North Wing: A Cautionary Tale with Poems By Dead White Men


In a dream interpreted by one still sleeping,
The interpretation is only the next room of the dream.
Howard Nemerov

 

A recurring nightmare: I’m in the passenger seat of a moving car. No one is driving.

Another nightmare: I’m slipping off a galloping horse and bumping along behind it, tangled in the reins.

Another car dream: I’m careening down the road, unable to reach either the pedals or the steering wheel. But this time I manage to unhook my seat belt, get behind the wheel, and stop the car.

“North Wing” is a true story, about letting go. A control freak crashes into the ‘60s. Names have been changed.

 

In the modest house where I grow up, everyone sleeps in single beds, even my parents. In my college dorm, I sleep in an even narrower bed. When I graduate, in 1966, I want to write poetry but I need a paying job.

I accept a fellowship to a graduate program at the University of California in La Jolla, a brand-new campus just north of San Diego. I rent a furnished apartment in Pacific Beach, and am delighted to discover it comes equipped with a double bed. My fantasies of sexual ecstasy, of what we used to call free love, suddenly have a broad new canvas. In the bedroom I hang a huge poster of Botticelli’s Birth Of Venus.

I apply to La Jolla after reading a piece in The Nation by a professor there, on the connection between politics and poetry. I’d hoped to move to Boston and continue studying with the poet Howard Nemerov, my undergraduate teacher, who’s taken a position at Brandeis. La Jolla offers me a fellowship. Brandeis doesn’t. I go where I’m invited.

In 1966, with baby boomers beating at their gates, universities need cheap graduate-assistant labor. They offer us free tuition, health insurance, and enough cash to eat, pay rent, buy books, run cars. If we want stereos and LPs, bellbottom  jeans, lids of grass or tabs of acid, we have access to low-interest student loans.

 

I’ve just graduated from Bennington, an all-female institution that claims to privilege women. They wanted us to be smart and aggressive. There I studied poetry with Nemerov, a married man more than twice my age, on whom I had a desperate crush. He invited me to his house once, for cocktails with visiting writers. When I offered to help, he said, “Your job is to be decorative.”

One of my favorite Nemerov poems, from the late ‘50s, is called “Painting A Mountain Stream.” It’s a meditation on rushing water, on the movement of the eye over water. I’m taken with this unrhymed couplet:

The visible way is always down
but there is no floor to the world.

 

Nemerov tries to get me to look at the “terrible beauty of the world outside,” rather than always thinking about what he calls my “soft center.” Even so, I write poems about loneliness, hoping my work will find its way to a questing prince who’ll turn up on my doorstep and ask for my hand.

 

In La Jolla there are men my own age, a category conspicuously absent at college. One of them, Lance Moskowitz, asks me, when we first meet, if I’m serious about poetry.

Of course I’m serious.

Lance cocks his head. “What do you mean by serious?”

His question haunts me. He shows me some of his poetry; one line jumps out. “Put your hand up the broken soda machine/ And feel the innards of the new woman.”

Lance is at the center of the outlaw crowd in the English Department, people involved in campus politics, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. Grad schools are attracting odd populations, including men who might never have considered academic careers. The women want to be where the men are. The men—boys, really, visionary lads, growing their hair long and reveling in the brave forwardness of these new women—are taking refuge in universities. They want to read and drink and fuck and shoot pool, and stay out of Vietnam.

Lance lives in downtown La Jolla with Marianne, a European nurse a little older than we are. He supports himself by dealing dope.

 

At a party in early November, I meet Vinnie, another grad student. He follows me back to Pacific Beach in his van. In Southern California, if you go home with another person after a party or a concert, you go in separate cars. Public transportation, and pedestrians, are suspect.

I tell Vinnie I can’t fuck him, while intimating that I’d like to; in those years we sleep with one another as casually as we shake hands. But I’m in the middle of my menstrual cycle, and the prescription for birth control sits in my purse, unfilled.

Vinnie and I are getting acquainted, laughing and fooling around, playing with the edge of arousal … when the phone rings.

