Susan M. Schultz reviews
Conversations with John Gallaher’s
In a Landscape
I’m not sure why I bought John Gallaher’s new book, though it was probably because we’ve been neighbors in Facebook comment boxes (little boxes!) on such topics as adoption — he’s adopted, I have adopted children. He lives in Missouri, which was intriguing to me until I found out that he clearly, obstinately, doesn’t know about the St Louis Cardinals. So I bought his book from BOA Editions.
It has 71 sections — LXXI, rather — constituting a discursive meditation on his own mid-American middle-aged daily life. It’s a masculine Midwinter’s Day, perhaps, though when I wrote to tell him I liked the book, I said it reminded me of Douglas Crase. He responded by saying he hadn’t thought of Crase in a long time. There was that book in the 1980s, right? Yes, The Revisionist, 1981. Was that his only book? I looked Crase up, found an official website. Yes, that was the only book of poems, but then there’s been a daybook and a co-biography since, along with a book of essays about American literature. No mention of “real” work, the kind that pays the bills. How does he live such a life? John wondered. So I went prowling and found a New York Times wedding announcement from 2011 for Crase and his partner Frank Polach. By this time, I’d veered away from my comment on John’s book and into a wild goose chase after Douglas Crase’s finances, which seemed odd. Then I remembered that Crase had written me a couple of times, but stopped after I suggested (as I recall) that he write more poems. (Was that why he stopped?) I just now (later) took The Revisionist down from my office shelf. Inside it, I find a note in an envelope dated March 17, 1992. It’s in response to a review I wrote of a book I no longer remember reading, though I do remember his poems, not exactly what was in them, but their density, their careful thoughtfulness, like Ashbery poems that were more linear than Ashbery poems, more deliberate.
I started sending John brief messages in response to his book and began to think that this was one way to read the book, talking back to it as I flip through it, sometimes forward, sometimes back. It started with funny stuff. Like a rumination on numbers and porn. I’d just talked about this in class when we started the Dover edition of Shakespeare’s sonnets with the old numerals we no longer learn in school, and then saw this —
Whenever I see the roman numeral XXX
I think of pornography.
For a few months the site meter for the Tinfish Editor’s blog recorded repeated attempts to find pornography. Searches like “XXX stories for my husband” came in from Arkansas, which might not have been Arkansas because I remember using blogger in Los Angeles and seeing it logged as Arkansas. When the tickle became an itch of curiosity, I investigated. The search landed curious yellows at a post that included discussion of Shakespeare’s sonnet XXX. Sad pornographees. I’d forgotten that the post included my mother, ended with a photo of her in her Alzheimer’s. Forgetting can be a kind of grace.
I changed my mind. I was going to stop writing this poem, but now
I’m not, because I heard someone say, in the hallway earlier,
that she had changed her mind, and it seemed a lovely idea, the way
it struck me to “change one’s mind.” I’d like to do that. Presto
When we adopted our daughter, Radhika, at age three, she spoke trillingly in Nepali. The difference in our languages mattered far less than I had feared. She conveyed her needs, and we provided them. But as soon as she started learning English, she discovered words to say and repeat. The first was “TRAFFICS,” which she would yell from the back seat of the car as we drove home from my job and her first day care person. (My daughter is not patient.) Then came the brief era of “change mind!” She’d walk around the house calling out, “change mind! change mind!” There was a beautiful constancy to her announcement of inconstancy. “Inconstant stay,” in sonnet XV, can be read quickly as “inconstancy.” I think it was Garrett Stewart who taught me that.
“It changes you,” they say about a lot of different things,
but what they don’t say is that most people
change right back.
We had a chat about “change,” John and I. My week has been like carrying a pile of dirty nickels in my purse. I can’t even reach them to spend. He liked the mention of “spare change.” Brother can you spare a dime? Pair one?
What does it mean to be useful? To be a useful person? My son’s
watching Thomas the Tank Engine, where the goal is ever
to be useful.
