IF ONLY: GIRL, LISTENING (BLACK AND WHITE)
How shall I begin?
(How shall you begin? How shall she begin...)
You found it in a folder—
She found it in a folder—?
Except what’s to be gained from second or third? Why call attention to myself in that way when it’s you I’m looking for—you, I want to reach (if only)—
I found it in a folder.
Though that’s a bit dry.
How about this?
Judith, look what I found—!
Such a relief to simply address you. As if you were there. As if you were here.
And what’s on my mind? For starters, the way you liked to play with point of view—but never gratuitous, those shifts, oh no: they signified. As when you wrote, in Half in Shade: “Living with Certainty can be interesting. It rounds the corner just as you approach, leading you ever onward. You see nothing but its back.” Or, in the first essay (“Things of this Life”) in the very first book (Only the Dance): “How can she go on, wanting like this, for the rest of her life?” And in The Circus Train, of course—“You wish you knew how to abandon yourself to the moment. You did once that you can recall—riding on a boat on the Erie Canal [...] And there we were [...].” Switching up like that in the middle of the graf! Without a hitch! And even in mid-sentence (this from Distance and Direction): “Here she is, as the fields drift by. Here she is, here I am.” O Judith. Would that you were. Here. Or there.
You know what else is on my mind? To the Lighthouse. That part near the end, with Lily Briscoe on the lawn: “For one moment she felt that [...] if they shouted loud enough Mrs. Ramsay would return.” And Beckett, Happy Days, Act 2, when Winnie can’t be sure that Willie is listening (isn’t dead): “I used to think I would learn to talk alone. [Pause] By that I mean to myself, the wilderness. [Smile.] But no. [Smile broader.]” Ow. And how about My Brother. Jamaica Kincaid. Judith—we never talked about her! We never talked about Kincaid, Simone, Sondheim, Seurat. Beard, Hazan, Bittman. Krall, Casals. Haiku, gemstones, hors d’oeuvres; peonies, hawks, cousins, stand-up bass, “Whiplash” (the movie), “Black Mirror” (the series), “Arcadia” (the play)—and “The Woman with Five Elephants”—we never talked about her, either! That last, my fault. “Please see it,” you wrote. “One of my most favorites,” you said, and I had the gall to take my time. As if there were time. If only.
But back to Kincaid, the revelation near the end of her memoir—a book about writing as much as anything, yes? And the final insight as profound as any about place, or family, or shame, or loss: that is, her acknowledgment that she’s mourning William Shawn as much as her brother: why and how to write about her brother (or anyone), if not for Shawn? Therefore, her determination to continue writing for him even though he’s dead.
So. So that’s how it is.
So, Judith, look what I found in a folder—from the summer you asked me to teach for you, remember? Of course you do. You would remember, you of all people. And this is when direct address gets tricky, gimmicky. Having to accommodate exposition, having to do with the fact of the actual reader, who isn’t you, who am I kidding, but if she were (if only)—no need to remind you of anything ever; you were a bank vault; a recorder, a camera, a projector with IMAX capabilities; you remembered—that was your business, your preoccupation, your obsession, your coin in trade—
however: since you’re not my reader, should I shift for him here? Would that be more honest? Well, I will then, but not with your grace or style. Rather, this awkward grinding of gears:
She—Judith—had asked me to fill in because she was sick. Months in advance, she prepared me: “I may need you,” she said, as if the gig weren’t a gift—as if to pretend I were doing her a favor: could I possibly work this conference (prestigious, lucrative, on a beautiful island) into my schedule. Could I. Ha. Then, eventually, came the email with hand-outs attached: “in case you can use any of them, or incorporate them into a ‘Kitchen folder’ for the participants,” she wrote.
And so I did; I printed the hand-outs along with the email; I made up that folder—though in the end, I wound up resorting to my own old prompts, tried and true. It was only after she died (after you died, Judith, I’ve been wanting to talk to you about that), after her first husband posted an old photo on Facebook, that I remembered the folder (blue and bulging)—and the file in the computer: Begin with a photograph__doc—found both. Opened both. And here it is:
Begin with a photograph—one that has some personal meaning; an odd snapshot from the box on the shelf, someone vaguely familiar, but who?
As if I hadn’t begun already, I begin with this photo of you.
You—my friend—but long before you were my friend, my mentor, my boss, my collaborator, my colleague, my cheerleader, my reader, my fucking lucky charm. (Dinah, for shame. My, my, my, me, me, me—this isn’t meant to be about you.) You, vaguely familiar—before you were a literary force to be reckoned with: a poet, an author, a critic, an educator. Also, I’m thinking, before you were a mother. Though I might be wrong—but you’re so young in the photo; so unencumbered—how long have you been sitting there? How long will you sit? Just a girl, you are—a girl with slender fingers, nails clipped short—but wait, is that a ring? It is. You’re wearing a ring. Married therefore—a bride—to imagine you a bride; to imagine you brimming with that sort of passion (which isn’t so hard); you on the verge, you on the cusp (not hard at all). It’s so you, this photo: so full of curiosity, confidence, humor—frank, sly, knowing—
and yet. Would I have been able to pick you out? If the photo hadn’t been posted, along with a tribute? Did I need to be told? I think I did, yes. But once I knew—once I saw came a bolt of pleasure; of joy, of pain—of course! It’s Judith! That’s she: there’s her nose and the slope of her cheek—her eyes, deep-set; her mouth!—lips parted and ready to ask, to answer, something on her mind, but listening, listening so hard, fully tuned in—
They say a photograph is worth a thousand words. Well, your job, then, is not description. (Sorry. Right.) It is contemplation. Speculation. Fantasy. You must surround this photograph with the thoughts and feelings that well up in you. You must probe its contents, and then move beyond its boundaries, thinking about what it doesn’t say, what isn’t in the frame—what you know you simply cannot know.
