Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Who's There?

Study (2012) Miranda Field

      My friend, K, took me to see her house, an old, once-grand, four story building in Washington Heights, in her husband's family for several generations.  Since her mother-in-law's death last winter K has been sole effectual caretaker.  Her husband has been unwilling, or unable, to perform any of the small gestures required to ward off decay in a building.  Not only that, but he's been filling the untenanted upper rooms with junk, to the point where the doors can barely be opened. It's an utterly haunted house.  

    K's husband slept on a pallet on the floor next to his mother's bed all the many, many months of her final decline.  After she died, he stayed there a while, on his pallet, on the floor.  You have to get him out of there, a friend warned her.  This friend told her his own brother had done the same thing-- stayed in the house they grew up in, and in which their mother eventually died.  He had stayed, he'd turned a little strange, and it didn't seem he'd ever leave now.  

    The house is big, old--  high ceilings, massive bannisters, tall, wavy-glassed windows, softly undulating, mildewed plaster walls:  it's a Manhattan developer's dream, but only because of the space it takes up-- the plot of pure gold real estate.  I imagine K wishes she could somehow uproot it, lift it away from the place on the map that gives it its magical dollar value.  If she could put it in a field, in the middle of nowhere--.  Oh, maybe not.  The loneliness of the house, stuck on this island of a million-and-a-half souls, stranded on a major drug block, filled with all its different shades of eerie late-afternoon light, is palpable.  It's still in the family, and the family isn't letting go.  But it's an otherworldly family, that clings to this structure on this property worth god knows how much, and lives poor.

    The Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, whichat least in my sketchy Western understanding of it, sums up the mood that engulfed us as we stood just inside the front door of K's house.  An esthetic response woken up by the acute awareness that nothing lasts, that everything-- including yourself-- is subject to disappearance, decay.  We both go silent a minute, then K unlocks another, inner door. 

Ingress (2012) 

     Clearly K's house overwhelms her.  It has suffered decades of neglect.  "Neglect" is what we call it when something's left unprotected from the effects of time, and starts to show signs that it won't last, that it's subject to disappearance, decay. It's neglect, that is, if someone who should have didn't raise a hand to resist time's habit of eating away at things.  K used to think she and her husband would move into the middle two floors and have a life.  But their marriage, since this house became theirs, has become a grey area.  

     Growing up in a haunted house my sisters and I were ever hopeful that the adults-- moody, self-absorbed, busy with their art and their books and their troubles-- might step in, stop everything from falling apart, getting lost, becoming non-functional.  Now that we are the adults--  hah--  moody, troubled, out of our depths, what are our children are waiting for us to do?

     Things break down in time. Sometimes entropy is unconsciously assisted. Sometimes things are intentionally smashed.  Windowpanes are replaced with corrugated cardboard.  My father had a colleague at the art school where he taught whose own father, when another and another crack would appear in a wall, would drag himself up out of his chair with a sigh, and tack another and another shed snakeskin over the crack.  The chill breath of  the damp, moldy basement of K's house might have come directly from my own childhood across the Atlantic.    



His Grandmother's Furniture (2012) Miranda Field

     So many of my closest friends go through life dragging their haunted houses behind them.  I've wondered about that.  Maybe it's how I recognize these people when I meet them.  But K, in standing on the top stair of her giant cracked and leaking house with all its junk and all its broken, beautiful, mottled treasures, she seems  hitched to a particularly heavy weight.  "For the last few years," she writes me, in an email, "I have felt like I am the old lady in the house alone."

Now and Then He Makes an Effort



"Knock-Knock," one of my favorite joke goes,
"Who's there?"
"Death wh--."


