Monday, January 5, 2009

New Year's Letter

Dear Mum:

I dreamed you were alive last night.
I was out shoveling the stupid driveway
In Randolph, and my back was killing me,
And when I staggered through the kitchen door
You poured me a small whiskey and said “Here.
And wipe your feet.” Then you lit up a Lark
And held the pack out, saying “Help yourself.”
And I pulled one out and I lit it up
Because that’s what we always did together
When we talked in the kitchen –- smoked and drank.
(And oh those Larks with their micronite filters.
No taste quite like it.) I took a deep puff
And you poured me another whiskey, and
That’s when I knew that I was in a dream –-
Not because I was smoking (and yeah, what
Does that say about who I think I am?)
But because you were pouring me Sam Houston,
Something I didn’t even know existed
Until two years ago at Emily’s.
I looked up from the bottle to your eyes
And woke up in my bed, with your hard stare
Weighing on me like a wet comforter,
And felt the way I do after I’ve had
A great meal: full, and fuzzy-headed, and
Shut down, because of what I can’t digest.

We’ll leave the alcohol and cigarettes
For therapy (that ought to keep me going
Till 2020); right now, let me ponder
The fact that, just as I was asked to speak,
I wriggled out of saying anything,
Avoiding any verbal revelations
And kept my options open by escaping.
Convenient, huh? And vintage Matty Wells:
The only item missing from the scene
Was the quick quip or the deflating pun
Before I made my exit (such an actor).
So what was I afraid of saying to you
(Besides, y’know, the usual deep stuff
I do a Peggy Fleming over). Or
Was it that other thing you said to me?
The “Help yourself?” A double meaning there.
How many times have I helped someone else
Instead of myself or before myself?
If I spent half the time putting me first
As I do helping friends, I’d be the guy
You used to say would set the world on fire,
Instead of looking bitter in the glow
Of more successful pyromaniacs.
But then, perhaps, I would have burned out young
And never lived to feel like a teenager
Trapped in the cold canoe of middle age,
Sailing to deeps I thought I’d never see.
The pachyderm in this year’s living room?
In seven months I’ll be as old as you
When you died from those stupid cigarettes,
Even though I’m still 18 in my head.
Did you think the same thing? You had to, right?
I can’t imagine anybody truly
Believing that the creaking, weathered barge
They sail in is the boat they really are.
We all think we’re still sleek, bright-painted yachts
No matter how the outer hull appears.
In my head, Mum, it’s still the hopeful summer
Of 1970, so that means you
Are still in 1945 or 6,
The A-bomb yet to drop on Hiroshima,
With friends your age preparing to invade
Japan (like Dad –- you’d met him by then, right?)
And others dead, trapped in 18 forever.

This growing old thing is a mother, ain’t it?
And maybe that’s why you dropped in to visit.
My friends all know how often I do puns
When I’m awake, but only God and I
Know all the ones I rattle off when I’m
Alone or sleeping. So (fill in the blank)’s
A mother. Christmas? Aging? Shoveling snow?
Or something else? (Cough) Alcohol. (Cough) Smoking.
(Cough) Yeah. As God and I know all too well,
I’ve got a thing for self-destructive habits.
So were you there to tell me to lay off
The drinking and whatever cigarettes
Are meant to represent? (Cough) Freudian.
(Cough) (And I’m sorry, but that subject’s not
Something I’m comfortable discussing with
My mother even when she’s dead, okay?)

So let’s just say they represent addictions
Or self-destructive impulses or (cough)
The way I always manage to disperse
The energy I should be using to
Create by wasting it on something that
Distracts me, gets me nowhere, or winds up
Expended in some form of self-abuse --
Brief pleasure over creativity,
Play over work, partying over thought,
And shallow splashing over deep dark dives.
The guy who reads a book instead of writing,
‘Cause books are twice as dangerous as beer --
The energy I need to write will always
Get spent in getting lost inside the pages
Of anybody else’s published work.
It’s not escape for me; it’s a distraction.
For instance –- I have two books with me now:
The heavy one (Clarel by Herman Melville)
And something light (Genius and Heroin
By Michael Largo). (Yes, that’s “light” to me.)
Why two? Because then I can double my
Chances to run away and hide inside
Somebody else’s head, instead of looking
Inside my own with nothing to distract me.

