excerpts from “To the Women of Harvard”
To the women and the men and women in their lives
and to the men by themselves, with and without women—to file under ‘abecedarian.’
atemporal, for Zelda
Baritones sing of countries as animals aching to eat each other while forcibly curbing their appetites. Tenors sing as counterpoint those animals with their shifting cells and gooey innards in the throes of learning not to hunger after each other in the first place. Sopranos join in the librettist’s query across an infinite, floating savannah: If peace is more than a lack of war, what all’s included?
balding, for Yumiko
The man at the head of the table, probably somebody’s father, proclaims that what the world needs most is more fresh water. We have some in our glasses, don’t we? And some potable if not pristine dripping on linoleum floors and porcelain. And some beading our melons before our very eyes, and some to puddle sod lawns and splatter immortal granite. When we point to even more fresh water flowing beyond our current, passing window, he holds his bald head in his hands while a cherub, wings-and-all, pours from a kettle like an atmospheric river raining down on corrugated metal, the roof of the room wherein we rummage.
contrition, for Xyla
Pretend for a second to be my sister and I’ll share with you a memory. Once when you were sliding into depression, I offered to buy you a plane ticket so that you could stay with me and experience city living for a while. As you lightened at the thought of joining me here, our mother swore on the life of her own mother that my offer was halfhearted and, adding that I had no idea what I was getting myself into, just like that [snap] talked you out of it. The question of what I would give for her to have been mistaken I think about often.
dating life, for Willow
SWM seeking a woman’s perspective on a note he got from someone he thought was his girlfriend: I’m sorry but I’m not sure you’re looking for what I’m looking for and I didn’t mean to mislead you by spending the night, but please know that it would be nice to hang out with you sometime later. You’re good company and seem like a caring person. I just don’t want to talk about your difficult upbringing right now and maybe not ever. I believe you’re mourning the loss of your own childhood, even as you downplay this with me and re-stage your adult life going forward with more hypotheticals than I can deal with. He leaves her several messages after that, each brief, each polite, each carefully worded, but having left her no more, he stops trying. The meaning of silence is neither obvious nor mistakable. These days and having nothing to do with whatever her name was who once tested him, he is taken to task by his wife, his own inner voice, and two or three other people over his inability to let go of friends, each of whom he’s known for years and, long fading, don’t talk to him anymore. It’s nothing personal, he reminds himself. Everyone has other things on their minds right now. We’re all quite busy.
ein sof, for Vicky
The thought of dreamless sleep depresses me. Some things we’re never made aware of. Some things bubble up naturally or arise because we somehow invite them. As naïve as this sounds, until a few years ago I didn’t know that such a thing as an ivy league existed. Even now, I have a hard time conceptualizing it as it seems to want to be our understanding of a country while remaining out of reach. Because the best I can do is people it in my own imagination, I think about someone like you, who I’ve never met and will never meet, unless I do so one day without knowing, once having given you the name Victoria.
flattening out, for Ursula
Some flattening out is worth less creativity for the simple reason that I am going to be taking medicine either way, and the binge nature of self-medication begets still more mood fluctuation plus a nagging sense of soon dying. Other instances of flattening out are more natural but made to sound too easy. I’ve heard transmuted anger spoken of as love. What do you think? Does it make sense to you? If so, is an unflattening at last a given? Does an unflattening heart—figurative heart, rhetorical heart—feed divine channels? If so, is one channel the sun and the growing of food to make choice meals? Are two channels combined speech and a mind for what I’ve heard called the Beautiful Necessity? Is one the power over others used constructively and my own submission to power used constructively by others as we take different spots in a rotation? Does this bring us back to the sun, Ursula, and our meals, as one of the true doors to the unfailing Self?
