This poem by Robert Hass has always haunted me:
A Story About the Body
The young composer, working that summer at an artist's colony, had
watched her for a week. She was Japanese, a painter, almost sixty, and
he thought he was in love with her. He loved her work, and her work was
like the way she moved her body, used her hands, looked at him directly
when she made amused or considered answers to his questions. One
night, walking back from a concert, they came to her door and she
turned to him and said, "I think you would like to have me. I would like
that too, but I must tell you I have had a double mastectomy," and
when he didn't understand, "I've lost both my breasts." The radiance
that he had carried around in his belly and chest cavity--like music--
withered, very quickly, and he made himself look at her when he said,
"I'm sorry. I don't think I could." He walked back to his own cabin
through the pines, and in the morning he found a small blue bowl on the
porch outside his door. It looked to be full of rose petals, but he found
when he picked it up that the rose petals were on top; the rest of the
bowl--she must have swept them from the corners of her studio--was
full of dead bees.
This poem, which I’ve read so many times over the years, returned to me today. I thought I’d read it in the past with compassion for the woman. But I don’t know how deep my compassion truly ran. How could I, the pre-breast cancer me, have understood her feelings in that moment? Today after reading it, I cried. I wonder if every woman who’s had a mastectomy has imagined such a moment with a lover, husband, or potential lover, that “radiance that he (or she) had carried around in his belly and chest cavity – like music –“ withering, very quickly.”
I ask myself, who is more lonely in this poem, after it’s over, the man or the woman?
My sister Mara and her 12 year-old daughter Phoebe read the poem, and they asked me if it could mean that the woman sees herself this way now: having surface beauty, but carrying an awareness of death beneath. “Is that the right way to read the poem?” Mara asked. There is no right way to read a poem, I told her, and maybe that woman painter some days does feel that way: the truth of her body and her life is hidden beneath a surface. Her awareness of death, her body marked by it, sets her apart. But isn’t death built into all of our bodies? Right from the start? We couldn’t live our lives if we accepted this fact 24/7, could we? Life, joyous, mundane, busy, distracted life, depends on forgetting. It would be too intense otherwise.
The painter has no control over how another person interprets her body. The composer has a story about her body, before and after she tells him about the mastectomy. And she has a story about her body. And the body is its own story. How much of our deeper self is the body? Breast cancer forces this question to step out from hiding in the shadows. Aging does too. Am I the same person without my long hair? Am I the same without estrogen? Without a breast? To myself? To others? A friend not long ago told me that he was anxious about seeing me again post-breast cancer. He told me he was afraid that “my beauty” would be gone. He said he was relieved to see that it wasn’t. What is/was my beauty? I ask myself, looking at the photographs people took during the writing residency. What was the nature of my friend’s fear? It’s actually his fear that sent me to the Internet looking for that poem, “A Story about The Body.” It’s also a story about beauty. When I look at recent photos of myself, I see a serious-looking, tallish, slender woman with Latvian cheekbones. Is that my self, really? The only beauty I know, the only beauty that matters to me, is how truly I can express with my life what’s deepest inside me. My friend Lou from Fairbanks once framed a calligraphy statement for me, and I have it still, sitting in my bedroom window. “I will make this day a work of beauty,” it says. When my art is my life, when my life and art reflect each other as perfectly as a still pond reflects the evening sky, that’s beauty. When I’m true to myself, that’s beauty. Sometimes that means wearing the belt Phoebe and Mara bought me when they were here: two flying birds painted on the buckle. Sometimes that means wearing my black boots. That is a kind of beauty too, when outside reflects inside. My friend Asia is a painter. Her sister Molly Lou is a poet. They are the ones who taught me this truth about art: it comes through you, and you give it form. But when it comes through you and you also live it, that’s both art and beauty; that’s self as art.
In the poem, the bowl the sculptor leaves on the composer’s doorstep I think of as art. It’s a story about making art, turning life, turning pain, turning rejection, turning the inexpressible, turning self, into art. What does that blue bowl of rose petals and dead bees say? Much more than any words, I think. It’s a story about the body, that bowl. And it’s a story about a story about the body. In a class I sat in on the other day during the residency in Anchorage, my friend and colleague, the poet Anne Caston asked us to freewrite something about the purpose of art. This is what I wrote:
“A Story About the Body” speaks to me of the purpose of art: to take a crucible, a knife tip, a wound, pain or damage, and to use its raw materials, the blood, the bone fragments, the hair, the tears, the torn clothing, the wrenched-open sternum, and to know all of those constituent parts, to hold them in your hands, in different kinds of light, and to construct something of them, something new, something beyond a specific story of a specific pain, into an artifact that is a suddenly thrust open door for reader and writer. Like a pile of bones collected on the beach and reconstructed on the tundra as a hut with a low door. Reader and writer step out of that hut into the wind of an entirely new landscape. A reader stumbles across the hut and crawls inside and their own pain awakens, resonates, finds a mirror. My friend Mary Biek, a sculptor who was my first field assistant out in Prince William Sound, lived through the Exxon Valdez oil spill with me. The fall after, she went to Banff, an artist’s colony, and constructed a wooden sculpture she called “Memory House.” It was a hut you could crawl into, shaped like an overturned skiff or a humpback whale’s back. You crawled inside, and the ribbing of the structure was skeletal. It was painted crude-oil black. It reminds me at this moment of two stanzas near the end of the incredible poem by Adrienne Rich called “Diving into the Wreck:”
I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.
I stroke the beam of my lamp
slowly along the flank
of something more permanent
than fish or weed
the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring
toward the sun
the evidence of damage
worn by salt and away into this threadbare beauty
the ribs of the disaster
curving their assertion
among the tentative haunters.
Beauty is what we make of the wreck: the poem, the painting, the sculpture, the house, the life. A friend asked me the other day if writing this blog kept me stuck in the past, kept me from moving on, kept me from living my life in the present. I told her that it was the opposite. Writing is the salt that scrapes away what’s inessential, so my life’s “threadbare beauty” can be revealed. Beauty is what passes through my body and mind to emerge in some new form. And then it flies away.