What you know you simply cannot know. (Do you hear her? Do you hear her as I do? It’s as if she’s speaking to me, only me, though she isn’t. (I do know that—I’m not daft.) This was meant to be a hand-out. Meant for anyone and everyone. And yet—those words—“your job, then, is . . .” How many times did she tell me so, how many—and what solace now, to hear her in my head. Except. Except what should I do? Judith, tell me what to do—to get on with this, to forget about that. Some consolation, yes, but it hurts to have you this close—you, announcing yourself, you pushing the words aside to make an appearance (who’s doing this, who? You or I? Dinah, your job....))—okay. Okay. I’m not to describe. But I will if I want, so there. This girl in the photo—she’s lovely, isn’t she? All that hair. How proud you were of your hair. How furious to have to lose it more than once, the injustice of that, I know; but see here, it’s as if it never happened. Here you are—hair shiny, thick, brushing your shoulders—knees drawn up close; look how supple, how slim; a girl in a skirt—you in a skirt!—using it, taking advantage, showing some calf, shapely, strong, and a hint of thigh. And okay—okay, I’ll speculate then—I’ll bet you had some idea of your power (didn’t you?): your first priority, comfort always—but. That hint of thigh. You, folded up on a chair on somebody’s porch. Or is it an outdoor café. There’s a glass, half full, at your other hand—coca cola, maybe? Is that an ice cube, or the sun reflecting? I simply cannot know. What I do see—what delights me: your sensuality. Your sexiness. Unconscious. Un-self-conscious. Having as much to do with the look in your eye—the way you are listening to whomever you’re listening to—as anything else. You, absorbed, engaged—you so sure of yourself—that’s how I’d have known you. That’s what would have stopped me in the moment, and I’d have been jealous. Of the photographer. Of the person just outside the frame, the one who has your attention. I’d have wanted to join—to sit myself down. If only—
Look at [the picture] as a physical object. Look at its subject. Who inhabits its spaces? Ask it questions. What is your relationship to this scene? Who is taking the photograph? Where is she now in its sepia tint?
I got ahead of myself, didn’t I? As if these were step by step instructions. They are not. They’re suggestions, aren’t they? For ways to think about a photo, and—extrapolating now—the photo a metaphor: the photo standing in for any subject at all: how to approach our subjects, objects, material, that’s what you’re after in the exercise, right? A prescription for how to essay.
Ask it questions. Ask it questions, you. Who did take the photo? Who caught this young woman as essentially herself, prepared to sit there all day if that’s what it took—what it took to—to what?
(O but this is hard! Not because you don’t want to imagine. It’s not that she isn’t real to you—only, she belongs to so many others. To the man who posted the photo (Andrew); to the man with whom she grew into herself (Stan); to her unborn sons (that’s what you’ve decided); to their wives and their children—those astoundingly gifted grandsons of hers; to her brother, George; to her colleagues (many of whom knew her longer and better than you); to her students (each of whom might suppose she loved him or her best); to her friends (ditto)—
what if you get it wrong? Who are you likely to offend?)
what’s my relationship to the scene? I wasn’t there! I didn’t know her then. And it’s my inclination to feel sorry for myself about that.
Judith, why didn’t we know each other sooner? Then comes another bolt: what are the chances of this sort of friendship—deep and abiding—once people are all grown up? If we could have been friends back then (could we? Would we? If we’d been of an age?); if, as friends do, we’d met daily—at school, or at work, perhaps with young children in tow; if we’d cemented our friendship at that time of life (that is, if we were two entirely different people) who knows, who’s to say? If only. Except—except what of this then, this actual friendship, deep and abiding, in spite of the odds being very much against.
My relationship to the scene? To this brilliant young woman? My feeling for her—disproportionately proprietary—has everything to do with how fortunate I am to have known her at all.
Now come at the photograph from many angles. (I’m trying.) You can use it as a starting point, expanding until it comes alive for the reader, as it has for you. Or you can write it into being, telling its story right up to the moment of the camera’s click.
“Oh my God, who is she? I want her for my own,” you wrote of the girl with the chickens in Half in Shade. And you conjectured the rest of her life: “Off lens:” as you put it. Shall I do the same?
