You can’t be with the one you love if you want to love them still. This is the crux of desire, and oceans of ink have been spilled into it.
I’m spilling this in prose. Prose is derived from Latin provertere, to turn forward. This, then, is an attempt to turn forward.
‘Narrate’ is derived from Lat. gnarus, knowing.
Knowing is possessing information, not truth beyond doubt. All a narrator knows is the story he tells, and sometimes not even that.
In 1917, San Francisco brothel Madame Tessie Wall shot her husband several times because he was attempting to divorce her. She explained the act thus: “I shot him because I love him. Damn him.”
This is wrong. She shot him because she hated him, that is the narrative truth, and it was absolute at the time of the shooting, otherwise she would not have been able to do it.
‘Knowledge’ is derived from the Indo-European root gno-. ‘Know’ shares this root with ‘cunning,’ ‘ignore,’ and ‘narrate.’
In a Berkeley café, I try to ignore the man at the table next to mine who is narrating (to himself) some epic story of betrayal and resentment. I ignore him, that is, until he reaches over and picks up my copy of Stein’s Stanzas in Meditation. He flips through it, then says, “You know how poets write?”
I’m unsure what to say.
“Do you know how poets write?” he says a little louder.
“Um, no, how do poets write?”
“Well,” he begins, “there’s a phrase I’ve only heard once and never since – unfortunately I can’t remember it right now – but it essentially describes what the mouth does when it speaks a vowel. The mouth does a different thing for ‘a’ than it does for ‘oo.’ Poets use the line to move our mouths this way. If you look at those lines you’ll see every line is written that way.”
I nod my head.
“She’s writing those lines,” he continues, “and ending those lines not according to meaning but to certain mouth patterns. They are exercises. She’s looking at them. She may write a hundred and come up with only one. If you look, you’ll see every line is written like that… maybe a few aren’t I don’t know I didn’t read the whole thing but probably so. They’re all like that.”
“Thanks,” I say, “I’ll look into it.”
‘Catastrophe’ too comes from a root (the Greek strephein) meaning to turn. Is ‘prose’ then a ‘catastrophe?’ Is something catastrophic inherent in saying?
On the plane I have the dictionary in my lap and tap my fingers to the rhythm of the words, whispering them. The attendant says, “is that the Bible?” thinking, I guess, that I’m praying.
“Yes,” I say.
She puts her hand on my shoulder as if to bless me, smiles and walks away.
Later she returns: “what are you writing?”
“A letter to my ex-wife,” I say simply.
“Oh,” the smile fades.
Then again later she comments: “That looks like a very long letter.”
“It is,” I say, “in hatred one has to be precise.”
She avoids me for the rest of the flight. I wonder if the blessing she gave earlier has been replaced by damnation. I feel unjustly condemned.
‘Precision’ is derived from Lat. praecidere, to cut off.
Hatred requires precision; love requires breadth.
Stanzas In Meditation has been described by Marjorie Perloff as “indeterminate.” It is indeed “not precise,” though it certainly cuts off. It is perhaps as complete and severe a cutting off as we have. Would that you and I could be so vigilant.
The botanical definition for indeterminate is “continuing to grow at the apex and not terminating in a flower.”
‘Tuuli’ means wind, not flower.
Are we continuing to grow at the apex?
‘Grape’ is derived from OFr. grape, hook.
Grapes are named after the tool by which they’re harvested. Perhaps a better name for us is Loss, Death, or Music.
I’m beside a fire outside a little house on the Nisqually River. It’s raining now on this notebook though the pages somehow aren’t getting wet. It’s a heavy mist, a damp breath. The wood pops. The air in the wood causes the wood to pop. The robins sing. The air in the robins cause the robins to sing. The sound of the wind in the trees; the river in the wind and in the river the wind down below.
The earth here is saturated. The blackberries and lilacs wet with months of rain. I found a yellow maple leaf (Acer macrophyllum) in the forest. It’s size and simplicity are startling. It means nothing and aspires to nothing. Its ultimate purpose (I guess) was only to fall, to turn and to fall.
