the couch, the professor will rise from his chair, a small ancient French bulldog that has since settled, drooled and snored on either available lap (usually the student’s) will remove himself begrudgingly and resituate his arthritic corporeal freight on the floor, and fall back asleep. The student receives his or her scarred poems, exits the apartment, takes the elevator downstairs, crosses the courtyard, goes through a stone tunnel, and passes through the tall iron gate onto Waverly Place.
That is, believe me, the easy part.
Upon arrival for the appointment, the student would stand outside the gate. He or she would locate the correct code and buzz the professor. A corresponding buzz would sound. But nothing happened. The gate, unwavering, would not open.
The student would have, then, three options:
1) Buzz again, knowing that each additional buzz directly corresponded to the professors heightened annoyance level.
2) Wait for a resident of the building to pass through the gate, then sneak in behind them.
Let me take a moment to reproduce here the beginning of Kafka’s “Before the Law”:
Before the Law stands a doorkeeper. To this doorkeeper there comes a man from the country and prays for admittance to the Law. But the doorkeeper says that he cannot grant admittance at the moment. The man thinks it over and then asks if he will be allowed in later. ‘It is possible,’ says the doorkeeper, ‘but not at the moment.’ Since the gate stands open, as usual, and the doorkeeper steps to one side, the man stoops to peer through the gateway into the interior.
(Let me interrupt for a moment. This man trying to gain admittance to the Law has it easy compared to the MFA student trying to gain admittance to Poetry. The gate to the Law is just standing there wide open!)
Observing that, the doorkeeper laughs and says: ‘If you are so drawn to it, just try to go in despite my veto. But take note: I am powerful. And I am only the least of the doorkeepers. From hall to hall there is one doorkeeper after another, each more powerful than the last. The third doorkeeper is already so terrible that even I cannot bear to look at him.’
(Ok, sure. This guy’s situation looks a little bleaker. But I’d hedge my bets that no doorkeeper is so terrible that a little monetary persuasion wouldn’t go a long way.)
These are difficulties the man from the country has not expected; the Law, he thinks, should surely be accessible at all times and to everyone….
(These were difficulties the MFA student from Virginia had not expected; Poetry Class, I thought, should surely be accessible at the appointed time and to me.)
I started bringing an accomplice whose function was to ensure that I enter the gate, not remain stuck outside it, crumbling to a ruin of a human being into a pool of my own tears and sweat.
This is how we’d work it:
1) Dressed in inconspicuous clothing, arrive a half hour to an hour before the appointment.
2) Wait for a resident to pass through the gate, going in or going out.
3) Student thrusts a limb between open gate and its jamb.
4) Accomplice waits outside the gate; Student waits inside the gate.
5) At the appropriate time, Accomplice buzzes Professor, impersonating student, if need be.
6) Student waits for signal–the sound of the mechanism buzzing but not unlatching.
7) Student hurries upstairs; Accomplice hurries to nearest bar.
by Marie Howe
I had no idea that the gate I would step through
to finally enter this world
would be the space my brother’s body made. He was
a little taller than me: a young man
but grown, himself by then,
done at twenty-eight, having folded every sheet,
rinsed every glass he would ever rinse under the cold
and running water.
This is what you have been waiting for, he used to say to me.
And I’d say, What?
And he’d say, This—holding up my cheese and mustard sandwich.
And I’d say, What?
And he’d say, This, sort of looking around.
VI. Sentimental Ending
Time is marked, I’ve found, by eras in which a certain combination occurs–that class, that job, that boyfriend, that song, that idea, those people, that uptown train, that crosstown bus, that metaphor, that place for coffee in the mornings. This winter, I’ve been thinking about that winter, the first winter I was finally living and writing in New York, when I felt like I was just outside the life I was trying to make for myself. That was the winter when, once a week, I’d take the 1 train to the R to 8th Street, where I had an appointment to hear about all the things I was still doing wrong. That was the winter when I’d meet Accomplice at the gate and we’d just stand there together, waiting.