About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The Shelter of the Alphabet
NEWPORT, RHODE ISLAND
This is the place I will be conceived. In joy and love, with awe and fearsome fear. This is the place I will be madenext to water. And the longing for water shall never leave me. What are my parents, two kids from Paterson, New Jersey, doing here? That's my father, over there, stepping off a navy destroyer. It's 1955 and he's stationed here, and my mother has come to be near him. They love the song the water sings and the sailing songs. Later my mother will tell me that they read books aloud to one another and I like to imagine they read Yeats, and Melville, and maybe Sonnets to the Portuguese and other such conception texts. I like to imagine that language conjured me and the sea and these two people crazy for each other. Photos from this time reveal them to be so young: my mother golden blonde, with eyes the color of the sea. She is sitting next to a window, looking outthe window like the eye, transparent, suggestive, dazzling. And my father, a stringbean, a stick figure, though an ecstatic one, in a white sailor's suit. The pants with nobody in them, as we children will call him later.
I cannot from this distance hear their sighs or prayers, but I can imagine them. They are desirous, delirious, blindingly in love. But looking at these photos now, more closely, I see that something belies the surface joy. Of course. They have already had two miscarriages. I am wanted almost too much. Their devotion to the unknown future, their longing, is nearly palpable. After their lovemaking, in those first moments after my conception, there is absolute stillness, and prayers to the Virgin; they are wishing I might stick; they are hoping I might cling like a barnacle. My mother lies by the oceanside, lulled in blue, unmoving, my father's dreaming head resting on her breastmy small fin forming. Ocean child. Fin, small flipper. My mother says her rosary to the mysterious, silent Mary who smiles her wan smile. Great sorrow and great joy already live in me: sandwiched as I will be, on one side by two silky siblings who could not hold, and on the other side by a brother with a hole in his heart. But I am all health, I am all hope: I am miraculous, I am beloved from the startand they make hope my home, my domain. I am desire and ocean, song and songs the blood sings. And they call me Carole, of course: song of joy. I am feared for and wanted beyond all reason. I live in their watery blue world of worry and desire, with the ghost images of the bodies that did not take.
Home is my mother's breath and blood. Home is my mother's voluptuous body and the darknessthe miracle of it and the ocean that cradled us. And their hope.
There must have been an element of ferocity ...
There must have been an element of ferocity to have produced such a fierce child. To have made me at once so fierce and so mild.
PATERSON, NEW JERSEY
Paterson is one of the great American poems, and it is a place, and it is the place where I was born and lived for a time. From the beginning home to me is a poem. I am born in a modernist masterpiece by William Carlos Williams. And in fact as I am being born he is completing Book Five of that opus, the book of the triumph of the imagination. Mysteriously he is handing this to me as I now begin to breathe. I am not surprised; it seems like destiny to me. And in the times of my illness, I will in fact believe I am the chosen one, handed this directly from him who wrote not for love or fame or because he wanted to say something, but to keep his sanity.
"It's a strange courage you give me, ancient star."
And yes, I am a daughter of Williams, who combined poetry, fiction, fact, criticism, bits of this and that in his work. A strange brew. I am his daughter as you, even if you know nothing of my work except this essay, will see. He has sent me on this charmed path.
"Rigor of beauty is the quest."
And then there is Allen Ginsberg, the other native of Paterson I grew up with. I adored his great heart and hunger, his music and outrage and audacity. His fallibility. How, as a teenager, I howled his Howl.
I feel thankful to have had these two as my literary fathers. It feels like a much more fortunate literary inheritance than my southern friends who have Faulkner to contend with. Williams, that troubled iconoclast, seems to me a far more benevolent, happy influence simply in terms of what he allows. Somehow Faulkner continues to look best far from home on the Latin American writers. I, as a North American, am grateful not to have to wear his necklace of crows and thorns.
Home is my father playing the trumpetthe music drifting. In Paterson. My grandfather's house has a stained-glass window, and when my grandmother weeps, sick of this life, sick of the burden of simply being herself, there is the stained glass to focus on. My Grandpa Frank on the other side of townwith his Armenia and his wife, who will not live longworked in the silk mills. Later, he will be beaten nearly to death with the pipe he began to keep under his bed for protection. Paterson, by then, having turned against us.
But not against me, not then.
Cadence was the block I lived on. Language my home. Charmed one, I was born into a poem.
