Letters from Portugal, #2. Duxbury
Recently I flew to one of the most unsettling foreign countries I know. I’d picked the 16th of December, half way between Thanksgiving and Christmas, hoping that there would be fewer people on the move. But the plane was full. One of the crew mangaged to arrange an aisle seat for me on the starboard side, even though my assigned seat had me as the central sardine in the tin. Six and a half hours after leaving Lisbon I landed in Newark in the United States for a five-hour layover on my way to Boston. A driver would be waiting for me at Logan in the makeshift parking lot for limo services. It took some time to find him though, as the cement barriers and pillars and walls and roadways had all shifted during the three and half years since the last time I’d flown over the ocean and landed in the nation’s first metropolis. “What is it with America and cement blocks?” I kept asking myself.
The driver was a big man. Not corpulent so much as reinforced, like one of those blocks. Our conversation was animated to a degree that only Americans who have never met, whose backgrounds are disparate, and who will probably never cross paths again can achieve, an urgent and fugitive familiarity and ease which, if necessary, would lead one to saving the life of this perfect stranger at the cost of one’s own, whether by employing mouth to mouth respiration, which every American learns in school or at summer camp, or in the midst of flames, or under a hail of bullets — all highly plausible scenarios and lurking around the very next corner. The one hitch in the conversation came when I inadvertently mentioned “socialized medicine,” which caused Steve’s (of course we were already on a first name basis) shoulders to contract upwards swallowing his tree trunk-sized neck and giving me the impression that I was being driven down Route 3 by an enormous sea turtle who was now retracting into his capacious shell.
The fact is, I was having my first average American conversation in three years. I was debuting my English. How was I doing, I wondered? Yes, the mention of socialized medicine was certainly a gaffe, uncalled for, and I regretted it immediately. I was not out to ruffle feathers. I was exhausted. Given the time difference between the Old World and the New, I calculated that I had been up for at least twenty hours. I just wanted to reach the family demesne in one piece and was already imaging the gallon bottle of Johnnie Walker which my eighty-seven year old mother would have taken from the Walter Earl Memorial Liquor Cabinet and placed on the counter and which was, at this very moment, towering in all its auburn splendor over a glinting stemless crystal next to the toaster oven. What really concerned me now was whether or not my syntax was convincing. Perhaps my sentences were too complete. Maybe I should adopt the soundbitey quality of Steve’s elocution. From my linguist’s distance, it seemed a classic and highly honed case of a big man’s idiolect. He was obviously at home in his verbal skin, sloughing it every time the subject changed to reveal a series of bone-white articulations. As we passed Dorchester, draped in darkness, its many no-go zones hidden behind a line of scruffy triple-deckers, Steve patiently broke down the relative merits of Cadillac’s top-of-the-line sports utility vehicle, from output torque to upholstery, and then matched them up against the GMC we were driving in. I was certainly out of my depth and in search of leverage. So, I mentioned my long dead father, the Corvette specialist from Bridgewater. Steve’s neck and head popped from his shell just in time to overtake a truck emblazoned with Beantown AC. He lurched around in his steam-shovel of a bucket seat almost knocking Beantown into the breakdown lane and said, “Your dad’s that guy!”
I sensed immediately that I’d earned — far above and beyond the dollar value of chauffeur service — a right of passage and was now in possession of the kind of prestige that Steve could only dream of. From that moment on it felt like the conversation had shifted its weight onto the other leg, as my newfound status as a car dealer’s son suddenly congregated Steve’s myriad talking points. The Duxbury exit was fast approaching and as we crested the next hill and the pine woods gave way to a marshy expanse that marked the frontier between Marshfield (the name always spoke for itself) and Duxbury (which sounds like it has something to do — which it doesn’t — with ducks), I could see the green state exit sign out ahead lit by the high beams of Steve’s big vehicle. Once deramped, it was down Route 14 past the old police station, now a private home, the parking lot turned to grass and the cellar jail cells presumably converted into the children’s playroom; then the dip down Bow Street — for the first time in my life, I wondered whether this really had to do with boats and not woman’s hats, even though it’s always been pronounced as though it denoted frills and the color pink — and onto Route 3a, rounding dead man’s curve past the Dahlen’s big white colonial — Shawn Dahlen had recently died of cancer, like my brother-in-law, whose work boots I was about to inherit; an afterlife of left things. My sister, nineteen months younger than myself, was now a widow, an unthinkable designation which the whole family had only just begun to process, especially Mary Jane. We’d been talking by Zoom every day through Andy’s final months, and up until my departure to the United States. We had always been close and obviously as Andy’s illness went from bad to worse our affinities had become gravid with a new process of transference as my sister began to shift the intimacies of disbelief in my direction. I could see that I would not only wear those boots; as though they were proxies of fate, I would try my best to fill them. As had happened with my father’s death nearly a decade earlier, I was being drawn into the family saga once again and, by virtue of that, forced to confront not so much America itself — too diverse and enormous to cooperate with my lazy habit of producing nice-sounding generalizations — but my forty-year absence from its shores. My mother was now closing in on her eighty-seventh year. Andy and MJ had moved to Duxbury from North Carolina five years earlier to take care of her. But the domestic dynamic was suddenly shifting now that Andy was gone, and as Steve turned his big GMC off Washington Street and started down Josselyn Avenue, more a lane than an Avenue, that ended at the waterfront in a dead end, I wondered what it was about night in New England that always seemed so forlorn.
