Sometimes the moon is a flat circle, & sometimes the moon is something more than three-dimensional. Sometimes the moon is the sloppy pencil-scrawled oval you make at the top right corner of a blank page during one of those parlor games where you must communicate a word only by drawing, not speaking. And sometimes the moon is such a complete full orb that you can think of nothing, see nothing but the fact that you are a weird animal somehow standing on a round planet that is both so large & so small.
Tonight I discovered there is a website (of course there’s a website) whose only purpose is to show What The Moon Looks Like Now.
Tonight I watched Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive, & it was moody & moodful, but also sweet & dreamy. It is the kind of movie about which you can immediately identify the ones of your friends who will say That movie is slow & boring & about nothing & the ones who will say I sortof liked it. Tilda Swinton is a vampire goddess, inside that movie & outside of it, too. It’s interesting to think about the notion that if you were vampire, if you were pretty much never going to die barring extraordinary circumstances, that you would spend all of your endless time seeking pleasure in high art, culture, literature, music. What would it feel like to try to delight in consuming contemporary art if you’d been there for everything that had come before. Not just gone back & read it or listened to it, but been there when it was created & when it was canonized.
When I lived in Iowa, we were ravenous. We were never going to die & spent our time seeking pleasure in consuming art, culture, literature, music—at least what of it came to the middle of nowhere, Midwest, USA. The poets came there, of course, & the writers. All of them—the freaks & the giants & the gods & goddesses. We listened to them, then drank with them. I envied the crazy hair of the women & had immediate crushes on most of the men.
The movies didn’t come there. There were two theaters, & though there was a memorable burst at the beginning—Se7en, The Usual Suspects—not much arrived. We watched Jarmusch’s Dead Man & then I’d go driving with another poet, just driving off on farm roads to nowhere, car windows down, cigarettes puffed, listening to a lot of Neil Young. It’s the only time I’ve listened to a lot of Neil Young, but when you’re living in the middle of nowhere, you go for drives with beautiful boys who are lovely & comfortable & comforting & nice to wake up with, even though you both know you’ll just be friends when everyone moves away.
Dead Man didn’t change me; Iowa certainly did. Something about doing mundane things with extraordinary people. Drinking whiskeys and $1.50 PBR drafts at the same cobbled bar every night, eating stale popcorn out of baskets that were probably never cleaned. Playing Sly & the Family Stone’s Greatest Hits every night on the jukebox, always tracks 1, 7, 8 & 12. Also: Prince’s B-sides. Buying more beer from John’s to take to someone’s roof, once the bar closed. Finding some dark spot on the walk there & getting tangled up in someone for a few minutes, before catching up with the group. How are we all still alive? Why are we not all living in the same place anymore?
Those beautiful people who could perform magic. Legit magic. The people who knew you & your work & your desires for your work—well enough to hand you a book, just out of the sky it seemed, & say you should read this. And they were right. One of my favorite poets and former MFA classmate Jane Yeh handed me Lucie Brock-Broido & it changed everything for me. Another friend and poet from that time, Julia Ward, as part of an assignment Jorie Graham had one of us do at the start of each workshop—memorizing & reciting poems—recited Ashbery’s “As One Put Drunk Into The Packet-Boat” one afternoon, & it haunts me to this day. Hauntings are the best. I tried each thing, only some were immortal and free.
Charles Wright, when I was in his workshops as an undergraduate at UVA, told me I needed to meet and work with Larry Levis. Larry was teaching in the MFA program at VCU in Richmond at the time. There was no Facebook, no email, no internet. Charles just handed me Larry’s phone number on a piece of paper & said Give him a call; I told him to expect you. Sure enough, I called Larry & he immediately invited me down to hang out with him, sit in on his graduate workshop, talk to me about my poems, and his. All during my last semester of college, I had two poetry mentors, Charles and Larry. I’d go down to Richmond every other week or so to see Larry; he’d buy me a beer & a grilled cheese sandwich & talk about my poems for a while. Awe. No one really knew that I was doing this. No one really knew how much that time meant to me. There was no status to post, no picture to take of us together. A few years later, Larry died—god, he was only 49. I was at Iowa by then, & I heard about it just in casual conversation between other writers in a hallway. Secret grief—what was there to say?
There are people with whom I was at Iowa who are, by all accounts, very successful now, some highly regarded. I’ve never felt an ounce of jealousy—only pride, & a kind of longing for us all to be together again, even though it wasn’t always good between us all. Even though it wasn’t always good between us all, it was always thrilling.
I miss that thrill. There have been right times, right places in my life when I’ve been fortunate to experience awe, & those two years were full of them.
It’s happened here & there—every time I go to see/hear Neko Case, it happens. It happened in 1999 walking through The Castro on Halloween night, back when I lived in San Francisco—that city so capable of being awe-blooming (or at least it was at that time). It happened when I went to see Sally Mann’s The Flesh & the Spirit at VMFA five years ago or so. It happened riding on the back of an Italian drummer’s Vespa through the streets of Rome, up to Trastevere, back in 2003. It happened during my first year of college, the moment I started Toni Morrison’s Beloved right up until the minute I finished it, & then for a good many minutes just after that. It happened during my MFA program, just after I allowed one of those beautiful boys to actually break what heart I had at the time, which led me to write a poem called “Quicksilver”—the first poem I ever published. That poem was different from anything I’d ever written before it—had a scary new voice I didn’t know I had in me. It’s not an earth-shattering poem, but it shattered an old me & a new me fell from the sky in her place. It wasn’t just that I’d written something different; it’s that I knew I’d written something different.
Breathtaking might be a perfect word. It lives in the lungs, that awe-feeling.
But it’s what’s missing a bit, now. I am craving a book from the sky, a phone number on a piece of paper, a drive down a farm road. Something to take my breath, & for which I’d love to give it.