J.S.A. Lowe currently serves as Online Editor for Gulf Coast, and is a PhD student in creative writing at the University of Houston. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Black Warrior Review, Chicago Review, DIAGRAM, Salamander, and Salt Hill Journal. Cherry-emily, a chapbook, will be published by dancing girl press in late 2013.
A Very New Year
"We wish you a Happy Crimble, and a very new year," John Lennon says solemnly at the end of some Beatles interview or another. I don't remember anything else about that recording, except I listened to it on the radio during my first real East Coast winter, an icy 1990 Christmas, when I lived alone in DC in the era of Bush 42, and became so sick with my first real flu I had to crawl on my hands and knees to the loo to pee.
I had no health insurance, of course. That was only my second year as a proper underemployed poet, working at an independent bookstore for $4.25 an hour--wasn't that the minimum wage back then? But we got a discount on books, and I wasn't waiting tables anymore, so I loved it. I was so happy in my tiny rented room, half dead of flu. I'd squirrelled away a bunch of broken candle stubs from a previous horrible job at a downtown florist's, and arranged these as an altar on my windowsill, and would stare into their magical flames of an evening and compose my immortal (terrible) stanzas of love, complete with watercolor illustrations.
Those were days of being unimaginably broke. I had a mattress on the floor and a cardboard box that held my clothes, with a couple of wire hangers over the door for my best thrift-store houndstooth wool skirt and a single frilly dress, which I thought was pretty, a dark rusty orange color with cornflowers on it. I auditioned for Ophelia in that dress, reciting Sir Thomas Wyatt impassionate. I lost the audition. I got the bookstore job. I wrote poems. I prayed and glowed with the newness of 1991, that winter, sick unto death.
That was the New Year that my best friend at the bookstore, Martha, took me to hear the Poet Laureate read. His name was Joseph Brodsky. My friends have heard this story a zillion times but I fell immediately in love, with a hard thunk, the way you do, like fetching up against a brick wall, all bruises and stun. Not allowed to smoke, because we were in a church, the poet fingered a cigarette the entire time, and kept begging the audience to let him light up, in between reading those poems, ululating them despairingly as he did, wailing like a synagogue cantor, trippy, heightened, the way chant is related to the French chanson and the English word enchantment. We swayed in the audience, rapt, delirious. And of course I, stupid, twenty-one, marched up to him afterward and stuck my hand out, informing him, "I'll be in your class next spring."
I hadn't even applied to the college where he taught, hadn't even been accepted; though those things would happen, possibly through the brute force of my young will. I would be his student next spring, and for the last three springs of his life--would follow him at a distance, quiet, writing out memorized poems as rapidly as possible, handing in papers months late, afraid to speak in class, auditing, showing up when I had the energy, dropping out when I couldn't function, racked by my first full-blown snowbound depression, not having words for what it was other than I hated myself and could barely get out of bed.
But every January, despite the snow, pulling out my journal and pencils and pens and crayons and trying, once again, to put a name to it. Thousands of sentences, dozens of such journals, curling cursive in candlelight, promises made, leaves turned over, vows renewed.
New year. It sounds so½new, doesn't it? Shiny, squeaky, redolent with promise, fulgent with fresh effort and, of course, the dreaded resolutions.
I say "dreaded" because we all know they're ridiculous. I don't even dare go running today (though I want to, because my granny like yours taught me that what thou dost do on New Year's Day, thou shalt do all the year long) because I know scads of temporarily determined people will be clogging the three-mile Rice University running path. And I refuse to be one of them. Also, it's raining, and this leftover eggnog isn't going to drink itself.
There's something despondent and sad folded into the very nature of the resolution itself--its failure, already nascent within its inception. Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny and there's a formal rising action, cusp, and nadir to the structure of New Year's resolutions--they begin to waver and wane even as you take steps to commit them to actionable item, to habit.
