Reading Bleak House at Christmas

I wasn’t cut out for holidays. Drunk parents. Too much catastrophe from kitchen to parlor. By the time I was in high school I saw the advantage to reading stout novels and claimed it was for school—later for college. Unless they are fleetingly sentimental drunks don’t care if you’ve disappeared.

I read Tom Jones while my parents drank scotch and burned a turkey. Vanity Fair as they fought over my father’s decision to un-retire. The Egoist I read while my mother wrapped old kitchen implements in newspaper—she thought melted plastic spatulas would be excellent for re-gifting. A “delicious” irony as my sister and I often rescued Christmas pasts by undertaking emergency house cleaning and cooking. I found 19th century novels were best. Tolstoy was right about all unhappy families. Melville and Dickens weren’t wrong either. Human beings thrown together by economies or architectures or marriages or patrimonies—all sink together while fashioning narratives designed to hold others in thrall to ugly misapprehensions. Ah, the novel! My holiday lifeboat these many years.

Some years I’m devoted to re-reading as is the case with Bleak House. The joys in doing so are almost unlimited:

“The universe makes rather an indifferent parent, I’m afraid.”

“But injustice breeds injustice; the fighting with shadows and being defeated by them necessitates the setting up of substances to combat.”

“Everything that Mr Smallweed’s grandfather ever put away in his mind was a grub at first, and is a grub at last. In all his life he has never bred a single butterfly.”

“There is something indefinably keen and wan about her anatomy, and she has a watchful way of looking out of the corners of her eyes without turning her head which could be pleasantly dispensed with, especially when she is in ill humor and near knives.”

“Mr. Guppy suspects everybody….of entertaining… Sinister designs upon him….he in the most ingenious manner takes infinite pains to counterplot, where there is no plot; and plays the deepest games of chess without any adversary.”

“He [Old Mr. Turveydrop] was a fat old gentleman with a false complexion, false teeth, false whiskers, and a wig. He had a fur collar, and he had a padded breast to his coat, which only wanted a star or a broad blue ribbon to be complete. He was pinched in, and swelled out, and got up, and strapped down, as much as he could possibly bear.”

“Lady Dedlock is always the same exhausted deity, surrounded by worshippers, and terribly liable to be bored to death, even while presiding at her own shrine.”

The delights of “Bleak House” are inexhaustible.

CHRISTMAS 1961: UNCLE CHUCK

By Michael Meteyer

(From a Silly in Progress)

Uncle Chuck smoked five cigars a day, dressed like a tweed wastebasket, and was rumored to do unpalatable things with his hands.

A hug from Uncle Chuck was like a dive into a smoldering garbage bin, and would hang on you for days afterwards, like a miasma from a swamp of dead alligators, frog innards and spoiled wet tobacco and moldy latrines.

Uncle Chuck was a tenor with the voice of an angel. He sang songs from World War l.

His speaking voice was as plummy as a radio announcer from the 1940s. Everything about Uncle Chuck except for his odor was plummy, even his face color, even his body shape, which was round, with a crease in his forehead where you expected a stem to appear, as if he were a tomato.

There were rumors about Uncle Chuck. We were told as children, to never ask about Uncle Chucks history, which only made us more curious.

Was Uncle Chuck a murderer? Did he work for the government? Had he been a florist? Did he come back from the dead?

No matter: at every family gathering Uncle Chuck was central to a ritual that had evolved.

First there was the imbibing and storytelling, our paramount adult activities: and to this day I am so grateful I came from a clan of storytellers who cherished language as much as a Babylonian farmer cherished his hoe.

Then after the initial bonhomie, and then the giddiness, and then wild laughter, and then me and my brother Timmy would get in a fistfight, and the gathering would become sad and wistful… then it was time for Uncle Chuck to sing the mournful song “My Buddy”.

“My Buddy” was a song from the Great War about the death of a friend, which, although I didn’t know it then, was also about the death of youth, and the end of dreams, and the impermanence of… everything, especially precious family instances and crowded Christmas moments.

