1. “Is it lack of imagination that makes us come / to imagined places, not just stay at home? / Or could Pascal have been not entirely right / about just sitting quietly in one’s room?”
Oh. Hi, Ms. Bishop. I was wondering who would start. I’m a bit of a homebody, so I sit quietly in my room quite a bit, but that has nothing to do with avoiding misfortune. I’m just comfortable being alone with myself. My imagination has a lot of frequent flyer miles, though. You’d be surprised how many parallel universes can co-exist inside one’s head.
But as to your question of travel, you who were always in search of a place to call home and feel it, I have imagined places before I’ve seen them in the flesh, and my memory of the places I’ve visited in the world is often richer than the first time I wandered through.
2. “Are we born from island or oasis / or do we stand // fruit-less on the field-edge, / to spread // shade to the wheat-gatherers / in the noon-heat?”
Do you mean to ask what tree I am? What seeds have burst from the heart-husk? I’ve always been partial to the way willows weave above water, Ms. Doolittle, and the smell of wet sycamore after a summer thunderstorm.
3. “This day writhes with what?”
Well, you taught me more than anyone else, Mr. Stevens, that it’s not the answer but the question that matters when a verb like “writhes” comes at you. Most days twist like a soft ice cream cone, equal parts chocolate and vanilla, occasionally dipped in rainbow sprinkles.
4. “And why do I often meet your visage here, / Your eyes like agate lanterns—on and on / Below the toothpaste and the dandruff ads?”
I was going to ask you the same, Mr. Crane. Clearly we’re on the same commuter schedule since I see you almost every day on the N train. You were looking good the other day, I must say, in those dark denim jeans. Did you know that my mind always wants to cast you looking like James Dean?
5. “Have you ever been embarrassed / by a frugal kiss?”
Now it gets juicy. Embarrassed for giving one, or receiving? Because I don’t give frugal kisses.
6. “What kind of beast would turn its life into words? / What atonement is this all about?”
Is it wrong I feel closest to my “true self” (is that how to define that slippery thing called identity?) when I’m opening it through the constraints of form, turning experience and the life I’ve lived into an experience on the page? A beast that turns its life into words creates a new beast through those words, words that breathe and live. To atone for all the things that were not said there on that street corner, a torn umbrella and sheets of rain and water trickling down my back?
7. “Is the true self neither this nor that, neither here nor there, but something so varied and wandering that it is only when we give the rein to its wishes and let it take its way unimpeded that we are indeed ourselves?”
I see you get the follow-up since I mentioned “true self”. It’s funny, no? How we are all space and time travelers? Always two places at once: the here and now before you and the there and then in the brain. I dare say you hint at desire here, giving rein to the true self’s desires—the hunt for the perfect lead pencil, the hunt for the perfect bananas in the bin, the hunt for the perfect shade of slate wall paint. And what is “perfect”? The orange shell around the lead pencil because that is your favorite color? The bananas that are slightly green because you prefer the bitter over the sweet? The slate that has more gray than blue because that is the color closest to your eyes? Whatever spoils you return home with, remember: the true self is happiest during the hunt.
8. “When was the last time you looked at anything, solely, and concentratedly, and for its own sake?”
Oh gosh. I ask myself this question every day as a reminder to actually do it. I’ve found it increasingly harder to do over the past five years and I don’t know if it’s because I’m getting older and more distracted or if the rise of social media outlets and smart phones have left me more distracted. Whatever the reason: I’m distracted. I won’t blame the city as I’ve found—and find when I remind myself to look—plenty of moments to engage in sustained “paying attention” since I’ve moved here. I’d like to think my training to “close-read” a text—and let’s face it, everything from television to film to paintings to subway graffiti is a text—continues on a more ingrained level with the quick “twitter” assessment. But there is something to be said for going to MoMA on a lunch break, sitting silently in front of one painting until you are that painting, and then leaving.
9. “Is innocence just one of the disguises of beauty?”
Beauty is always undercover and goes by many aliases. You won’t find Beauty in Hollywood or SoHo. I’d say more, but you know how it is; we closely guard Imagination’s state secrets.
10. “What of the Phoenix, then?— / Its blaze our culture-watchers doze before, / Never quite making out the infra-vulture.”
Ah, you ask about my patron saint. It’s hard to talk about the Phoenix as it’s become such a cliché. What did Sontag say? “Every idea is reducible to a cliché, and the function of a cliché is to castrate an idea.” The true Phoenix is far more terrifying than these “rise from the ashes” people would understand. There’s a price to pay to self-immolate, to be reborn from that sacrifice. The Phoenix is immortality within cycle, its fire both that of creation and destruction. When the moon eclipses the sun you’ll see the Phoenix’s wings. When you listen to b-flat 57 octaves below middle C, you’ll hear the Phoenix sing.
- Elizabeth Bishop from “Questions of Travel”
- H.D., from Trilogy
- Wallace Stevens, from “The Ultimate Poem Is Abstract”
- Hart Crane, from “The Tunnel”
- Alice Fulton, from “By Her Own Hand”
- Adrienne Rich, from“Twenty One Loves Poems,” VII.
- Virginia Woolf, from “Street Haunting”
- Jeanette Winterson, from Art Objects
- Anne Carson, from The Beauty of the Husband, III.
- James Merrill, from The Changing Light at Sandover