first published at FWriction
The silver wheels of my misshapen kidney no longer worked. The doctor said there was a problem with my spine, too. Mother’s eyes were puffy and she dabbed at her shrinking tears. They helped position me in the bed, my body lighter than before— the boy I was, ripped from the present, and replaced with some shrimp-like version of my weaker self.
Dad would have been there, too, if it weren’t for the drinking. She said if she had a gun, she’d have shot him, but I knew she was not serious. Serious was the blood in my urine. Serious was the rubber sheets I slept on. Serious was the possibility I’d enter the gates of heaven before either of my parents. In any case, she kissed me and told me everything was going to be all right.
While the doctor tied a rubber tube around my arm to take blood, his knuckle grazed my cheek and the skin was rough. And when the thin steel needle penetrated my vein, I grabbed hold of the bed-sheet and gritted my teeth. My tonsils were missing and if I opened my mouth to scream he’d have been able to see my stomach in knots of fear.
A plant sat in a terracotta pot on the window-ledge and the sun struck the plastic leaves as the glass tube filled with dark blood. Extended stay, the doctor told us. A month. Maybe longer. I wanted to go home, to sleep in my own room, with my soccer posters and stuffed bears. The doctor insisted. He called it acute nephritis. He said I’d have to be restrained at night. I didn’t know what he meant, but when the nurse tied the straps around the bed-frame I began to shake, and she gave me the magpie-eye.
Mother returned with my pajamas and toiletries. I knew this was bad news, because why would she have brought them if I was going home? A nurse gave me a slice of gammon ham with a pineapple ring and mashed potatoes for my tea. Mother kissed me and said she’d got to go home to get Dad’s tea ready, but I wasn’t to worry, because he’d be in to see me after work.
Dad arrived with the other fathers visiting their sick children. Raincoats and the evening newspapers were everywhere and the smell of damp and cigarettes made me want to get sick. He ruffled my hair and told me to be a good soldier for the doctors and nurses and if there was any justice I’d be home by Christmas. His thick fingers felt like lead weights on my head and he gently kissed my cheek. After he went home for his tea I cried into the pillow for a while.
In the darkness of the ward the faint click of shoes on tile mingled with the breathing of the patients. I dreamed of capturing insects in jam-jars by the banks of the river, my skin wet with sweat from the rubber sheets. I was woken twice during the night to take the pills the doctor prescribed. Nurse held the glass of water to my lips and the large white pills stuck in my throat.
I wanted to use the toilet, but she said no. She fetched a large glass bottle and told me to use it in the bed.When I tried to pee into the glass bottle it leaked onto the sheets and the nurse curses and warned me to be more careful. My pee was the color of daffodils and smelt awful. In bed that night I tried to hold my breath long enough to die.
Crave—A call, the ringing of the bell, the deliverance from all evil. Short of breath, short of sleep, all around is the null set of no escape. On a window a spider, cream-colored, spins silk, weaves time into relentless corridors of space. Cross so many bridges, snap a bloom from a Japanese garden. Etched lines on an already tired face.
Spray—A seal bobs between sets. In on the nearing tide, out on the curve of a snapped branch. There is nothing, only the crack of the thick muscle about the heart. See how easily the scalpel penetrates the membrane, exposing the brightness below, and how emotions are carved from bone. Scrimshaw for the twenty-first century.
Yield—A trident sparks the strangest dreams. In the dark beneath the stage the dust collects in false marbles of air, the stranger’s face retaliates against the attempt to coerce it into recognition. Boxes hold beginnings, hold secrets, hold failure in plastic containers, contain the plastic lines that draw marrow from the brittle bone.
Limp—A key dangles from a chain, useless as a stumped limb. The door opened is no longer there. A blue envelope with insufficient postage contains a flightless bird, a photocopied flyer from another time. Sinews unravel and separate like watered rope-ends. This insufferable weight presses down on the delicate leaves collected on a fall day in October.
I don’t know Ben Percy, but the other morning he got into the shower with me and I couldn’t stop him. Now, before you say, “What was Ben Percy doing in your house?” know that I’m speaking metaphorically. You see, the latest issue of Poets & Writers Magazine contains an article written by him, titled, “Writing With Urgency.” So, back to the bathroom and Percy’s advice ringing around my head like little black spots in front of my eyes: “Goals” “Urgency” “Obstacles” Ticking Clock” “Delay”.
I was sitting “on the throne,” as my father used call the cloacal act, which for him might have been an escape from four boys in a noisy house. Leafing through P&W, I skimmed Percy’s article, and when I got in the shower, his words followed me in there, into the steam and sluice. Nothing crazy happened; no snakes, no bears, no terrifying humans, only the sage advice of a fine writer.
Lately, I’ve been revising a novel, and avoiding the hard work. I’ve been making changes to the point-of-view, the physical layout, the overabundance of adverbs, and thinking to myself, “Well, what a great use of time this is, those few precious hours when the toddler is asleep and the dinner eaten.” Well, indeed. More so, what a waste of bloody time. Instead of working on the actual parts of the book that should make the machine sing instead of creak, I’ve been fiddling with the inconsequential, with the peripheral niceties rather than the essential elements. But, I know this, having had enough conversations with various mentors in relation to writing the novel. There are times a fresh voice can snap you to attention, and that’s exactly what Percy’s “obvious,” yet, important reminder did for me. None of what he said is exactly, “The Dark Arts” of writing, in fact most of what he said can be found in many places; in the how-to books, in the craft essays, in the Twittersphere, but it takes a presence of mind to recognize the information being presented and act on it, and that’s what the advice Percy dispenses made me do. What I’ve got to do now is figure out how to stop fiddling with my manuscript’s bodywork, and focus instead on the engine, and make sure the thing hums when the ignition is pressed.
