Essay

Adventures of the letter I

In the town of Odessa

there is a garden

and Dvonya is there,

Dvonya whom I love

though I have never been in Odessa...

 

MORE THAN THIRTY years ago, the Jamaican-born American poet Louis Simpson came to Australia and was for a time in Armidale as a guest of the University of New England. He talked to me about being a poet in America in the years of the Vietnam War, how before the war he had written a poem that began with the line There's no way out, and how during the war he came to know the truth of the line – for himself, for America.

His mother's family came from Russia, from a province in the south named Volhynia – known to medical students for the water-borne disease Volhynia fever. To escape America he would imagine this place – mud and boards, poverty, the snow falling down the necks of lovers – and remember how he first heard about it, his mother's voice in the tropical night, a sea breeze stirring the flowers that open at dusk, smelling like perfume:

 

The voice that spoke of freezing cold

itself was warm and infinitely comforting.

 

So it is with poetry: whatever numbing horrors

it may speak of, the voice itself

tells of love and infinite wonder.

And this was the way out, the only way: poetry, Russia, Dvonya with her

black hair and eyes

as green as a salad

that you gather in August

between the roots of alder...

To follow the adventures of the letter I – the imagination. To create the language of the letter I – the language that can speak of numbing horrors with a voice of love and infinite wonder.

 

IN TAKING MY title from Louis Simpson's 1971 book Adventures of the Letter I, I'm honouring a long reading friendship. Reading is a matter of friendship, as music so often is. There are songs that are acquaintances, and we nod to them as we pass in the street – and there are songs that belong to us, and often we know this belonging from the moment we first hear them, and from then on we know them in our deepest selves, and we interpret our lives through their sound.

 

Andrei, all my life I've been haunted

by Russia a plain,

a cold wind from the shtetl...

 

The letter I sometimes speaks from the deepest self – and sometimes from a sly, entertaining self, and sometimes the letter I doesn't speak in the first person at all. The poem 'A Friend of the Family' begins:

 

Once upon a time in California

the ignorant married the inane

and they lived happily ever after.

 

But nowadays in the villas

with swimming pools shaped like a kidney

technicians are beating their wives.

 

They are accusing each other of mental cruelty.

 

And the children of those parents

are longing for a rustic community.

They want to get back to the good old days.

 

It was the time of flower power and the Vietnam War, and the first person starts to peep out when the poet thinks of Chichikov, the hyperactive hero on a bizarre mission in Gogol's novel Dead Souls:

 

These nights when a space-rocket rises

and everyone sighs 'That's Progress!'

I say to myself 'That's Chichikov.'

 

'Hey Chichikov, where are you going?'

 

'I'm off to the moon,' says Chichikov.

 

'What will you do when you get there?'

 

'How do I know?' says Chichikov.

 

And then the poem plunges – an abrupt change of tempo, tonality – and the voice speaking from the depths of the letter I:

 

Andrei, all my life I've been haunted

by Russia a plain,

a cold wind from the shtetl.

 

I can hear the wheels of the train.

It is going to Radom,

it is going to Jerusalem...

 

In the night where candles shine

I have a luminous family...

people with their arms round each other

 

forever.

 

So many personalities of the letter I can be contained within a single imagination – an endless conversation, sometimes a fight, a hubbub... But always there must be an encompassing I, an I that holds together these multiple and often contradictory personalities – and sometimes we hear the voice of this encompassing I: Andrei, all my life I've been haunted by Russia...

 

SHE SAYS: I want to write a book.

Her friend asks: A book? What about?

So she inhales thoughtfully on her cigarette and says: About the world as I see it.

Of course – she concedes – I need a few pointers about how a book gets written.

You can find this exchange in Milan Kundera's novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. You could find it in many other places too, but let's join Kundera in calling this hopeful writer Bibi.

It's years since we were all reading The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, and maybe by now Bibi's become a celebrity. Maybe she's running her own course – You Too Can Be A Published Genius, Tomorrow – and hopeful writers are flocking: if everyone else can be a writer, why not me?

Bibi doesn't read, and why would you read a book that's about someone else when you can write one that's about you? No, you only need to read other people's books so you can get a few pointers about how a book gets written – and then off you go, like Chichikov in his troika.

Readers, naturally, will want to read your book – that's what readers are for, after all: you write the book; they read it. Readers – well it's all in the name isn't it? Readers – a vast mass lining up to buy your book, and not one with the slightest desire or ability to write one of their own... Writing's for us, the writers...

