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B and I finally made it to the Philadelphia Museum of Art yesterday, along with everyone else in town who wanted to go for free for First Sunday. It was crowded and somehow it felt like a hero’s journey to get there and back, but I’m glad we did. Some pieces, like the giant Chagall ballet backdrop, I remembered. Some pathways through the contemporary collection, some sculptures I had passed when I was shorter, following somebody else around. I loved a painting by Roberto Matta, The Bachelors Twenty Years Later, and then we walked over to Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even, and then the last, Étant donnés, laid bare behind a wooden door. All these questions about experiencing a museum space, moving from art to art, I the viewer / the digester / the reader / the meaning-maker, and the artist points to me / the artist / in my looking and looks back through the glass / the door / the slash mark.

[ The Fire That Consumes All Before It, Cy Twombly ]

Then we found a room I didn’t remember, Fifty Days At Iliam, a Homeric narrative stretched on canvas in long crayon lines. Was it at the museum when I was young? I don’t remember. I stared at The Fire That Consumes All Before It for a long time. That depth of red. It made me think of my Bubbe, and I no longer care if it makes me a cheesy person to continue writing and thinking and talking about my dead grandmother. She was the person I followed through the museum space. I was very sad in that room, and that’s the truth. Did she love that painting? I don’t know.

I can tell the story about how she set me going as a writer, how she made me love art, and those are true stories. But I realized yesterday that part of my sadness is that she died before I ever got to have real conversations with her about art. That’s the door I keep peering through.

[ Étant donnes, Marcel Duchamp ]

I had two poems in the Nashville Review that went live yesterday, “Missives” and “A Remnant,” and they are both from Doors of New Jersey. That’s the whole book, doors / I keep peering through / pressed / as though they could open.

Last night I dreamed of approaching the tower from my recurring dream, of green light and safe space and the illuminated hotel lobby that feels like home—the tower always looks a little different, but it is identifiably the tower. I think here about Bachelard and the tallest point in any house, the well-lit garret. It’s the place of elevated thought, heightened reason, closeness to light, airiness.

In the dream I had to approach the tower by water, a channel that ran through a city, by stepping onto a small raft that would take me there, and I stepped off the dock with my arms full of books and sank into the water instead. The books weighed me down and I considered not letting them go, but I had to in order to get to the surface. It didn’t occur to me until after I woke up that they were already ruined.

The tower appeared in another recent dream, this time a giant buoy at the end of an arduous harbor-side trail. I stepped onto the platform and it rocked back into the water, and I saw that there was no door, and the water washed back and forth over me as I refused to leave.

Years ago, my recurring dreams were of giant, deadly dark waves and sinister bodies of water, and it is disconcerting to see my old, bad recurring dream combined with my new one, the one that is inexplicably happy and safe. The hotel is gone—the tower turns away from me, not a safe place for me but a place safe from me. I think here of Baba Yaga / Baba Yaga’s house, the denial of entrance, my own poetic confusion of occupant and intruder, the woman who is both old and young, good and bad, a helpful obstacle.

I have no background in dream analysis. But writing dreams down feels worthwhile. These days it’s the most reliable of my creative acts, not including the act of dreaming itself.

A painter shows slides of her work. From the earliest to the most recent. Lights out. First slide: Do you see that figure there? That’s my grandmother. Second slide: There she is in the corner. And there—there’s my grandmother too. The one with her back to us. Yep, that’s her again. In each painting she shows us where her grandmother is. That shadow there—it’s my grandma’s shadow.

But one day my painting teacher said to me that I was putting my grandma into too many paintings. Next slide: A landscape. There is where my grandmother used to be. A cityscape. See up there. A seascape. Hi Grandma! A desert. The surface of the moon.

– Carole Maso

I’m not even going to tell you what kind of asinine comment this person wrote in the margin. Instead:

[ at the beach / the echo of that other beach / my mother’s mother’s mother looks at my mother’s mother / and I in the future of the imagination look too / at my mother’s face / (not pictured) / at my mother’s face in her mother’s face / because the body is always in the landscape ]

I’m still working on reading that book. It’s been so long since I started reading it that I had to reread what I had already read, but I’m determined this time. After today, it’s spring break at the University of Alabama, and I’m flying home tomorrow for Passover, so there will be plenty of time to read on the plane. Planes scare the shit out of me (much like most things that present opportunity for horrific death), but reading is one way that I can calm down a little. The drone of the plane helps me concentrate on the words on the page, instead of on my terror, and I really don’t like small-talk conversations with strangers, so I have to keep my eyes on the page to avoid making accidental eye contact. Reading back through this paragraph, I sound incredibly neurotic, but I think that might be an accurate portrayal.

I haven’t been home for Passover since I was a junior in high school. When I was in college, I never went home on breaks, and my senior year of high school, I was on a college visit and I missed the seder. I knew I was going to miss it, and my Bubbe was in the late stages of pancreatic cancer, so I spent the night at her house before leaving town, and I missed the seder and then she died. Passover has always been my favorite holiday, but all the other holidays I’ve been home for haven’t been the same, our giant family dwindling and shifting over the years, and when we get together around the dining room table now there are empty seats. My aunts always tell the same stories, repeat the same infuriating narratives about things I never actually did when I was a kid, but I let them tell the stories because it’s a tiny piece of continuity. Remember the time with the bad cake. Remember the time with the choke-hold. Remember the time with the splinters. It’s our oral tradition, and we have these holiday gatherings in a different dining room now, but we’re still carrying around these stories. We’re still getting angry at each other for old hurts. It’s still my favorite holiday, because of the ceremony of the thing, the wine dropped like blood onto the plate, the calling of the plagues.

I just woke up from a dream that took place at my Grandma’s Margate house, that featured my Bubbe (not my Grandma). The house was a lot like the Margate house, but it wasn’t exactly. My Bubbe was alive in the dream, but she was also already dead. She also looked nothing like my Bubbe, yet somehow I knew that that was who she was. She looked more like my Grandma than anyone else.

This dream logic, when someone or something is several things at once, is not problematic for me, but in my manuscript it seems to cause problems for readers. Along the spectrum of writing whatever I want to write and writing what I think others want to read, I’m not sure where I want to land. I don’t want to lose what I love, which is this sameness, this doubleness, danger and safety from the same character, two characters that can’t be easily distinguished.

In my Baba Yaga research, one of the most interesting things about her is how she shifts. Sometimes she’s the villain, and sometimes she’s the donor that provides the magical object. Sometimes she’s both, because she is unwilling to help and must be forced. Sometimes she’s harmless, and sometimes the jailor, or the cannibal. Sometimes her house is a place of refuge, but it’s also surrounded by spikes topped with human skulls. Sometimes she is a giant and sometimes a small, old woman, your fierce grandmother, one, or both of them, the dead one and the one that still lives.

But my book isn’t about Baba Yaga. Or it is. Or it’s about the human house, and what it means to rent it out. And what are you doing, reading these words? You’re living in my house. You’re the tenant of this text.

 

This, all of this, is what I’m trying to write. A dream in which someone is both entirely elusive, and yet right there. In your house. In your head. Maybe I’m answering my own question.