how do I get back now?

The long street in the dark, the branches hanging down low over the pavement, the lights and their yellow pools, the neighbor’s dog barking in her deep, slow voice, the other neighbor’s dog answering, the call going out, relayed across fences and through hedges, alert, alert. Danger, Will Robinson. Remember when Brazil’s National Museum burned? We didn’t see it, of course, but felt the heat, despite the distance, the oceans, the entire continent. We cried together in the living room for all that was lost. Notre Dame burned today. Something else tomorrow. There was an opossum on the porch earlier, digging its nose down into the recycling bin. I watched it for a while through the kitchen window. It seemed neither bothered nor curious about the barking next door, and went about its business licking out the empty tomato cans. I came out onto the porch later, but it was gone. It lives down underneath the porch. Now that the dog is dead, we have all sorts of animals in the yard. We had to build a fence around the gardens. Your mother designed them, and I helped build them. There’s nothing else happening here tonight.

When I’m out there, I’m never sure how to get back. I’m not sure how to get back now. I’m not sure I want to get back. I can go out to the tunnels or follow the trail down through the marsh and across the bog and down toward the industrial park and wander around in the Urban Forestry Center, but then I’m gone too far and coming back is a math problem that can’t be solved. When you’re deep in the Urban Forestry Center at night, you can see the MacDonald’s arches glowing across Route One. You can smell the coffee roasting at Port City Roasters. You can hear the crackling of the power lines and the ringing of the buoys out in the bay and airplanes coming down at the airfield. You can walk to the edge, and it’s like you haven’t gone anywhere at all.Down in the tunnels, I make my way to the iron door that’s welded closed. You can tell someone has been trying to get in. Someone has been hammering on the door with a rock or pipe. When I’m down there, I never see anyone. Someone has scratched an eye into the door. You can hear something coming from the other side, water maybe, or roots growing, or animals burrowing. The tunnels are broad enough for me to stand arms spread wide. Someone has spray painted in giant letters: Welcome to the Jungle, You’re gonna die. There’s one branch of the tunnels that I won’t go down. It splits from the main tunnel. It’s too dark for me, darker than the dark I’m already in. I leave it be. Once I sat down across from the other tunnel and turned off my light and just listened and I couldn’t hear anything. It was so dark that there wasn’t any sound.

I can go down through the bulkhead and into the cellar and get lost around the back of the furnace. Or crawl into the old coal stove someone pushed off to the side. I know the way through the fieldstones and the sand. I know the path beyond it all, but it’s different going out than it is coming in. The light is bright under the coal dust. There is a path in the sand that leads to a door with a name carved into the wood. I can see the name and the grooves made by the knife. I can trace the letters and slip in between the curlicues and lines. This is all alone. This is not here. I can’t get there. I can’t go. Once I’m down into the light, I can’t see anything. Once I’m gone, I’m gone. The only way to get back is to keep on going. Then I’ve got to go down into the rock, way down below the sewers, way down below the skin and scars. I’ve got to get down to where the bones are teeth are thick. It’s one layer after another no matter how far I dig. I’ve been down there, and I’ve been back, but it’s not something I can do now. It’s not something I want to do twice. Still, here I am. There I go. I’m not looking. I’m outside the door and down inside the teeth all at once. I can’t let it happen again, but I can’t stop it either. I can’t see any other way home.

These are the things I can see: our street; the trees across the street in Mitch’s yard; four gourds hanging in each tree; Mitch holding one of the fallen gourds, looking into the hole he drilled to see if there are any birds, or eggs; I can see the bridge; I can see the highway, barely a car going north or south; the remnants of a poster that said Welcome Home Joey; the American flag caught in the wind over at the Alternative School; the softball field that always has puddles; the fencing around the fish-stick factory; the coils of wire down by the power lines; the Great Bog and its trails; the train tracks down near the industrial park where I fell while walking a few years ago and scraped up my legs and side. I can see the hills past the Walmart and then I’m basically to the water. I’m almost there. I’m down near the marshes. I’m crawling through the rushes. The water is splotchy with oil. The birds are quiet in the trees along the edges. I’m down low. The wind is above me, cattails rustling. I’m down by the ranger station. I’m down on Cable Road. There’s no one awake. I’m past the ice cream place and the place that sells sunscreen and t-shirts to tourists. The path is thick with beach roses. The sun is just breaking the line. The terns and gulls coo and preen near the tideline. A sandpiper calls to me, drawing me away from its nest. He dashes past, hopping over the rocks, looking back, chittering once again. I say: I’m not here for your eggs, little one. The sand is cool. Rows of seaweed tell me where the tide has been. I’m down in the water. I’m up to my ankles. I’m up to my knees, my hips, my chest. I’m down in it now. The ocean is very still. I can see all of this. I can see all the way home.

