I wrote this lyric essay a whole year ago, but I feel its themes--indeterminacy, loneliness, distant forms of intimacy--are especially poignant now. So I want to share it with you, this love letter to friends, and to longing, and too to the possibility that sits within uncertainty.
Diaa sends me a letter: “I miss you & wish you were here,” he writes. “This wish does not nag, nag, nag me all the time. But when I go to bed & notice the shadows on the wall, I remember you.” An imprint of the curtain sighs over a poem tacked to my wall on torn paper: “The Epiphany,” it’s titled. “For Vince & for Levinas, but mostly for Vince,” reads Melissa’s dedication.
Not too long ago, this writing desk was the face of an upright piano that clung tune-less in my childhood home. “They just don’t make the right parts anymore!” the tuner explained, tugging at his beard, thinking of taking it in like a stray cat to nurse back to purr & pounce. After he died, that piano was a hopeless instrument.
One pale-lit winter evening, I scavenged its body, ice-coated outside the garage, for parts. Moonlight off the snow beamed house-shaped shadows into the sky. The projection of a me-shaped absence sulked between them. On the solstice that same winter, my family built the rest of the piano into a bonfire, & in the old vineyard adjacent, we built a Latvian spiral of lanterns to celebrate the light. My young cousins whirled through the spiral, their footsteps collapsing around the edges as the centers puddled with moony luminescence. The rest of us rang our bonfire’s unset boundary. Blue flames caressed the strings, which snapped in haunting octaves & intervals, their eruption casting the image of a leafless weeping willow into the snow while serenading indifferent & distant green-toned stars.
Only this piece remains. This desk, sanded & stained as a gift by my mother, is all that’s left of those piano-lesson years & that far-flung spectacle of sparks. It comes—like the letter shading its surface & the poem hung above—from a place with different light. I live in Flagstaff now & still define shadow with longing. It wraps around their shape in constant negotiation with what’s there & what could be.
Answer / Inquiry
I can’t quite remember what I wrote in my lettered reply before it was stamped & sent the 1,018 miles back to Diaa. But I remember the theme of touch. “This is my knee, since she touches me there. / This is my throat, as I am defined by her reaching. / I am touched—I am,” writes Natalie Diaz in my favorite lines from Envelopes of Air. Emmanuel Levinas would approve. Though he, as a moral philosopher, may not approve of my stolen stationary—soft, cream-tinted paper smuggled from the literary journal where I used to work—I hope he would assent to my ridged indent of cursive ink & what the loops together mean.
Emmanuel Levinas wrote extensively about the face of the Other, but more precisely about how that face brings us into being. We do not exist before the question of the face calls us to respond. It orders & ordains us. Ontology originates in the other. Self originates in relationship. Existence & encounter are simultaneous, an epiphany.
Accordingly, I do not take form until the wind traces curves from swollen knee to broke-bent collarbone & until the October scent of shadows darkening crushed leaves inflates my breath. I do not take form until the man and the enby who frame me at a Flagstaff Quaker meeting each silently slide their hands into mine, calluses coinciding. The shadow of a bus stop on a curb is a question, & my purpose here is to respond. Poems are questions, & our purpose here is to respond:
The divots of my face
have dug out a ruddy constellation.
I ask nothing of you.
The skin asks
what you see in the spaces between.
Melissa’s poem crosses my lips like rails of light rushing through passing train cars. Like the slats of elusive less-light alongside them. The paper of “The Epiphany” bursts into a being which traces the thumb that traces its words—my response. I am touched—I am.
Diaa will respond in another letter, perhaps, to my theme of touch. & this is the touch-type I wrote / would write / should have written:
I long for that tenderness—pulling up the blankets & kissing her forehead, your forehead on my shoulder as we said goodbye, the way shoulders brush when two good friends walk close, closeness.
Closeness is the realm of muddled shadows. Boundaries are shared—excluding only light, not each other—yet the mingled are unknowable still in darkness & alterity. If all were determined & self-contained, there would be no question posing purpose for us to exist. There would be no letters.
I am un-defined by the indeterminacy of shadow—of longing—self no longer ending at the tips of freshly filed nails & line of sight. I am silhouetted by potentialities & persons still out of sight. I am outlined in another’s touch, the encompassing embrace of darkness.
