Tag Archives: palimpsest

Who loves a kitty?

Writing is palimpsest.  Oftentimes I will reuse pieces of old pieces for new pieces.  I will write a story.  Years later I will write it again, reusing elements of a different story.  Or, I will pick up some neat thing in someone else’s work and try to play with it, transmute it into my own thing.  It’s all part of a continuous churn.  For instance, last year I was doing translations of Valéry prose poems.  I became inhabited by this dude and his voice, then created the best approximation I could manage of his voice in English.  That approximation was its own entity, and when I was done translating, I wrote a couple of my own prose poems in that voice.  Here is one:

Knowing is unknowing when the page is so covered in scribbles that it is necessary to erase in order to write. At the apex of the day, the sun’s heat whites out my thoughts; if there was a wind I might let it scatter the paper but all is stillness and languor. The weather mirrors my torpor; the words appear and disappear too quickly for me to catch them, only leaving behind a faint disturbance in my body like the radiating wave that is the only evidence of an object having been dropped in a pond. A pebble, an acorn, a thought. A thought light enough might float, like a feather, drifting soundless on the glittering opacity of the surface. But I am weak at such thoughts, I am all weight and slow sinking. I am the remnant bubble that hurries where the water meets air only to vanish—an inaudible pop then nothingness.

On the sprawled papers a cat sleeps, her dark fur warmed by the sun’s caress. Her whiskers twitch; her animal dreams emanate from her like a vapor: blurry images without words, inscrutable to a plodding consciousness that burdens itself with language. I put my hand on her side, on the serene rhythm of her breath, and she rolls, trilling gently, to expose her soft belly for a pet. Loved by both my hand and the noonday kiss of the sun’s beams, she purrs without even opening her eyes to see who reaches for her through her dreams. Her eyes, yellow as a lick of flame, closed in trust and pleasure.

Today I was writing a scene in which the protagonist of my novel finally makes contact with the cat she has adopted, a cat who has been slinking around her apartment like a prisoner for days and whom she has been unable to name.  I remembered the above prose poem from last year and the scene became the following:

I find her asleep in the middle of the living room carpet, soaking in beams from the noon sun.  Her whiskers twitch; I can almost see her animal dreams emanating from her like a vapor—blurry images without words, all movement and feeling.  Up until now I have only seen her sleep as a neat little ball tucked in a corner that can only be approached from one direction—floating just beneath consciousness, her eyes popping open at the slightest noise, the white film beneath her lids pulling back fast.  But here she is sprawled luxuriously, all slack limbs and serene breathing.  Her dark fur looks so soft.  I crouch next to her as quietly as I can, not wanting to break her peace but not wanting to leave it alone either.  I put my hand on her side, lightly, and feel her heave a deep sigh.  Gently I pet her tiny sun-warm body and then—she rolls over, trilling faintly, to expose the white fur on her belly.  The surrender is so sweet and so simple, she purrs without even opening her eyes to see who reaches her through her dreams.  For a long time we are this way; it is my first love touch since the last time Andrei had me in his arms.  So sweet and so simple—why are we not always this way?

After a while, her eyes slowly open; I see her recognize me.  I hear the final yes in her uninterrupted purr.  As the tears pour down my face I decide that she is called, of all things, Miorita.

Repetition yet not, such is all speech.

Now that I have outed myself as an unabashed cat lover, I might as well include a photo of my own two little house lions.

a palimpsest

Here is, courtesy of Thomas de Quincey, the awesomest analogy ever.  I’ve been reading his collected works all afternoon and had to post this essay (which states, human brain = palimpsest) because it was so good I felt I needed a cigarette after.  Note that this piece was written a full 11 years before Freud entered our roiling world through his agonized mother’s tattered loins.  Also note that I have been immersed in Quincey’s prose for hours, thus you must forgive me if mine is currently ever so slightly empurpled.

Anyway, this kind of awesomeness was why I tried to be an academic in the first place, and a Romanticist specifically.  The reason why I could not stay an academic is that, when confronted with a text such as this, my natural response is not to apply or relate it to other texts, or to place it in a historical context, or to take little pieces of it to inscribe in my own essay.  My natural response is to write a story in which the mental landscape of the protagonist is rendered in a series of overlaid images.  No, wait–my natural response is to squeal in delighted recognition because I am already writing a story in which the mental landscape of the protagonist is rendered in a series of overlaid images (there often turns out to be unexpected resonance between what I am writing and what I happen to come across in my reading adventures).

(And yes, of course, written last week: “Oh how happy they are!  The man has finally made the girl a woman.  Reach out to the image to warm your hand with its soft glow.  But when your finger skims it there is a sound like dry leaves and the music stops.  You notice it is ever so slightly frayed in the corner, you see?  Pull a little and it comes up, it is overlaid on top of something else, another image.  Pull some more, it makes a sound like tape being torn up, and expose what is beneath, still dewy and crinkled and unsure of the light like a butterfly unfurling from its chrysalis.  Blurry at first, snow.  Covering the ground as far as the eye can see, it sometimes stirs itself in rising whorls when the wind breathes on it, and there, in the distance, galloping in from the horizon—a Cossack.”)