Advertisements

Now he goes in the door and

down past the rooms where the men are eating and past the rooms with the shoes and the room with the shirts and says to the woman ironing in the ironing room that he has arrived and she says, They found the boy with the jacket made of pins and he nods and heads further back until he finds his mother polishing his father’s mask and there is a pile of masks set off to the side that she will polish, too, in her long day of polishing, and he takes off his mask and says, I am here, and she nods and shows him her palm where she wears her eyes and he says, I will tend to the ovens, and she lowers her fingers over her palm and adjusts the position of the mask in front of her. He traces the path her eyes make from his mask to the mask on the table and says, No thank you, I will take care of my own mask and then he retreats into the hall and continues past the rooms of knives and past the rooms of chairs and past the assembly hall where the old men without masks and the women gather together to help each other walk and then down into the basement where his ovens await and he can remove his mask and spend the day without its weight

this one has a woman screaming

That’s her biting her hand. That’s her down on the floor. She’s screaming or biting, down on the floor curled around a life vest, a old carpet, a flag draped over a child. It’s tucked into her elbow, a part of her. She comes to the window. She’s carrying a bundle of rags, a duffle bag of scarves, the blankets of the dead. When she speaks, there are no words, a noise like static. She is moving and talking and screaming all at the same time. She’s carrying a bundle of rags, a child, a life vest, old newspapers, a wind-up radio, a mask of feathers, her father’s teaspoons, a bottle of teeth, an ancient leather bridle, the wind, the birds, an unspeakable ancestral tongue, a history of broken bones, a scar below her eye, a scar on her chin, a scar down her right arm from the knife, a scar across her back, a pair of laceless shoes, a pail of hot coals, a sack of ears, a canteen of blood, a face seen best in thirds: here first, then here, now there. She is thusly divided. She is best one at a time. That’s what she says when she’s done screaming. No one can see all of her, she says, no one would want to. There is no way home, there is no new place, no way to begin, no hope in finding her now. Once she hits the window, once she gets outside, she’s gone, she’s out, she’s flown, she’s on the street: fast down to the bridge, fast down to the highway, fast right to the water, and once she’s in the water, you’ll never catch her. She’s past the water. She’s lost, she’s carrying herself, all her secret stashes, her swollen elbow, her swollen knees, the gimpy hip, the scars she won’t talk about, the scars she won’t reveal. She’s in the water down in the deepest well, down too far to swim up, down in the tunnels, out into the inky core, she’s found her vortex. She’s new. She’s next to the hot heart. She’s praying to the next open door. She’s never coming back; she’s never coming home. You think she wants any of this? What’s here for her to use in the blank field? What can we offer that she won’t toss away? What is left of her anyway? What is left as she’s running? What’s left as she’s gone? What’s left now that we don’t remember? What part of her is hoping we’ll follow? None, nothing, no one, never, no thank-you. She’s speeding into a fresh unlit space. She’s looking into the dark. She’s down too far to return. She’s down too far to see. She’s alone with her own aloneness. She’s down into the darkness now. She’s following the sound. She’s brought along her bundle of rags, a purse full of nails. She opens the door to announce her own arrival.

The National Museum of Brazil, September 2, 2018

There it goes. All of it.

Flames up and out, the roof

gone, history in ash.

An unquantifiable loss for

Brazil, for all of us,

and a reminder of our

total impermanence. I

don’t know what was lost.

It’s not a museum

I’ve ever visited.

Some bones, paintings, documents.

Proof of one thing

or another. Whatever

was stored there

is lost now forever.

And the paintings stolen

from the Isabella Stewart

Gardner museum—also gone,

perhaps destroyed, only

their empty frames

remain. The statues of Buddha

destroyed by the Taliban?

The books burned by Nazis

or marauding Vikings?

That painting your daughter

did in 3rd grade that you

accidentally dropped into

the recycling? You think

any art is safe? The universe

doesn’t need the Mona Lisa

or Declaration of Independence.