     Oh god (a memory, from nowhere) suddenly I remember there was a large suitcase in our cellar, into which one of our cats had crawled to give birth, unbeknown to us, just before we left for a 6-week vacation. When my mother locked everything up for the summer, she unknowingly separated the cat from her kittens.  By the time we returned, the newborn litter was nothing but a mess of mummified pelts stuck to the case's lining. I was haunted by the suitcase in the basement for the rest of my childhood.  It was a terrible scenario to imagine-- the frantic cat, the dying kittens--  but what made the impression so indelible for me was the fact that no one (as far as I know) ever got around to cleaning the terrible residue up.  


      My dear friend, C, says, over breakfast at our diner, over coffee mugs heavy as plumbing fixtures:  "My blood is elegy."  She's thinking it would be good for her to take a comedy improv class.  I can't think of anyone less intended for a life in comedy.  Unless it's K.  But, actually, K was, back in the day, an actor, though I know no details of that phase of her life.  One of those stunning women slated from the beginning to pay for her stunning younger self's genetic good fortune with her older self's debilitatingly anxious self doubt and self-denial, she never accepts even the tiniest edible thing I offer her. I've never been able to persuade K to eat at my table.   After we've seen her house, we walk up Broadway to 165th, and wander into the Shabazz Center, to see if we can catch a glimpse of the Audubon Ballroom.   The ballroom has been renovated-- sheet-rocked and track-lighted-- into a slick, soulless little conference room (no vaulted ceiling, no tangible residue of history), but a ghostly photo of Malcolm X is housed in a glass case on the section of the original wood floor where his body fell.  

    Somewhere in the apartment K lives in with her husband, son and daughter (a few blocks away from the house, in little Dominica) there's a box of old photos she rescued from one of her husband's tangles of unfaceable things.  In it there's a photo of his parents-- K's mother-in-law, whose death was a long, slow sinking into physical and mental breakdown, is young, gorgeous, smiling her thousand-watt smile -- wearing her sassy but elegant dance dress, at the Audubon, ten years before Malcolm X's assassination.

Malcolm X                                                                                                                                                                                                     

     "Sometimes I feel so ungrateful," K says.  We've returned to her building, I having had a sandwich, K a cup of tea, at a cafe next to Shabazz.  We're standing in the back yard of her building, looking up at the walls, great cracks running down them, and electrical wires of all types and vintages draped like seriously ancient, knotted veins and arteries.  This part of the house died long ago, it seems.  But that doesn't stop it breathing.  The yard exhales that rich, fecund, just-past-summer breath of unloved back-of-building spaces I remember from the years when I lived on the lawless Lower East Side, back in the mid-eighties.  K and I both lived there then, though we didn't know each other.  

     Sometime in the mid-eighties I lived in a squat for a few years-- an "urban homestead"-- on 13th and B.  The building had been named:"Lucky Thirteen." We-- the whole displaced, conflicted association of us: anarchists, artists, losers, lost souls, "anti-capitalist" speculators and neurasthenic, grunge, gen-x-ers -- were working with our scavenged materials and tools to bring the building "up to code." Hah!  how far from that we were, for every step toward it, we took three back, at least --  believing we stood a chance of possessing the building legitimately one day. We were waiting for the city to give up and turn the lease over to us.  But instead they bulldozed the lot right out from under us.

                                                 "Lucky Thirteen"-- View from Back Window (1986)  Miranda Field

         "I mean," K continues, "we own this house.  How lucky is that?  I will never be homeless." 

Monday, February 13, 2012

Broken Open

133 Hadley Road (1959) John Field

From The Shot, by Elena Schvarts:                                                                     

                                             Today when I awoke my body seemed so light,
                                             as if I'd shot myself last night
                                             with a cherry pit . . . .
                                             What's more, the pit hit its mark,
                                             (despite the dark)— 
                                             in the red earth,  a blizzard of petals,
                                             it landed on fertile ground.
                                                       Not on a footpath it fell,
                                             and not onto rock or thorns
                                             and it waves its white arms
                                             and its snowy blossoms
                                                       In fact (hardly worthy of note!)
                                             something white flowered in my heart— 
                                             it was a sakura blossoming.
                                            All of me— every tiniest droplet of blood— 
                                            growing faint, marveled at this new thing . . . .


