Artist Date 35: Disgusting, Filthy, Transcendent, Delicious Neruda

nerudaThe other day my friend Gene asked what poetry I was reading.   I wasn’t.  I wasn’t reading anything at all.  Nothing since the juicy Anne Sexton biography, the one that served as an introduction for us.

I asked him to make a suggestion.  He didn’t hesitate.

Pablo Neruda.

“Disgusting, filthy, transcendent, delicious.”  His words not mine.  I was immediately hooked.

A few days later, I am at the Harold Washington Public Library, looking for Neruda – Artist Date 35.

I saw this place for the first time just a few months ago, on the way to a party in the South Loop.   Driving down State Street, I asked my friend Liz what the building was with the great green gargoyles on top.  She told me it was the library.  I made a mental note and kept driving.

The gargoyles are calling me as I approach it.  I feel giddy and excited to be here, in this place I’ve never been before.

Disgusting, filthy, transcendent, delicious.  Seemingly homeless men are sitting on the low wall outside of the library.  I take a photograph of the El train sign and am hit by the stench of sewer.  I suddenly realize this is the Library stop.  The only time I pass it is on my way to Midway airport, when I have to travel the whole of the Loop before heading south.  I feel silly.  Like I should have known.

2013-08-15 15.36.13I walk in a side door and follow the marble hallway to the main entrance.  I have never been in a library this grand.  The one at Michigan State University may have been larger, but it looked like post-Cold War “throw-up architecture.”  Like the kind I saw in Dresden.  Utilitarian.

I don’t recall visiting “the main library” in any city.  I have tended toward community branches in Oakland, Seattle, the suburbs of Detroit, and here in Chicago.  I am shocked and a little horrified.  In fact, I don’t want to admit it here.

I think of George Peppard slipping his book into the stacks at the New York Public Library, Audrey Hepburn at his side.  Genius.

Kids are playing ping-pong in the room to my left – some sort of summer program.  Ping-pong.  It feels almost quaint.

I climb the stairs to the third floor – circulation.  I look up Neruda on the research computer that has replaced the card catalog.  Seventh floor.  On my way up, I read the quotes painted on to the walls.

“My Alma Mater is the Chicago Public Library,” David Mamet.  “Wisdom begins in wonder,” Socrates.

I look at the sculptural art.   Twisted wood.  Women leaning against the wall.  They look so serene.  So comfortable.  I want to lean in like that.  Feel that safe.

I stop at the post highlighting today’s activities.  “Inside the Whale,” a dance performance.  The story of a woman swallowed by a whale, and how she learns to live in her own skin.  Too bad I missed it.  I could use a few tips.

I am looking for PQ8097.N428713.  I wander into the language section.  Books and magazines in Japanese, Russian, Arabic.  I like how the characters look, neatly lined up in rows.

Continuing on, I am face to spine with a slew of books on publishing.  How Fiction Works.  Writing Erotic Romance.  How to Grow a Novel.

2013-08-15 16.08.21I pull So You Want to Write: How to Master the Craft of Writing Fiction and Memoir by Marge Piercy and Ira Wood from the shelf.  It does not seem like a mistake.  I tuck in under my arm and keep walking until I find Neruda … waiting for me.

He is sloppy.  His books are not lined up neatly, orderly.  Some are lying on their sides.  Others are upside down.  I randomly pull a few and find a table.

Odes to Opposites.  “Ode to the present.”

“This/moment/as smooth/as a board,/and fresh,/this hour/this day/as clean/as an untouched glass/ – not a single/spiderweb/from the past:…

“This is our/creation,/it’s growing/this very/instant,/kicking up/sand or eating/out of our hand./Catch it,/don’t let it slip away!/Keep it from vanishing into dreams/or words!/Grab it,/pin it down,/make it/obey!/Make it a road/or a bell,/a machine,/a kiss, a book/ or a caress.”

Yes.  Make it into a kiss.  Or a caress.  Please do.

“…try a ladder!/Yes,/a ladder:/rise/out of the moment…Up and/up/but not too much – just high enough/to/patch the holes/in the roof./Not too far;/ you don’t want to reach heaven…You/are/your own moment,/your own apple:/pluck it/from your apple tree./Hold it up/in your/hand:/it shines/like a star./Stroke it,/sink your teeth into it – now off you go/whistling on your way.”

And I do.  With this.  With Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair.  With Marge Piercy and Ira Wood.

Later that evening I receive an email from Gene.  He wants to know if Neruda showed up for our date.  I tell him that he did.  That he was a total gentleman.  But that I kind of wish he wasn’t…being divorced for nearly a year and all.  I laugh at my own joke…and sink my teeth into this present.

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Artist’s Date 25: Following Breadcrumbs and Cleaning Up My Insides

Andrew-Gilliatt-April-2013-60-300x300
Bowl by Andrew Gilliat

I believe in “following the breadcrumbs.”  Like Hansel and Gretl, noting the obvious signs and trusting that I will always be led – if I listen.