This is before answering machines. It’s before the microwave, the personal computer and the Internet. Phones are hardwired to the wall. Seatbelts are not standard equipment on cars. You can’t screen calls. I can’t ignore a ringing telephone.

I pick up—it’s Rudy, my high school sweetheart, welcoming me to California; he lives up north. I should tell him I’m busy, but we have a certain radar—we each sense when the other one is about to step off a cliff.

Talking to Rudy only inflames my playful spirit, my desire to be held and fondled—to be, in the old biblical sense, known. I tell him good night. I dive into Vinnie’s arms.

 

A couple of weeks after that, I miss my period. In a panic, I make an appointment with a gynecologist. He confirms my suspicions. I’m dizzy and nearly faint in his office.

Before 1973, when abortion was still illegal in the United States, if you got pregnant, dreams had to be put aside. You disappeared, had a baby, and gave it up for adoption, or, if you had a boyfriend or family sufficiently supportive, you kept it, raised it, built a life that included motherhood.

Or you somehow found the money for an overseas abortion—a safe abortion, in countries where laws were more humane, or a risky one in places where authorities looked the other way. A few American doctors, crusaders who gambled with the law, performed abortions even then, but they were tricky to locate.

 

There’s no way I can have a baby, certainly not with a man I hardly know. I’m not in love with Vinnie, and we’re both broke. I can’t imagine even telling my mother. She still believes I’m a virgin.

My doctor suggests Sweden, or Japan. But I have no savings. There are job and school responsibilities. How can I make an intercontinental trip, or find medical care in a country where I don’t speak the language?

I call Lance. He says that if I come up with $400, he and his girlfriend will arrange an abortion in Tijuana. It’s safe, he assures me—a good clinic, not a kitchen-table operation. Vinnie backs away when I tell him what has happened, though he does agree to split the cost. But where am I to get even $200? Easy, Lance says. Apply for a student loan.

In a daze, I go to the student aid office, fill out a form, and a week later there’s a check for $1000. I put the check in the bank, and take out my share of the abortion money. Lance makes the appointment.

A few days before we’re due to head to Mexico, he shows up at my place and says he wants to sleep with me. I’m already pregnant, he points out, so what difference will it make? Despairing and eager at once, I welcome him to my bed.

 

It’s early December, and the days grow short even as the temperature stays in the 80s. One Monday morning, as I’m driving through Pacific Beach, a cop stops me. I haven’t spoken to a soul all weekend, so I greet him almost gratefully. He says I’ve been lurching and weaving, and asks if I’m all right. I can’t exactly tell him my problem—he is, after all, one of the pigs. He establishes that I haven’t been drinking—in fact, I never drink at all—but tells me I don’t really know how to drive my old station wagon. He takes the time to show me the function of each gear, demonstrates the rhythm of shifting, and the dance between the clutch, the accelerator, and the brake.

 

When I’m about six weeks pregnant, Lance and Marianne drive me to Tijuana. They drop me at a small, white building on a side street. Two men greet me in Spanish and take a cursory medical history; I tell them I’m allergic to penicillin. They lead me into the operating room and gave me a shot.

 

When I surface from the anesthetic, I’m weeping. One of the men tries to comfort me. “Carmelita,” he murmurs over and over. “Carmelita.” “Little red-head,” I think it means. “Don’t cry, Carmelita.” He gives me a packet of pills, tells me to expect some bleeding, and to call my doctor if I feel pain or if my temperature rises.

We head home. I’m curled up silently in the back seat, more or less in shock, convinced I’ve committed murder. A little, convenient murder. It’s a beautiful afternoon, but I’m in mourning.

 

Back in Pacific Beach, alone in my double bed, I face another crisis: the Christmas holidays and a visit from my parents and my 15-year-old brother. I can’t let them know what’s happened.

Through my gloom I catch a voice on the radio, a woman named Patricia Maginnis. She’s a leader in the abortion rights movement, being interviewed in San Diego. Her mission, quite radical, is to spread information about how to find—or perform—safe abortions. I’m riveted by her words. Here is someone who is sure I’m not a criminal, who believes it’s my right to decide who takes up residency in my body. I listen intently, until I fall asleep.