My father painted the view from an upstairs window of the house in a North London suburb where, as a young art student, he lived with my mother, a musician, a few years before I was born....

to read the rest of this post, please click on the link: 


Thursday, January 19, 2012


from Dream of the Fisherman's Wife (Graphic Narrative in progress), Miranda Field, 2011

            I Do Not Sleep For Sleep Is Like The Wind 
              And Trees Amazed

                           Not sleep for sleep is like the wind and trees amazed
                           By sleep's persuasive gaze
                           And germinates
                           Inside cicada cochlea—
                           Do not you sleep, like me, do not you sleep?— then eats these 
                           Seedlings up, unseen.
                           In glistening jelly themes hollower than Appalachian mines, among pines,
                           Praise, applause, themes—my subtle worms—combine
                           When moon a world-dividing language sings,
                           Above the hook-and-ladder's dipthonged, drunken,  ruby fountain sounds . . . 
                           Such is my state, my stateless mind—
                           Widowed turtle, green mother in some shady grove,
                            Lost in her native tongue. 

              Arnica / Ambien / Absolution

                           Who ever learns to go to sleep definitively? 
                           No mortal— animal or vegetable— 
                           intentionally sinks his vehicle in so soundless a lake.  
                           To put myself to sleep, I let rise to the surface of my mind the bodies in the 
                           this moment painstakingly changing from opaque to phosphorescent.  
                           All the while the whole night sky assists, the weather
                           adds catalysts drop by drop to time’s carefully calibrated experiments.   
                           I take a half pill, a sign ignites—a V A C A N C Y
                           in rain.  I take a whole, one-and-a-quarter—
                           the flame’s a flicker.  No sense 
                           asking who I am then.  Caught on a twig 
                           in the tree, the aura-like cocoon’s lit up by winter sun—
                           the least of its worries the worm.

I Do Not Sleep For Sleep Is Like The Wind And Trees Amazed
 was first published in Bomb; reprinted in the anthology Women Poets on Mentorship: Efforts & Affections, University of Iowa Press.

Arnica / Absolution / Ambien first published in Columbia Journal.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Creepy Victorian

     We house-hunted in the months following 9/11.  The first Century 21 agent who drove us around as we looked thought us naive, lacking capital—urban babes-in-the-wood.  He eventually dropped us, skeptical of the disparity between our requirements (an old house with lots of sky above it, with breathing space between it and its neighbors, a working fireplace) and our budget.  We'd also seemed to him, I'm sure, annoyingly nostalgic.  He would show us immaculate (though tiny), spic-and-span, baseboard-heated houses with brand new wall-to-wall carpeting, and we would point to all the creepy, pointy-roofed, turreted things in the listings. We wanted something conceived before the World Wars.  We wanted layers and layers of wallpaper to scrape away or uncover, wood floors to sand or paint.  It was obvious he thought our dream was, well, a dream.  Then the lovely Peggy Muller took over as buyer's agent, and she understood.  I think she saw right through us too, but I think it was an earlier self she saw.  Peggy had moved up from the city's outer boroughs decades earlier, to raise her two daughters, who, she said, turned out never to play outdoors, fearful of the bugs and earthworms in the yard she'd longed to give them.  

    I was born in the bedroom of an old semi-detached in North London, as were my sisters.  The midwife who attended my mother at each of her four daughters' births wrapped our placentas up in newspaper afterwards, and buried them under the flowering almond tree in the back garden. Through the windows, the tree wavered behind the warped, distorting glass.  The stairs creaked, bats flew out from under the eves at dusk and circled the garden, and for some reason I was certain there were foxes in the upstairs airing cupboard.  The house had what some like to call a "soul."  

