Monday, July 20, 2015

#174: "Tourist's Attraction" by Jessica Garratt


~This poem was originally published in Western Humanities Review (2012).


Tourist’s Attraction

“‘But what is it all about? People loose and at the same time caught. Caught and loose. All these people and you don’t know what joins them up.’”
                              –Frankie, from Carson McCullers’s The Member of the Wedding


Living by myself in this house
which others have called home and then
not called home, each for their own
good reasons, reminds me to wonder
if what I have is a tourist’s
attraction to love. I’m reminded
how hard a tourist falls
when she feels herself set a little apart,
when she feels that old ache
in the eye, to see clear through
the signage that drew her
in the first place. To see through
is her mania – to see down
to the sacred bones of a sacred site
and through the bones
of the others who traveled there
(even those who traveled with her)
and clutter the air with their bright
t-shirts, their voices flashing
with a present tense
so annoyingly unshadowed
it won’t survive the glib back-glance
of Tuesday. Can you blame her
for wanting to dig down
to a bedrock Now? But I do. I
blame her. Looking through
has something of a look away
in its heart. An old desire of the young
to strip things down – dear
things, some – to an essence, bared like teeth
of the no longer living.
I’m thinking
of Machu Picchu there, if you want
to know.  The skulls, the sacrificed
virgins’ bones, the unmoved sacred stones…
It’s on my mind because this morning I stood
out on the porch of this house in Georgia
where I’m living temporarily, and where
Carson McCullers (now dead) once lived
as a child, less (but still) temporarily,
and I set up a card table – a pretty good copy
of the card table my grandmother put out in the den
for Gin Rummy with my sister and I
when we were kids – and I sat there
on the porch with the deck of cards
I bought earlier this summer in Peru
for Rummy with my sister
on trains and in the airport,
but today (and all week) I’ve played Solitaire
in Georgia’s late-summer, late-morning
heat, and on each card I slapped down,
a new dull snapshot shone
of Machu Picchu, blue sky
an ageless tapestry behind it. White spackle
of clouds. In a few, tourists
who must each, in that moment,
have felt the unyielding ground
supporting their feet, the reliable arch
of the view as it poured in like concrete
to meet the clarity of their eyes,
and not known another perspective
made them small, then guarded
by a two of spades, a jack of clubs, a diamond,
some hearts. It’s September now and still
nothing’s lined up, not once,
on the Solitaire front, so I go on
with the contented mania
of a slot machinist, more at home
with disequilibrium anyway.

At Machu Picchu, I felt steadier
once we were off on our own,
my sister and I. We found
a grassy terrace, hidden
and narrow, with a view
of very few tourists. It looked sharply down
to the sappy twig of river – almost
a satellite view – and up
to Wayna Picchu, that dark god-
like peak, laced with Incan steps, risked now
by hikers (we see them from our perch)
dressed in bright “gear,” they call it.
At least two of them fall
from that pass each year. 
And what is the view from inside
that fall?  There’s no evidence
in the deck, or in the bones,
if they’re found –
                               no evidence
in that sunny afternoon at Machu Picchu,
my sister and I looking around
from our perch, talking idly
about the two men absorbing our separate
attentions, then some minor ruins
we spotted below. Then our parents
came up – the way
they seemed to be getting older… older
faster now.  A silence, a cautious peering
down. I wondered aloud
whether the bird there, making tight verticals
in the air, as it snatched some winged scraps
from the dizzy opening before us
was a species around
when the Incas lived here, in this temporary
hundred-year posting of theirs.
Manda had been wondering
just the same thing, she said,
and then, I bet two Incan sisters sat here once…
I bet they talked about
                                the same things as us…
You think? Uh-hunh, she said,
and we could feel the boldness of this assertion
like a giddiness of the height –
and it seemed right just then
to be brutal – not
about the truth (that binocular
virtue), but about our chance to feel
like members of something – of one thing
dilated far beyond itself –
before and beneath and ahead
of itself. We were sisters. We belonged
to each other, and so we belonged
to the world. It was
simple, and seemed important now
that we not throw sheepish glances
off the edge, at that mountain mirroring
this one, and see ourselves reflected back
as distant tourists, unrelated
except by category – our American
bones and money and bright
costumes, blooming
momentarily, unnaturally,
on this ledge. And was this foolish,
to have what could be called imperial
faith in –
what? – what was it
we believed in so perfectly right then? Our
impressions? Our right to make leaps
from the tangled nest of our
perspectives?
Was it a bit like Frankie’s
foolish faith? – Frankie, from
The Member of the Wedding, who fell
head over heels, up from the wide yawn
of her twelfth summer (which never held her
a member of anything), and
onto the ledge of a great consuming love
for her brother’s wedding, coming up in Winter
Hill, a town she pictured as pure, unearthly
white, and arctic as the heart
of Alaska, though truly it lay
a hundred miles north
of her home here in Columbus, Georgia.

