Wednesday, May 26, 2010


When my two oldest boys were small, I'd entertain them by writing something on paper in black ball-point ink. Whatever they told me to write down, I penned there in my large, loopy cursive handwriting. Mostly it was something silly like Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, or Hinka-binka-a-bottle-of-ink, I pooped my pants and now I stink. Or other boyish nonsense and tom-foolery. Then, when they'd had their fun, I'd dip an empty pen-point in a tin cup of milk and write my own lines in between the inky lines, like the old Greek scribes used to do. I'd write, I love you. I'd write, Now is the time for all good men. I'd write, Say you love me back. I'd write their names. I'd write my own, which changed so often back then with each marriage and divorce that I sometimes woke wondering who I was. When the morning heat of the kitchen had dried the milk and the words had gone invisible, I'd ask the boys to tell me what had been written there, in between the black ink lines which still showed plainly, as before. Sometimes the boys could remember; but mostly not. Out of sight, out of mind, as the old adage goes.

So then I'd go outside to the wobbly second-hand grill a neighbor had given me and I'd take a piece of charcoal in hand. I'd go back inside and rub it between my palms until it began to crumble and a fine dust coated the paper underneath it, and all its writing. Then I'd lift the page and shake the loose charcoal dust out the open window. When the paper was on the table between us, the words were visible again.

Wow, the boys would say, and Whoa, and they'd snatch the paper up and take it out into the backyard, holding it up to the light, squinting at it, poring over the magic of it, wondering how something which had been visible had gone invisible for a time and how, with just the right element added, it had become visible again. They thought it was better than any other experiment we did. They'd beg for it again and again. I took to leaving notes on the refrigerator with "secrets" written in milk just for the pleasure of watching them run outside to the old grill and take the charcoal in hand.

Their clothes and hands were black with charcoal afterwards and I had to scrub them clean at the kitchen sink where the porcelain finish had long ago worn thin. Sometimes, the charcoal stained those thin places and I had to scrub all week to remove the traces of it. Sometimes, I could see, for days, the lines in the boys' hands where the fine charcoal dust had settled, intractably, into the empty places, the fine places which had not been visible until stained. Eventually, though, it all washed free.

Gone, I'd think and feel a small, baffling knot of sadness in me rising; all gone.

If you were to see me now, writing at my desk, tending the thorny roses outside my house, talking to the cat, singing at the sink, preparing lessons for my grad students in poetry, a middle-aged woman in jeans and men's baggy dress shirts (my husband's outcasts and hand-me-downs), painting trim or hanging wallpaper, sitting on the summer porch reading or just idly watching the day wheel by into twilight – if you were to see me like this, you'd think nothing of it except that I'm a woman ordinary as rain, nothing remarkable. What you see is what you get. That woman.

You'd be wrong, of course.

I am not what is written plainly as all that. I live also between the neat lines of who-I-seem-to-be. Always, despite the placid countenance and the genial smile, there is an entourage inside of me. The infant boy lying all night in the crook of a grown man's arm in that over-crowded morgue. The gray fetal bodies in their glass jars of formaldehyde lining the shelves of the anatomy lab closet. The burned boy whose drunken father set him afire one night for disobeying him. That first man I saw naked, dead. And all the ones who followed away from there.

There is more than mere memory here too, a mind recalling something long-gone. There is also the body itself remembering: the nose recoiling as it conjures up again the stench a burned body gives off; something in the stomach's unruly pit knotting itself; the left palm and how it rested against a fevered brow while the right hand fingered a thready pulse; the texture of a woman's long hair in my hands as I washed it for her, toweled it dry it, brushed it into place around her thin face in preparation for the family's arrival – or the mortician's; bare pink fingertips recalling again the post-operative feel of the swollen stump and its sutures, the sticky wet weeping of the wound and, later, the crusted cluster of epithelials sealing, the healing begun at last; the sloshy gauze I'd taken in my hand – the hand I write with now, feed myself with, cook with, caress my husband and hug my children with – that strong right hand stained orange once with Betadine where I'd swabbed a woman's chest one morning, prepping her for the double mastectomy; and my ears which still hear always, waking from dreams, their little moans of pain.

This is what is written, in the interstices between one visible thing and the next. The milky ink of who-I-also-am. And when I write them back to me again - as I do sometimes - they are not "art" to me, not the stuff of rank sensationalism and poetry. They are who they are. Or were. And I am standing again at the old crossroads considering once more the twin devils of suffering and mortality. I am wholly myself again then, the visible and the invisible body. The quick and the dead. A house and all its rooms.