I put the leaf on the bench next to me and note the colors, the fields of tone and rivers of bleed.
My daughter – five – grabs the leaf, then sits down beside me. She puts the leaf on her lap and takes my pen, then my notebook.
“Look papa,” she says, “I’m taking notes.”
I look, and see beautiful little unmeaning lines squiggling across the page. “I’m writing like you,” she says, “in curses.”
She means ‘in cursive,’ but I let it go, because she’s right.
It’s nice to think of Stanzas in Meditation as beautiful little unmeaning lines. And they too are written in curses.
I don’t consider this therapeutic, though it’s impossible to deny the fact that making you the subject of these notes loosens (unlooses?) the hatred I have for you. The clew unraveled, the labyrinth dark, the monster hiding wherever we are.
Getting even is one great reason for writing. I write because I hate. A lot. Hard. My hatred is much of me, if not the best part.
I’m not so crude as to be ungrateful. I’ve been happiest just watching her read, or sleep, or wander around your parent’s farm as if she were the queen of mud pies.
I’m only trying to catch up with myself, with events that have acted on me.
When did it become necessary to write from a place of pain? As if poetry lay somewhere sleeping in victimization.
The best reason for singing?.. song.
Gilgamesh is said to have been written 1500 years before Homer. It is the first poem, and it is about loss. Are we so pathetic? Are we more archaic than we’d like to believe? And every song sings in the same river twice?
The edition of Stanzas In Meditation I own is the Sun and Moon Classics with the Djuna Barnes drawing of Stein, who is big and fat and blue and pink with a green field of things coming out of her mouth. A green field.
Sometimes when I think about Tuuli I see her in a field running and playing. Sometimes the field runs and plays in her.
When people hear that you left me they say, “well at least you still have Tuuli.” But now I only have her half the time. This alone is enough to hate you.
But I don’t hate you (did I say I did?). It’s pointless to hate someone you have to see on a recurring basis, who is loving your child Wednesday through Friday and every other Saturday night.
Stanzas In Meditation has always seemed to me an insufficient title for the work. The title implies many things: that it is an “act or process of meditating,” a “contemplative discourse on a religious or philosophical subject,” a “devotional exercise of or leading to contemplation,” and/or an “ardent affection and dedication to.”
I suppose it is a kind of meditation on language, and writing it may have been meditative for Stein. (“She can be kind to all / If she wishes chickens to share.”) The piece does seem chant-like at times. (“Do or due or only dew or did you do it.”)
And one could argue that it is a thoughtful discourse on language, on poetics, in a very broad sense. That, as opposed to arguing, the work is the argument.
It would be insulting to assume she wasn’t devoted to the work. It’s 200-plus pages long after all. For those that argue that the Stanzas are gibberish, at the very least they would have to concede that she was devoted to gibberish.
Dedication? Yes, again, the very girth of it requires dedication.
I take it back. It’s a fine title.
The scientific name for robin – Turdus migratorius – is also an apt description of my love life.
I just missed my flight back to Oakland, so I’m stuck in the airport on standby, which is a kind of purgatory I guess. Thank god there are Starbucks in purgatory.
Five hours later I’m still waiting “to be placed” on a flight, drinking coffee and listening to a loop of music that has again (the fourth time I think!) come to Bob Marley’s “One Love.”
I don’t know if it’s the ‘chonga bagel,’ the several shots of espresso or the 24 hour news cycle eternally blaring, but this ‘one love’ is sinking in, it’s taking root.
I love you fat woman with three horrible kids. I love you minimum wage Kenyan airport worker from the El Sombrero Cantina down the hall. I love you business casual high heel rolly bag hairspray blonde and your balding sleezeball boss. I love you obligatory ten gallon hat guy, and I love you, too, slovenly sweatpants women from some deepest whitest part of America. I love you hot bimbo showing off your fake tits. I love you obese Mexican family drinking giant sodas and eating chips. I love you little old lost Chinese man swimming upstream in an unknown alphabet. I love you glee club, volleyball team, incessant talking heads. I love this purgatory, I don’t ever want to leave.