Naturally, Bibi will write her book in the first person – that's all there is in her world, so how can she do anything else? I, she will say – I did, I think, I want, I'm cross about, I like, I feel miserable when...

There's the encompassing I, the I that holds together a constellation of personalities of the letter I – and there's the narcissistic I. I'm thinking of the kind of dressing table where you can angle the mirrors so that you are repeated many times – a whole corridor of yourself looking at yourself in the mirror: there you are –the back of your head, your face, the back of your head... I did, I think, I want, I feel, I believe...

 

LOUIS, SO MUCH of my life, too, I've been haunted by Russia. It began with the calls of clarinet and horn in Borodin's B Minor Symphony – and then it was a story of Turgenev, King Lear of the Steppes, then Crime and Punishment, the plays of Chekhov – and Pasternak: Doctor Zhivago, Zhenia's Childhood, The Last Summer...

It's a strange thing – to be homesick for a place whose earth you don't know, a place that belongs to you only because at an early time in your life your imagination took root there, and fed and grew. My people were English, generations from Lincolnshire, Surrey, not a Russian breath or sound native to my body.

In your poem 'Why Do You Write About Russia?' you give me that breath, that sound:

 

When I think about Russia

it's not that area of the earth's surface

with Leningrad to the West and Siberia

to the East I don't know anything

about the continental mass.

 

It's a sound, such as you hear

in a sea breaking along a shore.

 

My people came from Russia,

bringing with them nothing

but that sound.

 

Music came first, then Russia, then poetry. It sounds organised and purposeful, to put it like that. And that isn't how it is at fifteen. I'm thinking of you in Bournemouth, Jamaica, how for a while American sailors had filled the island – the world and its possibilities, the women who went up to the sailors and engaged them in conversation. And afterwards:

 

I sat by the pool at Bournemouth

reading Typhoon.

I had the pool all to myself,

the raft, the diving boards, and the rings.

There wasn't a living soul.

 

Not a voice just rustling palm leaves

and the tops of the coconuts

moving around in circles.

 

In the afternoon a wind sprang up,

blowing from the sea to land,

covering the harbour with whitecaps.

 

It smelled of shells and seaweed,

and something else perfume.

 

In her memoir Giving Up the Ghost (HarperCollins, 2010), Hilary Mantel writes: 'If people ask my advice about writing I say, don't show your work before you're ready... I should add, don't do your work before you're ready. Just because you have an idea for a story doesn't mean you're ready to write it. You may have to creep towards it, dwell with it, grow up with it: perhaps for half your lifetime.'

When I was seventeen I was already writing a novel – about the world as I saw it. My mind tumbling with reading and music, and my writing self – of course! – unformed, chaotic, incompetently imitative, narcissistic. Several years later I opened the handwritten manuscript and thought: Suppose I should die, and this was actually read by someone.

I'm thinking of a hospital ward, Armidale, 1968, the night of the nurses' ball. I'm sixteen and it's my third stay in hospital that year – this time, acute nephritis. Hospital is reading – all day long, The Brothers Karamazov,The Good Soldier Schweik. And nurses – how does an awkward boy get to feel at ease with women? Three weeks in hospital isn't bad. Looking out over the hospital roof into winter evening light, the darkness of pine trees.

Cynthia Matheson and Pat Thomson, trainees, and not much older than I was, were friends – the serious one and the teasing one, and both able to see the funny side, of each other, of all that happens in a hospital. They would make my bed – I sat and watched – and sometimes they would talk to me and sometimes to each other. One day they were talking about a girl my age who was dying. They apologised: we don't want to be morbid. But having to lay her out...not so good.

Cynthia wasn't going to the ball – she seemed happy to talk about it, happy not to be going. But they'd be short-staffed, so could I help her with the register that night? And Pat would show herself off to us, before the ball...

How much time can be spent fretting, dreaming of inaccessible and – who knows? – maybe unwanted fire and passion. And yet to be in a quiet hospital room, with a serious girl, doing something together... Wasn't that the ease I wanted?

She would give me a name; I would read the details; she'd write them down, sometimes coming over to look if she was puzzled by something. I didn't breathe, listening to her breathing.

Then there was a buzzer. I looked through the register while Cynthia was away. There were entries for blood pressure, pulse rate... And then the word deceased.

Of course. Death happens in a hospital...fluctuations of blood pressure, a racing pulse rate suddenly plunging to something sporadic and uneven, and then – deceased. The word had never meant what I knew it meant before.