Anyway, random advice to aspiring writers out there: yes, support the careers of current authors.  Buy their hardcover editions at independent book stores and go to their readings (especially, ahem, the ones whose first books are coming out next February, wink wink nudge nudge).  But don’t forget to read dead dudes.   Don’t forget that when you’re writing a framed narrative that acknowledges its own “storyness,” you are not being clever in a never-before-seen, post-modern way.  Don’t forget that what you’re doing has been done centuries ago, then erased, then done again.  Don’t forget that you too will be erased.  Yearn for it.  Dream that one day you will be a mere particle breathed in by a text that does not yet exist.

one

five

You first came to me one morning long ago, while I was working at the bank.  Your voice simply announced, I am not a child of America, and suddenly I felt your presence in my body like a vaporous specter.  You were standing where I was standing and performing the same mechanical tasks I was performing but you were not me.  You were superimposed over me, like a drawing of a girl overlaying a drawing of a slightly different girl.  When I was granted my lunch break I went upstairs into an empty office where I knew there was an abandoned typewriter and spilled out a paragraph or two of your voice.

That year I was the same age as my students are now.  That year I fell disastrously in love for the first time.  You had a different name then.

four

You liked to let him paint your face.  You liked the feel of the plush brush against your skin; you liked the expectation in his eyes.  You laid out your lipsticks for him in a neat row and asked, “what color do you want my mouth?”  He picked a plum shade which would shortly be smeared all over him.  You didn’t know why it made him hard for you to do this, yet you felt the blood rise to your cheeks to meet the powder blush he was applying there.  Pink on pink, impossible to tell the real arousal apart from the cosmetic mimicking it.

When he lined your eyes, your lids didn’t even quiver.  Not because you trusted him not to hurt you with the pencil–his hand was, after all, trembling slightly–but because a hurt inflicted by his hand was the best hurt of all.

three

You came to me again some years later.  I wrote a whole novel about you that time.  Unfortunately, it was no good.  At least, you met him then, the man who liked to paint your face.  And you gave me your name, Irina.  When I saw how closely it mirrored my own, I laughed, and thought, all right, we’ll go with that then.

two

My last protagonist, Louise, made mischief with the impish glee one might expect.  You are strange; you make mischief with something like grim determination.  It must be some kind of Eastern European thing.  Whenever I ask you why you do anything, you say, why not?  What else is there to do? and I have, of course, nothing to answer.

You are a violinist playing chamber music on the sinking Titanic.  You are a thief who steals even when what he pockets has no value.  You are a man who still neatly parts his hair and cleans his fingernails on the morning he is to be executed.  You are a futile gesture of humanity in the face of oblivion.

too old to forget, too young to remember

As a short-timer, I am out of control with my teaching.  Next week I am teaching my students a Stephen King story (Shawshank Redemption), and this week I showed them a movie based on a graphic novel (Persepolis).  Before you know it, I will be giving them nap time and candy.  Anyway, Persepolis is a lovely movie, a powerful memoir told in a striking visual style.  There was  one aspect of Marjane Satrapi’s experience I related to, and that is being moved across the world as a teenager.  It is a very particular immigrant experience.  An adult who immigrates, as happy as she may become in her new country, will always be a person formed in her native land, and her interpretive filters will always be those of her first culture.  A child who immigrates, as a person still unformed, will adapt to her new home so fast and so fluidly that she will essentially adopt a new country and come to identify with it primarily.  An adolescent, as an in-between person already partially formed by her native culture but still in flux, will be caught in a peculiar bind.  She is too old to forget and too young to remember.  She is started in one place and finished in another, like a book that abruptly switches languages halfway in.  She will be one culture overlaid over an other like a palimpsest.  She will be no one from nowhere, everyone from everywhere.

It’s a strange combination of insider and outsider.  When I moved to the United States at 13 I wasn’t unfamiliar with being an outsider: a hypersensitive brainy kid is almost never popular.  Still, my transplant across the world was a whole new level of alienation–as a highly verbal person I suddenly found myself unable to express my thoughts to the people around me.  It was like being in linguistic prison.  The speed with which I learned English was a survival mechanism: I had to acquire language or fall apart.  There was a delay between my understanding English and my speaking it, however.  For some reason, I did not wish to speak English until I could do so well.

(It’s funny what people will say in front of you when they’re not aware that you understand them.  I related to that aspect of Chief Bromden’s character in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.)

I didn’t get to go back to France until I was in college, when I enrolled in the Overseas Studies program in Paris.  The experience was intensely emotional.  I remember walking around my old neighborhood the day after I landed with my hand over my mouth to keep from bursting into tears.  It seemed miraculous and unfathomable that the place still existed, what’s more almost entirely unchanged.  But it was not a homecoming.  I was, by then, too American.  I knew it even when I was affectionately told by my former neighbor, “don’t be silly, you are French.”  I was twenty years old but it was already too late.  I would always be as foreign to my native land as I was to my adopted one.

While there, I went out a couple of times with a graduate student in literature named Jean-François (he had books about Satan all over his apartment because he was writing his dissertation about representations of the devil).  He told me that I was not at all what he expected of an American, and I laughed.  I think this must have been why he was attracted to me: I was foreign but not really.  I was both home and away.  I was somehow exotic yet safe.  This is what I am: a liminal person.  Both in French and in English I speak with a tiny accent that no one can identify.  Je suis l’Un et l’Autre.

I will always carry in my heart the bewildered pain of a 13 year old girl suddenly torn away from everything she has ever known.  But this uprooting has made me into a more resilient plant that can survive in various climates, different types of soil.  What is more beneficial to the growth of a writer than silent observation of people who do not know they are being understood?

One thing is certain: a teenage immigrant can never, never go home again–but she can sharpen her gaze into the finest of scalpels.