Here are some notes from the little pad I keep inside my purse to capture the stray sentence or idea, or in Brenda Hillman’s words, to be a rancher of phrases. These are all the more pleasing to me because they are surrounded by directions, movie and book titles, stray phone numbers.
We got ready and showed our home.
The visitor thought: you live well.
The slum must be inside you.
… Tomas Tranströmer, “The Scattered Congregation” (translated by Robert Bly)
Words make things happen. We must weigh them carefully.
… Pascal Mercier, Night Train to Lisbon (see more of these)
Maybe he better get out of here
before it’s too late, but maybe too late
was what he wanted.
… Philip Levine
What a gulf between the self which experiences and the self which describes experience.
… Edmund Wilson, I Thought of Daisy
Of course, it’s easy to tell a story when it turns out well.
… Louise Glück, talking about a difficult period in her life when she was not writing.
This last reminds me of something I heard Marie Howe say that she learned from Stanley Kunitz (her mentor and also Louise Glück’s). We tell ourselves stories about our lives, and we tell the same story over and over. Sometimes, it helps to see a different story. She said she wrote this poem after turning a story inside out. It’s one of my favorites of hers from What the Living Do:
Praise to my older brother, the seventeen-year-old boy, who lived
in the attic with me an exiled prince grown hard in his confinement,
bitter, bent to his evening task building the imaginary building
on the drawing board they’d given him in school. His tools gleam
under the desk lamp. He is as hard as the pencil he holds,
drawing the line straight along the ruler.
Tower prince, young king, praise to the boy
who has willed his blood to cool and his heart to slow. He’s building
a structure with so many doors its finally quiet,
so that when our father climbs heavily up the attic stairs, he doesn’t
at first hear him pass down the narrow hall. My brother is rebuilding
the foundation. He lifts the clear plastic of one page
to look more closely at the plumbing,
–he barely hears the springs of my bed when my father sits down–
he’s imagining where the boiler might go, because
where it is now isn’t working. Not until I’ve slammed the door behind
the man stumbling down the stairs again
does my brother look up from where he’s working. I know it hurts him
to rise, to knock on my door and come in. And when he draws his skinny arm
around my shaking shoulders,
I don’t know if he knows he’s building a world where I can one day
love a man–he sits there without saying anything.
I know he can hardly bear to touch me.