This is the third column in Reading Room, a biweekly collective column on reading and life. The column will go in rounds, with the four contributors each responding to a prompt chosen by the group. The first prompt is What kind of book would you most like to read at this moment? The order of the columnists on this round will be: Sarah Chihaya, Merve Emre, Kamran Javadizadeh and Timothy Aubry.
For some time now, I’ve been wanting to sit very close to someone and look together at something very far away. This desire, the kind you don’t know you harbor until you hear yourself declaring it, preceded the pandemic but has intensified since its arrival. Sometimes the fantasy gets very specific: two lawn chairs side by side under the stars in Joshua Tree, maybe a small campfire, music dimly audible in the distance. As I understand it, the fantasy is about a kind of close intimacy and about a kind of radical isolation—or rather it is about how those two conditions might coexist. It’s a fantasy of one kind of love (and one, I now realize, that I may have stolen from the poet Frank Bidart: “The love I’ve known is the love of / two people staring // not at each other, but in the same direction”). I think it’s also a fantasy about reading.
Almost every time I’ve left my house in the last month, it’s been to walk my dog. I’m a creature of habit, and so, of course, is she; we have a shorter walk (around the block) and a longer one (an elliptical loop around the town park, playground and library—all now closed). Late at night, I’ve been inclined to take her on the longer one, partly as modest rebellion against feeling homebound, and partly because it’s given me a chance to listen to certain podcasts. The podcasts are about the moon—or rather, they’re about the history of NASA’s Apollo program. Years from now, I imagine the sound of archival radio transmissions between mission control and lunar orbit—pops of static followed by gaps of silence, clipped enunciations back and forth of “Roger” and “Rog,” unthinkable drama riding on the slightest modulations of tone in the seconds before landing—will bring me back to this sad, strange stretch of life, conducted entirely within a mile of my home. Ten minutes after Neil Armstrong took his one small step on the lunar surface, Buzz Aldrin, still watching through a window of the lunar module, remarked, “That looks beautiful from here, Neil.” His words reached Armstrong’s headset and also entered the audio loop in mission control in Houston, some 240,000 miles away; they were recorded, digitized, and eventually made their way into my earbuds, 51 years later in a suburb of Philadelphia. So too did Armstrong’s response: “It has a stark beauty all its own.” And then: “It’s like much of the high desert of the United States.”
What kind of book would I most like to read at this moment? As I’ve read Sarah and Merve’s lucid and affirming responses to that question, I’ve felt both deep sympathy and yet also countervailing, wayward, peculiar tugs of desire. For I find now that what I want out of reading is both contact and distance, an object both for concentration and (how else to put it?) spacing out. I want something that makes me feel like I do when I listen to those lunar audio loops. Which is to say, both close to a voice and far from its source; securely connected, as though by an invisible cable, to a distant but steady point in space. I’ve always been partial to the function of language that the linguist Roman Jakobson called “phatic”: “messages serving to establish, to prolong, or to discontinue communication, to check whether the channel works (‘Hello, do you hear me?’), to attract the attention of the interlocutor or to confirm his continued attention.” For Jakobson, the phatic function was ultimately less interesting than the one he was really trying to define, the “poetic,” but I find myself drawn to that tug at the end of the line. Here I am. Can you hear me?
Not long after we’d settled on a first question for this column, I realized that I could give it a literal answer. My birthday was approaching, and I had decided finally to buy, as a gift to myself, the first edition of a volume of poems I already loved, James Schuyler’s Hymn to Life (1974). The book, which arrived as the quarantine began, has a lovely Fairfield Porter painting on its cover, a spindly-looking tree set against jagged horizontal bands of green, yellow and gray (grass, forsythia, sky). The bottom right corner of the dust jacket on my copy looks like it might have been nibbled on by a mouse at some point, but the book has retained its dignity: pea-green end papers, deckled edges, a pen and ink drawing of three flowers (thistles?) on the otherwise empty page beneath every subhead. It smells terrific. I am, in case you could not tell, pleased with this gift.