Afterwards Pat came in, dressed for the ball, and we said the things you say when someone is pleased with how things have turned out, and she did look pleased. Pat doesn't look as good as she ought to, Cynthia said when we were back at work, and it was true. I thought of the ball – the noise, the dancing, how sometimes you can believe that the happening you dream of could become reality.

At 1 in the morning and again at 3 the night nurse would come round with a torch. I couldn't sleep, and would have liked to talk, but it was too complicated, so I shut my eyes, pretending. How to say: I've discovered death, I've heard the voice of death in me... Everyone knows about death... I'll give you a sleeping pill...

Many years later – a high school reunion. Even at the first one there were deaths, just quietly, at the edges. Thirty years on and you know there's no way out. Talking with Diane about Cliff, who has died. Something about the way his death has come to us tells us it's suicide, but we don't ask. Diane speaks about Cliff's struggles, his Aboriginal heritage. So many conversations that we will not have, so much that is too complicated. As Sonia says at the end of Uncle Vanya, we shall go on living...

None of this was in my novel – only the noise of my adolescent self trying, too soon, not hard enough, to claim a voice, succeeding only in striking a pose, uncertainly, all the time checking himself in the mirror. Maybe I'm ready to write it now.

 

I THINK OF this essay as a constellation of things that belong to me. Through language and structure – a tissue of relationships. This is one of the joys of writing: to explore what is thought to be known, to discover the new in the known, to make connections that are suddenly dark – joyous, furious – with blood and energy.

Walking in the grounds of Katoomba Hospital, I come across a chimney. Looking up I see how the chimney seems to move, though I know it's the clouds that are moving, and I'm back in my childhood, six, and walking fearfully past the chimney in the grounds of George Watson's Boys' College in Edinburgh, the chimney that might fall on me – how vengeful it looks, how the scudding winter clouds urge it on – how I'm frightened by the tip of the lightning conductor, like a snake's fang, the lightning getting ready in the sky to pounce and bite... I walk quickly, and my father is waiting for me in the Austin A30, smoking his pipe. Safety, so that I forget the chimney. There's the smell of the pipe, my father's smile as he drives, the companionable feeling of not speaking, but not because there's nothing to be said...

That paragraph was an improvisation – something a writer does all the time, like piano practice – to keep the hand in, to see what the mind's getting up to when it thinks you're not watching. At first, this time, I think:Oh, that chimney again. But later I realise it's the image of the father that's live and haunting – the father who is safe, reliable, the father who is an infinite blanket of protection and comfort. And is it that way for fathers, in themselves – what to do with our uncertainties, our own growth that won't stop presenting us with awkward choices, ways forward that might tear the blanket from us, shred it, leaving us exposed to the shock of the world and the shock of our children – the shock of the children we have been?

Bibi, you're yawning. You wanted to know how long a book should be, whether you should use people's real names, what words are okay to use if you're talking about sex... But she's not just yawning, she's angry, she's sick of me – I'm not doing my job: I know the book I'm writing no problem there! All I want from you is a simple how a few pointers and don't talk to me as if there's anything complicated about the word 'I' the shortest word in the language and you have to have problems with it! Everyone's got an I! Get used to it! And get yourself a life to go with it! The problem with you writers is that you make problems where there aren't any now at least answer me this: do I need an agent or do I go straight to the publisher?

 

PIANO LESSONS. WHEN I was eleven I'd been writing string quartets and piano sonatas for two years... Something, obviously, ought to be done about it, and my mother had heard about Mr Dauber.

Sometimes as a reader I have the beautiful feeling that a book has been written for me – that the writer has somehow written the book with the impossible knowledge of the deep longings of me which up to that point have been inarticulate. This is a book that can teach me that what I discover through the book alreadybelongs to me – how this belonging in becoming articulate can create patterns and certainties and adventures.

It's one of the most precious experiences of reading – to know yourself completely at home in the words and vision of another; to find your own encompassing I deep in conversation with the encompassing I of a writer, using language and knowing things you did not know you knew...

 

'I tell you secret about Chopin,' Mrs Sivan confided in me. 'Piano is his best friend. More. He tells piano all his secrets. He put hand on the piano like this.'

I braced myself as she reached for my shoulder, but her touch was warm and affectionate.

'Enormous trust. No resistance: nothing between himself and piano. More than that, even.' She transferred her touch to the keyboard. 'Hands completely melted down. He embrace the piano.'

She dropped her voice and glanced round the room. 'In my opinion, George Sand not the true love of Chopin's life. This is. This instrument. Even he feel physical love for it. We have this absolute incrediblehow do you say? intimate physical knowing. In Chopin, the what and the how are one, not two. Not one mechanical sound ever. Will kill Chopin immediately. Once more, this middle section.'

