I woke up this morning thinking about a poem one of Arielle’s friends read at our wedding: a Mary Oliver poem, “#13”, the last one in her excellent collection, West Wind. After a concise introduction (It is midnight, or almost), a long breath of wind rushes into the poet’s room, touching everything, upheaving her manuscripts, entering even the pockets of the clothes hanging in her closet and wobbling the lampshade before getting inhaled back toward the ocean and a sky rife with stars. The wind’s winding, almost punctuationless sentence concludes by placing the poet on the scene, sitting at her desk, smiling: I pick up a pencil, I put it down, I pick it up again. / I am thinking of you. / I am always thinking of you.
Originally I thought the wind was a metaphor for love: the singular disordering ungrammatical event of love. In its reckless, breathless sweep the alphabet is lost. Then, quickly, after frisking every interior surface of its object, it goes out the way it came in.
We were English majors! We were drunkards! Drunk with poetry, drunk with love, and quite often drunk with whisky. We were smart enough to get the most out of not knowing how to handle this new, ferocious, hilarious way of life. Our wedding program began with the epigram Robert Hass wrote for his 1979 collection, Praise:
We asked the captain what course
of action he proposed to take toward
a beast so large, terrifying, and
unpredictable. He hesitated to
answer, and then said judiciously:
“I think I shall praise it.”
Our previous lives were smashed by the Interloper. No sense resisting it. A moment ago our futures had contained infinite possibilities, now they just contained each other, and that was that. Only a fool would try and squash capital l Love down to something manageable. That’s why the poet smiling in her wind-tumbled room makes sense: she knows that this particular tyrannical visitor is to be welcomed—greedily. (Earlier, in probably the book’s most famous poem, “#2”, she instructs a young reader: There is life without love. It is not worth a bent penny, or a scuffed shoe. It is not worth the body of a dead dog nine days unburied.)
This morning, though, yet a little flighty with dream logic, I thought: it’s not Love, it’s Time, Love’s interloping cousin.
Time, which, though always happening, tends only to occur to us in gusts. Time, which, in its ceaseless pouring, shuffles the indices of our minds, crawls through our bookshelves, intermixes our chapters. Time, which, while invisible, adjusts the light we see ourselves in.
In one thought I thought: Isn’t it funny: am I only now, seven years later, thinking about this? and No, no—I’ve always thought this, haven’t I?
I have been preoccupied lately with the idea of “the past”. In a recent very vivid and internally logical dream I assembled a minor philosophy of life revolving around the concept of memory: it is chiefly what separates us from our cats, say, who can be livid with you one second and five minutes later purring and supplicant. Memory of the past is what makes us smarter than we were in the past. By definition, we improve at life every day because we have a greater reservoir of past to draw on. There’s an inverse relationship between the length of our future and its immediate quality.
Then I’ve been thinking: actually the past is stupid, as in intransigent, like a mule. It’s stupid because you can’t do anything about it. It just fucking sits there being what it is. It doesn’t even have respect for you enough to cackle or taunt or sneer. You’re irrelevant to the past, yea tho’ thou plow and sow It, tho’ It be meat and milk to thee.
But, truth is, the past’s a malleable, liquidy thing, perforated with lacunae. We’ve each of us got darkened wings in our libraries, entire card catalogues locked and keyless.
I was recently reminded of an incident in grade school: a food fight that led to my and a classmate’s week-long internment in separate little rooms: In School Suspension. Was this before or after she and I shared our first French kiss? Don’t know. Don’t remember. I’m not even sure I honestly remember the food fight, or the ISS. I may have populated the recounting with a troupe of old feelings trained in the School of Trouble and convinced myself I remembered. Like moths feel made of other moths, memories sometimes are Lego constructions of other memories.
Could it be this was the first time I was in serious trouble? Could be, sure. Maybe someone else has access to this particular cache. I do not.
We are just flat stuck in these rooms. It’s always nearly midnight in them, and the moment you find time to sit and write something sensical, great big snapping bolts of time come in and blow everything around. Did you always feel this way, or is it just occurring to you now? Can you even tell the difference?
It’s helpful to have big ass epic moments standing out back there amid all the fog to, if nothing else, show how far you’ve come.
At our ceremony, Julia’s voice caught somewhere between the poem’s last two sentences. You don’t realize how much heavy “#13” is packing until the end. Mary Oliver is a tall woman, but she hides behind that wind and then socks your nose in the last stanza.
Her voice caught, which of course meant both Arielle and I got misty, locked eyes.
The wind, time, whatever, it was just distraction; just some noise while I thought about you. Not even the sifting ocean of the past can bury that.
And now, reproduced for you, in its entirety and without permission, the poem:
West Wind #13
It is midnight, or almost.
Out in the world the wind stretches
bundles back into itself like a hundred
bolts of lace then stretches again
flows itself over the windowsill and into the room
it scatters the papers from the desk
it is in love with disorganization
now the manuscript is on the floor, and reshuffled
now the chapters have married each other
now the alphabet is lost
now the white curtains are tossing wing on wing
now the body of the wind snaps
it sniffs the closet it touches into the pockets of the coats
it touches the shells upon the shelves
it touches the tops of the books
it slides along the walls
now the light lamp wavers
as the body of the wind swings over the light
outside a million stars are burning
now the ocean calls to the wind
now the wind, like water slips under the sash
into the yard the garden the long black sky
in my room after such disturbance I sit, smiling.
I pick up a pencil, I put it down, I pick it up again.
I am thinking of you.
I am always thinking of you.