Friday, September 15, 2006

The Laundry Room

I never lived in a place that had a laundry room. But three years ago my husband and I bought a little house in Pennsylvania, and a big attraction for me was the laundry room. And I hadn't really realized how much I loved this room, or why, until an old friend from Chicago spent last weekend with us. This friend and I have had a volatile relationship over the course of twenty years. We've gone years without speaking (we're both poets, so that’s just normal, right?), but the one thing we could never deny or ignore was our shared economic backgrounds: we both grew up poor. The bond between people — perhaps women in particular — who grew up like that is a unique and visceral one, maybe even more so in this era of the disappearing American working class. But it's also one that keeps both parties from getting away with any phony stuff: "I know where you come from, sister." No matter what you've done to that person, she'll always understand you because she knows where you came from, and she recognizes that dirty, cluttered, chaotic place as her own.

So, I was giving this friend the tour of the house, and when we came to the laundry room she said, "Ah, this is where the magic happens." I had to laugh. She had referenced our shared desires to impose (or, in a more hopeful way, find) cleanliness and order in dirty, cluttered, chaotic places. Maybe that's the reason she and I became writers: to find (or, in a more realistic way, impose) order within chaos. And I realized that through my diligent attention the laundry room had become the cleanest room in the house, a kind of votive altar to the idea of cleanliness. Many pleasant hours had I spent spritzing and wiping down the washer and dryer, sweeping the floor, cleaning out cobwebs from corners, and keeping the counter free of stuff (only the iron — the big, old-fashioned, shiny all-metal kind — some laundry detergent, a box of plant food, and two folded-up Japanese cloths rest there). An ironing board leans against the wall, adding — in my opinion — to the general air of cleanliness and comfort. I think comfort is the key here: the laundry room is, for women especially, the one place where nothing can go wrong. It might be the place to go, in fact, after things have gone terribly wrong.

In my early 20's, in the early 80's, after a long, complicated night, I used to love to watch the sun come up at the 24-hour wash-and-dry. Most times I wasn't even doing laundry. Sometimes I was the only person there. But it was better when other people were there, because then I'd get the miraculously ordinary motions of the act itself — nothing at stake there — the smell of the wet clothes, the laundry detergent, the fabric softener. To this day, whenever I pass an apartment building venting air from the laundry room, I flash on certain difficult nights and the wondrous deliverance from hideousness that came with sunrise via laundry and its accoutrements.

But now here's the problem: although those days (and nights) are long gone, the memory of comfort after crisis is just as vivid as the crises themselves. Perhaps more so, because comfort — like crisis — can be addictive. And after one learns one can easily manufacture comfort, one becomes a comfort junkie. In the early days, a laundry room or a laundromat was a place forever outside the arena of hideousness because most of the horrors happened in clubs, bars, public bathrooms, parking lots, on side streets, by lakes, on overnight buses, and of course in my apartment and the apartments of others. Thus the laundromat, or any place where laundry was done, was a true escape (and I never lived in any building that had a laundry room). But then, once it's in your own space, even if you only occupy that space on weekends, the laundry room becomes a monster of one's own creation. Comfort can be accessed 24-7 in the comfort of one's home (or just via memory), and so one never needs to hope for it, to ever again deal with the kinds of difficulties one experienced in earlier times. And so experience ends. And the end of experience is stasis, death. There was a reason why Adam and Eve chose the apple of experience, the fall into Time, over paradise, stasis. They chose life and death over death-in-life.

So now what? I've got this laundry room, and comfort. Even when I'm not at the house (our apartment in Brooklyn is still our main residence), I carry the idea of the comfort I've provided for myself everywhere I go. Thus, comfort means nothing because it's everything. Can comfort regain its former meaning, its old piquancy? Do I need to get rid of the laundry room? Or become worthy of the laundry room, of comfort, by casting myself even deeper into experience, so that comfort becomes as intense as crisis and as meaningful again? And if I do succeed in getting rid of the laundry room, can I erase its memory? Does the acquisition of comfort ruin one for experience ever after? I think I need to either mess up the laundry room, or mess up my life. Or both. Either way, I'll be going back to an earlier, more difficult, vivid time. We'll see what happens.