So, if you’re given to the endless tinkering with the go-faster stripes, and shiny handles of your vehicle, and ignoring the terrible noise coming from under the hood, do yourself a favor and grab a copy of the latest P&W magazine and read Percy’s article. Hell, read the whole magazine while you’re at it.
“Poetry is a war machine.”
“A poem is a fortune cookie with echolalia.”
“Poetry is a field of Notley therapy.”
“Be playful—an order from central command.”
“The poetic is the enemy of poetry.”
“ You’ve got to come up with the Jews.”
“The Germans made if from Berlin to Prague in three hours.”
I never understood what it was to be a Viking
until I saw the shriven shoe of a child
in the rubble of the Wood Quay building site.
Ten infant toes once filled the soft leather
of whatever creature sprung through undergrowth
The underlying card is death—change, transformation, upheaval. Cross that with so many sevens, magical, dreamland someplace. A shattered bone; femur held in place with stainless steel implants. Sea crashes against a sloping cliff and someone scurries about below, telling me to take the same path as they do. A girl with a Scottish accent has brought me to this place. I am unsure whether she’s a lover, or not. In the night, the night, the clouding over of bare sky lends the place the look of a lunar landscape. Fellow travelers are unknown to me, strangers, other dreamers brought to the same locale, given no choice. Moving away from the shore, moving from the issue bursting from earth, moving in the direction of the horizon, somewhere between the ripples and the feeding fish. Second to go, the shock of siblinghood, one man’s murder, a brother with a cleft palate and three fingers on his left hand. “It’s really, really pretty,” the Scottish girl says, with a laugh, as the silver flickers over the sea. She has a reputation—short hemmed and sassy—centered down the middle of the page. Does she know the world she’s entered into, or is her rogue/brogue too thick to make a difference? Over there on the slimed rocks—an old man whose pajama pants are frayed nerves—the sheen of motor oil flickers bluegreenorange. (First published in Spittoon 2.3)
I am out of words lately. The flow has dried up, the remnants collected like flakes of dead skin on the bare wood floor. This time of year heralds not spring, but a winter of sorts. As the days grow longer and the new shoots appear in the newly turned earth of the back garden, my chest hurts from the weight of sadness I carry around as if it were a secret store of food for the coming hibernation. How I feel at this time of year is most likely why I prefer the closing of the year more.
April 19th is the anniversary of my friend and mentor, Jeanne Leiby’s tragic death in a car crash on a sunny Louisiana day on her way to Lafayette. I know what she looked like that morning, in her Saturn convertible, hood down, wind blowing in her hair. I know because we passed her on that same road months earlier, her archery gear sticking up from the passenger seat. “That was Jeanne,” I said, and we waved frantically as we sped by. Or, at least I remember waving at her, but maybe that’s not true.
What is true is her passion for writing, for writers, for life, for living. She was what my dear-departed father would have called a real “live wire.” I wrote my first flash fiction in her Forms of Literature seminar, a 250-word story set in an imaginary town in an imaginary America. The exercise was based on Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. I know it’d tickle her to see how successful I’ve been writing in that format, and I’m certain if I told her I was, “Out of words,” she’d deliver a verbal tirade in my direction that’d amount to a good, old-fashioned literary enema, to start the flow anew.
Today is the day she died, two years ago. I left LSU that same May, my freshly minted MFA in my pocket, and an unborn daughter seeded in my wife’s belly. So much has changed, so many hard roads traveled since that distant, terrible spring of her death. Her written-in books are on my shelf, the precious copy of Mariette in Ecstasy, Ron Hansen inscribed to her at Breadloaf in 1994. He signed in again this April, too, for me. Two small lighthouses sit on my desk, lighting my way through the treacherous seas of submissions, rejections, and acceptances: one, the Bar Point Shoal, and the other, the Ocracoke. Once, they lived in her writing space, and now they are talismans in my own writing nook.
I think of Jeanne, and the polemics she’d give voice to outside her office in the Old President’s House at LSU, and I mourn her passing. I can hear her thoughts on the VIDA numbers, the defeat of gun control legislation, the Boston Marathon tragedy. I don’t think I’ve met a more impassioned defender of the arts, and writing in particular, and I wish there had been more of her work left for us to read. Today, I’ll open up my copy of Downriver and read from it, and think of my friend’s soul.
All that remains of her are memories, but memories that spark her back to life, if only too briefly. I’ll read about Salvatore Scibona, or “Billy” Giraldi, or read a Facebook post by her former undergraduate student, Dini Parayitam, now at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and be able to hear her voice as she raved about their talent. Or, as happened this week when I listened to a video reading by Claire Vaye Watkins, of her story, “Rondine al Nido,” and thought how they shared an eerily similar delivery of their writing.
In the end, Jeanne Leiby is one of the cornerstones of my writing life. On this anniversary of Jeanne’s too-early passing, I can’t help but be struck by how startling a life this is, the writer’s life. A conceit. A deceit. A conflagration of disasters and delights. I look back at my first sentence, “I am out of words…” and know this shall never be the case. I mourn Jeanne today, yet celebrate her impact on my life by doing what she urged me, and so many others to do—write.