paragraph five is where it starts to get good.
I feel like I have already read what happens here in some short story or other; what author I can’t quite pin down.
paragraph five is where it starts to get good.
I feel like I have already read what happens here in some short story or other; what author I can’t quite pin down.
Hello Rory, you moon-faced L.M. Montgomery heroine, you pint-sized monster of wholesomeness, you bookish Nancy Drew. How are things? Seems like you’ve been having a lot of boy trouble over the last two seasons! Tristan wants you and Paris wants Tristan and Jess wants you and Dean hates Jess! Or at least, that how it’s spun–heartbreaks, feuds, your inevitable and harmless Sweet Valley High teenage romantic drama.
But it’s really not.
I know this may sound strange, so let’s start with Tristan. Ugh, Tristan. I’d be preaching to the choir if I told you he’s an entitled little toad, so lets go through some of the specific manifestations of his toadery.
-He repeatedly bothers you for a date when you’ve made it clear you in no way welcome his advances.
-He steals your school books and refuses to give them back unless you agree to go out with him.
-He publicly misrepresents your relationship and lies to schoolmates about going out with you.
-He uses your angry controlling boyfriend (whom we shall get to LATER) to blackmail and humiliate you throughout a school project that is 50 percent of your final grade.
In other words, he does his best to make school a toxic nightmare for you, either to browbeat you into accepting his overtures or punish you for rejecting them, it’s not quite clear. We have a name for this behavior. It’s called sexual harassment, and it’s something that, if Chilton receives a dime of federal money, it has an obligation to prevent and address.
Saying “sexual harassment” might sound weird, but trust me, calling these things by their proper names is much less weird than being the kind of person who would do any of them.
We both know Tristan is pathetic, but he doesn’t have to be a full nuclear, bodies-in-freezers threat for you to decide that his treatment of you is not remotely ok, that it is not your problem to manage, and that it must cease and desist immediately.
Nor is this to say that you’re not handling it well or that you’re weak. Freedom from sexual harassment isn’t a special protection for those too weak to handle it; it’s about freeing you from expending valuable energy dealing with capricious aggressions so that you can focus on your actual job, which is 100 % schoolwork and 0% Tristan’s issues. You don’t have to refrain from taking action until the problem spirals out of control because “uuugh, can’t you just be cool, why are you making us deal with this, this is so awkwaaaard for us.” People who say this, implictly or explicitly, are bad and will hopefully soon meet a fairy who makes toads fall out of their mouths.
And I know you feel sorry for his issues, and that’s ok! But his problems do not equal marching orders for you to suck it up and think of England: you’re not a therapist, and if you were, I’m pretty sure you’d have both fees and boundaries. Insofar as you can help Tristan, it’s by not giving him a sad-rich-boy pass. Calling things like sexual harassment by their rightful names sheds sunlight on on something that thrives in obscurity; it creates room for the possibility of addressing Tristan’s behavior before it becomes an entrenched pattern that, as time goes by, grows more serious and less easily disentangled from Tristan’s character.
But at least everyone knows that Tristan is a jerk. Dean, on the other hand, barely needs a white horse to be officially crowned World’s Best High School Boyfriend, and that is why your relationship with Dean scares me more.
For your three month anniversary, Dean takes you out for a big, fancy, romantic night out, surprises you with a car he built for you, and then tells you he loves you.
Oh Rory, this is not cool. Surprising someone with an extravagant, unasked for gift that they can neither reciprocate nor politely turn down right before springing a major emotional declaration on them is hugely inappropriate. Building her a car is something you do after you’ve both said I love you, not before you unilaterally escalate the relationship. I know we’re supposed to think that a man spending two month’s salary on a woman before ambushing her with a question that will determine the course of her life is sweet, but what Dean did here is manipulative.
And Rory, you handled it so well! You avoided the trap of going along with it, saying I love you just to make him happy. Because no matter how much you love do in fact love him, that pressure, that lack of freedom you felt will poison your relationship and make trust or honesty impossible. You were kind, empathic, and communicated your feelings and boundaries clearly. That is the kind of relationship skill that takes years to learn, and you knocked it out of the park on your first try in a terrible, high-pressure situation! High five Rory!