In a letter to James Merrill addressed the same month I graduated Duxbury High School in June 1975, Elizabeth Bishop wrote from John Malcolm Brinnin’s house where she sometimes stayed, right across the bay from ours on Josselyn Ave, about Merrill’s still unpublished masterwork The Book of Ephraim. The mood of her reading, alone, late into the night, in Brinnin’s sprawling cape, perched only a meter or so above high tide line, pouring over her younger friend’s manuscript perhaps in one of the upstairs bedrooms, or sitting on the glassed in terrace, was one of vague unrest and even “gloom,” both at how prolific the work was compared to her own, and at the dark and silent night on the bay. She was exactly the age I am now, sixty-four. Do poet’s carry with them a sense of vulnerability all the way to the end? My own mood as I approached the family home made me think so.
“There are a lot of things I don’t know about in it” she went on about the Ouija Board inspired poem still in typescript and which announces its daemonic or mediumistic intentions from the outset:
“Time, it had transpired, was of the essence.
Time, the very attar of the Rose,
Was running out…”
And Merrill’s theme was “an exalted one.” Nothing less than the “incarnation and withdrawal of / a god.” His friend Elizabeth, who was one of last century’s most down to earth poets, hedges somewhat, craftily rephrasing Samual Taylor Coleridge’s most famous dictum: “Of course I have to keep my disbelief in abeyance as someone has surely said — but I don’t find that hard, at 2 a.m. in the complete silence and slight spookiness here, alone.”
It seemed I was always arriving at the Duxbury home by night, and that, increasingly, I too had to practice the willing suspension of disbelief, as Coleridge calls it in his Biographia Literaria. Away from the town for most of my adult life, my identity over the years slowly fused with my European surroundings. For the past two decades, to be precise, since giving up my position at the University of Coimbra, one of the oldest in Europe and where I had taught for seventeen years, I’d spoken English only a couple times each week, and those conversations were mostly by telephone. Duxbury, on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, had begun to seem increasingly unreal. I would visit, then retreat back to Portugal. Most of the time I wondered if it existed at all. It was almost too quaint, and so lily white, where brawny young fathers would hoist themselves onto wooden floats, water pooling in rippled abs, chatting away about short selling and the latest in floating peripherals. A town of cocktail parties and yachting and long summer lunches, patrolled by crews of landscapers, house painters, carpenters, all of whom made their living keeping three hundred year old wooden homes in fine condition. It was also a real estate bubble where, no matter what the economy was doing, crashing or soaring, what war was being fought abroad, or what tragedies were sweeping other small towns, house prices always seemed to accrue along a shoreline dotted with discrete white clapboard mansions tightly nestled in bezels of green. The acutely wealthy, following the scent of priceless properties, made the merely wealthy seem like sharecroppers in their own community, except that the sharecroppers carried that patina of long term residence, which made the new barons cower, as though they knew in their hearts their martinis would never match the dryness of the sharecroppers’s martinis. But that was a daylight problem. Let darkness drop and something inbred about the place crept from the mudflats and stuck in the teeth of the blue-blooded like bits of crab meat.
Maybe it was that sense of disfunction that inconvenienced Elizabeth Bishop. There’s something unforthcoming in her letter to Merrill, some whiff of disapproval of not only his opulence and occult, but of poetry in general, poetry and its settings. Her droll reference to Coleridge belies a similar distaste. In the Biographia Coleridge is reformulating an idea which first arose as a kind justification for the division of labors between himself and William Wordsworth in the Lyrical Ballads, the ur-text of the English Romantic movement. It was agreed, he said, that his own “endeavors” were to look at “persons and characters supernatural, or a least romantic…” That was in direct contrast to Wordsworth’s concentration on the peasants and farmers of the Lake District and the way he would bring over the natural rhythms of their speech into his poems. Coleridge would attempt something similar with the ghosts of pure imagination by transferring “from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.” He was asking us to believe in the unbelievable by drawing what seemed to be a kind of pity, “a human interest” from our own “inward nature,” and to employ not truth, but “a semblance of truth” that would allow us to suspend judgment in the moment of reading, and he called that “poetic faith.”
