My friend Jeremy says that when we die our dictionaries die with us is the first sentence of a novel about reading that I would like to write but probably never will. Even while living each day's vocabulary is lost to us a thousand times each minute, at least -- all the words we could but do not say or think to put down, the words we hear but forget to understand, and along with these all the libraries we make in our imagination, the forgotten ones that spread across the territory-shelves of a decimal system of private longings or the remembered ones that we recall and want but can't have when the structures of the world are always commanding us toward something else.
My daughter Hazel is calling me now -- "Anne, Anne, what is your position called? " by which she meant my academic one but which at first felt like my geographic. My geographic one is on a sofa in Kansas City, and Cassandra, who lives with us, is making coleslaw in the kitchen, water and knives, stirrings, summer music decorating sounds of the opening and shutting cabinets. The fan rotates and Djuna Barnes Ryder is next to me, on top of the large red notebook I've been trying to fill since February 2017. The notebook begins with these sentences:
Perhaps it is the case that all things are different now, that what was certain before -- the seasons -- have ceased to be certain any longer. I thought I could read Ecclesiastes and write in all the margins "wrong."
My friend Jeff was reading Djuna Barnes' Nightwoothe first spring I was ever 18, back when the seasons were obedient to their once-eternal-seeming order. We were almost beautiful and believed in boredom then. I'd never met him before that but he was reading the book (from the library) aloud on the third floor of an old building, its balcony overlooking a police station, and at the sound of it I felt like my ears opened up wide enough to swallow all earth. We were, as I often have been, in Kansas. Nightwood was obvious, and next came Ryder:
"for these shall not repulse thee, thy physical body and thy temporal agony, thy weeping and thy laughing and thy lamenting. Thy rendezvous is not with the Last Station, but with small comforts, like to apples in the hand, and small cups quenching, and words that go neither here nor there, but traffic with the outer ear, and gossip at the gates of thy insufficient agony."
Cassandra says I should make an audiobook of just reading Ryder aloud, like I read it for her today, in my stumbling, slutty-sounding (to me) country-sounding (to me) adolescent-sounding (to me) voice spinning through the chapter on going a-dunging, the one about the animals before us making their offerings of shit to the praying grasses and what we know when we are not educated enough to have separated from the earth:
"and pray for us, said the great rush, and pray for us said the small rush, and pray for us said the great trees, and pray for us said the small trees, and pray for us said the short grass, and pray for us said the grass that was not yet, and down thudding came the supplication of the wild beasts."
The voice I have has never fit the clearer and more articulate, educated voice in my head. I can't get rid of either voice, so I will pretend I'm okay with their disconnect, whatever juxtaposition of inadequate form of socially marked self vs. the ideal we might still have of our being something more than who we have been allowed. And as Melville wrote to Hawthorne in my favorite-ever series of love letters:
“Let us speak, although we show all our faults and weaknesses, -- for it is a sign of strength to be weak, to know it, and out with it, -- not in [a] set way and ostentatiously, though, but incidentally and without premeditation.”
I got back from NYC yesterday where I was telling the poet Sampson Starkweather that I tried to write the book of miracles that I have been promising him but could never get past the one of being born, and all the births before that, too, me forever stuck in imagining all the generations of our species and the generations of species before that. It is always like this with writing, too, that the very miracle of knowing how to make a word as a mark can impede any progress beyond the pure pleasurable revelation of having done it. "I wrote a word" as dazzling as any "I was born." Anyone who isn't astounded by either of those things, who cannot grasp it is a labyrinth of accident, love, violence, history, health, despair, desire, education, ingestion, defecation, laughter, and disappointment involved with being able to utter either of these phrases should probably not be in a room with me. Or I bet they couldn’t even see me if they were, or at least not as me, probably just some other form of useful-or-not instrument crowding up the earth.
So I needed something that existed between my journal and my twitter feed: a space for thinking longer and accessed by only whoever wanted it. It’s a book of miracles, as all books are. Or I imagine my verb tense is always the femme subjunctive, and every sentence is in the interrogative mood. Or this is my novel about thinking and reading. Or as Amelia says in Ryder:
I never had much education… so the jungle was never scratched off my heart. Listen then. In the beginning was the jungle, with thick flowers and thick leaves, and the roots of things went down into a heavy tiger-pawed earth, and on the branches sat the puma, duke of the morning, and through blood-red lilies went the wild cat, and the slender-hoofed deer, and wild cows, whose teats had never served man, and the bellowings and the trumpetings and the roarings and the screechings, went forth in one sound that was a band of strength against the unknown quantity that was, one day, to be the slayer. There time rotted on the stem of night and day, and the water ripened on the branches of the ocean; there with weight of unseen swift flying, making terrible his feathers, came the nightbird through the thick groves, and clove them as oil is cloven and records not the break, and stood and pecked and pecked softly and swiftly at the earth that trembled under no footfall of man and pecking, went his way, with little speckled feathers dwindling into the dark. And now … Wendall has a dog at heel and a floor beneath his birds, so you can't expect but that we'll have the dunging when he has such faulty fancies."
I like doing things that have no purpose. It’s like letting the shit fall onto its proper place on the earth and answering the prayers of grasses who aren’t even yet. Or the real first sentences in my red notebook aren’t really mine, but those of Ibn Tufail from Hayy Ibn Yaquin, a 12th century novel about being raised by an antelope:
What weariness is heavier, what misery more overburdening than recounting all you do from the time you get up to the time you go to bed without finding a single action that does not amount to seeking one of these vile sensory aims: money making, pleasure seeking, satisfying some lust, venting rage, saving face. All these are “cloud upon cloud over a deep sea.”