And Dean threw a tantrum. He didn’t say “You don’t have to tell me I love you till you’re ready, but that’s where I stand.” He didn’t say “Oh man, this is awkward and hard to hear. I’m not sure how to react.” He didn’t say “I’m glad you felt comfortable telling me that.” He didn’t even say “I get that you’re not ready, but I am, so this is really hard to hear. Let’s take some time alone to think about everything.” He threw a tantrum, and in a minute had you apologizing for having boundaries and speaking up about them.
Rory, there is not one goddam reason you should have been able to say “I love you” back. You’re 16, this is your first relationship, you’d been going out for three months. Everything you said was prudent and right and kind, and anyone who makes you apologize for not offering up emotional intimacy on demand as soon as he’s ready is not someone who knows how to love.
And then! And THEN, a few months later, Dean says “I told her I loved her and she just sat there and somehow I’M the bad guy?” Yes, Dean, you are the bad guy, because love isn’t a prize she’d damn well better show proper gratitude for, it’s something mutual, and organic, and caring, and respectful. I get that you made Romantic Gestures, but if you weren’t ready to hear anything but what you wanted at the end of those Romantic Gestures, they suddenly seem less like romance and more like a trap. Pro-tip: If you can’t handle a “no,” don’t. build her. a fucking. car.
Rory, you did nothing wrong. I’m sorry your boyfriend manipulated and punished you, and I’m sorry the people who should have had your back the most unconditionally made you feel like there was something wrong with you, not Dean. Unfortunately, that part doesn’t really get better as you get older.
Speaking of which, a digression.
Lorelai, what the hell is wrong with you? I get that you never got an adolescence of your own and are therefore in some ways emotionally frozen at 16, but you need to get it together, and fast.
When your daughter finally tells you why her boyfriend broke up with her, your response is, “I’d hate to think I’d raised a kid who couldn’t say I love you.”
When you see your daughter freaking out because a sex-pest is threatening to tell her boyfriend that they kissed the night after he dumped her, you don’t say “Honey, let’s bracket for a moment our discussion about sexual harassment and what steps you feel comfortable taking. The fact that you are so worried about Dean’s reaction to something that happened after you broke up, when you were completely free, and which is absolutely none of his business in the first place—it is starting to worry me. Hearing this might be painful for Dean, but in a good relationship it shouldn’t engender this much stress.” Instead, you say “This is the kind of honesty that will only make you feel less guilty, and it’s going to hurt Dean very much, and possibly going to screw up the very good thing you guys have going now.”
When you see your daughter going out of her mind with anxiety–not sadness, not distress, anxiety— because she accidentally lost the bracelet Dean gave her, does this raise any red flags for you at all? Nope, you just help her look for it and yell at Jess for taking it.
When Dean calls, what, 16 times in one day? do you say to Rory, “Wow, that is intense. How do you feel about this? Are you ok?” You say, “Honey, you’ve got to ease up on that love potion you’re giving him.”
You are telling your daughter that living in fear of upsetting your boyfriend is normal, that angry jealousy and failure to respect boundaries is par for the course, and that if her boyfriend starts behaving in ways that make her uncomfortable or miserable, that it’s just because he loves her so much. Do you have any idea idea how messed up this is?
True, you do tell Dean to give Rory some space for the sake of her relationship, but whether or not their relationship works out is not what worries me, and it sure as hell shouldn’t be what worries you. What worries me is Rory learning that love means a knot of anxiety in the pit of your stomach, and that romance means refusing to leave you alone or give you space. It’s the possibility of this learned identification of love with control haunting her for the next 20 years as these patterns become hallmarks of all her relationships. I’m afraid her ability to speak up for herself and listen to her gut and identify problems is slowly eroding–and I can already see it happening. And because all the advice you give her is about conisdering Dean’s feelings, managing Dean’s jealousies, learning to prevent his anger, she is learning that a) all these things are healthy and her job to take care of, and b) that the goal is always keeping your boyfriend, no matter how miserable he makes you.
