I owe my reading life to wildly disparate loves: an anthology called 101 American Poems, a copy of George Bernard Shaw’s Man And Superman, Wuthering Heights, and Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome. I read Wharton in the 6th grade. The librarian, Yolanda Zeke, the daughter of Cuban refugees–the fucking worst Republicans I know (Next to Irish Catholic republicans)–insisted Ethan Frome was too “advanced” for me. She stared me down the long corridor of her elitist Cubano nose, and I lowered my head the way an abject peasant should and said, ‘Alright Ms. Zeke.” (She was all of 21) Then I waited until the next day and stole it.
I can still remember both the bliss and terror I felt as I walked out onto Rahway ave, on a blustery day in the early 70’s, when “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” was a huge hit and I had a ranch style coat with fake sheep collar on, under which Ethan Frome lurched with every beat of my frantically pounding heart. I didn’t really “steal” Ethan Frome. You might say I borrowed it sans library card.
Two weeks later, after devouring it 4 times, I slipped it into the “redemption slot” at eight PM, well after dark. I loved the fact that this little metal shoot, tucked into a side wall of the library, was called the “redemption slot.” Soon I sought redemption on a daily basis. Thirty seven years after the fact, I can still remember Mattie fussing over the plate of pickles just before Ethan arrives. For some reason, I see snow in her dark hair, snow that melts almost instantly, though this never happened in the novel. I knew who Matty was. She was a dead ringer for the actress Bonnie Bedelia, who played both the lover of Jan Michael Vincent in Sand Castles (A great tv movie of around 1971/72), and Joe Cartwright’s doomed wife in the last season of Bonanza. Maybe it is a little scary that I do not have to look such things up. They are imbedded in my memory along with such lines as “A boy’s will is the wind’s will, and the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts,” or “All over the world, simple pleasures of the flesh are being ruined by people screaming to be understood.”
What is trivia? Are the blue, pinching sparks above electric trains, at that time of day when it is almost dark, but not utterly dark, trivia? And is the smell of dead leaves, or the sound of of your father, who you suddenly realize is no longer strong, the sound of his steps on the porch, trivia? And when it is not heard, and when all the “important” ideas have filled out your life, is that really significance? I love Christ, but I have always hated the followers of Christ because they scavenge through the details of his Gospel only for the generalities. I remember, that the first thing Mary wants to do when he reveals himself as Jesus and not as the gardener is to touch him. I cannot be an academic, except an academic of the concrete, the felt. I would like to teach a year long course in detail recovery. Oh stupid little girl who looks at me as though I have 3 heads, and thinks I am not the best writer to say of “I studied with”…what did you do on that perfect day when your mother could have made a fuss over the blue jay feather you held in your hand, but didn’t? Do we die by general truths? Take my Class!
I realize now this memoir is a class in details. Surface becomes interior. If I could convey, with all my heart, the exact co-ordinates of that cold day, and how I slipped
Edith Wharton under my coat, time would cease to exist; for the continuation of time constitutes a failure in style. In this respect, Derrida was right. The smallest gaps are infinite.
I am tired of my life, which is why I stroke it, and murmur into its fur, and hope it scratches me that I might bleed and revive.
I am walking out of the library. The sky is dark, but not completely dark–a Stonehenge blue. I have enough money on me for one slice of pizza and the angelus rings. I pass the cemetery in Elizabeth where all the revolutionary war heroes have a mixer with the homeless. I am vast. A book is under my coat. The stars are out. Last week, by accident, I saw a poem by Wallace Stevens, and, though he never mentioned blue sparks, I knew he had mastered them, and the poem was “The Rabbit as King of The Ghosts.” Yolanda, who is beautiful, and serious beyond her years, and a future doctor, would. no doubt, tell me Wallace Stevens is beyond my capacity–but God knows I am about to lose my mother, and my father, and the house I have lived in since I was three, and so I am, beyond all reasonable expectations, ready–not advanced, but beyond, a wholly different thing. Yolanda sees a gringo. She’s right, but I am also beyond. I do not wish to escape being white (That’s something fashionable people do). I wish to escape being a survivor. I don’t know it, but everyone in my family, within the next few years, will be destroyed. I must know this poem. The saddest thing is that, even at this age, there is nothing, absolutely nothing, too advanced.