My father suffered a series of brain seizures due to sleep apnea at the end of August '09 and I, his only child, was responsible for taking care of him (my mother passed away from breast cancer in 1995). So I flew down to Naples, Florida. He didn't know who I was. He would answer your question with the same question. You could tell he was fighting, tell there was some recognition in his eyes, but the engine wasn't turning. The first few weeks were scary, but he soon began to recover. I returned to Vermont with a promise to visit as soon as I could and with the happiness that not only was my father alive, but seemed to be a man that I hadn't known in about a decade. And it would be easy to visit him any time: I'd lost my job at the Northshire Bookstore because of my month-long absence.
My hard drive died last Thursday, the day before my 34th birthday, the day before I was scheduled to visit my father in Florida. I was upset about my hard drive, but the good people at Driversavers made it sound like nothing more than a standard fail. It would be expensive to recover the data, but they seemed confident they could do it.
I received the call yesterday.
Complete physical damage.
Nothing can be recovered.
My shaking was imperceptible at first. The light-headedness soon followed. 20 years of writing. Notes. Work from other poets, all the poems I'd selected for my new literary journal, The Equalizer. Syllabi. Résumés. List of published works. Correspondences. Years and years of poetry. All gone.
I could give up. It's easy. I'm sure I'll have moments when I go to find something I've written only to meet its memory. I should just get a job in the Goldman Sachs mail room, forget this silly dream of writing.
It's no dream.
There are people who write poems.
Then there are poets.
I have to write. I have no choice. The voices come and their chaunts must be transcribed. No choice. I am. If I'd been schooled to hold every single word precious, maybe I should despair. If I'd lost the only copy of my 1,000 page sure-to-be-bestselling novel, I'd probably cash in my chips. But I come from another school, a school of nature, of experimentation and erasure.
Here's the ultimate erasure.
The only thing I despair is nostalgia. I'd go back to look at poems I wrote in high school, marveling at how weird they were even then, even if they weren't very good. All my graduate school poems, gone, save for the ones in my thesis. There's a possibility I have things here and there on very old discs, and my latest manuscript, Green Mountains, is safe.
I feel unburdened. I feel light. Maybe I'm still in denial; but maybe I'm liberated. I'm the only one who knows what I lost so I can either throw ashes on my head or I can stand up to sit down in front of that piece of paper and write. I can pretend I've never written before. All those old poems and ideas, they're no longer staring at me. I can write however I want, whatever I want. I have no Past at my back.
I think of this passage from Emerson's "Experience," wherein he talks about the loss of nothing less than his son:
People grieve and bemoan themselves, but it is not half so bad with them as they say. There are moods in which we court suffering, in the hope that here, at least, we shall find reality, sharp peaks and edges of truth. But it turns out to be scene-painting and counterfeit. The only thing grief has taught me, is to know how shallow it is. That, like all the rest, plays about the surface, and never introduces me into the reality, for contact with which, we would even pay the costly price of sons and lovers. Was it Boscovich who found out that bodies never come in contact? Well, souls never touch their objects. An innavigable sea washes with silent waves between us and the things we aim at and converse with. Grief too will make us idealists. In the death of my son, now more than two years ago, I seem to have lost a beautiful estate, —no more. I cannot get it nearer to me. If tomorrow I should be informed of the bankruptcy of my principal debtors, the loss of my property would be a great inconvenience to me, perhaps, for many years; but it would leave me as it found me, —neither better nor worse. So is it with this calamity: it does not touch me: some thing which I fancied was a part of me, which could not be torn away without tearing me, nor enlarged without enriching me, falls off from me, and leaves no scar. It was caducous. I grieve that grief can teach me nothing, nor carry me one step into real nature. The Indian who was laid under a curse, that the wind should not blow on him, nor water flow to him, nor fire burn him, is a type of us all. The dearest events are summer-rain, and we the Para coats that shed every drop. Nothing is left us now but death. We look to that with a grim satisfaction, saying, there at least is reality that will not dodge us.I take this evanescence and lubricity of all objects, which lets them slip through our fingers then when we clutch hardest, to be the most unhandsome part of our condition. Nature does not like to be observed, and likes that we should be her fools and playmates. We may have the sphere for our cricket-ball, but not a berry for our philosophy. Direct strokes she never gave us power to make; all our blows glance, all our hits are accidents. Our relations to each other are oblique and casual.
I named my poems but they are not me. Wherever they came from, that storehouse is endless. I will name a new world, little by little, and make it better than the last. And when that ones goes, there will come another. And another. And another . . .