I Remember, I Remember
I remember being ten years old and hiding books in my clothes; when I had to pass my father in the living room, I would stuff my book into the front of my pants, standing up straight and pulling my shirt down over it. My father regarded my reading with brittle tolerance at best, impatience and suspicion often surfacing in the form of brisk interrogations. “What’s that you’re reading? Skye’s always reading, isn’t she?” I hadn’t learned to read until the age of eight. My family read the Bible; my father, our center, landed somewhere between prophecy spouting Pentecostal and charismatic family cult leader. My sister and I didn’t go to school. We were waifs, quiet and blue eyed with fawn brown hair, like our mother. We trailed our father dutifully in public, we eyed with curiosity other kids our age from across supermarket aisles.
I remember being little and pretending to read newspapers and thick novels, wanting so bad to look at those symbols and get language out of them; I remember sitting on the floor of the recreation room in an Oklahoma homeless shelter, struggling to read a simple book about a dog, my mom beside me, providing words that were too hard. And I remember the book mobile that came through the Tulsa housing project we lived in afterwards, the nineties Goosebumps novel that fell apart into sections of pages that I had to piece together, the explosion of colorful brain chemicals when the vowels and consonants first stringed together to become an experience. I remember the libraries that I found in each city we lived in – Boise, Lewiston, Salt Lake City – I remember Nancy Drew and ancient Egypt and Big Foot and King Arthur.
My father listened to the demons in his head, the ones that told him that the government beamed static into his brain to hassle his thoughts, that God-blessed fortune awaited us in this city, that city, that nothing mattered except the end of the world, a world too dangerous for his children; meanwhile, I had a window.
My Heart Leaps Up
I experienced poetry intuitively at first; no advanced literary vocabulary complicated my forays into metrical landscapes. Synecdoche, metonymy, trochee — I knew no such words. I didn’t need to. Whitman’s endless syntax and cascading imagery washed over me, Wordsworth’s sonic musicality warmed me, Dickinson’s strangely unexpected word choices chimed in with my own dictional quirks. While my novels introduced me to lovely ideas – friendly Bigfoot societies, heroes with dark secrets, the insanity of genius – in poetry I found fellowship and commiseration. I can picture Wordsworth, with his balding head and his high white cravat, standing in a smoggy town square and declaring to indifferent passersby:
My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
Wordsworth’s militancy regarding rainbows, Dickinson’s quiet profundity, Whitman’s insolent eloquence encouraged my burgeoning teenage sentimentality. I wrote about mermaids singing, backyard faeries, and mystical autumn evenings. I won a local poetry contest with a few stanzas about a girl dancing in the sky. I memorized my favorite poems – Shakespeare’s “To Be or Not to Be” from Hamlet, Wordsworth’s “The Daffodils”, Keats’ “La Belle Dame Sans Merci.” Once I recited a short poem for my mother, the anonymously written “How Many Strawberries Grow in the Sea?” She responded with blank faced puzzlement, as though I had just proudly spouted off a page from the phone book. “You took the time to do that….?” I was alone with my poetry; but I was not alone in the world.
So It Is Now
And how can I say
What I would do –
Take you to East City Park
And let words become motions
In the surrealistic flood
Of a copper streetlight—
When you are as solitary and inexplicable as I?
A diary that I kept in my late teens contains remnants of my earliest love poems; the voice, the vocabulary and the subject matter demonstrate new sophistication, in the same way that my stick thin body had filled out and taken on the proportions of a woman. Some knobbiness remained in my elbows and knees, however, and likewise my verse still displayed the remaining baby-down of overt-sentimentality and vagueness, the results of an inefficacy with my own tools. As a college sophomore I began to think that I had shed that down; however, even as I came to know the names of the mysterious elements that my beloved masters had employed, even as I learned to approach my writing with the methodical skill of a mechanic, even as I came to see the benignly bright imagery of “The Daffodils” through the lens of Wordsworth’s intended sociopolitical message, I was brought back to where I began – the toil of a writer as a shaper of the ineffable, a summoner of the unknowable, a defender of the laughably saccharine. “Break, break, break, On thy cold gray stones, O Sea!” cries Tennyson. ” And I would that my tongue could utter/The thoughts that arise in me.”
My father is far from me now, I’ve grown up; the presiding forces in my life are well dressed professors who drone in lecture halls or crack jokes about the sexual undercurrents in Jane Austen. They demand from me the exploration and curiosity once suppressed; my innermost aspirations have aligned with my responsibilities. I remember, however, my early rebellion, my smuggled books, and I know that rebellion is the heart of great literature. In those of my classes that demand the most discussion, I like to raise my hand when others are silent, and I sit quietly while others demonstrate their wit. I am militant about rainbows. I’ve dyed my hair pink. I must always find avenues for insurrection.