     Tom and I had both grown up in old houses, but our two children were born in a birthing center near our Upper West Side rental.  As they grew, so I grew more and more obsessed with the idea of finding a house.  It wasn't really a matter of space— we're lucky to have a pretty large rent-stabilized apartment.  Was it then that I wanted to be sure my children, after they'd grown up, would never entirely be able to shrug off the spaces of their childhoods, would always be haunted by them?

     In the familiar fairy story, the pregnant mother of Rapunzel is possessed by longing.  Gazing from her high castle window, she spies rampion (or radishes, in some translations) growing in her neighbor's — the wicked witch's— garden, and is so besotted she grows weak.  Finally, she offers to sell her unborn child to the witch in return for a basket of the vegetables.  This seemed like madness to me when I read the story as a child, but it's the one detail of the story that still remains with me.  Such longings— for what lies over there (wherever you aren't), beyond reach— is so basic to our animal spirit whole religions blossom out from it. 

      At the center of the human heart is the longing for an absolute good, a longing which is always there and is never appeased by any object in this world, said Simone Weil.  Is it just the wishful thinking of ascetics and saints, this true and virtuous root beneath the brambles of all our material desires?  I don't know, but isn't it true that the things we've longed for are inevitably less beautiful, less satisfying— less desirable—  the closer we get to them? 

    Our dream house, which I know is a projection, like a ghostly 8mm home movie frame of my childhood house, has just such an elusive and contingent quality.  Our first night in the house, I dreamed I stood watching from the far shore of the Hudson as the house was erased before my eyes—  by a sandstorm of all things!  A dream house undergoes a perpetual process of erosion as a real house replaces it, lath by lath.   

     Cobwebs and mouse droppings hold the ricketiest parts of the house together, and plywood and ugly anaglypta papers.  We spent all the money we had for renovations on a pair of glass doors, and it was worth it.  You can see the Hudson River through the east facing side of the house, where a cat-pee smelling, astro-turfed mudroom used to be.  But, slowly, a little ham-handedly, we've ripped up the green shag-pile carpets, and the plywood underneath, gotten rid of some of the styrofoam ceiling tiles, taken a crow bar to the composite “wood” panel boarding, banished the scottie-dog light switches, the “Tiffany” Coca Cola hanging lamp in the vestibule. And we've painted over the ominous stain— dark rust-colored— from some incident that, long ago, caused something to drip between the floorboards of the bedroom upstairs, through the dining room ceiling, under the picture rail and down the plaster.  Light from the river ripples endlessly across the walls, stains or no stains.  I can sit and stare for hours at the shifting patterns light and tree shadows make on the walls in the course of a day.

     A house has a spirit, too.  Maybe it's not intrinsic to the house.  Maybe it's the product of a reaction between occupant and space.   I sometimes think our house, it's seemingly active and independent-of-us spirit, the mood I sense when I walk into it, is like one of those fortune telling party favors— the red cellophane fish you hold in the palm of your hand. If the fish curls at the edges, you're happy; if just the tail curls, you're in love; if both sides curl in—  I don't remember what that means (do any of its gestures mean gloomy, lonely, bored, exhausted?).  If it flips over altogether, you're fickle.  

     We've had trouble travelling to and from the house. We've had trouble keeping the necessary car in the city, where our jobs are. The house has seemed a drain on our energy (and, oh my god, finances) and many times we've thought about selling it.  Then we've kept it.  And the economy's crashed, and  houses all around us are in foreclosure.  And still the light ripples over the walls, and we're tenuously hanging on to our jobs, and we're thankful to have this.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Knot

         While Tom drives, I work to undo the knot— I've been knitting a black cobweb shawl for my friend, R, and the knot's stopped me.  I find myself fixated by the mass of snarls, unwilling to accept it won’t give in to dogged persistence.  The light on the thruway morphs from watery to buttery.  The sun moves all the way across the sky before it sinks among the mountains.

     Tom says, Why not just bite off the thread and toss the knot out the car window? I counter that when my spirit (this is not melodramatic!) leans in too close to any task it has a tendency to get completely caught in it.  