Scary shit, Mum. Scary like Halloween.
But what is fear, if not the dark beyond
An open door? We either walk inside
And hope nobody cuts our head off as
We reach out for the light switch, or we stay
On this side of the darkness, where it’s safe,
Where we won’t lose ourselves in something deep --
Won’t take on anything that isn’t facile
Or doesn’t offer us the easy out
If we get tired of it. No, that’s the room
Where, once we enter it, we pay the rent --
The room we dread because once we go in
We can’t come out again until we’ve done
Whatever This-Is-Who-I-Am endeavor
To some kind of acceptable perfection.
A Roman would have called that room our genius --
The thing that makes us special, drives us on
To do the thing we were created for
At the expense of all creation’s gifts.
That’s the Frost choice we get: faced with two roads,
One leading to the old threescore-and-ten
(Or in your case, twoscore-and-seventeen) –-
A spouse, children, respectability --
The other leading there, into that room
Where we live only barely just as long
As it takes us to burn out from the flame
We light to see the monster in the dark
And tell the world about it –- in a book,
A play, a poem, painting or symphony.
Is that the deal here, Mum? Did you stop by
To kick my ass about the writing, so
I’ll spend more time in my Dark Room next year?
That’s not a question I can honestly
Answer without some inner contemplation.
It calls for thoughtfulness; it means I must
Be truly honest with myself. Nice, Mum.
Nothing like forcing Matt to use self-knowledge.
Which means of course I have to find some first.
(I swear to God, not even years of death
Can stop your mother from being your mother.)
But here’s the rub with that one, Mum. If you
Get “I’m your mother, I know best” on me,
How else can I respond except by saying
“And I’m your son, so whatever you say,
I’ll do the opposite, no matter who I hurt.”
“You’ll only hurt yourself, you know,” you’ll say,
And I’ll reply “Oh yeah? Well I’ll show you!”
Isn’t it great when mothers push your buttons
To set you in your self-indulgent ways
And make you think you’re acting when you’re just
Reacting -- like a metal filing thinking
It’s running from the magnet. Silly rabbit --
The magnet’s in control of everything.
Like mothers, who flip back and forth between
The side that pushes and the side that clings
Because (like magnets) that what they’re made of.

So are you pushing me or pulling, Mum?
And in my head I see you look at me
And say without a smile, “What do you think?”
What do I think? Hunh. Me? What do I not?
I live inside my head, not in my body;
My life is like a small room with a desk,
A pen, blank paper, and four walls of books:
A smarter version of my father’s study --
Which sums up half my life in seven words.

Well now. Look at how far we’ve traveled, Mum,
From cigarettes and whiskey. Should I start
Reading Sam Houston’s life into this too?
God knows I want to, the same way I want
To find the hidden footnotes to the footnotes,
The quarks beneath the atoms, all the wee
Beneath the wonderful, as if the deets
Denote the only truth that ever matters --
Which is one truth of me. And will it be
The overriding one, the boat I sail?
Or do I have to jump from it to swim --
To get rid of the damn thing like a hitter
Tosses his bat away to head for first?
I know -– the question is rhetorical.
The answer’s obvious, and I’m a fool
For spinning what I know into a question
I can consider several answers to --
As if, once I connect with a fast ball,
There’s tons of ways to go except first base.

And with that answer hovering like smoke
Over the head of someone puffing Larks,
I so much want to change the subject, Mum --
To end the dream somehow –- to keep from giving
An answer that, like marriage, I’ll regret
(If ever I agree to it) because
I’ll either have to live up to it, or
Live up to something else. “Better to live
With options open,” says an inner voice.
It’s not your voice, Mum. But it sure is mine
Sometimes: the voice of 18-year-old me --
The boy who thinks commitment is a trap,
The kid who thinks there’s always going to be
Another golden opportunity
Around the corner, even though the road
Ran out of corners miles and years ago –-
The road that forks in two just up ahead,
One turn a traffic jam off to the right,
The other dark and empty and the left.
And I don’t know about you, Mum, but me?
I hate traffic. No way I’m going right.

Meanwhile, it’s midnight. New Year’s Day is done.
I’ve written this in pieces all day long,
And here I think I’ll let it go for now
(Because it never stops, the dialogue
Between the living and the dead –- it just
Becomes a little how-you-say one-sided).
Thanks for the dram, Mum, and the heavy meal.
It’s only hard to swallow if I don’t
Chew on it, right? Outside the wind claws at
The walls and windows, looking for a door,
Making the building creak and crack like claws
On hardwood –- or like you, tapping your nails
On a Formica table, with a drink
In one hand and a Lark poised in the other,
Looking at me and saying “Help yourself.”
I will, Mum. Thanks. And if you wonder where
I am, just try that dark room over there.
I’ll read you stuff as soon as it gets done,
And see you soon.

Much love,

Your eldest son.

copyright 2009 Matthew J Wells


Anonymous said...

Happy B-day Mommy!

Pamela said...

Hey Matt,
Except for having a mum there, you're inner Matt sounds a lot like my inner Pamela. And you're right, it really comes down to something like the Peter Pan thing. Grow up or not. Step into the shoes and own them, or not. Step up to the plate, seize the day,bite the bullet, whatever you call it, there it is, plain and simple. Commitment, it's to yourself, with some respect and dignity. So easy to avoid; after all who's looking? Only you.
I hear you, and planning this year getting me a few steps closer to the shoes, the door, the stage, the plate, the pen on the paper, the identity with definition.