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J Cage: Music is permanent; only listening is intermittent

Sunday, April 24, 2011


At an edge where winter is perforated by rhododendron and wild apple blossoms, my grandmother, Catherine Marion Hauke, is ashes. We went back to MI to visit my family for spring break at the beginning of March and ended up spending most of our vacation at my grandmother’s bedside, saying goodbye. We were with her in the hospital late Thursday night and she died in the middle of a snowstorm early Friday morning while my Aunt Lorel was sitting with her. I touched her hair to say that I loved her before we left on Thursday and again Friday morning before the coroner came while my grandfather sat in shock, holding her hand under the blanket.

My grandmother was eighty-nine years old. She spent most of her last week in the hospital. The obituary that my Aunt Wendy wrote for her said that she died surrounded by friends and family. (She did.) It said that she loved to play cards. (She did.) She also had dementia and a bad knee. She picked out her own urn at Pier One Imports for twenty dollars (“a deal”) and she saw her dead brothers waiting for her outside the window of her room. When my father was looking through files for my grandmother’s birth certificate, he found that she had three different social security cards. We also realized that my grandmother “officially” reversed her first and middle names when she married my grandfather: Marion Catherine became Catherine Marion.

What I want to say is that we live at edges. And, as WC Williams asserts in Spring and All, “Love waits at the edge of the petal.” Edges are sources of tremendous transformative potential. Edges are where we give way to Carlyle and Emerson’s “Not Me.” Writers and readers meet at edges where writing gives way to reading. We come to rest in the activity of the Beloved at edges. R Blaser says this better than anyone else I know when he says, “Companions are/ horizons” (The Holy Forest). My great uncles, who I remember shooting skeets at a farm in Stockbridge, MI, twenty years ago are at the window in a snowstorm. (Memory feels like an old television sliding between channels…)

A little more than a month later, it’s flowers outside. I’m reading C Darwin with students this week because I want to end our poetry class by talking about poems as fossils. Darwin’s writings unsettle the possibility of closure because they posit that fossils provide a record of nature underway

The crust of the earth with its embedded remains must not be looked at as a well-filled museum by, but as a poor collection made at hazard and at rare intervals. The accumulation of each great fossiliferous formation will be recognized as having depended on an unusual concurrence of favourable circumstances, and the blank intervals between successive stages as having been of vast duration. (The Origin of the Species)

Fossils show us that our circumstances are unstable and evolving. They evidence a deconstruction that collapses oppositions (the distance between here and there) by calling to what HD Thoreau refers to as our “savage names” in “Walking.” Darwin: “Would any two workmen ever hit on so beautiful, so simple and yet so artificial a contrivance? It cannot be thought so—the one hand has surely worked throughout the universe” (The Voyage of The Beagle). Fossils make way for a vision of nature that is harrowing and incomprehensibly beautiful.

Loss shatters us and our language fails because, like Donald Revell says in Invisible Green, “The outside is unprecedented, and poetry has no word for it.” Our fossils are “a poor collection” and this is a promise because the edges that lay us to waste are, finally, restorations that give witness to the next place. (Blaser elsewhere in The Holy Forest: “God moves to the end of our sentences.”) The morning my grandmother died, my mother, a devout Baptist, cried and tried to reassure everyone, saying, “She’s not here anymore.” Even though years of conversation lead me to imagine that my mother and I register her statement in very different ways, it’s actually true. She’s gone. (It doesn’t escape me that I’m writing this at Easter. I know the tomb is empty.) Standing in my grandmother’s hospital room, I also felt how important it was to acknowledge her body (form) as a fossil before it went to the crematorium. I love the life that had been there. And, even though, I would have been glad for more time together, I’m also glad to let her go because I know that being is dispersal—a process of becoming. Elegy and ecstasy destabilize each other. Nature overtakes us and, doing so, it restores us to primary process. GM Hopkins: “The world is filled with the grandeur of God/ it will flame out” [my emphasis] (“God’s Grandeur”).

We heat our house with a woodstove and burned drafts of old poems this winter to stay warm. We used them to start the fire and keep it going. Yesterday, I scattered the ashes from our woodstove in the garden where K is planting kale, chard, lettuce(s), onions, and bok choy. Do you know JC Moore’s hymn “Never Grow Old”? We used to sing it in church when I was a kid and now I’ve got a gorgeous Johnny Cash recording of it: Never grow old, never grow old,/In a land where we’ll never grow old. When I open my eyes, our house is surrounded by fog. I open my eyes again and it’s green leaves; spring already feels like summer.