She’s just beginning to learn what love and relationships mean, and you are her first and final baseline of normalcy. You are the one who sets the rules of what’s ok and what’s not in her world; you’re the one she trusts to give her advice on boys. You don’t need to forbid her to see Dean or sit outside with a shotgun, but you do need to check in with her–not about how her relationship with Dean is doing, but how she is doing. You need to be the one who offers her a vision of healthy relationships, who helps her talk through feelings of fear and powerlessness and unhappiness and give them names, who reminds her that she is a person before she is a girlfriend, who lets her know that she is loved and supported and that you care for her, not her-with-Dean.
Stop advocating for your daughter’s relationships and start advocating for your daughter, because she needs you, and you are blowing it.
End of digression.
Anyway Rory, turns out I’ve a lot of things to say about the boys in your life, so I’m going to call this Part One and wrap it up here. In Part Two we can chat more about handsome handsome Dean and handsome handsome Jess, and why you should flee them both like peasants do a plague ship.
Until then I remain,
Cranky Aunt Clare
Once again, and a month late: a playlist for those whose Valentine’s day was more traumatic than tender, loosely inspired by women from books and their mediocre-to-terrifying suitors. Possibly a bit spoiler-y; previous version here.
honorable mention, because she deserves it, poor girl.
“I think you need to learn to manage my expectations. I am not a patient man. If you say you are going to contact me when you finish work, then you should have the decency to do so. Otherwise, I worry, and it’s not an emotion I’m familiar with, and I don’t tolerate it very well. Call me.”
“You should find me intimidating,” he nods. “You’re very honest. Please don’t look down. I like to see your face.”
“I’m a very wealthy man, Miss Steele, and I have expensive and absorbing hobbies.”
“I tracked your cell phone, Anastasia”
“You can leave anytime. The helicopter is on stand-by to take you whenever you want to go, you can stay the night and go home in the morning. It’s fine whatever you decide.”
The rain has stopped. The waterfall will roar like that all
night. I have come out to take a walk and feed. My body–foot,
that is–is wet and cold and covered with sharp gravel. It is
white, the size of a dinner plate. I have set myself a goal, a
certain rock, but it may well be dawn before I get there.
Although I move ghostlike and my floating edges barely graze
the ground, I am heavy, heavy, heavy. My white muscles are
already tired. I give the impression of mysterious ease, but it is
only with the greatest effort of my will that I can rise above the
smallest stones and sticks. And I must not let myself be dis-
tracted by those rough spears of grass. Don’t touch them. Draw
back. Withdrawal is always best.
The rain has stopped. The waterfall makes such a noise! (And
what if I fall over it?) The mountains of black rock give off such
clouds of steam! Shiny streamers are hanging down their sides.
When this occurs, we have a saying that the Snail Gods have
come down in haste. I could never descend such steep escarp-
ments, much less dream of climbing them.
That toad was too big, too, like me. His eyes beseeched my
love. Our proportions horrify our neighbors.
Rest a minute; relax. Flattened to the ground, my body is like
a pallid, decomposing leaf. What’s that tapping on my shell?
Nothing. Let’s go on.
My sides move in rhythmic waves, just off the ground, from
front to back, the wake of a ship, wax-white water, or a slowly
melting floe. I am cold, cold, cold as ice. My blind, white bull’s
head was a Cretan scare-head; degenerate, my four horns that
can’t attack. The sides of my mouth are now my hands. They
press the earth and suck it hard. Ah, but I know my shell is
beautiful, and high, and glazed, and shining. I know it well,
although I have not seen it. Its curled white lip is of the finest
enamel. Inside, it is as smooth as silk, and I, I fill it to perfection.
My wide wake shines, now it is growing dark. I leave a lovely
opalescent ribbon: I know this.
But O! I am too big. I feel it. Pity me.
If and when I reach the rock, I shall go into a certain crack
there for the night. The waterfall below will vibrate through
my shell and body all night long. In that steady pulsing I can
rest. All night I shall be like a sleeping ear.
The state with the prettiest name,
the state that floats in brackish water,
held together by mangrave roots
that bear while living oysters in clusters,
and when dead strew white swamps with skeletons,
dotted as if bombarded, with green hummocks
like ancient cannon-balls sprouting grass.
