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Good Letters

Flying BookFor William Carlos Williams

I work best alone. In an empty house.

When I’m ready to work, I take down the sun-faded poster of the Miro museum from my Barcelona honeymoon twenty-six years ago.

I pull the pilled sweaters down from the shelf in the closet—the sweater Nana Sarah knitted for me decades ago, the post-Christmas sale sweaters my wife buys and buys for me: V neck and crew, cardigan, cotton, and wool. Into a trunk they go. When I’m settled in comfort and bulk, I cannot imagine.

Thousands of titles—broken and unbroken spines—swept from bookshelves, dumped into cardboard boxes and shouldered downstairs, through the garage, into the yard. The easy victory of another poet’s epiphany: not for me.

I am the Lord who brought you out of the house of bondage through thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s life: the Ten Commandments have to go.

I work best in a space without honor and justice, property and desire, and without one god. I call salvation’s army to invade and liberate me of all codes—moral, spiritual, civil, genetic—that limit my vision, my art.

On the night before Passover, in the hours before I sit down to work I search, with a candle and a feather, for the hametz, the leaven of pride, in kitchen cabinets and on my C.V., in the diplomas nailed to the wall and the brass medallion that proclaims, day and night, that I, one year, was the teacher above all.

I work best in a room where there is no sign of accomplishment, no record of success.

The prayers collected in siddurim piled up on my desk and floor: they are destined for god. So, I plead with them, fly, fly, why don’t you fly to god now? The ancestors’ yearning trapped in my study leaves little room for my personal yearning for release.

That’s what a poem does, right? Yearns to be released from the page by your breath.

The intentions that chase me from room to room, floor to floor, front porch to back deck to yard: repair, fertilize, reduce, reuse: how can I work when I am surrounded by witnesses to my domestic, global indifference?

I must leave my lovely wife. Her fierce devotion to children who struggle with speech, the currency which they need to exchange for promotion to a life of love and work, leaves me ashamed of my fixation on the ant of prose that crawls across the screen.

I must abandon my talented children and their dedication to health, justice, family, and art. It’s not enough that I shut my study door. What’s shut out shouts my name when I need to be anonymous.

In one room, furniture built to fit my soul. In another room, scales awaiting fingers that will ease them from sleep, play them awake, alive. If I want to work, they must go: sofa, guitar, piano.

Oh, my preparations are endless.

My ambition: alas, hopeless.

There is no chance of creating a space of absolute solitude.

I pick up the electric toothbrush. I point my browser to NPR: Morning Edition.

My house is alive with the work of chemists, carpenters, and engineers, physicians, musicians, and profiteers, nitrogen, honey, and vitamin D. Oh, the work of seduction, production, reproduction, and slow and rapid decay—it goes on around and within me. No matter how diligently, determinedly, devotedly I work to empty my life and everything attached to and moving toward and in and through it—history, energy, conditioning—I will never face the unconditioned page.

Or is it mind in its original state I seek? Not the idea of night but night itself.

Nothing discrete, everything hybrid, intertwined: this poem made of prose, this prose tuned to a melancholic key. Nothing to do but to get to work, put the key in the ignition, turn it, and let life onto the page and watch it come and go.


Image above is by Noah Dibley, licensed by Creative Commons.

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The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Richard Chess

Richard Chess is the author of three books of poetry, Tekiah, Chair in the Desert, and Third Temple. Poems of his have appeared in Telling and Remembering: A Century of American Jewish Poetry, Bearing the Mystery: Twenty Years of IMAGE, and Best Spiritual Writing 2005. He is the Roy Carroll Professor of Honors Arts and Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. He is also the director of UNC Asheville’s Center for Jewish Studies.

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