Friday, September 08, 2006

I Wanted To Write A Canticle of Exhaltation and Praise

for Todd Colby

Thank you for asking me to submit to your magazine,
Dead Fluffy Coyote,
but I haven’t been writing much poetry lately.
I’ve been rockin’.
Or, I should say, rockin’ again.
Because I used to rock.
I started rockin’ at the age of ten,
me and my sister sitting with Dad in the Rambler,
watching the planes take off and land.
In fact, that’s where I first rocked:
in that Rambler, with a transistor radio pressed to my ear.
And I rocked for a long time.
A pretty long fuckin’ time!
But then somebody came along and made me self-conscious about rockin’.
Somebody said my rockin’ was “anti-intellectual.”
They said I’d never get a tenure-track job
teaching creative writing at a university
if I didn’t stop rockin’.
So I stopped rockin’.
What was I thinking?
Didn’t I understand that, yes,
the heavy bombardment was a hellish environment
but also the natural condition of creation?
Oh, you brilliant neurotics, syphilitics
and hyperpriapic lead guitarists — you knew.
Proust knew in his cork-lined room
that rockin’ arises afresh daily from every afflicted attitude,
and even not rockin’
forms a bridge between forgotten continents.
I may have epilepsy, brain atrophy, “milk leg,”
bottleflies infesting my eyes,
and the belief that my legs and arms are angry clowns,
but I’m rockin’ like a cross between
Anna Akhmatova and Dolly Parton,
like broken post-Bolshevik teacups and flea markets.
Oh, too late came I to love you,
rockin’ so ancient and so new!
Oh Lucifer, light-bringer,
singer of our hymns to failure,
cut us loose from our tribal pieties,
our forebodings at what this new age means,
for we shall be known by new names.
And if our decency is fatigued
let us eat its meat with similar spoons.
Who knows the secrets of the universe,
whether Marilyn Monroe had eleven toes?
Rockin’ knows.
Like the bone at the beginning of “2001”,
what befell the beginning keeps befalling,
and something old and mostly forgotten
can rock the marginalized fifty million.
We’re always being asked to do the impossible,
and so now I’m asking you to rock.
I’m begging you to rock.
I have no doubts about your faults.
But your faults give birth to a dancing star.
Sure, harsh carcasses are criss-crossing the pit,
souls fluttering up the rotunda like confetti
but joy lurks there.
I know ‘cause I’ve been there.
It’s hard to get back what’s been forgotten.
But it’s easy to start rockin’.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Gait Signatures

Enduring freedom

just turned a corner

like a picnic interloper

skilled in shindig

like a diving bird

with notes of ivory

alive within

a century of throats

like an insouciant suitor

oozing chutzpah

in vast trajectories

of tongue-tied sounds

like a soprano of the flesh

on two continents

or the monumental ice in Stuttgart’s

luxurious seaport

and while Monroe enjoys

gulag maneuvers

Andean sun-worshippers plunder

Iona’s etoile moguls

supplementing splendor

with parched aspects

of the sea of tranquility

like the NFL

made peevish

by female roughnecks

seeking Bowery derelicts

London rubbernecks

and gung-ho


in a wilderness of

buckwheat mush

to form the center

of an arty party’s

endless source of energy

like a pagan blunderbuss

at home with a drone’s

next hoax

like a star in the axle of the ear

like a nimbus portal

like a princess with a vinous touch

translating the lemming’s inquiry

into stammering oriental specificity

like products of asexual reproduction

in Wisconsin


of unusually heavy youth

brainstorming the abbess

the gardener’s adobe ho

and her peculiar food regimen

like an escapade of neck feathers

a case of lucky legs

a bohemian deemed seemy

in cowboy argot, and

oh, unsightly cuckoo

my impossible dream times thirteen

what happens when happiness

comes first

its negligent candor

like a zeitgeist anchored

by a famous refrain

about free agency

like sleeping pills in lieu of food

like the happy vignettes

of “That’s Entertainment”

as uncertain thresholds as

gait signatures as

alternative means of transport

like eating bad food and candy

or goofing on Jimmy Durante

in ways that impose order and meaning on actions

as mundane and comforting as

washing cups at sunset

then walking alone, slowly, in the long twilight

wrapped in a blanket

in a way that apes the ancient

regularity of nature.