Home was a blue lake in summer then and a man in a boat who followed us as we swam its length and a woman who taught us all the names of the wild flowers, and they were our parents. I don't know how it happened and so quickly, but suddenly there are five of us children. There is not one quiet place. And I learn to build a place of silence and serenity and space in some newly discovered zone of my brain. A place where I might not only live, but flourish. Without it, there is no interior life; without, it I sense I am going to die. Imagination was my home, my salvation then. The blue lake. The space in me.
And my mother, too, is a consolation through the chaos, constructing a safe universe, a world of love and stability in which to experiment, play; a place of confidence where in those long summers before school started she handed me the secret key. As we sat next to the water, she taught me that glittering, miraculous handful of charmsthe alphabet. The child draws the letter A and makes a home under its roof. She learns of the shade a T might cast. The light coming off K. The shelter of the letter M.
And my mother reads to me. All kinds of wondrous things: Wordsworth and Blake and Jarrell and Poe as I fall into a dream next to the lake's pale oval. A B C D ...
Here I meet my triumvirate of women, the women who will be always true, always rigorous, demanding, loving, always urging me to the next place, always meeting me at least part of the way.
Helen. During our courtship in that Hudson Valley we pick apples. I recite Frost's "After Apple Picking" to her so that words and the apples become interchangeableround, heavy, luscious, carrying sensual meaning: the apples, the language, and my strange love for this woman I have only just met. Everything becomes entangled; the apples falling, and the falling in love, and the delicious surrender to it all. Everything round and gorgeous and falling: home.
We in the nearly twenty years since that day have created a placea familiar place, on which for the most part we can agree: home. A continuity. A kind of home is in her arms, in her enormous intelligence, in her flexibility, in her passionand we are, despite everything, despite danger and madness and sorrow and addiction, safe. A little safe.
How did she know so long ago what it was I would need? We would need? How has she done itcontinually been willing to reinvent, the world and our lives, so that we might not only continue, but thrive?
And at Vassar there is Miss Page, my beloved teacher, my most trusted ally, my support, my role model. Everything about her awed and terrified mea brilliance, an intelligence as I have never seen, a sensitivity, a discretion, an extraordinary intuition. And six-feet tall! She was everything. Miss Page, who allowed me my first chance to write, to try, even though I had been rejected from the creative writing senior central course where one wrote a creative thesis. And for many years I will be rejected over and over from almost everythingbut not by Barbara Page and not by Helen. And not by my mother. What can they see that I can't? That no one else can?
Miss Page introduces me to the third womanVirginia Woolf. We read her together in class. I begin to write. For the first time. And I am left permanently changed.
On almost any page of those luminous, beautiful novels I can find peace, challenge, the shock of recognition, company. One could live here, in lines like this, happily, for a long time. And I have done just that. In To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Dalloway, Between the Acts, The Waves.
And in fact I feel more at home there than just about anywhere. And it is for the most part home enough to dispel the terrible house that mental illness builds, for the first time really during the time I am at Vassara place that will become so demanding and after a time so familiar that I do not have a choice but to live there. And chanting sentences is the only way to feel better finally. And writing sentences, making shapes, is the only way to feel better. Sustaining, miraculous language, that all these years keeps illness at bay. Dear Virginia Woolf. Dear Barbara, dear Helen. Dear fifty pages toward a novel I write as a senior in order to graduate. Maybe I will be saved. Where we ran the ten blocks breathlessly because back then you got the Village Voice classifieds the night before and ran to each possibility and hoped somehow amid the crowds of people all wanting the same thing, you would somehow luck out and find a home in it all.
We did find one. We have kept it now since 1978. We will never give up these two rooms, and when I think of home as a place, this is the place I think of. Two minuscule rooms I share with you and our two cats on the edge of Soho in the West Village of Manhattan. I love you, though it doesn't always seem so obvious, and I love unreasonably these two altogether unremarkable little rooms. The place I have witnessed in every kind of light, at every time of day, and in every season. A place of so many intimacies, and revelations, and heartbreaks. Sometimes for breaks from writing I will talk to Mr. Angelo, our ancient, Greek superintendent, in the street; or bring my clothes to the Rastafarian tailor; or pray for whatever seems dire and impossible at Our Lady of Pompeii. In fact, we have grown up here together. The Minetta Tavern, the Van Dam Theater, the Bleecker Street Cinema, all the things that were once oursnow gone. I feel the accumulated memories of being long in a placeor at least having that place as a base. Here we bought the Christmas tree that year, here I kissed another, here is where we sweated under lights, dancing. Here, the corner where we wept, and hereall thisa place so resonant. If memories take up space and possess color, these streets are black by now from the overlapping of so many accumulated events. Here I lay down in the snow for hours, unable to imagine a way to go on.
