There is a house for sale in my neighborhood. It is not listed at a "poet" price-point. Yet I cannot shake the feeling that that house is mine, destined for me. It is irrational. At one point it went into escrow but immediately fell out of contract when the buyers found out the owner had died in the house, violating a dealbreaking cultural taboo for their family (see, there are always ghosts). Now it sits there, vacant, and haunting me. All evidence tells me that I will never own the house. Sometimes I sneak up the driveway and walk around, imagining how I'd arrange the garden, looking in windows, trying to calculate what it would take to renovate the place, which, though structurally perfect, is a study in acid-flashback-awful design choices, bathrooms begging to be gutted, a kitchen that would be the height of fashion and luxury, if it were 1955. Doing this without my realtor is, I suppose, "trespassing." Well, c'est la vie. I ran a red light once, too.
It has four times the land my house does, including an undeveloped area screaming to be an orchard. Great floorplan; it's capacious but not ostentatious. There's a beautiful detached guest cottage - high vaulted ceilings, pouring light. Aside from being an ideal place to stow guests, it would make a pretty killer writing space.
I could have a library.
Yes, I have a point, and it's not just that you have to make cosa nostra wages to afford a cosmetic fixer in my town, although that is not nothing.
I started the week ruminating, if you will, on the room/stanza thing, so I am going to return to it. I believe this is known as a refrain. (Repeat. Break off. Refract. YES REALLY, refract. Also, restrain, repress, hold back as with a bridle. Don't get me started.)
I want to talk about revision. And yes, the word means "a seeing-again." Re-visioning. "To look over again with intent to improve or amend," according to the Online Etymological Dictionary, but I think vision applies, in re-constructing the rooms of a house or the stanzas of a poem, in its other sense. The meta-one. The supernatural one. ("Like a Saint's vision of beatitude...".) The Yeats one, the Merrill one. Seeing beyond what is in front of you to what is really in front of you.
When I hear a writer airily announce "I never revise," I tend to write them off (if you will). Silly? Maybe, but as none of us can read everything and one must draw lines somewhere, I draw one around boastful self-avowed non-revisers. Not because of the gutless arrogance implied in the idea that everything springs forth from them in unimprovable, divine perfection -- though that's decently obnoxious in its own right.
There is a layer of complexity I am pretty sure cannot be achieved without revision. Without it one is unlikely to experience the kind of supernatural, second-sight moment where something you weren't sure about suddenly clicks into place and you know, you know, that this is it. There's great value in stream-of-consciousness writing. I do it. Maybe there are times when something just comes through right the first time. But something in the process of re-imagining a piece of writing -- which in many cases is, itself, a re-imagining of a real-life event, endows the work with otherwise-unavailable layers of meaning -- not unlike a second coat of paint versus just leaving the primer on the wall.
Revision can be deliberate or it can descend upon you. It can walk right through your door, look you in the eyes and say "it's over; change," upon which you proceed to ignore it only to have it come back until you stop ignoring it. It can be easy as falling, or as excruciating (sometimes both). It can force you to excise or radically alter something you love. Sometimes it's a matter of moving two words. Sometimes it's a teardown and requires wrecking balls and grading equipment.
Sandover took decades of tinkering -- indeed it opens with the poet still musing (!) over whether he's got it in the right form. And as adamant as Merrill always was that he was more transcriptionist than inventor of that work, I'm pretty sure that poem wasn't written by WH Auden and a first century Greek Jew who was executed for having an affair with Caligula's nephew.
Revision can the annealing act that transmutes grief and loss into something you can bear to look at, impurities burned out, metal stonger, more burnished.
The Transcendentalists sought social as well as personal revison. They left us some of our most iconic literature. Walden. Representative Men. Leaves of Grass. The roughly four bazillion untitled poems of Emily Dickinson, which well-intended relatives revised for her, posthumously -- it took many years before Emily's much more enigmatic and complicated original work saw the light of day. But we know from her papers that she herself revised like a fiend.
