The Summer I Read Too Much Henry Miller

Speaking of diaries, I ran across the following entry from the 1990s a while back. It was written when I had just begun teaching. I had spent a long, lonely summer reading a lot of Henry Miller and Vladimir Nabokov, which may account for the overheated prose style. Anyway, that's where I was in those days:

Babble. Start talking like pregnant mud bubbles from a trembling smudge pot. I am ready to speak. I am sitting here at the keyboard, my gut full of black coffee, my hands clean, my butt wiped; I am ready to say something now. I am going to tell you how I have always talked too much, how I could never leave well enough alone, how I could never listen in a classroom or a roomful of people; how I have to speak everywhere and at all times. How I climb out onto conversational precipices and look back at the smirking faces. Yes, let’s talk, talk, talk, talk; let’s rattle our fool heads off. There is so much to say – each moment an encyclopedia, volume after volume, abracadabra to Aztec, Baal to Byzantium... We should be yakking day and night just to pay the interest on all the talk we owe the universe.

Open your jaw, undulate your uvula, form your lips into mirrored crescents and let noise pour forth! I have heard it said that when a person dies, a library burns. Let us have no burning libraries today! Let us talk enough to replace all those that burned yesterday and tomorrow and the next day. Let us raise our heads in speech.

Nancy is back. She returned to form the bookends on this long curious summer. She phoned Thursday night and asked me over for a beer, and I came over, driving downtown to her new apartment, which is an even seedier tenement than the one she lived in last spring. She met me at the door and walked me up through the wide decrepit hallways and dark stairwells to her tiny street front apartment, and we sat drinking cold Budweiser longnecks, while outside muscle cars and acne beset glandular cases prowled the length of the street. Her tiny black and white TV was on and someone was delivering a snarling rodomontade against Democrats. (Is this my country, Walt?)

She showed me the paintings she’d completed over the summer: brightly inflated, cartoon-real cacti. One of them reminded me of a Henry Moore sculpture, feminine and recumbent, but festooned with slim thorns – a sort of come here/get the hell away tension that I liked very much. She compared the new work to the old. “Look,” she said, “before Prozac and after Prozac.” Nancy looked good: happy, anxious. I like ectomorphic women, all sinew and right angles. She talked of her summer in Laramie teaching painting: apparently it was a good one. Even James, her suicidal friend, was fun and the work and her teaching went well.

Good for you, Nance! Talk to me about your summer and your art. Let your voice dilute the forced indignation of the pundits, and later I’ll water them down too with all my blather about spilling silk and endless jets of octopus ink. We’ll talk about books we have read and bus driver’s knees: we’ll talk all friggin’ night if that’s what it takes. We’ll speak of women and of men, and of art and the 19th century, while your cats snooze on the carpet, belly-up and expectant of some gonad bound human hand.

Nancy asks me how my summer was. (How was it?) I wonder how I can even begin to tell her. What words would describe it? Isolation, drunkenness and self-pity interpolated with moments of near insane joy! Now is the thinnest veil between sanity and madness. I flirt for a moment with telling her all that has happened, but blanche when the words begin to sound silly. Instead I tell her how isolation disintegrates context, how after a week without speaking you lose the ability to string babble into recognizable patterns, but even that sounds daft and chaotic. So I just sit on Nancy’s living room floor and listen to the rise and fall of her voice – so grateful that she is talking – and talking a lot. I’m not even mad at the griping pundit anymore. He can talk, too. None of us has to be felicitous at all.

For the first time all summer I know what will happen next. Morning will come and I will awake and finish reading Lolita. I will think about Mnemosyne myself: Humbert Humbert in love with his own childhood and how I am so un-in love with mine. And sitting on the steps outside my door I will think how the past was in bright Technicolor and how this morning is no different from all of the afternoons on the plains of my North American childhood. I am no Proust. I can't speak of the past in exquisite detail. There are just a few particles: the smell of my mother’s suede coat, the taste of black raspberry Kool-Aid, my father’s long, accusatory finger. No, I can’t remain in childhood, but I am sometimes taken aback by the singularity of its memory. Are all these unstated moments to disappear? Will we never catch up, never talk enough? Wasn’t Nabokov’s auto-biography entitled “Speak, Memory”?

Saturday afternoon: snoozing, thinking about Lolita, and then Nancy calls. We had agreed to go to a dinner party in a small well-kept town a half hour outside the city. I pick up Nancy and we drive north through the verdancy of late August in the Midwest. And turning off on a county road we zoom east on a serendipitous two lane highway that slices through the fields. The sun is going down and the farmhouses and tractors are tinged in dusky glory – stillness, no wind, just an increasingly moist haze hovering over the fields at twilight. Nancy is silent looking at the directions: the highway is splashed out in front of us, a line leading to the horizon.

Do you know I would keep driving east, Nance? With the slightest argument, I would – just keep driving east to the Atlantic, east to Ireland, to Britain, the continent. If you asked me – if you even thought it – I would know and drive there. East to Prague, east to Kiev, to Vladivostok, San Francisco, Omaha! Say the word and I will hear it. If not then, then now. And I do sit here now, hands clean, butt wiped, and sensing God’s arcing thunderbolt having come full circle. On my tape deck Gregorian chants sing outward – voices, speech, spiritu santo. I see these half-formed notes and checkered recollections filtered through the coffee and the beer and, as the Trappist monks used to pray, I want desperately to speak of everyone I ever met, especially, especially, of those I have forgotten…


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