Permission To Write
you will live half the year in a house by the sea and half the year in a house in our arms
we peer into the future and see you happy and hope it is a sign that we will be happy too, something to
cling to, happiness
the least and best of human attainments.
Ė Frank OíHara
If I could name this, just once: reading the collected Wallace Stevens
You found for me at the secondhand bookshop on St Markís, near
Between 1st Avenue and Avenue A. That was the start of spring
And I canít remember if it was raining, what colour your eyes were,
What table we took in Katzís. I had never seen a pastrami sandwich
With more pastrami than sandwich. Stop trying to eat pretty, you said,
when I spilt meat
Down our legs. Was it then you tried to teach me how to say Brooklyn,
the way they do,
The park slope people? I couldnít say it, canít say it still, though you
managed my name in Chinese;
I couldnít learn your tongue. Thereís a bad joke waiting to be made,
speaking of tongue and Katzís.
Did we put a tip into the pickle jar that time? They gave us two kinds of pickles,
That much I remember. Not how the day stung or the smell of your jacket or what you said to me,
Jolting on the train. Did the train jolt? You were laughing on the walk
And I want to remember that, your gladness that day, rounding the
From the subway station: the L train to 14th Street and Broadway and
then the 1 line to 110th,
I only ever went to the Village that way when I was with you. You were
with me that day,
The whole day and the whole night through Ė did I get drunk on black
russians for the first time,
Did we get movies from Kimís to watch? I canít remember the titles,
If I could I would carve their names on rock.
That spring break was a flowering, even the New York weather
We went to the park, made brownies, watched funny movies, spent
Like coin like grace.
This much I claim.
For the Greeks, memory is rooted in utterance...memorable naming is the function of poetry, within a society like that of the Greeks, for the poet uses memory to transform our human relationship to time.
Ė Anne Carson, Economy of the Unlost
And then there is the difficulty of seeing you as real:
breathing, desiring, complicated, desired
moving in time.
Anne Carson: wanted to do something different with words,
something he called measuring out the area
of the given and the possible.
Think of all our water metaphors. Rain and rivers and Heraclites. Also: winter, frozen, ice. Tearing your skin away from the ice, how that felt.
Herakles lies like a piece of torn silk in the heat of the blue saying
Except it was the room that was blue, and the sheets, and it wasnít hot; the light was white and cool, New York winterlight, and your body white in it.
who watch for my mistakes in grammar,
my mistakes in love
Perhaps itís a problem of syntax.
Iím thinking of you on Zuma, nineteen and recovering from brain surgery, writing haikus in a private language.
Merleau-Ponty: we move through language like a fish swims through water. I read Merleau-Ponty like any other poem; I might have made the line up; Iíve forgotten the rest of the essay but I love the economy of that line. We move through language, not language through us, or exactly that: we move through language and it moves through us. Locke thought that words were signs superimposed on ideas, ideas were the stuff of thoughts/of our minds, words take meaning from the ideas they overlay. Merleau-Ponty said (Saussure said) words take meaning from the relations between them. To see the edge of each word and not to fall into the space between them, we have to move like a fish swims through water. In its element. Of necessity. As a fish takes in air by filtering the water through its gills, keeping the water out. If we are to breathe underwater, if we are not to drown in language, if we are not to suffocate outside it.
Coming back to language, after all. The fierce joy circling beneath the words. Whatever else is there.
[This is the poem I was afraid to write:
What happens after grief has dried up?
You learn to breathe again.]
I still think you romanticise New York too much.
Last day in New York, I took the train down to Coney Island to look for Woody Allenís house under the roller-coaster and to see the old Russians in fur coats on the beach. I couldnít find either, but I did find the Aquarium and went in with all the little kids to see the jellyfish and the penguins and the whales (were they the beluga whales Geryon saw, as alive as he was / on their side / of the terrible slopes on time?). You brought me back a penguin the time you went with Laurie and Stevie and his friend. Perhaps I should have gone with you, to race along the Boardwalk with the kids, to be bewildered and charmed by your second family, the Jewishness, the closeness, the startling normality of it all. I didnít go with you and the Levines to Chinatown, either, to celebrate the end of Passover (was it Passover?); I stayed at home to read Hannah Arendt and later slipped out to a bar down on 96th to hear Carolyn Leonhart sing the glass songs. At home; it was home for me in that unsettled way, the tiny rooms on 110th, the dim crowdedness of the Hungarian, the winds that ran straight along the city grid. I never stopped marvelling at the way the city was laid out all in grids; it made getting lost so much less permanent. I didnít come from a place of mountains and ocean, as you did; I came from three years of rain and cobblestones and the heartbreaking beauty of the Radcliffe Camera; I came from a desire to run away and to stop running away and simply to stop, for a time; I was content to let the city stay strange, indifferent, inexhaustible. (Oxford, you see, I am bound to; I knew every corner of it.) Itís a different city I remember now and a different city from what we shared, whatever we had of it; memory lights a different city every night, and it was always a city that wore other memories; it was Woody Allenís city, and Susan Sontagís city, and Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouacís and there was the West End where they had gotten drunk, and W. H. Audenís dive on 55th Street, and Adrienne Richís this island of Manhattan is island enough for me and of course the city of Frank OíHara and Kenneth Koch, you gave them to me later. Youíre mixed up in my memory with New York, inseparable from the city you hate and equally fictitious. What kind of grand love affair was it, could it have been? Three months, maybe a little more, to get used to the idea of leaving. I have a spindleful of CDs, fond memories of bagels, the collected Stevens; what did I leave you with?
Ė that no return to the past is without irony, or without a sense that a full return, or repatriation, is impossible. (Edward Said, Reflections on Exile)
By Koh Tsin Yen
QLRS Vol. 3 No. 3 Apr 2004