Or maybe that's the Ashkenazic side of me, always seeing the cup as mostly empty. Yesterday I read through a paper journal entry from 12.31.2011 and it was astonishingly similar to how I feel about my life now--materially comfortable but spiritually arid and on the struggle, always on the struggle, to read excellent work and to write passable or even good work and to get that work published. None of which, to be honest, really happened in 2011. Not to be a downer, but I promised Goodreads I'd read 50 books, and only made it through 37; wrote half a dozen poems at most, maybe three of which I liked; got 2 out of those 3 accepted, by dint of bloodyminded perseverance perhaps more than the poems' relative merits--and also finally placed a chapbook, one I wrote in 2009, with a publisher who makes lovely book-things. Which, you know. No complaints here. Getting anything written and published is a miracle, given the world's fundamental indifference and the vast numbers of us generating verbal output. Only--
Only what. Only where is the fire, where is the glory. When I was in my twenties the life of a poet seemed blazing with possibility and potential. "A poet's life is at least a chosen life," CD Wright told me, "and there aren't many lives you can say that about." I prided myself on deliberately pursuing an astringent, tonic madness that was absent, I thought, from the tiresomely practical plans of now well-heeled friends. Friends who own homes and have partners and children and stability, while I am endlessly shelling out rent, hemorrhaging student fees, and taking out desperate loans to pay for the cat's emergency surgery. (But: the cat is alive. Which is miraculous, and a great blessing. Can't write poems without a cat.) (And, bonus: when you take out a student loan, my advice is to tack on an extra hundred for an Xmas-sale cashmere sweater. Seriously, it showed up on my doorstep in a damp cardboard box a few days ago, fuzzy and consoling, and I have only taken it off since then to bathe and sleep.)
Does this post have a point? You may well wonder. I do. I think the point is--look. I had a Welsh friend at Cambridge whose New Year's resolutions were, I always thought, screamingly funny. No one else seemed to find them as hilarious as I, but I saw in them his phlegmatic Becketty bleakness and loved them for that. One of his resolutions, as I recall, was "to go to the bathroom less." Another was "to be more attractive to the opposite sex." The impossibility of these delighted me, their resolve that could never be fulfilled.
So what are we impossibly resolving today? To write more, to write daily, to write every morning before work? To read more, to read Proust this year, to reread Tolstoy or Blake, to finish Leaves of Grass (which I've been toiling through happily since November)? Resolving to send out more work, get a story taken, get a poem published? Resolving to rediscover that fire, that tonic madness, that chosen life? Resolving to stay on our feet in the midst of what Milosz called " a tournament of hunchbacks, literature"?
Humans persist in making plans; we are the future-slanted animal, always caught up in what's happening tomorrow. Last night my boyfriend interrupted my sleepy litany at 3 am, as I had started cataloguing tasks to be accomplished before the spring semester begins: "You can think about those things tomorrow; right now, it's time for bed." But bedtime is when the ideas so often come! Should I resolve to sleep with a pad of paper and pen next to the pillow, instead of groping for my phone and sending myself misspelled text messages, stray lines for poems that show up in the dark? Should I resolve to go for long walks, since the poem-fairies love to bring verses to those whose feet are hitting the earth rhythmically (and since my widening midlife grad-student waistline could use the exercise)?
Whatever we resolve, let's remember that we make things out of love, that we try because we relish the effort; and that even though we probably won't keep our resolutions for more than a few days (since most of us head back to work tomorrow and schedules are about to fill up again, alarmingly quickly), they serve some kind of polestar purpose anyway. It's a new year. The world hasn't ended yet, though humanity may be slouching toward biocide. Let's try to leave some kind of half-decent record for the aliens who unearth artifacts of our civilization someday, lest they think we worshipped the Kardashians as deities and prayed to them via Twitter.
A toast for 2013, then. Here's to newness, and to its tarnishing; here's to resolution, and to its beautiful lingering defeat.