Differences from Yesterday, a Day like Today
[a talk given at NonfictioNow 2018]
When “Writing the Day” was sent to me as a prompt, the proposed date, the summer solstice, put me in mind of the most influential day, as such, in contemporary poetry, Bernadette Mayer’s Midwinter Day. A novella-length, six-part maximalist poem (an epic, say some) whose intention was to get down everything that happened in the poet’s life and mind on a single day in 1978, December 22. The eventual feat was greater for having chosen for the experiment the shortest day of the year. Mayer’s quotidian is subversive even within the particular avant-garde tradition of the New York School poets—Frank O’Hara’s lunch poems never included diapers or pills or cleaning products; his social, cruisy public square wasn’t like hers in Lenox, Mass, where she might be asked outside the post office if she’d mind some pointers about her last dinner party. The work belongs to poetry as much as to conceptual art, and indeed a similar book of Mayer’s, Memory, was a central exhibit in WACK, the 2007 feminist conceptual art retrospective in Los Angeles, alongside other auto-documentary and bio-metric art that used the day as a unit: notably Mary Kelly’s framed records of the input (mashed peas, bananas, and in what quantities) and actual smears of “output” from her baby boy, day by day, tracking also his vocalizations and the attributes of her emotions about their mutual need. The day in such work is a convenient reset, comparable to days before and after, syntagmatic, ongoing, contingent.
When I place my faith, or reset my faith, in a daily writing practice these days, I navigate by the star of James Schuyler, the poet and art writer and diarist and reader of diaries (Gilbert White’s and Virginia Woolf’s, continually). He’s known, like Mayer, for his small-scoped epics (“A Few Days,” “The Morning of the Poem”), but also for his skinny, hyperattentive lyrics that consider the single day, the whole day, as an entity. Among them are the poems “December 28, 1974” and “February 13, 1975” and “I think” (which begins “I will write you a letter, June day. Dear June 5th”) and “Song” which enacts the close of a day: “A weeping beech is gray, / a copper beech is copper red. / Tennis nets hang / unused in unused stillness. / A car starts up and / whispers into what will soon be night. / A tennis ball is served. / A horsefly vanishes. / A smoking cigarette. / A day (so many and so few) / dies down a hardened sky / and leaves are lap-held notebook leaves / discriminated barely / in light no longer layered.” James Schuyler: expert noticer, and aficionado of the indefinite pronoun. Each element introduced carries with it a suggestion that it is just one of its kind, a specimen, but its chance appearance is celebrated, another daub of paint in the composition.
Schuyler’s best friend, the painter Fairfield Porter, said that an artist is someone who “distinguishes endlessly.” I like this definition, by which Schuyler certainly qualifies. His “selecting eye,” as Eileen Myles has called it, typically sifts among equivalences in the field. Douglas Crase, in a wonderful essay on Schuyler called “A Voice Like the Day” quotes Porter again to say that there are many artists in history who have had an “afternoon sensibility,” that is a sensibility of reflection, but few that have a “morning sensibility” like Schuyler’s, a sensibility of observation. Just to say what is. Or, more to the point, to note, as Schuyler puts it in the opening line of a poem, like a banner naming his intention to discern: “differences from yesterday.”
“Differences from yesterday.” I’ve titled my current morning notebook that. Or, rather, each time I type in a few more days from my notebook into my computer, I do so in a growing document called “Differences from Yesterday.” I live in Moscow, Idaho, and there’s a place outside I can sit in the warm month mornings. I scan my little downslope part of “Orchard Addition,” which is the official name for our neighborhood, as the country assessor parcels it. I’ve lived here about fifteen months. So I know from experience what follows what. The crocuses, the cherry tree, the poppies, the bee balm, the lavender, the lunaria annua. We pull a new dry stalk of lunaria for our giant plastic wall peacock to wear as a topknot crest: that’s when it’s winter.
In May after the creek is highest from snowmelt, there are morels like little canelés hidden on the south sides of forested hills. Look for where a trickle might collect, up against a knob of cedar root. The last rain falls in late June. The sun’s transit just tops the tall fir tree east of us: then it’s summer. The bachelor quail are up and down from the sloped roof in a business I do not understand. The two kinds of ant. The wheat goes blond. The squirrels eat the Bings higher up in the tree and drop the pits. The two kinds of cicada, one blind, pinging into your water bottle on the north side of hills. The haze first and then the smell of wildfire. The crabapples fall. In the last week before first frost, the plague of aphids, descending daily by midafternoon to pedestrian breathing level. The pileated woodpeckers. The first moose sighting, behind the Wendy’s, in the Moscow Pullman Daily News. I write first thing in the morning, and I might track some one or two micro-events I spot, and permit entry to passing thoughts or dedicatory feelings or regrets or flashes of overnight visions, and I might pivot on something about yesterday: the smallest thing I saw, the moment I felt acutely alive. It’s a ledger for one but not the other kind of knowing: connaître (familiarity), not savoir, as the poet and essayist Merrill Gilfillan claims about his “days in place” writings.