The state full of long S-shaped birds, blue and white,
and unseen hysterical birds who rush up the scale
every time in a tantrum.
Tanagers embarrassed by their flashiness,
and pelicans whose delight it is to clown;
who coast for fun on the strong tidal currents
in and out among the mangrove islands
and stand on the sand-bars drying their damp gold wings
on sun-lit evenings.
Enormous turtles, helpless and mild,
die and leave their barnacled shells on the beaches,
and their large white skulls with round eye-sockets
twice the size of a man’s.
The palm trees clatter in the stiff breeze
like the bills of the pelicans. The tropical rain comes down
to freshen the tide-looped strings of fading shells:
Job’s Tear, the Chinese Alphabet, the scarce Junonia,
parti-colored pectins and Ladies’ Ears,
arranged as on a gray rag of rotted calico,
the buried Indian Princess’s skirt;
with these the monotonous, endless, sagging coast-line
is delicately ornamented.
Thirty or more buzzards are drifting down, down, down,
over something they have spotted in the swamp,
in circles like stirred-up flakes of sediment
sinking through water.
Smoke from woods-fires filters fine blue solvents.
On stumps and dead trees the charring is like black velvet.
go hunting to the tune of their ferocious obbligatos.
After dark, the fireflies map the heavens in the marsh
until the moon rises.
Cold white, not bright, the moonlight is coarse-meshed,
and the careless, corrupt state is all black specks
too far apart, and ugly whites; the poorest
post-card of itself.
After dark, the pools seem to have slipped away.
The alligator, who has five distinct calls:
friendliness, love, mating, war, and a warning–
whimpers and speaks in the throat
of the Indian Princess.
Five Flights Up
The unknown bird sits on his usual branch.
The little dog next door barks in his sleep
inquiringly, just once.
Perhaps in his sleep, too, the bird inquires
once or twice, quavering.
Questions—if that is what they are—
answered directly, simply,
by day itself.
Enormous morning, ponderous, meticulous;
gray light streaking each bare branch,
each single twig, along one side,
making another tree, of glassy veins…
The bird still sits there. Now he seems to yawn.
The little black dog runs in his yard.
His owner’s voice arises, stern,
“You ought to be ashamed!”
What has he done?
He bounces cheerfully up and down;
he rushes in circles in the fallen leaves.
Obviously, he has no sense of shame.
He and the bird know everything is answered,
all taken care of,
no need to ask again.
—Yesterday brought to today so lightly!
(A yesterday I find almost impossible to lift.)
By temperament, I am neither disciplined nor forgiving–I would rather spend six hours perfecting a miniscule detail of the project I care about, leaving half my work undone, than budget realistically and accept a compromise. If you have an obsessive, project-oriented streak, this can work well up to a point, but eventually, time for sleep becomes very sweet, and the baffled sense “for I do not understand what I am doing, because I do not practice what I want to do, but I do what I hate” very frustrating.
I can get one or two things done, and done to my satisfaction, but the problem was realizing that I want to do many things. When you want, not just to produce, but live well–eat good food, answer letters, dance, speak French–the finitude of time becomes much more pressing, and you can’t succeed by treating everything as a crisis.
I was noodling this after reading Calah’s post. Full-time childcare with the majority of housework is essentially working two jobs (in which your first job actively tries to destroy your second). Part of Calah’s point is that the problem is in some ways intractable; part of the problem also seems related to impossible demands placed overwhelmingly and specifically on mothers. But working two jobs and trying to find the energy to open a beer, at least, is familiar to me. Sometimes even minor adjustments have been helpful, and here some from my frantic times.
1. Focus on habits, not projects.
People tell you to begin with the end in mind, and I do! And that end is one in which I pray daily, am fluent in several languages, have an organized wardrobe with appropriate outfits for every occasion all of which fit and none of which are ripped, go for runs in a high ponytail and those cool stretchy outfits, write several thousand words a day, return emails immediately, read six newspapers every morning, make things like “walnut crusted salmon with artichokes and lemon pesto tapenade” for dinner, and have read literally every book.
Part of this is just me, but part of it, I think, is a well-marketed concept of femininity, and the tip-off is the picture of the self as a product–clean, contained, accessorized, on brand. It doesn’t touch on the development of a continuous person as much as the assembly of a static persona.