How many times did we walk those same streets "dead drunk," and for once a phrase seems to fit, seems to make some sort of sense, "dead drunk," limping toward home? In all the sorrow and regret and frustration we could not express any other way back then.
But somehow we have survived. Survived the deaths and acquisition of cats, the thousand disappointments, all the drunkenness, all that we did to each other that was unforgivable and that we have somehow forgiven. All the good and bad newsand the devastating newsdeaths of friends. This is where the calls come. This is where life seems unlivable and I get under the covers for days and days.
And you launch me again, sending me off on the next necessary thing I must do in order to write, to keep writing. You set me off for the first time in what will be many times, to do what I must doand it doesn't finally somehow destroy us (though it sometimes comes close), but strengthens us in our love for each other and allows us to go on and change and grow and grow up. Much of the time we live off your student loans or a credit card or a meager salary or nothing. I go to my first artists' colony. It is the first time I am given months of uninterrupted time. When Yaddo says no, when MacDowell says no, when there is nothing, nowhere to go, there is Cummington, a community of the arts where artists are not guests but residents, a place that offers space and solitude in an excessively beautiful countryside. I stay for months and months on end.
NEW YORK CITY
And then I am back and suddenly Gary is dying. The new virus. Thus begins our long season of suffering. Of renunciation. Of fear. Of sorrow. Of good-bye.
And my first book is finally published. Without compromise. And with that, I am satisfied.
And then the phone call in the middle of the night: the first of October 1986.
I am returned to the ocean, pale zygote, after a long separation. Back in silence to my one dreamy cell of being. Another new home. Provincetown in winter. The off-season. I am given a small studio at the Fine Arts Work Center. I have brought my few familiar things, my portable Virgin Mary, my pocket Sappho. I paint everything white. In this home at the end of the worldsurrounded by water, desolate, beautifulI enter my long period of mourning. Home of grief and water. Home of sorrow. Having for months counted T-cells, having learned the incredible shadow a T is capable of casting, I try to heal. I walk the streets, the dunes, the beaches. I go to the bars and St. Mary's of the Harbor.
If home is physical sanctuary, comfort, recognition, bliss, then home for me is Provincetown. Much of my earthly longing goes there. I ache for the place. It's a primal longing, a sexual one. It is the place I am most drawn to in the world. And irresistibly, and a little against my will, I keep returning there. I am a Pisces after all.
It's strange. I have lived now almost ten years without fear. Fear was a home and then it was not. Sadness was a home and then it was not anymore. And what could be worse? AIDS. I think of the urgency in me that Gary's death created. A monstrous acceleration, a new conviction to living, workingloving with a new recklessness, abandon, urgent, urgent. Gary who taught me to do everything, to be everything, to want, to have, to try everythingto not be afraid anymore.
To keep living. To keep writing, to not tire. I get an NEA and decide to leave the country and live cheaply for a long time on the money. I choose an artists' colony in France called the Michael Karolyi Foundation.
It is perhaps the oddest and most strangely lovely time in my life. I am at once utterly at home and completely estranged and alone.
What do I remember
that was shaped
as this thing is shaped?
William Carlos Williams
Stepping off the plane I am shocked to find that I remember this place, though I have never been here before. I remember clearly being a child, walking through a forest of small oaks, carrying a metal box of cinders to keep warm, with a woman who is my mother. She is not my Paterson mother, but another mother. I remember the war. There are terrible things, there are wondrous things outside the reach of my recollection, my consciousness that are suddenly set into motion here. I, as a result, acquire a false sense of security, of belonging, of fluency. I am born for a second time into a different and distant homea home from long ago. And I am filled with longing and unfinished things, and I feel unspeakable pain and sorrow at this intimation of a home which perhaps never existed and which I have been separated from, severed from until now. What else eludes me, I wonder, slips away? What else goes unremembered? I am bereft. A home I have been separated from and have forgotten and yet has haunted me. I have written about it from the start ... France.
I think of all the things that are outside the range of our memories or imaginations or intelligence or talentit's the place I suspect which is our true home. If we could get there we would finally feel okay. But we can't. We are all homeless, groping, roaming in the darkness, aware of only a fraction of it.
But I am delighted and in great awe over the resonances I can perceive. And the repetitions. At the Karolyi Foundation in the form of two extraordinary women, Judith Karolyi and Zenka Bartek, the reiteration again comes of who I am and why I live. I am reminded again of what I must do. It comes through with great force and clarity. They press me on, they press me further. I have stepped off the plane and into the care of these two women, lovers, both in their seventies, who offer me, like guardians at the doors of the psyche, fearlessness, diabolic and sometimes harsh judgments, support, and after awhile unconditional love. And they watch me unravel, as I will in the next months, and they will stand by and they will watch out for me, protect me, wait for meas I too wait. Until I can take the vow againhaving gone a long way off.