One more quote from Schuyler that is apt, from my favorite poem of his, “A Stone Knife,” poem as thank you note, dated (of course) December 26, 1969. Kenward Elmslie had given him a letter knife. The poem contains what passes for his own definition of art: “object in which / the surprise is that / the surprise, once / past, is always there: / which to enjoy is / not to consume.” It’s this rising wakeful sense of discovery that I count on, writing the day, tracking real phenomena, integrating mental or emotional weather, incorporating an item or phrase from our eight-page daily newspaper, working and cascading it all in sentences over line breaks. When something comes of the assemblage, it is, however miniature, a place to dwell, a supply not to exhaust. I wouldn’t be the first to call it prayer. Ann Lauterbach calls it traction, what we risk forfeiting in our edgeless over-mediated world, what we return to art for, “a proxy experience of the artist in relationship with her materials.” We value “the ways of distinguishing, turns of mind, indeed the very moments of choice in the motions of composition.”
In Calamities, her 2016 book of short essays, poetic daily dispatches, Renee Gladman is in close relationship with her materials. I return to it often. Each of more than fifty prose entries opens identically, “I began the day…” It is a pleasure at a certain point to realize the book is conducting a repeatable experiment, a ritual. Each day opens either with a bit of dream capture to unspool and study, or an activity, including mental activity, to chronicle. Sometimes of a kind of private metaphysics you are astounded to recognize as like your own, but never before articulated. Other days the author’s particularity is no one else’s, as when, while reading Herta Müller, she determines that she herself is Eastern European, irked that she can get no one in her life to agree that she is “an Eastern European African American.” Gladman is writing a daybook, but she is also building an apparatus, a kind of algorithmic machine into which the material of the next new day can be input to run the program. This self-accommodation, or psychic processing, comes to be profound, poignant, when it becomes clear that the author is waking every morning in a season of actual professional humiliation, as her tenure at Brown is being denied, because, as we overhear the university president telling her, she is as a fiction writer “not exactly a slam dunk.” The metaphor only underlines the apparently racist situation of her peer review. Here are the opening paragraphs of two entries in Calamities. Which—neither, both—is a dream?
I began the day in a faculty meeting—though I was late in coming, having just walked into the room. I didn’t know how I had gotten there. The doors were closed—that’s how I knew I was late—and, much worse, locked when quietly I tried to open them. However, upon knocking, I heard the director say my name, and I thought at least I had been expected. A senior member opened the door and thought it would be a good time to play on joke on me, saying you can’t come in here, though I’d just heard my name. I didn’t think it was funny since often I can’t attend meetings, since being junior often meant I couldn’t. But everyone laughed and welcomed me seniorly. Faculty meetings are strange; there is always someone those whose rank you don’t understand, someone who had seemed just a visiting lecturer or scholar now sitting with his back very straight and holding a clipboard. (Calamities, 12)
I began the day thinking about the university level—where it was and who was allowed to go there—and felt in my body a sense that there were a series of gates to pass through, a grand lawn, a series of gates and then an elevator to take you down into the earth. The university level would be on the top floor of something that rose above all the surrounding structures but did so, inversely, deep beneath the ground, perhaps forty levels below, where meaning was made and the core burned brightly. (66)The nightmare comes and goes in the machinery into which she feeds the material of her life.
Good evening once again from our NBC headquarters here in New York. This was day Day 651 of the Trump Administration. When Brian Williams’s signature opening of The 11th Hour numbered the days only in the single digits—it seemed then that impeachment or resignation was the likeliest outcome. How long could it go on? In January 2017, when John and I were living in a furnished sublet in Iowa City where I was teaching for a semester, I had just begun the other daybook project I’ve been keeping on and off since. Just after my first classes but before the inauguration, we raised the blinds on the last window in the house, in the guest room we’d been using to stow the homeowner’s uglier art and furniture: there between the storm pane and the wire mesh of the screen was a small brown bat, suspended, alone. It was, we came to realize, in torpor.
I would walk in, in the mornings, sometimes sketch it (right down to the metatarsals, only two toes curled in the tiny squares of the mesh were holding its body weight), note how and where its posture or position in the window was different. I thought of coma patients whose movements are involuntary flexions or extensions. Speculate a little bit about it, essaying, then take in the brown, cold, hard day beyond it. I never saw its face, facing north from our north-facing window.
Eventually the little park you could see through the bare trees would have people shooting baskets in gloves, bundled toddlers on the swings. Wintering was durational. It was a hard season for me and John. One day sunshine, the smell of marijuana, frat boys dragging out their cornhole ramps, plunk of beanbag and—“dude”—masculinist strain in the voices no less vernal for it. The bat had let down a wing overhead, like a sail. It was a thrill: translucent, like brown bubble gum stretched yellowly. The daybook I was keeping, about the bat in the morning, about the house and our relationship never finding the right room in it, about the first hundred days of the Trump administration, on the ground and in the air, about MSNBC and The West Wing on which we binged at night—the project came to hover around one pressing inquiry: when would the end of torpor come, how would this creature know, what thermostat or sensor did it have to cue whatever pheromone that would resuscitate the system again and resume its active life? In some ways, that’s still the inquiry that I reset and investigate in the local atmosphere I walk in, from house to studio, one foot still in the orchard of dream.
Brian Blanchfield is the author of three books of prose and poetry, including, most recently, Proxies: Essays Near Knowing. The recipient of a 2016 Whiting Award in Nonfiction and The Academy of American Poets' 2014 James Laughlin Award, he teaches creative writing at The University of Idaho and in The Bennington Writing Seminars.