How the Letters Invent Us: A Correspondence
Rebecca Hart Olander & Elizabeth Paul
Rebecca Hart Olander and Elizabeth Paul attended Vermont College of Fine Arts together from 2013-2015, Rebecca concentrating in poetry and Liz in creative non-fiction. What follows is their eighteen-month collaborative correspondence written during their final semester at VCFA and continuing over the year that followed their graduation.
“Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also”
from the Book of Matthew, on Chopin’s memorial, Holy Cross Church, Warsaw
It is said Chopin feared being buried alive, asked that his stilled heart be excavated from his body, transported to his homeland after his death in Paris. The pianist must have also wanted his emotional core in Poland, similar to the Hmong, who bury placenta under the birth house so the soul can find its way back after death, and stop its restless wandering. If the border guards had lifted Ludwika’s skirts, they would have found the jar of amber liquid and tender organ, bound by duty to her brother’s whispered deathbed wish. We do strange things when faced with mortality, and nothing can quite quell our deepest fears. I remember a fetal pig floating in a jar, bathed in formaldehyde, in my basement for a time as a child. Was it a requirement for one of my mother’s nursing school labs, Anatomy & Physiology 101? A way of looking inside a fellow mammal in order to understand the self? How I hated going to sleep in my bedroom upstairs, knowing it was below me, in the open grave of washing machine and cleaning supplies, swimming through my dreams. The pig was likely bound for dissection, unlike Chopin’s preserved organ, extracted from his body but kept whole, a relic entombed in Warsaw, bobbing in a bath of cognac in its crystal vessel. Chopin’s body rests in the Parisian Père Lachaise Cemetery, and I visited his grave there when backpacking across Europe the January I was twenty, the tomb graced by the muse of music, Euterpe, weeping over her broken lyre. Now I’m remembering the tiger maple piano my mother paid for in installments, bought for the potential in my long fingers, the piano that got water damage after our next move, sitting dormant then, more furniture than instrument. An elephant in the room, that rippled albatross, reminding me of dreams that didn’t come true. The longing to own beautiful things. The abandoned lessons. Is anything sadder than an unplayed instrument?
No Apologetic Adjuster
In his last five years, Matisse could no longer sit at his easel, but propped up in his bed or chair, he painted with scissors, creating cut paper collages with the aid of assistants who arranged his colorful jungle, circus, ocean shapes on the white walls of his bedroom. My mother at some point stopped sculpting and turned first to still lifes and finally watercolor, consulting books for beginners like Painting with Freedom and Pouring Light—a portrait of grace I didn’t understand at the time but now perceive with unexpected pleasure as though discovering a smuggled masterpiece beneath a lesser picture of malaise. What other heroic adjustments go unnoticed in their moments, glossed over with platitudes—making choices, slowing down, tightening one’s belt, building a career, putting the children first, getting used to married life, moving on without them? With a piece of charcoal lashed to a fishing pole Matisse sketched faces on his ceiling. Of his bedroom walls decked in paper fruit and flowers he said he’d made himself a garden to go walking in. No apologetic adjuster, all his phases, gropings, discoveries, and transitions in impressionist, fauvist, pointillist, monumental, languishing, distilled evidence for the sake of art and all to see. I would apprentice myself to such an artist, learn to live without arriving, thriving even on the redoubtable rebirth, in the end embracing just another new beginning.
Of Mothers and Matisse, the Honey and the Bee
What would I lash myself to the mast for, and what sirens would be too tempting to listen to, drawing me from my daily bread and the multiplying calendar pages? To what art would I pledge my openness, say you are bee and I the lumbering bear, fly out and collect all that beautiful yellow dust, return it to me, unburdened as a Polaroid shaken by the wrist, showing what is possible. In the small square, a picture starts to form, like a body rising up from a murky pond. I’d hitch my wagon to that star, the shooting kind, that trails out in the far night but glows all the brighter before its diminishing. My mother had to give so many things up, her own poems tucked in notebooks, a handful of chords, that camera stolen from our apartment, only its long lens left behind. Did she push her journals under the bedframe in storage boxes and sell the guitar so I could write my own verses? That thought is bitter kind of honey. In my room at seven, a jungle mural, tree trunk growing up the seam where two walls met, a panther in the tall grass, toucan on the branch. Like Matisse, I lived in a constructed jungle, while upstairs my brother inscribed his wall with urine, peeing behind his bedroom door like it was some kind of fire hydrant and he was some kind of wild. We all want to make our mark. My grandmother painted violets in a darkened corner of a forest, my aunt collaged felt into landscapes tinged with twilit tones, and my mother, the way she tended her garden, pulling each weed like redoing a stitch in a patchwork quilt, wasn’t that, after all, another kind of poem?
Of All Possible Forms
Everyone had choices we’ll never know. They could have gone otherwise, done otherthing, become otherhow. Unless not. Mustard seeds sprout mustard plants. But not if they’re tendered in the hand instead of given to the earth. They have to drop and find the good earth to grow. But the good earth is everywhere. Of all possible forms, it took that of a sphere, an edgeless eternity endlessly spinning, dizzy and alive and as everywhere at once as motion can make a thing. On the walls of our bedroom was a pattern of rainbows, a garden of arcs and reveille of colors, marshalled, in order, and at bright attention. Red to violet, they lined up and stayed still—the things we were learning when dogs and stairs were scary and the days turned like circles from school to home. How to pet the cat. How to test the water, feed the rabbit, gently touch the lady bug. An epic acquaintance and intimacy with the world. These are the things it had. It had clouds and rainbows and rain and sun and dirt and worms and lightning and thunder and shapes and numbers and streets and people and cars and parks and colors and animals. That’s what they told us as if they knew for sure, as if there was one book, and everybody had it, as if it was written on the inside of everybody’s eyelids. But it wasn’t. So how else could we have learned the world? From the ocean or our dreams or the stars with their certain perspective that of all the forms the earth could have taken, it took the form of a sphere, a wholeness, self-containment, seamless kind of equity—one for all and all in all—or perfection? So should we be surprised to find ourselves in circles, picking up where our mothers left off, returning to our own beginnings, accepting the book, passing it on, questioning every word, and accepting it again, every black dot on the lady bug, how to pet the cat, thunder shapes and lightning worms, rooms with rainbows, tendered in the hand, lined up and stayed still, good earth, gently touch, knew for sure, mustard seeds, dropping, spinning?