It also happens to be impossible, because most people have to work and reproduce their labor power, and there is barely time for leisure, let alone perfection, And even if you scale down your goals, you’ll still be stuck trying to create a setting, an aesthetic, “fixing your life” as if it existed in some malleable, adjustable “hackable” remove from you, the person.
And then, so much of the aesthetic of the clean, finished life depends on money, and so much of that, unless you are rich, is out of your control. You’ll gather up the skirts that desperately need alteration, and realize the money you’d blocked out went to fixing yesterday’s burst pipe. So you go on, waiting patiently for the day you can get everything just right, become the fantasy of yourself you wish to see in the world, finally take out your to do-list and cross “life” off forever.
When I really attend to happiness, not pawn it off on some immaterial collection of future things and traits and circumstances, I still want a good life. But I want to live it now, at a cruddy job and with cruddy pens that write in ugly smears, without scented candles or the silk pillowcases on which I know, deep down, my head was meant to lie
What makes me happy is being someone who gives what time she has to good books –maybe just page a day, not enough to become an expert in anything–not trying to become someone who has read a certain quota of good books.
What I really want and need is an order to my time and the habits that make that possible, not this or that particular outcome.
2. Don’t make a to-do list, set aside time.
I like to-do lists, because they impose little discipline and maximum achievement. I can treat them as a project, and faithfully, eventually, get everything done without having to worry about what the cost was, what I did with the rest of my time, or how long I can keep it up. But if what I really want is not just to plow through a complete set of Harvard Classics, but to give my time and attention to good things every single day, it helps to pre-allot the time I want to give. If I get up at 6 and get coffee, I can read the newspaper. If it is 5pm, I can be at my desk and computer, whether I feel like writing or have any good ideas.
And the best thing about this, for me, is the discipline of failure. You slept in? You read articles instead of writing? There’s no analgesic. You don’t get to make it up later, borrowing time from sleep or work. You don’t get to excuse yourself by shoving it off on a perfect tomorrow when you’ll “get your life in order.” You committed a specific amount of time to a specific work, and you failed, and that’s that.
But it’s ok, because now it’s time for another good thing you can succeed at, and tomorrow you’ll have another chance at this one. Making the acceptance of failure a part of the discipline helps quarantine what can otherwise be overwhelming self-castigation. You didn’t just tank your whole plan for your time, you failed at one thing, and by letting yourself feel that failure without abandoning the whole struggle, you’re turning it into a success.
And the flip-side to the discipline of failure is letting stuff go when it’s out of your control. The essay needed more work to be good, time’s up and you’re only halfway through? Hit save and move on. Unavoidable freak errand popped up in the evening prayer time? That’s ok, it’ll roll around again same time tomorrow.
When my focus is on achievement, interruptions and failures make me feel out of control, or that trying to do [goal] until [future condition] materializes is pointless. But with habits, what matters is the fidelity.
This is why I like the liturgy of the hours–your prayer is set up for you around regular intervals, and if you miss one, in three hours you try again.
3. Scale down.
Obviously, some things do not admit failure–some things are on a deadline, some of children’s needs are urgent.
In my experience, applying the discipline of failure to these non-negotiables, insofar as you can, makes them more manageable in the long run. If I have a paper due, rather than say “Saturday, I will write this paper,” I can begin, way before it’s due, giving myself half an hour a day to work on it. And you can fail at all those half hours, or use them with less than maximal efficiency, sure, but–wasting manageable bites of daily time explicitly set out for a task feels, to me, more difficult, harder to ignore, than dicking around when the only constraint is “get it done sometime today.” And even if I end up really using 15 minutes of that half hour productively, in a week I might still surprise myself with half a paper.
But I’ve found that it is a learning curve, and when you’re at the beginning, or you have many non-negotiables, or very difficult and time-consuming ones, it helps to massively scale down. Right now I exercise for three to five minutes a day, right before I shower and go to bed. It takes less energy to make myself do it when it’s only five minutes, and if for some reason I don’t get to it, it’s easier to jump back into the routine. My tiny workout won’t make me any kind of cross-fit champion, but I exercise more than I would with more ambitious goals; when I miss it, I notice.
