When my son Jonathan moved from our West End Avenue apartment to Brooklyn, he took a surprising amount of furniture with him – heavy, dark brown furniture mostly, from his late father’s side of the family. Furniture I’d failed for years to notice I no longer needed. But once the dresser, table, chair and whatever else had been loaded into a van and taken away, on a rainy December night in 2014, the West End Avenue apartment where I now lived with my new love began to breathe. Corners of rooms, newly empty, stretched themselves, plumped themselves out with air.
Meanwhile, Jon’s new place in Bedford-Stuyvesant began to take on the look of the apartment he had just moved out of: the apartment where he had grown up and where he’d periodically alighted between moves to college, Missoula, Kathmandu, Chicago, Portland, and now Brooklyn, where the new apartment also featured inlaid wood floors, a narrow winding corridor, bookshelves, and that furniture.
The West End Avenue apartment in its turn bore a striking family resemblance to the apartment a mile north, on Riverside Drive, where I had grown up: a dark apartment, a long corridor winding its obscure course from front to back; and furniture: a bentwood rocking chair and a loveseat from my mother’s family in Virginia, a massive seminar table my father had somehow spirited from a Columbia classroom. Not all of this furniture was heavy and dark brown, but much of it was; the dominant DNA prevailed through three generations of apartments. But as if on an allegorical pilgrimage through purgatory, each of these three apartments commanded a bit more light than its predecessor. The Riverside Drive apartment on the first floor was darker than the West End Avenue apartment on the third floor; the Bed-Stuy apartment, a fourth-floor walkup, had more light still. Onward and upward.
And then another direction: south. Three years after his move from Manhattan to Brooklyn, Jon moved to North Carolina to live with his girlfriend in a house by the Haw River, the house where, six months later, on a May day of rain and sun and rain, she and he got married on the riverbank. When he moved down, he brought with him much of that faithful, sturdy, well-travelled furniture, as well as tablecloths, bowls, mugs, a Greek rag rug, a framed manuscript sheet of his father’s music, family photographs, The Changing Light at Sandover, a blown-up image of the Monroe Leaf cover of his grandmother’s translation of Ferdinand the Bull into Ferdinandus Taurus, and more, much more that I do not remember – although each time we visit them there, I think I recognize a few more items transplanted from another life. Each book or bowl appears to have settled into its new riverine space. Each has its provenance: more stories than any one heir could possibly remember or pass on. How much, after all, does Jon ask me about these things? How much do I spontaneously tell him? How much of what he’s told does he retain?
The invisible heirlooms encoded in our genes are wedding presents waiting to be claimed, unpacked, set in place, and then eventually moved. Both buried and superficial, family resemblances are written on our faces, legible to those who can read the signs. If all that we inherit could be identified (is the word earmarked?): this nose, that height, this high cholesterol, that love of puns, this overbite, that scoliosis, this perfect spelling – we’d recognize it even in transit from one incarnation to another. But what we see is only scraps; hints; clues. We pay more attention to objects than to bodies, let alone to souls.
Objects transported through time or space are translated, like Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream after his vision, or like the objects James Merrill spies in his poem “After the Fire.” In that poem, visiting his Athenian cleaning lady Kleo, Merrill notices item after item once his own: “I seem to know that crimson robe”….
Other translated objects one by one
Peep from hiding: teapot, towel, transistor.
They’ve been – stolen? filched? borrowed? appropriated? by Kleo’s son Panayoti. The best word is the one the poet has already used: translated.
Not that my son and daughter-in-law have filched anything. Everything that has passed from me to them has been freely and joyfully, if sometimes absent-mindedly, given. Nevertheless, Jon and Julia are inevitably in the process of translating these new and also not new possessions into their shared new dialogue, a language still in process, still undergoing merging and revision.
It’s a rhetorical law, and also maybe a psychological fact, that over objects moved into fresh contexts as lives unfold and change, metonymy and synecdoche settle like fine dust. So let me focus synecdochically on one object among many; let the part stand for the whole.
Take this rug. Now it lies on a dark red downstairs floor in a house on a riverbank in Saxapahaw, a hamlet near Carrboro, North Carolina. The rug was woven by a Samian lady on her inherited loom. The path by which it came to this house isn’t simple. Many years ago, back in New York (or, summers, in Vermont) after my four years on the Greek island of Samos, I cut up old blue jeans, blouses, nightgowns – denim, batik, flowered flannel, gingham – into long strips. I rolled the strips up into balls the size of balls of yarn and mailed them from the States back to Marathokampos, a village on the southwest side of Samos. Here the weaver transformed the strips into colorful, durable, striped runner rugs which she then packaged and mailed back to me. All of which is to say that the rugs were translated, indeed re-translated: from Manhattan or Vermont (the house there was a great repository of eligible rags) to Samos and back to Manhattan again, and from there to Brooklyn and now, most recently, to Allamance County in North Carolina – which may, however, not be the rug’s last stop.
Samos is in the news now for reasons that have nothing to do with rugs or wine or tourism and everything to do with the plight of refugees herded into overcrowded camps. My time there in the Seventies now feels mythical. The rugs – there were quite a few of them, and for years I kept many of them in a closet, pristine, waiting like a dowry – abide.
Think of a villanelle or a pantoum, poems in which entire lines are recycled or repurposed. Think of a sestina, whose six end-words chime in a set pattern. These durable poetic forms both capture and accede to theme and variation, mutability and limits. But at this stage of my life, I seem to lack the patience to fit each iteration into a set pattern, even if it’s a pattern that affords room for improvisation. I don’t feel like fitting bowl, tablecloth, desk, mug, or rag rug, singly or in artful combinations, into the set space of the poem’s container.
In James Merrill’s dense dream poem “Childlessness,” the word plot does double duty as a space and a story. “She” is the poet’s “dream-wife”: “I hear her tricklings / arraign my little plot…” If a flower or shrub can be transplanted, can a plot, as in “storyline,” also accommodate this kind of change? Turning back to “After the Fire,” the “translated objects” Merrill recognizes not only appear (or “peep from hiding”) in a new place; they are themselves different, in this new context – this new garden plot or story plot. The poet’s complicated feeling about this new disposition of his things resolves into a stoical shrug: “Life like the bandit Somethingopoulos / Gives to others what it takes from us.”
Poetry is where I usually go to make sense of what Wallace Stevens calls “life’s nonsense.” And yet, despite this ingrained habit, poetic forms, such a reliable and generous and time-tested bulwark against chaos and randomness, can come to seem arbitrary, rigid, even falsifying in their imposition of order. Even as its duration gets shorter and shorter, life these days feels to me as if it’s opening out – concentric circles? A river trickling (Merrill’s word in “Childlessless”) into various deltas? There’s a sense of spreading and an attendant thinness – not too much in any one place. Poems by contrast, or some of my favorite poems, are dense, compact. They lend themselves to being memorized. They feel like permanent possessions that resist change. Closure, never my favorite word, makes more sense in the context of poetry than in a life’s passage, or even the passing on of an object. Things don’t usually come to an end; we do.
Pass it on. The bowl, the book, the dresser, that rug, its rainbow of soft much-washed color on color, the patterns of some of the original fabrics still visible – they have apparently come to rest, but it’s an illusion. Whitman writes in “To Think of Time”:
To think how eager we are in building our houses,
To think others shall be just as eager…and we quite indifferent.
I see one building the house that serves him a few years…. or seventy
……….. or eighty years at most;
I see one building the house that serves him longer than that.
That longer-serving house, that little plot, could be a grave. Or maybe it could be a poem.