I came to Schuyler somewhat recently and promptly fell hard. If you don’t know his work, imagine the intersection of modest affect and concentrated attention in Elizabeth Bishop, whom Schuyler admired from a distance (the feeling was mutual), and the flashing wit and seductive candor in Frank O’Hara, who was Schuyler’s friend and briefly his roommate. Schuyler gave readings extremely rarely and only late in life; when another friend, John Ashbery, introduced him before his first-ever public reading—at the Dia Art Foundation in 1988—the more famous Ashbery confessed jealousy: “He makes sense, dammit, and he manages to do so without falsifying or simplifying the daunting complexity of life as we are living it today.” Another way to describe Schuyler’s poetry, or at any rate the poems of his I love best, is to say that they make poetry out of the phatic function. Reading Schuyler, you feel he’s the kind of friend with whom you’d like to talk on the phone—not so much because of the stories he might tell as because of the exhilarating contact you’d feel with the voice at the other end of the line.
Schuyler was a lonely man—and, at times, a profoundly troubled one. Hymn to Life bears the dedication “FOR BOB”: Robert Jordan, a married Brooks Brothers salesman with whom he’d had an affair, and whom he addressed directly in a suite of poems called “Loving You.” In those poems, Schuyler can sound like he’s writing a letter: “You’re / on vacation. Well / earned, twice and / more over, like a / double rose. I’ll / miss you.” Having admitted to his longing in this poem (whose first line, “You’re,” is also its title), he makes a show of magnanimity: “I’m glad / you’re there: you / need and want it. / Nor am I jealous / that you’re not / alone.” What makes such generosity possible, according to the poem’s logic, is its ability to imagine Jordan’s “there” as connected—literally so—to Schuyler’s “here”:
The same ocean
that we have here
but warmer there.
You dive into
a glassy wave
and come up
bet you like
pissing in the
sea. People who
don’t seem odd
to me. There,
think of me
and our beach
They swim in the same water and (if Schuyler is right and Jordan not “odd”) piss in it, too. Intimacy at a distance requires these shared spaces to which the lovers can, in their isolation, mutually attend—and into which they can empty themselves and thus commingle. From my quarantine to yours, I text you an image of the poem I’m reading. What I mean is: please look at this with me. But also: join me here.
If you are far from someone you love and what you want is to look at something with them, then you need that thing to be either vast, like the sea, or, if distant from both of you, then even vaster. And so it is to Earth’s first satellite that Schuyler, missing Robert Jordan in the early 1970s, eventually looks:
will rise. The foot-
steps on it from
here don’t show. In
moon terms, you’re
not so far away. We
see the same sky
The Apollo astronauts’ footsteps were still fresh when Schuyler wrote these lines; the moon, in that sense, must have felt startlingly close. Schuyler’s diary entry on July 21, 1969, the day after the moon landing, had begun this way: “So there’s a man in the moon after all.” The poem notes the moon’s new proximity but then tries to forget it; tonight’s moon still looks far away, and you, therefore, are not.
A month after the first moon landing, and still thinking, evidently, about how that event had altered his imagination, Schuyler wrote again in his diary: “Looking at the sky last night and the moon in the first fresh dark, just a few stars, bright with their cold flares, I [suddenly] had a little crumpled thought, ‘Oh well, the moon. It’s just another place like California.’” That last line makes me laugh in a way that lately only Schuyler can. I had meant, when I’d decided to write about Schuyler, to tell you about the great long poem, the title poem of Hymn to Life, maybe my favorite thing Schuyler has written. Over sixteen pages in my edition, the poem narrates the passage of March, April and May. Long stretches of this poem, like the ones in “Loving You,” are written in the second person, but the “you” in “Hymn to Life” is diffuse, the poem’s lines fill the page. Schuyler isn’t addressing a lover, not in any kind of extended way. Instead, he’s looking at the world—and enjoining you to sit beside and look with him:
Open the laundry door. Press your face into the
Wet April chill: a life mask. Attune yourself to what is happening
Now, the little wet things, like washing up the lunch dishes. Bubbles
Rise, rinse and it is done. Let the dishes air dry, the way
You let your hair after a shampoo. All evaporates, water, time, the
Happy moment and—harder to believe—the unhappy. Time on a bus,
That passes, and the night with its burthen and gift of dreams. That
Other life we live and need, filled with joys and terrors, threaded
By dailiness: where the wished for sometimes happens, or, just
Before waking tremulous hands undo buttons.
To look in this manner is to calibrate your attention to life as it is, to life at home. To look in this manner is thus to remain earthbound. But if for you—as for Schuyler, as for me—there is another life you “live and need,” then you may rest assured, Schuyler seems to say, that it is your daily contact with “what is happening / Now” that makes that life possible. Our dreams are “threaded / By dailiness”; our walks on Earth grant passage to our tremulous encounters with the objects of our desire, our nightly trips to the moon.