Thursday, February 28, 2013


February 28, 2013:

     The last time I wrote about coincidences on this site I was thinking, as I had been for a long time, about writing an essay about them. Now I have, it was published two days ago as a Kindle Single, and I'm waiting anxiously to see what happens. It's my first excursion into straight-to-the-Web electronic publishing, and it's an offbeat subject, so you can understand my anxiety. But what good is it being a writer if you don't  finally take that dirt road into the woods you've passed by so many times? I lived in the country once and used to walk regularly up a nearby country road and there was an actual, not a metaphorical dirt road that did run off it, and when I walked up it at last I found an old abandoned cemetery. Came upon it at dusk, furthermore, with the woods darkening all around, and the crows and grackles flew up in a cloud when I arrived. The bodies must have been buried in cheap wooden boxes because the graves were all caved in. Plastic flowers, badly faded, decorated the flat gray stones. It had clearly never had a caretaker. The place haunts my imagination still.

     And don't coincidences haunt the imagination too? They seem like messages sent from somewhere outside our lives, uncanny events that relate only to us, and yet it's by no means obvious where they come from or what they mean. Here's one out of my wife's life. Her name, as many of my readers will know because they read me through her links to this blog, is Lorraine Dusky and she's very well known, if not famous, in the world of adoption, having campaigned a good part of her life to open adoption records to adoptees so they can find out who they are and where they come from. She herself is a birth mother and found the daughter she gave up for adoption thirty years ago, and then, about six years ago, lost her to suicide. But before any of this happened, when she was a young woman, still in college, she fell in love with a young man named Tom whom she came close to marrying and regarded for years as the first, lost love of her life. As it happened they both went on to other relationships, other marriages. Tom, too, had a daughter, and died of an aneurysm when he was young; his daughter was not yet out of grade school. Lorraine fell in love with a married man, had a child by him, gave her up for adoption, married someone else, divorced that person, and eventually she and I met and married. Within a year of our marriage she had found her child and contacted her, and we have been together for over thirty years.

     About three years ago she founded her blog on adoption rights, First Mother Forum. It's quite popular and she has a lot of followers among birth mothers, adoptees, and adoptive parents. One of her adoptee followers happens to be a man named Daryl Royal, an adoptee from Michigan, who's also a Facebook friend. One day she got a call out of the blue from a woman named Jennifer who had been going through her father's papers and had found the letters Lorraine had written her father, Tom, when they had been in college. Yes, that Tom. In one of them Lorraine had put her full name as a return address on the envelope. Jennifer had then looked Lorraine up and found out who she was, and learned that she had given up a daughter for adoption. Jennifer had the wild idea that her father might have been the father of that child, and she had a sister. Tom had not fathered her child, but here's the kicker. Two kickers, actually. In the middle of their phone conversation, Jennifer's husband wanted to know who she was talking to. It's Lorraine Dusky, she said, my father's girlfriend from college. Lorraine Dusky? he said. I know her. I'm a Facebook friend of hers. Jennifer's husband is Daryl Royal. And then this. Jennifer herself makes a living finding the real birth certificates of adoptees and putting them in touch with their birth parents.

     I would call that spectacularly uncanny. And it reeks of meaning, brims over with the feeling that if ever two people were meant to meet, were meant to know each other, it is these two women. As they like to put it, in the alternate universe that surrounds our own everyday universe they are mother and daughter, the might-have-been mother and daughter, together at last. And Lorraine had lost a daughter, and Jennifer and her own real-life mother have long been estranged.

     So who, or what, arranges these things? How do they come about, and what is their significance as a general, and fairly common, phenomenon in life? These are some of the questions that have long puzzled me, and that I talk about in my essay. Everybody has these kinds of events in his or her life, but what are they about? Is it fate at work, and what does that signify for the way the universe is ordered? If you're interested, you can find the essay at the following address:
Extraordinary Coincidences and the Meaning of Things

Extraordinary Coincidences and the Meaning of Things

     Lorraine, by the way, is writing an account of her amazing life that will include this story. She's about done and hoping to publish within months. I've read it. It's a winner.



Sunday, February 3, 2013


February 3, 2013:

     Strange things, poems. They come out of an image or a phrase that emerges, as John Keats put it in a letter once, "like a whale's back in the sea of prose," unexpectedly, out of depths you cannot imagine, and it demands your attention and you know that it would be morally wrong not to respond, not to write it up, make something of it. You have no idea what yet, and it may take a very long time to develop. But if you're wise you will hold on to that first unformed message from your unknown inner life, because it appears for a reason. Because you're stupid and you don't really know your own heart. Because you're in pain, or in love, and you haven't gotten the message yet. Because something in you needs to speak. Because your body has a mind of its own. Because you're a poet, you have talent, and this is a command.