I was on the fence about my destination for this week’s Artist Date – Number 25.  My friend Kiki mentioned she might drop by a reception at Lillstreet Art Center – one of my considerations.  Her noncommittal musing was just enough to point my compass.

I’ve been to Lillstreet just once before, for a fundraiser.  I imagined I would return here often, but I have not.  I pass it all the time and I think about going in.  I pour over the website trying to decide which class to sign up for.  I am intimidated and ultimately do nothing.

This is ironic as I am greeted by a most friendly staffer at the door.  She tells me the photography show opening today, Midwest Contemporary, is on two floors.  That beer is on the main floor, wine is on the second – in case that helps guide my decision in terms of where to begin.  It doesn’t.

But the pottery does.  Porcelain slab platters etched with lines that look like a teenage girl’s cutting.  Bowls and plates covered with repeating whimsical patterns.  Forks and knives, swings, balloons and birds in matte glaze. 

I’ve considered the First-Time Potter class here but have been leaning toward Drawing-into-Painting.  Pottery is messy and I don’t really have “pottery clothes.”  I can draw anywhere.  Yet I keep picking up the fired clay.  Running my fingers over it.  Cupping it in my hand.

I remember ceramics class in high school.  Mr. B and I argued about everything – even about how often I peed.  He said I was a sloppy student.  That I didn’t clean my edges, my insides.  It sounds true – of my work.  Of my blurry boundaries and the messy parts inside of me.

I did craft beautiful pieces in his class though.  A platter with a teal drip glaze.  A coil vase with a long neck – large and genie-like, big enough for Barbara Eden to pop out of.  My mother displays both of them in her home.  

I look up toward the photography on the wall – my chosen medium in college until I switched my major from fine art to journalism.  There is a large, creepy photograph of a doll’s head – battered and old.  I don’t like it.  I read the artist’s statement.  She photographs vintage dolls.  The cracks in their exteriors representing the broken parts in us all – some that might never be “fixed” in this lifetime.  I still don’t like the picture, or the doll’s eyes.  But I like the idea of it.

There is work from an artist who earned his MFA from Michigan State University – my alma mater.  It wasn’t known for its art department when I was a student.  I wonder how it has changed.

There is another of a trailer park along the Russian River in California with a big Paul Bunyan figure looming over the camp.  It is part of a series chronicling the photographer’s vacation destinations as a child.  I’m pretty sure I’ve been here.

I wander up to the second floor.  There is a second photograph of trailers, this one from Williston, North Dakota.  Hydraulic fracking boom town.   Michael and I drove through here on our way back to Chicago from Seattle.  It reeked of testosterone and crystal meth.  Unsettling.

There is a photograph of a young African-American man looking straight into the lens.  Into me.  The photographer is from Saginaw, Michigan – where my mother grew up. 

midwest contemporary show
“Elliot,” by Sarah-Marie Land

I feel alone.  I go downstairs , returning to the pottery, and strike up a conversation with another woman, also alone.   She likes the bowls and goblets adorned with animals.  Anything with animals, she says.  I do not, but say nothing.   As the room fills up I am acutely aware of my single-ness.  I think about staying and listening to the live music, but I’m not sure where to perch myself.

I decide to leave instead. 

This is the first time my Artist Date feels lonely, that I don’t feel filled up by it.  On the way out I stop and talk briefly with the friendly staffer who greeted me.  I remember Kiki mentioning her friend’s reception is private, on the roof – that I would have to ask to get up there.  So I do.

I am directed to the back of the building, through the music and pottery and photography, through double doors. I ask a tall man/boy with a red beard and glasses if this is the way to the roof. He says yes and we climb the stairs together. Two of mine for every one of his.

It is sunny and clear.  People are drinking wine.  I do not see my friend.  I turn to go back down.  The bearded man/boy says, “Yep.  A lot of roof.”   We walk down together.  I am not sure why he has come here.  I ask him if he has a studio here.  He does not.  He peels off to a classroom on the third floor and I go down to two.  There are open artist studios.  I missed them my first time up. 

I walk into one.  There are slabs of clay with what looks like hieroglyphics on them.  The artist is talking with a couple about her work and they rope me into conversation.  I ask about the tall, smooth pieces with wild insides.  They are wide.  Almost as big around as I, and climbing higher than my waist. 

Each represents a character from Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale.”  The blue queen is smooth outside, but inside “she is mourning.”   I see it.  I see the glazed clay crying inside, rounded discs turned down upon themselves like leaves.  I wonder if this is what I look like inside.

A second character is smooth and orange-y outside, fiery and sharp inside.  She is angered by how the king has treated the mourning queen.  A third is green.  A girl child left in the woods, raised by a shepherd.  She is smooth inside as well as out.  Peaceful.

