I hadn’t been living on Glenville Ave. with Giff, Nick, and Paul very long when a woman who’d recently graduated from BU—and with whom, clandestinely, I’d been prowling around with and having vague imaginings of what it would be like to steal her away from her newly-married husband, a jazz student who went to Berklee—slipped into our apartment one night and sat down on my bed. She removed her blouse and bra and skirt and climbed under the covers next to me. She simply explained that her husband was not the right person for her, and that I was.
Her breath smelled of cigarettes and Sambuca, and her exposition was tender. I didn’t understand at first what she was talking about. She hardly referred to the submerged emotions between us as real, and my impression was that she was describing two people who existed in a dream.
When I was fully awake and understood what was happening, I was trying to imagine quickly how this might now go. Surely lines from Troilus and Criseyde were coursing through me as I was being aroused by her hands—
Her slender arms, her soft and supple back,
Her tapered sides — all fleshy smooth and white —
He stroked, and asked for favours at her neck,
Her snowish throat, her breasts so round and light;
Thus in this heaven he took his delight,
And smothered her with kisses upon kisses
Till gradually he came to learn where bliss is.
She had already wrapped one of her legs over mine and was resting her head on my shoulder. We kissed a little between trying to get comfortable or situated or something, moving our hands all over, into each others’ thighs and curves, the length of a shoulder, all of our stifled silence fading into our feet. And then with her head resting for a minute on my chest, she drifted to sleep. This was no way for a romance to start. Yet what she said seemed already to be dissipating out the window into the damp air.
She had talked other times about her relationship to her husband as if she were talking about the relationship between motion and mechanics. She was eccentric that way. She was kind the of woman who was all about forces that needed to act upon an object to get it moving. She’d met her husband while they both attended a private school in Vienna or Paris, I was never sure. They moved to Boston and took classes, and against her parents wishes got married. Giff and I had gone to the after-party at their apartment on Summit Ave. Her mother had agreed to attend, but she sat alone, wearing a frown, while the wedding partiers smoked hash and pot and drank cheap wine around her and listened to new albums by Abdullah Ibrahim. The cigarette and pot smoke was, I thought, intended as a healing ritual for us all. We became suspended and unfolded and iridescent. Several people had collapsed from the euphoria onto the floor. The entire room was tingling with the aura of inhaling and drinking and inaction.
The bride asked me to bring a poem, and I so I read Dickinson’s #307—
Love is anterior to life
Posterior to death,
Initial of creation, and
The exponent of breath.
There was a lot of nodding of heads after I sat down. The bride’s mother asked for a copy, and I remember feeling deeply moved by this and was glad to give it to her. I hadn’t experienced then how poetry could matter to anyone else who wasn’t young. Did you write this, the mother asked. I was wondering if the smoke from the weed was getting to her. No, I said, nobody alive could write that.
During the weeks after the wedding the husband seemed little interested in his new wife, at least compared to his guitar. She was easily bored, too, and fell into reading English novels, and we talked about books in my apartment or while wandering around Ringer Park on Allston Street. She had a thing for Tess from Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles. She described Tess in terms of physics, that Tess understood motion, and that the forces of the energy in her life were weighed against her. Around the time she slipped into my apartment she was teaching physics in Walpole at the high school and had created a minor scandal by letting her students take poppers in her classroom—Popics was what they called her physics class, the Boston Phoenix had reported when the scandal broke
In the morning she was in a rush to catch the T and get to school. She had told me she had been standing under my window for an hour and was hoping I’d just suddenly come walking up the street, by and by, or be heading out of the apartment. Then she decided to let herself in. At first, she said, she just stood in the foyer as if still waiting for an invitation. She said she and her husband were disinterested in each other. She needed someone who was less like her.
We were in the narrow hallway now. I was leaning up against the wall, and the other guys were walking by us in a semi-casual fashion, going through their morning routines, excusing themselves but ecstatically interested in the melodrama that was opening our day, shooting quick, inquisitive glances into my line of sight. She said she had been reading Derrida so much lately. Using words like pretending to pretend, she said she can only love in one language but not her own. She was completely still, her head down, her straight dark hair pulled into a ponytail, and standing in the center of the little hall. She kept trying to light a cigarette and wouldn’t let me do it for her. Her voice was spinning silk. I listened to it, first intently, and then with less fascination, feeling she was going to say what she was going to say.
I have conviction, she was saying, I’m not strange or threatening. She went on, building up the mechanics of her argument that began, earlier in bed, to be about us, and became, in the hallway, about her and her husband. She was suddenly turning into a deconstructionist orator on love, and I couldn’t get what she was saying unmixed up from what she was referencing about Derrida. It might as well have been something like, “Love is only possible when one of the warring sides takes the first step. The future of love, the future, l’avenir, must arrive unexpectedly. We can’t have that now.” She was pulling her handbag over her shoulder to leave the apartment, and I felt I understood she needed me to release her and I just said, it’s okay. Then I thought, as a matter of valor, to match her Derrida for Derrida. I said, you and I must be given over to absolute solitude, and no one can speak for us. We must take love upon ourselves, each of us must do that. Or something like that. I was just trying to let her leave. Derrida meant little to me. Questions of duplication, duplicity, and iterability left me cold next to things like waking up at night with a charming woman slipping unannounced into your bed. But not that, not that exactly. I was trying to understand how words and images and silences offered me meaning out of themselves, earnestly and tangibly, like a dream of a universe I might hold or fashion in my mind and hands. And, although I wasn’t writing poems yet, I was beginning to wonder about becoming a writer and how writing helps to change the shape of the universe. Might I be a witness to those impulses? Just then she walked out of the apartment, caught up in her deconstructionist vindication, panting and smiling to herself on the way down the stairs. In the silence that followed, I didn’t feel any anger but just amusement. I went back to my room, made the bed, and got dressed. I had a date to meet the woman I’d avoided at the Creeley reading a few nights back for breakfast.