When Bryant, Sangha and I were in London, during autumn 2002, Sangha (then 3) spent hours watching Thomas the Tank Engine videos, the ones that featured English accents. Ringo Starr! This was also the era of Bob the Builder. That December we even had a Bob the Builder advent calendar with chocolates behind each pair of shutters. We traveled a bit, once to Essex, and another time to Ireland. When he grew tired in his stroller, Sangha started singing at the top of his lungs, usually “Bob the Builda.” Through the cathedral square of Essex he sang; and, on the tube from Heathrow after an exhilarating and exhausting trip to Ireland, he belted out the tune as tube riders stared. Children are utterly useless sometimes. That’s why we love them. Like poems.
That probably doesn’t connect to anything, I’m thinking
right now, a few hours later. But Bob the Builder is playing
on the TV, and my son’s watching it, and he’s named
Eliot with the E-L-I-O-T spelling. Bob has just dropped
his construction helmet …
John Cage keeps coming up in these poems, which are not acrostics, or especially quiet, unless you mean written in a steady even tone. They’re not quiet, or random, even if they take some chances. Somewhere Gallaher refers to 4’ 33”. I went to hear this at the Honolulu Art Academy with Bryant when we first started dating. A woman sat at the piano and prepared to play. You could tell who was in or not in on the joke. There were the coughers, the whisperers. She stood up once to look inside the piano, then sat down again, which felt a bit like cheating, because she was doing something. I once played the Frank Zappa version of 4’33” to a freshman composition class. One football player started pounding on his desk, another stood up and danced. Only one student said she enjoyed the time to herself.
When I was young, I lived in Orange County and ended up
going to Disneyland thirty-five times. I was trapped at “Yo ho,
yo ho, a pirate’s life for me” once, for about forty-five minutes.
When I first moved to Hawai`i, I had a colleague named Alan who was in his late 30s. That was back before air-conditioning and stark ideologies, when we drifted between our offices and chatted. His office was on the same corridor as Joe’s who died of AIDS. Alan was a storyteller, but he kept telling the same one. Soon, he was teaching less and less, and his students complained about him. Then — and this was beautiful — his friends (three or four or five of them) took over his classes until he had 10 years vested in the system, first while he was still in his apartment, then in a home. They would shop for him, do his taxes. And then he was gone to California, where his older sister had died of early onset Alzheimer’s, like their father. Alan had never made romantic commitments to people, because he knew his DNA. But I bring this up because Alan was once trapped in the “It’s a Small World” ride at Disneyland for a very long time. Whenever he and his friends were on an academic panel together, one or the other of them would slip “it’s a small world” into their talks. Even now, years after Alan’s death, his friends wear funny ties on his birthday, go out to lunch. So, when John asks in
Where’s the line between what constitutes repetition
and what constitutes change? Right now I’m thinking forgetfulness
is just as good as careful planning…
I think of Alan, for whom forgetting was repetition, and repetition of forgetting a story told over and again in my doorway on the 6th floor of Kuykendall. I’m no longer there — I moved to the 2nd floor years ago — and that’s a kind of change I can count. 4 floors. How many years now?
Alan was adopted by his friends, and then relinquished into “care.”
was the sister of my father, until years later,
when we were adopted and became brothers.
Our mother now, back then, was the daughter
of the brother of my birth grandmother.
We scratch our heads about it
now and then, how every family has these
stories, these little shufflings,
When our daughter came home with us from Nepal, people would ask if she and Sangha were siblings. I’d say yes, or “they are now,” knowing precisely what they were getting at. Now, when I say we’re going to visit the kids’ sister, friends look confused. Isn’t she Radhika’s sister? And the mother of my daughter’s sister is what to me? There are not enough names for us, or there are too many, usually fractions, like half- or step-. Before I adopted my children I had the same odd way of apportioning relation, of who was what to whom. A woman stopped me in a park where I went with Sangha; she had a son his age. She wondered if she could love someone not related to her by blood. Her son was conceived in vitro. She really wanted me to answer her question.