I want to be torn apart by these myriad Americana maenads, by this visual cacophony, this shitsound with its looped warnings ominous and crass. One love! One heart! One love! One heart tear me limb from limb!
Akira Kurosawa said in an interview toward the end of his life that he was making exactly the kind of films he wanted to be making.
This is my aspiration, too. Not to be near the end of my life, but to be writing exactly what I want to be writing, without concern for anyone but myself.
I’m using you as an excuse to do just this.
Trauma is permission to live. It’s the best thing that can happen to you.
After a while you just stop trying to figure it out. Even stated reasons don’t matter. It’s all bogus. People just come and go, that’s the way it is. She loves me, she loves me not, she loves me, she loves me not… It’s as arbitrary as petals on daisies or the daisies themselves.
I’m not in purgatory anymore. The song is over. Though I suppose the loop continues.
The sculptor Lipschitz was attracted to the “austere beauty of her [Stein’s] head,” large relative to her 5’2” height. He referred to her as “a massive, inscrutable Buddha.”
Not a “jurassic, intolerable gorilla,” as Hemingway is rumored to have called her in a fit of testosterone.
I remember you said to me once that a perfect rhyme is not a rhyme at all. And we argued for weeks about it, coming in and out of it, as only people who live together can.
“‘Now’ doesn’t rhyme with ‘now,’” you said.
“Of course it does, and it rhymes with ‘snow’ too,” I countered.
“You’re impossible.” [you]
Everything rhymes with everything. Love and hate, too, are a perfect rhyme.
I don’t like the way critics and journalists refer to her as Ms. Stein. No one ever says Mr. Picasso, or Mr. Matisse. It’s absurd and patronizing.
‘Ms. Stein’ misses.
Okay I admit I made up that bit about Hemingway but everything else is true.
A bad rhyme is still a rhyme.
– John Prine
For Picasso’s portrait of Stein, she evidently sat for “80 or 90 sittings on a broken arm chair.”
The question remains: on which sitting did the arm chair break? Was it the first? Was the machine too large? Or too inscrutable?
This piece wants to have no beginning and no end. It wants to be sketches for a work that materializes but has no limits, and being unlimited, moves on. It wants to avoid “terminating in a flower.”
I could just show you this, but then I’d deprive myself of telling you. It is, after all, a narrative work.
I have a recurring dream in which someone is stabbing me. I swing and fight, trying to plead or punch but miss my assailant every time. I’m stabbed a thousand terrifying times and can do nothing about it. Eventually, exhausted, I resign myself to the knife, watching passively, almost bored, as it plunges into my open chest again and again. It doesn’t hurt anymore. It’s just happening.
I’ll never write anything as beautiful as Stanzas in Meditation. This, for a long time, was difficult for me to accept. To me it is the most beautiful poem. Of course I wanted to emulate it.
At some point though, I became terrified by the thought of writing the most beautiful poem. How could one go on living? You would have to stop writing, normalize yourself. Work construction or flee to Africa to run guns.
No the only way to write beautiful works is to not know that you’re writing beautiful works. To write ugly works.
To write ugly, works.
Here’s my theory: Gertrude Stein didn’t know I would be reading Stanzas in Meditation the way I am. That it would dissolve me again and again and be a kind of warm grave from which to write my own work. I don’t think she anticipated that, that I could find in it a sacred room.
I flatter myself by thinking that I’m her perfect reader.
I will admit though that sometimes I feel like Charles Manson and Gertrude Stein is The Beatles.
For the record: I don’t want a second chance. I would rather wander off than find some kind of redemption with you.
Besides, it’s impossible to return to paradise. Even if the geography is the same, the temporality will have changed. One can only turn to paradise.
Yes, I will go. I would rather grieve over your absence than over you.
At the beach, I watch as Tuuli walks up from the surf with something cupped in her hands.
“What is it?” her friend asks.
“Water,” she says.
“Why do you have water?”
“You won’t be able to hold it,” the girl says.
“I don’t care,” Tuuli says, and keeps walking, and keeps holding on.
I don’t care either.