Writers on Writing #79: Rachel Jamison Webster
From “Wishing Cap & The Middle Distance”
I sit at the table. I move the table so that I can sit. The space must change as much as the book must change. Both must be alive.
I have a date with this book that I am writing. It is a book that overwhelms me, a book that finds its shape in me. It overwhelms me because I cannot see the end of it. It seems it could be the one book I am always writing and yet to write it is to always write through it, to always be shedding it like the ever-deading form it is.
And to think it actually began with characters! The characters were things I set up for myself—like wishes, or dreams—just so I could outgrow them, could shed them like a scab. And yet I thought I was those characters once. I thought so desperately, then so earnestly that I must become my dreams. When I was a child, my best friend, who shared my name, and I would play. We pretended until pretending merged with the way we lived—our days, even as teenagers—were braided always with what was real and what was imagined and which was which, which was water which was the phosphor of air. The world glittered this way, experiences became numinous as the hands in the trees. It was a lyrical life, accurate in its lyricism, in its sweep and change. We had, after all, colorful rooms for every age. As eight year olds we played teenage, as teenagers we played college dorm and by the time we were those college kids we had turned the game inward but it was the same game—time like a series of rooms we could create and could create who we were in them and outside—the world, like a cliff we may fall off of if we were not creating, and outside a world full of mirrored faces and shimmer and precipice, but that could always be redirected. This little story I am telling you now is just another of those rooms, because the flow beyond it is too much for me to control—in its face I grow drowsy, my eyes roll, my molars roll, the bottoms of my trousers roll and loll because I do not know how to face. . .this. . .wide width.
I keep trying to find the form of the thing, but the form is not some erection—not some city moving outward into nature—no, the form is a following of rings. The form is a form of ringing, within. . the form is moving ever deeper. To find it I must outgrow myself and move ever inward, inward. To do this like the universe I must expand and contract, I must expand and contract between being the singular and multiple. I sit here in the voice of this book, wondering if it is the voice of Marisol or the voice of me, if it is the voice of my mothers. Wondering which one of these strands is my voice, which is our voice. Marisol it cannot be because she is simply an idea, she never had a body. She is not the baby she could have been, she never found her face. She is like one of the vague dreams I had of myself in high school—a convention, like a formal turn of phrase, she is almost like slang—something I accepted about myself but never actually questioned.
I had to write though her to get to my moment. And writing her was never fun. And living in the grid of convention was not living, and yet. . .
I do not know how to do this yet. I am afraid. Of what? I am afraid I will slip off the glib jelly of the earth. I am afraid the mind can hold so much the world outside becomes some plasma, and yet the writing happens in the body. My fingers clatter, I feel the notes come up along the blood of my arms, I feel the book opening in me, opening in my body like waters. We have not been taught to open like this, it is something we have to learn.
And the body open has no end. This flow has no end. It is the writing that is eternal, the word that is eternal and our hands and mouths just catching it, giving it color for a time. Even in death this body is a flowing on to something else—some grass or rodent eating it and getting energy.
We are our one body, like we choose our one life, because to see it all would be too much—we are frightened of our power, which is not ours.
I will tell you a story. Of how I came to receive this book. First of all it was building in me for thirty years, it was spinning its tale and I was waiting. I thought I needed someone to tell it to. As a child, I rocked in silence, then, when I was two, my brother was born and finally I had a reason to give all the things I knew. I began writing books for him—about planes and alligators and dreams and the memories of stones. And so began my ecstatic didacticism and his old weariness for school.
And for thirty years I lived, as a girl and then as a woman, and I never flew. My life was a book, but I wasn’t a book. Who needed a book when you were a little individual myth, and passing through a myth to something new?
Then, one day, I had a dream. In it, it was the past. I was wearing petticoats, a bodice and a muffet cap—clothes as ridiculous as clothes now if you just stop and notice them—and walking along a boardwalk in which everyone was wearing these clothes, pretending it was the past, when it actually was the past’s future, which we sometimes vaguely call the present. I was with this friend of mine with the same name, and we were laughing before a great, blue-gray mountain, and a reflecting pond called la river de le infinite. Then I had a book in my hand, a great, blue book, wide as a child’s picture book, but thick. I stood before the water and stretched out my arms before me and kicked off, into the sky. It was like a kickboard, it was a floatation device, and it held me aloft, and with it I learned to read the air, the way you learn to weave strings, or read the cooked and moist tissues of meat with the tongue, the way you read the breath of your lover and stay afloat and moving forward on what it means.
It was glorious. How with this large, skyblue, childlike book before me, finally, I could fly.
And isn’t life like that—finding your levels? There was a love I had, a love that was good. This man had dreamed that he could fly, from the time he was a child. He had angels attending him in the forms of cats. But I couldn’t read the air around him. I needed these lines, these words to work myself up on the muscles, aloft.
And isn’t life like that, finding your levels? I have to call this a dream. I have to call this a story. I have to invent characters because I am so afraid. I am quaking now. I can feel the earth breathing like a bit of jelly. Like an infection. Like an idea of a cyst, not very close to the truth and slipping off the truth like a secretion. No. That is not it. I obsess like this, because what do I see myself slipping off to?
I wished and I wished and the wish distracted me for a time from death. Would I be warm enough to stand the chill of death? Could I, from that place—the place that feeds the tubers, the leaves, the place that raisins into loamy nothing—behold my life? If I could, I could behold it from afar where I was one more happy molecule, one more bit of rain. I was a figment, I was connected in a web, and so I might as well sing it.
Months passed in the dream that was my life. I moved out of one room and into another. I moved out of that love that was a good love, a growing love, but one that was not growing fast enough. It was a love that felt like a room and I wanted a love that felt like a discovery.
And in the midst of all this, I received a birthday gift. Three months late. My birthday is in October, the month of the flying dream, and this gift arrived in January, with a note from a friend that said, “Happy Birthday—we tried to find you on your birthday, and came to the restaurant where you said you’d be, but you weren’t there.”
Of course I wasn’t there. That then was an earlier me, and this book belonged to this self, this moment. It was, of course, the book from my dream. Wide and flat, with a hard blue cover, curved on the corners like a kickboard. It was a blank book, an upcycled journal made from an old book, and the cover had a sticker on it that said, “The Castles of Japan.”
And so I have filled it, learning to fly. And when I behold myself from the other side of the river de infinite, I see of course the sweep of molecules, the splitting of pollen stars and atoms and within it, a little story which is mine, happening once and in all time. I see myself sitting here, filling a book with the black rivers of my writing, learning to write, after 20 years of writing, my face inscrutable. It is my face and not, my story and not. I am finding my face in the drifts of the air.
Rachel Jamison Webster is the Artist in Residence in Poetry at Northwestern University and author of the poetry collection, September (Northwestern University Press 2013) and the chapbook, The Blue Grotto (Dancing Girl Press 2009). Her poems and essays appear in many journals and anthologies, including Poetry, The Paris Review, The Southern Review, and Narrative, and her series on poetry, The Gift, can be heard on Chicago Public Radio and PRX. You can read more about her at www.racheljamisonwebster.com.