I used to sit at this kitchen table every morning writing in a journal, writing out the crap until poetry rose to the surface like foam from my mother’s boiling pig’s heads, soup of sustenance and the Latvian unprettified grit of myself out of something others would discard, never want to even look at. The months before I was diagnosed with breast cancer, the Latvian in me knew something was up, something was fucked up, and rather than naming it breast cancer, she prepared. I’m convinced she knew; she’s related afterall to a Latvian peasant grandmother who had second sight. The Latvian peasant in me obsessively photographed, every morning, the mountain I see across Kachemak Bay at this moment, Grace Ridge. That spring, I photographed Grace in all kinds of weather. I even photographed her when storms descended, when she became invisible. Then, looking at the blue-black erasure of her, the darker smudge of water below, I had to trust she was still there. I did this unquestioningly; I didn’t know why. I wrote words too, but words weren’t the main thing; they felt paltry and self-conscious. Maybe there were no words. Just the mountain. So I carried my camera wherever I went, and I photographed Grace behind power lines, above mudflats. She was there, a steady thing, above everything moving, cars, and snow shrinking back off the landscape, and time, and the tumor growing in my breast, spreading its tendrils. She stared back at me as she stares at me now, knowing something about all those things. Knowing something about me.
Before that spring, I used to sit at this window writing poetry trying to talk to Grace. All one year I wrote a poetry book that way. Maybe that’s what I’m doing today, the same old thing, but why last night did I stay up too late writing about my hair? And a voice inside, maybe it’s Grace herself, keeps repeating, “But this is what you are writing now.” And I have my list of work that must get done today, respond to a grad student, edit my book manuscript, submit that proposal, but I sit down here and open this file and being typing, compelled by that voice that says “But this is what you’re writing now,” and I don’t know why, or what value, or if, or when, or what this will become in the end. It’s a voice and it’s also my fingers, through which the words seem to come unbidden. My fingers are like trees in a forest from which birds or leaves flutter out. And my heart, or the seat of second sight inside me, the peasant grandmother place (her name was Veronika), is like the place in the sea where, Neruda surmised, waves come from.
The spring before I was diagnosed with breast cancer, something in me knew what was going on. And that something compulsively collected images of Grace Ridge in every weather and filed them away for when they’d be needed, but the images themselves were not the thing, it was the moments, which were birds flying back into the forest of me, carrying Grace Ridge, rock by rock, to someplace inside of me, where she lodged, my protector, my mentor, my bedrock, through the months that were to come, when I lived thousands of miles from her, where I endured the thing called cancer treatment, which broke my body down, which stripped my surface away, removing rocks one by one, but not from the peasant grandmother place where the mountain lives. Not from the Veronika in me. And I felt at times truly angry and irrational; I loved Cape Cod and I hated it too, because nowhere was the kitchen table and a window and the view of Grace Ridge draped in heavy blue shadow over heavy wedding cake snow, the way it looks right now. Nowhere on Cape Cod was the mountain. And no, I didn’t remember to look inside for it; there was no mountain epiphany. I bitched and moaned and railed and resisted and threw hate-darts at the pine forests of Cape Cod and sang sad Mary Gautier songs loudly as I drove and wrote crappy poems (or so I thought) and felt sorry for myself. But all the time, quietly, the mountain was in me. Otherwise, how could I have survived? It’s like that, I think, bedrock forming within that we don’t recognize. We are not strong on the surface, or wise, or brave. Breast cancer doesn’t make us any of those things; we are ordinary, plain. We are going through whatever it is as stumbling selves, while inside forces beyond our control and recognition reshape the geography.
And hair. What is that? Snowfall? Leaf fall? Rock scree clatter? Avalanche debris? Just another tangible thing you can cut, twist, pull, shave, finger, hold, that is also more than itself, that has a second and third the fiftieth meaning. And writing is the way to unearth it. But it takes a bulldozer. It hurts.
In The Chronology of Water Lidia Yuknavith writes about the word “chiasmus.” She says it is “a world within a world where transformation is possible. In the green world events and actions lose their origins. Like in dreams. Time loses itself. The impossible happens as if it were ordinary. First meanings are undone and remade by second meanings.”
I used to sit as this table every morning, looking out this window, watching Grace Ridge appear out of the blackness of night. I used to write in a black journal, crap that sometimes gave way to a nascent poem, or one sentence of something bigger. Writing is the hope that by the daily scrawling, composting, puking, sweating and bleeding of words on a page we might witness the impossible happening. “But this is the writing you are doing now,” something inside me, mountain or muse or grandmother or voice of chiasmus insists, and yet this writing is the same as it’s ever been, taking the sordid ordinary trudge-by-trudge story of my life and undoing it, untying its strings, unlacing its stays, opening it like the unasked-for, even at times unwanted gift that it is. The gift of second meanings hidden inside the ordinary moment, under the words. Or the third. The multiple. The mountain becoming the mountain becoming the mountain becoming the mountain becoming me. That’s what I hope and that's why I write.
(Chapter 3 of the hair biography coming later, in case you were sitting on the edge of your seat. And now I’m laughing).