Uncle Chuck’s angelic voice- the voice of a plummy winged angel- brought tears to everyone’s eyes, even to those of us, adolescents, who had no knowledge yet of the preciousness of common things and tiring rituals.

I remember the thick snow falling outside, slow but insistent, illuminated by the multiple colors of lights on all the houses in the neighborhood. It seemed like each snowflake was a different color, but I realize now this was because of the Christmas lights on the houses behind them. Something like Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.

“Each snowflake”, Aunt Marla once confided to me in slurred tones, “Is not only a piece of time, which melts the moment you think about it; it is the secret kiss of an anonymish, ah, aninnymoosh angel who will protect you. And there are numberless angels… They shee everything you do. Except, we’ll, let’s just say they know when to look away. They know what it means to be alive. Most of them. They aren’t nosy, they just want to protect you. Did I tell you they were numberless? Like snowdrops? Like kisses from your Aunt Marla”?

Then she would giggle, and give me a kiss: wet, like a snowdrop, but much warmer, and then she would look deeply into my eyes, as if seeing all things past and future, but especially the present. And her eyes would fixate that moment into my consciousness like it was riveted by a laser beam.

But then her eyes would quiver and she’d burp or hiccup or something, and it rather changed the moment.

In Babylonian Times there were parties and rituals around the solstice, and lamps and torches set alight in the dark, and the presentation of gifts and the recitation of prayers to urge the Sun, the God that controlled the light, to come back, to return us to light and warmth again.

They acted as if light and warmth and illumination were as fragile and promising as a new born infant, as if everything, even the continuation of life, depended upon its growth and thriving.

Those Babylonians didn’t have snow. Or tinsel. They had their own form of crèches, and talked to the statuettes in them all year, as if they were alive, but that is a different thing, and I don’t want to get into it now.

Those Babylonians, they didn’t have snow, either.

They didn’t have, like I had, Gloria Matthews dressed up as the Virgin Mary in our fifth grade Christmas play.

They didn’t have, as we have, the Christ child.

And then as now, several thousands of years later, the prayers and the lights and the gifts and the love worked. The infant son, as good as God, began its way home us, bringing more light and longer days.

I’m sure the pagan Babylonians had their own version of doleful ballads and plummy Uncle Chucks.

And when Uncle Chuck finished singing, we were all as quiet as the stars in the night sky.

Then the adults would wipe away their tears, and begin to sober up for the journey home.

Michael Meteyer is a longtime friend of the blind, a newly retired orientation and mobility instructor. He studies creative writing at the University of Rochester with the poet Anthony Hecht and spent many afternoons riding horses with Lawrence Ferlinghetti. He lives in San Rafael, California.

The Blind Whale, Part One

I am inside the blind whale. I should say it isn’t Melville’s whale nor is it Jonah’s brute. The blind whale is made of all the dreams of sighted people occurring now and simultaneously. It is easier to say what the blind whale is not: it isn’t a prospect; it’s not a fortune; it’s not a standard nightmare. It isn’t of the left or of the right.

**

Now is the blind whale distinct from blindness itself? Yes. Genuine blindness is just a fish. A small one. A guppy. It swims in shallows. By distinction the blind whale cannot be seen. It’s a visual man’s phantasm. Or woman’s. Women are also screwed up by the blind whale.

**

Of course sighted people are terrified of blindness but this isn’t that. If the damned blind whale has significance beyond furnishing my roof it must be this: it’s composed of the oneiric afterthoughts of all visual humans. I do not mean repressed fears. Forget Freud and Jung. I mean the dropped car keys and lost buttons in dreams.

**

Petty detail is what the blind whale feasts on. The krill swims straight into the maw. What I mean is “sighted petty” —the blind spot in a rearview mirror.

**

I’m inside a non-fictive creature designed haphazardly by the small frights of the sighted. This is a problem.