Off lens, the young husband, of course. Off-lens: a sink full of dishes; a stack of things to read on the night stand—two novels, a play, an article (science related), three volumes of poetry (at least three); a pound of hamburger in the fridge, and what will you make of it? Meatloaf? Yes. And baked potatoes; and a salad with chevre crumbled in the leaves. In the middle of the table, in an old jelly jar, the flowers you picked just now from the side of the road: goldenrod, wild clematis, eyebright, purple-edged. But before—before arranging the flowers, scrubbing the spuds, setting the table; before dinner and clean-up and getting into bed with one of your books: before all that happens, just after you get up from your chair (the chair in the photo), what then? Will you walk for a bit? I say you will. I’ve decided you did, haven’t I (those flowers on the table). I think you’ll pause on the path to take in the trees, the birds, the sky, then go home to your various tasks, no less vivid—not in your particular future—never mind your prediction of the life to come for the girl with chickens. Of her, you wrote: “Chore after chore. The lifetime that added more, and then more.
“I want this moment,” you wrote, “but not what it stands for.”
But earlier, in a different piece, you quoted Richard Rodriguez: “The camera can only look backwards.” That, I don’t believe. And neither did you—you, balanced as you were between past and future, look here:
You can comment on the photo, making it a central part of your written text. Move into the “tone” of the moment. Think about what the photo holds for all time. Think about the nature of time.
That’s it! That’s what you’re on about—the possibilities of a photo as they extend to illuminate the nature of the essay. Which is a try at the truth—and therefore obliged to acknowledge that if there’s any such thing, it exists in the now: do I have that right? The idea is to think on the page; to admit to imagining; to investigate the present yearning that causes to us not just to rewind but to fast forward, too. (And necessitates our getting it right. And also our getting it wrong.) So you explained—so you once defined the mysterious line between memoir and essay: “The moment of the memoir is the past,” you wrote. “The moment of the personal essay is the present.” And in Only the Dance you said: “How we love our missed connections. How we adore what we have yet to say.”
Give what you’ve written a context, a stance from which you are looking. Wonder about [the young woman]: what were her dreams? Where did they go? Give that stranger a life [she] may never have lived, but one that connects [her] to you in the odd, imaginative space that exists between you—now that you own a piece of [her] life.
But I know too much. And not enough. Besides which, this woman spoke for herself. And that being so, how to presume?
By directing your attention to the object itself, you have emerged as a narrating sensibility. By speculating, crossing that intricate divide between fiction and nonfiction, you have found those thousand words that might be worth a photograph.
Might be. More likely not.
If not, in my defense (though why do I feel the need to defend myself? What sort of disclaimer is this?), perhaps I was after something else—
here’s Kincaid (about Shawn) at the end of My Brother: “I cannot see any reason not to write for him anyway, for I can sooner get used to never hearing from him—the perfect reader—than to not being able to write for him at all.”
And Woolf in the last pages of To the Lighthouse: ““Mrs. Ramsay,” Lily cried. “Mrs. Ramsay.” But nothing happened. The pain increased.”
And Beckett, Judith, your beloved Beckett, Happy Days, Act Two: ““Willie. [Pause.] What Willie? [Suddenly vehement affirmation.] My Willie! [eyes right, calling.] Willie! [Pause. Louder.] Willie! [Pause. Eyes front.] Ah well, not to know, not to know for sure, great mercy, all I ask. [Pause.]”
Except I do know, of course I do. Even so, I mean to talk to you—having nothing to do with what you believed and what I believe, too: once dead, always dead. And yet—here you are, waving at me from the Train, quoting Beckett: “Fail better.” And then:
But how to fail better? Watch even more TV? Gain even more weight? Take on more lovers? Hard to do at this stage in her life. The answer is clear, but if she had wanted to watch less TV, surely she could have done so. Or white-water rafting. The symphony. With lovers, it’s harder to say. Fail better at writing—now that is something she can imagine. Tearing down all the similes, building a better structure to hold her thoughts.
Have I failed well then? Should I try to fail better? If I did, would it all come out pretty much the same: the exercise, the essay, the life?
It’s in the coda to the coda of The Circus Train, that you ask straight out: “Who will there be to say whether I became the person I wanted to be?”
And this time, no manipulating point of view—just the voice, in first person, of your present yearning to imagine the disposition of a world without you in it. Which, I must tell you, continues to be unimaginable. Which, thanks to you—you, alive on the page—we do not have to imagine. Which isn’t much comfort to us; and none at all to you, I know. O Judith, it turns out there’s no comfort to be had—not for the living. And no reason to comfort the dead. And yet. You asked—you keep asking: Who will be there to say. . . Who would have the nerve to answer, that’s what I want to know. As if there were an answer, as if anyone knew the answer, the answer so entirely beside the point. It’s the asking—you asking, you looking, and listening—listening hard the way you did, the way you were—
see the girl in the photo? That’s the moment I want. And I want what it stands for, too.
Girl, listening, are you listening? (If only.)
I will come right out and say it: I want you for my own.
Dinah Lenney serves as core faculty for the Bennington Writing Seminars, the Rainier Writing Workshop, and in the MPW program at the University of Southern California. She's the author of Bigger than Life: A Murder, a Memoir, and a collection of essays, The Object Parade. Brief Encounters: A Collection of Contemporary Nonfiction, which she co-edited with the late Judith Kitchen, will be published next fall.