Composing Self: The title of a class I teach this semester. The work of a life.
I can’t tell you about the struggle between silence and witness that rumbles between my ribs this September. Do I better serve the world with words or actions? The gaps in my journal suggest I’m favoring the work of hands not head, behaving more like a silent tree than a writer, a physical manifestation rather than a noetic one.
I sit alone with my mother-in-law in the hospital. Between the wracking coughs of a deeply settled pneumonia, she tells me about a childhood friend who taught her to make Greek pastry and dance. “I used to love to dance,” she tells me. We stare out the window at impossibly glaring blue. Will I dance enough?
An e-mail arrives inviting me to participate again in the Big Orange Book Festival. I find my journal entry written after last year’s event where I created and presented a mash-up of lines from dirtcakes, the literary and art journal I publish.
It’s 3:55 p.m. and I stand outside on the top of the cement steps leading to the library. I’m here to read to a crowd and there are two people waiting. One is my student trying to “get in my good graces,” the other is my niece being supportive. Muzak fills the piazza, a barefoot boy in a green shirt splashes in the fountain, a small red train on rubber wheels weaves in and out of the piazza with one mother and one girl sitting in the back car. The conductor toots the horn and the small boy playing in the fountain giggles and waves and I pause and I wave because there’s nothing else to do.
The breeze, slight in the 94 degree afternoon with no shade, is enough to blow across the microphone meaning I must speak above the wind, above the water falling from the fountain, above the train tooting, the children laughing.
I shout out into the nothingness and even if I wasn’t a writer the metaphor for this moment as a physical manifestation of the void into which a small journal of arts and letters launches is apparent.
No one pays attention, except perhaps the man in the orange shirt with the white name tag. I can’t read his name from his distance at the bottom of the stairs but he nods, smiles encouragingly which of course he must do because he is working this literary festival.
I ditch my opening, the bit about this being the last day of summer, the question about viewing the space shuttle Endeavor on its last journey through the sky, the query about anyone knowing that today, this day, is the UN International Day of Peace.
Ten minutes I’ve promised. Ten minutes I’ll give. The wind distorts my voice and I begin.
“This is the poem I fought.”
I’ve been fighting for this poem, this journal, this desire to rattle the status quo and inspire someone to join me, many someones to join me, in meeting humanity in letters and poems and stories and action.
My student never looks at me. He types on his computer. My niece looks around the piazza, up in the sky as a low plane buzzes overhead, at the train, now on its third loop (toot-toot) through the piazza.
I stand a little taller.
I raise my voice.
I don’t give a damn.
“Now that she can read nothing can undo her.”
“green stagnant mother becomes a library. just bear down and bear down again.”
What the hell does it take for one woman with a global vision to make an impact? What do the laws of physics say about matter never being created nor destroyed. Surely these words land somewhere. I believe in these words, this dirtcakes project. I power through sections 1, 2 and 3 and 4,
“What the Night Maid draws when she can’t dream at night.”
I am the night maid. I created that line from my own dream of reaching readers. It hovers in the gloaming, just out of reach, a refrigerator light in a dark kitchen.
“shut the goddamn icebox.”
Today feels like an empty plate, an empty vision, a wasting of the kind that creates bloated bellies and I wonder why this ever felt so important to me.
I skip section 10 and most of 11 except this line which is exactly what I would make up on the spot if it wasn’t already in black and white in my hand:
“Imagine…me, an ordinary woman full of air, rocking and blowing into twilight.”
Rocking and blowing air and dreams and questions and frustration building into a sort of dignity coupled with the indignity of speaking to no one, but two. I hope my words travel as (toot-toot) the train loops, the wind blows across the microphone, the little boy in the fountain stops splashing and waves at me his smile full of teeth white teeth. Will he remember any of this?
I read from section 12.
“I’m willing to hope now. Convince me.”
“turn around, say crazy trains, man, [say] crazy
I read and wonder how the poem knew it would end like this.
I decline the invitation to participate this year and wonder if I’m losing my ambition or composing a new self. I wonder how you ever know if you danced enough. Will we spend enough time marveling at the impossibly beautiful ordinary days?
With face turned toward the blue,