Renovate: to make new. Remodel: to re-think the form or measure of something.
An MFA workshop colleague once wailed, upon reading an ambitious (too ambitious, probably) form I'd devised, "Why do you insist on straitjacketing yourself?"
The answer, and I expect it's true of many writers who see form as liberator than constraint, may suggest itself in the double etymology of the word "room," which derives from Germanic roots that connote "space, spaciousness;" and the Latin sense of "chamber," which is the opposite, an enclosure. (Stopping place. Station. Stanza.) Maybe infinity upsets some of us; the stanza is a vessel, and also a pleasing isometric exercise -- walls against which to push. For me, there is certainly a touch of Houdini-esque escape artistry thrill: give me a straightjacket. Tie me up and put me in a cage under six feet of water. Let's see how I get out of this one! (often I don't, but as I tell my ten year old, we learn more from failure than from success.)
I know that house is mine, my Stopping Place, if you will. The vision of its completed, mature form is too indelible to be wrong. Mind you, I need a winning lottery ticket or one of those fabled rich great uncles. (I don't think Kickstarter's going to cut it, this is California.) But when I look at it, I see gardens bursting with color and scent, I see children eating nectarines still sun-hot from the branch. I see a secluded place in which I am surrounded by books. I see music practice and math homework. I see how I'd reconfigure that poor old kitchen. I see friends and family at the table -- finally, a space that seats more than four without bruised elbows and capsized stemware, though some of us are happily thigh-to-thigh anyway. I see a sort of cheerful industriousness and passionate devotion to Getting It Right.
Yeah, well, your "wishful thinking," and "escapist fantasy" are my "clairvoyance," kay? Seeing clearly. Unveiled. Illuminated.
You do, in some ways, and do not, in some ways, "create your own reality," We are theoretically in charge of choices and reactions. But we endure a lot of stuff we never chose (at least not knowingly; my shaman friend insists before birth we choose our families. Merrill's shades suggested there was more puppeteering than that, though nothing was arbitrary).
Where we can and do utterly govern our circumstances is on the page. As we learn and mature, we see our own work from new angles -- and hopefully this is a process that never stops. On the page or in our lives.
Sometimes it takes a second look to realize where you are supposed to be. Revision can be tedious, frustrating, even frightening. It can be sought the way a dowser seeks water. It can hit you like lightning when you weren't looking for it; maybe didn't want it. But nothing compares to that sudden sense of knowing you got it right, or at least as right as you're ever going to.
In this body anyway.
Wanting to leave you with cleverer and more interesting lines than my own, I will sign off with one of my favorites by Wislawa Szymborska. I was once givien a copy of her collected works with the ribbon bookmark by seeming happenstance left marking thispoem. It's on the list of things I won't forget, as is that last stanza: "Every beginning / is only a sequel, after all, / and the book of events /
is always open halfway through."
God B, I hope so.
Love at First Sight
that a sudden passion joined them.
Such certainty is beautiful,
but uncertainty is more beautiful still.
that there'd been nothing between them.
But what's the word from the streets, staircases, hallways --
perhaps they've passed each other a million times?
if they don't remember --
a moment face to face
in some revolving door?
perhaps a "sorry" muttered in a crowd?
a curt "wrong number" caught in the receiver?
but I know the answer.
No, they don't remember
They'd be amazed to hear
that Chance has been toying with them
now for years.
to become their Destiny,
it pushed them close, drove them apart,
it barred their path,
stifling a laugh,
and then leaped aside.
even if they couldn't read them yet.
Perhaps three years ago
or just last Tuesday
a certain leaf fluttered
from one shoulder to another?
Something was dropped and then picked up.
Who knows, maybe the ball that vanished
into childhood's thicket?
where one touch had covered another
Suitcases checked and standing side by side.
One night, perhaps, the same dream,
grown hazy by morning.
is only a sequel, after all,
and the book of events
is always open halfway through.