– Anna Goldsworthy, Piano Lessons (Black Inc., 2009)

 

What happens – what can happen – when the space created by teacher and student is live with joy and knowledge... I remember a concert at the university, 1964: Mr Dauber entering and bowing, sitting down at the piano and arranging himself. He'd been introduced – Jan Daubé, as if he was French – as a pupil of Helmut Walcha: Wolka, the announcer enthused; Valsha, I corrected sotto voce, a know-all twelve-year-old. Mr Dauber had told me how Walcha, who was blind, would learn or re-learn a piece – voice by voice, nuance by nuance, the patience, calm, the insistence on absolute fidelity to the composer's intentions. Mr Dauber only permitted me to play from Henle Urtexts – he looked at my Schirmer editions with mystified shock: But we are playing Beethoven, not Hans von Bulow...

I wondered for the moment of silence before the hands flung themselves at the keyboard whether Mr Dauber would sing: that deep approving moo he made when he was demonstrating posture and wrist position, the transfer of energy from the shoulder to the fingers, through the arms – feel it at the wrists, press more firmly, feel... He was to play his own compositions – 'The Song of Twin Rays' and 'The Sound of Mystic Wheels' – and yes, my heart did sink at the things I guessed were being said or hinted at by eyebrows, behind hands and smiles. And the music. I remember only tedium and embarrassment: this was myteacher... It was as if he was launching into an enthusiastic lecture in Greek to people who had no Greek, but who sat politely and – when it seemed to be over – applauded. Well...most interesting...a bit long...

Next week Mr Dauber had a recording of his part of the concert. I saw him telling my father that it would cost him three pounds; my father, caught off-guard, fending him away – and I withdrew to the music room –this was a catastrophe... Mr Dauber speaking primly all through the lesson; the rejected record unbearably sad in his lap... How one day soon after he didn't come for the weekly lesson, and no one ever knew – or ever let on that they knew – where he had gone or what had happened to him.

 

'Like Shostakovich says, we are all soldiers. But of course is good to want to be a general! I never say no to ambition. We all go, step by step, but our aim is always creation, never ego or narcissism.'

 

Anna, all my life I've been trying to find language for the tumbling music inside me. I was never going to be a pianist, and as a composer – as Stravinsky says, a composer is or isn't, and it wasn't composer that I was, only in moments, nothing consistent...a phrase, the imagined sound of low flutes, a single viola, horns pealing like bells... It wasn't so much that I needed to be – performer, composer – I had to create languagefor that tumbling being, for its continuing evolution...

It's strange – two of the Russian poets who have long been in my life had mothers who were pianists, that tumbling music all around them. Boris Pasternak's sister Lydia said of their mother: Mother was music. And Boris was a composer, idolising Scriabin and keys like G# minor, before he was a poet. When he began to correspond with Marina Tsvetaeva he discovered that her mother too had been a highly trained, admired pianist. Marina, who loved the deep sea of music heard from under the grand piano and hated the metronome, the hours of practice ruled by that ticking.

Both wrote about music – there is that passage in The Last Summer where Mr Y begins to play. And Marina's essay 'Mother and Music'. But I hear music in everything they do – reading their work, their letters, reading about them. A sea breaking along a shore – voicing the human soul, with its infinite capacity for the unknown, for the nuances of the everyday, for longing and sadness.

How to speak this music in the first person?

Such longing for a teacher...not to give pointers for limited goals, but to learn that doors open and that we ourselves can learn to open them, stepping confidently. We all go, step by step, but our aim is always creation, never ego or narcissism. And perhaps my favourite quote from your teacher, Anna, who gives so generously and with such life and chuckle: Only what you give is yours.

When I think of Mr Dauber as my teacher I become confused. I find myself imagining him somewhere in country New South Wales or Victoria, teaching beginners after school. He tells them music is the language of love. He tells them it's always at the final rehearsal rather than the concert that the learning happens. He quotes the conductor Furtwangler and the theorist Schenker. And the children are bewildered, not knowing how to answer when their parents ask: How was the lesson? Practising their scales, the minuets from theAnna Magdalena Notebook in the Henle Urtext edition. And maybe still the twin rays sing and the night and stars carry the sound of mystic wheels.

You had the great gift of a teacher who didn't bewilder you, who was not herself confused... I remember reading of how the American poet James Wright said that he wanted to write the poetry of the grown man –and I think of your teacher telling you: We have huge responsibility to future! Of passing this spirit to next generations. Always remember: only what you give is yours.