I bleed hardly at all, but my temperature does begin to rise. I wait twenty-four hours after returning from Tijuana before I call my San Diego doctor. He’s warned me not to call sooner, lest he be implicated as an accessory to my “crime.” He sends me to the hospital, where he starts me on intravenous antibiotics. He performs a second dilation and curettage, the official term for what, on the street, is called a D&C or a “scrape,” the standard method for ending a pregnancy. He tells me the Mexican clinic did a pretty clean job, but my allergy to penicillin has left a window for infection to take hold.

In the custody of the legal medical establishment, tended by nurses, I’m relieved, but still worried: My parents are flying in from Long Island the very next afternoon, to spend the holidays driving, with me and my brother, up the California coast. How can I conceal the abortion from them if I’m in the hospital, hooked up to IV drips, unable to meet their plane?

I call my friend Diana, who shares my office at the university. She’s Catholic. She makes clucking noises when I explain the situation, but agrees to fetch my family from the airport. I call New York. My brother answers the phone.

I could use another alibi, but I tell him I’ll be having some minor surgery. “What’s your doctor’s name?” he asks.

The question catches me off guard, and I give it to him.

 

When my parents show up, they can hardly contain their dismay. They’re suddenly absorbing a lot of new information. My mother has called the doctor, who violated confidentiality, telling her everything that had gone down.

Their vacation is ruined. My father paces helplessly. He takes my station wagon to an auto shop and has them install one seat belt, as if to make sure I won’t go driving with another person.

My mother cleans my kitchen, goes shopping, fixes food, and cries—something I’ve rarely seen her do. She guilt-trips me about my careless behavior. We’re both heartbroken. I hear only her anger and despair, can’t see her devotion. I feel abandoned, worthless. I want her to stay and look after me. I want them all to go away and leave me alone. She calls the doctor again; he tells her I probably shouldn’t travel, but that I’ll be all right by myself. So they take off, leaving me to heal.

 

Over Christmas break I prepare for the writing class I’ll be teaching in the new term, and marvel at the peculiar California winter. One afternoon, standing on the edge of the campus, I swear I can feel, and see, the turning of the earth. My colleagues Bobby and Lynn, who live in nearby Del Mar, invite me to their New Year’s Eve party. I ask another couple to my place for dinner on New Year’s Day. Conservative Republicans have swept the fall elections. Reagan has just been inaugurated governor.  The party starts off subdued, gripped by a sense of foreboding. People are drinking a lot, passing joints, dancing to loud music. I’m not drinking, have never smoked anything, and I’ve been warned by the doctor to be careful.

A friend takes pity. Knowing my passion for chocolate, he hands me a box of brownie mix and a little bag of grass, and points me toward the kitchen.

Relieved to have something to do, I stir up the batter and sprinkle in the weed. Others contribute bits of their stash. When the pan emerges from the oven, I slice up the brownies and wolf one down. It tastes a little weird.

Totally inexperienced with dope, I have no idea what to expect. I wait a few minutes. Nothing happens. I’m hungry and tired and lonely. I eat another brownie, noting the flavor shadings the weed lends to the chocolate. Meanwhile people are dancing, in the airy flat a block from the Pacific Ocean.

I offer the brownies around, but everyone is already pretty far gone. I have a third one, a fourth. No one tells me that one brownie would be plenty, to relax and wait.

So I eat a couple more.

The room begins to swim. I swirl inside it, beyond speech, and suddenly I’m lost, just gone, sucked into a dark pit. Roiling in my head are Nemerov’s lines—“the visible way is always down/ but there is no floor to the world.”

 

Bobby is the first to notice my altered state. He’s seen bad trips before. He tries to talk me down … or up, really; I’ve fallen into a hole, disappeared from my familiar relationship with my body. Frantic, I cling to him. His girlfriend Lynn looks anxiously in our direction. Bobby suggests we go outside, walk on the beach.

Somehow I get back to my apartment. I sleep a little, and awake later on New Year’s Day, alone, feeling like a zombie, but remembering I’ve invited people to dinner. I look in my fridge: a hopeless situation. I drive to the supermarket.