Even if those items last

ten million years, that’s

chump change to the universe.

The universe laughs

at ten million years.

Kid, I do ten million years

before I get up in the morning.

The universe does not

care what we preserve in

our wooden buildings.

That cold, infinite emptiness

is a cold, infinite emptiness.

So, there it goes.

All of it. The noise

of the loss is a vibration

(the bones, the documents,

all fuel, all gone,

no mercy, no farewell)

but heartache is brief.

I’m not saying you

should stow your

grief. I’m saying your

grief, no matter how wide

or deep, is temporary.

When the cold and infinite

emptiness comes calling,

the only human

response

is to

begin

again.

Why is Clark Not Working?

I’m on leave for this fall semester. I can’t accurately call it a sabbatical because I’m not a tenure-track employee at the University of New Hampshire, but it amounts to the same thing. Many people ask me why I’m not tenure-track, or whether or not I can get tenure if I’m at UNH long enough, and the answer is that my position is contract based, contingent faculty, and I can’t get tenure because that’s a different employment trajectory. My official position is Principal Lecturer. I’ve been at UNH full time since 1999 when I started as a Lecturer; then I became a Senior Lecturer; then a Murkland Lecturer; now Principal. My duties in the classroom and to my students are the same as any teacher in a university setting, and most of my students refer to me a professor, but I since I was not hired tenure-track, I can’t officially be a Professor (note the lower/upper case P’s) at UNH, nor do I have the long-range security or higher salary of tenure-track and tenured faculty. On the plus side, I have to do less committee and university service work than I would if I was tenure track. Mostly, I get to concentrate on my students. I like that.

But I’m on leave.

I won’t be back in the classroom till January 2019.

What’s that all about?

Well, my Pedagogical Leave is a program built into our Lecturer contract (negotiated by UNHLU, my union) that allows long-serving lecturers the opportunity to pursue their work for a semester. The idea behind it is that it will benefit the lecturer, her students, and the entire university. There are four slots available each semester for lecturers that have served over six years. I applied last fall for consideration for this fall. My application was thorough, about a hundred pages long.

I was awarded the leave.

That’s why you may see me out and about when you might expect me to be in a classroom. You may find me scribbling in a notebook at a coffee shop, or attending readings, or riding around on our Vespa during regular work hours. I will also be spending a lot of time in yoga.

But I’m a writer, and the leave is mostly going to be about writing. I’ll be posting a few times a week here on my blog as a form of reporting on my experience. Already my “plans” for the leave have morphed into something new. But that’s for my next post. Until then, write on.

If We Had Known

 

Elise Juska’s fifth novel, If We Had Known, is a spare and elegant novel about characters as they live in the aftermath of a mass shooting in a mall. What’s most interesting about this story is that aside from the mother of the shooter, most of the characters only knew the killer or any of his victims from a distance. The central character is a teacher who once had the shooter in a class, four years before the shooting. She saw the student twice a week for fourteen weeks, and finds herself at the center or the unfolding turmoil. Another character, a former classmate, remembers a strange paper the shooter once wrote. Another character had her hair styled by one of the victims. What Juska does is show the ripples as they fan out from the shooting. She mostly avoids the perhaps more sensational stories of eye-witnesses to the violence or the more interior stories of grief from the victims’ loved ones. The novel’s power lies in the way Juska reveals the truly devastating effects not only for the victims of these shootings but for entire communities. One of the most viscerally related storylines centers around the daughter of the teacher. A young woman on the cusp of her college career, she’s already prone to anxiety and an eating disorder. Her struggles to maintain a sense of herself while studying, dating, dealing with social media, societal pressures, are all amplified by the swirling debris flowing outward from the shooting. Juska’s fifth novel is a powerful piece of work on many levels, and it should resonate with readers no matter where they stand on the issues concerning the proliferation of guns in America. The novel doesn’t demand any particular political stance from its readers. It only asks us to consider the aftermath of the all-too-frequent mass-shootings. In that regard, it could be the most important book you read all year.

 

On leave. Writing.

I’ll be disabling the Instagram photos that appear on this blog. I’ll be posting more updates about writing and creative subjects. These next six months will be the first really dedicated writing time I’ve had in my life. Stay tuned for details. This is my writing desk (although I’ll write anywhere) and my cat Lucy likes to support me, and my screen while I work.