Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Here I Am

I found a new poet today: Cheryl Dumesnil. I was absentmindedly flipping through one of those book catalogues that usually sit, collecting dust, in faculty mailboxes. I read a poem called "If," and it began with an epigraph from Rumi: "Lovers don't finally meet somewhere. They're in each other all along."

Then all I have to do is
recognize her, lifting

groceries from a cart into
the trunk of her car or

pulling a muddied garden glove
from her hand as I bike

slowly by. That
simple: a cherry branch

shimmers on puddled
water, and fire torches up

within, after so much rain.

As it turns out, revelation is perhaps nothing more than recognition. A woman meets a man one day--a brief encounter. She experiences recognition. That simple. When she goes home to her lover she knows that she will never be able to touch him again. Without realizing it, she has said: hineni. She has intimated her understanding of the place she has been all along. Here I am. She slides right back into her life, as if she had never gone missing.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Pull Me Out Alive

Yesterday I had to write a brief essay on Michael Chabon for a larger project, and in doing a bit of research I found a 2008 essay of his in The New Yorker, which I remember reading when it came out. Chabon is an escape artist, an artist of escape, and perhaps even a philosopher of sorts, whose stories teach us that we can escape perhaps only when we realize that we cannot. He recounts the following story from a religious-school class called Jewish Ethics:

The one time I felt my soul to be in danger was the Sunday Mr. Spector raised the ethical problem of escapism, particularly as it was experienced in the form of comic books. That day, we started off with a fine story about a boy who loved Superman so much that he tied a red towel around his neck, climbed up to the roof of his house, and, with a cry of "UP, up, and away," leaped to his death. There was known to have been such a boy, Mr. Spector informed us--at least one verifiable boy, so enraptured and so betrayed by the false dream of Superman that it killed him.

But if escape and escapism are problems of the ethical realm, Chabon has no problem engaging with ethical dilemmas, brandishing his knack for storytelling and impulse toward mystery. And, anyway, it was not about escape, Chabon wanted to tell his teacher; it was about transformation.

I think there is a cultural need for this kind of fantasy, this longing to throw a make-shift red cape about our shoulders and be magically transformed. No doubt Linus Steinman, the mute 9-year-old boy in Chabon's The Final Solution who has escaped from Nazi Germany with his only companion, an African gray parrot, would have experienced this very same longing.

I remember back in 2004, browsing an old bookstore in Seattle with a friend. I noticed my friend, a child of survivors, gripping a book with a giant parrot on the cover, staring intently at it (I didn't realize it was Chabon's new book), as if he planned to use it as a weapon of some sort. "What are you doing to the parrot book?" I asked.

My friend, who had a flair for the dramatic, said, "Michael Chabon gets it. He gets it." When I finally read The Final Solution, I realized what he meant. Devoid of the standard, even stereotypical, images of corpses, crematoria, and barbed wire, it's the unlikeliest of Holocaust novels. In fact, it's not even mentioned, but for a few oblique but well-placed allusions to the disaster. We don't ask "why?" in relation to the Holocaust. Instead, we are fixated on who has stolen the boy's parrot and why. In Auschwitz, there is no why, and often, in talking about things that cannot be explained, we run the risk of trivializing or sensationalizing them. Chabon, it seems, gets it.

Our current position in history has placed us in the wake of so many terrors and tragedies of all kinds. And I think that, for this reason, we experience a collective longing to be saved, and to see others be saved, imagining ourselves in turn as savior or saved. Chabon's fiction taps into these needs. There are some events from which we cannot escape, but also from which we cannot help but long to be rescued. Chabon's characters come alive for us because they mirror our own secret desires for fantasy--or, perhaps it is reality that we long for, as an escape from the era in which we stand, an era that feels more like fantasy than reality.

And one more possibility: perhaps, in the so-called real world, in our world, novelists and storytellers are the ones who wear the metaphorical red capes. Perhaps storytellers alone possess the ability to transform us all. Chabon writes: "Now the time has come to propose, or confront, a fundamental truth: like the being who wears it, the superhero costume is, by definition, and impossible object. It cannot exist." But if it can't exist, it's only because our need for it to exist depends on public amnesia, a disavowal of a history in which there have been no cosmic superheroes--only the deafening sound of silence. Perhaps it is literature that has the power and potential to obliterate the desire for the costume. For without the costume, what is revealed instead is the "truth of the story we carry in our hearts, the story of our transformation, of our story's recommencement, of our rebirth into the world of adventure, of story itself."

Friday, February 19, 2010

Cracks in Everything

Some people never stop reading. It's true. A man puts a book down, closes his eyes, and reads. He opens them again, and reads the arch in his girlfriend's eyebrow, the way she abruptly flicks her wrist as she tosses away the cigarette he can't stand, the way she then closes her own eyes, pretending that she, too, reads. But whereas he has learned to read the darkness against his own closed lids, she sees only a bright flash of light, the backside of her eyelashes feathering across the shadow of a page.

Why do we read? Maurice Blanchot writes:

Apparently we only read because the writing is already there, laid out before our eyes. Apparently. But the first person who ever wrote, who cut into stone and wood under ancient skies, was far from responding to the demands of a view that required a reference point and gave it meaning, changed all relations between seeing and the visible.

"Apparently," says Blanchot. It is only apparent(ly). Magicians--oh, and those people on stain remover commercials--are famous for taunting us with "now you see it, now you don't." Those who deal in either magic or marketing knowingly capitalize on our weakness: our tendency to believe that what see exists, and that what we don't...doesn't. But what if we try to catch the il y a-- the "there is"--on its way from seen to unseen? How do we read what happens in between concealment and revelation?

Blanchot isn't finished:

What he left behind him was not something more, something added to other things; it was not even something less--a subtraction of matter, a hollow in the relation to the relief. Then what was it? A hole in the universe: nothing that was visible, nothing that was invisible. I suppose the first reader was engulfed by that non-absent absence, but without knowing anything about it, and there was no second reader because reading, from then on understood to be the vision of an immediately visible--that is, intelligible--presence, was affirmed for the very purpose of making this disappearance into the absence of the book impossible.

Reading is (only) a "vision of an immediately visible." When we read, really read, we disappear into the absence of the book. When we read others--the face of a loved one, the scowl of a stranger, the back of a former lover--we disappear into their cracks and everything becomes illuminated for us. I suppose this is why I look for fractures: I want to know what it feels like to be suspended, darkly, in between wholeness and fragmentation. What is dark within a person does not discredit him.

A friend sent me one of his poems today, and the idea contained in the poem is what led me down this path. The poem draws on some of Leonard Cohen's lyrics: "There is a crack, a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in." The crack is what divides the seen from the unseen, the visible from the invisible. But how to read it is the most difficult question of all.