Tuesday, June 01, 2004
Herewith please find the response to question 6 of the next round of the 9 for 9 project:
Poet Lee Ann Brown writes about an assignment to search for a New Muse. If you were to take this assignment, where and/or how would you look?
My first muse was a nightmare. Not that she meant to be. My grandmother was still in her teens when she first began having “spells” that made it difficult & later impossible for her to work. My great grandmother, a single parent with eleven children – there had been 13 but two had died – needed contributions from every able-bodied child. Indeed, if one of the boys got drunk on the weekend & came home & forced himself upon his sisters, it was not commented upon because his salary was essential. My grandmother grew up in a world in which girls learned to lock their bedroom doors at night & four of her sisters had had abortions before World War I. My grandfather, steady & quiet, must have seemed a mode of rescue when he proposed, and he was, but the “spells” never entirely went away.
“Spells” is decidedly a pre-medical diagnosis for what would now be identified as chronic depression with psychotic features. But “spells” is what my family was still calling this process when I first experienced her raving, pacing, incoherent & unprovoked fury, growing up in my grandparents’ house in the early 1950s. My mother, her youngest daughter, had divorced young & returned to live with her parents, creating a makeshift arrangement (my mother literally sleeping on the sofa bed in the livingroom) that would last until I finished high school. Since stress was the primary trigger for my grandmother’s episodes, three generations in a two-bedroom, 1100 square-foot house was a set up, guaranteed to maximize the craziness that ensued.
Life with my grandmother was dysfunctional in all the ways that life with a mentally ill always is. One didn’t invite friends over to one’s house, for example. And while some of the more traumatic incidents – being chased around the house by a woman waving a steak knife, for example – didn’t occur until I was a teen & better able, literally, to take of myself, the most important aspect of her condition – what really made her my muse – was the linguistic manifestation of her worst breakdowns, long periods – months even – when she would begin sentences & stop, leaving them unfinished. Often she would return to these broken sentences, sometimes hours later, to complete them. I think that my brother & I in particular received training in listening under extraordinary conditions, one that left me hyperconscious of the nuances of words, between words & around them. And about what happens when the syntax stops.
Much of coming into my own as a poet certainly was learning how to apply the lessons I had gained in childhood to the world at large, learning how to listen in a larger way, one that gradually became free of the specific associations it might once have had to my mother’s mother, who passed away 18 years ago at the age of 90.
A new muse to my mind would mean – and would require – a new way of hearing, literally a new way of being in the world. Well, what would that mean? It would require, at minimum, growing up in the language. Not just learning it – as tho I might begin writing now in Russian or French – but going through that childhood process of babbling immersion through which one learns categories-of-the-world as one learns simultaneously the words & order of the language. The language is not like throwing a sweater over the topography of referents. Rather it is like light, without which color itself would not be possible, let alone shape, perspective & a whole host of other features. Our language & what we know of it is not separable from the world that shines through.
I have one son who is colorblind, a condition that hampers him a little on certain board games, but not otherwise. I often wondered what, if he cannot distinguish orange from green, trees really look like, say an orange tree. Certain categories of the world that I take quite for granted he consciously has to negotiate. Once I worked for a marketing director who was, he said, entirely colorblind, seeing everything in gradations of gray. I was one of two employees in on that secret, because when he had to consider which design to go for when making an ad buy – and we spent a few million on print advertising each year – he would say “What do you think of that color scheme” & I and the other person in on the secret knew that regardless of how many other people were in the room, he wanted us to tell him if these colors were “okay.” Did I ever tell him that my wife thinks I draw the line between blue & green a little strangely, that I always err on the side of blue?
Where is that muse? I’m not much of a proponent for such things as reincarnation – if you can’t remember your past lives, what good are they? – and anything actually short of this sounds rather like the Maoist mode of re-education, which I will decline politely, thank you. So rather I have but one muse & I will have to learn to live with that, even tho its personal source is now long since dead. But what I choose to hear, at least to listen to, with what I have been given, that still seems to me a universe of possibility, and I but a boy just starting out.