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.


  1. Beautiful writing. Very much alive. I love the part about how giving birth made you aware you knew how to die, and also the dream, which reminded me of many dreams I've had about my childhood home.

  2. I couldn't wait to read it all, just finished it and then was sad and bereft when I realized it was the only one! Oh! But it is perfect. What a perfect thing. I love it. (But I'm not sure I DO see god behind everything. Maybe I do. Do I? I might like that I do but I'm not sure that it is quite so. Well, maybe in the same way it seems that there is water in everything. Or that the sky is arched over and around us. This has made me think! And wonder! )

  3. "in the same way it seems there is water in everything." yes. and you, brave one,
    you almost saw your little house in the woods swept away by it....