If only we could pet the earth like a good dog, tell it to stay, still it to obedience. Instead it turns just as quickly as ever, taking us with it on our ride that seems eternal, save that we are so much less than spots of ladybugs upon its back. The continents must be such dots, and we somewhere swirling in the black holes of them, so very many of us here in the dark soup, together in our temporary stay. Stay, Earth, remain here with us the way you are when all is white or green, when all is tender with rain or illuminated by the sun. We’re only tripping through, and trip we do, over our shoelaces and sidewalk cracks, over our best intentions and our hasty words, over the very fabric of the universe, of our what-is-time questions. What is a black hole? What creation? Even Stephen Hawking, falling all over himself, brain made to grapple with these intricate impossibilities, changed his mind. The black hole meant no God, and then, the possibility reversed. It’s funny how we play with understanding, how we ever think we can know some real, true things. Or, how when we do know them, we refuse to look. The coldest February on record in Massachusetts, the warmest autumn, climate change slapping our faces, dousing us with buckets of cold knowing, and still we hide our heads in the eroding beach, plug our ears like children, sing Mary had a little lamb, little lamb, little lamb louder and louder to drown out any dawning. The oil spills, the mufflers puff out their poisons while we wait at all our intersections. Stay, stay, we tell ourselves, without being willing to invest in what it means to stay, to behave, to learn new tricks. Meanwhile, mathematicians try to solve for all, as if that will change the way we march through our days. The crocuses are coming. Hear them under the snow? The hard part isn’t imagining them there, but living to contribute to their emergence from darkness into the light of some other generation. Maybe it’s the poets who have to write the proof, or maybe it isn’t proof, but theory, that will be the command that forces us to heel. Would you wear a leash, would you beg, to stop the dunes from giving way to the increasing ocean? Where will you bury your worried-over bone, when there’s no more little house in which to Hide?
Moving again. There’s so much potential for magic and romance—new views and fresh rituals—but it’s always a coarse compromise. I might expect nothing better this time. But is that a good sign? Maybe that’s the problem—always ascribing meaning and looking for signs. Maybe the trick is to grow like a tree, taking the sun and rain that finds you, committing yourself to the surrounding soil without a thought for other acorns, easier forests, or brighter days. No worries for kin and neighbors, just a glad feeling for their existence. How handily I make the tree say what I want. It could worry me, but I need it too much to be able to say such things and love it too much for being that way. One summer I went to overnight camp. I was homesick the whole time and didn’t make friends. I spent hours drawing trees, following their graceful lines with my eyes, tracing the organic progression of trunk to limbs to twigs, admiring the beautiful geometry of leaves, such natural delineations, perfect mosaics of veins and cells, every square centimeter provided for, green and realized in its proper place because its place was its existence and its existence its place, its purpose to be there—just there—where other things could have been but weren’t or where there could have been nothing but there wasn’t. There was that leaf, that tree, thriving in whatever light and rain found it, growing into something whole and fine, yet with never a thought for getting there or a fear of falling behind.
The Lost Girls
Summer camp is wintergreen lifesavers, cracking between white teeth in the dark, the absence of fear of ticks, falling asleep in the tall grass. When did the layers of fear pile on, heavy blankets that they are? I remember the big rock, the clamber, the ascent. I remember the swim test, the buoys and wet blue rope, treading water to prove my patience and will to live. Archery: the concentric circles, gradations of points, the bull’s-eye. I remember weighing waste and singing songs about it, songs about the interstitial spaces between Cheerios, how we shouldn’t use too much milk. The gorp we made, raisins and peanuts, the occasional M & M, alchemy, but not as magical as those green sparks in our mouths when we trekked out to see the constellations, lay on our backs under the W of Cassiopeia’s chair, saw the dippers big and small, dipping into the cream of evening, heard the hidden owls, cracked candy between our teeth until lime anvil shavings articulated our pinpricks in the universe, in the vast meadow, cold grass clumping under our feather bodies, light with 13-year-old gravity. At the end of those long weeks, I cried, on the lap of another girl, I cried and saw myself cry. I floated above, aware of the teary girl, about to be severed from a tribe of wet eyelashes and hangdog faces. I cried, it was what girls did, though I missed my mother and couldn’t wait to go home. We feathered our hair at camp, kept up the lip-gloss parade. Such bright stickers we stuck inside our autograph books. See ya next summer! we exclaimed, as if we would be the same lumps of clay, as if owls would always be invisible, as if we could stay the foxfire of our adolescence. Lanyards and canoes, toasted marshmallows and tribal names, what did we know of what it takes to spark in the dark, of how to keep a friend, of the old stories in the starry night, distant and already told? We sang our blushing camp songs, sidelong glancing at the boys’ tent, before the bleeding, before everything. Fine wire slicing the gray slab, misshapen bowl on the pottery wheel, how the wet clay felt in my hands, the way it kept changing and losing shape. How dumb I felt when the whole thing folded in on itself like a sagging balloon. And the God’s eyes, and the landscapes of lentils and kidney beans, sewn books and strung dream catchers, the tie-dyed coffee filters, the pressed flowers, the cornhusk doll, the chrysalis.