WRITING SHORT: 39/50

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[Come summer heat, much of my blogging momentum melts away. Hence an experiment until Labor Day: fifty minimalist posts about whatever.]

In grade school, we memorized poems. Memorization was hard for me (it still is), but I did my best to remember the assigned passages at least long enough to recite them out loud, palms sweating, if called on. I think this practice was supposed to saturate us with uplifting and ennobling literature that would provide comfort in the tough times ahead when we became adults.

I’ve been an adult for many years now, some of them quite tough. All I could ever recall of those elementary school efforts were two lines: “By the shores of Gitchee-Goomee” (Longfellow) and “Into the valley of death rode the four hundred…” (Tennyson). Neither was particularly sustaining when encountering life’s challenges.

What did stick with me was the idea that memorizing was an approved endeavor for classy young ladies. When at the age of twelve and a half I fell in love with Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), I therefore had to memorize some of his verse – if only to show his spirit (surely hovering over my bedroom in Queens, New York) that I cared. For some reason I chose “Ozymandias.” Because it was only fourteen lines? I have no idea. But I memorized with such diligence I remembered it long after I’d traded in Shelley for Leonard Bernstein as my love object.

Did “Ozymandias” help in getting through life? Not really. Not until recently, when I took another look with adult eyes:

I met a traveller from an antique land

Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.

And on the pedestal these words appear —

‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Think of the many hot shits in the world you can’t stand. For all their self-importance, nothing of them will remain. They’ll be nada. Buried in bare, boundless sand.

Feel better?

SHIPS THAT PASS IN THE NIGHT

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Of the many people I’ve met over the years but didn’t really get to know, I remember very few.  I recall, for instance, that when I was a teaching assistant in the English Department at the University of Southern California from 1953 until 1956, there were two other women and five men with teaching assistantships.  There may have been other men than the five, but I draw a blank.  In my memory, it’s as if they’ve never been.

The women were Katherine and Nancy.  I knew them best of the group, although not well, because we used to have coffee together in the Commons.  Despite my pursuit of higher learning, I retained a shallow interest in clothes [still with me] and in money [no comment] — and therefore favored Katherine, because her father was the Spyros Skouras of Mexico.  That is, he was Greek and controlled most of the movie theaters in that country. He was therefore was by any standards a Very Rich Man.  As a result, Katherine — who spoke Greek, Spanish and English fluently — had money to burn and a wardrobe from I. Magnin I envied.  She was also pleasant and shy and led a protected life in an expensive apartment with her older sister that I was unable to penetrate, despite many hints that it would be great to get together outside of school.

Nancy lived at home with her parents in Pasadena, and dressed modestly and inexpensively in skirts and sweaters she had probably worn in high school and college.  On non-teaching days, she even wore white socks.  (A sartorial no-no unless you were very young or very old.)  However, she was the one of us who nailed a Fulbright — by asserting a simulated scholarly interest in Middle English sermons.  She thereby got to spend a year at the University of London for free, although she paid the price of having to compare five differing versions of one twelfth-century sermon surviving in five separate church libraries scattered around the country, and then writing up her conclusions.  Perhaps to comfort herself during this painful undertaking, she also became engaged to Rudy, another teaching assistant from USC who had obtained another prestigious award to do something similarly medieval at Oxford or Cambridge.

I later heard Katherine broke her back while skiing, was in hospital for a long time and was unable to walk afterwards, and Nancy broke her engagement to Rudy after returning to the States but found someone else to marry; in addition, she became — willy nilly, I suppose — a specialist in medieval studies once she had obtained her doctorate.  But that’s all I know of these two women.  For me, they remain immobilized in time — forever graduate students on a sunny campus in the spring of their lives.

The five men I can manage to remember I knew even less well than the women.  I was attached at the time to a divorced instructor in another department, about whom I have written elsewhere, and who I was later to marry — which served as something of a curb on inclinations to explore other possibilities.  In any event, two of the five I dismissed out of hand as alternative potential husband material. Ben was far too short. At that period of my life, feeling small and protected was a major prerequisite to my feeling quivery — which,  since I myself was five foot seven, required at least five feet and ten inches of man to produce the desired result.  Russ — tall enough, not bad looking, and extremely particular about what he wore — evinced no interest whatsoever in me at any time I was there. Since he always behaved as if I didn’t exist, I behaved as if he didn’t exist. If he was homosexual, he wasn’t for me anyway.  And if he wasn’t, he didn’t deserve a smile if he wasn’t going to smile first!

The third man, Lee, was both married and badly pockmarked.  I might have forgiven the pocks because he had lovely dark Irish eyes, but married was an insuperable obstacle.  As was a tendency to drink too much.  He seemed always to be slightly tipsy during our few one-on-one encounters in the Commons.

The fourth man was Rudy, later to become engaged to Nancy.  He was also too short, but charming.  He even had me to tea once, in what he called his “digs.”  I felt a bit guilty, but went.  He talked an awful lot about Chaucer, though.  I mean I did like the Wyf of Bathe with her five housbondes.  But I didn’t like her so much that she should dominate the conversation when I was having tea with a real live man.  So Rudy’s shortages in the height department triumphed over the charm factor,  and the divorced instructor remained safely in my life.

