It’s Janet’s birthday. And I’m excited. Her folks are coming up to Dubuque for lunch, and I’m invited to join them, so we’ll all get to enjoy the food at Caroline’s, the Julien Inn restaurant. Her sister and brother-in-law came to visit for the weekend; that was fun. We all sampled the shopping opportunities in Galena. Of course, we appreciated most of all having an excellent lunch at Fritz and Frites. Food is always a fine way to enjoy good times (unfortunately for my weight).
I have a nice present for Janet (I hope). Since she has to attend a meeting tonight (now that’s unfortunate), I intend to give it to her at lunch. I know her folks will have a card and something for her as well.
Even though I’m fairly confident she’s going to like what I’ve gotten her, let’s offer a few poems here today as well (after all I couldn’t get them all in for Valentine’s Day nine days ago). I do beg your indulgence, but then I’ve offended you with so much poetry already, these few can hardly matter.
The first one has been a long-time favorite of mine, pretty much ever since I wrote it. More or less, it’s the first poem of our married lives together. In that way it ties in with “Sweetness and Light” on an earthly, domestic theme. This time it’s a trip to the bathroom in the night…
In the lightning flash of the bathroom light
you are suddenly from chaotic night created
and in consequent darkness, as the tube
imperfectly completes electrochemical connections,
annihilated: yet, when the current
courses through successfully again
you accomplish an instant resurrection
only to vanish recancelled into
before a final and prolonged incarnation
as focused photons registering
an image upon my retinae,
which stereoscopic vision
transmitted along the optic nerve
my brain understands is you.
So, like a female mammalian firefly
you seem by awkward mechanical illumination
both to be and not to be, together,
but the perceptive organism, me,
holds you in truer sight, within:
the permanent, perpetual source of day.
18 July 1982
So there’s a married poem, from the summer after our wedding, a long trope on a neon light flickering on and what one sees in the the cancelling darkness. And me desperately trying to find some sort of meaning in it all—I hope a meaning deeply felt.
In our little apartment in those days, balanced along the horizontal, east and west, on Maple Street, here in Maquoketa, I could see the bathroom light flickering on from our bedroom. I don’t think I could actually see Janet, just the light.
All through that summer I was writing my second three-act play, Magick (which I should work on and get sent off to the publisher that rejected “Everybody”). I finished it at Labor Day, when sadly my mother, who had suffered from cancer for more than a year, died, having—I sometimes think—kept herself alive for our wedding. It was the 1982 Andrew Fall Play, revived again in 1998 (I enjoyed both productions, although nothing can probably top Diane’s reaction to hearing “Collywather” as the name of the imaginary friend in the show—I had borrowed that name from Diane’s own imaginary companion from childhood). My dad came to visit us in that little apartment after the funeral and burial service. He came to visit several more times while we were still there; I’m not sure why, but he seemed to like that love nest. In February of 1983, we moved into a house, a rental, that one of Janet’s clients had revealed to her was available. Although he visited us there as well, at least until he died in December, I think my father still thought we belonged in that little apartment. We liked it too. (Okay, a little too grim on the loss of parents—out of the blue to my actual mood—for celebrating Janet’s birthday. I have been glad that, adult-orphaned by age 30 that I was, Janet has been so valuable an element/center of my life.)
Here’s another poem from that apartment, this time from early in 1983, a bitterly cold and snowy winter (colder by far than this one has been, but equally well buried in snow). We had a long narrow window over the couch in the living room, which, if you clambered onto the sofa and peered outside, looked out on the large back yard, where on December 31st, 1982, a cardinal had arrived for a few days at least. A huge old conifer stood right by that window, blocking about a third of the view, as you can tell in the poem…
Birdomen, speak me your meaning:
yesterday you arrived
circling with silent wings
to find your place
in our fir tree,
sweeping to stop a third of the way
from the top, hidden
among the spiralling branches;
and orbited beneath the tree—
me seeking to spot your plumgage,
invisible in the foliage,
until my noise and prying eyes
sent you skittish, wings spread
crimson against the dying light,
southwestward behind the garage,
and gone, a cardinal sign
by sunset at December’s end.
And today, new year, my wife finds you
herself, outside the window,
but you fly off when I peer out,
a rush of red speeding southwest away,
just a glimpse of scarlet
to incarnadine the rust and greenishgrey
of this sullen, cold and troubled day.
Now upon the turning of the year you come,
coloring with fire the Janustime.
1 January 1983
A lot of things elude me, and the bird may stand for them all. When people say they have “retained a childlike sense of mystery,” I wonder if they don’t mean what I feel: “never overcome a self-absorbed, dimiwitted lack of perception.”
You might observe that my fascination with two-faced January goes back awhile in time.
Happy birthday, Janet, my sole redemption. (I edited away from “only” to hype the pun.)