When you diagnose your life in relation to what it teaches you about becoming a writer, the thing that surprises you is how your original sources take place long before you’re even alive. It’s easy to forget this. We might perceive life coming to us in patterns or in random bursts. And, as writers, we share moments. Just as a body, like water, retains no constant shape, so in memory there are no constant conditions.
As I say, the thing that surprises you is how your original sources take place long before you’re even alive. When my grandfather Joseph Borg left Elma, Iowa, for college at the University of Minnesota in the late 1920s, his English was still so rough he struggled to pass his classes and could only afford to attend one semester besides. But once there he did meet Ruth Lenske. He was going by Joe then, and something of their courtship and elopement remains a mystery to me. The writer in me knows I was with Joe all that time same as I was with Harry Borg, Joe’s father, when he came to America two decades earlier. To think otherwise would be to lose some literary capacity or to believe that the imagination doesn’t exist. Believing I can see Joe come to Ruth’s parents’ house on Upton Avenue North a couple of weeks after they meet is to see the sloping sidewalk and the low windows alight in the sun. Looking at Joe, who was now stocky and dark and handsome in his twenties, and whose sharp nose and lean face and blue eyes were beautiful, is to see a younger but also older version of myself. When Joe speaks to Ruth in a soft Yiddish accent that had little English fluency as they walked in her neighborhood, I could hear thousands of years of phantasms in his syllables. Yet here we were, me and Joe—a poor freshman from Iowa, a son of an immigrant rag peddler—invading Minneapolis, and trying to walk and talk like a gentleman.
In love, Joe felt his sense of decorum deepen. And what was she thinking, we wondered? Had she seen Joe’s politeness as exquisitely assured or as arrogance. She loved to read, and I could feel her look at us as if we were a book full of a book’s purities and failings. She had bookish eyes that, like sleep, appeared to touch eternity—an eternity that carried with it overtures of wind and birds that invent the horizon by their flight and the unsolvable puzzle of rain. She was born in Minneapolis. But Joe was born in Chorny Ostrov, Ukraine, so she seemed to see us, me and Joe, as a story of endurance. She wanted that story. But not everything was written yet. She would walk the university corridors with Joe on the way to her job at the campus laundry and search his blue eyes like shelves in a library and rearrange his meanings and coherences, his inspirations and failures and cacophonies, his past and his future, his thoughts even, and she could feel how fond he was of her, how the symmetry between them moved them both like a voice telling a great story. Everything he said to her came right out of his own journey to America. When he told her about stealing onto the train with his mother and small brother in Chorny Ostrov, she was spellbound—
You taste books like food, Ruth, but I believe in action, in doing. We were supposed to leave Ukraine and rejoin my father in 1914 but the war came. I was seven then. And then we had our papers to leave in 1917 but the revolution came, and all that meant nothing—
He didn’t ramble or get confused or repeat himself, but was emotionally assured, even if bits and pieces of his English slipped into Yiddish—
Then one night mother says we’re going, and she takes me and my brother Irving and we hop onto a boxcar headed to Lviv. In the boxcar are some soldiers and—what do you call—hobos, and some of them knew us from the town. Next day the train is stopped by a couple of Cossacks. They try to take my mother and us from the train, but one of the soldiers in the boxcar protected us. He knew my mother. She was his bootlegger. That’s right. She was his bootlegger. She sold liquor for money after my father left for America—
In telling the story of one’s coming into consciousness, all languages are more or less the same. The words for mud and train-carriage and urine and dirt and bare feet are different, but the ascendency from a valley to a peak is the same. Yiddish, for Joe, like sex, was where the moral drama of his mind was. That’s what I was thinking anyway as I listened to him tell his story to Ruth. When he looked at Ruth, he kept looking at the way her fingers dangled from her hands, and his eyes would rest on the middle of her face as if he were trying to read her reflections. She would shudder listening to him talk. To Joe and me, she would appear afflicted—that’s the word really, afflicted—with how his story kept us alive. It was like listening to a good piece of music, her eyes seemed to say, and she would cry as she listened to his song. Joe would look back at her in astonishment and get silent for a long time. He could hear that music too. It was slow, and he tried to listen hard to it. He hoped it wouldn’t stop. Then she would listen again, too, with such intensity. She was undressed by his story and ready to be touched by it. How beautiful she was to him in those moments with the darkness between their bodies—and both of them being unable to move—and her face glistening. Your story is good for us, she kept saying, in a voice soft as a robe that he wished to draw away and remove from her so her flesh appears and her hands lift to him, and the small acts of his words and her listening, and also his listening back to her words, unite. And her breath leaves her body. And just as her hands are moving up to his curly hair and over his sturdy shoulders, Yehudah Halevi writes—
Let the morning pursue me
with the wind that senses her body.
Let the clouds carry my message.
Then might she yield.
Lying in the constellation of the Bear,
have pity, gazelle, on him who must fly
to the stars to reach you.
The appeal of the body is hard to shake for a writer who, I will later discover, must write as if he has never been taught anything about love, and knows everything, as if he has never traveled anywhere but understands every step of the journey, every noun and verb of every language, and who has never given a second’s thought about anything of importance but understands everything.
“Pretending to Pretend” is the third in a sequence of autobiographical portraits to be published on Poetry Wire on the subject of my early education as a writer.