My hunch is that Bishop was questioning her faith and found the world itself strange enough for poetry, and that she was sufficiently haunted by her own experience and of those around her and all that she had seen that Coleridge’s willing suspension of disbelief would be better applied as a kind of survival mechanism to face the hard knocks of simply being human, especially in Elizabeth’s case as someone who had been orphaned early in life, had grown up gay in 1930s & 40s America, and had lived a life of exile in Brazil for many years. “Human kind / Cannot bear very much reality” T. S. Eliot, another poet exile, said in his great late poem cycle The Four Quartets, perhaps with a nod to Coleridge himself. Well, Elizabeth Bishop was determined to bear it. Disbelief for her was not an attempt to put the language of the living in the mouths of ghosts as in Coleridge, or an escape into religion as with Eliot, or even a conversation with the dead as in Merrill’s poem, but a form of wonder at the material world right before her eyes. Reading Merrill’s poem in Duxbury, a town steeped in history and seemingly unwilling to modernize, isolated on a large bay protected by two extensive sand spits, created the right combination of place and no-place that throws a person back on their own devices and concentrates the mind.
As the years went by, my mood upon returning deepened and the settings which I inhabit when there seemed increasingly worthy of disbelief — and the willing suspension of disbelief as a strategy for facing reality. Or at least, the need was felt for a large enough dose of it to survive. This doesn’t mean ignoring what was going on around me, but trying to see it in a balanced way, as though looking at a color spectrum and realizing that one color is mix of surrounding colors, that the spectrum is a continuum. Another way of saying “the suspension of disbelief” is to say we allow disbelief to be operative on a scale running from belief to disbelief, from white to black, like Ansel Adams’ famous grayscale. My mood had deepened because lately, and without exception, the last several trips to America had been to attend funerals, or, on this occasion, because my brother-in-law had died. The tonalities of experience were deepening. My flights were being arranged on the spur of the moment, tickets purchased, preparations made, papers bundled up, and bags packed quickly. Death creates a certain hastening in the living. We do not inhabit mourning slowly, we rush into it, through the stages of shock and regret. We absorb the dead. I was getting heavier, but my bags were getting lighter. My inner world was darker and my outer world was streaked with the light of jet travel and airports and long passageways. I was growing inside. And the bags were getting smaller and smaller. I’d stopped checking them years ago after losing suitcases in Heathrow, Frankfurt, Amsterdam’s Schiphol… Once too often, I’d been the last traveler standing, staring down empty baggage belts as they looped endlessly into the small hours and janitors pushed their brooms passed me until finally the belts would grind to a halt with that lurching rubbery metallic hiccup that signaled all was lost. America, in a generalized way, was becoming a place of noumena and mourning and anomie. I had lost my feel for things, my sense of behaviors, and even how to talk to people. Besides the grief I confronted on each return, there was the way returning itself emphasized how long I’d been away, long enough for those I loved to begin dying. First my father, then my oldest friend’s brother, two years older than we were, then his father, Marcel Tuchman, who had been a mentor since meeting Peter at the beginning of my freshman year in college. Peter and I were room-mates. I became part of the family. My first trip to Europe was in 1979. I went to see Peter in Paris, lived with his extended family there. It had nothing to do with tourism. It was a family affair. Both of Peter’s parents were Holocaust survivors. The family home on West End Avenue and 101st Street was old Europe. I once asked Marcel if he still felt like an exile. He’d been among the first Jewish medical students after liberation — a Polish Jew who stayed in Germany to study Medicine right after the war was over. He said he had never felt like an exile. “To be an exile the place you came from has to still exist. My world was eliminated. It’s no longer there.” Marcel’s forehead was marked by an almost numinous kindness. He was a healer, a teacher and one of New York City’s finest diagnosticians. He had a sixth sense for what was happening within us. He had a secret knowledge, secret because you can’t have it without experiencing what created it, without having been there. As soon as I saw my sister’s face — she was waiting excitedly on the front lawn as Steve’s big GMC rolled up and parked in the street in front of the house — I thought of Marcel. She was so excited about my arrival that she did a kind of jig there in the dark and ran into the house to get some money to tip the driver. Her happiness reminded me of Marcel’s Buddha-like cheerfulness. Where had she hidden all that adversity? Where do we put the dead? She had brought Andy home from the hospital after science and medicine — and the fire they give you to fight the fire that’s burning you alive — had run its course, and she helped him through cancer’s gruesome endgame, and he, she told me, helped her help him. He died in her arms and now she was doing a jig on the front lawn out of happiness for her brother’s arrival. Where do we put the dead? It’s like Coleridge and Wordsworth coming up with a strategy to deal with ancient mariners on ghost ships and real idiot boys and worried mothers between the covers of a single volume, as the real albatross returns to its imaginary perch, or the imaginary albatross to its real perch — you choose.