    Our children breathe deep and slow in the back seat, my boys asleep with their earbud wires tangled.  


     The afterpains subside, the baby sleeps on my breast, I lie on my back in a strange and strangely empty room, the middle-of-the-night city seething silently by, seventeen floors down.  I've felt a new life pass through me, and at the same time I've learned what it will be like to die.  I feel incredibly accomplished.

     Overwhelming as the pain of birth was, insurmountable as the obstacles, paradoxical as the geometry, impossible as the odds of accomplishing my baby’s passage seemed, entering the final stages of labor, I became an autotelic being.  You don’t need to apply yourself to give birth, not exactly.  The word itself-- "labor"-- kind of misses the point.

     Somebody pesters with instructions:  push, don't push . . . . Your subtle body brushes them off, like mildly irritating flies.  You’ve disappeared inside the task, inside the long dark tunnel, inside the thing you've been inhabited by for nine months, and here you’ve encountered . . .

     It resists expression. It's outside of language: no-form, no-shape, no-will, no-thought, no-hesitation, no pros/cons, no inside/outside . . . .  You just know this:  It has shown you that when the time comes, you'll know how to die.  Were you even aware how deeply you've doubted it?  You're born with the strength to face death, the ability to disappear.

     I stand in awe of my body, this matter to which I am bound has become so strange to me.  I fear not spirits, ghosts, of which I am one . . . .  

    But, of course, you'll shelve this knowledge till much, much later, some time far, far in the distant future, when you and your child have sufficiently disentangled for one of you to be able to fall asleep in one hemisphere, while one of you wakes up in another.


     E announces she's pregnant, by someone she hardly knows.  This is referred to by the family as her unplanned pregnancy.  But you can’t plan a pregnancy.  You can only want one and get one, or not get one; or not want one and get one, or not get one.

     I wanted a pregnancy and got one.  Then I wanted another one and got one, and lost it.  Then I wanted and wanted and wanted—a long, long, long, long highway of longing I was lost on.  Then I got one again, and I gave birth, and later on, wondered if it was really what I’d wanted after all, and did I still want it?

     It’s the same with love, the same with revenge, the same with property, and admission to all kinds of circles, and with some kinds of knowledge, and accomplishment, change of any kind.  It's the same with this longing that builds up in me when my life has been plodding along, as on a series of errands, getting things done.  For something to be thrown in its way.  For mystery, the unknown. 


     I grew up an atheist.  In the blank spot I grew up with, in place of what many people call “god,” I squirreled away a nexus of projections, a hub, or knot of yearnings, desire for mystery, eros encountered with awe.

     I think art fills some spots I can't stand to leave blank.  

     One of my longest standing memories: My friend, Jo, and I are holding a cardboard box between us, in my back yard. An injured bird we’ve nursed for days, suddenly bursts out and crashes into a hawthorn hedge.  That’s where the memory ends.  A complete mystery.   

     I think art and love and motherhood fill similar emptinesses.


     A Vimeo Tom sent me one morning, to cheer me:  Two girls row a canoe across a lake under a vast black cloud-like swirl of iron filings, a mobius strip, a murmuration of starlings whip-stitching the air, tangling and untangling over the girls’ tipped-up heads.

     They’re speechless.  They yelp and laugh and look at one another, then back up at the sky.  They gasp in astonishment.  And you can hear the wind blow across the video camera’s microphone, the water plash against the side of the boat.

     Actually, only one girl appears in the video. The first girl holds the camera as steadily as she can from her place in the canoe, allowing us to rock in the cold, choppy water, in the loudly blowing wind, with the second girl, as if we are her friend.

     Like a murmuration of starlings is the image R uses for how she wants her poems to move through the mind.  I think she means to entangle the spirit of the reader with her own for the poem's duration. 