The place is all lit up, but in the meat department, the coolers are empty. No meat. No chicken. No fish. I take it as a personal defeat, drive home, crawl into bed, and begin to weep. At six, my guests knock at the door. I open it a crack, tell them I’m really ill and forgot to call them, and go back to bed.

 

I begin to disappear again. This is inconvenient. I have to meet with students, attend my own classes. I haul myself to the bathroom. I don’t recognize the woman I see in the mirror. But if I touch my face, and then reach out and touch her face, after a while the idea takes hold that I’m still visible, that I do, in fact, exist.

I have other, more compelling evidence. My guts are churning. From time to time, I produce some shit, hyperaware of every ounce of it as it moves through my intestines and out of my body.

I manage to dress, to drive, to get to school and teach, but I’m one of the walking dead. I can get through the day, but if my plans are thwarted—as when the familiar door to a campus building vanishes during construction—I panic.

 

The fear and confusion become unbearable. About a week into the new year I conquer what’s left of my pride and phone Vinnie, tell him I’m scared, ask him to keep me company. He says he’s busy. My last hope destroyed, I turn out the lights and pray to disappear. A little while later the phone rings. It’s Vinnie. Do I want to go to a movie?

He picks me up. We see The Ipcress File and Funeral In Berlin, British spy shoot-‘em-ups rife with murder and paranoia. I can hardly watch, reading my own situation into every turn of the plot.

After the films, Vinnie takes me to Lance and Marianne’s. Sensing my turmoil, a friend offers me a Valium.

I’m sensitive to drugs of any kind, and usually pretty careful, but at this moment, if she had told me that leaping into traffic would relieve the pain and pressure, I’d have done it. With no thought for what might happen, I swallow the little pill. Vinnie takes me home.

 

In the morning I awake to a blinding light emanating from the bathroom. I can’t figure out what’s causing it, but I take it as a sign, and bask in it. The sadness is gone. I am alive in the eye of light. My heart beats very fast. My thoughts race.

Instead of a vacuum inside there’s suddenly a flood of words and emotions. It’s overwhelming, but much less scary than where I’ve been. I begin calling friends around the country, every man I’ve ever loved, talking non-stop about my breakthrough. I even call Nemerov, but I’m tongue-tied when he answers.

 

Later that day, I sit down on the floor in my living room, a little notebook in my lap, a felt-tip pen in hand, laughing and crying. I listen. I begin to write. Words tumble out, most of them the words of others. Names, titles of books. Fragments of poetry, fairy tale, nursery rhyme. Scraps of philosophy.

Every thought that races through my head, every recollection, I write down. The pages are full of puns, exclamations, apostrophes to people I love, and dialogues with dead poets like Wallace Stevens, T.S. Eliot, Theodore Roethke, even Shakespeare.

Over the next week, sustained by my euphoria, I stop sleeping and eating. One morning I peer into my kitchen sink and find that the dishes are covered with a layer of pink and yellow mold.

I sit, and listen, and write down the answers to questions I think are being asked of me, responses to comments I imagine I hear. Gradually, my notes take on the quality of a dialogue with Howard Nemerov. Rereading them, all these years later, my stomach lurches at the memory of my intense concentration, my conviction that rescue and absolution are just moments away.

“Burnam Wood will go to Washington,” one note says. The personal mixes with the political—the debacle in Southeast Asia, the outrage I’m feeling after the abortion. “Save the poets from their sadness,” it says. There’s a growing sense of grandiosity. I seem to know I’ve been summoned to California to make a difference, to take a leadership role. On one page is the question, “Did you build this fucking university from the ground up just to blow my mind?”

Much of this makes no sense to me now. I seem to be responding to a query posed by some hallucinated fairy godfather. That question might well be “What do you want?” I ask for music—a record player, records—and “all the books I want, ever, or at least where to find them.” I want to go to London, and to help save the libraries of Florence, threatened by floods. “Travel light,” one page advises.