I return to a jewelry studio I couldn’t make my way into before.  Too small.  Too many people.  Edith Robertson is talking with a friend.  She has a blonde-ish/white-ish bob and turquoise eye liner.  She immediately greets me, inviting me to try on whatever I like.  She puts her hand on my arm.  Warm.

I pick up a choker made of gathered strands of thin wire with a long crystal hanging from it.  It looks like a stalactite. Or is it a stalagmite?  A piece of lapis lazuli adorns the back side – a hidden surprise.

I think of my friend Julie and the days I spent with her after her mother died, offering massage and bodywork to her family.  Of her friend Karen whisking me off to her house, plopping me into an overstuffed chair and placing a crystal in each hand. 

The effect was immediate.  Electric.  Like a volt of energy seizing my body.  I imagined smoke coming off of me, as if I had fried a chip.  I was out.  When I awoke about 20 minutes later, I felt like I had been put back together.  I wonder if this crystal would do the same for me.

Edith and I quickly realize our paths have been crossing one another for the better part of 30 years.  In Detroit.  In San Francisco.  And now in Chicago.  That the universe has been conspiring for us to meet.

She tells me that making jewelry is her second act.  I tell her about mine.  About my Artist Dates and my return to writing.  We talk about Germany – her birthplace.  The first place I traveled overseas.   She has the same last name as my ex-husband.

We talk until a couple walks in and I hand her over to them.   I sign her guest book, leaving her with my email address and her necklace.  Perhaps another time. 

I walk down the stairs and out the door, thinking about connections.  About clay classes and cleaning up my edges, my insides.  About breadcrumbs.

Artist’s Date 19: We’re Only As Sick As Our Secrets

anne sextonI met Catherine Kaikowska my senior year of college, in an 8 a.m. poetry class.

She was all black.  Turtleneck.  Boots.  Leggings.  All hair.  Brown.  Shoulder length.  Wide and kind of frizzy.  She hiked herself up on the desk, crossed her legs in front of her and cracked open a can of Diet Coke.  “Fuck, it’s early,” she mumbled.

I liked her right away.

She liked me too, and invited me to meet her at The Peanut Barrel – an East Lansing institution known for good burgers, cheap pitchers of beer, and peanut shells covering the floor – where we sucked down Labatts Blues, chain smoked and talked about sex until closing.

She was from Ohio, and used to work the door at a club where Chrissie Hynde played before she made it big with The Pretenders.  The place she vowed she’d never return to until that time.

I haven’t thought about Catherine in a long time.  Until last Thursday, when I slipped a biography of Anne Sexton into my robin’s egg blue Samsonite carry-on bag, circa 1972, and boarded a plane bound for Nashville.

I was first introduced to Sexton in Catherine’s class, along with Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich and her mentor at Michigan State University, Diane Wakoski.  Yet my interests lied with the testosterone-rich voice of Charles Bukowski.  The beatnik fantasy of Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

I pulled the book out – a tomb, really, nearly 500 pages, hardcover and wrapped in acetate that is supposed to protect it – at Midway Airport, after checking my orange hard-case luggage and picking up a mediocre Americano.  Artist’s Date 19, surrounded by fellow travelers with faces tucked into ipad and smartphone screens.

If we are only as sick as our secrets, then Sexton was the picture of health – for she had none.  She was transparent, as I have been described.  Only more so.

Teacher and mentor John Holmes begged Sexton not to publish her darker, highly confessional poems.  Advice she ignored, and turned into, “For John, Who Begs Me Not To Enquire Further.”

And yet, clearly she wasn’t well, as she took her own life at 45, just two years older than my 43.

Sexton threaded the stories of her life through men – how they reflected her.  She was wildly flirtatious.  A presence.  And, at times, profoundly sad.

She tended to sexualize significant relationships.  She had fluid boundaries.

She felt, at times, in competition with her mother.  And was considered alcoholic.

She gave away her heart too easily.

In “More Than All the Rest,” a poem to her long-term psychiatrist Dr. Martin Orne, she writes:

“Oh, I have raped my inner soul/And give it, naked, to you,/Since my warm mouth and arms/might love, and frighten you.”

I saw myself.  I looked around the airplane to see if anyone else saw me too.

I felt sick, like the medical-school student convinced she has contracted each disease she studies.

But I am not Anne.  I didn’t suffer post-partum depression.  I didn’t hand over my children to be raised by my mother-in-law.  I don’t have children.  I’ve never been pregnant.

I haven’t been institutionalized.  I didn’t take my own life.

Sexton’s gift was making something out of her sick.  Creating art.  Allowing others to see inside the most shameful parts of herself and whisper, “me too.”  In the process, she found both “her people” and herself.

Me too.

The plane touched down.  I was 78 pages in.  I slipped an index card into the book to hold my place, on it is a prayer I had written.  My own words.  My own healing.