Groucho Marx, for Trish
Writing this to you, I think of the famous quote “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member.” Groucho Marx (1890-1977) is sharing his rhetoric for quitting tennis clubs. Ha. My version is more bitter: “I don’t want to belong to a club that won’t take me as a member” sounds like I’m raising my middle finger at it. Old quotes like jokes circulate through collective consciousnesses like rumors in a village. A neighbor says, “May you live in interesting times,” as if he is seeing us off and thinks we will rise again with his good will inside of us. Given infighting, human machines, dimming sun, mass shootings, we say, “I would live in less interesting times if I could bring my friends with me.” Or we quote Franz Kafka (1883-1924) from a diary entry dated September 29, 1911: “Pretty jump of a clown over a chair into the emptiness of the wings.”
hue, for Silka
The softest sound ever heard, the sound of eyes blinking, he hears seconds before sudden explosions, the demolition of Hudson’s Department Store on Woodward Avenue in Detroit near the turn of the century. He hears his eyes like a premonition, one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand, three-one-thousand, boom, while walking with his grandmother, herself as quiet a hue yet as agitated by the darkening skies as the partisan she was at twenty, moving out of her dormitory into old and new forms of communal living.
intelligence, for Reshma
Check out the pretty cover of Rilke’s famous letters, with its winter branches and a village approached from a distance. Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy made this translation in 2020. Rilke is writing of his own inner processes to a man who, ambitious to fully realize himself as a poet, seems less actively reflective than his famous and occasional mentor. Rilke advises this Mr. Kappus to embrace solitude and God while letting his guilty conscience go. I read these letters when I was a teenager and again this morning as I began writing to you about metacognition in the context of kids today (and those of tomorrow morning) and how they will learn in their burgeoning relationships with Artificial Intelligence. What of our internal processes should we give away to external technologies? What of technology should we internalize? To this end, I am trying (with little success) to grok Susanne Langer’s essay on human feeling, wherein she writes, “The study of feeling…leads one down into biological structure and process until its estimation becomes (for the time) impossible, and upward to the purely human sphere known as ‘culture.’ It is still what we feel, and everything that can be felt, that is important. The same concept that raises problems of sciences takes us just a surely into humanistic ones….”
jaunt, for Pam
I see a man carrying a car battery in the crosswalk while I wait in traffic for the light to change. He holds it in his hands whose fingers entwine to form a sling for carrying weight that caves the shoulders and strains the face while giving the body forward momentum. He’s taller than average and skinny in clothes too tight. Overgrown like his sideburns, his eyebrows are wiry, not as baby-soft now, but mostly it’s the cold sore on his lip, squeezed open like an old cherry, making the strongest impression on me of what life is like. Who can say what? Watch his swagger pass until it’s your turn to accelerate. I see a woman who can’t look far enough in front of her to know what’s coming. She walks with the aid of a walker on the pavement as we speak, toward a coyote eating the entrails of a trashcan as lackadaisically as some human pedestrians with clam chowder. I worry more about the spread of zoonotic diseases, I roll down my window to tell her, than wanderers devoured. Anything can happen, she guesses. The coyote on the pavement hasn’t relied on birds’ eggs in ages. The pavement where it dines intersects an old trail stretching down to the coast through a largely non-native forest. When poet Rae Armantrout (b. 1947) ends her poem “Native” with the lines, “Here eucalyptus / leaves dandle, // redundant but syncopated,” it’s Lovers’ Lane I imagine, amid groves of eucalyptus and the barracks in the groves in the north of San Francisco. A footpath carved out by Spanish soldiers and missionaries after the Costanoans and the Californios is a shortcut from the Main Post of the Presidio to Mission Dolores in those first moments in the life of a city. Countless people have walked it. Some were the pueblo settlers and mission fathers and some were men with pointy muskets, game birds hung from belts, mess-tins, toiletries. Walking together and always apart, as individual walkers they could neither smell their own noses nor kiss their own lips. But they could admire each other’s faces and lean into each other to be guided. By sheer dint of numbers, it’s safe to say that at least one of them wore his emotions on his sleeve and was well known for how exasperating this could be. If he was brave, intelligent, honorable, noble of action, his fatal flaw, a family trait to be passed down through the generations, was his inability to recognize these same higher-order qualities in people who naturally and tactically dissimulate. Nor does he catch that many people around him suffer.