I obsess about the mysterious light that broke through my funk. Was it the reflection of a rising sun? Or a glittering gate, through which I would soon pass? Could it have been a hallucination? An annunciation?

I keep going to school, and I’m still making notes on January 18, 1967, in the office I share with my friend Diana. She sits quietly at her desk, grading papers, while I scribble in the notebook, giggling to myself. Maybe she rats me out to the dean. In any case, at one point I answer my phone. This is, of course, the call I’ve been waiting for. I follow instructions to report to the dean’s office.

When I get there, attendants bundle me into an ambulance, strap me to a cot, and carry me to Mesa Vista Hospital in San Diego. The doctors do a spinal tap, to figure out what drugs are still in my system. They take me to a ward in the North Wing, and put me in a tiny room with a low bed and a counter. I’m not afraid. If anything, I’m relieved. I begin to feel calmer—perhaps I’m already being medicated—but still listen closely for instructions.

 

The window in my room has a heavy grate over it. Outside, trucks roar down the interstate. Near the floor I find a little dial with an arrow. You can turn it to one of three settings: Hi! Med. Lo. I take these syllables to be greetings. But who is monitoring the cryptic messages?

Someone brings one of my own nightgowns, blue polyester with big green polka dots. It reminds me of Wallace Stevens’s poem, “Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock,” in which he speaks of houses “haunted/ By white night-gowns.

None are green,
Or purple with green rings,
Or green with yellow rings,
Or yellow with blue rings.

 

In the vacuum of these first hours at Mesa Vista, poems stream in my head. The writers are dead now; Nemerov died in 1991. In 1967 his poems are my constant companions, rosary beads to be played over in the hand and mind. I commit several to memory. In one, called “Moment,” he observes that

The time in all the hospitals is now,
Under the arc-lights where the sentry walks
His lonely wall it never moves from now,
…it is now
In the saddle of space, where argosies of dust
Sail outward blazing, and the mind of God,
The flash across the gap of being, thinks
In the instant absence of forever: now.

 

When the hospital shrink, taking my medical history, asks my marital status, I reply with a line of Roethke’s, from a poem called “The Abyss,” “I am most immoderately married.” When I speak at all it’s in riddles, offering fragments of poems instead of information. I’m empty of personality, a vessel waiting to be filled, waiting for instructions about my role in a movie.

Men I love, it is clear, have spirited me away to this place that appears to be a hospital, though I’m sure it’s a movie studio, or at least an expensive spa where I’m being groomed to proclaim that the war in Vietnam is over, that the laws against abortion have been repealed.

 

The nurses give me anti-psychotic drugs, which blur my vision and cause me to lose my balance. I sit in my room, with its private bathroom and the little window in the door.

I’m not intractable, just single-minded. I have a job to do. Slowly, as the Thorazine kicks in and my euphoria begins to crumble, I cast about for new signals, new instructions, and find them in the poems.

“The visible way is always down/ but there is no floor to the world.” I decide to test Nemerov’s proposition. Kneeling on the carpet, I find a seam and began tearing at it with my nails, trying to discover what’s under it—or what isn’t. This isn’t “acting out,” not hostility—I’m just exploring, trying to find the way down. I get as far as a layer of concrete, and am digging at that with a ballpoint pen, when someone looks in my window.

They don’t ask what I’m doing, and I don’t tell them. They wrap me in a straitjacket, lash me to a gurney, and roll me into a padded cell. I find none of this alarming, figuring it for the next stage in the preparations. My protectors are on their way from wherever they’re doing pre-production. I lie immobilized, waiting.

 

I aspire to the condition of music, the music of the spheres, that high-pitched whirring in the machinery of the universe that keeps everything on an even keel. I want to learn that music, to sing it, to shatter with its power the old feelings. I want to merge with the music and the light.

It dawns on me that I am to be the bride of God. God, of course, would be Nemerov, my tutor, my nemesis, my unrequited love.

As I lie on the gurney, prevented from moving, listening to the blood coursing through my veins, the situation becomes increasingly clear. I am to be married to God. But hours pass and God fails to appear. Does that—can that—maybe that means—that I am God? That the responsibility for the next step lies with me? I laugh softly, relax, and began to listen for—and to make—my own unearthly music, signaling my oneness with the universe.