Then there was Jack, who I thought probably too old for me. In 1953 I was twenty-two and he was thirty-seven.  The divorced instructor was thirty-one, which was bad enough.  But fifteen years older is six years more than nine years older.

However, age has its benefits. Unlike the other teaching assistants, Jack was already what I considered an experienced man.  He had served in the war. [World War II.]  He had been — perhaps still was — a newspaperman.  Moreover, he was tall enough. And not yet married.  And had a nice face and a few friendly words for me whenever we passed in the halls.  I was — how shall I put it? — tempted. But he was always rushing here and there.  However, he did once mention he wrote poetry.

An opening.  “Oh,” I said, looking up at him wide-eyed. “Is there somewhere I can read something you’ve written?”

A yellow manila envelope soon appeared in my campus mailbox.  Inside was a slim black-bound book:  I Sleep with Strangers, by Jack Fulbeck. (Savage and Savage, Publishers. Los Angeles. © 1951) Facing the frontispiece, I read: “This edition is limited to nine hundred and ninety-nine copies, of which this is Number”  Jack had written in the number in blue ink: “804.” And then he had signed it. For me.

Wyf of Bathe aside, I’d never been comfortable with poetry, and still am not. I don’t understand it. I’m too prosaic.  But now I had to try.  That evening, I opened I Sleep With Strangers.   What had he been thinking in giving it to me? The poems were all about war — and other women!

Here’s one:

Bloomfield, New Jersey

Because it was a season known as war
reluctantly we went afield to reap
the harvest of a cultivated hate;
the grain had ripened and it would not wait.
All that was proffered, the soul eschewed:
hatred is no palatable food.

Because the taloned hawk struck down the dove
we who shouldered heavy arms became
hungrier than ever to taste love.

And when I think of love, I hear your name.

Another:

Winnepeg, Canada

I thought I loved you for your body only,
That night your flesh was sweet as always before
but something was withheld, a something-more
ever nameless.

Love the body only?
I questioned whether such a love was true —

lying with your flesh but not with you,
lonely.

I didn’t know what I could say to him about his gift without sounding dumb when I next saw him.  I needn’t have worried.  That very night, I dreamed about him.  Although I couldn’t recall the details when I awoke, I knew — I could still feel in my body — that it had been a dream colored with sexual promise.

I sought him out in Commons to thank him for the book and tell him about the dream.  “But I can’t remember what we were doing,” I confessed, falsely shy and not mentioning sexual promise but perhaps suggesting something of the sort by the look on my face.

He looked pleased.  “Not correcting papers, I hope.”

The very next day a second smaller envelope was in my mailbox.  Inside were some lines typed on half a sheet of lined notebook paper:

Footnote to a Dream

Life sold us short. The pulsing feather bed
Was less real than insubstantial air
That bore the dream. Now beware
A realist’s revenge on all the host
That people Nothing. Calendar the night
When I shall come again, not wholly ghost,
And make my entry like a man, upright.

This I understood.

This excited me.

This was out of my depth.

Of course, I blushed with pleasure about the poem when we met again. And lamely mentioned the divorced instructor. Not an engagement.  Not an entirely firm commitment.  But there it was.  He nodded. He was understanding. He hoped he would hear from me if it was ever over.

Should I — always a fool for words — have flung caution to the winds? Might my life have taken a completely different direction, and for the better?   Or would only a few more poems, captioned Los Angeles, California,  have come of it?  I’ll never know.  I opted for safety. Which turned out to be not so safe at all.  I kept the book, though.  For sixty years. And also the poem he wrote for me.

I just looked him up.  These days we can do that. I see he earned his doctorate in Comparative Literature from USC in 1960 and then became a professor at the California State Polytechnic University, in Pomona.  He also married in 1960, adopted his wife’s two children from a previous marriage, and fathered a son of his own in 1965, when he was nearly fifty, two years before my older son was born.  He served two terms as president of the California State Poetry Society, his poems won numerous awards, and his poem “Challengers” was read from the orbiting Space Shuttle Challenger in 1985 and is on record at the National Archives Building.  He also published two more books of poetry after I Sleep With Strangers.  They were Gilgamesh and Sifted Ashes. He died on Christmas Day 2011, aged 95.

We never spoke in any meaningful way after the conversation that followed the poem he wrote for me.  And I never saw him again after I left USC in 1957.  So there’s really nothing more to say. Although I used to sometimes wonder what might have happened if….

But now I know it wasn’t that he was too old for me.  He could have brought me up to speed in no time.  I was just too young for him.

Who knows?

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Kate Swaffer is a brave and highly literate woman living with a diagnosis of dementia. She is a tireless advocate of meaningful dialogue about the critical issues impacting persons like herself. She also writes a terrific blog. She says of herself: “I am living every day as if it’s my last, just in case it is. I urge you all to do the same.” I especially liked the poem I’ve re-blogged here — in part for its lovely sound and shape, but more importantly, because it’s true for everyone one of us, and not just for Kate.

who knows

He knows what he knows

And she knows what she knows

But who knows what she knows

And who knows what he knows

Some days I don’t know

What I know

Let alone what he knows

And even less what she knows

It ‘s a strange conundrum

Wondering what he knows

Or she knows

When most days

I’ve got trouble

Remembering what I know

The point being

We know less about more

Nothing about everything

But in the end

Who knows?

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