Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added)
is the best-kept secret among contemporary American writers.
--John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture

Friday, September 28, 2012

Internal exile

What I find interesting this morning:

Writing is a temporary surcease from exile. It is not a search for one’s "voice" or "subject"; it is not the invention of a "self" nor even of a "world." These are the concoctions of critics, who study the scattered places where the writer momentarily relented from his unrelenting search for some place to relent from his unrelenting search. The word writing is a progressive verb. The writer is distinguished by his progressive activity, not by what he has written. Nor by the kinds of things he has written. Someone who has written stories is not necessarily a writer, nor is someone who hasn’t.  --D. G. Myers 
I'm feeling a little obsessed with Myers because he makes remarks that have little thorny hooks that catch and stick in the mind. He has no business latching onto my brain that way--or maybe that is exactly his business, maybe that's what he's for... at least in part.

 There's much that is interesting in that passage and about the bond between writers and the idea of exile, but what I'm thinking about right now is "exile" as starting in early childhood. For a while, I was going to call The Throne of Psyche after a short poem, "The Exile's Track," and I have had a strong feeling of being exiled since about the age of four. First there was a feeling of exile from family, of things being sigodlin, askew because of a death. Then there was the constant ripping away, at least every three years, from the place I knew and where I had made friends. And this was particularly acute in my second and third moves, when I was dragged out of fairyland, as I conceived it, in the form of crawfish and Cajun playmates and tropical blooms and shrimp and alligator turtles and moonvines. We moved from Gramercy to Baton Rouge, but there was much that I loved there as well. But after second grade I was dragged entirely out of Louisiana and the South. I wept with relief and joy when, at almost 13, they told me we were moving to North Carolina.

After a while, one is always a little uneasy, or balanced somewhere between a past and a future uneasiness. And that's not what Myers is talking about, but it's related.

If a writer ever felt completely at home in a tale and satisfied, he would then have found home and would never need to progress again. Instead, writers are all melancholy around the edges, even the happiest of them, because they can never pluck the silver apples of the moon and the golden apples of the sun and are condemned to go on wandering with Aengus, endlessly searching, endlessly almost capturing, endlessly letting go.

Or perhaps we are like Odysseus, wandering on, creating a kind of archipelago of islands, temporary stays. Maybe we are Penelope, endlessly working over her strange warp and weft, throwing the shuttle--always tearing down, never satisfied, never quite at home even though at home.

No wonder all stories seem to herald an arrival or demand a departure...

7 comments:

  1. Beautiful post Marly. I thought it was our job to write ourselves home, and our hope that each fresh piece would build another little piece of that imagined place that is not a place.
    For me, my childhood home was never a home, and I wrote about that in my poem "My Memory Palace," which is going to be posted with a response by a visual artist, Katie Helms, on Spark.org.

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  2. It doesn't actually matter what we think about these things... Or how often we change our minds and use a different metaphor or even a different meaning.

    Only the archipelago matters, and whether it is worthy of a map.

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  3. This is fascinating, thought-provoking stuff. My immediate and maybe off-base response, coloured by being a visual artist rather than writer, is that we are always searching and striving for THE perfect poem, novel or visual art piece but never quite get there. It's all about that journey or hunt, it seems to me. I hope every piece of work we create adds up in a body of work that together perhaps sums up what we are searching for... I don't know. Of course, we are growing and changing during that journey so maybe we never get to the end of it? Were the Renaissance masters happy with what they did or still striving for even better to the day they died?

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  4. Hi Marja-Leena--

    1.
    "The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark." --Michelangelo

    2.
    Yes, we are all Aengus from "The Song of Wandering Aengus."

    3.
    "Fail better." -Beckett

    4.
    What a strange thing, to attempt to reach perfection and leave behind evidence of that attempt, never matching the dream that was in our heads.

    5.
    Oh, and here's a good comment from another painter friend, snitched off my facebook page: "When Odysseus starts to make up a story in the Odyssey, Homer says he "weaves a tale." Odysseus story-telling (lying) allows him to survive and make it home. Penelope's weaving and unweaving allows her to stay alive and stay faithful to Odysseus. So I think that the parallel between the weaving and the story telling is intentional."

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  5. Wow, Marly, you are quick with ever more superb quotes! Do you remember them all or do you have a special book, site or file with them :-) Love the first one most.

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  6. Oh, remembered Beckett but the Michelangelo I had to look up the wording--remembered but not by heart. I wish I had a better memory and knew more quotes by heart.

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  7. Well, what I really want to know by heart is more poems. Have some, but I wish I had lots.

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Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.