After a while they unwrap me, and return me to a different room. By now the pills are working. Though I’m still laughing at private illuminations, smiling knowingly at things only I can see or hear, I’m beginning to level out. A workaholic, I need a task. I start collecting things—scraps of yarn and thread, straws and their empty wrappers, pens and pencils—and arrange them in logical ways. By size. By color. By texture.

I make tentative gestures of friendship to others on North Wing. I’m often sexually aroused, excited by the big, friendly black guy who escorts us to meals, by the Asian girl who wanders aimlessly in the corridor. Is this also a kind of test? Am I to choose a partner, sleep with a woman, walk naked to a podium at our rally to end all rallies, that will change the abortion laws and proclaim world peace?

 

They let me wander in the little courtyard off the day room. In its dilapidated garden and fountain I recall fragments of T.S. Eliot’s “Burnt Norton.”

Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.
Other echoes
Inhabit the garden. Shall we follow?
Quick, said the bird, find them, find them,
So we moved, …
Along the empty alley, into the box circle,
To look down into the drained pool.
And the pool was filled with water out of sunlight,
And the lotos rose, quietly, quietly,
The surface glittered out of heart of light.

 

Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.
The inner freedom from the practical desire,
The release from action and suffering, yet surrounded
By a grace of sense, a white light still and moving,
…the enchainment of past and future
Woven in the weakness of the changing body,
Protects mankind from heaven and damnation
Which flesh cannot endure.

 

Months later I find my way back to this poem, and to biographies of Eliot, then recently deceased. Had he, I wonder, gone through this too? He seems to have all the details right.

 

After a few days there are visitors, Lance and Marianne, Bobby and Lynn, who still think I am just having a “bad trip.” They beg the hospital staff to release me into their custody. Maybe they’re afraid I’ll say the wrong thing and get them into serious legal trouble.

They ask if they can bring anything. I tell them I want a man’s jacket, like Lance’s corduroy sport coat—its structure, its warmth, its pockets. Lance, bewildered, hands me his jacket.

On January 25, the day before my 22nd birthday, my sixth day on North Wing, I’m taken into a consulting room and told my health insurance will not cover continuing care in this relatively luxurious facility. The doctors have contacted my parents and given them two options. They could do nothing, and I’d be transferred to a state hospital. Or they could return to California, fetch me back to New York, and have me admitted to a hospital there.

“But I have classes to teach,” I protest. “Papers to write.”

I no longer have these things, the doctor informs me. My fellowship has been given to another grad student, who is teaching my section. The gravity of my situation begins to sink in.

My parents, the doctor says, are already back in Pacific Beach, closing up my apartment, selling my car. They’ll be at the hospital the next day to take me home.

 

When they arrive, they look like waxworks, their faces frozen into expressions of concern. Our departure is uneventful, except for the moment when the hospital clerk asks them to pay for the shredding of the carpet. I watch them stiffen with fear and confusion.

On the way to the airport, my mother tells me she found shopping bags all over my apartment, full of unopened merchandise, stuff I’d acquired during a manic shopping spree. She’s returned everything to the stores. I am once again her ward, her child.

The double bed is lost. My father, his face like stone, says little. On the plane, he hands me his copy of the New York Times. I sink into it and immediately locate several typographical errors, amazed that my vision has cleared.

 

Today we take psychopharmacology for granted, but in 1967 it’s a brave new world. My health insurance vanishes along with my fellowship. Except for the few hundred dollars in the bank, the balance of the student loan, I am penniless, unemployed, too old to be covered by my parents’ policy, and consuming a lot of expensive pills.

My mother arranges a bed for me in a local psychiatric hospital, but our plane is delayed, and by the time we get home the bed has been filled, so she decides to keep me at home. She files a form at an outpatient clinic and has me declared a pauper, so the state will cover some of my medical expenses. The clinic shrink will monitor my medication. I find him sort of uptight. He tells me it is important to behave appropriately.