     R pretty much sees god behind everything, and, though I'm extremely close to her, this is an aspect of her that's a mystery to me.  I believed in ghosts all childhood long, but I stopped believing after I moved out of the house where I’d lived with them.  Now, in my creepy victorian house upstate, they're entirely displaced by mice and spiders.

     Kythe Heller introduced my poems as a passage through thorns (I was about to read in a bookstore in Cobble Hill, before an audience of four or five people on metal chairs).  I felt like she'd read an x-ray of me, of the part of me writing comes from.

     I almost never remember my dreams, or (despite the beautiful notebooks I buy specifically for the purpose) write them down.  But I remembered this one I'd had the night after my "passage through thorns" reading, and I wrote it down.  I was a bit embarrassed by it— it wore such obvious, stock symbols on its sleeve, but it left me so happy, undid a painful knot that had obstructed my writing for almost a year:  

I’m in my parents’ house and there’s a doorway, a major point of access, through which we’ve passed back and forth — from living room to kitchen?— for years.  But to pass through it, you have to push aside a tangled mass of thorns—a rosebush that's been growing, untrained, unpruned, uncut, for as long as anyone can remember.  It makes the doorway painful to negotiate, but we live with it— just a fact of life.  I’ve already wrestled my way through this door several times in the course of the dream when I suddenly just decide:  Hey, I’m going to cut that bloody thing back!  And I go get my shears.  Up close, the task feels overwhelming—the rosebush a tangled mass of criss-crossing branches-- and I try to remember some pruning instructions I once read:  something like:  cut where a five-leafed shoot emerges from a branch—but I can’t call the details to mind.  But as I stand there, up close to it all, right in the midst of the tangles, it’s suddenly apparent what I have to do— just muscle in there, be a little brutal, a little pitiless. I hack and slash, and once I’ve cleared my way into the bush’s interior, it becomes yet more obvious how I must proceed: trace any excessively snarled or diseased branch to its point of origin on the main trunk, and sever it.  Just then, I notice a huge, dead branch—unambiguously DEAD.  And BIG and IN THE WAY.  With my shears I enclose the neck of the branch, and follow it all the way back to the main trunk.  The stem's hard and dry— seems impossible to cut without an axe— but where it joins the main trunk, it dwindles in size and strength —it’s soft, diseased, decaying right at its point of origin.  This is the place to cut, I think.  I take the blades and encircle the diseased, soft neck of the branch and start to cut.  The blades go easily through—as if of  flesh, not wood.  Underneath the outer bark, the inside's soft, wet: completely rotten.  As I work, the inner core—a cord or tube-like form of dark bluish/brownish/grey fleshy, moist matter—starts to slide out from the outer sheath of dead, deformed bark.  This action, it dawns on me, is almost like a birth (I watched the births of many caged creatures as a child).  As this inner core of glistening decay slides out, it suddenly morphs—or my perception of it does—and I see that it's actually a living creature smothered in amnion.  I wipe the caul away, and underneath is a small owlet.  It’s beautiful.  I take it in my hands—she’s mine, I think.  I know she’s mine, and I am happy!  


         If I ever finish R's shawl, I'm not sure I'll ever want to part with it.  I've put so much into it.  But I love R, and I've promised it to her.  And it would be a VERY good practice, for me to make things and give them away.  For instance, to finish this post I've titled "The Knot" and found myself tangled up in.  And then to click PUBLISH.

     Two hours pass.  When I finally look up, I discover I've worked at the knot in my yarn from the George Washington Bridge, 120 miles along the New York Thruway to exit 21.   

     The light, shifting from silver to gold, washes across the faces of my boys, turns the dusty glass of the back window metallic.  

     The view through the windshield goes opaque/transparent/opaque/transparent, a lattice of light and shadow, as we slip past the woods.  I'll end with that description, possibly an example of over-writing?  A little less might be more here.  But I leave the extra element in, because my spirit's always entangled in the things I write:  A lattice of light and shadow.  See?  I should've just cut that.