When my family moved from Tulsa to Houston in 1968 we lived for a short period on Lymbar Drive in the southwest corner of the city across a strip of bayou from Johnston Junior High. Shortly after we moved a few streets north to Loch Lomond on the other side Braeswood Boulevard, where I was given a room in the corner of the house that overlooked three rose bushes my mother planted. They were generally tidy roses, sometimes raucous, and often there’d be petals scattered on the little brick patio. They had a kind of capricious beauty. When the porch light was left on overnight outside my window, I would look at them in the glare to help me fall to sleep.
F. Scott Fitzgerald writes in This Side of Paradise that beauty “means the scent of roses and then the death of roses.” Rainier Maria Rilke had these words about roses carved onto his tombstone—
Rose, O pure contradiction, delight
in being no one’s sleep under so many
My experience was more limited but I liked to stare at the those roses all the same. And there might be something to them having an elegiac consciousness because I began having a recurring dream about that time, too. This would have been when I was in elementary school. I’d dream of myself plunging into seawater and then, alternately, chased on land around a dense, circular garden by something unknown. Sometimes the dream felt like an experience and other times it was limited to scenes or brief acts. The dream felt like I was always leaving home and unable to return. Or always returning and unable to arrive. In the dream I’d come to a point where I couldn’t go any further and could barely lift my arms they’d feel so weighted down. My legs felt like they were sunk into sand dunes, and no matter which direction I’d run I’d be returned to the start again.
The dream sometimes began with joy and then would turn to expectation and illusion. There’d often be a point when I’d be sure I’m about to drown in the sea—and then the running me, the one who is being chased, pulls me out of the water. Or the running me who is about to be caught by the pursuer dives into the water and begins to swim. It’s as if I’m regressing into my animal instinct, into a pre-human madness. The dream could even feel a little funny, like imagining eating raw meat with a fork. And there’d be grunting while I was running or swimming. The grunting would go on as I felt myself kicking against the water or running on the gravel, and then a swilling growl would come upon me, and then a snatching at comings and goings, swimming toward or away from whatever was approaching, running toward or away from something falling in the night.
Now I can see I was simply existing in that recurring dream somewhere between being and unbeing. It was like the feeling A. R. Ammons gets to in his remarkable poem, “The City Limits”—
When you consider the radiance, that it does not withhold
itself but pours its abundance without selection into every
nook and cranny not overhung or hidden; when you consider
that birds’ bones make no awful noise against the light but
lie low in the light as in a high testimony; when you consider
the radiance, that it will look into the guiltiest
swervings of the weaving heart and bear itself upon them,
not flinching into disguise or darkening; when you consider
the abundance of such resource as illuminates the glow-blue
bodies and gold-skeined wings of flies swarming the dumped
guts of a natural slaughter or the coil of shit and in no
way winces from its storms of generosity; when you consider
that air or vacuum, snow or shale, squid or wolf, rose or lichen,
each is accepted into as much light as it will take, then
the heart moves roomier, the man stands and looks about, the
leaf does not increase itself above the grass, and the dark
work of the deepest cells is of a tune with May bushes
and fear lit by the breadth of such calmly turns to praise.
There was that, all of what Ammons is alluding to about the radiance and praise. But I also feel the dream was a yearning for solitariness. It became, when I thought about it during during the day—whether at school or after school during a game of touch football on our street in the late autumn when the grass was brown and the leaves fallen away and I’d be running from a gang of tacklers, or in springtime while playing home run derby in the humid green days, dug in outside a neighbor’s front door and about to swing at a pitch to try to hit the ball over the roof of the house directly across the street—right then I could see myself in a flash swimming up out of the dream’s salty water, and the water falling away from my eyes. It became, when I thought about it, an investigation of myself, what I might now think of as an exploration of identity, a kind of haunting of an ill-defined destiny. Or maybe just an interest in loneliness. It all happened in just the way obsessions obsesses us. Sometimes in the dream I would try to keep the vision going and not wake up, even though I’d be frightened and tired as I was chased around the garden, out of breath, running hard from the pursuer. And even though I’d want to awake—I could tell the difference, I knew I was dreaming—but even in the last stages of the dream I’d try not to awake and to escape, to return, back into the dream.