Long Island in February is cold and dank and no longer feels like home. I set up a desk in my childhood bedroom, but have nothing to do there. A scrap of paper from that period, found in the back of a drawer, says “Move a load of bricks.” I don’t read much, can’t concentrate, spend hours listening to WBAI.

 

My mother quits her job to look after me. She maintains a relentlessly upbeat attitude. Every morning she scans the “Help Wanted-Female” section of the Times, trying to find me a job. Meanwhile I sit on my old single bed and weep.

 

The days lengthen. I correctly identify the author of a poem they read on WBAI, and receive, in the mail, a prize: a copy of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood.

My father finds a Manhattan shrink who’ll take cash under the table at half his normal rate, and I begin commuting into the city for therapy. This guy tries a range of medications, but nothing touches my depression. “If you don’t stop complaining,” he says one morning, “I’ll have to give you shock treatments.”  That shuts me up pretty fast.

I try going to work. Assisting at a nearby preschool. I drive their van, loaded with children, into a fence; mercifully, no one is hurt. I interview for editorial jobs; one place has no windows, and I flee. Finally my mother finds me a spot in a Manhattan office that provides friendly visits to homebound retirees. I sit in the heart of midtown doing clerical chores, the only person in the room under 75.

My mother suggests I try going back to school. She enrolls me in summer courses at Queens College, just down the Expressway, and lends me her car. I read fat English novels. I write term papers. I get “A”s. Convinced my mind is still sound, she finds another graduate program closer to home than La Jolla. Come September, I’m installed in a room near Stony Brook, and land an assistantship in the office of the University’s president. I discover there a bunch of middle-aged men even more depressed than I am. I do my best to cheer them up.

A new shrink, out on Long Island, discontinues the meds and writes a prescription for birth control, allowing me to return to my former dissolute ways.

 

1968—King and Kennedy and Warhol are shot, a momentous year. In 1969 a young artist asks for my hand. We get married—my office-mate Diana is the maid of honor at our wedding. We move to Halifax, Nova Scotia. There I atone, counseling at Planned Parenthood, helping to head off trauma in a country where you can get an abortion. My husband and I start careers, try to have a baby.

But I’m never to be pregnant again.

Years go by. As the helicopters airlift the last Americans from Saigon, I, another sort of refugee, pack a couple of suitcases and leave the husband, the job, the friends who’d held me together.

By then seven years have passed since that terrible spring when I huddled under blankets in my mother’s house. Scientists say that every seven years almost every cell in your body dies, and is replaced by fresh ones. By that measure the woman who leaves Halifax in 1974 is a completely different person, ready to start over. I travel to Vancouver, move into a garret, and sign up for dance classes, six hours a day, five days a week. Therapy. Later I go back to teaching English, go on writing, simply go on.

Men who welcomed my infertility when we were 30 begin rejecting me, as we get older, because I cannot reproduce. It’s devastating, but I find other outlets for my maternal instincts.

 

I think of myself as a canary in the coal mine of social upheaval, a near-casualty of the era before Roe v. Wade, in 1973.

Howard Nemerov wrote about the relation of nature and art, of war and peace, of life and its unsatisfactory opposite. In a long poem dedicated to Lu Chi, a second-century Chinese poet, he talks about the relation of politics and poetry, about the fate of men who lose touch with the source of true wisdom.

He speaks of  “… bad times, when the word of command fails to command, and when the word for bread dries and grows mouldy …”

These are bad times. We’ve been in the clutches of men trying to send women back into the church, the kitchen, the nursery. But it’s impossible to legislate love. All we can do is continue, keep our eyes open, and remember that all politics is personal. Let’s go.

Elizabeth Zimmer writes about the arts for various outlets in New York and nationally. This memoir was developed at The Mesa, an artist's residency center in Springdale, Utah, near Zion National Park; a version of it was performed in two off-off-Broadway theaters in 2003 and 2004.

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3 thoughts on “North Wing: A Cautionary Tale with Poems By Dead White Men

  1. Ann St James

    Pain, confusion, isolation, loneliness – not an easy read, but one I’ll remember. Deeply moving! And I agree – all we can do is continue.

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