     Of the twenty-five or thirty poems I would like to preserve I find, looking back at the little pile of them that I keep track of in my incredibly crowded, messy office, that many of them were written during my first marriage, which on the surface was, I thought, reasonably happy, as good as I could hope for given my own difficult personality--moody, dark, bookish, lonely. I expected to be lonely. My first wife and I were very unlike, and I thought that was the way it was always going to be; it was just the way of the world, love bridging unbridgeable gaps as best it could. My first wife had adopted sunny as her disposition but I knew her well, knew it was her own attempt to disguise from herself who she really was. It was the who she really was--passionate, more than a little bitter, struggling to keep her disappointments down--that I loved; it was the woman who, when she discovered you couldn't broil flounder fillets, took a spatula and beat them with it until fish fragments were flying all over the kitchen. But I couldn't abide the sunny surface. It was merely surface, never real, and it came across as a lie.

     Those early poems when they arrived made it clear what that marriage really was. Here is the one I like best:


          Of the place itself I remember most
          clearly the frozen corrugations
          in the snow, their settled patterns
          and what they seemed to reveal about
          the wind; that, and hearing the water
          running deep under our feet near the dam.

          We were always best in winter. On ice
          or snow there's no place to rest
          and the cold keeps talk to a minimum.

This poem came out of an actual experience when we found ourselves walking over a frozen pond, probably in Fahnestock State Park in Putnam County, not far from where we lived then. Other poems came from walks in the country. We lived for a while when the children were very young on a winding road with few houses along it that followed a small valley bottom. Hunter Brook Road. I remember a meadow on one side, thick woods on the other, and we used to take long walks up and down this road on warm evenings, to see the light fade on the meadow, listen to the birds shutting down for the night. The following poem sprang from a walk I took by myself on that road, and the way it turned dark, and who I was then. This is one of the poems I have worked on most of my life, to get right. When poems are really short like this you cannot waste even a comma; everything has to be as perfect as your talent and attention can make it. I'm probably still not quite done. But I offer it anyway. It's called

          MOOD INDIGO

          While the puffy clouds slowly sponged away
          the light, while birds sang from their refuges
          in the darkening woods, I lost track of the time;
          and the country road behind me, the old trees
          leaning over it, seems to have burrowed into
          the night.
                         Have you felt this way, friends? Do
          you know how it feels to wander unthinkingly
          into the darkness?
                                       Dawn always seems so far
          away, while what we call headlights plunge
          and careen like the Batmobile through your mood.

Friends, yes. Anyone willing to work through a poem is a friend. The marriage lasted eighteen years but we did not come out of it friends. I see that happen with some couples and I envy them their ability to talk to one another, but it was never going to happen in our case. By leaving her I seem to have awoken the bitterness she had worked so hard to hide. I am sorry for it all, every bit of it. But I couldn't have stayed. Staying would have meant living more and more lies, hers and my own, and I believed at the time, and believe it still, it would have put my soul at risk.

          Or maybe not. Hearts are devious by nature. This is why so many seem to need a god, to watch them, know them, love them despite their duplicity. It must be a great comfort. I find it hard to live without comfort, and sometimes seek it out. Great art is a comfort. Lorraine, my second wife, and I find ourselves crying at the movies of late at sentimental moments, or any moment that depicts kindness, compassion, forgiveness, love, and this is a comfort, too. Looking at Rembrandt's self-portraits, which so profoundly understand what is in a human being, this is a comfort of a higher order. Writing poems is a comfort; the process takes  you out of yourself, into another space, seldom visited. I wish I had written more of them. This last one is fairly recent, written in the last four or five years, sprung from a walk downtown to the water on a summer night in Sag Harbor, where I sat by myself on a bench staring at the boats while a band played in the distance.

          DEATH BY WATER

          Wild music beats against the surface of the harbor
          with an absolute minimum of response. It is the same
          with the moonlight; watch, it is in constant motion,
          like a Pollock painting, yet perfectly still. Look also
          into the shadows of the boats, darkness resting on darkness.
          Near Maracaibo I saw dead dogs adrift among the stilts
          supporting the houses. We think there is a story
          to everything, like Natalie Wood's drowning, or anyone's.
          Yesterday she said she loved him, too. Today he saw her
          cruising. I think it is all background, atmosphere.
          The small waves they allow in here have absolutely
          nothing to say, do not speak of anyone's anguish.
          It is the same thing again and again: moonlight, shadows,
          inappropriate music the impenetrable water drowns out.

Now what is that about? I cannot say. The whale's back emerges from the sea of prose, but whales speak with their strange music only to other whales. "If a lion could talk," Wittgenstein once wrote, "we could not understand him." Poets search for a music, a form of speech that approximates the feelings and the intuitions that hover beyond the edge of language, that call out of the darkness. Sometimes we find it, sometimes not. You must judge for yourself, friends. For me it is all background, atmosphere.