**

When reading “Moby Dick” I’m always struck by what Melville doesn’t have to say. For instance he needn’t say that the intricate industrial-scientific butchery of a whale carcass is merely bloody psychoanalysis misunderstood. Nor does he have to say, “always remember what’s under the boat.”

Stephen Kuusisto and HarleyABOUT: Stephen Kuusisto is the author of the memoirs Have Dog, Will Travel; Planet of the Blind (a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”); and Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening and of the poetry collections Only Bread, Only Light and Letters to Borges. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a Fulbright Scholar, he has taught at the University of Iowa, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Ohio State University. He currently teaches at Syracuse University where he holds a University Professorship in Disability Studies. He is a frequent speaker in the US and abroad. His website is StephenKuusisto.com.

Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey is now available for pre-order:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound.org

Have Dog, Will Travel by Stephen Kuusisto

(Photo picturing the cover of Stephen Kuusisto’s new memoir “Have Dog, Will Travel” along with his former guide dogs Nira (top) and Corky, bottom.) Bottom photo by Marion Ettlinger 

Diabelli

I’m listening to Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations on a windy November day when the last leaves are falling from the trees.

Did the ghost trains come through already?

All of a sudden he checks himself as if he’d said too much.

I wanted to buy flowers yesterday but didn’t.

When sighted people talk about blind certainty I wonder what they’re talking about.

About my other side, it has a lonesome house.

Everywhere, directions, possibilities, but still rain at the windows.

Where else would I walk?

I don’t like your smile sir.

Up river where they eat song birds.

I’ll lend my heart to you but only to make you hear.

Autumn, more ancient than my recklessness….

I Ran Straight Out of Myself….

I ran straight out of myself. I’m certain that’s what death will be.
I ran straight into myself. Birth. How it was. Once while on acid I saw my birth doctor.
He had eyebrows like antennae.

I ran straight around myself. Like blowing leaves all my selves whirling around the street lamp of my body.

I ran through myself more than once, often jacked up on alcohol and guilt. My clumsy feet broke the delicate toys inside me.

Down the road, down the road, all my friends live down the road.
Ain’t got a letter since I don’t know when.

Older now I run to catch up with myself. Mind goes very fast these days.

In this life inside the falling a long sweet glide.

**

There was a time when every hour was whole.
Part of Beethoven’s wisdom is how he incorporated this knowledge into his late quartets.

For my part I have a childish psyche with a porous understanding of time.

The child inside me is wishful because of a leaking hourglass.

I’ve lived my life for my twin brother who died at birth.

The doctor had terrifying eyebrows.

**

I wasn’t a poet by choice but by the bardo.

I am however a citizen by choice.

Are you disabled? No I’m a citizen.

The smell of smoke from my neighbor’s houses….

The Discords

I could tell you things
But I’m not old enough—
Just walking over a large and shining ice patch

**

Did I eat Prufrock’s peach yesterday?

**

Of the bumblebee Lars Gustafsson writes:

“A flying man who lives far within the wood
Has folded up his wings and sleeps in the rain.”

**

Up river and down
My childhood
But unlike Huck
No Jim, no friends

**

“So that’s what made you a poet!”

**

In the forest there are still signs of the old mill.

**

Terry Eagleton says pessimism is the most difficult moral condition to obtain.
Silly. He never ate frozen strawberries with a 100 year old monk in rural Finland in winter darkness. In general academics need to get out more.

**

If I knew so much parataxis would occupy me
I’d have (instead) invented the shoe horn.

**

Everyone has a debt to death
But on clear mornings you can hear them thar pianos…

I didn’t exactly begin my life. I suppose I was always riding out
From the big bang; show time dust; the carbon democracies.
Vedas say we’ve been here before but I don’t think it.
We were here and then gone and there’s no analogy.
This morning on the first cold day of autumn
I “saw” (the way blind people do….very close….
On hands and knees….)
A tiny wasp emerge unsteadily
From a frost apple—
Though I was only in the grass
Looking for my keys
Sorry for myself.