And only what you truly own can be given... And teaching is often like fathering: so often the desire to be strong with well-founded knowledge and experience, and yet – the reality of uncertainty and panic.

 

SO I WILL say to Bibi: the best book about writing may not be a book about writing, the best writing teacher may be speaking about music – Chopin always talking about emotional response, which absolutely everyone has and can recognise. But his own particular experience, behind this response, is secret. This is the mystique of his music. He has a lot of love, but who he loves and how he loves this is again secrecy.

But she is asking: Do I have to tell the truth? I mean – well, some things are a bit embarrassing... And some things aren't – well, interesting enough...

Ah Bibi...I was going to say that there's only one rule about the truth: if you're bearing witness, don't bear false witness. But if you're talking about a life – why not the possibilities of a life, the adventure of imagining a life? Why be bound to the one life you happen to be living? But instead I pause for a moment. For the first time it occurs to me that Bibi might be listening...

There's a poem, I begin...

A poem?!

Bibi's had enough. She's off. The sound of angry footsteps in the corridor, getting to the stairs, fast on the stairs. It's the end of Chekhov's A Boring Story... The young woman has demanded that the old professor tell her what she can do with her life – you're educated, you've lived a long time, tell me! And the professor can only mumble come Katia, come Katia, let's have a cup of tea... He's been a teacher all his life, distinguished... What can he give? What does he own? Let's have a cup of tea...

 

The young girl stood beside me. I

saw not what her young eyes could see.

A light, she said, not of the sky

lives somewhere in the orange tree.

 

A form of punctuation unique to poets: lines. Where the line breaks creates so many possibilities of nuance and meaning. In this poem, 'The Orange Tree' (1919), the first break comes after the letter I.

John Shaw Neilson was my first poet. And late at night, when I was sure everyone else was asleep, I would stand at the window and recite into the moonlit or dog-howling or sometimes cock-crowing suburban stillness– tentative, ecstatic: 'Song Be Delicate', 'Love's Coming', 'Schoolgirls Hastening', 'The Orange Tree'...

When a poem is about a young girl and an older man – and the older man is almost blind in the way Shaw Neilson was – there's the temptation to look for autobiography, and it's been suggested that maybe the young girl of the poem was a relative of Neilson's who belonged to a religious sect and was known to have visions, that maybe the two of them had actually stood one evening in front of an orange tree and when he'd talked for a while about luminous boys and mad escapades of spring, she had turned on him and said:

 

...for all

your hapless talk you fail to see

there is a light, a step, a call

this evening on the orange tree...

– or words to that effect.

But the poet just kept on asking:

Is it a fluttering heart that gave

too willingly and was reviled?

Is it the stammering at a grave,

the last word of a little child?

 

And then he came in and wrote it all down...his story for the day.

When I was young, I heard only melody – and my own noisy romantic yearnings confided to the night through that lovely melody. Many years later, I hear the chuckle of the poet – how he is both the older man making up fanciful stories to describe the light he can't properly see, and the young girl becoming increasingly annoyed at the substitution of beautiful words for the direct experience of a light, a step, a callso evident in the orange tree... The poet so humorously and harmoniously balancing youth and age, innocence and experience, voice and silence, seeing and telling, beauty and truth, story and song, story and vision...

And I follow the adventures of the letter I in the poem – the I in the first stanza belonging to the older man:

 

...I

Saw not what her young eyes could see

...and then in the last stanza:

Silence, the young girl said, why,

Why must you talk to weary me?

Plague me no more for I

am listening like the orange tree.

 

How beautiful! The position of the letter I in the line is identical to its position in the first line of the poem, but for the first time the letter I belongs to the young girl. And it's given to the young girl to make an exquisite modulation: instead of looking at the orange tree, and seeing rather than telling its story of light and being, she is listening like the orange tree... Listening...

It seems to me that the poet's encompassing I contains multitudes, a constellation of shining things: the young girl, the older man with his failing sight, the light that lives and plays and steps and calls in the orange tree, the orange tree itself, the warmly touched-in melancholy of the older man's stories with their deepening shadows, the rising annoyance of the young girl as the older man persists in weaving beautiful stories rather than seeing what is to her so plainly there, the delicate and perfect metamorphosis of young girl into tree through the modulation of the letter I in the final line break:

...for I

Am listening like the orange tree.

 

And that was my first title for this essay about reading and writing and friendship, and how the letter I might place itself adventurously in the world: 'Listening Like the Orange Tree'.

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