Blossoms at the Wall of the Heart, or, Thoughts from the Lit Fest

Wall murals at the Dupont Underground, where I went for the Lit Fest after party

I have had a beautiful day; it’s been ages since I’ve felt this awake. As if to offer the most pointed physical contrast, DC is a swamp, a mire, or whatever you want to call it. There is rain up to my ankles in the street. I’ve ruined one pair of shoes and had to switch to a pair of plastic sandals that my disapproving Indian grandmother would have referred to as “bathroom slippers.” And yet, as I was wandering through the street at 4 pm after leaving the Asian American literature festival, I felt as if someone had finally turned on a light.

Maybe it began because I went for a swim this morning. I love the feel of water when I’m immersed in it: its constant touch, the way it distorts my view of other people’s bodies, the way it alters sounds made by people in the world above the waterline. Climbing out of the pool at 9:30 am on a weekday, it was me and the old people in the spa. What bliss.

Maybe it began at the lit fest’s first session. Three poets and a novelist. The first two read poems of familial exile. They’d written these poems together, and they began their poems with each other’s names. I love the way poetry sounds when it’s read. When it’s good, it fills my heart and my mind. It reminds me why I ever wrote, and it makes me want to write again. The urge to write is like the urge to love someone; it’s the desire for life, distilled to its purest form. During the reading, a phrase came unasked into my mind, something I read recently: “We don’t love other people; we love what they make us feel.”

Recently I’ve been thinking about what happens when passions end. When we meet people we once felt strongly about, only to find they’re like everyone else. With the flame extinguished, it can be hard to feel any warmth at all. There’s a quote attributed to George Bernard Shaw: “love is overestimating the difference between one woman and another.” Maybe I should resist the urge to mythologize people. After all, no one else exists to be my idol or my demon. But in the absence of myth, feelings that once felt epic start to look tawdry, or like a sham.

Then there’s poetry, which is the opposite of that harsh light. Years ago I remember reading a poem to someone. We were sitting at the table in my house in GK2, in New Delhi, and it was our second date. “Listen to this,” I said, in search of something that would make feel less anxious. I pulled out Derek Walcott’s Collected Poems, a book I’ve hauled across multiple continents. I read one of the Midsummer poems aloud, treasuring the way the words lie against and inside each other. Walcott is the music that words make in their moments of intimacy, with each other and with the human voice.

Maybe it began when I sat down for lunch with one of the poets. When I mentioned my MIT connection, she mentioned Vivek Bald, a lecturer I knew and liked when I was at MIT. I felt as if I were at a party, but only with people I wanted to see.

Maybe it began when I heard Shamala Gallagher read one of her poems in the afternoon’s second half. She began: “I loved to get drunk” and I was delighted and surprised. After she was done, I googled the line so I could read the poem again, and it brought me to this essay.

I read the entire thing. I could read it again every day. In Gallagher’s restless persona, her longing for a home that exists only in the abstract, I recognized so much of my 20s. Her intoxication with intoxication itself.

She writes:

“I know — with undeniable strength, but without clarity — that wine relates to love. At least it relates to the root-straining love, the love made of anguished fibers: to unrequited love, which is named desire, which lives inside all love. At least a strain of it lives at the root.”

I thought: maybe what we love in other people is actually, always, desire itself? And then I thought: that’s fancy nonsense. What we love in other people is their beauty and their joy; the beauty and the joy they create in us. What if that is all that matters, actually? What if that is the only witness required, and the only witness we can ever have?

Dying, Mahmoud Darwish wrote In the Presence of Absence, in which (among other things) he reflects on a beautiful girl he met at the airport and will never see again. Writing, of course, is an attempt to create a witness. I’ve known that since I was 22. I’ve done it a hundred times, in public and private; I’m doing it now. But what if I could stop?

In another one of her poems, Gallagher writes:

“wanting is sometimes

/ a small hole that opens in the

wall of the heart /”

And this idea — of the small hole, the gap — feels deeply compelling, until later on the poem seems to change its mind:

“sometimes / wanting

is an open blossom / at the

wall of the heart /”

And this framing feels new and even better. I have spent so many years thinking of love — and too often, my life itself — in terms of gaps. What I want, what I don’t have. I have felt as if wanting has been my entire life. What a loss. But maybe that’s the wrong framing: every want is a blossom at the wall of the heart. It grows and fades of its own accord. We saw it, we knew it was there, we felt it briefly change us.

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