Well, truly, Frankie never lived
here at all, in this town, in this green
and white house on Stark Avenue, where I sit now
at a card table that looks like Grandma’s,
on this high-ceilinged porch in Georgia
where today I write with sweat slowly climbing
steps down the back of my neck,
facing an unbelievably expressive bird
I hear but don’t see, who I think must perch
day after day in the same uninspiring tree
across the street, calling
to less precocious birds, farther
away, with such range, such insistence, such
grave, mutinous joy, I want to hold it
in my hands, and also sometimes
at bay – the way I wanted to hold
Frankie when she said to Berenice:
The world is certainy a small place. I mean
sudden … The world is certainy
a sudden place.  And later, in a different key:
The son-of-a-bitches – regarding
the neighborhood girls
who left her out of their club, their clubhouse
in the tree. No, this neighborhood

was not home to Frankie,
but she was born here, in a sense,
in the room on the other side of this wall
to my left. That was Carson’s bedroom,
where she wrote (as a small, ruined cathedral
inside which Frankie could live) her novel
or bits of it, anyway, back home
from New York with the flu.
Carson, I’m told, never stayed anywhere
longer than eight weeks at a time.
She seemed to want her life set up like that –
like a card-table she could sit at
for a while, with companions or alone,
and then fold up and off
to another place. Though I imagine
the unspoken shape of the word return
rounding in her throat
as she left.
Still, in this house,
there’s a permanent collection of sorts
on display in glass cases in her old bedroom
for tourists to look through
when they visit. There are photographs
and a number of her belongings:
a pair of glasses,
a single white glove,
a single personal check, number 444,
her typewriter,
a box of stationery, personalized,
a tarnished silver lighter,
a child’s record player, opened like a small suitcase,
a watch, its hands stopped at 1:25 and 37 seconds,
a dinged-up metal trunk with her name on it,
a yearbook for Columbus High School,
laid open to the page
on which Carson’s face is half-way down
a staggered column of faces, and across
from her scowl, a quote she picked:
Music, when soft voices die,
vibrates in the memory.
                                 
It’s from a poem by Shelley,
and I swear to you – I could not
make this up – below her is another
Shelley – a fellow named Shelley
Swift – who might have rolled
his eyes up to his handsome hair
when he read that quote, and whose own
motto – oh, it’s grave – reads: “Fame
comes only when deserved.”