You, darkness, of whom I am born—
I love you more than the flame
that limits the world
to the circle it illuminates
& excludes all the rest…
The Book of Hours, by Rainer Maria Rilke, is my nightly book of prayer. The illusory nature of illumination, he writes, bounds the self, the other, the divine, to the small, small space we can comprehend. So, against enlightenment, Rilke writes, too, of a monk who feels damp stone through robe on knees. Rilke confides a desirous knowing such that light becomes an inconsequentiality. A visionary of touch, he writes a body. He writes a body, unashamed; a body, transcendent in its particulars; a body, whatever that may mean.
Body swaying, months ago, in the dim fluorescence of my underground apartment in Seattle, Hannah reads, breathless & rapid, from the poem stuck to my fridge, “Phenomenology in Blue”:
From a sky sand-brushed & blurring, rain.
Plants on the sill heave signs of loneliness.
The lamp glows, a pendulous jewel hung
on the bosom of an ageing countess.
I sketch an essay on Rilke as if on the tissues
of consciousness itself...
Hannah slips through the lines—continuous exhalation in rapture. Her voice blurs in sync with the buzz of overhead, unbejeweled light. There’s an urgency to the way she reads. Or maybe I already used the right word: rapture. I suddenly glimpse her in summer—all memory is simultaneous—she is near translucent, yet close with her opacity.
In summer, Hannah’s red hair is a net of disordered light cast over the roadside sea of purple blossoms. The flowers’ green stalks splash against her shoulders, & she wades through the meadow laughing & posing for pictures, distorting the darkness pooled above cool soil, puddled under the hushing safety of thin, thickly layered leaves. She wades toward our evening campfire, our small, limited knowing, surrounded by the infinite indeterminacy of darkness.
Hannah sent me a voice message this week, after I received Diaa’s letter. It’s an essay by Annie Dillard. She gushes, quick-fashioned—reading words without the spaces in between—so I pause longer when the message ends, post-supposing line breaks eight seconds into the past. I long to meet her in some gap between words & alternatives, where a shadow of the finger raised to my lips can brush over hers. Where we can spend a lifetime lingering over the enunciation of “pendulous” in every penumbra of my Seattle kitchen, my Flagstaff kitchen, kitchens that resist the word “mine.”
I long for so many lifetimes shared with so many people.
In another summer, another recorded voice, I speak of my sister, Katie:
The passenger-side visor broke
two weeks ago.
Driving into evening, I reach out
& scoop sunlight
from her eyes.
I feel the yellow sky pulse
in my palm.
& as our hair winds together
& out the windows,
my arm aches to hold the sun
I long for eternal car rides with Katie, scattered leaves of autumn sun dusting the windshield.
I long for an eternity of watching one pale, flipped version of this world traverse the blue wall opposite to a small window. Camera obscura: the external workings of the world obscured by intimacy. I long for an eternity reserved for each world-version in worlds where that intimacy is enough. I long for theaters built from broken instruments. For a viewing partner who hums shades of blue as the score, who pauses to savor mouthfuls of white-cheddar popcorn, who dissolves within shadow as do we all, whom I ask after as I ask after you all.
It is easy to accept indeterminacy in shadows; why can’t we accept it in others & in ourselves?
We are defined, or rather re-defined—eternal—by the unanswerable indeterminacy of shadow. By the constant, shadow-shift response to fragmentation & contingency that is called longing. Indeed, we are re-defined by the ungleaming depths of a ripple. By, in each encounter, the palpable infinity of the ruddy-divot-dimples of a dear, dear face. By voice messages &, neverending, by shadows who brush their fingers against our walls and chase sparks into the darkness that unbounds them.
Signature, in Fragments
A personal correspondence with my beloved friend, Diaa.
“The Epiphany,” 2019. By Melissa Wood.
My mother’s redemptive handiwork.
“Isn’t the Air Also a Body, Moving?” from Envelopes of Air in The New Yorker, 2018.
By Natalie Diaz.
A literary theory class, which is to say, an introduction to phenomenology and Emmanuel
“The Epiphany,” a reprise.
Book of Hours I,11, as translated by Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows, 1996. A poem of
Rainer Maria Rilke.
“Phenomenology in Blue,” from The Paris Review 167, 2003. By Jennifer Anna Gosetti-
Photo-glossed recollections of a woman whose laugh means joy, infectious.
“Sister Chauffeur,” in The Ocotillo Review 3.1, 2019. Mine.
Alterous Possibility. Yours.
There is a rhetoric to self-compassion:
The cleft of a beetle’s wings
The rushing gossip of aspens
The splintering of shadow over knuckles
Split in the dry chill of autumn air
For what is rhetoric but a script of pauses?
And what are we but a breath of earth?