Are poets related genetically? Or are they made by way of similar strands of DNA, and then adopt each other? The torque of synapse from direct address to punch line suggests yes. The poetry gene is clearly recessive, popping up at random chance moments in the larger population, causing no small amount of distress (existential and otherwise) to its carriers. We are the kids who don’t know about each other until there’s an odd early a.m. call or facebook post that suggests we might share a parent. Maybe that parent is assigned us by Harold Bloom, but most likely we can’t understand each other (misprision, baby!) because we didn’t share four walls and an Oldsmobile. But there’s no statute of limitations on this recognition scene, with all its joys and disappointments, its promise of getting out of time, only to fall back into it. Our cousin ended up choosing her late-birth-father’s wife over her half!! biological sisters. It’s like that with families, the choices forced upon us by politics. Or the way institutions bind us together as parents, siblings, and kids over the space of decades until we don’t need to go to meetings, because everything we would say is there in the room already, hanging not as possibility but as what simply would be. When I meditate, my brain starts off that way, full of conversations remaining from 3 a.m. wake-up-to-pee time, a choreography of sounds more chaotic than those in “Truck Stop,” where Glenn Gould goes to a diner, and overhears voices as if they were part of a Bach Fugue. I often wish there had been more fugue states in my life; at least then, there’s focus amid all the remembering and forgetting and counterpoint of voices. Once I walked miles in New Haven in one — some guy had made me angry — and only later did I realize that had been it. So unlike Bach. Bach was what soothed me as a teenager, because he was complicated but still made sense. States render everything into static.
Somewhere in the book there’s a discussion of nothing, probably related to Cage and his silences, and I’m thinking that the most difficult course requirement I gave my students this semester is to spend 10 minutes a day doing nothing. One said she’d never done nothing before, another that he just kept thinking, and was that ok? One woman said she kept thinking about how many pages of her reading she could do. So I suggested that she take her 10 minutes out of Facebook times and she confessed. The woman who said she’d never done nothing before disappeared from the class, as did the woman who might have been the man arrested for prostitution in 2003. Why are you so nosy, my daughter asked, looking everyone up on the computer, so I point out that she’s being nosy when she asks. It’s true, I like the way the internet imitates thought, but not the way its creativity erases ours, all those links following each other like flash metaphors without the synapses that might hatch them. Not the nada who art in nada. There’s more there than that. But soft purple flower cheeks at the pond that spill into the olive green water, then sink. Radhika gets on the elevator with me and smiles at the colleague I don’t like. “He talked to you because I was there,” she said once in her crazy wise way. And I’ve acknowledged him ever since.
When I was young, we moved every three years. You
could set your watch to it. It’s been mostly convenient.
We made one big move when I was a kid that shook me more than I realized then. Looking back, it was like a boundary fence beyond which things grew more confusing and full of strange and violent melancholy. At the time, I only remember I wanted to say I did not want to move but did not allow myself to say so. Not that it would have mattered. This section of John’s poem asks the question, “Have you had a good life?” one he returns to over and again, reframing it only slightly. Sometimes it’s called “happiness.” One of my students last semester wrote about how his parents want him to be happy in the life he chooses. I asked him how he defines “happiness” and he looked at me like I was nuts. But really, I asked. There are researchers who study this! What do we mean when we say the word “happy”? When my daughter scored a goal in soccer once, I stood up on the sideline and started singing “I’m happy!” (Pharrell Williams-style). Afterwards, she gave me stink-eye. “Mom, NEVER EVER sing like that again.” But I was happy, just then, without knowing how to define it. Just was.
I wonder if Douglas Crase has moved since he sent me that kind note in the 1990s. Should I write him back now? Should I send him this blog post and say we were talking about you and that book of poems you wrote that we all remember, but so little after. “What we bring back is the sense of the size of it,” he writes in “Blue Poles.” It’s the length of his lines and Gallaher’s that made me think of that genetic connection between them, the discursive moving toward something — an idea, a shaped sensation — the brain’s foraging in what’s left of Stevens’s dump. The the.
John Gallaher, In a Landscape, BOA Editions, 2014.
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Susan M. Schultz is author of several books of poetry and poetic prose, most recently Dementia Blog (2008), Memory Cards: 2010-2011 Series (2011), and “She’s Welcome to Her Disease”: Dementia Blog, Vol.2 (2013),all from Singing Horse Press. Vagabond Press included Memory Cards: Dogen Series in their recent deciBels Series (2014). She edits and publishes Tinfish Press from her home office in Kāne‘ohe, Hawai`i, and roots for the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team.