And in the New York I inhabited and left in 1988, my publishing house closes, and Helen, tired of all the separations, tired of all my antics, goes off with another woman, and I become lost. Almost irretrievably. I had left her again. Because I had to. But she was tired, bitter, lonely. Fed up finally.
I had left her behind, againbecause I could not writewrite, that is, on my own terms, without concern for the marketplace, without selling out in small but grave ways: writing for magazines, or teaching prematurely, or making unconscious decisions that might make the work more sexy, more accessiblebut for all the wrong reasons. It seemed crucial not to derail myself now, not to subvert myself, not to give in. But she is less and less capable of understanding all this, or caring.
I was too afraid of not allowing my talent, my potential, to go where it needed to go.
I begin, as I often have, a long series of affairs. Because the body all along has been a kind of home to me. But I am sad, and deranged, and so far away. And I miss New York, and I miss her, but there's no place for me there, and no way I can afford to continue writing.
And I write down what happens because it is the only way I know to do. I write it all down, and eventually even it takes on the glow of the imagination, freeing itself from the known world. And I give it in the end a title of dislocation, my novel of France. I call it The American Woman in the Chinese Hat. I return to New York; I return to France. At some point Helen and I are reunited. I go back to France a third time. I am writing a wild, visionary thing, The Bay of Angelsbut my precious time doesn't last, can't last.
This country is not a home to me. I am tired of the America that has increasingly come to mean selfishness and avarice and cruelty and meanness of spirit. I have had it for good this time with the Republicans. I am disgusted by an America that loathes difference, otherness. An America indifferent to beauty. A country hostile to art and to its artistsand to all that makes life worth living in the first place. Ruskin wrote, "Great nations write their deeds in art." We are lost, violently blinded, bankrupt. The children are hungry, the elderly are frightened, the mentally ill wander the streets. Whose family values are these? If it were not for the handful of people I love too much, I would have found a way out of here by now.
I am leaving out many of my moves at this stage, many changes of address; I tire. Other temporary residencies: Park Slope; Washington, D.C.; Normal, Illinois. In four years, I will teach in four schools; I despair. I am tired of roaming, exhausted, depleted. About to give up.
It is a quiet September evening when the phone rings, and as in a movie or a dream, the world changes in an instant. Various people on the unreal speaker-phone saying "fiction," "prize," "fellowship." It's the Lannan Foundation, audacious angels from Los Angeles. "Fifty thousand dollars." Impossible. Awards like this one, when they come, arrive like blizzards or love, seemingly out of nowhere, a kind of grace. Such gifts open a whole new realm of imagining. They give the recipient an audacity of purpose, alter previous self-conceptions, make the impossible suddenly possible again: house.
That I found the house with ease surprised no one; it was, of course waiting for mean 1840 white eyebrow colonial, in the enchanted, beguiling Hudson Valley. It had everything: a pond, a smokehouse, a bank of lilies; it was not hard to recognize. Nor was the ghost of the woman who greeted me when I opened the door. Her joie de vivre, her intelligence, her wit, a spirit present through the presence of possessions. A Chinese scroll, a clay bird, a chaise lounge, and in the closet Christmas ornaments, a kitty-litter box. A dulcimer, a violin in an unopened violin casethe house had been filled with music ... Schubert on the record player.
I leave her there in winter and begin the long ordeal of securing a mortgage. The mortgage broker wonders with some exasperation who will give me a loan as he examines my "unorthodox employment history," my living from one grant to the next, a visiting professorship here or thereand me like a child holding my one golden egg with pride. "It doesn't look very good," he says, as snow continues to fall. I dream of lilacs and mountains and Chinese scrolls and snow all jumbled up. I cling to these things in sleep: the body of a violin shaped like a small, insistent woman or the rowboat's shape next to the pond. Having let in the possibility of house, I cannot bear to be houseless againand without her. But all winter I cannot see it; there's too much snow and the house seems suddenly to disappear as fast as it appeared. But Elizabeth is fierce: "Don't be silly," she whispers, "it's yours now. You deserve it." And she passes me a ring of shining keys. She's handing them to me because it's the end of her time hereand the beginning of mine.
Excerpted from Break Every Rule by Carole Maso. Copyright © 2000 by Carole Maso. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.