4. Make bed-time a non-negotiable.
I tend to waste less of my allotted time if I know I’m going to bed at 9:30 whether I’ve finished it or not. I can’t always do this, obviously, but it helps, more than almost anything else. I’m happier and more capable, I don’t sleep in, and instead of finishing my to do list at an ever-increasing rate of inefficiency and exhaustion, I have to let the day go.
This applies, actually, to physical stuff in general. Prioritizing my goals by a kind of Maslow’s hierarchy is very helpful, and my top priority is the physical. Getting up on time, going to bed on time, my tiny workout, making myself drink water and stand up straight.
Putting it first and foremost provides a structure that keeps me from charging randomly at a free-wheeling vortex of obligations, never knowing which ones I’ll fulfill on any given day. If there’s just not enough time for everything, or I waste some of my time, or I fail at lower priority tasks, having my small, daily, absolute baseline physical regimen prevents me from feeling like I’ve lost all order so nothing matters after all..
I keep harping on this, because for me, it’s the key: understanding that I will sometimes fail to get everything done, especially at first, and having a structure that can absorb and neutralize that failure is how I build good habits.
And for some reason, putting the physical first offers a balance that enables me to attack the other stuff without being overwhelmed. Maybe because it’s relatively easy and therefore a low-cost way to keep your sense of order intact, or maybe it’s just that everything’s easier when you’re healthy. Either way, taking care of myself, even at the cost of other more important things, helps me stick to the hardest part of a discipline: not doing it perfectly every day, but doing it, like clockwork, the next day after you’ve let it slide.
My hierarchy goes something like this: physical care, liturgy of the hours, work, writing project A, writing project B, personal writing, reading, other miscellania.
It’s not what’s most important that comes first–prayer, writing, and reading all more important to me than sleep–it’s what allows me to stay disciplined in the pursuit of the important things.
5. Figure out what you actually need.
I enjoy cooking, and for me “eating well” was tied up with cooking a meal from scratch every night, chicken thighs and rice pilaf and a glass of red wine, etc. But that, you will no doubt be surprised to hear, is a massive time suck! I do need to eat well, but right now that doesn’t mean having fun in the kitchen, it means making a giant salad with chicken at the beginning of the week and storing it in five tupperwares.
6. Figure out what you want to do daily and what you want to do regularly.
For me, reading, writing, studying, answering mail, and exercising are what I need to do daily, and the first three are what I give the majority of my time to. Once a week I want a block of time for bills and budget, one for groceries and cooking, one for cleaning and laundry, and one for scheduling appointments and other miscellania. I don’t need to do those things every day, and I don’t need to devote a certain amount of time for them in the same way in the same way as reading and writing, but if I know when they are going to be done, I can put everything that accumulates into that block and bracket it off, so I don’t become bogged down in small tasks during the rest of the week, or put off what I really should do by telling myself I’m still being productive.
Some things I let slide for long periods of time, because I just don’t need to, say, have a busy social life right now. Some things I really can give to future–if my aunt says she’s going to teach me how to sew this summer, I don’t need to be looking up how-to videos on my own. And some things I have to be satisfied with making slow progress on, because I’ve given most of my time to more important things, and there’s really only ten minutes a day to learn X. But slow progress is still progress.
All this makes sense for the life of a single person with no dependents, not someone in Calah’s situation. But this post isn’t really for Calah (although she’s great). It’s for me. If it’s likely, one way or another, that changed circumstances in the not terribly distant future will render me much less mistress of my own time, it makes sense to work on ordering it now, and think consciously about what techniques are helpful in doing so. Hopefully, even if what works changes, the ability to come up with a modus vivendi that lends discipline to failure won’t.
First Death in Nova Scotia
In the cold, cold parlor
my mother laid out Arthur
beneath the chromographs:
Edward, Prince of Wales,
with Princess Alexandra,
and King George with Queen Mary.
Below them on the table
stood a stuffed loon
shot and stuffed by Uncle
Arthur, Arthur’s father.
Since Uncle Arthur fired
a bullet into him,
he hadn’t said a word.