Sometimes I write in her bedroom.
I sit like a tourist among her things
and I make eye-contact with her life-
sized visage, a blown-up glower, propped
in the very corner the photo
depicts. The typewriter (now on display)
is in the photo too, a sheet of paper caught
in its works and smudging the wall
with its shadow. Her piano is out of range, but
present, I’m told – to the typewriter’s right.
I’m looking at that corner
right now: Where the piano was,
a display case instead, and in it
my own reflection.
                              And I don’t know
how much being here means
I know anything about her at all.
I don’t know the nature
of the trace we leave behind
when soft voices die, or if a trace is even
what we leave, strictly
speaking. But – I’ll say it
anyway: All of us, I think, are here –
Carson, Frankie, and I – an odd
triangle that looks nothing like a triangle
unless you’re sitting, just so,
in this very room. From a distance,
the spokes are hitched and undone
by a crazy wedding of dimensions. 
But here I can see and see through.
I’m caught         
and I’m loose.
Like these bits of a life let go
but here. Like the sun-baked, looked-at
stones, leaning together at the top
of a mountain, tourists
of the centuries as the centuries
pass. Like Frankie, old Berenice
and little John Henry West
around the table in the darkening
kitchen, playing 3-handed Bridge
with an incomplete deck
their last summer together. Caught
and yet terribly loose: Frankie
a tall winter ache,
lashing painfully against them and every
familiar edge, trying to scrape out
of her skin. And that last evening
in the kitchen, bound by nothing
and everything, their voices began all at once
to harmonize in a three-parted sorrow,
their crying caught up together
in the known dimensions of the kitchen,
but loose like a moment is loose
when you know for the first time
(it is always the first time)
that it will never come again. 
And I haven’t fallen from this knowledge,
but I think that if time really is
a long, straight measuring stick, with no give
or backward glance, what it must measure
and re-measure            
are the infinite dimensions
of a particular place. It must measure the inside
of each temporary view, where
the sight lines of temporary residents
tangle and loose endlessly
with each other, and then
(every so often) vibrate all at once
in a bright shiver of heart strings
when a certain key is struck. Here,
it’s September and evening
at 1519 Stark Avenue
and outside the windows of this room
the shadows press their long hands
together as they lean away.




*****


THE STORY BEHIND THE POEM

            I wrote this poem in Columbus, Georgia, while living in the childhood home of novelist Carson McCullers for three months. I had just returned from a trip to Peru, visiting my sister. Immediately before that, I’d left the town where I’d lived for 5 years and a relationship. Soon I’d be moving to Wichita, Kansas, but just for a semester. After that, I had no idea. I was—unsettled. In enlivening ways and in hard ways. I already loved Carson McCullers’ work—The Heart is a Lonely Hunter was one of my favorite novels—but, serendipitously, I read The Member of the Wedding for the first time while living in the Stark Avenue house. That novel has an unsettled heartbeat if I ever felt one. Its entire atmosphere is a question about belonging and home and what it means to be individual humans inhabiting a place and time together. And Carson wrote parts of it in the very house where I was living.
            The front porch felt like the right place for me to work most days. I was still sheltered by the house, but with the “company” of the neighborhood. It was early fall (still a little hot in Georgia, but bearable) and I sat out there from noon to 5 each day, pulled up to a card table. I think that in writing the poem, I was trying to carve out a kind of temporary home—an atmosphere to settle into. It needed to be intimate but big enough to live inside, and absorbing enough to hunker down in for a while. Its elements needed to converge in the strange, cross-dimensional ways that things converge within a single life. It needed to be a nest of space resting on a branch of time. And it needed to help me feel connected to something outside of my insides.
            I had never written a poem this long before, and a number of times I started to lose my nerve and wonder, Is this boring? Is it too much? Am I asking too much of some time-pressed reader? Can I really make all these different strands belong to each other? Luckily I had a couple readers who put some breath back into my sails when I needed it, so I kept going back to the porch each afternoon over the course of a month or so. The worked-up nerve to keep moving and to try to trust that the connections I was drawing could hold—these were little fires driving not just the poem’s composition, but its temperament too.
            I feel as much warmth and attachment to this poem as I’ve felt toward any of my own poems. Which makes it feel both exciting and a little vulnerable to have it reprinted in a medium where more eyes can find it!

*****
ABOUT JESSICA GARRATT
Jessica Garratt is the author of Fire Pond, winner of the Agha Shahid Prize in Poetry and published by the University of Utah Press in 2009. She is currently finishing her second book manuscript, and some of those poems appear or are forthcoming in Pleiades, Poetry Daily, Southwest Review, Crazyhorse, Memorious, Colorado Review, Western Humanities Review, and Literary Imagination. Jessica lives in Washington, DC, where she teaches creative writing classes at George Washington University and The Writer’s Center and works part-time as an editor.

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