legend, for Olivia
What little boy doesn’t make the mistake at least once of racing through the crowded plane of a picnic to hug the loving leg of another boy’s father? This new father’s beard gives him the look of a cat burglar, so he shaves it off. What new father wants to scare his new son half to death, especially if it gets in the way of their knowing each other better? Only the son says he must grow it back fast if he’s not going to look like a sudden child locked in no one’s memory. When the new father did shave, he discovered a mole on his chin the size of a fossil snake for a doctor to burn off with liquid nitrogen. Today when he says, “I loved my beard more than the face it covered and removed it to discover a spot of cancer,” one wonders what boys comprehend on each their own eve of adolescence.
national defense, for Meaghan
Armed with rotten tomatoes, undergrads pelt their keynote speaker, a public relations officer high up in the military, as he delivers his canned speech to promote the Strategic Defense Initiative. A program arming satellites to shoot down Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles mid flight from outer space has them repurposing pieces of fruit not only as projectiles, but also as offensive weapons for use against a father of four fast identifying himself as but a messenger of the realm dressed in a loaner uniform for his final tour of duty.
pleonasm, for Karen
A principled silence is like the Katechon of Saint Paul a thing to hold back the end of time while vague armageddons play out beyond earshot, in the peripheries of our visions. Another principled silence asks a certain kind of man to step back and not talk so much. It says, “Listen.” In the play Hamlet, when a world-famous motormouth (Polonius) complains to a queen (Gertrude) about her son’s rude advances toward his daughter (Ophelia), he goes on for so long about brevity being the soul wit without saying what’s the matter that the queen must recenter him with a request for more matter, as she puts it, and far less art. I hate Shakespeare’s portrayal of this father, who is concerned for his only daughter’s safety. Who wouldn’t be nervous raising such a delicate matter with a queen anyway? Who wouldn’t get caught up in his own nervous chatter? If I were the playwright, the prospect of killing off Polonius would be off the table. I would place him and his daughter under my protection, give them what kids these days call Plot Armor, while ideating the deaths of true villains.
reader, for Ivy
A nonhuman character from a story I read as a ten-year-old is the sound of trickling, its humble action to draw attention, itself a character, to a hole in a levee, yet another character, that we must plug with our fingers if we are to stop a breach, a deluge of deafening water, from wiping out our bashful city.
suicide, for Heidi
This kid I know, Jeremy, says Sula, set in Medallion, Ohio, is the same book as Fight Club, set in an apartment on Northeast Paper Street in an unnamed city. Both talk about the insanity lurking in the world and how it comes in different but similar ways, with swaths of people resisting or facilitating or standing beside mass destruction like men beating each other with knuckles-bare and Eva burning her child down while Shadrack walks around town on his own National Suicide Day.
world religion, for Deborah
The thigh muscles bind and move the femur, bind and move, bind and move, the thighs giving life to long bones. Why does an angel reach for Jacob’s thigh and touch it? Why touch it? How many people have been born from a thigh in the annals of world literature? I want to know but know no one who can tell me. Who among us has suffered a serious thigh wound? What is a serious thigh wound compared to a charlie horse? What is the thigh’s role in impulsive, regrettable actions? I am told that the word femur means to engender but can find no record of this anywhere.
xenia, for Charene
Imagine being with the one you love most and not recognizing them but admiring them for their warmth as host, and their not recognizing you, whom they love most, but time and again asking you if you have enough of what you want. Word bank: custom, stranger, housecleaning, banquet, guest, host, perfume, place setting, caterer’s young helpers, hospitality, funny apron, calling card, crashers, just this once, sitting across from each other, place setting, RSVP, name-tags, peonies, cotillion, breathing the same air, cutting the rug, smoking on the balcony, slow line of cars at night, clouds passing in the moonlight, lost in time, noctilucent, coldest night on record, overstayed welcome, overslept, replaying the tape, what I said last night, my behavior.