He kept his own counsel
on his white, frozen lake,
the marble-topped table.
His breast was deep and white,
cold and caressable;
his eyes were red glass,
much to be desired.
“Come,” said my mother,
“Come and say good-bye
to your little cousin Arthur.”
I was lifted up and given
one lily of the valley
to put in Arthur’s hand.
Arthur’s coffin was
a little frosted cake,
and the red-eyed loon eyed it
from his white, frozen lake.
Arthur was very small.
He was all white, like a doll
that hadn’t been painted yet.
Jack Frost had started to paint him
the way he always painted
the Maple Leaf (Forever).
He had just begun on his hair,
a few red strokes, and then
Jack Frost had dropped the brush
and left him white, forever.
The gracious royal couples
were warm in red and ermine;
their feet were well wrapped up
in the ladies’ ermine trains.
They invited Arthur to be
the smallest page at court.
But how could Arthur go,
clutching his tiny lily,
with his eyes shut up so tight
and the roads deep in snow?
Oh, but it is dirty! —this little filling station, oil-soaked, oil-permeated to a disturbing, over-all black translucency. Be careful with that match! Father wears a dirty, oil-soaked monkey suit that cuts him under the arms, and several quick and saucy and greasy sons assist him (it’s a family filling station), all quite thoroughly dirty. Do they live in the station? It has a cement porch behind the pumps, and on it a set of crushed and grease- impregnated wickerwork; on the wicker sofa a dirty dog, quite comfy. Some comic books provide the only note of color— of certain color. They lie upon a big dim doily draping a taboret (part of the set), beside a big hirsute begonia. Why the extraneous plant? Why the taboret? Why, oh why, the doily? (Embroidered in daisy stitch with marguerites, I think, and heavy with gray crochet.) Somebody embroidered the doily. Somebody waters the plant, or oils it, maybe. Somebody arranges the rows of cans so that they softly say: ESSO—SO—SO—SO to high-strung automobiles. Somebody loves us all. --Elizabeth Bishop
Unfunny uncles who insist
in trying on a lady’s hat,
–oh, even if the joke falls flat,
we share your slight transvestite twist
in spite of our embarrassment.
Costume and custom are complex.
The headgear of the other sex
inspires us to experiment.
Anandrous aunts, who, at the beach
with paper plates upon your laps,
keep putting on the yachtsmen’s caps
with exhibitionistic screech,
the visors hanging o’er the ear
so that the golden anchors drag,
–the tides of fashion never lag.
Such caps may not be worn next year.
Or you who don the paper plate
itself, and put some grapes upon it,
or sport the Indian’s feather bonnet,
–perversities may aggravate
the natural madness of the hatter.
And if the opera hats collapse
and crowns grow draughty, then, perhaps,
he thinks what might a miter matter?
Unfunny uncle, you who wore a
hat too big, or one too many,
tell us, can’t you, are there any
stars inside your black fedora?
Aunt exemplary and slim,
with avernal eyes, we wonder
what slow changes they see under
their vast, shady, turned-down brim.
The tumult in the heart
keeps asking questions.
And then it stops and undertakes to answer
in the same tone of voice.
No one could tell the difference.
Uninnocent, these conversations start,
and then engage the senses,
only half-meaning to.
And then there is no choice,
and then there is no sense;
until a name
and all its connotation are the same.
Across the floor flits the mechanical toy,
fit for a king of several centuries back.
A little circus horse with real white hair.
His eyes are glossy black.
He bears a little dancer on his back.
She stands upon her toes and turns and turns.
A slanting spray of artificial roses
is stitched across her skirt and tinsel bodice.
Above her head she poses
another spray of artificial roses.
His mane and tail are straight from Chirico.
He has a formal, melancholy soul.
He feels her pink toes dangle toward his back
along the little pole
that pierces both her body and her soul
and goes through his, and reappears below,
under his belly, as a big tin key.
He canters three steps, then he makes a bow,
canters again, bows on one knee,
canters, then clicks and stops, and looks at me.
The dancer, by this time, has turned her back.
He is the more intelligent by far.
Facing each other rather desperately—
his eye is like a star—
we stare and say, “Well, we have come this far.”