When finally I awoke, I’d be just fine in my bed in the corner of the house with the pleasant rose bushes outside the window. I’d pull up the sheets and blanket to my chin, rattled, like a pinball, mildly out of breath but just mildly, and feeling a little wrecked. When later I started to write my first poems I would think of the dream as an emotional prompt. I would get myself into that demolished place in my psyche with all that water splashing around and the footsteps of the pursuit just outside my hearing range, and I’d get at the feeling that my imagination was a kind of enemy, a pursuer, something to be feared, even hated. It was all so ordinary, that feeling, if strange too. I’d try to recreate the dream in my mind, even risk being destroyed by it. But I could never get the details to line up right.
A writer is often trying to answer her own dreams, her imagination, and to understand herself. But the images show you just enough of themselves to be close to you, but not reachable. They show you just enough not to drown in them or be chased down. It’s like the Keatsian paradox from “Ode on a Grecian Urn”—
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?
Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!
All the same my first attempts to write when I was living in a small Vermont town in the late 1980s had only a slight physical connection to the recurring dream I’d had back in Texas in the 1970s. But the recurring dream was still visible to me, and I could sense that it used to exist. It was like the memory of a touch on the arm from someone you wanted to be touched by. But all the desire for that touch happened so long ago that it seems to you an impossible fact of your own existence. And so when I first began to write I tried to chase that dream on the page as if I were chasing a piece of paper blowing down a staircase or a balloon caught in the wind—and the string with a ribbon attached to the balloon was just out of reach, like a blurry forgetting of all the elements. Like an ache that you know is going to return. What was left was just the race toward the balloon bouncing away and sometimes it felt as if I were gaining, and other times falling back. It would all go back and forth like that, and all I could gather was the littlest thing about the experience, as Charles Wright says, the littlest thing—
sits on the far side of the simile,
the like that’s like the like.
On rare occasion when I was older I had the dream again—every few years or so. I’d find myself back underneath the water, the waves sometimes strong other times not, and I’d be swimming in a hurry. The undertow would be holding me down. And then I’d be floating to the calm surface. And then suddenly I’d be trying to abandon the garden again, running—almost in place with my heavy legs stuck in the sand dunes—from whatever anonymity was chasing me. All the while I’d be chased around in slow circles on the gravel path. But now when I awoke I’d feel some of the terror sticking around in my conscious life. The air would feel unpleasant. Other times I could still actively keep the dream going even throughout the daytime. And Charles Wright goes—
What if the soul is indeed outside the body,
a little rainfall of light
Moistening our every step, prismatic, apotheosizic?
What if inside the body another shape is waiting to come out,
White as a quilt, loose as a fever,
and sways in the easy tides there?
What other anagogue in this life but the self?
What other ladder to Paradise
but the smooth handholds of the rib cage?
Writing would come to have that kind of fascination. I’d linger over the page in the typewriter just to see what must be put there. I’d find the salty taste of the watery place again on that page, and the dense garden, too. I’d lift my shoulders and chest—just as in swimming—as I’d lean into the typewriter on the desk. Words would open to me—I could hear the phrases and passages come clacking out of the typewriter just as I heard the pursuer. Not heavy footsteps but a fleet pursuit and a palpable panting. I might at first hesitate to try to see what I am writing, but then I’d worry I’ll miss the point—just as in the dream I feared I’d get chased down and caught—so I’d get back to hammering away on the typewriter’s stiff keys and keep up my inky scribbling.
You simply keep your eyes open and cast downward. Danger doesn’t occur to you. You believe you can breathe underwater. You believe you can outrun a strong wind or whatever it is behind you gaining speed. All along you’re not even trying to get the point of what it is you’re doing.
And as you write, as in a dream, you can see your own body. You can speak in a clear voice. You can tread water or rest atop a brick wall as if leaning against loneliness, and you can catch your own eye looking at yourself there—even if there’s nothing tender or maudlin or visionary about it. It’s a matter of self-composition: Keep concentrating, type faster—take a breath and hold it—and do it again. You can feel the nakedness of your body in moments like that. Your chest lifts, your nostrils inhale, your eyes narrow toward a threshold up ahead. There’s a thrumming around you and behind you. Something unknowable, plain as a flower petal, and like the smell of love and death.
“Texas Roses” is the tenth entry in a sequence of autobiographical portraits to be published on Poetry Wire on the subject of my beginnings as a writer.