Tuesday, March 16, 2004

A Belated Love Letter

I like the smell of moldy cellars. It reminds me of publishing.

When I was 12 or so a pair of slightly younger girls, sisters, lived across the street. One day we decided to make a book. It was, of course, hand made, with a print run of one. My contribution was a poem, of which I remember two lines:

The butterfly story was sadder by far.
It was caught by a boy and brought home in a jar.

Already I had developed a worldview that defined cruelty as a masculine enterprise. My dear father, Raul Stanati, was a splendid parent. But when I was quite young, maybe six or seven, I went through a period of terrible insomnia. I think I was afraid of bad dreams -- bad dreams of dark, empty houses where light switches did not work and faceless ghosts electrified and paralyzed me. I'd insist that my mother remain awake while I tried to sleep; from my door I could see the narrow beam of light that proved she was sitting vigil, under the floor lamp, probably smoking a Kent or eating an orange.

One night, seized by doubt, I tiptoed past my doorway and looked around the corner. No mother. A terrible ruse !

"Stop crying or I'll give you something to cry about !" bellowed my irate and sleepless father, standing at my bedside in his snow-white briefs, his hair sticking up on end.

It was all very pre-oedipal. I wanted my Mommy. Daddy begged to differ. Boys were mean .

We created our book in the cellar of the sisters' old house, working at a card table by the back wall window. The light from the yard came in through streaky glass ; the rest of the cellar was in darkness. A hulking, cistern-like boiler crouched in the shadows.

I like to remember those three girls, inexplicably drawn to create that most potent and mysterious of icons, a book. I think back even farther, to second grade. I'd decided I was going to make a book. Of flowers. One to a page: some rayed and daisy like, others cupped like tulips -- the ur-flowers of my limited botanical imagination. I shuttled back and forth from desk to construction paper shelf, tossing off the flowers as fast as I could.

What are you doing, asked the fearsome Miss Janson, a short and bull-dog like woman, practically crewcut, who had known my parents at teacher's college.

I am making a book ! I replied.

She scrutinized my pile of drawings of redundant flowers.

You are wasting paper, she declared.

Well, I was, in a way. And I knew it. I scribbled the flowers faster and faster, gleeful as the manuscript increased in heft, unmindful of craft, of readership, greedily prolific.

There's a lesson in there somewhere.

I once harbored the notion of attempting to publish a slim volume of verse. I entered a few of those "first book" competitions, and hurled a few mss's over unsuspecting and hostile transoms. I even got accidentally networked via a poetry buddy to a small press whose mission -- multicultural free verse political poetry -- was utterly different from my own poitic project. It was no surprise when my ms. returned several years later with some harsh editorial comments on the clumsiness of my iambics and the tawdry "personal" nature of my subject matter.

Wasting paper again, I see, sneers Miss Janson from beyond the grave.

She did have supernatural powers, you know.

The proof came one day just before class began. Before our late 1950's public school morning ritual of the pledge of alliegance, a patriotic song and two prayers: The Lord's Prayer, and, of all things, the 23rd psalm. What did a seven year old know about Vallombrosa ? Miss Janson was nowhere to be seen and we were growing restive. Suddenly her voice boomed forth from the intercom: INGRID PUT YOUR DESKTOP DOWN ! The heavy oak desktop crashed down. We stared, dumbstruck, at poor Ingrid.

How did Miss Janson know ?

I've never solved that mystery.

It was a memorable year. It was an old, brick school, very fin de siecle, with windows so tall one opened them with a window stick I had a crush on a blond Polish girl, Karen Plonowski, who either liked or had horses. (Probably liked. This was Lawrence, Massachusetts, after all, a grim post-industrial mill town, not Weston or Dover.) We made sputnicks out of styrofoam balls and toothpicks, and christmas ornaments -- birds -- out of milkweed pods. We had A- bomb drills -- duck and cover, the real deal -- and were issued little cards that read ... if you see a flash of light in the sky, take cover ... . Sunlight glinting off an airplane's wing terrified me as I walked home that day. I clipped articles about fallout shelters from the Lawrence Eagle Tribune, and we stocked my father's basement music closet with cans of food and jugs of water; small comfort to those of us who were in the know. That plywood door would not keep out the deadly gamma rays.

We lived in the valley of the shadow of death. Was I scribbling flowers for posterity ? Wait -- what posterity ?

One day in class we were going to make "moon rocks." These were based on a popular fifties science toy -- a kit for brewing a chemical soup in which multicolored, Dr Seussian stalagmites would grow. Very JFK, very space race. But that day we apparantly lacked some component of the mix. Undaunted, Miss Jansen bellowed out of the tall, third story window at some passing boys, tossed down some money, and commanded them to buy it for her at the corner store.

I remember them. They seemed impossibly old. Why weren't they in school ? They swaggered about. Am I remembering them through a Fonzie filter ? The sleeves of their undershirts were rolled up over bulging biceps, and one of them swigged orange tonic (Massachusettsian for soda pop) from a large glass bottle. They exuded danger. Yet they were in Miss Janson's thrall.

She was powerful. Her rule and her windowstick, they comforted us. But can anything really counteract the presence of our enemies -- furious fathers, dangerous boys, men with A-bombs -- when the chair beneath the lamp is so very, very empty ?

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