“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Secret Dancers

For about 3 years, I was a bit obsessed with C.K. Williams's poems. They usually tell stories, and rather than worrying over whether his words impose some burden of meaning on his subjects, Williams uses words to discover the meanings that exist independent of them. The result is a stripping away of tired, habituated ways of seeing to make way for new revelation.
This poem was also inspired by Ian McEwan's novel Saturday, which focuses on a day in the life of a neurosurgeon. Anyway, I really love how this poem turned out, but it's so derivative I feel I have to cite my inspirations.

                                       Secret Dancers
The woman on the right side of the booth as I approach—“Can I get you something to
            drink?”—I noticed had something wrong with her,
the way she walked, the way she moved, when I led her with her friend, much older,
her mother perhaps, from the door—“Hello, will it be
just the two of you today?”—to where they sit, in my section, scanning the menu for that
one item.

“I’d just like water with lemon,” the one on the left says, the older one, the mother.
I nod, repeating, “water with lemon,” as I turn to the other,
like I always turn from one to the next, but this time with an added eagerness, with a
curiosity I know may offend, and I see my diagnosis was correct,
for the woman cannot, does not, sit still, cannot be still, but jerks and sways, as if unable
to establish equilibrium, find a balanced middle.

I’m glad, hurrying to the fountains, as I always do, the woman said, in essence,
“For me too,” because I’ve already lost her words in the deluge
of the disturbance, the rarity, the tragedy of the sight of her involuntary dance—chorea—
which is, aside from the movement, nothing at all like a dance,
more an antidance, signaling things opposite to what real dancers do with their
performances.

I watch my hands do by habit the filling of plastic cups with ice and water, reach for
straws and lemons, still seeing her, slipping though sitting,
and doing my own semantic antidance in my mind: “How could anyone go on
believing… after seeing… dopamine… substantia nigra…
choreographed by nucleotides—no one ever said the vestibular structure, the loop
under the ear with the tiny floating bone that gives us, that is
our sense of balance, was implicated… so important to see.”

In the kitchen, sorting dishes by shape on the stainless steal table on their way to being
washed, I call to the pretty young cook I sort of love,
who sort of loves but sort of hates me for the sorts of things I say (noticing and
questioning), and say, “There’s a woman with Parkinson’s
at table three—you should come look,” and feel chastised by an invisible authority
(somewhere in my frontal lobe I suspect) before the suggestion
can even be acknowledged. Look? Are we to examine her, make her a specimen, or
gawk, like at a freak? But it—she is so important to see,
I set to formulating a new category of looking.

I begin with the varieties of suffering so proudly and annoyingly on display: abuse, or
“abuse”, survived, poverty escaped, gangsta rappers shot or imprisoned
to earn their street cred, chains of slights and abandonments by ex-lovers, all heard so
frequently, boasted of as markers of authenticity. Is there a way,
I wonder, to look that would serve as tribute to the woman’s much more literal, much
more real perseverance and courage, a registering and appreciation
of identity, that precious plumage that renders each of us findable in the endless welter
and noise of faces and the dubious stories of heroism attached to them?

Returning to the booth to take the women’s orders, so awkward, so wrong, the looking,
I discover, cannot be condoned under my new rubric because
the sufferer’s antidance is leading her in the wrong direction. Those stories of abuse,
penury, assaults or arrests, and recurrent dealings with
unfaithful lovers all go from bad, the worse the better, to better but never too good. This
story, like nearly all real and authentic stories, is about deterioration.
So I type their orders on the touch screen computer, defeated, chastened, as if curiosity—
noticing and questioning—leads irredeemably to taboo
(but how lucky to be born with this affliction instead of one more incapacitating!)

I’m left sulking a little, and thinking about dancing and movement that goes by the name
but isn’t. “Dance Champ!” they exhorted Ali from ringside in Zaire,
when he’d decided, strategically, and it turned out successfully, not to. Ali, The Greatest,
the star and subject of movies, King of Classic Sports on ESPN,
his not quite dancing featured so prominently, so inescapably—look all you want, look
and be awed—but all in the past. You forget the man is still alive.
The secrecy makes me wonder: is it economic, is it political?

The visibility, the stark advertisement of achievers of the formerly impossible, the
heroically, the monstrously successful, coupled with the tabooed
hiding away of the vastly more numerous unfortunate, fallen, and afflicted—the
lifeblood, the dangling American Dream, insufficient,
the market for better lives necessitates the beating heart of  belief, “You can do
anything...,” be your heroes, be heroes for others, by working,
spending, studying, being industrious, acquisitive, but never, never questioning and only
curious to a degree, “…anything you put your” (antidancing) “mind to.”

As I carry the plates, one in the crook between palm and thumb in my left hand, the other
balanced over it on my wrist so I have a free hand to grab the ketchup
on my way to the booth, I recall uneasily watching Ali, his arm outstretched, antidancing
as he lit the Olympic Torch.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is raw. That self-editing, contrivance of the poet that often weakens a potentially good poem is completely absent.

I ached with every word, repulsed by but sympathetic toward the speaker.